Come with Me to Mount Athos. Part 12

Part 11

Dream Come True

Call it exaltation if you like, but we knelt down and kissed the holy stones of Athos. Until recently, I could not imagine that I would ever come here. Wonderful are Thy works, O Lord! I have not yet thought about what I was going to dream about after returning from Athos. I wasn’t yet realizing that  one of my dreams was now a reality. I was awake, and it was Mount Athos!

Most passengers of St Anna got off at Daphne. The pier was crowded with people. Some of them went to the souvenir shops, others stayed at the pier and were looking around in indecision and the rest ventured over to Janis’s. Janis is a Pontic Greek who launched a vigorous activity on the shores of the Aegean Sea (and not without success). In his joint there were delicious pies with feta cheese (baked right there on the spot), refreshing frappe (coffee with ice and cream) and many other things to please any traveler’s taste. We decided to get Athonian prayer beads. Back in Ouranoupoli we agreed to travel with prayer and talk only at stopping places. Prayer beads would come handy in this matter. By the way, my old writer friend said that Athos should be travelled on foot only. You could also get rides, if you prefer, but you can hardly say that you have visited Athos if you haven’t walked its trails. We were in a combative mood and ready to go on foot, except maybe getting that ride to Vatopedi…

A Few Thoughts from “Pater”

Here it was. The people, spread in all directions, quickly gathered at the dinosaur-like bus and began ravaging it. The scene reminded me of rush hour in a big city. The following surprise came when I heard someone addressing me:

 – Pater? – It was the driver.

 – Pater. – I confirmed with a nod of my head (pater is Latin for “father”).

 The driver showed me a comfortable seat next to the window, leaving my secular fellow travelers to their own devices.

On Mount Athos, I often saw a very respectful attitude towards the clergy, and rightly so. The hands of the priest touch the Holy Gifts, he celebrates the Divine Liturgy and stands before God, interceding for his flock. In our country people often regard the clergyman as some kind of a comedian who should entertain and please everyone. Sadly we have no one to blame but ourselves, trying to get on the TV, on stage and to other places where we are not invited. Thinking that we are missionaries, we often devalue the high title of a Priest. In Belarus, only very old people can take off their hat in front of a man in a cassock, but in Greece and on Mount Athos, we met with a different attitude. In all fairness, there have been no Bolsheviks here arranging godless five-year plans of destroying churches (even under Turkish rule, many churches were preserved). In Thessaloniki, a toddler, about eight years old, ran up to me, grabbed my right hand, kissed it with a smacking sound and ran to his mother. That was his way of taking a blessing from me.

The bus door closed with a full-bellied sigh. The people were watching the sea become farther and lower with each turn of the serpentine road.

Speaking about priesthood, I think that a pastor should be reaching out to parts of the world where there are no churches and priests. But in places like western Belarus, where I live,  a priest should serve God and people in a way that would allow those who want to satisfy their spiritual needs to come to church and see him. We need to serve diligently and with dignity, making ourselves available to people, but trying to avoid populism and people-pleasing.  There is no need for church to “come” to a person, unless he is sick. All the time we try to ingratiate ourselves with our flock, thoughtlessly trying to “lower the sky” instead of “lifting up our hearts” towards it. A similar trend exists in modern icon painting where the realistic style prevails, but I am skating on thin ice in this topic. The concept of serving God and people poses a question of how to serve, so that the shepherd does not take the place of the sheep and so that the whole flock moves towards Heaven?

There is one important aspect of being a priest that I would like to touch on. A person comes to church and asks me to help his sick mother. I write a prayer note, pray for her health and visit the sick woman. More than once I had conversations with people in need where, before anything else, I tried to lead a person to repentance. Typically, in these conversations I hear phrases like: “I lived like everyone else. Life was hard. Well, maybe I sinned… May God forgive me!”  Forgive me if I’m wrong but I see no repentance in these words.  I pray for people’s recovery, I anoint them and bring them communion and holy water, but nothing changes. Well, maybe it does, but it remains completely invisible to me. Then a person dies and it turns out that I have been preparing him for death, but was he ready? And then another person comes flying in the church, runs up to me, grabs my hands and begins to thank me. Not understanding what he is thanking me for, I start asking him questions. It turns out that his mother was ill for a long time and no one could help.

 – Remember, father, I came on “such and such a date”and asked you to pray? – My brow goes up as I try to  remember something.

 – Remember, you were posting the schedule at that moment? You said that God would help.

 Trying to keep a straight face, I ask him:
– So, how is your mom?

 – She is fine! The doctor just left, he says that it’s a miracle! Thank you, father!

 Without even remembering properly this petitioner, I understand that everything happened without me. God simply acted through me… But why? In general, there is much that I don’t understand, but there is no one to ask, as there are almost no older people left. By ‘older people’ I mean the experienced priests of the older generation, who have gone through the fire of war and the millstones of the Soviet regime. I really love to learn from “old dodgers” who went to “school of hard knocks”, if their experience leads to God.

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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