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The Relics Of Saint Seraphim: A Journey Through Russian Orthodoxy

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Saint Seraphim of Sarov

The Orthodox Church is going through deep changes in these last days of 2018. Ukraine is establishing an independent church leading to a serious controversy within the Orthodox world that has prompted a schism between the Russian Orthodox Church and Constantinople patriarchate.

In this series of articles, elements of the history of Orthodoxy in Russia will be (re-) explored to feed the debate covered in most media around religion, power and politics.

The story of Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833), one of the most revered Orthodox saints, is a symbolic journey through the various milestones in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) over the past two hundred years till nowadays.

After decades of seclusion, the pious hermit began to receive visits from pilgrims as word of his ability to heal body and soul spread among the faithful. Some accounts relate Seraphim’s prophesies about the fate of the last tsar Nicholas II who was killed during the Bolshevik revolution in 1918. Seraphim would also have foreseen the future of Russia under the Soviets. According to these narratives, he anticipated the repression against the church during the twentieth century. Other accounts raise the affinity that Seraphim might have had with the Old Believers, the Orthodox Christians who refused Nikon’s reforms of the mid seventeenth century to preserve traditional ways of worship. Seraphim’s teachings of internal unity and spiritual purity thus transcended the canonical differences between the ROC and the Old Believers, a schism that still exist today.

It is known that he was canonized in 1903, but Soviet authorities confiscated his relics when they closed the Sarov Monastery in 1923, at the beginning of the repressions against the Orthodox Church. Like many other objects of veneration, his relics were kept in a storage room in the Museum of Religion and Atheism in Leningrad. The city of Sarov where Seraphim engaged in ascetic struggle, became the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear program. Sarov was a closed city with limited access to keep the research secret. During the buildup of the nuclear center, many churches were destroyed or repurposed in a failed, yet violent attempt to eradicate religion and all its manifestations.

With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Saint Seraphim’s relics were uncovered and displayed in a Moscow convent. In the wave of spiritual revivalism and enthusiasm for Russian saints, Russian believers were now able to pay tribute to the holy man. In 2003, the Patriarch Alexey II and President Putin paid a visit to Sarov to celebrate Seraphim’s hundredth anniversary of canonization and the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In 2016, a tiny piece of these relics orbited around the earth on board the spaceship Soyuz MS-02. Russian cosmonauts now regularly take religious objects with them into space, such as icons, the Gospels, and stones from Mount Tabor (the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus), symbolically spreading their faith around the world. This practice has become a tradition for space missions since 2008, when relics of Saint Sergius of Radonezh accompanied cosmonauts into space. Ironically, space conquest was formerly heralded as a great achievement of the antireligious Soviet authorities. A popular Soviet propaganda poster even depicted Yury Gagarin in space with the caption: “There is no God!”

Another chapter in the story of Seraphim’s relics was the meeting in Cuba in February 2016, where Patriarch Kirill offered some fragments of the saint’s remains to Pope Francis as a token of the rapprochement between the two churches. For memory, Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church are at odds since the great schism of 1054. This historic encounter in Cuba held a highly symbolic value as no head of the ROC had met with the head of the Catholic Church. During this encounter, both pontiffs agreed that “the past method of ‘Uniatism’ is not the way to reestablish unity”. The Joint Declaration further cast“ hope that the schism between the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine may be overcome through existing canonical norms,and that all the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine may live in peace and harmony.” It was almost three years ago.

Recently, in December 2018, archeologists from the Russian Academy of Science have made interesting discoveries during their excavation in Sarov monastery. They found a marble plaque commemorating the canonization of Seraphim and testifying the attendance of the Tsar Nicholas II with his family. This artifact resurfaces as a thread connecting the past and the present.

Saint Seraphim’s unique journey during his life has continued after his death with each milestone epitomizing a key moment in the unfolding history of Russian Orthodoxy.

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Theology in post-apartheid South Africa and the prophets of the city

Abigail George

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So, I think about the brave, and the thoughtful, and the supernatural, I think about divine intuition, our divine assignment, our divine meetings when it comes to the sensibility of persuasion. I fix my eyes upon the Cross, upon the crowds, upon the crossroads wherever I find myself. I think of the waiting game. Waiting for my prayers to be answered, waiting to be loved, waiting, waiting, always waiting. I am like a fugitive down here. Prayer explodes in my head and my neck, and something exquisite snaps back I to place as girl, as child, as adolescent, as woman. When I think of the revolution from within, how it comes with a price, how it comes with a breakthrough from memory and desire, a kind of spiritual persuasiveness, milk-fed, book thief, and I think of all the tragedies that this world of ours has seen. War, depression, global recession, climate change, global warming When I was at my most vulnerable I turned to theology. I turned to fasting, prayer, and meditation. I turned to the filmmaker Mikale Barry, Shakespeare, and to John Updike, Hemingway and Ghandi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Trevor Noah, Macbeth.

