Serving to Heal: A conversation with Alumnus Rev. (Maj.) Sean Levine

Author: 
Pradeep Hatcher

Rev. (Maj.) Sean Levine has answered the call to serve time and time again. His journey in ministering to others has taken him everywhere from Kentucky to South Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and from Fort Knox to St. Vladimir’s Seminary (SVOTS). Throughout that journey, as priest and military chaplain, Fr. Sean’s dedication to healing and wellness for others is ever-present.

That dedication keeps Fr. Sean incredibly busy! He currently serves as the Family Life Chaplain on Fort Belvoir in Virginia. He is also co-chair of the Analytical Psychology and Orthodox Christianity Consultation (APOCC), and he recently took part in a discussion of theology and psychology through APOCC with other members of the SVOTS community.

In the midst of his busy schedule, Fr. Sean graciously spoke with his alma mater about his life of service, the spiritual insights that keep him going, and the humbling lessons he learned as a seminarian that transformed his approach to answering God’s call.

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Fr. Sean, describe your ministry as Family Life Chaplain on Fort Belvoir.

Fr. Sean: In that role, my primary activity is that of pastoral care and counseling: I maintain a robust counseling load while also training civilian interns and fellow chaplains in pastoral psychotherapy theory and practice. I serve the senior commanders and senior chaplains as the "subject matter expert" regarding the matters of pastoral care that apply to Soldier and Family wellness from a specifically religious/spiritual perspective.

How has your formation and training at St. Vladimir's Seminary impacted what you do at Fort Belvoir and in your ministry as a priest?

Fr. Sean: When I first arrived to St. Vladimir’s Seminary, I arrived as a customer. My goal was to press a triple-bar cross onto my existing (and highly esteemed by me) academic, ministry, and military experience. As a legend in my own mind, I was deeply unaware of my profound need for spiritual and pastoral overhaul; God allowed me to find my way to SVOTS for something far more important than a short program in "Eastern Christian Studies" so that I could self-centeredly "use" the faculty to legitimize myself.

By simply being itself, SVOTS managed to crush my self-sufficient pride. As Dr. [Albert] Rossi and I have reminisced on many occasions since, I came as an angry and grasping person, demanding ordination as a recognition of my delusional self-recognized splendor, and SVOTS—meaning, of course, its people (faculty, staff, fellow students) and its program (academics and practical ministry preparation)—crushed me. The "yoke" of the Master is only light when you are not fighting against it. Once crushed, SVOTS no longer represented the instrument of the demise of my self-referential quest for elevation, but rather became the occasion for my shaping. My formation and training at SVS served to make of me a different person than the one that first arrived, and for that I will forever be grateful.

Like many, I came to seminary thinking the Church needed me, only to realize how badly I need the Church, and that perspective has not changed. This is the message into which the icon of Christ on the southern corner of the Chapel invites us: I did not choose Christ, but he chose me. I arrived at SVOTS under the influence of the delusion that I had chosen Him only to realize, by God's infinite grace, that the initiative always rests with the Lord.

From your first years in the military to your chaplaincy now, your priestly ministry, and family life, what keeps you motivated and energized to keep living your life in service to others?

Fr. Sean: First, I have found energy for pastoral service in the spiritual life into which only Orthodoxy invites each of us. For a brief yet profound introduction into what it looks like to unpack that sentence, I commend to everyone Dr. Al Rossi's book Becoming a Healing Presence. There exists no healthful pastoral presence, energized by the Spirit of God, that does not flow out of askēsis/prayer. Now, please do not hear me say that I am "good" at this. Further, it is true that God, in his mercy and grace, can reach through me to another even when I am not practicing regular confession, daily prayer, and earnest preparation for the celebration of the services and preparation for pastoral encounter. However, I have tried that (doing all that without regular confession, daily prayer, and earnest preparation), and it led quickly to burn out (which I experienced in the middle of my combat tour in Afghanistan (May 2012 to February 2013). Trying to channel the fire of God's grace through an unprepared conduit, I have found, can be damaging. Channeling the same grace through a prepared conduit is life-giving.

Second, my motivation emerges directly from my vocation—a vocation that I did not confirm. I tried being my own confirmation, but this led to grace-filled and painful reproach. My vocation received confirmation from the Church, and that motivated me in ministry as an Orthodox presbyter serving in the chaplaincy. I have a calling into which I am invited/required to live, and I find in this calling to represent the love Christ displayed in His voluntary self-giving motivation to continue in pastoral service as a priest. This vocation to martyria—to actively bear witness to the self-sacrificial love of Christ—is the potential motivation not just for the presbyterate but for the entire "priesthood of all believers," for each Orthodox Christian has been endowed with this one vocation, even if the form of its working out remains diverse.

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Rev. (Maj.) Sean Levine first entered active military service (Army) as an enlisted chaplain assistant in 1996, serving at Fort Drum in New York and Seoul, South Korea. In 1999, he left active duty to attend graduate school at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY, and later returned to active duty as a commissioned officer and chaplain. He was deployed twice to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 29th Signal Battalion from 2004 to 2006. Fr. Sean left active service again to pursue another degree at Asbury and later enrolled at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, where he was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in 2009 and graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree in May 2010. The following September, he rejoined the Army Chaplain Corps, deploying twice to Afghanistan, once as an individual augmentee to provide Holy Week and Easter Services for deployed Orthodox Christians. His military awards include 2 Bronze Stars, 4 Army Commendation Medals, 5 Army Achievement Medals, 4 Overseas Service Ribbons, a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, an Iraqi Campaign Medal (2 Campaign Stars), an Afghan Campaign Medal (1 Campaign Star), a Korea Defense Medal, and the NATO Service Medal (ISAF).

Fr. Sean has dedicated his life to service with the support of his wife of 29 years, Matushka Jennifer, and his two sons Ethan (19) and Andrew (12).