Posted: August 27th, 2011

Footprints in the Sand

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema

Fr. Mark's reflection on a session of service as a staff priest at Ionian Village

It didn’t happen in ancient times, but only a couple of summers ago …

A teenager went to Greece with a heavy heart.  His Pappou was very sick, and try as he might, he could not get into the spirit of summer camp.  He went on the day trips to the places of pilgrimage, including the island of Zakynthos, where to this day the body of Saint Dionysios remains entire and incorrupt.  (He, with St. Gerasimos and St. Spyridon is one of the “walking saints” of the Ionian islands, who appears to those in need and gives help and comfort, all the while constantly wearing out the slippers that are put on the feet of his body that lies in repose in a church.)

That night, the camper had a dream.  An old man in monk’s clothing spoke to him.  “Don’t worry, my child.  Your grandfather will be well.”  The camper awoke the next morning and reported his dream to his counselors.  From the description it sounded like Saint Dionysios himself had paid the boy a visit.

As they exited the cabin that morning for prayer, they spotted something odd.  Leading from the shore of the Ionian Sea all the way up to the cabin was a trail of seaweed.  Soon the news arrived from home: Pappou was on the mend; all would be well.

* * *

Forty-one years ago, Archbishop Iakovos made a visionary commitment.  He leased property from the Greek government just outside the village of Glyfa, down the road from Vartholomio, on the northwest coast of the Peloponnese.  There he founded a camp for the youth of our Archdiocese, complete with modern cabins, athletic fields, and a chapel.  He called the place “Ionian Village.”  Over the years it has offered thousands of campers a life-changing adventure in faith and friendship.

The Camp program includes the usual fare of summer church camp: morning and evening prayers, teaching sessions in Orthodox Life, time for Confession for every camper, along with arts and crafts, skit nights, cabin competitions, tons of food and “a condition of continual laughter” (to quote Archbishop Demetrios).  Unlike any other Orthodox camping program, though, Ionian Village offers a chance to make day-trips to places of spiritual pilgrimage and cultural heritage.

In the session I attended, the campers visited:

  • Castro Chlemoutsi (a Frankish castle) and the relics of Saint Mamas at the Church in Kyllini
  • The island of Cephalonia and the cave and incorrupt body of Saint Gerasimos
  • The island of Zakynthos and the incorrupt body of Saint Dionysios
  • The city of Patras and the relics of Saint Andrew the Apostle
  • The ruins of ancient Olympia
  • The ruins of the oracle of Delphi and the monastery of Osios Loukas (Luke the Righteous) in Distomo
  • The island of Aegina and the tomb of Saint Nectarios
  • The Parthenon and the Acropolis Museum in Athens

… among others!

The setting is beautiful—like Paradise.  There is a gardener on staff who spends all day, dawn to dusk, watering the grass and tending the lush flowers that grow all around the campus.  A two-minute walk takes you to the beach, where gorgeous blue water laps at a rock-strewn shore (almost no shells—or seaweed!—just multi-colored stones here and there).  Off in the distance, on a clear day, the mountainous island of Zakynthos rises up from the sea.  Of all the places on God’s earth to leave your footprints in the sand, Ionian Village is one of the loveliest.  (But don’t go barefoot—there are scorpions!)

* * *

As idyllic as it was, I must tell you that it was no vacation for the priests on staff.  When I serve at our camp in Rose City, I rarely get less than seven hours of sleep a night.  At Ionian Village, the schedule hardly permitted that luxury.  On the travel days, we were up around 5 a.m., usually returning to Camp in the early evening.  After the night activity, we had Confession duty, which regularly went past one o’clock in the morning.  On the in-camp days we had morning prayers to lead, and after breakfast three hours of Orthodox Life sessions.  After lunch there was lesson prep or sermon composition until vespers and dinner.  And again, after the night activity, there were more confessions to hear.  It was a very full agenda (and so I return to you with a wicked caffeine addiction).

And after a couple hours of confessions, one does not quickly fall asleep anyway.  Young people carry such heavy burdens nowadays.  Hearing their pain, their confusion, their disappointments from the adults in their lives—rest does not come easily afterwards.   There is consolation in knowing that these kids, at least, have the chance to come to a place like Ionian Village, to enter into that “bubble of unconditional love,” as the director, Fr. Jason Roll, likes to call it.   More than the gorgeous setting, the great meals, and the cultural and spiritual riches, church camp is a place where young souls are fed the food of genuine friendship.  They come as strangers and leave as buddies for life.  Our goal—as a parish, as an Archdiocese—should be that every child of our Church can at least once in life experience “IV Agape,” the love of priests, counselors, and fellow campers together.

* * *

My favorite day-trip came towards the end of the session. On our way to Athens for the final couple of days, we made three stops around Kalavryta.  At the monastery of Mega Spelaion we saw and venerated an ancient icon attributed to Saint Luke.  It is made of beeswax and mastic, and it depicts the Theotokos with the Christ-child.  The monastery was founded about AD 326 and is the oldest in Greece.  Fires have destroyed the monastery several times through the ages, but the ancient wax icon has never been damaged!

