Today is the first Thanksgiving without my dad. Yesterday I received a phone call from a friend from our town who lives overseas. She said she was thinking about me and our family, and felt so bad for us here at Thanksgiving, grieving my father. I told her we were fine, because we really and truly are. My mom has tough days sometimes, but we are doing much better than I ever would have imagined. And for that, on this day, I am thankful for the grace of God, which made that possible.
As longtime readers of this blog know, I lived with my dad the last eight days of his life, and cared for him to the utmost of my ability. It was all grace. I’m thankful to have had that opportunity to serve him, because it was so healing for me and, I hope, for him. We had a complicated relationship, but it ended so harmoniously, with nothing but love between us. For most of my life I dreaded the day of my father’s death, anticipating it as a personal apocalypse. But when the day came, it was hard, but it was also golden in a way I could not have foreseen. Daddy died at home, with his son holding one hand, his wife the other, ringed by all his grandchildren, and by some of his dearest friends. When he breathed his last, we prayed the Our Father, then sang “I’ll Fly Away.” If there is a better way to leave this world, I don’t know what it is.
I was able to rejoice in the gift of his holy death because over the previous three years, against my will, I had worked out a lot of painful stuff within myself having to do with our relationship. I tell that story in How Dante Can Save Your Life, noting how God used the Commedia to lead me out of my own dark wood, but also used a therapist, Mike Holmes, to help me, and my Orthodox pastor, Father Matthew Harrington. The role of Father Matthew and our parish in my life has very much been on my mind lately, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.
We began the St. John the Theologian Orthodox mission three years ago. In fact, the Harrington family moved here from Walla Walla, Washington, at Thanksgiving 2012. We had only a small group of us Orthodox believers, but just enough money to launch the mission. The Harringtons moved into a long-vacant rental house, with a large workshop attached. We all worked so hard to prepare the house and the temple (we transformed the workshop), and had our first liturgy in January, 2013.
Mission life has been difficult, but hard in a way that I have found deeply transformative. I’ve always been the kind of Christian who stands back and observes, and quietly analyzes. This is my way, but it’s a disordered way. In a mission with a tiny congregation, nobody can afford to hang back and just watch. Julie became the choir director, and has spent the past years learning how to chant like a Slav. Orthodox liturgical music is highly complicated, but she has worked very hard to master it. I had nothing remotely complex to deal with, but just getting out of my head and its tangle of abstractions was a daunting challenge.
In my Dante book, I talk at some length about how the ordinary life of the mission changed me. The Orthodox liturgy is inexhaustibly rich and beautiful. Though I had been worshiping in it for six years prior to the opening of our mission, I had not been as open to receiving its graces as I was in St. John’s. This is a severe mercy God gave me by allowing me to be broken by my own failings. It turns out that Father Matthew, despite ours being his first parish assignment since ordination, is an excellent confessor. He spoke hard truths to me in love, and would not let me rest in my own self-pity.
He led. I followed. It worked. It works.
Our life in the mission has been difficult. Last autumn, one of the founders of our church dropped dead at age 42. This year, Matushka Anna, Father Matthew’s wife, endured a life-threatening pregnancy, and is now caring full-time for her beautiful Irene, a special-needs baby with severe scoliosis and hemifacial microsomia. Many of you readers gave generously to support Baby Irene. Doctors said it was a miracle that Mat. Anna (who bled out three times in delivery) survived, and for that, we definitely give thanks today. Yet she had to quit working. The Harringtons are surviving on Father’s salary alone.
And that is not enough for a family of five. Last week, we had a painful meeting of the parish council, to discuss the budget. The sad fact is, there aren’t enough of us to carry on for much longer. We’ve had a few converts, but have lost a couple of them too. Everybody is tithing as much as we can, but it’s still not enough to support the priest and his family, not with our small numbers. Father Matthew and his wife are doing without health insurance now. It is outrageous that we can’t give that to our priest and his family, but we cannot make money appear out of nowhere.
In the parish council meeting, we had to all face the fact that if we don’t have more converts in the next year, we will have to close the mission. None of us could have been surprised by this, but seeing the numbers on paper was still a shiv in the ribs. If I thought I had to raise my family on such a low salary, I would resign at once, but that’s not how Father Matthew is. He’s going to keep fighting for the parish until there’s no fight left in him.
So we’re praying for a miracle, and working out new strategies to attract worshipers to the mission. I sat in church on Sunday, listening to Father Matthew preach, and once again, as I do most every Sunday, reflect on how he is the most gifted homilist I have ever heard. His teaching is the opposite of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. He preaches repentance and asceticism, but he also preaches love and joy. It’s a hard thing to pull off, but he does it, week after week. Julie and I have said to each other on more than a few occasions after church that we felt as if he were talking directly to us. This past Sunday, with the possibility of the mission’s imminent closure on my mind, I thought about how much St. John the Theologian mission is at the heart of my own personal Benedict Option. I have grown more spiritually in the past three years in our poor rural mission than I had in decades before. Father Matthew, through his preaching and spiritual leadership, and by offering us the Sacraments, is preparing our little platoon for the battles ahead.
If only people would come hear him preach, come spend a little time in our church, they would see! I thought. But they don’t come. My guess is that the weirdness factor of Orthodoxy is the major obstacle. It really is an alien form of Christianity to our place. I get that. Earlier this year, though, I read the church historian Robert Louis Wilken’s stunning book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought , which, I’ll confess, was my first serious, sustained exposure to the Church Fathers. I was astonished to discover that the Christianity of the first centuries of the Church was very, very close to what we experience every Sunday in our tiny parish in rural south Louisiana! What a miracle! You want the early church — boom, we have it.
