Monastery of St. George of Choziba

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When you first catch a glimpse of the magical St. George’s Monastery in the Judean desert, the Desert Fathers’ Wisdom is brought to life in its uncompromising, breathtaking asceticism. This amazing cliff-hanging monastery, one of the world’s oldest and definitely one of the most inspiring churches in the Holy Land, is a must-see for the desert / archeological fans  / devout Pilgrims.

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St. George Orthodox Monastery, or Monastery of St. George of Choziba is a monastery located in Wadi Qelt, in the eastern West Bank, in the occupied territories. The sixth-century cliff-hanging complex, with its ancient chapel and gardens, is active and inhabited by Eastern Orthodox monks. It is reached by a pedestrian bridge across Wadi Qelt, which many believe to be Psalm 23’s Valley of the Shadow. The valley parallels the old Roman road to Jericho, the backdrop for the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). 

Here’s some beautiful aerial video footage to give you a taste of the area around St. George’s Monastery…

 

St George’s Monastery can be reached via the main Jerusalem – Dead Sea highway (Road 1). Take a left at Mitzpeh Jericho (or a right if you’re coming from Jericho) and follow the brown signs for Wadi Kelt. You can hike the Wadi all the way to the monastery but it will take lots of hours of arduous trekking in the desert under the blazing sun!  Up and down, for hours, a windy path! Not so easy for seniors or people with disabilities, but there are usually plenty of locals offering their donkeys for the ride (at a cost of course).

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Check out the clip below for a real taste of the walk to St George’s Monastery … When I look at these photographs or watch the videos, I cannot believe I did all this walking!

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St. George’s Monastery was originally started in the fourth century by a few monks who were looking to immerse themselves in the lifestyles and desert stories of  John the Baptist and Jesus. The monks, and perhaps most notably the hermit John of Thebes, eventually settled on the spot around a cave where it is believed the prophet Elijah was fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:5-6). The traditions attached to the monastery include a visit by Elijah en route to the Sinai Peninsula, and St. Joachim, whose wife Anne was infertile, weeping here when an angel announced to him the news of Mary’s conception.

 

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The monastery became an important spiritual centre in the sixth century under Saint George of Choziba. Hermits living in caves in nearby cliffs would meet in the monastery for a weekly mass and communal meal.John of Thebes became a hermit and moved from Egypt to Syria Palaestina. The monastery was named St. George after the most famous monk who lived at the site. Destroyed in 614 A.D. by the Persians, the monastery was more or less abandoned after the Persians swept through the valley and massacred the fourteen monks who dwelt there. The bones and skulls of the martyred monks killed by the Persians in 614 A.D. can still be seen today in the monastery chapel. These 3000 and more martyrs’ relics are so alive that during their Supplication canon every week an exquisite fragrance and raw smell of fresh slaughtered blood are alternately exuded from them!

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Monastery of Saint George

The Crusaders made some attempts at restoration in 1179. However, it fell into disuse after their expulsion. In 1878, a Greek monk, Kallinikos, settled here and restored the monastery, finishing it in 1901. Father Germanos, born Georgios Tsibouktzakis, who came from Thessaloniki, Greece, to St George’s in 1993 and lived there until he was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in 2001, was for many years the sole occupant of the monastery, he was named Abbot in 2000. Emulating the Wadi Qelt monks of late antiquity, Father Germanos offered hospitality to visitors, improved the stone path used by pilgrims to climb up to the monastery, repaired the aqueducts, and improved the gardens of shade and olive trees.

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This is probably the most stunning discovery in the monastery: St. John Jacob (the Romanian) – a Hermit from the Holy Land with complete Incorruptible Relics! He was a great ascetic and a poet. He called himself “the child of zero” who “followed the One”. After his all night- vigils, he would briefly rest in the verandah of the monastery and write his so moving poetry, sadly not translated yet in English. In the next days I plan to translate and post here some of his most moving autobiographical poems. This Saint is famous for his miracles, from the discovery of his relics to nowadays.

