In early November, Vienna appeared drained of life, brightly painted and cold to the touch like an embalmed body. This deeply Catholic city becomes solemn in observance of the Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls—the ancient Catholic commemorations of the dead. Schools and businesses close, and many Viennese leave to spend the long weekend catching their breath in livelier elsewheres. They will need to: in just a few weeks, the rest of Europe would descend on Vienna—birthplace of the snowglobe—and fill it with life throughout the Christmas season. For the moment, however, the whole city felt like a candy-colored memento mori.
I was in Vienna to speak with someone who is supposed to be “dead to the world,” a phrase that Eastern Orthodox churches use to describe their nuns and monks. It’s a figurative way to underscore their detachment from property, money, status, and ambition, but after a lengthy period of study and prayer, monastics effectively do die: to their former lives, families, names, and to a certain extent, genders—to say nothing of their secular intellectual pursuits. Thus untethered, the mind is to “descend into the heart” and set it ablaze with the desire to pray, unceasingly, for the life of the same world to which Sister Vassa Larin, PhD, has putatively “died.”
Judging from her resume, the polyglot 48-year-old Russian Orthodox nun from Nyack, NY, is very much alive in the world. Not only a productive scholar of Orthodox liturgy with some 57 publications to her name, Larin is also a YouTuber, podcaster, self-sustaining business owner, and a quirky spiritual guide—if also a controversial one. In the intricate and arcane world of Orthodox Christianity, Larin cuts a unique and transgressive figure: depending who you ask, she is either a heretical predator, a “Westernizing” post-modernist and persona non grata, or a refreshingly irreverent voice of much-needed movement in an inert church, a brilliant woman playing to win in a bearded man’s game.
Those concerns seemed remote to Larin when I met her at her central Vienna home in early November. Her assistant opened the door to reveal the nearly six-foot-tall Larin standing at the open window at the far end of her apartment. She was dressed in the mourning-black habit and robes required of Orthodox monastics and the green fuzzy socks that are not. But in spite of the deathly attire, Larin was joyful as she stared out the open window. I was uncertain why this should be the case, as the view was aggressively worldly: souvenir shops, a steadily trafficked McDonalds, the clunky skyline of the central business district, and beneath that, a ribbon of graffiti along the far wall of the Vienna Canal. It was a panorama of modernity, convenience, capital, and its discontents: “the world,” warts and all. Larin just smiled at it—and months afterward, I’d still find something about that unsettling.
Larin left the window open as she live-streamed her latest YouTube series, “Saturday Morning Live,” and the computer picked up sounds from the street below. But no matter how loud they became, Larin never shut the window the whole afternoon, letting the secular Vienna of the 21st century mingle among her jewel-toned library of theological texts and holy icons. She has a penchant for this kind of osmosis, for puncturing barriers between the intellectual and the mystical, the West and East, the mundane and the divine.
When Larin first moved into this apartment in 2009, she was a newly minted professor of Orthodox liturgy at the Catholic University of Vienna and was newly responsible for her own livelihood after 20 years of church support. She had grown tired of having so much knowledge to share and too few people to share it with. “She has this great passion to get this knowledge about the faith out there and for people to have access to things that are sometimes very complicated,” as Dr. Daniel Galadza told me by telephone. Galadza is a lecturer at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto; he was Larin’s friend and colleague at the University of Vienna, and has seen her ministry grow from an idea to an independent business.
It began with an email newsletter of Larin’s daily Bible reflections, but her YouTube channel, “Coffee with Sister Vassa”—self-consciously corny explainers of Orthodox tradition and theology—has attracted nearly 10,000 subscribers. Throughout 2016, she published a comic strip about her fictional misadventures in Vienna, now discontinued. Her current focus is on her 200-episode-and-counting podcast, funded by more than 400 paid Patreon subscribers (“a habit you support,” as she says). She sells branded merchandise, offers video chats for $80-$700, and speaks at churches for a fee. It’s enough money not only to support Larin, who left her university position in January 2017, but also to compensate her handful of peripatetic assistants.
There is something strange here, but it’s not the money. Larin has taken no vows of poverty, but even if she had, “many abbesses of Orthodox monasteries have proved themselves to be quite entrepreneurial and innovative in terms of finding resources to support their monasteries,” as Dr. Milica Bakić-Hayden, lecturer emeritus in religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh, told me by email. And Larin is not the only extremely online nun; compared to the Catholic Sister Helen Prejean’s nearly eighty-thousand Twitter followers, in fact, Larin is inconsequential, all else being equal.
