My Journal in India
My India Journal
by Papa Ephraim
Monday, September 17, 2018
Glory be to God for all things!
It is hard to believe that I am now on a plane flying over the Pacific Ocean towards Hawaii and then to India. It was just three months ago that I was peacefully sitting in my cell at St. Anthony’s Monastery—the same cell I had lived in for the wonderful past 23 years of my life. Nevertheless, I joyfully set out for my new life in Alaska, even though it was sad to leave such a beautiful monastery in Arizona. It was especially hard to say good-bye to all the dear monastics and laymen whom I had grown to love and who had grown to love me over the years. But the instructions of my dearest Geronda were clear, and so it was time for me to move on.
My prayer is that I will not lose my connection with everyone I met in Arizona, since I do hope to be able to continue visiting them regularly there, and I do want to continue communicating with them by phone and emails. But even if these hopes of mine fail for whatever reason, I am partly consoled knowing that our connection in Christ and our prayers for each other will never fail.
I thought that my new secluded life at St. Nilus Skete in Alaska would offer me plenty of time not only for communicating with everyone else, but also for prayer, reading, and writing books. However, so far I have been much busier than I had expected. Due to the rustic nature of life on that little island where St. Nilus Skete is, everything takes much longer. For example, it requires a couple hours to do “banya,” whereas taking a shower in Arizona (or anywhere with running water) requires just 15 minutes. This is because in order to do banya, I need to go across to the mens’ monastery. So this means that I have to get all my kayak gear together, launch my kayak, paddle across to Spruce Island, hike up the mountainside, do banya, change clothes, hike back down, get my kayak gear back on, paddle home, and finally put away my kayak and my gear.
But even other tasks, such as regulating the temperature of my cabin, require time and effort. I can’t just press a button on the wall, but I need to have already chopped, split, and carried the wood and kindling, and then I have to prepare and monitor the fire. Living without electricity and running water is certainly more work, but it is pleasant work that is conducive to health of soul and body. In fact, I dedicated an entire section of my unpublished book on monasticism to what the holy Fathers have to say about the value of physical labor, and it brings me great joy to experience for myself the wisdom of their insights.
Soon after settling down in Alaska, out of the blue, Mother Nina tells me that there is a priest called Fr. Athanasius in Hawaii who is looking for someone to accompany him on a missionary trip to India. I had no desire to leave my beautiful life in Alaska to a place that is its opposite in almost every way: in climate, in noise level, in percentage of Orthodox Christians, in geographic location, in topography, in population density, in pollution, in germs, in civilization, in poverty, in education, in politics, in language, in culture, in religion, and the list goes on.
So I was ready to politely decline Fr. Athanasius’s offer when he called me. But when he explained to me the fascinating story of what was happening in India, I was inspired to sacrifice my personal comfort and help him out. Another big reason why I agreed was because I do feel an inner connection to India and its people, being half-Indian. It overwhelms me to consider the responsibility I have before God when I ponder that you can probably count on your fingers how many Orthodox priests or monks there are in the entire world who are Indian or at least half-Indian. Besides, I figured that if my briefly visiting India would contribute to the conversion and salvation of those 45,000 souls, who am I to refuse to try to help them?
Fortunately for me, I will have the easy task of just being the chanter/sidekick on this 10-day trip. My job is simply to assist Fr. Athanasius conduct some of the services so that they can get a feel for what Orthodox worship is like. Fr. Athanasius is the one who will be doing the presentations to these hundreds of pastors. But it does seem probable that dozens (if not hundreds) of them will also want to speak with me. I just hope that God will put the words into my mouth that they need to hear. As Fr. Athanasius is saying, he is praying that God will save these people not because of us but despite us!
I really don’t know what to expect there. From what I have heard so far, the 500 Protestant pastors of 45,000 people there in India are interested in Orthodoxy. But I’m not so sure if that means that they are merely curious in learning more about Orthodoxy, or if they are eager to convert. I also don’t know what to expect after this visit. If they are not receptive to Orthodoxy, then it is unlikely that we will return. But if they are eager to become Orthodox, and if a good connection is established between us and them, they might want us and need us to return perhaps frequently. Maybe God will use us to help them become a new, permanent addition to the Orthodox Church. Someone in Alaska expressed their worries about losing me half-jokingly: “Oh, no; they are going to take you away from us and make you Bishop of India!” Needless to say, this would be the complete opposite of what my own will is regarding the path in life I hope to follow.
Yet despite my desire to live “the remainder of my life in peace and repentance” quietly in the small, loving communities of St. Nilus Skete and St. Michael’s Skete, I feel a great deal of joy and excitement for this trip to India. It is a similar feeling to what I had when I was leaving Mount Athos 23 years ago, when Elder Ephraim wanted me and five others to help him establish St. Anthony’s Monastery. Even though I had gone to Mount Athos and was tonsured there with the intent of staying there for the rest of my life, something changed within me during the years I lived there. And so it was with great joy and peace that I accepted Elder Ephraim’s invitation to leave, even though it was not what I had anticipated. In fact, I even remember hesitating to become a monk at Philotheou, precisely because there were rumors that Elder Ephraim would take his American monks away from there in order to establish a new men’s monastery in America some day. This made me hesitate because I hadn’t abandoned my life in America just to continue it there a little later; I left it all in order to participate in the most genuine form of Orthodox monasticism that existed: Athonite monasticism. But I thank God that He put it in my heart to leave Philotheou, because these past 23 years have been full and overflowing with God’s blessings and grace—especially because of the tremendous gift of being Elder Ephraim’s cell attendant all those years. Even though I know that I haven’t lived up to even a small part of what he has attained, I am hopeful that at least something of him has rubbed off on me and that I will also be able to pass on to others whatever I have gained from being with him.
Thank God, I arrived safely in Honolulu. Fr. Athanasius picked me up from the airport and drove me to his church before bringing me to his home. He is such a humble and prayerful person of faith that being around him makes me feel very worldly and coarse. His church is the one with the Iveron myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos, which travels all over the world. The icon was not there when I visited, but maybe it will have returned when I come back to Honolulu in two weeks. Their church is very humble, in the sense that it is just the first floor of a building that is shared by a store on the second floor. But it is a place full of grace, with many relics and a profound peace.
On the way to his home, we passed through Waikiki and saw all the touristy places and the beach. He also drove me up a high hill, where the view is fabulous and the climate and fauna is different. The whole place is overflowing with so much natural beauty that it is truly breathtaking. I can see why so many people want to live in this kind of earthly paradise.
View from Round Top
Fr. Athanasius in Hawaii near Diamond Head
A unique tree in Hawaii, which drops down vines that turn into roots when they hit the ground, thus making the trunk get wider.
Fr. Athanasius overlooking Honolulu
I had a wonderful time meeting his sweet Presbytera and their children, who are 17, 14, and 8 years old. He is blessed with a wonderful family, and it was a real joy to get to know them.
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
We got up early in order to get to the airport with plenty of time for our flight. Fr. Athanasius and I were driven to the airport by a wonderful lady who is in the process of becoming Orthodox. She loves silence and she loves spending her time out on the ocean sailing. In fact, she makes a living by teaching people how to sail their boats out on the ocean! Fr. Athanasius thinks she would make an excellent nun some day, and she is hoping to come to Alaska for a visit.
When we arrived at the airport, we found out that our plane has been delayed 4 hours! So we ended up hanging out at the airport for all that extra time. But the Honolulu airport is so beautiful that it was a very pleasant wait. We just sat out in a Japanese rock garden and enjoyed the nature in this open-air part of the airport. We talked for a while, and then I made a few phone calls, wrote a few emails, and caught up in my journal.
I found out from Fr. Athanasius that the whole purpose of this conference of 500 pastors was for him to speak to them about Orthodoxy. (I had been under the impression that they were already going to have a conference, and they wanted him to join them merely as an afterthought.) So he has prepared 12 catechetical homilies in order to bring them up to speed in their understanding of Orthodoxy. But even he doesn’t have a clear idea of what to expect. Part of the challenge will be the language barrier, since most of them don’t know English. We’ll see how God works through us and them.
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Our flight to Shanghai lasted ten long hours. When we finally flew over Tokyo, it was a relief to see land after seeing nothing but ocean for hours and hours. We flew China East Airlines, so we were almost the only non-Chinese passengers on the flight. This is just a small foretaste of how much of a foreigner we are going to be for the next two weeks!
My sleeping schedule is going to be completely upside-down now. Our plane departed at 2:00 p.m. from Honolulu on September 18, and arrived in Shanghai after midnight (according to Honolulu time). But because of the six-hour time difference, it was still only 7:00 p.m. And the strange thing is that it is no longer Tuesday but Wednesday all of a sudden, because we crossed the International Date Line.
We made it to China! I managed to sleep only a little bit on the plane, so now I am ready for bed. But we have to catch our next plane for Delhi in two hours, so we’ll just have to tough it out and stay awake, even though it our bodies think it’s way past midnight. It would have been nice to see the cathedral that St. John Maximovitch had built. Unfortunately, however, there was not enough free time to leave the airport. The Shanghai Airport
Our flight to Delhi was another unpleasant eight hours of trying to get some rest in our airplane seat. I managed to pass out two or three times and sleep a little, even though I forgot my neck pillow inside the previous plane. I’ll need to sleep some more on our next flight to Visakhapatnam (a.k.a. Vizag). But first we’ll have to go through customs and go to the baggage claim, because the airline wasn’t able to check Fr. Athanasius’s bag all the way to Vizag.
Thursday, September 20, 2018
After arriving in Delhi and seeing my compatriot Indians, I felt a strong joy within me and connection with these people whose blood I share. Is this feeling something spiritual or just something emotional? I don’t know. I suppose I will find out if it passes the test of time. In other words, if I still feel this joy and connection even after the newness of it all wears off, then I can safely conclude that it isn’t just something shallow and emotional.
The Delhi Airport
One gate in the Delhi airport had the following amusing announcement: “The Gate for Flight 564 has been changed. Kindly rush to Gate 11”! How thoughtful and courteous of them to ask us to kindly rush. ☺
Our flight to Vizag lasted only two hours, which was like nothing after those eleven- and eight-hour flights. I managed to pass out and sleep for half an hour during the flight, which thoroughly refreshed me.
Dr. Wesley met us at the Vizag airport with his wife and three of their five children. Their eldest two were in college and couldn’t come until Friday. They were all overjoyed to see us and especially to see Fr. Athanasius again, who had been here in 2000. They even gave us wreaths of flowers to wear! I was surprised to see that Dr. Wesley was so young (he is 54). I would have thought that it would have taken him many decades to establish 500 parishes. I guess he (or rather, God) has worked quickly and intensely. I found out that he converted to Christianity when he was only 15 and began preaching in his mid 20’s. So that means that he’s been Christian for four decades and a preacher for three. He is not a medical doctor, but he has a Ph.D. in theology.
His two oldest children are in their first and second year of college. They must be exceptionally bright and industrious because both of them received the highest markings for their grade in the entire state, where 50 million people live!
Dr. Wesley’s Daughters: Nita, Helen, and Queeny
Dr. Wesley and his wife Divia Dr. Wesley’s playful son Tumi
They drove us to Tuni, which took about two hours, even though it wasn’t so far. The delay was caused by the chaotic traffic for which India is notorious. Except on main highways, there are no markings on the roads. So everyone goes anywhere on the road they think is a good idea! And when I say “everyone,” I mean everyone! There were countless pedestrians, scooters, bicycles, rickshaws, cars, buses, and trucks, not to mention cows, pigs, goats, and even a camel. We even passed a guy driving his pair of oxen down the road, as well as someone driving their tractor. On a divided highway, it is quite common to encounter traffic coming the wrong direction! To avoid collisions, drivers are continually honking their horns in order to alert the others of their presence. Larger trucks have a special honking sound that is quite melodic. The system seems to work quite well, as I observed Dr. Wesley effortlessly weaving his way around all those obstacles. But Fr. Athanasius and I kept laughing at how frequently Dr. Wesley honked, because Americans we associate honking with extreme anger. We passed a number of Hindu temples on the way, and I was surprised to see also a couple Christian (Protestant and Roman Catholic) places of worship. Driving in India
The level of poverty everywhere is pitiful. But I guess they do whatever they can with the limited financial resources they have, and life goes on. It is quite shocking to see the amount of trash and dirt everywhere. It is rare to find a place that is clean. I don’t know if this is the result of their culture attributing little value to cleanliness or the result of an inherent inability to keep the place clean with such a high population density. I suppose it is both. My Hotel Room The toilet in my hotel room. Note the hose instead of toilet paper. The view from my hotel room window
They took us to our hotel rooms, which are fancy by India’s standards. But if this hotel had been in America, people would have given it bad ratings online for the faint odor of feces in the bathroom, lack of toilet paper, and sheets that had a few stains on them. But I am grateful for having a room that is neat and clean and private, especially considering that I am living in luxury in comparison with probably almost everyone within a few miles radius. It even is air-conditioned, which makes my stay much more pleasant, since the weather here is very humid and is around 80 or 90 degrees. In a sense, I ought to be ashamed of myself—I who am a monk who have in theory taken a vow of poverty, but in practice am living a very comfortable life. If we were to transpose the parable of Lazarus and the rich man to this situation, without a doubt I would be the rich man living sumptuously every day, and Lazarus would be all the Indians out on the streets barely surviving. I’m not sure what kind of an answer I will give Christ on Judgment Day if He asks me about this.
