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When I moved away from my parents to a different state many years ago, the first thing I did was to find the local Orthodox parish. I vividly remember walking into the narthex of that parish and instantly smelling the incense. My first thought was – this is home. Ironically, I found out many years later that this was the same parish my grandfather was baptized in when my great grandparents immigrated to the United States in the 1920’s from Greece before later moving to Michigan.

Over the years, I have realized that attending a service with my family at an Orthodox parish while we’re traveling is always my home away from home. As my senses recognize all the familiar sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and touches – I find myself filled with peace. I’ve taught my kids, just as my parents taught us, that we don’t leave God behind at home while we travel. Rather, we make it a constant yearning to always work towards developing an ever deeper relationship with Him, regardless of where we go.

We were recently blessed to be able to drive from Indiana to Arizona for my cousin’s wedding. During our travels, we visited several Orthodox parishes as well as enjoyed exploring the desert and forests of Arizona – especially since we’re studying ecosystems and living in God’s creation this year.

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The first stop on our journey was for Liturgy on Sunday morning in St Louis, Missouri at Assumption. This parish has filled their ceiling and walls with beautiful icons. We all found ourselves looking at the iconography throughout the service.

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The following Sunday, we attended Liturgy at St Haralambos in Peoria, Arizona. After the service, we were invited to go to fellowship hour. The first order of business after Liturgy, for my kids, is always food since they’re hungry from fasting. An older gentleman from the parish saw me approaching the table laden with goodies – holding a baby in my arms, an anxious two year old, and three boys – and he asked my two year old if he could help him get a plate of food. He piled up my son’s plate with fruit and then carried my son and his food to a nearby table for me. That was so very sweet and kind of him!

The next Sunday, we went to Holy Trinity in Phoenix. This is the parish my family was attending when my dad was called to the seminary in Boston. I was only ten when we moved from Arizona to Massachusetts but I still have many fond memories of our time here.

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I was staying with my aunt the week before my cousin’s wedding. My favorite part of each day with her was our leisurely coffee chats on the back patio every morning. I could easily make that a morning ritual. While I was there, my aunt shared with me a video that was made by another family member over twenty years ago of my grandfather, thea (aunt), and theo (uncle). The three of them were telling stories about my great grandparents. One of my favorites was about the time when their family was fleeing their home from an attack but my great grandfather went back to the house to get their family icon of Saint Nicholas. My thea was so matter-of-fact about it – as if everyone would do that. Such devotion!

After all the preparations and festivities for my cousin’s wedding, I spent some time with my five boys exploring the different ecosystems of Arizona.

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We went to the Desert Botanical Garden where I gave my boys some photography tips for taking photos of the wildlife freely roaming through the gardens. Here’s a sample of their photos:

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After we came home from the botanical garden, my big boys took turns identifying all of the plants and animals from their photos.

First I do, then I learn about what I did  (Boojamra, Foundations for Christian Education)

Next, we drove north to Sedona to see the rock monoliths and explore Oak Creek Canyon. My parents used to take my brother and myself to this creek when we were little. I will freely admit that I have a sentimental side. We spent the day enjoying the water, trees, and our surroundings.

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Later in the week, on our way to the Biosphere in Tucson, I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk to my boys about the Desert Fathers and Mothers and make some connections. After all, we were driving amongst nothing but open desert. We also reviewed the lives of Saint John the Baptist, Saint Anthony, and Saint Mary of Egypt. As we were wrapping up our discussion, I asked my boys why they thought these saints chose to live out their lives in the desert. They told me that the saints were able to appreciate even the smallest gifts from God this way, such as – water to drink, shelter from the heat, and food to eat. They removed themselves from the temptations of everyday life along with the desire to acquire more – and were simply grateful to God for all He provided to them.

Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the Biosphere. Instead, we got to experience the kindness of the first responders in Florence, AZ because we were in a car accident. The police men and firemen were amazing as they helped calm my children, made sure we had water, and got us to a safe place to wait for my family to pick us up.

Later, on our way back to Indiana, we stopped in Oklahoma to spend some time with my family. I enjoyed visiting Holy Apostles in Bixby, OK on Sunday. We were a part of the Orthodox homeschool group there for a short time awhile back. This group inspired me to look for other Orthodox homeschoolers when we went back home – and I found five other families in our area! Our time with the homeschool group at Holy Apostles also left me with an even greater fervent desire for raising chickens. We bought fourteen chicks when we got home and learned as we went about of joys of hens in our backyard.

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Finally, we attended Liturgy at Holy Trinity in Tulsa for the feast of Saint Nektarios. My dad faithfully served this parish for twenty five years but unfortunately was recently placed on disability by his doctor because of problems with his legs. I have to admit, it was a bit weird to see a priest other than my dad serving on the altar there.

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Throughout our travels, my kids update their Road Scholars binder. They have a prayer in there that they can say before we begin our journey, a log of where we’ve gone, a map of the places they’ve been, and tid bits about each of the places they have visited. It’s an ongoing project for us that we pull out whenever we take a trip anywhere.

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