Bringing it all back home

by Nancy Forest

Eagle River Institute, 2004

A few weeks ago we had a visit from a young Orthodox woman from Pittsburgh who is a doctoral student. She was working on her dissertation, the subject of which is religious conversion stories. She told us that in gathering data for her research, she discovered that one of the most common reactions people have when they first encounter the Orthodox church is the feeling of “coming home.” That’s the word they often use – home.

I mention this because I want to talk today about home, in particular about the Home Church, about what it means for our homes to be churches, to be extensions of the church of which we are all a part, into which we have been baptized. What does it mean to have a Home Church? Why is it important? What are the essential elements in a Home Church? Often the idea of Home Church conjures up very domestic images of a Christian family – a Christian mom and dad, children who eagerly participate in the life of the Home Church, icons in the corner, prayers together in the morning and evening and before meals, keeping the fasts together, following the calendar. The Home Church embodies what the Russians call “the art of ritual living.” This concept is so important to the Russians that it’s all packed into two words: Bytovoe Blagochestie. Ritual living is truly an art. It’s something you have to acquire. If you live in an Orthodox country, you probably learn it from your parents and grandparents – usually your mother and grandmother. You live with the rhythm of the calendar from your birth. You learn the recipes. Many of your friends are Orthodox, so you’re not the only one whose home is like this. It’s just the way life is – it’s normal existence. But if you live in the West, and particularly if you’re a convert to Orthodoxy, the art of ritual living, of running a home church, can be very difficult indeed. You don’t have an Orthodox mother to pass on fasting recipes. It’s easy to forget what day of the week it is according to the Church calendar. It’s easy to get lazy about prayers. It all seems so artificial at first, so contrived. Your children may reach a certain age and realize how odd their family is, how different from other families. This is especially true in the West, which is so terribly secularized and where so many families seldom if ever go to church. Children may want to stop fasting, stop attending church. When they leave home they don’t bring their Orthodoxy with them, they just leave this odd way of life altogether and settle into a secular mode, like their friends. I know what I’m talking about, because this is what has happened to us.

On top of this is the fact that this ideal, domestic Christian family may not be as widespread as we think it is. At least that’s not my experience. There are families in which one spouse is Orthodox and the other isn’t, or isn’t even Christian. Non-Christian spouses often make it very difficult to follow the calendar, to fast, to follow a regular prayer life. There are single-parent families. Families in which one or both of the partners have been divorced, so there’s the influence of ex-spouses to contend with. There are families with enormous problems – alcoholism, drugs, various kinds of abuse, medical problems, unemployment, kids in trouble, and all the difficulties that plague families today. If you live in a family like this – and many of us do – you may find yourself thinking, “If only my life were normal I’d be able to set up a Home Church just the way I want.” So you imagine that the Home Church is for other people, but not for you. You may find yourself becoming resentful of the people whom you regard as the problem, the people who are getting in the way of your prayer life, of your attempt to turn your home into a Home Church. You’ve got to blame somebody, so you blame your spouse, your ex, your kids, your neighbors – even your society, Western society in general, the Post-Enlightenment West, whoever it is who you think is keeping you from turning your home into a Home Church, from living the ordinary day-to-day life you want to live as an Orthodox Christian.

My purpose here is not to solve these problems. That simply wouldn’t be possible, because each family comes with its own set of unique difficulties. What I’d like to do is examine some basic elements in this situation, and the most basic element has to do with the question, What is home, anyway? What are we talking about when we talk about home? The picture I’ve just sketched presents an ideal picture of a home – a secure place to live with a solid nuclear family. But is this a valid picture? To return to the conversion stories our friend from Pittsburgh told us about, when a person is introduced to the Orthodox Church and says, “It felt like I had come home,” what does that mean? What is that home – that perfect existence – that the Orthodox Church reflects so profoundly? On the one hand there is the parish and the rich Liturgy we live together no matter what our life is like when we leave the church building. But is it also a tidy house with a snug family, doing everything by the Orthodox book? Is that all it means? Or does the Christian meaning of home have deeper roots than that?

