To Preserve and Pass On: A Remembrance of Metropolitan Leonty

met leonty
Photo Credit: schmemann.org/

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I arrived in America and reported to my new First Hierarch. He had been elected Metropolitan just a year before my arrival and thus his thirteen years’ service as Metropolitan took place before my eyes. But I am convinced that my first impression, correctly gave the sense of direction for the future. This was a summer weekday, shortly after the feast of the Trinity. When I arrived at the Cathedral there was a Liturgy at the side chapel. The Church was nearly empty and there were three singers on the kliros: a deacon, a psaltis and the Metropolitan. He was all in white, white riasa, white klobuk, with white hair and beard, very tall,standing straight as an arrow. He was singing the hymn to the Theotokos for Pentecost in his high, clear tenor. I can still hear that voice singing its arrangement by Turchaninov: “Rejoice O Queen! Glory of all mothers and virgins. . .” He remains in my memory just as he appeared to me on that day. This was not the angelic, incarnate spirituality of Metropolitan Vladimir, this was not the authoritative “fatherhood” of Metropolitan Evlogy. This was one more example and expression of the Church ? perhaps at first, as a haven and consolation, as an aid in the challenge of patience, as a support in that voyage along “the sea of life, surging with the storm of temptation. . .”

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Later I learned how many personal, familial and official difficulties were Vladyka Leonty’s lot, how many trials he had to experience in his life, and why in truth, the Church for him was his first source of consolation and help for bearing the cross of life. One could feel all this, at that Liturgy in the empty Church, during that mystical feast which sanctified the mundane, even for a brief moment, “where there is neither sickness nor sorrow, nor sighing. . .”

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Vladyka Leonty did not lead anyone, he did not build anything, as did Metropolitan Evlogy who, during the difficult years of the emigration created an exemplary diocese which was, so to speak, built upon him and which soon after his death began to move into its slow decline. Nor was he an ascetic or a mystic living in the vision of the Spirit, delighting in his conversation with God as Metropolitan Vladimir. He was very much down to earth, very simple, very much “day-to-day.” He stood in his place, which he did not seek and which he accepted as one more cross to bear with endless patience. He stood and blessed everyone and everything with his large, bony, warm hands, never waiting for great results, rejoicing in small things and was not saddened too much with failures. His somewhat sad but just a bit mischievous smile would say: “Why are you worried? God will do everything if it is necessary, and it doesn’t really depend on us too much.” He never insisted on anything, he never imposed anything. If he was invited somewhere, he would go. If he was not invited, he didn’t go nor did he ever look for invitations. If he went somewhere he would always bring a present: some small packet, a book or simply, a check. Money flowed through his hands and didn’t stick to them. We can now recall, with shame for our Church, that he would help out poorly paid priests, widows and other clerics, from his own pocket.

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In those times of petty self-aggrandizements and questionable “careers” he was humbly conscious that he was called to the white klobuk by the Revolution, the destruction and the instability of Church life and because of this he never pridefully extolled himself. I have never met a person who was so unaffected by the temptation for power, with so little ability to “relish” the signs of homage which surrounded him. He felt that his task was first of all to “preserve and pass on”. He truly never thought about himself but only of the Church which God intrusted to him by placing him in the Metropolitan’s office. Someone must occupy that place and so, he stood there and persevered. He looked upon preservation almost in a quantitative sense: that nothing be destroyed, that if possible, everyone must be saved - both the weak and the strong, the good and the bad and the lost. The Lord will judge and sort things out: our task is to guard, to preserve, to bless and to pray. Any sense of anger, righteous indignation and wrath was somehow atrophied in him. If something outrageous occurred, he was not outraged. He would sigh, cross himself and stop the discussion about it as not beneficial. If someone tried to fool him he would attempt not to notice. Yet he took childlike delight in anything positive. In contrast to many others he was overjoyed at the arrival of numerous clerics from Europe after the war: “Our regiment has been augmented - we will be stronger.” He rejoiced with every new temple as a master rejoices with any increase in capital. As for losses - defections to other “jurisdictions”, ingratitude and even deaths - what is there to say , no household can live without losses. As many of the older priests, having seen everything in their lives, he was a minimalist towards others, but not towards himself. He neither expected nor demanded anything from them, nor did he judge or condemn: everything is God’s secret, only He sees and knows everything, he commanded us not to judge but to be patient and to love. All this was incomprehensible for the young and the impassioned and they would grumble about his tolerance, his responses to obvious distortions, his refusal to choose between the correct and the guilty, his failure to apply the “letter of the law”: “Vladyka, but this is against the Ustav, contrary to the Canons!” But he calmly stood on his own, firmly upholding the whole Metropolia under his prayerful gaze, without any illusions and constantly prayed to the Almighty that He would hold back “the ranks of those moving against us.” He did this with joy - as on that Summer morning in an empty Church where he was completely absorbed by Turchaninov’s “Rejoice O Queen. . .”

