Tuesday, February 5
I got up at 7:00 a.m., and so I had an hour before Orthros. As usual, I made myself some coffee by putting into a half-empty water bottle a spoonful of the instant coffee I had brought and shaking it up. Needless to say, it tastes awful like that without any sweetener or cream, but it’s not like I had any other safe way to get my caffeine.
Sister Ioanna brought a bag of ground coffee, but she had no way of getting boiling water to use it. So I explained to her how to make cold brew coffee, and so she tried it today. The only problem was that we didn’t have any coffee filters. So instead, I just partly unscrewed the cap of the water bottle she used for making the cold brew, and slowly poured it out into another cup. But the coffee was fine-ground, so plenty of the grinds made it through my “filter.” When I tasted a little to make sure it came out okay, I noticed it had a strange taste to it, almost as if it had some alcohol in it! Maybe it had started to ferment due to the heat. I guess there is a reason why cold brew is supposed to be made in a refrigerator. Oh, well; at least our experiment was more or less successful.
After Orthros, I used Sr. Paraskevi’s Skype to call the sisters back in Alaska. It was so nice to hear their voices again. I am looking forward to being back home with them soon. To be honest, I am counting the days. I feel very much out of my element here in India. If St. Anthony the Great called a monk out of his monastery a fish out of water, who knows what he would have called a monk in some noisy and chaotic city!
After breakfast we split up into two groups. Fr. Athanasius and Fr. George went with Dr. Wesley, Sr. Ioanna, and Anastasia to go to a village to baptize some people. Meanwhile, Sr. Paraskevi and I went back to the hotel with Precious and Tami to bake prosphora. Yesterday while Dr. Wesley was in Vizag (a bigger city) he tried to find some kind of electric oven to buy so that we could bake prosphora. The best thing he could find was a microwave oven that can also function as a convection oven.
When he brought it to the hotel yesterday, we found out that it had the wrong kind of plug. So today we had to go hunting for a converter in a few small stores in Srikakulam. After driving around for a while, we finally found a store that had one. But since it wasn’t in stock, they sent a boy to some other store to bring it back for us. So after an hour, we finally got it and paid only 65 cents. Fr. Athanasius has observed that everything in India takes much, much longer than in America. The chaotic roads are just the tip of the iceberg of how complicated the simplest tasks can be.
The prosphoro after it was sealed but before it had risen
Once we got back to the hotel, Sr. Paraskevi quickly and easily put together the flour and water, kneaded it, and stamped it with the seal. We let it rise for almost two hours, and then put it in the microwave/convection oven to bake. But after it had been baking for only half an hour, Sr. Paraskevi came running to my room, saying with concern: “Come quickly!” She opened the oven and showed me that the top of the prosphoro had turned brown, interestingly similar to the skin color of Indians! Evidently, the way this oven cooks is by grilling things from above. We weren’t sure if it was cooked on the inside, and we didn’t really have any way of testing it without ruining it for liturgical use. So she decided to try to make three more prosphora. Maybe this time we can bake it upside-down, so that only the bottom of it will turn brown, which wouldn’t be so bad. We’re also thinking of covering the top with aluminum foil, but that means we’ll have to go out on the streets again to find a place that sells foil.
While the next three prosphora were rising, we decided to break open our first one in order to know better how to bake the next ones. It turns out that our first prosphoro was just fine on the inside! So that’s a relief. Now we’ll just see if we can keep them from turning so brown. Part of the problem is also the flour. Even though it is 100% pure wheat flour, there’s something different about it that is giving us unexpected results.
Sister Joanna and Anastasia came back after a few hours. It turned out that there were only a dozen people to be baptized, and so they were not needed to do much. So they came back early, while Fr. Athanasius and Fr. George finished up the baptism service. Fr. George was also frustrated because he was eager to preach to people, but there weren’t any people to preach to except that little group of illiterate villagers getting baptized. It’s unfortunate that unforeseeable events ruined the detailed plans that Fr. Athanasius and Dr. Wesley had made. Almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. All our translators except for Dr. Wesley got sick. Joshi-Paul (our best translator) had to be with his wife in the hospital. And our drivers either got sick or decided not to show up. Again and again, we would make a plan in the evening for the following day, but by morning something would prevent us from following our plan.
Wednesday, February 6
I woke up early today, and so I had plenty of time to do some prayers and prostrations. Afterwards, I was really sweaty and took another “shower” by pouring warm water over myself. Meanwhile, Fr. Athanasius went very early in the morning to baptize Dr. Wesley with the name Demetri! Afterwards, he said that he felt transformed.
They came back with a “take away” breakfast (that’s how you say “to go” in India), and then we did Orthros. Fr. Athanasius borrowed our passports because the hotel management needed photocopies of them. But it’s not like the hotel would have their own photocopy machine, so he had to go find some print shop to get it done. This is a typical example of how everything in India (or at least in this part of India) takes much more time.
Afterwards, we headed out to the orphanage at 10:30 a.m. Sister Ioanna and Anastasia stayed behind to make some recordings in Obikhod chant of the transliterated liturgical texts they have in Telugu.
Some of the pastors trying to get a snake out of its nest at the orphanage
Since we arrived before the people came to be baptized, we started cleaning up half of the main room so that it would be ready for liturgy tomorrow. We were thinking that we could barricade off that half of the room and keep it clean. But it turned out that so many people came that our cleaning efforts were wasted.
The first group of people to be baptized was about 70 people. By now, we three priests were all very familiar with the process, and so things went quite smoothly and quickly.
