TRIBUTE TO FR VLADIMIR LECKO
At His Funeral Service, Sunday Evening, March 21, 2021
St Mary’s Cathedral
Archpriest Paul Wesche
If we honor this visible Church with its visible altar and visible priesthood, and this baptism that brings forgiveness, then our body will become a temple, and our heart will become an altar, and a well-spring of praise. We shall have revealed to us that Church on high where are gathered all the saints who dwell in glory, exulting in its light, for they love this blessed Nurse who daily gives birth and brings up fair wards whom she sends on to that great Church on high. And, those who are diligent in this visible Church become like the Heavenly Church as they follow after it.
Liber Graduum 1.12 (An early Syriac Christian work, c. 4th cent.)
Is this not a portrait of Fr Vladimir? Was not Fr Vladimir a man who honored the visible Church, whose body became a temple, whose heart an altar? Was he not diligent in the visible Church, did he not follow after it and become like the Heavenly Church?
I am not unmoved by the honor of being asked to give the sermon for the funeral service of the Archpriest Vladimir. It is my joy to give expression to the love and affection for Fr Vlad that fills our hearts at this sacred hour. Our LORD commands us: “Judge not according to appearances, but according to true judgment.” To this, my hope as well is to lift the veil of appearances so that there can be revealed to the eyes of our heart the truth of these visible funeral rites: that we are joined invisibly by the angels, the saints and holy martyrs, and the most beloved Panagia to send Fr Vladimir, a “fair ward who loved this blessed Nurse,” on to that Great Church on high.
Fr Vladimir was very dear to me and my family; my family was very dear to him and to Ginny. When my wife and I were shipped to Minneapolis in late July of 1988 to succeed Fr Paul Jannakos and Michelle as assistant priest and ‘Matushka’ of the Cathedral, under Fr Ted and Fr Vladimir, we moved into 1630 NE and shared the back yard with Fr Vladimir and Ginny—and Lara. (There was no fence between in those days.)
We shared more than a back yard. Fr Vladimir and Ginny became family to us, our children’s third set of grandparents. Our kids grew up saying “Fr Vlad and Ginny” with the same affection with which they would say Grandpa and Grandma Wesche or Grandpa and Grandma Sams.
The “In Memoriam” for Fr Vlad posted on the OCA website did justice to the memory of Fr Vlad most excellently. But it overlooked what may have been one of Fr Vlad’s most stellar distinctions. Our second year at 1630 NE, we took our two eldest out of public school and turned 1630 NE into a premier Home School. The school churned out a publication quarterly, The Scholars’ Pen, which showcased the breadth and depth of the student body’s scholarship and creativity. Of course, it was the gold standard of Home School publications and subscriptions to it poured in from all across the country (from Grandpa and Grandma Wesche in Idaho, Grandpa and Grandma Sams in Washington state, Uncle David and Aunt Jan in Spokane, and a whole bunch of notables here in Minnesota, including Fr Ted and Karen!). “Holy Fathers Grammar School” the School was named by the Board of Trustees, consisting of our two youngest, Mark and Nicholas—and Lara—who also constituted the School Board and who also served, respectively, as Dean of Students and Dean of Academic Affairs and mascot. In their multiple roles, the two imperious Deans squinted their eyes fiercely and subjected Fr Vlad to a series of grueling interviews. Satisfied, they appointed him to the position of Senior Chair of Holy Fathers Grammar School under the official title, “Distinguished Professor of Just a Ton of General Knowledge.” He taught our students Church Rubrics, Balalaika, Russian, astronomy, ornithology, photography, and, well, just a ton of general knowledge. The compensation package for this position was worthy of its high distinction. Fr Vlad became rich in the love and affection of our children.
Fr Vladimir was father confessor to all of us for almost three decades, until his health no longer allowed it. He baptized our two youngest; he married our two eldest.
For Fr Paul Jannakos [the greater] and for me, Fr Paul [the lesser], there is a poignant significance to this hour that demands acknowledgement. Once again, Fr Paul and I stand this evening at the altar of St Mary’s Cathedral under the protective wings of Fr Ted Wojcik and Fr Vladimir Lecko!