This discovery was even more stunning for me personally because my spiritual father had introduced him to me the last day before flying from Lancaster to Greece and then to Tel Aviv. He also gave me a tiny piece of a secondary relic of him. What a ‘coincidence’! I knew nothing about him, other than his name, and then a brief google search, and here I found him most alive and incorruptible! 

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Let me close with Archimandrite Konstandinos, a holy Elder, very special in his hospitality and famous for his clairvoyance gifts.

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For more photographs, go here

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At St Lioba’s Church, Beetham

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“Dear friends in Christ
 I forward photos from my little pilgrimage to St Lioba’s Church at Beetham on this her feast day. [+ 28 Sept.]  I prayed for you all in Church and later at her little “shrine.” In the Church porch I saw a little hedgehog enjoying the sun.
Through the prayers of St Lioba Lord Jesus Christ have mercy.
Εν Χριστώ”
 
Fr. J

Faros Tou Kosmou — Lighthouse of the World

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Fr. Athenagoras — “2-2” (*) Roma Missionary

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Dendropotamos — Thessaloniki

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“Our bus trip back to Thessaloniki was long.  Thankfully, it provided us opportunities to rest and or simply to enjoy fellowship with one another.   With great skill and after a delicious lunch in Kalambaka, we returned to our hotel to check-in, only to return to the bus to depart for the Church of St. Nectarios in Dendroportamou, which would be an experience that many of us would not soon forget.

… Much of our group arrived in Dendroportamou, just outside the courtyard of the magnificent Church dedicated to and seeking the intercession of St. Nectarios.  This Church was stunning and built by the poorest of the poor in an essentially crime ridden, cutoff western region of the city that has approximately 3,000 families, 2,000 of these families being Roma.    As their name suggests, they have roamed from place to place from country to country, carrying little, but often inheriting a ghetto laden with crime.  Their city here is no different.

What is different in this community though is the presence of extreme joy, a joy that radiates from the Sanctuary, through the nave and far beyond the confines of this Parish!  Of course, this joy is ultimately founded in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Here though, where the vast majority of the community was not welcomed to the Church and unable to find joy – Christ – amidst the crime, the poverty, and the hopelessness, simply because they were “Roma”, joy came to their community some ten years ago and it came in the form of a youthful, humble and ever smiling priest with a vision to serve, Fr. Athenagoras.

A moment of prayer, essentially a parade through town, legos, dinner and a concert with dancing was what our night with hold.  And, all with the poorest of the poor or more correctly, the richest of the rich since they have found a joy in the person of Christ that transforms every worldly woe and lament.

We arrived outside the Church of St. Nectarios and were very warmly greeted by a handful of individuals, including Fr. Athenagoras.  Although Fr. Dean and I saw Fr. Athenagoras at the Clergy Laity Congress this past summer in Nashville, it has been some six years since I visited his beautiful parish.  We followed Fr. Lazarus who also serves this parish, proceeding through the narthex and into the nave where we venerated a Holy Relic of St. Nectarios. 

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Once seated in the Church, we chanted the apolytikion of St. Nectarios and then Fr. Athenagoras began to share a bit with us about this special place – his joys, his ministry, his beautiful community of the Romas.  Again, I think each of us was extremely touched by his words and the intentions of his ministry.  It wasn’t until we departed the Church that we realized the true impact of this blessed soul.

 

As we departed the Church, walking to the elementary school that was built but two years ago, we passed home and businesses along the way.  Waves, cheers, smiles…all as the neighbors saw Fr. Athenagoras.  I can only compare the experience to being in a parade or with a celebrity.  People weren’t running up for autographs though, but greeting him with hugs and asking for his blessing.  And, as the neighbors came forth to the streets, we were continually welcomed and cheered as we worked our way to the school!

Upon arriving at the school, we were again welcomed with cheers and claps, simply greeted with great joy by the parents and the children of Dendroportamou! Up to the third floor we went to watch a brief, moving video detailing the life of the Roma children; not simply the great obstacles and adversities that should characterize their lives, but also sharing some of the blessings that they’ve found in and around the Church the St. Nectarios.  One of the young men then shared his story, specifically with the robotics team, which led us to the room across the hallway.

