As one gets older, he or she reaches a point in life where they begin to contemplate the events that constitute the totality of their experiences. It's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of it all, to find meaning in what happens in this world. All we can do is take small bites of the apple and digest the small pieces. So much of our lives are often filled with the tedious, the routine and the downright boring minutiae of our baneful modern existence. Wasn't it David Thoreau who said "Men live lives of quiet desperation and go to their graves with the song still in them." I have wondered about that sentence many times and what it meant for my own life.
There have been many wasted opportunities in my life; periods I wish I could revisit and relive. Many things I could have done better, things I could have said, people I could have treated differently. The disasters, catastrophes, mistakes and embarrassing things I've done. I wish I could straighten them all out. So much wasted effort on so many unimportant things, so much wasted time, precious time that is no longer retrievable or salvageable. Unfortunately, there is no rewind button on the eternal march of time. Yet, despite the regrets, there are those bright shining moments. Moments that are inscribed in our minds and played back again and again. This weekend will be one of those sublime and memorable pieces of my life that I will long remember and cherish. It was a weekend when I was able to refocus on the important things in my life. A time to gain further understanding of myself and how I fit into God's plan.
This beautiful, sunny weekend started when my oldest son, Niko, came home from college. Keep in mind that Nick has been away for a little over a month. To his mother and I it has seemed more like a year. Nick's return coincided with the return of Geronda (Elder) Christodoulos, a monk-priest who entered our lives and who we befriended. I humbly consider him my spiritual father. Father Christodoulos was spending time with us, talking to and teaching some of the children and adults of our community in our home when Niko arrived. Our home was doubly blessed.
Somehow Nick looked taller, more confident, more mature than the young man who left us what seemed ages ago. Perhaps these are the befuddled ramblings of a proud doting parent. Suddenly I felt older watching Anna hug him while standing on her toes. Nick had the obligatory basket of dirty laundry and all the accompanying stories about life as a college freshman. I even eyed his younger brother Chris looking at him approvingly and for the first time in awhile the two siblings had nothing to argue about. I don't know how to explain such a transformation in so short a time nor whether I was the one who had changed more than Nick. Suffice it to say that I've begun looking at Nick in a different way.
In the evening we went to Church at midnight to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and to receive communion. Our Church was lighted only with the glow coming from the many lighted candles which gave it an other -worldly aura. As I sat there watching Nick chanting along with his friend and classmate, Dimitri, I was overcome with the beauty of the moment. Surrounded by friends and relatives, I looked up at the dome to see the Icon of the Pantocrater (Almighty) bathed in the reflected light, watching over us. At that moment I really felt God's presence. Later that night I lay in my bed watching the flickering light of the candili in front of the family icons, content in knowing that my family was safe, once again whole, under the same roof. At the same time, I could not forget that there were other sons who do not sleep in their beds and other parents who feel their ever-present loss. I tossed and turned for awhile, trying not to awaken my wife, Anna, sleeping soundly next to me, until sleep, in its mercy, finally embraced me as well.
That Sunday my son Niko became a Godfather and helped baptize the son of close friends of our family. Anna filled in as Godmother. Nick's Godson is also named Nicholas. The role of Godfather in the Greek family is one not be taken lightly. It represents a spiritual bonding in which the Godfather takes on the important task of helping raise his Godchild in union with Christ. As I watched my Niko, now a man in his own right, holding little Nicholas in his arms as the priest led them around the baptismal font three times chanting one of my favorite hymns: "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia." My mother,who was sitting next to me, leaned over and said: "May you someday watch the baptism of your own grandchildren." It was all I could do not to start bawling like a baby, something that would ruin my image as a tough former Marine.
I felt a profound sense of joy not only in having my son back, watching him develop into manhood but also having the opportunity once again to be with Geronda. It is very rarely that we get to be in close proximity to someone who is as close to God as Father Christodoulos. Sure many of us try to live our lives in a manner that is God pleasing yet so often we fall short of the mark. We profess our love of God, like many others in the Church, including those wearing cassocks, even while we continue to let Him down time and time again. Maybe that is why it is a pleasure to see the depth of Geronda's love for God and for his fellow man, his quiet humility, his simplicity. It is also spiritually uplifting to hear him speak in low tones, pausing to think before he speaks, about how we can strive to achieve that special relationship with God in terms that are powerful, in terms we can all understand.
Geronda was born and raised in the United States. One of the kids asked him how old he was. "Why, I am sixteen," he replied to the surprised youngster. "You see I was reborn again when I was tonsured as a monk." His spiritual quest took him to Mount Athos, and later to Patmos where he met Fr. Amphilochios (Tsoukos), now Metropolitan of New Zealand, who was a professor at the School for Priests while leading an ascetic life at the hermitage of Kouvari. He was the spiritual child of the late Elder Amphilochios (Makris) who has been recognized as one of the leading Elders of Greece (See previous post). When asked what drew him close to the Metropolitan, Geronda said that it "was his humility and his happiness...in his face I saw all that my unworthy soul desired, and I felt that I had met St. Paul the Apostle, because this was a man of prayer and missionary work."
Geronda stayed in Patmos and eventually helped Fr. Amphilochios restore the Monastery of the Archangel on Mount Thari in the island of Rhodes, which had been abandoned for many decades. After spending a year in India doing missionary work Geronda Christodoulos returned to Thari where he spent ten years as a monastic. Geronda returned to the United States at the behest of Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver to form a monastery in Colorado. "Greece is our country and the heart of Orthodoxy, but Elder Amphilochios saw that I desired to serve again in the US, the place where I was born and raised and after ten years he discerned that it was time that I returned."
When asked what monasticism means to him, he said: "The Gerontikon says that when a monk falls, we should get back up again, for our life to be a continuous penance, as we travel on the journey through it." Someone responded that not everyone can be a monk. Geronda said: "Of course not, what would become of us if we all became monks. In both married life and monastic life however, you cut off your will; you demonstrate obedience; and you live responsibly before your spouse, or elder or brothers in the monastery, and thus man is saved when he shows responsibility."
Like all good things, the weekend came to an end. As we all parted, our goodbyes were bittersweet. Despite the difficulty of saying goodbye I felt a certain serenity and satisfaction in having shared the fellowship of so many good friends and families in our community, of being able to accept the spiritual sustenance that Geronda offered us and spending precious time with a son that has set out on his own personal journey.
My prayer is that all MGO readers experience similar good things in their own lives.
May our time with others be blessed and may all of us find what we seek.
BTW, for a wonderful explanation of the sacrament of Baptism in the Orthodox Church read "Baptism: Uniting with Christ" by Father Anthony Coniaris, here.