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ASK AN ORTHODOX PRIEST
Not really religion related but what made you decide to be a priest Pater?
Answer to Question 296
I was born in London at a time when the Orthodox Church was almost unknown in the west. In London there were only two Orthodox churches which were in central London. As an infant I must have attended church regularly because up to the age of two we lived just around the corner from the church. After two we moved to the north of London and as there was no local church I grew up without any memory of ever attending church. We didnít have a car and traveling by London transport on Sundays was no easy task. At that time England still held on to certain Christian values and Sunday was a day of rest. It was forbidden to open shops on Sundays and the trains and underground services were closed. The only transport that was available was a skeleton bus service which only covered the main routes so to get to church from our house you had to change three buses and hope that the journey didnít take you three hours. My father always took the long journey but my mother with four young children found it a little daunting and easier to stay at home. Thus as a family we were assigned to a life without the influence of the church, but we still retained our Christian identity at home. Mum always had a home iconostasis with various icons of saints where she ritually and reverently lit the vigil lamp on Saturday evenings and on the Great feasts. For us the children, this place was sacred and equivalent to a church. Anyway I mentioned all this to paint a picture of how I grew up without the church, but also to show how God was still very much alive in the family home.
I think the next story is what probably influenced me the most. When I was about seven, Dad took us to a large department store to buy us Christmas presents. I remember it well because it was the first and only time. We each had to choose a present, but we were to share the presents amongst ourselves. My sister chose the Monopoly game, my elder brother chose a chess set, my younger brother chose a compendium box with a selection of various table games and I chose the Childrenís picture Bible. In the following months we would fight as to whose turn it was to read it, but eventually it became solely mine and over the next few years I would read and read the stories over and over again. My favourite was the story of Joseph which always made me cry and even today when I read it, I get all emotional inside and canít stop the waterworks. The childrenís picture Bible may be simply written but it gave me knowledge of the basic stories in both the Old and New Testaments.
When I was about eleven I overheard my parents talking about a holy mountain where people go to become saints. They must have been talking about monks and Mount Athos, but because I knew the story of Moses and how he went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments I immediately pictured in my youthful mind a special mountain where if you go to the top and stay there for forty days you automatically become a saint. Then I had a thought Ė When I grow up that is what I will do, I will go to this mountain and stay for forty days and talk with God and then I will become a saint. This might be just a childish fantasy but the memory remained with me into adulthood which you will understand a little later on.
I grew up just like any other teenager in London and although I believed in God I grew up in an age where science was rapidly taking over peopleís belief in God. Society didnít allow teenage boys to openly admit that they believed in God otherwise you would be classed as a sissy. I remember an occasion when I was 12 just outside the school gates. Our last lesson of the day was R.E. (Religious Education) and with a group of friends we were discussing who believed in God. When it came to my turn I said that I believed that there was some ultimate power that governed the universe but declined to call that power God. As I started the 20 minute walk home. I was overcome with guilt. I remembered that Christ said ďwhosoever denies me before men, him will I deny before my heavenly father.Ē My guilt led to uncontrollable tears and I started talking to God justifying my action. I said things like ďI had no choice, if I admitted my belief in you they would have made fun of me and I would have been humiliated. Are we not supposed to hold our head up high and be proud?Ē As an adult I confessed this denial, and even though I know the sin has been forgiven, I still consider it as my greatest sin.
Nothing else of interest happened to me until I reached the age of 17. I wonít tell you exactly what I experienced, but one night I heard a heavenly voice which was so overwhelming and convincing that for me it was proof beyond any doubt that there was a spiritual world. This was a turning point in my life. I hungered to learn anything and everything about the spiritual world. I suppose I should have visited a church and spoken with a priest, but as I had no contact with the church I felt they wouldnít have been able to answer all my questions. I felt that they would give me the brush off with the saying my mother and others of her age would use: ďbelief and donít searchĒ. In other words have blind faith and donít search for answers. This was something I couldnít do: My logic told me that we must search for the truth. I had certain beliefs and I needed to find reassurance that what I believed was the truth.
I began searching for books that would help me understand the spiritual world. I visited libraries and bookshops and the only books I could find were books on the occult. I began reading these books but discarded them as untruths: they didnít fit in with my logic of truth. Sadly, in all the bookshops and libraries that I visited I didnít find any Orthodox books which would have drawn my attention and probably answered many of my questions. My search went on for almost ten years.