In this room, packed with children and all of us, three children discussed their involvement and leadership with the robotics team.  Their peers confirmed the joys of teamwork, creativity, opportunity, logic, and, in the end, freedom to be more than they or others ever thought that they could be!  Testament to this is the fact that their team took first place in all of Greece and 16th place in the international competition in the United States this past year (out of 160 teams).  Who would have ever thought a group of Roma children, destined for poverty and crime, would have so embraced Christ, one another, and robotics.

 

 

The robotics team provides an explanation of their work

The robotics team provides an explanation of their work

Father Athenagoras surrounded by his Roma children

Father Athenagoras surrounded by his Roma children

 

 

 

The music went on for some time and it was outstanding.  Before we knew it, most of us were up clapping our hands and dancing with the children.  Fr. Athenagoras was then summoned to the floor with cheers as he offered some vocal support on one of the songs.  And, when the song was over, Father was embraced by no less than fifteen children, all of whom have such a deep love and appreciation for him, his ministry, and the hope that both he and the Church has given to them.

I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room.  Had he asked us for anything, it would have been given twofold.  Even as we made an offering to Father in support of the children, he suggested that we simply take the experience with us, learn of their needs and do as we are able.  Both Fr. Dean and I agreed that this was unacceptable, so with two against one, we left a donation and agreed to prayerfully consider and share whatever needs are discerned, especially as they begin to construct a new facility that will accommodate more children.

I neglected to mention that Fr. Athenagoras is a celibate priest. He however doesn’t live alone. If I’m not mistaken, his small home in the neighborhood has over ten children leaving there! He has adopted several and houses even more, because this is the Gospel of Christ, this is our Faith, this is incarnate love.

Upon saying our good-byes, we assured one another that we would be in contact soon.  God-willing, we will also be able to promote a forthcoming full length film on the Roma of Dendroportamou, directed by a young man who has followed their story for the past three years.  He’ll be moving to San Francisco for six months while on a Fulbright scholarship to complete his film, debuting it at both the San Francisco and the Los Angeles Film Festivals next year.

Oh, and did I mention that the next robotics competition will be at Lego Land in Carlsbad 2017?  Let’s hope that we can welcome some of these families to our Parish and also travel to support them as they compete for their next trophy!

May our Lord, through the intercessions of St. Nectarios, continue to bless, inspire and strengthen Fr. Athenagoras and those who serve with him, softening the hearts and providing love and hope to the children and families of Dendroportamou.

We will return to Thessaloniki in the evening to meet Fr. Athenagoras, the founder of Faros Too Kosmou, http://www.farostoukosmou.gr a ministry of the Parish of St. Nectarios of Dendroporamou that serves the at risk children of the Roma community.

 

* “2-2” –> 2 m 2cm is Fr. Athenagoras’  height 🙂

 

Sources: Istologio and PILGRIMAGE TO NORTHERN GREECE & CYPRUS BLOG

 

Therefore Go, Οὖν

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“Our Easter joy is offered in order to be shared with others. … A pious custom among Orthodox Christians is to share with others the light of Christ the moment their candle is lit. This sharing of Christ’s Light highlights the duty of the faithful to evangelise, to spread the Evangelion (Ευ-Αγγέλιον), the Good News of our Lord’s Resurrection, like the Apostles. Our resurrected Lord said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  And He added:  “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-19). Πορευθέντες οὖν.

