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Beauty in the Desert: The first pastoral address of His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos to the clergy and faithful of the Metropolis of San Francisco

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phoenix, Arizona
MArch 13, 2005

As I traveled from New York to Arizona, one of the things that struck me immediately is the intense beauty of the desert landscape. In New York and Massachusetts, where I have lived now for over thirty years, the hills are green and rolling; the contours of the land are softened and rounded by constant rainfall. But in the desert, everything is sharpened and intensified: the beauty of the land lies not in smooth contours, but in stark, rugged outlines and jagged edges; not in green hillsides, but in the vivid red and copper hues of the earth itself. The desert plants are not lush, but they are full of intensity; if you crush a bit of sagebrush or creosote bush between your fingers, you find that it is filled with pungent fragrance. When the rain falls, the desert floor is covered with bursts of brilliant color, as the wildflowers bloom and clothe the land in a splendor that truly far outstrips “Solomon in all his glory” (Matt. 6:29).

The desert is the place of intensification. Everything there is experience in an intense way. And this is why so many of the great Fathers of the Church, like St. Anthony, St. Pachomios, and others, went to the desert. They saw the passions as being like noxious weeds that grow wherever there is too much water, where the land is swampy and stagnant. They went to the desert in order to intensify their efforts at spiritual growth, to distill and concentrate within themselves the fragrance of the spiritual life, to magnify the vivid beauty of God’s image within themselves. They went to the desert to put down deep roots, like the cactus plant, so as to gather and store up within themselves the living water of Christ. And like the cactus, they also produced fruit of intense sweetness, the glowing jewels of their sayings and wisdom.

The Fathers of the Church went to the desert, not as teachers, but as pupils and pilgrims. They went to the desert in order to learn the lessons that the desert itself had to offer. As one of the great Fathers of the desert, Abba Moses, said, “Go into the desert, and the desert will teach you everything.” And I think that this is a very important point for me to consider as I prepare to embark upon my ministry here on the west coast. I come to this Metropolis, to this unique place, not in order to impose upon it some preconceived notions taken from another place or time; that would be as foolish as attempting to transplant and grow wetland plants in the desert. I have come rather seeking to learn the lessons that this place has to teach, to plant myself in the unique soil of this region, and to preserve and build up the parish communities that thrive here like indigenous plants. And as I prepare for the day of my enthronement in the Metropolis of San Francisco, I have constantly before me the accomplishments, visions, and expectations of my predecessor, the late Metropolitan Anthony, who also had the experience of the desert.

This evening, we begin the blessed journey of Holy and Great Lent. It is very significant to me that my first contact with the faithful of this Metropolis comes as we prepare to embark upon this journey, a time in which the Church hearkens back to the Desert Fathers and their struggles in the arena of the desert. We are entering the period of the Great Fast, the place of intensification, where we are called, like the Fathers of the desert, to distill within ourselves the fragrance and the beauty of spiritual life. Today is a day of new beginnings, a day in which we set out together upon a common course and with a common goal. We will be crossing this desert of the Great Fast as companions, fellow sojourners on our way towards Pascha. We have not come to this desert of Great Lent as something to be rushed through or crossed over as quickly as possible. Rather, like the Desert Fathers, we have come to the desert so that the desert may teach us everything, so that we may learn the lessons God has for us in this unique time and place, and so that we may come to the celebration of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord like the wise virgins: prepared and ready for the appearing of the Bridegroom.

I will be praying for you, and I ask that you pray also for me, as we embark upon this journey together.