Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

“A more perfect union”: Thoughts on the Election Day

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 8 November 2018

I went to vote last Tuesday. Many people did. And as I cast my vote, I remembered something that happened a very, very long time ago—almost too long ago to remember, something that almost seems as if it were from a different life.

I was a child growing up in the Soviet Union. It was an election day there as well. I was too young to vote, but an election day was a big deal, and I recall that very clearly.

It was late in the evening, and my parents were talking about getting ready to go to the polling place before it closed. The place was very close—only about 300 meters-or-so away, at the school where I attended.

While they were talking about getting dressed, our doorbell rang. It was the police officer assigned to our precinct. No, he was not rude, he did not shove an AK47 into my parents’ faces. In fact, I remember him being very polite and professional. Nonetheless, the police came to our door because my parents had not yet voted. They had to go.

As we all entered my school’s auditorium where the polling place had been set up, I remember it being festive, brightly lit, with red (of course, red!) carpets and table cloths, and with a large red box that had a gold emblem of the Soviet Union on the front (that easily-recognizable round one, with amber sheaves of grain surrounding the map of Eurasia from sea to shining sea).

I remember the ladies, the poll workers, all dressed up, one blond with a hairdo that she had clearly paid a lot of money for earlier that day at some salon, smiling and being very happy and polite. At least, I thought they were happy and polite. They gave my parents their ballots and directed them to a private booth. I suppose, my parents wanted to give me a lesson in civic duties as they showed me their ballots, let me touch them, and explained what the different parts were.

The ballots were printed on thick, fancy paper, with gold embossed letters and emblems at the top—much, much fancier that what I was given on Tuesday at my local polling place in Portage, Wisconsin. In very high quality jet-black ink, printed on the ballot, was one name of one candidate and a box to check next to his name. I very clearly remember that, as I remember my father smirking meaningfully when he showed it to me. Apparently, that was how it almost always was.

I was too young and it was too long ago for me to remember now what kind of an election it was or who was on the ballot. But the next day it was announced that the candidate won by a landslide—with almost 100% of the electorate voting to elect him. I am not quite sure why it was ‘almost’ 100%, except that to announce on national news that it was 100% would have been awkward and incredible. Maybe, some people just didn’t check the box rightfully assuming that it did not matter.

This was a “long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” I was young, there are surely things I do not remember correctly. But let us not forget what we have here in the United States, let us not take it for granted, and let us not become complacent. No our union and our system are not perfect. I always made fun of the phrase from the Preamble “a more perfect union”: “How can something be more perfect? It is either perfect, or it is not.” But now I see the wisdom of those who chose to use this term over any other. The ultimate perfection is likely unattainable—not by us, not in this life. But what we have is so good in comparison to so many other systems that it could be called “as perfect as we could make it, and we can make it even more perfect, if we work at it.” (There is a reason why caravans are moving toward the United States, not away from it—not even to Canada, not after Obama was elected, and not after Trump was elected.) Perfection—not heavenly perfection, but our, earthly, often less perfect, perfection—can indeed be a sliding scale. Things can indeed be more perfect, as long as we remain of the proper scale (unlike men, not all scales are created equal) and keep moving in the right direction. We should not stop; we should keep trying to make our union “more perfect… and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

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Death to Halloween! (Very Scary!)

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 29 October 2018

It is that time of year again when Orthodox and some other Christian writers attempt to warn people about the evils of Halloween. They assert—and I have done no less in my much younger days—that Halloween is a pagan holiday, and thus everyone who participates in its celebrations by default participates in the ancient Gaelic harvest festival called Samhain (“summer’s end”). As I grew older I saw that the people who dress up as princesses and Marvel super heroes have about as much to do with devil worship (for this is often the claim) as people who send each other Christmas cards or Easter candy have to do with worshiping Jesus Christ. This is all that I will say about it, and it may be a topic for another time. For myself, I still do not see any need to celebrate Halloween any more than I do the Chinese New Year, the Parinirvana Day, Eid-al-Adha, or Yom Kippur. But I am no longer interested in writing pseudo-pious articles linking my neighbors’ children to devil worshipers for merely dressing up in costumes any more than I am interested in condemning Russian Orthodox Christians for making (and partaking of!) pancakes on Maslenista, since pancakes are an ancient pagan symbol of the cult of the Sun (round, yellow, hot—reminds of anything?).

However, the grinches of Halloween (of whom I am chief) just might see the death of it after all. And no, it is not our fiery blog posts and inspirational sermons that are killing the evil practice of carving pumpkins and exchanging miniature candy bars. No, the butcher of Halloween is the modern phenomenon of super-sensitivity and hyper-offendedness. It is insensitive to dress up as a princess because this is a class misappropriation and may offend real princesses. Likewise, one should not dress up as a prince or a knight, unless the same is in fact a prince or a knight. No more Count Dracula costumes—they may be insensitive towards ethnic Transylvanians and persons bearing the noble title of count. Definitely, no Cowboys or Indians—for very obvious reasons. The Little Mermaid costume may offend persons with sirenomelia. A pirate costume is insensitive to people who have been victims of real pirates. (And it may also offend Somali-Americans due to the Western stereotyping of Somali pirates in the MSM.) Certainly, no more skeletons, zombies, or any other costume with reference to injury or death, because they may trigger traumatic experiences in some people. And no, no more children dressed as teddy bears, cats, or any other animal—speciesism and misappropriation! No more black capes. Period. They offend Orthodox clergy. Obviously, nothing sexy due to the abomination of objectification! No more nurses, nuns, witches, firemen, or clowns. I should not have to go on; the pious reader will understand the principle by which any costume is inappropriate unless worn by the very actual person it pretends to portray.

