Living Tradition in the City: Talk by Sister Dr. Vassa Larin University of Vienna, Austria

So the point I’m actually making is that this very unfortunate thought, that somehow it’s the monastics who have the real spiritual life, and sort of waiting around for some future, more appropriate moment when I will begin the spiritual life, - this is a very damaging and unfortunate kind of supposition to have.
Nun Vassa (Larin) | 12 September 2014
Living Tradition in the City: Talk by Sister Dr. Vassa Larin University of Vienna, Austria

My talk is entitled “Living tradition in the City,” and this is something I’ve already talked about in New York City.  …I put this podium up so that you can’t see that I wrote the talk on the back of a napkin; there are some coffee stains on it.

I would like to talk about this because by “city” I mean basically any large or small town, village; the places where lay people live in the modern day world, and also where many of them lived in the ancient world. I would like to dispense with the seemingly popular idea that it’s quite a challenge, or it’s somehow untraditional, to be confronted with this living of tradition in the city. Because actually, if we remind ourselves of a basic fact of Church history, Christianity spread and flourished first and foremost through cities. It was not in the countryside that Christianity spread in the pristine Church. And it was the rural populations, actually, that persisted in paganism the longest. In fact, the etymology of the word “pagan” is often, perhaps, mistakably, – but that’s not as important as the perception that we have of that word – “pagan”, it actually means “paganus” – the inhabitant of the countryside. So this is equated in the perception of Church history actually with rural populations.

So that’s the first little fun fact that I wanted to present you with, and also remind you of the fact that when on the rare occasion that Christ mentions the Church, He himself uses a metaphor that refers to an ancient city, when He says, perhaps, perplexingly for some of us in Mathew 16 that “I will found my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it”. I don’t know if you ever thought of this, but you don’t go to war with gates as some kind of a weapon of war. What did He meant by that? What Christ was talking about?  He was referring to the highest political authority in the Old Testament. The gates of the city were the place where the elders would meet to decide difficult issues. This was for a long time the highest political authority for the chosen people and on specific occasions, on special occasions called “Moed” they would decide difficult questions at these gates. You could see this in the Book of Ruth or in Proverbs. What Christ is saying – He is juxtaposing the political entity that is hell and the political entity, so to say, – the City of God, that is the Church. This is how familiar it was to Him that He is founding His Church in the familiar setting of a city. For this ancient Church the most familiar setting was, in fact, a city.

I have to also say that in the realm of liturgy, when we study liturgy, we usually systematize it-  although it’s an oversimplification – and divide the traditions of Christian liturgy into the “cathedral” rite and the “monastic” rite. There is sometimes the third rite that we talk about today – the “urban monastic” rite, but the point that I want to make is that the most ancient tradition is the “cathedral” rite. In other words, the rite of the cities, of the cathedrals. So what you would have in a church like yours here is actually the most traditional setting for Christian worship, for the simple reason that monasticism, organised monasticism, only came around in the 4th century.


So the point I’m making by all of this is that as lay people, people who do not live in monasteries, you should not somehow operate on the assumption that the real spiritual life or real Christian life is only attainable in monasteries, or somewhere in the wilderness. And we should not lead lives (those of you who are lay people), sort of lives of quiet desperation, thinking that if your spouse doesn’t die sometime soon, you are never going to get to “real” spiritual life. There seems to be in modern-day Orthodoxy sometimes an underlying assumption that lay people don’t have the real spiritual life. So they either run around trying to behave like monastics on Saturdays and Sundays, or somehow to aspire to be monastics at some point. But actually, a very legitimate and traditional Christian life is that of cathedrals and cities. That is in fact the original form of Christian life.

