Come Away to A Quiet Place

Story by Kh. Barbara Sorensen

Flying into Pittsburgh, I was anxiously anticipating what experiences I might find ahead of me. How will I converse with these holy sisters in Christ? How will I open my eyes to see and my heart to accept the eternal lessons that might lie ahead?

I had several reasons to visit the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration. I had hoped to find my dear friend and former All Saints member, novice Sister Mary, acclimated to and comfortable with the monastic life she had recently chosen. I wanted to interview some of the nuns to gain a deeper understanding of their lives and write about them. And I desperately needed a “peaceful rest for my soul, away from the busy-ness of the world” as I had read in the monastery brochure.

A visit to the monastery can provide a peaceful rest for your soul,
an opportunity to get away from the busy-ness of the world
and a time to experience God’s presence and guidance.
We hope that you will plan to visit us.
(Monastery Brochure)

Smiling Sister Mary met me at the airport on a bit of a dreary, drizzly day. No matter, the warmth of being reunited with a dear friend in Christ shone brighter than the gloomy day. (I must admit that at first it was quite strange seeing Sister Mary in her all black garb for the first time, but she appeared to be comfortable, putting me at ease.)

Driving with Sister Mary into Ellwood City, 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, I saw a small town reminiscent of other small Pennsylvania towns with which I was familiar. As we drove along some winding two-lane roads, I marveled at the green, lush foliage and lovely spring flowers — dogwoods, lilies of the valley, and luscious lilacs. They brought back many fond memories of living in Western Maryland as a young girl. Already my soul was being refreshed!

Turning left at the stone sign that signified the Monastery grounds, we slowly followed the path while Sister Mary pointed out sights that I knew I must capture and carry back in my mind’s eye. On the right was the cemetery where we would find Mother Alexandra, (formerly Princess Ileana of Romania) founder of the monastery. On the left was one of the guesthouses, St. Macrina’s, and an outdoor pavilion for worship. On the right was the gazebo where folks gathered to eat and hold meetings outdoors. Across the way was the main building which housed the chapel, refractory, library, bookstore, hospitality room, and the cloister, housing the sisterhood. Then at the end of the path near the woods was St. Bridget’s guesthouse, my home for the long weekend. (Later when I met Mother Barbara, she invited me to make a “nest” for myself there and relax, which I readily did!)

Chapel Iconography

Upon entering the chapel, I stood in awe of the magnificent iconography—“Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us”

(Hebrews 12:1). As I soaked in the holy space, it felt as if layer upon layer of accumulated weight fell away. I was feeling lighter. Simply standing in the presence of Our Risen Lord, His blessed Mother and all the saints was awesome beyond words.

Of particular importance in the narthex was the Healing Corner. Housed in this corner are icons of saints who have been known to heal, various oils, prayers, and lists of dear ones suffering from assorted ailments. I felt compelled to visit that corner often during my stay and pray for family and friends who are suffering.

Another very powerful point of interest in the narthex was the reliquary where relics of many saints have been housed and venerated. This has been a great source of blessing and comfort for the monastics as well as for visiting pilgrims.

Dining in the refractory with the Mothers, Sisters and guests, we sensed our oneness in Christ as together we sang, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”.

Abbess Mother Christophora blessed the food, invited us to take our seats, and encouraged us to enjoy our lunch together. Though a fasting day, Mother Galina whipped up a fabulously tasty Chinese dish.

Daily Prayers and Worship

The cycle of prayers and liturgy uplifted us to the heavens. The Friday night Akathist to the Blessed Theotokos on behalf of our youth was very moving. As Mother Christophora read the Akathist, each of us silently prayed from prayer lists—sick children, young soldiers, struggling teens, tiny infants—each mentioned by name. I was reminded of our Lord’s words: “let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of heaven”

(Matt. 19:14).

A unique situation occurred on Saturday night. Fr. Thomas Hopko who typically serves the Vigil was out of town. Therefore, the nuns just kept joyfully singing the Paschal celebration. It felt like Pascha Sunday all over again! Wanting to stay in the moment, I took in the sights of beautiful flowers adorning the icons, the sounds of angelic voices, the smell of incense wafting as Sister Martha passed by with the incenser.

Sunday Liturgy felt like and sounded like worship in our parish. I felt like I was at home with family. I noticed as guests arrived, Mother Christophora noted who they were and later sang the Paschal hymn in their language. I felt sure those guests felt at home, too.

Thank God, I got up early on Monday morning at 6:30 am to pray Matins and the Hours. Most guests had left for home so it was very quiet. Such a peaceful time of prayer, a great parting memory for my return to Raleigh!

As I drove away from the beautifully serene grounds, renewed in body and soul, I prayed I would carry the spirit of this holy place in my heart and share it with others.

A Day in the Life . . .

All of the Mothers and sisters have obediences (or duties) that they must perform throughout the day. It’s hard work keeping the monastery running smoothly — tending the beautiful gardens, maintaining the bookstore, preparing the meals, doing the dishes, keeping up with the paperwork, just to name a few tasks. While all the nuns perform their assigned obediences as part of their worship life, their lives are punctuated with corporate morning and evening prayers. In addition, each has her own personal prayer rule. These prayers are prayed in their individual cells.