After they gave us our rooms and told us to rest a little, we both passed out and slept heavily for a couple of hours. It was noon, India time, but past midnight according to our biological clocks. Dr. Wesley’s Sons: Tumi and Precious, in the hallway of our hotel
Dr. Wesley and his family got a room next to ours. He and his brother Joshi-Paul came to our rooms after we had slept a few hours, and we started getting to know each other and began discussing a few things about Orthodoxy. They are both ready and eager to become Orthodox. Fr. Athanasius suspects that Dr. Wesley is still wrestling with this change because he is aware of the responsibility he bears as the leader of so many people, and he realizes that many of his people will be left behind if he becomes Orthodox, since not everyone will want to go that direction.
Poor Joshi-Paul; one of his legs terribly has been swollen now for months. He is going to have an operation on it in January. He thinks it happened because he was bitten by a mosquito. The thought occurred to me: if a native of India (who you’d think has at least some kind of immunity in his system to all the diseases floating around) can get so terribly ill so easily, what will happen to me out here? I’m doing the best I can to protect myself with insect repellant, permethrin on my clothes, and a mosquito net for my bed.
In the evening we did an abbreviated Vespers in my hotel room for Dr. Wesley and his family. At random times during the service, Dr. Wesley would occasionally exclaim: “Amen!” I brought my music with me in Byzantine notation, and they were fascinated to hear and see it. Then they took us out to this nice restaurant where we had several exotic dishes:
Needless to say, Fr. Athanasius and I were the only white-skinned people there. In fact, in all of Tuni there aren’t any white people (although Dr. Wesley says that there are a few who are associated with the big factories). So we are getting all kinds of stares everywhere we go, since we’re also wearing our cassocks continuously. Many of the stares are directed at the cross I’m wearing. I’m not sure what to make of that.
Here are a few shots of what the streets are like in Tuni: The street view
Driving with Dr. Wesley
Yes Pigs run loose right outside our fine hotel
On the way back, I had an enjoyable time in the back with those teenage kids, as I tried to learn a few phrases in Telugu. As do most Indian languages, it also has a number of very unique sounds which are hard for us Westerners to imitate.
I finally made it back to my hotel room at 9:30 p.m. I expect to sleep very well tonight, even though the constant honking of horns is quite audible from my room.
I am enjoying the humorous things they posted on the inside door of my room that they think make sense: “Please intimate reception before checkout.” And I’m not sure if this is what I would choose to keep my valuables with, but they wrote: “Please keep your valuables with your own risk.” And my favorite: “Illegal Activities are Strictly Forbidden.” ☺
I’m trying to fathom their reasoning in believing that such a statement makes a difference. My only conclusion is that what they are really saying is: “If you dare to break the law, forget about getting in trouble with the police; you’ll have to deal with me!” Flooding outside our hotel
Here are some photos taken from the rooftop of our hotel. They give you a sense of what this town Tuni is like. More Flooding, but the wild pigs don’t mind
I brought someone’s old smart phone with me on this trip, primarily so that I could save time by typing this journal on my bluetooth keyboard instead of writing it out by hand slowly. I didn’t dare bring my tablet, since I wouldn’t want to risk getting it stolen. Perhaps I could have managed to get a SIM card with data and minutes for my smart phone in order to keep up with emails and phone calls. But since I don’t think it would have been so easy, and since I didn’t expect to have much of any free time on my hands anyway, I didn’t bother.
Besides, I believe it is a healthy thing to go on a “sabbatical” and disconnect from technology now and then, because the more connected we are to technology, the less connected we usually end up being with ourselves and with God. Maybe other people have managed to find a healthy balance, but I at least find that it is too easy to let technology’s influence towards extroversion hamper my need for prayerful introversion.
Friday, September, 23
I woke up at 3:30 a.m. after getting about six hours of sleep. My biological clock must still be adjusting to being in a completely opposite time zone. (3:30 a.m. in India is 2:00 p.m. in Alaska.) But I was too exhausted to stay up very long, so I fell back asleep until 7:00 a.m. Fr. Athanasius informed me that he managed to get service on his cell phone, and he also set up a “hot-spot” for me so that I can also have internet access. So I checked my emails and replied to a couple of them. But this didn’t end up ruining my “sabbatical” since I checked for emails not even once a day.
Fr. Athanasius and I did Orthros for the Birth of the Theotokos in my little hotel room. We would have liked to have had Dr. Wesley’s and his sons join us, (they stayed in a room next to Fr. Athanasius’s room) but they slept until 9:00 a.m. because they were up until 5:00 a.m. preparing for today’s meeting.
Doing Orthros in this other universe feels strange and familiar at the same time. It felt familiar since it is a service we both know well. But it felt strange because we are in a place where Orthodoxy is unheard of. It is both inspiring and sad at the same time to ponder that this was the first Orthodox service done here ever. And who knows if any of these services will be heard again after we leave.
Around 9:30 Dr. Wesley took his sons and us out for a late breakfast. I had a dhosa and something else that looked like a balloon made of lightly fried dough with vegetable sauce. The food was quite delicious. Everyone in this town continues to stare at us. What I wouldn’t do to hear what thoughts are going through their mind when they see us! One boy on his bicycle saw us in the car, and got all excited and pointed us out to his friends!
At noon, we headed out to the conference center for the first meeting with the pastors. Dr. Wesley explained to us that about 50 of them are from villages and have no idea that there is a such thing as Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodoxy. All they know is the Bible (which they have in their native language, Telugu) and they believe in Christ with much simplicity. The other 200 or so pastors today are from cities, and they understand a little about Catholicism and Protestantism. But even they know what they know primarily from word of mouth, not from reading books about it. So there is a great deal of ignorance prevailing here. If Dr. Wesley were to become Orthodox, the other pastors would probably follow him, and many of them might not even grasp that they are becoming Orthodox! They would simply think that they are learning more about Christ. It will be quite a challenge for Fr. Athanasius to convey the deep message of Orthodox Christianity to such people when they are at such an elementary level. It is especially difficult because they don’t have any Orthodox books in Telugu, and very few of them know English well enough to read such books in English. Seeing their poverty in regards to Orthodox literature makes me realize what tremendous treasures we have if we know English, and even more so if we know Greek or Russian.
The conference center is a complex of three simple buildings that they built on a 5-acre property. The property is in a lush forest beside a lake and a high hill. They were able to purchase this gorgeous property with the donations of Fr. Athanasius’s friends in Kodiak when he was still a Protestant 17 years ago.
Here are some photos of the conference center:
Joshi-Paul and Dr. Wesley want these buildings to be the first Orthodox Church here in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Tuni has a population of 2 million (and so they call it only a “village” ☺), and Vizag has 12 million people. It’s strange to think that this city has more people in it than New York City, yet is not even on the map, both figuratively and literally. (When I was on the airplane and had access to a map on the screen in front of my seat, I zoomed in on Vizag, and it was not labelled.)
The conference itself was taking place in a large room which held about 120 people, and it was full. The environment was not exactly peaceful, to say the least. We had spotlights shining on us, fans blowing on us (and on the audience) to help us endure the heat and humidity. But worst of all, the translator (Joshi-Paul) was almost shouting into a microphone which blasted his voice on loudspeakers in the room and outside that room. We were up on a stage, and behind us a large, full-color banner with the title of the conference and huge photographs of Fr. Athanasius and me. I felt sorry for them that they didn’t have someone like Geronda Ephraim to be addressing them, who would have been worthy of having his huge photo there.
Fr. Athanasius gave two presentations today, each one lasting about an hour and a half. We both realized what a challenge it is going to be to reach these people, considering that they are so clueless about so many ecclesiastical matters. On the one hand, we want to emphasize the central place that love has in Christianity, but on the other hand, we want to explain to them some more technical matters, such as why the beliefs of the Roman Catholics have deviated from the truth. Fr. Athanasius decided to keep things simple by teaching them basic truths of Christianity, although he is now thinking that he will have to simplify things even more for their sake.
Our task of preaching Orthodox Christianity to these people is particularly challenging because the only Christian book they have in a language they understand (Telugu) is the Bible. We who speak English take for granted the hundreds of Orthodox books we have—not only books about contemporary Orthodox saints but also books containing almost all the classics of Orthodox spirituality from the holy Fathers. If they knew English, our job would be quite easy: after showing them the truth of Orthodoxy, we could then give them a list of fundamental books of Orthodox spirituality, and at least their theoretical grasp of Orthodoxy would be more or less complete. (But of course, being Orthodox entails much more than just theoretically grasping spiritual concepts.) But the way things are now, it is almost impossible to impart to them the treasures of Orthodox spirituality, especially since we will only have a few hours during two days with each group of 150 pastors—and that through a translator. The enormity of this task makes me wonder if there is even any point in trying, since it is like giving a little crumb to a starving man and hoping it will help. Even if we were to come several times a year to India, humanly speaking it would still amount to nothing but giving them a few more crumbs. But God who is able to multiply the loaves and feed thousands can take whatever crumbs we give them and multiply them as He only knows how.
Fr. Athanasius only had time for three questions today, and it became clear from those questions what level of understanding these people have. The questions were: “Is Orthodoxy a part of being Catholic?” “Is it required for all Orthodox Christians to wear black robes and to have a beard?” “Why do you have beards?”
At the end of today’s sessions, Fr. Athanasius and I anointed with the myrrh of the Hawaiian myrrh-streaming icon any of the people who wished to be blessed by it. More than half of the people came up, and it was nice to have a brief one-on-one interaction with these very pious people.
Since we ended up having a late breakfast, we also had a late lunch and then skipped dinner. I have a hard time skipping meals, but fortunately for me I made a point of bringing a bag of nuts with me, which I devour whenever the meals are too far apart. We are eating every meal at the same restaurant (which is perhaps the best in town) because Dr. Wesley is afraid that we’ll get sick if we eat anywhere else. We aren’t eating or staying at his house because the conference is in Tuni, but he leaves an hour and a half away in Vizag.
Another person who came to the conferences today was 葡萄树 ! For those of us who can’t read Chinese (including me), that is “Lin Song,” the name of a 32-year-old fellow from China. He grew up Protestant because his father is a Protestant minister in China, but he has fallen in love with the Church Fathers. He sees that they have a holiness and experience that he lacks, and so now he wants to become Orthodox. And since he realizes how hard it is to live a godly life in the world, he also wants to become a monk. But he is a bit confused about things, and so he is also considering becoming Roman Catholic and is wondering if it would be better for him to become a hermit instead of a monk in a monastery. He had already been already in India for a couple weeks, because he was spending some time at a Roman Catholic monastery here.
He came to India for this reason because there are no Christian monasteries in China. He has been emailing Fr. Damascene in Platina, and so when I told Fr. Damascene that I’d be going to India, he arranged for Lin to come and meet me at this conference. Lin will probably follow us around for the remaining ten days of our time in India. I pray that God will help me to get him on the right track.
After the conferences, we went back to our hotel. I spent some time speaking with Lin, and then I also sat around with Dr. Wesley’s family in his hotel room, while they asked me questions about my life. He asked me some tough, direct questions, such as: “Have you seen God?” “Have you healed anybody?” I told him truthfully that I am not at that level, although I was at least able to tell him a little about Elder Ephraim’s experiences of God and how there have been very many healings with the myrrh of the Hawaiian icon of the Theotokos.
Saturday, September 22, 2018
Fr. Athanasius and I began the day with a beautiful Orthros service along with Dr. Wesley. I brought all the necessary music and Menaion photocopies with me for the services, so all the music was ready and easy to chant.
