The old retired priest is me, of course, and this will be a very personal story. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything quite like this before. There will be very few images this time, because who wants to look at me? Every time I stand before a mirror I think “Who’s that old man in there?” I won’t put you through that. ______________________________________
Look. I was having a very happy, busy retirement.
When I was 75 I retired as Pastor of the parish we founded – late because I loved what I was doing. We had a happy, loving, united, growing church. Even at that age, I didn’t want to give it up, but I was running out of energy. It was time.
My retirement did not work out the way I had hoped, whereby I received many gifts and learned for myself a number of good things, most of which I had been teaching blithely for years.
Almost the first thing that happened after I retired was hip surgery, which took a while to recover from. I hadn’t hoped for that at all. Bad start. The lesson was patience, of course. Also to get off pain-relieving opioids as soon as possible, but do not drop them all at once! Why didn’t the doctor tell me that? or maybe he did, and I missed it?
I had hoped to retire happily in our parish among the people I knew and loved. That worked out for a while, but then it became very difficult, and finally it was time to move on – a painful experience, but which led to making many new friends elsewhere. Here’s what I learned from that: Don’t cling – which I always tend to do. Life is always a matter of moving on, in one way or another – all of it practice for another “moving on” which draws ever nearer for all us, of course, but in old age we pay a lot more attention to it.
Next: My wife and I had hoped to travel a lot. (Oh, those beckoning Viking European riverboat catalogs! And the south coast of Crete: even now, as I sit here typing, I can summon up the sounds of the sea and the fragrance of the countryside.) I did manage a last trip to Greece in 2015, but then peripheral neuropathy set in. Finally I found a neurologist who knew the right mix of meds to make it manageable – I told her “Thank you for giving me my life back” – but no more than manageable. There will be no more European travel.
What I learned from that loss was this: “More is less. Less is more.” After many trips to Greece, I had got to the point where arriving in Athens, much as I loved it, had become almost ordinary. After my neuropathy became tolerable, it was thrilling just to be driven up to visit our daughter and her family in Minnesota.
All this left me with a lot of time to fill. What good came of that? This Blog, for one thing. I had always hoped to write after I retired. I’m an almost compulsive writer. You older folks may remember a 1950s Gene Kelly movie in which he sings “Gotta dance, gotta dance”. Well, I’ve “gotta write, gotta write”, it’s built into me, and now I had time to do it. So I called my friend John Maddex at Ancient Faith Ministries and asked if they would take me on, which they did – though now I’m writing independently. So instead of subjecting my parishioners to all these words, I can take it out on you! And thank you, dear readers, for reading it.
I discovered that I had time to get better acquainted with family and friends – sometimes in person, more often by phone or email. When I was a pastor, too much of my contact with people was a quick “How are you doing?” or a hug at coffee hour after Divine Liturgy. Now I could spend time with people and really get to know them. The Covid years, difficult as they were, gave me even more time at home. By text I got really acquainted with my teenage grandchildren, and we’ve been close to each other ever since – what a blessing! Since I’ve been back at work again, I’m making much use of something I once despised: a “telephone and e-mail ministry”. I’d prefer face to face, but my energy is limited. We need to be careful with our words on-line, but I’ve found this an e]ffective form of pastoral ministry.
Finally I had time to spend evenings with my wife. A pastor’s work eats up many evenings. Now we sit together and watch our favorite old movies or TV shows. She chooses what to watch one evening; I choose the next. I treasure these hours just being together.
I had more time to read. Alleluia, alleuia, alleluia.
I’ve gabbled on far longer than I meant to. The point is that, despite all, I was having a very fulfilling, active retirement. I’ve heard people say they don’t know what to do after they retire. I sympathize, but honestly I just cannot relate to that.
Back to work at age 84
This was the last thing I ever expected. Last January my successor at my home parish departed very suddenly and unexpectedly, and our dear Bishop Anthony had no one to replace him – not till summer, when seminary graduates emerge for ordination, and other clergy can be moved about. So… what were the options? There was only one: back to work in my home parish again.
I had not presided at Divine Liturgy in about three years and was convinced I could not handle it any more. I thought my singing voice was gone forever. So I asked the help of God and the prayers of many friends, both on earth and on high, and tried, and to my amazement…! I have felt lifted up during these six months.
I won’t tell you what a hash I made of some of the details of the services at first, but it all came back. And of necessity my Great Entrance turned into a Little Entrance, and then both Entrances turned into a walk around the altar. My voice returned, at least to some extent, though it took our sound man many adjustments of the microphone and amplifier before everybody could hear me. I was glad. I love preaching. I’m a ham.