 I knew I was purposefully crafted in the image of Christ, but only came to that realisation late in life, and if I bloomed into piety, righteousness, and Christianity, if I bloomed at all into theology, a theology that conditioned me into thinking that the universe was/is somehow aligned with God and science, the psychological framework of philosophy and education about religion, for the omniscient being is both the alpha and omega, the unseen, quiet miracle-worker and guard of our mouth, the helmet of salvation, the breastplate armour is made of redemptive powers, and separation-anxiety, attachment to karma has marked humanity’s indifference, and great aloofness when it comes to evolutionary biology, detachment of history, and there have been times when I don’t feel good, and have turned to prayer in the centre of my winter, and it greatly helped the acute suffering of my heart. I think of love, not in the divine sense, but the love that carries with it shame, and guesswork, and all I want to say is that the wolf must not think of me. I am awake now only because of reconciliation, democratic values, the origin of the species, which is theology and not Darwinism.

 It is God’s will be done. To my art, the contact I make with other artists, I only have this to say. To know when to say please and thank you. I’m the girl who knows not to make a scene in front of your beautiful wife, your children look like her, your children look like you. Nobody loves me. I try to ignore you, I try to ignore this. It is in theology that I find my identity now, that my psyche remains intact, that. I find confidence in winter, spring, summer, and autumn. I remember what I had as a child when I think of theology, I wait for the dust of the Colonial Masters to settle, eat the breadcrumbs off their table, congregate around their prophetic words, their prophetic visions, their divinity rules, the school of their thought, and law, and philosophy, and education rules. Tonight, it is theology that is holding me her arms like the scientist Niels Bohr, the writers John Eppel, Virginia Woolf, and my own father Dr Ambrose Cato George, the poets Brian Walter, William Blake, John Keats, the playwright Athol Fugard, the philosopher and educationalist Athol Williams, the journalist Lee Gary McCabe, and Ithink of our struggle heroes, Stephen Bantu Biko, Dulcie September, Rick Turner, and Chris Hani.

I think of political meetings held in secrecy on Table Mountain, and my mind keeps returning to the post-apartheid system of theology, the inaction of congregants from different beliefs, norms, values, faith-based systems incorporated into every sphere of modern-day life. I’ve been living life in a kind of theological bubble. To go to church, or not to go to church. To be hurt in church, or not to be hurt in church. To meet likeminded the individuals there. Or not to meet likeminded individuals there. I believe in God, but I don’t believe in people all that much. I think of my paternal grandparents. It didn’t ever matter to them if they were hurt by people in the church. And when I write, I commune with the angels, with an angelic realm, and the voice inside my head is not a pre-conditioned voice, it is Christ’s voice. And when I write I worship Elohim, and when I write I worship Yeshua. I think of Moses in the wilderness, I think of the burning bush, the multitudes, and how all of that is not part of an indoctrinated religion, but a part of me. I think of the oneness of Jesus Christ, I think of modern-day Christianity, and how it impacts both event and non-event in my theological discourse.

A voice inside my head says tells me what to do, what I’ve always been good at. I think of the Salvation Army’s hymns, and how I’ve devoted myself to something else now. How I’ve decided to devote myself to the church, to research, to writing, and to the writing-world of poetry. I regard God as nothing more than spiritual breakthrough. And I take cognizance of the fact that a prophet has an international vision, that prophecy is not worship, that we have to literally wakeup someone else to anointing and the supernatural. We must respect both the narrative and context of the Scriptures, because the word is truth, and light, and revelation. And I suppose we could look at theology as opinion-based rhetoric, or irrelevant for this day and age, but truths are truths, and semantics are semantics. Far from being commentary on social justice, an incomprehensible expression of dead scholars and prophets, far from departing from obscurity and complexity, theology is a part of us all. It is a part of humanity, a living thing of theatre, a book designed to be interpreted, read, and reread, assumed, branching out into theory and code and philosophy and religion and source and resource.

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No one owes anyone anything?

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Amazing things keep happening in Ukraine: what we (and many others) had been writing and talking about for almost a year was suddenly confirmed by the most unusual and unexpected source.

According to the Orthodox Journalists Union website, citing Ukrainian radio program “ Persona Grata,” Filaret Denisenko not only rejects the status of “former Metropolitan of Kiev” that Constantinople gave him, but also says that he has never recognized the anathema placed upon him in 1997 by the Russian Orthodox Church, of which he was once a canonical hierarch.

