Continuing translations of reflections on the life of Fr. Elias Morcos published in Majallat al-Nur. This one is by Fr. Boulos Wehbe, priest of Sts. Michael and Gabriel Church in Mazra'a, Beirut and a professor at Notre Dame de Louaize University. My apologies for the roughness of the translation of this very personal, heartfelt reflection. The rather more eloquent Arabic original can be found here.
Abouna Elias as He Is, Abouna Elias as I Knew Him
Abouna Elias as He Is, Abouna Elias as I Knew Him
“I had not seen God with joy like I did on the day that He brought Abouna Elias back to Himself…”
I felt this at the moment that I learned that Abouna Elias had reposed in the body and this expression hasn’t stopped repeating itself in my consciousness until I started writing these paragraphs, two months after that moment. To return to that moment, I felt then that God was speaking to me, opening His arms to embrace me: ‘I joined with people during your stay with them, and now that you are with Me in My house, I pour out upon you all the compassion and love that I have while you sit on the throne of sonship that many have not deserved.’
However, I also felt at that moment a sensation that brought much relief, which at first seemed strange: I only wept a certain number of tears for him and a feeling more resembling numbness crept in, a feeling of happiness in the certainty that Abouna Elias is still present, that indeed he is still strongly present in my life, in the life of the faithful and of the Church. This feeling was confirmed when I was near his pure body, during the funeral prayers and afterwards when he was carried to his body’s final resting place. During the prayers, I looked at him and he appeared to be sleeping (the expression used by Jesus to describe Lazarus’ repose), just a nap nothing more. When he was brought out of the church, I did not say goodbye to him because I did not feel that he was leaving me, leaving us. He left, but he is still present…
And what do I feel now? Exactly the same feelings. Abouna Elias is still present with an intensity that does not diminish, a presence that did not fade while his body had a pulse (that is, in a more usual expression: when he was still alive. And he is still alive). I did not always manage to see him in the manner that I hoped to, but I was always close to him, asking for his prayers from afar (without necessarily talking to him on the telephone, only by means of prayer), calling out in prayer: “Abouna Elias”, Lord Jesus have mercy on me (forgive me). And now I will continue to repeat the same prayer because his intercession, which sheltered me during his life, will continue to shelter me during his bodily absence. I feel precisely that Abouna Elias is still present in my life, full stop.
I can declare in all simplicity that Abouna Elias had a presence, a savor, an impact in my life more than any other person. He had and still has the greatest impact in a great deal of what he said and in a great deal of what I took from him without his speaking. His example was my greatest teacher. I stored away his words and movements, his tenderness and mirth and blessings within my consciousness, my heart, my intellect, my being, since I had the greatest teacher and the sweetest balm. I cannot describe this in words. He taught me that love has no horizon and no limits, that love does not know judgment, that love is the password. He loved me as I am, and did not “philosophize” about me or judge me once! One time, after a bitter confession, I waited for what he would say to me. When he opened his mouth, he said, ‘We are all sinners. I ask you to remember me in your prayers,’ and that was it. I felt that I had been forgiven and that my sins had fallen away from me. He accepted me as I am even in my darkest days and would often tell me, ‘you are my comfort.’ When I saw him for the last time, carried on a bed from the hospital to the monastery, he said to me in French, ‘Thank you for everything.’ He was thanking me? What should I say?
He hid his humility with mirth, and it increased because he hid it. Can I speak of his presence? Yes, I have spoken of his presence, but it is not from my own words, but rather from what is stored away within me from God’s presence, His knowledge, His compassion, His love, and ardent love for everything connected to Him. He taught me command of the liturgy and God’s companionship in others. He taught me to be on intimate terms with the Bible through his discussing it in preaching, meditation, and wonder. Despite all this, he always acted according to the Lord’s teaching that the Sabbath was made for the service of man, not man for the service of the Sabbath, and so I often saw him go against convention or go outside the texts or what is customary and is usually done for the sake of others’ joy. I have many examples of this sort.
Joy was his basic characteristic, joy coming from daily surprise at God and His children, at being, at everything that God created. Once he told me a joke about a person who was always felt surprise when he got up from sleep. One day he didn’t feel this… and he was surprised! Is it possible to imagine what Abouna Elias experienced from the moment he entered the monastery, all the difficulties and disappointment, exile and bitterness? And is it possible for one to measure what this giant was able to accomplish? A single person the size of a church. He spread revival in the See of Antioch and in Antiochian Orthodox monasticism. He wrote, lectured, and represented the See in forums and conferences. He traveled and toured, sought sons and daughters, kept vigil and labored. He toiled and was not exhausted. Thousands were spiritually reborn at his hands. He consecrated hundreds and guided hundreds. His light shined beyond the boundaries of his Church. He became a father to those who came from east and west to the bosom of Abraham.
And so, what he accomplished was a heritage in a single person and what he established remains as long as his spirit remains alive in the consciousness of those who became disciples at his hands, who drank from his provisions, who walked in his footsteps. He is a saint from Antioch, an icon engraved in our hearts and in the depth of the Church’s being, a pillar of the fire of compassion and a bridge to Jesus’ love.
You will remain, father, a beacon for me by which I will be guided through the darkness of days, and in which I will rejoice through life’s journey. You reside in me like perfume resides in a rose and I will continue to savor you despite the thorns’ pricks and the roughness of the path because you are engraved on my heart, my mind, my memories, my present, my tomorrow, constant and active. This happened since I met you as a student preparing to enter university and it will continue by your supplication, God willing, until I meet you in the bosom of the Lord Jesus, whom you loved to your last breath.