Conclusion: I could do it!
In addition to all that, I kept up this Blog. I knew you’d miss me if I went away. But seriously, folks, if I’d quit the Blog for six months, readers would have scattered and I’d have to start all over again.
Truth to tell, I have been too busy. Just ask my wife. She tells me something important, and I just nod vacantly.
However, God and the saints provided. In the absence of fully functioning pastors, excellent parish lay leadership emerged and, aside from giving a few bits of advice, I was able to stay out of the business side of running the place. Clergy sometimes don’t trust laypeople and think they need to control everything themselves. Wrong! My experience over sixty years is that lay people can be trusted, with very rare exception. Look: They are involved at church because they believe, because they care, out of love, and they even pay for the privilege. Why would we not trust them? I always used my Parish Council as (among other things) an advisory board for me. One time years ago I went on vacation for a month and left it to Parish Council to make some major decisions – and they did so, very competently.
This time I haven’t even gone to Parish Council meetings, and things have gone just fine for these interim six months. Our new pastor will arrive to find a smoothly running church, in most respects.
Holy Week 2023
If you’re not Orthodox, you cannot imagine what Orthodox Holy Week is like – at the required minimum, two-hour services at least every day and sometimes twice a day, beginning Lazarus Saturday (the day before Palm Sunday) and continuing till Pascha. True to his title, His Grace Bishop Anthony graciously allowed me to omit a couple of them and to make other adjustments, but what remained was still a whole lot to tackle. As we began the late Saturday evening two-and-half-hour Paschal Matins and Divine Liturgy, I was getting proud of myself. I had done it!
“Pride goes before a fall” – almost literally, in this case.
A censing of the people – down the main aisle and back – comes not long before Paschal Divine Liturgy begins. I got to the back of the church, and my legs began to buckle. * Blessedly, a man who serves in the altar (I can’t call him an “altar boy” because he’s about sixty years old) always stays near me, just in case… and now the “case” had come. He quickly came over and grabbed me by my left elbow. I wish someone had taken a picture of the two of us as we came up the aisle, Mark hanging onto my left arm, me censing with my right. When we got back to the altar, I realized there was no way I could celebrate Divine Liturgy.
- Was it illness? exhaustion? excess fasting? No, it was stupidity. I absolutely need to eat with my meds, and for eight hours I had forgotten to eat. I hadn’t even been trying to fast, so I won no merits for piety.
And that was when the hand of God came through again. There is an even older priest (93 years old) who with his presvytera often attends our church. He had told me that he (like me) was sure he couldn’t preside at the altar any more, and it had been almost three years since he had even tried. Completely unexpectedly, before the Pascha service he arrived with his vestments asking “May I assist?” He had never offered that for Divine Liturgy, not once. I said “I’m glad to have you”. When it was time to begin Liturgy, I said to him, “Father Peter, you’ve to take it.” He did! and celebrated an immaculate, prayerful Divine Liturgy. (And I was so proud of myself at 84…) That was too quirky to be just a coincidence. Afterwards when he came down to the Paschal meal in the church hall, everyone applauded him and sang “God grant you many years”, and he just beamed.
So that makes two old priests “restored to life”.
Now six months have passed. In less than a week our new pastor will arrive. One more Sunday to go! I’ve made it almost to the end, and I’ve got to admit that I am now out of steam. This has taken a lot out of me. The last time I administered the Holy Eucharist, Mark had to hold onto my left arm again. * However, this has been a joy I never anticipated – to be with old parishioners again, to get to know new ones, to be at the altar again, and (I hope this isn’t pride) I’m very glad I answered the call.
- How does Pope Francis handle it at age 86? He has a whole troop of guys to carry him around. Some years ago there was a 95-year-old priest still serving at a church up north. I’m told that for Communions he stood leaning back on the altar, and the people came up to him through the Royal Doors to receive the sacrament. You gotta do what you gotta do. God understands.
Regarding our new pastor, I think I see the hand of God here too. From the beginning I felt very strongly that he was the right man for the job. I never said a word about it – it was none of my business. However I prayed like crazy that he would be the one, and – surprise? maybe not – that is exactly who the Metropolitan appointed.
I think you can see: This whole experience has been a great “faith-builder” for me. I learned again that God provides and that He fills in for our weaknesses. He really does.
And part of my original hope for retirement has been restored. I will retire in my home parish, surrounded by the people I love. God is good.
And… now it is time for me to re-retire.
Next Week: The Transfiguration
Week after next: Martyr Laurence of Rome