Theme: “And You Visited Me”
by Fr. Steven Belonick
by Harrison Russin
by Inga Leonova
by Andrew Boyd
More information on the authors and contributors can be found here.
By Father Steven Belonick
Over the course of thirty-four years as an Orthodox priest, I have visited countless people with varying degrees of sickness—some with curable ailments and others with grave diseases. Each visit presented me with an opportunity to witness not only human anxiety and frailty but also heroic and steadfast faith. Each visit, as well, magnified my own fear and revealed my own paltry belief in God, teaching me valuable lessons. Two such visits still stand out in my memory: my first trip to a nursing home, and going to see a diabetic named “Alex.”
Impressions of my first visit to local nursing home as a newly assigned pastor in Binghamton, New York, remain fresh. Infirm and abandoned, their own names lost amid their decaying neuro-pathways, the “residents” would continually call out for help—but would receive no response. Confined to wheelchairs and beds, they hungrily sought acknowledgement of their presence, searching for someone to talk to within their shrinking world. Dumbfounded, young, and unsure of how to handle this mass of feeble humanity, I found that just uttering a prayer for my parish members who resided there elicited attempts on their part to make the sign of the cross. Many years later (and, in helping to care for my own 94-year-old mother), I would become quite comfortable conversing with—yes, and sometimes even feeding—elderly friends and parish members, but the atmosphere of that first visit had shattered my comfort zone, and upon leaving the nursing home, I horrifyingly reflected: “Steven, will this be your fate also?”
My own fear about becoming ill, old, and dying leaped from my psyche into my cerebral cortex. I was equally human; I was subject to death. Lesson One.
My visit to Alex, an elderly parishioner who had suffered for decades from severe diabetes, was equally striking. Alex was preparing to undergo a leg amputation (just below the knee), so I visited him in the hospital to hear his Confession and to give him Holy Communion. Amputations were not new to Alex: because of his disease, he had undergone many of them over the years. But, he faced this particular one with actual humor, despite great physical pain and emotional grief. He greeted me by saying, “Father, here we are again. I think I am going to heaven piece by piece.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I remember doing both, as I glanced at his well worn (indeed, nearly shredded prayer book) on his bedside stand.
My own faith was miniscule compared to the solid faith Alex had developed through prayer and suffering. It was true: faith the size of a mustard seed could grow into a flowering, oversized shrub, when watered with constant prayer and steadfast loyalty to God. Lesson Two.
As I traversed the hundreds of hospital hallways and nursing home rooms during my priesthood, I learned lesson upon lesson—not just about visiting the sick and the suffering, but also from the sick and the suffering. But, nothing trumped the lessons I learned when I became ill myself.
Over the last two years, I underwent three major surgeries, one of which took me to the brink of death. Post-surgery for the most serious operation, I spent twenty-one days in the hospital and an entire summer in recuperation. During that long hospital stay, I increasingly sensed that I was becoming “institutionalized,” influenced negatively by the rhythms of hospital routine: each day seemed like an eternity, and I wondered if I would ever get home. My ties to “home” were coming unlashed.
Visits from family and friends eased my discomforts and the anxieties. They brought a sense of normalcy and hope. They brought news from the world outside. They gave me an opportunity to laugh. They gave me permission to talk about my trials and to weep. They listened to me recount the details of my “surgical stories” time and time again.
Being one of the sick and the suffering taught me even more invaluable lessons: visits from fellow human beings are healing; just the presence of another human being is healing. Most noteworthy of all, I eventually learned that the “visitor” and “visited” become “Christ” to each other. Jesus’ words (paraphrased), “…when you have done so to the least of the brethren, you have done so to Me,” now take on new meaning: for, when we are in the role of the “Visitor,” we are in the guise of Christ coming to the needy; likewise, when we ourselves are the “Visited,” we are equally in the guise of Christ, in the image of His humanity.
Truly, these visits thus contain a mystery about them, in which divine grace penetrates the most humble of human conditions. Yet, visiting the sick is not an easy thing to do; the “waters are deep.” But our Lord is there in the depths — present in us and present in those whom we visit. Therefore, we need not shy away from such visits, due to discomfort or fear.
As a seminary student, as part of my theological education, I had been required to make only few hospital visits during my senior year. (Now, incoming students at my alma mater, I am happy to report, are required to fulfill 400 hours of hospital work under the supervision of a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor, thus earning 1 full credit of CPE). It took me a long time and repeated visits to learn how to minister to the sick and suffering in an effective manner. It took time to grow accustomed to sights, smells, and sounds. It took time for me to learn active listening skills instead of digressing into self-absorbed talk or flippant verbiage about the weather, or last night’s baseball game. To become better at being a “visitor to the sick,” I even underwent two years of training at OnondagaPastoralCounselingCenter in Upstate New York. Little by little, I was able to overcome awkwardness in body language and dialogue.