Now I would like to draw your attention to the fact, as well, that the “Tradition,” coming from the Latin “tradere” – to deliver or pass on, is relational:  in order for tradition to exist, to be passed on, there have to be people. And most effectively tradition can be passed on where there are lots of people. And very effectively the tradition has been passed on, and continues to be passed on, in towns, cities, as we have them today and as they were in the ancient world. So we should not be discouraged, those of us who live in cities. And the most ancient forms of sanctity are, of course, relational. Our entire existence in the Church, in fact, presupposes other people. Think about the most ancient forms of sanctity, like martyrs, “μάρτυς” – meaning “witness”. You are not witnessing to anything if there is nobody before whom you bear witness. Or a confessor – “Ὁμολογητής”  that means, when you say Ὁμο and λεγειν, you say the same thing as somebody else, you say together with someone else. So this is all relational, and together in this organism that we call Church we make our way, or we contribute, to the path of our salvation.


Now I want to say briefly, since we are running a little bit late, what was it that was shared or passed on by ancient Christians, and continues to be shared today, as “Tradition”? It’s obvious that we come together and realize our unity in the Eucharist. However, returning to the cathedral rite that I mentioned, the rite of the cities, it was not until fairly recently in Church history that there was a daily Eucharist. This was a reality of the ancient Church that the Eucharist was a relatively rare occasion: on Sundays the Christians would gather. In the earliest times, of course, this involved great danger. Now on the other days of the week what was it that unified the Christians?

There is a common story that is first spread through the Word of God; a common, shared story or remembrance of this story that is shared by Christians, which is made real and brought alive in the hearts and minds of Christians every single day. And this kind of remembrance is called ἀνάμνησις, it is also the purpose actually of the Eucharist. When Christ tells us what the purpose actually is of the Eucharist, He says: “τοῦτο  ποιεῖτε  εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν” (Do this in remembrance of Me). Sometimes this falls through the cracks, because, not hearing the prayers and not hearing what is actually remembered on this occasion, we don’t always experience this kind of remembering.

Regardless of that phenomenon in our modern day liturgical celebration, I want to say that the sharing of the common story is also today fixed in our very rich liturgical calendar; that every day we have a certain memory or commemoration or, as you know, actually many memories every day. The common story is first found in Scripture as I said, then in the Church calendar. And what I do with these videos (Coffee with Sr. Vassa) is simply share with you, those of you who watch the video. (Please, don’t raise your hand if you don’t because that’ll just be a little bit embarrassing. I’m just kidding.) The thing is, I’m sharing a kind of experience of the church calendar in the city, because I find myself, although I’m a monastic, I find myself living in a city, and I go to work every day, as most of you do. So I thought that this could be a useful thing to share for all of us, because I do look into the Church calendar and it keeps me in touch with what is going on in the liturgical life of the Church.

And as you can see in the show, it’s also food for thought, or if I could be more precise, it’s food for prayer. It is what we call meditation. Although that sometimes makes Orthodox Christians queasy: “Oh, we think, meditation is something from the Far East”. But the fact is that all our hymnography calls us to meditate on the salvific truths of our salvation. And there are, contrary to popular opinion, there are often calls in our hymnography to imagine certain pictures and meditate on them: “Let us ascend to the Mount of Olives,” or “Let us go to Bethlehem and accompany Holy Virgin,” and so forth. So we do imagine certain pictures in our mind in order to make present that reality of the Gospel truths, in order to call ourselves to that reality and to not forget about it. Again, it’s ἀνάμνησις – it’s this remembrance. This facilitates our communion with God on a daily basis. So the point I’m actually making is that this very unfortunate thought, that somehow it’s the monastics who have the real spiritual life, and sort of waiting around for some future, more appropriate moment when I will begin the spiritual life, – this is a very damaging and unfortunate kind of supposition to have. And perhaps I’m preaching to the choir and you don’t have this, but actually I think that it does exist. I have had this type of conversation with people I know. But there is nothing we need to wait for, nothing that needs to happen to us, to begin a spiritual life. And to create such an obstacle or to have this idea that it’s really only happening in monasticism, or somewhere in the wilderness, is simply inaccurate, and it does not reflect the way Christianity was lived and spread in Church history.