Afterwards we went to that nice restaurant again for breakfast, and then we went to the conference center. Fr. Athanasius made another presentation to the people about the importance of continuous repentance. He felt that this would be an important message for them, since he as a former Protestant has a sense of what aspects of their spirituality are typically lacking.
There were a couple more questions today, too. Just as Fr. Athanasius was stepping out for a bathroom break, one man asked what the difference is between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, so I answered his question. I could have given an academic reply to him, explaining the filioque, the primacy and infallibility of the pope, the immaculate conception, created grace, etc., but I think that this would have gone way above their heads. So instead, I made up a parable for them that went like this:
A wise doctor once visited a land where everyone was dying of snake bites. So he devised a formula that would be an antidote for the bites. He gave the recipe of this formula to three people and then left. The first of the three decided to add more ingredients to the recipe, and so his formula didn’t work very well. The second of them removed some ingredients from the recipe, and so his formula also didn’t work very well. But the third one kept the formula exactly as it had been given to him, and his formula worked very well. The first one in this parable is the Roman Catholic, the second one is the Protestant, and the third one is the Orthodox.
It’s not the greatest parable, and it has plenty of limitations, but I’m hoping it hit home for them. I wanted to tell them a parable because Fr. Athanasius and I concluded that the most effective way to convey deep theological truths is through parables, just as Christ did. The only problem is that I found out that it’s really hard to speak in parables! I now have a new level of appreciation for the genius of Christ’s approach. A selfie with some of the guys at the conference
During our lunch break, Fr. Athanasius and I had a discussion about what it is that these people really need. We could see that they not only lack the correct theology of the Orthodox Church but also its praxis. In his preaching, Fr. Athanasius told them that the correct belief must accompany correct practice, and that the two are like two oxen yoked together; neither can be neglected without causing problems.
In the session after lunch, Fr. Athanasius was hoping to do a power-point presentation in which he would show photos of the insides and outsides of Orthodox churches from his iPad on a screen. He believes that they need to see with their eyes what an Orthodox house of worship is supposed to look like. But for some reason the projector never showed up, so he had to scratch that plan and preach some more just on the fly. His preaching went fine. I was impressed how he was able to just talk and talk for an hour. But it’s hard for the two of us to have a sense of how our message is being received because the language barrier hinders direct feedback.
After dinner, we went back to the hotel and I had a conversation with Lin Song. The poor fellow doesn’t understand the importance of the true faith, and so he intends to return to that Roman Catholic monastery in India for two months on Monday. I tried to explain to him that it is important to understand the difference between Roman Catholic and Orthodox, but he was getting uncomfortable and quite displeased when I tried. He is a peace-loving soul and doesn’t like getting into the details of disagreements. He just wants to have a simple faith in God without worrying about dogmas. I tried to show him that St. Paul thought that falling into heresy is a serious matter and that the holy Fathers were tortured and even martyred for their faith, but he was not ready to listen. So I acquiesced, and we talked about other spiritual matters that he was ready to hear. At least he is eager to go to Platina and Mount Athos for extended visits with the hope of becoming a monk.
After our discussion, Fr. Athanasius served Saturday Vespers in my hotel room along with Lin and Dr. Wesley with his family. It was very nice to do vespers here in India. There was all kinds of racket going on out in the streets because today is some big festival for the elephant-head god. So there were firecrackers, explosions, loud singing and instruments blasted over loudspeakers, as well as the literally unceasing honking of horns. But I wasn’t paying attention to all that, so it didn’t bother me.
After vespers, Fr. Athanasius and I had a talk about how things are looking with this India mission. There are 50 pastors who have decided to become Orthodox. And if we come back and preach again, Dr. Wesley predicts that 30,000 people will easily be gathered to hear our message. And these are just the numbers for Tuni. The organization headed by Dr. Wesley has many more pastors and parishioners further out.
All this sounds wonderful, but the next steps for this group of people will be incredibly difficult. The enormous challenge they will face is that these thousands of people have no way of really becoming Orthodox, even though they are ready to convert. There are no Orthodox books or service books in Telugu. Furthermore, there is not a single person whose native language is Telugu (or knows even just a little Telugu) who also has a mature understanding of Orthodox spirituality and beliefs. So even if some Orthodox bishop is willing to ordain some or all of these pastors to the priesthood, the poor fellows will not only be clueless in terms of genuine Orthodox spirituality and beliefs, but also they will have no way to acquire these things, due to the language barrier. So we have concluded that the only solution for their situation is if a bunch of them (or even just a few of them) could go to a good Orthodox seminary, and then bring back to India and in their own language whatever they have learned. But that is something that would take several years and a lot of money. May God find a solution for their salvation.
Dr. Wesley asked Fr. Athanasius when he will be able to come again. He replied that it will probably take a few months, since he will need to speak with his bishop, who will need to work things out with the Metropolitan and perhaps the Patriarch of Moscow. Also, it will take some time for Fr. Athanasius to gather enough money to pay for his trip out here. After all, plane tickets to India are not cheap. His little parish raised the money for this trip, but he said that they won’t be able to pay for every trip all by themselves. So he will need to do some fund raising.
Dr. Wesley asked me if I will also like to return, and I replied affirmatively, although I will need to have the blessing of my bishop to do so. The emotional part of me would love to make many sacrifices to help these sincere people become the Orthodox Church of India. But the rational part of me is putting on the breaks, since I realize that without knowing their language, my ability to help them is severely hampered. And besides, I love my beautiful monastic life in Alaska and wouldn’t want to lose that. May God’s will be done.
I told Dr. Wesley that I get hungry when I go too long without food, and so he went out last night and brought me something to eat so unique that I just had to take a photo of it:
It was something like a pancake with fried onions inside it, which was wrapped in a huge leaf. The leaf was not edible but used the way American sandwich stores would use waxed paper. On top of it was another huge leaf with some kind of delicious sauce that you’re supposed to mix with that pancake thing. And since he got it “to go,” the vendor of this concoction wrapped it up in colorful newspaper (written in Telugu, of course), and tied it up with string!
Sunday, September 23, 2018
So far, so good! I’ve been in very foreign places for a week now, but I haven’t gotten sick at all. I am following all the wise advice of my parents who know through experience all the do’s and don’t’s about keeping healthy in India. So I make a point of avoiding not only water that has not been boiled, but also anything uncooked that might have been washed in water. So that means no salads and no fruits with thin skins. I’m also avoiding cheese and yoghurt and milk. Since it’s impractical to drink only boiled water (I don’t even have access to something with which to boil or cook), thank God I have a LifeStraw. This is a clever invention that is essentially a fat straw containing a filter with such tiny holes that bacteria can’t pass through it. So I can take water that isn’t boiled and is full of bacteria, and drink it safely with this straw.
Fr. Athanasius and I did Sunday Orthros this morning, while Dr. Wesley and Lin watched. It was quite beautiful because I had all my music with me for this service. Afterwards, we dropped Lin off at the “bus station” (which was a terribly dirty ghetto-slum) so that he could go back to that Roman Catholic monastery in the hills of Kerala. Then we went to that same restaurant and had a delicious breakfast. Next, we headed out to Dr. Wesley’s church in Tuni for the Sunday service. But it turned out that his “church” is just a bunch of chairs under a homemade tent set up in the middle of the small street that his brother lives on! Orphans in the Church in Tuni Some girls chatting in the “street church” after the sermon.
When we got there, there was a young guy playing an electric guitar and singing Christian songs in Telugu, while another young guy next to him was playing electric drums. All of this was blasted over loudspeakers at an almost deafening volume. Once again, that banner with huge photos of Fr. Athanasius and me was set up behind the place in the front where we sat.
After we arrived, they stopped their music, and Fr. Athanasius began his sermon. He spoke for about an hour total, including the time for his sentences to be translated. He gave a sermon trying to emphasize points of Orthodox spirituality that Protestants typically overlook, such as the importance of humility and repentance. It struck me how challenging it must be to deliver long sermons like that, and I was glad that I wasn’t the one they were asking to speak! Halfway through his sermon, a Hindu temple down the street began their prayers, also blasted on loudspeakers! But I think our loudspeakers (projecting the sermon of Fr. Athanasius) was louder! So we won. ☺
After his sermon, both of us put on our stoles and anointed everyone with myrrh from the myrrh-streaming icon of Hawaii. We also placed our stoles over many of the people and said prayers for whatever they wanted. They were all very grateful. Several of them expressed their gratitude by bowing and touching our feet. I think they would all become excellent Orthodox Christians, but they will have quite a journey ahead of them. Dr. Wesley mentioned that there are 36 of them who want to be baptized, but he had to tell them to wait, since Fr. Athanasius emphasized to him that we can’t baptize people before catechizing them; they need to have a good grasp of what they are getting into before they are given such a huge gift, since this gift comes with a huge responsibility. Joshi-Paul introducing Fr. Athanasius to his Sunday congregation My view of the Sunday congregation
They are all such beautiful people here, and the children are so adorable. It is frustrating not being able to communicate with them directly except with the few basic phrases of Telugu I picked up.
Joshi-Paul’s wife was showing us a Christian book in English she was reading. To my great surprise, its author was Zac Poonen! They were also surprised to hear that he is my uncle, since he has written 30 books, some of which they have read.
After that Sunday meeting, Dr. Wesley and his wife took us out to lunch at that same, delicious restaurant. We had some nice discussions about various aspects of the Orthodox Church’s practices. They are eager to learn and willing to accept the Orthodox ways of doing things.
In the evening, we did Vespers again in my room with Dr. Wesley, as we do every day. Afterwards, Joshi-Paul joined us and we discussed plans for the upcoming days, as well as for the upcoming years. Both of them would like to become Orthodox priests, but Fr. Athanasius explained to them that it isn’t just a matter of getting a bishop to ordain them; what they really need is to acquire an Orthodox mind-set so that they can in turn pass this on to the rest of the people. But in order to acquire this, it is imperative that they learn it from other Orthodox Christians who have it. The most practical way to do this would be if they went to an Orthodox seminary. And since they already know English well, it would make sense for them to go to a seminary in America.
This might not be so easy, however, for two big reasons. First, this would cost a lot of money, and they are rather poor. Dr. Wesley used to be well-off financially. But when the support from abroad for his 200 orphans dried up, he started selling everything he owned in order to support them out of his own pocket. Likewise, his wife sold whatever gold jewelry she had (which would have been the dowry that would enable her daughters to get married). And now that he has spent all his money, he is in debt.
The other potentially large obstacle would be acquiring a visa. A few years ago, Fr. Seraphim Bell was preaching Orthodoxy in Nepal and catechized a native man who used to be a Hindu priest and wanted to become an Orthodox priest so that he could establish an Orthodox church in Nepal. Fr. Seraphim tried to get a visa for him to go to a seminary in Russia, Greece, or America, but none of those countries would give him a visa. So that mission in Nepal lost steam and eventually fell apart.
By the time we finished talking, it was 9:30 p.m., and so I had an early midnight snack and went to bed. At our late lunch I had ordered an extra portion of rice, knowing that I’d get hungry at night without eating dinner. So that rice really hit the spot.
Afterwards, Fr. Athanasius turned on his internet hot-spot for me again, and so I briefly checked my emails. Then I looked up “Telugu” in Wikipedia. I was curious to find out more about this language and to see if it is a hard language to learn. It turns out that it is the 15th most spoken language in the entire world! More than 80 million people speak it. Unfortunately though, based on the little I saw, it seems that Telugu has a complex grammar, not to mention an impossible, exotic-looking alphabet. If the language were easier, I would be open to the possibility of learning it in order to help these needy people. But I can see that this approach is not realistic. I wouldn’t be able to just dabble with it on the side and pick it up the way I picked up Romanian. I would need to devote tons of time and effort. This undertaking would not be without fruit, but to be realistic, I need to ask myself where my efforts would be most productive. In my opinion they would be most fruitful by spending time using the other talents I have been given. A much more realistic solution for these people in India would be for a couple of them who know English to come to an Orthodox seminary, or maybe even spend time in a healthy, Orthodox parish.
Soon after I fell asleep, I was awoken by some really loud and really exotic music being blasted over a loudspeaker two or three blocks away. It was so loud that my earplugs were helpless in trying to resist the noise. Fortunately for me, I had a backup trick up my sleeve: I turned on the fan in my room full blast. At that speed, it makes a loud but steady “white” noise. And so this noise drowned out the other noise, and I was able to fall back asleep! Needless to say, I miss my quiet island cabin in the woods of Alaska.