Although praying daily for the world is their primary ministry, their second essential ministry is hospitality. Food and shelter for the body, comfort and prayers for the soul are provided for visiting pilgrims, both orthodox and non-orthodox. The annual pilgrimage on their feast day, August 6, brings hundreds to celebrate. Yet the one needy soul who shows up at the door is warmly greeted, as well.

Words of Wisdom

It was my privilege and blessing to have the opportunity to interview Mother Christophora and a few of the nuns. The following gems of wisdom were graciously shared in response to a couple of questions that I posed:

Abbess Mother Christophora’s Message to the World

Man is made in the image and likeness of God and is capable of knowing God, even being like God through grace. We can come to know life beyond daily experience of material things. We can know we have eternal life, which begins here on earth. We can be in communion with God every moment of our lives–in every detail of life, of our responsibilities, our relationships with others, every task we do whether at work, at home or in church. We can feel God’s presence with us at all times and in every place. We can learn to speak to Him on the altar of our hearts, whether alone or with others. God is real. He reveals Himself to us, and He wants us to know Him. Knowing Him is different from knowing about him. We can learn about God by reading books; but we come to know Him through prayer, silence, and through relationships with others, through nature, art and beauty… even through noise, especially of children.

Mother Christophora’s Message to the Parish

We are members of Christ. St. Paul says the Church is the Body of Christ, and we all are members with different responsibilities. Each responsibility is important and needed and is not to be neglected. Some are called to serve in church, even in the altar, while others sing or read during the divine services. Yet they are not the only ones that make up the church, nor should they be considered more important than the other members.

All of us gather together to serve the Holy Liturgy–the old, the young, the infirmed, the healthy — everyone serves the Liturgy together. In the Orthodox Church the priest is not allowed to serve the Liturgy alone with no one else in church.

Besides serving the Liturgy all members, also, have to care for the material side of the church. When Jesus Christ, Son of God, took on human flesh, He saved our life in the world and all material things. He blessed His Church, His body, to encompass material aspects so all care of the physical structure of the church, and its social extensions, are blessed by Christ. So if we clean the church or the parish hall, empty the trash, order the candles, make the coffee, teach a Sunday school class—all are part of serving the Liturgy. Even our personal preparation of prayers on Saturday and Sunday, choosing clothing, polishing our shoes — all are part of the Liturgy.

Mother Magdalena (a nun for 17 years)

“When you need a sign from God, ask. Then make a promise to follow it.” These words guided her when she told God she needed an answer “in her hand” to show her whether to follow the monastic way of life. The answer came by mail when a monk wrote to her stating, “For you, monasticism.”

She followed.

Mother Karitina (a nun for 23 years)

Her message for parishioners: “Listen to the prayers of the priest. Listen to the Epistle. Listen to the Gospel. Don’t fret if you can’t recall the readings because the Holy Spirit will give you Grace by merely being in the presence of these words.”
“Have a prayer rule. Make it small and stick to it in sickness and health.”
“Talk to God about everything and anything, silently. He will teach you.”
“If you are interested in the monastic life, first practice obedience without murmuring to whomever is close to you. See how that works. How many good or bad feelings are created in your heart? Then come and see.”

Sister Mary (novice)

“The monastic life is not about giving up the world. We limit contact with the world, but when we do it’s with the purpose of embracing the world in prayer. Orthodoxy is new in our country so it is important for us to pray that people are open to the monastic life. The gain is so much greater than anything given up. If you are called to serve and be in the world, though, then do so in the spirit of peace knowing God is in control.”

Mother Elizabeth (oldest in the sisterhood)

“Thank you for the visit. Your coming to see Sister Mary reminds me that …goodness and mercy shall follow her all the days of her life and she shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Want to Visit the Monastery?

1. First, seek a blessing to visit from Father Nicholas

2. Contact the monastery (724-758-4002 or and ask if you may come for a visit. Have some possible dates in mind. (Note: They get very busy during the summer months.)

3. When you call, ask to speak with Mother Barbara. She keeps the guest schedule and will know what’s available.

4. If you plan to fly, Pittsburgh is your destination. Ask Mother Barbara if there is anyone available to pick you up at the airport.