Another thing I should mention is that it has always been problematic and a challenge for the Church to discern what the “common story” is. And this is a normal phenomenon. Today, parts of Church history are actually contested, and the vision of what the past is, or what the Church reality was, the way the Church was run… For example, the very topical issue of primacy (of hierarchs), that might be seen in different ways in various Orthodox Churches. This is simply one of the issues today. Another issue involving ἀνάμνησις and the way we remember our history that is challenging – and it doesn’t mean that it’s some kind of a disaster or a huge tragedy that it’s contested; the fact is that we are human beings, and the Church being a human-divine organism – upon some things the dust has not settled. So there’s another question that’s also an enduring problem, which is: How do you engage culture? To what extent do Christ and civilization sort of mix? Or, to what extent is it allowable… to what extent do you speak the language that is spoken on the streets? To what extent do you engage, for example, modern day music? These things are not resolvable in an ideal way. The main thing to remember, I would suggest to you, is that nothing we do without the complimentary action of the Spirit can possibly be perfect. It’s just with humility we try to see, and to live our lives in a way that is meaningful, and that also passes on this living remembrance of the Church from generation to generation.

But when we find ourselves here and now, in a certain cultural climate, in a certain city, in a concrete world, we are called to live our lives here and now, also in connection with this “Tradition” that we have. So the thing that I do is to engage not in a perfect way, of course, but in the way that I do, also culture and to say: “Look, here and now, in this city, that’s why I make mention of people on the street, I sometimes have this music inserted (of course, it is inserted by these misfits who work for me). The point is that here it is that the tradition is passed on. Not by creating a bubble. It is very real, and it is relevant, in this situation. It does not have to be this dualism of creating one world that is the Church, and then there is the “real” world. Because then there is a danger, especially for children, who might start to approach Church life as some kind of a fairy tale or dress-up their parents play. This is a very real living tradition. So there is no need to create a bubble, there is a need to make this real here and now, and not to wait until we are elsewhere, or in some different time, nor do we need to escape to some point in the past.

I was thinking the other day, when we were celebrating Theophany – you know when you have that “Aha” moment during liturgy – and it happened that I heard: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen”. And I thought: Wow! “Now” is really the focus there. It’s living in the now. There is only an indirect reference to the past. The focus is clearly on the now. And that just stunned me, because so much of our spiritual life would be really strengthened and empowered if we had this capacity to live in the now, and not constantly be comparing, or hoping for something in the future, or regretting something in the past, or comparing ourselves with someone else, being somehow dissatisfied. Gratitude and a living faith have so much to do with living in the “now,” and I thought that little doxology that we have in every service so many times (“Glory be to the Father…”), is really so informative.

And so we can be taking little steps every day.  Sometimes, however, we have a certain maximalism in Orthodoxy that can be very discouraging. You know, I was talking to my nephew a couple of weeks ago and I was just asking him, honestly, what he does in the morning. He is a college student and he is graduating this year. We have the “Prayer book”, with wonderful prayers, – but a Russian prayer book has quite a gazillion of prayers there. My nephew looks at this prayer book in the morning, and sort of goes: “Naah” – and ends up not praying. And this is an unfortunate result of beginning at the end. I said to him, “How can you just not pray?” How can one manage life without just praying? It’s unfortunate that you don’t want to read those prayers, but eventually you will, you will find that you might need to. But it’s not that God is waiting for us, saying “It’s either those prayers or nothing! I don’t want to hear you talk to Me in any other way!” But we block ourselves from Christ, from prayer, through misconceptions about how prayer works. That is why in one of my shows I said that “Impropriety is no obstacle to prayer,” – because, where the rubber hits the road, and on a daily basis, we don’t see the forest for the trees. It’s not the case with everybody. It’s wonderful if people already have that routine, of praying the prayers of the Prayer Book, but there are some people that find themselves in a different situation, and they might tend to turn the tradition into something that it’s not supposed to be. And I said to my nephew: Just get on your knees and pray every day, just in your own words, if that’s what you have to do. You’ll find that you can’t live without this. But this is something that’s blocking him because of the way he has been taught. And my message here is not: don’t pray the prayers of the Prayer-book. The point is, rather, that there are little simple things that we lose sight of, I think, because we think of something that is actually secondary. This is one of the things that a lay person, I think, might face on a daily basis.

