Community of the Inner Light

To awaken from the nightmare of ignorance.

My Story

In a Blink of an Eye

By The Right Reverend Father Mitered Archimandrite Maximus Gregorios, C.I.L., Th.D., D.D.

God winks are such things as meeting certain people you hadnt seen in a long time, going in a direction different than what you had planned, finding yourself in a situation you never anticipated.

-- Squire Rushnell

Living and ministering as an Orthodox monastic priest, I can experience doubt and lack of self-worth. In such moments, I cry out, God! Did you call me to priesthood? If so, why? On September 11, 9:30 AM, however, God winked at me right over my television set, interrupting the weather report that I always watch. My immediate response was that of a fireman; I felt a surge of adrenaline and had a clear understanding of what I was to do.

Maximus Gregorios blessing the remains of those who died on 9/11 and offering prayers of thanksgiving to God for the assistance of Firemen and Rescue workers on the exact site of the destroyed Saint Nicholas' Church.

Maximus Gregorios blessing the remains of those who died on 9/11 and offering prayers of thanksgiving to God for the assistance of Firemen and Rescue workers on the exact site of the destroyed Saint Nicholas' Church.

Since I was already in my monastic garb, I grabbed my sacramental stole and oils, locked the door, and went the four blocks to Saint Vincent Hospital. This would be my base of combat ministry, my entrée into the bowels of hell, the likes of which I had only read about. After all, this was what I was trained to do in the military and what I now do as priest. This time, were I to die, it would be in service to God and those in His image and likeness.

I arrived in front of Saint Vincents and saw that their emergency plan was in full operation, extending out into Seventh Avenue. There were only two traffic lanes left for arriving ambulances. All available doctors, nurses and technicians were on the street waiting to receive the wounded. We all kept waiting, but only a few ambulances arrived with firemen and police, all of them suffered from heart or lung problems. In the early hours, we really did not know the facts of the terrorist attack. Long tables of food, water, soda, and even cake had been set up for all who were in need. These items came from the hospital, next door neighbors and coffee shops.

I was feeling sorry for myself as I found no one to raise from the dead. Just then, I ran into both my old friend, Father Roger, and a new friend and co-worker, Father Damien, who was from some island, the name of which I dont recall. He was a Bishop, complete with ring and staff, yet insisted on simply being called Father. The three of us became attached at the hip. Father Roger told us we should go to the New School, just two blocks away, where relatives were being interviewed to find lost loved ones.

After some time, we went back to the front of the hospital, but found the same scene of prayerful waiting. The horrific reality we could hear across a pocket radio had not yet been revealed or realized in this place.

As a priest, I have often said that I do not chase after an ambulance to save a person's soul. But, in time, God winked, and low and behold: a big white and yellow ambulance pulled up right in front of me with the back doors wide open. No one was inside. I asked the driver, where is the patient? He said they had been dropped off to the waiting doctors and staff. He was to take back fresh supplies for a new triage site. Father Damien looked at me and said, lets go where the souls need us. I said, Father, you are out of your head. I am seventy-one and an ex-heart attack patient, and you are using a cane.

Maximus Gregorios getting into ambulance at Saint Vincent's Medical Center

I had to think fast. Do I really believe what I preach? Do I want to walk the walk, or just talk the talk? Maybe the Great Lord They say is right: God is dead and there is no life after life. I knew it was time to put up or shut up forever concerning my beliefs. I looked at Father. He was smiling, and then I smiled too, as little boys do. I said, Lets do it.

In the tradition of those who go into battle, we blessed each other. Some young medical students pushed us into the ambulance, up over boxes of bottled water, masks, candy, apples and bandages. I got to sit on the water bottles: great and small. I cried out over all the noise and dust, and the others in the ambulance who were telling me how to put on a dust mask and about the danger in front of us. I asked, Is this any way to treat an old priest? Then I fell off my water bottles. The doctors laughed and said they thought I was a man of God.

The ride down to what was to become known as ground zero was slow, rough and jolting. The street was covered with debris, steel and rock fragments from the tall colossus: monuments to universal capitalism. The air was quickly contaminated with pungent, unfamiliar, scatological odors of destruction. My remembrance of the killing fields in Korea, though, caused me to identify that universal smelldeath.

Gods first wink for me was my birth in nineteen thirty. I looked around and saw a light too bright for me: two parents, German and Polish, and a society in financial depression.

