A newspaper reporter hurriedly telephoned his editor to report a story he wanted to cover. It involved an empty truck that rolled down a hill and smashed into a home. His editor was unimpressed and told the writer not to report the story. The reporter replied, “I’m glad you’re taking this so calmly. It was your house.”
With limited time and attention spans, we often miss the importance of events around us. Unless we personally become involved, we risk losing opportunities to gain knowledge and grow stronger spiritually. By choosing to follow our hearts and share with those God places in our path, we often receive gifts far greater than we could have hoped. For this Sunday’s Lunch, I want to share a true and life-changing gift God provided to me and my parish family, beginning on June 7, 2014, from the two persons pictured below, on the day we met them!
On that first Saturday of June in 2014, a calm, loving, and deeply religious woman and her almost six-year-old son, arrived at St. Christopher Church in Peachtree City, Georgia, from a country in the European Union. Having written me months earlier to ensure there was an Orthodox church near her son’s treatment center, his new school and their temporary home, she explained that she planned to spend about eight months with us. The mother’s aim was to seek treatment for her son who was diagnosed with autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, impaired verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior. Brain Balance, the program she chose is unavailable in Europe and is a non-medical and drug-free approach to overcoming the challenges of ADHD, learning disabilities, processing disorders, Asperger’s syndrome, and a host of other related childhood learning and developmental issues. Its integrated approach combines physical and sensory motor exercises with academic skill training and healthy nutrition.
From the outset, I want to point out that my parishioner gave me permission to share this story, including her and her son’s full names, with the hope that other parents will “believe” they are real. Discretion, however, requires me to choose pseudonyms to ensure they are not mistreated or misused by third parties. I will refer to the mother as Ηρεμία (pronounced i-re-mí-a) because of her spiritual calmness and for always inviting God to be present with her family. I use the name Θεόφιλος (pronounced the-ó-phi-los) for her son, because he both loves God and is His friend. Ηρεμία’s optimistic aim is to inspire other parents to help their children similarly diagnosed to benefit from new and innovative treatment modalities, in spite of the high costs and sacrifices along the way. While these approaches are available in the U.S., they are often overlooked and ignored by parents with autistic children, who can become paralyzed by shame or denial when the suggestion is made by concerned family and friends that help is needed.
Like the reporter in my opening story, Ηρεμία recognized that a truck was smashing into her house. With no prior warnings, her husband in his late ‘30s died unexpectedly in 2012 from a massive heart attack. The diagnosis of her son having autism quickly followed. Two years later, Ηρεμία, blessed with a supportive employer with international office locations in the U.S., sought God’s help to guide, nurture, and seek treatment for her beloved son. Viable and effective treatment for autism is non-existent where she lives. Likewise, Ηρεμία realized that once her son was grown, if he were untreated, his condition would prevent him from finding a normal job, being permitted to get married, sign legal contracts, or apply for a bank loan. Thus, they began a journey which has inspired our parishioners and countless others, as they struggled to overcome the many difficulties with Trans-Atlantic travel, new living arrangements, different schooling, disciplined treatment, untold financial expenses, and constant challenges for their religious faith and personal stamina.
Hosting a lunch in their honor at the Metropolis Office before they returned to Europe, my co-workers were astonished by the drastic improvement in the communication skills and behavior of Θεόφιλος since first meeting him after his arrival. I consider them my international parishioners and we communicate regularly. Ηρεμία wrote me recently that she and Θεόφιλος were typical examples of families in her country with autistic kids. “That is why I felt obliged to fight for the diagnosis of my son to get cancelled.” And three years after Ηρεμία began her journey in 2014 using the treatment in the U.S. and with demanding discipline to maintain its regimen, Θεόφιλος’ symptoms have disappeared and he is developing normally. We give glory to God… it happened… in front of our eyes… and with faith and love in God throughout the entire journey. And we continue to support Ηρεμία and Θεόφιλος by sharing this miracle with those who may wonder how God chooses to work in our midst! A fond memory is this image of Θεόφιλος’ first “prosforon” or “offering bread” that he made after his mother was taught how to make it by Presbytera Marinda. His mother remarked, “I must share with you, that the lesson inspired also my son so much, that when we returned home, he made his own ‘prosforas’ from modeling clay for his Orthodox parish at home.”
Through God’s grace, Ηρεμία and her son have kept in touch after their departure. During the summer of 2015, Ηρεμία and Θεόφιλος returned to the U.S. for a brief visit while they received follow-up support from his provider.
On Sunday, October 9, 2016, Θεόφιλος experienced the joy of his first service in the Holy Altar in his home parish in Europe. Ηρεμία emailed photos of this blessed event and asked me to “show them to our Church Family in Peachtree City and share our joy, success and warmest regards. Glory be to God!” Our parish family is so moved by his progress and their devoted faith and friendship. We are committed to being their life-long friends. What joy and inspiration we have received from God and from them. We are indeed blessed and thankful.