So I think that because we are a bit late, we should stop. – I know you are going to beg me to not stop, but I should. So why don’t we open this for discussion, and perhaps you have comments or questions.

-I’m Loren. When you talk about recollection in Church and we think about our lives, how would repentance fit into that recollection?

– Hi Loren. Well, that’s a very good question. Loren asks about how repentance fits into remembrance or recollection. First of all, note that repentance is “a change of mind.” As you probably know, in Greek μετἀνοια means “a change of mind.” This is not something that occurs once, and then you move on. No, it’s a constant process. We are a “work in progress”, all of us, and the saints were as well. You are constantly refocusing. You have to keep refocusing yourself.  It’s like cleaning your house. You don’t expect it to stay clean. It is frustrating, but the fact is that it will get dirty again. This is a process, so we are constantly doing this. And the second thing, about this remembrance, – when you come to confession, which is part of the sacrament of repentance, you are actually reinstating the proper version (or proper memory) of the story. In other words, your human mind, your fallible mind tells you at the moment when you are committing a sin, that it’s justified. Somehow, you justify it, “This is okay,” – and you do it. And eventually, when you come to “repent” this; i.e., you are changing your focus again and you take the time to “remember” things that you did wrong, where you sinned, you are reinstating the proper remembrance. You are saying what was wrong, what was right. (You should also not forget things that you do well.) But you are “confessing” what the proper version of the story is, and what you regret. This reinstating of the proper version of the story is exactly what happens when we “confess” the Creed before Communion – i.e., we sing it during the Eucharist – the Confession of Faith, because that is the proper version of our common story. So confessing the faith, when you say “I believe,” and the often unpopular tradition of confessing our sins before going to Communion, is actually on the same plane. Except that confessing of sins is our individual story that we are reinstating, because we tend to misinterpret it where we justify ourselves. While the Creed is the proper interpretation of our common story of salvation history, – that story which is very historical, it begins at the beginning, and ends with the fulfilment. Anyway, this is my answer to your question: that repentance involves confession, which is remembrance, remembrance of our own individual story in the proper light.

– You had mentioned this sort of notion of perhaps a false distinction between the monastic life and lay life, unnecessary elevation of the monastic life…

– That’s not what I said.

– That notion that the real spirituality is among monastics and that it’s only something lesser that can be obtained by lay people. I have a lot of friends who don’t feel themselves particularly called to marriage, but don’t particularly feel themselves called to the monastic life either. Often it seems like there is this very strict “either … or”. I’ve heard spiritual counsellors say that if you are not planning to get married, you should go and join a monastery. What I wondering is if you perhaps have some thoughts about some notion of the vocation of singleness or some rediscovery of living outside the monastic tradition, but not necessarily striving for marriage. 

