Entries with tag faith matters .

Four Dishes and a Thanksgiving: November 23, 1961

I had been in the United States only twelve weeks when I experienced my first, and most quintessentially American holiday: Thanksgiving.  My father, Kosmas, my mother, Eleni, my older sister, Frederiki, and I immigrated to the United States from Kastoria, and arrived in New York on the first of September 1961, when I was three.  In late August, we had left Kastoria, sent off by a throng of tearful relatives, friends, and neighbors.  A five-hour-long bus ride on a largely mountain “highway”—in a reality a narrow, perilous, dusty, ancient road—delivered us to Thessaloniki.  From there, we trained across the Greek border into Yugoslavia. 

My parents had planned this circuitous route to America so that my father could see his nephew, my first cousin, Christos.  Christo had no recollection of my father.  The last time they had seen each other was in 1948, during the Greek civil war, when my father was a soldier in the Greek national army and shortly before Christo, who was not yet five, was forcibly abducted from his mother’s village by Communist guerrillas and sent to an indoctrination camp behind the Iron Curtain, as were thousands of other Greek children during the notorious paidomazoma.  My father’s middle brother, Alexandros, whose name I carry, had been executed, murdered by Communist insurgents well before Christos’ abduction. 

The four of us—my father, mother, sister, and I—disembarked from the train at Skopje station.  My father had 45 minutes, before our train departed again, to wipe away 13 years of separation.  Somehow, they found each other on the train station platform.  My 36-year old father—a survivor of the Nazi occupation, decorated combat veteran, a strong resolute man—and his teenage nephew—a beautiful, sensitive looking boy, the son of my murdered uncle—embraced each other, stared into each other’s faces, and wept uncontrollably.  My mother, sister, and I watched them both as they shared a plate of fasoulada and some bread.  They ate with two spoons out of the same bowl and drank wine out of the same cup that my cousin had brought to the station.

It took several days for our train to pass through Yugoslavia, Austria, and West Germany before we arrived in Belgium.  One day later, we left Brussels aboard a Sabena Airlines flight bound for New York.  One of my father’s cousins was a former Greek air force officer who worked for Belgium’s national airline, thus our ticketing and departure from Brussels. 

This was the first time any of us had been in an airplane, not counting the times my father had jumped out of them during his wartime paratrooper/commando training.  My mother fortified us for the long flight that lay ahead by bringing on board two enormous loaves of bread, salami, olives, and cheese.  She was stunned when the plane’s stewards served us meals, which she could not identify and which she was unwilling to taste.  My mother was incensed when the customs’ officials at New York’s Idlewild Airport (now JFK) seized the cache of food she had carefully held on to for us across Europe and over the Atlantic.  As we shuffled past the customs gate, my father went ahead, looking for our bus connection to the Port Authority in Manhattan.   My mother and sister left me standing next to our gigantic trunk in the middle of the terminal space to wait for them as they went in search of a restroom.  In a split second, a man selling small brown bags of hot peanuts from a stand across from us, shouted in Greek to my mother: “My Madame, where are you going?  Don’t leave your boy alone here, not even for a moment.  You’re not in Greece.  This isn’t the village.  People here steal children!”  My mother recoiled in horror, fear, and embarrassment.  She held my sister and me tight to her as strangers hurried past us.  Seconds later, my father returned.  My mother turned to him and said in a voice I had never heard her speak in before: “Where have you brought us?” 

One day later, after leaving New York and crossing New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio on a cramped Greyhound bus, we arrived in Fort Wayne, Indiana—our destination.  Waiting for us at the bus station was the reason we were in Fort Wayne—my Uncle George, Theio Yiorgo.  Because my uncle had been made an internal refugee by the Greek civil war, he was able to immigrate in 1950 under the Displaced Persons Law, which circumvented the very small quota permitted for Greek immigration to the US since the mid-1920s.  He landed in Fort Wayne because it was there that that his official immigration sponsor, a second cousin who had come to America before the First World War, had settled and still resided.  Along this chain of migration, my father had followed my Theio Yiorgo and his family—my aunt, Theia Eleni, and my cousins Niki, Alexandra (Sandra), and Theodota (Dorothy) to Fort Wayne—an industrial city in the northeast corner of Indiana, equidistant between Chicago and Detroit. 

