Friday, August 28, 2015
Memoirs of a Greek Taxi Driver - My New Birthday
A few years ago, I was returning from Poligyros, Halkidiki, where I had taken some customers. On the way back, I passed through a village where construction crews were laying asphalt. I didn’t pay close attention to the detour signs, and the road I took brought me to a dead end and to the very last homes of the village before I realized that I had made a mistake. As I was backing out, an elderly man came out of his house, looked at me somewhat puzzled, and asked, “Where are you going, my lad? You can't get out from here. It’s a dead end.”
“I see it, but I realized it a little too late.”
“One moment; are you going to Thessaloniki?”
“Yes, I am”.
“Can you take me along? I was just about ready to walk to the bus station to take the bus.”
“Very gladly; come on in."
“How much will it cost me?”
“Get in, blessed one, and don’t worry. I will charge you the same amount you would have paid for the bus ticket.”
Once he entered the taxi, the conservation centered on the new asphalt and the workers who were completing the road. He introduced himself to me as the former president of the village, who was currently retired. I couldn’t help notice that every time I tried to start a conversation topic, the president would skillfully shift the discussion to political parties and their agendas. He was so well versed and confident in his political beliefs, as if politics were the only possible way to solve the problems of the world.
At some moment, I interrupted his monologue and said to him, “Mr. President, I have been listening to you for some time now. So I will ask you, in the spirit of democracy which you seem to espouse, that you also give me a few minutes of your time to offer you my humble opinion. After you hear it, you can reject it if you wish. It is your inalienable right; but for now, please listen to me, and try to overlook the fact that I may be thirty to forty years younger than you.
“In order for this country to go forward, it truly needs a radical change. This change will never come from the political arena and ideological party ranks because this same show has been on stage for decades now. We are sick and tired of being served the same reheated meal. Personally, I’m very sad when I see people so divided by political parties and fanatically attached to their political convictions. So, Mr. President, if we really want to see real change, each of us must personally seek it and cultivate it inside himself, first. First, we must change, Mr. President, before we expect others to do so. For this to happen, we will have to get our dusty New Testament down from the shelves or the iconostas, in order to study it and hear the voice of the Lord that says, “Without me you are able to do nothing” (John 15:5). Unless we understand this, we will not accomplish anything worthwhile. When the Lord himself assures us that without His will nothing happens, then we cannot speak about any significant change, but only about some patchwork.”
“You are right, my lad, you really are right. I tend to agree with you because I also happen to be a religious individual. Saying that, I can also say that my family may not go to church every Sunday; but I have made it four times to the Holy Land and venerated Christ’s All-Holy Tomb. I was also baptized in the Jordan River.”
“Mr. President, can I ask you a personal question? with good intentions and out of love, of course.”
“Ask me whatever you want, my lad.”
“Do you take Holy Communion?”
“Why of course, I commune every Pascha, Christmas, and all the great feasts.”
“Have you ever gone to confession with sincere repentance?”
“No, I have never done this; it’s the only thing which I have not done, and I am very much afraid that I will never get to it.”
“Then, believe me, you have done absolutely nothing. Forgive me if I am upsetting you, but if you do not participate in the sacrament of confession, you don’t commune, and you don’t believe as you say. Not four, but even if you go fourteen times to the Holy Land, you will be ruining the soles of your shoes and wasting your money for nothing.”
“Hey! Why are you saying this now?”
“Because it is not a difficult matter for us to open our mouth to take Holy Communion, not to mention that it doesn’t cost us anything. But we have much difficulty in opening our heart to admit our faults and our sins so all the collected debris can come out; only then, with a clean conscience, and properly prepared, can we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.
“People run today to various pilgrimages, and they do well, of course. They go to Jerusalem, to Panaghia of Tinos, to St. Raphael [Nicholas and Eirini], and many times we hear them saying, ‘At such-and-such pilgrimage a miraculous icon shed tears.’ Yes, some of our icons truly shed tears. However, did we shed even one tear for our sinfulness, Mr. President? We shed many tears in this life: we cry for our family, our children, our grandchildren, our finances, and our failures; life can be full of tears. Yet very rarely do we shed even one tear for our own sinfulness, and this is a result of our spiritual bankruptcy. That’s why today’s man toils in vain, and then he amputates himself by his bad choices, because he refuses to hear the voice of God: “Without me you are not able to do anything.’"
“You know, my dear Thanasi, I cannot truly express to you how much your words have touched my heart. For years now, I remember myself expounding political speeches from various podiums and from balconies of houses, attracting and convincing people that my party will bring a better tomorrow. Unfortunately, you are right. The promises for a better tomorrow have not materialized from any one of our political parties. I admit it, because I believe there is still some integrity left inside of me. The strange thing is that all my life I was doing the speaking, and others were listening. Today, however, I heard things that I have never heard before. Perhaps you can also answer this question that has been torturing me for many years now. Why does God allow some of his children, the faithful people who are members of the Church, to be tried so much?”