All things are not equal, however: Prejean is Catholic. And for reasons that will become clear, Orthodoxy is not supposed to be the milieu of a person like Larin. Indeed, she is at such an angle to the norm for an Orthodox nun that her critics insinuate she must be a subversive with a secret plan to disrupt the church from within.
As I prepared for our meeting in Vienna, I confess: I wanted something like this to be true.
One evening nearly four years ago, I joined a handful of elderly women and willowy archdiocesan employees to hear an in-person lecture by the host of some YouTube series. When I sat down, I had already determined it was going to be a waste of time. But then Larin began speaking. Her voice was that of an autodidact who has become the authority they couldn’t find elsewhere, modulating from the no-bullshit native New Yorker to a professor’s elliptical erudition. She was irreverent and clever, but carefully calibrated to avoid being too impressive. I paid attention.
She spoke about blood and vaginas and canons and the generalizations that congeal into Traditions-capital-T and clot in the arteries of a religion and kill it. She was responding to a question about a controversial article she had written on the archaic prohibitions that Orthodox churches place on women during their menstrual period. Intended to prevent “unclean” blood from “contaminating” the Eucharist, these prohibitions have far more stifling, practical consequences, especially at the women’s monasteries Larin called home for much of her adult life.
So she opened the embarrassingly disorganized archive of Orthodox history, and uncovered a surprising inconsistency: opinions about female “ritual impurity” have been diverse across the centuries, contradictory, and sometimes outright dismissive of the very idea. Far from timeless consistency, she discovered and showed, the church exists in time and its canons reflect that history.
This was everything that I had been taught was contrary to the spirit of my church, and here was a nun speaking this truth to power.
“From day one of monasticism, you have women monastics,” as Dr. Bakić-Hayden told me by phone. “We don’t hear much about them in the history of monasticism. It’s mostly about monks.” But here was Larin, speaking so loudly that everyone could hear her, and I wondered what else she could or would say. If she could expose the entrenched misogyny of my church, I wondered, could she also make space for queer people, like me? I must have asked Larin a question to this effect, though I don’t remember what she answered. All I remember is that, after the lecture ended and I went to leave, one of the willowy archdiocesans looked at me knowingly.
“She knew what you were talking about,” they said. “She just can’t say anything about it, you know?” I knew.
Eventually, however, Larin would. In the summer of 2017, Larin publicly encouraged the mother of a 14-year-old gay son to “let him ‘date’ in the daylight, with your knowledge, so he’s not chased into some kind of underground, of illicit hook-ups.” Far from open and affirming, and certainly not queer, her post was still a welcome acknowledgment of the unique risks queer youths encounter, and a commendable attempt to balance compassion with Orthodoxy. But as the post went viral, it infuriated traditionalists among the laity and clergy alike, and our holy fathers perceived.
“We instruct…that the contents of these publicly-posted [sic] materials be disregarded by the faithful as contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and pastorally harmful,” wrote the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, ROCOR, a church that White Russian emigrés founded in the 1920s as independent from the Communist-compromised Moscow Patriarchate. Notoriously conservative, it is the least likely church to produce someone like Larin, and perhaps the most likely to condemn her. But the reprimand was an extraordinary measure. “It is not the norm to reply from the Office of the Holy Synod to materials posted on the internet,” the Synod admitted.
When Barbara Larin was born on December 11, 1970 in Nyack, NY, the Orthodox world was more opaque than today, flourishing in enclaves around the United States, where families like Father George Larin’s kept the flame of the faith alive. He was the priest in a large and influential Russian Orthodox parish, and his daughters grew up immersed in the feasts and fasts of the Orthodox liturgical calendar and the pride of the insular ROCOR community. They were pious, “wore long skirts,” and spoke Russian, English, and Slavonic, a dead liturgical language.
“We were like prime presvytera material,” Larin said, laughing, using the Greek title for the wives of Orthodox priests, which, unlike Catholic priests, can marry, but only before ordination, which puts young seminarians on the lookout early for fitting brides. But though the Larin sisters were especially sought after by the ROCOR seminarians (one year, they were voted “‘the foxes of the year,’ or something,” she told me) Larin’s sights were not on marriage.
“I wanted to be like him,” she said, speaking about her father. “As I got older, I realized, well, that door is not open for me.” Despite the well-documented existence of a female diaconate in late antiquity, Orthodoxy does not allow the ordination of women. And so, with priesthood off the table, aside from marriage, Larin had one other option for a life immersed in the church. “There’s an unspoken instruction to [female] teenagers from pious families,” she says. “You either become a wife of a priest . . . or you become a nun.”
Larin dove deeper and deeper into church life. She sang in the choir, ultimately becoming its director. She assisted her father in the Orthodox memorial services for the recently reposed. She read his dense theology in Russian. But she remained dedicated to her schoolwork and graduated high school at 15 with a full scholarship to Bryn Mawr, where—as she told people—she intended to prepare for law school.