Halloween decorations are no less harmful in our culture. Heads carved out of pumpkins risk offending people who are sensitive to all of the recent beheadings committed by Islamic terrorists. Fake hanging corpses are unacceptable because they trigger the historical trauma of lynching. Spiders and spider webs are offensive to people with arachnophobia; and the fake RIP tombstones are insensitive to those who recently lost their loved ones. No more scarecrows in the yard, because they may scare people who are scared of scarecrows. There simply is not a single piece of Halloween decoration that is not insensitive or outright offensive to someone!

It is very possible that in our lifetime, the greeting “Happy Halloween!” will finally be replaced with the neutral “Happy holidays!” and everyone will walk around dressed strictly as themselves, exchanging carrot and celery sticks. (Candies are offensive to people without dental insurance and may be a conspiracy of the dental lobby.) Perhaps then, Orthodox bloggers with stop writing about the horrors of Halloween and focus instead on the memory of the Evangelist Luke or Saint Joseph of Volotsk, whose memory we celebrate on October 31 (those on the new calendar will have a pick of several of the Seventy Disciples.)

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#MeToo Two

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 6 October 2018

As the Kavanaugh saga unfolds (he has not yet been confirmed as of the moment of this writing), a few more thoughts and observations can be added to my previous post which is quickly becoming outdated. (Alas! Such is the nature of social commentary—it becomes outdated almost before it can be posted.) Ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends have been enlisted in the battle on both sides, false accusers have come forward and have been debunked, and someone even volunteered to take the blame for the assault on Christine Blasey by claiming that it was he, not Brett Kavanaugh, who attempted the assault in 1982. Of course, if true, this will be an accusation against Christine Ford for making a false accusation against Brett Kavanaugh. This nesting-doll-style carousel appears to follow the pattern on the first #MeToo-er, Asia Argento, who accused Harvey Weinstein, was then herself accused by another actor, who was then himself accused by an ex-girlfriend… “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19) And while it is best not to comment on the substance of the allegations, since most of us know nothing of this matter that our favorite website of network did not tell us, a couple of thoughts do come to mind.

It is interesting that our society has divided into those who believe Christine Ford and those who believe Brett Kavanaugh. I always thought that matters of faith and belief are reserved for the realm of religion. “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) Since when have Ford and Kavanaugh become prophets to be believed, or their testimonies become foundations of faith? Of course, it is understood that 36 years later there is little-to-none direct evidence (at least, none that could not be easily challenged). But the problem with turning to religious concepts of belief is that for the faithful, direct evidence is never very important. If it can be shown, for example, that the percentage of pilgrims who receive healing by visiting a holy relic, an icon, or a shrine is much smaller than the normal placebo effect in most medical trials, this would not affect the faith of the pilgrims or the spiritual significance of the relic or a shrine. Those are simply two different realms, different dimensions of human experience. It now appears that Ford and Kavanaugh have become objects of pseudo-religious fervor that cares little about objective reality and operates in the realm of subjective pseudo-spiritual experience. Ford and Kavanaugh are no longer relevant as persons; they have become banners in a war of sexes, placeholders in a pro- and anti-abortion debate, or something entirely different. Whatever it is, it may be helpful to recognize that this new social reality has acquired a religious dimension and as such is immune to logic, reason, or common sense.

Another curiosity is the absolute lack of a very important conversation. A 15-year-old girl drinking at a party with 17-year-old boys who are already, in her own words, “stumbling drunks”—is there a teachable moment here? No, I do not want to “blame the victim.” The 15-year-old Christine Blasey was not to blame for whatever happened, nor was she expected to have perfect judgment at that age, especially after drinking. No 15- (or17-) year-old can be expected to have perfect judgment. Unlike our politicians or the media, as a Christian minister, I may be able to (maybe not—we’ll see) get away with saying that this is another lesson that parents can teach their children. “Do not tolerate abuse”—yes. “Speak up”—yes. But also, if you are 15 and invited to a drinking party with 17-year-olds—don’t go. If you accidentally find yourself at a drinking party with 17-year-olds, and they are becoming “stumbling drunks”—call your parents. Yes, even if they get upset. It is better to be grounded for a month than to deal with PTSD for the next 36 years. I think that every parent who has a daughter knows what I am saying here. Perhaps, it is time to revisit a more traditional and old-fashioned approach to parenting, when 15-year-old girls and 17-year-old boys do not attend a party without some adult supervision. If you are a 17-year-old boy, and your friends are drinking, ask the 15-year-old girl if she would like you to walk her home or call her parents. I want to reiterate that this comment is in no way to blame Christine Blasey for getting groped or to excuse the behavior of her assailant. This is not at all a comment about blame but about basic safety. I may feel that I have a God-given right to stroll through any dark alley in South Chicago at 2 a.m., and that no one should ever blame me for doing so. Basic safety concerns, however, will prevent me from enjoying this God-given (and constitutional) right of mine without an overwhelmingly compelling reason. Some things are just common sense. Is this defeatist, and should we be demanding a brave new world in which a 2 a.m. stroll through a dark alley is just a walk in the park? I do not think so. It is good to envision a world without the flu, and it is also good to exercise prudence and prevention until such a world is achieved. It is good to “look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come,” but it is also good to be fully aware of the Augustinian “but not yet” corrupting each and every one of us. This conversation may be as important for girls and boys as the one about consent, responsibility, and respect for one another.