5. While there is no fee to stay in the guesthouses, a donation is acceptable.

6. You are not required to attend all the services that are available, though you will want to attend at least some.

7. There is no special dress code. You may dress comfortably, yet modestly.

8. If you want to take a gift, the nuns enjoy sweets!

9. Feel free to contact me with any additional questions:

An Orthodox in India

Story by Mihai Oara

Most people think about India as a subcontinent with one billion people, as the land of such major world religions as Hinduism and Buddhism and more recently as the new outsourcing destination for the whole world. Evangelicals may think about India as a mission ground, where some of the pioneers of protestant missions as John Carey have struggled to bring the Gospel to the Indian masses. Orthodox Christians know that India is also the land where Apostle Thomas went after the disciples were dispersed from Jerusalem. The one who once doubted the resurrection, went to proclaim it and died as a martyr in the place where today stands the city of Chennai, formerly known as Madras. In December 2007, as I took my seventh business trip to India, Chennai was my primary destination.
I left Washington DC in the evening, on a Qatar Airlines flight to Doha, Qatar. As the lights of a super-civilized Washington were left behind, the plane, an Airbus 340, crossed Maryland and followed the American east coast above New York and Boston. After three hours the lights of the great North American population centers were left behind and I knew I was flying above the Canadian wilderness and into the night over the Atlantic. The sun appeared to the east when we crossed Ireland and England. Europe was covered with clouds and I could not see, as many times before, the beauty and majesty of the Alps. I flew over my country of origin, Romania, and I knew that at a certain point I was just a few miles from my hometown of Alba Iulia, where my 82 years old mother was praying for me in the very house where I grew up and lived for 18 years. The clouds dispersed above Turkey, and the ground was clearly visible above Syria. I could only see roads crisscrossing a barren land; maybe one of them was where Apostle Paul had his encounter with Christ, on his way to Damascus. Soon I was flying above the desert of Saudi Arabia and after fourteen hours of flight the plane started to descend, made a large turn over the Persian Gulf and landed in Doha.
As we landed, I could get a glimpse of Doha, a modern city washed in oil money. The airport in Doha is very nice, more modern then many of the American airports through which I have traveled before. It is filled with western shops, western restaurants and a few Mercedeses and BMWs on display for the rich Arabs looking for ways to use their newfound riches. After two hours, as I was embarking on the flight to Chennai, I knew that I will arrive to very different place, where poverty and riches mix in an unique way…
Arriving at night in Chennai, the western traveler feels the smells of the East, strange odors mixed with the fragrance of exotic fruits. The heat and humidity of the day lingers long into the night, even in the middle of the winter. In the absence of efficient public transportation, the western traveler relies on the car and driver usually sent by the hotel to pick him up from the airport. During the 30 or 45 minutes trip, at two o’clock in the morning one can see peasants summarily dressed pulling charts stacked with fruits. Even at night Chennai is full of color and activity and one can easily anticipate the explosion of life that comes with the day. Once the traveler enters the hotel, he finds a completely different world. The hotel is luxurious and magnificent and it caters to every need of the guest. While the streets are filled with poor and emaciated people, the hotel pulls back no expense to make the American or European traveler feel comfortable.
When I arriver for the first time in India in, August 2000, I was assaulted by beggars in the parking lot of the airport in Calcutta. It was a mixture of sick people, children and mothers with babies in their arms. I tried to behave like a good Christian, giving away the few dollar bills that I had with me. I run out of these while a larger crowd was forming around me and I had to gently push my way to the car. For the few poor that got something, there were ten others left behind. I remembered the words of Christ, “the poor you always have with you.” I found that here in India good intentions run against the practical considerations. While I was getting in the car with a sense of embarrassment, the driver was shouting at them to clear out and make space so we could leave.
Here in the United States we think about the poor in terms of a one or two people that stand out in the middle of a well-to-do crowd. Giving alms to the poor is thus simple and easy to accomplish. In India it’s different. You can only start to sense the size of humanity that lives in poverty when you see the large crowds sitting or walking on the streets. What can you do for them? You are usually in a clean, modern car, safely isolated from that sea of humanity in which one subsists for a few dollars a day. Even with the best intentions, what can you do? When a sixteen year old girl with a baby in her arms smiles at you and extends her hand asking for money, the driver looks very nervous if you open the window to hand her something. You scramble through your pockets hoping to find something before the street light changes from red to green. You may give her a few rupees, but there are thousands others that you see on the same street, and your rupees make no dent in the general poverty.
How do you react to this? One may think, “thank God I am not like them,” or “now I really feel rich and superior.” One may feel guilty for not doing more. One may pray also for the poor. Not being able to do more is in a way a humbling experience. As a limited person you should try to occasionally help at least the few whom God has physically brought closer to you. Since independence, Indian governments have tried to fight poverty in various ways. They took practical approaches, which worked slowly, but with some visible progress. There are hospitals and schools for the poor and there are strict laws against the caste system, which for previous centuries or millennia has pushed the poor behind a barrier that they could not cross. There is still a lot of indifference, part of it because of normal human nature, part because many have became immune at the spectacle of huge masses of poor people.
In this land of great poverty and great richness one may find suffering and indifference to suffering. One may also find that certain moral values are more prevalent that in the West.
Such is the case with the sexual mores. True, there is prostitution in India and an alarming spread of AIDS, which the government fights by various means. On the other hand, the westerner is surprised by the modesty of dress and the general negative attitude towards sexual immorality. Divorce is almost inconceivable and perhaps confined to the westernized Indians. The movies are not allowed to show sexual situations, the actors are not even allowed to kiss on the screen. In the typical Indian movie, a young unmarried man falls in love with a young unmarried woman, fights family and circumstances, and when he marries her the camera does not invade their physical intimacy. Marital infidelity is rarely portrayed or alluded to and unlike in western movies, it is greatly disapproved.
