My Father’s Calling

He gave his life to the Russian Orthodox Church. It didn’t deserve to lay claim to him in death, too.

Sarah K. Stephens is a developmental psychologist at Penn State University. Her writing...

 

I don’t remember the eulogy spoken for my father at his funeral.

On that day almost six years ago, I sat in my childhood church’s well-worn pews of pale wood unable to comprehend the words offered as both a supposed comfort and a celebration. Although my body ached with loss, it wasn’t the fogginess of grief that created this disconnect for me. I couldn’t grasp a single word because the eulogizer spoke in Russian, a language my father did not speak and a language none of his family, including myself, understood. The man who took this honor of remembrance was the Bishop assigned to our Russian Orthodox parish, and he barely knew my father.

I grew up as a PK—priest’s kid, as we say in the Orthodox Christian community, a moniker that often requires our own practiced explanation of this label, as most people associate priesthood with celibacy. In Orthodoxy, though, a man’s calling to the priesthood is expected to be embodied by his wife and children. As a result, the requirements of life in the Church molded my childhood: No sleepovers on Saturdays because of Sunday Liturgies. A full week of services heading into Holy Pascha and the following Bright Week. And a striving pride to show the Russian roots of my family.  

The senior priest, my father’s mentor at my church in Youngstown, Ohio, was a first-generation American born to Russian immigrants. Most of our parishioners were first- or second-generation Americans whose parents or grandparents had emigrated from Russia.

This elder priest’s preferences for certain parish members over others seemed to hinge on their level of engagement in Russian culture. Over the years, a string of immigrant families directly from Russia also passed through our church’s doors and into our elder priest’s back office. They would leave with as much help as he could provide for them, often offering up apartments owned by our church for nominal rent or jobs as janitors or landscapers.

However forgiving he was of his new immigrant families for failing to attend church, prepare for Communion, or participate in Confession, he was equally critical of his more acculturated flock. He was a priest who could love as well as he could hurt, and the dwindling parish attendance over the years spoke to his tendency to put a church member’s culture over their commitment.

My father was the rare second-generation American whose grandparents believed there was no value in teaching their future generations Russian, as they were in America now. It was a conviction that later created a constant tension for my father in his calling to the priesthood.

My father spent his entire religious life in some form of service behind the altar of our church. He began in his boyhood as an altar server, moved up in his young adulthood to be ordained as a deacon, and finally was elevated to the priesthood when I was a teenager. Afterwards, he shared a place as parish priest beside his long-time mentor in the same church he’d attended since he was a boy.  Despite his advancement in the church, though, my father’s performance as a Russian Orthodox clergy member remained under close scrutiny.

Other clergy members, both above and beneath him in the Church’s hierarchy, would regularly chastise my father for his failings. He didn’t grow the full beard and long hair adopted by the traditional Russian clergy, because his facial hair came in so sparsely. When he did try to meet this requirement, his beard would grow in scattered patches across his chin and cheeks, and he would be further remonstrated for looking so unkempt. Instead of marrying a Russian Orthodox girl, he’d married my mother, a Slovak Catholic. Although she converted to Orthodoxy, my mother’s presence as an outsider in the church persists to this day and she is still refused the proper address for a priest’s wife, Matushka, by select parishioners and clergy alike. My father never set foot in Russia himself. His linguistic limitations meant he couldn’t hear the confessions of the Russian immigrants who attended our parish.

And the list goes on and on.

After his death, I came across a folder of my father’s church notes and papers in his desk. Inside the folder I discovered my father’s block script neatly detailing the phonetics for different Russian prayers and call/responses for various services. Seeing these reminded me of how my father’s hand would shake from nerves as he’d administer Communion to parishioners.

My father’s faith was so strong, and his ties to the Church of his birth so embedded, that the criticisms he regularly encountered never weakened his connection to the Church. Until the day he died, he remained committed to his connection to God via the prayers and practices of Orthodoxy. Every morning he would stand in the Eastern corner of my parents’ bedroom, facing Jerusalem, and read the daily scriptures from the Bible prescribed by the church. I can vividly recall how he looked standing there in the mornings, the early light streaming through the window and touching his dark curly hair and broad shoulders, and the kindness on his face when I would brashly interrupt him with a question or a need, as children do. He would always pause to help or answer me, and then quietly return to his reading, seeking communion with our shared Father.

My father deeply loved God and the Russian Orthodox Church, and I deeply loved my father. Even now, I find myself connected to the faithful practices of Orthodoxy itself while at the same time utterly dismayed by the cultural practices of the Russian Church. On the world stage, I have begun to see my family’s personal struggles with the Church writ large. Indeed, my father’s own treatment within the church serves as a personalized clue to what the Russian Orthodox Church has become in its partnership with Vladimir Putin: a Nationalist movement. 