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#MeToo

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 18 September 2018

I am a firm believer that everyone should generally limit his or her comments to his or her area of expertise. I have written on numerous occasions about the strange fascination among some Orthodox Christians with marital or child-rearing advice coming from monastics who have never themselves been married or raised any children. This rather odd tradition seems just as absurd as would seeking advice on leading a good monastic life from a married lay person. And so, in this brief note prompted by the unfolding scandal surrounding the confirmation process of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, I will do my best to avoid expressing any opinion on politics, which is clearly not my area of expertise.

What caught my attention in this political performance of “advice and consent” was the revelation of possibly-inappropriate behavior, possibly sexual in nature or, at least, with possible sexual overtones by Kavanaugh when he was in high school. Not to condone or excuse any illegal or abusive behavior (yes, for obvious reasons, I will make this and several more disclaimers throughout), but the very idea of a teenage boy behaving inappropriately or even sexually-inappropriately somehow does not sound entirely implausible.

Whether anything of this sort did or did not happen, or whether whatever happened (if anything did happen) rose to the level of criminal or abusive behavior is, very obviously, not for me to know or comment about. But I do find it relevant in the present moment in our society to ask the following question: if Brett Kavanaugh did in fact behave inappropriately as a teenager at a party 36 years ago, does this invalidate the rest of his life’s conduct and achievements and disqualify him from becoming the next Supreme Court Justice? Because, if it does not, then this allegation becomes irrelevant at this point and should be addressed quite separately from the confirmation process. The very same question can be asked about every single person whose career was put on the chopping block by the #MeToo movement. I think most people agree that Harvey Weinstein is a creep, but is Asia Argento’s allegation against Weinstein invalidated (along with all of her acting career) by the fact that #SheToo may have had sex with an actor, and an underage one at that? Is Garrison Keillor’s nearly half a century of creative work suddenly worthless to our culture because he may have (and probably did at least once in the last 76 years) had an incident of improper behavior? Should David Foster Wallace’s works be banned because he was a misogynist? Should we stop teaching Einstein’s theory of relativity because he, Einstein, was a racist, as his travel diaries reveal? Should India be converted back to being a British colony because Mahatma Gandhi, before he was a mahatma, volunteered to advance British colonialist aspirations in Africa during the Boer War? Dostoyevsky had a felony conviction. Tolstoy was a wealthy one-percenter and a heretic. William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway were drunks. The Apostle Paul was a co-conspirator in hate crimes against a religious minority, and Saint Peter denied Christ—not once, not twice, but three times! (As they say, once is an accident, twice a coincidence…)

In my mind, these are not idle questions in an era when Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House children’s series and Albert Einstein are accused of racism. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington owned slaves. So did the Prophet Muhammad, who also consummated his marriage to the 9- or 10-year-old Aisha when he was 53 years old. The Buddha was a clueless and spoiled rich kid who married his cousin, got her pregnant, and then abandoned her and the baby in search of enlightenment. The Reverend Martin Luther King had numerous extramarital affairs. Pope Francis may have known something about a cardinal’s abuse of seminarians earlier than he now admits. In fact, considering that each pope was a priest and a bishop before becoming a pope, who knows what else may in time be revealed about Francis, Benedict, or JPII. Mother Teresa was the biggest client of the Vatican Bank with billions in deposits, which apparently never made it into the “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”

It would be rather silly to fantasize that Orthodox bishops and patriarchs are too much better than the average human being. Between the stories about everything from bad pastoral work and abuse toward priests and their families to the lack of chastity, to involvement in financial and political intrigues—and these are just the issues on the surface, out in the open, without digging too deep—all appears to point to the idea that our own hierarchy is mostly made up of averagely-flawed humans. Once again, I want to reiterate that any cases of criminal, illegal, or abusive behavior should be prosecuted by the proper authorities (which rarely includes Twitter). But can we ever expect any religious, political, cultural leader or any person whatsoever to be completely perfect and lacking anything embarrassing or inappropriate in their entire life? Can anyone live long enough and never-ever make any mistake? If it is now becoming acceptable to go back to one’s teenage years, as is the case with Brett Kavanaugh, and question one’s behavior at a high school party, can anyone at all be found without blemish? Quite apart from the fact that #MeToo has long turned into #He/SheToo–it is no longer raising awareness but, rather, leveling accusations–if we dig deep enough into anyone’s life, will we not find something that at least someone will find objectionable? If the Apostle Paul called himself a “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15—what was he hiding?), can any one of us be found to be anything but?