Monday September 24, 2018
I woke up around 5:00 a.m. this morning, so I had some quiet time to myself. I had my little mp3 player with me, and so I listened to the Acts of the Apostles in Romanian, a recording of St. Porphyrios speaking in Greek, and then some masterful recordings of Byzantine chant in Greek. It struck me how rich I am in Orthodox hymnography to have access to these masterpieces that no one else in India has.
Today we did Orthros in my room at 8:00 a.m. and then went out for breakfast. We had some more nice discussions during our meal and on the drive back. Dr. Wesley is very eager to learn more about Orthodoxy, but it is evident from his questions how much he still needs to learn.
One thing we were discussing was how natural it would be for Indians to become Orthodox. As for the externals of Orthodoxy, we have incense, icons, priests and monastics with beards and cassocks. But more importantly, the internal aspect of Orthodoxy and its deep spirituality would speak to them very well. I was surprised to hear that Dr. Wesley estimates that 90% of people in India take their faith seriously. And when you consider that there are more than a billion people here, the potential for this country is mind-boggling. But there is a lot of work that will need to be done just to get the ball rolling. The Blue Roman Catholic church
On our drive back, we passed by this blue Roman Catholic church, and stopped to take some photos. We were there only a minute beforea young lady came up to us in tears, asking for prayers for her 2-year-old daughter with a fever. Our attire is especially striking to people in India, and they have great piety. The Blue Roman Catholic church
In the afternoon after a nap, Fr. Athanasius and I wanted to go for a walk and mingle with the crowds on the streets. Until now, we have had very limited interactions with the common people because we’ve always been inside the car when going from place to place. But Joshi-Paul apparently misunderstood what we wanted when he heard that we wanted to “go for a walk,” so he arranged for Dr. Wesley’s son to drive us to an expensive neighborhood nearby where it is quiet and cleaner so that we could walk in a pleasant place. It was nice, but we’ll have to mingle with the crowds some other day. Here is a photo of the location where we went for a walk:
Rural India Stuck in a pothole outside our hotel
Just as we were driving away from our hotel, the car got stuck in a deep pothole. The pothole was invisible because there was so much rainwater (mixed with sewer water) that it was overflowing in that spot. And since our car was stuck in the middle of the road, only motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles could get by. A large school bus full of high school students was stuck behind us. So the driver got out, found a rope somewhere, and tied our car to his bus so that we could get out of the pothole.
I took a photo of the students in the bus, who were very excited to see someone like me take their picture: Rural India
Today was our day off, so we didn’t have any meetings with pastors. Dr. Wesley and his son took us out for an early dinner at that same restaurant. Again, we had some nice discussions in the car and while eating. There is so, so much that he doesn’t know about Orthodoxy, because he is basically starting from scratch, except of course that he knows the Bible very well. It makes me realize how very advanced I am in my conceptual grasp not only of Orthodox dogmas, but also of Orthodox spirituality, history, liturgical arts, customs, etc. He could benefit greatly by having someone around with this kind of conceptual grasp of Orthodoxy, especially if that someone puts into practice those concepts.
Seeing someone like him in need naturally elicits in me the compassionate desire to want to help him out, but I don’t think that I am the one called for this job. Not only is it not my style to be in a noisy city like this, but I see that I don’t have that gift of preaching that is needed. When I try to give a sermon, I run out of things to say after 4-5 minutes. Another serious weakness of mine is that I don’t have a good sense of how to give them the right spiritual foods at the right times, by giving them only “milk” at first, as St. Paul says. I just hope and pray that God will arrange for someone to come and help out these good people in India.
We did Vespers as usual today, and this time Dr. Wesley also had his son Precious with him. Fr. Athanasius observed that over the past week we’ve been here, Dr. Wesley has been progressing. He himself told us that he has been feeling something very unique and special during the services, like a tingling through his arms. Fr. Athanasius is very pleased to see and hear this, since he says that this is a very normal development for people as they are converting: at first they are taken aback by how different Orthodox worship is, but gradually grace sinks in and touches them.
After Vespers we sat around and had more discussions. Joshi-Paul also joined us. Fr. Athanasius asked me to speak to them about the Jesus prayer, so I said a few things about how this is an implementation of St. Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” and of Christ’s parable of the widow and the unjust judge. I told them about how the prayer rope and oral prayer help the mind focus, and that this prayer is said by monastics all day long while they work. I didn’t go into the more advanced aspects of praying noetically while synchronizing the words with the breathing, but instead just emphasized that the essence of the Jesus prayer is loving, humble repentance.
Fr. Athanasius also wanted me to tell them about intrusive thoughts, so I explained to them the stages of sinful thoughts that St. John of the Ladder talks about: first comes the assault (προσβολη), then it can proceed to a dialogue (συνδιασμος) with the thought, followed by assent (συγκαταθεσις), which if done repeatedly leads to a passion (παθος). And I told them the story in Abba Dorotheos that demonstrates this, when an elder took his monks out into the forest and had them try to uproot trees of different sizes.
They were very receptive of the message and had several good questions. Fr. Athanasius wrote out the Nicene Creed for them to translate into Telugu. He emphasized that if they are not willing to accept this creed, then they will not be able to become Orthodox. But Dr. Wesley assured us that he did not foresee them having any problem with the creed.
Fr. Athanasius’s hot spot has not been working very well; it automatically turns off, so he has to keep turning it back on for me. And even when it’s on, the bandwidth doesn’t allow me to transfer large files. So Dr. Wesley created a hot spot for me with his phone and enabled me to share the latest version of this journal with Fr. Athanasius. I’m curious to hear what he thinks about it. Perhaps I’ll need to omit some of the more personal things that I have written about people before sharing it with my spiritual children and friends, because once an electronic copy gets out, it tends to go everywhere on the internet.
I received an unusual email today. It was from Hierodeacon Grigorios of Vatopaidi, informing me that he wants to call me on the phone because he has a message for me from his abbot, Geronda Efrem! I’m not sure what to expect, since we have just briefly met twice in Arizona and once when I was a layman. I wonder if he has heard about this India mission and wants to get in on it. But I think it would be more likely for him to have heard that I am no longer Geronda’s cell attendant and have left St. Anthony’s Monastery. And since he is a compassionate person, he probably wants to let me know that he is willing to help me in any way he can if I need it. Anyway, we’ll see if he can call me on Fr. Athanasius’s phone, because mine isn’t working out here.
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
I woke up again quite early today, around 5:00 a.m. It is so nice to have quiet time in the morning like this. I can see that I’m not cut out for the busy life of the cities, nor comfortable with the chaotic life of India. Being a monk, though, I realize that comfort is not our goal; our goal is union with God and sanctity. And as Elder Sophrony points out in his book on St. Silouan, it is not living in the wilderness that necessarily sanctifies a person, nor is it preaching to others that accomplishes this, but it is doing God’s will for your particular life that accomplishes this.
After doing Orthros at 8:00 a.m. as usual, we went out for breakfast with Dr. Wesley and his son. Fr. Athanasius shared with us an exciting plan he came up with. As we were saying the other day, it is really crucial for Dr. Wesley, Joshi-Paul, and a few others to receive some solid Orthodox training. Only in this way will they be in a position to convey the treasure of Orthodoxy to others. But for them to go to a seminary in America is likely to be unrealistic, because even if they manage to get visas to study there, the cost of doing this will not make it feasible. After all, not only is travelling from India to America expensive, but paying for tuition and room&board would be far beyond their means, especially since there will be more than just one or two pastors in India who will want to learn Orthodoxy well in order to become priests.
So Fr. Athanasius is thinking that a much more practical solution would be to send them to the Philippines! There is a priest there, Fr. Silouan, who has been having tremendous success doing missionary work there. He has baptized 5,000 people and has established many parishes and trained many priests. He started out doing everything in English, and then gradually shifted over to using more and more of the local language. Fr. Athanasius knows him personally and trusts him and believes that he could do a fine job of training a bunch of pastors from India if they could spend a year or two there. It costs only $250 to fly to the Philippines from India, and the cost of living in the Philippines is also low. So this would enable many more pastors from India to go and learn what Orthodoxy is all about. Because right now, they want to become Orthodox primarily because of what Dr. Wesley has been telling them for the past six months. But since he himself has only a general idea about it, he is able to give them only a general idea about it.
It remains to be seen what (if any) role I will have in all this. Dr. Wesley would love to have me come back again along with Fr. Athanasius on his next visit, which might be in just a few months from now. I assume Fr. Athanasius would also like to have me along, since we have been getting along just fine and we enjoy each other’s company.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I would love to help out these wonderful people, but on the other hand, I do feel very out of place here, and I question if my presence here is making much of a difference, besides just providing moral support. Other than doing the chanting for our daily Matins and Vespers, I’m not really doing much, other than making minor contributions to the discussions Fr. Athanasius is having with Dr. Wesley. Perhaps I am being pessimistic and am just having ”logismoi.” Whatever the case, I am hopeful that time will tell. Our trip is only half over so far, and so we’ll see how the remaining five days go.
I must admit that I am a spoiled “αμερικανακι.” I like having all the comforts of life that we have in America, even in my rustic cabin in the woods. After all, I still have a computer there, internet and phone access, and an environment that is comfortable and familiar to me. Here, I am constantly on guard and hyper-vigilant because everything is not only very dirty but also quite dangerous; it just takes one drop of unpurified water on your food, or just one mosquito bite (or one cobra bite, for that matter!) to make you really sick or even dead. It is depressing to go outside and see such filth and poverty everywhere. And the high temperatures and high humidity certainly don’t help. I can’t really complain, though, since I’m spending most of my time in air-conditioned rooms and travelling in an air-conditioned car. I thought I was being somewhat ascetical by living in a cabin without electric appliances or running water or central heating, but now that I see how the average person in India lives, I can see that I’m just fooling myself with such thoughts. I don’t think I have the level of self-denial to be able to sacrifice the good life I have. May God forgive me, and may He also reward a hundredfold all those who are bearing the heavy burden of living in such abject poverty.
After our breakfast we passed by the conference center that he owns, which is where our first meeting took place. He gave us a tour of the other building, which used to house 200 orphans. It is in shambles now, although it wouldn’t take much to fix the place up. It’s a two-story building with a few dozen rooms. The place has great potential. Fr. Athanasius pointed out that it could be a monastery some day. He is right, although it fails to live up to monastic standards of isolation and quiet, since the highway is so close that the traffic is audible. At least it has plenty of isolation from neighbors, since it is surrounded by forest and beside a lake and a nice hill. But no one dares to go up into the beautiful hills because that is where all the snakes are. Here are a few pictures I took of this place: I took another nap this afternoon because I was feeling tired. I’m being quite sedentary these days, since I’m walking very little, doing no physical labor, and eating plenty. (Maybe that’s why my belt is feeling a little tighter!) But when it’s so hot and humid out, all you want to do is sit around and vegetate. I’m looking forward to a nice and cool winter in Alaska with plenty of physical labor!
We had an early dinner today so that we would have time to get back to our hotel, do Vespers, and then go preach to a group of 50 pastors and others with them. On the drive back from dinner, our conversation veered off into what to me seemed like idle talk. I’m not sure what bothers me so much about idle talk. It’s certainly not because I’m such a spiritual person who love God so much that I can’t bear to think of worldly matters. If that were the case, I would have no problem with distraction in prayer. I think idle talk bothers me primarily when it seems to me that there is no real purpose to the conversation, and time is just being wasted. But I suppose I should not be so strict in dismissing the value of such conversations, because I have come to see that many people use idle talk as just a way to try to build a better connection with other people so that they can feel more comfortable with them and then later deepen their connection.
Anyway, for better or for worse, I put an end to the idle talk by asking Fr. Athanasius what books he gives to new converts to Orthodoxy. This question was on my mind because there are so many wonderful Orthodox books available now (in English) that are so needed by these people in India. I liked Fr. Athanasius’s answer very much. Basically, he said that different people need different spiritual food: some need food for their mind and some for their heart. He has observed that men typically prefer food for their mind while women prefer food for their heart. But both genders need to become well-rounded eventually, and so even if a particular kind of book speaks to a person at the beginning of their conversion, they will need to mature and make sure that the neglected part of them will also be fed.
We had an evening conference in a small village near the ocean. Dr. Wesley told us: “It is close, only about 40 minutes away. It starts at 7:00, so we’ll leave at 7:00 to get there!” As you can see, the idea of “being late” is foreign to Indians.
