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Sister Vassa Larin: Orthodoxy Is Not a Religion of Fear

Dr Sr Vassa Larin, a ROCOR nun of the Diocese of Berlin and Germany, is a University Assistant teaching Liturgical Studies (Liturgiewissenschaft) at the University of Vienna in Austria. She is a founding member of the Society of Oriental Liturgy and a candidate for membership of the North American Academy of Liturgy. Unknown documents discovered by Sr Vassa in the State Archive of the Russian Federation and the Archives of the ROCOR Synod of Bishops in 2002 have played a significant role in reconstructing the genuine historical past of the Russian Church Abroad. A result of her research, an article on “oikonomia” is among the most popular articles posted on www.rocorstudies.org. We are delighted to introduce Sr Vassa to our readers and to dedicate this interview to the area of her expertise - liturgics.

-Please tell us about your background and explain why you decided to study theology.

-I was born and raised in the ROCOR, more specifically in the family of a ROCOR priest in Nyack, NY. When I was a novice living in a small monastic community in Munich, it was Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany who sent me, along with several other monastics of his diocese, to study theology at the Institute for Orthodox Theology of the University of Munich. His reason for doing this was simple: our diocese needed certified teachers of Orthodox Theology for our parish schools, and we happened to have an Orthodox Institute in Munich. Since higher education in Germany was then free, Vladyka decided to take advantage of this. His decision shocked me at the time, because it never entered my mind that I as an American could study at a German university.

-Tell us about your studies in the Department of Orthodox Theologyat Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich.

-Writing papers and then a thesis in German was a challenge, since I had learned the language mostly autodidactically, and not very well. The program of studies, equivalent to the Master’s Degree in the United States, included Ancient Greek, Old Testament and New Testament (Introduction to, History, and Exegesis), History of Philosophy, Church History, Patrology, Canon Law, Homiletics, Pastoral Theology, and Liturgical Studies. I majored in Liturgical Studies and wrote a thesis on the origins of the so-called Royal Office (tsarskoe nachalo) at the beginning of Byzantine matins. Having received a Master’s degree, I was urged by my professors to go on to the doctoral program.

I first intended to write a dissertation on Canon Law, but it was at this time that I met the 75-year-old Professor Robert Taft, today the world’s leading expert on Byzantine Liturgy. It so happened that Fr Taft read my thesis on Byzantine matins, and wrote me an email about it. In his email he both criticized my work in the most straightforward of terms, and offered to publish it upon its correction. He also invited me to read a lecture at a symposium he was organizing in Bavaria, where I soon met him in person. At the symposium Fr Taft offered to finance and direct my work if I wrote my dissertation on Byzantine Liturgy (and not Canon Law, which he called “the bad side of the good news”), because, as he then put it, “The ROCOR has always been good at celebrating liturgy. Wouldn’t it be nice if it also had someone who knew something about it? Go tell your bishop that and let me know what he says.”

To make a long story short, with the blessing of Archbishop Mark I wrote my dissertation on “The Entrance Rites of the Byzantine Hierarchal Divine Liturgy” under Taft’s direction. Fr Robert not only guided my research and writing of the dissertation; he also taught me the basics of liturgical scholarship and its methodology. “I don’t care what you say,” he would tell me, “as long as you back it up with evidence.” He taught me how to locate and analyze liturgical manuscripts, how to prepare scholarly publications, which periodicals to read on a regular basis, etc. He also took me to conferences and symposia around the world, where he introduced me to top scholars in our field, many of which were once his students. Several months before I completed my dissertation I received a job offer for a post-doctoral position at the University of Vienna’s Institute of Liturgical Studies.

On December 18, 2008, I publicly defended my dissertation at the Orthodox Institute in Munich, with both Archbishop Mark and Fr Robert Taft present. According to German academic regulations the “defense” was actually a two-hour oral examination on three different fields related to my work: Liturgical Studies, History of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, and Byzantine Studies (Byzantinistik). I received a “summa cum laude” for the exam and the dissertation, which is soon to be published in Rome as a volume of the series “Orientalia Christiana Analecta.”

-After Archimandrite Robert Taft's presentation at the ROCOR Women's conference last summer, I was told by one of our clergymen that non-Orthodox people should not offer instruction to the Orthodox on matters of faith. Would you please comment on this idea?


-This is a very important issue, and since it disturbs many people I will try to answer in some detail.