But before we finished with that group, another group of 40 people showed up. That’s when all the chaos began. It was extremely challenging to try to keep the two groups separate. Fr. Athanasius asked me to start doing the second group, while he and Fr. George finished off the first group. This is where the chaos began:
As I began anointing my group with myrrh before baptism, I noticed two familiar faces. So I found a translator and asked them if they had already been baptized. It turns out that they had been baptized two days ago, and they joined my group to get more blessings! So I explained to them through a translator that they can’t be baptized twice, etc., and they went away. After finishing anointing my group, I turned around and noticed that they had all disappeared before I could lead them out to the tank and baptize them! Lunch had arrived, and so they all went to eat. The problem with this is that they mingled with two other groups of people: the group that had been baptized already and the new group that arrived. And since my group had about 40 people in it, I was not able to recognize by sight everyone in my group. So I took Queeny (Demetri’s youngest daughter) as a translator and tried to round up all the people in my group and take them to the tank. But I only ended up rounding up a dozen people. So I guess that means that there were about 30 people for whom I had read the exorcism prayers and anointed with myrrh who didn’t get baptized.
As if all this were not bad enough, some people started showing up at the tank for baptism with names of the wrong gender! At first we assumed that people had accidentally switched their name tags with other people. So if some woman showed up with a name tag “John,” we baptized her as “Joanna.” But after baptizing a few people like that and seeing that roughly half the people were holding name tags with the wrong gender, we realized that the problem was more serious than we thought, and that the cause must be something else.
So we sent them all back to the table where we had given out names, crossed out their old names in our book and on their paper, and gave them all new names. It was then that we figured out what had happened. Queeny had taken the initiative to give out names to people, but her English wasn’t good enough to make her notice that one sheet of names was for men and the other for women! She was the one who ended up doing this because today we were terribly short on translators.
Due to all the chaos, we’re not even sure how many people were baptized today, and how many people got only part of the service done for them. We had given names to about 250 people, but only 200 people got lunches, and 10 were left without food. So it’s not out of the question that forty people were given names twice. As for the actual number of people baptized, we’re guessing that the number was maybe around 100–120.
After today’s chaos, we all had to think through what had happened so that we could try and solve these problems. One solution that both Sr. Paraskevi and I came up with independently was to put a check mark on people’s name tags after each of the four steps in the service: exorcism, anointing, baptism, and chrismation. A person could be right behind each priest to put the checkmarks on their name tages as the priest does each of these four steps. In this way, it will be obvious to the priest whether or not the person has skipped any part of the service. And then it will also be clear who has and has not been baptized.
Another helpful trick would be to include on the person’s name tag the number that we have for them in our book containing their old and new names. In this way, after their baptism is complete, they could come back to our table with that book, and we could check off their name as truly having been baptized. This will solve today’s problem of not knowing for sure if all the people who received names were actually baptized.
More baptisms at the orphanage Tami is on the far right, taking photos
By the time we finished everyone, it was 5:00 p.m. and we were wiped out. We had been going 6 hours straight without a break or food. It was such a hot day that I was drinking water constantly. But I perspired so much that I didn’t even need to use the bathroom. The others weren’t drinking enough, and so they had become quite dehydrated.
We left and had a much-needed meal. By the time we got back to the hotel it was past 6:00, and everyone was exhausted. Fr. Athanasius and Fr. George met with Demetri to discuss the plans for tomorrow and find ways to solve the chaos. They invited me to join them, but I was much too tired. So I headed off to bed.
Thursday, February 7
I got up at 6:00 a.m., but I was tired because I still hadn’t recovered from yesterday. After having some quiet time to myself, Fr. Athanasius passed by my room. I told him my ideas of how to avoid yesterday’s chaos, but he told me that they had already figured out another plan how to keep the order. Instead of having separate groups of people going through the baptism service simultaneously, they intend to wait until everyone shows up and eats before beginning the service, and then there will be only one huge group. So until lunch, we will be preaching and giving catechetical sermons. But Sr. Paraskevi pointed out that this plan is still not fool-proof, because some people could still show up after we begin our mass baptism service. And then, we might have some of yesterday’s problems all over again. May God help us! We arrived at the orphanage at noon after a late breakfast. There were already 70 people there when we arrived. Our plan of catechizing everyone before lunch didn’t work, because there wasn’t enough time. So we began immediately with the baptism service. Even though we did have to stop in the middle so that they could have their lunch, we didn’t have yesterday’s chaos because all 67 people who were being baptized were in one group, and there wasn’t another group for them to mingle with. At one point towards the end, some of the people were about to leave before the tonsuring, but we managed to call them back before they went too far away.
People would travel for up to 4 hours to come and be baptized
A more serious problem happened when we were baptizing the people. Once again, there were a couple of people who were afraid to go into the water and tried to get out of being fully immersed. There was even a girl about 12 years old who was blind and deaf in this group. After going through all the preparations for baptism (the exorcism prayers and the anointing), she freaked out when we wanted to baptize her in water. Some of the people around her tried to grab her and forcefully get her into the water, but we told them not to, since it would not be right to baptize someone against their will. After finishing all those baptisms, the pastors were asking if Demetri and we could help them pay for all the costs for the rickshaws they had hired to bring all the people here. Fr. Athanasius and Demetri discussed it with them and finally agreed on how much to give them. Under normal circumstances, it would have been Joshua who would have taken care of these details. But since he was away all day to be with his wife in the hospital, all the burden of taking care of this fell on Demetri and Fr. Athanasius.
We finally left and had dinner. By the time we got back to the hotel, it was getting late, and we all collapsed in our beds.
Friday, February 8 This morning Fr. Athanasius served Orthros so that I could do all the chanting for the first time. My voice is basically back to normal, but it’s slightly weak. I’m not sure if it’s because I haven’t been doing any singing for a while or because of all the spicy foods, or maybe something else. It was nice to use some Byzantine music again after all this time in India. There were a hundred people who wanted to come and be baptized today, but we decided that at this stage, we really need to spend more time teaching the pastors. So we told everyone not to come today for baptism. The plan was for the pastors to come before lunch and for Fr. George and me to teach them various aspects of Orthodoxy. Fr. Athanasius didn’t come because there were several people who wanted him to come to their houses to bless them and pray for them. So he went out with Demetri and Sr. Ioanna to eight different houses to do this.