Unfortunately, however, there were some thunderstorms with a lot of rain which prevented most of the people from coming. And we couldn’t go to the large tent they had prepared, so instead we went to someone’s house who had a small extension on his house covered with a plastic tarp to protect us from the rain. About thirty people showed up, mostly people in their 20’s ad 30’s along with their small children. Everyone sat down on the concrete floor very naturally as if this is something they do all the time. But the place was very rural, even by India’s standards! They began by singing Christian songs in Telugu, while clapping their hands to the beat. It was quite lively and wild! I took a video and some photos:
Then Fr. Athanasius began his sermon. He had prepared a sermon about the Church because this meeting was supposed to be a meeting of 50 pastors. But since they couldn’t make it, he had to figure out a different sermon to preach, since these simple people would not have grasped or benefited from a sermon about ecclesiology. They needed something very basic and simple, and so that is what he gave them. By my standards, his message was too simple to provide any spiritual nourishment. But apparently, they were moved by what he told them. So I guess that shows you what kind of discernment I have! It’s a good thing that he is the one giving the sermons and not me, because I probably would have gone way over their heads, assuming they already have grasped things that I take for granted.
An added challenge that evening was that there were many aggressive mosquitos there! Fortunately for me, I had expected something of the sort, so I had already sprayed my neck, hands, and ankles with Repel (one of the only two insect repellants that have been proven to protect people from mosquitos). But poor Fr. Athanasius hadn’t thought of using his, and so he had to struggle with mosquitos all around him. During his sermon, someone even swatted a mosquito on his leg! At least the people brought out some special pieces of paper that, when burned, create a special smoke that mosquitos can’t stand. It worked well, but after about 15 minutes, the mosquitos came back.
By the time we finished, it was very late. Somehow I managed to sleep in the car on the ride back to the hotel, despite the very bumpy ride.
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
We left early this morning, at 6:00 a.m. so that we could drive to Vizag and meet with some people there. On the way, we stopped at a restaurant beside the highway. It was not quite as high-class as the other restaurant we have been going to daily, but it was good enough. They didn’t give us any silverware with our meal, but it was fine with us to eat with our hands. Here’s a photo of the place:
Fr. Athanasius and I had an “onion dhosa.” It’s basically a thin pancake with chopped-up, raw onions inside and various sauces you can add to it. I added a coconut chutney to it, and it was quite delicious. Fr. Athanasius commented afterwards: “I bet you’ve never had raw onions for breakfast! Imagine what they would say at the monastery if you ate raw onions with a pancake for breakfast!” To which I replied, “Well, actually….” ;)
On the drive down there, we encountered several humorous signs. A gas-tank truck containing methanol had a warning sign on the back that said: “Highly Inflammable”! And several times we saw a sign that said: “Accident prone area”! The way people drive, I would say that the entire roadway system in India is an accident-prone area. We also passed a sign that read: “This property is not for sale. Beware of fraudulent sellers”! Most surprising of all was someone who had a sticker on the back of his car with a stick figure drawing of one person beating another person and the warning message: “Don’t touch my car!” When we arrived in Vizag, we first went to Dr. Wesley’s house. Right now he and his family are living in the fancy house of a rich person who is letting them use his house for a couple of months. It is part of a gated community that always has a guard at the gate. Dr. Wesley doesn’t have his own house because his landlord evicted them with one hour’s notice after he started falling behind in his rent. He couldn’t pay the rent because he had used up all his money to support those orphans. Since Dr. Wesley wasn’t given time to gather his furniture, he and his family are now living without furniture and sleeping on the floor in that fancy house.
Just a few minutes from their house is a fabulous beach on the Indian Ocean. For some strange reason, though, the beaches are empty. Perhaps part of the reason is the strong undercurrents which make it too dangerous to swim. Fr. Athanasius said that any beach like this in America would always have tons of people. We got out of the car for a minute and took these photos of it:
Then we went out to lunch at a very fancy restaurant—much fancier than anything that can be found in Tuni. Vizag is a much nicer city than Tuni. Vizag has all kinds of stores, most of which have names written in English. Many of the stores have someone whose job it is to open the door for you as you enter and leave! After lunch, we went to someone’s house, where ten women and two men had gathered in order to hear Fr. Athanasius preach. Here’s a photo of this little group:
Fr. Athanasius gave another sermon with a simple message. He is having a hard time trying to figure out how to reach out to these people most effectively. On the one hand, he realizes that there probably isn’t much use trying to explain to some simple and uneducated housewives the differences between denominations and doctrinal matters. But on the other hand, if he just gives people a message at too low a level, he won’t really be leaving them with something that will help them grow and become Orthodox.
This has also been my concern. While I’m happy to do whatever I can to help out this mission in India, I don’t want to be wasting my time by making an inconsequential contribution. The way things have been going so far, we have only been able to give mere drops of water to people dying of thirst.
Fr. Athanasius was under the impression that he would have a group of pastors to meet with repeatedly, and in this way he would have the opportunity to get them past the basics. But instead, we have had only an hour or two with each group of people, whom we never see again. What kind of benefit can you possibly give people, when you have so little time, not to mention the language barrier?
After Fr. Athanasius finished his sermon, Dr. Wesley asked me if I’d like to speak to that little group. I replied sadly: “Oh, I’m sorry; I haven’t prepared anything. But maybe they have a few questions for us.” So when the translator told them my answer, one of the women asked why we are wearing black. Fr. Athanasius explained to them the importance of priests having a different appearance. And then I added that black is a color of repentance. I wanted to add that it is also a color of joy-making (χαροποιον πενθος), but I was afraid of going way over their heads by speaking about something they have no experience of to relate with, so I didn’t mention it.
During the long drive back to Tuni, we had some good discussions with Dr. Wesley. He asked if the way things are in the Orthodox Church now are the same way they were in the early Church. We explained to him that things have organically developed over the past two millennia, and so things are not exactly the same in form. But in terms of the spirit of things, they are the same. I pointed out that it is tricky to explain how it is that we Orthodox can claim to have preserved the true Church of the Apostles and that the Roman Catholics have not preserved it because they have changed things, if we bear in mind that the Orthodox Church has also changed things. In my opinion, we can objectively make this claim because some of the changes of the Roman Catholics have been sudden breaks from tradition that are real innovations and not just a natural development. For example, the idea of the infallibility of the Pope was clearly a new invention without historical precedence. So we can say objectively that this new dogma of theirs is a departure from the early Church. Fr. Athanasius said that he would absolutely love it if he were asked this kind of question by one of the pastors here in India, but the sad reality of the situation with them is that they just don’t seem to have the depth right now to come up with that kind of question.
Dr. Wesley’s wife told him today that she is now certain that she wants to become Orthodox. Her decision is based partly on the things she has heard Fr. Athanasius preach and partly on the Orthodox books in English brought by Fr. Athanasius that she has been reading these days. But the sad thing is that it’s not going to be easy to baptize her, since she’ll need to go through a thorough catechism first, and there is no one who can do this for her in India. She is a very pious woman of prayer. It is not unusual for her to spend five hours in prayer every day. And when she fasts, she goes 40 days without food and drinking only water. She is wondering if she could go visit a monastery like St. Nilus Skete for a month or two in order to pray. Fr. Athanasius thought that it would be too cold for her up in Alaska. So I suggested that she might like it in Safford, where it is much warmer. I would have loved to recommend one of our Greek monasteries for her, but I think at this point in her life she would benefit much more by being in a place where the church services are in a language she understands.
When we got back to Tuni, we went straight to the meeting of the pastors, without stopping at our hotel or for dinner. But fortunately for me, before reaching Tuni we stopped for a snack, which really hit the spot. It was some kind of fried bread with some tasty strange vegetables inside. I’m trying to keep the fast on fasting days, but it isn’t always realistic to do so, especially when your host offers you some food they got especially for you.
We finally made it to the village at 8:30 for our 7:30 meeting. But for India, being an hour late isn’t so uncommon, so it was okay. They wanted us to inaugurate their church building as an Orthodox church, so Fr. Athanasius read a modified version of the prayers for the blessing of a house. As soon as we reached the part of the service where I chanted a few troparia, immediately the whole congregation began clapping to the beat! Needless to say, they had a hard time doing so for the heirmologic melodies which don’t have much of a beat to clap to.
Afterwards, Fr. Athanasius gave a sermon but kept it brief since it was getting late. There were about 30 people present. Then, as usual, we both blessed all the people with the myrrh from the Hawaiian icon. While we were doing all that, the electricity kept going out, but that’s just part of life out here. Just down the road from us, there was some wild singing and dancing because of a Hindu festival. Here’s a photo of Fr. Athanasius cutting the ribbon they had tied across the door: And here is a photo of the inside of that church we inaugurated. As you can see, it’s just a plain, one-room building.
After getting back to the Tuni, we stopped for a quick, late dinner, and then went straight to bed. We were pooped after being out and about for 17 hours.
Thursday, September 27, 2018
I was so tired from yesterday’s running around that I slept like a rock last night for 8 hours straight. We had anticipated that we’d be exhausted, so we decided to begin Orthros at 9:00 instead of 8:00 a.m. And since I woke up early enough, I had some nice quiet time to myself. So I did a bunch of prostrations and took a much-needed shower.
Dr. Wesley had to go take care of something, so it was just Fr. Athanasius and I who did Orthros. The service was very spiritually invigorating. We both need that kind of recharging after dealing with all the craziness and unpredictability of India.
Singing from my own compositions of Byzantine music gives me a bittersweet feeling. On the one hand, it gives me great joy to be able to finally reap the benefit of all the work I have put into it. But on the other hand, I feel sad and even guilty because I realize how much more I could have composed if I had been more organized with my time and less distracted by other things.
After finishing Orthros, Dr. Wesley brought us another one of those meals wrapped up in banana leaves. I have no idea what was in it, but it was very delicious. It might be hard to go back to eating just beans and rice every day back in the monastery after such intensely flavorful food in India.
Joshi-Paul also came to the hotel room, and the four of us had a very good discussion when he asked what the next step for him and his people is. We are beginning to get some more clarity about how, by God’s grace, we can make all these people truly Orthodox.
The first big step will be to get as many of their pastors as possible out to the Philippines for theological training and spiritual formation. Another crucial step will be to get started with the translation of Orthodox books into Telugu. Dr. Wesley and Joshi-Paul are willing and eager to translate some books, and they said that they also have a university professor whom they could pay to do translations. Although this is good, I honestly don’t think it will be sufficient. So I told them: “Ideally you should find as many translators as possible, even if they aren’t Christian and need to be paid, because there are so many Orthodox books with tremendous potential to help people and change their lives. And once you have translated a book, you can print hundreds or even thousands of copies, which then reach and teach thousands and thousands of people with little effort.” That was my idea, but I’m not sure if they liked it enough to pursue it vigorously.
Dr. Wesley commented sadly: “Well, it looks like you only have three more days with us.” He and all his family and parishioners are really appreciating our presence. We are like superstars to them. But as for me, I am ready to go home. I miss my monastic family in Alaska, as well as all the peace and beauty there. Even though I am able to handle being around a lot of people and I love connecting with them, I think my real place in life is to be more secluded. I’m too much of a monk at heart to be around so many people.
After taking a nap, Fr. Athanasius and I wanted to go walk through the town in order to get a more complete experience of life on the street. So Dr. Wesley’s two sons accompanied us so that they could translate. It was fascinating to see all the unusual things going on. There were plenty of cows and pigs wandering around, minding their own business, looking for food. Although there wasn’t much grass in this town, they were quite satisfied rummaging through the trash and eating leftovers. Fortunately for them, there is plenty of trash everywhere. And to make things worse, there are open sewers along every road. A few sections of the sewer are covered with cement blocks, but those don’t stop the smells from getting through the cracks. And to top things off, both the temperature and the percent relative humidity must have been 90, so we were sweating more than the pigs, who at least had the luxury of wallowing in the sewers to cool off!
One amusing thing we encountered was someone with an ice-cream cart on wheels. The humorous part was that instead of having that characteristic tinkling sound which ice-cream carts in America typically have, he had the recording of a little girl broadcast on a speaker, saying in an adorable, high-pitched voice over and over again: “I’m selling ice cream! I’m selling ice cream!” It was humorous for us, but I can imagine that the poor ice-cream-wallah might be on the verge of going crazy, listening to that recording all day long.
As we walked down the streets, we had to be constantly on the lookout not to get hit by any of the rickshaws, scooters, motorcycles, cars, and trucks. They always honked, so I suppose the likelihood of getting hit wasn’t so high. But all that honking does get on your nerves. And knowing that my smartphone was in my pocket, I also had to be vigilant for pickpockets. It wouldn’t be hard to buy another smartphone, but my concern was that I would lose everything I had written in my journal during this trip.