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“Always a wise man, sometimes a dreamer.” In the depth of his soul he did live like a dreamer. One on one, in his study or over a cup of tea, when one could stop talking about mundane Church matters at least for a while, he would let himself bask in his dreams, sometimes utopian ones. He had his own special view of the world, his own themes. He wrote poems, maybe not very good ones, but at heart he was truly a poet. A poet is first of all, someone who sees the world “in a different way”, someone who has his own secret theme. Vladyka Leonty had such themes ? he did not thrust them on anyone but always lived by them. Because of this, in spite of the endlessly difficult and in many respects tragic life, he never sank to the commonplace, never let it absorb him but lived and soared above it. Even though his poems were at times both naive and trite, it is worth noting in wonder that in the aridness of life he did not dissipate the ardor of his soul and, until his last days, looked upon God’s world with gratitude, with joy and tenderness, always trying to transform it according to his own secret melody.

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I am sitting with him upstairs, on Second Street. We are drinking tea, discussing one thing or another. I rise to receive his blessing and be on my way. “What can I present you with?” - “Vladyka, why talk about presents - this is neither Christmas nor Easter!” “No, I must give you something, please wait a bit. . .” He rises and goes into his bedroom, he brings out a somewhat old but a good leather attache case. “Here, you have to travel a lot, take it.” I lovingly treasure that case, with its gold initials, “M.L.”

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He would respond personally, in his minuscule script, to every greeting whether official or personal. He would enclose a check, to the Seminary or for “wine for the Seminary chapel.” He had this remarkable concern “over a little”. But it is only through such concern “over a little” that real, vital and unspoken love is projected. At the end of the Liturgy, as his vestments are being removed, he reaches into his pocket and brings out three silver fifty cent pieces. “Here, these are for your children.” - “Vladyka, my children are already grown, ready to be married off,” I try to protest. “Well, this will also come in handy for them.”

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I once received a post card from Vladyka: “I am flying over Texas. I am reading Fr. Bulgakov’s Peter and John. I am praying for those who live in Texas.” This is him, in that little post card. It would have been interesting to find out how many people in that airplane are praying for those over whom they are flying.

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I cannot overlook his special love for the theological school and especially for Church education. How he radiated, how he rejoiced when he blessed the Seminary’s new house in Crestwood. Not a week would go by when he wouldn’t send books for the Seminary library or some kind of a proposal for the “Academic Corporation.” He taught Pastoral Theology for a number of years and when he could no longer come out himself, he would summon the whole class to the Cathedral. When he “Theologized” this was not some routine stereotype, quenching the spirit for the sake of the letter. He always wanted to complete his work on the Prophet Ezekiel and “submit it to the Seminary.” He regretted that his infirmities prevented him from teaching ancient Hebrew. Each time he received a copy of the Seminary’s “Quarterly” he would send back a note with thanks along with his subscription. He thus subscribed no less than four times a year. Himself a graduate of the Kiev Theological Academy he valued academic traditions and embodied them in himself. He defended the broad academic and intellectual horizons of the former Russian Church and respected creativity and the spiritual freedom of “the children of God” in contrast to that obscurantism so favored by those self-styled bearers and defenders of Russian Orthodoxy.

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Great Lent, 1964. The special solemn service for all those persecuted for the Orthodox faith just ended at New York’s Greek Cathedral. At the end of the service Metropolitan Leonty approaches Archbishop Iakovos to thank him on behalf of the Metropolia. Something extraordinary takes place: the Greek Hierarch, in all his majesty, bows before the Elder in white, kisses his hand and says, “You have a great soul.”

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As I end these brief notes, I remembered Metropolitan Leonty’s special love for the Prophet Ezekiel. Opening his book in the Bible at random, my eyes rested on this text:

“He said to me: Mortal, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart and hear with your ears; then go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them. Say to them, “Thus says the Lord God”; whether they hear or refuse to hear.” (Ezekiel III:10-11)


The article is an excerpt from “Three Metropolitans” by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, translated by Archpriest Alvian Smirensky, first printed in Englisn in Jacob’s Well, Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, Orthodox Church in America, and first appeared in, The Life and Works of Metropolitan Leonty, NY, 1969, pp. 227-234 (in Russian).