A paper delivered by Peter A. Kavanaugh on November 8 at a conference of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion, entitled, "Exploring the Mind-Body-Soul Connection: Spirituality in Illness and Healing", at Holy Cross Seminary, Boston, Massachusetts, November 6-8, 2014.
I will never forget Susan. She was sitting in her wheelchair when I first met her. Her hair was disheveled. The expression on her face indicated incoherence and confusion. She looked into the distance with a vacant stare and waved her hand to and fro, senselessly. She did not recognize her family when they came to visit her. She did not remember the parents that raised her, the meal on which she dined that morning, nor the words spoken to her by the nurse only minutes before. Here, in the assisted living home, Susan spent the last several years of her life a frail, quiet, and for the most part, forgotten person.
The final season in life is full of profound changes. In some instances, this is a time of joy, forgiveness, revelation, and wisdom. When given the opportunity to reflect, and share one's legacy with younger generations, some discover new perspectives on life, and may become, for the first time, concerned with the eternal and lasting. Unfortunately, old age can also be fraught with losses and diminutions. Many suffer terribly when their bodies stop working, and they are afflicted by multiple disorders and chronic pain. Old age may involve a loss of autonomy, self-respect, or even purpose. Susan's situation is in no way unusual. Alzheimer's and memory-loss often give rise to the most challenging situations in aging.
by Peter Kavanaugh
After a year and a half on Mt. Olympus I prepared for my return back to America. I did not know what would await me there, and was a little anxious about leaving behind the awesome Grace of God I had experienced in Greece.
It was in the spring of 2008 that I began my life at the Holy Monastery of St. Dionysius of Mt. Olympus. I had gone there because I wished to live in an environment where Orthodoxy was deeply embedded into everyday life. There I found a community of lay people and clergy with a Christianity that was not, in the popular sense of the word, just a “religion” (in the popular sense of the word), or merely a set of dogmas and rituals, nor was it just “what we do on Sundays.” Instead, their faith was to be found even in the way they drink their coffee, in their daily expressions and habits, in their hospitality and lack of anxiety, and especially in their love for one another.
I was especially impressed by how natural and uncontrived their religion was. For them Orthodoxy was not exotic or foreign. It was simply life. One day followed another as these monks engaged in ancient, beautiful traditions. But as time passed by, it was no longer the elaborate robes and rituals that impressed me. Behind everything they did there was a spirit. Their faith, expressed through their Byzantine traditions, consisted of something much deeper and transcendental. There was a quiet power in their hearts and behind their eyes. This gradually became much more apparent and alluring. I went to Greece seeking to find the height of Orthodox expression. When I left, I simply wanted to find God.