In 1982-1990 Xenia worked for the Synod of Bishops in New York. She shares with us her reminiscences of Metropolitan Philaret, Bishop Gregory, and also addresses the conventional wisdom that ROCOR converts are less steadfast than those who imbibed Orthodoxy with their mother’s milk.
Could you please tell us about yourself?
I was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island in a Presbyterian family. I received a BA in Russian and German from SUNY Oswego, an MA in Russian from Vanderbilt University, an MS in TESOL from Molloy College. I started studying Russian when I was in 9th grade and began to develop an interest in Russian Orthodoxy through reading Dostoevsky. During and after my college years, I traveled to the then Soviet Union three times on cultural exchanges, after which I moved to England to work as a translator and archivist at Keston College in Kent. During my first year in England, I became a catechumen and was baptized into the Orthodox Church by Schema-Archimandrite Alexis on Holy Saturday, 1978; my godparents are Prince Dmitri Galitzine and the Nun Pelagia of the Lesna Convent. I attended the ROCOR Dormition Cathedral throughout my three years in England (1978-1981).
When I decided to become Orthodox, I knew I wanted to be baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church because of all my contact with the Russian language and culture and because of my travel to the Soviet Union, where I had attended church many times and became convinced that I had found my spiritual home. I decided to join the ROCOR because it was clear to me that the Moscow Patriarchate was not free and some clergymen were collaborating with the Communists.
When I returned to New York, I began to work at the Synod of Bishops, where I remained from 1982-1990. In 1990, I married Victor Nenchin and moved to Vineland, NJ, where we raised our son Christopher and daughter Kateryna. In 1998 we returned to Long Island for family reasons. I am a professor at Molloy College in the Graduate Program of the Division of Education, preparing ESL teachers; I also teach Russian literature in the English Department. I am currently writing my doctoral dissertation in applied linguistics at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, via distance mode. I sing soprano in the choir at Holy Virgin Protection Church in Glen Cove and attend services at the Synodal Cathedral when possible.
You worked for the Synod of Bishops for nearly a decade between 1982-1990. What were your duties there?
I started working at Synod in 1982. Fr. Vladimir Shishkoff hired me as an administrative assistant. While he was there, my duties were broad and mostly had to do with the running of the household: negotiating with the rather fearsome lot of cooks, organizing the meals for the sessions of the Synod and the Council of Bishops, ordering supplies, making sure the reception desk was covered, helping in the archives, and so on. Around the time of the arrival of Bishop Hilarion, now Metropolitan, I took over the responsibility of the Synod Bookstore, helped with English-language correspondence, worked on translations, and taught in the Cathedral Studies Program, which was an adult education program in which I taught Russian and others taught liturgics and other church-related subjects.
Can you share your reminiscences of Metropolitan Philaret?
I remember Metropolitan Philaret most of all for his saintliness, his humility, and his prayer. One Sunday evening he asked me if his sermon had been too long. I replied that it hadn’t, but he was always concerned about this. He did not believe in lengthy talks and thought that it was better to be brief and to the point. Indeed, no one ever accused him of giving long sermons. They were always brilliant.
I was perhaps the only American to ever attend Metropolitan Philaret’s “kruzhok,” which often took place on Sunday nights after service or after other services. The Metropolitan often taught about the church, talked about saints, and, on a lighter note, loved to tell anecdotes about Russian émigrés in China and even about his father, Archbishop Dimitri. He would reminisce about the time when he lived with Vladyka John and how they never exchanged a cross word. He also loved to recite episodes from the lives of the Optina Elders, especially the Elder Ambrose. One of the stories he told me frequently when I was anxious about my future was how someone went to the Elder Ambrose because he was worried about what would be in the future. The elder answered, “What will be will be. And what will be, God arranges, and what God arranges, He arranges well.”
I used to keep a journal of some of the stories. Here is another one:
“I knew a boy once – we were at school together – who, when he was much smaller had been frightened in a thunderstorm in St. Petersburg and ran for shelter to the house of St. John of Kronstadt. While he was there, a woman came in with a sick daughter. She beseeched the saint to entreat God for her seriously ill daughter’s recovery. St. John took hold of the child, embraced her tightly, and prayed fervently to God for several minutes. The way he prayed was interesting, for he prayed boldly yet humbly, demanding from God her bodily health. And when he gave the child back to her mother, the girl was well. So you see that we must pray with faith, knowing that God will hear our prayers.” The interesting thing was that he told me this story when I was feeling weak in faith, though I hadn’t said anything to him about my problem. He seemed to always know what I was thinking. He predicted that I would get married and did not recommend monasticism for me.
About the ways of God, Metropolitan Philaret told me, “Be careful not to talk about God as if everything He does could be understood by us or as if He thinks as we think. Some things are a mystery to us and will remain so; therefore, do not put words into God’s mouth, for we do not know everything.” (on the Sunday after Sretenie, 1983)
Perhaps the most dire prediction for all of us, and the Mokhoffs would remember this too, was on his namesday in 1984 when he predicted that he would not live to see his next namesday. We wept. He also predicted that Fr. Nikita would not live long after his repose. Both predictions came true.
Fr. Andrew Philips recently wrote on his Web site:
http://www.orthodoxengland.org.uk/rocorold.htm , “There is no doubt, as the late Fr. Roman Lukianov pointed out two years ago, that Metr. Philaret would have been for the rapprochement today.” Because I was close to Metropolitan Philaret, many people have asked me what I think he would have done about reconciliation. The answer is, “I don’t know.” The conditions that made the rapprochement possible could not have been predicted in 1985, when Metropolitan Philaret died. Adherents of each side of the issue have claimed that Metropolitan Philaret would have done this or that to validate their own choices, but no one can say for with any certainty, and we do him a great injustice when we presume to say what he would have done and to use those presumptions to validate our own action.