Needless to say, our little half-hour excursion was not very pleasant. I have a hard time grasping how everyone puts up with this awful lifestyle. But I suppose they have such poverty that they really don’t have much of a choice. It must give them the patience of a saint. One thing for sure is that seeing their utter deprivation makes me really appreciate all the wonderful things I have in my life. And so the next time someone tries to praise me for living a supposedly ascetical life of deprivation because I’m living in a cabin in the woods, I’ll be thinking to myself: “You have no idea what deprivation means.”
Almost everyone who saw us stared in wonder. It was weird enough for them to see a white-skinned person in their town. But then for us to be wearing black cassocks as well was just something they had probably never encountered in their life. We might as well have been aliens. So I just pleasantly smiled back at them and pretended that I’m normal. A Christian pastor happened to drive by on his motorcycle with his wife and friends, and when he saw us he stopped in order to be blessed by us and to have his picture taken with us:
We also passed by a Baptist church, and went inside and took some photos. A nice old man and his wife greeted us kindly, and they asked for our prayers and blessings. Here they are:
Joshi-Paul informed us that over the past couple of days, 19 people were healed at one place we preached, 8 people at another, and 20 at another! After every sermon Fr. Athanasius gives, we both put on our stoles, anoint people with myrrh from the Hawaiian icon, and place our stoles over them while we say a few prayers for them in our own words silently. I think the reason why so many people are being healed is partly because of all the grace of the Hawaiian icon, and partly because of the strong faith of the people. It is very moving to witness their deep piety. They are treating us as if we are angels that have descended from Heaven.
While we were driving down the highway to the conference this evening, we hit a cow! The roads are not well lit, and out of nowhere a black cow appeared and decided to cross the road. Fortunately for us (and for the cow), Dr. Wesley managed to slam on the brakes quickly enough so that we didn’t hit him very hard. Dr. Wesley wanted to make sure that I include this incident in my journal! We teased him about it, but he laughed along with our jokes.
For the first time, we actually showed up early to a meeting today! It was in a different village, about 40 minutes outside of Tuni. While we were waiting for the rest of the people to show up, I met a few of the other people who came early and was able to speak a little with them through their broken English. Fr. Athanasius encouraged me to chant something, so I chanted the apolytikion of the cross in English. Then a college girl sang a Christian song she knew in Telugu. She had a beautiful voice with a very Indian style. And then I sang a “Glory to the Father…” in sticheraric plagal first mode, and she sang something else. I also sang Christ is Risen and the Αξιον εστιν of Hatziathanasiou in enharmonic plagal first mode in Greek. A dozen other young people were watching us and listening with great interest. They were especially fascinated with the sheet music of Byzantine music in English I showed them. Here are a few photos of them:
Before Fr. Athanasius began his sermon, their pastor said a few words and then led them in some songs. I recorded a few video clips of them because they were so wild and loud! They even had drums, and everyone was clapping to the beat. Their form of worship is so far from an Orthodox service that it made me wonder if these people will be able to “convert” to the Orthodox way of worship. But to their credit, judging from the way I saw them praying before and after our meeting, it is clear that they have a very deep faith with sincere prayer.
At one of the previous meetings, someone asked: “If we become Orthodox, will we be able to keep singing the songs we know and love?” Fr. Athanasius replied as gently as he could that they would need to conform to the Orthodox way of doing the services. I felt bad for them and asked him afterwards if he thought it might be a good idea to let them continue singing their songs, but just not during the services. He saw my point, but he was concerned that keeping their old ways or worship could end up causing more damage than good. It’s a delicate matter, and I’m not sure what the best solution will be for them. May God inspire whomever will be in charge to make the right decisions in this and other matters.
Fr. Athanasius gave a sermon nearly identical to the sermon he gave in other places. I think he has found the right balance between simplicity and depth, and so he’s sticking with what seems to work. Afterwards we blessed all the people with myrrh and prayed for them. There must have been 200 people there. They were all so loving and friendly that I hated to leave.
The electricity went out in the middle of his sermon tonight. So he just kept on talking, while a few people turned on flashlights. But as soon as the power went out, the ceiling fans stopped rotating, and we immediately began roasting. But that’s just the way life is out here; you just have to be patient with all kinds of discomfort, and life goes on.
By the time we got back to our hotel it was past 11:00 p.m. I wanted to write things in my journal before going to bed, knowing that sleep would erase some details. So I didn’t get to bed until midnight.
Friday, September 28, 2018
I woke up at 6:00 a.m., even though six hours of sleep isn’t enough for me. Hopefully I’ll be able to take a nap at some point today. A lot of people here take a siesta in the middle of the day because it gets so unbearably hot then.
It turns out that the message from the abbot of Vatopaidi wasn’t exactly a message from him. One of his monks, Hierodeacon Grigorios, is going to translate into English the book that the abbot wrote about Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi, and he got his abbot’s blessing to ask me to help him out. So I told him that I’ll be happy to review his translation. I just hope English is his native language, because I have seen that it is nearly impossible to write in a foreign language smoothly and with precise word choices, even if you have a talent for languages and have been speaking a foreign language for decades. I think I had better warn him about this (if he doesn’t know this already) before we potentially end up with another poorly translated Orthodox book.
We did our Orthros as usual at 8:00 a.m. Afterwards we talked a bit with Dr. Wesley and then also with Joshi-Paul. I found out that mother and brother of that parish’s pastor were very upset about our coming to that parish last night. They were threatening to take one-fourth of the parish away and make their own parish if he let us come. He managed to calm them down and prevent a split in their parish. But they refused to come to hear us speak. But afterwards, that pastor came up to Fr. Athanasius and told him that he really wants to become Orthodox. It looks like they will be having some drama ahead.
I was careless with the cabinet door in my hotel room and scraped my hand against its sharp edge badly, leaving a one-inch long bloody line. Fortunately for me, though, the cut was only skin-deep and I was cut by wood, not metal (which could have given me tetanus). Even so, I was quite worried about this, because having an open wound in a third-world country is definitely not a good idea. The bleeding stopped quickly, however, and so I’m hopeful that a dry cut won’t be so dangerous.
After a simple breakfast in our room, we went out to the conference center and did the prayers for the blessing of a house. Afterwards, we discussed how they will be able to conduct Orthodox services the way Fr. Athanasius and I were doing and singing them. We explained to them that it will require a complete transformation, which might not appeal to the some of them, especially if they don’t find a way to sing the hymns of the Church in a way that resonates with them and that also conveys the spirit of Orthodox worship. I was explaining to Dr. Wesley that the Protestant kind of music they are using now is something that evokes an emotional excitement, whereas Orthodox music evokes spiritual feelings of humility, repentance, and love. Fr. Athanasius observed that composing music for the Indian Orthodox Church would require finding someone who is steeped in both the ethos of Orthodoxy and the music of India. Such a person does not exist, and might not exist for many years.
After a late lunch, I had a nice, long nap. I got up just in time for Vespers at 5:00 in my hotel room, which we did with Dr. Wesley and his sons. Afterwards he told us some of the questions the other pastors have been asking him. They questioned the Orthodox emphasis on the Panagia and the saints. In particular, they quoted the verse in scripture that says that Jesus is the only mediator between man and God. Fr. Athanasius was delighted to hear that they are asking some deeper theological questions, since this is a sign that they are really thinking and taking this seriously. He said it’s a good thing that they are raising these issues now, rather than keeping quiet about their reservations.
After Vespers, we went to the house of Dr. Wesley’s sister who is sick. So we prayed for her and her family. Here is a photo of her daughter: Then we went to Joshi-Paul’s house for a prayer meeting with about 30-40 people. When we arrived, they had already begun singing their Christian songs, with drums and clapping as usual. The melody and style of singing were uniquely Indian, so I recorded a few of them.
Fr. Athanasius was feeling a bit tired today and so he asked me if I could do the preaching today! He suggested that I speak about God’s love, and so I told them a few things from contemporary saints. In particular, I told them the story about St. Porphyrios and the taxi driver, about Fr. George Calciu’s revelation (that God didn’t come to remove human suffering but to be present with us in it), St. Paisios’s teaching about divine righteousness and the 10 apricots, and the argument of those monks in the desert during which an angel came and told them that it was like incense before God.
It was the first time I ever delivered a sermon—except for the simple 5-minute sermons I have been giving for the past couple of months to the nuns on Sundays at their request. I certainly need some more practice, but I am hopeful that I can improve my technique with time.
As usual, we anointed people afterwards:
We then went out for a late dinner, and Fr. Athanasius and Dr. Wesley complimented me for delivering a good sermon. But I couldn’t tell if they were just being polite, or if they truly believed that my message was appropriate and helpful. So we had an interesting discussion about homiletics. When I told Fr. Athanasius that I had never been instructed how to give a sermon and that I wanted to know what they teach in seminaries, he told me that they teach you the following steps:
- First, tell them what you are going to be talking about.
- Then present your topic as three points, preferably using illustrative examples.
- Conclude by reminding them what you just told them, and call them to action.
This sounds nearly identical to what my father once told me regarding how to make any oral presentation. But Fr. Athanasius said that in his experience, what makes for a “successful” homily is different from what makes an effective presentation. He pointed out that people usually don’t even remember the things you say. But what they do take away from a good sermon is a certain spiritual feeling, a certain spiritual mood that changes their hearts in a subtle way. And this is accomplished not by being well-organized but by speaking from the heart, and especially when the listeners respect the moral integrity of the speaker. So it’s not so much what you say but how you say it and who says it.
What he said resonated with me. When I critically examine the homilies of Elder Ephraim, I can see that he doesn’t follow the “rules” for delivering a good speech. But his homilies are very powerful and have the ability to transform people because he is speaking from the heart and because his holiness is obvious.
Fr. Athanasius told me: “You should see how Dr. Wesley preaches. He’s all fire!” So I asked Dr. Wesley: “Is this something that comes naturally to you or is something intentional?” He replied with a smile: “It’s just in my nature to speak like that.” That’s what I thought he would say, because I can see from his behavior throughout the day that he has a very lively and dynamic character. His older brother, Joshi-Paul, on the other hand is much more subdued and reserved. But when he speaks to the people, he also raises his voice and speaks with excitement. I’m guessing, though, that he does this not because it comes naturally to him but because he has learned (from other Protestants) that this is how preachers are supposed to preach.
But they certainly have been doing tremendous spiritual work here in India for the past three decades. They used to run a training center for pastors (basically a small seminary), and Dr. Wesley was the main professor. Many of the pastors in this area used to be his students. And that is why he is so influential, and why so many pastors will follow him if he becomes Orthodox.
On our drive back, we passed another petroleum-tank truck with a familiar warning sign: “Highly Inflammable”! A little later, we passed a similar truck which had a slightly better warning: “Flammable motor spirits”! For some reason, all the trucks in India are decked with colorful decorations and hearts and tinsel. Judging from how they look, you would think that all truck drivers in India are 8-year-old girls!
One thing I don’t understand is the Indians’ sense of beauty. On the one hand, Indian men for the most part wear clothes that are quite simple and dull. But nearly all Indian women (regardless of their poverty) are wearing absolutely lovely sarees with stunningly brilliant colors and shining golden and silvery threads. They also have pretty ankle bracelets and earrings. Some even have a little piece of jewelry on the side of their nose. When Westerners do that, it strikes me as being just weird and obnoxious. But when Indians do that, it somehow seems quite fitting.
Another thing I can’t figure out is their habit of littering. In densely populated cities and towns, I suppose it is more or less forgivable that there is trash everywhere. After all, even if you yourself wanted to keep your sidewalk clean, everyone else would quickly ruin it. But today when we visited someone’s family in a more isolated, rural setting, they also had trash all over the place: candy wrappers, plastic cups, broken things, etc. Maybe they are so accustomed to seeing trash everywhere that their eyes have become desensitized to it, and now they don’t even notice it. It’s a pity, though, because India has such lush vegetation that it could easily look as beautiful as Hawaii if people would just stop littering and maybe do just a tiny bit of landscaping.
