Fr. Michael Abrahamson Finds Warm Welcome at St. Nicholas
Michael Abrahamson came to St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Greenwood nearly a year ago as his first assignment as a newly ordained priest. “I’m someone who came late to my vocation,” he said. Abrahamson had been married for 26 years and had five children when he felt called to the priesthood. It’s a bit of a balancing act, he acknowledged. He’s in a special category of religious leaders who are bi-vocational, meaning he continued to work in his job at a software company while he studied, and after he was ordained.
There are some real advantages for small congregations in an arrangement like this, he said. “Certainly, it spares them from having to be the sole support of a pastor and his family.” In his small congregation, he noted, members look out for each other, and have well-established systems for hospitality, liturgy, and the dozens of small duties involved in being part of a living church. “I’m lucky to have a secular job that allows me a lot of flexibility,” he said.
Abrahamson assumed his duties just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, a particularly difficult time for his parishioners, many of whom have family members in Ukraine and Russia. He noted that the pandemic was also stressful. One of his goals is to restore St. Nicholas to where it was before the pandemic. Because some of the members, especially those connected to local universities, are here temporarily, there are always new parishioners. The church, founded in 1998, draws from a wide area, and includes those from Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, and Greek Orthodox backgrounds, as well as converts.
Abrahamson grew up surrounded by cousins, neighbors and friends who were befriended and supported by his Orthodox Church in Rhode Island, where his grandmother was in charge of the kitchen. “Even as a boy, I appreciated that our elders were perfectly willing to give up part of their vacation time to work with the parish youth. I felt surrounded by unconditional love,” he said. “I want everyone who comes to St. Nicholas to feel that, too.”
New Director of Music Ministries at St. Paul’s
Mitchell Weisiger has joined St. Paul’s, Ivy, as Director of Music Ministries. Weisinger is a native of Richmond with extensive experience in a wide range of Christian denominations, most recently serving as Director of Music Ministries at Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church in Roanoke.
Weisiger has distinguished himself in several other leadership roles with different congregations, and is also a sought-after vocalist, pianist and organist. He served as organist for the choir in a concert at St. Ignatius, Rome, and a papal mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. In 2021, he made his première as a guest conductor at Carnegie Hall, New York City.
His first Sunday at St. Paul’s is March 5.
For Thousands of Patients, Death Made Life Worth Living
Dr. Bruce Greyson became fascinated with near-death experiences early in his career, at a time when his scientific upbringing and training made him skeptical about anything hinting at mysticism or an afterlife. Greyson is a professor (emeritus) of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia. Before that he was chief of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut; and before that, a medical faculty member at the University of Michigan. He talked about many of his experiences at WMRA’s “Books and Brews,” sponsored by WMRA and Waynesboro’s Stone Soup Books. Greyson’s book, After: A doctor explores what near-death experiences reveal about life and beyond, was published in March 2021 and has since been translated into 20 languages.
His initial encounter was so inexplicable that Greyson just kind of filed it away for later, but it started off a life-long quest to better understand near-death experiences. Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer, he said. “Many people find themselves near death. The experiences we have collected are really from people who have appeared to die, however briefly.” He’s partly retired now, but still involved in near-death research, and he works part-time at the Charlottesville Free Clinic.
As a young doctor, Greyson had the demanding role of treating psychiatric patients brought to the emergency room. He evaluated an early patient, a young woman who had overdosed and was unconscious, unresponsive, and at risk for dying, and referred her to the intensive care unit. Afterwards, he met with her roommate in a separate room to try to figure out what drugs might be involved. “That was before widespread air conditioning,” he said. “It was hot, and I took off my lab coat while I was talking. After the interview, I remembered I had a spaghetti-sauce stain on my tie, put my lab coat back on and went home after my shift.”
The next day his patient was shaky but lucid enough to talk. When he introduced himself, he was surprised to learn that she remembered him from the night before, and knew his name. She mentioned the stain on his tie. “It confused me, because I had had my lab coat buttoned up to hide it.” She clarified that she’d seen him talking to her roommate down the hall. The young doctor couldn’t make sense of it scientifically, but this incident touched off an interest he’d pursue for the next half-century, ultimately becoming one of the world’s greatest students of what happens to us when life leaves our bodies.
His instinct as a scientist was to use the scientific method. Rather than postulating a theory and looking for evidence to substantiate it, he began to propose explanations and then disprove them. One by one, he ruled out mental illness, false memories, oxygen deprivation, brain waves, end-of-life drugs, religious programming, and a host of other explanations using statistical comparisons, medical technology, and painstaking interviews with patients and their families.
As he sought to disprove each theory, he learned there’s a difference, measurable with medical devices, between people recounting dreams or visions versus real-life memories. He learned that religious people sometimes see figures from different religious traditions. For instance, he said in his “Books and Brews” talk, one Jewish woman saw Jesus and asked him what he was doing there; most people describe the feeling of a connection with the divine too large and powerful to describe in words.
Researchers did find a few people who had negative experiences, such as seeing devils and flames, mostly people from faith backgrounds emphasizing the pain of the damned, but this is rare, he said: “The experiences are overwhelmingly positive.” Some within this rare subset experience the peace and joy after the negative feelings dissipate. Others may judge their experience as negative because they did not want to rejoin their lives, but believed they had to.
Because of his unique qualifications and rigorous research, Dr. Greyson has consulted with the National Institutes of Health, and he’s addressed symposia on consciousness at the United Nations and at the Dalai Lama’s compound in Dharamsala, India. He’s earned awards for his medical research, was elected a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, the highest honor bestowed by that organization, and contributed hundreds of articles to medical journals.
Greyson was working on his project as he fulfilled his psychiatric duties, but he soon understood how the two worlds intersected. “My job as a psychiatrist was to help people change their lives,” he said. “Naturally, I was fascinated by an experience that lasted only minutes but completely changed people forever,” he said.
In an interview after the talk, Greyson said he hoped people would understand that this change is perhaps the most important takeaway from the book. Those who returned from these experiences shared an unshakeable understanding that we’re all interconnected with each other and with the divine. One man had gotten into a fight with a belligerent drunk as a teenager and relived the experience during the “life review” so common in near-death cases. During his life review, he felt as though he was both the drunk and himself, as if both were part of a sacred whole. Others quit jobs that had an unethical work culture; or left the military or law enforcement because of a new-found reluctance to impose pain on anybody. Even those who attempted but failed death by their own hands no longer felt suicidal.
“It’s really profound,” Greyson said. He said his work has changed his own point of view. “I’ve never really feared death, but I thought it was the end of everything,” he said. “Now I’m sure it’s not.”