So much of what we do is like chaff that will be burned away on the last day because of its non-essential character. I would venture to say that this Scriptural idea not only concerns the pointless aspects of our lives, such as when we are sitting aimlessly on the couch; it is also a reminder that those of our activities which by the name of it seem "good" or even "Christian" will all-too-easily be obliterated with time unless they possess a concrete foundation in Jesus Christ [cf. I Cor 3.10–15]. What is this foundation, more practically speaking? Perhaps it is a mature theological knowledge of Christ. Perhaps it is a motivation behind our actions which draws its power from the contemplation of the activity of God himself, nothing less, albeit in a small measure. But how can we in any sense be attuned to this divine motivational power if we have only vague and worldly notions concerning goodness, concerning meaningfulness, concerning beauty, concerning the divine?
My intentions in pursuing another cycle of studies in theology at St Vladimir's were perhaps a bit less "practical" than those of many of my fellow classmates. Through the mercy of God, things have already fallen into place concerning my vocation in life—that of iconographer and instructor. On the surface of it, I don't particularly need another degree. But I keep realizing that despite my religious occupation, despite four years of theological education at the Saint Sergius Institute in Paris (not to speak of the earlier years at college pursuing a BA in classics), my attention is seldom focused on Christ and his invisible working in an adequate, focused way. Despite being called men and women of the Church, most of us are still more or less beating around the spiritual bush. What is lacking is the convincing "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" [Eph 4.13].
This is not to imply that a spiritual maturity will be guaranteed by theological education. At seminary, we are simply working through things, training the muscle which is our mind (as our Dean suggests). We remember that the "mind" is a key term in the anthropology of many of the Fathers. To "hold the mind in check" when stray thoughts attempt to seduce it, but also to train the "mind's eye" to be attentive to the manifestations of the divine Word—this is the path of Christian spiritual progress in a nutshell. What I will primarily take away from my studies at St Vladimir's is the discovery that these two rules apply just as much to the classroom and to readings as to personal ascetic discipline.
Simply put, an active sobriety of the mind is indispensible in the pursuit of theology. As facets of this idea, at St. Vladimir's, I have learned to read authors very closely, with sensitivity towards the original intentions and particular genius of each, to be attentive, on a basic level, to the way a written piece is organized, for example. I have learned to what extent considerations of context and literary style play a part in every single writing of the Church, including the gospels. I have begun to realize just how important a part rhetoric plays in the majority of ancient writings and even in the liturgical art of the Church. What my professors have offered are valuable insights concerning methodology, not ready-made dogmatic formulas for memorization.
My original intention in coming to the Seminary was simply to spend more time with the teachers and teachings of the Church. I come away with something perhaps even more important: cultivating the organ for perceiving these teachings is half the battle. Perhaps with the training of this faculty on all its levels our faith will have the chance of reaching a token of maturity that will be, in some respect at least, impressive.
Nikita Andrejev is a second-year MA Student at St. Vladimir's. He started on the path of icon painting with his father and has been painting and teaching for the past twenty years in the US and Europe. His wife Marrit is Estonian and a free-lance conference interpreter. They have three children and make their permanent home near Tallinn, Estonia, despite frequent travels.