I realized then this human experience might be tough, but it just might work for me.

God's next wink happened when I entered the first grade at Saint Monica School. I was under the control of eight women for eight years. At that time I had very few clues that these eight nuns were women. They were dressed in black, coarse material from the top of their heads to the ground. I was sure they had no feet, let alone shoes. It seemed as if they floated up and down the stairs. They each had two names. They all had Mary as their first name, but the second name was either a male saint or some demeaning word like Most Holy Crucified. Each had a chalk-white face with what my mother told me was facial hair above the upper lip, not a beard. Each had two hands, but within the right hand was a growth of a twelve-inch, light brown ruler. Each inch was named after an apostle of Jesus Christ. Sister Mary Flagellation told us she could talk with God and they all said, We love you. Now that scared me.

The next wink of God was when my very best friend in eighth grade told me I must go with him to the first seminary established in America by the French Holy Cross Father Isaac, a place then connected with the University of Notre Dame at South Bend, Indiana. I was to be a priest. I thought this would be great for me, as Jesus was sweet, and his Holy Father would not be like my heavy handed father. So off we went to the Angel Factory. It was not different from my parental environment, which was stern, secretive, and a place where I remained under surveillance at all times.

In those long years a gradual awareness of an uncanny, unchristian, even fiendish possibility that one soul could inhabit more than one body at a time came over me. I saw this with my own heart, as my eyes would deny it. Father Holy Rector and the twelve priest teachers morphed, just like those sacred nuns of earlier days, into my German father. It would be impossible for me to ever give witness of them smiling, laughing, crying or giving a nod of approval to me; or anything outside of themselves. O God, save me from these holy and pure men.

You guessed it, God winked and I audaciously climbed over the seminary wall. Within two weeks, my government informed me that the military exemption for the Angel Factory had ended. I was expected to defend and protect my country from Communist Korea. They placed me in the U.S Air Force. They thought it made sense. I had been educated in an Angel Factory; therefore, I should fly.

My soul was in torment. I thought, how can I kill God's grandest creation? In a bomber, I will be an angel of death not of life. This thought became a moral ethic that would stay with me all of my life. I earned U.S. Airforce medals, but the big ribbon for good conduct was the one that made me laugh. I thought, with eight nuns, twelve priests, and my parents, what else but good could come from me?

After four years, I was released from active duty in the Air Force.

That last night as an airman I had a restless sleep, full of dreams about liberation and personal freedom. In this period of deep sleep, I would travel from one time frame to another in different lands, peopled according to BC and AD. In one of these dreams I was dressed like a leader with a gold hat, a gold cane, and was walking on water with a crowd of approving, adoring people on either shore. I was going nowhere, just out for a stroll. No one dared tell me to stop. In another dream, I had so much wealth I gave hundreds of dollars to the poor on the streets and copper pennies to the rich. No one could dare say I was not a giving person. One dream embarrassed me. I was the newly consecrated King David of Israel dancing before the Holy Ark coming into the Holy City, Jerusalem. I was God-approved, so I could have sexual relations with whomever I chose, and I did. Just like the real King David in the Hebrew scriptures. As I awoke from that dream, I knew God had winked.

No more killing. No yes sir or no sir. No more taking orders. I would be in control of my life at lastand rich.

Looking back through the years, I now understand why I chose to be a biblical prodigal son. With government discharge money, looking good, my health, and a need to make up for the past years, I took a train to the Big City, New York: Broadway, show bizwine, women, song and dance. Yes, I became a song and dance man. Look out world, I said, I am in control.

As a government paid student in the American Theaters Wing, it was exciting to perfect my natural talents. O God, I was good. But with my background of the military, seminary, nuns, and my over-vigilant parents, I was too much a scrupulous prude. My talent, looks, and honesty were not what the producers were looking for. I never got a big part. I thought I was a failure and a no-talent. So I looked for a wink from God.

But I guess a prodigal son does not experience a God Wink.

It was degrading to be recognized as a failure. So, I just trolled the streets of life taking jobs that did not need my skills or faith.

Quickly, I became overqualified for every twelve-step program there is and after a few years, God winked again. It was a dark, cold, wintry night. I was in the only place I felt secure, accepted and understood, my usual bar with my only true friend, Bob the bartender.