Do you have memories of Bishop Gregory Grabbe?
As Paskha approaches, I remember how Bishop Gregory sent me out on Holy Friday to deliver paschal treats such as syrnaya pascha and kulich to the elderly parishioners who were housebound. I also remember what a gracious host he was at every paschal reception he hosted.
In my daily personal encounters with Metropolitan Philaret and Bishop Gregory during the years I worked at Synod, I found that they worked together harmoniously and showed each other the utmost respect and reverence. Theirs was not a relationship based on uneven power – one strong and one weak, but rather an equal relationship between two churchmen totally dedicated to the cause they served – the Church and their flock – a cause which occupied them for the better part of their lives, and which they served together for 21 years, from 1964 when Bishop Philaret became Metropolitan until 1985 when he reposed in the Lord.
In general, I found him to be devoted to the Church and the leading expert on ROCOR. He was extremely knowledgeable, an excellent thinker, and a bright conversationalist. One thing I remember was how he reminded me that spiritual food is essential and that I should not make excuses for not going to church.
It seems to me that an attempt to establish an American Orthodox Church under the auspice of the ROCOR has failed. I believe this failure was due not just to the fact that many American parishes left the Church in 1986, but also to the phenomenon that “converts” are not that stable as “ethnics” since many people who joined the ROCOR in the 70s and 80s ended up leaving Orthodoxy at one time. Do you agree?
I never heard of any attempt by ROCOR to ‘establish an American Orthodox Church’ under its auspices. The hierarchs I knew were unanimous in their belief that America was not ready for its own Church. They were not at all inclined to accept the claims of the OCA to autocephaly. They felt that the granting/recognition of it was (a) a ploy on the part of Metropolitan Nikodim (and of the MP in general, and by extension the KGB) to further divide the Russian Orthodox Church in the diaspora, and (b) on the part of the OCA to enhance and consolidate its position among the ‘jurisdictions.’ I have no idea where this talk of an American Church originated, but it certainly did not originate at Synod.
I meant here American Orthodox Mission headed by Bishop James Thomps in the 1950s and than Fr. Panteleimon’s “healthy alternative” to the “World Orthodoxy.”
The Synod of the period when I came to work there was most concerned with making the Truth of Orthodoxy available to non-Russians as a way of fulfilling the Lord’s command to ‘go into all the world, baptizing…’ I never felt that they had any ulterior motive in welcoming converts to the extent they did. They took up the missionary task mostly, in my opinion, because they wanted to represent Orthodoxy the right way. Orthodox Life is the oldest publication in English and has made a considerable contribution to missionary work in America, but it comes out of Jordanville, as you know. Metropolitan Philaret insisted that there should be at least two litanies and the Epistle and Gospel in English at every liturgy in all the parishes of ROCOR in English-speaking lands. He told me that himself, but he also noted that Fr. Nikita Chakirov, his deacon and cell attendant, did not want the Metropolitan to stand through longer services because of his frail health, so this practice was not instituted at Synod Cathedral, but there were always services in English in the St. Sergius Church downstairs.
While ROCOR never tried to organize an American Church, Fr. Panteleimon and the Boston Monastery are widely seen to have sought to create something like a ‘Church-within-a-Church,’ (not an American Church), but the Synod, even in my time, did what it could to prevent that. Archbishop Anthony of Western America of blessed memory in particular sought to limit Fr. Panteleimon’s influence across diocesan boundaries, though given the availability of telephone communication his efforts did little to stem the tide.
ROCOR’s missionary effort among English-speaking peoples was blunted to a significant degree by the shortsighted opposition of the then Archbishop (later Metropolitan) Vitaly to the use of any language but Church Slavonic in our churches. What missionary outreach there was in the Eastern American Diocese (at least) was accomplished in spite of, not because of, him. His idea of missionary work (as expressed in my hearing) was to get non-churchly Russians to attend church, which is a good thing, though it lacks the breadth of vision of St. John of San Francisco. Metropolitan Vitaly’s perception of English was that it was defiled by a thousand years of apostasy. (He told me that himself.) Speaking as a linguist, I can tell you that what he said is a linguistic absurdity and that neither Modern nor even Middle English existed when England was Orthodox, and Old English was largely a mix of Anglo-Saxon dialects that we would be unable to recognize or speak today, whether or not we believed it to be sanctified. In the history of the Russian Church, missionaries always used the language of the local peoples and to this day, the example of the Russian missionaries in Alaska serves as a model not only of missionary work itself, but also of bilingual teaching.
As to the stability of ‘converts’ as opposed to ‘cradle Orthodox,’ I don’t think such comparisons are either useful or indicative of anything at all except bias. After all, ROCOR has many parishes with no discernable contingent of young people in them. There are whole generations of Russian parishioners who have abandoned their Church—far, far more than the few converts who give up the struggle. Precious little has been done to hold onto our youth. It is not enough for them to serve in the altar or choir, or to stand in church throughout their childhood. As they transition into adulthood, they need to know what they believe, what the Church teaches, why we worship as we do, and so on. They need a real alternative to the secular world. They need a reason to stay Orthodox.
Many Russians use the word “convert” as if it had a negative connotation. The word itself is neutral. People give it a negative connotation when they speak of converts in a derisory fashion. But if we look at the history of the Orthodox Church, we can see many saints who were converts, starting with St. Paul and continuing through the 20th century with the Holy New Martyrs the Empress Alexandra and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. So I do not agree with your assessment.