“You know, Mr. President, an apostle once asked the Lord the same question about the man born blind. He asked, ‘“Rabbi, who sinned for him to be born blind, he or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither did he sin, nor his parents but so that the works of God could be revealed in him”’ (John 9:2-3).
“We cannot, of course, give precise answers to the volitions and works of God, because the works of God cannot be judged by our human minds. The volitions of the Lord are untraceable. If we take a beautiful fragrant herb, such as basil, for example, and we rub its leaves in our hands, its fragrance is not only sensed by us but by all those around us, don’t you agree? Unless it is crumbled a bit, it does not release its fragrance. Likewise, God allows his faithful servants to be tested, like a refiner tests gold through fire, so that those around them can be spiritually benefited. If the farmer doesn’t trim the vineyard, it does not produce fruits. If the incense does not sit on the lit charcoal, it will not offer a sweet fragrance. Afflictions are the active presence of God’s love. These are some of the reasons why God allows these pedagogical disciplines in order for his faithful children to be tried, so that even the indifferent ones can take heed and profit spiritually. I will now share with you some things from my personal life experience, Mr. President.
“For years, I was living in indifference and sin. I frequented cafés for many years, as both a single and married man, wasting my time. A childhood quadriplegic friend of mine was a frequent patron at one cafe. Every Monday afternoon, he would plead with me to take him to some sermon to hear the Word of God. It was only five minutes away. Since I had a close relationship with him, I had no trouble telling him, ‘Why should I? Can’t you see I am in the middle of an important backgammon game? Get someone else to take you.’ Unfortunately, no one wanted to take him. The paralytic would humbly lower his head deeply saddened, missing many sermons for many years. However, he prayed for everyone there at the café and much more so for me, saying, “My dear Christ, please help my friend Thanasi to meet You, to believe You, to love You, because he does not know You, Lord."
“It seems that his prayer was heard one winter afternoon in 1992. I decided to go ahead and take my quadriplegic friend to the sermon at the small chapel of Saint Theodore, with the understanding that I would simply drop him off and go. Upon entering the church, I saw people of all age groups piously observing the speaker who had just begun. I settled the paralytic in a corner. Then, I sat in the first row convincing myself to stay for only five minutes. I was curious to see why all these people chose to waste their time there. The sermon was about repentance. It was like a megaton bomb. The speaker's words were dripping like honey, and like a double-edged sword, they pierced my heart. I began wiping my tears with both hands. I left the front row quickly and went to the back seats, but there, the same thing happened. Carefully listening to the speaker and thinking of all my sinfulness, I wanted to shout with all the strength of my soul inside that little church, “My Christ, you had his sermon for me on hold for so many years!’ Those five minutes in 1992, at that moment, added up to many years, and to this day, together with my paralytic friend, we observe the same speaker, who has become our most beloved teacher.
“Please, tell me, Mr. President, who was the real paralytic? Who helped whom? he who was pushing the wheelchair for five hundred yards, or the one praying for me for many years while in his wheelchair?”
I didn’t even manage to finish my last word, when a kind of earthquake occurred in the heart of the president. He stopped listening to me because he had placed his hand on his forehead and began crying with sobs and wailing so much, that for a moment I became afraid. It is not very common to see a 75-80-year-old white-haired man crying so much. After he wiped and re-wiped his tears, giving me a thousand blessings and thanksgivings, I told him, “Now I think we can both see, Mr. President, the reason why the taxi entered your dead-end street?” I wish I hadn’t said that because he began crying again like a little infant, worse than the first time; he then fell into my embrace and told me, “Can I kiss you, my dear Thanasi?”
“Of course,” and now we began crying together, embracing each other for quite a while.
After he recovered from the great intoxication of tears, he told me, “Thanasi, I will celebrate this day every year, and I mean every year, because today is my real birthday. I give you my word that as soon as get off, I will go to Holy Confession.” O dear Lord, what beautiful, heavenly words, came out of a contrite and humbled heart that had just decided to implement those things we spoke about! Let's reflect a bit to see how this taxi driver took a wrong turn and arrived at a dead end. Do you think he came across the last house of the village by chance? Was it a mere coincidence? Not so, because Christians don’t believe in coincidences, nor in luck, but only in the providence of God. Besides, the Lord himself assures us, “But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Not even one will fall of them, without the will of my father” (Luke 12:7). Not even one hair or one leaf falls from the tree, if His love does not allow it. So, I close this story and invite you to remember the final words of the president, that if God grants me, I will share with my grandchildren one day: “Thanasi, on this day I will celebrate every year-believe me every year-because today is my real birthday." The question is, how many of us celebrate or even remember such spiritual birthdays?
 Prayer screen or icon stand.
 The Jewish Passover, was a foreshadowing of Christ’s Passover from Death to Life, His glorious Resurrection from the dead-the greatest Feast of the Church: Great and Holy Pascha.