Soon after we arrived, and over the following several weeks, a seemingly endless succession of gregarious and warm-hearted people came to welcome my parents to the Greek community, anchored in the city’s predominantly working-class Southside district and around the modest, recently established Greek Orthodox parish of Holy Trinity.  As was the custom then among Fort Wayne’s tightknit community of Greeks, new arrivals were helped by earlier arrivals.  Most already established families would gift something small but tangible and practical to each new immigrant family, collectively aiding every new family with some of its basic needs for a new life in a new country.  One family might give drinking glasses or spoons or forks, another might provide plates, towels, or linens, and yet another might give a blanket or an icon.  In turn, once the new families would establish themselves they would contribute to help subsequent arrivals begin their lives in America.

I remember vividly one such gift given to my parents by a Greek-American couple, George and Rubie Mallers: four dishes, one for each one of us in my family.  These were not ordinary dishes.  They were beautiful dinnerware, pieces of white flawless china, bordered in crimson, and ornate, but subtle, 14-carat gold leaf.  George, the community’s rising young leader and an accomplished attorney and businessman, and Rubie, a refined, gentle woman and devoted mother to two sons and a daughter, gave my parents something more than a set of plates when they first met to welcome my parents into the community.  They shared grace with my parents.  They thoughtfully gave my parents something they needed, but they gave it in the form of something beautiful and precious, sharing dignity with my parents.

By October, we were staying in a small community-owned house next to Holy Trinity parish, a kind of transitional residence that many Greek immigrant families would briefly live in until they could find more permanent housing.  On November 23, we visited my Theio Yiorgo’s house for Thanksgiving.  I had no idea what Thanksgiving was and I did not really care.  My sister, who was now a second-grader attending “American school,” labored to explain to my parents the purpose of this strange holiday that was neither religious nor patriotic.  She insisted that it was some kind of American “Oxi Day.”  This meant nothing to me.  As a three-year old, I did not know what “Oxi Day” was.  All I cared about was that a feast awaited us and I would get to spend the day playing with my cousin Dorothy.

My Theia Eleni’s table introduced me to a standard of glorious Greek-American excess that our family gatherings would produce thereafter, holiday after holiday, for decades.  Yes, my first Thanksgiving, my first American holiday, celebrated entirely, as they all would be, with endless amounts of Greek food.  As we prepared to sit down around my Theia’s beautiful table—even the kids’ table sparkled with perfection—my mother produced the four dishes from George and Rubie Mallers in the event that more plates might be needed as the meal progressed. 

There was something about those dishes that I liked very much—they were pretty and pleasing.  I asked if I could have one of the “pretty dishes” for my Thanksgiving meal.  I was, of course, indulged.  My Theia Eleni whisked away her white dish and my mother put in its place a “pretty dish.”  As I gorged on roast turkey, keftedes, kritheraki, patates tou fournou, tiropita, and much more, I was convinced that the “pretty dish” must have somehow enhanced the food.  How else could I explain why everything tasted so much better than it ever had before?  Then and there, I decided that I liked Thanksgiving.

My mother, now 86, suffered a fall this summer that produced a fractured pelvis and an extended stay in rehab.  My wife, daughter, and I returned to Fort Wayne from Boston to be with my mother and to make structural changes to her house to help accommodate her return home.  For years, my mother has been imploring me to empty her cabinets and closets of things she no longer needs and to take them back to Boston.  I had never done so.  This time, I decided to finally appease my mother by promising to take back to Boston at least some dishes from the scores and scores of dishes and plates she has accumulated over the years. 

