In the month of September our Western Diocese had the honor of hosting one of the most renowned Orthodox theologians and philosophers of our time, Professor Dr. Christo Yannaras from Athens, Greece.
Dr. Yannaras, who is the author of more than 30 books and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, "has been for several decades one of the most prolific, original, and contemporary Orthodox writers in Greece...[and] perhaps one of the most significant Christian philosophers in Europe," according to Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury .
"It is my wish that Orthodoxy participates in the yeasting which is underway in the Americas in order to give impetus to a contemporary and creative Orthodox self-awareness."
With this profound introductory statement and genuine wish from Dr Yannaras, we would like to offer a synopsis of this two-week journey of fellowship, educative guidance and spiritual enhancement that took place in America.
Professor Yannaras' visit in the USA began in New York on Sunday, September 12 2010.
On the Feast of the Holy Cross (n.c.), an academic convocation was held at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, one of the most renown and highly acclaimed Orthodox institutions for higher learning both in America and abroad, for the purpose of honoring Dr. Yannaras, bestowing upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity honoris causa.
This great event was marked with joy and celebration, as a large audience had the opportunity to hear Professor Yannaras speak on the theme: "The Trinitarian God as a Causal Principle of Existential Freedom." In a host of other lectures given throughout his visit, the professor was able to contribute his own perspective to some of the more pressing issues of our times.
The previous night, his initial address took place in Astoria, New York where he met with the local Greek community with whom he shared his views on the critical subject: "Political crisis in Greece, or something deeper." Professor Yannaras expressed his concerns over the economic crisis in his homeland, emphasizing that the current situation with the economy should not be thought of as merely the result of some abuse or misuse at an economic level, but in fact is a much deeper issue harboring profound implications.
That same evening he met also with the Serbian Theological Faculty choir, an octet led by their Professor of Liturgics, Dr. Nenad Milosevic, who were visiting St. Vladimir's on their performance tour. In a friendly and warm exchange, Professor Yannaras offered an inspiring reflection on the subject of living a true life in the Church, addressing both the parameters of participation and theological criteria which are at work in such a life - whether they be paradigms from the past, or, direct involvement and first-hand experience within a Eucharistic community. Of course, emphasis was placed on the latter, yet he expressed also the importance of history in the life of the Church, including its great biographical examples and its ascetic tradition.
In the drawn out moments spent on the road, the professor would often express his fascination at the accelerated linguistic transmission, which had taken place both in the modern world and especially on the American continent. In singing the katavasias of
the Meeting of our Lord, for example, the professor would stop and ask questions
regarding its contemporary translation into Serbian and English, as the words, are often times difficult, if not impossible to translate. Amounting to something like, "The sun which once shone on dry land, mother of the deep..." one would have to first consider the scriptural reference to the sea as a metaphor for womb (as seen in Job 38:8, Gen 7:11, and Exodus 19:4). And while this is often a confused point in many contemporary translations of liturgical texts, the cheery professor enjoyed the technicalities of this discussion to the fullest.
Leaving New York, where Bishop Maxim and Professor Yannaras also visited St. Sava's Cathedral (SOC), they traveled across the country to San Francisco, where Professor Yannaras' visit to the Western American Diocese began.
Meeting with both Serbian and Greek communities on the West Coast, Professor Yannaras delivered two important lectures.
In the first (titled "What could be a contribution of Orthodox witness in the contemporary world, especially in its ecumenical dimension?"), he critically pointed to the popular, narrow interpretations of Hellenism and dismissed its historical reduction to some exclusive Greek component, stressing meanwhile the importance of understanding the term in the widest sense of the word. The Greek community was especially thrilled with his visit and touched by his profound address.
On the occasion of a special event commemorating the blessing and unveiling of a new sculpture of Saint Nikolai Velimirovic, the Serbian community in the Bay Area had the opportunity to hear both greeting words and inspiring commentaries on yet another topic: "What does it mean to be Orthodox, and to belong to a specific church community?"