Such formal training, although certainly extremely helpful, is not always possible. If we lack the opportunity for formal training, humility and faith can go a long way in equipping us to minister to the sick and needy. Clearly, in the Gospels, Jesus calls all Christians to visit the sick, suffering, and the forgotten. Each time we make the effort to do so, we have the opportunity to become “Christ” to others, in ways we can’t explain and unbeknownst to ourselves. What a privilege it is for us to have the possibility to imitate His compassion and to let His compassion flow through us. If we accept His bidding, such ministry to the sick and the suffering will unite us to Him. In both the “Visited” and the “Visitor,” He is present; therefore, our human “presence” to each other is astoundingly significant.
Scripture tells us that God has “visited and redeemed His people” in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, who came to us when we were sick with sin, overcome in darkness, and dead to real Life. Scripture further tells us that Jesus was not only concerned with our ultimate salvation, but that He was also concerned with “the cripples, the deformed, the blind, the mute, and many other besides” (Matt 15:30). In other words, Jesus’ ministry was directed to each unique person; after all, He “knows the name and age of each, even from his mother’s womb” (Liturgy of St Basil the Great). God’s Word also informs us that Jesus came bearing our burdens and experiencing woes. He came both as Healer and as One willing to suffer; all of us can choose to imitate Him in the former, and all of us will ultimately involuntarily imitate Him in the latter.
Visiting the sick and the suffering affords us so many necessary lessons as Christians. Let us wade into these deep waters, where we find none other than Christ Himself.
By Harrison Russin
I had an appointment to meet with the prison chaplain in his office at 1:00 PM. I arrived my habitual ten minutes early. Actually, it was probably earlier than that, because I wasn’t sure how long it would take to clear prison security. I emptied my pockets, walked through a metal detector, signed a logbook – the result was an odd feeling of boarding an airplane mixed with visiting a nursing home.
I sat in that waiting building for fifteen minutes or so as the guards paged the chaplain I was supposed to meet. No answer, no answer. Finally they offered to take me to his office where I could wait for him, and perhaps meet one of the other chaplains. I obliged, and followed the guard on the short walk outside. Arriving at the chaplain’s department I found one guard in the corridor, and four inmates inside the chaplain’s office doing clerical work. My escorting guard told me to sit in the office and wait for the chaplain.
So I was left in a small office with four prisoners, serving sentences of thirty years to life, while a guard lounged in the corridor. Welcome to your prison chaplaincy internship.
I wasn’t scared, but I wasn’t at ease either. To break the ice I mentioned to one of the inmates that my grandmother had volunteered at this prison for the last fifteen-or-so years of her life. When I spoke her name a reverential silence descended. She was, in fact, admired greatly by the inmates at this prison. I remember at her funeral receiving a card from the men of her Bible study, and they mentioned the grace she reflected to them after communicating her diagnosis of breast cancer.
Chaplain Pall finally arrived – he was detained in an administrative meeting. Like many men who enter the ministry, Chaplain Pall discovered that a large part of his job was organizational and “clerical.” He spends probably half of his day investigating and discerning the validity of various inmate requests – most often for facial hair or long beards (from Muslim inmates), dietary restrictions, possession of religious articles. He is very good at his job, both as a spiritual director and an administrator. He demonstrated his acumen by showing me all the elements that were going into the audit from the head chaplain of the state prisons– the contents of which the inmates were collecting as I waited for him.
It took me some time to digest the complex difference between state and county prisons. In our first year of seminary we were required to do ten sessions or so of Bible study at a local county jail. “Counties” have a reputation for being rougher. They are, by design, temporary institutions. Usually the maximum sentence someone will serve at a county jail is three years; it also holds people awaiting sentencing, before they’re transferred to state prisons. As a result, county jails have a high turnover rate, and perhaps a worse distinction for violence.
State prison, on the other hand, is a different world. For people in spiritual states of instability, it offers stability. Chaplain Paul described it like living on a cruise ship, in the sense that everything one needs is offered on-site. Some men went in knowing they would spend no more than ten years there. (There’s a quote from the HBO series The Wire: “You only do two days: the day you come in…and the day you get out.”) Others entered with life sentences.
Many of the men involved in the chaplain’s department were serving life sentences. In fact, they nearly considered it a virtue that they had no hope of getting out, yet they had turned and devoted their lives to Christ through service. The men I spoke with frowned upon those who “got religion” in order to look better for a parole review board, or a commutation hearing.
