My parents taught me that monasteries are special places. Orthodox Christians consider them like a “spiritual wellspring”. There, pilgrims may come to worship, seek spiritual counsel, receive confession, and learn ways to grow closer to God. Afterwards, they return home and hopefully offer these blessings to their families and friends. Perhaps this is a topic you might share at a future “Sunday Lunch”.
Recently, I got up at 4:30 a.m. one Saturday morning. I wanted to visit Paracletos (Holy Spirit) Monastery in Abbeville, South Carolina. As I traveled there with friends, the sun began to glow in the distant horizon. It reminded me of my visit to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Greece. By car, the monastery is a short drive from my father’s remote village of Driyes in Crete. Paracletos Monastery in South Carolina is about the same size and just as out-of-the-way. Three nuns that I respect greatly live there. They welcome and serve all who visit them and offer generous hospitality. That day, I would join them and offer church services and spend time together.
St. John’s Monastery in Greece is just the opposite. No one welcomed my wife and me. No church services were scheduled. There was no sign of life anywhere except for a few birds singing in the bushes. Why? The monastery lay in partial ruins and was unoccupied when we visited it a few years ago. Slowly, it is being restored. We are praying they succeed and it becomes alive with monks or nuns to use it to its full potential for God’s glory. And when that happens, God’s Body will benefit like my parents had taught us… like I and so many other pilgrims have experienced during our previous visits to a living monastery called Paracletos.
It was at that moment that I recognized a connection of that day with my past. You see, my father, his parents, and their family would have gotten up early and traveled like I was doing when they worshipped at St. John’s Monastery. It would have been a special blessing for Dad to receive Holy Communion in a monastery named after his patron saint, John the Forerunner. God’s Holy Spirit joined us in an extraordinary way that day and now as I share my reflection of that experience, I realize how blessed I am that my parents and teachers were both deliberate and insistent that their children learn our faith and its values at a young age. I thank them for this life-long gift that I cherish and now share.
In Greece, I remember seeing behind the Altar Table of St. John’s Monastery’s Church the bones of many faithful entombed inside. These precious relics have survived for countless years. Even though the church was desolate, their presence in such a holy place reminded me that Christ Jesus is the same for His faithful throughout the ages. “’I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, Who is and Who was and Who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 1:8) While those buried in the church we saw have ended their earthly lives, they are forever part of God’s Kingdom, the same Kingdom that we belong to today.
How different was the deserted scene I recalled in Greece from my encounter in the Altar at Paracletos in South Carolina. After Orthros, I celebrated the Divine Liturgy, assisted by Deacon Haralambos and Sister Alexia. Gerontissa (Abbess) Pavlina, assisted by Sister Mariam, led the nuns in chanting the hymns and responses. Nearly 20 pilgrims from surrounding parishes joined us. I was enthusiastic about my mission that day… consecrating the bread and wine that were offered to become the Eucharistic Gifts that we were blessed to receive. We were alive in Christ and one with Him as our Savior. Unlike the almost hidden Holy Table near my father’s village, that morning my life and the lives of those with me were transformed by the peace and joy we received from God’s Holy Spirit. We experienced it flowing from the spiritual oasis at Paracletos Monastery. We felt a deep inner connection to God as we received His Precious Holy Communion. Having gotten up early and traveled far, we beheld literally the words of the Cherubic Hymn… “Let us set aside all the cares of life that we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.”
And we were not finished! No indeed! Gerontissa Pavlina offered a generous brunch in the Monastery’s refectory. Sister Alexia, assisted by several volunteers served ample food to all who were visiting. As we ate in silence, we listened to Gerontissa Pavlina witness with a deep inner spirit of peace and love within her heart the teachings of Christ and the Orthodox Traditions. Sister Mariam listened attentively and translated Gerontissa’s Greek message into English, ensuring all those who were present received the full meaning of her words. Gerontissa invited me to add to her remarks which I did. Likewise, she asked for questions and sharing from those who were visiting. After close to two hours of food and fellowship, I blessed the remains of our lunch. We committed them to all in need and we departed with a renewed spirit of peace and joy in our hearts.
As we drove back to Atlanta that afternoon, I encouraged the four adults traveling with me to offer their impressions about what we had seen and witnessed. I thank them for their sharing as we continued our reflections over a leisurely late lunch/early supper. For me, it felt like “Sunday Lunch” – there was food, fellowship, and sharing of God’s presence among us… in an unhurried manner.
Everyone agreed the day had changed our attitudes, our priorities, and how we would respond to life’s challenges. We were challenged by Gerontissa Pavlina’s essential message to allow God to direct our lives and work together with Him, by “working our hearts and resting our minds.” While our mind’s logic can be useful as we live each day, she cautioned us not to imprison ourselves with our minds’ constant negative thoughts, doubts, and rationalizations. Rather than choose “our way” over the “Lord’s will”, we are called to accept God’s teachings with faith. Our minds cannot explain God’s “how”, nor can we ever know everything like God, Who knows all. By accepting God’s love for us, we learn to respond to those around us with His same love. We learn to trust others, even when our minds tell us we should not. We become comfortable in carrying out God’s will with “Gospel love” that flows from our “hearts” rather than rationalizing our individual choices motivated by self-love from our mind’s earthly logic.
Gerontissa shared unique stories and parables from Holy Scripture, from the Church Fathers, from contemporary saints like St. Paisios, and even from the plight of our brethren in Greece. They are suffering harshly from the country’s economic collapse and this situation is causing distrust, cynicism, and disbelief among its people. She stressed how our mind can easily fall prey to the demons’ temptations and prevent our heart from offering the charity and love God calls us to offer in His behalf. By “working our hearts and resting our minds”, we serve in union with God, our Lord and Savior. To Him, let us offer thanksgiving, praise, and worship, for all things and at all times. May His Holy Spirit (Paracletos) live in our hearts forever and ever. Amen.
*Photos taken by Fr. George Tsahakis during his trip to Paracletos Monastery.