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Friends with Holiness: My St. Stephen’s Residency

Fall 2011

As we pulled up in the shuttle bus from Jacksonville Airport in Pennsylvania, the evening mist was rolling in to nest in the green grounds of soccer fields and meditation walks. Being from Los Angeles, I found that the air was remarkably clear, and the sky gray but peaceful – the traffic, blessedly non-existent.

We drove past Pittsburgh, in its modern glory of geometric glass and metal, through the quiet suburbs and semi-rural neighborhoods featured so lovingly in M. Night Shamalan’s movies like The Village, and finally through the lovely little town of Ligonier towards the Antiochian Village.

The St. Stephen’s Course of Studies is a three-year correspondence program designed for those who want to study Orthodox theology but cannot attend an Orthodox seminary. St. Stephen’s students do one residency week each August for three years. Most people stay one week per year, but students from other countries sometimes do two weeks in one summer to save money on travel. I did two weeks because, well, Los Angeles virtually qualifies as another planet.

I chatted with a few new friends as we rumbled up the hill, and then took a nap. It was to be a long two weeks. I’ve been married only a year and four months – my bride Lindsay and I had never been apart for so long. Also, my first residency (last year) was mentally exhausting.

The Village campus is large but friendly. It truly is “a village,” with living accommodations, a cafeteria, and a chapel. Uniquely, it houses a Heritage Library explaining the fascinating (and little-known) history of Antiochian Christians in America, as well as basketball courts, fountains, a meditation trail, and plenty of open space – the kind of space money can’t buy in Southern California.

Pervading all, the fields, the arching elms, the chapels, the dorms, is not only a sense of camaraderie but holiness: camaraderie and friendship, for the Village houses hundreds of people each summer; and holiness, not least because the Village is the site of the relics of St. Raphael of Brooklyn. What is Orthodoxy: a teaching – or a community? If Christ is the Word, and the Church is His Body, then, in the Body of the Word, the two cannot be divided. Stepping off the bus and grabbing my bags, I gladly breathed in this spirit: friendliness mixed with reverence, social diversity in divine unity.

It’s impossible to describe fully the St Stephen’s residency experience. I can only hope to give you a taste of the exhausting, enlightening, encouraging community and learning which I (and about 130 others) had the privilege of enjoying this past Fall.

Week One, Up and Running

The St. Stephen’s Course is a wonder. Although most of the yearly course work is done through correspondence, for this week (or two) I was back on campus, with fellow students and live professors. Although not a seminary, it is a rigorous graduate-level academic exercise. Although not a monastery, it is a nourishing noetic exercise, with daily prayers and a strong presence of clergy, icons, relics, and the Holy Spirit of God.

The week began in force with lectures from Fr. Patrick Viscuso on canon law. If you have questions about canon law – or if you think you don’t – I wish you could hear Fr. Patrick Viscuso taking you through a case study on second marriages. What is more practical than Church guidelines on whom one can or cannot marry? Did you know your daughter can’t marry your godson? If you have questions about the history of the Church, I just wish you could hear Fr. Michel Najim recount his participation in dialogues, not ten years ago, with Roman Catholics on the subject of Uniates. Did you know that the dialogue on Eastern Catholic Uniates is currently at a stalemate? If you have questions about iconography, I wish you could grab the ear of Nikolae Gavriliou and his iconology students. Did you know that an icon from our Church’s “visual books” will not only manifest theological depths, but conform to precise mathematical proportions?

The evening was filled catching up with friends – catching fresh air with Rob, a former Lutheran pastor, and checking out the finished book project of Joseph, a father of seven. It was a privilege to speak with men doing work “in the fields white for harvest,” and have new friends soon get caught up in the conversation, making introductions and sharing new stories. I shared my story with new friends. Some are doctoral students in the Antiochian Doctor of Ministry program. Some are learning pastoral counseling. Some are theological students who are seeking ordination. Some, like me, are simply aiming to learn. As a convert to the Orthodox Church (in 2008), I have an insatiable curiosity for church history and Orthodox theology. I long to learn how to be healed of my many passions and walk the Orthodox spiritual path. The St. Stephen’s readings more than met that need. At the Residency, I found my mind overflowing with knowledge from the minds of such accomplished scholars as Fr. Michel Najim and Fr. Patrick Viscuso – while exhausting my nous in prayer to and praise of the Most Holy Trinity. My new friends smiled and nodded and understood me. At 28, I was the second youngest student, but the love spanned generations.

As a graduate student in theology, one expects to meet smart people. In the St. Stephen’s Residency, one meets intelligent, holy, zealous Christians from all over the world – from the east and west coasts, from the mid-west, from the south, from Russia, from Syria, from Lebanon, from Ethiopia, from Brazil, from Japan, and even one or two from that most distant shore: New Zealand. I met a judge, a congressman, three medical doctors, and more priests, deacons and readers than I could count. As a convert and life-long intellectual beginner, these relationships and this teaching were intellectual nourishment that filled me almost to bursting.

Speaking of being full, no one can properly paint a picture of the Antiochian Village without including the middle portion. This year at St. Stephen’s Residency, I fully digested one hearty and important truth: the food is wonderful. Where else can you eat three, square, home-cooked meals in a large cafeteria setting? Chef Timothy is a culinary artist of uncommon proportions. I don’t just mean that he looks and acts the part of a master cook, though he certainly does; I mean his preparation of large-scale meals with small-scale care amazes each visitor and student. Take a trivial instance: Tuesday morning, my egg over-easy was perfectly prepared. The yoke was still liquid, but it did not break in transportation from skillet to pan, or from pan to plate. My egg was one of over a hundred that were all equally perfect – a small almost trivial example of food preparation that shines with excellence – and makes even young slender chaps like me unbuckle their belts.