Talking with the inmates prompted my question: how does one find salvation on a cruise ship? Or, in other words, what does it mean to be saved when we can’t “do” anything in response? Most often as Christians we are obsessed with “doing things” in order to show our faith. “OK. I believe in Jesus Christ, I believe in the Orthodox Church. Now what?” The classical Christian response has been the triumvirate of prayer, fasting, and charity. But we always look for ways in which our belief in Christ actually changes the way we live, the way we understand our routines – we so often want to offer a testimony.
In prison, so much is dictated to the inmates. There is very little in terms of the modern god of “choice,” very few identity markers we hold onto in order to differentiate ourselves from others.
I think in prison this process of salvation-by-renewed-understanding is even more clear; it takes great determination, struggle, and prayer to reorient one’s understanding, one’s vision of life, in terms of Christ and his struggle.
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo focuses on the difference between Jean Valjean’s experience in prison – a sort of forced monasticism – and his experience living as the caretaker of a convent. “On one side, robbery, fraud, violence, lust, homicide, every sort of sacrilege, every variety of offense; on the other, one thing only – innocence”. Although the “penitentiary” format of corrections is no longer favored in America (the idea that putting offenders in solitary confinement with a Bible would lead them to repentance was abandoned in the early 20th century), there is still “every sort of sacrilege, every variety of offense” in prisons. Yet there is still innocence – innocence through Christ.
So, of course, there are still men in prison like one inmate I met – serving a life sentence for murdering his ex-wife, but who was hoping that through his good behavior and volunteership in the chaplain’s office he could receive a commutation. But there are also men who, like another inmate I knew, exude a certain sense of tranquility and silence, knowing that they are physically in chains but remain exuberant in living and proclaiming the gospel (Eph. 6:20). As Orthodox Christians, we can learn much from the mindset of the prisoner: examining our actions, our thoughts, our lives, to make sure that we are only being motivated by Jesus Christ.
By Ms. Inga Leonova
Every semester my students who are studying architecture of sacred spaces come to hear my priest, Father Robert Arida, talk to them about the notion of sacred space in Orthodoxy. One year he was talking to them about the “expansion” of sacred space – how our liturgical celebrations are transforming physical space into the Kingdom of Heaven, how our participation in the mysteries brings the world into the Church and the Church into the world.
The concept may seem abstract and difficult to grasp intellectually, but it is one that can be experienced. To me, it comes alive in the act of bringing Communion to those who are sick and infirm and cannot come to Liturgy. Being bilingual I am sometimes asked to assist when our clergy takes Communion to the Russian speakers. And it is then and there, in the squalor of old people’s dwellings or in the institutional sadness of nursing homes, that we experience the transformation of the surrounding reality, including space, by the mystery of the Eucharistic celebration.
One such recent experience stands apart in my memory. A couple of months ago I was asked to help with administering the last Communion to a Russian parishioner who was dying in a nursing home. We were told that the old woman – I will call her R. – had but a few hours to live. When we got there R. looked like she really was dying, unconscious and making horrible “death rattle” noises. We called her name but she did not respond. We began the service and when I started reading prayers in Slavonic the dying woman moved just a bit, and became very quiet. She was able to receive communion although she did not open her eyes.
After communion and anointing, a friend of R. who was there called her name again. Suddenly the old woman opened her eyes! We were all a little startled. The deacons started speaking to her. We told her that she had just received Communion and asked whether she knew who we were. She said yes, and thanked the clergy, and then thanked me for praying in Slavonic. She said she could hear every word and was happy. We had a little conversation with her before we left. R. died peacefully a few hours later.
This experience of being in the midst of the Kingdom while being in the midst of the darkness and tragedy of human suffering and death is that experience of the new life which is with us here and now just as we are in the grip of despair and pain. And the glory of the Kingdom is not diminished by the squalid surroundings in which we find ourselves – when He is among us, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness overcomes it not.
By Andrew Boyd
In my second year of seminary I had to complete a certain amount of hours of patient contact at a local hospital in Yonkers, New York. Under the care of a hospital chaplain and a seminary professor, I was supposed to learn the skills necessary for visiting patients in a hospital, and then apply them. Now, I grew up in New England, where feelings and emotions are rightly oppressed and hidden from the general public. The prospect of speaking to strangers about their feelings and spiritual experience was to me, terrifying. The first person I visited asked me why I hated Muslims so much (I don’t), the second patience described in detail her recent hysterectomy as I tried to keep my composure. But, over time, I learned to be a bit better, and to abide by some simple rules in order to make these visits about the patient, the person in need, and not about me.