This avalanche of #MeToo revelations should not only lead to much-deserved punishments for those who have committed crimes or acted in an abusive manner, but it should also bring a sense of humility to all, as accusers find their own sins written in the dust on the ground (John 8:8)—albeit, in 140 characters or fewer. To be sure, we are called by our faith to confront others for the purpose of correcting them (Matt. 18:15). But as for condemning and casting stones—let us leave this task to those without sin. (Once again, this is not in any way to imply that criminal or abusive behavior should be left without prosecution—“For the authority does not bear the sword in vain!” [Rom. 13:4]) It is okay to acknowledge that Keillor is a good writer, even if he put his hand on a woman’s back. It is okay to be inspired by King’s sermons and to value his civil rights legacy, even if he struggled with infidelity. It is okay to like Esenin’s poems, even if it is likely that he wrote none of them while sober. And it is okay to allow for the possibility that Brett Kavanaugh may be a good judge, despite what he may have done at a high school party 30 some years ago, as abominable as it may have been. In fact, in Christianity, we allow for the possibility of redemption. A man who may have acted inappropriately or even criminally 36 years ago may have changed his life, turned it around, left the “sins of his youth and his ignorance” behind (Ps. 25:7), and proved this with his life by not returning to his old ways in the past three decades. As Christians, we sometimes believe in this kind of stuff. Saint Augustine was a drunkard, a partier, and fathered at least one illegitimate child whom he abandoned, along with the child’s mother. Saint Mary of Egypt was a prostitute. Saint Matthew is said to have been an abusive tax collector and an embezzler before he met Christ. Saint Olga slaughtered an entire tribe in a fit of revenge. Her grandson, Saint Vladimir of Kiev, offered human sacrifices and is responsible for producing the first Christian martyrs in Kievan Rus. And the first person in paradise was a repentant thief (highway robber/terrorist/rebel/enemy of the state/freedom fighter—take your exegetical pick).

This is in no way to assert that Brett Kavanaugh has repented and should be canonized a Catholic saint (he is a practicing Catholic, regularly attends mass and volunteers at Catholic charities). I have no way of knowing what he did or did not do, and whether or not he repented before God for what he may or may not have done. But this is to assert that in Christianity, we insist that a man is not always defined by his past sins and failures, and that his contributions to society and humanity are not automatically negated by a past indiscretion, a lapse in judgment, or even a crime.

I do not know whether Kavanaugh is a good judge. I am not a good judge of judges. I know very little about politics (and Supreme Court nominations have become primarily a political act.) But I know that there is one person who never raped or abused women, children, or seminarians, never owned slaves, never committed adultery, never got drunk at a high school party—who is completely without sin. If we are in search of someone who is without a #MeToo incident, we should look to Christ. If #MeToo helps us stop some creeps and punish some criminals, right some wrongs—great! But if this movement also helps us realize that humanity is deeply flawed—to its very core, that all are corrupted by sin, that we need a savior—this too would be a good thing to come out of this movement. “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man…” (Ps. 146:3) But put your trust in Jesus Christ, “who committed no sin, nor any deceit found in his mouth.” (1 Peter 2:22)

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Sex and Contraception in a Christian Marriage

Posted in Practical Matters, Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 2 July 2018

Nota Bene: This is a discussion of human sexuality, including sex, contraception, and other related topics. If you are offended by such topics, you may choose to exercise abstinence and refrain from reading any further. On the other hand, if you choose to engage in further reading, some context for this discussion may be found in “There Is No Sex in the Church”—a collection of essays by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov published in 2013.

The question of contraception within marriage is not new by any means. Perhaps the earliest biblical mention of birth control comes from the story of Onan and Tamar in which coitus interruptus was used to prevent conception (Gen. 38). No doubt, this time-honored method of contraception has been employed by couples since the time of Onan–approximately, three-and-a-half thousand years ago[1]–and to the present day. Other contraceptive techniques were also used throughout the centuries and are continued to be used in present times (a pious reader above a certain age, no doubt, will be able to imagine some of the sexual techniques that are incompatible with conception).[2]

In recent decades, humans have been enjoying “better living through chemistry” (as well as a better understanding of physiology), and a wide variety of contraceptive pharmaceuticals and devices have appeared on the market. These new advances in contraception have been employed both by non-Christian couples (who are not the subject of this discussion) and Christian couples alike—with or without the blessing of the Church. The stance of the Orthodox Church on every type of sexual behavior which differs in any way from the so-called “missionary” position was quite clearly formulated by monastics and celibates in the Middle Ages.[3] Regardless of whether mediaeval monastics and celibates should ever be viewed as experts on spousal intimacy, medical advances (as well as many other factors) of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries forced the Church to re-evaluate its positions on sex and contraception within a Christian marriage. As Breck notes, “Orthodox bishops and priests today usually acknowledge that married couples may need to practice a form of family planning that includes some method of birth control.”[4] (more…)

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frus·tra·tion

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 24 June 2018

frus·tra·tion

frəˈstrāSH(ə)n

noun

–the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something

Why are men so preoccupied with heaven and hell? Especially, hell? Why are so few preoccupied with Jesus? They have some incoherent notion of wandering around in heaven, along streets of gold, in and out of pearly gates, from mansion to mansion, visiting their dead relatives, with absolutely nothing else to do for the whole eternity. The notion becomes only slightly more coherent with respect to hell: worms, fire, frying pans, demons with horns and tails and forks, etc. They will tell you all of the warning sings of the coming of the antichrist–including his nationality and hair color–but few are watching for the signs of the coming of the Christ.