Here’s a photo of the family we visited today living in that rural setting:
Saturday, September 29, 2018
To my surprise, I still haven’t gotten sick! I can’t say that my stomach and intestines are exactly pleased with the torture they’ve been going through for the past ten days, but at least they haven’t given up on me. But the truth is that I am being extra careful all day long by drinking only boiling coffee or water that has passed through my LifeStraw filter. And I’m also avoiding eating anything that might have been washed in dirty water (such as uncooked fruits and vegetables) as well as all uncooked dairy products (such as butter, ghee, milk, and cheese). And since mosquitos carry all kinds of diseases, I’m spraying myself with Repel whenever I’m going to be outside for more than just a few minutes. Last night, I noticed a mosquito in my hotel room. (Usually they don’t get in.) Since it managed to hide before I could kill it, I had to set up my mosquito net and sleep inside it. I didn’t have any string to hang it up, so I used the telephone cord and attached it to the ceiling fan. It worked, but now I’m still on the lookout for that sneaky little mosquito.
I shared my journal with Fr. Athanasius, and he was delighted to see all the details I had written so far. He shared it with his Presbytera and with his parish, and they also loved being able to have a better sense of how things are going. When Fr. Athanasius read the comment I wrote the other day that I wasn’t feeling very useful, he replied that I am contributing much more than I realize. He thinks that he would have fallen apart by now if he didn’t have someone to do the services with. And so he said that he would really love to have me join him any time in the future he returns to India.
I still have mixed feelings about coming back here for a visit, though. There are so many unpleasant things about life here (particularly the muggy climate and the prevalence of threatening diseases) that I am looking forward to my departure. Yet I realize that this way of looking at things is very selfish and carnal. When, however, I manage to rise above my personal preferences and view things spiritually, it brings me great joy to participate in this tremendous work that God is doing with these wonderful people in India. I am especially filled with joy when I have the opportunity to interact one-on-one with the good people here. Unfortunately for me, though, the only people I can really interact with (due to their inability to speak English) are a couple of the educated pastors and a few college students.
An important lesson I have learned this year is that a serious obstacle to doing God’s will is our dependency on pleasure and our avoidance of pain. All too often, we make our decisions in both small and great matters solely based on how much pleasure and pain a particular course of action will provide for us. But when we really examine this approach, it becomes evident how destructive this mode of operation is for us, both physically and spiritually. (For example, neither physical nor spiritual exercise is pleasant, but both are so crucial to our health.) It takes a great deal of self-denial and a philosophical approach to life for us to rise above this kind of carnal thinking. And unless we are constantly watchful with our thoughts, it will be impossible to soar above the baser and more mundane desires. I am saying all this as a mini-sermon that I myself need to hear, especially in regards to India.
We had a nice Orthros service at 9:00 a.m. with Dr. Wesley and his sons. But his phone has been constantly ringing because there are so many pastors asking him all kinds of questions about Orthodoxy. Fifty of them are ready to convert, while many others are still thinking about it. For the most part he is giving them good answers. But sometimes he is not able to answer their questions, since he himself is still just in the beginning stages of learning more about Orthodoxy.
For example, in order to get a sense of what spiritual medicine the people here need, I asked Dr. Wesley yesterday: “Which passions do Christians in India typically struggle with?” Fr. Athanasius interjected: “First you’ll have to explain to him what a passion is.” So I explained to him the Orthodox understanding that passions are sinful habits and are the underlying illness of soul that lead us to sin, which in turn are merely the symptoms of the underlying illness. But even after this explanation, he didn’t seem to grasp what I was asking because he replied that the Christians in India have a lot of struggles with the Hindus.
Today Fr. Athanasius explained to me that the reason why he thinks my question was hard for Dr. Wesley to grasp is because most Protestants don’t have this understanding of struggling with thoughts and inner warfare. Fr. Athanasius then elaborated to me various aspects of the Protestant mind-set. Much of what he was saying was news to me, since I’ve never had spiritual discussions with Protestants, and I don’t read books of theirs that have spiritual or dogmatic teachings. (I do, however, occasionally find a few of their ethical teachings to be insightful and practical.)
The more we discuss the possibility of these people becoming Orthodox, the more we realize the staggering enormity of the task. Even if we manage to get them in line with the Orthodox interpretations of the Bible, they will still be Protestant at heart if they don’t succeed in absorbing the Orthodox mind-set of the holy Fathers and of contemporary Elders. It seems to me that it is crucial that they somehow get the writings of these saints in their own language. But even then, since 70% of them are illiterate, the task of educating the illiterate will fall on the other 30%. The idea of sending some pastors out to the Philippines will be a good start, but they will also need to have an Orthodox person stationed in India more or less permanently who has not only a thorough grasp of Orthodoxy but also an understanding of the Protestant mind-set they are trying to grow out of.
Much depends on what the hierarchy of the Church will decide to do (or not to do) for these people in India. Since Dr. Wesley knows and trusts Fr. Athanasius, he is the one who will be their primary source of support and guidance, at least now in the beginning stages. Fr. Athanasius will be meeting with his bishop in November in order to discuss what direction the bishop wants to take things. After all, none of the plans he is making can be carried out without his bishop’s blessing and approval. And besides, the people in India will need more than just Fr. Athanasius to be helping them out, since he has a busy parish to take care of and a family to raise.
I asked him what should I tell people if they want to donate to this missionary work in India. He told me that it’s not easy to send money directly to India, and so he has already set something up for this purpose. People can send money to his parish (the Holy Theotokos of Iveron in Honolulu) with a note explaining that it is for the India mission; then his parish will give them a tax-deductible receipt, and he will make sure that the funds go to the mission in India.
Now and then Fr. Athanasius will say something half-jokingly about me becoming the Bishop of India. But I am already very attached to my monastic family in Alaska and have no intention of abandoning them. Then Fr. Athanasius says jokingly: “No problem. You can just go back and forth and bring coconuts back with you to Alaska!” [I do like coconut water, coconut milk, coconut meat, coconut chutney, coconut creamer, coconut everything!] “Just think,” he continued. “You can be the ‘Bishop of St. Nilus Island and all India’!”
For a late breakfast, they brought us some fried dough balls with coconut chutney wrapped up in the usual banana leaves and newspaper. They were so oily that when you squeezed them, oil came out! So I did what I could to squeeze some of the oil out. I didn’t have any napkins, so I squeezed it out on the front and back of my hands in order to save my sensitive stomach.
Afterwards, we headed out to a conference in a beautiful rural area 40 minutes outside of Tuni. Everything is green and peaceful there. Here are a few photos:
This was an important conference because many of the educated pastors came. They had already been speaking with Dr. Wesley and Joshi-Paul for months, asking questions about Orthodoxy. So most of their questions had been answered already. After Fr. Athanasius’s sermon, they had only two questions: “Why are you wearing black?” and “Why does the Orthodox Church have bishops, since they are not mentioned in the New Testament?”
Fr. Athanasius answered the first question by emphasizing that we follow the unwritten traditions of the Church. When he got this question a few days ago, he didn’t explain why the cassocks are specifically black, though, and so that time I jumped in and added something about black being the color of repentance. So when he again today he omitted why they are specifically black, I was tempted to jump in and add my two cents, but I figured he had his reasons for not mentioning it, so I kept silent.
As for the second question regarding bishops in the New Testament, Fr. Athanasius explained that the problem is that the Protestant translators of the New Testament use the word “overseer” instead of “bishop.” Although his answer was correct, it didn’t sound very convincing the way the phrased it, so I got up and added my own two cents. I explained to him that when we want to derive conclusions from a specific word in the New Testament, it’s important to refer to the original Greek word used. And this is why many seminaries teach Greek. And then I said something about the specific Greek word used in this case. Everyone seemed to appreciate my intervention, so I was happy about that. Here’s a photo of the conference:
Afterwards, we went again to that same nice restaurant we have been eating at almost every day for our last meal there, since tomorrow we return to Vizag for our flight the following day. So I asked those friendly waiters for a group photo:
After returning to our hotel, I rested a little. In the meantime Fr. Athanasius was making some phone calls and writing emails. By God’s wonderful providence, things worked out just perfectly for him to arrange to meet in a month with Metropolitan Hilarion and Fr. Victor who is the head of missions in ROCOR. This is great news that he didn’t expect, since it is not at all easy to manage to get time to speak with them. We are very hopeful that once they are shown how things are with this group in India, they might really get things moving in the right direction quickly.
In particular, they have the authority to send seminarians, priests, and even bishops to India, and they might also be able to provide the funding needed for the mission in India to grow. Part of the problem they face here in India is financial, since it costs money to provide room and board and plane tickets for whichever bishops and priests and missionaries will be coming to India. And it will also cost money to send some of the Indian pastors out to a seminary. It will also cost money to hire translators to translate as many Orthodox books as possible into Telugu.
While we were talking about these things, it occurred to me that we should try to find out more about the Orthodox missionary work that has been done in Africa in recent decades. I suspect that they have faced many of the same challenges that we are facing, and hopefully we can learn from them what worked and what didn’t work. So I wrote an email to someone I know who should be able to find someone whom I can contact.
While sitting in my room earlier this afternoon, I could hear some Muslim singer blasted on a loudspeaker, calling people to prayer. And now as I type these words, there’s some wild Hindu thing with an intense beat and feverish pitches going on a few blocks away, again blasted on a loudspeaker. All I can say is thank God for earplugs!
Sunday, September 30, 2018
This morning we finally left our hotel in Tuni. I have mixed feelings about leaving. On the one hand, it is a relief to be on my way home back to my monastery. I am seeing through my own experience that saying of St. Anthony the Great: “A monk outside his monastery is like a fish out of water.”
Many laypeople experience their time visiting a monastery as a time of “recharging their batteries.” As a monk, I experience my time living in a monastery as being both “plugged in” and “grounded.” (I guess that means that a monastery is a 3-prong outlet. ☺) I suppose it is a sign of spiritual weakness not to be able to have the same inner intensity and focus after being away from the monastery for just two weeks. But I am who I am, and I have no illusions about that. I guess every person has their strengths and weaknesses, and they can pick their battlefield accordingly.
So we packed up our things and headed out to Vizag. While driving out there, Dr. Wesley and Fr. Athanasius had some good conversations about various spiritual matters. He asked some tougher questions, such as: “What do the Orthodox say happens to the soul after death?” “What are the main differences between Protestant and Orthodox?” Fr. Athanasius later told me how delighted he was to hear these questions from him, because it shows that he has been pondering some deeper issues. I let Fr. Athanasius do most of the talking because I acknowledge that he is the one who in an expert about this path from Protestantism to Orthodoxy not only through his own journey but also through the dozens of people he has catechized. From time to time I would also throw in my two-cents’ worth, when sometimes he didn’t mention some detail that I thought would be helpful.
When we arrived in Vizag, Dr. Wesley took us to a very nice hotel not far from the beach. While he went to pick up his wife and three daughters for lunch, I went out for a walk on the beach alone while Fr. Athanasius called Fr. Silouan in the Philippines. The beach was empty. It was so peaceful that it makes you want to pray. Here is what it looked like: I was tempted to walk barefoot in the sand, but I am aware of the danger of getting hookworm by walking barefoot in the warm sands of India, so I resisted the temptation. Fr. Athanasius also went for a walk in the sandy beach. So I asked him, “Did you go barefoot?” “Yes. Why do you ask?” Then I explained to him the hookworm danger and that the symptoms are itchy feet. So I asked him: “Do your feet itch?” He replied, “They didn’t itch until just now when you asked me!” And he continued with a smile: “You’re ruining my trip! First you tell me about all the things I can’t eat and drink, and now you’re telling me about hookworm!”
Here is a photo of me with the umbrella they give guests at that fancy hotel:
Afterwards, we all met at the hotel’s restaurant, and we had a delicious meal together. Fr. Athanasius informed us that he managed to speak with Fr. Silouan, who was amazed and excited with what is happening in India with Dr. Wesley’s group. He kept responding: “Wow! Wow!” to what Fr. Athanasius was telling him. He is even eager to come out to India in order to do some intensive training for the pastors! He also has two priests who already have experience in India who are willing to come. Fr. Athanasius was amazed at how quickly things are falling into place. He is saying that when Christ and the Panagia want something to happen, they make it happen. After lunch, we went outside and took a few group photos:
Then they left us alone to have some peace and quiet time to ourselves, knowing that we will need to be rested for tomorrow’s long journey home. It will take 36 hours of flying and layovers to get just to Honolulu, and then I’ll have two more flights and a boat ride to get back home. So I went back to my room, took a nap, and then added a few more things in my journal. I’m really glad someone urged me to keep a journal. There have been so many beautiful experiences and wonderful people I have met here, and I know myself well enough to know that my memory lacks the ability to preserve them all in the same vividness in which I originally experienced them. And even more importantly, I am now able to share these experiences with all the people who are praying for this mission and are eager to hear how it is going.