By Friday of the first week, we were happy and tired, and many of us were done. The sunshine and warmth (the downright So. Cal. weather) was passing, and rain was setting in. The rain came, thankfully after a wedding party on the Village Gazebo. Many friends bid farewell, their notebooks as full as their minds. We hugged, exchanged email addresses, and said, “Until we meet again.” Because, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, Christians never say “Goodbye.”

One Down, One to Go

The remainder, the internationals, the iconology students, and the beloved staff (Fr. Joseph, Dn. Peter, and Cheri), stayed and waited for Monday. Mentally tired, we did get a break, thank God! Metropolitan PHILIP sponsored a dinner and movie night for us to relax. We ate salty food and watched Captain America. Even the fluffy entertainment was made full by the presence of good company. On the way to the theater, I talked with the iconology students about the meaning of the icon in the lobby, I discussed the movie with a priest, and we discovered a common love of Stephen Lawhead; on the way home, I tried to explain to Fr. Joseph the meaning of Facebook.

I had time over the weekend to purchase a mess of books from the Antiochian Village bookstore, as well as a new prayer rope made by monks in Russia. Browsing the store, I found a small children’s book telling the story of Mary that made me cry. I sent my bride a text message that maybe we should buy it when we have kids. I bought a new Peter and Paul icon, and one of Andrei Rublev.

On Sunday, feeling much rejuvenated, we ascended into heaven, under the loving guidance of Fr. Don, praying the Divine Liturgy at St. Mary’s Church in Johnstown.

Then Monday came. We hit the ground running again. The second week was certainly harder than the first. Not that Deacon David’s mellifluous voice was any less beautiful, nor his teaching any less precise, nor Chef Timothy’s comestibles any less appetizing, nor our pastors’ guidance in prayer any less nourishing, but I was tired.

The rain hadn’t let up, so lovely long walks were out. My carpel tunnel syndrome reduced me to taking hand-written notes in short code. Many late-night phone conversations (often truncated by dropped calls or dead batteries) made me miss my bride more, not less. My notebook was full, my laptop’s hard drive filled up with audio files of the recorded lectures. My hands were cramping and my median nerve was yelling at me. Fasting was going miserably, and I was shaving minutes off Orthros to sleep.

Things Made New

Then, unexpectedly, the New Year began. The calendar ticked off another day and we were praying the prayers of the beginning of the year. I was grateful, especially to Paul, Thomas, and Turbo for being my support network. I relied on those who lovingly gave their time, energy, laughter, and heart to uphold me (and others) as we kept our forward momentum through the week. From this vantage point, my fourth year learning to be Orthodox, I already looked forward to Pascha, the climax of the calendar, and the dawning of the great spiritual sun. To see the “theology of time,” as Fr. Schmemman says, to see God’s eternal work laid out in a moving image, is a beautiful and life-giving sight.

Bishop JOHN (a spiritual son of Fr. Schmemman) roused our hearts and minds with a guided discussion of church leadership within a Eucharistic worldview. Bishop MICHAEL of the OCA gave our minds a run for their money with his rapid (yet profound) analysis of the Holy Bible, of St. Paul, and of the Gospel of John.

Finally, almost beyond belief, Thursday night arrived: celebration night. We made it. A banquet was thrown; speeches were given; beautiful music was played; even better (somehow), food was served; and a spirit of levity came upon us. Sitting back and watching the room, hearing the din, I smiled to myself and recalled snippets of the week: I learned some Arabic with new friends from Syria and Lebanon; and at dinner, I drank in knowledge about the history of Ethiopia from a Minnesota priest. Perhaps stranger, but no less dear, I became closer with a man from my home parish – three thousand miles away.

Home Again

Now, a month later, I am grateful to Bishop THOMAS, Fr. Joseph, and the many new acquaintances and friends who made the Residency this year both powerful and nourishing. I am grateful to Fr. George Shalhoub and Fr. Antony Gabriel for simply loving me, and talking with me, during and after lectures. I am grateful for the long solitary walks around the Village at night to clear my mind, and even early morning scrambles to get a cup of coffee and cereal before Fr. David Hester guided us through gems of patristic writing.

Where else, I ask you, can you rub shoulders with hundreds of fellow Christians (some Orthodox and some not) who are leaders, laymen, priests, plumbers, clergy and congressmen? Where can you meet and receive counsel – daily – from our humble hierarchs, passionate and learned priests, and exemplary deacons, sharing a meal or praying for hours?

Where can you pray Orthros with a bishop; engage in a calm and intelligent group discussion on the relationship between Christians and Muslims; hear a spell-binding synopsis of Fr. Peter Guillquist’s Becoming Orthodox from Fr. Peter himself; share a cup of tea with friends from Texas; then learn the Byzantine Tone 8 (plagal the 4th!) and practice it at Vespers – in the same day? Only the Antiochian House of Studies.

I came home fatigued but filled with joy at having soaked in the kingdom of God. I felt I had been a traveller in Byzantium. My bride, another icon of the glory of Christ and His Church, greeted me, and I tried, and failed, to tell her all about it. I told her that the St Stephen’s community – a mere cell of the body – is a community of people whom I am honored to call friends. Camaraderie and holiness: a holy community.

By Keith E. D. Buhler