My Dearest Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Bless! The Lord!
Last Sunday the Gospel reading was about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and a central theme in that story was that wonderful word “Patience.” The Father of that Prodigal Son was in fact an icon of patience. Often we think that patience is a minor virtue that we could do better in the undetermined future, rather than a critical part of our salvation. The Lord says, “In your patience, possess ye your souls.” so here we see that this is not peripheral, but necessary, and not an optional future event, but one that must be very present and focused in our daily spiritual life.
Every day circumstances arise that try our patience. We are often rushing to avoid being late, the traffic gets busy, our co-workers get distracted or are in a hurry, and many unexpected things arise regularly to disrupt the tiny straw-bossing efforts we have to control the Universe! It is way too big a job for little people like us. Thanks be to God. The trouble is getting away from the gut reaction of impatience that happens when we don’t like what is happening to interfere with our plans. When we see it more deeply, it turns out (and this takes better eyesight than natural thinking provides) that often there is wisdom and humility buried inside the delay, distraction, disruption, and rearrangement.
In 1998 I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and visit with a most special man that lived on a little island called Zalit near Pskov in Russia when I was on pilgrimage there. Staretz Nikolai was considered an elder or staretz of All-Russia and was renown among the monasteries and laymen. I remember this visit vividly. After a long taxi ride from the Monastery of Pechora Pechersky we arrived at a boat landing that took our little group of five to the island. Going up the dirt road towards his house, we finally came up to the green wooden gate, and as we turned in we saw a striking tall and stately old man who stood up inside the courtyard by his little green house and began to sing to us in Russian. As we came forwards to meet him it was like finding your dearest relative that you never met, but somehow knew in your inmost heart. This was Father Nikolai.
It was a memorable talk with many details that still are amazingly present to me, but there was one thing that this blessed man told me that relates to patience. He quoted a Russian proverb that didn’t make much sense to me at the time. It translated “If you go slower, you will get further.” Later I realized that leaning into the future robs you of being attentive in the present tense, and then this saying meant more to me. I am still trying to remember to apply this in my life. Even though I have seen this work again and again, I still forget it almost daily. It is hard to live wholly in the present, and it is in the present tense only that repentance begins and is fulfilled.
Even today I thank this little angel (he has gone on to be with God more directly in 2002 when he died in Christ) for his love towards each of us, and for his own struggles with patience which he obviously knew to teach us from his own experience. His falling asleep in Christ was a spiritual event and thousands of people came to be at his funeral. But death cannot separate us from those who live with Christ, it just makes them closer. What I realized much later was that underneath all anger, impatience, and much frustration are simple mistaken assumptions about what “should” happen. If we are willing to revise our expectations to God’s Providence in what is happening, the anger, impatience, and frustration goes away. Instead of being a victim, we can be a willing participant in providence and find the peace that passes all understanding.
We have had many opportunities to seek consolation this winter from our expectations being changed. Record snows in December blanketed much of the landscape and buildings, and even with a very dry first half of February, the overall snow cover this year may reach even last year’s record snows. Three of our buildings' furnaces failed temporarily causing damage to water pipes and sewer lines. Three other buildings had their sewer connections freeze. A neighbor told us that he found a seven foot frost line in his basement, a full 32” lower than the normal winter frost line of 52”. Our two guest facilities were out of commission for four weeks until we could get them up and running. Thankfully they were fixed just in time for the incoming guests last weekend who filled all of the rooms in both locations. Actually the fixes included longer term problems in the water systems that needed attention anyway, and we also ended up with a new floor in one of those bathrooms.
Bridge leading to Skete valley
St. Nicholas Church - Winter '09
We almost ran out of wood for our wood furnace for the Common Monastic Building, but spent a day with some extra helpers to put up what we hope will get us to the end of the year with five more large truckloads of wood cut, split, and stacked. Eight hundred cubic feet of snow had to come off of the Common Monastic Building just the week before as there was a short warm up that could have repeated the ice-damming damage from a year ago. We had to hire a front end loader to move the massive amount of snow that we had brought down from the roof by monastic work. Short term, these winter woes were a problem, but in the long term these were a solution.
We are thankful for these fixes just in these days as we have a series of guest programs scheduled for this Great Lenten Season which began last weekend. Some are just the feasts of the season, but there is a group of students and professors from Iowa universities coming for a day retreat program on February 28, and a fine arts commission from Milwaukee coming with a interested group for a day retreat program on March 21. In addition I am meeting with a group and their priest from a mission church in Chisago, Minnesota, for Pre-Sanctified Liturgy and then a talk session on Friday, March 13, and have been asked to give the Lenten address at a pan-Orthodox Sunday evening Lenten vespers service in Minneapolis/St. Paul on March 29. Our diocese has its annual clergy govenie retreat this year in Chicago on April 1-4, which is always intense and fruitful. With the added Lenten services in length coming up soon and these many other events, it is proving to be a very busy Great Lent even in the planning. Pray that we are patient in how things actually work out.
In the same period of time there is a concerted effort to complete the re-typesetting of the first 42 books of the Orthodox elementary educational pilot school that we ran from 1993 through 2002, graduating one class that we had taken through each of the eight grades. We are hoping to get this finally to the readers for critical review by the middle of March, God willing. Most of the first five grades are done or almost done. We are looking to purchase a binder shortly to expedite this work. This has been a fifteen and a half year dream. With the critical review and much more work afterwards, we hope to have at least a sizeable portion of these materials available by the beginning of the Fall semester of this next year’s school year.
Well, just reviewing all this has tired me out. With patience and a willingness to revise our expectations, may God bring us peace and greater love for Him and for our neighbor this Lenten Season. I want to return for a moment to our last newsletter's theme of generosity in hard economic times. Here we are almost at the beginning of Great Lent with the three traditional legs of the Holy Fast that support increased spiritual life in this Holy Season. First there is prayer, both inward and outward that provides the firm foundation of life with God. This we must pursue with conscious effort or the time of our life will just slip away in busyness. Secondly there is the self-denial of fasting, which also is inward and outward. We fast from food and this gets us to face and fast from our over-abundance of self-opinion and self-rule, and to ultimately avoid the selfishness that underlies all evil. Fasting is to enter a condition that is far more than physical self control. Lastly, there is alms-giving with generosity, which makes us full of mercy. This is the imbibing of blessed love and fullness overflowing towards others. We can do this in many ways, but mostly with a generous and loving heart that seeks to help others.
I would ask again that you seek to reach out to those around you in your community to help--in nursing homes, food pantries, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and even in just kind words to those that you meet in your daily life. This is practical alms-giving that comes from the heart. God sees the heart and warms it with love when it is willing to sacrifice for others. I also ask you to try to save $2 a day and send it to us once a month to help our little Skete keep warm, provide alms-giving to others, give counsel and aid to those in need, open our doors and lives to touch those who come here for spiritual nourishment in retreats and just visiting, and keep the fire of prayer foremost in our lives. This little bit will go a long way this Great Lent to help us help those God sends for solace and love. May the Lord of Sabbaoth, and the Lord of Love drop the dew of His Love into our hearts so we may meet Him gladly on His road to Golgotha.
Keep us in your prayers and love,
Your Brother in Christ,
Father Simeon, Abbot and Archimandrite
and the brotherhood of St. Isaac of Syria Skete
and the sisterhood of St. Silouan’s Convent
and the community of St. Nicholas Church