Where is the man who just wants to be with Jesus–not in heaven, not out of hell, but with Jesus? Where is the man who says, “I do not want heaven, I do not care about hell; I want Jesus”? Where is the man who is ready to follow his Lord to the moon and back, even to the edge of the earth? Where is the man who says, “If in order to be with Jesus, I must go to hell, I will gladly go there and be burnt a thousand times–just to be with my Lord”?

What a consumerist attitude–“Accept Jesus in order to avoid the fires of hell and inherit life in heaven!” “For God so loved the world” that He came all the way to earth in order to be with us, all the way to poverty, to hunger, to thirst, to weariness. He came to serve, to wash feet, to be rejected, tempted, tested, arrested, beaten, tortured and killed. If, in order to find His lost sheep, Jesus had to descend into the very abyss itself, did He not do that? Did he not choose His beloved over the comforts of heaven? Sure, He is eternally risen, but He is also eternally crucified. And men respond by “accepting” Him in order to gain eternal comforts and to avoid eternal discomforts?!

Imagine a man who plans to get married, and instead of saying to his beloved, “I want to be with you because I love you,” he says, “I want to be with you because I want to have my meals cooked, my house cleaned, my socks washed, and I want to have sex regularly.” Even we, fallen humans, do not say this to our beloved. In our best moments, we say, “I want to be with you because I love you–for better or for worse, for rich or for poor, in sickness or in health…” Why do men not extend the same idea of love toward God, and are instead obsessed with getting stuff out of God–as if He has not given enough already?! Scared of hell?–accept Jesus! Want eternal retirement in heaven?–accept Jesus! Problems in life?–Jesus will fix them!

This is not to say that there is no heaven or hell or problems. But this is to say that when God says, “I love you,” do men really have to ask, “What’s in it for me?”

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Eugenics in the U.S.

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 1 July 2017

I looked up some information on eugenics in the U.S. for one of my classes. That the U.S. had an active national eugenics program before Nazi Germany ever existed is well-known and not too interesting in and of itself. One part of this program, naturally, involved selective breeding of humans who were considered to be good specimens. But the other part was forcible sterilization of those who were unfit for procreation. The standards, charts, numbers and measurements to determine who was unfit can be easily looked up. It suffices to say here only that those people were usually disabled, poor, less intelligent (as determined by an IQ test) or incarcerated.

What is interesting to me is that California and Oregon, the two states one would typically associate with some social justice sensibilities, had the most prolific forcible sterilization programs. The last known one to have been carried out under what used to be known as The Oregon Board of Eugenics took place in 1981. California, where two thirds of all forcible sterilizations in the U.S. took place, did not stop the practice until 2010. Curiously, Texas did not have a single forcible sterilization (at least, none on record). Law protecting individual freedoms there were so strong, that they protected the disabled, the poor, the less intelligent and even the incarcerated from being forcibly sterilized.

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“A friend is revealed in times of trouble”

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 1 July 2017

Much has been written about original sin. The Scripture is quite laconic about what happened. Adam and Eve–they!–stole a piece of fruit. Surely, the original sin was not theft. Many correctly say that it was disobedience. But there has to be more–much more!–to the story. Making a rule just for its own sake, for the sake of obeying or disobeying it, seems petty. There are some beautiful, mystical explanations of the nature of the original sin offered by Father Kuraev and others, and I quite like them, but there is one aspect of it that has captivated my attention for a couple of days now.

In one sense, the original sin was the killing of God in self. He, who from the creation of man was ever-present with him was cast out, the presence was killed. This is symbolically represented by the discovery of nakedness. It is a common opinion of the learned theologians that until the sin, God’s glory (that is to say, His presence) covered Adam and Eve as if with a garment. After the sin, the presence of God was no more, and they saw their nakedness.

When Cain killed Abel, he killed the presence of God in the other. What bothered Cain was not that God did not regard his offering but that He regarded Abel’s. Whatever it actually means that God “regarded” Abel’s sacrifice, it implies some kind of attention, active presence. Once again, man wanted to be left alone, without God. The presence of God proved intolerable and needed to be destroyed.

This act of killing God’s presence–this original sin–continued through the killing of the prophets and eventually of Christ Himself. The same desire to be left alone, the same intolerance for the presence of God, the same insatiable drive to be our own gods–nothing changed. And it still has not.

For a very short while, at the very dawn of the Church, the faithful could say: “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” This is long gone. The Church is now terrified of the Second Coming, Her prayer has long been “Don’t come, Lord Jesus! Not now, not in our time.” She no longer–and has not for a long time!–prays for and eagerly awaits a speedy judgment of this world, its end, the end times. Instead, the Church prays and longs for the peace, stability and prosperity of this world and for the delay in the Second Coming of Jesus.