Going through my mother’s cabinet above her washer-dryer, I came across the four dishes George and Rubie Mallers had gifted to my parents 53 years earlier.  I had not seen them in perhaps more than thirty years.  I had almost forgotten about them.  I carefully held one of the dishes in my hands, and realized that the dish was not simply “pretty”—it was truly beautiful, extraordinarily unique, much like I have come to see and appreciate more and more things in life, as I have grown older.  I thought of the gloriously loud and voracious gatherings of my family at holiday tables in my youth.  Still holding the dish, I laughed with no one around me to hear as I remembered one such Thanksgiving Day feast when my Theia Eleni began to scold my Theio Yiorgo for eating far too much—again—suggesting that he might need to go on a diet.  That conversation and my Theia’s pleas for moderation ended abruptly when my Theio responded: “Woman, I didn’t come to America to go on a diet.  We starved plenty in Greece.  I came here to eat.  Now go bring us some more food.”   My Theio is no longer with us.  My father, too, has also passed.  My Theia Eleni has left us.  Even George and Rubie Mallers have gone on.  I would like to thing that those dishes, which remind me of some of the people and goodness in my life that I give thanks for, will still be here, will still be cherished by my family when I am gone.

When I left Fort Wayne at the end of August, the four dishes were the only things that I brought back to Boston.  Today on Thanksgiving, when my wife, Elizabeth, and our daughter, Sophia, and I sit down to our meal, we will eat from the “pretty dishes.”  I will tell Sophia this story, once again, so that she may share it with her children years from now, when they sit down to give thanks to God, laugh together, and eat from those four dishes.                          

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Archdiocesan Statement on the Protection of Women

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Salesian Missions, Inc. recently submitted a joint statement for the 59th Session of the Comssion on the Status of Women (CSW), which is scheduled for March 2015. CSW is a function comssion of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It is the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. Every year, representatives of Member States gather at United Nations Headquarters in New York to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women's empowerment worldwide. For more information about CSW please click here. 

OFFICIAL STATEMENT (Soon to be posted on the UN Website)

Introduction

As international faith-based organizations of the Christian tradition, and moreover as members of the human community, we regard the empowerment of women and gender equality as central components of the post-2015 development agenda. We acknowledge the progress made by Member States and Civil Society Organizations since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The Millennium Development Goals advanced the empowerment of women. The proposed Sustainable Development Goals of the Open Working Group augment the issue of women’s empowerment and gender equality. We support the continued strengthening of the efforts made by the global community to ensure the rights of women and girls through decisive goals, targets, and indicators. However, much work still needs to be done. The full participation of women at every level in setting the next development agenda is essential.

We believe that the global community must address the issues that impede development for all, especially women and girls. These issues include, inter alia, equal access to education for girls, infant mortality, maternal health, access to clean water and sanitation, the feminization of extreme poverty, and the denial of participation in both the private and public arenas. The Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women identifies the continued prevalence of violence against women and girls as the greatest threat to overcoming these obstacles and notes that such violence impairs and nullifies the realization of all human rights.

We reaffirm our shared interest in the empowerment of women and girls worldwide and the right of all people to peace, security, and freedom. All persons are entitled to live with dignity regardless of gender and/or sex. We insist that the pursuit of equality and recognition of this universal dignity must continue solely by peaceful means, while remembering and respecting the unique contributions of both women and men within various cultures, customs, and traditions.

Assessing the Problem of Violence Against Women

Violence against women, both physical and psychological, takes many forms, inter alia: domestic violence, violence in armed conflict, rape and sexual assault, violence during migration, in the trafficking of women and girls, and conditions of extreme poverty. All forms of violence result in the silencing of women, denying them the right of expression and full participation in the life of their families, communities, and governments. Violence of any form must be systematically addressed by all levels of society.

The physical, emotional, physiological, spiritual, and social consequences inflicted upon victims of violence cannot be fully communicated or understood through data collection. However, the study of violence against women does provide evidence that women and girls are disproportionately subjugated to many forms of brutality, some of which are culturally based. The statistics related to violence against women and girls have been noted:

·      According to the WHO, 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. In some national studies, 70% of women have experienced intimate partner violence.

·      The WHO global review of scientific data concluded that violence against women is a “global public health problem of epidemic proportions, requiring urgent action.”

·      The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has shown that nearly 1 in 5 women have reported experiencing rape in their lifetime. Over 42% of victims were first raped before age 18.

·      UNICEF reports that about 120 million girls worldwide have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives.

·      Data from the ILO shows that women and girls comprise 55% of the estimated 20.9 million victims of forced labour worldwide and 98% of the estimated 4.8 million victims forced into sexual exploitation.

