Another series of “coincidences”?
My 2004 trip to Greece was mostly vacation, but I did visit Saint Nektarios again. (See Blog Post 7, March 31.) After that first experience with him, I just couldn’t stay away.
Once again being at Saint Nektarios was a powerful experience. I wish I could take you all there. The women’s monastery he founded in the early 20th century and where most of his relics lie is a beautiful airy light-filled place in the hills on the island of Aegina, an hour or so by boat from Athens. I know nowhere else that feels so Spirit-filled. As on my first visit, there were many pilgrims praying, some crying, again one clinging to his tomb. One can feel the prayer going up – it’s almost a physical sensation – and again I (who, as I said before, like to be Father Cool Guy) started to cry. I prayed for all of my parishioners by name, and for the people whose names they gave me. I can’t describe this well in words, but the prayer just poured out of me. It wasn’t by my effort. I didn’t feel like I was praying; it felt like I was “being prayed”. I think it was one of those experiences (rare, for me at least) which Saint Paul described in Romans 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” It seemed as if each one of my flock and their needs were there passing through me, being lifted up, and I was just the channel. It was the most intense prayer I’ve ever known – and when it was over I was amazed, for it had all taken just a few minutes. Using the money some of my folks gave me, I lit so many candles that a nun asked if I had paid for them! (I had.) That was the most important part of the visit, a special gift from Saint Nektarios.
This video gives a good picture of the trip to Aegina and the church and monastery of Saint Nektarios.
However, I also had cause to wonder if Saint Nektarios was continuing to arrange my transportation. You’ll remember I told you how on my first visit he seemed to give me a guided tour. I wasn’t expecting that again. This time I left the hotel in Athens at about 7:20 in the morning, which I thought might allow time (taking three different Metro lines) to catch the 9 o’clock boat, if I was lucky. I purposely didn’t hurry. I walked to the Metro stop, and as I arrived the train pulled in. I changed at Syntagma, and immediately my connecting train arrived. I had to change again at Monastiraki, and thirty seconds after I arrived my next connection pulled in. I got to Piraeus (the port) at 8, assuming I had missed the 8 oclock ferryboat, so I ambled slowly down the street and over to the dock where the boat still waited! The ticket agent said, “Hurry, mister, don’t miss the ferry.” So I boarded, the gate closed behind me, and at a little after 8 I was sailing with many other pilgrims to visit Saint Nektarios, once again with a smile on my face.
Again, a nice series of “coincidences”? I mean, really, do I think God and the saints move trains and ferryboats this way and that on my account? On the other hand, there was the time years ago when I was late for an important meeting in downtown Milwaukee and for fifteen minutes had looked desperately for a parking place. I don’t usually trouble God about such minor matters, but this time I heard blurting out of my mouth, “Lord, please, a parking place” – and immediately a car pulled out of one right in front of me. So…
Back to Athens, 2004. Did Saint Nektarios do it again? Looking back now after my experiences with this saint in succeeding years (stay tuned), my answer is yes! Just a little trick to tell me he was still there.
Orthodoxy on Greek Radio and TV
Why are we going off on this tangent? Because I took my short-wave radio along on the trip. When traveling in those long ago days before the internet, this was the only way to keep in touch with the outside world. (Now I can go to Greece and listen to my favorite programs on Milwaukee radio. I’ve got to say it takes some of the thrill out of being in a foreign country.)
In 2004 the Voice of America was sporadic and hard to tune in. All I could get from America was peculiar “Bible church” radio. One station featured two female exorcists who screamed into the microphone. Not a very good picture of the United States and all we could have offered the radio world in those days. So I listened to the BBC (as I still do) and also discovered Greek Orthodox FM radio. I couldn’t understand much Greek. (I still can’t. I can speak enough Greek to get by, which causes people respond in Greek, and I understand very little, and then what? At that impasse we all go into English! which most Greeks can speak.) Greek Orthodox radio carries daily Orthros, Divine Liturgy, Vespers and Compline, and lots of teaching, plus in recent years some good music. Most Greek cities and towns of any size have Orthodox radio stations, which you can now find on the internet. (For example, on Pascha this year at 4 p.m. CDT, Khouria Dianna and I tuned in http://www.radiofono-live.com/?station=ekklisia-tis-ellados-live-radio and heard the bells ring at midnight in Athens and the first singing of “Christos anesti”, and we both got teary eyed. (For all of the foibles of the Orthodox Church, we are so glad we’re now Orthodox.) Back to 2004. I listened to Greek Orthodox FM and thought: If only we had something like this in the United States.