As a young man, my greatest admiration was reserved for men of spiritual depth and character. For me, it was an existential matter; it was truly great men who inspired in me a hunger for genuine spiritual knowledge, and whose example fed my mind and my soul with evidence of the spiritual truth I hungered for and that made me feel truly alive. So, when I came upon a poster in the college bookstore one day my sophomore year, showing a photo taken from the ground looking up at very tall trees stretching out of sight into a sun-bathed sky, with the caption, “Today, I have grown taller from walking among the trees,” I knew the solution to the riddle immediately. I snatched that poster from the shelf, and it hung on the wall of my dorm room as visual testimony to my desire to grow taller from walking among the trees of truly great men.
Now, I know from the interview Fr Paul [the greater] gave to the Diocese when he grew very tall and was appointed by the very, very tall Archbishop Paul to the position of Diocesan Chancellor (I know this because I edited that interview still in my shorts, I mean still in my shortness)—I know that Fr Paul would assent to my depiction of the years we stood at the altar of St Mary’s, each of us newly ordained and fresh out of seminary, as a time of walking among two tall trees, Fr Ted and Fr Vladimir. I would not say that Fr Paul and I are reliving the past, standing around the altar this evening with Fr Ted and Fr Vladimir as we used to. I would say that we find ourselves returning to stand in the same luminous shadow of the two tall trees in which we have been standing ever since we began our priesthood, first Fr Paul then me, here at the Cathedral between three and four decades ago.
Except, the shadow has become more luminous. One of our two trees has passed over to stand now at the Heavenly Altar in the Light of the Tree of Life. I believe Fr Vladimir stands over us still; but now he is unseen, invisible, in the uncreated Radiance of the invisible Church on high.
For it cannot be that we cannot see Fr Vlad anymore because he is absent to us. How can he be absent to us if he has been taken up to the Throne of the Lamb, and if the Body and Blood of that same Lamb has been knit with our body and blood, poured out on us here below in the sacraments of Christ’s Holy Church through His Holy Resurrection—sacraments the Archpriest Vladimir administered with reverence and love here in the earthly temple how many times? It must be that we cannot see Fr Vlad because the Light of God’s unfathomable compassion and extreme humility that now clothes him is so brilliant that it is darkness to us.
In the vision of the Church, we here on earth may envision Fr Vlad at this very moment ascending into the ‘secret’ place of the heart (Mat 6.18), the same secret chamber into which he descended again and again in this life to stand in prayer before the Father. But now it is the curtain of the invisible Church, the Royal Doors of the Temple on high that have opened to him. In the mystical vision of the Church, just as we saw him, when he was with us in the body, pass so many times through the Royal Doors and into the sanctuary, we may know, because we know that he was in truth a “fair ward” of this visible Church, the “blessed Nurse,” we may know that he is passing over into the Glory of the Heavenly Church, exulting in its light!
Because we are still impure, we may not be able to see the Light of the Heavenly Church that shines out from her in all directions (Liber Graduum 1.12.2). Even so, in the LORD’s compassion that covers all His works (Ps 144.9 LXX), can we not feel it? Can we not feel it in this sacred hour covering our soul with a heavenly joy that is far deeper and far more substantive than the sadness we feel when now we look on Fr Vladimir’s relics? Here in the Church, we are, after all, in the same mystery of the Body of Christ that Fr Vlad is in. He has not left that mystery! He has but entered from the visible into the invisible Temple, from the earthly into the heavenly Church! Understand, these are not two different Churches. They are one Church, just as the Sanctuary and the Nave constitute this one earthly Temple. He now dwells in the choir of the saints, who dwell with us mystically, spiritually, truly, in this earthly Temple.
The sadness we feel now, I will not say it will disappear or fade away; I will say, rather, to use one of Fr Vladimir’s favorite words, that it will, in time, be transfigured into the joy that for now is veiled beneath our earthly sorrow. For, this joy is not of this world. It radiates from the Light of Christ that illumines all, that Light the darkness of earthly sorrow cannot extinguish. It is a joy that will become a [spiritual, invisible, but even so a palpable] “well-spring of praise” to God in our soul every time we remember Fr Vladimir.
