FINDING PARADISE IN THE MISSION FIELD

“Arise, O God, judge the earth…” chanted on Holy Saturday to the delight of the faithful.

“Arise, O God, judge the earth…” chanted on Holy Saturday to the delight of the faithful.

Mayan Orthodox Church – June – July – August 2017

What is the happiness that God calls us to?  Can we find paradise on earth?  Serving now as I do in the fertile mission field of Guatemala, I often experience privileged moments of spiritual joy in the humblest of settings.  My first such mission epiphany occurred in Tanzania upon my arrival some twenty years ago. My eagerness to celebrate my first Sunday Liturgy was tempered by a bad reaction to the food, which kept me up all night.  It was not a pleasant experience.  Should I or should I not travel for two hours over the bumpy, unpaved roads that made the storied potholes in the streets of my hometown, Pittsburgh, seem like a super highway?  My body said, “Stay in bed,” but my heart said, “Go.”  Despite a red rash on my face and head, a churning stomach, and weakened body, I forced myself to get into our Toyota Forerunner.  As a priest, I had never missed a Sunday Liturgy.  I didn’t come all the way to Africa to stay home, sick in bed.  This was my moment of truth.  

The road lived up to its reputation for beating you up and knocking you mercilessly around, but thankfully, we didn’t have to stop for any emergencies. Upon arriving at the village and entering the humble village church, I slowly began to feel better, not wholly well, but definitely more functional. The Liturgy proved to be ethereal, and my joy uncontainable, not because of any external splendor, but because of it’s exact opposite — abject poverty.  I knew that I was looking at Christ and praying in His church.  What a sight!  The choir of emaciated children assembled in bare feet, together , no doubt, with a host of angels.  To my surprise, the children wore donated T- shirts from our Pittsburgh Summer camp as choir robes.  Many eager congregants gathered from afar, including nursing mothers with babies and little children in tow.  The village elders saw to it that we were greeted warmly as their esteemed guests. After the bishop intoned the blessing of the Kingdom, the gentle flow of the Liturgy began to run its course. The choir of children sang the responses flawlessly in angelic tones. And when it came time for Holy Communion, the Holy Spirit took over. From everywhere people came, dancing, singing, worshiping God with an unmatched fervor. The church became another Mt. Tabor.  It was as if I had ascended the mountain with Peter, James and John to taste heaven in the remote Tanzanian village of Rukoma. Even today, as I travel to the remote mountain villages of Guatemala, I keep finding these humble, yet magnificent pockets of paradise. What need have we of intoxicants to create an illusory paradise when we can experience the real thing?   This spiritual stimulant will never enslave us or let us down. Today, let us say “no” to self-indulgence and “yes” to the Cross of our Lord.  In this way will we discover the great mystery that it is only in dying to self that we can rise again to new life.  Is this not a high worth striving for? 

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