The Departure of the Soul

desert-fathers

St. Isaiah of Scetis (+370)
(commemorated on July 3)
“Keep death before your eyes daily, and be concerned about how you will leave this body, pass the powers of darkness that will meet you in the air, and encounter God without hindrance, foreseeing the awesome day of His judgment and reward for all our deeds, words, and thougths.”
Austere ascetic and solitary, praised by St. Barsanuphios the Great as a man of outstanding holiness, St. Isaiah was one of the earliest Egyptian elders. He led his disciples through purification and illumination to theosis and his profoundly illuminating writings guided the souls of Egyptian monastics–men and women alike–to the safe harbor of the Heavenly Kingdom.

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Byzantine Civilization

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On May the twenty-ninth, 1453, a civilization was wiped out irrevocably.  It had left a glorious legacy in learning and in art; it had raised whole countries from barbarism and had given refinement to others; its strength and its intelligence for centuries had been the protection of Christendom.  For eleven centuries Constantinople had been the centre of the world of light.  The quick brilliance, the interest and the aestheticism of the Greek, the proud stability and the administrative competence of the Roman, the transcendental intensity of the Christian from the East, welded together into a fluid sensitive mass, were put now to sleep.  Constantinople was become the seat of brutal force, of ignorance, of magnificent tastelessness.  Only in the Russian palaces, over which flew the two-headed eagle, the crest of the House of Palaeologus, did vestige of Byzantium linger for a few more centuries–only there, and in dark halls by the Golden Horn, hidden amongst the houses of the Phanar, where the Patriarch kept up his shadowy Court, allowed by the statesmanship of the Conquering Sultan and the labour of George Gennadius Scholarius to rule over the subject Christian people and give them some measure of security….but the Two-headed Eagle no longer flies in Russia, and the Phanar is lost in uncertainty and fear.  The last remains are dying or are dead.

It is as the seers of Byzantium foretold, the prophets that spoke incessantly of the fate that was coming, of the final days of the City.  The weary Byzantine knew that the doom so often threatened must some day surely envelop him.  And what did it matter?  It was needless to complain.  This world was a foolish travesty, haunted with pain and with sorrowful memories and foreboding.  Peace and true happiness lay beyond.  What was the Emperor, the Peer of the Apostles, what even was Constantinople itself, the great City dear to God and to His Mother, compared to Christ Pantocrator and the glorious Courts of Heaven?

Sir Steven Runciman, Byzantine Civilization, p. 240

The Horse of Christ

Whenever I imagine my father, I see him with a yoke around his neck, the yoke of his priestly stole. I see him yoked as a horse, a horse for Jesus Christ. I see him running from one end of his parish to the other, thirty mountainous kilometers, something he had to do sometimes twice a day. He was always weary, ready to collapse from fatigue, as every being that is yoked and subjugated.  It never stopped.

My father would then leave, without delay, following the man who had come to see him. He’d go out of the presbytery before the man had time to knock on the door.  Without fail, it was always something urgent; somewhere a human being awaited God. And my father was always in a hurry. He’d walk beside the man up to the gate. Once outside the stone wall of the fence from the holy place, the man who had come to ask my father climbed up on his horse. My father would walk behind the horse.

A priest never mounts a horse; this is the tradition of our mountain region. Thus my father carried his sack in which he kept the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the cross, and his stole; he’d walk behind the man on his horse. My poor father always walked, although he was so fragile, so weak, and so skinny.  He walked like a horse, behind the man. He followed the horse’s hooves without falling behind at all.

Sometimes, not very often, he’d smile and tell all the kids that, “I’m Jesus Christ’s horse.  God sits on my back, like on a horse…and he told the truth, because this is not so funny as we took it to be when we were young.  My father was transporting the Body and Blood of Christ, just like a horse transports its rider.  Everywhere.  Day and night.  God climbed up on my father’s shoulders every time he went to the depths of the dark pine forests and to the silent core of rugged mountains.

I would tell him that his sons and daughters in Christ don’t love him, as I saw him returning, dead tired.  “You’ve only just returned to the presbytery and already they’ve come to call on you.  You’re trying to lie down a little and they’ve come to see you.  They wake you up.  They force you to go out any time of the day, no matter what the weather, and you walk for hours and hours behind them, while they sit on their horses.  They drag you out without stopping, in the night, in the rain, in mud and snow.  The faithful love you even less than they love their own animals.  They’d never ask their animals to do what you do, as their priest.  Why don’t they feel sorry for you?  Why have they never had mercy on you?”

“Mercy befits people, animals, things, but not the priesthood,” my father would answer.  “It would be silly, inane and irreverent for men to feel sorry for a priest.  Every Christian who knocks on a priest’s door is in reality knocking on God’s door.  This is because a priest is ‘made like unto the Son of God’ (Heb. 7: 3).  No Christian can have the irreverent idea that God is tired, that God wants to sleep, that His feet hurt.  Anyone can ask anything of God and at any time.  I protested:  “But a priest is also a man,” I said.  “No,” replied my father.  “A priest is not a man, but the sacrifice of a man, which is added to God’s sacrifice.  That is what the priesthood is.”

This was a beautiful reply.  I turned red, but added:  “Still, you should rest for a few hours.”  “No,” he repeated.  A priest is not like farmer, a worker or a craftsman.  No man becomes a priest so that he can have many free hours and days off.  He is always a priest without breaks, without vacations, without pause, day and night.