During one of our often politically incorrect diatribes, Bob informed me that I knew nothing about the history of Constantinople or the Orthodox Christian Religion of Eastern Europe. Bob was correct. So the next night, along with a free beer, came two four-inch-thick books from Bob on the Byzantine Empire from his Harvard days. I accepted the books but not his next remark. He said, "Take the veil and read." I thought, what a curse that statement is in a world where men dont take veils because it takes away their strength, their importance, their potency. He was asking me to become a wimp or a twink, equating me with a submissive woman. And, in this bar, it had a double meaning: it also meant to cover yourself like a person of no value. Yet this was the next wink of God for me.

I had held a secret throughout those years, unknown even to my few friends: I had taken extension courses in Christian Theology, Metaphysics, Comparative Religions, Psychology and Spirit Healing. This was more than would be required of any priest, but I never planned to do anything professional with them. Yes! God winked again. This time, an Orthodox Bishop was talking to me and said I must be called to the priesthood. My reply was not me, Im a prodigal son. The bishop replied sternly Good! They make the best priests.

About a year later, as I vaguely remember, it was December 6th, a date which had no importance to me at that time, I found myself somewhere in Lower Manhattan walking the cold streets. It was noon. I had just left a friends loft where fifty others and I had drank through the previous night. The only thing we had in common was drinking, and we shared no belief in anything but our own self-importance. We knew we were right. I had been the last to leave. I had only one dollar in my pocket, and, still hung over, a big need to find a toilet. I may have been drunk, but the real pain was inside my soul. I really believed what I had studied, what I had starved and sacrificed to learn about during the hidden, secretive years of research into real life. Who would believe me? How could I teach or use what I had learned at this time in my life? As I walked uptown, I found myself on a street named after a tree, which grew in my parents backyard in Indiana. On this Cedar Street in New York City, there was no Cedar tree for me to relieve myself. There was, however, a small narrow, four-story building centered in a block-long parking lot. It was painted pure white and had one wooden door with a small wooden cross on top. There was a small sign on the outside of the building with words written in a foreign language. But I recognized the words church and Saint Nicholas. Just then, the door opened, and out came a lady who smiled at me as she said Hello, holding the door open for me to enter. I went inside, relieved myself, and rested in that warm building for sometime. The service in progress was in Greek. It was so rich in color, smells, bells and the bright icons of people of wholenessthe saints. Not one human spoke to me, but in English I clearly heard: You are my priest forever. I cried and quickly left the church in disbelief. I must be nuts.

One year later I was ordained an Orthodox priest and monastic missionary to the unchurched. I would go to these people wherever God called me. The poor, sick and socially rejected call me Father and request the sacraments. I do my best with no financial support. My friends are too poor but their greetings of Thank you, Father and God Bless you, Father are rewarding. I understand that the more affluent have their own priest and thats good.

The ambulance stopped at last, and the gates to hell opened wide. We climbed out and into a vortex of ghoulish gray dust, made up of a trillion computer papers, plastic lunch bags and very personal effects. The dust was in and on all the trees, buildings, crushed fire and emergency trucks, and thousands of private cars. The firemen with their hooligan hooks looked like distorted, uniformed characters from Mars. In twenty-two minutes I, too, was covered: my robes, my hair, and inside my mouth. I never knew there was a taste to terror: the dust of the worlds largest outdoor crematory.

A medical student called us over to an open space under a ledge formed by the overhang of a damaged building. An abandoned hooligan hook was shoved into a very large crack to hang the precious bags of saline solution which were used to wash out the fine ground contaminants which blind the eyes. With two blocks of broken building debris serving as chairs, we received our first walking but sight-impaired firemen and others.

At this point I looked back and saw myself acting just like those eight nuns from Saint Monica. I would go out into the area and pull on one firemans coat sleeve and order them to follow me to our triage. The firemen walked in small supportive groups, so if I got one, I got them all. It was wonderful. In a deep nuns voice, I demanded they remove their dirty, dusty helmets and form a single line. I said, "Close your eyes," so I could wash their dirt-caked faces and then I said, "Open your eyes," so I could wash their eyes out. If they cooperated, I gave them a bottle of water, an apple or a candy bar. It was their choice. God bless them, they were the best little boys a nun could have under her charge. During these close, intimate face to face relationships, as a mother to her baby, I saw their faces as the incarnate Christ. Their eyes, eyes of eternal life, reflected a litany of death, hope, loss, hope, helpless courage and a terror beyond feelings. And through all of these came the overpowering and eternal love of one for the other. Truly, in the giving is the receiving. Some asked me for a blessing, or even wanted to confess. In humbleness I did. As the firemen walked back to their dangerous work with renewed vision and untangled souls, I received their benedictus, God Bless you, Father.