So, there is one consequence, one “therefore”, one “οὖν”: Don’t limit yourselves to your own personal salvation and joy; you have a holy responsibility to spread this Evangelion to all those who ignore this Truth. This Hope must not be kept hidden, must not be confined to only one community. This Hope is for all peoples, for the renewal of all mankind.” (Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, Easter Message 2017)

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“A Candle Before the Icon”: Archbishop Anastasios

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“As a young person I had been moved by stories of Father Damian, a Catholic priest who served lepers in Hawaii, and also Albert Schweitzer. I asked myself whatever happened to our missionary tradition in the Orthodox Church? Where were the Orthodox missionaries? What are we doing to share our faith with others? What are we doing to reach all those people who have never heard the Gospel? I realized that indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ. How had it happened that a Church called to baptize the nations was so indifferent to the nations? Saint Paul brought the Gospel to Greeks. Who were we bringing it to?”

It was a pivotal question that would shape the rest of his life.

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Indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ.

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‘Krishti u ngjall, Zoti eshte me ne, lavdi Zotit!’ — ‘Christ is risen, God is with us, Glory to God!’

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While his official title is Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania, Anastasios has occasionally been called the Archbishop of Tirana and All Atheists. It isn’t a title he objects to. “I am everyone’s archbishop. For us each person is a brother or sister. The Church is not just for itself. It is for all the people. As we say at the altar during each Liturgy, it is done ‘on behalf of all and for all. Also we pray ‘for those who hate us and for those who love us.’ Thus we cannot have enemies. How could we? If others want to see us as enemies, it is their choice, but we do not consider others as enemies. We refuse to punish those who punished us. Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person. The message is clear. Our salvation depends upon respect for the other, respect for otherness. This is the deep meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan — we see not how someone is my neighbor but how someone becomes a neighbor. It is a process. We also see in the parable how we are rescued by the other. What is the theological understanding of the other? It is trying to see how the radiation of the Son of God occurs in this or that place, in this or that culture. This is much more than mere diplomacy. We must keep our authenticity as Christians while seeing how the rays of the Son of Righteousness pass through another person, another culture. Only then can we bring something special.”

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People look at the difficulties of life here and say to me, ‘How can you stand it? It is so ugly!’ But for me it is so beautiful! It is God’s blessing to be here — not the blessing I imagined but the one I received. …

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“People sometimes ask me about my expectations, but I don’t know about the future! You can only do your job with love and humility. I am not the savior of Albania, only a candle in front of the icon of the Saviour.”

For more insights into Archbishop Anastasios legacy go to “A Candle Before the Icon: Archbishop Anastasios”, from Jim Forest’s book Resurrection of the Church of Albania, WCC Publications

Fixing Our Eyes On What Is Unseen….

Very timely blog post, by a Missionary in Nepal, for the little city hermit, whose journey of faith has truly led him places he never dreamed of going, led him to do things he would never believed possible, and to be used of Him in ways unimaginable. To his shame, he often gets discouraged …

missionary blog faith in God Divine providenceThis morning as I was walking the kids to the bus stop, I caught a brief glimpse of the mountains, but then moments later they were no longer visible. When I got back to the house, I went up on the roof and there they were, just peeking out from above the clouds.

And I realized something.

The mountains are always there. They are.

But most of the time they are invisible to the human eye. Covered with smog and clouds. Yet they are there.

Then I was reminded that isn’t that just like God. He’s always there, but most times we can’t see Him because “life” covers Him up, kind of like the clouds.

Even more so His plans for our lives.

Every now and then He gives us a glimpse of what is next. Just a little view. Then when we can no longer see, He says follow Me…

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In Love, For Love, and By Love: Missionary Series IV

Families on Mission Vs. Single Missionaries

 

Families on Mission Vs. Single Missionaries

RTE: How has it been having your family in the mission field?

FR. LUKE: When my wife and I first went to Albania, many people thought that it was going to be very dangerous and that our children would suffer: “You are going to deprive your children of all the benefits of life in America.” Contrary to that expectation, we feel that our three children who were raised in the mission field were immensely blessed by the experience of learning another culture and language. They always appreciated what they had in America when they went back, but they also appreciated their mission home in Albania, which they thought of as their “real” home.

