A CONVERSATION WITH THE DEAN OF JORDANVILLE’S SEMINARY
Nicolas G. Schidlovsky speaks with the HTS Alumni Association
Professor Schidlovsky, you have held the Dean’s position at HTOS for well over a year now. This has obviously been a lot of hard work, and we now feel that it is a great time for many of us who are not regularly on campus to get to know you better. It seems that under your guidance the Seminary is energetically moving ahead with interesting projects. May we ask you a few questions? Please start by telling us about your family background, education, and professional experience.
Thank you for asking…In respect to my deanship at Holy Trinity Seminary it would seem appropriate to start by saying that it was really my family upbringing which put me on the path now culminating in Jordanville. I grew up in very uplifting surroundings full of life-loving and literate people who never questioned what the Church offered them as “the way forward" in the wake of some massive upheaval and devastation in their past. The atmosphere was of invincible Christian faith, which became a magnet for countless people. The guests just kept coming from all around the U.S., Europe, Australia, South America, and sometimes well beyond. Our neighbors in town and on the block were also generally in close touch. They too, placed great value on getting to know who we were—ethnically, culturally, and religiously. At least four languages were spoken in our house starting with Russian, English, French, and sometimes German. My grandparents left Russia during the critical years 1917-18 never to return. My father was born in Morocco and my mother in Cannes in the South of France.
Community and Education
Upon arrival in the U.S. in the early 1950s, our families settled in Sea Cliff (Long Island, NY) and became part of that lively settlement around Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox Church, which was founded there some years earlier. This is where I was born, baptized, and raised until about age three. I could say that I grew up on the cozy lap of the Baroness Olga Mikhailovna Wrangel—the much-beloved widow of the White Army general. She was a dear friend of the family and, of course, a pillar of the entire Sea Cliff community, which looked up to her with understanding and admiration. Another person in our midst was none other than Alexandra Lvovna Tolstoy, who lived not too far away in Valley Cottage, NY, and was the daughter of the renowned author and novelist. Again, multilingual literacy set the tone for these people, all of whom projected a well-informed outlook on the world and a strong allegiance to Russian Orthodox culture with its many practices and traditions, sacred and secular.
In 1976, I graduated with a B.A. cum laude from Williams College in Massachusetts. But it was at Princeton University in the Department of Music that I quickly came under the guidance of some truly unforgettable mentors, who immediately took charge of further developing and channeling my many eclectic interests. Eventually, musicology, paleography, liturgical chant (East and West), as well as a full range of medieval and “byzantine” topics became the basis of my graduate research and doctoral thesis (M.F.A. 1978 and Ph.D. 1983).
It seems your whole life prepared you to lead the Seminary! During the past year, you have had an opportunity to get to know Jordanville from the “inside.” What have you learned, and what are some of the main things that you might be willing to share with us at this time?
What’s the Challenge?
Today, one cannot assume that too many people fully understand or appreciate Jordanville for what it really is and has been historically. A lot happens here “on campus” every day…in the midst of these rolling hills and charming lakesides of rural Upstate New York. But to get a good idea of the bottom line and what this actually signifies takes time and much perseverance. Permit me to expand on this.
As a longstanding project of Holy Trinity Monastery, the Seminary has a history that stretches as far back as the late 1940s. Official accreditation by the NY State Board of Regents was obtained virtually right away. But one must never forget that the actual program here—including all of its underlying pedagogical and methodological premises—emerged not as a self-styled package, but mainly as an offshoot of the whole monastic endeavor at Holy Trinity Monastery on whose grounds it continues to this day. The Seminary’s connection to the Monastery has never been reduced or severed. The Monastery is a source of real guidance—a well-spring of the kind of “data” or information that is impossible to find in books and must be internalized chiefly by means of a living model.
Jordanville—A Formative Manner of Teaching and Learning
Launched decades ago, this fundamental feature of the Monastery’s mission has always been understood by the faithful as a monastic offering—you might say, an obedience on behalf of the world and the Church that must struggle within it. The young persons who come, therefore, arrive for the purpose of learning about and taking part in what they quickly understand is a “separate livelihood”. The result is that, along with our faculty, every member of this community, young, or old, is also always an “instructor”—maybe a silent one, but nonetheless someone whose presence is deeply valued in every respect. This is the anchor or educational “touchstone” of Jordanville’s program, which basically offers its students “total immersion” in a daily life of prayer, liturgy, Christian fellowship, as well as intense loyalty to serious academic study—all rolled into one for every student throughout the school year.
