The Orthodox Church in America and Its Future
Saint Nikolai Velimirovich
I feel greatly honored in being called to speak to you in this great city* on this
day, the Sunday of Orthodoxy. For this day is indeed our pan-Orthodox Thanksgiving
Day, because on this day for the last thousand years we have been giving thanks
to Almighty God for the spiritual victories He granted to the holy Fathers of our
Church and, through them, to us.
When I mention the Fathers of the Church, I am thinking first of all of the Fathers
of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the first of which was held in A.D. 325 and the
last in 787. These Seven Councils represent the seven greatest spiritual battles
in the history of Christendom. Like seven pillars of light (the light being Christ),
they have illumined the path of our Church through the ages. They remind us of the
Biblical words, Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars
(Prov. 9:1). They fought against all the apostasies, heresies, pagan teachings and
practices, against nebulous oriental occultism and pretentious philosophic theories
contrary to Christ’s revelations.
The seventh of these Councils, which we specially celebrate today, confirmed the
canons and regulations of the preceding six and added new ones. Therefore, Orthodox
churches the world over are today offering thanks to God for having granted to Christendom
those spiritual giants in the first thousand years, when all Christendom was united
in one Church.
Besides those Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils, we remember today all the other
luminaries of early Church history, which no storm of succeeding events could extinguish.
Some of them were great theologians, teachers, and preachers; others were extraordinary
ascetics; still others were wonder-working intercessors, or wise leaders and organizers
of Christian communities, or successful missionaries, or glorious martyrs for Christ,
both male and female. By their words and deeds, by their wisdom and life examples,
they continue to edify and assist us in following Christ. All that they taught and
wrote is part of what we call the Sacred Tradition of the Church. They represent
a precious treasure in our Church, which is God’s family. And therefore we are lifting
our hearts with thanks to God for this precious treasure. Yes, this is our pan-Orthodox
The examples and experiences of these holy men and women are like precious stones
left to posterity as their loving legacy. What are these precious stones? They are
as many as the number of Christian virtues, but I will discuss here just three of
the most essential for our modern times. They are: spiritual vision, moral discipline,
and competition in doing good.
Our Lord Jesus Christ revealed to mankind an invisible world incomparably greater
than the visible. The spiritual horizon which He opened to men was a much greater
wonder than the physical horizon of distant galaxies discovered by modern telescopes.
He spoke not like other teachers and philosophers—by hypotheses and theories and
probabilities, but by authority of an eyewitness who descended from that great heavenly
world in order to draw us to it. He called that world the Kingdom of Heaven. It
was the most staggering and gladdening annunciation since the creation of the world.
It wiped away the tears of mothers for their dead children, and the tears of children
for their deceased parents. “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad,”He said to the mournful
world. “Open your spiritual eyes and behold a glorious Kingdom beyond, in which
the King is your real Father. And if you cannot easily open your inner sight, look
through Me; I am your telescope. Believe me and follow me. Rejoice, and again I
An English lady happened to be present at a Serbian funeral service and heard Orthodox
priests chanting repeatedly: “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” She was shaken and
asked, “Is it proper to sing a song of joy over a dead person?” “For us, death is
not evil,” I answered, “sin alone is evil.”
Many times I asked holy monks on Mount Athos—Greeks, Serbs, Russians, Romanians:
“What is the best means to keep a person from sinning?” Their usual answer was:
“The constant vision of the heavenly world.” A Greek elder on Karoulia said, “You
must exercise in spiritual vision every day until the other world is clearly opened
It is no wonder that many Protestants call our Orthodox Church transcendent. Through
all centuries and generations we have been taught to strive toward the realization
and visualization of the other world.
In many of our church hymns, saints and martyrs are glorified because they “gave
up the cheap for the precious,” or “the mortal for the immortal,” or “the transitory
for the eternal.” Their motive for such a choice was the spiritual vision of the
Kingdom of Heaven as our true fatherland, as the real goal of our travelling and
toiling in this physical world of mere symbols and shadows.
Now, since we acquire that spiritual vision of the Kingdom of Heaven by hard spiritual
training and exercises, the question arises: How can we make ourselves worthy of
that Kingdom? For the end of our physical life is very near and we have to decide
quickly, lest it be too late. The answer is: by moral discipline.
What is moral discipline? It is the “narrow path” that leads to eternal life and
bliss. It is clearly described and prescribed in the Gospel, and more particularly
in the apostolic epistles, and it is exemplified in the lives of holy men and women,
some of whom are mentioned in our calendar, and myriads upon myriads of whom are
written in Heaven’s Book of Life.
