Sunday, March 6, 2011

Vigilance, Joy, Sorrow: Another day in the Life, and the beginning of Great Lent

I have missed being here on the BLOG spot.  There is so much going on and there wasn't time available on the computer to write.  Father Paul has seen to it that I have some time now. I think of my family and friends, the people of our old parishes who are still vivid in our hearts and minds every time I write.

Parish life is still active, not like it was in the USA, but there is plenty to do.  We had the Greek Community picnic two weeks ago.  It was in a gorgeous location, a park reserve that is also on the beach.  The Community went to a lot of trouble to make it all lovely.  Games are a big part of it.  They play tug of war, the men against the women, and the women always win!

What can I say? 

Breathtaking views are just part of parish life here I guess...

Why is that a game of Corn Hole the kids are playing?

Settling into life in NZ isn't without its bumps.  In this part of Auckland, we, and all of our neighbors live with ants.  Natural.  Normal.  They show up everywhere: the towel drawer, silverware tray, spice cabinet, they seems to love the laundry hamper. Today they were fascinated with the bathroom. They don't act like the ants I am used to; going after sugar or fats, or water, or wood.  Smelly things are what they are after, and when they swarm, it is a bit disgusting. Not only that but they interrupt each morning routine as we wake up with that all important question...Where are the ants congregating today?

And then when their trail has been interrupted, they disappear nearly as quickly as they came.

My kitchen has never been so clean.  The littlest drop of chicken juice, or soy milk, or egg, will send a message of alert to them and they come marching one by one.  If my hands aren't perfectly clean when I put away a piece of Tupperware, they are there the next morning like pirates after a long lost treasure.  I kind of have to be thankful for them.  My kitchen is cleaner than ever, and my laundry hamper nearly emptied each day of the week.

The ants are great reminders of other things, like the passions, and sins, and things that bring about corruption.  They keep me vigilant and motivated.  They, dumb little things that they are, point out my faults no matter how small.  Maybe my friends who are dentists know what that is like: one wrong move and...  there are consequences to  endure.  Sometimes I think of the man who was responsible for making the highway ramps in a town in Ohio too short.  People remember him a lot there. God bless him.

On a small scale the ants are one of those things of nature that at first appear as nothing but a nuisance. When responded to well, they become a necessary lift to learning something new, to seeing in a new way.  Barring the fact that I have killed a couple thousand by now, I have to appreciate what they have accomplished.... in me. That's not to say they are welcome here, just appreciated for their valuable lesson.

The earthquake...

It seems there has been a lot more prayer going on in New Zealand since the recent earthquake in Canterbury's Christchurch the pride of the Kiwi nation.  It was a great surprise to all of New Zealand when the first earthquake happened in September, all the talk was that these things (of smaller magnitude) happened regularly in Wellington, but never in Christchurch. Now they have had two in less than 6 months, and expect more.    They are very vulnerable as a city because their homes and businesses are truly built on sand. 

Sixteen historic church buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. The Greek Orthodox Church there suffered only mild damage, but her parishioners have lost homes and businesses. Hundreds of homes were ruined.  Nearly 200 people died.  Besides the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, IOCC is raising money to help victims of this disaster. Today our parish passed a tray and we are collecting things for the victims. Our prayers are needed for the benefit of those for whom it will take years to rebuild their lives.

I know that many of our friends and family wanted to know how we feel having come to a place where there are such naturally occurring events.  It is hard to say, but let it suffice for all of us that there are many people here who need encouragement, and that Father Paul is glad that he can be here for them.  Perhaps we worry about our safety. God is indeed in charge of that.  We are in the position of trusting Him for everything like never before. We do pray a lot and through the prayers of the Church God gives us a way to live out each day well.

Having participated in IOCC's disaster relief training a few years back, Father Paul was able to inform the IOCC and liaison with them and the Archdiocese here.  He is maintaining a sense of stability for our people through the worship services and opportunities for prayer that are much needed. 