·      According to the United States Department of State, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Over 70% of trafficked persons are female and many are victims of physical or sexual assault.

·      The UNODC indicates that a disproportionate number of women are involved in human trafficking, both as victims and as culprits. Female offenders have a prominent role in human trafficking particularly where former victims become perpetrators as a means of escaping their own victimization.

·      The United Nations Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict has noted that the vast majority of casualties in modern conflicts and wars are civilian women and children. Systematic sexual violence against women and girls is regularly used as a means to achieve political and/or military objectives and as a weapon of war.

A transformative development agenda will only be realized when violence against women and girls is eradicated. Affected by a traumatic experience or the fear of imminent violence, women and girls cannot live their lives freely. The systemic use of violence inhibits the accomplishment of daily tasks. It is our shared responsibility as a human community to protect women and girls and cherish their profoundly indispensable contributions in and outside the home, both locally and globally.

In a spirit of love and humility, we condemn any and all forms of violence against women, including the silencing of women, the denial of full participation in society, workplace discrimination, sexual harassment and assault, rape, and murder. Research shows that women and girls are disproportionately victims of such violence. It is our responsibility to help create a universal culture that denounces all forms of violence against women and girls and protects them against such cruelties. Such a culture preserves our humanity and universal human dignity.

Recommendations

We believe that a strong post-2015 development agenda must be committed to eliminating gender inequality and promoting the empowerment of women. Recognizing our common but differentiated responsibilities, we recommend that Member States and Civil Society partner to:

·      Eliminate all forms of violence and abuse against all women and girls in public and private spheres, including human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and/or forced labour as well as in military and political conflicts.

·      Eliminate the increasing feminization of extreme poverty by achieving full and productive employment and decent work for all women with gender equity, providing equal pay for equal work.

·      Ensure the provision of public services and adopt fiscal, wage, and social protection policies to progressively achieve greater gender equity.

·      Ensure women’s full, inclusive, and effective participation, providing equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life.

·      Undertake legislative reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance, and natural resources.

·      Move away from the soft law era through the adoption of legally binding instruments.

·      Enforce previously adopted legislative policies protecting women and girls from all forms of violence.

·      Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.

The Orthodox Way of Life – Living Through Christ Each Day

There is this incessant misconception involving the way in which Orthodox Christians should live with blurred lines of confusion of what is right and wrong in terms of practice. As an Orthodox Christian, there is an emphasis on acquiring humility and patience, through continual prayer, repentance, and love towards one another. Unfortunately, this current epoch of an existence is far from what is expected from us as not only Christians, but as an entire population of humans. Through the rapid explosion of technological advances, medical science discoveries, social media hype, and celebrity idolizing behavior, humans are very lost, drifting far away from God. With all the distractions there are today, it is very easy to be possessed by the physical aspects rather than the spiritual ones.

 

People would prefer to stay home on a Sunday morning just to sleep-in long enough to watch a football game. Others, tentative about attending Sunday service, give their own children the choice of whether or not they want to attend Sunday School, as an attempt to “skip” church that day. There are even people who just stop going to church altogether just because they do not feel the need to go. The sad part about all these scenarios is that they are considered a normative behavior and these individuals see no problem with it whatsoever.

The enormous shift in values and tradition among most families today is quite alarming. The devoid of our Lord being center in our lives is an endangered practice. Being an Orthodox Christian is not only a once-a-year experience or private worship time at home. Life as an Orthodox Christian is a consistent, unending path with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ leading our way, according to His Will, and not our own.

Due to the many interruptions there are nowadays, we are forgetting why we are here. We are not alive for the sake of fulfilling the hedonistic tendency that has flooded the newer generations of human beings. We are the sinful salts of the earth that must attempt to grow in Christ and take life one-step at a time. The main problem we have is not only hedonism but also indifference. People seem to care less about purpose or meaning of anything. Some only want to take from life all that they can take, with no intention of giving anything back.

Going to church once a week is the very least Orthodox Christians can do to practice their faith. It is amazing what one liturgy service can do to someone. It could be one Gospel or Epistle reading, or even the priest’s sermon that can make a difference. A single phrase or message could be taken from that one-time visit each week to God’s House. It all sounds so simple. Yet, why is it so difficult to do?

