“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:12–14
As a visual person, I struggled to find the right image or metaphor to describe my experience at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. I considered several options: a balancing act on a tightrope, the delicate unweaving of a tangled web of emotions and expectations, and even Refiner’s Fire of Malachi 3:2. However, those images don’t incorporate one of the critical qualities of seminary life: endurance. Dogged endurance is not good enough, the seminarian must endure with focus. He must press onwards at all times towards the goal. He must strive for the prize which St. Paul refers to as the “upward call of God.” In this article I will describe what this journey has looked like for me.
Prior to becoming Orthodox, I was a Baptist pastor who ministered a small country church in my native Southern Illinois. Although not exactly common, it was not unthinkable for an 18-year-old to be called to pastor a small church. After graduating High School I attended a religious college in Louisville, KY and commuted home on the weekends to preach and visit shut-ins. Although my little Protestant pastorate was very different from Orthodox priestly ministry, I learned many valuable lessons that I continue to draw on to this day. I learned how to preach saw what I now recognize as the need for spiritual fatherhood. Although it was a rewarding experience, I felt the need to “press on” and see where God would take me.
When I began my catechesis into the Church, I did not expect to wait more than year to enter seminary. I expected my own qualifications and experience would expedite my acceptance. I had not expected a wise priest to tell me to wait and simply live the life of an Orthodox Christian. I made peace with this advice as best I could despite an ardent desire to go to seminary. Freshly out of an internship at a large and active Baptist Church, the contrast was difficult. Although I still considered myself to be called by God into some form of ministry, I would have to rediscover life as a lay person and enter the secular work force.
The next few years were some of the hardest and some of the best. Shortly after being received into the Church I married my best friend, partner, and some-time life coach, Nicole. Married life was great. Work outside the church was not so great. I was kicked, cursed, and bitten as a Counselor at a Children’s Home. I was yelled at, derided, and nearly bankrupted as a mortgage banker. Finally, I worked and watched—front and center—as a family business got torn apart through a messy divorce. Some of the greatest tests of my faith occurred during this time. It was easy to lose sight of the prize—I often did—but one way or another, God always pulled me back into the race.
I was so dreadfully unhappy to not be studying theology, that, after a few years in the private sector, I made an appointment with my parish priest and begged him to let me go somewhere—anywhere—to study theology. I did not even have to be on track to ordination—indeed, I had grown unsure about my future in ordained ministry. I just wanted to learn more about God. To my surprise, he accepted and suggested St. Vladimir’s.
No one part of seminary life is difficult. To be sure, a seminarian has many demands on his time: chapel, class attendance, homework, parish assignments, campus community service, family obligations, and—hopefully—some semblance of a social life. But none of these things is difficult by themselves. The academic load is about what I expected and is comparable to many other fine seminaries. The chapel schedule was not such an adjustment to me since my home parish had daily services. Also, the social calendar of the seminary seemed proportional to its size. No one component was daunting by itself; taken together, however, seminary could be overwhelming.
In a way, the challenging nature of seminary life is itself a formational tool. One must prioritize. “Sleep, chapel, or study?” is a question I have asked myself countless times. Of course to graduate, one has to do all three. I found that I had to prioritize and reprioritize. I had to be obedient to the seminary administration but also aware of my own strengths and weaknesses. Although I encountered some of my strengths, I became intently aware of my own imperfections: my self-consciousness, judgmentalism, and world-class procrastination. In order to make it through, in order to press onward, I had to reach out to God and beg for his help. There may be a way to survive seminary without prayer, but I am unaware of it. For me, contact with God was needed in unseen ways.
Seminary is a strange place. The same people that flood my research papers with red ink also receive the Eucharist at the hands of student priests. The same administrators that might reprove a student for his chapel attendance might hear his confession later that week. I have come to love and respect those people that I once could not tolerate. Likewise I have been angrier at those closest to me more than I care to admit. At various points, the Seminary has asked me to haul Gumbo (Orthodox Ed Day), teach 8-9 year-olds (Church School), clean toilets (Seminary Community Service), and preside at a liturgy (last but not least!). Variety—the spice of life! It seems to me that we have a choice about such experiences; we either see them as gross inconveniences or see them in light of the glory of God. But seminary is not just about experiences, it is about changing the way one thinks.
St. Vladimir’s invites its students to examine Orthodoxy critically as they participate in it. Oftentimes we depend upon whatever practice or belief was taught to us from our parish priest, parents or godparents. Other times, we fill in the gaps with our own intuitions and rationale. St. Vladimir’s, as a place committed to the “critical appropriation of Orthodox tradition” (which has become something of a motto) invites seminarians to reevaluate their preconceptions. While I have perhaps reached new judgments about a few people in church history and a few elements of our liturgical services, more than anything else, I have come to see Christ at the center of the Church’s liturgy, history and theology.
Whereas seminary has had a deductive property of helping me to look more deeply into my faith, it has helped to see inductively just how broad and beautiful Orthodoxy really is. I have been exposed to many different expressions of Orthodoxy. St. Vladimir’s is a place where the Slavic and Byzantine worlds are not at odds with each other. Both are taught and both are utilized in worship. SVS is also enriched by the presence of many Oriental Orthodox students. No matter what the style of music or rubrics, the system of Orthodox worship and theology is at work at St. Vladimir’s.
Seminary is full of trials and temptations. In Philippians 3:13-4 St. Paul says, “I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do . . . I press on toward the goal.” So too is the calling of every seminarian, to press on towards the regardless of whatever darts the evil one may cast in our direction. We press on that we might be rewarded with the prize of the resurrection. We press on despite our own weaknesses and pride. We press despite our short-comings. There is an old saying in which I find a great deal of comfort: “God does not call the equipped, he equips the called.” We simply must open ourselves up to be equipped by God. For this critical task of supplying leaders to the Orthodox Church in the United States for the “Upward Call” of the Christian life, there is no better place than St. Vladimir’s Seminary.