At the nearby monastery of Agia Lavra, we stood on the spot where the cry of “Freedom or Death!” first echoed in 1821, when Greece began its fight for independence from the Ottomans.  Here, one could feel the unbreakable bond between the Orthodox faith and the love of liberty.  We sat under the shade of a huge old plane tree—the very tree where the flag of the revolution was first raised—after shopping for icons in the monastery store.

We had a late lunch in Kalavryta itself.  The village priest, Pappa Yorgi, dined with us.  He is a merry old soul and a most hospitable one.  He walked us over to the church, where we heard the story of the massacre in 1943.  The town was under Nazi occupation, and the Germans had grown frustrated by the Greek Resistance.  They decided to break its will by making an example of an entire village.

Early on the morning of December 13, the church bells rang.  The villagers were ordered to assemble at the school with a day’s supply of food and water.  The women and children were locked inside the building. All the males over the age of 14 were forced by the German soldiers to walk up the hill overlooking the town.

The cathedral clock stopped at 2:34 pm, the moment when the massacre began.  The soldiers opened up machine guns on the men as the women watched from below; then they set fire to the school.  Some of the women forced open a door; because of the pity of a single Austrian soldier, they escaped.  The Germans also burned their homes, their fields, and the nearby monasteries. They stole the livestock and left the people without food or shelter.  Over a thousand civilians died in Operation Kalavryta.  Militarily, though, the Germans failed. These inhuman actions served only to strengthen the Greek will to resist.

Pappa Yorgi was a boy when this happened and was one of the few who survived.  He just happened to be in another village on that fateful day.  He showed us the prayer-book that belonged to his spiritual father, the town priest.  He opened it to the Ninth Hour, the mid-afternoon prayers.  The priest had been praying this service when the shooting started.  The pages are stained with his blood.

Pappa Yorgi told us the whole story in Greek and a team of campers translated.  Somehow, I noticed, he managed to tell the tale without expressing one iota of bitterness towards the Germans.  Instead, he would periodically burst into song, a joyous hymn from the Feast of the Presentation, one which he insisted the campers should also learn.  The Nazi gospel of hatred found no purchase in the heart of Pappa Yorgi.  The fascists came, they saw, but they did not conquer.

* * *

There is a poem that used to make its rounds in the email chains called “Footprints in the Sand.”  The poet speaks of a dream in which she saw the events of her life flash across the sky as she walked on the beach with Jesus.  Sometimes there were two sets of footprints in the sand, but other times only one.  She wondered why—in those times when life was most difficult—there was only one set of footprints in the sand.  “Why did you not stay with me when I needed you most?” she asks the Lord.  The answer comes that in those darkest hours, the Lord was the one leaving the only set of footprints, as He carried His child through times of trouble.

Having spent three weeks visiting the shrines of saints and hearing their life-stories, I am struck by how utterly different our Orthodox spirituality is from “Footprints in the Sand.”  More true to our Church’s heart is a story from The Life of Saint Anthony.  The saint had set out on the life of prayer and solitude, only to be beset by a ferocious assault of the demons that lasted for days. He fought back, never beating them completely, but never giving up, either. When at last a heavenly light broke and dispelled the powers of darkness, St. Anthony cried out, “Where were you?  Why didn’t you appear from the start, so that you could end my torments?”  The Lord answered him: “I was here, Anthony, but I waited to watch your struggle.  And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever.”  Christ didn’t carry Anthony: rather, He honored His servant with an opportunity to pass the test and receive an eternal crown.

The lives of saints are struggles, not strolls on the beach.  Like Saint Paul, the saints understood their afflictions to be a integral part of the process of salvation: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24).  Not only for the Apostle Paul, not only for the saints, but for all of us, “through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). For example, St. Dionysios forgave the murderer of his own brother.  This could not have been easy.  But the Lord watched his struggle and rewarded him with an unending ministry of spreading blessings.

Life is hard.  At least, a genuine life is hard. Part of my priestly work at our summer camps is to help the young people understand that the better way, the Christ-like way, is never the easy way out of life’s difficulties.  It does not help in the long run to numb oneself with alcohol or pot; to cave in to peer pressure; to shoplift; to cheat at school; to lie to one’s parents; to get the whole virginity-losing thing over with as soon as possible; to have an abortion when the unplanned pregnancy happens.

And in the long run, really it’s harder to maintain a web of deceit, harder to be a slave of the fickle mob, harder to live with self-inflicted disease, harder to live with the guilt of senseless sins.  Christ and His saints reveal a better way.  It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; it is also the sincerest form of veneration.  Imitating Jesus Christ is a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of pain and tribulation.  It’s not for the cowardly or the lazy or the proud or the stupid.  But it’s the only way to truly live; all others are just slower forms of dying.

What I loved about Ionian Village is that we had the chance to see the fruits of the struggles of the saints, of the Greek Orthodox people, and of the young people who came to camp and found the gateway to repentance, forgiveness, and love. If you ever get there and you see footprints in the sand, they are likely not those of Christ carrying some weary soul. Rather, they are probably the footprints of one of His saints—old or new or in-progress—carrying out the Lord’s work in our day still.

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