His Eminence wasted no time going to see the people in Christchurch himself. Within a few days of the earthquake, he traveled south to a place that looked far worse than what the news footage showed.  The city, constantly interrupted by aftershocks, cannot rest even today.  The Archbishop deeply wanted to comfort his people. When he returned, every mention of Christchurch was cause for him to make the sign of the cross and to pray for all that he had seen and heard. 

With all this in mind, his thoughts are continually on his flock, whether it is the people in Wellington who are part of the Saint Andrew parish, or the fledgling flock that is in Fiji.  His attention to the details of their lives is very special.  As I type, he is not only reading the vespers of forgiveness, but he is also planning his next trip to Fiji so that the people there can have his lessons and his care during Great Lent.  He plans to spend nearly all of Great Lent with them, and then returning for holy week and Easter.  He may indeed be happy that he is going there in slightly cooler weather than his last visit.  

One of the things he is preparing for is the baptisms of the people waiting there for him to return.  On his last trip, he baptized many on the northern island called Vanua Levu.  So in order to be ready for what may be to come, he has asked the women of New Zealand to make Chitones, the white baptismal garments, for the adults and older children who will be Christened soon.  The women of our parish have been busy making these robes with beautiful blue crosses on the fronts. 

His thoughts are so much on the people who were baptized recently. He remembers their names and tells us about them, the children too!  One little girl given the name Irene who was the youngest in the group, was very sickly when he found her family. It gives him so much joy that we can reach out and give these people a life of love, God's love, and genuine laughter again. He thinks tirelessly of what he can do for them, how he can feed them, give them real work. 

He asks for prayers for the mission, as he knows that nothing can happen without God's intervention, and he values the prayers of us all! 

Life back at the parish house...

Our things finally arrived from the USA 3 weeks ago.  I am almost finished putting them away. That is a record for yours truly.  Few things were damaged.  In light of the earthquake's damages, it is absolutely nothing of concern: a fly on my nose, nothing more.  Rather I am relieved that we now have a place to put away our clothes, and the luggage cases can be put in storage.

Recent Baptisms....

There have been a few baptisms at the parish.  It is a great thing for us as each baptism brings a renewed sense of life to everyone involved.  Personally I relish the smiles on the faces of the guests, family and friends who attend.  Their joy is infectious.

One family who is here from South Africa had some of the most beautiful things to say about their experience.  They are starting over here in New Zealand, grandparents, parents and children, and being re-united with the church has brought them a lot of joy.  They had their reception on a farm, with their pet goat. Georgios got some great grass stains on his knees that day.

The woman who was baptized today had been looking forward to this day for years.  She is an English woman who fell in love with the Greek Orthodox Church through her time living in Corfu where she stays for nearly half of each year.  She came to the church not knowing what to expect, and found that here, she not only found a welcoming warmth amongst the people, but she realized her dream to finally be Baptized and Chrismated.

Garden Progress...

By God's grace: tomatoes, more zucchini, eggplant, green beans (wow do they grow fast!) more cucumber.

The Patriarchs message...

With Great Lent upon us, I was particularly inspired by His All Holiness' Catechetical Homily.  Printing it here in case you didn't get a chance to hear it or read it yourself.  And with that I bid you all a blessed and fruitful Great Lent, with heartfelt anticipation for a Glorious Pascha. 

Presv +K

Prot. No. 195


On the Opening of Holy and Great Lent


By God’s Mercy Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome

And Ecumenical Patriarch

To the Plenitude of the Church

Grace and Peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

With our Prayer, Blessing and Forgiveness

Beloved brothers and children in the Lord,

“The arena of the virtues has opened; those who desire to compete may enter, girding themselves with the good struggle of fasting.” (Triodion, Cheesefare Sunday) Or, better, the arena has always remained open, from the time that the All-Merciful Lord of Glory deemed it worthy to assume our nature. Since then, through His Church, he invites every person to participate in the boundless gifts of the grace of the Holy Spirit, particularly during this blessed period of Holy and Great Lent.

