This confession has taken me quite a long time to write. Something like five years, in fact. But I finally did!
I am not a good Greek Orthodox Christian. I only don't go to cathedral for the three days of Easter every year. But, I tell myself, I used not to go for longer. When I first arrived in this city, I hadn't even *not* gone for quite a number of years. So it was one year, instead of not going, in as much as that is better than not even thinking about it, I resolved that I would at least to try to go for all 40 days of lent.
Every time I could, I snuck into the church's narthex and lit a candle by the door to the Northern nave. I really didn't have the courage to actually go inside any further, knowing I am not the most attractive of souls, and feeling I would only cause a cataclysmic jolt of horror to any regular member of the congregation even praying outside service there. If I missed a day, I lit an extra candle in apologia. After one difficult lenten week, during which I couldn't even get myself to go outside the house, I found myself lighting seven candles at once. But then, after successfully ignoring the shocked stares, I finally felt emboldened enough that I might actually go further inside the cathedral on Easter Day itself!
After all, I may only be an old converted scribe. As I am half Jewish on my Father's side, the Jews despise me for being some kind of bastard, because my Mother was Christian; whereas Christianity despises my Judaic nature. But I did study ancient Greek, and even translated the Gospel of Thomas once, which is on this website, here: Gospel of Thomas
So I may not be Greek myself, or hardly orthodox in my beliefs or heritage, but I do have a sensible reason to join in the rituals, painful as they may be, for like all other times in the Christian calendar, I cannot escape a sensation of continual torment. Even during Christmas, even when others are celebrating His birth, I find myself instead considering the wretched hovel where he first appeared, and outside, the slaughter of the first born, so totally ignored in favor of romanticized nativity scenes and pagan tree rituals.
That Sunday, after walking back and forth several miles, fretting over my decayed memory of ancient Greek, I did finally make it into the last service of the day. There was a time when I could arrive on Friday and stay all three days, but that was VERY long ago. And now finally I was settling into the pew. The service was sublime. The readings were in French as well as Greek, to my great relief, so I could actually understand more than I expected.
In one circle through the beautiful gate in the iconostasis, the archimandrite stopped his well-worn cycle of ritual, and lighting a candle on a humble dinner-table candelabra, held it up with a meek smile. Around me, even the staunchest of those overdressed in uncomfortably stiff black suits weakened almost to the point of a soft smile, and several of the congregation sighed happily. For a brief span of moments, I nervously wondered if I could even find a way to ask for formal membership and then one day, sit at the same table with such a gentle patrician as him, even knowing I would shock him with my ignorance and course disregard for the fineties of orthodox belief, which even if unintentional, would only present a quandary as to what should be done about my very presence.
And for a moment, I even sensed a recognition, and maybe even a momentary grace, absent of admonition, which would be far more than I could possibly deserve. The service ended in a haze of frankincense and myrrh. I kneeled to give thanks for such a wonderful time in the midst of my sense of shame, which so often forbids even to think of asking forgiveness for the innumerable travesties that I knew should never have tainted the world. While I was kneeling, a old,squat woman suddenly appeared in the aisle next to me, leaning on one foot and then the other impatiently,
"Move your coat," she said, "I want to sit there."
I looked up at her surprised, There were hundreds of empty seats so late in the rituals, and there was plenty of room to sit next to my coat. So I moved it to the other side of the bench from her, confused.
"You don't understand," she minced at me with a combination of smile and snarl one rarely encounters. "Move your coat. I want to sit there." And she pointed again, this time to the other side of me, where I had just moved my coat already. I wondered if she was trying to make me laugh, but another glance in her direction assured me that her intention was genuine. Thoughts of meeting the priest vanished from my mind, as a flash of annoyance snapped my meditation like an unwanted whip. I gathered my coat and cradled it in the middle of my lap.
With a snort of disgust she roughly pushed past me to the far side of the pew, then plumped herself down so the whole bench shook, with her elbow crassly sticking into my side, even as if undeliberately. Trying to ignore her, I stood and quietly left, still cradling the coat in my arms, with whatever remaining humanity I could summon, while she continued to snort at my retreating back.
The year passed. Easter approached again.
This time I could not bring myself even to light any candles at all for lent. Then it was the Saturday before Easter, or the day after Good Friday--that period of time that remains for deep reason nameless in my mind, whichever that period of time may be: that time after the beforehand, and before the afterwards, or whichever it is, it shall ever be nameless in me. I searched for an icon not displaying Christ in agony. As usual in so many icons, He even looked miserable as a baby in his Mother's arms, for some reason I futilely hope to remain unfathomable,
Then I realized with sudden shock that the archimandrite himself was in the room, out of sight, praying out loud for Christ's return.(as you may know, they pray every year, during the harrowing of hell, that He rise again on Easter day). The priest was in an alcove of the shop-separated by a thin cloth--and I realized instantly, he was praying in the only room which was open in the entire complex...the place for improper people like me to stick their nose in should they need to.
Never had I thought I would even hear such a voice at such a time, for I had always been told this interval, that of the harrowing of hell between Good Friday and Easter, was for total withdrawal for the Greek Orthodox clergy. Nor did I even know what he would say.
Yet there was no hint of unhappiness or despondency. Instead, with the utmost of love, crooning but not begging, he briefly interjected into his Greek prayers, a short burst of happy English, with a kind of appreciation I could not possibly describe in words:
"You forgave Peter too! That's a lesson I will never forget! Thank you for the lesson!"
And so, I tried really hard the following day. But I could not sit where Peter was again. I STILL don't want to sit where Peter was again. But whatever that old fat lady has also said of that priest's sins, and however right she may be considered in her criticisms, which I can still hear her cocky tone saying as much as she could of any person she can to whomever would listen, I will still say blessings for that priest until the end of my days, for whatever much it could ever be worth, and that is why I write this story at all. I even wrote my problem, in the caption for the picture at the beginning of this article. I never wrote it before.
He taught me a lesson I will never forget, too.
Why? Because I can finally write what I have, not because of shame, or for any other reason, other than that there is only one time in all of eternity that I know I can truly love, in which God is well pleased. After five long years, or thereabouts, I at least know I can say it with assuredness. Glory be! In all the torment, between the beginning and end of all suffering, there is a moment of pure joy, for which even John the Baptist would not care for the beheading or any other pain, save that, in knowing there is pure joy, so much joy, even the fish jump out the river, that they may just touch Him in the dance of life.
Maybe it's not a lesson many will understand, but I know how I was forgiven that day, even before the rooster crowed thrice; I was forgiven. And in many other days before, and many since, I know that forgiveness will not leave me. It's not as if I deserve it. Even when I prove yet further more I am not a good Greek Orthodox Christian and do not go to church for Easter....again )