While in the West we challenge authority, Indians respect it. There is place for both attitudes. Jesus rebuked the corruption of the religious leaders of His day, and at the same time told us to give Cesar what is Cesar’s. I think that the tendency for total rejection of any authority is an unfortunate trait of the Western culture. Indians tend to respect both the person and his office. Some think that this may be counterproductive in some circumstances. As the outsourcing industry has exploded in India, some Western companies find to their delight that Indian employees always do what they are told. They tend to agree with and to execute every order, even those that are obviously wrong. I’ve seen the difference in outsourcing between the Russian engineers and the Indian engineers. The Indian engineer will say, “Yes, I will do it” if it is good or bed, while the Russian engineer will say, “Wait a minute, there is a better solution,” even when the Western client is annoyed being challenged.
The same humility is apparent also at a personal level. I had the privilege to participate in a business meeting with one of the founders of a multi-billion Indian company that employs over 50,000 people, most of them software engineers. I was impressed by his simplicity and humility. He was soft-spoken, to the point that he looked timid. One of my American colleagues praised him: “You must be proud of what you have accomplished. You not only created a great company, but also pushed your city and your country to a new level of prosperity and civilization.” He gently brushed it off, without false humility, saying, “I believe you exaggerate a little,” then he changed the subject. I immediately imagined how his American equivalent would have lunched in a self-aggrandizing speech about his great vision for even greater successes. The joke about Larry Ellison, the CEO and founder of Oracle in United States is that he is different from God, in that while God does not think that He is Larry Ellison, Larry Ellison thinks that he is God.
Many Indians are also religious. They are not aggressive, but at the same time not shy about it, unlike in the West, where we generally feel that it is wrong to display any religious signs in the public life. As an Orthodox Christian, I noticed some of the physical aspects of the Hindu religion, which thus involves the whole person not just the mind.
In the middle of my week in Chennai, my driver changed his clothes from the Western to the Indian/Hindu style. He did not wear shoes any more. As I asked, He explained to me that he is entering a fasting period, with significant restrictions on food and clothing. This was to last for about a month and conclude with a week in which he will withdraw somewhere in a hilly area in the South, for a time of prayer and meditation. I could not avoid the comparison to our Orthodox Lent, and while he drove me through the crowded streets of Chennai, I took advantage of this subject to describe to him what we Orthodox Christians believe and do. He was a little surprised at the similarities, as he previously thought that Christianity is just a religion of the heart, that knows little about consistent prayer and fasting.
I recognized man’s need to break the rhythm of everyday life in order to seek God and seeing how serious he was, I felt ashamed for those times when I approached Lent superficially and mechanically. Lent should be more then “not allowed to eat this, but you can eat this.” Just as religious Indians try to occasionally isolate themselves from the tumult of life, we Orthodox Christians also have a great tradition in this respect, which we should fully pursue. The Desert Fathers have shown us that it can be done to highest level and in the Church we learn how to do it al least according to our abilities and circumstances.
During one visit to a client I saw on his office wall a large image, strikingly similar to an Orthodox icon. I asked him what it was, and he answered that it was a representation of an avatar of the Hindu god Krishna. Like the saints in our Orthodox icons, Krishna looked pensive and totally disconnected from the miseries of earthly live. The background of the image was like gold and he had a hallo around his head.
As a Christian, I know that Krishna is not a true god. In fact, the Hindu gods are actually improperly called gods, as they are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. They have the same essence as the humans, only in a higher state of refinement, being detached from the passions of life. In that respect they are more similar to the saints then to God Himself. However, while the saints whom we venerate were real historical people, and Christ Himself took a human nature and lived in the days of Pontius Pilate, the Hindu gods are legendary characters, without a precise anchor in history. Images of Krishna, as that which I saw on the office wall seem to suggest that the same essence as that of humans can become purified and radiant. We also believe that human nature can be purified and penetrated by God’s energies. Our icons are testimonies that man can become like God, not by nature, but by grace. Such images are speaking about the desire of the human heart to rise at a higher level of existence, fulfilling its true destiny.
Not all Hindu images are beautiful. I saw from outside Hindu temples in the middle of the city, with a great number of ornaments and statues of avatars of various Hindu gods. Unfortunately, they do not always express majesty and generosity. Some of them seem to speak of evil and destruction. This is one place where the Hindu religion and our Orthodox faith part ways. We have different goals and we have different ways to get there.
I was never a specialist in Hindu religion, nor have I studied it systematically. I had the opportunity to learn a couple of things about it in the past, as for instance when as a teenager I was reading Bhagavad Gita. I have also learned a lot during my business travels to India. The Hindu religion is one of the oldest in the world and it has a considerable volume of ancient writings. It is very complex, with many branches, books and teachers. Unlike the Christian Church, it does not have any systematic organization; it has no hierarchies and any form of central authority.
As many world religions, it is a mixture of deep ideas and false concepts, of glimpses in the nature of man and universe mixed with sometimes naïve ideas. It is a human attempt to answer man’s desire for what is pure and divine. As an Orthodox Christian I can see where it falls short in this attempt.
Bhagavad Gita is an epic poem that exposes many of the ideas of Hinduism. Prince Arjuna is about to go to battle and feels hesitant because he will have to fight some of his own relatives, friends and teachers. He has a discussion with his charioteer and guide, the god Krishna, who gives him a vision about the universe and advises him to pursue the battle, but detached from the feelings he had at that point. Krishna’s discourse describes some of the central ideas of the Hindu religion.
In Hinduism there is no personal god. The ultimate essence of the universe is Atman, from which all souls derive. Atman is infinite, eternal and impersonal. But how can something impersonal be self-subsistent? If there is sense to existence, how can this sense derive from something without a reason and a goal in itself?