Dr. Wesley’s entire family came to Fr. Athanasius’s hotel room for Vespers. Some of them tried to sing along with me, but the melodic formulae of Byzantine music are so unfamiliar to them that they completely failed. So I just sang a little louder than normal in order to overpower all their notes that were off.
Afterwards, we all sat around like one big family and had some very pleasant and interesting discussions. Fr. Athanasius gave each of them a going-away present: the small icons mounted on wood he had brought with him and some prayer ropes. He also had already given them 7 or 8 introductory Orthodox books, including one by Fr. Seraphim Bell that covers the questions that Protestants typically have when they come into Orthodoxy. This will be the first book that they have translated into Telugu by that university professor who is a professional translator.
I asked Dr. Wesley if he will hire also other people to translate books simultaneously, and he said that he could. I’m not sure if that means that it will happen, though. As I am someone who has found tremendous benefit from all the treasures of Orthodox spirituality to found in books, I attach utmost importance to the value of spiritual reading. In fact, St. John Chrysostom said that it is almost impossible to be saved without daily spiritual reading. So I am still worried that if they have only one person translating Orthodox books into Telugu, it will be decades before even just the basic books of Orthodoxy will be available to them in their own language. Perhaps they don’t see how important this is right now, but I’m hopeful that it will quickly become evident to them.
This was the first time that Dr. Wesley’s older daughters had the chance to talk with us, and so they asked some really good questions. They asked about Mother Theresa, the difference between Baptists, Pentecostals, and Orthodox, what will happen to virtuous non-believers when they die, and a few other issues. They also asked if what they had been doing until now (as Protestants) was all wrong. I really liked the way Fr. Athanasius handled that question. He explained to her that what they have been doing until now is very good, but they’re missing out on the fullness of grace and spiritual life. He was so delighted with their questions that he said that they should have been at the pastors’ conference!
We also took turns singing a few things. Those two girls are also musically very talented. Not only do they have beautiful voices but they also composed 60 Christian songs in Telugu, many of which are used in other Christian churches in the area. Their mother also composed 50 Christian songs.
It started getting late, so they all went home, and then Fr. Athanasius and I talked a bit more about how everything is unfolding so rapidly. He is very pleased with the spiritual growth Dr. Wesley has made these past ten days. Fr. Athanasius said that he has grasped one of the hardest things for Protestants to internalize: the concept of humbly admitting our weaknesses and sins, and that we need continual repentance for this. He remarked that this is typically especially challenging for Protestant leaders because they usually try to present an image to others that they are strong and above temptations. So Fr. Athanasius is very hopeful that Dr. Wesley and his people will continue to learn and grow and mature in a genuinely Orthodox way.
Monday, September 30, 2018
This hotel has free room service for breakfast, and I so thought I would try it out. So I ordered an onion dhosa and a vegetarian sandwich at 6:00 a.m. A few minutes later I got five phone calls in my room from the hotel staff. Their English was so poor that I was not entirely sure what they were asking and if they understood what I was saying. An hour later, they finally brought my food! Fortunately for me, I wasn’t in a rush to get my food, so I was able to laugh at the chaos and view it as India’s going-away present to me.
I noticed in the mirror this morning that there is a one-inch diameter sore spot on my forehead, with a dot protruding in the center of it. I first noticed this soreness on my forehead when I woke up yesterday morning, and I assumed that I must have bumped my head during my sleep. But now I can clearly see that something must have bitten me. I did notice a cute little spider on my bed the previous day who was especially talented in jumping so fast that it looked as if he were teleporting! I shooed him off my bed then, but maybe he was the culprit. Anyway, I don’t have any other symptoms, so hopefully the inflammation will go away on its own. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.
Dr. Wesley came to take us shopping along with his family. His older two daughters couldn’t come because they had college. They took us to a few stores in Vizag, including this one:
Fr. Athanasius wanted to buy a nice dress for his daughter, and I wanted to get some genuine Indian spices for the nuns. Then he took us to the airport where Joshi-Paul also met up with us to bid us farewell. It is a bit sad to be leaving this place and Dr. Wesley’s wonderful family. But I miss my monastery and my monastic family in Alaska, and so I am ready and eager to go home now.
As the plane is departing India, I am trying to organize my thoughts after so many unique experiences. If we were to rank countries by the intensity of what the senses experience, India could easily be at the top of the list. So many colors, so many pungent smells, so many powerful tastes, such high temperatures and humidity, and so much chaotic movement. The people of India have a unique beauty of heart. Their friendliness goes far beyond the sometimes artificial courteousness of Westerners.
And the Indians who are Christian have an unparalleled twinkle in their eyes I will never forget.
India has touched me and changed me. I see the world differently, now that I have stepped far outside my comfort zone and outside my familiar environments. It is easier to “know thyself” after you have come to know a broader spectrum of different people.
As for Dr. Wesley and Joshi-Paul, the 500 pastors, and the 45,000 laypeople eager to become Orthodox, we will see what God has in store for them. They have so much to learn, but also so much potential. The harvest is ready but the workers are few. Fr. Athanasius has gotten the ball rolling, and now the future of these Indians will be in the hands of God and of the hierarchs of the Church.
The humble people of India are needy in many ways. The most important contribution and alms we can give them is our heartfelt prayers, that God will make this fragile plant grow and blossom for His glory and the salvation of many souls. Amen.
Dear Parish, May God bless all. I am sending out an update about my upcoming India trip September 17 - October 2.
With the blessing of Archbishop Kyrill, I will be going to India to help a large group of Protestant Churches possibly enter the Orthodox Church. During this time I will be meeting with local Pastors, talking at 3 pastoral conferences and traveling around to meet with people to talk about Orthodox Christianity and about their entering the Orthodox Church.
Where we are going
During the last part of September, I have been invited to speak at a several Protestant conferences about Orthodoxy and to help 12 Protestant churches enter the holy Orthodox Church. There is an organization of 1000 Protestant Churches in India started by Dr. Wesley and that I have been in contact with for about 20. Dr. Wesley was born into the Hindu priestly class of India, but had a radical conversion to Christ as a young man. Through his conversion he lost much as Christianity is a persecuted religion in India, but over time he begin to start Protestant Churches in India and this organization has grown into over 1000 churches in the state of Andhra Pradesh. They are living lives of prayer, struggle and fasting, however they would like to know more about Orthodoxy as they did not know about before. Dr. Wesley who is a friend of mine, and who very directly made several attempts to talk me out of converting to Orthodoxy myself, called me about 8 months ago when he saw this picture of me on Facebook.
The conversation went something like this. Dr. Wesley, “Brother what happened to you” Me, “What do you mean.” Dr. Wesley, “You look different, you are not the same person I meet in India many years ago. You look holy” Me, “Trust me I am not holy… but this is the Orthodox life." Catechism Via Facebook
From here we begin to talk about the Orthodox Church, about the Orthodox life and the medicines of the Church, how this differs from Protestantism. This conversation started many such conversations between Dr. Wesley and myself. He mentioned to me that he was very interested in a deeper life in Christ and holiness and that they were difficult to find in Protestantism. After many such conversations via Facebook Messenger and very early in the morning (India is 15 ahead of Hawaii), Dr. Wesley invited me to come to India and talk with a small group of Pastors who he was talking to about Orthodoxy. They would also like to become part of the Orthodox Church. One of these churches is lead by his brother, Joshi Paul (a friend from long ago) and another by his nephew Tarun (a recent college graduate in Engineering who decided to go into the ministry instead).
Over the next several months, I begin to be in talk with them all about Orthodoxy, but this method is very difficult so they invited me to come to India to meet with them. They were very anxious to see and hear more about what we had been talking about. They have been completely amazed by examples of monasticism, fasting, prayer and Patristic Theology.
The Task keeps increasing
Well, what started out as a request to talk about Orthodoxy with 12 pastors and my feeble attempts to explain what is Orthodoxy via Facebook messenger, has now grown into multiple conferences and open air meetings where will will be talking to 500 pastors. This will also include talking with a group of Hindus and Christians during an open air meeting about Who is Christ. This is all in a country were doing missionary work is technically illegal. So please keep us in your prayers.
To give you an idea of the numbers of people, when I asked how many people went to the 12 original Churches they told me about 45,000 people. The number of total people involved in these churches is very large and they are very poor. For example it costs $15.00 for a pastor to travel, eat and cover his accommodations so they can attend a two day conference. For us in Hawaii this is a plate lunch and soda. At this point we are going to meet with the people, discover what is going on and needed and see what doors God will open up.
Where to find more information
There is so much details about how all of this as come to fruition, but in order to keep this email short, I will begin to blog about this upcoming trip on my blog. www.orthodoxriver.org . A video of Indian orphan children singing and dancing can be seen here
Welcome, Papa Ephraim
Glory to God, I will be traveling with Hieromonk Ephraim who himself is half Indian and who has been a monk for twenty plus years. He even has an uncle who lives very close to where we will be going. Papa Ephraim, as people call him is currently is living on St. Nilus Island (one of my favorite places) in a remote cell and currently is the Priest for a small convent under the Serbian Orthodox Church. This Convent is very close to the city of Kodiak and where St. Herman lived and the location where my own journey to Orthodoxy started many years ago. While we are there Papa Ephraim and I will also be chanting the daily services. They people in India are very interested in seeing how we pray and have asked multiple times to make sure we can do this for them. What a gift it will be to have help to do this while we are in India. When they watched videos of Orthodox monasticism and Chant they were amazed.
We will be traveling, a town called Visakhapatnam (Vizag for short), and Tuni all in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. This Protestant group has several orphanages that they run. Many of these orphans grow up to be pastors and supporters their ministry. They literally will rescue children off the streets and who are being crushed by the world and sin and bring them into their orphanages. Many years later, after being educated and cared for these cast aways become the leaders, pastors, pastors wives in their ministry.
Please remember us in your prayers
Please pray for us, that we will be able to demonstrate and communicate concern our holy Orthodox Church to those in India. While many people speak English, we will also be communicating with people via translators. This type of preaching is beyond myself. I have been told that there is over 1000 different languages in India, so English is the glue language that connects everyone across India. That being said it still can be very difficult to communicate, especially when we will be talking about the mystery of salvation and other topics. Last time I was in India I was asked where I learned to speak English and then told that my English is very terrible and I needed to learn how to speak properly. May God help us to communicate clearly!
Thank you for your support
I would also like to thank everyone who has given money to help pay for this upcoming trip. I greatly appreciate the generosity of people and their willingness to give. May God bless all who give. As you can imagine this task is beyond us, so please pray for us.
There has been and will be many temptations.
If you have questions please send them to me.
In Christ’s love, Fr. Athanasius Kone
 The “banya” is a tiny, well-insulated one-room building containing only a wood stove surrounded by rocks. Wood is burned to heat the little house to about 190 degrees, while a pot of boiling water is on the stove. Then you bring in a bucket of cool water and mix some boiling water with it to get water that is a comfortable temperature for pouring over yourself with soap to clean yourself.
 See Appendix A for this amazing story.
 One day in Athens, St. Porphryios was with a nun and needed to take a taxi. The first taxi driver they found was an uncouth, blasphemous character. So the nun said to St. Porphryios: “Maybe we should find another taxi.” But he replied: “No, let’s go with this one, but let me do all the talking.” When they got in the taxi, the taxi driver started saying all kinds of things to them about how selfish priests are, how corrupt bishops are, etc. St. Porphyrios didn’t say a word, and so neither did the nun. After going on and on for quite some time, the taxi driver started wondering why the priest and nun weren’t responding. So he looked back at them and said: “So, priest, what do you have to say about all this I’ve said?” St. Porphyrios replied: “Well, let me tell you a story. There was once a very good priest in Crete whose wife had died and was living alone with his young son. But then the Nazis came and killed this priest. His son couldn’t understand how God would let this happen to such a good person, and so he became very embittered and angry with God.” At this point, the taxi driver stopped the car and in tears said to St. Porphrios: “But, Father, that is my story.” After this, the taxi driver confessed to St. Porphyrios and began to live a spiritual life.
 St. Gregory of Nyssa taught that we Orthodox should draw benefit from the ethical teachings of the heterodox, even though we should never borrow from their doctrinal teachings. But since this is a subtle distinction that can easily be misunderstood, I’ve written a 25-page article which demonstrates how the holy Fathers throughout all ages believed we should deal with the beneficial writings of the heterodox. I have posted it here for anyone who is curious to see what they have said: https://drive.google.com/open?id=10QYKMDvnfJGEBLm5MScEtokT3ShoqmXk