Moral discipline is the way to perfection. And nothing less than perfection is our
ideal, according to Christ’s exhortation: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your
Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48). To accomplish this tremendous
task, our holy ancestors who loved the living Christ courageously climbed up the
ladder of perfection, step by step. The steps were: incessant prayer, meditation,
obedience, humility, meekness, self-restraint, weeping, watchfulness, forgiveness,
repentance, sacrificing everything—even their own body. They trained themselves
to abstain not only from every evil deed and word, but from every negative thought.
They lived in this world as if they were not of this world. They used things of
this world as if they were not using them. They considered themselves to be not
citizens of this world but merely visitors.
They vigilantly controlled the inner circle of their souls...observ[ing] every movement
of their mind and heart. Thereby they became the greatest psychologists in the world.
If you want to know the human soul, read the records of the great spiritual fathers
such as Saints Macarius of Egypt, John Chrysostom, Isaac of Syria, and other ascetic
fathers. And you will see how impoverished our modern psychology is by comparison.
Externally they lived as the most destitute, yet in terms of spiritual wealth, in
truth and virtue, they were the richest people. The whole world was not worthy of
them. Truly are they called “barefoot aristocrats”.
Today we are remembering these spiritual aristocrats, who by superhuman efforts
and God’s grace reached perfection. And we are offering our thanks to Christ for
presenting us with this brilliant gallery of beautiful and perfect souls in order
that we and our children might emulate them. Therefore, we call this day our Orthodox
Competition in Doing Good
I come finally to the third point, the third jewel that adorned those of our ancestors
whom we are celebrating today. That is the new competition or the competition in
doing good. Whereas spiritual vision and moral disciplined have individual bearing,
the competition in doing good concerns society. It is the highest social virtue.
Christ proclaims this virtue throughout His Gospel. In essence this teaching is:
Give more than you are expected to give, and do more than you are expected to do.
The world has been revolutionized by this marvelous doctrine. But the Author of
this doctrine was crucified because the world was intoxicated by the old competition
in doing evil. When a man was striving by every possible means to get rich, his
neighbor tried to get richer. If a Roman patrician had a thousand slaves, another
patrician tried to have two thousand. If a pharaoh became famous by some conquest,
his successor desired greater fame by greater conquests. While Emperor Caligula
was very cruel, Nero tried to be yet more cruel.
The new competition in doing good was as different from the old as traveling in
darkness is from traveling in sunshine. Our holy ancestors understood the doctrine
of the new competition as the highest social virtue, and they trained themselves
in that virtue most strenuously all their life long.
Imagine how marvelously changed this awful world would be if you and I entered this
competition of doing good. For instance, if every day we eagerly tried to be more
pious than some other pious people, more forbearing, more merciful, more peaceful,
more sympathetic, more constructive, more forgiving, more loving than others. And
all this not for pride’s sake but for Christ’s sake. Verily it would solve all the
crucial social, political, and economic problems in every Christian country, and
it would mightily help Christian missions among non-Christian peoples and nations.
We are glorifying the Lord God because our Orthodox forefathers pointed out and
exercised this social ideal of a new competition in doing good and because they
showed us a glorious personal example to follow. Therefore, in all Orthodox countries
and in the diaspora, this day is considered our common Thanksgiving Day.
Let us now turn our gaze from the East to the far West, i.e., to America.
About 150 years ago Orthodox people of every nationality began to come to this New
World, first daring individuals, then small groups, until in our days they have
reached, by immigration and by birth, a number equal at least to the number of Episcopalians
in the United States.
The first settlers were very simple people, hard workers, farmers. They were just
the kind of people who were authentic bearers of that threefold Christian ideal,
i.e., of spiritual vision, of moral discipline and of competition in doing good.
This was the backbone of their souls, inherited from their fathers in the old countries.
They lived up to it as much as they could in this country under changed circumstances.
And that was, and still is, their greatest contribution to building American civilization,
along with their other contributions of sweat and blood—of sweat in mines and factories,
and of blood on America’s battlefields.
They never got rich in this rich country, for they had to divide their modest earnings
into three parts: one part for their subsistence and the education of their children,
a second part they sent to their families in the old country, and the third they
gave to church, school, insurance, and charities.
They built churches and called priests from the old country.... They preserved their
religious traditions. They cultivated the ancient virtues. They delighted in their
national music and songs, in their national costumes and dramatic performances.
