Yesterday my friend Christopher and I visited a mutual friend who is a hierodeacon in a small town about 2 hours outside of the city. He was visiting his family who live in Thessaloniki and invited us to lunch. We went to his apartment and his mom prepared a DELICIOUS traditional Greek meal. It was so refreshing to have a taste of traditional Greece. Being in the city, sometimes I feel like I want to experience more of the village life, and this was a GREAT opportunity to do so. The grandfather was there and you had to yell to talk to him because he was hard of hearing, but he was SUCh a character. He was so alert and aware even though he was 88 years old. Christopher was commenting on his journey to Orthodoxy (he’s a convert) and mentioned to Fr. Amvrosis’ father how he started “converting” with his mind and then eventually it moved to his heart. Fr. A’s father replied by saying that it’s the opposite for Greeks. Whether this is better or not, I’m not sure. But it seems to me to be much more of a realistic approach. Why do we underplay the role of the heart in the West? I catch myself doing this daily.
I just returned from Athos, which was a blessing. I’ve been making a good connection with Grigoriou Monastery. Some of the monks there are characters. There’s the Cypriate dishwasher, Fr. Neophytus, who has been on the Holy Mountain for over 30 years now. He visited Elder Paisios monthly to seek counsel when he was still alive and has been to university for theology and is very well educated. From a first glance, however, you’d think perhaps that he was a little nuts. His unkempt riaso and disheveled hair make him look like a monk who you could quickly pass and not even notice. Hi hat is perched clumsily to one side on his head and he cackles when he laughs (in true cypriate fashion). But he is full of love and is like a child. There are others like this at the monastery, old monks who have shed themselves of the thick, stale crust of spiritual “aging” and their souls are as energetic, flexible and dynamic as a child’s.
Language studies are also going well, thank God! Everyday I am more and more grateful to have this teacher. He is SO patient, so caring, and has a God-given gift for teaching, that makes it such an organic enjoyable experience.
What a mystery languages are. I’ve been around people learning languages and speaking other languages my whole life, but I’ve always observed this process from the outside. It’s such a new world, experiencing it from the inside. All of the road signs and processes look so different when they are actually happening to YOU rather to another. Needless to say, it has opened my eyes to many different feelings, emotions and temptations that I never realized existed for people who have to learn new languages. Again, I learned spanish in high school and college, but its NOTHING compared to this. I’ve forgotten it almost entirely anyway.
There are two Bulgarian men studying here that I have met, thank God! I have really been wanting to make some Bulgarian connections seeing as I am in the Bulgarian diocese. One of these men, Alexander, is studying theology in town...I havent gotten too much detail as to his goals (priesthood etc). The other, however, is a hierodeacon from St. John of Rila monastery in Rila, BG. He leads their Byzantine music choir, which I heard perform in the beautiful Rotunda in the center here. They were very nice--simple--but I like that style the best. He’s really a wonderful man, and I look forward to getting to know both of them more. Maybe someday I can learn Bulgarian too :)
There are some really interesting people in my class and I have been making friends with some of them in particular. 2 students in particular have been especially good friends. They are from Congo and are Orthodox. Nektarios’ father is a priest and his brother studied theology in Athens. Michelle will be studying psychology after the language program. They are probably amongst the top students in the class and are picking up the language very rapidly. They are both very hard workers and their “moral compasses” or consciences or however you want to put it, have really impacted my view of the depth of traditional cultures (such as Greece and various places in Africa)...where family, respect, hard work, and love (i.e. the relational virtues) play such a major part in their culture. Not that they are perfect by any means—I know there are many problems with various cultural qualities EVERYWHERE that aren’t, shall we say, Godly—but compared to our business driven ethics in the states (i.e. hard work for money, respect for money, teamwork for money, etc.) it is a breath of fresh air...living life for the sake of life and not for the sake of some dilluted end-goal that ultimately leaves one feeling incomplete. As a result, and in addition to all of these encounters, I constantly find myself realizing how far away I am from focusing on my neighbor. Whether I’m in the bank, on the bus etc, I am always focusing on what needs to be done next, what I haven’t done today, what my progress is in Greece. The deception: these “tasks” that I focus on always lead back to ME. God grant us strength and wisdom!
Today I paid a visit to Fr. Nicholas, the priest and professor here in Thessaloniki, who did so much to help me come over here. It was an encounter with what I believe to be a true Orthodox theologian--one whose mind is as sharp as a tack, but purifies this knowledge in the crucible of praxis. Ahh, I can't know for sure, only God knows...but this was my initial impression. He was reflecting on the place of freedom and synergy in our relationship with God. We are perfectly free to come and go, which, as we can see in this life, can be mirrored in the role of the spiritual father who does not force his spiritual children to do one thing or to NOT do something else. This freedom is a mystery, it is grace, and it is very beautiful.
Until next time!