And in yet another lecture, local clergy from the Bay Area were given the honor of interacting intimately with the professor on the Gospel theme: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).
On the Day of our Lord, Sunday, September 19, the Divine Liturgy was served at the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos (SOC) in Orange County, followed by a great fellowship and agape luncheon. A lively discussion ensued, which pondered on "The Life of the Christian in the Church," and was accompanied by an illuminating presentation by the professor. The local Greek community also extended its kind invitation to Professor Yannaras and offered him their hospitality for an evening, being especially delighted to hear his wise reflections.
The main lecture and banquet honoring Professor Yannaras took place at the great hall of SaintStephen's Cathedral in Alhambra, California on the evening of Tuesday, September 21. At this spectacular event, the audience was able to hear a specially prepared lecture titled: "Boundaries of the Church and what it means for the Church to have boundaries." This theme was presented wonderfully and was accompanied by an array of comments and questions which honored our guest, who responded with edifying words and with great attention and care. Great fulfillment was felt on behalf of all those present, as the very act of discussing these essential and relevant subjects paves the way by which we further our ecclesiological awareness.
It should be noted that Professor Yannaras in the company of his host, Bishop Maxim, took some time to tour the important cultural landmarks and places of significance within the greater Los Angeles area. During the sightseeing he made several insightful references regarding American culture and the evident modernism which characterized its cosmopolitan cities along with its residents. Apart from simply acknowledging its dynamic fortitude and prevalence, he also emphasized certain points that would be clarified later in his visit to Chicago.
In San Diego, Professor Yannaras was warmly greeted by number of Serbian clergy with whom he exchanged thoughts on a variety of relevant issues and shared interests, all of which highly benefited their pastoral efforts and achievements. The Serbian priests of Southern California expressed their gratitude for this unforgettable opportunity, and for the edifying theological exchange which motivated them to progress in the day-to-day life of their parishes.
Following this detour, Bishop Maxim, together with his clergy, brought his honorable guest to Escondido, to the Monastery of the Meeting of our Lord (Sretenje) which is progressing nicely in the construction of the planed facilities and beautified grounds. Welcomed by amazing scenery and rich, colorful landscape, Bishop Maxim shared his visionary plans of this special place with his guest, who was delighted to learn of the history and development of this monastery. One additional reason for the professor's visit to the West Coast included his participation in some filming that took place on the monastery premises. Namely, he was to be featured in part of an educational DVD series - a project that the Western American Diocese envisioned and undertook recently. The filming of the series began with an episode on the theme, "The Symbol of Faith," which was conducted by a team of professionals and lead by the very capable film director, Ivan Andrijanic, who also happens to be a very respected parishioner of St. Stephen's Cathedral.
A one-hour documentary episode was filmed with a backdrop of sun drenched palm, olive and fruit trees, preserved natural beauties of all kinds, and the incredible flora and fauna that the monastery naturally offers. This particular episode had as its subject matter: "The real existence of the Holy Trinity as a tropos of the existence of creation, in freedom and in love." Professor Yannaras offered outstanding thoughts which will be made available upon the completion of this great project.
On Thursday, the travelers arrived in Phoenix, Arizona where they met with several Serbian priests who gathered for their annual conference and to hear Professor Yannaras speak on the theme from Scripture: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).
The next destinations in the professor's itinerary included a visit to the two great Orthodox monasteries of Arizona. Bishop Maxim first took Professor Yannaras to Saint Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery, an interesting place in the Sonoran Desert. They admiring the elaborate system of seven chapels and main church (katholikon), gardens, stone pathways and gazebos with Spanish fountains, citrus orchards and olive trees scattered throughout the monastery grounds.
After this visit, Bishop Maxim and Professor Yannaras hit the road in order to reach the St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery, situated in the High Sonoran Desert at the base of Mount Graham. Abbess Michaela with all the sisters welcomed their host, His Grace, Bishop Maxim, and his guest, offering them the hospitality and serenity characteristic of both the monastery and the desert.