When Jesus came the first time, man did what he had always done with the presence of God–he killed Him. Man wanted to be left alone, he wanted to be his own god. He had a perfectly good altar, like Cain. He offered sacrifices in proper order and with proper prayers, like Cain, I am sure. Even if he believed in God’s presence, he understood that it inhabited that large stone box he called the Temple–it was not with him, in his home, in his life, in his being. Man put God in a box and hired guards-priests- to keep Him there. But when God came to man’s town, to his village, to speak to man face-to-face, to eat supper with him, to touch him–man could not tolerate such an intrusion and so he killed God.

This sin–the killing of God in His Son–is much more grave than the killing of God in self, as did Adam, or the killing of God in other, as did Cain. I have no good reason to believe that man today–today!–would not do the same as he did two millennia ago. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is not about the Catholics, or not exclusively about the Catholics. It is a commentary on the Adam and the Cain in every man.

Rosanov once had a frightening insight: the tragedy is not that Jesus had enemies, but that He did not have friends. His enemies conspired to kill Him, but His betrayer was a disciple! His enemies came with weapons, but His disciples were asleep! His enemies mocked Him, but a disciple denied ever knowing Him! In Orthodoxy, we have a tradition of identifying ourselves with John. “Behold, your Mother!”–we believe that these words said to one disciple apply to all disciples and to us. What fanciful thinking! Why identify with this particular disciple? Judas was also a disciple, and so was Peter, and so were the rest who ran away and locked the door behind them! No, we are not heirs of just one disciple; we are heirs of all of them. We carry the nature of Adam, and Cain, and Judas, and also of Abel, if we have not slaughtered him in ourselves, and also of John, if we have not run away from the Cross and locked the doors in fear. The saints saw this; that is why they cried and repented so much.

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On why we write

Posted in Reflections by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 9 January 2017

A Monday of a new year. A good time to take a closer look at the past and to plot a tentative course for the near future. And while looking at the past, I came to the realization that it may be necessary to examine the very basis of writing in general and theological writing in particular. I will try to explain.

Why do people write? I imagine that it used to be the case that people wrote because they had something to say. Nowadays, however, it is very difficult to answer this question. Some appear to write because they must–whether for a class they are taking, or for a conference in which they have been asked to participate, or because they hope to get paid for their labors, or for some other such reason. But what if all of these reasons suddenly disappeared? Would many of us still write? Even more importantly, do many of us actually have anything to say?

Too often, much of modern theological writing seems to be a regurgitation of someone else’s writing. To use an example from some of my previous writing, topics such as “Desert Father N. on the Raising of Children” come to mind. First, the sheer absurdity of the topic does not seem to raise too many eyebrows these days. “The Professional Cello Player on the Practical Aspects of Brain Surgery.” Why would anyone want to know what a cello player thinks about brain surgery? Second, if anyone wants to know what some author thinks about any topic, would it not be best to study the works of that author? What exactly is the purpose of reading someone else’s view on the views of someone else? I know, I know: “In partial fulfillment of the requirement for…”

Furthermore, nothing of significance or consequence is added to the sum of human knowledge when I express my views on someone else’s views and prove my point by liberally citing the original text. Is it that I do not believe others to be capable of reading the text? Is it that I do not think that others can comprehend the text and thus require my predigesting and regurgitating it for their benefit? Is it not too presumptuous of me to tell other literate, educated, reasonable and intelligent adults what some very famous author wrote on any given topic? Why not let them read the text and judge for themselves?  I know, I know: “In partial fulfillment of the requirement for…”

Of course, this is not to belittle the idea of the Great Conversation. However, the very culture of Orthodoxy seems to stifle the said Conversation. The obstacle is that we are the Church of the Fathers, not of the fathers. Because I cannot presume myself to be on the same level with the Fathers, my thoughts and opinions cannot be part of their conversation. They speak as ones having authority. The most I can do is learn what they taught and regurgitate what I learnt. To build on what they have already established, to add to what they have already said, to reinterpret and re-envision their thought would be too presumptuous.

And speaking of being presumptuous, what bothered me the most while thinking about the past was the fact that I have written pieces without actually having anything worth saying. In the Gospel of Matthew (7:29), there is an interesting mention about the manner in which Jesus taught: “…taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes…” The scribes regurgitated what others had said before them, citing one rabbi, referencing another. Prophets, on the other hand, did not pepper their speech with references to rabbis; they spoke with authority: “Thus saith the Lord…” That is to say, “I personally heard from God Himself, and therefore I have something to share with all of you.” Jesus, of course, had even more authority and often said: “But I say to you…”

Using these principles in examining modern theological writing, it is painfully evident that most of us write as scribes, not as ones having authority. This is the key difference between us and the Fathers of the Church. The Fathers conquered sins and passions and then wrote about their experience of being victorious. We are burdened by sins and passions and write about someone else’s experience. The Fathers fasted and prayed, kept vigil for decades and then wrote from the position of experts on this topic. We complain about our weaknesses, make excuses, give ourselves dispensations and then tell others about the benefits of fasting by citing someone else’s examples, unable to refer to our own.