Demetri translating for Fr. George
Fr. Athanasius had requested a “beautiful, clean, blue tablecloth” for the liturgical items, and this is what they brought him!
When they returned to the hotel several hours later, Fr. George and I were still waiting to go teach the pastors. It turned out that there was some miscommunication, and Joshua had told all the pastors not to come! So we discussed our situation and decided that we might as well use the few remaining hours in the day to preach to a group of villagers out in the mountains, even if only for an hour.
During lunch we found out that there is a group of maybe 30 pastors who could come to the orphanage. So we scrapped our plan of going to the village in the mountains, and we all went to the orphanage. But as soon as we got there, a group of 40 women showed up. Since these were people who were already baptized this week, we began to preach to them. Fr. George went first and emphasized that the Church established by the apostles continued throughout history until the present as the Orthodox Church.
When it was my turn, I explained to them how many of the liturgical practices of the Orthodox Church are from the first century. Two months ago, Fr. Athanasius had suggested to me that I prepare to preach something about this topic. While researching a few things online, I stumbled across this Orthodox article that addresses exactly this issue. So I brought a printout of it with me, and gave them a basic summary of its main points.
Fr. George then opened up a question & answer session, and we were surprised at the depth of some of the questions coming from these women that didn’t strike us as being particularly educated. For example, they asked the following questions:
- Why is Mary equal to Jesus? (The word in Telugu used by the Roman Catholics for the Virgin Mary is a word implying that she is a goddess.)
- How did Mary conceive?
- Can someone without baptism be saved?
- How was the thief on the cross saved without baptism?
- How were the people before Christ saved?
- What is speaking in tongues in Pentecostal churches?
Then Demetri asked me to say something about monasticism. So I gave a very brief introduction to it, based on a few Biblical verses and the historical development of it. Then Fr. Athanasius spoke to them about what a tremendous thing it is for them now to be members of the worldwide Orthodox Church. We were all very happy after this brief time we had to teach those women, because we could see that they are taking their conversion seriously. But at the same time, it is so blatantly obvious to us that we are just giving a few drops of water to people dying of thirst. They have so much to learn, and the language barrier is such a huge obstacle.
One encouraging thing I heard is that there is a Deacon Oleg in St. Petersburg who is married to an Indian woman whose native language is Telugu! She could be instrumental in helping out with the translations. The only thing she has done so far is to correct the translation of the Typica that was done by the professional translators we have been hiring. I don’t know if she has the spare time to devote more time to translating things on her own. In my opinion, getting her to translate as much as possible should be one of the highest priorities of the India mission. If there is enough funding for this, perhaps the India mission could even use its funds to hire her full-time. But at this stage, there weren’t enough funds even to cover all the costs of this mission trip, and so we ended up paying for many expenses out of our own pockets.
After dinner, Precious took Tami, Sr. Paraskevi, Sr. Ioanna, Anastasia, and me out to a supermarket to get a few more supplies. Sr. Paraskevi needed to buy some more wheat flour, and so she found the section where it was being sold. But since she couldn’t find the kind of wheat flour that would be most suitable for prosphora, she asked Tami to ask one of the clerks for wheat flour. So he said to her in Telugu that we want wheat flour but used English for the phrase “wheat flour.” When Tami speaks English, he has a heavy Indian accent, and all his “w’s” sound like “v’s.” So the clerk led us to a different part of the store and pulled out a bottle of cream called “Veet”! ☺ After this we stopped by at a vendor on the street selling coconuts. We had him slice one open for each of us to drink, and then we requested that he cut it in half so that we could eat the “meat” of the coconut. When coconuts have water inside, they are actually unripe, and so the “meat” in them has not yet solidified but is like a stiff jello. It was quite tasty, although the taste was not quite as strong as that of the meat of a ripe and hard coconut.
As we were there at this street vendor (and it was already night), a few men starting gathering around us. Precious was worried that their intentions were sinister, so he told us to get into the car while he would finish up and pay the street vendor. After he got back to the car, he explained to us that it is not safe to be out at night in Srikakulam, especially for foreigners. What happens is that a bunch of men will first pretend to be friendly so that you let your guard down. But then they will suddenly grab your phone or your wallet and run so fast that there is no way you can catch them. And in some cases, they will beat you and even kidnap you for ransom. Thank God, Precious was sharp enough to notice what was potentially happening, and so we got into the car without any incident.
Saturday, February 9
We did Orthros this morning as always at 8:00 a.m. Today the plan was to spend the entire day teaching a large group of pastors. So we were hoping to leave as quickly as possible for breakfast so that we could start the teaching. But once again, poor communication ended up delaying our departure and frustrating those of us who were trying to organize things in an efficient way.
I was able to check emails today, and someone informed me about this article online, which announces that Fr. Athanasius and I are in India, baptizing 1,000 people. This article must have gone viral, because someone else told me they heard about it from someone in Japan. Another person sent me a snapshot of the same article in Arabic! I’m not sure how this happened, but the Arabic version of the article claims that we are baptizing 2,000 people. After breakfast, as we were driving back on the highway, we saw a truck loaded up with stuff, and way up on the top, about 20 people were riding! And the hilarious thing was that just 100 yards further down the road was a billboard sign prohibiting this. One photo was of a person drinking a beer behind the wheel with a big red X over the photo, and another photo with a big red X over it depicted a rickshaw with dozens of people on top of it!
Precious was explaining to us that in Srikakulam no one follows the driving rules because there aren’t any traffic police enforcing them. That’s why he can drive us around even though he is only 16 and doesn’t have a license. But in the big city of Vizag, he said things are strict and you can’t get away with anything.
