“Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips,” cried the prophet Isaiah, upon seeing “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up”(Is. 6:1). Despite the profound sense of impurity provoked by this holy vision in the Temple, The Lord, after mystically cleansing the lips of His prophet with a hot coal, asked this burning question: “Whom shall I send, and who will go to this people” (Is. 6:8)? Pierced to the heart, the prophet responded: “Behold, here am I, send me.” Such are the contradictory emotions felt by those called to serve Christ in the Holy Altar, that is, a wounding of the heart mixed with joy, and the feeling of unworthiness coupled with a deep yearning to serve.
The Call of the Priesthood: A Seminary for Guatemala
Inspiring young men to embrace this hard, but joyous path of service is the challenge facing us in Guatemala. The Orthodox Church can only grow under the stole of a priest. With only eight priests serving some three hundred communities, we too, ask the question, “who will go to this people?” To address this great need for servant leaders and stewards of the mysteries of Christ, the seminary of Saints Peter and Paul has been established here on the altiplano bordering Mexico–high atop a mountain overlooking the city of Huehuetenango. The location is breathtakingly beautiful, but this undertaking is fraught with many obstacles.
First and foremost is the need for worthy and qualified candidates, those willing and able to leave behind dependent families and the farms that require intense labor, to pursue a higher calling. Life in the Mayan villages has its own need-based rationale, so dropping one’s nets to serve Christ is a hard sell. Even finding candidates with a high school degree or a sufficient level of linguistic proficiency can be daunting. We must remember that Spanish is not the first language for most of the indigenous people. Twenty-three different native dialects are spoken in Guatemala. Right now, our little flock of students is comprised of young men from the villages, along with former priests of other faiths who converted to Orthodoxy, together with their wives.
Digging for Water and Orthodoxy
A second great difficulty facing us is the lack of water. Living high atop a mountain without a steady source of water complicates life during the six-month dry season, which lasts from November to May. This means that we have to conserve the little water we have, storing it in cisterns after a truck brings it to us on a weekly basis. Long, and or daily, showers are not advisable. We buy our drinking water as needed from a nearby Evangelical church. Right now, three hired men are digging a well for us through thick rock, descending into the depths of what seems like hades at the rate of one yard every two days. They hope to find water somewhere between thirty to forty yards down. So far we are at seven and counting. We have called upon St. Photini, the Samaritan woman, to intercede on our behalf.
Clearing the Site
Another challenge facing this fledgling seminary community is the acquisition of an Orthodox mindset. This means learning and internalizing the cycle of church services and allowing Christ to be formed in us through the prescribed feasts and fasts of the church. This recurring ebb and flow of the liturgical year has it’s parallel in nature. Since the Mayan people have traditionally lived close to the land, they already possess a natural reverence for God’s creation. Even before becoming Christians they worshipped the forces of nature as gods. In their prayers they asked permission to plant “on the back” of the land. Their celebrations focused on giving thanks for their harvests and hunting bounties. Out of respect, they took only what they needed and no more. The concept of environmental waste was not part of their lives. If it was taken, it was used. Religion now, as then, forms the core of their life. So building on this traditional foundation of faith in a creative and holistic way will require a great deal of sensitivity to their culture. The Orthodoxy of the Mayans no doubt will take on its own identity in time.
Many are the challenges to be faced as noted above. It is our hope and prayer that many of you will consider praying for us and supporting this noble effort. Whereas many of the great seminaries of the Orthodox world stand on firm foundations and are sustained by the generosity of the faithful, we in Guatemala are still trying to recruit candidates, staff our classes, find liturgical and theological texts in Spanish, feed our students, find water and integrate the Orthodox faith into the Mayan culture.
This is our calling, to provide priests for the Orthodox Church in Guatemala. Can you help us?