Let me first comment on the fear of the non-Orthodox that appears to have inspired the comment of our clergyman. It seems that some of our faithful experience Orthodoxy first and foremost as fear, while their faith remains largely uninspired, uncurious, and hence uninformed. Such an Orthodoxy often has no idea about its own tradition, about the wealth of history behind the liturgy one attends every Sunday, or even about scripture itself. At the same time, a fearful Orthodox is often willing to spend hours in the Internet, feeding on church politics and dulling the theological senses all the more. To such a culture of ignorance and fear, even the most brilliant non-Orthodox scholars of our Byzantine liturgy are seen as threats, rather than a humbling admonishment to our own negligence of Orthodox tradition.

Let me recall the lecture to which you are referring. At the ROCOR Women’s conference Professor Taft gave a talk on the topic “Women at Worship in Byzantium: Glimpses of a Lost World,” in which he described the liturgical life of women in the Byzantine Empire based on 5th-14th century historical witnesses. The participants of the Women’s Conference learned that there was a women’s choir in Hagia Sophia; that Byzantine women once took part in all-night vigils; that there were barriers in the church restricting the mingling of men with women in the church; that several Church Fathers admonished the Byzantines for their misbehavior in church, etc. If the clergyman you mentioned intended to say that this lecture was an example of “non-Orthodox instructing Orthodox on matters of faith,” I would have to ask: exactly which “matters of faith” were touched upon in this lecture? Does our clergyman consider the history of women in Byzantium “a matter of faith”? Would an “Orthodox” description of a women’s choir in Hagia Sophia differ from a “Roman Catholic” description?

Be that as it may, I would nonetheless agree that history is generally a “matter of faith.” Especially because there is no such thing as completely impartial, objective history. However, a knowledge of history requires education. And in the past the Church has hardly been self-sufficient in matters of education, utilizing not only non-Orthodox, but completely secular and even pagan institutions/systems of thought when needed. Beginning at least with the Gospel of John, the Church turns to the terminology developed by pre-Christian philosophers to formulate her own dogmas. An openness toward secular education – with a firm grasp and love for one’s own faith – characterized later apologists and teachers of the Church as well. Saints Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great took pride in having been educated in a pagan school at Athens. The great Chrysostom was taught by Livanius and Theodore of Mopsuestia – the one a pagan, the other a heretic. Although these Holy Fathers lived in times of rampant heresies and dogmatic confusion, they did not cultivate an Orthodoxy of fear. It was rather an Orthodoxy of responsibility and dogmatic awareness, inspired and fortified by a thirst for education.

Many centuries later the Russian Church had no formal system of theological education until it was imported from the Roman-Catholic West via Kiev around the middle of the 17th c. It is an historical fact that St Peter Moghila organized his theological schools according to Jesuit models, and it was this educational system that was instituted in Muscovy. The reason for importing our educational system from the West was very simple: this was not only the best educational system at the time, it was the only one at the time. The alternative to learning from the West was remaining uneducated. Should the Russian Church have rejected Western education and preferred to remain uneducated? Let me put it differently: If given a choice, would any of us prefer for our children to remain uneducated rather than giving them an education? So the Russian Church chose to learn from the West, demonstrating common sense and, I might add, humility.

Today we have a similar situation. Many Orthodox families in the West send their children to Catholic schools and universities, or to non-Orthodox public or private schools. In these institutions our youngsters are taught, among other things, history, literature, philosophy – subjects that could involve “matters of faith.” In school the children have contact with non-Orthodox in religious matters: for example, they recite the Pledge of Allegiance, pronouncing the name of God together with non-Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, and perhaps atheists. Many of us allow our children to watch movies such as “The Passion” by Mel Gibson, a non-Orthodox. Indeed, we allow ourselves and our children to have contact with non-Orthodox in “matters of faith” on various levels and on a daily basis.

Is it the will of God that we find ourselves in this situation, surrounded by this non-Orthodox world? The Church has never taught us otherwise. The Founder of the Church left His disciples in this world, having said, “Take heart, for I have defeated the world.” And so the Church sings, “Take heart, ye people of God, for He has defeated the enemies… (Derzayte lyudie Bozhii, ibo toy pobedi vragi…).” This is not a religion of fear.

Of course the faith of the Church is exclusive, and we owe our loyalty to her alone: we embrace one faith, and not many different faiths at once. But this does not mean that we have no contact with people of other faiths. Marriage is also exclusive, but a married couple does not lock itself in a closet, excluding all contact with other men and women. That would be absurd and unhealthy, and the same would be true of the Church if it ghettoized its everyday life.

-I noticed that children of the ROCOR clergy who have been studying in our seminary are interested more in liturgics and church music than in history. Can you identify any reasons?


-I don’t know the program or the students of your seminary, so the following is only a guess.