It is only through our Lord Jesus, that we can be forgiven and allowed access into the Kingdom of God. However, we have only one lifetime to get this right. Heaven is an honor granted to us not an entitlement. Just because you are an Orthodox Christian, does not imply complete remission of sins if you do not actively practice the faith accordingly.

Beloved, you must understand that this life is only temporary. God can grant us life as quickly as He can take life away. Remember to put Jesus first always. Ask God before doing something that may change your life forever. Pray more, at least twice a day. Repent your sins and be sincere in your apologies. Ensure you treat others with dignity and respect, without expecting anything in return. Above all, you must love the Lord Jesus, with all your heart, mind, and strength. Do not forget all that Jesus has done for us, and place Him in the hope of our salvation.

How Do Homeless Kids Get Ready to Go Back-to-School?

As the new school year gets underway, parents and children know the anticipation and excitement that accompanies the first day of school: the simple joy of a new backpack, a new outfit, new shoes, or a clean notebook. Yet for many parents and children across the US, these items are luxuries they can’t afford.

It’s something we all know – that there are poor and homeless families who live in our own cities and towns.  But most of us don’t realize just how bad the situation is. 

Across the United States, homelessness and poverty are at unprecedented levels.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that since 2007, family homelessness skyrocketed by 20%. 

It’s important to define what is meant by “homeless”.  When we think about homeless people, most of us think of bums living under a bridge or winos begging for change.  But this is not an accurate picture of the homeless today.  Sure, there is a “chronic homeless” population that mostly lives outdoors, but the majority of people who are homeless today are working individuals and families with children who cannot afford to rent or buy a permanent home. 

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness in every city, county and state nationwide.  A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that there is no jurisdiction (no town, city, county or state) in the United States where a working family of four, earning the poverty threshold wage of $24,000 can afford even a one-bedroom home at fair market rates. 

So where do these families live?  Where do you go if you’ve been bankrupted by an illness, lost your home to foreclosure, or just don’t earn enough to rent a suitable home?  Many cities offer family homeless shelters where families can stay together.  Other families live in motels, trailer parks, or camp grounds.  Families often live in the basements or attics of friends or relatives, while waiting to hopefully get placed in some sort of government subsidized housing. 

Wherever they stay, it’s not a permanent home and children tend to suffer the most from repeated transitional living.  What school will children attend if they have no permanent address?  How will the kids adapt, manage and succeed in their education if they have no stable place to live?  If parents can’t afford a place to live, how will they equip their children with the supplies, clothes and shoes necessary to attend school? 

About four years ago, FOCUS North America began working with school districts around the country to provide meals to poor children.  Almost every school in America has a free and reduced lunch program that operates during the day when children are in school.  However, over the weekend, many of these kids don’t get enough to eat.  To combat hunger over the weekends when the free lunch program isn’t available to kids, FOCUS packs up meals each Friday and sends these meals homes with the children so that they can feed themselves and their siblings. 

Through our work with school districts, we also learned that homeless and poor families struggle with another major item that they find difficult to afford:  Shoes.  Even a low cost pair of shoes from a discount store can cost $10 - $15.  And even $10 -$15 is a big expense for people who are living paycheck to paycheck. 


Thousands of homeless and underprivileged children attend an Operation Lace Up event in St. Louis on 8/2/14

Based on this, FOCUS developed “Operation Lace Up”, our national back-to-school program that has assisted 252,000 children in 250 school districts across 30 cities nationwide over the past two years.  Operation Lace Up gives children everything they need to get back to school and succeed in acquiring an education: back packs, school supplies, new athletic shoes, clothes, and even medical and dental checkups so that they can go back to school prepared -- and healthy. 

While FOCUS works on creating stability in these families’ lives by offering sustainable and affordable housing assistance (FOCUS helped almost 1,000 people assisted with housing last year) we are addressing the immediate needs that homeless children face each August as they go back to school. 