Beloved children in the Lord, the boundless goodness of our God, who is truly worshipped in the Trinity, created the human race solely out of love in order to render us human beings – to the degree that is possible for human nature – sharers and participants of the grandeur of His sacred glory. This is the exclusive purpose of life at all times. Indeed, in order to achieve this purpose, the holy and inspired tradition of the Orthodox Church comes to our support, instructing, interpreting and including the entire spectrum of the spiritual life by means of various struggles, with which the faithful must always advance courageously.

Through the holy Sacrament of Baptism, each Christian received the grace of the Holy Spirit. If we begin to love God with all our heart, then this grace transmits to us in an incomprehensible way the wealth of its benefits. Whoever wishes to retain this experience of grace should strive with great joy to renounce from the soul the benefits of the present age in order to acquire the hidden wealth of true life. To the same degree that the soul advances in this spiritual struggle, the sacred gift of divine grace reveals the Lord’s goodness concealed in the depth of the soul in order to become the sure guide in the manifold spiritual struggle. (St. Diadochus of Photike, Century 77)

This spiritual struggle is ongoing for every faithful. Therefore, it requires us to start anew each day, each moment. “The time has come for the beginning of spiritual struggle, the victory over demons, the armor of virtue, the conduct of angels, the boldness before God.” (Lauds, Cheesefare Sunday) Great Lent precisely resembles a constant beginning of spiritual regeneration and renewal. This is why the hymnographer of the Triodion correctly orientates us toward its proper content, stating that bodily fasting by renouncing certain foods cannot result in remedy and is even despised by God as false, unless it is accompanied by purity that results from renouncing the spiritual passions (Lauds, Wednesday of Cheesefare Week).

Of course, focusing the intellect on the work of knowing God, in order to return it from passionate dispersion, comprises a toilsome and time-consuming labor. However, it is necessary and definitive for our spiritual well being and social life. The way of virtue appears difficult and extremely unpleasant to those who undertake the journey; yet, not because it is actually like this, but because human nature has become accustomed to the ease of pleasure. For those who have succeeded in reaching the middle of this journey, in fact it appears pleasant and effortless (St. Diadochus of Photike, Century 93).

Frequently, those who cannot understand the great mystery of this piety consider the Orthodox ascetic tradition as negative and as leading to deprivation of creativity, of original initiative, of enjoyment in life’s pleasure. Nothing could be further from the truth. All that was created by God was created “very good” and offered to us in order to delight in and enjoy in order for us to give continual glory to our Benefactor. The commandments of God guide us and inform us in the proper use of these divine gifts, so that our body, mind and soul, together with all the material gifts, may be truly joyful and beneficial for our life. On the contrary, the arrogant, independent and contemptuous use of material gifts offered to us by the Creator result in entirely different goals to God’s expectations, leading us to depression, anxiety and misfortune, even though appearing to satisfy human pride momentarily.

Our Savior, who is truly divine and truly human, who is incomprehensibly known to the humble and those capable of receiving His uncreated grace, the Lord of glory and Lord of history, who directs our soul and mind, who contains the universe in His divine providence – from the smallest particle of His creation to the most inconceivable aspect of our world, is eternally the Way, the Truth, and the Life. (John 14.6) Just as the hypostatic source of Life could not possibly be held by death, which was crushed through His resurrection, so too there could not possibly be any positive human life without participation in the life-creating Body of the Risen Christ, the Orthodox Church, and the inspired Holy Tradition. In brief, the Lord reigns forever, while the ideas of the proud are proved false. Or, as St. Diadochus so wonderfully says: “There is nothing poorer than a mind endeavoring to philosophize about God without God.”

Beloved children in the Lord, upon entering the arena of Holy and Great Lent, we paternally exhort you not to be afraid or lazy in assuming the most important task of your life, namely the spiritual arena of work. Instead, be courageous and strong, so that you may purify your souls and bodies of all sin in order to reach the Kingdom of God, which is granted already from this life to those who seek it with sincerity and with all their soul.

May the grace of God and His boundless mercy be with you all.

Holy and Great Lent 2011

+ Bartholomew of Constantinople

Fervent supplicant to God for all

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