Then it happened, a message came from my God in the form of an angel that I came to analyze later. This good-looking man stood right in front of Father Damien and myself and said, without introduction, Follow me, but stay within my light, Ill take you to the morgue. Father looked to me and said, How could he know what we really came down here to do? I was impressed with his cleanliness, especially his shoes. No one there had clean shoes.

I told Father, "No time to talk." The angle moved fast. His light illuminated our path in front of us, yet also behind him. We stumbled along in his very large circular light for one, two then five blocks in that eternal, morbid, windy atmosphere of man-made cosmic destruction.

Suddenly, both the angel and his light disappeared. We were in front of the large doors of a dark, damaged building. There was only a small generator supplying light on the inside of what seemed to be the elegant lobby of a café from another time.

As I stood there, I heard and saw a very old, black, dirty, long refrigerator truck: a temporary morgue. Its driver stood next to it. This electrical mausoleum was surrounded by firemen standing and sitting. They were tired, dejected, and overwhelmed by the magnitude of destruction and death, all of them focusing on the dirty truck. As Father and I came closer, some of the firemen came to us, offering the salutation God bless you, Fathers. They escorted us to the small, rickety platform that raised us to the trucks flooring. Their flashlights helped us to see the red body bags. We loudly intoned the ancient prayer for the dead. They told us not to open the bags, making it sound as if the bags contained a secret which I was about to discover in my next act of service to God, our maker. As Father and I departed that scene of reverence and respect, I heard a chorus of a deep-toned, God bless you, Father.

Just then the angel made another welcomed appearance and silently directed us to once again walk in his light. The angels clean light led us into the dark, dusty café lobby. We slowly shuffled our way through debris, passing firemen, police, and rescue workers and large tables of water, apples, and those big candy bars. Young men and women were serving it all with a smile and a Hello. As we passed them, they smiled and said, "God Bless you father." We continued in our faithfulness to the angels light and I mumbled to myself: How can they be so friendly to us in this hellish experience? Why is all that candy and fruit and those water bottles arranged as if in a deli? And their smiles as they said "God bless you, Father," it is all so wrong and artificial. They dont mean it. No one says "God bless you, Father" to me when I am uptown, not even when I am in the hospital. Walking along the streets I wear monastic attire only to hear their greeting of silence as they look away. Father asked me to repeat what I had said to myself. Not wanting to be un-priest-like, I told Father, "I am pissed off!" He asked, "about the food tables?" "No!" I replied, "Its that constant mantra of God Bless you, Father." Father Damien admonished me and said, "They and especially the firemen have a strong respect for priests, and, Father, you are a priest." "O, youre right, I replied."

Father moved ahead of me at some distance. I had to stop to think. Then I noticed to my right side a long table covered with a clean, white covering draped to the floor. Over each end of the table hung a light bulb. Next to the table, on the floor, there was a tall stack of red body bags with shining brass zippers. The area all around this table was swept clean suggesting this was a different kind of place. I started to smooth out the wimpled tablecloth. In reality, I knew what that table was used for, yet slowly a deep inner vision, peaceful and profound, came through me. I focused on the table, but with my peripheral vision I saw two adult acolytes approaching in a short procession, their hands carrying the offering for a liturgy: a sacrifice to God. Sanity took over. I knew, and quickly had to accept that coming into this place, soon to be consecrated with blood, were firemen. They respectfully placed a long basket in front of me on the table. It held what looked like parts of a large, broken childs doll. Then I heard one fireman in his tearful voice, sounding like a deacon to me, his Priest, say, "Bless! Father." He walked back for more. In this, a most unusual and exceptional moment of Earths history, I found myself standing alone doing what I thought some human would do for me, treat the remains of my body as the container of my soul. I blessed the body parts and placed them into the bags. Personally and privately for me, it all became other than. Here I was in a catacomb of a destroyed civilization at an altar-table of the sacrificed. The odor of destruction that surrounded me was not one of monastery incense. With my blue plastic gloves and my torn and mud-caked priestly stole, I blessed, prayed and placed these broken pieces of Gods precious, delicate creations into those red plastic and shiny brass zippered, yet chalice like portable reliquaries.