The academic program now being offered at this Seminary is clearly outstanding. It is in the hands of a top-notch faculty, who seem to be rather pleased to find themselves in an environment that is in complete “organic” and visionary consort with the Monastery. This is an almost non-existent “commodity” these days, which is increasingly attractive to all our applicants, many of whom are searching for precisely this kind of spiritually, culturally, and educationally trenchant direction. As the Seminary’s Dean, I will try to do everything within my means to make sure that this continues without interruption.
How have you found your interaction with the students, faculty, and staff? What can we expect for the future in this regard?
From Generation to Generation…Understanding Change
Once considered an outpost for aging refugees, Jordanville now harbors local residents who are mostly here by their own choice. The incoming student in pursuit of a spiritual formation is also of a new profile. As a group, the student body now represents many different backgrounds. This is truly an “international” group in the best sense of the word. All who enroll cherish the basic operative principles of this institution, which have always been based on Christian kindness, human respect, and gratefulness just for the opportunity to be here.
Embedded in our Seminary’s well-rounded and quite “relevant-to-today” curriculum there does still exist the requirement for a significant dose of linguistic training, which always assumes New Testament Greek and Old Church Slavonic. Our lingua franca is no longer Russian. Everyone who comes here must simply be prepared to speak and write well in English as all of our classes, lectures, and seminars also take place in this language. Personally, and in line with this, I am very grateful that the whole “language thing” has not simply been swept under the rug in Jordanville, including the current prerequisite for learning Russian. Every student’s education here is, I believe, totally enriched through a true-to-life encounter with authentic communicative diversity, which we should remember has always been one of the Church’s primary characteristics. Yes, it was my personal good fortune to have been raised within this kind of versatility, so I can thoroughly appreciate what this can offer in terms of the frontiers that must now be explored by the Seminary. All of our degree candidates bring so much to the table, and it is positively a delight to engage with them without regret, remorse, or apology for any inherited linguistic prejudices—whether Russian, English, or any other language. To be sure, this is a very positive development that is already serving Jordanville—the evolving nature of its student body and who we can expect to have as our alumni in the future.
I believe that broad exposure to linguistic knowledge only aids the intellect, even when it may take some effort to complete these courses. Last spring’s public defense of the thesis by the very first graduate of our new M.Div. program was a pleasure to attend. Many points made by the candidate, Fr. Daniel Franzen, would have been exceedingly difficult to convey without his recourse to the semantic evidence from other languages including Russian, Greek, and Hebrew. He did not know too much of this prior to Seminary.
Like any major undertaking of today’s educational mission, Holy Trinity Seminary requires guidance. What do you feel ought to be the main focus of its driving vision especially as we look ahead?
“Beauty” in the Church
It is always a true blessing and privilege for anyone who lives here and all visitors to be able to witness and participate in the renowned splendor of Jordanville’s divine services. The setting here with its beautiful frescos and iconography on the walls, the captivating harmonies of the choral singing, the gilded vestments of the clergy, and of course, the vibrant ringing of the belfry are truly impressive to behold.
Nevertheless, increasingly questions are beginning to be addressed at the Seminary concerning the manner in which an instructive and meaningful connection is to be made between this “liturgical artistry” and what the student must learn to perceive in the course of his studies. The central objective of Holy Trinity Seminary—both at the B.Th. and M.Div. levels—is to encourage and inspire a knowledge and comprehension of traditional Orthodox church practice. Starting with the current academic year 2020-21, the Seminary has embarked on a commitment to begin reviewing its curriculum in “liturgics,” which is among its most important topics in need of a new focus.
