August 29, 2009

"...of water and the Spirit..."

The mystery of Holy Baptism in the Orthodox Church is great and vital for us. To be immersed and emersed three times into and out of water in the name of the Holy Trinity literally wipes out all our sins, from the inherited fallen nature of Adam to voluntary and involuntary sins we have committed. Being submerged into the water signifies the death of the former or old person and the coming up out of the water signifies the resurrection of the new, transformed person. As Saint Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans 6:3-11, "for if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His." The mystery of Holy Baptism is the essential beginning step toward our union with Christ. Thereafter, for the whole course of our life on earth, we are reminded of our own Baptism each time we participate in the sacrament of Confession. I am continually amazed and so very thankful that our loving God has given us FULL and EASY access to the sacramental life by the presence of His Church in our midst--it's only up to us to choose it. Recently, I've had the very great pleasure of spending time with my goddaughter, Irene. She turned one in August, and is going to get up and start walking and running any day now! Irene's patron saint is Saint Irene of Chrysovalantou. She is one of my most favorite saints. I got to know her during a summer during my college years by reading a little Greek book about her life. I admired her purity of heart, her humility in accepting God's will, her bravery against the demons, and especially, her steadfastness in prayer. In a vision before her falling-asleep, she was sent three beautiful and fragrant apples from Paradise with an angel by Saint John the Evangelist. Saint Irene has been involved in my life in small miraculous ways. For example, after reading the book, I finally realized it was actually the woman saint in a silver-plated icon with a an unclear inscription in our house that depicted this very scene. Being the neglectful person that I am, I did not pick up the little book on St. Irene for about 10 years of its residence in my collection of half-read, unread, and forgotten books that has moved with me between apartments throughout school. Last year, when it came time to set up my Ph.D. thesis defense date, it worked out to do it on July 28, which happened to be the Feast Day of Saint Irene Chrysovalantou! I thank her for being with me that day during my defense presentation after celebrating a Liturgy in her honor. At home later that summer, I was preparing to move and in the midst of organizing my books and papers, I found the little Greek book about St. Irene again, as well as two other translations in English! I decided that I was going to re-read her life. Within that same week, my good friend Maria called to ask me to be godmother to her daughter, who was to be named Irene! She and her husband chose St. Irene of Chrysovalantou because they both secretly admired her life just as I had, respectively, and unknowingly. They had been asking her in prayer about a godparent, and decided it was to be me, the neglectful one. I was amazed at the providence of these events and I thank God for giving me the opportunity to help a new little soul come into His Kingdom one day! Irene's Baptism was held on January 17, 2009. Please keep her in your prayers and please pray that I fulfill the role of godparent to aid her in her salvation. The text from the Orthodox Christian Baptism service can be found here.

August 13, 2009

Focus on His FACE

In honor of the Feast Day of the Transfiguration, I decided to slightly modify my blog posting approach. I realize that I have not had the full experiences of a loving relationship in marriage, child-bearing, or the serious temptations of sexual sin to be a real authority on the topics I've presented already. Please forgive me for much of my presumption in these previous posts, but I do hope that at the very least, I've passed on something that can benefit others. But from now on, I hope to transfigure this blog into more of an experiential journal where I share real concrete experiences that have allowed even a small drop of God's grace to touch my life.
This past weekend, I had the very great blessing to visit Holy Protection Greek Orthodox Monastery, located in White Haven, Pennsylvania, in the Poconos Mountains. The beauty of the physical place is indisputable. There were deep pink flowers everywhere and lush forest surrounding the buildings topped with red rooftop tiles in the Mediterranean style. The main long building houses the nuns' quarters, in addition to the main kitchen, a Chapel to Saint Nektarios, the main Church of the Apostles, a bookstore, as well as a hospitality area to welcome guests. The rooms in which we stayed were in a separate guest house (ξενόνα) which literally was a welcoming and comforting home (the kitchen was my favorite room).
The first gift we received was that of beautiful weather on Saturday, and even the rain on Sunday had its charm. I was joined by four of my friends from New Jersey and Virginia. As always on such trips, the concept of being connected with others from around the world through the Body of Christ truly was apparent in meeting new people who happened to be friends or godparents to someone we know...
Someone may ask, "why did you visit a monastery? do y'all want to become nuns or something?" My answer would be, "no, it's because we want to be better Christians." In a community such as Holy Protection, there are 18 nuns working out their salvation as a group, as a spiritual family. They operate on a schedule which includes common and individual prayer, plenty of work, and the offering of hospitality to guests. The life of these women centers around love, humility and obedience to Christ and His Church, virtues for which all Christians strive to attain. These are the means by which one empties oneself to allow room for Christ to fill him or her.
We had the blessing to hear Father Mark Andrews, the priest who serves there, speak in his homily on Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 14:22-34) about Christ walking on water. He said that the miracle was not that He or even Peter walked on water, but the fact that He did not yet calm the storm. When Peter walked out onto the water from the boat, he was distracted by the wind of the continuing storm and began to sink. Father said that we should not focus or analyze the stormy situations of our lives, because it can lead us to a debate with the evil one. However, what we should do is to focus on the face of Christ alone. To not be 'of little faith' but to trust that He will eventually calm these tempests, these times of trial. This homily helped me personally because in just this past year, I've experienced some pretty severe thunderstorms in my introduction to the so-called 'real world'---being further away from my family, painfully losing a relationship, a job ending prematurely, and engaging in the tiring battle with the temptation to despair. Thanks be to God, although quite imperfectly on my part, and mostly due to His part, I've somehow managed to see His face, to feel His hand, and to sense His presence during this year of storms. The calm is gradually coming closer.
We also were blessed with some girl-hang-out-time with the wonderful Abbess Olympiada. I think that God knew that we all needed her in our own ways at that particular time. She gave us encouragement and emphasized that the tools of obedience, humility, simplicity, and discernment (which is the crown of virtues) are what we need to focus on the face of Christ. Of course, we did not just hear the words that weekend, but we got a small chance to catch a glimpse of how the nuns there live and breathe these things daily in their lives in the most concrete ways.
Although the monastery visits are necessary to help us in our spiritual life, we also see people in the world, especially in my own parish, who strive to live like these nuns, to focus on Christ. God allowed me in the midst of my own difficulties this year to get to know families who practice obedience to God and to each other with love and warmth, and who also teach their children to discern what is for the benefit of their souls. Again, all this being done in the midst of trials and tribulations, but with hope and focus on Christ that He will calm the storm eventually.
I am quite thankful to not only learn the theory of focusing on Christ, but also to actively place my sins and challenges at His feet, to surrender to Him to take care of it. Visiting the monastery gave me the opportunity to see concrete and real examples of people who struggle daily to do so. Let us "take heart and have no fear" for He is here with us and will calm the storm.