Let’s talk about various kinds of Christian homes. There’s the standard model, the house, the apartment, with an Orthodox family inside. But there’s also the dormitory room. The army barracks. The room in a care facility, or in an old people’s home. Home is first of all the place where you live wherever it may be. It’s the place where you live out your physical existence in the world. Not all homes are cozy and pleasant, not all homes are places you would choose if you had pick a place to live. A South African friend of mine named Anita was active in the Stop Conscription Campaign during the time of apartheid. She was brave, she knew what she was doing, and she got arrested. She had never been in jail before. She told us that after they put her in her cell and the heavy door closed and locked behind her, the strangest thing happened. She sat down and she suddenly realized that she was home. That was the word she used – home. It wasn’t because being in a South African jail was so wonderful, or that she was being fatalistic. She said she felt for the first time a kind of freedom, being in that jail cell. Every step she had taken was a step that came out of her conviction that she was doing the right thing, that she was walking towards the truth, and being in jail was just another step along the way. She had a choice in jail – she could blame the cell, the lock, the bars, the South African government for getting in the way of what she perceived to be her calling, getting in the way of her ideal life, or she could accept the fact that there, in that cell, was where God had chosen to meet with her and to speak with her, to be fully present to her. That was the choice she made – she chose to be where God had promised to meet her.

Here’s another similar story. The priest of our church, Father Sergei Ovsiannikov, grew up in the Soviet Union. He was raised an atheist and was told in school that God does not exist. He said he had no trouble accepting that there was no God, as his teachers told him, but he couldn’t believe that there was Nothing. He was convinced that there must be Something, and he was determined to find out what it was. While he was doing his military service he ended up in prison, in solitary confinement. And there, in his cell, with no one else to talk to and nothing to do, he realized that he was free. Like Anita, he realized that nothing could get in the way of his basic decision to accept life as it came to him, to freely accept life. Neither solitary confinement, nor a Soviet jail, nor life under totalitarian rule – nothing could take that primordial freedom away from him. And that was where he found God. Father Sergei preaches about freedom all the time. It’s one of his favorite subjects. He always preaches in Russian, and the word for freedom is one of the few Russian words I know – svaboda. He is careful to point out, however, that the freedom he’s talking about, real Christian freedom, is quite different from what we mean when we talk about freedom today.

The word freedom in English is a very interesting one. If you happen to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, which has such extensive etymologies, you learn some very surprising things. One of these is that freedom today doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Our modern understanding of freedom has to do with personal choice. “It’s a free country,” we say, meaning: I can do whatever I want. I have my rights. You do your thing, I’ll do mine. But when you go back in linguistic time you get a rather different picture. A free person was a member of a household who was not a slave, who was connected by ties of kindred to the head of the household. A free person owed his allegiance to the head of the household not out of compulsion and obligation, but out of love. Freedom originally implied a love relationship. And if you look in the OED, you’ll see in the word history that there are other words related to free that have to do with this relationship: the Sanskrit word “priya” means dear, and “pri” means to delight, to endear; the Old Slavonic word “prijateli” means friend; the Old English “freon” means to love, from which we get our modern word “friend.” Then there’s the Dutch word “vrijen” which means to make love, and similar words for friend, love and beloved in all the Germanic languages.

So to be free means not to be in a relationship of slavery but a relationship of love. As Christians we understand the importance of freedom, because freedom comes from Christ, Christ has freed us from the slavery of sin. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” writes St. Paul in Galatians (5:1). “Stand fast therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.” And later in the same chapter, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.” (5:13). Through love be servants of one another. Learning to be free in Christ, to live the life of a free man, is the life work of every Christian. “When you enter upon the path of righteousness, you will cleave to freedom in everything,” says St. Isaac the Syrian.