*

When Putin’s Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Putin explained the invasion came in part due to his concern for the Russian citizens living there. His choice of language within this rationale was telling. Instead of referring to the necessary protection of Rossisskii, which refers to Russian statehood and citizens, Putin focused on the need to protect Russkii, or the Russian ethnic group. Not surprisingly, the Russian Orthodox Church condoned the invasion of Crimea, further galvanizing its camaraderie with Putin. The Russian Church blessed troops and weapons preparing to go to battle in Crimea. As Putin and the Russian Church continue to coordinate their political agendas, the value in being Russkii is only gaining in strength and relevance.  

The arrests of one hundred gay men in Chechnya in April of 2017 connects to Putin’s own stated belief that the Russkii population represent a community of people with similar spiritual beliefs, morals, and values. In 2013, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’—and the Patriarch who governs my childhood parish in Youngstown—stated that same-sex marriage would be a dangerous sign of the apocalypse. Vitaly Milonov, who is credited as the architect of Russia’s now national 2013 law against LGBT “propaganda,” conducts his legislative business from his St. Petersburg office, where the banner “Orthodoxy or Death” hangs prominently. Milonov was awarded the medal “For Service to the Fatherland” by Putin in 2015.

In 2017, the Church supported a law, now signed into effect by Putin, that essentially decriminalizes domestic violence. Leaders of the Russian Church argued that physical punishment was an important tradition of Russian culture and should be protected as “an essential right given to parents by God.” Putin’s government has encouraged religious teachings in public schools for almost a decade, with recent proposals seeking to limit these courses to an educational program focused solely on Russian Orthodoxy. The connection between Putin and the Church echoes a powerful and disturbing message: There are those who are the faithful Russians, and then there is everybody else.

*

Our parish was governed by the Patriarchate, which resides in Moscow. The bishops assigned to shepherding Russian Orthodox parishes within the US are men raised and educated in Russia. Over the course of my childhood we had several bishops assigned to our parish, each of them visiting us once a year with much fanfare.

I can recall being a young girl at the table of a darkened restaurant, seated at the end with my family while the Bishop was ensconced in the center, my elder priest and his Matushka flanking either side of him. The entire welcome dinner was conducted in Russian, and I found myself terribly bored by the end. My father simply sat there, smiling into the conversation, while my mother quietly picked at her food.  

When our Bishop visited, the children in my church would gather around early before the Sunday Liturgy and watch him perform the ritual of dressing in his vestments. During this intricate process various prayers are said over each component of the vestment—the robe of the Sticharion, the long stole of the Epitrichaelion, the broad cape of the Mantiya—and the deacon or altar server given the task of handing the Bishop his garments must enact the specialized rituals for each piece. Hands are kissed, eyes are cast down, and the entire time the Bishop stands on a special circular cloth that represents his seal, and his eminence over his parishioners. At the end of the Bishop’s visit, the children were always given small icons of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. I still have some of these, the icons themselves florid in color and the writing unidentifiable to me in its Cyrillic script.

*

My father died suddenly from a heart attack, brought on by the stress of keeping a failing parish afloat in a crumbling neighborhood with few parishioners left. After our senior priest died, my father became the main priest at our church, taking on all the duties, services, and social responsibilities required of a full-time clergy member. Unlike the priests before him, though, he received no salary or living stipend.

Our inquiries as to why were cast off. “You can’t squeeze blood from a stone.” Our church was floundering financially, but the idea of closing its doors remained out of the question. I know my father saw his work for the Church as his own personal offering to God, but I can’t help feeling that our Bishop and even many of our church’s members saw my father’s willingness as something quite different—as an opportunity to take advantage of.

In Youngstown, Orthodox parishes abound, each of them attached to a different ethnic identity. Greek, Ukrainian, Romanian, Serbian, and of course, Russian Orthodox churches litter the decaying neighborhoods of a once vibrant but now derelict cityscape. Their golden domes and stained glass windows give them each the appearance of health, but within each church are more and more empty pews each Sunday as the older generation dies off and the younger generation moves away.

And yet, when my father suggested combining congregations into one church, it was regarded as anathema. The Russian church, it seemed, was not the same as the other ethnicities, and the idea of obscuring the Russian part of the church in order to save the Orthodoxy was unthinkable. The two were too deeply intertwined in their identity.

Pride in the Russian portion of our faith led communities across Ohio to keep churches open, despite a congregation that couldn’t support a full-time priest. It would then be priests like my father who, under Bishop’s orders, traveled around regularly to these small congregations of three or four people, huddled together inside a frigid church, to celebrate the Liturgy and provide Communion.

Even without travel, the service schedule for a full-time parish priest in the Russian Orthodox church is considerable. Sunday Liturgies and Saturday night Vespers each week. Special services held on weekdays for Holy Days marked in the Church calendar, such as Transfiguration or Dormition. House-blessings during the season of Theophany, or Christ’s baptism by St. John the Baptist. Baptisms for new members, weddings, and funerals. And during the forty days of Lent, regular services on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with services every day of the week (and sometimes twice) during the Holy Week preceding Easter/Pascha and the Bright Week following the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection.

