Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all things shall be added unto you.
Our Mission Team recently returned from a visit to the Hogar Ragael Ayau Orphanage in Guatemala City. It was a wonderful trip that accomplished three major goals: 1) a substantial donation of money and materials to keep the orphanage running; 2) a great deal of repair and maintenance on the physical facility; and most important 3) an increasing closeness and loving interaction with the children who live there.
The time we spend with the children of the Hogar is short but leaves a deep impression on the minds and hearts of all team members. As friendships with the children form and deepen, the remark "Is it already time to leave already?' takes on the tone of a lament as the time to depart approaches. The next question is always "Will I be able to return one day?" When the children and Mission Team members line up for the farewell hug on the last day the tears flow.
About half of our team was making their first visit to the Hogar. It was fascinating to hear their first impressions. Many of them describe the Hogar as a "spiritual oasis" for the children.
The Hogar occupies a large square city block completely surrounded by a fifteen-foot high wall. There is a metal gate at the entrance controlled by security guards. It was built in the nineteenth century and today this fortress-like structure protects the children from criminals and other threatening elements of Guatemala City's rough and tough zona 1.
The Hogar is an oasis of normalcy, sanity and basic decency - even something of a paradise for children who come from horrible and hellish backgrounds. The Church helps heal these troubled children. It functions as a childrens' monastery where the children are protected from the outside world to be healed by Christ through the grace-filled life of the Church -- especially through regular participation in the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments).
One day Madre Ivonne (the abbess of Hogar) sent me to anoint all of the children. As I visited the classrooms, nursery, infirmary and other places where the children eagerly lined up for the annointing. Later in the day the younger children approached me with a smile pointing to the exact spot spot on their foreheads where they were anointed.
Turning our attention beyond the enclosed space of the Hogar for the moment, or perhaps using it as a model, I would say that the image of a "spiritual oasis" can equally and as effectively describe the role of our parishes in today's world. In other words, our Orthodox Christian parishes can be experienced as spiritual oases within the superficial and spiritually-barren environment that threatens to reduce our moral, ethical, social and spiritual surroundings to something of a cultural "wasteland."
Now, if that sounds too "negative" or bombastic - or simply like too much of a religiously-driven cliche - I would suggest taking a good, hard look at what is being offered as "food and drink" to our souls today. The non-nutritional fare of those over-sized "food courts" within our mega-malls that pass for "dining areas" today, only serves as representative of the less tangible, seemingly more cerebral, but equally toxic fare that is served up smilingly for our interior consumption. We may be temporarily entertained or distracted, but our minds and hearts will remain famished and hungering for something "other."
That "other" is present in our parishes like "a fertile spot in a desert where water rises." This is the living water of the Gospel. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman:
"Every one who drinks of this water will thrist again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (JN. 4:13-14)
The parish as a liturgical, scriptural, spiritual, artistic and social center is the sacred space of Christ's presence. It is where we are able to "worship the Father in spirit and truth." (JN. 4:23)That is its essential purpose for existence. It is where we abandon the superficial for the profound and the ephemeral for the eternal. The parish is an "oasis" of normalcy, sanity and basic decency in a world which has comfortably lost its sense of God. (I recall Fr. Thomas Hopko once saying that the Church is the place where you can maintain your sanity). To enter the church is not only to shut out the world, but also to enter into a foretaste of the Kingdom. The temple as a visible reminder of the Transcendent God is a challenge to the world's thorough secularization, if not godlessness. Every trip to the church reaffirms our witness to that truth.
It's puzzling why many of our parishes remain relatively empty during the week. And that the week's "activities" do not have much of an impact on the over-all life of the parish - from Feast Days, to weekday Vespers, to parish Bible Studies. There is something more at work here than "busy schedules" and tired bodies. Are we being seduced by the world and thus reduced to the level of a "consumer" to the point where the church is just not that attractive? More bluntly: is it the church which appears as a "desert" to us while some other enticement seems like the "oasis?" Sounds like a mirage to me! Are our human resources of time and energy being spent elsewhere? Are we convinced that we are just fine with a Sunday-to-Sunday approach to our parish commitment? The image I use for this is the Church as "filling station." We "filll up" on Sunday and hope and pray that that will carry us through to next Sunday's "fill up!" The Eucharist, of course, can have that kind of effect for us, but why ignore the waters of our spiritual oasis when they are being offered at other times?
I have moved from the Hogar to the parish in this Meditation. Perhaps the experience of the one has led me to a greater appreciation of the other in our midst. Be that as it may, I am certain as to where Christ would direct anyone with the same question of the Samaritan woman: "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw." (JN. 4:15)Fr. Steven C. Kostoff is pastor of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Norwood, Ohio.