“Well, if the Ecumenical Patriarch removed the anathema from me in 2018, does it mean that I had been under the anathema until 2018?”  Filaret wondered. “If I was under anathema, it means that all these bishops are invalid. As to Epiphany, he is not a Metropolitan; he is not even a priest. If the Ecumenical Patriarch lifted the anathema from me in 2018, then the entire episcopate is invalid!” he added. Thus, by dismissing the Constantinople Patriarch’s meddling in Ukrainian church affairs, Filaret is actually implying that either everyone (including the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the UOC-KP) are schismatics and heretics, or no one owes anyone anything now. Then why are we talking about debts? Here is why.

On the surface of it, it might look as if the old intriguer and schismatic is right! The truth, however, lies with the Orthodox Church canons, not with what Filaret is saying. In our October article, titled “Legalizing the Schism – the Patriarchate of Constantinople crossed the red line”, we questioned the Ecumenical Patriarch’s decision to “lift” the anathema, both from Filaret himself and his structure and “clerics.” The article also wondered how come   a schismatic under anathema could all of a sudden become “the former Metropolitan of Kiev,” and his associates “the former” metropolitans, bishops and priests. Our view was fully shared by the Russian Orthodox Church, and also by the Council of the Serbian Orthodox Church, whose position on the issue has been extremely consistent and unswerving: “The Council regrets the canonically ill-advised decision by the Patriarchate of Constantinople to exonerate and officially recognize two leaders of splinter groups in Ukraine as bishops Filaret Denisenko and Makariy Maletich, along with their episcopate and clergy.”

Moreover, Filaret went even further in his statements and exposés.

“Do not call the Ukrainian Orthodox Church the canonical Church, do not state untruths,” declared Filaret, who suddenly started espousing the truth. “It is not recognized by other Churches as canonical, it is recognized only by the Ecumenical Patriarch. It has the Tomos [of autocephaly], but essentially it is not autocephalous. It is not recognized as canonical by 13 Local Churches. So why does it call itself canonical, when no one serves with Metropolitan Epiphany, except the Ecumenical Patriarch?”

According to Filaret Denisenko, “no church, be it the ROC, or those of Hellas, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Poland and  Georgia, recognizes the so-called UOC, just like they didn’t the UOC-KP before. Therefore, we should not be bragging about having the Tomos of autocephaly. It has misled us,” Denisenko says, admitting the obvious fact that receiving the Tomos has not brought the Ukrainian schismatics anywhere closer to the single family of world Orthodoxy.

Obviously, the “honorable patriarch” has uttered nothing new and offered no maxims from the annals of canonic law. What conclusions can one make analyzing similar “revelations” being made by this Ukrainian heresyarch? Are they really signs of him suffering from senile dementia? Hardly so – although old and angry, Filaret is certainly not a fool and is just as perfectly versed in canonical matters as are the most diehard advocates of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

In a thinly veiled threat, “Metropolitan” Epiphany has already hinted that if Filaret and his supporters persist in their efforts to undermine the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (a clear reference to the Church Council scheduled by Filaret for June 20) they could expect “…all canonical and legal consequences.” 

Assuming that Epiphany is careful not to openly challenge his former benefactor, Filaret realizes that the only canonical backlash he may face will come from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. To Denisenko all this looks very logical, reasonable and legitimate (something he is trying to get across to those who listen): Epiphany and others like him are duly recognized by Patriarch Bartholomew, and since they were all ordained by Filaret, it means that there was no anathema then, therefore Bartholomew never lifted it and so no one owes anyone anything!

Just how the current bickering by these clowns will end we’ll see very soon. And with a great deal of pleasure too since all this squabbling when schismatics keep dragging beards over autocephaly, accusing each other of being pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian, this gives the canonical Church of Ukraine a much-needed breather. May God extend Filaret’s days, so that he comes up with  something good or says something interesting…

 From our partner International Affairs

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Pressure on the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro

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The Montenegrin Government adopted a draft law on May 16 that included a register of all religious objects, for which they claim that they were formerly owned by the independent kingdom of Montenegro before it become part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918. The new law states that religious communities may only retain ownership of their property if they have clear evidence of ownership, triggering accusations from Serbian Orthodox Church that the Government plans to dispute the Church’s property.

”If there is no such evidence, it is a matter of property created and acquired by the state of Montenegro and represents the cultural heritage of all its citizens,” the draft says. Such property will be listed as a cultural treasure, that is, as state property of Montenegro.

On June 8 at the election conference of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) in Niksic, Party President Milo Djukanovic said that the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) is trying to protect the “big Serbia infrastructure“. Djukanovic also accused the Serbian Orthodox Church, whose members constitute the overwhelming majority of Christians in Montenegro, of hindering the European ambitions of society, and of trying to keep the religious monopoly in the country. Previously, Djukanovic had declared that like Ukraine, Montenego will ask for the autocephaly of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which is not recognized.

