The Story


by Fr. John Oliver
from
Touching Heaven

The curtains fill with faint breeze and tease away from the open window, then hang still again. I cannot sleep. In several minutes the clock beside my bed will ring as I have programmed it to do. I hear no sound but the soft rustle of swaying leaves. Time has passed unnoticed. It is night-one hour before the Easter Pascha Liturgy.

I dress, then move quietly through the house. There is nothing to take to the temple but the usual-joy from the astonishing events that will unfold this night, guilt from another Lent of scattered effort, and hope of meeting Christ, who welcomes the eleventh-hour people. Somehow, though, feelings are irrelevant. Indeed, something infinitely more interesting is moving toward center stage. The dark corners in every fold of the universe rumble in anticipation as the priest readies his vestments and the choir arranges the hymns.

I pat my pockets, listening for the familiar jingle of coins and car keys. The money is needed for a meal at an all-night restaurant; the keys for transporting my hungry body there after the Liturgy. I walk through the living room, brushing with my fingertips the wall holding the icon of the Mother of God. Traveling light, I open the front door and step into a humid Florida night. Faint blue-and-white shades of television screens flicker from nearby homes. It is the only evidence of life I can see, and I imagine that they shine upon the bodies of sleeping men and women.

Turning south onto 56th Street, I roll down the window and inhale the warm air. The temple fills early and completely, so I've left home expecting to arrive with time to spare. Midnight is near and the streets are peppered with the flashy vessels of late Saturday revelers. Music and attitude spray from a few cars. We-all of us-are traveling toward our altars, to worship our gods, seeking relief from afflictions that feel personal and unique but are, in fact, common and everywhere.

I marvel at the ache of the soul, how it winds its way like water around the objects we place in its path. What a glorious thing. No dam of bounty, status, noise, psychology, or distraction is sufficient to protect us when the pangs of our true selves come calling. I have felt my share. And like my fellow night pilgrims, steering toward whatever they have constructed as their promised lands, I am simply trying to keep my eyes on the road and trust it takes me to a better place.

I have lived for a brief time in the warm fold of Valaam Monastery with men and women who are responding to the pangs of their true selves. They, and their spiritual ancestors, tell me that the true self is not the distorted, hollow construction of personal whim and cultural manipulation that so often meets our gaze when we look courageously into ourselves. No, the true self is the shining pearl beneath. It is the image of God that bears my name. And it is worthy of deep respect and vigorous celebration. It is worth rescuing.

As the years pass, my memories of Valaam will gradually be contained only in photographs. Even these will fade and yellow with time. The few artifacts I managed to slip past scrutiny at the border-icons, candles, an audio recording-will enter the cycle of display and replacement on mantles and shelves, and in recollections and conversations. But they will never fall out of favor. Rather, they will linger for a lifetime on the edges of my mind, fading in and out of consciousness like these streetlights that pass, one after another, through the corners of my vision as I drive through the night.

Pulling onto the highway, I settle into a legal speed. A police officer once told me I should give it a try, and tonight I am unhurried. Neon peeks through tree branches thick with greenery as I pass over twenty blocks of city streets. The breeze moves forcefully now through the interior of the car, and I reach over to move an old newspaper from the passenger seat to the floor. Resisting the urge to turn on the radio, I labor instead to listen to nothing more than rushing wind and random thoughts.

When I arrive at the church, the nave will be dark. We are still squarely on this side of the Resurrection. The stone has not been moved and many of us have only to look toward our chests to find it. We feebly commiserate with the disciples and their shattering confusion. You go through life placing your trust in anything that promises a decent return. Then, one Person appears in whom you invest every shred of your being. He gave eternal life; did they feel foolish for that brief time when He was dead and gone? At least we know what awaits on the next page of the story. Compared to that of the disciples, perhaps the intensity of our joy is dimmed because of it.