When we got to the orphanage, there were two dozen pastors there waiting for us to teach. Fr. George went first, and he pulled out a little booklet in Russian that he himself had written and published! The title of the booklet was “A Gift to a Protestant Friend.” Referring to a part of it, he made a very strong case for the authority of the Orthodox Church in her interpretation of Scripture. He explained the history of how the canon of the New Testament was determined by the Council in Carthage, i.e., by bishops of the Church. And so if we accept this council’s decision on the New Testament canon, we ought to accept as well its understanding and interpretation of the New Testament. He also quoted St. Paul telling people to keep everything he had taught them in letter AND in word. Fr. George gave a good example to illustrate the importance of receiving baptism from the true Church. He said that military medallions only have value when issued by the military. If some metalworker created counterfeit medallions that look identical to those issued by the military, they could fool most people, but they have no real value. Likewise, religious organizations outside the true Church can appear to baptize people, but if they lack the authority that God has given to His Church, the baptism is counterfeit.
After his presentation, one of the pastors said that he was convinced by his presentation because he had based it on the Bible. Other pastors also expressed the same sentiment. Even though it is very encouraging to see their acceptance of the Orthodox approach, Fr. Athanasius is worried that some of them might be viewing Orthodoxy not as something completely different from what they already have, but merely as if Orthodoxy were the best form of Protestantisim. In other words, some of them might not be grasping how radically different it is to becoming members of the original Church. When it was my turn, I gave the same teaching I had given yesterday to the women about how the early Church prayed liturgically. But since these were pastors with theological training, I included many more details from that article.
After Fr. Athanasius’s presentation, he and Fr. George took eight people out of the group who were eager to be baptized, while they left the other half with me to preach to them. I was sort of caught off guard, because I hadn’t prepared anything to preach to them. So I quickly brainstormed with Sr. Paraskevi and Sr. Ioanna, and then came up with a couple things to tell them. I spoke to them about the Orthodox understanding of passions as being illnesses of soul, while sins are just the symptoms. Then I also told them about the stages of sin that St. John of the Ladder wrote about, and how crucial watchfulness is. And finally I said a few words about how and why we fast, and how this regular exertion of our self-will makes it stronger, just as the regular exercising of a physical muscle makes it stronger.
We decided to do Vespers for the pastors, and Sr. Paraskevi asked me if I could compose some music for the “Lord, have mercy” and the “Grant this, O Lord” in Telugu. Sr. Ioanna had the texts for these two phrases already written out in Latin letters with accents on the appropriate syllables, so it was very easy to whip up something simple.
To our great disappointment, the pastors did not have time to stay for Vespers, except for six of them who stayed for 15 minutes. I did most of the chanting in English with printouts of my compositions, but Sr. Ioanna and Anastasia also chanted the parts for the Synaxis of the New Martyrs in Church Slavonic. We chanted quite beautifully, if I do say so myself!
Vespers at the orphanage
Afterwards, we headed out for dinner. As we drove down the highway, I was amazed at how our two-lane highway could at any moment turn into a three-lane highway. The dashed line separating the lanes are merely a suggestion for drivers to follow, and so they regularly ignore them. It’s quite amusing to watch, and we are all fascinated to see that accidents are not constantly occurring. It’s kind of surreal like a video game, in which all kinds of crazy maneuvers are happening without anything bad happening.
Sunday, February 10
Today our team split into two groups. Fr. Athanasius went with Demetri to Vizag to preach to a large group of people. Meanwhile, the rest of us stayed back in Srikakulam to serve our first liturgy in India! The plan was for us to leave the hotel at 9:30 a.m. and set things up for the Divine Liturgy at Joshua’s street church. The very thought of having a liturgy in a street in India scares me! When we were at his street church in September, it was actually an alley, not a main road. But even so, people would occasionally be driving by on their motorcycles, a dog wandered by, and the open sewage pit was right along the side of the street. I don’t think any cows or pigs came that time, but nothing would have prevented them if they had wanted to! At 8:30 a.m. Precious called and asked if we would like breakfast! I explained to him that we Orthodox Christians never eat anything before the Divine Liturgy. And then he informed me that Joshua will come and get us at 11:00 a.m. instead of 9:30. I asked him if we could somehow stay on schedule, because otherwise we wouldn’t end liturgy until at least 2:00 p.m. But they wouldn’t be able to come get us until 10:30 at the earliest. So we left right on schedule at 10:45.
When we got to the street church, the tent was already set up, and they had two long, narrow tables at the front with a nice tablecloth. So we separated the two long tables and made one the altar and the other the proskomede. Fr. Athanasius had ordered two tables for this purpose, but as usual for us in India, what we ordered never showed up. There was only one tablecloth, however, so the proskomede table was bare and kind of beat up. But other than that, we had pretty much everything we needed for the liturgy, thanks to Fr. George’s good preparation (and suitcase full of liturgical items).
Fr. George giving a sermon after liturgy
While Fr. George set up the altar and did the service of proskomede, I spoke to the people with Joshua as a translator. I explained to them what the Divine Liturgy is, what Holy Communion is, how it is only for those who have been baptized in the Orthodox Church. There was still more time, so I delivered my talk again about how the early Church had liturgical worship. During the middle of my talk, some guy came up into the middle of our church and started saying angrily in English: “I know some English, and this is not good.” And then he proceeded to say something about God before switching to Telugu. So some of the young Christian men went up to him and calmed him down and led him towards the back.
The liturgy itself went quite smoothly, despite being in such a primitive place. There were about 250 people there, and almost 100 of them had been baptized this week by us. Fr. George counted that 77 people received communion. It was terribly hot and humid, though, and Fr. George was so hot in his vestments that the sweat was pouring down his face. Fortunately for him, he already had experience suffering in similar conditions in the Philippines.