I said to my God, "Are you certain that I should be a celebrant at this very long requiem mass?" After a long time, there were no more baskets of body offerings, just the incense of decay. A very intrusive and loud, demanding voice jolted me back into the world of human authority and fear. It was Father Damien walking toward me with a tall policeman in pursuit, telling him he could not be in here for this was a crime scene. Father stopped and turned, placing his old gold-ended cane in the officers chest and said, as only a saintly priest could say, "Crime scene? This is Gods scene." The officer left us alone. The angel made an unexpected re-appearance and told us it was time to return to our triage center. It seemed to be becoming daybreak with more rescue workers, young priests and other clergy arriving.

Back at the triage, a fireman, whom I had prayed with the night before, came to me with his helmet in his hand and said, "Father, last night you wanted to know if St. Nicks Church was ok. I have to tell you it is destroyed, down to the ground." He saw me cry and held me in his strong, supportive arms. The ambulance from St. Vincents came by and the driver offered to take us back to the hospital. Father said, "Let's go and take a shower and get some food." So we did just that.

After a hot shower and a light meal, we ran into Father Roger again. We told him what we had experienced. He wanted to go back down again. So we did, this time in a FEMA bus. We arrived at the same triage site and started all over again. We even went back to that mausoleum. It was the same scene, but with even more firemen, and, yes, all three of us stood at the truck which was now full, and we blessed the bodies.

As we started back to the triage, the most loud alarm sounded with all the firemen, police, and rescue workers running away towards uptown. All passed me by. Someone said that the number five building was about to tumble over on us now! I walked as fast as I could. I was so afraid. Not to die, but to be seen as an old man. No hero me. The building didnt fall and all the workers went back into the pit of wind, fire, and the sting of death. Since we three old, dirty, tired priestshad already run or walked four blocks out of harms way, we decided to keep walking uptown towards the fresh, welcoming light, sunshine, and clean air to freedom from IT. We had to walk all the way back to 11th Street to turn East to St. Vincents.

We each walked in silence. I, myself, realized in my silence where I had been and what I had done. I never found out if my angel was for real. I wondered, Why was I so sure of what I said and did? Is there a God for everyone? Are atheists hired as fireman and policemen? What about those candy bars? How long does it take to die? Then I remembered the face of Christ in the firemen and their eyes, which had revealed love. Yep! Angels do have large flashlights. I know I talked to one, my angel Harry. Or was it Frank?

On that long walk back to civilization, I made a sacred vow to God, the blessed Trinity, and to St. Nicholas: I would return to ground zero, and on the very spot where the Church of St. Nicholas stood, give public praise with prayer, smells, bells, candles and thanksgiving to St. Nicholas. The same spot where, twenty some years ago, God called me to the priesthood. I vowed to proclaim Gods grace on all of my firemen of God and my angel, Harry wherever he may be. Praise God, I did it. Four months later, on the eve of St. Nicholas saints day, with the help of NYC Police Officer Lee of the 1st Precinct, I was able to keep my vow and I gave this report to my Bishop, just last week. My bishop said, "Now! Do you trust God?" I asked "Why?" He said, "Hundreds of firemen spoke to you for God and said God bless you, Father. How can you even doubt your priesthood or the need for you as His priest?" Right then in my ear, God winked. I understood at last. I am a priest forever. Thank you, God, and bless your messengers, the police and firemen, at that place that Father Damian named God's scene. True! It was all in a wink of God's Eye.

Maximus Gregorios on the exact site of the destroyed Saint Nicholas' Church.

Maximus Gregorios offering prayers of thanksgiving for the assistance of the Firemen and Rescue Workers on that awful day of 9/11 and the commemeration of those who fell asleep in the Lord.

Maximus Gregorios on the exact site of the destroyed Saint Nicholas' Church.

Maximus Gregorios on the exact site of the destroyed Saint Nicholas' Church.

Maximus Gregorios on the exact site of the destroyed Saint Nicholas'Church.

Maximus Gregorios offering prayers of thanksgiving with Police Officer Lee of NYPD Community Affairs looking on.

Maximus Gregorios on the exact site of the destroyed Saint Nicholas' Church.

Copyright © 2003-2009 Father Maximus Gregorios
All Rights Reserved

An edited version of this story originally appeared in The Chrysalis Reader

Photos courtesy of Christopher Weil Photography

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