Each year, thousands of Orthodox Christians, united in faith and joined by a desire to provide action-oriented and sustainable solutions to poverty in communities across America come together through Operation Lace Up and provide much needed assistance to children in need.  Last year, the Metropolis of Chicago Philoptochos helped more than 25,000 homeless children get back to school in Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis.  Throughout California - in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego – and all across America, parishes, people young and old, and communities forged a wonderful partnership that stands as a witness to the practical nature of the Orthodox faith and our combined efforts to live out the commandments of Christ to love and serve our neighbor. 

This year, Operation Lace Up will continue to serve homeless and underprivileged kids throughout the nation.  To learn more, or to volunteer, please visit the FOCUS North America website: http://focusnorthamerica.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=307&Itemid=231

 

Vacation and Paradise

In second grade, at some point in the frozen middle of that Minnesota winter, my parents told us we were all going to Florida for spring break and I began running and jumping through the house for joy.  We'd taken several summer trips before – always a thrill – to the North Shore of Lake Superior but I'd never traveled south.  And by then I'd heard enough about Florida for my imagination to feast the rest of the winter. 

Nor was the trip a disappointment when it came.  Boarding the plane, the take-off and flight were like nothing I’d experienced.  And then being in Florida, I was in a state of continuous wonder, first at how I could just have been in snow and ice and was now in such sweet summery air, with sunlit balconied buildings -- their pinks and yellows like something from Dr. Seuss -- rising up from plush lawns and flowerbeds as we drove in the rental car.  Fountains spilled up everywhere, and I couldn’t get enough of the palm trees, their trunks graciously curving this way or that way up to fascinating heights where their waxy fronds burst out from amidst clusters of coconuts.   And all of it against the ever-present background of the turquoise water of the Atlantic.  I’d never seen so much color in my life. 

Five years later when we went a second time to Florida, the experience didn't match the expectation.  I was now in seventh grade.  I have some good memories of that trip too, but I distinctly remember saying to my Mom that I felt let down:  it wasn't as amazing to be in Florida as it had been the last time.  Melancholy had entered upon the scene.  As I would read another five or six years later:  "There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight / To me did seem / Appareled in celestial light, / The glory and the freshness of a dream.  / It is not now as it hath been of yore;  -- / Turn wheresoe'er I may, / By night or day, / The things which I have seen I now can see no more."

The day before yesterday I returned from the Jersey Shore where my wife and I and our three kids spent a week with my wife's side of the family.  The weather was perfect.  The rental house was the best we'd had in a number of years.  A colleague of mine lent me a beach canopy that was fantastic and saved us from all the frustrations of multiple umbrellas.  The kids had a whale of a time with their cousins and grandparents. 

One of the mornings, we’d gotten a sitter for our 19-month-old, and Julie's Mom took our older two out for breakfast so Julie and I could bike along the boardwalk and stop somewhere in nearby Asbury Park for a leisurely breakfast of our own.  It was as we were biking in the freshness of the day, with the sunlight sparkling on the water, that I was aware that here again as at a number of other moments during the week, the gorgeous beauty of what surrounded me -- the surf and the sky, the light, the goodness of being able to spend time with those I loved -- was something I wasn't fully or directly able to come into contact with.  It was all there, I was experiencing it, I was even appreciating it.  But it wasn't transporting me entirely.  It didn’t have the glory and the freshness of a dream.  In the past, this awareness would have bothered me -- everything I'm seeing is so perfect and what I'm doing is so nice, why aren't I in a state of ecstasy, of sublime tranquility?  But this time instead of being bent out of shape I felt that it was all right.  I'm here, enjoying this to the extent that I am (which was a pretty good extent, actually).  Life even at its purported best doesn't always deliver to the max . . . vacation isn’t paradise -- it’s okay. 

Alexander Schmemann once wrote in a journal entry, “Paradise is open to children; it shines from them.”  There were lots of reasons why it wasn’t wide open to me that morning.  There was the constant low-level anxiety that comes with being a parent especially of a toddler.  While I'd been watching Jonathan the previous afternoon he'd started eating Goo (its actual trademarked name) the older kids had brought back from an amusement park in Point Pleasant; he’d gotten ahold of a Superball the size he could choke on; he’d been within a half-second of shattering a vase; at another point he was walking around with the IPad of one of my nieces.  The kind of stress all this sort of thing induces -- and like any parent, I could multiply examples -- has a way of lingering in one's system.  No doubt I still had plenty of it coursing through me as I was biking the next morning on the beach. 

