"In Your presence is fullness of joy." I looked down at my Bible and stared at the words in disbelief; the kind of disbelief that shoots straight past your mind to your heart; the kind in which you know there can be no such thing as random coincidence. The voices in the background continued on as a couple dozen children chanted psalms together in Spanish, lifting up their hearts to God. I sat in the back of the chapel and re-read the verse, over and over again. Normally it didn't bother me that the services weren't in English; even though with my broken Spanish I couldn't understand everything, I knew that prayer transcends language. Prayer is a heart thing, not a mind thing. But this one day I brought my Bible in to church to follow the Psalms in English, and on this one day they happened to read the verse that made everything else click; the "lightbulb" verse; the verse that summed up the essence of my whole trip. "In Your presence is fullness of joy."
My trip to Guatemala couldn't have come at a better time. Just because I'm a PK, or was baptized as a baby...doesn't mean my faith has always been rock solid. A faith that has simply been spoon-fed to you is not going to sustain you for the rest of your life; at some point, every person, no matter their background, has to figure out what they believe and why they do, and no one else can figure it out for them. For me that has included questioning or thinking hard about pretty much every fundamental truth I've ever been taught. A lot of people may think I'm Orthodox because my dad's a priest, because it's the church I was raised in, because I don't know any better, because my closest friends are Orthodox, because I'm afraid to change, because the only way to "earn" my salvation is to do "Orthodox things." A few of those are true, most aren't, and none of them are the reason Orthodoxy is my home. Why I do call myself an Orthodox Christian is a different story, and even if it could be put into words it would be beside my point -- which is that my relationship with God and Christianity is something that I formed and am still developing through my own experiences and decisions. And in the process of trying to figure out the answers to all the "big questions", it's so easy to get caught up in the details, trying to figure out unexplainable mysteries, getting lost in all the theology-- and to lose the focus of it all, the reasons why we do what we do.
During my week immersed in the life at the Hogar, mind-twisting questions that I had wrestled with started to lose importance as one answer that encompasses everything became increasingly clear, in every experience I had there: that God is love. Not that I haven't known that all my life; it's just that during that week when I saw those three words LIVED every day, it slowly started to sink in that that truth is more important than anything else. God is not a nice little neatly packaged box of logical concepts and philosophical premises to accept or reject-God is a Person who IS love itself, and every other aspect of spiritual life should and does point to that and totally revolve around it.
After Liturgy and brunch on Sunday, our first full day, we received our first instructions of the week: to go play with the kids. Just play with them. As we headed out to the grassy playground full of children chattering in Spanish and watching us with wide-eyed curiosity, doubts started forming in my mind. Or rather, started flying through my mind, as my teammates began to approach the kids, smiling and laughing with them. How on EARTH did I end up here? Me? A quiet, 19-year-old nursing student from Southwest Virginia, standing between the monkey bars and swing sets of an orphanage in the heart of a dangerous city in a third-world country whose language I barely understand, with a group of college students from across the US that I've known for a day? And I don't even know what to do with the kids! There are tons of people who would be better for this than me! Somehow I summoned up the courage to step out of my comfort zone, and it didn't take long to realize that for every little step out I took, the kids responded with even more than I offered. All I had to do was try. Adrianna sat on top of the monkey bars singing "Doe, a Deer" in Spanish; I sang it back in English and she smiled. I lifted one of the younger kids up on my shoulders so she could see over the fence to watch the ones in the pool; soon there was a whole group of them clamoring around my feet impatiently waiting their turns. A few minutes later, as I wandered over to another part of the "parque", I noticed one little girl walking down the sidewalk, gazing at the ground and not looking particularly excited about anything. In a moment that I will never, EVER forget, she looked up and saw me: her face lit up, and she started running towards me with outstretched arms. The joy in her smile said everything--it's impossible to describe. Mother Ivonne was right when she told us the first day that the kids had just as much to give us as we had to give them. We went to Guatemala to share with the kids, but they were just as much witnesses to us of living out Christ's love.