Indeed, if we turn our mind downward to retreat into the holy stillness that covers this sacred hour, can we not hear a silent hymn of tenderness touching our souls from an origin we know is not from this world? And yet, we can feel it immediately present to us. We know the music comes from heaven, but the instrument playing it, or perhaps rather the instrument the music is playing, is Fr Vladimir whose body now lies here before us as a silent witness, in his repose, to the silence of the empty Tomb that was filled with the fragrance of Christ’s Holy Resurrection even as that fragrance fills our remembrance of Fr Vlad!
Honestly, if we cannot hear this Hymn of Light, this Song of Joy filling the sacred stillness of this hour, either we are not listening or we did not know Fr Vladimir. For, who of those that knew Fr Vladimir will be able to remember him without seeing the holy light of the Church, or without feeling in that remembrance a divine tenderness gently touching the soul as though to remind us of the humility and compassion of Christ and His Holy Mother? For, somehow, even by the time my wife and I moved with our then three children to Minneapolis in 1988 to begin our life as priest and ‘Matushka’ of Christ’s Holy Church at St Mary’s, even then, Nancy and I saw Fr Vladimir as a Theophany. His body already was a temple, his heart already was an altar. Diligent in his reverence and love for the visible Church, in our eyes, he had already become like the Heavenly Church.
One doesn’t just become a Theophany; one doesn’t just happen to become like the Heavenly Church. Fr Vladimir enjoyed sharing stories of the monks at St Tikhon’s seminary from the days he was a student there, and of his father confessor at St Tikhon’s, Fr Vasilii, whom he regarded as a saint—and Fr Vlad was not without evidence to make his case. Fr Vladimir loved the monastics. Their spirit had penetrated deep into his soul and filled it with an ardent love for Christ and His Holy Church. Often, his eyes would tear up spontaneously, he would begin to choke up just a bit when he would speak of Fr Vasilii and the monks of St Tikhon’s. It was evident that their spirit and especially the spirit of Fr Vasilii was always with him, comforting and guiding him.
No, one doesn’t just become a Theophany. One must go through hell to follow after the Heavenly Church. One must fight tooth and mane to cleave to the LORD and to take refuge beneath His Holy Cross and not in the wisdom of one’s own opinions or in the egotism of one’s own strength and ingenuity. It takes a man to become a Theophany. It takes a man because what is required is courage and resolve to take up the agony of denying oneself—is this not the agony of the Cross?—and the suffering of losing one’s life, putting one’s ego, one’s friendship with the world to death, for the sake of Christ.
It is my expectation, formed entirely from reading between the lines of certain things Fr Vladimir said, that because Fr Vladimir’s soul was so knit in love to the spirit of Fr Vasilii and the monks of St Tikhon’s, that he went through hell, hidden from all eyes, under the protection of their prayers and in the manner perhaps that God reserves for the married man, which, I wonder, may be different from the manner reserved for the monastic. For, the married man, and especially a priest, cannot afford to be overwhelmed or distracted by the assault of demons in the way the monastics are. He has a wife and kids he must attend to, not to mention the spiritual children of the parish entrusted to his pastoral care. Surely it is true that in the hidden depths of Fr Vladimir’s soul is where the full story of how he followed after the Heavenly Church to become a Theophany was written and that the full story is known only to God.
But, if a tree is known by its fruit, then we can say with certainty that in the hidden furnace of Fr Vladimir’s soul, in ways we cannot know, there was kindled the fire of love for Christ and His Holy Church; for everyone could see it in the light that radiated outwardly in his life. It was visible in the gentleness of his face and in the compassion of his eyes as he listened attentively to the person before him, in his sense of humor made cynical, he liked to warn you, from all the jazz he endured in the military, in his love for children (that made one think of St Herman of Alaska), and in his enthusiasm for evangelism, for spreading the Gospel of Christ in whatever way he could.