News of atrocities and injustices around the world, somewhere beyond the crisp line of the horizon where ocean met sky, hung in the otherwise exquisite air.  A part of me feels a tug of guilt about anything less than traveling personally to the sites of the worst of today’s unfolding crimes against humanity and putting myself directly in harm’s way to stand up against them.  Though nobody has advised me to do this the tug of guilt (which I think we all must feel or suppress) about not doing it forms an essential part of the backdrop of every earthly vacation and reconfirms that it’s not paradise.  

On the near side of the horizon were also all the ordinary and inevitable little misconnections of everyday human interaction.  The ones that arise between my wife and me we try to work through.  That level of emotional investment can't occur across the board, though, with everyone.  I'm incapable of being entirely present to the beauty of every person in my life just as I'm incapable of being entirely present to the beauty of the beach on a clear morning (and the former deficit no doubt underlies the latter).  The best I can often do is to know I'm not doing others justice, not encountering them fully.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, a 20th century Catholic theologian, sandwiches a comment of his own between two quotations from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:  "it is 'the lofty pathos of our fate that every "thou" in our world must become an "it"'; the direct relationship must become 'latent'; 'it is impossible to live in the naked present -- it would devour us.'" To be completely alive to the presence of others is more than we can manage. 

Although I agree with Buber’s idea of the impossibility of living fully in the naked present, I’m also struck by the thought that God’s living in it means that in communion with God I’m able to have access to it, myself.  Of course my communion with God is imperfect from my side:  since I’m not fully present to God I’m not able to be fully present to those to whom He’s fully present; I don’t know others as God does.  But even this awareness makes a difference.  At the end of a day (and not only the end) when I pray to God for another person, I’m essentially admitting that I’m not and haven’t been fully present to him or her as God is.  This is also to say I haven’t loved the other person fully.  People to whom I’ve done nothing wrong, but of whom I’ve had fleeting thoughts that haven’t done them justice or to whom I’ve not given myself fully with all my attention, are that much less distorted, less reduced, less rendered an “It” instead of a “Thou,” each time I pray for them, however modest the prayer.  And if they have in any way distorted or reduced me, rendered me an “it,” I’m able in prayer to forgive them, as I know I’m in need of the same forgiveness. 

Anxiety, suffering, sin, on big levels and small, infiltrate vacation:  no shilling Sherlock!  It shouldn’t be news to anyone beyond about the second grade but it somehow still is to me, yet I also see it’s begun sinking in.  I used to have a harder time than I do now mixing religion and vacation (this year, I wasn’t even too disappointed that our week at the beach fell within the Dormition Fast, although I should say that I didn’t strictly stick to it).  Having once hoped for vacation itself to lift me above every earthly care, I used to resist accepting in the course of it the ongoing need to be unburdened through worship and prayer of what wasn’t ceasing to weigh me down.  As I’ve better come to grips with how vacation in itself doesn’t make me well (any more than, in itself, work does), that there’s a mystery of paradise beyond it, that this isn’t that, the interesting thing is how much more often I’ve been able to be at peace with the lack of total peace, to be reasonably happy with the less than soaring happiness, to appreciate the beautiful surroundings even as I sense that some vital essence in them eludes me.  The perfect, as the saying goes, doesn’t have to be the enemy of the good; the good can be accepted here and now because of the promise of more that it holds.

In another journal entry in which he sought to express his Christian faith in its most basic form, Fr. Schmemann wrote:  “One thing seems clear:  the basic coordinates of this faith are on the one hand, an acute love for the world, for all that is given (nature, city, history, culture); on the other, the conviction, as acute and as evident, that this love itself is directed at ‘the other’ (the ‘all is elsewhere’) that this world reveals.  In this revelation is the world’s essence, calling, beauty.’”

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Scranton, where in addition to the course on work and rest, he teaches on the Bible, Byzantine theology and the relationship between faith and politics.

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