Right after liturgy, that same troublemaker came back up again with a Hindu person, and they were very angry and shouting. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was because it was all in Telugu. But it must have been serious because as I was about to mingle with the rest of the people who were in the church in order to hand out the leftover antidoron, Precious warned me to stay near the altar (that is, away from those troublemakers). Then, Joshua told us all to get into the car quickly, where two other people unknown to us were waiting to whisk us away. We weren’t sure who these two drivers were, and why Joshua and Precious didn’t join us. Those troublemakers were right there waiting for us in their own car, and they followed our car! Our drivers tried to lose them by driving quickly through the winding streets of Srikakulam, but we couldn’t shake them loose. Then we got to the highway, and our drivers floored it. We were going 84 m.p.h., which in India is insanely fast, due to all the hazards on the roads. A typical speed for driving on the highways here is 40 m.p.h. We felt like we were in an action movie. We managed to get quite far ahead of them, but when we turned in to the restaurant, they also turned in there! Maybe they were able to guess that this is where we were headed, considering that it was lunchtime and that there weren’t many other places where foreigners like us might go in that remote location. They didn’t follow us inside the restaurant but waited outside. Soon afterwards, Joshua arrived and spoke with them. After talking a little while, he calmed them down, and they left.
The car chasing us
Until the danger subsided, Sister Paraskevi and Sister Ioanna were thinking: “Well, today is a good day to die!” But Anastasia was so glued to Facebook that she was completely clueless about what was going on until she asked us why we kept looking back at the car behind us!
Every time we try to do a Mystery of the Church (such as a baptism or a liturgy) in a public area in India, its spiritual power seems to bother the demons and makes them rouse up some people against us. And I suppose in a place like India where idolatrous Hinduism is the dominant religion, it’s no surprise that there are even more demons. After all, when St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain was flying in an airplane to Australia, he was amazed to feel the presence of many demons over Pakistan. While we were eating lunch, Demetri called us and told us to go to the orphanage after lunch because he said some people will come there to learn how to chant. But those people never showed up. So we headed back to the hotel.
Back at the hotel, there was some school event taking place in a field less than a block away from our hotel. They were blasting music so loudly and shouting so much into the microphone that it was impossible to block out the noise even with earplugs.
At a moment when Fr. George was alone with me, he humbly made some very good suggestions regarding how I can improve my little talk about the liturgical worship of the Church in the first century. I was very glad that he felt comfortable enough with me to make suggestions like that to me humbly. He has a lot of experience with preaching in missionary settings, and it is a great blessing to have him here helping us out.
Trying to speak publicly about Orthodoxy has really made an impression on me. It is much more challenging than one would think. As someone who has been a monk for 25 years in good monasteries and is quite familiar with Orthodox spirituality, theology, liturgical rubrics, history, lives of saints, etc., I would have thought that it would be trivial to teach Orthodoxy to people interested in it. But now I can see that it is actually quite challenging. One part of the challenge is to know how to present deep topics with a depth that is neither too simplistic nor too complicated for your listeners. An even greater challenge (for me, at least) is to be able to recall from memory all the pertinent aspects of a topic. For example, the other day when Fr. Athanasius asked me to tell the people something about the Jesus prayer, it was a struggle for me to know what aspects of it would be the most appropriate to tell them. There are dozens of things in the back of my mind about prayer that I have learned from Geronda Ephraim and from the holy Fathers and even from my own limited experience, but they don’t do any good when they’re in the back of my mind and beyond my ability to recall them at will. Whereas if I had the luxury of sitting in my cell with access to all my books, or even just had the luxury of being able to take my time to dig up things from the back of my mind, I could go on and on about most Orthodox topics in great detail. Apparently, the way my mind works is that unless someone says something to trigger that memory in the back of my mind, it is nearly impossible to access it on my own. I wonder if this is some trait of my character or just some mental weakness I have. Anyway, the upshot of all this is that the only way I can speak in depth about an Orthodox subject is if I have had the chance to prepare myself ahead of time by somehow digging up all those things from the back of my mind.
Meanwhile, Fr. Athanasius had a very busy day with Demetri. They went to a church in Vizag that Demetri had established but has handed over to someone else’s care. There were about 200 people there, and Fr. Athanasius had plenty of time to teach them.
Later in the evening, after returning to Srikakulam, he invited the rest of our team to join him for a brief meeting in a village 6 miles away. It was the house of a pastor, where about 40 people had gathered. Fr. George, Fr. Athanasius, and I each spoke briefly to the group.
Monday, February 11
This morning we did Orthros as usual at 8:00. Afterwards, as we were about to leave for breakfast, a tall, young man came up to me in the hotel to greet me. It was Niphon! He grew up in Kerala in the Monophysite “Syrian Orthodox Church” (a.k.a. the “Oriental Orthrodox Church”) which has been in India since the first century. But by reading the Philokalia in English online, he realized that the mainstream Orthodox Church has a depth that his church lacks. He realized that if he wants to be in the Church of the holy Fathers, he needed to join the Orthodox Church.
Fortunately for him, at this time (a few years ago) there was a ROCOR priest in Bangalore (where Niphon living) who brought him into the Orthodox Church through Holy Chrismation. This was Fr. Silouan, a native Indian, who joined ROCOR for a couple of years. Unfortunately, however, he betrayed Orthodoxy twice. First he went with the Monophysites and returned to the Orthodox Church, and then joined with the Roman Catholics. For this he was defrocked by ROCOR. He subsequently joined a schismatic, old-calendarist “Orthodox” bishop, which is when he was rebaptized and is now called Fr. Thomas. This story is explained in detail in that article about ROCOR in India.
Niphon had the good sense not to follow Fr. Thomas when he left ROCOR. But as a result, Niphon was “orphaned” because there was no other Orthodox Church within hundreds of miles. So from then on, he had to travel all the way to Calcutta to receive communion. But since it takes 36 hours to get there by train, he can only go there five times a year. There are a few other Orthodox Christians in Bangalore who are Russians, Romanians, etc., who are there for their work. But that small handful of Orthodox Christians doesn’t get together and do anything.