– That’s a very good question. It’s true that it’s simply a reality, regardless of how you evaluate it, that our churches are now full of single people. Often in my videos I’m actually speaking to single people.  I have students at my University, and I often deal with single people. It’s simply a reality that we have to somehow speak a language of, and recognise the reality of, the people who are in Church, and many of them, it’s true, are single. When this is what God sends you, it’s simply a fact of life. And we just have to grow up and realise it, that we don’t always fit into a certain box. I never thought, for example, that I would be living in a city outside of a convent, and I didn’t want that. I was telling my spiritual father when I was in my twenties, how I knew I’m going to be a recluse… I had the whole thing planned out, how I would have a cell with a little window, and so on. I really saw myself that way. So my spiritual father just said, “Oh, well, we’ll see what God sends us”. But now I think, he must have been rolling his eyes! This regards what I keep saying about living in the now, and exactly where God put you. And God needs you where you are. You can constantly see the grass being greener somewhere else. Often people are single simply because they haven’t met the right person. And what do you do? Do you go on one of these dating sites? People get very desperate. Here it’s very important to live in the now, and accept this reality, and the take it from there, – because it’s very humbling. You are not that hero, or not the τύπος , as in Greek, “the type”. You are not any “type,” you are not this or that, you don’t fit into a certain box. And that’s very humbling, because people will say “Why aren’t you married?” or “Oh, God, he is I don’t know how old, and he is not married. There must be reasons for that!” It’s humbling, and you just have to accept this sometimes. And – I talked about this in one of the videos – it’s an ambivalent situation. God sometimes sends us ambivalence, and it drives us crazy, because we want to control these things. We don’t really want the will of God, we want to control; we want to say “I imagine myself to be some Byzantine hero from the 8th century, and I’m going to do this and that for my salvation.” Well, no. Just deal with what God is sending you. This is where He put you. He is sending you these specific people, and He is not sending you other things. Try to deal with that, and then see what He sends next. This is a realization that can really change your life, and daily prayer can bring us to that. But it’s a constant “work in progress,” because not every day are we willing to accept these things. Some days are frustrating, while some days we have the grace that doesn’t come from us to face these things differently. But it’s all a wonderful adventure.

– We are living not in an isolated world where all of our surrounding people are faithful. How to approach people, how to speak about faith to people who are far from the Church? Our even close-by relatives and colleagues? What are your words of wisdom?

– There is a famous incident with quite an old saint of the Latin West, who said something like: “The most important thing is to spread the faith, and when necessary, – use words.” You get what I’m saying? When you are living a life of faith, this is the main thing that people will recognize and, perhaps, they’ll ask questions. God also shows you what to do in each case. I don’t know your situation. There are different situations, different people, and you have to take that case by case. Not everybody wants you to talk to them about faith, but sometimes there is the time and place where that is needed. The main thing we could do is take care of our standing before God, or our falling before God. So this is what I would say, but that doesn’t exactly answer your question.

– I’m Claire and I wanted to ask about your team that helps you make your podcasts. Who are they and how did this begin?

– Hi Claire. Well, I just picked these people up. Like I said, they are misfits, but they are trying. I have mostly recovering drug-addicts, and we have a new crew member. The writers are recovering drug-addicts, I mean, – not the really responsible roles. One of our guys, the costume designer, the Greek one, is in jail, but we are going to welcome him back as soon as he comes back, in the meantime his place has been taken by another guy. They are doing well. They are actually random people, but I’m very grateful that they have agreed to come on board. Sometimes it doesn’t work out too well, but they are doing their best.


– I’m Tatiana. You work in Austria, in Vienna, right? And in Europe people are less and less interested in any kind of religion. This is what I would like to ask you: what is your observation living in Europe?

– Hi Tatiana. Well, that wouldn’t be my observation. Austria is a very Catholic country. Even in tabloids where on page 3 there is this pornographic picture, – then on page 8 the Cardinal has his sermon. It’s all very mixed. The Cardinal is a very important figure in the city of Vienna, cardinal Schönborn. Of course, fewer people go to Church in Austria today, but certainly a larger percentage than goes in Orthodox countries, if you look at the statistics. They have about 11%, I think, at this point (I might be mistaken), but France has a little bit more. You have Orthodox countries like Greece or Russia that have a lower percentage of Church liturgical participation. So I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I’m just one person observing from my bell tower. And I also teach at a Catholic theological faculty, so I’m also exposed to the Catholic world there. I have to say that we often highly overestimate the supposed “demise” or weakening of the non-Orthodox world. I can’t say that that is fair assessment of what’s happening. Especially today, with the new Pope, there is a very vibrant sort of excitement in the Catholic world. Young people are very excited about this Pope. We live in a very strange time, you know, when the Papacy that is famous, especially from our Orthodox perspective, for being power-hungry, centralistic, suddenly presents us with the strange fact that the previous Pope Benedict resigned. He just said “It’s time for me to go.” This is totally unheard of, totally unheard of. At a time when in the Orthodox world we are not succeeding in calling together the “Great Council” of all the Orthodox, which we’ve been trying to call together. Why? Because we can’t agree on the issue of Primacy. Our inner-Orthodox disagreements are basically about who is supposed to be first, i.e., issues of power and prestige seem more of a problem for us today than they are for the Papacy. You know, there is a Chinese malediction that I read recently. It’s well-known, but I only saw it recently in Peter Brown’s recent book. The malediction means when you wish someone ill. It says, “May you live in interesting times!” We live in interesting times. And it’s not always easy to discern what’s really going on. But it’s humbling, if nothing else. It’s humbling for us. It’s like God is tapping us on the shoulder, saying, “Don’t take your tradition for granted.” So, it’s not necessary to put other traditions down. We have our own set of problems. So I wouldn’t engage in putting other traditions down.