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They’ve grown up with a very different world-view. They appreciate things that they would never think twice about if they had grown up in America. During our first years in Albania, we didn’t have running water every day. So, the kids learned to appreciate it. When we had water, we’d say, “Thank God for water. It’s great to have it.” During different periods, for months at a time, the electricity is off about five hours a day; in winter, maybe seven or eight hours. So they got excited when the electricity came on. Or, if we did have electricity, the tension was often so low that we couldn’t do something as simple as watch a video. I remember on one of our visits to the U.S., they wanted to watch a video, and came to my wife saying, “Mommy, if there’s enough tension can we watch television?” They still flip the switch to see if the electricity is working.

Families on Mission Vs. Single Missionaries

Next to our house in Albania we had a very tiny shop, nine by fifteen feet, with all different types of food – this was where we did most of our shopping. Once, when we were about to go back to America, my son Paul asked his mother, “In America, will they have shops as big as Uncle Soorie’s?” We laughed. It was beautiful to see how they were exposed to a different way of life. We lived in Tirana, the capital of Albania, and we were constantly exposed to beggars, poor people who came to our house every day asking for help. It was wonderful for our children to see this, day in and day out. They got used to getting things for the beggars, answering the door and coming and saying, “Oh, so-and-so is here.” We got to know these people by name, we visited their homes. When you live in suburban America you aren’t even exposed to them unless you go downtown. Many of these beggars truly became friends, and our kids loved them. They loved playing with them and saw them as human beings, not as beggars.

Families on Mission Vs. Single Missionaries

Another blessing of raising children in the mission field is community, both the indigenous Albanian community, the wonderful local people that were part of our life, and our co-missionaries who themselves had numerous children. At one time we had fifteen missionary children in the field, and they created such bonds of love and friendship. They weren’t exposed to the busyness, to the constant activities that American children are involved in. Their lives were very simple, and very fulfilled.

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Neither my wife nor I have any sense of their being deprived, and one of our greatest regrets in leaving Albania after ten and a half years is that we have left at a time when our children are still young, and we are not sure how much they will remember. We often talk about going back into missions when they are a little older so that they not only remember, but can participate more fully. Even though they were young, we tried to get the idea across that they themselves were missionaries, that they needed to be witnesses. To whatever degree they could participate in our different activities, they did.

Families on Mission Vs. Single Missionaries

RTE: Growing up with cultural diversity must not only teach what is universal in human nature, but how to deal with differences early on.

FR. LUKE: Right. We Americans, unfortunately, are quite isolated from the rest of the world. The universal business language is English, so we think we can get anywhere speaking English. Having only Canada to the north and Mexico in the south, we aren’t exposed to many different cultures and languages and this is a great loss for us. It’s so enriching to be around the diversity found in a mission field, and to learn to see beauty in such diversity. One thing I tried to get across to the Kenyans, and later to the Albanians, was, “Sure, in America we have things that are nicer than in Kenya or Albania, but you have many aspects of your culture and life that we Americans can envy. Family connectedness, the support you have for one another, hospitality – how beautiful these things are! Don’t ever lose these aspects of your culture and think, ‘We want to become western, or American, because America is better in everything.’ There are certain things you can adopt from America that are beautiful, but don’t lose the beauty and richness that you have in your own tradition.”

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Hospitality was something that always left the greatest imprint on me. I could travel to the poorest village in Africa and they would put on a feast. It was their responsibility to show love and hospitality to guests. It is the same in Albania. I don’t know who is more hospitable, the Albanians or the Kenyans, but they would put anyone in the West to total shame. Having almost nothing, they share whatever they have with whoever comes.

Families on Mission Vs. Single Missionaries

RTE: An American seminarian at Holy Cross Seminary told me about a depressed acquaintance who called one night, feeling suicidal. The seminarian invited him to come to the seminary for a few days for a change of scene and to be in a calm atmosphere. He agreed and the seminarian made the arrangements and cleaned an empty dorm room so that he could have his own space. The day his friend moved in, one of the Greek-born seminarians found out what was happening and insisted that the man take his own room, which contained his books and belongings, icons that were prayed in front of, and was a real home. The Greek seminarian slept in the hall on a couch outside the door so he could check on him through the night. The American seminarian said, “You know, I was so pleased that I’d found him his own space where he could have some privacy, where he could put his own things up – but actually what he needed was to be taken into someone else’s home and taken care of. I didn’t get it until I saw it.”

