One of the most inspiring experiences of my chaplaincy occurred when I met a young man of Greek descent with lupus, a potentially fatal disease that can attack multiple organs in the body.
In October of 1993, while making rounds through the hospital, I observed the name Papanickolas written across a piece of paper taped to the door of a family room reserved for the intensive care unit. When the young woman inside learned I was a Greek Orthodox chaplain, she introduced herself as Martha, the wife of patient Paul Papanickolas. Her husband was twenty-eight years old and of Greek descent. Although baptized and raised Greek Orthodox, Paul had been estranged from the Church for several years. Two years earlier, Paul had graduated from law school; he was currently employed by a local law firm. Even though Paul had been sick on and off since age sixteen, his condition wasn't diagnosed until he graduated from law school.
The lupus had damaged his kidneys, and Paul had been hospitalized with kidney failure. He was so swollen with fluids every part of his body was painful to the touch except his head. Paul sighed deeply when I introduced myself as a Greek Orthodox chaplain. "I was sick and you visited me" (Matt. 25:36). He nodded when I asked if he would like me to offer a prayer. Paul joined me in reciting the Lord's Prayer. Again he responded positively when I asked if he would like an Orthodox priest to visit. As I departed, I left with Martha my home phone number, as well as the phone number of Fr. Jim, the local Greek Orthodox priest.
I contacted Fr. Jim and made arrangements to meet him at his home that evening in order that we could visit Paul together. Fr. Jim was also my spiritual father, so it was not unusual for me to spend the evening with him and his family. While sitting around the dinner table, an emergency call came from the hospital: Paul had taken a turn for the worse. The doctors had told the family there was nothing more they could do medically. Paul was near death and without hope. On the way to the hospital, Fr. Jim and I discussed the circumstances of Paul's life in relation to his medical condition. Fr. Jim made a pastoral decision to offer the Office of Holy Unction. This sacrament - known in Greek as euchelaion, "the oil of prayer" - is described by Saint James in his epistle: "Is any sick among you? Let him send for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him. The prayer offered in faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him from his bed; and he will be forgiven any sins he has committed" (James 5:14-15).
When we arrived at the hospital, Paul was already in a semiconscious state. Fr. Jim and I, along with Paul's wife, mother, brother, and several friends, gathered around his bed. I was reminded of the image of Lazarus' loved ones gathered around his tomb with Jesus Christ. The Church, like Christ, had come to the patient. The nurse's station was visible through the glass windows. I noticed that the ICU had become very still; the medical staff observed that something sacred was happening. Fr. Jim put on his black exorasso (wide-sleeved robe) and his epitrachelion, the stole representing the office of the priesthood. He opened his Mikron Euchologion and Agiasmatarion, the priest's service books, and began to chant the ancient rite of anointing the sick: "Blessed is our God always, now and ever, and to the ages of ages." Standing next to Fr. Jim, I chanted the response: "Lord, have mercy."
The Byzantine chanting seemed to reverberate throughout the ICU. Paul suddenly bolted up in bed and gestured as if he were reaching out to someone. From the depth of his heart, he joined in chanting, "Lord, have mercy." Fr. Jim anointed him with the holy oil and concluded the service with the prayer of forgiveness. Paul sobbed and remarked that he had seen his dead father. He said he was consoled by the image of his father and knew he wasn't alone. St. Paul's words resounded in me, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (Heb. 12:1).
The following morning, the physicians confirmed that Paul's condition had improved. The congestion in his lungs had eased so that he was able to undergo dialysis. A miracle had occurred, and Paul had been healed according to God's will. Like Lazarus, he had been saved from death. "The sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it" (John. 11:4).
Paul remained in the hospital for twenty days. Fr. Jim made regular pastoral visits and counseled both him and his family. I was employed by the hospital and able to provide Paul and his wife pastoral care and counseling daily. Martha grew to trust me and unburdened her heart. She shared some of the hardships they had endured. Martha revealed that Paul had become increasingly depressed over the past few months. Prior to the hospitalization his depression had turned into despondency. Martha confessed they had been handling everything by themselves. They hadn't had the courage to seek emotional or spiritual help. Martha observed that Paul had been transformed by his reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. His hope was restored and he was anticipating full reconciliation with the Church. It was his strong desire to be present during the Liturgy to partake of the Holy Eucharist.
After his discharge from the hospital, Paul continued to visit the dialysis unit three times a week. Eventually he was provided with a home dialysis unit. During the next three years he was hospitalized numerous times. He underwent several major surgeries: an appendectomy, two hip replacements, and one knee replacement. He even survived a major seizure that damaged his back, resulting in spinal surgery. While recovering from spinal surgery, an accident occurred at the hospital that required a second spinal surgery.
For a while Paul continued to work part-time at the law firm. When he was no longer able to continue with his law practice, Paul increased his volunteer work at the Greek Orthodox Church. Between hospitalizations, Paul assisted with church mailings and helped Fr. Jim with the Lenten retreats, where the children decorated the epitaphion (shroud). Parishioners transported Paul to and from church so he could attend Fr. Jim's Bible study. Each year Paul and Martha worked at the annual Greek festival.
I continued to visit the couple in their home. Occasionally I met Martha at her work where we would chat over cafe lattés. Fr. Jim and I conferred regularly about Paul and Martha. We took seriously the Apostle's words, "We then who are strong ought to bear with the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves" (Rom 15:1). Paul had normal concerns about his salvation, as well as the salvation of his family. He continued to grieve for his father who had died while he was in law school. A year after our meeting, Paul and Martha had their marriage blessed in the Church. Fr. Jim officiated, and I was the koumbara (sponsor). Three years to the month of our meeting, in October 1996, Paul fell asleep in the Lord, "in a place of light, a place of green pasture, a place of repose, where there is no grief, sorrow or mourning" (Trisagion service for the dead).
In the two years since Paul's death, my relationship with Martha has continued. Even though she has not converted to Orthodoxy, she has continued a relationship with Fr. Jim and his parish. At the conclusion of a recent telephone conversation Martha said, "Though I have been to other churches, St. George Greek Orthodox Church is the only place I feel at home."
I have one vivid memory of Paul implanted in my heart. It is the image of him, leaning on a walker and gradually proceeding up the church aisle, drawing near to the Holy Eucharist, "with the fear of God, faith, and love" (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). This image puts my diaconia in perspective. Although I may have been employed by the hospital, I approached my diaconia as an extension of the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church as the eucharistic community. To this end, Fr. Jim and I were coworkers in the Lord, each according to the measure of our gifts: "There are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Cor. 12:5-7).
May his memory be eternal.