Ponderings of a Byzantine Priest

Just a Little Smooch…

mary-of-egypt-02One year ago today, Thanksgiving Sunday (according to the Canadian reckoning), I was at Madonna House in Combermere with all the seminarians. It was a wonderful weekend with the MH community, men and women who live together following the Little Mandate of Catherine Doherty under the promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It was truly refreshing to leave the bustling city and join in their life of simplicity, living off the land, really in touch with creation – and the Creator who made it all.

Our visitation made a lasting impression on the seminarians – and on the members of Madonna House. I find myself here again, this time alone for a week of prayer, reflection, and rest, a type of extended Sabbath as the seminarians are on Study Break. Almost every member of MH that I have met have asked about the seminarians and when will be their next visit. Perhaps in the second term, during the Great Fast is all I can offer at this point.

Two years ago, I was invited to MH during the hottest part of the summer to give a talk to the community on all the Eastern Churches. I enjoyed the experience immensely, and I think they did, too. I met at that time a member by the name of Rose (I changed her name for this piece). We found out that we both have a love and devotion to St. Mary of Egypt. As we shared about her impact on our own personal spiritual journeys, I mentioned to her that I had received from a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal (Fr. Groeschel’s community) a first-class relic of St. Mary of Egypt, with the accompanying authentication documentation. Rose looked at me, and with a little smile, asked me to bring the relics with me next I visit “so I can give her a little smooch!” And one year ago, Rose was able to make that smooch a reality.

A little smooch. I love this phrase. It betrays an intimacy that is oft forgotten in our relationship with the saints. It was the very Friar that gave me the relic of Mary that taught me by example of this intimacy. We were at World Youth Day in Paris (1997) and awaiting to be let into the area for priests to concelebrate the final Eucharist. It was rumoured that Pope John Paul II would announce that St Therese of Lisieux would be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church (indeed, JPII did make this announcement at the end of the Mass). What caught my attention was how my brother priest referred to this great saint with great intimacy, calling her “Tessa” like she was some older and endearing sister.

It got me thinking about my relationship with the saints. I have to admit, in the final analysis, I treated the saints with a consumerist attitude. I wanted or needed something (not necessarily a material item) and I would ask them for their prayers. That was it. I never got to know them, to love them. It was that day in Paris when I started to re-think things. And I started with Mary of Egypt.

I first discovered this incredible woman when I was in seminary and started to investigate the Eastern Churches. I had learned that a certain story about her and Zosimas the priest was read during the fifth week of the Great Fast. I waited that year for the Thursday Matins and escaped from the Latin Seminary to the Ukrainian Catholic Seminary (the very one of which I am now Rector), and while it was read in Ukrainian, I followed in English. I was moved to tears by her repentance. I was moved with my identification with her of her wickedness, of her discovery of the hole that cannot be filled but by One, by her desire to venerate the instrument of love and mercy (the Holy Cross), and her obedience to a simple and challenging ascetical life of prayer, her joy. She has become for me the model of an asceticism of joy (more on that later).

So when I brought her relics to Rose for a smooch, I have to admit that I gave a smooch as well. As a matter of fact, Mary gets a smooch from me every night before I retire. I have come to l know her life, and she prays for me because I have revealed my life to her, and both of us, brother and sister together in baptism, in Christ’s death and resurrection, live in His mercy and love, she already perfected as one of the saints, me being perfected by His grace with her prayers.

55 Maxims

by Fr. Thomas Hopko

  1. Be always with Christ.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you want.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer that you do by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times a day.
  5. Have a short prayer that you constantly repeat when your mind is not occupied with other things.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation.
  8. Keep the Church’s fasting rules.
  9. Spend some time in silence every day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical services regularly
  12. Go to confession and communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cut them off at the start.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings regularly to a trusted person.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person.
  19. Be polite with everyone.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, and a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all, with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, and then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful in all things.
  30. Be cheerful
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and be attentive.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. When we speak, speak simply, clearly, firmly and directly.
  37. Flee imagination, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, mumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  41. Don’t seek or expect praise or pity from anyone.
  42. We don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God alone.
  46. Accept criticism gratefully but test it critically.
  47. Give advice to others only when asked or obligated to do so.
  48. Do nothing for anyone that they can and should do for themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and with others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, not on sin and darkness.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your own faults and sins peacefully, serenely, because you know that God’s mercy is greater than your wretchedness.
  54. When we fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear and without shame.