So when he heard about us coming to Srikakulam, he was doubly excited: both to receive communion and to meet me. We had emailed each other several times over the past five years, because he had sent an email to St. Anthony’s Monastery back then, asking us if it is necessary to be chrismated in order to join the Orthodox Church. And so I had replied, encouraging him to be both baptized and chrismated by the then Fr. Silouan.
I really sympathized with Niphon’s difficult situation. Fortunately for him, he was able to make a week-long pilgrimage to the monastery of Elder Sophrony in Essex, England, and one of the confessors there agreed to be his spiritual father. I was surprised to hear from Niphon that his spiritual father read a rough draft of my book on monasticism, and I was honored to know that he found it very inspiring and informative.
Niphon joined us for breakfast, even though this meant that 9 of us crammed into a 7-passenger minivan—in typical Indian fashion! Niphon is a very pleasant fellow, and so we all had a wonderful time getting to know him over breakfast. It was such a relief to be able to have a meaningful discussion with someone in English.
I asked him which Orthodox books he has read, and he said that he has read the Philokalia, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Homilies of St. Makarios, the Ladder, and books about Saints Porphyrios and Paisios, as well as about Elder Joseph the Hesychast and Elder Ephraim. When we asked him how he got all these books, he smiled and said that nowadays everything is available online in English.
Yesterday there was a big temptation for our mission. While Fr. Athanasius was visiting the house of a family that wanted to become Orthodox, the mother of the family started asking Fr. Athanasius some things about prayer. She was sitting on a couch, and he was sitting across from her. But since the other members of her family were around and making noise, he went and sat down on the same couch she was on. Even though he did not touch her and even though there was plenty of space between them, her husband and her daughter were deeply scandalized by this “boldness” and “unholiness” of Fr. Athanasius. It was hard for us to fathom how something so normal for an Orthodox priest to do (i.e., sitting near a woman and having a personal conversation with her) could be so scandalous to Indians. While on the one hand, it is beautiful to see how modest the Indian culture is, on the other hand it is going to be challenging for priests to minister to the women in their flock if they can’t have personal and private conversations with them. The Mystery of Confession often entails a great deal of spiritual intimacy, and priests in India will have to be very aware of these Indian sensitivities and be careful to be spiritually close to women in confession without violating the boundaries of their culture.
So Fr. Athanasius humbly apologized and explained to her husband that he was not trying to be bold or inappropriate with his wife. Although that man was very upset and was yelling at Fr. Athanasius that evening, by this morning everything was back to normal, and that man was at peace, as if nothing had happened.
After breakfast, we went to the orphanage, where 40 pastors were waiting for us. Today, Fr. George did most of the teaching. He began by explaining why we Orthodox venerate icons, and then he answered questions. This time, we had the people write down their questions on pieces of paper and pass all the papers to the front, because other times many of the people were too shy to raise their hand and ask questions.
One question was: is it right to use the word “Orthodox” to describe the Church of Christ, since this word is not in the Bible?
Fr. George replied by saying that nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Bible is the sole source of Christian teaching. So we must reject this way of thinking as something that is not only non-biblical but even contrary to how we know the early Church functioned. The Apostles were spending years and years teaching people by word of mouth, but only wrote a few epistles. In 1 Thes. 2:15, St. Paul urged people to keep not only his written teachings but also his oral teachings. Thus it is clear that there are two sources of true teaching. Fr. George also emphasized that historically it was the Church that produced the Bible, not the other way around.
- Another question was whether the Holy Trinity is one or three.
Fr. George explained that God is beyond human understanding, but we need to trust His explanations of Himself. He then presented the Orthodox dogma of the Holy Trinity being three “Persons” (or more precisely, “hypostases”) in one Essence.
- Another person asked if we, like the Roman Catholics, sing hymns to the Virgin Mary.
Fr. George cited Luke 1:48, in which Elizabeth, full of the Holy Spirit, prophesied that all generations would call the Virgin Mary blessed. But he added that the way that the Roman Catholics view her is different from the way that the Orthodox do. The Roman Catholics view her as a kind of co-redeemer with Christ, whereas the Orthodox believe that Jesus Christ is our only Savior.
- They also asked if we believe the prophets of the Old Testament were saved despite never having been baptized.
Fr. George answered by saying that in 1 Peter 3:19 the soul of Christ went into Hades and saved all the God-loving people there.
Someone else asked why we use incense if it is not in the Bible. All three of us priests were very surprised to hear this question, because this was one of the points I had made in my little sermon the other day to them, which cites Malachias 1:11, Pslam 140(141):2, Luke 1:9–13, Rev. 5:8. So they let me field that question. Afterwards Fr. Athanasius tried to drive home the point that Protestants are missing the whole point of tradition. We need with humility to conform our understanding to the tradition of the Church, rather than with self-reliance to re-invent the wheel, using “sola scriptura” and our own logic.
Another question they asked was whether the virtuous non-Orthodox go to Heaven? Fr. George cited Galatians 5:20–21 to emphasize the importance of right belief. Niphon is standing in the back on the left with a black shirt
After dinner again at the same restaurant, there was a small group of Protestants in a village who wanted us to come and speak to them. Fr. Athasnasius and I were too tired to go, but Fr. George is always eager to preach. So he went along with Niphon, Sr. Ioanna and Anastasis, while Demetri went along to translate. They witnessed a typical Protestant prayer meeting, in which the people got together and sang Christian songs in Telugu with drums.
Tuesday, February 12
This morning, Niphon came to my room for confession at 7:30 a.m. It was wonderful finally to be able to have a spiritually deep conversation with someone. I was not able to have such conversations with the other people in India because of the language barrier and because all the other people we were speaking with were at an elementary level. I’m not saying that they are below me or that their relationship with God is shallow or that they lack sincerity and piety or that their spiritual struggles are trivial. No. In fact, in many such ways they are far ahead of me. I’m just saying that it is challenging to be on the same page with them when there are so many basic spiritual concepts that they haven’t grasped yet. At 8:00 we did the Typica service and then gave Demetri and Niphon communion from what Fr. George had saved from Sunday’s liturgy.