But, I think that uncreated light burning in his soul found its most sacred expression in the confessional. It wasn’t his words, of course, that touched the penitent; it was his spirit that had come alive with such gentleness in his love for Christ and His Holy Mother. This is what drew people to him and made them feel safe to bare their souls, even made them want to bare their souls. (I know of those who would come to Fr Vlad for confession, and begin weeping even before he had drawn them under the stole.) A cherished observation of Fr Vlad’s was that the LORD’s most effective work was not when He was speaking to the crowds, but when He was talking to people one on one. And so, Fr Vladimir revered the one on one encounter. He saw it as a sacred participation in the saving work of Christ. He gave to each person, to each penitent the full attention of his heart. And how many were touched by the healing compassion of Christ and His Holy Church in the gentle humility of Fr Vlad’s heart?
A favorite saying of Fr Vlad’s, which he took from advice given him once by the late Archbishop John of blessed memory, and which he seems to have taken as his standard operating procedure, was: “Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary means.” Fr Vladimir knew the letter and the spirit of the rubrics and canons of the Church, so he knew the terrain, he knew where the boundaries were, and within those boundaries, what extraordinarily creative plays he could devise for circumstances that resisted ordinary means!
I seize on this to share a story that has passed into the lore of St Herman’s parish which I have served since 1992. It is a story Fr Vlad enjoyed telling, and he told it to me more than once; it is a story that the founders of St Herman’s enjoy telling, and they have told it to me more than once. It is not perhaps the best illustration of Fr Vlad’s ‘extraordinary’ SOP, but it illustrates the ingenuity he was capable of when faced with an extraordinary circumstance. This was in the early days, back in the late ‘70s or so, when St Herman’s was but a fledgling mission. Archbishop Boris was threatening to close St Herman’s because he did not see the traction he wanted. Fr Vladimir was District Dean at that time. Now, Fr Vlad knew that Archbishop Boris was a military man. Fr Vladimir was a military man. And Fr Vlad knew what impressed a military mind. In preparation for the Archbishop’s visit, he directed the faithful of St Herman’s to prepare a tall pile of demographic studies, surveys, charts, graphs, reports. It didn’t matter if nothing substantive was in them. What was needed was not quality but quantity. When Archbishop Boris came to town, he was presented with a stack of papers a mile high, all—or at least the ones at the top—demonstrating in one way or another the viability of St Herman’s mission. As Fr Vlad expected, Archbishop Boris was impressed with reams of papers you could shuffle, not so much with what was happening on the ground; and sure enough, Archbishop Boris blessed the mission, it stayed open and, well, it is now a thriving parish!
I said a moment ago that, in the vision of the Church, we may see Fr Vlad ascending into the secret place of the heart where he descended again and again in this life to stand in prayer before the Father. Fr Vladimir fell asleep on the second day of Great Lent. His fortieth day will be on Palm Sunday. In the Church, because we believe our whole life is under the lordship of Our Savior and the Most Beloved Panagia, we hesitate assigning anything to chance, especially things surrounding a man of the Church, especially the timing of his falling asleep in the LORD. So, I close playing only the opening chord of a verse of theology for the purpose of putting the finishing touches on our effort to lift the veil of appearances a bit, for us to catch a glimpse of the ‘sweetness’ [h trufh]—the word for the Garden of Eden in the Septuagint, the word of the monastic fathers to describe the righteous man’s death in Christ—that is the truth of Fr Vladimir’s falling asleep.
We came into Great Lent in that mysterious darkness that covered the whole earth from the sixth to the ninth hour. Is it the same darkness that covered the face of the waters at the creation (Gn 1.2)? Is it that darkness that God makes His secret place (Ps 17.11 LXX)? We read that when the LORD was high and lifted up on the Cross (evoking Isa 6.1), “darkness covered the whole earth.” It is the Psalmist who tells us what that darkness was: “The LORD’s compassions cover all His works!” [Ps 144.9 LXX]) That darkness was the unfathomable abyss of God’s mercy and compassion, as liturgical texts transcribe the biblical texts, that covered the earth at the Savior’s Passion as it covered the waters of creation. In the Light flashing from that darkness, King David saw the Source of the waters appear; he saw the Foundation of the creation coming into view (Ps 17.12-15). But, in the icon of St Mark and St Luke, drawn in our mind by the pre-Lenten lectionary, do we not see in that darkness covering the whole earth Christ Jesus, the Wisdom of God beyond measure, Christ Jesus the True Light that illumines the world? We see Our Savior Jesus Christ shining from His Cross with such brilliance that the sun was darkened. That is, we come into Great Lent in the supreme Theophany of Holy Scripture. And having beheld the Light of Christ, high and lifted up in the darkness of the Father’s compassion that covers the earth, as Isaiah saw Him high and lifted up over a dark pool of sapphire (Isa 6.1), we saw the Spring from whom the waters of creation came forth; we beheld the Foundation in whom the world was established so that it shall never be moved.
