Chapter 18 // Contents // Chapter 20
WHY I CONVERTED TO
THE ORTHODOX FAITH
One day in the spring of 1971, a taxi stopped outside a house in a suburb of Athens. Two men got out, one wearing a black suit and a priest's collar, the other a young Orthodox priest-monk with the physical appearance of a patriarch. The latter paid the taxi-fare, ignoring the objections of the former, who was Father George.
"We are now in Greece, and the people in the East are hospitable", commented his host, Father Serapion Savich.
Father Serapion took his role as tour-guide seriously. Father George found it difficult to keep up with him, as he felt that his guide could easily show him four different monasteries in four different areas of the Attica region in one day. Even though he complained about being tired, Father George realized that without Father Serapion, he would never have discovered the small Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches hidden in little backstreets, each one having it's own history depicted in the walt-murals. They also visited a new monastery with four churches dating back to the 17th Century. This monastery was now the home of a brotherhood inspired by Serbian priest-monks - Father Serapion belonged to a close-knitted group of pure Orthodox priest-monks.
But the time finally arrived when they disagreed. Father George was telling Father Serapion how a Serbian Orthodox family used to attend the services at the monastery, and often used to receive holy communion.
"How could you do it?" asked Father Serapion. "Donít you know that if you offer them Catholic holy communion, you transform them into Roman Catholics?"
"I know it was illogical but what else could I do? Could I send them away as heretics, even though I knew they were not? Also, there are no Orthodox priests in Tessino. At least, by being with me, they could find something similar to their own rituals. I agree, it was inexcusable for me to offer them holy communion, but if I had not done it, the church would have lost them".
They both agreed that Father George should not have given Catholic holy communion to the Orthodox family. This was when Father George ascertained the characteristic intolerance of the Orthodox monks, who would rather envisage a new reality than compromise with the status quo. He also realized that his conversion would also solve the problem with the Serbian family who unknowingly became Uniates. He himself would bring them back to the Orthodox flock.
Father George was also introduced to a group of young theologians in Athens. They all prayed together in an apartment filled with the fragrant smell of incense, then sat talking and analyzing and criticizing with whomever was available (eg.a bishop).
"Well, now you can see how we Orthodox live?" commented Father Serapion with a smile.
On another occassion, they climbed a steep hill to meet Father Simon, who lived in the monastery at the top of the hill. The famous venerable father told them that most of humanity had strayed but, thanks to "...the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5, 13) or the righteous few, the human race will survive.
"Did you hear this? Father Simon is more of an optimist than you are", observed Father Serapion.
"It's easy for him to be optimistic as he hasn't lived nine years in Rome, as I have", replied Father George, as everyone around them burst out laughing.
Finally, they went to the inauguration ceremony of the Inter-Orthodox Centre in Penteli, where two patriarchs held the limelight. The archimandrite, who delivered the eulogy, used prophetic utterances:
"The Middle Ages was dominated by Catholicism, the recent years by Protestantism, and now the Orthodox are in a position to inspire human history"
Later, Father George went on a pilgrimage to Saint Nectarios on the island of Aegina and to the Church of the Virgin Mary on the island of Tinos. He was invited to say a few words to the students at the religious school in Tinos. This gave him the opportunity to speak about his experiences in Hungary, and for the need of the church to remain neutral in political upheavals
"Amen", replied the school principal, even though he was connected with the ecclesiastical group that supported the dictator George Papadopoulos. While on the island, Father George discovered a small monastery which simply fascinated him. Built amongst the palm trees on the banks of a stream, the small 18th Century church had two cells and a small secret school nearby - all dating back to the Ottoman Empire.
Father George then toured Northern Greece, visiting the Meteora, comprising a series of monastic buildings in which lived a dynamic group of young monks; various towns and cities with Byzantine churches; and finally, Thessaloniki. From there, he went to Mount Athos, where he visited the various monasteries, meeting several modest monks, both modernists and zealots, who would never have believed that the priest visiting them would one day be an Orthodox priest. At the convent of Stavronikita, with it's many treasures and it's wonderful Nave adorned by Theophanes the Cretan, and where a group of young monks had settled, Father George met the Father Superior. Speaking French, they spent hours discussing man's problems. Looking at Father George with sympathy in his eyes, he commented that Father George did not look like the "Italians".
"Yes", he answered, after being asked a specific question by Father George. "The Patriarch Athenagoras is Orthodox, but is making some unacceptable things in the ecumenical relationships. This is why we have stopped commemorating him, and this is why Mount Athos is reacting. Of course, his attitude is dictated somewhat by sentimentalism, and sentimentalism is always superficial and elusive".
