Six years ago, when I turned 79, I wrote three Posts covering “What I’ve Learned in 79 Years” * – choosing the odd age 79 because I figured (who knows?) I might not make it to 80. And now so suddenly I’m 85. That number just sounds wrong. But here it is, and here I still am.
- Those three Posts are easily accessible, should you choose to read them, by scrolling ‘way down at the lower right of this page to August 2017, beginning with Post 27.
Originally here I was going to write a Post “What I’ve Learned in 85 Years”, building on the earlier Posts, but as I looked back I found I still agreed with most of what I said then, so why repeat? Besides, much has happened in the past six years, both in the world and to me, so I’m going to write about those alone.
My previous posts chiefly concerned what I’d learned about the Church and the world. This one, for better or worse, is chiefly about my personal experiences.
What I’ve Learned in the Past Six Years
1 How to cope with a handicap
Rats! as Charlie Brown used to say. I hoped I’d go out like like my grand-dad who was out walking the hills till he was 89, then at age 90 had a light stroke and died a week later. Realistically that was too much to hope for.
About seven years ago, I began to have pain…STOP! When my wife and I were young, we promised ourselves that when we got old, we would not drive everybody crazy by talking about our illnesses, so I’ll not do that. It turned out to be peripheral neuropathy. Eventually I found a great neurologist who found the right combination of meds to make it manageable, more than manageable, but now I usually walk with a cane, and there’s a blue plastic sign which I can hang on the rear view mirror of my Honda which allows “Handicap Parking”. Take note: I am not a handicapped person. I am a person with a handicap.
Though my problem is relatively minor … … oh, I do miss taking long walks. The other night I dreamt that I was running, and it felt so good. (Someday… someday…) But a visit to any hospital shows me people half my age ten times as ill. I can still drive (cautiously). I can still get to church. I can still type, I can still hear. I can still see. I can still taste chocolate. I can still think (I think). I should be, and I am, grateful.
At first I was sad because I knew I could no longer preside at Divine Liturgy, but I soon discovered I loved being a “normal” person again, being in the congregation with my wife. (There’s more to this story. Keep reading.)
And there’s a lot to be said for carrying a cane. Drivers actually stop to let me cross the street, and I can poke people to get their attention. My unsteady walking even has its humorous aspects. Summer before last I was traveling with my son and grandson. In the morning outside the motel window we heard ducks quacking, so I waddled over to the window to quack with the ducks. (I love to make animal noises.) My smart-aleck son’s reaction: “Well, if he walks like a duck and talks like a duck…”
I’m not able to stand for long before our home icons, so I do my morning prayers sitting in my living room chair. There I can see our icon corner with Saint Nicholas and Saint Basil and Saint Nektarios staring at me, and I at them. It’s not perfect, but it works. A general prayer rule is this: Do what we can. Don’t attempt what we can’t.
2 How to cope with a Pandemic and being shut in
By process of elimination, my neurologist concluded that my neuropathy probably had an auto-immune cause, which meant I was more likely to catch diseases. As the CDC struggled trying to discover how Covid was transmitted, they finally concluded that it was chiefly through the air. Therefore I decided it was best to avoid crowds. I would have felt comfortable in church if everyone had worn masks and if the number of people in church had been limited. However, this was not the case, so I concluded it was best to stay home.
For about a year my wife and I worshiped livestream. Now, “they” say that we cannot truly worship online. I disagree. Is it best to worship in church, surrounded by the community and where we can receive the Holy Eucharist? Yes, of course. However, at home we fasted as we normally would before Holy Communion, I got the incense burner going and put on incense at the proper times. We stood for the Gospel and for the Great Entrance. We exchanged the Peace. During Communions we read the pre-Communion and pos-Communion prayers and prayed the Lord Jesus to come into our hearts. Perfect? No. But a genuine form of worship? Yes. In fact one of the most moving services we ever experienced was a Hierarchical Liturgy celebrated live-stream by our Bishop Anthony. At the end Khouria Dianna and I both had tears in our eyes. It was a truly healing experience – which we needed.
There were people who were overworked during the Pandemic – teachers trying to teach children live and live-stream at the same time, parents working full-time online at home with little children in the house. However, I heard some retired people say they were bored. They didn’t know what to do with their time. I don’t understand that. Besides continuing this Blog, I had more time to pray. I had more time to read and study. Via phone calls, emails, texting at last I had time to get to know people better: my friends, my children, my grand-children.
Khouria Dianna and I got all our Covid shots, we wore our masks, we never caught Covid, and by the grace of God I came out of the Pandemic happier than when I went in.
3 How to cope with loss
I am grateful to God forty-times-forty times that in my immediate family we have had no tragedies, no deaths except the ones expected during old age, difficult as those were.
Thirty five years ago I had to deal with the loss of Anglicanism which I had loved, and of the church I’d served for twenty years and (with the help of many fine laypeople) had built up from a struggling mission to a flourishing parish. Some years before I left I remember sitting alone in the church thinking, “I don’t think I can ever give this up.” But I did. By the time I left, I was in love with Orthodoxy and was ready to make my exit.
