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Part Two: My Days at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary

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As I stand back, lo these many years, there are incidents that are embedded in our hearts and minds, especially of my time at St. Vladimir Orthodox Theological Seminary. We seminarians were blessed to have professors who, while “cloaked” in our humanity, were men and women of immense faith, compassion, and deep spirituality. They were trained in the Classics, literature, mathematics, languages, the ancients, the Holy Fathers, Greek Philosophy, and Western modalities. While there was something of the “old world” in their demeanors, styles, verbalization, and values, they knew instinctively that they were placed by God on campuses at West 121st Street and Union Theological Seminary in New York City to inculcate a new generation of students with their real-life experiences from “another world” in a new, Orthodox context.

I was pushed through Syracuse University at a young age and therefore, upon entering this bastion of great Orthodox Christian knowledge, I was somewhat intimated as to whether I could survive with so many factors confronting someone so youthful. My first decision was to live with the students of the then-“Russian Metropolia” (now the Orthodox Church in America) and students from Japan, India and Greece. One student ate raw garlic every day and the odor was so strong for our small chapel that, when the censing took place as he was chanting, you would see a wall of odor in front of his face...a daily moment of levity, I suppose! My roommate was Fr. Thomas Hopko, who later became dean of the seminary.

At another time, I roomed with Father (later Bishop) ANTOUN Khouri until our landlady was murdered over Easter weekend. His Grace and I will never forget that night. I returned from Patterson, N.J. and was confronted with this news. The police explained that the killers had her purse, so we retreated to New Jersey. Father Antoun was still at his parish assignment so we left him a note informing him that our landlady was murdered. When we returned to class the next day, Fr. Antoun was sitting in the doorway, bug-eyed, with two knives in his hands as he let out a few choice Arabic phrases (not for print). “Why did you leave me that note?” he shouted. He had nowhere to go as it was in the middle of the night, and so he sat at the door to be on the ready, and most likely ready to throttle us for abandoning him. Another tidbit in the history of the Seminary!

One day, my parents sent boxes of goodies for us all to share from their store in Syracuse, N.Y. My wife Lynn decided she would prepare supper with those goodies for all of the participants on that Saturday Vigil Service in fellowship with our classmates. Well, she prepared an excellent supper, closed the light, and went to chapel. After the lengthy service concluded, she very enthusiastically ran to the kitchen adjacent to the chapel, flipped on the light ready to treat us but to our horror, as the light illumined the food-laden table, we saw cockroaches scuttle off the table! Lynn and I ran downstairs to good old Dot, who had a small café where our simple fare was usually a roll and, if we were lucky, scraps of her turkey that she baked daily; or at least the turkey leg that we shared. These moments made life at seminary rather interesting, but did we ever miss our home cooking.

To return to our dear professors, which could take up a book, it was our privilege to take breakfast with the Schmemanns, Meyendorffs, and Verhovskoys every morning, and I cannot tell you in mere words the depth of what I learned in those encounters.  My task was to babysit the children which I gladly did. Masha Schmemman would giggle, calling me “icon eyes.” All the children were just beautiful. One could not help but embrace them knowing that they had come to a new country and were exploring their new environment. Father John Meyendorff bought a car and we all ran outside to see his new acquisition. He began to bless his car using the prayer for a new home, “that it may never be moved from its foundation.” In retrospect, I don’t know if that car ever did move! Of course we all had to swallow our guffaws. Professor Veselin Kesich once heard me mumble in Greek. I was the fourth boy among a big gang in my home, so I learned to speak fast and indistinctly to have my voice heard. Well, that did not sit well with Prof. Kesich in the recitation of the New Testament Greek text, so this saintly man came to my room every evening and inspired me to read slowly, articulating each word, a lesson kept to this day and for which I am immensely grateful. After all, who would accept a garbled sermon?  Thank you, Veselin.

It might be interesting to note that most of faculty wives had to work in order to sustain the family; so meager were their salaries.  I do not know what wages the professors received at St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, France but in New York City, survival depended on the support of their wives. Julianna Schmemman was luckier than most as a headmistress of a prodigious school for girls. Mrs. Verhovskoy was a dress maker for actors and actresses on Broadway. She had such artistry with her fingers, making something beautiful from nothing, even for her family.  Each one had their own great stories that were embroidered in the fabric of their lives and struggles. They all made us feel that we were a part of something larger than ourselves. Indeed, the 1960s were full of expectation for Orthodox Christian unity, as we seemed to move together in exaltation and joy in and with one another. 

It was so exciting! Men and women spoke with halting English, yet knew a new day was dawning. Vatican II confirmed that a revolution was taking place. In the classroom, we lived history though the anecdotes of Fr. Alexander, simultaneously humorous as well as poignant. We were uplifted as he turned our heads around from the symbolical nature of the Divine Liturgy and Mysteries (Sacraments) to their very reality. It was, consciously or unconsciously, Antiochian realism – the Mystery IS. No notes could fully teach us the apprehension of Divinity through contemplation of the Trinity and all the dogmas, of which today’s heterodox believers have either little knowledge or consider disposable as not being “politically correct.”

In our smorgasbord culture, Fr. John opened our eyes to the Palamite theology of the Divine Energies permeating the cosmos; every class was a simultaneous ascent and descent of grace. He once confided in me that I was the only one who understood the notion of “enhypostasis” (Leontius of Byzantium). I was honored. Professor Nicholas Arseniev was a unique man who knew the most obscure languages and lectured with the Bible upside down as he recited a Pauline text. He was literally blind, yet, God took care of him crossing the streets. We were awestruck by his articulation of Eastern Mysticism (his book on the subject is a classic). Once, when reading to us in Greek the first chapter of the Gospel of John – upside down – his voice became almost hollow and when we looked at him, he was off the floor, levitating. When Lynn took his course – he could see she was a woman – he scanned the class and exclaimed, “Please tell me what kind of being is ‘Eulingee.’” He read her signature on the attendance sheet upside down! Of course, she identified herself and he graciously welcomed the first female student to study at St. Vladimir Seminary.  Lynn had warm relationships with Prof. Arseniev and Prof. Sergei Verhovskoy that lasted for years after we left.

Economos Antony Gabriel is the author of several books, including The Ancient Faith of New Shores, an authoritative history of the Antiochian Archdiocese from its founding to present day. You can order a copy from the Antiochian Village bookstore.