When you discover true freedom, as Father Sergei did, as Anita did, then nothing can imprison you. Nothing. As St. Paul writes in that powerful verse in Romans, “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:38)

Given the fact that I make my living as a translator, it not surprising that I’m something of a word freak. The word freedom has fascinated me for many, many years. Another person I think was fascinated by the idea of freedom was J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, as you know, was the author of The Lord of the Rings, but he was also a linguist and a professor of Old and Middle English at Oxford. And he was a devout Christian. When he gave names to the characters in his books, he sometimes just chose names that he thought would entertain his children, like Bilbo Baggins and Tom Bombadil. But some of the names of his characters have a deeper meaning, and I think Frodo is one of those names. I think that when Tolkien began working on a name for his hero, he chose Frodo because it’s a variant of the ancient English word for freedom, and that Tolkien meant to portray Frodo as the quintessential Free Man, the man who makes the ultimate free choice – to risk his life for his friends out of love. Frodo, by the way, leaves his comfortable hobbit hole, his home, and is never able to return to it, at least not as it was. The Lord of the Rings does not end happily ever after. All through their journey, Frodo and Sam keep talking about going back to Hobbiton, going back home. But when they finally do go back, Hobbiton as they knew it is gone, and Frodo realizes he is no longer “at home” there. So he finally sails away by boat to the Western Lands, to what you might call his true home – to what Tolkien may have meant to be a kind of Eden before the Fall, or perhaps even heaven, the Kingdom of God. In exercising his freedom as he did, which was really the Christian way, he had lived his life the best way he could. He made the best choices. He made the truly free choice, the choice to put love above everything else.

So what does this tell us about home, about trying to establish a Home Church? What biblical examples of home can we turn to in searching for a model for the Christian Home? That’s where it really gets interesting, because while the Bible is filled with stories of sojourning, pilgrimage and homelessness, there aren’t very many reassuring stories of cozy homes. The Bible starts with Adam and Even being evicted, and the story of the Fall sets the tone for the rest of Scripture. For Noah, life as he knew it is simply swallowed up in the Flood – in Chaos – and all he can do is listen to God’s instructions and build himself an Ark. He can never go home again. Abraham is sent away from his home and his people and told to establish his tribe in the Land of Promise. Moses leads his people out of Egypt and they end up wandering in the desert for forty years, carrying the Tabernacle of God’s Presence with them. And Our Lord, as far as we know, had no home at all. “Foxes have holes,” He said, “and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20) When I was growing up in an Evangelical Protestant church, we used to sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” “For here we have no lasting city,” writes the author of the book of Hebrews, “but we seek the city which is to come.” (13:14)

I realize the question of establishing a Home Church is actually a very practical question, and I’m not trying to spiritualize it here. After all, when you come right down to it, this is our everyday experience as well. What I call our Home Church is really not the Church in our home on the Kanisstraat in Alkmaar, the Netherlands. When we left home two weeks ago, we brought traveling icons with us, as many Orthodox do. While we’re traveling we try to maintain our rule of prayer, and we certainly try to follow the calendar. Our Home Church is the Church that we carry with us, the rule of prayer that we as a married couple try to follow, wherever we go. Right now, there’s another Orthodox couple living in our house, and feeding our cats, and they have brought their Home Church with them as well. If we were to move to another house, we would certainly set up another icon corner and have our house blessed by a priest. But in a sense, our home is like the Tabernacle that the Israelites carried with them as they wandered through the desert, a place where, by prayer and fasting, we recognize the Presence of the Living God in our midst. That, of course, is why a Christian home can be a prison cell. Because even if they take the icons away, even if they take the Bible away, even if you cannot keep the fasts, you can always, in your freedom, recognize the Presence of the Living God in your midst and rest in the Love of Christ.

Tolkien’s story of Frodo’s journey, of leaving a cozy place and finding that what he thought of as home is no longer there when he returns, is really a modern myth of the Christian life. If what we’re aiming for is an ideal scene of Christian domesticity, with a perfectly running household based on the church calendar, we’re asking for trouble. Because someday, somebody’s going to come knocking at the door and is going to interrupt our monastic bliss. It may be someone in the family, it may be a total stranger, it may be Gandalf asking you to go on a quest, to lock our door and never to look back. And when that happens, you’ve got to open the door with joy and gratitude. Because that is where God is present, waiting to meet you. That is where you have to exercise your freedom, out of love for the real Head of the Household to whom you owe your fealty as a Free Man.