In secret, the desire to leave the world and pray had been simmering since she’d read The Way of a Pilgrim at 13, a beloved introductory text on Orthodox mysticism. The book follows an anonymous Russian man’s ascetical struggles in the Siberian wilderness, in pursuit of what the Orthodox call “prayer of the heart”: the involuntary, subconscious repetition of “The Jesus Prayer” (“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) and the literal fulfillment of St. Paul’s commandment to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Larin was drawn to acquire this mystical communion, and the flame grew hotter when she studied for a semester in Moscow, on the verge of Perestroika. Some Orthodox exalt that moment in history with pious awe, recalling tales of monks, nuns, and laity who received visions and performed wonders as the USSR collapsed. “People were really, really on fire,” Larin said, and “I was swept up.” Riding this wave, she resolved that she would quit school and commit herself entirely to prayer and become a nun. Anything else had to go. The same with anyone, and there was indeed someone.
“He was like spiritual-slash-hippie,” Larin says, blushing, of a Russian-American seminarian ten years her senior. They had been courting for about a year before Larin decamped for the Soviet Union, specifically to escape him, she says. “He was like my little asterisk next to ‘I’ll become a nun.’” Or at least he had been. With her future as a nun blazing before her, he became just another string “starting to clasp on,” she said, dabbing at her shoulders. She broke up with him by letter and dropped out of Bryn Mawr at 17. By 19, she had entered a monastery in France.
“I had to do this thing,” she said. “But then it had to be drastic.”
In those early years, Larin radically pursued the monastic ideal of dying to the world, immersing herself in the regimented life of her monastery. In these communities, life is prayer and work. Mornings begin with several hours of prayer known as matins, which transition into the Divine Liturgy, where communion is distributed, and end with a spare breakfast. Afternoons are for manual labor at one’s appointed tasks (laundry, cleaning, cooking, gardening, etc.). In the late afternoon, a light dinner transitions into the evening services, or vespers, which may extend until the early morning if there is a vigil for a particular feast day.
It is a deliberately difficult life, and a deliberately anti-intellectual one. Strict obedience to a spiritual father (a kind of mystical coach, therapist, and surrogate parent) is meant to inculcate absolute humility, and trusting in one’s own judgment is discouraged. The mind is an open door, and the logismoí, or “thoughts/reasoning,” can become vehicles for demonic influence. When “prayer of the heart” is the height of spiritual achievement, the intellect has little to offer.
Larin committed to it for several years, but her efforts to acquire prayer of the heart were not effective, no matter how spartan her lifestyle, how strict her fasting regimen, how much time she spent synchronizing her breath with the syllables of The Jesus Prayer. “There was a quiet despair about this after a while,” she says. Her mind was thirsty, nowhere close to descending into her heart.
To replenish herself, Larin returned to her love of scholarship, devouring all the texts available to her. “This archbishop discovered that I was really into studying whatever I could get my hands on, that I seemed to be soaking things up,” she recalls. “So, he would give me volume after volume of the Fathers,” the biblical commentaries and theological treatises written by saints like Basil the Great, John of Damascus, and other luminaries from the first millennium. Eventually, he would bless her to begin her studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, where she earned her Ph.D in Orthodox theology in 2008.
“The funny thing is that I started seeing my studying as an alternative—not an alternative, sort of a consolation prize for failing in prayer,” Larin said. “Which is a really screwed up way to think about it.”
When she reflects on her past, Larin emits a weak charge—resentment, I think, but it’s erratic, unsure of where it’s supposed to go. One target is her younger self, which anyone can understand—the hindsight frustration with our teenage all-or-nothing attitudes.
But the other target is a particularly Orthodox grievance against Orthodoxy itself. Our faith is this old, beautiful, and grotesque thing with life-changing mystical promise, but it’s hamstrung by its infatuation with its myths of purity. Some myths are not even of Orthodox provenance, but a legacy of the rhetoric that still informs how the world talks about the third largest Christian denomination in the world. Often seen as Catholicism’s exotic and estranged eastern cousin, Orthodoxy neatly maps onto Orientalist fantasies of the other: against the individualism, rationality, egalitarianism, and enterprise of Catholicism and its Protestant offshoots, Orthodoxy stands for collectivism, mysticism, autocracy, and even communism. These binaries oversimplify a messy web of intercultural exchanges, and they do so in large part to support the fantasy “The West” has of itself. But the East, at least the Orthodox one, has fantasies of itself, too, and they are supported by the same binary logic.
