Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Conversation with John Sanidopoulos (Session One)

I will be traveling for the next eleven days and be away from a computer, so there will not be any further posts until my return. Till then I have posted the daily Saints and Feasts for daily reading. Below also is a portion of an interview I did about a year and a half ago, the rest of which I may post at a later time. The interviewer, who is a friend of mine from seminary, wanted me to publish it on my site to familiarize my readers a little bit more about me and this ministry. It was never published because I thought more important things needed to be published, but since I promised the interviewer I would do it, here it is. Enjoy.

Session One

A Conversation with John Sanidopoulos

My acquaintance with John Sanidopoulos goes back to around 2003 while we were students at Holy Cross Theological School in Brookline, Massachusetts. We talked very little at the time, because he was busy working a full-time job and being a full-time student, and he lived on the other side of campus with the married students, so it was only in class that I saw him and we spoke a bit. I didn't really get to have a conversation with him until 2006, and it was then that I realized how deeply intelligent, humorous, humble and pious he was - four things you rarely find so grounded and integrated as you do in John. This is what I got from my one conversation with him, and we lost contact after that for about ten years, until I emailed him in 2016, not surprised to hear that he had one of the most influential ministries of the Orthodox Church in America and perhaps the English-speaking world. It was then that I began to ask him questions via email, that I eventually compiled into an interview. I had to convince him to publish it on his site, and he promised he would. A year and a half later, here it is. Keep in mind, these questions were made between October and December of 2016.

Q. You just returned from France. How was it? Any cool experiences? Any particular highlight?

A. It was great. Many cool experiences. I mainly stayed in Paris for eight days, which unfortunately is not enough to see and experience the whole city, and one of those days I even had the opportunity to visit Normandy, which was very moving, interesting and increased ten-fold my sense of patriotism as an American. As far as Paris is concerned, I went to all the major sites and visited as many museums and churches as I possibly could, taking in as many eras of Parisian history as I could. I tried to mainly focus my trip around the vast and rich Christian history of Paris, but I was also interested in following some of my literary and philosophical interests, and I also wanted to get in as much as I could that had to do with the French Revolution and 19th and 20th century Bohemianism. There's so much to say about it. As far as a highlight is concerned, there were many, but one that is not so well-known and popular is the Parisian Catacombs. They run for miles underneath the city of Paris, but visitors can visit about a half a mile of them. It was around Halloween time, so it was especially eerie walking among all the exposed dead bones 80-feet or so underground, plus a friend of mine who is a folklorist and paranormal investigator who has had many interesting experiences had his first spirit-sighting there. I was down there with my brother-in-law and he claimed to have possibly experienced something, but I didn't experience anything paranormal, though I almost became a ghost walking back up those eighty or so steps to get back to the top.

Q. It's my dream to go there. Hopefully one day. Now I wanted to mainly concentrate on asking you about your ministry, not just its future, but primarily its past. Every Orthodox person I know that is in the know is familiar, at least somewhat, with your site. I was even in Greece this past summer and someone asked if I knew you. I told him the little I could, but it was after that encounter I contacted you after ten years, and it made me realize how little people actually know the John Sanidopoulos behind the johnsanidopoulos.com, which is the url for your ministry the Mystagogy Resource Center. This is my attempt to familiarize people a little more with how this all came about. So how did this all begin?

A. Well, that is actually a complex question, which I will try and simplify as much as I could, with as much transparency as I could. This ministry was actually born during one of the darkest and most confusing periods of my life, and you could say it was a light that issued forth out of this darkness, sort of like the first day of creation. There was a gestational period before this time that went back many years, even in high school, seminary and so forth, as well as from the time when the internet began. I think I got my first computer with the internet in 1998, and ever since then I looked for Orthodox resources online, and whatever I found interesting I would print it out. But as the years went by, there was really no major development in providing good and interesting Orthodox resources online, and most patristic resources were through non-Orthodox sites. Instead, the only developments that were being made were those surrounding controversial issues in the Church, and these are still the most popular things online. Very little of what I was personally looking for was found online. But in around 1999 whatever I did find interesting, I would start emailing to friends who I thought may be interested in that particular subject. This developed into an email list I had, which I maintained until 2006 when I began using social media, and through social media I continued sending things to people on my list. This is what I call the gestational period of this ministry. It was very small and insignificant, and I really had no aspirations higher than what I was doing.

Q. In a few sentences you threw in a lot of things I would like to go deeper into, before we move on. Chronologically, you said it all started in high school?

A. Yeah, sort of. Especially my junior and senior year. That's when I started to really hate going to school, so I skipped as often as I could. Even though I grew up in a Mormon town outside of Boston, most of my teachers were hardcore atheists, the two worst being my History teacher who was the son of a Greek Orthodox priest no less, and the other was my Biology teacher; they were very disappointed how I turned out. Because of this I would call it a Communist Daycare Center, but it strengthened my faith. This is the main reason I skipped school a lot, and I would go to the library or home and just read. I always had an unquenchable thirst to learn, but school never satisfied me. Anyway, to answer your question, when I was in high school, for example I wanted to read more about the lives of the saints, but I could never find any good resources. As a high schooler of the early 90's with no guidance, the only things I could find was children's material on the lives of the saints. Then I would look in encyclopedias and any resource I could find. Then with my Orthodox calendar from church, I decided to begin in September and start compiling all the lives of the saints that I could find. I started with September 1st, and I saw that on that day we celebrate many saints. So I went through one by one and did as much research as I could to compile everything into a notebook on each saint. This is how I became obsessed with St. Symeon the Stylite. He made me so curious, that I wanted to find as much as possible on him. I spent many days just researching his story, but I could only find very little. It was hard back then. But me doing this research gave me the burning desire to one day complete my project. Little did I know that this project was so vast, that I'm still working at it 25 years later, with no end in sight.

