Head north and you will bring honey on your head.
Go east and you will carry milk in your hands.
Move south and you will be satisfied with sugar.
March west and you will walk supported by a sugar cane.
Τhis is a traditional saying of the place of our ministry, very characteristic of this beautiful land of Madagascar. I first heard it in an address to our Metropolitan, and it really made such a great impression on me that I asked the speaker to explain it to me after the charming greeting he extended to our Shepherd, the clergy and the people that had gathered that day on the occasion of a festive event. This is the people we were called to serve: so poor but at the same time so rich…
We are in the poorest districts of Tulear in the Ambani region. You look around you and all that you see is vast stretches of desert land. Now in the quiet night outside the Holy Church of St John the Russian I can hear the muffled sound of the rough sea coming from neighbouring Mozambique. Our weariness is endless. My good friend priest-monk and doctor, really exhausted, is resting in the mud hut that the parishioners of the village have prepared for him in order to host this man who offers them invaluable help. A whole day is not enough to examine people.
What to remember first? The breastfeeding mothers with their infants burning with fever from malaria? The lad with the abscess from advanced streptococcus? The dying child who we had to baptize out of schedule as a matter of urgency hoping for a miracle? And you know well that the Miracle here is a fact as you see right in front of you the people that you had given up for dead until yesterday, now living like risen from the dead by the Grace and Mercy of God.
Think of the little children at the Church who are praising the Lord despite the fact that they are literally starving to death. The young man who filled with joy and satisfaction told me in the confession that he was freed from the sin that had been dominating him for so many years. My brothers’ pain, when they confide that the food stocks for the family have long been exhausted since the crops have all dried up due to prolonged drought. The people from the outlying villages begging for catechesis. It is true; we are so powerless! Without God’s helping hand we are really incapable of serving in such an over-sacrificial corner of the earth, where every morning rises the hot sun of poverty for the inhabitants of this desert land and of an endless struggle without limits or compromise for the humble workers of this truly multi-dimensional as well as extremely important ministry called the Mission.
The night has fallen and now you are seated beneath the darkened sky. You are admiring the exquisite starry clarity, but at the same time you feel the sandy dust of the sea breeze penetrate through your clothes and saturate your lungs. It seems as if nature itself wants to remind you at any time of the irrefutable connection between donation and pain and of the value of joy when it springs from sorrow and deprivation.
I cannot describe the feelings and the emotional swings one can experience in this field. In a field where we are well aware that we did not happen to be here “because of our own righteousness –for we have not done anything good upon the earth” but because of Christ’s mercy and compassion.
Here you know well that when a little child embraces you out of gratitude, your entire existence inside of you can change and that even the slightest effort pays off. Your small contribution can literally save souls. Your little word can change a whole community. And naturally you do not expect any other miracle but the one you see and experience: this early Christian simplicity and transformation of the people who look like infants suckling the heavenly “milk” that the Father is offering to them in this inconsolable life that fell to them as a lot and donation at the same time.
For the last time I look in awe at our Church, burned by the sun and smothered in dust, and ask from her patron Saint, St John the Russian, whom I particularly revere, to grant that I will never be forcibly separated from his flock that I love so much as a member of them and as their servant.
“Look”, I talk to myself, “look once more and direct your gaze to the north. And you will harvest the honey of the Divine Word which you gave to the hungry bees-those simple, poor people. You will harvest it one hundredfold within your poor heart.
Now head eastward and you will drink from the milk you offered to the thirsty children yesterday. Not your own milk; yet, it was your own thirst you satisfied as well as your miserable and painful existence.”
Now I feel a little friend of mine, dirty and in rags, press my hand with his little black hand and turn it southward, my longed-for poorest South, and whisper in my ear: “it’s from there that you will be satisfied with the sweetness of ‘sugar’. It’s by us, the poor and the destitute, that you will be satisfied with ‘sugar’ and the sweetness of the heart and conscience.”
And suddenly he turns it westward. Where the red sun lets its fiery rays paint our big red island for the last time. He changes color in his voice and warns me like a big man: “I don’t promise you embossed gold rods. I have nothing like that to give you. I will give you a reed in your hands to support you on your long marches through the dust and mud. Like the simple reed our Lord bore in His hands before that ultimate Sacrifice of Crucifixion. For our life here is an endless march through pain and death.
Beware though, for this reed is a pure sugar cane. At the end of your course, at the sunset of your life, open it up and eat the sweetest ‘sappy sprout’ it hides inside. A ‘sprout’ that will sweeten your embittered heart forever in eternity.
This is the quality of the people you serve, my good father and friend. Don’t you think that they are really worth your sacrifice?”
Hieromonk Polycarpos of Hagia Anna