All these my father performed dutifully, while also maintaining an actual profession as a realtor in order to support his family financially. My father would often be up late into the night, working on realty paperwork at the dining room table or the computer. Sometimes, I would come home to find him asleep, his head resting on the stack of papers he’d been trying to finish before fatigue took hold of him.      

Each of these services, aside from Vespers, required the administration of Prosphora, or Holy Bread. Our family took on the responsibility of baking the bread in large batches each month. It’s a lengthy process requiring several rises of the dough, special cutting of the bread, and the stamping of the loaves with seals identifying the bread as representing Christ, his disciples, and the Virgin Mary. Although my mother often helped, my father found solace in baking the Prosphora and would often insist on doing it himself. He could only find time for it late at night. The smell of yeast is intertwined with my memories of heading off to bed as a teenager, my father’s tall figure bent over the rising loaves of bread as he made a sign of the Cross in water across each loaf before stamping and then pricking the corners of the stamp to symbolize Christ’s crucifixion. No matter how tired he was, he always wished me a restful sleep and shooed away my offerings to help.  

*

I broke with the Church after my father’s funeral. In the years since his death my family and I have found a home in another Orthodox church, this one connected to the Antiochian tradition with its roots resting in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey and far removed from the Russian Church.

Our Antiochian Bishop attended a recent parish meeting at our new church, to admonish our congregation for several missteps, each of them relating to how our priest was being cared for by his flock. There had been disagreements about an adequate stipend for our priest and his family’s health insurance and some other issues related to his salary and home maintenance. The Bishop stood up in front of our entire congregation and reminded us that it was our responsibility to care for our priest, just as our priest cares for us.

And in the meeting, even as I looked around and felt ashamed that my newly found parish would require such reminders from our Bishop, I couldn’t help wondering where my father’s Bishop had been for all those years of unpaid service. What had our Russian Bishop done to ensure my father’s well-being?

The answer is firmly imprinted in the facts of my father’s priesthood. The Bishop, and the Church he stood for, had done nothing to save my father.

Instead, my father’s Bishop and his congregation instituted further demands and responsibilities, all the while blocking opportunities that would have lessened his burdens. The overwhelming guidance my father received from his Bishop reflects the pride at the center of the Russian church: Keep the parish open, at all costs.

Not until after my father’s death did his congregation seem to acknowledge the effect of his stressful position. In the days surrounding my father’s funeral, parishioners offered my family a steady stream of their own personal recognitions that my father’s health had been declining recently. That he’d looked unwell, fatigued, pale, burdened. Why these observations didn’t concern them before my father’s death, I cannot know. Perhaps if they had spoken up, my father would have listened. As it stands, our own family’s wishes for him to reduce his commitment were always met with the same response from my father: I can’t do that to the Church.    

*

Before my father’s funeral, even within the haze of our grief, conversation amongst our family fluttered with anxious ambivalence regarding whether the Bishop would attend and what that would mean. In my heart, I already knew that if he did attend, the funeral would become about the Bishop and the Church and, yes, the Russkii, and not about my father’s life and legacy. The Bishop arrived just before the funeral was to begin, and his deacons quickly organized the altar and the men serving behind it. One deacon traipsed around my father’s dead body, displayed in repose in his casket at the center of the church, and took picture after picture of the Bishop as he performed the service, entirely in Russian and Slavonic.

It is a strange feeling, to have the opportunity to pray at your own father’s funeral taken from you.

After the service, the Bishop insisted that we pose for photos with him and my father’s body in his coffin as it was brought outside and into the hearse. I later found these photos published on a Russian website affiliated with the Church.

At the mercy meal, the Bishop entered the line first, ahead of my widowed mother. When he acknowledged my mother for the first time that day, the Bishop’s only words of comfort, via a translator, were that my mother had somehow managed to raise two strong Russian sons. It was a final confirmation to me that my father and the family he’d raised would never be adequate in the Russian Church’s eyes. Although our father was a child of God, the Church he loved made perfectly clear he was no Russkii. Per my bereaved mother’s request I wrote the thank you notes to the Bishop in Russian, with the help of Google Translator to form the Cyrillic characters, and with that I was finished. I have yet to set foot in the church of my childhood again.  

The church where my father served for years as an unpaid priest struggling to keep the parish alive now has a new priest, who I understand receives a regular salary. 

At a recent family celebration, my mother chose to invite a few parishioners from the old parish. I made a point to welcome them, conscious of the time that had passed since my father’s death. We chatted briefly about our families, and then the conversation took a pointed turn where these parishioners emphasized again and again how the parish was flourishing now that my father was no longer their priest. Although on the outside I patiently listened to yet another critique of my father, his own lifelong embodiment of the values of forgiveness and reconciliation guiding me in the moment, on the inside my heart was breaking. Not for my father, but for the people he loved whose biases prevented them from loving him in return.

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