There are so many wonderful stories of saints whose lives were interrupted by someone in need, and who responded to that person out of love, only to learn later on that the person in need was Christ in disguise. The story of St. Martin of Tours comes to mind, who shared his cloak with a naked stranger. Another much more recent examples are the saints who were recently canonized at the Church of Saint Alexander Nevsky in Paris just this past May: Mother Maria Skobtsova, Father Dimitri Klepinin, George Skobtsov (Mother Maria’s son) and Ilya Fondaminsky. These were people who ran a house of hospitality and prayer in the center of Paris before and during World War II. After the Nazis entered Paris and occupied it, they began hiding Jews, providing them with false baptismal certificates and helping them reach safety in neutral Switzerland. Finally they were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where they all perished. Mother Maria had been blessed by her bishop to begin a new type of monasticism, one that is engaged in the world and is devoted to responding to the world’s problems.

Mother Maria wrote a great deal about the spiritual life, and I think we can look to her as something of a model for establishing a Home Church along monastic lines that nevertheless has its door wide open to whatever or whomever God chooses to send it. “The way to God lies through love of people,” she wrote. “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

In Amsterdam, where our church is located, there’s a very interesting museum called the Museum of the Resistance. It’s a fascinating place dedicated to the work of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War. As anyone who has ever read the Diary of Anne Frank knows, there were lots of people who needed hiding places in the Netherlands at that time. Jews were being rounded up and carted off in droves, taken to concentration camps, never to return. And the Jews weren’t the only ones who needed places to hide. Gypsies were being killed as well. And the mentally disabled. And homosexuals. Dutch men of every variety were being rounded up and sent to work in Germany under a forced labor program. All these people needed to be taken in and hid. In the Museum of the Resistance the reality of this situation is depicted by means of a simple Amsterdam door, the sort you still see all over the city, with a long row of doorbells for every flat in the building. When you ring these various doorbells at the museum door, you hear recorded messages of all the excuses people might have not to let you in. One by one, as you ring the bells, you’re told to go away. “I have a sick husband,” a woman says. “I have a large family,” says someone else. On and on. And you, the museum visitor, have suddenly turned into a person in urgent need, in great danger, and no one will let you in. It’s an exercise in what it’s like to be on the other side of the door.

Perhaps the greatest Interruption Story of them all is the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel went to the Virgin Mary and told her she had been chosen to be the Mother of the Messiah. What an Interruption! Whatever sort of Home Temple Mary had been a part of must have been turned upside down. In some Annunciation icons, the Angel Gabriel is depicted in motion, bounding onto the scene, robes fluttering, feet off the ground, and Mary is shown seated in domestic quietness. Mary’s freely made response, her yes, has become the basic vocabulary for all Christians – she teaches us to turn our full attention from whatever domestic plans we may have made and to welcome Christ into our lives, in whatever form God has chosen to send Him to us. It’s no accident that in most Orthodox Churches, the icon on the Royal Doors is the icon of the Annunciation. It’s through those doors, after all, that Christ comes to us in Holy Communion. It’s here that we exercise our freedom and stand before Him, allowing Him to enter us, to heal us. It’s here that we learn what it means to be a Christian, what it means to stand before an open door and to accept Christ as He comes to us.

I believe that it is there, at the altar, when we approach the Royal Doors and freely accept Christ into our bodies, that the Holy Temple of God and the Home Church intersect. This is where we learn how to establish a Home Church, there at the altar, when the doors open and we freely allow Christ to enter. Think about the door in the Museum of the Resistance, the door in Mother Maria’s house of hospitality, the door of your own home. No matter how many icons you may have or may not have in your home, no matter how successfully you may be able to keep the fasts, all these things are secondary to the way you respond when God sends someone to your door. And by “door” I don’t mean only the physical door to your home, but every point of access into your life, including the door of your own face – whether your face expresses welcome or rejection, or any recognition at all.