In some disciplines (albeit, not all), such a lack of personal expertise in the subject would be unacceptable. Imagine someone who does not know how to play the cello attempting to give cello lessons, or someone who cannot swim teaching swimming, or someone who has never built anything giving construction advice by invoking the names of famous architects. This would be absurd. And yet, it does not seem to be absurd when the same is commonplace in modern Christianity. Do not tell me what Desert Father N. thought about raising children. I want to know how you raised such good children. Do not tell me how Saint Mary of Egypt kept her fast; I can read that on my own. Tell me how you keep yours and what you have learnt from your personal experience.

And yet, there is one valid reason to write about things I have not personally experienced. Writing is a good way to think; it allows for the process of thinking. It is necessary, however, to be honest about this kind of writing. First, just because I think, does not mean that my thoughts are necessarily correct or that they are worth sharing with others. Second, this type of writing must be directed at self, not others. If others happen to find my thoughts interesting and choose to join in the process of thinking together, this would be wonderful. But this type of writing must never presume or pretend to be any sort of teaching. It is necessary to think, and writing is not a bad format for this exercise. But this should never be confused with the writing as one having authority which only comes from personal practice and experience or as a direct revelation from God Himself.

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Have you fed the hungry lately?

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 2 January 2016

At the Second coming of Christ, He will reward those who fed the hungry, visited the sick and the imprisoned, clothed the naked… We all know this Gospel passage. As Christians, we try to get involved in prison ministries and soup kitchens–and this is very important and well-deserving of our efforts. But pay close attention: when Christ addresses the righteous, they are genuinely surprised: “When have we ministered to you Lord?” Do you think that anyone involved in a soup kitchen can be genuinely surprised at Christ’s words? It is more likely that they will say: “Yes, Lord, I ministered to the hungry as if they were You, and I saw Your image in each of their faces.” The ones who are surprised are not the ones who were involved in Christian ministries and visited the prison inmates because it was a Christian thing to do. They are the ones who ministered to the needy out of a profound sense of oneness with them. If your child is hungry, you feed him because you are family, not because it is a Christian thing to do. When your brother is in prison you go there not because you participate in a Christian ministry or because you enjoy visiting inmates; in fact, you may hate going there, but you go anyway–because he is family. When we treat others as family, we do not expect to be rewarded for feeding them or visiting them in prison, we do not expect any reward for this and will be genuinely surprised to get any. If we let a stranger in not because he might turn out to be an undercover angel but merely because he is a fellow human being, he is family, then we have understood that to call God ‘Father’ means to call a stranger a ‘brother’–not in a “churchy” way, but quite literally.

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How does the legalization of same-sex marriage affect the Church?

Posted in Reflections by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 29 June 2015

With the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to impose the legalization of same-sex marriage on all of the States, many people wonder how this will affect the Church. The answer is, of course, quite simple: it does not affect the Church at all in any way whatsoever. The Church has lived in the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Communist Empire, the Capitalist Empire, various democracies, monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, etc. and kept the truth she received from God unchanged. The Church has lived through ages of Roman immorality, Byzantine Christian state officialdom, the Middle Ages in Europe, the Muslim invasion of Palestine, the humanism of the Renaissance, the Soviet attempts to build communism, the American separation of Church and State, and many other ages and circumstances, and she still kept her truth because she received it from God. In other words, it does not matter what any given society in any given age chooses to “celebrate”–gay pride or burkas, cannabis or ecstasy, pornography or abortion, alcoholism or prohibition–the Church does not receive her truth from social movements or Supreme Court decisions. The Church receives her truth from God and that is why she is not blown in this direction or that by various winds or tossed by different currents. (more…)

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Fun Maths

Posted in Reflections by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 7 June 2015

Русская версия здесь

It is often said that a certain portion of what we have belongs to God. In the Old Testament, we see the commandment to tithe. This commandment is interpreted in many different way by modern Christians, but all seem to agree that it is good to take some portion of what we receive for our labor and give it to God by donating it to the Church or to the needy.

Some also note that the same should be done with out time. Just as in the Old Testament the Sabbath day was for the Lord, so also Christians speak of Sunday as being the Lord’s Day thus acknowledging that a certain portion of their time is to be devoted to God. It is not my goal here to examine the exact meaning of the term “the Lord’s Day” or to elucidate the nature of tithing. This is just some fun maths.

If we treat our time the same we treat other things that we have, then 10% of it should rightfully belong to God. In a 24-hour day, that is 2 hours and 24 minutes. Some may feel that is is not fair because we have to sleep for 8 hours each day. Well, 10% of a 16-hour waking day 1 hour and 36 minutes. Even if we were to subtract another 8 hours of full-time employment and propose that the time that we actually have is only 8 hours, 10% of 8 hours is 48 minutes. Do we give 48 minutes of our day to God? Suppose, this could be time spent in prayer, reading the Scripture, helping those in need–do we spend at least 48 minutes of each day doing those things? Something to think about…

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What Pornography Does to the Human Brain (VIDEO)

Posted in Practical Matters, Reflections by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 30 March 2015

According to surveys, nearly one-third of Orthodox Christian teens are unsure whether pornography is right or wrong. This is approximately the same number as that of teens who are unsure whether premarital sex is right or wrong. This is very telling in two ways. First, teens who are unsure about premarital sex are probably also unsure about pornography. And second, while the Church makes its position very clear–premarital sex and pornography are wrong–it needs to do a better job of explaining why. In this short paper, I would like to step away from the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ After all, Christ did not come to bring us laws and legislations. Sins are not right or wrong because someone issued a regulation. Instead, I would like to talk about things that are good for you or bad for you.

