At an OCF College Conference (during my junior year, I believe), my first time out in the wintery hills of Ligonier, Pennsylvania, our speaker was late for his first session. Metropolitan Jonah, the then-primate of the OCA was apparently still en route, so the coordinators needed somebody to fill in and speak to the conference topic of community. They emailed and then secured the speaking talents of Father Thomas Hopko, who lived nearby and ministered to the Monastery of the Transfiguration.
I had never heard of this man, but I still recall seeing a skinny man in a smooth black cassock walk up to the podium, wearing glasses and a blue pectoral cross. He was introduced by Father Kevin as a “beloved” professor, the former dean at Saint Vlad’s, apparently in retirement because “once you hit perfection, you just have to quit”, jokingly alluding to Father Kevin and his classmates. In my heart of hearts, I was prepared to be less than thrilled with the forthcoming presentation.
Then he began, saying that he had been asked to speak about communion, so I already thought this old priest had misread his email. Nevertheless, he started by telling us about how we wouldn’t find the word in the Bible, that we would rather find the unfortunate translation into English of “fellowship”. His words were often particularly staccato, his emphasis weaving in and out between rebuking and correcting, but somehow I was drawn to the excitement his preaching provoked in me and my peers. The way he waded into a one-word topic made me immediately think about how I had always imagined the great Chrysostom wielding the sword of Wisdom as he pierced the hearts of his flock. Could I be listening to a Saint?, I thought to myself… Father Tom answered questions with authority, but rather than shaming our ignorance, he lovingly and accurately dissected our misperceptions without mincing words.
More than any other time in my life up to that point, I literally felt my heart being enkindled. When he mentioned having a large number of podcasts he was working on, I was thrilled to look into this “Ancient Faith Radio” that a friend had once told me about long ago. An addiction in the womb, I suppose.
I remember watching Father Tom during our services in the chapel, standing quietly and with the reverence befitting his office in the back-most corner. At some point in the day, he sat at a table with students who had chosen not to dance, answering their mild questions. I took a seat for a short while as he explained the contradictions of Scripture, how the Bible is not a science textbook:
“How many times did the cock crow, for instance?”
Like fools, we all answered three times.
“You all need to read the Gospels!” he said with a stinging voice; “It was either once, or twice!”
I loved his ability to speak to us like adults, almost like old friends who had said something dumb. It was so…real? It was undoubtedly authoritative without being haughty. Perhaps you would have to hear it to believe me.
I remember calling my then-girlfriend, who was at a conference for Campus Crusade for Christ, Indy CC. I paced the hallway with a smile, trying to convey to her the awe I had experienced via this priest’s oratory. I was nearly giggling with excitement, as embarrassing as that sounds now. I had just never felt so excited about God, the Church, &c. Having happen at College Conference made it all the more vibrant to me, I suppose.
When I went back to school for the spring semester, I took advantage of the high-speed internet and delved into Father Tom’s podcasts, already enough in number as to give me hours of enjoyable listening. I hung on his words, his stories, his insights and quips. I had the courage to reuse his “material” at OCF meetings, with friends, with anyone willing to listen. I had come out of my shell, because I had connected with someone who spoke the Gospel in a way I was ready to try and replicate. I had been in the mindset that the Great Commission was for some Christians, those with a gift, to follow. Father Tom had somehow, and very simply, loosed me of that incorrect perspective. I needed to give God to people, to show God’s goodness and victory and superabundant love. This was a vocation for all Orthodox Christians, and I was truly seeing this for the first time, even I couldn’t have put it in words at the time.
I remember having had the opportunity to meet Father once more in my life, at the monastery. I had listened to what felt like thousands of hours of podcasts, and I was star-struck at being able to say something to him in private after the Divine Liturgy. I thanked him for everything, and he somewhat awkwardly brushed it off as no big deal. I basically wobbled away, having nothing more useful to say, but I look back and am glad I got to tell him a simple thanks. It did not match what he had given me, even indirectly. However, I suppose I have my works to continue my offering of thanks–first to God, then to all of God’s servants.
A friend fairly recently told me that when I spoke, I reminded her of Father Tom. I delighted in that, secretly, but also openly.
May your memory be everlasting, dear Father, and my your soul dwell closer and closer to God, from glory to glory. Amen.