There’s a wonderful old Jewish story told by the Dutch philosopher Abel Herzberg about a rebbe who walks into the living room where his son is deep in prayer. In the corner of the room is a cradle with a baby inside, crying its lungs out. The rebbe asks his son, “Can’t you hear? The baby’s crying!” The son says, “Father, I was lost in God.” And the rebbe answers, “If you were really lost in God you’d be able to hear a fly walking up the wall.”

Can we truly approach Christ at the Royal Doors if we fail to accept him at our own the door at home? Think about this the next time you go to Communion. What does this mean for the way I live my ordinary life, in my home – wherever that home may be. And conversely, accepting Christ in Holy Communion teaches us how to accept him in the guise of the Least. We don’t approach Christ at the altar as though we were doing Him a favor, as though we were tossing Him some crumbs from our bounty, as though we had decided to take a few minutes and pay Him a visit. We approach him with humility, we literally disarm ourselves. How differently we would act towards the people we welcome into our lives if we always used our encounter with Christ at Holy Communion as our model.

So let’s go back to the Home Church. We are a pilgrim people. Truly, we have no lasting city. We are like snails, carrying our homes on our backs. To the extent that we are able, we practice the art of ritual living as we go, because the value of fasting and ascetic exercises, of establishing a rule of prayer, is enormous. Fasting and prayer pull us away from the things that might enslave us and bring us back to the center of our lives, where God is waiting for us. Fasting and prayer strengthen our will, so that when the door bell rings, as it is bound to do, we will be able to joyfully open the door, where God is waiting for us. We don’t have to wait for the perfect home, the perfect circumstances, the perfect family, the perfect neighbors, the perfect coworkers, to establish a Home Church. A Home Church is actually quite a simple thing: it is the place wherever a Christian happens to be standing, where he freely accepts his role in the royal priesthood. As Father Alexander Schmemann writes in For the Life of the World:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God – and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.

In looking for material on this talk I came across a very interesting iconographic image from the catacombs in Rome. It’s a second century icon of Noah. It’s not the sort of image of Noah we’re used to seeing – an old man with a long beard, a recognizable ark shaped like a big houseboat, and of course the indispensable pairs of animals, especially the exotic ones. This icon of Noah is a young man standing in a square box. That’s all. No animals – except for the dove flying above him with an olive branch in its beak. I would like to propose this as the icon of the Home Church. We, like Noah, are physical beings, and we have been put on this earth by God to praise him. We stand in whatever structure it is that may be holding us and sheltering us from the chaos all around. In the icon it is an abstract, minimalist representation of a boat. We are stewards of the world that God brings to our door, that he asks us to take on board, to protect from the storm – as Father Alexander puts it, “the material of one all-embracing eucharist.” And we stand in our boat, or house, or room, or cell, arms raised in prayer, as the Holy Spirit descends with a sign that God has not forgotten us, that life is continuing, that life is eternal, and that in the end we will finally be Home.

Alaskan Pilgrimage

by Nancy Forest

We got home Monday afternoon, totally exhausted after no sleep on the plane which took us across ten time zones in ten hours, and were greeted by the tail end of a heat wave (temperatures in the range of 30 degrees centigrade — above 85 F — for many days). Luckily for us, the rain came last night. We got our laundry done (just in time, too, because the washing machine broke after the last load), all the mail opened, house put back in order, etc., and now feel we’re really back home.

Alaska is a wonderful place, mainly wilderness that stretches on and on and on. It still has a frontier-town mentality — strip malls with “dancing girls” signs, people who live in the bush and thrive on moose meat and berries, people panning and digging for gold who look like they gold miners of the 19th century. Major roads are few and generally don’t go far. The only way to get to many places is by air or ferry, though in the winter there is the option of snowmobiles and dog sleds. The museums are excellent. We found several good books stores. The food is great, as is the locally brewed beer, and the people are as friendly as you’ll find anywhere. And the mountains! And glaciers! And wildlife! Not to mention the fact that Jim had no hay fever there at all, not even a sniffle. We told our hosts we were thinking of making it a one-way trip.

