Supplement to John Hudanish, Two ROCOR Bishop and the Russian Old Believers in Oregon
Recently in our communities in Oregon, Minnesota, Canada and Alaska, there arose a scandal concerning the arrangement of fingers in the old icons which we have received from our pious ancestors, known and unknown, who had prayed before these very icons for more than three hundred years. Some of our people began to condemn others, calling heretics everyone who refused to reject certain, very old icons because of the arrangement of fingers. They started telling falsehoods and slandering their brethren. They poured out upon their neighbors the fury of their anger, and they besmirched the reputations of good people with lies. Indeed they called me a heretic, and then they excommunicated me. And I am not the only one they excommunicated.
Is it their intention to excommunicate all of our ancestors, whose remains now await the Second Coming in South America, in China and in Russia?
I cannot and will not reject the old icons our forefathers gave us, for I do not consider myself wiser than all the preceding generations of Orthodox Christians, the majority of which I have never seen. I am certain that there were learned people among them. And therefore I shall not judge them. I would be afraid to judge them, because I myself am marginally literate. In the Gospel of St. Matthew it is written, “Judge ye not, and ye shall not be judged.” (Matt 7:1)
Furthermore, it is better not to make a great fuss over the arrangement of fingers. Whenever we gather to pray, we give glory to the Lord God, and not to icons. Icons are only the spiritual windows through which we see the unseen world. Indeed, as we read in [the Gospel of St.] Mark:
“And one of the scribes, having heard how well He answered them, asked Him: Which is the first of all the commandments; Jesus answered him: The first of all the commandments. Hear, O Israel
“Love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, the whole soul, thy whole mind and thy whole strength: This is the first commandment.
“And the second is like unto the first: Love thy neighbor as thyself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
The Lord Jesus Christ never said anything about the arrangement of fingers. But clearly He wants us to love God and our neighbor. “If thou lovest God with thy whole heart, thy whole mind, thy whole soul and thy whole strength, and if thou lovest thy neighbor as thyself, this is greater than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And greater than the arrangement of fingers.
And therefore I courteously – with humility and love – suggest, that henceforth we refrain from anger, lies, accusations, judgments, and all denunciations. We are all sinners. Shall sinners judge sinners?
In Solomon’s Book of Proverbs it is written: “Through wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established:” (Proverbs, 24:3)
Let us work with each other and build a house together. Here I ask that everyone attentively read the following list. These 16 points may be our bricks with which we shall build a firm foundation for a house wherein we shall all live together in peace and harmony.
- We must not judge others. This is for God to do
- The Lord Jesus Christ has said that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Therefore, we must not slander or spread falsehoods about our neighbor.
- More than 350 years ago, our ancestors rejected Patriarch Nikon’s innovations [into the liturgical services] , and so they began to be called Old Believers. And Nikon himself became angry and persecuted the Old Believers. But it is not appropriate to judge either Patriarch Nikon or our ancestors now, since they all died long ago and have been judged. Our Lord God has already judged them all, and we pray that He has judged them according to His great mercy.
- One can always verify a fact. But not all opinions can be proven. Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but we must not present our personal, unverifiable opinions as firm, immutable facts.
- All the main dogmas of the Orthodox Church are contained in the Symbol of Faith.
- There is nothing written in the Symbol of Faith about cutting one’s beard, about the sign of the cross, about the arrangement of fingers, about the double or triple alleluias, about the number of prosphora used at the proskomedia. All these are local customs and rituals, and not dogmas.
- A heretic is someone who rejects any dogma contained in the Symbol of Faith, or who adds a dogma to the Symbol of Faith. Because all essential dogmas of the Orthodox Church are to be found in the Symbol of Faith.
- The Orthodox Church of Christ has from ancient times permitted variations in local practices upon condition of unity in the truths of the Faith.
- When Patriarch Nikon and Archpriest Avvakum lived on this earth, there was no telephone, no telegraph, no radio, no television and no Internet. There wasn’t even a postal service. It was difficult to maintain contact with each other over long distances. Our ancestors could not know how the faithful lived, worked and worshiped God in distant lands beyond the forests, seas and high mountains.
- Today, however, information and knowledge is available to everyone. For example, everyone living in the 21st Century can easily verify that in the Ottoman Empire, the faithful of the Greek Orthodox Church suffered under the Turkish yoke, and many of them became martyrs for the sake of Christ, despite the fact that they trimmed their beards and crossed themselves with three fingers. Scholarly research clearly shows that similarities and differences exist in Orthodox worship services, depending on where the faithful reside. Today one can verify such information without difficulty, thanks to improvements in communications technology.
- Three hundred and fifty years ago Archpriest Avvakum was certain that the Lord God Himself heard the prayers of the faithful only through the Old Rite. But Avvakum did not know, and could not know, how the Orthodox were praying in distant lands.
- Today we are able to glorify God freely and openly in accordance with the Old Rite. But we must not judge other Orthodox Christians from among the Arabs, Greeks, Romanians, Georgians, Ukrainians, Russians and Mexicans, who glorify God through other rites.
- We may not call a person a heretic who sincerely confesses all the dogmas contained in the Symbol of Faith simply because he shaves his beard and crosses himself with three fingers. Since this person does not reject any basic dogma, we may not call him a heretic.
- In 1976, Bishop Nektary, a hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, came to Woodburn, made a full prostration – forehead to the floor – before Avram Semerikov, and asked forgiveness of us – through Avram – for the persecution of our ancestors. Bishop Nektary greatly valued our pious way of life, and wished to restore to us the precious Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
- Jesus Christ said: “…unless you eat the body of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread that came down from heaven: Not as your fathers ate the manna and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-58) In ancient times the Orthodox frequently partook of the Holy Mysteries, that is, they ate the Body of Christ and drank His Blood during the Divine Liturgy. Our ancestors before Nikon received Communion in the Russian Orthodox Church, and today we are also called to the Holy Mysteries. But we do not receive Communion because we are without clergy.
- We believe in One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church. And therefore we must seek out this Church and, when we find Her, join ourselves to her. Only there shall we find the Body and Blood of our Saviour.
Let everyone who reads this letter ask enlightenment and peace of the Holy Spirit.
Let everyone who does not agree with any of these 16 points verify them for himself; all manner of information and knowledge is accessible to all.
Let everyone who freely embraces all these aforementioned points gather together and in charity help one other along the narrow path which leads to the heavenly kingdom.
Translated by John Hudanish