The most basic and immediately obvious need of any church parish is a functioning “kliros.” Without someone who can read and sing there can be no church services, and without church services there can be no parish. Since most seminarians are preparing for the priesthood, and being a priest means running a parish, I think it is logical that seminarians are interested in learning the skills most vital for parish life. Women who take courses at a seminary are often also inspired by a desire to “help out more” in church, and their most obvious opportunity to do so is in the choir. Our approach to “helping out” in the Church is hence somewhat similar to public opinion on the recent economic stimulus plan of the Obama administration: billions of dollars in immediate cash seemed the best solution in the immediate crisis, while investing in long-term economic stimuli such as building schools and roads sounded ineffective and uninteresting.

Of course such short-term “crisis management” of our church life reflects a minimalist approach to the Church itself, to liturgics, and to church music, if these subjects are taught without their historical background. Because neither liturgics nor church music nor the Church itself could exist without history, and it is impossible to have a real grasp of any of these without at least some knowledge of their historical development. Neither the Russian Orthodox Church nor her beautiful liturgy fell down from the sky on Pentecost, contrary to what some faithful may think. Priests and parishioners with such a deficient sense of history can easily do more damage than good, especially in complicated times requiring ecclesial consciousness and discernment. The recent divisions and further subdivisions of our Church sadly witness to this state of affairs in a considerable number of our parishes.

-Compared to those who grew up in diaspora, Orthodox Christians who were brought up in Russia seem to have more trouble understanding “the mindset” of liturgical services (myself included) even a long time after their joining the Church. What are your thoughts on that?

-I think the difference to which you refer has less to do with where one was brought up than with how. Most Orthodox Christians of your age brought up in the Soviet Union did not grow up in the Orthodox liturgical tradition. The “mindset” of the Byzantine Rite is a “symbolic” (more specifically: “mystagogical”) way of thinking that is most naturally acquired in childhood. While the Roman liturgy is generally more direct and, so to say, to the point, the Byzantine tradition guides the worshiper into the experience of the divine (into the mystery) through signs within its various rites. These signs both hide and reveal the mysteries of Christ and the Scriptures, and a sensitivity to this “mystagogy” of our services is indeed a “mindset” that requires cultivating. St John Chrysostom defined it as follows: “A mystery is not when we believe what we see, but when we see one thing and believe about it something else.” I don’t think this way of thinking is foreign to anyone per se, but since we usually acquire our system of symbols in childhood (for example, our language), it is more difficult to build a new one as adults. It is, however, possible, just as it is possible – though much more difficult – to learn a language as an adult.

-I believe that our goal is responsible Orthodoxy. The rite of the Divine Liturgy presupposes that every Orthodox Christian in good standing partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. In many Orthodox Churches parishioners do not necessarily go to confession in order to participate in the Eucharist. In the same way as bishops, priests and deacons in the ROCOR. Do you think that we should also consider adopting that practice?

-No, I don’t. It is tempting to view approaching the chalice with no previous confession as “responsible Orthodoxy,” but I don’t think such a practice would signalize “responsibility” in our day and time.

Let me explain what I mean. In our highly globalized world, many faithful have become rather mobile, drifting in and out of various parish churches around the world, frequenting several or no single church regularly. This mobility has brought with it a phenomenon completely foreign to the sacramental life of the Church: anonymity. A priest often has no idea who the new faces are looking back at him as he comes out with the chalice.

But it is not the priest who concerns me in this picture. Modern pastoral theology as well as modern psychology tell us that the increasingly anonymous character of our everyday lives has led to loneliness and depression of pandemic proportions. We belong to a culture of respect for privacy and – inexorably – anonymity, which also affects the way in which we express or hide our spiritual life. The culture of confession of any kind, of standing up and being counted as a sinner, or a Christian, or anything else goes rather deeply against our grain. Talking to anyone about our relation to God is not something we do easily.

But the Church seems to have built-in mechanisms battling anonymity: you come up to the chalice, you must state your name; you take part in the rite of Holy Unction, you must state your name. The sacrament of repentance in the rite of confession goes a step further: you must reveal everything on your conscience and actually talk to another member of the Church, a priest, and state your name. As it were, we are forced to shatter this shell of anonymity in which some of us find ourselves before we approach the chalice.

For the sake of the many faithful who do find themselves in that mobile and very anonymous existence, I believe it is wise for the Russian Church to retain the requirement that one go to confession at least before one approaches the chalice. Although some of us are settled in traditional parishes and cannot relate to what I have described, we must realize that for some faithful this “shell of anonymity” is very real. For such people confession facilitates their communion with Christ through a capacity to communicate with another member of the Church, in this case a priest.

Of course this practice requires pastoral discernment, and I have often seen priests and bishops approach the Confession-Communion practice with such discernment.

Needless to say, the above is no more and no less than my personal opinion.

-Thank you, Sr. Vassa, for taking the time for this interview, and we look forward to continuing this conversation.


Conducted by Andrei Psarev