On The Road to Emmaus

James Fisher, a parishioner of St. John of Kronstadt Eastern Orthodox Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, interviews Mother Nectaria McLees from Moscow, Russia – an Orthodox nun and the overseas editor of “Road to Emmaus: A Journal of Orthodox Faith and Culture.”

JAMES: As a recent convert (2001), I find the Road to Emmaus a wonderful aid to growing in the faith, and it seems to me that it would be interesting to Orthodox Christians from any background.

M. NECTARIA: Thank you. I'm glad you've found it helpful. Our readers are our primary inspiration. Comments, suggestions, things they'd like to see in the journal, keep us in touch with what they find useful and give us a direction to go in. Road to Emmaus does seem to interest people of different backgrounds. We have readers in almost every English-speaking country, from the Scottish highlands to Tasmania. Also in Russia, Romania, France, and Greece. Some of our articles have been translated into Russian and are on popular Russian internet sites.

JAMES: How did Road to Emmaus begin?

M. NECTARIA: Actually, it was two cross-currents that came together at the right time: inspiration and opportunity. Richard Betts (now the journal's U.S. editor) and I had been working together here in Moscow on Russian and English publications since the early 1990's, first from the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate printing house in Moscow, then from our own office. Traveling around Russia we often met people with wonderful stories that we later tried to recount to Orthodox Christians back home, but found that the richness of an original conversation was hard to pass on second-hand.

In the early 90's I began writing letters to small groups of friends trying to describe our daily life in a way that would allow them to connect to our experience. At that time, we had been invited to work in the Russian state archives on the Romanov family files, their personal letters and diaries, and had compiled an anthology that was later translated and published in Russian. During our winter evenings, I embarked on a decade-long project of writing a pilgrim's guide to Greece, while Richard was still digging through archival material trying to unravel the political implications of Rasputin's relationship with the Russian royal family. All of this was fascinating training in how to research, critique ideas and get things down succinctly, but we both regretted that we had not yet found a way to share our contemporary experience of living in an Orthodox country.

Finally, the opportunity came: In 1999 Christ the Saviour Brotherhood, the Orthodox missionary brotherhood that had sponsored the printing of several of our Russian books and knew our work, was inspired to publish an English-language Orthodox journal of its own, and asked if we would take on the editorship. We weren't sure how it would work with the editing in Russia and the publishers in the U.S., but the board of directors generously offered us a free hand in forming the content of the journal, with the understanding that we would continue to work together as long as it was mutually agreeable. The journal was not only the brain-child of the brotherhood, but remains one of its core works, a contemporary Orthodox outreach. Their offer was exactly the forum we needed to share the wealth of living abroad, and the first issue was published in May, 2000.

JAMES: Wonderful. What was your vision for Road to Emmaus?

M. NECTARIA: We hoped to offer Orthodox Christians from traditional countries (or countries that were once Orthodox and are trying to reclaim their heritage), a voice in the West. We saw this as a way to break down our mutual isolation, but, on a simpler level, we just wanted to share the things that had inspired us.

Also, if we were to help begin a new magazine we wanted it to fill an empty niche, not to compete with established Orthodox publishers who were already doing fine work in their own spheres. Orthodox Word, Orthodox Life, St. Vladimir's Quarterly, Sobornost, Sourouzh, The True Vine had been presenting Orthodox patristics, theology, church history, and lives of ascetics and martyrs in a magazine format for years. We were neither theologians nor academics (nor even historians in the proper sense) and we didn't want to get in over our heads. On a popular level, too, there were already diocesan and national publications like Again, The Greek Observer, Orthodox Witness, Touchstone and The Handmaiden that were highlighting North American Orthodoxy.

Around that time we received a letter from a new Orthodox convert in the Midwest who wrote that in order to develop an Orthodox world-view she felt she needed to meet people from countries where Orthodoxy was a part of their heritage, but in her small town she felt as isolated as if she were on a desert island. She couldn't go on pilgrimage because she had small children, and although she'd read dozens of books, she badly felt the need for personal, contemporary contact with other Orthodox Christians.

Her letter put the pieces together for us, and we realized that all we had to do was to begin structuring these wonderful conversations a bit and flip on a tape recorder. The transcript would no longer be second-hand; the reader could join a living conversation. We also saw the journal featuring pilgrimage stories, and articles or talks about any facet of Orthodox life, including art. Her letter, our vision and the brotherhood's purpose of helping to nourish a traditional Orthodox world-view all dove-tailed at once.

JAMES: Where is the magazine now in terms of fulfilling this vision?

M. NECTARIA: We are now in our fourth year, and on our sixteenth issue. We've found the Orthodox world to be much deeper and more varied that we ever imagined, and we are continually amazed at how a few well-directed questions can bring new insights. Also, we've been very pleased to find that our readers are inspired by the same things we are.

