ASCENT TO TOQUIAN: AN ETHEREAL PASSAGE
Father John Chakos
Our recent missionary journey with Archbishop Athenagoras took us to Toquian, Mexico, a tiny border town perched up high in the verdant, but steep, mountain range that divides northern Guatemala from southern Mexico. Many Guatemalans fled here for reasons of safety during a brutal civil war that ended in 1996. On the Mexican side of the border, known as Chiapas, there are some 52 communities affiliated with the Guatemalan Orthodox Church under the leadership of Fr. Andres Giron. Toquian was to be the last stop of this historic pilgrimage, a remote place where no Orthodox hierarch
Perilous Ascent to Toquian
dared visit before. We began our bumpy ascent, carefully winding our way along narrow mountain roads that were breathtakingly beautiful, but one slip of the steering wheel away from sudden disaster. Many dislodged boulders, a product of frequent rockslides, slowed our upward progress and served as menacing reminders of the potential peril ahead. As if this were not enough, a thick cloud cover shrouded the road ahead in places, allowing us no more than a few feet of visibility. In some places, the steep angle of the carved out mountainside hovered tunnel-like over our SUV. The usually loquacious Fr. Andres maintained a sober silence as he drove, sliding, braking and jerking forward over the loose stones, puddles and muddy patches of road.
After many hours we reached the fog-shrouded heights upon which the village majestically rested. It was a marvel of natural beauty that caused me to gasp in awe. Like the Prophet Elijah on Horeb and the great lawgiver Moses on Sinai, we had ascended this holy mountain to listen to the voice of God. He spoke to us through the sad lament of a people who had not tasted the sacraments for 20 years, having been abandoned by the Catholic church. Left to their own devices during this time of exile, they pulled together as a community, drawing on whatever spiritual resources they could muster. Now, in the person of the Archbishop, they found a father who would finally lift their weighty penance with his comforting message of love and acceptance.
Processing to the spirited accompaniment of a mariachi band into the humble block sanctuary dedicated to San Markos, we began the program of welcome with a medley of simple, but lively Christian folk songs. Notable among them was the heartfelt offering
Procession to the Church
of the parish catechist, who composed and sang an original piece in honor of the Archbishop's arrival. We were mesmerized by the depth of his passion. In his remarks of welcome he broke down into tears of inexpressible joy. It's hard for those of us who are accustomed to the regular visit of a hierarch to imagine the impact of such a visit on these all-but-forgotten people. There is a saying in Spanish to describe such a rare occurrence, "como la visita del obispo" (like the visit of a bishop), or as we would say in English, "once in a blue moon."
Our mountain climbing adventure, arduous though it was, proved to be an ethereal ascent into the very mystery of Christ, who sent us to find His lost sheep in the village of Toquian. In a sense we had fulfilled the prayer of Jesus to His Father when He said, "And I have other sheep which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd" (John 10:16).
Como la visita del obispo
Father Blasios greets His Eminence