According to Hinduism, the souls have their origin in Atman, they are Atman. Their misfortune is to get entangled in the world, with its miseries and passions. There is a kind of salvation in Hinduism, through disentanglement from the passions of the world. One may see the parallels with the Orthodox spirituality, at least in that we believe that we need to detach ourselves from passions and from the world, even if physically we remain here. The question is, to what end? In Hinduism the believer is hoping that through some series of incarnations – which are otherwise inevitable – he can slowly detach himself from the cycles of the world and advance towards a pure state, a Nirvana. Here I believe that the Hindu religion falls short of man’s desire to fulfill his human nature, which inevitable involves relationships with others. To reach his full humanity, man needs to love and live in community with man and God. This need to love and be loved is not addressed in Hinduism, which promotes a stoicism without real hope.
One of the most important pronouncements of Krishna in Bhagavad Gita is that one must plant a tree without expecting its fruit. The idea of a selfless good deed is beautiful, but again it falls short of human nature as created by God. In the Christian faith the same metaphor would be different: we would say, plant a tree, and hope for its fruit, knowing that in God’s economy every good deed will make you and the world better. Do not hold to it, but hope, knowing that God, the Lover of Mankind will make it good for you. A Personal God gives you the seed, you, His child plant it, then God makes it grow and gives the fruit back to you, and you can in turn give it back to Him or to others, in an unending cycle of faith, hope and love.
One “technique” on the way to salvation is meditation. There is however a difference between Hindu and Christian meditation. Transcendental meditation, for example, attempts to eliminate any content in order to achieve an empty mind. A Christian may meditate on the law of God, as he is told in Psalm 1, or can contemplate the beauty of the Creation, which ultimately leads him back to a Personal God. I admired an Indian acquaintance that sometimes in the middle of work suddenly withdrew to perform his meditations. It just happened that this person was egotistical and self-centered (and I’m not claiming that all Hindus are the same). Christian meditation should bring us closer to God, should fill us with His love and help restore His likeness in us. This hard stoicism that attempts to disentangle man from desires without offering a real hope helped preserve the castes system in India and the poverty that comes with it. The rich are not taught to give or to show compassion, while the poor are taught to simply accept their part in life. In the West we have learned to forever fight for our rights, in India people have learned to take it as it is. The Apostle Paul strikes the right balance: “Art thou called a servant? Care not for it: but if thou may be made free, use it rather.” True Christianity promotes freedom and compassion, but neither violent revolution, nor fatalism.
There are also Christians in India. They are not just Evangelicals or Protestants or Catholics converted by the Western missionaries over the last centuries, but also of an older lineage, coming all the way from Apostle Thomas. These descendants from Thomas are spread mostly in the South and are unfortunately separated in a number of denominations. Some were folded in the Catholic Church, which during the papacy of John Paul II tried to bring as many oriental Christians into its arms. Unfortunately I am not aware of any significant Orthodox Christians in communion with the canonical Orthodox Churches.
Not being able to find an Orthodox Church in Chennai, on Sunday I went to the Catholic mass at the famous Santhome church. On its web site, I found written that “… in the whole world, there are only three churches built over the tomb of an Apostle of Jesus Christ – the Basilica of Saint Peter built over the tomb of St. Peter in Rome, Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela built over the tomb of St. James in Spain and Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Thomas built over the tomb of St. Thomas.”
I enjoyed finding a Christian island in the Hindu sea. The church is not very large, at least not like the European cathedrals, and it can accommodate about 500 people at one service. On Sunday morning there are three services and the church is filled at each one of them. Next to the church itself there is a Catholic school and a museum with relics. I joined the congregation in singing and watched the whole mass, without participating myself to the Eucharist. I was also a little disappointed. I expected a more traditional Catholic service, but I found it to rather resemble an Evangelical one, maybe with the exception of the Eucharist and the priest’s vestments. I recognized some of the hymns from the Evangelical churches I used to attend before becoming Orthodox.
Later my driver took me to a place where he heard that there might be an Orthodox Church. I found something, but not what I hoped. It was an old Armenian church, perhaps built by Armenian merchants a hundred years ago. It was in repairs; there was no service and there were no people around.
India prides itself as a country of religious tolerance. The three main religions, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity generally coexist without problems. The Muslims are concentrated in the North, the Christians on the two coasts and in some large cities, while the Hindus are everywhere. From time to time some small religious conflict flares in violence, particularly between Hindus and Muslims. Knowing the gentle style of the Hindus, I personally tend to blame just one of the two sides. There is little antagonism to Christianity, and if there is it could be explained mostly by the bad memories of the colonial era.
I saw once an interesting scene in Bangalore. I was at the third floor of a modern building, looking through the window towards a busy street. I saw three women in vestments, with their heads covered coming from one direction, and three others in somehow similar vestments but of different colors, coming from the opposite direction. Soon they passed next to each other, without recognizing one another. I asked one of the Indian engineers who was next to me who these women may be. He told me that in one group there were Muslim women, in the other Catholic nuns. I immediately thought about it as a beautiful picture of different religions being able to live together in peace.
Without having any practical ideas, but I know that the Orthodox faith would be an answer to the Indian search for God. Our faith shows the way to “disentanglement from passions” sought by the Hindus. To the Hindu temples where people enter to worship the images of their gods in the middle of the day we can offer Orthodox churches in which one can venerate the saints and worship Christ in front of the icons. They use fragrances in their temples; we have the smell of incense in our churches. They have fasting and prayer to gods that are less then divine, we have fasting and prayer to the truly divine God.
Devout Hindus are generally gentle people, displaying humility and peace. We value the same traits in the Orthodox Church, but to all these we add love. The good Hindus love their wives and children even if they do not have a theology of love. We can teach them the love of God, which in turn could be reflected in our love for those around us.
