In early December, we requested prayers for His Grace Bishop Athanasius of Kisumu and Western Kenya of the Patriarchate of Alexandria who at that time had already been in the ICU at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts for about three weeks. After the news of his illness spread, social media was flooded with reminiscences of and words of praise for Bishop Athanasius who, by all accounts, was a humble and sincere shepherd for his flock. Millions around the world were praying for him. However, it was not God's will to heal him, and Bishop Athanasius reposed in the Lord yesterday, having suffered from a rare form of blood cancer.
Monk Silouan (Brown), the founder of Orthodox Africa, an organization that sponsors various missions, shelters, orphanages, and schools in Africa, knew His Grace and has offered a short reflection on his life. May his memory be eternal!
For honourable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by number of years. But wisdom is the gray hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age. He pleased God, and was beloved of him: so that living among sinners he was translated. Yea, speedily was he taken away, lest that wickedness should alter his understanding, or deceit beguile his soul. For the bewitching of naughtiness doth obscure things that are honest; and the wandering of concupiscence doth undermine the simple mind. He, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time: For his soul pleased the Lord: therefore hasted he to take him away from among the wicked. This the people saw, and understood it not, neither laid they up this in their minds, That his grace and mercy is with his saints, and that he hath respect unto his chosen.
Wisdom of Solomon 4:8-15
When I first learned how serious Bishop Athanasius’ illness was, my first reaction was to pray, and as I began to pray the above reading from the Wisdom of Solomon came to mind. This Scripture has always struck me when I heard it; perhaps because of my own insecurity in life and maybe even because of a wish to be “taken away from the bewitching of naughtiness”; but no matter why, I have always felt a strong attraction to this verse. I can say without qualification that I have never met anyone who more clearly embodied this verse in their very person than Bishop Athanasius.
In the Orthodox ascetic tradition, humility is seen as the mother of all virtues. While most of us struggle to even be able to define humility, let alone practice it, His Grace embodied it. As everyone who has ever encountered Bishop Athanasius can attest, His Grace always put others before himself, sometimes even to my chagrin. The first time I met him, he picked me up to go visit one of his missions. Upon picking me up, he pushed me to the front seat while he folded himself nearly in half to climb into the back seat of his car with three other people and a goat. No matter who you were, you knew that Bishop Athanasius would literally lay down his life in love for his flock, and I am certain that there was no one who he wouldn’t put in front of himself.
The truth of Orthodox Christianity has always and will always continue to spread through love and sacrifice; when I think back on the life of Bishop Athanasius, that is exactly what I will remember: the love and sacrifice that poured forth from a truly humble heart.
Recently, there was a documentary published about the Orthodox Church in Congo in which the last words of one of the original Orthodox missionaries to Africa, Father Chariton, were cited as “Keep ringing the bells of Orthodox Christianity in every corner of Africa.” As a true missionary, Bishop Athanasius accepted this calling and rang the bells of Orthodoxy loudly in many different places all over Africa and especially in the diocese that God called him to help establish.
Because of his work and the work of those who have gone before him, the bells of Orthodoxy will now be rung anew by the countless people who have been touched by his love and sacrifice. And I for one am confident that His Grace will be able to join the Apostle Paul in saying, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
May we all be found worthy of living such a life. Memory Eternal, Your Grace. You will be missed but your life was not in vain and all of us, as your spiritual brothers and sisters, will continue to ring the bells of Orthodoxy wherever we live in your honor.