Maybe, though, folks don’t want it. I have to face that fact. People locally have been very kind to us, but it might simply be the case that they feel no need or desire for Orthodox Christianity. I keep thinking that if we had more time, people would find their way to us, but I could be wrong. We tried. We are trying. But trying sometimes isn’t enough, and that’s just how life goes.
Over the past week, I’ve thought hard about how much our little mission church means to me, and how thankful I am for it. The prospect of its disappearance has shaken me up, and made me even more grateful for what God has done for us in that community than I was before. To everything there is a season, and it might be, in the mysterious will of God, that St. John the Theologian mission has accomplished what it was founded to do. I told my wife after the parish council meeting, “I can’t imagine what the rest of my life would be like if it had not been for St. John’s.” And it’s true: the spiritual healing that came to me through that church was a fundamental turning point in my own life. I believe that most of us who worship there can say the same thing.
Today I offer God the Father thanks for the life of my father, Ray Dreher Sr. I also offer the Father thanks also for what He has done for me and the people I love through St. John’s mission, and the sacrificial ministry of Father Matthew Harrington. Here, from How Dante Can Save Your Life, is an excerpt to tell you where he came from:
St. John the Theologian is Father Matthew’s first parish. When Father Seraphim Bell, a Walla Walla, Washington, priest who is Father Matthew’s own spiritual father, dispatched the newly ordained Matthew to us, he told me that the former police officer was a naturally gifted pastor “because he has suffered.”
After we had known each other a while, I asked Father Matthew what Father Seraphim had meant by that. I knew that Father Matthew had been raised by his grandparents and had never known his father. And I knew that he had been a police officer. One afternoon, sitting alone with him in the fellowship hall, I asked him to tell me his story.
“I was a very capable police officer, but I always felt like I was being punished for doing my job,” he said, squaring his shoulders under his black cassock. “I would arrest some city bigwig for drunk driving, and my boss would fuss at me. Why? It really aggravated a sense in me of deep mistrust of authority.
“And there were other things that are normal in police work but that started to get to me. I would think, ‘Why did that guy try to kill me? Why couldn’t I have saved that person?’ As I progressed in police work, I felt more and more of a sense of being orphaned. It all came out of self-pity, but those are real, hard emotions that being a cop coughed up.”
“Tell me about the breaking point,” I said.
“It was the second-to-last call I ever took,” he told me. “It was a little girl. She lived right by a big aqueduct, and fell in and drowned. I never saw her body, but by then I was so emotionally fragile that the pictures by themselves shook up me up pretty bad. She had on these pink sandals with flowers on them.
“That was a Saturday. The next morning, I went to liturgy, and in front of me was a little girl wearing the exact same shoes,” he continued. “I came undone. That was the end of my career. It really was. My wife knew. I knew. It was just how I navigated the exit.”
Father Matthew’s last deed as an active police officer was to chase two suspected thieves who were escaping on bicycles. They dropped their bikes and slipped away. Enraged by this, he took out his knife and cut their tires.
“Just like that,” Father Matthew said, shaking his head. “Then I realized that I had become what I was fighting. I couldn’t be a cop anymore. I talked to my chief and told him I couldn’t go on. I wasn’t a bad cop, and I wasn’t a malicious cop, but I was a suffering cop, and I needed out.”
Father Matthew and his wife, Anna, had discovered the Orthodox Church through the parish pastored by Father Seraphim. As the young police officer’s emotional life disintegrated under job pressure, the congregation held him up.
“What I thought was a strong wall cracked, and I fell apart,” the priest told me. “They didn’t judge me when they saw me bawling through vespers and liturgy, just bawling.”
“Wait,” I said. “You? You cried in front of all those people?”
Tall and stern, with a piercing gaze, Father Matthew is not the kind of man you imagine crying in public, if at all. Though he wears a cassock now (“my dress,” he snarks), this priest does not look like the sort of cleric fat-mouthing heretics would want to mess with.
“Yeah, I cried,” he said. “I was broken. I still am broken. I can’t watch war movies or anything like that. It’s a humbling experience to know that you’re in the prime of your life and you’re broken.”
Meeting Father Seraphim had made all the difference in his life. “He tells it like it is,” said Father Matthew. “He made me face myself, and all my pride and anger. Man, was I ever angry. Orthodoxy allowed me to come out of that.”
“Dante would call it a dark wood,” I said. “So is that why you became a priest?”
“I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “It was a response to the love I received from Christ through the Church. If anything, my time in the civil service showed me that the only way I could help people was to heal my own heart. I had to seek the fullness of life in Christ, to be able to see the divine light in anyone. Otherwise, all they’re getting is the blind leading the blind.”
My father loved Father Matthew, and respected him greatly. I remember my dad saying to me on more than one occasion, about Father Matthew, “That there is a man” — which was about the best compliment you could hope to get from my country-boy daddy. Father Matthew came to Daddy’s bedside bless him in the final days of his life. It is hard to face Thanksgiving without my dad this year. And believe me, readers, it is hard to think that our band of brothers and sisters at St. John’s may be without the blessing of Father Matthew and our church community this time next year. But all things must pass, and recognizing the mortality of all things human makes us more grateful to have them while we do.
I wish you all a blessed Thanksgiving. Please pray for St. John’s. I just lost one father, and am not ready to lose another.
UPDATE: More information about the Harrington family’s insurance situation. The kids are covered, but mom and dad are not. They do not make enough money to qualify for Obamacare, and make too much to qualify for Medicaid, given that the State of Louisiana, in its infinite wisdom and mercy, decided not to expand the program. Under the current program, Father Matthew would have to make $2300 a month to qualify for a health care tax credit — or less than $650 a month to qualify for Medicaid. Thus do working people fall through the cracks here.