Every day, I learned more and more what she meant. Monday we spent the day painting and then in the evening we split up and I went to the younger boys' playroom with a few other people. Remembering what I'd realized the first day, I approached one of the younger ones playing by himself in the corner and, using scattered Spanish fragments, started interacting with him. He ran across the room and brought his favorite toy back, and he was like a kid on Christmas morning when I figured out how to get the robot to walk. He was beaming and laughing his head off the rest of the night, and when it was time to leave, he and all the other little kids came up to us and hugged us as we left. I almost cried when I turned around and saw them silhouetted in the doorway waving at us and calling out "Buenas noches!" - their love was so REAL! It was the same the rest of the week-singing Christos Anesti with Sarai in the grass outside, drawing pictures with Kevin in the gym, even holding the blind baby Manuel and seeing him slowly warm up to my touch and finally smile-they were all experiences I can't compare to anything else.
The love that they had for us and for each other, they also clearly had for God. I joke about them being little prostration machines, because we were there during Lent and, well, those little boys were pretty hardcore. But they knew church isn't just going through motions-they loved being there. They lived like they loved God. Several of the older kids were teaching a few of us how to make prayer ropes, and we kept having trouble getting the knots right. "It's 'cause you have to be praying while you're doing it!" one of them explained. One night, two of the younger boys were playing and one wasn't being "nice." After being corrected, he apologized to the other one by making a prostration in front of him and giving him a hug. The first time I saw that, I was totally taken by surprise. How often do I hold grudges instead of having the love and genuine humility to ask people's forgiveness?
And there was peace there. The kind of peace that lingers in a candlelit chapel after a long vigil. The peace that penetrates the prayerful solitude of a monastery. The Peace that "passes all understanding." It was there too: in the kids' smiles, in their singing during Compline . . . . Even during their rambunctious games of "futbol" in the gymnasium and thickly accented renditions of High School Musical songs, there was an undercurrent of pure, calm happiness that never really seemed to leave.
One of my favorite quotes is from Elder Porphyrios, a Greek monk from Mt. Athos who passed away in 1991: "Fast as much as you can, make as many prostrations as you can, attend as many vigils as you like, but be joyful. Have Christ's joy. It is the joy that lasts forever, that brings eternal happiness. It is the joy of our Lord that gives assured serenity, serene delight, and full happiness. All-joyful joy that surpasses every joy. Christ desires and delights in scattering joy, in enriching his faithful with joy. I pray that 'your joy may be full.' That is what our religion is." And that's why I loved my week there. Not because Guatemala is heaven on earth; not because all the kids there are little angels; we're all humans who sin and they have struggles too - more than I can imagine. But because these kids, many of whom have parents who have been killed, or are drug addicts or prostitutes, or simply abandoned them at birth -- even though they all come from broken backgrounds, they are living in this fullness of joy. They know how to love with "amor en Cristo Jesus que viene a resucitar en nuestros corazones," as Katerin wrote in her goodbye card. The love of Jesus Christ who comes to resurrect in our hearts. That's why I loved Guatemala, and that's why I'll be going back to visit-not to stay, but to learn from their witness how to live in this joy wherever I go doing whatever I do.
"In Your presence is fullness of joy." It seems simple enough: if God is the source of love, then you'll receive that love when you're around Him, in His presence. But God is everywhere, so why doesn't it always feel like it? I guess what I really learned is something I've known all along but kind of tend to forget. A lot. That God, who gave us free will out of love, is always present - He's just patiently waiting for us to ask, to seek, to knock. "And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart." (Jer. 29:14.)
Catherine Furry is a rising senior at Radford University where she is studying nursing and is President of the school's OCF chapter. Since writing these reflections based on her Real Break trip in 2009, Catherine has returned to the Hogar on her own for a second trip.