It’s been a month since I flew home from Canada. I think it’s a good time for me to reflect on the month I spent in service at St Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. I served there with Abouna Athanasius Iskander and with the blessing of H.G. Bishop Angaelos, H.G. Bishop Mina and His Holiness Pope Tawadros.
I first came into contact with Abouna Athanasius in the years after I became Orthodox. Indeed, unknown to us at the time, the day I arrived in Kitchener was the 20th anniversary to the very day of the first email I sent him. This seemed to be an unexpected sign of God’s grace in allowing this period of ministry.
There were a variety of reasons why it was useful for me to travel to Canada, even though it meant being away from my commitments to service in the UK. In the first place, my time in Kitchener would allow me to develop my understanding and practice of the Coptic Orthodox rite and the Liturgy of St Basil. Of course I have been Orthodox within the Coptic Orthodox Church for 22 years. But the British Orthodox diocese to which I belonged used the Liturgy of St James, equally ancient, and the basis of many of the Orthodox liturgies. Nevertheless there were some textual and practical differences which mean that my continuing education is necessary and helpful.
My time in Canada would also allow me to participate in a wide range of congregational activities, many of which are not always available to someone in my situation, seeking to develop small groups of converts and help them to become congregations. There was also the pleasant opportunity to finally meet face to face with some of the folk who have been dear and close friends for many years, and of course to meet and serve with Abouna Athanasius, who was very helpful to me, and to others here in the UK, when we became members of the Coptic Orthodox Church and in the years since then.
It was decided that I should remain especially committed to service in St Mary’s, and not be engaged in any wider travelling and ministry. This was very sound advice. Being rooted in one place allowed me to develop warm and fruitful relationships with many people, and to have many opportunities of meeting and engaging with the same groups. Had I been travelling elsewhere I would not have been able to participate in and experience some of the most useful encounters.
In fact during the month that I was in Kitchener I lived only a few houses away from the Church. Thanks to the kindness of the congregation, and to H.G. Bishop Mina, I was able to use the residence set aside for the bishop as my home from home, and it was certainly very important to me that after a long day of conversation, teaching and prayer I could be alone for a while to recharge my batteries.
I won’t attempt to write a diary of my visit here in this short report. Though I have many happy memories of every day. But by way of an overview I will describe some of the things that I was engaged in. Of course I prayed with Abouna Athanasius at each of the liturgies that were celebrated, both on Sunday and during the week. Since we had not met before, face to face, he had no idea as to how competent I might or might not be. I hope that I was helpful to him and was a support in serving at the altar with him. He taught me a great deal. It was a blessing to finally meet him and even more to serve with him. Looking back over my calendar I can see that I celebrated 9 liturgies at St Mary’s. H.G. Bishop Mina celebrated one of these liturgies, and preached a good homily. I had been taken to greet Bishop Mina a little earlier, at his residence in Missisauga, and to receive his blessing. It was kind of him to allow me to serve in his diocese, and I hope I was useful.
Outside of the prayer of the church, much of my time was taken up with teaching and with pastoral ministry. Those who know me will know that I like to have my thoughts and words well prepared in advance, but during much of my visit to Kitchener, I had to rely on the grace of God, and answer a multitude of questions which I had generally not seen in advance. Somehow it worked out well, I hope, and I participated in some interesting meetings with various groups from the congregation. The one I felt most daunted by was the meeting with the 12-13 year olds, but that turned out to be one of the most encouraging for me.
I met with the teenage group several times, and the servants group, and the young adults. I spoke to a group of students at the University of Waterloo. And on one of the Saturdays I was in Canada a spiritual day was organised and I spoke several times on the theme – worship in spirit and truth. In many of these meetings I delivered the same message, and folk must have grown tired of hearing it! It was that we must pray and love more, both as individuals and congregations, and that many of our difficulties are caused by our not praying and loving enough. I also often taught about the Jesus Prayer, which I am convinced is a necessary component of our Orthodox spirituality and should be practiced by all in the desire for unceasing prayer.
Almost every day I met with people in a pastoral setting. Either as individuals or in a small group or family context. This was very moving for me, but also tiring. I became acutely aware of the need to be spiritually charged at all times so that it was possible to serve others in the way they needed. I am not sure that any of us escape the trials and pressures of life, however successfully we present an image to the world of holding it all together. It was a blessing for me to seek to serve so many people through spiritual conversation in the love and care of God, and I hope that my desire to have been of use was fulfilled in some way for each of them.
Of course it was impossible to visit Canada without seeing some of the most famous sights. Abouna and Tasoni took me to Niagara Falls, and on another occasion to Toronto, where we ascended the CN Tower to take in a dizzying view of the city. There was perhaps not as much snow as I had expected in Canada in February. Indeed, it was very mild, and for much of the time there was no snow at all, even though the temperature was cold. But I was made warmly welcome by Abouna Athanasius, and the congregation at St Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Kitchener. I learned a great deal by my experience, and I hope I was of use to the community. I don’t think there was a better way of me being able to participate so fully without being resident in the congregation for a extended period. I will certainly use much that I learned in Canada in my own ministry here in the UK. So many are no longer names and faces, but friends and family.