In later years, after about 2010, when Greek hotels (that I could afford) began having television in the rooms, Orthodoxy was all over the place. At least three channels carried Divine Liturgies on Sunday mornings. During the forty days of Pascha, the news and entertainment programs began with Χριστός ἀνέστη! Christ is risen! In September the news featured a bishop blessing the first day of school. Another day I saw the Archbishop of Athens blessing the new Greek government – and God knows it needed it. On Sunday night, one channel carried a full hour about the annual festival of the patron saint of I-can’t-remember-which island, including a very long sermon by a bishop. Even the soap operas (which I certainly didn’t watch…?) had priests running in and out from time to time. It was another instance of Orthodoxy integrated with society. And again I wished we had this in America.
I heard of a Greek military man who kept an icon of the holy angels in the control room of a radio tower atop a high mountain. Can you figure out why? If so, send a comment. If not, I’ll tell you next week.
Religion on American Radio, Television and the Internet
Since the United States is not an Orthodox society, most of the above is not to be expected here. However it’s got to be said that there is a dearth of religion of any kind on American radio and television – which is strange, for despite a recent decline in religious participation here (we’ll talk about this sometime), still the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world. So wouldn’t you think we’d get more coverage?
Commercial radio virtually ignores religion. The National Public Radio program “Speaking of Faith” which once chiefly covered religion is now retitled “On Being” – still a very good program but with a different focus. Rick Steves, who is a Christian (Lutheran) and not ashamed to say so, has a weekly NPR travel program which occasionally gives positive coverage to Christianity: Italian saints, Greek Lenten fasting and Paschal feasting, and more. There is also a Roman Catholic network. So far as I can hear (and I listen quite a lot), that’s about it.
My wife and I don’t watch television much (except for old BBC programs and old movies), but on rare occasions we come across a respectable contemporary program on religion. (Did you see the recent PBS series “From Christ to Constantine”? Excellent!) The EWTN channel does a respectable job of presenting traditional Roman Catholicism. Occasionally (and pardon me for being negative) a rich “Bible church” TV preacher actually preaches what’s in the Bible, but so often the theme seems to be “Give your heart to Jesus, and give your money to me”, though lately they seem to have moved on to personal fulfillment and “give your money to me”. In 1985 I returned from three weeks with Orthodoxy in Greece, turned on the TV to see Tammy Faye Bakker (you younger folks, Google her) crying through her mascara, and I felt I had walked with Alice through the looking glass.
When is the last time you saw anybody go to church on an American situation comedy or drama? Even back in the old days when almost everybody still went to church (I know: I was there!), you would never have known it from watching Ozzie and Harriett or Leave it to Beaver or Happy Days. I think I know why. It’s not because of nasty atheists and secularists. It’s because of commercialism, profits. If they show the family going to a Protestant church, Roman Catholics won’t react positively, and vice versa and so on, so in order to keep selling their products and keep their ratings up, they choose to ignore religion entirely. That’s my theory. Regarding Christian Orthodoxy on America radio or TV… forget it. The reason, of course, is that despite our claims to have 6 million members, our participating membership is probably a little over 2 million, if that – negligible for commercial purposes.
In America we can now find Orthodoxy on the internet. But beware. Some websites are Orthodox, and some are “Orthodox”, in you take my point. Don’t believe everything you read about the Church. Some of what is on the internet is accurate and superb. Some consists of “alternate facts”, the modern equivalent of the gossip passed over the back fence. My advice is: Stick to the sites you know and trust.
And now we do have something like Greek Orthodox radio in America. (The following is not a paid commercial. I’m not paid. This is a heartfelt endorsement.) Thank God for Ancient Faith Ministries. Probably you know all this, since you’re already here, but on Ancient Faith Radio you can find genuine Orthodox teaching and music, both live and in a gazillion podcasts. (The podcasts of Father Tom Hopko – memory eternal! – got me through some really rough spots health-wise last year.) Ancient Faith also has some excellent blogs – had you noticed?! Ancient Faith is a dependable source of authentic Orthodoxy in America, of professional quality, doing a marvelous work of supporting those who are already Orthodox, and of making Orthodoxy accessible in a way non-Orthodox Americans can grasp. Our Antiochian Metropolitan Philip used to proclaim: “Come home, America! Come home to the faith of Peter and Paul!” This is the mission of Ancient Faith Ministries. Please listen! Please read! Please contribute and keep Ancient Faith going!
Next week we begin 3 or 4 weeks of stories on a theme of the May calendar: the First Ecumenical Council and the saints connected with it. 1) Saint Constantine the Great whose feast day is May 21. 2) The Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council commemorated on the Sunday after Ascension, May 28 this year. 3) Saint Athanasios the Great, honored on May 2.