24. My Travels: 2006, Part One – Saint Nektarios strikes again!

I try to post every Friday; otherwise who knows when I’d get them done. I’m sorry to be a week late with this one, without giving you fair warning. I was just too busy to post. Our Pastor Father David Moga was away at the national Antiochian Archdiocese Convention, so I the retired priest took the regular weekend and weekday services plus the usual behind the scenes work. And then one of our founding members was at the point of death all week, so I spent a lot of time with her and her family at the hospice. She fell asleep in the Lord last Friday morning at age 94. It was a major funeral. She was a delightful, funny, devout, enthusiastic, dedicated Greek-American lady who poured her heart and soul into  Saint Nicholas Church. We all loved her dearly, as did her family and many others in the Milwaukee area whom she affected for the good. This picture tells you everything about her. You can tell I’m grieving; otherwise I wouldn’t be going on like this. Please say a prayer for Vicky. May her memory be eternal.   

Greece again!

Sometimes my wife and I went to Greece together. Sometimes I traveled alone. She could tell I was pining for Greece, and she’d say to me “Go!”, so as an obedient husband of course I went.

Why did I keep going back to Greece? It’s not that I don’t like America and other countries. We have traveled to many place here and elsewhere, sometimes because of Archdiocesan conventions, sometimes not, with gratitude for the time and resources to do it. But in 1985 I fell head over heels in love with Greece, and in Greece I fell in love with Orthodoxy. (See Blog Posts 2 and 3.) And then later Saint Nektarios kept drawing me back. Why is it that certain persons and places and things capture us? We try to give reasons, but ultimately we can’t. It was like when I first met my wife. It just “was” – and still is. So what could I do? I went back to Greece.

Another Visit to Saint Nektarios, and…Wow!

This trip began on Bright Monday, the day after Pascha, which was a crazy time to do it. I was exhausted from Holy Week and about 25 hours of presiding at worship, plus a bunch of confessions. Then I got even more wiped out from a mostly sleepless night flying the Atlantic and from jet lag. So during the first few days of the trip I stared a lot.

First I went to the island of Aegina and Saint Nektarios, and I have another Saint Nektarios story to tell. This time he outdid himself.

I had planned to visit Nektarios my first day in Greece, but my suitcase didn’t arrive when I did, so I spent most of the first day tracking it down. (Lord, have mercy. Now I know why Olympic Airlines went out of business.) So a day late I took the ferry out to Aegina. As always I prayed for my people and their loved ones, lighting many candles for them using the considerable money they had given me for the monastery. A little widow (you can tell because Greek widows dress in black) watches over visitors, usually with a stern look on her face. However, when she saw me trying to stuff a large quantity of Euros in the coin slot, suddenly she got a big smile and practically grabbed the prayer list out of my hands so the nuns could pray over it. They got their money’s worth, more than 400 names! As always the place had a wonderful sense of peace and joy about it. There were many pilgrims and the chapels are small, so I went outside to sit on a bench (with exactly this view) and ponder it all. But nothing unusual had happened. And then…

A gentle woman’s voice beside me on the bench asked, “Are you an American?” I turned and there sat three old friends! Khouria Catherine Heers, her husband Father Gregory, and their son Father Peter. I knew them well from our Episcopalian days together in Wisconsin in the 1970s. I remember Peter when he was little. They turned Orthodox not long after my wife and I did and moved elsewhere, but we’d seen each other occasionally over the years at Archdiocesan Conventions. And there they were beside me sitting in front of Saint Nektarios! The nuns gave us a nice lunch, and we spent the rest of the afternoon together. So… Saint Nektarios definitely did it again!

How does he do it?

For those who are new to this Blog: The events on my first trip to Saint Nektarios (Blog Post 7) seemed too much to be coincidence. What occurred on my second trip (Blog Post 12) and third trip (Blog Post 19) were less convincing in and of themselves, but in light of trip one it felt as if the saint was just reminding me he was still there.

And then came this! I’ve rarely seen anyone at Saint Nektarios who wasn’t Greek (except on my first trip, oddly enough) and never anyone from the United States. And now to find myself sitting there beside good friends! I mean, really, what were the chances? They had to be infinitesimally small.

This caused me to wonder again about God’s mysterious ways, how Saint Nektarios does it. The workings of God and the work of the saints are identical and indistinguishable, of course. Now, if you wish to go with the usual Orthodox answer (“It’s a mystery”) and skip the next paragraphs I’ll take no offense. But at times like this my old scientific training comes at me, and I can’t help trying to figure it out. So…

On trip one, how did God arrange to send that gracious Russian monk to take me to Saint Nektarios? and that Canadian Greek family to give me a ride back to the port? and for me to wander into that particular ice cream shop? On trip two, did he really arrange the Metro and ferries so I could get to Saint Nektarios early, even though I had started late? On trip three, did he alter the natural course of a rainstorm so I could get back to my hotel only minutes before the cloudburst? As a man with a degree in meteorology I find that hard to believe. And this time how could he arrange for the Heers family and me to be at Saint Nektarios at exactly the same time right down to the very hour? Does he really control the mistakes of baggage handlers? But still these strange things kept happening.

Here is one possible explanation. (I believe it came from C.S. Lewis, but I’m not sure.) See what you think.

God writes the “book of history” from eternity, outside our time and space. He knows and sees it all from beginning to end. In one sense he has already “written” it. Does that mean he controls everything? that we have no free will? Not at all. God from eternity writes our choices into the story – somewhat like a human author building his characters’ free will into a novel. Does God violate the “laws of nature” for us? No. Remember, the “laws of nature” are not really laws. Gravity does not have free will. Thank God for that! Otherwise if gravity decided to disobey God, we might find ourselves floating about now and then. The term “laws of nature” is just a way of describing the things God does consistently. Miracles are the times when he does not act consistently. But, to the main point, from outside our time and space God builds both his will and our free will into the Great Story, and shapes it all to achieve his purposes, so that the story has a happy ending. So, yes: from eternity, God working through Saint Nektarios allowed my luggage to be lost and for my friends and me to schedule our travel at the same time, and for us to meet at Saint Nektarios and be flabbergasted.

But this is too easy. This may explain how Saint Nektarios arranges something unimportant like my travel, and that through him God sometimes cures cancer or gives people peaceful deaths. But “God is love”. He “is good and loves mankind.” So if he lets Nektarios give me little surprises, then why doesn’t he write the Story so there is less evil in it? Why doesn’t he alleviate the pain of innocent babies and animals, of refugees, of people suffering because of famine, war and disease – things often caused by human free will, the selfishness and pride and indifference of others, sometimes us. The Story may have a happy ending, but God certainly allows a lot of misery before we get there. I once heard a Protestant bishop from India say he had seen so much horror that were it not for the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ he would be a complete skeptic.

But Christ gave us not an explanation of pain and suffering, only a way through it. What we do know is why there is also so very much good in the world: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” I guess this leaves us where we were before. “It is a mystery.”

So back to my little piece of the Story in 2006. After this trip I wondered: Why is Saint Nektarios doing these little “tricks” for me? Surely one of these times his surprise for me will be No Surprise. But he hadn’t finished yet. More are yet to come, and the climactic one indeed has to do with cancer. Keep reading.

Next Week: Crete – the joy and fun of exploring in Greece 

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