May 15, 2014

Healing By Prayer and Fasting

Greek Orthodox Leader explains philosophy on visit to Tacoma church.

Steve Maynard
May 8, 1999
Tacoma News Tribune

He lives in two worlds.

Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos is a Greek Orthodox bishop steeped in ancient Christian theology and monasticism. But he also is a student of contemporary problems.

He sought to bridge those two worlds in Tacoma this month, prescribing prayer and fasting as ways to heal the ills of the soul.

"Self-centeredness is the biggest ill of our time," Vlachos said during an interview at the home of a friend from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Tacoma. "The self-centered person wants others to serve him...It's to consider myself to be the center of the whole world."

"Instead, people should learn to love God and others and live a balanced life that doesn't focus on consumption," Vlachos said. "Prayer and fasting are key to maintaining this spiritual balance," he said.

Vlachos, a theologian from Nafpaktos, Greece, who has written 70 books, spoke last week at St. Nicholas Church at 1523 S. Yakima Ave. He talked to a crowd of 200 people on the subject of St. Gregory Palamas, a 14th-century Greek Orthodox bishop and monk from Thessalonica who taught that Christians must develop the disciplines of prayer and fasting to experience closeness to God.

Vlachos himself symbolized the tradition of the Orthodox Church, dressed in a flowing black cassock. For a photo he put on his formal kalimafhi, or hat, and bishop's veil. Around his neck and below his long, gray-and-black beard he wore a gold chain with a pendant featuring a painting of Mary and the Christ child. This is called an engolpion, the symbol for an Orthodox metropolitan, or bishop.

Vlachos spoke in Greek, with St. Nicholas member Heracles Panagiotides translating into English at Panagiotides' house in Tacoma, where the metropolitan stayed. The two are old friends from the 1960s, when Panagiotides, now a neuroscience researcher and faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle, lived in Thessalonica.

"Through prayer and fasting, a person can be healed and come to know God," Vlachos said. "This is what Palamas taught," said the 54- year-old metropolitan, who is noted in Orthodoxy for his books on Palamas.

Vlachos explained the proper role for fasting, or abstaining from food. "We have to eat, but a person should not be controlled by the passion to eat," he said. "We don't fast because we hate food, nor do we simply fast for health reasons. We fast in order to heal the passion of gluttony ... to apply some self-control, self-discipline. To the degree that this healing takes place, to the same degree also a person comes to know God," he said.

"People can fast by abstaining from food for a day or two, or by not eating certain foods for a longer period of time," Vlachos said.

In the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, which has about 2 million members, people are required to abstain from eating meat; fish and dairy products for 40 days before Christmas and for 50 days before Easter, as well as on the holy days of Wednesdays and Fridays, Panagiotides explained.

In the past, it has been uncommon for a metropolitan from Greece to visit the Tacoma parish, which has a membership of about 200 families. But because of the friendship between the metropolitan and Panagiotides, Vlachos spent a week in Tacoma during a nearly two-week trip to the United States.

He also visited St. Nicholas Church during 1995 as part of a trip to the United States.

Vlachos is metropolitan of the Diocese of Nafpaktos and St. Blase in Central Greece. Nafpaktos is about 150 miles east of Athens; the diocese has an overall population of about 20,000. The Greek Orthodox Church is the official state church, and 97 percent of the country's 10 million residents are members, Vlachos said. Vlachos is a monk and former theology professor.

A synod of bishops in Greece elected him a metropolitan in 1995. He isn't married, and as a monk took vows of celibacy, chastity and obedience. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, metropolitans may not marry though priests can.

Even far away from Greece, these bishops command respect. At one point during the interview, the Rev. Michael Johnson, pastor St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, entered Panagiotides' house and greeted Vlachos. Johnson bent over and kissed Vlachos' right hand, the one the metropolitan uses to bless people. Greek Orthodox Church members kiss that and address him as "Your Eminence."

Along with the formalities, the Metropolitan displayed a sense of humor. Vlachos instructed Panagiotides to translate what he said and not offer his own explanations of Orthodox tradition. When a reporter asked to speak directly to Panagiotides for another explanation in English, Vlachos smiled, and said in English, "I give you permission."

Vlachos also elaborated on the importance of prayer, borrowing again from the writings of St. Palamas. "Through prayer," he said, "a person can heal the ills of the soul, such as pride and egotism."

He compared prayer with being in love.

"When we pray we also think of God, like a person who's in love," he said. "When you're in love with somebody, you want to talk to them."

"With prayer," he said, "I don't live for myself, but I live for God. I'm not self-centered, but God-centered. I don't live in a tragic monologue with myself, but in a redeeming dialogue with God."

He said people should pray in church services and at various times during the day, according to church teachings. But overall, he said, how and when to pray is an individual matter.

"Prayer is time, but it's also a way of life," Vlachos said.

"For example, if I'm up praying in the morning and someone knocks on my door and says 'I need your help,' I stop my praying and go and help my neighbor. That's prayer itself."

But what if he were to refuse to help because he was busy praying?

Vlachos described that response in one word: "Hypocrisy."