Ah! In that same darkness, if we studied closely the LORD’s Tomb with the myrrhbearing women, and beheld with them how His Body was laid, we should have seen the Evangelist Luke directing our eyes, in a rather cryptic manner, to a mysterious Light shining forth from the Tomb, a Light that brings the Sabbath into view: “It was the Day of Preparation, and the Sabbath epephosken,” he says (Lk 23.54). The Sabbath was dawning…where? On the whole earth? Which Sabbath? The Church tells us on Great and Holy Saturday when we stand with the myrrhbearers now not outside but inside the LORD’s Tomb: it is the mystical Sabbath Rest of God that Moses wrote about! The Foundation of the world, the Spring from which the waters of creation come forth, is revealed to be the extreme humility of Christ, the forgiveness of divine compassion that loves even the enemy that now shines on the whole earth from within the brilliant darkness of His Sabbath Rest, from within the unfathomable abyss of the LORD’s compassions that cover all His works!
In this Darkness, in this light, in the dread mystery of the supreme Theophany of Christ’s Holy Passion, we entered Great Lent. When the ‘people’ saw the sight, and when the myrrhbearers saw the Tomb and how His Body was laid, it says, they all turned downward, the people smiting their breasts, the myrrhbearers turning downward into the stillness of the Sabbath. Which Sabbath? The mystical Sabbath Rest of God in His Tomb now covering the whole earth.
I said I would play only the opening chord of this verse of theology, and that was it.
But, the icon drawn in your mind by the sound of that chord should reveal to you that the Path of Great Lent is this descent with the people and with the myrrhbearers—not to mention the Publican who also went down to his house, justified—into the chamber of the heart, the tomb of the heart as St Macarius the Egyptian teaches us (4th cent., Hom. 11.11). This hidden, interior descent is the inner Exodus of our mind into our heart in the Light of Christ already shining forth from His Tomb, under the darkness of the unfathomable abyss of divine compassion that covers the whole earth. It is the better and changeless Path, Christ Himself, that ascends to God we heard tell of at the Jordan, on Theophany.
Give ear to the instruction of St Isaac of Nineveh (7th cent.): “Be diligent to enter into the chamber that is within you (Mt 6.10) and you will see the chamber of Heaven, for these are one and the same, and with one entry you will behold them both. The Ladder of the Kingdom is within you [the Cross, the Theotokos], hidden in your soul. Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which you are able to ascend.” (Homily 2, p. 11)
This is the inner Path that Fr Vlad walked in the hidden depths of his soul throughout his life. In the relic of Fr Vlad’s body, left behind as it was on the Second Day of Great Lent, I wonder if we are justified to see it as evidence that Fr Vlad is leading us on our Lenten journey downward into the tomb of our heart and into the bridal chamber of the LORD’s Tomb on Pascha Night. If so, then in his falling asleep, he continues to pastor us, to shepherd us in the way of Christ, as he did throughout the years of his priesthood, but now the pastoral role of his priesthood has been deified.
In this, what I’m trying to describe to you is that it is in the dread mystery of Christ’s Holy Passion, it is in the Joy of His Holy Resurrection, that is, it is in the Life of the Mystery of the Church, that we will discover that Fr Vladimir is not absent to us. He is very much present to us. He is present to us who are still on this side here and now with the Savior on the other side. He is present to us in the Paschal Mystery of the Savior’s Sabbath Rest, in the extreme humility of Christ, in the unfathomable abyss of divine compassion, calling out to us to descend into the chamber of our heart that with him, we may ascend together with all the saints into the Bridal Chamber of Christ and out into the Garden of ‘Sweetness,’ the Garden of Christ’s Holy Resurrection! I submit that this is the hymn our souls will hear in that holy Light bathing Fr Vladimir’s face every time we remember him. Amen!