In the morning hours after the Divine Liturgy, at the monastery trapeza, the ascetic community and their guests listened intently to the words of wisdom offered by Professor Yannaras, who explored the essential topic: "The Holy Trinity in our life." It was another very fruitful discussion lined with several edifying questions, such as: How should young Christians in the Church come to understand ascetic efforts like podvig , fasting, and prayer? The professor's response was that these things should be understood as a sacrifice for something which is by nature priceless, making analogy of a man that in order to reach some goal or worldly treasure, would renounce many things; and so in this sense, podvig should be understood as yearning after the unspeakable and irreplaceable joy, which for us Christians, is found in the God-man Christ and his Holy Church.
On Saturday, September 25, Professor Yannaras arrived in Chicago, which would be his last stop in this wonderful journey of fellowship and theological exchange in America.
In the morning, Bishop Maxim and Professor Yannaras went on a short tour of the downtown area of Chicago, followed by a visit to the Greek Metropolis where they were greeted by Metropolitan Iakovos and spent over an hour in brotherly conversation.
The afternoon and evening was spent with the faithful flock of the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in a beautiful Vespers service, followed by an engaging and relevant lecture on the topic: "What do we Orthodox have to offer American society today?" The audience, which consisted of a number of both Greek and Serbian-Americans, had a uniquely Pan-Orthodox character; several members from ROCOR and the OCA had been in attendance as well. The lecture was even recorded by a local, Greek television station, "The Hellenic Heartbeat," and was to be televised at a later date.
In his address, Professor Yannaras emphasized the importance of a Eucharistic ecclesiology as our primary path of witnessing the Orthodox faith to others. He relied heavily on the model of the Russian Diaspora, who in the beginning of the 20 th century, in the wake of the Revolution, immigrated into Western Europe and essentially evangelized the West - a grand missionary feat which would become highly respected throughout the Christian world. The point was made that Orthodoxy must find a way to reach this (our) particular form of society, which has become entrenched in a culture of individualism. Our trust in the Church's invitation to transcend and transform our natural limitations is essential for our path to salvation. The professor also clarified for the audience a major difference between the concepts of love and eros . One of the key terminological distinctions consists in the fact that eros specifically preserves an ecstatic character, marked by inclusiveness and sharing, and involves the extension of oneself. The alternative, modern-day conceptions of love, however, have lost this intrinsic component.
The professor's intriguing presentation elicited many questions, which he kindly answered and addressed in the second half of the discussion. The next day, following the Divine Liturgy, at a banquet for the occasion of the consecration of the frescos in the Cathedral, Professor Yannaras expressed his deep gratitude for the hospitality and love that was shared with him during his short stay. In his warm delivery, he shared many beneficial words of instruction regarding our current circumstances, inspiring all to build up and to keep on building.
As a final point in this journey, the Feast of the Holy Cross (o.c.), was to be celebrated at St. Sava's Serbian Orthodox Monastery in Libertyville , Illinois . The celebration continued after the Liturgy in the classrooms of the St. Sava Theological Faculty, with nearly all the students and some professors in attendance. Two presentations were delivered at that time, with topics that enriched and inspired the students to reflect on an interesting discussion. Bishop Maxim executed a flawless translation of the professor's talk and the whole experience was very receptive and admirable. The first lecture was titled: "Boundaries of the Church." Addressing the students, the Professor reminded them of the role of language and its task to define and delineate the boundaries of reality, marking both its range of meaning and its limitations. He reiterated the well-known references regarding what the Church is, but he also pointed out what the Church should not be. Simply to say, she (the Church) is not an ideology, and she is not a religion. The Church must be a way of being: a Eucharistic Supper! Professor Yannaras' kindness did not stop there. He was featured as a guest lecturer in a class on canon law, where he continued to teach on the meaning and purpose of canon law in the Church.
That same evening our dear guest departed for Greece, leaving all those who met him filled with a sense of joy and gratitude for a unique and rich experience that will always be remembered!