Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Greatest Man I Ever Met

In 1979, ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers (traitors to their faith no less notorious than Sept. 11 attacker Mohamed Atta was to his) raided a Greek Orthodox monastery in the West Bank town of Nablus and used an axe to murder the abbot, Archimandrite Philoumeno, who was especially beloved of the local Arab community.

The abbot, beatified in 2009, died while saying vespers. Another brother standing and praying nearby, Fr. Justinus, subdued St. Philoumeno's killer by smashing him with a chandelier and breaking both his legs, an especially remarkable accomplishment since Justinus is five feet tall and had been stabbed 16 times in the attack. The murderer and his accomplices were put on trial but acquitted by reason of insanity.

As outrageous as the verdict sounds, maybe the court got it right. Faithful people would have to be nuts to commit such an abomination at the site of Jacob's well, which, as disclosed by John's gospel, was where Jesus Christ asked a woman of Samaria (whom he should have judged unclean and unapproachable, according to the religious authorities of the day) to pour him a drink of water.

Yet creating new martyrs in a place remembered for the great patriarch as well as a supreme act of reconciliation is not as ironic as it might seem, according to Fr. Justinus. When we St. John's pilgrims visited him this afternoon, he told us that the attackers were motivated not by a reverence and preference for the site's Hebrew Testament antecedents but by their plan to twin it with nearby Joseph's Tomb as a money-making G ticket for Jewish and presumably Christian visitors and pilgrims.

Instead, Justinus picked up Philoumeno's mantle and spearheaded the construction of a magnificent Crusader-style church over the many-storied well, one of an elite category of Holy Land sites which are precisely what tradition purports. St. Photina's opened about 20 years after the settler attacks. Besides sheltering St. Philoumeno's remains, it's filled with Justinus's own exquisite paintings, murals, and icons, including one showing his colleague and friend's murder (above) and another depicting Jesus's encounter with the woman at at the well.

I've met presidents and their ministers and factotums but no one greater than Fr. Justinus -- near-martyr, brave wielder of the mighty sword of justice, church-builder, artist, and gentle and gracious pastor. He greeted us near the front door of his church with a friendliness and generosity of spirit you won't find in many rich, powerful people who can boast of nothing like his courage and character. He took time to pose with pilgrims Steven, who is 13 and about his height, and Brenna Hayden and stooped (though not very far) to kiss Brenna on the top of her head.

And yet after pilgrims Steven, Brenna, and Damian had lowered a bucket into the well, and we'd all drunk from the same ancient spring as Jesus, I was surprised to see Justinus step behind the gift counter and add master salesman to his repertoire. In three minutes he had deftly maneuvered me toward purchasing a hand-painted copy of his depiction of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

Would you say no to Gandhi? Dr. King? He signed and anointed my purchase (a deep cruciform soaking that will mark this treasure forever) and the hands of everyone standing nearby, including the Rev. Lisa Rotchford, who's afraid she persuaded me to buy the icon. Not a chance. He had me at hello.

Fr. Justinus said he and the brothers had been praying for our bishop, Jon Bruno, and were delighted to learn that that his leukemia was in remission. "He is a big man, with a big heart," said the little priest. Takes one to know one.


David said...

Now that's a Pilgrim's tale indeed!

Gene Giordano said...

Judgement will be very trembling and terrifying time for us all. I truly believe the Lord will say to everyone, "what were you thinking?????!!!!!" What a power story and what sounds to be a very moving pilgrimage!