By Fr. David Mahaffey
I suppose most people go through life with their plans generally in place. I mean, they go through school, find someone they love, begin a career, get married, raise a family and then retire, enjoy their grandchildren for a while and then take their place among the dearly departed. At least, that is how I used to think it was supposed to be. That was before I had to live my life. That was B.S. (before seminary), excuse the pun. Oh, I know, we all want to think that life is like our favorite novel and we are always given the part of our favorite character (that is why we relate to them, after all). When God gives us a different path than the one we had envisioned, we become off balance, we momentarily can’t function, until we regain our senses and then proceed, as He desires.
You see, I really thought I understood what God had in store for me. I had my life all planned out. I secured my job, married my wife, became Orthodox (in that order), began a family and became a deacon. I had dreams of seminary that came and went and thought that God would be happy with me as a deacon until I was near retirement, and then I would do what was necessary to become a priest and serve some needy, small parish. That was it, plain, simple, concise. Surely God could have no argument with that. It’s not that I didn’t want to work more intensely in His vineyard. It was just that I wasn’t ready to give up all my comforts until it was absolutely necessary. It was my deal with God, my plan for life, a pretty good one, so I thought. Somehow, though, I never really got comfortable with it. It was nothing I could explain, just a kind of gnawing that would not go away, an itch I couldn’t scratch. But if my family was well provided for, and I had most everything I wanted in life, how could I argue with success?
After twenty years or so, things started to come undone. First, the company I had thought I was going to retire from went under. Then, I changed careers, made even more money, had more prestige, more of everything: bigger house, bigger car, better perks, and yet that itch was still there. That gnawing in my stomach never stopped. I don’t know why I couldn’t figure it out then. I was just plain blind in a spiritual sense, I guess. I felt like God wasn’t honoring our contract, because no matter how good life became, it never felt quite right.
Then one day “it” happened. I can’t say it any better than that. “It” just came upon me like a rushing of the wind, a light from heavenly places, a peace that can only have one source, and that source is Almighty God. My wife and I were on our way home from a Mission Service we had attended in Ganister, Pennsylvania, during Great Lent in 1990. It was unlike most Lenten Mission Services, in that the priest, Fr. G. Andrew Matichak, had decided to have the Akathist, “Glory to God For All Things,” instead of Vespers. It really made a deep impression on my wife and me. As we drove along the country roads on our way home, she asked me, “Have you ever thought about continuing your education and becoming a priest?” That was when “it” happened. Suddenly I had the answer I was looking for. The itch was suddenly scratched, and the gnawing went away. I knew what I had to do, and so did she.
We must have seemed like two people who had lost their wits. Our children were between the ages of 3 and 10. We owned a big, beautiful ranch home in an upper-class neighborhood. Our children were in a wonderful school system, my job was providing us with a more-than-adequate income, our parents thought we had finally “made it” in life, as they say; and yet, for us, it was all wrong. It needed to change, and we knew it. We began to plan our “escape” from the world. We had no idea how we were going to pull it off, but we knew we had to try. We had to find out if I could get into seminary. (I had taken one course already from St. Tikhon’s extension program.) Would they want a man approaching forty years of age as a student? Would we be able to sell our home? (We simply could not afford a mortgage, cars, insurance and all if I was not going to be able to work.) Was this really what God wanted us to do, or were we kidding ourselves? We committed to the effort, and prayed that God’s will would be done. If the house did not sell, then that would be a sign that we were wrong. The house sold on the same weekend that I was to begin my studies at seminary. It was that close to not going through.
We had decided that my wife and four young children could move in with her parents while I went to seminary at St. Tikhon’s, if they would be willing to help us. Of course, they would do what they could, and made room in their farmhouse for my family. (At the time, I am fairly certain that my father-in-law was not happy with me, but he did it out of love anyway.)
