In Memoriam: Fr. George Timko

by Fr. Alexander Garklavs

[Spring-Summer, 2001]

   One of senior priests of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, Fr. George Timko, passed away on November 18, 2000. He was 75 years old. Fr. George suffered a debilitating aneurysm in the fall of 1999, which forced him to retire as pastor of St. George Church in Buffalo, NY, where he had been almost thirty years. His association with the Diocese included being pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Whitestone, Queens and involvement with the beginning of St. Gregory the Theologian Church in Wappingers Falls, NY. He also served Holy Dormition Church in Marblehead, OH and at St. Markís Mission in Monroe, CT. He leaves behind his Matushka Dorothy, five children, many grandchildren and relatives. The funeral took place on November 25 at St. Georgeís Church. Presiding was Protopresbyter Alexander Warnecke, Dean of the New York State Deanery, who was assisted by several local clergy, guest priests and Fr. Herman Schick, current Pastor of St. Georgeís Church.

   Fr. George was one of the most remarkable of men. He was also an Orthodox pastor without peer. He was a true original, unconventional and a non-conformist. Fr. George did fit into any mold of any variation of what a "typical" Orthodox priest might be. This led many to misunderstand and/or ignore his extraordinary talents. He knew the Church Fathers better than most of us, yet he was clean shaven and shunned traditional monastic garb and prayer beads. He fasted longer and more consistently than any other person I have known, yet you could have a beer with him and discuss politics or science as you would with any average fellow. He prayed and meditated intensely, but he consciously rejected notions of clerical privilege and the ostentatious posture. He was unique but thoroughly Christian in substance and completely Orthodox in essence. He was different, but he was never aloof or superior. He had a certain unpretentious quality that was refreshing. He liked simple things: reading, cooking, walking, working, talking, and he enjoyed people.

   Fr. George grew up around hard-working people in the mining region of Western Pennsylvania. He never hid the fact that he began his life as a coal miner, where he learned to respect and appreciate honest manual labor. Throughout his pastoral career he was often engaged in some kind of physical work, particularly enjoying construction projects around the church. During World War II he served in the United States Navy and saw action in the Pacific. That experience affected him strongly and led to a deeper faith. After the war he returned to work in the mines, but also read the Bible in his spare time. The more he read the more he became interested in religion and spirituality. In the early 1950s he went to New York City and enrolled at St. Vladimirís Seminary. A serious student with a keen intuition, he found just the right mentor in Fr. Georges Florovsky, the Seminaryís Dean. Fr. Florovsky brought together spirituality and intellectual study, and his influence had a profound impact. Fr. George would frequently credit his seminary education as the pivotal experience where he really discovered the Orthodox Church.

   Fr. George was, first of all, a Scriptural man. He loved the Bible, studied it thoroughly and always turned to it. To this normative foundation he brought a phenomenal knowledge and veneration for the Church Fathers. He read and reread the volumes of the spiritual masterpiece called the Philokalia, as well as many other writings. He was especially fond of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor, but there were no bounds to his search for spiritual truths. He was devoted to the Fathers whom he regarded as accomplished guides and the best exponents of Orthodox Christianity. Because there are so few living experienced elders in our time, he constantly reminded us that the writings of the Fathers are indispensable in our spiritual formation. Following Fr. Florovsky, Fr. George firmly believed that this rich theological tradition is what made the Orthodox Church distinctive. However, his approach to the Fathers was not deficient of discernment. In a manner similar to St. Theophan the Recluse, whom he highly regarded, Fr. George endeavored to distill the message of the Fathers, into what is meaningful and accessible. Spirituality also determined his approach to liturgy. On the surface, Fr. George seemed to have a novel approach to the liturgy. Actually, his liturgical style was inspired and inspiring. For him religious ritual always corresponded with spiritual growth in love and peace. Without personal prayer, Scripture study, meditation, fasting and spiritual effort, liturgical activity is only a distraction without any real benefit, and can even be to our condemnation.

   Austere, confident and bold, Fr. George was also friendly, fair and open. He enjoyed discussions of all kind. He would probe, analyze, extemporize and thoroughly captivate his listeners. He was impressive as a retreat leader and at priestsí gatherings. He also appreciated ecumenical dialogue which he saw as a means for sharing truth and deepening his own faith. He participated in interfaith discussions and meetings on a variety of levels where he was a recognized authority on Eastern Christian spiritual life. From these contacts he brought to his ministry an ever-deepening conviction that Orthodox spirituality is the best that religion offers today. In this he differed somewhat with Fr. Alexander Schmemann, with whom he had lively but mutually respectful exchanges. While Fr. Alexander wanted to reinvigorate our culture with the Orthodox vision of the Kingdom of God, Fr. George saw Orthodoxy as having become free of the burdens of social and cultural attachments. In times past these were intrinsic to the Churchís life, but widespread secularism and scientific revolutions have changed that. As a political and cultural force, the Orthodox Church has minimal if any effect in our society. Yet the profound truths of Orthodox spirituality, which are also the heart of our theological tradition, are fresh, valid and relevant. These truths are the unquestionable means of our salvation: silence and prayer, meditation and insight, self-denial and self-discovery. With zeal and pastoral care, Fr. George enlightened his spiritual flock and colleagues into an appreciation of these values and made us calmer and wiser in the process.

  We cherish the memory of his honest sense of Christian freedom, hard earned by years of difficult trials and transitions. A guileless man, he resisted preconceptions and prejudices of all kinds. He would question and challenge things that many of us were afraid or unable to do. He always spoke the truth with conviction. St. Paulís words could have been his motto: "We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth" (2Cor. 13.8). He was not inclined to "party platforms" or "political correctness" in any context, nor would he passively agree with you simply because you considered him a friend. If you were wrong, he would tell you, if you were right he would agree with you no matter who you were. At Diocesan Assemblies, All-American Councils, Deanery meetings, Fr. George would speak up, shake things up, perhaps bruise an ego or two, and do it with fervor, humanity and a sense of humor.

   In the course of life, only a few like Fr. George Timko come along. For those who were privileged to know him he was impressive in many ways: A blessed gadfly, a dynamic preacher, a gifted speaker, an insightful observer of life and a courageous witness at ecclesial gatherings. He was also a profound Orthodox thinker, a working class hero and a prophetic voice. His last sermon was about death, which was also going to be the subject of his adult education class. He saw departure from this existence as a joyful entrance into the next one. Death is a continuation of the spiritual journey that we begin now. Through Godís mercy, he is joyfully continuing his journey. But we will miss him. May God grant to his servant, the Archpriest George, an abode with the saints and make his memory to be eternal.

 

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