Somehow I feel that Orthodoxy could touch the Indian soul much more then the Catholics or the Protestants. The later are handicapped by a long history in which Europeans were seen as empire building oppressors. The Catholics have simply absorbed the remnants of Apostle Thomas churches. They also have a couple of bridgeheads in India, from the colonial era, like that in the city of Goa, a former Portuguese colony. However, the more rationalistic style of the Protestant and Catholic faiths is further away from the Indian soul then the mystic theology and the ascetic traditions of the Orthodox Church.
In India one must get used with different scales of reality. The cities are huge. I have traveled to Chennai, a city of 6.6 million people, to Mumbai, of 18 million people, to Calcutta of 13 million people, to Bangalore of 5.5 people and to the “tiny” city of Pune, of 3.4 million people. Chennai happens to be in the state of Tamil Nadu and the preponderant Tamil minority consists of about 57 million people. How can I think of it as a minority, when the country in which I was born, Romania, has a total population of about 22 million?
It is hard to think about these numbers. They take some reality when it takes you two or three hours to cross the city of Mumbai, through the busy streets and the unending masses of people. How could God care for this great mass of people, all made in His image, all in need of salvation? When you try to think of the billions of galaxies with billions of stars imagination comes to a halt. You can write and say the numbers, but they are meaningless. The same happens when you think of the billion people on the Indian subcontinent: it’s pure statistics. Stalin said once that killing a man is a crime, but killing a million is a statistic. But for God, the one billion people are not a statistic. He knows and cares for each one of them. This is the mystery of God’s unbounded power, knowledge and love.
The Indian Information Technology outsourcing industry is in itself a miracle. I visited a number of companies, of which some have over 50,000 engineers. They pick up IT projects all over the world, of every kind and size, from the financial and manufacturing industries to governments and non-profits. Today when you look at your bank statement it is very probable that the program that produces it is maintained by Indian programmers somewhere in Chennai, Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai or Calcutta. In one company they told me that they are hiring about one thousand new programmers per month. I asked how is that possible, and I was told that the company has a “hiring factory line,” in which a candidate enters on one side and exists on the other, most often with a good job offer. Next day he moves to a training program, staffed by hundreds of specialists, then directly to new responsibilities. One can make a career and become a project leader and then a manager in two or three years. The market abounds with job offers and the Indian software engineer can always find something more interesting or better paid. The same jobs disappeared from United States or from Europe.
When I started my career in IT, I used to read that for at least one hundred years the demand for IT specialists here would continue to grow. The help wanted pages of New York Times were filled with ads looking for programmers. It looked like it could only get better for us. But this prophesies proved to be false. There is no safety in the world apart the one in God’s arms.
I am fortunate and blessed to still have a job, but that is not true for many other talented people whom I know. I met in India an English colleague who told me his sad career story. After working for about twenty years as a programmer, he lost his job, no doubt in part because of the booming outsourcing in India. He lived for a while on unemployment benefits, than he tried desperately to find a job. It was all in vain, he could not find anything. He discovered that many programmers have found a new life as plumbers, so he went to enroll at a technical school for plumbers. To his horror, he found that there is a six months wait. He finally found a job with a software company doing business in India. As far as I know, at this time he is again unemployed. In the meantime, people with just a tiny experience as compared with his are happily employed in India and are considering jumping to yet another job for some better pay.
Sic transit gloria mundi! So passes the glory of the world! Two hundred of years ago, he would have been a powerful employee in the British West India Company, living in a small palace in Madras, ruling over the lives of thousands of poor Indians. Today these Indians glow in their hope for a better life, while once again he looks for a job. As Mary the Theotokos proclaimed in her Magnificat song, God “scattered the proud… and filled the hungry with good things.” No, there is no safety in armies and horses.
I arrived in Chennai at about two in the morning and I left at about the same time. I flew back to Doha, Qatar and from there to Washington, then to Raleigh.
When I embarked in Doha, I found myself next to an interesting character. Tall and strong, looking like a Viking, but was a German oil exploration engineer. He was also a convert to Islam. He told me his life story. He was from East Germany, the grandchild of Baptist missionaries to Africa. The fall of the Berlin wall found him in prison, where he was serving time for an attempt to cross the border to West Germany. After reunification he could not find a proper job there and immigrated to England. He met Muslims there and converted to Islam. Later he found a job among Muslims in Dubai and a Muslim wife in United States.
My conversation with him was interesting, but not very pleasant. I found it sad that the grandchild of Baptist missionaries could not find fulfillment for his religious longings in Christianity. Somehow I understood why. Christianity appears so diluted in the secular West Europe, that it is almost invisible. People are looking for something more real, something that would touch their lives, not just their minds, something with structure and tradition that can offer an anchor in life. He thought that he found it in Islam, where life is more regulated, where people prostrate themselves and pray together several times a day. His story reminded me of something I’ve witnessed in Amsterdam, just some weeks before, during another business trip. I was visiting a cathedral converted into a museum, and I asked a guide if they ever have religious services there. She looked at me as I was asking a stupid question and answered, “Of course not!” In the evening I had dinner with some Dutch partners, and one of them exclaimed, “I really wish we had here in Holland some of those ceremonies and feasts that the Catholics have!” I told him, just as later I told my Muslim companion that not all Christianity is so washed out, that we have an Orthodox Church in which we pray, fast and also celebrate the feasts.
The Muslim convert next to me was very aggressive. You expect a convert to be enthusiastic about his new faith, but he proceeded to attack Christianity with a lot of stories and speculations that were far-fetched and ugly. His aggressiveness contrasted so much with the gentleness of the Indians that I have left behind.
After a while he told me he has to say his prayers and I took advantage of this to move to another seat, where I was alone. As he was attempting to locate the direction to Mecca, I started to say my Orthodox prayers alone in my seat.