This time was different. I had been the founder of Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg. Again with the help of many capable, dedicated laypeople and guided by our dear Saint Nicholas, we had built the place up from scratch till, by the time I retired twenty five years later, it was a flourishing, exciting, loving, growing community. I know priests don’t own churches, but my whole heart and soul were in this place. His Grace Bishop Anthony had given his blessing for me to remain there as “Pastor Emeritus”. I hoped to retire and eventually die among the people I loved and who loved me. However, after a few years it became evident that this was not going to work out. The Covid Pandemic gave me a quiet way to pull back; then I asked Bishop Anthony for his blessing for Khouria Dianna and me to attend elsewhere.
Brothers and sisters, this was like pulling my teeth. It hurt. But it had to be done. The result: the joy of being in a new church – free! with no responsibilities! being in the pew with my wife and actually worshiping, making friends with one of the finest pastors I’ve ever known, and of finding a whole new community. It felt to me like a new home, and I almost memorized the entire “Pater emon”. But then…
4 How to cope with being called back to “active duty” at age 84. A story of how God provides.
About the first of February this year, the pastor of Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, resigned suddenly, and the Bishop had no one to replace him, not even temporarily, not till summer when new men come out of seminary and clergy get shifted around.
So, there was nothing else to do: Suddenly at age 84 there I was back at my home parish – something I thought I’d lost forever – as interim pastor. I was about to learn again how God provides.
The first thing God provided was excellent lay leadership. I was willing to try coping with worship and pastoral work. But administration? I knew I hadn’t the energy for that. So God raised up some amazing laypeople to handle all that – better and more efficiently than I did when I was pastor. I’ve said this before: We clergy must learn to trust our laypeople. A few laypeople can be problematic – as can a few clergy – but our laypeople are at church voluntarily (no one pays them to be there) simply because they love the Lord and His Church, because they are good people who truly care. They even pay for the privilege! Trust them.
At first I thought I couldn’t handle worship adequately. My voice was no longer strong. I tried presiding at Typika Service (which is normally served in the absence of a priest) which went ok, but stand and sing for an entire Divine Liturgy? No way. However, one Sunday I decided to try. Before doing so I asked the prayers of many people near and far, and of many saints on high I warned the people I might not get through it, but I did it! I couldn’t believe it.
For the next months it truly felt like I was riding along, not on my own power but on a Power greater than mine. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like it. Also I got by through the assistance of Mark, our sixty-year-old altar “boy”, who stayed near me everywhere I went, just in case, because I was still wobbly, remember.
HIs Grace Bishop Anthony gave his blessing to simplify our Lenten and Holy Week schedule. I made it comfortably through all the evening services and Holy Saturday morning Liturgy, and was getting proud of myself. Then on Holy Saturday night God knocked the pride out of me. I did something stupid. I’ve got to tell you the whole story, which is another illustration of how God provides:
I’m on strong meds and need to take food with them. All Holy Saturday afternoon and evening, I forgot to eat – wasn’t even intentionally fasting, so I couldn’t score points for fhat! All went well till at Paschal Matins, at the censing of the congregation at the Song of Mary, at the back of the church my legs just went out from under me. Mark hurried over, and I wish someone had taken a picture as we went up the aisle – him hanging onto my left arm, and me censing with my right. I knew I could not serve Liturgy.
Now, came the little miracle. Father Peter, a retired Greek priest who is eight years older than me – 93 to be specific – attends Liturgy fairly often at Saint Nicholas. He had not presided at Divine Liturgy for almost three years, and he told me he was sure he couldn’t do it anymore, that even the vestments were too heavy on his shoulders. However, rather than leave me alone at the Thursday night Twelve Gospels, he came to help with the readings. Then on Pascha night, to my surprise, here came Father Peter asking “May I assist? I replied, “Yes, you may!” having no idea what I was letting him in for. After I had read the Paschal Sermon of Saint John Chrysostom, hanging tightly onto a lectern, I lurched over to Father Peter and said, “Father Peter, you’ve got to take the Liturgy.” His eyes got big! but he took it, and celebrated a perfect, devout, gentle, prayerful Divine Liturgy.
After the Paschal Liturgy, we have a community Paschal Feast in the church hall. When Father Peter and his presytera walked in everyone applauded, and we sang “God grant you many years!”, and his face just shone. So did mine.
During the remainder of Pascha and into the summer I felt increasingly wobbly, but with the help of my “altar boy” Mark and my 93 year old “buddy” who took one whole Sunday morning by himself, we made it! God truly provided.
Since I had returned to active duty, I swear to God and all the saints that I kept my mouth shut and gave no recommendations as to who I thought my successor should be. It was not my business to intervene, unless the Bishop asked, and he did not. However, I prayed hard, very hard – on my intercession list in large letters, bold print, italicized – that it would be a certain man whom I felt sure would be a perfect fit. And… he was the one His Grace Bishop Anthony chose! He arrived on August 1, and I was never so relieved to see anyone in my life.
I’ll say it again: Truly God provides!
If all goes well, I’ll add another chapter to this story in another five years. By the grace of God and if He so wills, I’ll still be learning on “this side”. Or if He so wills, I’ll be learning a whole lot more on the “other side” – in which case, I’ll have to wait till you get there to share it with you. Or maybe what’s over there will be So Great that I’ll have no words for it – in which case I’ll finally just hush up and adore.
Next Week’s Post: How to handle politics as an Orthodox Christian. Already? Yes. The season is well under way.
Week after Next: I have two possible things in mind. Haven’t decided yet.