God Provided Through His People
How can I put into words how difficult it is to be away from your wife and children, for any reason and any length of time? How can I speak about the many ways that God provided for us while I was at seminary? So many churches from our deanery (Altoona) helped us. One parish (St. John’s in Philipsburg) held a Chicken BBQ and gave us the profits, another parish (St. Michael’s in Portage) sent a carload of groceries to my in-laws’ house for us. Donations came in many forms from many places. They were so many, in fact, that I am sure if I tried to name all the donors, I would forget someone. I always felt that God spoke to the hearts of many people at that time and never let my wife or my children be in want. That’s another thing about going to seminary. For all the difficulties, I never once had that “itch” or “gnawing” feeling when it came to my family. I knew that God would take care of us, and He always did. I will never forget the kindnesses and the generosity of the God-loving people of our former Deanery; they all have a special mention during my Proskomedia before each Divine Liturgy. May they all inherit the kingdom of heaven, for they surely have earned it from my point of view.
A New Contract with God
Once I became ordained and established in a parish of God’s choosing, I made a new contract with God. I vowed to never forget the struggles of seminary and would do what I could to ease the burden of those who would go to seminary after me. Like my earlier commitment, I did not know how I would accomplish this, or in what fashion it would take shape, but I knew I had to try. I began to think of ways to complete my vow. I was only one person, I could not do much as an individual, certainly not enough to make a difference in the costs incurred by the new seminarians. I prayed and asked God to show me how I could do His will in this endeavor. Finally, it came to me one day as I observed the many people of my parish during a fund-raising function. I have been in this parish long enough to know the hearts of the people that I pray with. I know how they feel about their faith and their love of God. I know their generosity and their caring spirit. I just needed to find a way to bring together their love of God and the needs of the seminarians.
I put together 25 packets with 12 envelopes in each packet, one for each month of the year. The idea was to spread out the contributions over a twelve-month period so as not to burden anyone who was willing to help. If I could find 25 faithful parishioners who were willing to commit to donating $20 each month for a seminarian, a total commitment of $240 per year, we could finance his entire education for one year, including books. As I had hoped, enough people came forward to make this idea become a reality. Once again, I saw God speak to the hearts of His people to meet a need. Once again, from places unimaginable, from people who may not have thought about doing anything like this before, benefactors came forward and took up the task of commitment and provided for a seminarian in need.
This happened not only once, but again the next year, so that we have eased the burden on a young man who might not have been able to complete his education without hardship. We are now preparing 25 more packets to repeat this process again. We will need to select a new seminarian to help because the man we have been helping, John Parcells, graduated this year. He is a fine young man and will make a wonderful priest when God calls him to the ranks of the clergy.
Loving God Enough to Care
I have no doubt that when I make these packets available to our parishioners, they will take them and fill them as they have in the past. You see, it is not something done out of necessity, or in response to force. It is not done out of pride or to appear superior to others, but only because they love God enough to care. They love this Holy Orthodox Church enough to want the best for its future, and they love being able to help a person in need. I know this because I was once that person in need. I was once the one who prayed, “God help me.” My prayers were answered, and so I now pray a prayer of gratitude, not alone, but with the aid of the many good and faithful people whom I serve and pray with here in Old Forge, PA. It is said the God helps those who help themselves, and this is true. But it is also true that God helps those who are obedient to His will, and these He helps in ways they do not yet know are of His doing. The help comes from places unexpected and from people unrelated, except by God’s love, people who do it for no other reason than because they care. And that’s the best reason of all.
If I would have to sum up what I believe about our relationship with God, how it is supposed to work, what it entails, and how we should live, I would have to say that it can be summed up in one verse of Scripture. I have always been fond of Matthew 6:33, that part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus speaks about our cares and worries for this world. At the end of that chapter He says the following: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Those are the words I have tried to live by all my life, and I hope that anyone who is thinking about attending seminary, whether it be in South Canaan, New York, Kodiak, Boston, or at some other Orthodox school of theology, will remember these words and learn to live by them also. If they become a part of your life, they will become your life, period. May God bless all those who do His Holy will and those who support the doers of His will.
Fr. David Mahaffey is pastor of St. Michael’s Church, Old Forge, PA.