I Wonder Where the Lions Are?

These past days have seen the departure from our midst of two men who have justly been described as “lions of the OCA”:  Fr. Steven Belonick and Fr. John Matusiak.  I knew them both. 

Fr. John and I regularly exchanged email, news, weather reports, and prayer requests in his capacity as editor of the “Reflections in Christ” column on the OCA website.  My wife and I met Fr. Steven and his Matushka Deborah after Liturgy at their Binghamton church in 1985 when we were on the way down from Canada to St. Tikhon’s Seminary when I was first a student there.  Fr. Steven and Deborah instantly identified us as two waifs in need of kindness and counsel and took us in, both to their home and their hearts, becoming mentors and a kind of surrogate parents.  They offered us the wisdom and love that many students at St. Vladimir’s Seminary would later experience.  Many miles separated us from both Fr. Steven and Fr. John, so that I never got to know them as well as others did.  But that hardly mattered:  one knows a lion when one sees one.

One feels the loss keenly, which in a way is rather odd.  Their deaths were hardly unexpected, since they both came after extended battles with cancer.  Yet their passings still strike us with all the force of an unexpected blow, and feel not so much like the loss of a friend as the loss of a limb.  We feel personally diminished, robbed, impoverished.  I suspect that we experience such deaths as if they were unexpected because death is so unnatural:  they, like everyone else, were never meant to die.  They, like everyone else, were created to live with God forever.  And now that Christ has risen from the dead, and has trampled down death by death, they will.

One is tempted to say in the style of funeral eulogies that we will never see the like of such lions again.  But it would be rash to say that, since their leonine grandeur was not the inevitable result of their DNA or their upbringing, but was ultimately the gift of God.  It is God who makes lions and saints, and if He did it with Fr. Steven and Fr. John, He can do it again with others as He pleases.  The Holy Spirit did not die with them, and He can inspire others as He inspired them.  What we can say is that no one will ever again be quite like them.  They were unique gifts, and that is why we will miss them.

Where does their passing leave us, and what do we do now?  I suggest three things:  gratitude, anticipation, and inspiration.

As we think over their lives, we should give thanks to God that He gave us such gifts as Fr. Steven and Fr. John.  In this case gratitude to the Giver involves also gratitude to the gifts themselves.  We express our gratitude to these lions for all they have done for us by mingling our tears with supplication, and commending them before the throne of God.  Let us pray for them and their families, confident that they are also praying for us in the Kingdom,

Secondly, we live in anticipation.  It was C.S. Lewis who said, “Christians never say good-bye”; they only say, “Au revoir”, be seeing you.  Death cannot separate us from Christ, and so it cannot finally separate us from one another.  Soon enough we will see them again, and that will be a merry meeting.

Finally, we may draw inspiration from their lives.  These lions walk among us no longer; they now walk and shake their manes in the high halls of heaven.  But we will never forget them.  And remembering them we can be inspired to a little leonine greatness ourselves.  The world still needs such greatness.  Taught by these good men, let us do our best to roar.