Untitled Poem – June 23, 1988

the suffering of the child
heralds the goodness
of the coming age.
with every tear, with
every pant of breath, the
suffering deepens.
the joy of the act
enlightens the child, so
much so,
he grows, matures
and teaches.
fruits of his father
are passed to me with
his suffering endured
on that wood. his
joy surpasses all
happiness. this
too is mine at his
giving. could i ask
for anything, then
but to suffer
and endure as he?

Isaiah: The Fifth Gospel


In Winter of 2004, I followed a graduate course on Eastern Christian Hermeneutics and Exegesis in the Prophecy of Isaiah. It was taught by an excellent man and professor, Fr. Andrew Onuferko. At the time he was also the Acting Director of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at Saint Paul University, Ottawa. One section of the course highlighted the early Church and their use of the only Scriptures they knew of at the time what we Christians now call the Old Testament. The author, John Sawyer in his excellent book, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity, notes that the early Christians used Isaiah extensively in their evangelizing efforts, even informally creating a ‘Gospel narrative’ something very much akin to what we now know as the Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Sawyer proposes such a Gospel narrative in a collection of verses of Isaiah woven together. I have reproduced it below for your marvelling!

Behold a virgin shall conceive and bring forth a son (7:14 LXX, Vg), a rod out of the stem of Jesse (11:1). His name shall be called ‘Immanuel’ (7:14), ‘Wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace’ (9:6), Key of David (22:22), the Christ (45:1 LXX, Vg). To us a child is born (9:6). The ox knows its owner and the ass its master’s crib (1:3). The gentiles will come to your light and the kings to your rising … they shall bring gold and incense (60:6). The idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence (19:1). Behold my servant … in whom my soul delights (42:1). The spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding … (11:2). By the way of the sea, beyond Jordan and Galilee of the nations (9:1), the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor… (61:1). Surely he has taken our infirmities and borne our sicknesses (53:4). Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened … then shall the lame man leap like a hart (35:5-6). The glory of the Lord is risen upon you (60:1). He shall be a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation (28:16), but also a stone of offence and a rock of stumbling to both the houses of Israel (8:14). He said, ‘Go and tell this people, Hear indeed, but understand not …’ (6:9).

I will weep bitterly … because of the destruction of the daughter of my people (that is, Jerusalem 22:4). Say to the daughter of Zion, Your saviour comes (62:11 LXX, Vg). My house will be called a house of prayer for all people (56:7). My servants shall eat but you shall be hungry, my servants shall drink but you shall be thirsty … (65:13). Ho everyone that thirsts, come to the waters … (55:1). He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter (53:7). The government (that is, the cross bearing the inscription ‘King of the Jews’ on it) shall be upon his shoulder (9:6), and there shall come up briars and thorns (5:6). I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to those that pluck out the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting (50:6). He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities (53:5). From the sole of the foot even to the head there is no soundness, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds (1:6). He was numbered between the transgressors … and made intercession for the transgressors (53:12). They made his grave … with a rich man (53:9). His tomb will be glorious (11:10 Vg). Now I will arise, says the Lord, now I will lift myself up, now I will be exalted (33:10). Then shall your light break forth like the dawn (58:8). Seek the Lord while he may be found (55:6). Behold my servant shall understand, he shall be exalted and lifted up (52:13 LXX, Vg); he shall be high and lifted up (6:1). I will set a sign among them … I will send survivors to the nations, to the sea, to Africa and Lydia, to Italy and Greece, to islands afar off, to those who have not heard about me and have not seen my glory; and they will proclaim my glory to the nations (66:19).

John F. A. Sawyer. The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 49-50.