This YouTubing Nun Helps Russian Orthodoxy Stay Relevant
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Sister Vassa Larin is on a digital mission to spread the Russian Orthodox faith.
By Dan Peleschuk
It’s not every day you encounter a monastic who waxes poetic about the perils of modern partisanship. Or who cites Ricky Gervais as an example of how not to think about theology. And although black-habit-clad Sister Vassa Larin looks every bit the Russian Orthodox nun, little else about her conforms to what you might expect to be “nunlike.”
Take a recent video talk in which, after discussing the nuances of God’s wrath, the Vienna-based American proceeds to denounce men who wear popped collars and women who try — and fail, in her humble opinion — to pull off maxi-dresses.
But that’s the point: Through her podcasts and video talks, released under the brand Coffee With Sr. Vassa, Larin deploys a sense of cultural awareness and wit combined with years of rigorous scholarly pursuit to engage listeners and viewers on a notoriously dense and decidedly unhip topic: Orthodox Christianity. With church attendance on the decline, that’s no easy task. But Larin believes she has found a way: “If people are laughing with you,” she says, “you’ve won them over. And then you could actually teach them something that’s very heavy.”
Born in Nyack, New York, the 48-year-old has been immersed in religion all her life. Raised in a family anchored by a Russian Orthodox priest (men are allowed to marry before becoming priests), Larin nevertheless shocked both her parents when she dropped out of Bryn Mawr College as a teenager to enter a French convent run by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, a semiautonomous part of the flagship organization. She then completed a master’s degree at the Institute of Orthodox Theology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
The defining moment of Larin’s early career came when she attracted the attention of Robert Taft, a Jesuit priest and renowned scholar of Eastern Christianity, who directed her doctoral thesis on the Byzantine Hierarchal Divine Liturgy at Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute. He also plugged her into the broader scholarly community, and Larin says it’s thanks to Taft that she began teaching at the University of Vienna.
But teaching a predominantly Catholic cohort, Larin began to realize how poorly understood the facets of her own Orthodox faith are. Roman Catholic Mass, for example, “has been studied inside and out,” she says, which is not true of the Orthodox liturgy. “It’s really a big concern of mine that people are not only poorly educated in Orthodox tradition — in Scripture and in liturgy — but that they don’t even suspect that there’s anything to learn there,” she says. “It’s just like some medieval darkness rather than light.”
Around five years ago, she took to YouTube in an attempt to shed some light. Perched in front of a crowded bookshelf — and surrounded, she says, by a sea of other scholarly materials — she explains why the Orthodox liturgy is celebrated as it is, along with the history supporting its various traditions. In one video, Larin even addresses the age-old question “Does prayer really work?”
Larin is evidence that religious life in the modern era doesn’t have to mean being disconnected from the larger world.
Since then, she’s attracted more than 10,000 YouTube subscribers and monetized her Divine Liturgy podcast on Patreon, her primary source of financial support, in addition to selling video chats and charging speaking fees. With her lighter fare, featured in the YouTube series Saturday Morning Live, Larin lets loose with social commentary on topics as diverse as the royal wedding, Billy Graham and the World Cup, all geared toward staying relevant to viewers. By doing so, she is evidence that religious life in the modern era doesn’t mean being disconnected from the larger world.
Where Larin seeks relevance, however, others find irreverence, concerned that her distinctly unorthodox approach to Orthodox studies and questions of faith is too modern, even transgressive. In one instance, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia criticized a note Larin wrote to a follower, later posted publicly, for being “contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and pastorally harmful” — highly unusual for an office that doesn’t comment on online material.
But if conservatives deem Larin subversive, her progressive interpretations of Orthodoxy draw support from many of her colleagues. Steven Christoforou, director of Y2AM, a Greek Orthodox youth ministry, says Larin was an early adopter of video among her Orthodox peers and “cultivates a sense of warmth” with her audience. “All of this has to be grounded in reality,” says Christoforou, who also runs a podcast, about the need to make Orthodox teachings relatable. “Otherwise we’re just blowing smoke at people.”
Larin’s service effort couldn’t have started soon enough: U.S. church attendance among adults has plummeted 20 percentage points in the past two decades, according to a recent Gallup survey. Generational challenges are no less daunting considering Eastern Orthodoxy is partitioned into many culturally or ethnic-based subdivisions, from the Greek and Russian to Bulgarian and Romanian churches. While each enjoys at least some presence within immigrant communities in the U.S., for instance, people risk losing touch with their ethnic roots, according to Susan Ashbrook Harvey, a professor at Brown University and an expert on Byzantine Christianity. “People become more American than Greek or Coptic,” she says. But by the same token, Harvey adds, studying religion may be a useful way to reconnect with one’s broader cultural background.
Despite the uplifting content of her videos, though, Larin makes one thing clear: None of this is supposed to be easy. Making Orthodoxy accessible is not about dumbing it down or modernizing it. That’s why her Divine Liturgy series, now with several dozen installments, is detailed and exhaustive. Ultimately, she’s targeting those truly invested in learning about Orthodoxy. But that doesn’t mean others can’t learn a thing or two from the Psalms or God’s revelation of himself — in which, she says, “there’s so much meaning.”
And if you ask Larin, that’s exactly what’s missing in the world.
- Dan Peleschuk, OZY Author Contact Dan Peleschuk