Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Simple Memoir of A Simple Man...

Today (which was really a week or so ago) was a spring day, and infused with a deep heart-breaking stillness after hearing the news of the repose of a newly-befriended, but beloved, American monk living on Mt. Athos.

Fr. Barnabus spoke with a southern drawl. He had a pot-belly and pure silverish white hair and beard. Though long and uncut, his hair was thin, especially after his treatments.

I met Fr. Barnabus for the first time at an American friend’s apartment here in Thessaloniki. I didnt know it at the time, but Fr. B had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was beginning to make regular visits to Thessaloniki for treatment. This form of cancer is usually fairly beatable, and therefore both he and his doctors were fairly optimistic.

As the weeks rolled on, I would see Fr. Barnabus here and there--once on the ferry back from Mt. Athos and a few more times in Thessaloniki. The American friend whose apartment he would stay in, left for a large portion of the winter to spend Christmas vacation with his family in the States. While he was gone, Fr. Barnabus had come in for treatment, and had decided that it was becoming too much for him to commute back and forth from the Holy Mountain, so he made the move out of his monastery in order to finish this round of treatment. For this reason, and because our American friend was in the States, Fr. B asked me occasionally to pick things up for him, and I would visit when I could to keep him company. Through these fairly regular encounters over the previous few months, I was able to get to know Fr. Barnabus a bit, and pick up on a few traits of his.

He never really struck me as anything special in the beginning.

He was very quiet, pleasant, even-tempered and wouldn’t really get worked up very much (at least not while I was around him).

I remember one instance where he was a bit more worked up. He had just got off the phone with Metropolitan Jonah, the newly-elected primate of the Orthodox Church in America, who was a long-time friend and co-struggler in California at one point. He was like a little child who had just spoken to some big star. He was so invigorated and visibly over-joyed that he was able to get through to M. Jonah and was able to have a word with him.

I also remember that whenever I would try to wow him with some miracle story or something that I thought was impressive or that would get his attention he would respond by a slow, southern-style, head nod and a very indifferent, but far from rude, “ok, ok...” and would not give these words of naivete the fire that they were looking for.

I recall on a number of occasions his comments of gratitude towards different people. Initially I heard him mention his abbot a few times at Karakallou monastery who “put up” with him as an elderly English speaking monk. He would say “he’s been verrrry good to me” and would emphasize this, as if he was some vagrant or beggar that was just looking for a place to lay his head. What a sacrifice and humiliating experience it must have been to subject himself to a different language, different country/culture/spiritual family, at such a stage in life (he was in his late 50’s-early 60’s when he came to Athos as far as I can gather).

He wouldn’t really give any kind of advice or spiritual words of wisdom. The most I heard him say to someone who had expressed a lot of spiritual troubles to him (a young person who was going through a period of discernment for vocational paths) was “Ok C____, I’ll be praying for you” (something like this and some very trivial, but encouraging words).

As time went on, and his body became weaker from the treatments, his appearance became a bit more disheveled. He was still so soft and kind, and very real, whenever I came over. He was telling me about the exercises that his doctor had prescribed and how he needed to try to walk a lot in order to stay in shape during his treatments.

I remember during one visit he was walking into the living room in front of me, and just out of a burst of something, he spurted out “O Michael, Michael, Michael, my dear, dear boy.” I don’t know why I remember this, it was so simple, but it had such compassion in it.

I don’t know. Fr. Barnabus’ life, to me, was so simple. I didn’t really know him that well or for that long, but really made an impression on me by his simplicity, by his compassion, by his lover amidst suffering.

A couple of weeks later I was in my friend’s Apartment where he stayed and noticed a book on the desk in the living room. I don’t know if it was Fr. Barnabus’ book or not, but I noticed that some of his belongings were next to it, so I assumed that it might have been. It was “The HIdden Man of the Heart” by Fr. Zacharias Zachariou from the Monastery in Essex--A Compilation of lecture he gave in America at a clergy retreat.

There was a book-marker marking a section in the chapter roughly entitled “On preparing for the day of death.” Who knows, maybe the book wasn’t even his, but it really engrained the mission of a monk to come to this place in himself where death is regular contemplation. I read the portion of the chapter which was a Q&A with Fr. Zacharias where someone asked him to relate a story about when he was serving at a church in a village in Greece and the Priest asked him to give the sermon to the congregation. The Priest pointed out to Fr. Z that many were wearing black in the congregation, and this was because a plane had crashed recently in the area killing many of the families of the villagers there. Fr. Z was at a loss, especially because he not suffered such a loss as them, and knew that he would just stumble over his words. Eventually, however, he did his best by recounting two powerful examples of the effects of prayer. One was when a plane that he was flying in lost power in one engine and he had come to terms, during the course of the emergency landing, with his approaching death, and had been praying throughout...but the plane landed safely. When he returned to the monastery, his spiritual father, the famous Fr. Sophrony’re safe because of the prayers! He recounted another moving story of prayer in the face of adversity from his family history in Greece under Turkish occupation.

Anyway, Fr. Barnabus was a witness to the simplicity and silence manifested in the life of a true Athonite monk. My impressions of him were more from the absence of something there (i.e. the silence, the simplicity) than from some complex theological supposition.

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