I know this all may seem odd, but after following the news about hurricane Katrina, I have not been able to get out of my head a few personal experiences of the last few years. It all goes back to the commemoration of the Beheading of John the Baptist, which I wrote about a couple of days ago.
The first time I have ever observed this memorial liturgically was back in 2001, while I was on an Orthodox pilgrimage on the island of Iona, Scotland. After the Divine Liturgy of this memorial, we pilgrims had a “strict fast” lunch, then a few of us crossed over the Sound of Iona to walk to a silversmith’s shop a couple of miles inland; there I bought a small silver cross for my wife. When we arrived back at the retreat center late that afternoon, we were informed about the terrorist attack on America. Yes, it was 9/11. Like many Orthodox in Europe, we were following the Old (Julian) Calendar, and so observed the August 29 memorial of the Beheading of John on September 11.
This year, August 29, the New Calendar date of John’s beheading, coincided with Katrina. For the commemoration of John’s death, my family and I did an unusual thing: we visited another church for vespers. While there we received from a mutual friend some gifts from a Russian Orthodox woman from Moscow whom we had met on the 2003 Iona Orthodox Pilgrimage. Both the 2001 and the 2005 commemorations of John’s beheadings were thus connected to the 2003 pilgrimage by means of these gifts from our Russian friend, Julia, whom we met in 2003. And both commemorations—2001 and 2005—of John’s demise also coincided with catastrophes, the latest, of course, Katrina.
But there’s another connection to the 2003 pilgrimage that I cannot get out of my head, an odd event that took place on that trip. While there, this time in late September, we took the hour-long boat ride to Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa. (In 2001 I had visited the cave the day before 9/11.) In 2003 a few people on the boat got seasick. The boat rocked badly, while its captain said he had never made this trip in a sea as rough as this—the waves seemed much worse than when we started. The reason? The captain said it was waves from hurricane Isabel, a storm which reached category 5 strength on September 11 and hit the North Carolina coast a week later after weakening. The ripple effect of the hurricane was reaching our boat far away in the North Atlantic.
I hope readers might see why I have a hard time forgetting the connections here, though I don’t want to make too much of them. Perhaps just putting them down “on paper” might be enough.
The world is full of bad news and tragedies. Yesterday, like most of us, I heard the reports coming in from New Orleans about a catastrophe in the making, when the night before it had seemed the city had been mostly spared. I heard this bad news on the radio as soon as I had put down a book I had been reading on the way to work the last couple of days—I had just begun reading a section about the Chernobyl catastrophe in Ukraine in 1986.
I think many people over the course of their lives, if they look hard enough, will see things, small patterns, personal reminders, that indicate a direction, or sign, toward something very basic and vital. The disasters mentioned in the Gospels, brought to the Lord’s attention for his commentary, went unexplained, and only responded to by Christ with a strong echo of what John preached before Herod cut off his head: “Repent.” Now John’s message is not one I can put on anyone else. I can’t repent for anyone else, only for myself. And it’s the word I cannot banish from my thoughts.
For the victims of Katrina, we can offer our prayers, our aid, our financial support, and whatever else is called for in these hours of darkness and trial. Those survivors who, whether on or off camera, have responded by giving thanks that they are simply alive already know more about what’s truly important than I often do. I pray these are things I never forget to do, both repentance and thanksgiving.