Our parish Prayer Request List is currently, as is often the case, filled with the names of men, women and children who are in some condition of illness, suffering or loss. We have recently been praying for our own beloved parish child, Elias Wendland, who has been in the hospital struggling with pneumonia; and a child in our sister parish in Columbus who appears to have been born with a debilitating or fatal illness. In fact, such prayer lists are by nature a sustained chronicle of the kind of human suffering and misery we pray and hope to avoid. As we pray to God for relief and recovery from these flesh-and-blood manifestations of our "human condition," we fulfill a ministry that all Christians need to embrace with seriousness. Our part is to hold these persons before God in prayer. The results we leave up to God. It is only human to pray with greater intensity when a particular person in need of prayer is close to us. But we need to pray for everyone who is on our "list" as the names come to us. That is one of our roles as the "people of God" who are aware of living in a fallen world that has yet been redeemed by Christ.
I am not going to embark on a meditation concerning God's mercy, justice, and love in the face of human suffering: the question of "theodicy" as it is often called. That will always remain a mystery. However, we should always bear in mind that the New Testament makes no promise of a life free of precisely the kind of human suffering we are speaking about here. There is no "bargain" or "deal" with God, that in return for our faith and belief in Christ, we will be given a long, peaceful and prosperous life! That fantasy may exist in the minds of TV evangelists and "name it and claim it" preachers, but it is not in the Scriptures. Christians with a mature faith know better. (We of course believe in the possibility of "miraculous" recovery, and have countless instances of such healing throughout the Church's long history. In fact, the Sacrament of Anointing is based on our openness to just such a possibility. But that is a different issue.) Jesus Christ suffered and died on the Cross. His resurrection from the dead transformed that suffering into a passage that leads to a glorified life with God. As the Lord, He is the "first-fruits" of that promised resurrection and glorified life. That is the hope of Christians in the face of suffering and death, both of which are absolutely inevitable. And that is a hope that unbelievers cannot share regardless of how "optimistic" they may be about life - in my humble opinion, a very unconvincing optimism. That hope may be realized here and now in the recovery that we pray for, or it may have to patiently await its eschatological fulfillment at the end of time.
To move this reflection from the general to the particular, I would like to bring up a recent experience. In a prayer request submitted by Presvytera Deborah just last week, I read the following: "Please pray for Juana, a young beggar girl we encountered in Antigua who has no hands or feet. Pressing on my heart." I would like to further provide a bit of background about our short and unsettling encounter with this little girl. Our Mission Team made a trip to Antigua toward the end of our recent stay in Guatemala, after visiting the monastery of the Holy Trinity and celebrating the Liturgy there with Madres Ines and Maria. Antigua is a very old Guatemalan city popular with visitors and tourists. This is a typical one-day excursion for most Mission Teams - an opportunity to "wind down" and relax a bit after a week or more of work at the Hogar. It is a kindness organized by the Hogar which also provides the transportation in the person of Jorge, brother of Madre Ivonne and indefatigable Mission Team coordinator - a wonderful and good-hearted man. As is our "tradition" on our many parish teams, we visit one of the many fine restaurants in Antigua for a group meal together. This year we took eight of the senoritas with us so that we could treat them to a meal and some shopping.
While in the restaurant I noticed an obviously poor young girl enter carrying a large purse. She may have been ten years old or so. Sadly, I noticed that her one arm was missing from just below the elbow, but she managed to hold up the purse at her elbow joint. A fuller glance revealed that both arms were missing at about the same point. It then became clear that the girl entered the restaurant in order to "beg," as she began to move from table to table with a rather awkward gait. (During her time in the restaurant, someone also noticed that she walked in a peculiar manner because she obviously had no feet. There was only a rather primitive contraption at the end of each leg, resembling a shoe, that helped her maintain her balance). The way the patrons were reacting told me that this was not so unusual of a sight. Reflect for a moment on how the management in one of our nicer restaurants here would "protect" their patrons from such an encounter! For all we knew, that same girl may have come to this restaurant often to seek alms, and I appreciated that possibility. It seems much more organic and honest, perhaps even breaking down some of the usual social stratification that we are so accustomed to. Yet, since our social and cultural setting does shelter us from such encounters, it proved to be unsettling for everyone, I believe, as mentioned above. It was impossible not to feel great pity for this girl.
Unfortunately, though, it appeared from my perspective that she was not being very successful that day. Christ taught us that our left hand should not know what our right hand is doing in terms of almsgiving (MATT. 6:3-4). I do not want to violate the Lord's teaching, but I do not want you to think that we also ignored this poor little girl's request for assistance as others may have been doing. We called her over and put something in her purse. Presvytera asked her "what is your name?" and she answered with a very warm and friendly smile, "Juana." That smile alone rendered rather meaningless and empty a great deal of our "talk" about the "quality of life." With that same smile on her face, she turned and left the restaurant. We will probably never see Juana again - or perhaps on our next Mission Team visit to Antigua? Be that as it may, she left an indelible and haunting image that will be hard to forget. Hence, she is now a unique person and child of God not forgotten in our prayer.
Such is the world we live in for countless human beings, including children. Juana is representative of the flawed and fallen world we inhabit. Think, just for a moment, of her future. Yet she, and the world as it is, are the "object" of God's continuing love. That love - incarnate in Christ - does not make suffering disappear, but it has transformed its meaning. Christians have to now incarnate that love in their care for others, making Christ present in a tangible manner whenever called upon to do so. That may be the most convincing "proof" of Christ's presence among us as a living reality, and not just as an ideal from the past.
Fr. Steven C. Kostoff is the parish rector of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, OH. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he teaches in the theology department.