In the same way that men can address God at any time, any hour of the day or night and for any reason, without fear of disturbing or annoying Him, so can men come to the home of a priest whenever and for any reason. Of course, we don’t have priests who don’t sleep, who don’t eat and whose feet don’t hurt. This, however, is an imperfection that we are obliged to accept, because the priesthood is an image or shadow of heavenly realities, as was revealed to Moses, when he was to make the tabernacle. See, he was admonished, that you make all things according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain (Heb. 8: 5).

The priesthood, mirroring the priesthood of Christ, eradicates the taking of any leave.  It remains permanently and for eternity (Heb. 5: 6).  Even natural death does not end the priesthood.  If this is so, how can hunger, fatigue or desire for sleep keep a priest from performing his duties?

“So is he a priest even after death?” I asked him the first time that he told this to me.  “Yes,” he said, a priest is a priest for eternity, Assimilatus filio dei, manet sacerdos in aeternum. ‘Made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.’ (Heb 7: 3)

Since a priest has been made like unto the Son of God, he cannot die.  He remains a priest within death and despite death, unto eternity.  For this reason a priest is buried in the vestments that he wears when celebrating the Divine Liturgy.  A priest is buried wearing his cross, his stole, his Felonion, Stichar, Epimanikia…everything as if he is dressed for the most splendid church service.  In death, a priest liturgizes in the true and heavenly Church with his bishop, Christ.  For every priest death is a promotion.  He passes from the earthly chapel in which he served on to the heavenly Cathedral in order to serve in the eternal liturgy near Christ.  Thus, the death of a priest must never be mourned, because he never dies, but is rather promoted upon natural death.

For the reason that a priest remains a priest after death, when he is placed in the tomb, he is dressed in the same garments that he performs the Liturgy.  His face is covered with the Aer, the cloth which covers the Holy Cup of Communion, which contains the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Air symbolizes the stone that sealed Christ’s tomb.  This same stone that sealed Christ’s tomb also seals the grave of every priest, because every priest is like unto the Son of God.

Hearing this, I let the tears roll down upon my father’s holy hand, which I bent down and kissed reverently.  I understood the old saying that if one meets an angel and a priest on the road walking beside each other, he must kneel in front of the priest and kiss his hand first, and then kneel to the angel and greet him.  This is because angels are lower than priests in that they cannot make bread and wine into the Body and Blood of God and priests can.

Despite the incomparable happiness that my father felt in being a servant of the Most High, my father lived his life in unimaginable hardship and suffering. Every year that went by, my father lost more and more weight, became more fleshless and immaterial.  At thirty years of age, my father’s hair was white.  At thirty years of age, my father was an old man.  His was losing his teeth, because of misery, malnutrition, and toil.

In contrast to this, his gaze became more and more beautiful, bright, radiant and intense so that his head seemed to be illumined by a halo.  I noticed an unusual fact:  when my father looked at something, it seemed to shine as if it were lighted by secret searchlights.  Seeing this I felt for the first time that when a holy person sees the world, they illuminate and sanctify it.

“What are you looking at?” my father asks, seeing me deep in thought.  “You are bright like an icon,” I said, turning beet red.  Father laughed.  He was neither prideful nor humble, because in order to feel pride or humility a person must be humanly.  But father was less and less human.  He smiled because my voice reached his ear and that made him happy.  My father didn’t smile very often.  When someone is very tired, he cannot smile.  This time however, he did smile and when my father smiled, one could see that he’d lost almost all of his teeth.  My heart sunk.  I felt so sorry for his wretchedness that I could not hold back my tears.  That’s when I decided that if one day our Lord Jesus Christ decided to allow his priest, Constantine Georgiou, to have all the food that he wanted for the rest of his life, my proletarian father, my revered father would continue—despite the miracle of food at his table–to always be hungry as in the past.  This is because even if he had something to eat, he could not, because he no longer had any teeth…

 

Incense at Hagia Sophia

A Greek journalist writes: “I met Ishmael who is Turkish in 1975, in England, where I was attending university at Oxford. We became good friends and after graduating we kept in touch. Ishmael lives in Istanbul (Constantinople), a stone’s throw from Hagia Sophia. Recently he wrote a letter to me. “In the past year, at night, when we are outside, the smell of incense that you Christians burn in church overpowers us.”

It is of note that there hasn’t been a church service at Hagia Sophia since 1453, the year Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.

The Purpose of the Church

St. Justin Popovitch writes, “The definition of the Church, Her life, Her purpose, Her spirit, Her plan, Her ways, all these are given in the wondrous Person of God-human Christ. Hence, the mission of the Church is to make every one of her faithful, organically and in person, one with the Person of Christ; to turn their sense of self into a sense of Christ, and their self-knowledge (self-awareness) into Christ-knowledge (Christ-awareness); for their life to become the life in Christ and for Christ; their personality to become personality in Christ and for Christ; that within them might live not they themselves but Christ in them (Gal. 2:10).” The Church does not require validation from the world; her relevance is an ontological truth: she is relevant because she is Christ’s body, who is the Living Truth. “…where the Body of Christ is, there is the truth.” (St. Ambrose, On the Resurrection, 2, 108) I am the vine, you [are] the branches! Whoever remains in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me, you can do nothing. (Jn. 15:5)