Of Priests and Priest-making

South Canaan, Pa., is the monastic home of priestly life. It is a world apart, given for the world at hand.

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 Genesis 48:3
Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me.”

For a few hours this past Sunday, I visited the Promised Land. Far from human mastery, and vibrant with the unchallenged power of the Lord of Hosts, Canaan called to me.

The hills of northeastern Pennsylvania stretch and glide, and the leaves are not quite holding their green, though it is still a week before the equinox. Vacationers from New York will find Mount Pocono, but they will scarcely notice here the decaying remnants of American past: Minersville, Carbondale, Factoryville. And even more hidden among these hills is the biblical topography: Nazareth, Bethany, Promised Land State Park, Bethlehem.

And South Canaan.

Speeding across the Appalachian ridges gave me the vacationers’ feel for Pennsylvania, but South Canaan required a pilgrim’s path and a road appropriately unpaved and uncomfortable for my Corolla’s shocks. The destination, at the end of this road, was St. Tikhon’s Seminary and Monastery – the erudite and eremitic home for Russian Orthodoxy in America.

St. Tikhon’s is the oldest Orthodox monastery in the United States, far from the Kremlin, far from the Russian Mother Church, far even from a traffic light. Monks plus seminarians total less than 75. In my Sunday afternoon, I saw as many children as monks – about three or four of each – and no one else.

The small campus is littered with stand-alone prayer chapels the size of walk-in closets. From the outside they appear to be tool shacks with stained glass. But South Canaan (and St. Tikhon’s) is a prayer closet in itself. The door has been shut to politics, fashion, technology, and media. And yet to enter here is also the opening of a door. It is the opening to which Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann referred when he said,

The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communion with God in whom is all of life. Man was to be the priest of a eucharist, offering the world to God, and in this offering, he was to receive the gift of life.

South Canaan is a eucharist, with or without its tool shack prayer chapels.

Joshua 24:3
But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants.

South Canaan is a very small town. If you mail a letter to a friend there, you have to use the name of a municipality five miles north, Waymart.

A few weeks ago, a church in Waymart hosted a worship concert led by the charismatic and spiritual worship leader, Jason Upton. Jason Upton is not known for his fantastic musical talent. His songs are not heard on Christian radio stations. He does not have a very good singing voice. To call his events, “concerts,” is actually misleading, because no one is there to hear their favorite tunes. They are there to worship.

Upton also does some preaching at these events, but they are not evangelistic outreaches. They are not seeker-friendly at all. Even if you know the words to the songs, the worship is hardly limited to their vocalization, and the songs themselves are apt to morph on the spot according to Upton’s spiritual direction. In my experience, this style of worship actually takes some training to participate in. Non-pentecostals may be turned off simply because they have not yet learned this particular living liturgy in which worship shifts under the Spirit’s direction, but also under a certain rubric in which the congregants have a predetermined role to play vis-à-vis the worship leader or pastor.

Out in Waymart, Jason Upton came to worship. In the land of Bethlehem, Bethany, South Canaan, and Promised Land State Park, Upton joined with angels rejoicing on a map disregarded by the political and economic cartographers.

Isaiah 19:18
In that day five cities in Egypt will speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD Almighty.

In the Old Testament, Egypt is power. Egypt is the reed of military might on which the Jews unfaithfully lean. Egypt is the economic monopoly where grain must be bought in the time of famine. Egypt is the political master who set up a puppet government in Judah.

Exiting Egypt is an exodus from all these things, in their corrupt misery. Not to paradise, but to a promised land and to the words and presence of the Lord.

My trip, likewise, led me out of Washington, D.C. Pennsylvanians care about politics, to be sure, but I’m not so sure South Canaan does. St. Tikhon’s Monastery is a freedom, then, not just from politics, but from the care of it. St. Tikhon’s is a reminder.

My ostensible purpose for this drive was to see the grave of Alexander Schmemann, whom I had read was buried there. I don’t know if Alexander Schmemann would have liked Jason Upton. Their respective liturgies hold almost zero formal elements in common. But Upton’s ministry, like Schmemann’s, creates a space where the presence of God is taken seriously and respected enormously, and where Upton’s role is to lead others, in a separated and controlled environment, to make that work of worship (liturgy = leit-ourgia, the work of the people) a lifestyle. Conversely, it is unlikely Upton has read Schmemann. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that he might agree with the Orthodox theologian:

If there are priests in the Church, if there is the priestly vocation in it, it is precisely in order to reveal to each vocation its priestly essence, to make the whole life of all men the liturgy of the Kingdom, to reveal the Church as the royal priesthood of the redeemed world.

Psalm 105:11
“To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit.”


  • September 22, 2011

    Adam D'Luzansky

    I really enjoyed that post. Where is the quote from that you mention at the end?

  • September 22, 2011

    Bryan Wandel

    Both of the quotes are from For the Life of the World, by Alexander Schmemann.

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