This past June, when her son’s diagnosis of autism was cancelled from his state records, Ηρεμία shared it was the first case in her country that this action had occurred. She wrote, “We hope that our example will inspire many families to work with their autistic kids and never give up! Huge thanks for Your Spiritual Support !!!”
This past July, Θεόφιλος turned 9 years of age! Ηρεμία observed, “He was born for our Lord’s Glory and I teach him always to do his best, to give 100% from himself in anything he does.” Reflecting on her insightful witness, I recalled how clergy place baptismal crosses from Godparents on those newly baptized. What blessing do we offer? We pray the words of Christ our Savior to the crowds gathered with His Disciples: “If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, not only have Ηρεμία and Θεόφιλος done that throughout their lives in Europe and the U.S., they continue to inspire us with their prayers and plans to move permanently to the U.S. Just this week, they completed a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of faithful believers from their parish church in Europe. In the photo below, they are with His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilus III (Giannopoulos) of the Holy City of Jerusalem, All Palestine and Israel. It was taken at the Jerusalem Patriarchate.
Ηρεμία and Θεόφιλος also visited the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem. They may live far away; yet they always remain close in our hearts and souls.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is an enormously enriching aspect of our Orthodox faith to reach out in grateful embrace with those who come into our midst. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13.2) This verse expresses my feelings of gratitude when I consider the blessings we have received from Ηρεμία and Θεόφιλος. They have a beautiful way of witnessing their faith and their love for God, family, and all they encounter. May we all be so blessed.
In closing, the first day I met Ηρεμία and Θεόφιλος in 2014, our parish’s “Share the Spirit Weekend” began. It included three days of worship, fellowship, and religious study. It was Pentecost weekend; we began each day with the Divine Liturgy and then devoted time and study to using the nine fruits of God’s Holy Spirit witnessed by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22. Looking back, I believe Ηρεμία and Θεόφιλος were sent by God to give us an opportunity to embrace these fruits:
Love – do we love each other, and do we love those who are different from us? Do we love and welcome visitors, no matter who they are? Do we try to make their acquaintance, so that we can love them? Do we put their comfort above our own?
Goodness – St. Peter tells us (2 Peter 1:5) to support our faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge. Our salvation is the result of God’s goodness. Likewise, other persons should benefit as a result of our goodness. Our mission work should clearly show our faith in God’s goodness.
Peace – Is there peace between us, and peace within us? Can someone tell by being with us that we have a peaceful soul, based upon God as the source of all that we have?
Faithfulness – Is our steadfastness to Christ’s Church based upon an enduring loyalty that is true to God, no matter how we feel about the Priest, the Metropolis, the Archdiocese, the Parish Council, Philoptochos, the choir or chantors, or any other facet of our parish family?
Gentleness – Do we exhibit care and protection for all of God’s creation? Are we gentle with the environment, with each other, and with ourselves?
Joy – Do we look joyous to the outsider? Do we feel joy inside? True joy in being a child of God should be able to override all unhappiness and bitterness we feel, and should be reflected in our total involvement in our worship.
Kindness – This action word can be directed outwardly or inwardly. Do we show compassion and generosity to others and ourselves?
Patience – How many of us are willing to let others (and ourselves) come along at each one’s own pace? How many of us can forgive seven times seventy?
Self-Control – This is one of the hardest, and may include all of the others. This requires an inner discipline only manageable with the grace of God’s Holy Spirit to sustain us in our trials. Do we constantly pray for help in this area, and constantly call on God to help us? If not, we should. Is the Spirit of God here?
I close by sharing a beautiful and opportune affirmation from John Killinger’s Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise [Abingdon Press,, 2001]:
I believe in the love of all mothers, and its importance in the lives of the children, they bear. It is stronger than steel, softer than down, and more resilient than a green sapling on the hillside. It closes wounds, melts disappointments, and enables the weakest child to stand tall and straight in the fields of adversity.
I believe that this love, even at its best, is only a shadow of the love of God, a dark reflection of all that we can expect of Him, both in this life and the next.
And I believe that one of the most beautiful sights in the world is a mother who lets this greater love flow through her to her child, blessing the world with the tenderness of her touch and the tears of her joy.
* My “reflection title” is from a statement Ηρεμία recently shared with me: “I know that real cases can inspire and feed Faith! I myself get very inspired by real and especially – by real contemporary stories. And I would like also to inspire! Inspiration of Faith is like lighting up a candle from another candle, and so on, and finally get an ocean of lit up candles in the darkness, for [our] Lord’s Glory!” May God bless Ηρεμία and Θεόφιλος always.