Q. When did you become interested in Christianity and the Orthodox Church?

A. That is a very long story. One day I hope to write a book about it, because I think my story could be revolutionary for youth and young adult ministry. I won't get into the whole story, but I will just say that even though I was born and raised in the Church, my love for Christ was really born at the age of ten. My love for the saints goes back even before this, on those rare occasions when I would see my pious grandmother from Greece. She was an extraordinary woman, with the greatest faith I have ever known. When she would visit us from Greece, she would sleep in my room, and before bed she would pray the prayer to the Panagia by heart from the Akathist Hymn before departing for sleep, and her prayer was so heartfelt. And she was a great storyteller, so she would tell me stories from Greek mythology as if Homer himself were reciting the story, but mixed in with this she would tell me stories of the heroic saints of the Orthodox Church, like St. George, St. Demetrios, St. Eustathios, etc. I especially loved when she told me about St. Eustathios. It was a long story, and it would always move her to tears. At the age of ten my Greek school teacher, who was a seminarian at Holy Cross, introduced me to the power of Christ's forgiveness and resurrection. And he did this through his amazing storytelling as well. This is how I also became a storyteller, knowing its power to transform personally, and it is important to understand how my ministry functions. Besides this, the story of my Christian walk is a long and bumpy one that I will save for another day.

Q. You said the Mystagogy Resource Center was born out of one of the darkest and most confusing periods of your life. Please explain?

A. I had just finished my second graduate degree at Holy Cross, I had been working full time in sales for a couple of years, which I hated, I was a few months away from having my divorce finalized, and I had just settled into a new apartment by myself. It was a hopeless time and I saw me going nowhere, stuck in a job I absolutely hated, but I was pretty good at. In this context one night in 2006 I was browsing the internet, and I came across a website called The NACHTKABARETT. Now anyone that knows me knows how much of a fan of Marilyn Manson I am, since the late 90s, and I've spent literally hundreds of hours listening to his music, reading and watching his interviews, and going to his concerts every chance I got. I felt like there were few in the world that knew more about Manson than I did. Then I came across this site written by an Armenian kid from New York who just put things together about Manson like I had never seen. So I combed through this website page by page and read everything in one night. I think I spent about 10 hours straight on the site. I even contacted the writer and thanked him for all the information, that's how grateful I was. Interestingly, he was once an Orthodox Christian, and his love for Manson grew out of his interest in the occult, which he unfortunately fully embraced, and he was a very good artist himself, painting intricate things using his own blood as paint. A few years ago he passed away at a young age, but his work was admired by Manson himself and they had become close friends.

Why do I bring this up. This website became the primary inspiration for my own website. Here I was thinking I knew so much about Manson, then along comes this kid about a decade younger than me who blew me away by all this information that he put together so well. He blew away every Manson fan. This is what I wanted to do for the Church. I was well aware that I knew things most people didn't know about Orthodoxy. I wanted to create something that would give other Orthodox the same feeling and hunger that I felt that night; the feeling and hunger to devour every bit of information, and to embark on deeper discoveries. But this was all a pipedream. I had no idea how to do it. My computer knowledge was abysmal. I put it off for a few years. Then in 2008 I decided to start a blog, writing down my own thoughts and experiences. I never had the intention of anyone reading it. For example, I would write a book review of a book I read, or a review of an album I bought, or a review of a movie I watched. For some reason, writing my thoughts just made me feel better. Then I started reading Orthodox blogs in Greek, and I noticed that they blogged very differently than how Americans blogged. They blogged about what was going on daily in the Orthodox calendar, such as feasts and saints, and they reported on obscure Orthodox news you couldn't find anywhere else. Taking what I learned from The NACHTKABARETT and the Greek blogs, I created my own site. Everything before that time and from the first year or so I have deleted. It was very experimental. I was trying to find my groove. Then a controversy broke out that helped bring my site along the direction I wanted to go. Basically it was the exact opposite direction of every other English-language Orthodox website. This is how the Mystagogy Resource Center was born. Actually, back then it was just Mystagogy.

Q. How did you come up with the name Mystagogy?

A. Again, I wanted my site to capture audiences by the content just like The NACHTKABARETT site did for me. As I was browsing there I came across the word "Hierophant". This was a word Manson used to describe himself in his Holy Wood era. I really liked that word, and thought about using it. Plus, it was a Greek word with religious connotations. But I also thought it was a word hijacked by occultists, so I came up with a more Orthodox word that basically means the same thing, and I liked the sound of it - Mystagogy. And this word fit perfectly with my mission - to educate the Orthodox, even those who considered themselves the most educated, and I wanted to blow everyone away with the things that lay hidden in my heart and in my brain and in my soul.

Q. I think this is a good place to stop our first session. Honestly, I feel like I skipped a lot and left a lot of gaps, so I will try and fill out the gaps next time. Thanks for your time.

A. Thank you. Looking forward to next time. And yes, I did leave a lot of gaps. The best interviews are the ones that leave you with more questions.

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