The Small World and the Last Judgment

Story by Mihai Oara

In the Orthodox Church we say that “we are lost alone but are saved together.” I’ve come to understand and appreciate what this “together” means. In the Orthodox faith it’s not just “me and Jesus,” not just an enumeration of sins and merits that cancel each other, but a living community, the Church, entirely fulfilled when and where the priest imparts the Eucharist to a body of believers, under the authority of a bishop. In this community, we work out our salvation together. Each member of the local body can contribute through diligent efforts not only to his or her own salvation, but also to the salvation of others.
In a more general sense, this can be extended to the whole humanity. We are persons living in relationships with other persons, not isolated individuals living in a solipsistic world. Through such relationships we help or hinder, we heal or hurt, we save or destroy. The organic unity of mankind is not only a theological concept, but also a scientific fact. Let’s consider some modern ideas that point to it.

The small world

Perhaps we all had those strange experiences of discovering common acquaintances with somebody that we have just met, sometimes through convoluted or far-fetched connections. In such situations we exclaim: It’s a small world!
From a formal point of view, the small world concept refers to the fact that most of the people in the world are connected through a small number of steps. Is there some fisherman in Kamchatka? I have a good Russian friend in Sankt Petersburg who did his military service there. There is a good chance that through less then four or five connections I can reach that fisherman. If we measure the degree of separation between people, we discovered that everybody is connected with everybody else through a surprisingly small number of steps. There was a popular belief for a while that the magic number that expresses the average degrees of separation is six, whence the expression “six degrees of separation.” While in United States the number is about right, it seems that if we take the whole humanity in account the number is slightly larger, perhaps somewhere around ten.
Social networks tend to create this huge interconnectivity, as a result of man’s nature and inclination to live and work and cooperate with others. Here is one of many examples: I am member in an online professional network that helps people keep in touch with former colleagues or business partners. On this network I have 118 direct contacts, most of them people that I have met during almost 30 years of my career. All these are at one degree of separation from me. The web site allows me to see the number of people with whom I am connected at higher degrees of separation. The ones at two degrees of separation, people who know my acquaintances, form an impressing number: 56,100. At four degrees of separation, I’m connected with no less then 3,171,100 people!
Without being a “well-connected” person, I have discovered a number of interesting connections in my life.
One of my favorite writers is the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, author of a series of amazing short stories and Nobel Prize laureate. I used to read his stories, some of them two or three times. Sometime in 1995 I worked on a project with a professor of Computer Science of Argentinean origin, who told me that he has met Borges many years before. At that moment I could claim that there were just two degrees of separation between this great writer and myself.
Although I’m working now as a software engineer, my college degree is in Mathematics, in which I continue to be interested. Many years ago I read about a great Russian mathematician, Yuri Matisievich. He is and will remain famous in the history of Mathematics as the one who solved one of the most difficult problems launched as a challenge by another famous mathematician, David Hilbert, who lived at the end of the nineteenth century. Reading about the problem and about Yuri Matisievich, I happened to notice that he was from St. Petersburg, Russia. As I happened to travel there, I asked one of my friends, Professor Andrei Terekhov, if he heard about this great mathematician. He responded, “Not only that I’ve heard of him, we are good friends.” I solicited Andrei to help me meet him. He arranged for a dinner together, and here I was, at the same table with the man famous in the history of mathematics.
Here is a more interesting one, this time with a saint of the Orthodox Church, St. Silouan. He was a Russian soldier who gave up his military career to become a monk, and went to Mount Athos, where he spent the rest of his life. Never a famous person during his lifetime, he became well know only years after his death, due to one of his spiritual children, later known as Archimandrite Sophrony. After spending a number of years at Mt. Athos, Father Sophrony returned to Western Europe, where he published a number of books about the life and teaching of his spiritual father, and later started a monastery in England.
Father Sophrony had himself a number of spiritual children, to whom he passed the teachings of St. Silouan. One of these was a Romanian monk, Rafail Noica. He was the child of a Romanian philosopher and an English mother. His parents separated when he was young, and knowing that England offers better hopes for the future, his father allowed him to go there with his mother, who happened to be a Baptist. He grew in the Baptist faith, until later he discover Orthodoxy, converted and became a monk. After the fall of Communism he came to Romania and became a hermit, living alone for a number of years somewhere in the Western Carpathians, in Transylvania. As many other people in that situation, he later returned in the world and became a teacher and spiritual father to many young people. He was invited to speak everywhere in the country, in particular to Alba Iulia, my hometown. Archbishop Andrei of Alba Iulia invited him there many times, and I’m sure they know each other very well.
I met Archbishop Andrei for the first time in 2000, when I was investigating the Orthodox faith. I went to the Episcopal building next to the cathedral, looking for somebody to talk about Orthodoxy, and to my surprise I was pushed into his office and I was able to have a good discussion with him. Since that time, I have met him a number of times while visiting Romania.
Here is then the connection: Saint Silouan – Archimandrite Sophronie – Rafail Noica – Archbishop Andrei – myself. I am therefore just four degrees removed from Saint Silouan. I am sure that there are millions whose lives were touched by this saint, perhaps many much closer to him not only by degrees of separation, but also in the way in which they follow his example of a life with Christ.
We may find the small world phenomenon everywhere, even in the Bible. In Philippians 4:22, Apostle Paul sends greetings to those in Caesar’s household. It took just a few years for the Gospel of Him who was crucified by the Romans to reach the household of the man who was at the head of the Roman Empire. As Apostle Paul apparently knew these people, who in turn may have met the Roman emperor, being members of his household as servants or slaves, it looks like there were just three degrees of separation, humanly speaking, between Lord Jesus and the Roman Emperor.