Avoid Small Talk
I love small talk. I can pretend to care about anything from the New York Yankees to the Weather in Seattle, to the current political situation in Ghana. I perfected my ability to talk at length about any subject and pretend to be interested in it as an undergrad in business school. One of the hardest lessons I learned in the hospital setting is that people want and need most to talk about themselves. They need to voice their suffering, their struggle, and their frustrations. They probably don’t need to hear me prattle on about a sports team. Beyond, “Hello, I’m Andrew. How are you today?”, I learned to keep my small talk to myself
It Might Not Be Okay
We have a tendency to respond to tragedy and uncomfortable situations with clichés and pious platitudes. They make us feel better. I learned early on, that they don’t make patients feel better. We might be tempted to say things we feel are comforting like “It’s going to be ok” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” The fact is, most of us are not medical professionals, and we don’t know how things are going to turn out. It very well might not be “ok”. Also, I think we can all relate to a feeling of exactly having more on our plate than we can handle. Platitudes and clichés may sound comforting, but they are deceiving. They comfort us, the healthy, uncomfortable person, but accomplish little for the sick and suffering.
Not Your Agenda
Business school taught me to set agendas before I met with people, to have concrete goals in mind for every interaction and conversation. I had to try so hard to break myself of that behavior, because when you are visiting someone who is sick, it’s not really about you and what you want. It’s about what they want to talk about. It’s about their suffering, their ambiguity, their search for faith and meaning. It’s decidedly not about anything I want to talk about.
Silence is a Powerful Tool
I never realized how powerful silence can be. We don’t really like silence in our society, and we seek to fill it in any way possible. Just look at people on any means of public transportation (bus, train, whatever), everyone has their ear buds in, trying desperately to fill the silence. What I didn’t know and I learned over a year of making visits to people, was that silence is the best tool for making people open up and share. If am a disciplined enough to not say anything, to not respond with whatever story comes to my mind when the other person is talking, the patient will just continue to talk, sharing more and more about what really is bothering them. Disciplined silence from the person visiting allows the sick and suffering to deeply share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns.
Name Feelings, Repeat Back
Of course silence alone might make it feel like a one-way conversation, with the patient talking to an inanimate object. There are many ways to respond that will encourage the patient to feel at ease and share more, instead of turning the conversation to something about myself. A simple way is to name feelings. “You sound frustrated.” I learned that you don’t even need to necessarily name the correct feeling. For example, the patient could respond to that by saying “Yes! I do feel frustrated, exactly, here’s why…” or by saying “No, I don’t feel frustrated, I feel depressed, and here’s why…”. Another simple way to make sure the patient knows you are listening, and that he or she has your undivided attention, is to repeat back a little of what they said. Silence is a great tool, but the patient also needs to know that you actually are listening and that you actually care about what they are saying.
Pray With Them
Growing up in the Church, I never had much exposure to extemporaneous prayer. But, that is the type of prayer that most people expected when I visited them. I eventually adjusted, many times simply praying the Lord’s Prayer or modeling an extemporaneous prayer on a prayer from my Orthodox prayer book. Talking about prayer was also a great way to help a patient share what is honestly going on in their lives. The simple question “What or who would you like to pray for?” often opened up a flood-gate of stories, relationships, hopes, fears, and anxieties. I always offered patients choices in prayer, especially if I wasn’t certain of their religious background. The choices were, I can prayer for you now, I can pray with you now, I can prayer for you later (privately), or I can not pray for you if you’d wish. The patient is in the driver’s seat, he or she makes the decision.
At the end of my assignment, when the professor asked the class what we learned in our time in the hospital, I volunteered to go first. “I learned to Shut-up,” I loudly declared. I learned the power of the discipline of silence, of actually listening to the people in my life instead of merely waiting for my turn to talk. All the little lessons I learned in the hospital are perfectly transferrable to any situation, with any person, if I have the discipline to quiet myself for the sake of the other.
Fr. Steven Belonick was ordained to the priesthood in 1979. Over the last thirty-two years, he has served two parishes, and spent 11 years working in various roles at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. Currently, he is the rector of Holy Ghost Orthodox Church in Bridgeport, CT.
Harrison Russin is a third-year student at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, NY. He grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania where he attended Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Wilkes-Barre. Before attending seminary he studied music at Swathmore College and worked at a shelter for homeless youth in Atlantic City, NJ.
Inga Leonova is a practicing architect and student of religious architecture. She teaches design studio at Suffolk University and Boston Architectural College, as well as courses in design history and theory, and architecture of monotheistic faiths. She is a parishioner at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Boston (OCA).
Mr. Andrew Boyd grew up in Guilford, Connecticut and is a graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Business. He is also a recent graduate of the Master’s of Divinity program at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, NY. His home parish is St. Alexis Church in Clinton, CT. His is the managing editor of this blog and director of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministries for the Orthodox Church in America.