During the Christmas of 83, we had for dinner a cousin from Cyprus and a friend of his who were studying together in London. The subject of religion came to the forefront and the friend, seeing that I was interested and had many questions suggested that in the New Year we visit a monastery in Essex where there would be a theologian who could answer all my questions. I jumped at the chance. I had long wanted to attend a service and the excuse that I would be going mainly to ask questions seemed like the opportune moment. We fixed the date for Sunday 6th January and I waited impatiently for the day to arrive.
On the morning of the 6th I received a phone call from the cousin saying we should cancel the trip because overnight it had snowed so heavily that driving 50 miles to the monastery would be very dangerous. I disagreed and luckily so did the friend so slowly we set off on our journey. When we reached the monastery we entered the church to discover that except for two more people, we were the only visitors that day. It was my first time at an Orthodox Liturgy and the solemnity and humility of the fathers made a big impression on me.
After the service we were invited to have dinner with the monks and nuns and I sat opposite the theologian whom I bombarded with my various questions. Sure enough he answered my questions with answers that agreed with my logic. One of the monks also look me under his wing and for the next few hours I followed him around the monastery asking him other questions while he carried on with his work. The time came for us to leave and I asked him if I could come another day and continue our discussions, He said I could visit whenever I wanted, but Iím not sure he realized what he was letting himself in for. The next day at 9 in the morning I went back to the monastery and found him and he put up with me until 11 at night when he had to close the monastery gates.
At the monastery they also had a bookstore with Orthodox books in English and I had such an appetite to learn more that I would read about four books a week. From what I read I discovered that I had always been Orthodox. I had always lived by my convictions and never allowed my friends to influence me to do things that I felt uncomfortable with or that were against my ideas of what was moral and ethical. At times I wouldnít join in with certain activities and I felt that I was a little strange or weird and didnít totally fit in with the rest of society. I now knew the reason why Ė I wasnít weird Ė I was Orthodox although I didnít know it at the time. My relationship with the monastery grew and I became a regular visitor that within a couple of months I was considered a close friend. During Holy week I stayed at the monastery and attended all the services which are a lot more than what we do in parishes and on Holy Thursday I took Holy Communion for the very first time.
On Easter night something happened which I took as a personal message from Christ. The Easter service was performed in an Old church about half a mile down from the monastery. As I had a car I was asked to go back to the monastery before the actual Resurrection service was to begin and pick up the founder of the monastery blessed Fr. Sophrony. This I took as a great honour and it became my duty for the next couple of years. I returned to the church with Fr. Sophrony and because the church was so overcrowded I went through the sanctuary and took my place at the front of the church near the iconostasis.
With fifteen minutes to midnight all the lights were put out and we were asked to remain in the darkness in silence praying until the priest would come out with the Easter light at exactly 12 midnight. As the lights went out an old woman who was standing a few feet away from me had a heart attack and died on the spot. There was a woman doctor there whom I had met and she tried to resuscitate her. I watched as she gave her mouth to mouth and saw that she was doing it completely wrong. I wanted to go and show her but I didnít dare presume to know better than a doctor. The minutes clicked away and it was almost midnight. I finally plucked up the courage to take over from the doctor. I bent over and held the dead womanís nose and breathed into her mouth. It was exactly midnight and the fathers opened the curtain to come out with the Resurrection light. At that moment the woman came back to life and took her first breath and I heard a voice inside me saying: ďyou see I am the life and Resurrection, I can take life and I can give it back.Ē It was as if what happened was for my benefit, that Christ used the woman to show me that he had the power to resurrect the dead. After the service during the Resurrection breakfast, the monk who had helped me during my first visit came and thanked me for helping his mother. I had no idea who she was, but I told him that it all happened as a message for me and he seemed to understand what I was trying to say. Needless to say I became close with the woman and called her mum while she called me her guardian angel.
My life had changed from my first visit to the monastery, but over the next few months I became very ascetical leading a very secluded spiritual life. If was as if I had become a completely different and new person and nothing of my old life had meaning any more. Christ took over and filled my every desire and all I wanted was peace and quiet to pray and come closer to God. After a couple of years I realized I couldnít continue living in seclusion and it was time to think about entering a monastery. At that time the monastery in Essex didnít have room for more monks and so I decided to look for a monastery abroad. I visited Mount Athos and although my visit was enlightening I didnít feel that it was the place for me. Then one evening I heard my parents talking of the Troodidissa Monastery in Cyprus that was in the mountain range of their village. I decided there and then that that was where I would go. I made the arrangements and entered the monastery on the 21st May 1986.