Personally, I have a deep admiration for these old Orthodox generations in America,
both for those who passed away in the Faith, and for those who are still living
by their faith. They have been a spiritual and constructive component of the New
World’s humanity. I dare say that in their own way they have been heroic generations
no less than other national groups, now blended into one great American nation.
In their modesty these humble people never expected a poet to laud them or a historian
to describe them.
Alas, the last of these old Orthodox generations is rapidly passing away. Their
sons and grandsons, and their daughters and granddaughters are now coming to the
field. And this new generation is American born. They speak good English but little
or no Greek, Serbian, Russian, Rumanian, Syrian or Albanian. And no wonder: They
attended American schools, many of them served in the US army, they have grown in
conformity with the American standard of living, their hearts are not divided between
two countries. They are naturally Americans, and they intend to remain American.
Accordingly, they have some demands respecting the Church of their fathers.
They want English to replace national languages in church services. They desire
to hear sermons in English. This is a legitimate desire. Our wise priests of every
national Orthodox Church in this country are already preaching in both English and
in their respective national tongue. They are in a difficult position at present,
for they have on one hand to be considerate of the elderly (elderly generations
of Moms and Pops) who do not understand English well, and on the other hand they
are willing to respond to the desire and need of the younger generations. In this
matter I think evolution is better than revolution, for the Church is the mother
of both the old and the young.
The time may not be far off when there will be a united Orthodox Church in America,
which will include all the present Eastern national Churches in this country, a
Church with one central administrative authority. I see a tendency toward such an
end in each of our now individual Churches. ... And when by God’s Providence the
time is ripe for the accomplishment of such a unity, I dare not doubt that the venerable
heads of all our Orthodox Churches in Europe, Asia, and Africa, always led by the
Holy Spirit, will give their blessing for the organization of a new and autonomous
sister Church in America.
And now let me make an appeal to all our American Orthodox youth.
America is your cradle and your earthly motherland. It is a wonderful God’s country,
and you are expected to be wonderful God’s people in this country. Remember that
our greatest contribution to America is of a spiritual and moral nature. And that
is precisely what America needs today. That is what every Christian country today
needs most of all—in boundless measure. For all nations, especially the Christians
nowadays traveling as if in a wilderness of confusion created by senseless materialism
and its blind daughter atheism. I offer this to what leading American men and women
are saying: “The only hope for us and for the world is to return to religion.” Again
I say: “Our hope is in the Church.” You ought to listen to these words, too, and
to ponder them. We live in very tragic times, which are made more tragic by easy-going
and self-indulgent people who have never read the story of Sodom, of Laish, or of
If I am correct in my observations, the greatest struggle of America these days
is the struggle for the priority and superiority of spiritual and moral values over
techniques and technological lordship: in other words, for predominance of the spiritual
over the material, of goodness over cleverness. The Serbs often say of a clever
man: “He is clever as the devil.” They never say: “He is good as the devil.”
America is constantly sounding the sympathetic watchwords: “dignity of man” and
“liberty of men and nations.” But the deepest meaning of these watchwords can be
found in the sacred teaching of Him without Whom we can do nothing. That meaning
is found most explicitly in the threefold program of our Orthodox Church: spiritual
vision, moral discipline, and competition in doing good.
For the dignity of man—in other words, the superior value of man—has real and eternal
meaning only if you know and acknowledge the Kingdom of Heaven as the true fatherland
of all men, from which we originated and to which we are returning as children of
one common Father, Who is in heaven. And freedom is most useful, joyful, and sacred
if you exercise moral discipline over yourself and practice competition in doing
These are the fundamentals upon which you can build your individual and communal
happiness. And you have received these fundamentals as a glorious heritage, never
to part with. By practicing this spiritual heritage in your daily life, you will
become an adornment to America. And through you all Americans will come to know
and appreciate our ancient Church of the East and her spiritual heroes, whom we
are praising today.
Bishop Nikolai (1880-1956)
has been called the Serbian Chrysostom for his eloquence. He was an outstanding
theologian whose erudition never over-shadowed his ability to communicate the truths
of the Gospel to the hearts of his listeners. His
Prologue of Ochrid should be daily reading in every Orthodox home.
He emigrated here to America in 1946, where he reposed. According to his request,
his relics were later transferred to Cetinje in Serbia-Montenegro. He was glorified
by the Serbian Church in 2002.
From Orthodox America, Vol.
XIX (No 5 ).