According to him, in the Balkans, as well as in Montenegro, there is still a difficult struggle between the two policies – one that the DPS and Montenegro lead, which is the Europeanization of this area, and the other that tries to conserve the state of the lagging behind of the Balkans. Although, as he pointed out, they did a lot on the building of Montenegrin identity, there was another important step, which is to “correct the serious injustice” done at the beginning of the 20th century and the abolition of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. He suggested that he would work devotedly to the reconstruction of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, whether somebody like it or not, as well as to guarantee a real but not formal freedom of religion.

„We will not formally ensure that people can pray to God but only in those churches that will be monopolized by them, in this case, the Serbian Orthodox Church. No, it’s not the freedom of religion. We will fight for the freedom of religion and the separation of the church from the state. We will not allow contemporary Montenegro to live under the dictation of a religious organization that represents the relic of the past and which can hardly understand that it has long since passed and that Montenegro, like Serbia and all the societies in the Western Balkans, have the right to its own consistent European future, “said Montenegrin president.

Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro and the Littoral (Serbian Orthodox Church) was shocked by the statement of the Montenegrin president.

“I was stunned by what I heard from the President of Montenegro, the man who is the successor of the communist Government and who publicly declare himself as an atheist. On the other hand, he complains that the church should not interfere in politics, and he tries to be the head of the church, to create its own church. This is the first time in history that an atheist creates a church”.

In a previous interview with the news agency TASS, Metropolitan Amfilohije recalled that the project of the so-called “Montenegrin Church” emanated from the communist rule, already in the years 1970-1980. The Metropolitan mentioned that “the Montenegrin Church” is not recognized by anyone, except by the Ukrainian schismatics: “The only one who has recognized this “Church of Montenegro” is [Filaret] Denisenko. Now, they hope that Constantinople will recognize them, but this is absolutely impossible because Dedeic, who is at the head of the so-called Montenegrin Orthodox Church, was a priest of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Rome, and was laicized because of his crimes. So there can be no such recognition”.

Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej warned Montenegrin President Djukanovic that his actions might lead to a formal curse, or anathema, being declared.

“Let God give him the mind to think what he is doing, and not deserve the anathema of the whole Serbian people and the Serbian Orthodox Church,” Patriarch Irinej told a Church TV station Hram(Temple).

Serbian Orthodox Church is the largest denomination in multi-ethnic Montenegro, but its relations with the pro-Western Government have always been poor. The Government considers Serbian Orthodox Church hostile to the independence of the country, and generally as too pro-Serbian and pro-Russian. The story of the so-called Montenegrin Orthodox Church lasts for almost three decades and has had several development phases. In the first phase, at least officially, its initiators in the first half of the 90s of the 20th century were some separatist political parties and quasi-cultural and scientific organizations. However, when Djukanovic strengthened power in 1997, with the support of the West, it began with the change of the historical identity of Montenegro. Then, in the old capital of Cetinje, the clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church were attacked. The Serbian Orthodox Church easy overcame that first extreme blow in the late 1990s and early 2000s, because, apart from the old capital of Cetinje, the Serbian Orthodox Church was the most important institution in all other cities in Montenegro. The same situation is today.

In line with that Montenegrin regime now started with another tactic. They realized that in spite of strong pressure, the people in Montenegro did not accept the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. That is why the Montenegrin Government decided to take away the temples from the Serbian Orthodox Church and register them as a state property. After that, Montenegrin Government will make appointments for service in the temples for Serbian and Montenegrin Orthodox Church. And then the ruling party will force their party membership to go to the service, when it serves Montenegrin Orthodox Church.  

Western centers of power supported Milo Djukanovic in 1997 and 1999 against Slobodan Milosevic. He was allowed to win the presidential election with various non-democratic methods, and finally in 2006 to make a referendum for separation from Serbia. The referendum was held in a totally irregular atmosphere. Djukanovic is the wildcard of the West who has agreed, to keep Milo Djukanovic in power to change the traditional Serbian/Slavic – Orthodox identity into Montenegrin, Roman Catholic and Western identity. Serbian identity of Montenegro, has already been broken through decades of Yugoslav communist rule which made a strong promotion of Montenegrin nation. As a result, state with a completely new and artificial identity was created.

The only missing link is the Montenegrin church. This is where the global conflict of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy is happening. The so-called Montenegrin Orthodox Church openly expresses sympathy for the Catholic Church. If the project of the Government of Montenegro and the West were to pass, Serbian Orthodoxy would be pushed from the Adriatic. That would be the strongest blow to Serbia and Republic of Srpska. It is not pretentious to say that the Serbian people and the Serbian Orthodox Church, the historical nation and institution of Montenegro came to the red line of survival of their identity, beyond which there is no further withdrawal.

 From our partner International Affairs

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