The Church teaches us that sexual intimacy is an important part of the sacrament of marriage: there, it has its rightful place; there, it helps the two become one; and there, it fulfills all of its functions–from the expression of love and commitment to the co-creation with God in continuing the human race. Marriage is a sacrament with the “principal and ultimate goal [of] the spiritual and moral perfection of the spouses.” As with any sacrament, that which is sacramental, should not be used for profane purposes. Imagine that a priest throws a party in the holy altar, and then on Sunday, after having picked up the trash, he serves the Divine Liturgy there. Or, he uses the chalice to drink his coffee in the mornings, and then on Sunday he uses it for the Eucharist. Even on an intuitive level we understand that this would be blasphemy. And yet, it is the same with our bodies. The Apostle Paul teaches that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19), and it belongs to your spouse for the fulfillment of the sacrament of marriage (7:4)–whether we are married now or will one day be married. Imagine your love for your spouse as a cup filled to the brim, and you want to give all of it, the fullness of it to your beloved. If you start bumping into strangers along the way or allowing them to take some of what you are carrying, then you will not be able to preserve the fullness of your love, and will hand to your beloved a cup half-empty, if not altogether unworthy of a sacrament.

All of this can be said about premarital sex in general, but what about pornography? Pornography is just as bad as premarital sex, but more dangerous. When a person engages in a sexual act with another person, both are aware that they are giving up a part of themselves; and the more partners a person has, the more fractured he or she becomes. But pornography camouflages itself as something unreal, virtual, something that is one’s private business, something that does not hurt anyone. Our culture tells us that we are free to do whatever we want, as long as it does not hurt anyone. Let us heed this advice and remember that ‘anyone’ means us as well. Let us make sure that whatever we do does not hurt us physically or spiritually.

Christ said: “…every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). The reason Christ equates looking lustfully, the very definition of pornography, with adultery, a physical act, is because we are not some bags full of disconnected parts–body, soul, mind, spirit, will, etc.–but whole and interconnected beings. If we have a toothache, our mind may become irritable; and if our mind is anxious, our whole body may ache. This is why when we allow pornography to enter into our eyes and our mind, our entire being is affected. The “virtual” sin of pornography most often leads to very physical masturbation. And once something is seen, it cannot be unseen–it imbeds itself in the mind, the memory, the subconscious. We would not want to share our spouse and our marriage bed with a bus-load-full of porn actors and actresses. But in reality, this is what we do when our minds are polluted with pornorgaphy and we enter into the sacrament of marriage bringing all those “passengers” along. On second thought, porn ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’ perform sexual acts for money, and there is another term for that–prostitution. The Apostle Paul says that “he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her” (1 Cor. 6:16). These are very powerful words. This means that when we commit adultery in the heart–watch pornography–we become one with that prostitute, instead of our spouse. This is not only destructive to the sacrament of marriage, but also to our own souls: with how many prostitutes can one become one before the soul is completely broken, damaged, fractured, and polluted?

Ways to Fight Against Pornography

  1. Avoid those television shows, movies, magazines, and websites that arouse sexual passion. It is much easier to fight against sin while it is still a little worm than to battle it once it becomes a fire-breathing dragon.
  2. Do not underestimate the brute power of sexual desire. People have killed and died under the influence of the sexual passion. Do not play with fire or you risk being burnt.
  3. Remember that demons, including those of lust, are best resisted through prayer and fasting. Pray often and ask God for help. Keep the real fast, not a vegan diet.
  4. Keep your eyes and your mind on our Savior and His Most Pure Mother. If you spend time on the computer or watch television–place an icon next to the screen. If looking at what is on your screen and in the eyes of Christ at the same time makes you uncomfortable or ashamed, then something is wrong with what is on your screen. Do something about it! (There is an OFF button on every device.)
  5. Seek healing in repentance. Once something is seen it cannot be unseen. But God can heal and restore the soul. Remember: repentance is not feeling bad about something. It is a firm decision to turn away from sin and turn to God. It is a decision to fight against sin, not merely feel bad about having committed it. It is a sacrament of reconciliation with God, not a formality of entering a guilty plea on a heavenly court docket.

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Ladder of Divine Ascent

Posted in Fasting, Reflections, Sermons by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 21 March 2015

On the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the memory of Saint John, the Abbot of Mount Sinai. For centuries, his work, The Ladder, has been a favorite Lenten reading for those who wish to ascend from earth to heaven, and many pastors urge their parishioners to learn from this treasure chest of ascetic wisdom.

Much can be said about the gems contained in the work of Saint John of the Ladder, but I have been thinking about the very image of the ladder. A ladder is not a wormhole; it is not a teleportation device. A ladder has steps, and one has to step on one before stepping on the next, climb on the lower level before continuing to a higher one. The image of a ladder reveals to us the gradual nature of ridding ourselves of passions and acquiring virtues.

(more…)

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