It’s common, for example, to hear pious Orthodox believers tsk-tsk at the hopeless “rationalism” and “legalism” of Western Christianity. Whether they’re referring to the Catholic concept of transubstantiation, or to the Protestant concept of penal substitution, the Orthodox often characterize the West as a casualty of its own cleverness. As a consequence, the mystical, erotic East can convince itself that intellectual inquiry has no place in our church. Small wonder, then, that long overturned prohibitions on menstrual blood are somehow still live issues.
“Behind that thinking is an entire culture that I grew up in,” Larin said. “It’s very deep-seated. It’s the reason why we, as Orthodox, can’t somehow figure out what needs to be approached with an historical-critical eye and changed, say, in our canonical codex? In some of our ethical priorities?”
That way of thinking set the template for what Larin calls “Orthodox maximalism,” an extreme commitment to a form of the religion in which prayer and life stand on either side of an impermeable barrier. The true believer, the true Christian, is in this sense only ever to be found on one side: the side of prayer. “The ultimate thinking there was, to be a real Christian was to be a monastic,” Larin said, and for years, she worked to be numbered among them. It was only later in life, in her mid 30s, that she met the man who would become her paradigm for a different life of faith. Ironically, that mentor was a Catholic priest, Father Robert Taft.
An angelically handsome descendant of President William Howard Taft, Robert was, like Larin, a conduit between the Catholic West and Orthodox East. A priest in the Byzantine Catholic rite—Catholics who use the liturgy and iconography of the Orthodox churches, but who acknowledge the supremacy of the Papacy over the Christian world—Taft was one of the world’s foremost scholars of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. There he would meet Larin, who attended the Institute from 2006-2008, the lone Russian Orthodox nun.
For Larin, Taft was a paragon of the scholar-monastic, a man equally of faith and science, whose lectures were as full of grace as they were of hilarious off-color jokes. But he lived his life in equilibrium between the two worlds—spirit and mind—in which Larin felt equally at home. Under his tutelage, the “Orthodox maximalism” that had exhausted her had been neutralized, and she broke the barrier between a life of prayer and a prayerful life.
In the three decades since Larin’s spiritual coming-of-age in Russia, Orthodoxy and its place in the world have become both more entrenched and more unstable. On the one hand, it’s experienced a kind of rebirth, in part a result of the Russian Orthodox Church’s renewal in the aftermath of the Cold War, but also a result of an influx of converts in North America. On the other hand, its traditional power structure is contending with a socially networked laity, creating the prime conditions for speaking truths to formerly untouchable powers. For the little girl who wanted to be a priest but could not, like Larin, the time to strike is now.
I thought this was what she was doing. I had imagined her as a stalwart ally, driven by the loss of her childhood dream of priesthood to correct the excesses of an institution that has always protected male power. In fact, I had become so intent on grinding my many axes against the church that I had only ever seen Larin as general to follow. But Larin told me that she didn’t set out to break some kind of glass dome, and bristled at being described as “a woman in the church.” She made it clear that there is no agenda at work in her ministry, feminist or otherwise.
“Vocations and the way they look from generation to generation do change,” she said. “For example: women. They get management positions, leadership positions, in different areas. And they are told in their families, also Orthodox families, that, ‘you can be anything you want to be when you grow up. There’s a small caveat to that: except for in the church. But these changes to women’s position and self-awareness did not come because certain women in the church wanted to create a revolution.”
I struggled to believe this; I struggled to believe that she believed this and was not just staying on message. What was the point of all of this, anyway, if she weren’t fighting for something? If there had ever been a good time to renounce men, money and find some place nice to die, all signs point to that time being at hand. But Larin left that life behind.
“There’s certain wheels that were just pushing us,” she continued, “It wasn’t because I aspired, for example, I don’t know, to be different—it’s from beyond me. God somehow calls us and he calls us through our vocations.” This was not what I had hoped to discover when I came to Vienna.
I still don’t entirely know what she meant, but the answer, I think, is in the first few moments I spent in Larin’s apartment, standing by the window, as she smiled strangely at the cityscape outside. She seemed to see something I could not, as if everything outside that window was silently confirming that what she suspected was in fact true, or that everything that she was missing had been restored to its proper place. Then she said, with the wincing mea culpa of a good hostess, that she hasn’t had much sleep, that she may not be an optimal interview subject today. Taft had died during the night, on the Feast of All Souls—a day not sacred to us, but sacred to him. I gave my condolences, asked if we should reschedule, I’d be in Vienna for a few more days.
“He’s fine,” she said, as if he were already on his way back.
It wasn’t a deflection; it was an assertion, delivered without irony or doubt or steel. Too eager to see a battle be won, I had almost overlooked the faith I was witnessing.