THE CREATION OF ORIC
Long before our Research Institute was created, we had a weekly seminar for the Orthodox students and those interested in Orthodoxy at the Theological Department of the University of Aberdeen. We have been in charge of it together with Petre Maican since 2015 or even earlier. The seminar quickly outgrew the borders of the University as we had Theology graduates from other countries in our orthodox community in Aberdeen who were not affiliated with the University. Among them was a young Romanian priest Fr. Andrei Dosoftei, together with the other Romanian PhD students and also Olga Lossky ‒ a granddaughter of Vladimir Lossky, and Jean Jacques Laham from France, both graduates from St Serge seminary in Paris. Because Olga and Jean Jacques happened to be our neighbours, our meetings gradually migrated to our houses. Apart from the seminar, we also began to meet regularly for the Vespers, followed by meals and discussions.
I must say, our seminars were not an easy commitment for the members. I remember sometimes our theological meetings resembled more an ascetic rather than a theological exercise. Fr Andrei worked as an Amazon delivery driver during the day to support his life as a priest in Aberdeen. We met late after the children went to bed, and Aberdeen has poor bus connections at night. Some of the group members needed to walk rather long distances, and Aberdeen is known for its piercing wind and frequent rain. Some came straight after work and sometimes had no time to eat meals during the day. But for all of us, it was crucial to come together to discuss the Church Fathers, and we cherish this experience. It would not, of course, be possible without God bringing like-minded people to one place.
Then there was a thought that came, so to say, out of the blue. What if there are some other orthodox scholars, perhaps in Edinburgh and somewhere else, who could probably profit from joining or at least by getting in touch with our group? I remember we discussed it as we were sitting at the University café with Petre Maican and Alexey, and we thought that if we just found one single person, who might be struggling on their own ‒ it would be a delight for everyone. We gave a call through Facebook and received 130 responses! It was almost a miracle. Not all those people truly became members of our group, but this was a clear sign that God wanted our group to become something bigger than we were at that moment. It was also evident that there was an urgent need for such an initiative.
We were aware of the difficulties one encounters while pursuing the path of theological research. Already during my years at the university, I personally knew some exceptionally talented researchers. I saw them being very inspired in the early years of their research, as they put their hopes in their academic career. And I saw some of them have lost their faith due to the inability to continue their theological research only because there were no grants or available academic positions.
This was a striking contrast to my background in Russia, where it was common for the previous generations in the 70s and 80s to opt to proceed with their religious life even at the expense of losing their jobs and becoming complete social outcasts. When all religious life was forbidden, many refined thinkers were running boiler rooms at night while having lost their social connections, families and career prospects. Was their faith stronger than those of the young theologians? Yet, nowadays, the problem lies in another plane.
As I spoke to the researchers, it turned out that not only did they feel very lonely through the process of searching for jobs, but having lost the ability to attend the research seminar and having no money to attend conferences, it was impossible for them to grow professionally, as one loses qualification without an academic community very quickly.
The very fact that there was no collaboration between them was a striking difference from what I saw in Russia in secular academic circles. In Russia, people in the academy seldom have money. The majority work out of pure enthusiasm, often moonlighting somewhere else. One of the ways to keep up to date with the academy was through so-called dacha conferences. Dacha is a lot of land with a small wooden house that the majority of the Russian people own to spend their summer and grow vegetables. The lots were distributed for free, and some people managed to get a couple of lots joined together. On such dacha lots, some enthusiasts organize genuine scientific conferences with fine presenters without any grants involved. I used to attend such conferences with my family. We would bring 2 kg of potatoes, porridge and canned vegetables instead of the conference fees. The participants came with their families, and some stayed in tents. The first half of the day was spent in scientific discussions, the afternoon was for team games followed by banya and in the evening were campfire songs. Those conferences were both a true scientific delight and an unforgettable fellowship experience. One could ask, why there is such a sense of community in secular sciences, whereas the theologians ‒ the members of the one body of the living Christ ‒ sit each one in their own corner.
In Britain, one of the reasons for this is that Theology has become very exclusive. It became almost for those guys living in the castles or having other exceptional backgrounds. You need to have particular circumstances at the very beginning to afford to pay for your study or to get a student loan with such a tiny perspective to get a job afterwards. Even if you manage to graduate, the PhD cost of £17-£20.000 per year for international students and £7.000-9000 per year for the locals plus a minimum £1000 per month living costs is unaffordable for a young person who is trying to start his own independent life.
I believe that the true story of our group is that the merciful God, knowing the hearts of His servants who love Theology, decided to give them a helping hand using the very humble resources He had at his hand at that moment. We are grateful to God that He decided to use our humble group calling us to grow into something that might be of some help to others.
When God acts, you know how beautifully He can act. Wonderful things happen completely out of the blue. You know how amazingly He is able to create circumstances, bringing the most wonderful people to your side. Together with 130 responses to our initial call, we have also received an invitation from the Professor of the University in Prague Ivana Noble to organize a conference in Prague at her faculty. That was a turning point for our group, and we are very grateful to Prof. Ivana for arranging this meeting for us. Without her initiative, it would be difficult for all the participants to come together. We are also grateful to Prof Krastu Banev from the University of Durham and Fr. Stephen Headley from Vezelay, who attended the conference and helped to hold it to a high academic level. As people arrived, we discovered that the majority of them were truly fine scholars driven by their sincere love of Theology. They came with their projects and proposals. It was evident that there is truly a great need for our initiative. Everyone stayed longer after the conference. We were invited by Fr Vazlav Jezek to have an agape meeting after the Liturgy in the Prague Orthodox cathedral of Ss. Cyril and Methodius. During this meeting, we brainstormed our further development as a group. One of our members Emil Marginean took the initiative to organize our next conference at his alma mater Theological Faculty in Cluj, a modern stronghold of Orthodoxy, where our group received a warm welcome from Prof Christian Sonea and Bishop Benedict Vesa. That marked the beginning of our tradition of meeting annually in early December.
While being born through our brainstorming during the agape after the Liturgy in the Prague Orthodox cathedral in the year 2018, our institution constantly continues to grow. We keep our tradition of yearly conferences and run different projects, including a weekly research seminar, which became truly international during the lockdown. We have participants from Britain, France, Sweden, Romania and Belgium. We hope to continue to increase as a space for theologians to gain more expertise and to keep qualifications, but also to enhance connections and friendships.
Dr Olga Sevastyanova, The Founding Director of ORIC