The main event was the five-day Eagle River Institute. The conference was wonderful. What fine people. The choir director of the Orthodox church at Eagle River, Steve Alvarez, is an Apache who works on the staff of the Native Heritage Center not far from Eagle River. There were lots of native Americans of various kinds. A beautiful, colorful group. Fr Mel Webber from a Greek Orthodox parish in California — though his home is England — gave four challenging (and often funny) lectures on the mind and heart, drawing on the great teachers of prayer. Jim had four sessions, two on prayer with icons and two on icons that connect with the Beatitudes. I spoke on the home church, not so much as the ideal home we imagine other people inhabit, but the home as a place of prayer and hospitality.

Before the conference we had two nights at Denali National Park and the rest of the time in Eagle River, about 20 miles north of Anchorage. Denali Park was wet and cool when we went but still gorgeous. Jim had a close encounter with a grizzly with photos to prove it. This happened during a “Tundra Wilderness Tour” by bus (the only way you can get into the interior of the park except for those who have a permit to camp and can enter on foot), with all the others in the group back in the bus and yelling, “Who is that idiot out there with the camera?” “My husband!” I said proudly.

We made fast friends with Dick Dauenhauer, the former poet laureate of Alaska, and his wife Nora, who is a Tlingit native who is also a poet, linguist and scholar.

The Russians brought Orthodoxy to Alaska hundreds of years ago, and it’s still very strong among the native population. We visited the oldest building in Alaska, a tiny wooden Orthodox church at Eklutna surrounded by an interesting cemetery — Indian “spirit houses”, all beautifully painted according to family, with Russian crosses on them.

All in all, I hope we will one day have the chance to return. We’ve a lot to see — Alaska is 36 times bigger than the Netherlands with half the population of Amsterdam. Not bad. Denali (Mt. McKinley) is so huge that we could often see it from the living room of the guest house where we were staying in Eagle River, 150 miles away. That’s like being in our living room in Alkmaar and being able to see all the way to Brussels! The scope is astonishing.

Right Where I'm Standing

by Nancy Forest-Flier

I grew up in New Jersey in a family that was deeply rooted in the Reformed Church, a small main-stream Protestant denomination with roots in the Dutch Reformed Church. In the 1950s,most of the members of our church were still children and grandchildren of Dutch immigrants. We went to church twice on Sunday, we all attended Sunday School and my parents were teachers, we rushed off to church again on Wednesday night after supper for “Family Night”which included catechism and choir practice, I was president of my Youth Fellowship and my parents were both youth group leaders. Our church was our spiritual and social center.

But for me, church was more than habit or social matrix or ethnic identity. It was a rich, Biblical, prayer-filled atmosphere which encouraged the asking of important questions. Like other churches, our church communicated its theology by means of certain phrases which contained essential truths and were easily taught and learned. Among them were “Ask Jesus to come into your heart,” “Accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior,” “We preach Christ crucified,” and “Christ died once and for all.” I found these phrases provocative, and I tried to learn what they meant. What does it mean, Jesus coming into your heart? What is a personal savior, and why “personal”? Was there another kind of savior besides “personal”? What does it mean, God loves you? What does “Jesus died for your sins” mean? What does it mean to be forgiven? Who am I and what am I supposed to do when I grow up? Who is God, anyway? And what does it mean that Jesus was his son? What does it mean to be saved? Saved from what?

I took these points of theology quite seriously, but I was puzzled by what they meant. If the church was throwing around words like “heaven,” “hell,” and “eternity,” then these questions were of vital importance, I reasoned. There must be good, understandable answers.

Of all the questions about religion that began to plague me as an adolescent, the one I remember that really had me stumped occurred during Sunday School, when our teacher, who was also the student minister, asked us, “Why do we go to church every Sunday?” To praise God? someone suggested. But you can do that anywhere, said the student minister. To be with other Christians? You don’t have to go to church on Sunday to do that, he said. To get re-charged, like a battery, I proposed. He just laughed. It seemed that every answer we offered was inadequate, and I really don’t remember coming up with any good one.

