The premise for any successful service is, undoubtedly, sacrifice. The most visible strength of The Church is the unselfish service and sacrifice of its leaders and its members. Fr. Antonious Henein, the late hegumen of Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church, Los Angeles, CA, was service and sacrifice personified. Ten years later, as I reflect upon my relationship with my beloved father, I feel compelled to share a little bit about what it meant to have a sacrificial, caring, loving, and wise spiritual guide in my life for the first 18 years or so of my life.
During the rite of the ordination of a new priest, the candidate recites these words as part of the pledge: “I vow to love the flock and deal with them with compassion and wisdom. I will sacrifice myself to visit and care for the congregation to the best of my ability, to seek the lost and return them, and to gather the scattered sheep of God.” These words serve as the new priest’s promise to conduct himself in a completely self-sacrificial manner for the sake of the salvation of his congregation. Abouna Antonious lived these words perfectly. He lived abiding by the courage of his convictions in love and humility, without ever taking his eyes off of Christ. This kind of courageous service drove him to love his congregation so much that if one of them suffered in any type of way, he felt that suffering as if it was his own and wanted so badly to help you be perfected in Christ.
I was one of those sufferers. Spiritual suffering, the worst kind of ailment, is certainly a challenge for any servant in the church. In high school, after having had a hand in raising me since birth and watching me grow in love for the church, Abouna saw me fall in with the wrong group of friends, change my personality almost irreparably, and uncharacteristically distance myself from the church. He felt personally responsible for my misbehavior, and I was totally oblivious to it. Not only did he recognize my negative shift away from the church, he knew I cherished my rebellion. Being a bad kid was the new me, and I simply wasn’t responding to my parents’ tactics or anyone else’s efforts to change me or show me the error of my ways. But Abouna Antonious wasn’t “anyone.”
My last year of high school into my first quarter of college would be the final year of Abouna’s life. From a human perspective, after running after youth and kids like me in his younger days and throwing them over his shoulders as a physically imposing authoritarian figure (of love), he was now an elderly man, over sixty, having endured multiple back surgeries and several other physical afflictions that limited his abilities and even precluded him from standing throughout the liturgy. His heart and mind, however, were still perfect in his love for God’s children, one of whom had strayed.
He called my parents one day when he knew I’d be home and told them he was coming over but not to tell me (so that I don’t try to leave before he arrives). He came and sat in my living room and after a few minutes, in a strong tone of voice, he told everyone but me to vacate the room. As he moved closer to me and adjusted his lumbar support, his iconic smile disappeared. Then, he unleashed on me. Never one to mince words, he calmly opened with, “you are living a double life… and it ends now.” His diatribe was the loving manifestation of his frustration with my current state. It was a list of imperatives. It was brutal. It was necessary. But, this was no ordinary castigation; his sternness slowly gave way to compassion, and then…to tears.
You see, he was suffering just like I was suffering, but I didn’t even know I was suffering until that very moment. He pleaded with me to turn away from my evil lifestyle and return to being a consistent and integral member of the church body. He said, “I have failed as your servant, and I’m sorry for that, but please bring back the respectful gentleman your parents worked so hard to raise. Do I have to beg? Do you want me to get on my knees?” He then got up off the chair and was about to actually try to get on his knees, an act he was indeed physically incapable of completing. So, I stopped him. It was at that second that I realized what loving self-sacrifice was about, and it was time to change. I didn’t want to continue adding to his suffering. We agreed that if I ever felt like going back on my promise to change, I’d call him, and we’d talk it out. Later on, when he saw me struggling to reintegrate myself at church he would ask, “Are you keeping your promise?” and I would reassure him, “Yes, I promise.”
A few months later he was admitted into the hospital for the last time. Countless infirmities and various surgeries had rendered him barely able to speak. Before his final surgery that stood to rob him of even that, many of the youth including myself went to visit him and take his blessing. There was that iconic smile again, upbeat and always thankful. As I laughed and joked with him for a little while, I asked, “So Abouna, since you’re getting better, when are we going to see you back in the church?” He just paused for a moment and grabbed hold of my hand before whispering in Arabic, “My time is coming to an end, my son; so if you want to see me back in church, take me in your heart and you go to church.”
Those were the last words he spoke to me, and I will never live them down. I visited him again the day before his departure to deliver my last words to him – “I promise.”