Monasticism agreed with me very well and I was an excellent novice, but something was missing, I didnít feel at home. After a few months I was out walking with another monk and as we were looking at the wonderful view of the valley below us, I told him about the story when I was eleven and that as a young child I had decided to go to a mountain and speak with God and become a saint. He said: ďthere you see, God has led you to your mountain.Ē I looked at the view and said: ďNo, this is not my mountainĒ. I stayed on at the monastery and just after Christmas made my final decision and left.
I returned to England and people began to tell me that I should become a priest. I had never thought of myself as a priest, but only as a humble monk. The two were completely different vocations. A priest is involved with responsibility and taking care of the spiritual needs of a flock. A monk on the other hand doesnít enter a monastery to tend to other, but solely for the purpose of living together with a group of people who have the same desire and aim of devoting themselves to a life of prayer. I told my spiritual father what people were saying and he agreed that I should think seriously about becoming a priest. I thought on what my spiritual father had said, but didnít rush to make a decision. At heart I was still a monk and wanted to remain celibate. My spiritual father was against this. He felt that priests in parish churches should be married and even though there were many celibate priests serving in town parishes, he felt that it was easy for a celibate priest to fall into temptation or even be a victim of a scandal not of his own doing. But he suggested that I go to various churches in London and ask the priests for their opinion. They werenít much help. The celibate priests praised the celibate life and the married priests praised the married life. I left things as they were leaving it to God to show me what he wanted me to do. In the meantime I took up lessons to learn Iconography.
After three years the question of becoming a priest again came to the foreground and I took this as a sign that it was Godís calling. I spoke with the Archbishop and his only concern was that my Greek was not very good and that I should come to Cyprus for a year to attend the Seminary School for priests. I was reluctant to go but we agreed on just one year. Even though the lessons were in Greek I passed the first year with excellence and returned to London. The Archbishop then said that I must go back for another year. This I was not going to accept because living conditions at the school were terrible and most weekends when all the other students went to their homes, I stayed in the school by myself without heating in the cold winter and without the use of the kitchen to make a tea or coffee. The Archbishop then said that he would arrange for me to go to Patmos where they had an excellent school. In the meantime I was told of his plans for me. I was the first British born Cypriot who had decided to become a priest. As I also was to be a celibate priest, plans were being made to prepare me for the Episcopate. This was something I had never imagined: it was hard enough to think of myself as a monk now preparing to become a priest, but I definitely didnít have the qualifications or ability to hold the office of a bishop.
The time came for the schools to reopen and the Archbishop told me that he didnít arrange for me to go to Patmos and that I must return to Cyprus. I refused and he gave me an ultimatum: either I go back or he will not ordain me. I refused and accepted that it was not Godís will. Soon I was being told by other priests to go to Cyprus and be ordained. This set me thinking if I could be a priest in Cyprus. Certainly in England I could have devoted myself to helping three generations of Orthodox whom the church had failed because the priests stubbornly insisted on their Greek heritage and offered nothing spiritual for the thousands of British born Orthodox who no longer spoke Greek. They were people that I understood because I was one of them. The church felt it more important to hold on to a national identity and because the churches were still full with first generation Greeks they were blind to see the spiritual needs of the newer generations.
If I had become a priest in London then I think my decision to remain celibate would have been justified because I would have had little time for a wife and family. But now with the question of coming to Cyprus, what could I offer other than the Sunday Liturgy? It was time to rethink. If I was to become a priest in Cyprus I had to marry otherwise my free time would become a temptation. Thus in 1992 I came to Cyprus to find a wife and then be ordained a priest. During my stay I came across many obstacles and some that followed me from England. By December things did not turn out as I had hoped and returned to England for the Christmas holidays with the intention of returning in January to box all my belongings and return to England for good. I had finally accepted that it was not Godís will for me to be a priest. With this in mind I returned to Cyprus to sort out my belongings and then things started to change. I met my wife and the doors which I previously found closed began to open.
Within three months I was married and the next Sunday I was ordained a deacon. Everything just happened so quickly that I didnít have time to change my mind. I was ordained a priest after six weeks and I can honestly say that I have never regretted my decision to come to Cyprus.
This then is my life story and I like to believe that I became a Priest because God called me to the priesthood and not because I had any aspirations or ambitions or desire for honour and glory. I didnít make any rush decisions: from the first mention of the priesthood, 6 years passed before it actually came to be realized. I certainly didnít enter the priesthood for the monthly income. As a lay person I had my own business which guaranteed me an income of three thousand pounds a week which I gave up for a priestly income of 270 pounds a month.