I have known the Story since childhood. That fixed point in spring-yes, shifting dates but always present and waiting-when flowers and clothing and sins turn white. The Story was recounted faithfully in the churches of my youth, in the wild variety of flannelboard figures, song titles, hymn selections, Sunday school handouts, real wooden crosses, and fancy dramatizations. Some years we awoke and celebrated before dawn. The Story was always told.

And always believed. The nave will be dark when I arrive but will not remain so. Even as the night set hard on my family when my parents finally chose fresh and separate lives for themselves, the darkness never lasted. Grace entered when I needed it most, in the form of a book or a friend or a movie or a walk in the woods. And I think grace entered my parents' lives also, as my sister and I emerged shaken but poised and resilient.

There were forays into cultures beyond the one I inherited. Shades of wildness and freedom colored my youth. Discovering that I could make music and be joyful, attend college on the other side of the country, sample life in its strange but exciting forms, visit other countries, appreciate other faiths-all this was powerfully shaping. A wider worldview was being forged from such exposure. And there in every shadow formed by new sights and new lights, the Story remained.

Then I entered Orthodoxy, and something happened to the Story. Or, rather, something happened to me: I no longer observed, I entered. I now walk with Christ in real time-day by day, through the Passion Week. The liturgical services contain the pious reflections of saints and hymn-writers, filling the biblical accounts with rich detail. I stand among His disciples listening to their thoughts. His Mother's heart opens and her anguish and hope are revealed. His cross is stained with fresh blood. I identify with Judas, even secretly respecting him because at least he held out for thirty pieces of silver, when I so often betray Christ for less. The liturgies vigorously discard sentimentality and explore real people in real events with real consequences.

Tonight, I travel toward my first Pascha service since returning from Valaam Monastery. The warriors there challenged me to keep the Story present and near. Do not trivialize its heroes by treating them as magical figures in a mythological sphere. No, they, and those since who have loved the Story, attained Christ by constantly grappling with the crude matter of their immediate circumstances. They were laborers whose redemptive scope included nothing beyond the simple materials-the persons, the tasks, the hour-before them.

I emerged from Valaam with this: I am not my own, but belong to God, who loved me into being. Moving through this evening, I imagine a different world. Not a pure and polished Planet of Eden, but simply a life closer to the prayerful one I encountered at the monastery. Monks are imperfect, as imperfect as any of us, and they fall as hard and as often. Still, there, a person lives not for himself, but for his Lord and his brother; there, to work is to participate with God in His creativity; there, sin is not as worrisome as not repenting; there, rest is a treasured part of the weekly routine; and there, they rise when fallen. Our culture needs plenty of all of this. We need the healing that these tedious, boring, difficult, but life-giving disciplines can bring. Valaam is an oasis of clarity for a world of confusion. Valaam is an island for America.

The details of my pilgrimage may fade, but the monastic experience has, by the grace of God, taken root; it will offer occasional nourishment for the journey and shade for the times when I feel like quitting. But it is only one step in that journey. It is a special grace among a host of mercies the Lord has granted to this pilgrim. The event will fade as it should, but the mysteries it imparted will grow and be fruitful. In that way, each of us has events and mysteries uniquely our own but drawing us toward a shared and holy communion.

And it is in Christ, after all, that we discover our true selves. Crushing our defenses, His cross; granting us abundant life, His death; illuminating every speck and sliver of creation with love, His Resurrection. I travel this highway tonight trying to turn from every thought that might drain the Story of its power over me. And they come as they always will come. But I drive with the winds of mercy, keeping my eyes on the road and trusting it takes me to a better place.

There, rising in the distance like a dim gray cloud, is the church. Palm trees line the road and sway gently under a black night sky hanging low. Scores of red taillights flutter, following their drivers as each finds a resting place. In a few moments, we will enter the Story. What we often consider to be the last chapter we will experience as the first breath of new life. I walk toward the door with my eyes to the earth, seeing only the ground that will hold my next step. Suddenly, the choir's pure song pulls at the wind, and in this moment everything I have been and ever will be does not resist, but turns and enters.