On our way to breakfast, Niphon asked a very good question: “Why is it that these Protestant services are so noisy?” His liturgical experience as an Oriental Orthodox Christian is very similar to our liturgical experience as Orthodox Christians. I hypothesized that it is some cultural thing that makes them love noise so much. But Fr. Athanasius pointed out that the problem is actually a result of their Protestant mindset. He knows from his own experience how many Protestant denominations try to excite people’s emotions during their services. He said that they do this because they don’t have the deeper, ascetical, Orthodox approach to prayer. And so having drums and loudspeakers helps them create that kind of mood.
During breakfast, Niphon told us about the history of the Orthodox mission in Calcutta. In 1991 Fr. Ignatius, an Athonite hieromonk, went there and had tremendous success in establishing Orthodoxy there. He managed to build several churches with the financial support he had from Greece, and he managed for several native people to be ordained to the priesthood. But after about five years of work there his visa expired, and he had to leave India. He ended up in Africa and became the bishop of Madagascar. After he left, much of his work started to disintegrate. One very sad phenomenon was that many of the converts from Hinduism to Orthodoxy went back to being Hindu after he left. Apparently, they were attracted to the Orthodox Church primarily because of the financial advantages they had in being Orthodox with Fr. Ignatius around. Now, of the thousands of people who had become Orthodox there, there are only about 70 people left who have remained faithful to the Church. But those people do not have any spiritual support, so those communities are in great spiritual need.
Wild monkeys climbing on the orphanage
After breakfast, we headed out to the orphanage for the last time. We were told that 200 people would be coming for baptism, but it turned out that the number 200 was the total number of people (baptized and unbaptized) who would be coming. Most of them had already been baptized. So after Fr. Athanasius preached to them and after we gave them lunch, we proceeded to baptize 25 people. This time it went very smoothly, partly because of our experience and partly because the smaller group was much easier to manage. One other thing that happened was that other people who had already been baptized helped keep the order by telling the new group what to do. For example, some of the people in the new group today were starting to walk away after we had chrismated them but before they had been tonsured. But the ones who had already been baptized corrected them and told them not to leave.
The last group we baptized
After this group’s baptism, one of the women asked me my name. I asked why, and she replied, “I am going to have more children, and I want to name one of them after you!”
Throughout the day, I had plenty of time to speak with Niphon. He is a very delightful fellow, and it was a relief to be able to speak with him about more advanced matters of the faith.
After the baptisms, Fr. Athanasius spoke to the people again. He taught them that they are embarking on a new phase in their life. They already know intellectually that Jesus is God, but now they are going to deepen their connection with God. He then showed them how they can incorporate into their daily lives the virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Today we found out something hilarious. A month ago, a person with an ecclesiastical position went to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, hoping to speak with the Patriarch and to suggest to him that he make me the Bishop of India! Everyone in our team got a good laugh out of that, and now the jokes about the enthronement of “Vladika Papa” have come back in full force. All in all, we baptized 350 people on this trip. This is only a third of the 1,000 people who had requested baptism. One of the reasons why we didn’t baptize everyone was because many people were frightened by those incidents with the fundamentalist Hindus. But the primary reason why was because about 500 of those 1,000 people live out in villages in the mountains. We were planning to go out there, but the Maoist terrorists who have a lot of power up there were getting more violent than usual, and so we were told that it would not be safe for us to go there. What they do is kidnap people (especially foreigners) and demand ransom. And if no ransom is paid, they excecute their hostages. So we could not go to them. And since those Christians living out in the mountains are terribly poor, they could not afford to pay for the transportation to come to where we were.
After the baptisms, we dropped off Niphon at the bus station in Srikakulam and then had a late lunch around 4:00 p.m. I usually eat four times a day, so it has been a bit of a challenge to eat so infrequently. But I find that if I force myself to eat larger meals, I manage just fine.
Then we passed by Joshua’s house to visit his sick wife. She is so ill that we did an emergency baptism for her as she lay in her bed. After getting back to the hotel, we packed our things up to go to Vizag, because the following evening we would be flying out to New Delhi and then home. Some miscommunication and delays happened again, and so we didn’t end up leaving until three hours later. All these unexpected delays were trying for those of us who were trying to make plans and keep on schedule. As for me, I didn’t let the chaos get to me. I wonder if part of the reason why I am so laid-back is because of my being half-Indian.
Anyway, we drove two hours to Vizag, but when we got there around 11:00 p.m., the hotel we had booked had already given some of our rooms away! So we started driving around, searching for a hotel with 5 rooms. We finally found two hotels which were better quality than what we had in Srikakulam yet cheaper.
Wednesday, February 13
This morning Sr. Paraskevi and I met in the hotel lobby for the free breakfast. A young Muslim man was overjoyed and fascinated to see us, and so we welcomed him to join us for breakfast. He told us that our outfits really stood out and were “awesome”! But when I asked him, he did verify what others had told me, that in India no one wears all black because this is looked down upon as a bad omen. One thing Fr. Athanasius and Fr. George explained in their talks was that the color black is not inherently evil, but in Orthodox countries it is symbolic of repentance. Even though they were aware of the cultural bias in India against wearing all black (and of the impracticality in wearing black clothes in a hot, sunny climate), they did not think that this is serious enough to merit changing how we clergy dress. (Although the bishop did give us a dispensation not to wear our raso when serving, due to the heat.) They made the good point that in general it would be spiritually dangerous if we were to let these Protestant converts to Orthodoxy in India pick and choose which aspects of Orthodoxy they like, and discard whatever aspects they dislike. But this matter is not so straightforward, since I am aware of examples in history in which the Orthodox Church would make minor adaptations to accommodate for local circumstances.