Our production staff is also diverse, which gives us a broader tone: Richard Betts (now back in the U.S.), Bruce Petersen, our graphic artist, and Stephen and Elisabeth Litster who manage the subscriptions and mailing, are all members of the OCA. Nicholas Karellos in Athens belongs to the Greek Archdiocese, Kate McCaffery, our administrative liaison with Christ the Saviour Brotherhood is with the Bulgarians, and Thomas Hulbert, Matushka Inna Belov and I are in the Moscow Patriarchate here in Russia. We edit in Moscow, lay-out, print and mail from Portland, Oregon, and collect interviews around the world.

JAMES: What is your editorial philosophy?

M. NECTARIA: To let the author or the person we are interviewing freely express themselves. Our only provision is that we don't print discussions of church politics. (Of course, it's sometimes necessary to mention difficult church situations in an interview, but only as context, not to sit in judgement). We want any Orthodox Christian in the world to be able to feel that this is their journal.

We are also aware that, like all Orthodox literature, Road to Emmaus is a potential missionary tool. People often speak frankly about their personal experience of the differences between Orthodoxy and other Christian groups, or even other religions, but this can be done charitably and without rancor, so that we don't needlessly turn people away.

JAMES: How do you gather interviews?

M. NECTARIA: It varies. It could be a long-planned trip to another country for an arranged interview or a spontaneous kitchen conversation, where I suddenly realize that something important is happening and switch on the tape recorder. The ideas for interviews come from all over. Russia, of course, is a rich source. In Greece, our correspondent, Nicholas Karellos, often hears of someone visiting Athens or Thessalonica whom he thinks would interest us and arranges an interview. Opportunities arise at Orthodox seminars or conferences, and, not infrequently, in our own backyard with people we’ve known for years. We've done interviews while on pilgrimage ourselves, as well as simply writing people we haven't met yet, like the Orthodox Church Mission Center (OCMC) missionaries in Albania, to ask if we can come visit.

The interview can be a one-time spontaneous talk or take weeks to prepare and accomplish. Particularly in the case of older people, Matushka Inna, our Russian co-editor, and I often visit four or five times to become friends before we even bring up the idea of an interview. We know that we are dealing with deep personal history, and this has to be approached with respect.

JAMES: Can you describe the editing process?

M. NECTARIA: Once we get the interview on tape (often six or seven hours of taping over several days), it has to be translated if it was not done in English. Even if it was, non-native English is often of such a unique quality that it gets very tricky molding it into a grammatical, readable form while staying faithful to the “tone” of the speaker. Then the editing begins: few of us (except Bishop Kallistos Ware) speak in such a consistent, logical, succinct manner that it can go straight into print. We remember forgotten points long after we've shifted to another topic, or we throw in mounds of irrelevant details. Also, a line of conversation may trail along for quite some time, only to lead to a dead end. We have to make decisions on all of this.

After editing, we send it back to the person we've interviewed to add, delete or change anything they like. I've always been against the practice of trying to catch someone in an unguarded moment and then printing an off-hand or poorly thought-out comment because it's startling or newsworthy. We want, first of all, to be sure that the person we've interviewed is satisfied with the result. We may go through a dozen editings and the entire process can cover five or six months depending on the complexity of the interview.

Gathering pictures is also a challenge. For example, our first interview with Fr. Daniel Byantoro from Indonesia was when one of our staff caught him “on the fly” through Amsterdam. Later, we had to track him down in Jakarta and beg him to collect pictures and post them to Moscow, where we wrote captions for them and sent them on to the U.S. for layout. The whole process took months.

JAMES: What has been your favorite interview?

M. NECTARIA: That's like asking about a favorite child. Every interview is unique and real friendships have emerged from many of them. There have been a wide variety of Orthodox featured in Road to Emmaus including hierarchs, clergy and monastics like Metropolitan John of Albania and Bishop Kallistos Ware, Sister Gavrilia (the spiritual daughter of Mother Gavrilia, the “Ascetic of Love” from Greece), Fr. Maxime Le Diraison in Brittany, France, Fr. Artemy Vladimirov in Moscow and other good Russian pastors.

There are also missionaries: Fr. Daniel Byantoro of Indonesia, Ioannes Chen from China, and the remarkable OCMC missionaries to Albania. Some of the best interviews we've had have come from lay-people; Matushka Inna Belov on teaching her son to pray, Nicholas Karellos on contemporary Orthodox life in Greece, the Christopolous family of Ioannina on family life, Olga Nikolaevna Kulikovsky-Romanov on her mother-in-law (Grand Duchess Olga of Russia), and Dr. Tarek Mitri, a Lebanese professor who has some of the most significant insights on Christian-Muslim relations in print. Some very popular articles have been our “literary” interviews with Russian translators of Dickens and G.K. Chesterton, who have a different but fascinating view of our English literature, and have dedicated their lives to making it available in Russian. Both Matushka Inna's and Nicholas Karellos' interviews were so well-received that we invited them to join our staff.