When Father George returned from Greece in the summer of 1971, he realized the truth behind these words. The nuns at the convent at Comano liked him, but only superficially. They used to write poems about the icons he loved or about the cats he used to feed! But there was now a barrier between them after his return from Greece, and he found the atmosphere at the convent becoming unbearable. The nuns were not surprised when, one day, they saw him carrying a large trunk; he was slowly packing his belongings.
Father George's parents loved to travel. When he was ordained in 1962, his mother managed, strangely enough, to get permission from the Hungarian Authorities to travel to Rome.
Father George showed her sights of Rome. They seemed to get on very well with each other. When he was in Paris, both his parents came to visit him, and problems soon developed between the three of them. His parents seemed driven by something as they wanted to visit and see everything. In fact, they were capable of visiting three large cities in one day! This urge to see everything is probably explained by the words of Saint Paul: they were people "even as others, who have no hope" (I.Thessalonians 4, 13). Father George preferred a quiet and peaceful vacation, admiring churches and nature alike. His mother, on the other hand, caused macabre scenes of affection or jealousy.
"I have really spoilt your mother, and this is why she's acting like this", confessed his father. It is difficult for three people to live together, and this is why the mystery of the Holy Trinity is indeed a mystery.
When he had left the Order of the Jesuits, Father George had really felt what it meant to be free, and this feeling was strengthened by the letters from Mark Legran. He then realized that his compliance had encouraged his mother's aggressive reactions, and to placate her when they argued, he would pay her compliments and buy her gifts, such as roses. In this way, peace would reign for awhile, but he considered these gestures acts of submission. But now that he had left the order, he would not allow this state of affairs to continue.
Unfortunately, his father fell seriously ill in 1969, which meant he could not now force his mother to accept his freedom, as this would now be an act of duress and not an act of liberation. But he did remind her that when he was in his teens, her negative reactions had caused a backlash from him, which resulted in him joining the Jesuit Order. In 1971, he obtained an Italian passport, and was preparing to return back to Hungary. But how could he combine freedom with kindness? He was planning to stay in a hotel and not at his paternal home, as his family ties were becoming unbearable. But he sensed that some changes were about to happen and he was proved right.
In September, his mother fell ill after a pulmonary embolism. Father George immediately send a telegram to a Uniate priest friend of his, asking for details concerning his mother's illness. He felt a sense of optimism while he waited for an answer. One evening, returning from a day-trip, he felt a premonition of bad news, which was noticed by his companions. When he arrived home, he found a telegram saying that his motherís condition had deteriorated. He immediately left for Rome, picked up his visa for Hungary, and arrived in Budapest after two days.
The hospital in which his mother was undergoing treatment seemed to give off an air of atheism. This was enhanced by the look of contempt a lady doctor gave Father George when she saw him hanging a crucifix near his mother's bed. There were patients lying everywhere, while the nurses ran around, smoked, listened to music on their little transistor radios, and generally not working too seriously. Talk about death with music! He was eventually allowed to see his mother only after her illnesses started affecting her psychologically - she had suffered a stroke due to complications caused by cancer, which no one had realized she had. Nevertheless, she still recognized her son.
"Can you pray?" he immediately asked her. She moved her head, while saying in a breathless voice: "I don't want to".
This reply, added to the atrocious environment, upset Father George very much, causing him to go and visit a vicar friend at the Uniate Church.
The following day his mother felt more restless and wanted to sit up, so they sedated her. She went into a coma that afternoon, basically being at her deathbed. The doctors did not give her more than twenty-four hours.
Father George sat with his father on a bench in the corridor outside his mother's room. He would not allow his father, who was still seriously ill, to see his mother in the state that she was in. Suddenly, something inside him forced him to go inside the room. Her mouth was open, and then it slowly closed. She had passed away.
At that moment, it was as if God had sent him. He placed his stole on his mother's head and read her the prayer of forgiveness (absolution). He gazed at her lovingly. The woman who had given him life was now without life, and her head... was in her son's arms, who was praying for the saviour of her soul.
Father George then remembered a letter that his mother had written to him, after reading Georgiouís book. "From the Twenty-Fifth Hour to Eternity", which he had translated.
"I made a comparison. The child that was jealous of his father because he was the 'father' of the whole village - as a priest - well, this child is now me. I am jealous because you are not exclusively mine. And this is because I admire you. Some day you will mediate for me in the final step towards God".
After her death, Father George brought his father back with him to Comano. They stayed there for about three months. His father grieved throughout this period. Father George finally decided to leave the monastery. The nuns, for whom he had untiringly performed the services and interpreted the theologies of the Church Fathers seemed apathetic as they waved their handkerchiefs at him. There were no tears and no sorrow at his departure. It was a.s if he was just leaving for a few hours, and not for good.
Chapter 18 // Contents // Chapter 20
Page created: 21-7-2008.
Last update: 21-7-2008.