Orthodox America

A Steward of Grace Passes From our Midst 

by Fr. Alexey Young

Death is  rest unto man (Burial Service)

This is not a eulogy, though one must be spoken. Nor is this an obituary or biography, though one will be written. This is a memory, a simple remembrance of a saintly, gentle Hierarch, Bishop Nektary of Seattle (who reposed on Sunday, January 24/February 6), written by an American convert whom he ordained as a missionary priest.

Many of these memories are ~f quiet, late summer afternoons, years before I was ordained. Vladika would arrive at our home in the mountains, bringing with him the wonder-working Kursk Mother of God Icon. It was an annual event, but the first time was especially wonderful. He served a Molieben (service of intercession) before the Icon, and Fr. Seraphim, who accompanied him on this occasion, was the "choir." During the ser vice, Vladika's voice grew soft and very tender; his eyes closed and it was clear that he was pouring Out his heart for us to the Mother of God. Instantly, the world around us vanished and there was only this heartfelt prayer of intercession, this "fragrance ' of the other world. Later, at tea, he characteristically expressed concern that my Matushka was busy serving everyone, instead of taking her rightful place at the table.

Vladika's English was limited, but when he wanted to communicate something of importance, he could do it perfectly. On one visit, after the Molieben in the small chapel behind our home, he placed his hand on my chest and said: "I know what is in your heart." He was acknowledging my great love for the whole idea of mission, a concept he also supported and encouraged.

So many visits... so many kindnesses... And there were also telephone calls. Each year, on the patronal feast of the Etna Mission, Vladika would himself call to give us his blessing and congratulations for the feast. He never forgot, even during the last difficult years of illness.

For all of us in this mission territory, both converts and "cradle" Orthodox, Vladika Nektary represented something very rare, very significant: the principle of ijoing Orthodoxy, a link not only with Holy Russia and the suffering Catacomb Church (out of which he had come to the West), but also a link with the grace-bearing witness of the great Elders of Optina Monastery. (As a youth, Vladika had been a spiritual son of the last Elder, who prophesied that he would one day enter monastic life.) For us, Vladika was not only a witness of the holiness of that great spiritual line but, more, he was himself a living vessel of Orthodoxy, pouring himself out for us all.

With no difficulty at all, the day of my ordination four years ago comes back to me now: a frightful spring storm had rendered the roads to the Monastery of St. Herman of Alaska almost impassible~yet many pilgrims crowded the Church for the ordination Liturgy. During the Ordination itself, and then during the Anaphora, Vladika-our Apostle- wept; never did he serve Divine Lit u r g y without being overcome with awe at the great Mystery before him. At the close of this Liturgy he said to me, "Never, never be a 'professional' priest"-by which he meant:

Don't let the priesthood be your "career," your "living"; let it be rather the air you breathe-and be less concerned about the material and financial aspects of your life than you are about giving yourself to Christ as His priest; be ready to suffer. On a later occasion he spoke of the importance, for priests of our Synod, of guarding well the treasure that had been preserved and handed on to them, so that they could hand it on to the next generation in the same state of purity.

A heavenly summons sounded for Vladika Nektary several years ago, when his heart began to fail him. Knowing that his end was approaching, he prepared well, especially during the last months. Although he was rarely any longer able to serve, he nonetheless attended as many services as possible at the Cathedral of Our Lady, Joy of All Who Sorrow, in San Francisco. There, he stood in the altar, following the services with attention. He made efforts to be at peace with all that approached him during this time, as though each day were Forgiveness Sunday. In this, as in so many things, he was an in- comparable example to us all.

Yet one hour, and all this shall pass away.

(Burial Service)

On the evening before his death, he attended the Vigil Service in preparation for the Sunday of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. It was an especially meaningful Feast for Vladika, not only be cause he himself, and his family, had suffered at the hands of the godless ones, but also because he had been one of those hierarchs who, only a year and a half earlier, had joyfully glorified all the New Martyrs at special services in New York. Now, his participation in the vigil was actually a preparation for his own departure to join those New Martyrs and Confessors in heaven. The next morning, as he was preparing to come to Divine Liturgy, his guardian angel gently removed him from this sinful world and took him to a sinless one.

Because of the seriousness of his illness, none of us was surprised at the news of his sudden repose-which, within an hour, had reached even the most remote of his missions..

But our sense of loss was immediate and in- tense. Many clergy, monastics, and laity from this mission territory (and elsewhere) were able to brave a fierce winter storm to come to the Cathedra1 to say farewell. There, Vladika lay peacefully for three days, arrayed in bright Paschal vestments, his face at last free of the suffering of recent years.

The service was led by Archbishop Anthony of Western America and San Francisco, whose vicar-bishop Vladika Nektary had been. Fifteen priests, four deacons, and an immense gathering of the faithful came forth for the final kiss. It was my privilege to be one of the c 1 e r g y to bear the open coffin around the outside of the Cathedral, to the slow and solemn tolling of a great bell. Lifted high upon our shoulders like a victorious warrior in ancient times, we also bore him down to the sepulchre of Archbishop John Maximovitch of blessed memory. (Suddenly, I remembered that the first time I'd seen Vladika Nektary was at the funeral of Arch bishop John in 1966.) The simple wooden coffin was extremely heavy-it was as though we carried a giant rather than a wasted body, and truly he was a spiritual giant! It began to rain as we completed our mournful circuit and, on the horizon, lightning flashed (unusual for this time of year), as though nature herself participated in our loss. To the tearful singing of "Memory Eternal" by that vast outdoor crowd of clergy and laity, the lid was secured and the coffin placed in the hearse for transport to the airport and a late-night flight to Jordanville for burial the next day. (Vladika Anthony, Abbot Her man, and Hieromonk Kyrill, were among those that accompanied the body back East.)

"Nevermore shall I walk or talk with you"

-these words from the Burial Service came back to me again and a g a i n that evening. Within six months we had lost two righteous ones: first, Hieromonk S e rap him, whom Vladika especially loved, and now Vladika Nektary himself. Here on earth, we are the poorer, for giants walk among us no more; but heaven is the richer, and certainly we have gained still another powerful intercessor before the throne of the Almighty.

It is difficult to convey to converts-many of whom knew Vladika Nektary only "at a distance," as it were, as he officiated at some great occasion-that Vladika was a vital bridge between our cold-hearted American mentality and the warm-hearted, grace-filled society that was Holy Russia. How many such men are now left to us? Very few. And if we, the second and third generation of emigre Russian Orthodox, and the new generation of American Orthodox, suppose for one moment that we are mature enough to stand alone, without such men as these, then we are not only arrogant, but we are doomed! What, then, should be our attitude? It's true that we cannot stand in the place of someone like Vladika Nektary; but we can, and we must at least humbly follow in their footsteps, not daring to veer either to right or to left, and thus save our souls.

Vladika will never speak to us again; no more will we hear stories of vanished Optina and his holy childhood. "Lo, already his tongue is stilled, and his mouth has ceased to speak" (Burial Service). We have now only the echo of his words, of his life. We must be faithful to this, for it is part of our inheritance.