JAMES: What was your most unusual interview?

M. NECTARIA: They all have unusual aspects, but one of my most surprising was when I attended a theological conference in Volos, Greece in August of 2002 that was featuring Dr. Tarek Mitri, co-ordinator of the Christian-Muslim dialogue for the W.C.C.. In August, Greece can be like an oven, 115 F. every day. Nights were no better as we were in downtown Volos, in stifling little rooms with no air. It was impossible to sleep, so the second night, about 2:00 in the morning, I poked around until I found the back stairs to the roof. To my surprise, I wasn't alone. Ioannes Chen from China was already there, so naturally, we began to talk. We were both a little shy, but within a half-hour we realized that we were on the same wavelength. For the next five nights we spent hours on the roof talking about China, his conversion, and his hopes for his people.

JAMES: What are some of the joys and challenges that come from working on the journal?

M. NECTARIA: Definitely, relationships. Once you've sat with someone for days or weeks and they've opened their inner life to you, you are more than acquaintances. (Our subscribers tell us they feel the same after reading about them.) We've become a part of their life, and they of ours, and we keep our connections long after the interview has finished. It can be a challenge time-wise to keep in touch with so many people, but I try to because I have a great fondness for everyone I've interviewed.

One of the other joys is to see how open-heartedly our readers have responded to some of the articles. After Matushka Inna Belov's letters about her husband's little mission in northern Russia, many people sent donations to help with the church reconstruction, and are continuing to answer our plea for the Chinese seminarians in Moscow. This kind of thing makes us more than “publishers and subscribers,” it makes us neighbors in the best sense.

JAMES: What has been your main support?

M. NECTARIA: For me personally, it is definitely the other members of the staff. Each one of them is irreplaceable. We work together well and keep in daily touch by e-mail and phone. The “umbrella” that we shelter under is the journal's publisher, Christ the Savior Brotherhood. Road to Emmaus is really a fruit of their dedication to nourishing a traditional Orthodox world-view within the canonical Church. Not only do they fund the journal, but are always ready to help with advice in areas we are weak, like advertising and accounting, and are willing to listen if we need to chew things over. The Brotherhood members pray for us, and their encouragement is crucial. Without them we wouldn't be here.

JAMES: What kind of hurdles do you face?

M. NECTARIA: Besides just physical logistics — we sometimes straddle three continents between our editing, printing and interviews - our biggest challenge is advertising. Our readers are very loyal, but we don't have the budget or staff to do continuous large-scale publicity. We do what we can and hope that our readers' enthusiasm will help spread the word.

JAMES: How can people subscribe?

M. NECTARIA: You can reach them through our toll-free number: 1-(866) 783-6628 or e-mail at emmausjournal@juno.com.

Subscriptions are $25/year, with a single issue price of $7 postage paid, payable in cash or money order. (Outside North America, add $15/year shipping and send an international money order in US dollars (obtainable at post-offices world-wide). The subscription order and payment can be sent to: Road to Emmaus, PO Box 16201, Portland, OR 97292-0021

JAMES: Do you have any amusing stories about the journal?

M. NECTARIA: Yes. One of my favorites was when we were working on the second issue. Richard had a great idea of doing a round-table discussion with several Russian Orthodox film-makers on the philosophy of Orthodox film. He spent several weeks contacting film-makers, working up his questions, and even managed refreshments. Once the evening began, however, the film-makers found that not only did they not have a common philosophy but that they could hardly bear one another's company, and it quickly disintegrated into a free-for-all over what Orthodox art was and wasn't. I think someone even threw a shoe. Dostoyevsky met Isadora Duncan. We couldn't understand a word of the tape and made a pact that we would never again take on artists as a group, only one by one.

JAMES: That's great. What are some future things you have in store for readers?

M. NECTARIA: Our next issue will be on the resurrection of Orthodoxy in Albania and the country's long Christian heritage. Later, we will feature an interview with a Russian Orthodox psychiatrist on mental illness and the soul, accounts of pilgrimages to rural Russia and to Iona (St. Columba's holy isle in Scotland), an interview with a Jain Indian from Gurujat, near the Pakistan border, who has converted to Orthodoxy, a lively discussion on heaven and hell with Fr. Artemy Vladimirov of Moscow. We'll explore Orthodoxy in the Congo with Fr. Theotimos Tsalis, a native priest and spiritual son of Fr. Cosmas of Zaire, and we'll feature a Greek historian who is tracing St. Andrew's far-reaching missionary journeys, and the evidence for them from Siberia to central Africa.

JAMES: One last question. How did you choose the title of your journal?

M. NECTARIA: It was deliberate. We understood that the whole story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus exactly fit our intent. We are all traveling to Emmaus, and by “communing together and reasoning” we hope to find in our midst, the Lord Himself.