For example, St. John Cassian intentionally chose to depart from the prevailing traditions in monastic attire when he brought monasticism to Gaul. And if we bear in mind the prevalance (and sometimes even the preference) of the use of white and gray cassocks in the history of the Orthodox Church, it becomes clear that this issue is not so “black-and-white.” ☺ St. Seraphim of Sarov and St. John Maximovitch apparently had no qualms about wearing white and gray cassocks. And so I am not convinced that absolutizing the prevailing current Orthodox practice of wearing only black cassocks is required in order to remain faithful to Orthodox tradition.
I chose not bring all this up in our discussion, but I wanted to hear what Fr. Athanasius and Fr. George would have to say about this (and I also wanted Demetri to hear what they would say), so I asked them in what ways is the Orthodox Church flexible when coming to a new culture, and also specifically regarding the use of a white cassock for Orthodox priests and monks in India. Fr. George replied that in general the Orthodox Church’s practices cannot be compromised. He believes that a lack of uniformity in a matter like this would be detrimental, because everyone has internet now, and it could be disturbing for people to see that Orthodox clergy dress differently in India from the rest of the Orthodox world.
We arrived at the airport in Vizag, and it was a relief to be on our way home. It will take 46 hours of flying and layovers to reach Kodiak (and probably another 8 hours before I can get a boat from there back to our skete). But my excitement to be home will make this trip easy to bear.
Desperate for some sleep in the Delhi airport
This year looks promising for the mission in India. Bishop Luke in Jordanville is eager to help this mission. He would have come on this trip to India, but the timing of his enthronement as bishop prevented it. Fr. George is delighted with the success of this mission trip of ours, even though we were constantly struggling to overcome all kinds of obstacles. He would like to continue helping this mission, if God permits. For him, it is much easier to get to India, since it’s only a five-hour flight from Moscow to New Delhi (and then another two hours to Vizag). That’s nothing compared to the kind of ordeal we Americans have to go through to get to literally the opposite side of the globe—not to mention also the expensive tickets.
Fr. Athanasius wants to come back, but the timing of his next trip will depend on several factors. The primary factor is what his hierarchs judge to be the best course of action. But he also has a family and a parish to care for. It made a big impression on him that he had never seen during his other trips to India so much resistance and spiritual commotion as we had on this trip. Likewise, Demetri and Joshua kept saying over and over again how astonished they were to have such constant resistance and temptations. There is also a hieromonk in Russia who is ready to come to India to preach. He already has experience with missionary work in the Philippines, and he is hoping to stay in India for two whole months! I am hopeful that his continuous presence there for two months will make a big difference to these people. Having someone there for a longer time will help them get a better sense of what living an Orthodox life entails. And hopefully he will be able to serve liturgies and other services regularly so that they can learn what an Orthodox service is like. Maybe he (and other laymen) could even live there permanently and become a place where people can come for spiritual guidance, confession, instruction, etc.
Another exciting development is that Demetri and his wife are seriously considering spending 4–5 months at Holy Trinity in Jordanville. They will learn a tremendous amount by being in an Orthodox atmosphere. They will certainly acquire a great deal of head knowledge there, but more importantly they will be able to grow in their acquisition of a truly Orthodox mindset. During our trip, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, announced: “India can deal with the militant Pakistan groups. India can deal with the Maoist terrorist groups. But India is going to have a real problem with Christians!” He has such a strong anti-Christian stance because he is a fundamentalist Hindu. His political party, the BJP, is making life difficult for Christians throughout India, including those whom we were dealing with. May God strengthen them to deal with the direct and indirect forms of persecution they are facing and will face.
Metropolitan Hilarion was amazed to hear how our missionary trip went. It reminded him of the turbulent encounters which St. Paul experienced during some of his missionary visits. He interpreted this to mean that God is blessing this work, and that the enemy of our salvation is trying to oppose God’s grace.
When a Roman Catholic friend of Demetri heard that we have baptized more than 300 people, he was stunned and quite jealous. He said, “We’ve been here for decades, and we’ve never baptized so many people! How did you do it???” There was a beautiful transformation happening with the people here. One case that stood out remarkably was a young girl who had an eating disorder and looked like a living skeleton. She hadn’t eaten for four months, and her mother was in tears, despairing. But after Fr. Athanasius went to their house and blessed this girl, she began to recover. And then a few days later after she was baptized, she acquired a very peaceful and angelic appearance. Her spiritual and physical state were completely changed.
As for me, I don’t know if I will be coming back. A part of me was reproaching myself for disliking India primarily because of external factors, such as the climate, the language barrier, the mosquitos, the diseases, the spicy food, the chaos, the noise, etc. But I’m seeing more clearly now that my inner conflict goes much more deeply than just those externals. I am seeing more and more that being a missionary requires a unique set of talents. It is not enough to be just a devoted Christian with a good understanding of Orthodoxy, but one must also have the gift of speaking and the discernment to know what your listeners need to hear. It also requires a tremendous amount of patience and dedication, to spend years and years of sowing. And it helps if a missionary is an extrovert, who knows how to deal with all different kinds of people. I see that I lack these gifts and qualities, but I am glad to see that there are other people who have these gifts who are willing to sacrifice their time and efforts for these people in India who have so many spiritual needs.
I worry about this group of newly baptized Orthodox Christians. It will take a lot of work and quite some time for them to mature in Orthodoxy. I have heard that one problem the Orthodox Church in Japan has faced is that for the most part, people there haven’t been able to acquire fully the Orthodox mindset. A big part of the problem is that the average Orthodox Christian there does not have access to the lives and writings of the holy Fathers. Maybe the same fate awaits these Orthodox Christians of India. But even if this does happen, not all is lost. After all, God is their judge, and what really matters in the end is whether or not these people will be saved. They have not been given “five talents” or even two. But if they can do the best they can with whatever little they have been given, then God will tell them: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Master.”
Please join me in my prayers for the good people of India, that God will help them grow and reach “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”