This extraordinary connectness of humanity has some interesting corollaries. The good or the bad things in our lives can easily pass to others, through hidden and mysterious ways that are beyond our knowledge, imagination or control. They follow unexpected chains of human relationships, reaching all the corners of the world. Just as in modern quantum mechanics every small particle has an effect on the whole material universe, so every act, every gesture, every attitude will influence humanity through an indeterminate number of ever extending ripples. Every act of hate may damage not only its intended target, but also the souls of many others, bringing pain and suffering to a multitude of people. Every act of love may bring comfort and blessing not only to its recipient, but also to scores of others who witness it.
In an act of love there is always a Giver, a Receiver, and sometimes a Witness. Clinical studies have discovered that the Receiver has a somatic reaction to the act of the Giver, in that his body releases a “feel good” hormone, which is experienced as peace, satisfaction and well being. It is strange, but the same hormone is also released in the body of the Giver, who thus also benefits from his act of love. Even stranger, it was found that the same thing happens to the Witness, who experiences the same wonderful feeling that life is good and meaningful. This experience is a strong incentive for both the Receiver and the Witness to repeat it, in similar acts of love shown to others. In a small world, this ripple effect may spread fast to all corners of the world.
Nowhere is this more obvious then in the case of natural or spiritual parents and children. This may be a blessing and a tragedy. Children of alcoholics have a greater probability to become alcoholics and children from broken families have a greater propensity to end up with broken families. Sins and virtues tend to continue over many generations. Curses are passed and blessings are inherited. I owe so much to my parents, not only for their effort and sacrifices, but also for the good things they passed to me, which form a wealth more precious then properties and bank accounts. I feel at the same time the responsibility and burden to pass these to my children in such a way that they will in turn also pass them to their children. “Children’s children are the crown of old men,” says Proverbs 17:6. The durability and resilience of the values is proven only when they survive at least two generations.
The capacity of human networks to efficiently carry a message, a teaching or a way of life is a great opportunity for the Gospel. Christ has commissioned his apostles to go in the world and make disciples, baptizing them in His Name. Apostle Paul is exhorting Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” We see in his exhortation at least four spiritual generations: Paul, Timothy, “faithful men” and “others”. We have the Tradition of the Church, which is passed from generation to generation not so much through writings, but through the lives of the faithful believers.

Rewards and judgments

Thus we are judged by God not only for personal sins or personal holiness, but also for the influence we have on others.
Christ told us about the reward:
And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward. (Matthew 10:42)
…and also told us about the judgment:
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)
If those to whom we give a cup of water learn to give a cup of water, the reward is even greater. If those we offend learn to offend, the judgment will be even harsher.
How far does this chain of good or evil go? We do not know. We may be completely ignorant of the effects we have created. We may leave this world thinking that our responsibility is finished, but generations after generations may continue and amplify what we have started during our journey through this world. It is only at the Last Judgment when all will be known, when all will be discovered. “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad.” (Luke 9:17).
We have a beautiful tradition among the orthodox to offer koliva in memory of a departed family member. As many other symbols in the Orthodox Church, koliva has a multitude of meanings. The wheat seeds symbolize the hope for life and resurrection. But koliva is also a gift to the living, a gesture that continues the goodness of the departed even after their death. We are good to others because the departed person was good to us, and we feel we want to tell about this goodness and pass it to others.
Thus we can amplify the good that we have received from others, adding to their reward, and we can stop the evil they may have done, calling God’s mercy over them. Others may do the same for us. In the family and church we work out our salvation together, in a living community of faith and love.
While many are lost alone, we are saved together.