I continued to go to church each week, but there seemed less and less reason to be there. We were assured that no matter what we did, we would be saved by faith, not by “works.” We were made to feel especially nervous about signs of Phariseeism, of doing things in the hope that the action would somehow effect our salvation. In a Reformation backlash against Catholicism that was still burning after 400 years, we were taught that true religion occurred in your “heart” as opposed to your body. The things the body did — hand and body gestures, reciting written prayers, handling beads, eating bread and wine — were meaningless and even dangerous. There was a clear division made for us between body and soul, and the body and the soul could not participate together in worship. It was either one or the other, and God’s way was in the heart and the head.

So for me the Sunday church service came to be little more than a chance to hear a more-or-less instructive sermon. It was Bible study with some hymns and prayers. Fortunately, our minister was a charismatic, brilliant man, and we did learn a great deal about the Bible. But his successor, who stepped in when I was in high school, just couldn’t match his predecessor’s skill as a preacher. I couldn’t bear to listen to his sermons, which seemed to me silly at best, self-righteous and laden with anti-Catholic prejudice at worst. There didn’t seem to be much reason to go to church when the sermons were poor because the sermon was the center of the service. And there was a certain amount of irony in that discovery, because we had been taught that as Protestants we could confess our sins directly to God, unlike the Catholics who, we were taught, could only reach God through a priest. I realized that in a Protestant worship service, where the sermon is central, if the minister is unintelligent or mean-spirited it poisons everything in the service: the prayers, the singing, and certainly the sermon. At least Catholics had their Mass and their Eucharist, which remained the same regardless of the temperament of the priest.

But I had been raised in an atmosphere so thoroughly anti-Catholic and opposed to any sort of ritual (the phrase was always “empty ritual,” as though there were no other kind) that leaving the Reformed Church to become Catholic was something that didn’t even occur to me. I just lost interest.

It wasn’t that the Reformed Church was unable to justify itself adequately to me. I felt no anger toward the church, no deep disappointment. I think that if that had been the case I simply would have given up going to church, period. It was that the Reformed Church, God bless it, had made me aware of the Important Questions in life and instilled in me a deep hunger to answer those questions. That the Reformed Church’s own answers did not satisfy me didn’t matter all that much. I was grateful to have been set on a spiritual journey, grateful to have been taught how to pray, happy to have memorized so many Bible verses, and the books of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. I figured I had been well-prepared, and I was ready to move on.

Then I had a vision. In retrospect I call it a vision because I truly believe that God sent it to me for a reason; that it was some supernatural interference intended to add something to my thought pool. It happened on a warm, beautiful spring afternoon. I was coming home from high school, the last lone student on the school bus. I stepped off the bus at my stop, a street corner in an altogether ordinary suburban New Jersey setting, and as the bus pulled away I felt something strange. It was as though I could feel the world as a globe, and I could feel it turning around. I sensed that I was a figure on that globe. I stood still and felt the steady movement of the world, around and around. It was as though I were at the uppermost point, a sort of pole, and the world was turning around on the axis on which I stood. It was such a real feeling that I had to steady myself to keep from falling over. Then I slowly turned around on my axis and gazed at what was visible from where I stood: the four houses on the four corners of the crossroad, the tall pine trees in all the front yards, the mailboxes. And I realized that there was nobody in the whole world who could see what I was seeing from my great height: not even famous people, not even the President or the Beatles, not even terribly rich people. It wasn’t that my view was so special, but I suddenly knew that it was entirely unique.

I remember going home and telling my mother, “Mom, I just felt like I was my own North Pole!” I could understand the vision no further than that at the time. But it has remained a fountain of understanding for me. The older I grew the more it revealed to me about myself, about other people, about God. I can say that this vision is the most important thing that happened to me in my life, and I am certain that it was a gift from God who could see that I needed something very big very fast.

In time I might have dismissed the vision as simply odd and adolescent, but I began reading about other people who have had the same experience. It’s been like finding out that other people have dreams about missing final exams, when you thought you were the only one. Not all these people were led into the Orthodox Church because of it, however.

