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An Ordinary Saint

Back in November 2014 I came to Patra, Greece, for the funeral of my mother. Father Andrew at my mother’s parish church ushered me into the sanctuary and gave me vestments to wear so I could preside at my mother’s funeral service. So there I was, a clean-shaven priest from America between two local priests, both sporting typical long beards. Not for one moment did I feel out of place.

The funeral service was followed by a procession to the cemetery where the burial took place. There I encountered Father Mihalis and another priest, who preside at gravesite services. When they learned that I was a priest, they immediately insisted that I do the gravesite service. I didn’t have a book with me, so I went from memory, and they helped when I stumbled on a word or two. Again, a study in contrast, and again total acceptance, accommodation and priestly fellowship such as I have never encountered back home.

The two cemetery priests in 2014. Father Mihalis is on the right, with white beard.

Today I was back in my mother’s home parish for morning Liturgy. At the end of Liturgy we had a memorial service for her. Father Andrew was as kind as in 2014, though I chose not to put on vestments and participate in the Liturgy and memorial prayers. Later in the afternoon we drove to the cemetery, and there was Father Mihalis making his rounds. I immediately accosted him and asked him to come to my mother’s grave.

He showed some signs of recognition. I took out my iPhone and showed him the pictures of the Nov 2014 gravesite service. We started walking to my mother’s grave and he began to introduce me to other people that we passed. I at one point told him to stop doing that, and he was surprised. Why are you nervous? You’re an Orthodox priest and it’s a blessing for people to know you! A woman went to kiss my hand – something very common among Orthodox people – and I pulled back. Don’t be like that, he gently said to me.

I completely surrendered to his loving care. Both in 2014 and today I worried that people would think less of me because I’m from America, clean shaven with short hair, looking nothing like a Greek Orthodox priest. And yet not a single person in 2014 or today even remotely looked at me with any disapproval. So who was more caught up with external appearances – I or Father Mihalis and the people he was introducing me to? The answer was clear!

Father Mihalis is very special. He is an ordinary saint. I couldn’t stop embracing him today. The church canonizes extraordinary men and women and calls them Saints. They might be martyrs for the faith, ascetics and great spiritual masters, renowned bishop theologians, etc. Father Mihalis is not extraordinary in any of the usual senses. He is a simple cemetery priest, making his rounds, responding to every call to go to a grave for a prayer service, and humbly accepting whatever small payment he might receive for his services. His priestly garments are old, worn out and not recently cleaned. His hand are brown from the sun and from handling incense and being close to the earth at every graveside. If Jesus were walking around the cemetery today, he’d probably look a lot like Father Mihalis, but probably younger and with a shorter beard.

He wanted to get vestments for me so I could do the service. I told him, No, I wanted him to do it! When we finally got to the graveside, where my wife and aunt were waiting for us, he immediately included all three of us and even pointed to me to do some of the priest’s prayers, though I was dressed in regular street clothes. Such a spirit of openness and inclusiveness I have never encountered in America. And here I was in conservative Church of Greece and I’ve been blessed to have experienced the love and welcoming spirit of Christ in the persons of Father Andrew and Father Mihalis. They are true priests in the service of Christ, not of worldly appearances.

Today with Father Mihalis I felt in the presence of a saint, an ordinary saint. We need more ordinary saints in the church. They are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the meek who will inherit the earth. Which earth? The earth that Father Mihalis touches in his gravesite services and in which he will join his wife Ismene who died this past January? Or the earth that can still be made holy by men and women like Father Mihalis? I pray that he will continue to make the rounds of the cemetery for many years so I can meet him again and be touched by his gentle spirit. 

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The Last Party

My hometown Patra is best known for its Carnival. On the last weekend before Lent (Feb 21-22 this year), Patra hosts the biggest party in Greece. I loved the Carnival parade when I was a boy growing up in Patra. I especially loved all the chocolate they used to throw from the floats. Perhaps that’s where my love for chocolate started.

Other cities around the world are known for their carnivals. Think Rio de Janeiro – probably the biggest carnival in the world. And in this country New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. Throughout the Catholic world, Carnival is the last big opportunity for excess partying before the sobriety of Lent sets in. And even though Lent has ceased to be much of anything for most people, the idea of carnival persists. People love to party, whatever the excuse.

Perhaps the reason why Patra has had its Carnival for such a long time (around 180 years!) is precisely because it had a large Italian population. One of my great-grandmothers was Italian. The word carnival itself (karnavali in Greek) comes from the Latin. The Greek equivalent is apokre-es, and people speak of apokreatiko glendi. But an apokreatiko glendi is not a Carnival. Patra proudly prefers the word Karnavali for its big splash before Lent. It is closer in spirit to the carnivals in Catholic countries than to anything in the Orthodox world. It is, as I said, what Patra is most famous for.

Lent in the Greek-speaking world begins with “Clean Monday” – kathara deutera. That’s today, February 23rd. The label is suggestive of what Lent offers: an opportunity to make a new start, a renewed journey to our authentic self, a new opportunity to see our neighbor and to care for those who are desperate for compassion and understanding. Fasting is the least important aspect of Lent; and quite frankly it’s rather self-serving and self-focused. Fasting that does not open our eyes to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters is useless.

And maybe this is the reason why I think Carnival is such a wonderful part of the whole Lenten idea. Carnival is a party, the last party before Lent. But it’s a party that is shared by multitudes. There are no restrictions, no invitations. Indeed, it is analogous to that parable in Luke where the banquet is opened to anyone and everyone who cares to come in. Carnival allows the open interaction of strangers in an atmosphere of joy – young and old, rich and poor, Christian and atheist….

Then it becomes possible that the stranger with whom I shared laughter and dancing on Carnival Sunday might turn out to be one of the least of Christ’s brothers or sisters who needs my compassion a week later. Carnival is a break from my lonely, secure existence. It allows for the risky opening of my soul and heart. And Lent transforms what Carnival starts, so that the opening to the other, the stranger, the one different from me, becomes an experience of Christ’s presence! (Read again Matthew 25:31-46 if you need reminding.)

Here are some photos of the Carnival in Patra, 22 Feb 2015, which I gathered from the Internet. From the looks of it, the floats have become much more extravagant than anything I remember from my childhood years in Patra. I wish I were there.