Thursday, September 16, 2010

Living in Greece, Part 09

Sunday, 12 September
Church as it Ought to Be

Today has been, for us, the best day of all in Greece – so far! The first reason is that we went back to St. Anthony’s Church, about which I will tell you in this post; the second reason is that a piece of the Holy Cross of Christ came to our very own neighborhood church today, about which I will tell you in the next post.

We went to St. Anthony’s Church half an hour earlier than last Sunday, so I was able to find a seat in the very front, where I couldn’t see the crowds and therefore was not bothered by them.

I don’t even know how to begin telling you how wonderful it was. The priest, Fr. Theodore Zisis, is a true shepherd to his people, kind, wise, and above all, holy. He is also a professor in the School of Theology at the University here. (How I wish I could take some of his courses!)

The people are reverent and earnest about their faith. When Fr. Theodore summoned a man from the congregation to go to the cantors’ stand and help sing, the man not only rose immediately to obey, but also, on his way, stopped to kiss the priest’s hand and receive his blessing.

One little toddler, scarcely a year old and barely walking, when she came up for communion, gave the iconostasis a big kiss. She wasn’t tall enough to reach the icons; her kiss landed smack on a painting of a vase of flowers. But she already had the right idea, in general.

Even these people’s complaints and disputes make you smile; during a meeting after church, a very simple woman stood up, in some distress, to complain that she had wanted to pay for one of the frescoes about to be painted on the church walls, but somebody had beaten her to it, and the icon is to depict one of her own favorite saints! So how often do you hear people complaining because they didn’t get to pay for something? The priest very kindly explained how wonderful it was that others shared her devotion to this saint and were willing to underwrite her favorite icon. He himself was delighted when someone signed up before he could to finance the icon of his wife’s saint (the saint after whom his wife is named).

The first remarkable thing about the sermon is what happened just before it. I saw a man take what looked to me like a cell phone and touch it to the icon of Christ, twice, then lay it before Christ’s icon, on a narrow ledge projecting out from the icon screen. Then I saw five other people do the same. These weren’t cell phones, or at least they weren’t merely cell phones, but recording devices. People want to preserve Fr. Theodore’s sermons. And well worth preserving this one was, too!

The sermon was on Joy. The heart of the Christian life is Joy. The pleasures of this world are transient, disappointing, ultimately unfulfilling; Love is the only genuine Joy and Love is another name for Christ. (And for His Father! Yes, God the Father is just like God the Son, who, after all, came to reveal the Father. “Who has seen Me has seen the Father.”)

And the heart of Joy, said Fr. Theodore, is that death has been vanquished. (“How so?” asked a woman during the meeting after church. “We still see everybody die.” So Fr. Theodore explained the difference between bodily death, when our spirit separates from the body, leaving it to decay, and spiritual death, when our spirit separates from God, leaving it to decay. He explained how what we see is only the former, only of the body, and not of the rest of us; and even that is temporary, until the general resurrection. But those who love God will never experience separation from Him, Who is Life, never even have any taste anything more than bodily death.)

Before Christ, said the priest, people lived all their lives in fear of death and without knowing true love, but only natural love, no different from what animals (some animals!) have for their young. Their love is only an emotion. If you are outside of Christ, then for you, virtually the same conditions prevail as in the “Pro-christos,” the era before Christ. But if you are in Christ, you partake of His Immortal Life, the Life of sacrificial Love.

I thought about non-Christians, as for example our dear Muslim friends in Richmond. They are good people, kind people, and yes, true friends to us. But in conversations with them, Demetrios has found out that forgiveness is to them ridiculous. “If someone offends me,” one of them told him scornfully, “that’s his problem!” She’s only going to be your friend, that is, as long as you don’t seriously mess up. Loving ones enemies is equally foreign to them, a thing they cannot see as good or wise. Nor is humility part of their religion.

I’m sorry, but each of these is an absolutely indispensible prerequisite for Love. For spiritual love, anyway, for the Love Christ has made known and kindles in our hearts. Outside of Christ there does not exist this Love, this Joy. For He IS Love, just as He IS Life.

It reminds me of a sad little joke. Two old men are lying next to each other in a hospital ward. One says to the other, “Well, have you understood anything?”

After a moment, the other replies, “No, not really.”

Says the first, “Me neither.”

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall;
I really don’t know life at all.

- Joan Collins.