– You are from New York. How did you end up in Vienna?

– I got offered a job there, basically. I haven’t lived in the United States since I was 19. I entered a convent in France first. It’s a very long story after that. I finished my Doctorate in Munich in Germany. And right before I finished the Doctorate, I was offered this job in the University of Vienna. They wanted someone who knows German and English. They like to have a connection to American academia. And we don’t have a convent there in Vienna, but I ended up there, and my Bishop said “Okay, (blessing) you can go”. So that’s where I live now. That’s what I’m doing there.

 – Isn’t it rather unusual in the Orthodox world for a monastic not to be in a monastery?

– Yes, that’s very unusual.

– So are the broadcasts.

– And coffee. But it’s a lot of fun.

– I have a question for you and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately for a while. You were talking about your conversation with your nephew and then you think about St. John Maximovich who is right here and he – paraphrasing – has said something about “just try to pray as best as you can especially in the morning when you are just driving to work, just say the Lord’s prayer, just do it here, do what you can, just have this conversation with God». For me I have been trying to pray more and more. Some days it is easy because of the grace of God and some days it is very difficult just to even get there in front of my icons. It’s because of distractions. And so I was wondering if you have any advice or guidance about distractions, especially now in the postmodern world, full of all kinds of distractions out there. How not to be distracted in prayer when all these assaults are coming at us when we are praying? Do you have any advice how we can combat that in today’s world?

– Yes, and when I give advice, I am sharing rather than teaching, because we are all in this together. I really see us doing this together, and we should share with each other about this. Our Church life can and should be a little bit more about supporting one another in our spiritual struggle. It is not only about the fundraisers and the bake sales. I know that it’s not only about that for you people. I’m just saying we could focus our conversations more on helping one another in this type of thing, in our parish ife. About distractions. One piece of advice that I give myself is: get up earlier. You can get up a little bit earlier. And if you do this in the morning, you’ll find that you actually want to get up a little bit earlier. It’s really great to have that charging of your batteries in the morning. Start out with just a little time in the morning, but don’t overdo it in the beginning. Do a little bit, read a little bit of the Gospel, pray to God, put everything in God’s hands, everything that’s going on. You can use your own words. You shouldn’t worry that “Oh no, I’m not St. John Chrysostom, what words should I use?” We always set up these roadblocks. Just do a little bit, with humility. And the second thing is, when all else fails, because there are times in life when there’s just something going on and we are distracted. When all else fails, then embrace the distractions. In other words, pray over these distractions. Just say, “God, this is me being distracted. This is my distraction”. Put it in His hands. You could always sort of ride that horse of distraction. I remember Metropolitan Vitaly, who was the ROCOR Metropolitan several Metropolitans back, and he really had a very strong prayer life, and he said: “When there is something that won’t let you go, the monkey on your shoulder (whatever the English expression is): take that horse and ride it. Even if you are doing something and you start having these thoughts of arrogance or vainglory about what you are doing. Good. Then ride that horse and say: “God, alright, that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m being vainglorious”. But you are putting it in God’s hands. You are not in denial, everything is in God’s hands. Christ descended even to hell, so there is nothing He cannot enter into.

Washington, DC
Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist
January 24, 2014

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