Key Steps / Moving Towards the HTS Program’s Future
Over the years, Jordanville’s graduates have perhaps been chiefly valued for their high caliber of clerical mastery to carry out just about any Orthodox church service with confidence, in our case, predominantly in the Russian practice. I am happy to say that there is noticeable enthusiasm in Jordanville these days thanks to some brand-new developments that are taking place in at least one of our curriculum sectors now formally titled “Applied Music and Liturgics.” For instance, Living Liturgy is a new course that has been launched so far with amazing success this fall. This is an ambitious new undertaking at the Seminary, which will doubtless take some years to perfect. Its central purpose will be to assert and explore the historical connection or “bridge”—sadly, often overlooked—that has always existed between two topics conventionally taught as separate courses—namely (1) the music of the Orthodox Church, as rooted in the eight tones of the Octoechos (i.e. theory and practice) and (2) the liturgical ordo (or rubrics) found in the service books as codified in the handbook we call the Typikon (tserkovnyi ustav).
I think this and many related issues will be occupying the Seminary in the years to come because this is precisely the area of teaching that must encourage a seamless flow of the information needed to promote each student’s “experiential” and “historical” understanding of liturgy and Orthodox church worship. As it develops this may even become the heart of Jordanville’s entire curriculum. To aid in this process, our Rector, Bishop Luke, and I have recently appointed Deacon Nicholas Kotar as Director of Choral Programs. I am pleased to report that Kotar is now a full-time member of the Seminary’s faculty and completely “on board” in respect to how—what was formerly taught as church or “sacred music”—must now be subsumed into the larger sphere of Living Liturgy, a course that also includes specific requirements for regular church attendance as well as mandatory participation of all undergraduate and graduate students at weekly rehearsals of “The Holy Trinity Seminary Choir”.
In what terms would you like the “outside world” to perceive your leadership and scope of activity…and what do you think ought to be our shared priorities in the coming years?
In the years to come, we need to build a much stronger consensus concerning the Seminary’s educational scope and purpose in the Church, something that will have to be hammered out in detail with the approval of ROCOR’S Synod of Bishops. To simply constate that we are a conveyer to filling parish vacancies, I believe, is shortsighted. It seems like there is a much broader agenda. Fortunately, fewer, and fewer individuals are stuck in this way of thinking, which is probably the result of our final emergence on a broader ecclesial arena than was previously possible and, of course, the reconciliation with Moscow under Metropolitan Laurus in 2007.
For a new endeavor like Jordanville, the ebb and flow of 20th-century politics and religion was not always easy to survive, particularly here in America where the original Russian mission quickly transformed into the sporting grounds for startling divisiveness driven by a searching, constantly changing, and thirsty Orthodox immigration despondently adrift. I believe we are entering a more constructive phase today, perhaps less burdened by the exigencies of taxing and time-consuming polemics. The original effort of the two monks who first came here in 1930 from Pennsylvania must increasingly be recognized for its simple intentions, pure and unencumbered as these were, to help extend what they knew to be the Church and to furnish this with new environs for healthy continuation.
A decision to take Jordanville and its Seminary to the next step, therefore, is going to be a matter of concerted teamwork and organization. We need to find the allies. Personally, I am optimistic about this, but only time and effort will tell whether we have the wherewithal to make this happen. As the old saying goes: “Give blood —and accept the spirit!” During the last year, we have begun to put in place the kind of infrastructure that will help to keep everything in Jordanville moving ahead. As the Seminary Dean—and with the irreplaceable assistance of Bishop Luke—I have significantly streamlined the operations of our Financial, Development, and Communications offices, which now have a much clearer definition of their respective roles.
With everyone’s excellent cooperation our on-site staff and monastery brethren are in the process of achieving some incredibly significant accomplishments, thereby reviewing many of the Monastery’s longstanding administrative habits and refocusing them toward a more distilled approach. I am convinced that this is already bringing the much needed and discernible results we are all seeking.
In closing, I can honestly say that everything in Jordanville seems to be on an upswing these days…and with God’s help, we will soon have many more promises to look forward to as we explore some long-range planning and the feasibility of fascinating future projects. In 2023, Holy Trinity Seminary will be celebrating its seventy-five (75) years, and I can only hope that our preparation for this will give rise to a historic benchmark. Bishop Luke and the Board of Trustees have agreed that this is a very desirable priority for the coming three years.
Thank you, Dean Nicolas, for your time!
It has been my pleasure to speak with you! —I sure wish the HTS Alumni Association all the best in its endeavors!