Of course not, because that’s a false spectrum. Life isn’t about winning or losing, or being up or being down. It’s about Love, which alone brings Joy, and not incidentally, also reveals the meaning – deep and beautiful meaning, too! – of every single thing in this life. It’s about Joy, because our chief enemy, death, no longer exists. There is no separation from God, no separation from immortal Life, no separation from Love, even for His enemies (who may wish there were). And if there’s no death, then (assuming we don’t reject Life), nothing can really harm us in more than our bodies.

After I had taken Communion, I entirely forgot to take a piece of the antidoron, the blessed (but non-sacramental) bread, with which we beak our fast after Communion. A woman noticed this and brought me a piece, or rather, a whole, huge slice. How kind is that!

Near the end of the Divine Liturgy, as the priest is blessing us, the Orthodox sing, “Preserve, O Lord, him [the priest] who blesses and sanctifies us, unto many years!” Usually this song is a formality, or little more. The cantor sings it. Not at St. Anthony’s! The whole congregation sang it, loudly, with great fervor.

When church was over, I was in such a rush to get OUT of there, away from the crush of people, that I also forgot to stop and kiss that miraculous icon I wrote about a few days ago; I walked right by it. OUCH!

We saw Konstantina out in the courtyard. She had just returned from two months in her own country, Canada. The little girl who had kissed the painted vase of flowers was with her; her name is Makrina. Another little girl was there, too; I think she’s the daughter of Maria and Fr. Moses, who (if memory serves, as it may not) are Americans. Anyway, I asked the child, in English, what her name was and she said, “Katerina. In English, Katherine.”

When Demetrios asked Konstantina what was going on in the parish hall, she said, “The lesson.” Ah! Fr. Theodore teaches his people after church. So we went in, I with some trepidation on account of the packed people. A woman carrying a flat box of cheese pies handed me the last one and a man behind us, seeing this, put his own cheese pie in Demetrios’ hands. When Demetrios demurred, the man said, gruffly, “Take it, take it!”

“Women on this side, men here,” another woman told us. The opposite sides one takes in Church; I don’t know why.

I managed again to find a seat at the very front. Front seats are usually the last to be taken, aren’t they? So I wasn’t too very bothered by the press of people. Somebody poured me a glass of water, and two others nodded and smiled at me.

Eventually, there was a stir and everybody stood up as Fr. Theodore entered. He walked straight up to a raised platform in the front, where his chair was, and a table in front of it. On the table, a silver tray had been laid, with a white linen cloth, a cup of coffee, a glass of water, a paper napkin, a cheese pie, a slice of pound cake, and a candy. Isn’t that sweet?

He didn’t touch any of it.

Again he spoke of Joy and of victory over death. I understood enough to be brought to tears, as before during his sermon.

Then he caught us up on some of the scandals going on in the Church, not sex scandals, but liturgical abuses, because, he said, we must be prepared for a very big spiritual battle. He didn’t balk at naming names, either. These are some bishops and some priests to follow and with whom to join forces; and these are the people doing all sorts of unorthodox things.

Then we sang the hymns commemorating St. Anthony, after whom this parish is named, and St. Demetrios, because this city is entrusted to his care (meaning God’s care, through the ongoing ministry of His Saint) and everybody here always sings the hymn of St. Demetrios. And then we departed, blessed to have been a part of this healthy, very alive, parish. Now here is what a Christian Church is supposed to be! We hope to be back every Sunday we are here.


Anam Cara said...

Oh, my, how wonderful it all sounds!

margaret said...

You have reminded me... on the occasions I am in my confessor's church I need to take my MP3 recorder.

konstantina said...

Kyria Anastasia, I'm so pleased that you and Kyrios Demetrios have had such positive experiences at our little church! I especially appreciate the way in which you describe Fr. Theodore who we believe is a very holy man (though don't tell him that!). I would love it if we could get together for coffee while you are in town. My brother and sister-in-law just moved to Greece last year and are living in your own neighbourhood very close to the church. We should all get together!

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Kyria Konstantina, we'd love to have coffee with you - as well as your brother and sister-in-law.

This Sunday isn't necessarily going to be the best time, as we may (or may not!) be out of town. Plus, we'll want to hear the mathema afterward.

But how about one night at our house this coming week? Tuesday or Thursday evening perhaps?

konstantina said...

If it works for you both we are free and fine with Thursday evening. I didn't mention it but my husband will of course love to come as well. You'll have to tell me your address and what time is best. I'm looking forward to it.

You can e-mail me your address if you wish.