FR. LUKE: Yes, this virtue of hospitality is something missing in our American way of life. As missionaries, my wife and I saw hospitality as one of the greatest ways to express God’s love to the people. We wanted our home to always be open to people. We married right at the beginning of our time in Albania and it is interesting to think that my wife and I slept in our house alone perhaps three months out of the first five years of our marriage. We always had people coming, numerous people staying for months at a time. Our open home was a hallmark of our ministry. Even after the children started coming and we didn’t have as many overnight guests, we always had an open-door policy. There were people at our house every day. One of the difficult counter-cultural adjustments in coming back to America on sabbatical was that although we lived on campus at a seminary, no one came to visit. We lived there for four months and maybe a handful of people came to our house. And even when people came, they’d say, “I’m just here for a minute, I’ve got to run…” They’d stay briefly and then go on with their day.

Single Missionaries

Families on Mission Vs. Single Missionaries

RTE: We’ve been speaking here of missionary families. What opportunities are there for unmarried men and women? And in view of cultural differences, are single women limited as missionaries? What part do they play on a mission team?

FR. LUKE: The mission in Albania offers a good response to this question.

Families on Mission Vs. Single Missionaries

During the years I served there, of the 20-25 missionaries we had at any one time, we had a nice mix – usually about eight monastics, eight married missionaries, and six or seven single missionaries. Of the two dozen missionaries, about half were men and half were women. Also, about eight were clergy, and the rest laity. The unmarried missionaries played an important role in the overall outreach of the Church. In Albania, we had single missionaries who headed up our medical clinic, our elementary school, our post-secondary professional institute, as well as our development and emergency relief office. We also had single missionaries who taught at our seminary, who taught English in a variety of contexts, taught catechism, worked in administration, and who participated in our university ministry, among other things.

Families on Mission Vs. Single Missionaries

The Body of Christ has a need for everyone – men or women, married or unmarried. It is the same for the mission field. In fact, when a missionary team has a variety of members, it makes the overall witness that much more effective. Some people will relate well to a monastic. Others feel more comfortable with a married priest. Some prefer to approach a mother, or a married woman. Still others will listen to a single man or woman. All are part of one body, offering a unified witness. So there are surely opportunities for the monastics, the married, and the unmarried! In some countries, it isn’t appropriate for men to approach women and talk with them in public. Such societies need women missionaries, and this means both married and single women.

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In the Protestant world of missions, single women really weren’t encouraged, or even allowed, in the mission field until the 1800’s. By the 1900’s, women outnumbered men as missionaries. Today, women far outnumber men, and this includes many single women. Women had to overcome many obstacles and prejudices before being allowed to serve in a variety of capacities, and this may be the same for the modern Orthodox missionary movement.

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RTE: Do you have any specific counsel for unmarried missionaries?

FR. LUKE: My advice for single men or women is that they must be ready for some additional challenges. The loneliness of a new culture, the challenges of entering a new country, the frustrations of learning a language, and the normal difficulties and disappointments of the mission field can be overwhelming. As a married missionary, you have your spouse to support and comfort you; the monastics may be living in community and have another type of support; but the single missionary can feel the loneliness and frustration in a magnified manner. A single person has to be ready for these added challenges. He or she needs to be a strong person, and also be able to find support in time of need. Their co-missionaries need to be sensitive to this extra burden, and try to reach out to them.

Families on Mission Vs. Single Missionaries

One way to help overcome these additional struggles would be for single missionaries to live in community, either with other missionaries of the same sex, one of the missionary families, or even with an indigenous family. Living with a family of the country can be one of the fastest ways to learn the language, culture, and ways of the host country. Of course, other challenges may arise as cultures clash and one’s privacy may be lost.