I stayed in the Reformed Church and even went to a Reformed Church college, Hope College, in Holland, Michigan. I must say that Hope is an excellent school; I say that even now. It isn’t like some church-related colleges that are related in name only, with no apparent religious connection affecting campus life. Neither is it a protective, xenophobic place where professors are all required to be members of the school’s denomination and students must sign conduct pledges. Chapel attendance at Hope was mandatory, and we had to take courses in Old and New Testament and a Senior Bible elective. But college life was exciting, vibrant and full. The first Catholic intellectual I ever met was my Chaucer professor at Hope. As she explained what Chaucer’s England must have been like, and what the English language was like which he spoke, we learned what the world must have been like before the Reformation.

I remember one anecdote she left with us: the word free, which to us today means the liberty to do whatever we please within limits without anybody telling us what to do, did not have that meaning hundreds of years ago. Free, she said, once meant “dear to the chief.” That is, it was a way of describing a feudal relationship. You were either free or you were a serf. You performed your duties either because there was a special bond of affection between you and your lord, or because you had economic ties with your lord which necessitated that you perform certain functions. The first relationship, that of the free man, involved commitment and love; the second was strictly survival. The ancient meaning of freedom implied dependence, commitment, and love; it never happened in isolation. [Endnote: Later in graduate school I did a language exercise on the word free . After studying it in the Oxford English Dictionary I discovered that the ancient and original Indo-European word which gave birth to free must have meant love or beloved. From this source, all sorts of cousin-words were born which still exist in different languages: words for love, beloved, dear, and friend. The English word friend is a sister-word of free.]

This was a powerful bit of news for me. It challenged two basic truths of Calvinism: that our salvation is a matter of predestination and not free will, and that we are saved on an individual basis. “The truth shall make you free,” I had learned. Freedom was an aspect of the Kingdom of God. But whereas I had understood this freedom to apply to myself alone as a saved person, this new idea of freedom implied that others were involved, that there was some kind of loving dynamism that took place in salvation.

This would have been simply an interesting academic exercise for me if it hadn’t been for that polar vision on the bus stop years before. I had been carrying the vision around with me since high school and it was still full of mystery. I was somehow convinced that that vision held an enormous truth, and I was determined to discover what it was. In the years after the vision happened, every time I considered it the unavoidable facts struck me: each one of us is ultimately alone, no matter who he is; and each person’s view of things is utterly unique. The challenge of free was that it seemed to fly in the face of facts: we are not ultimately alone. What could it mean?

When I thought about the vision at night, while lying by myself in the dark, it showed me its darkest, most frightening revelations: no matter how many friends we are able to gather around us, we are each going to die alone, we each must pass out of life entirely alone. And another: that each one of us has a unique view of the world and no two views are alike. It simply isn’t possible for two people to have entirely similar and compatible understandings of anything. This kind of thinking was dismal and depressing, but it was real, I felt, and it was true. I began to see that everything that entered my consciousness through my senses was unique and colored by who I was, where I had been, and what kinds of events, both planned and accidental, happened around me. I remember saying to myself, “I’m not learning history, I’m learning Nancy’s history; I’m not learning mathematics, I’m learning Nancy’s mathematics.”It would have led me to give up learning altogether if I wasn’t certain that every student — every person — who ever lived hadn’t existed in the same predicament. The possibility of real human contact seemed so bleak, so utterly preposterous.

Then I was introduced to another literary figure with a bit more information, the American poet Wallace Stevens. Wallace Stevens was a contemporary of Robert Frost, Carl Sandberg and William Carlos Williams. I remember a particular afternoon sitting in the library with a friend. I had chosen Stevens’s poetry as a term-paper topic, even though I knew almost nothing about his work. I opened my copy of his Collected Poems and began to read.

The first poem I read was the first in the book, “Earthy Anecdote.” It was short and simple, describing a scene of a cat around whom a herd of bucks were forced to run. The poem described the bucks “clattering, / . . . . . . . / in a swift, circular line / To the right, / Because of the firecat.” It was an odd, simple poem, and somehow it reminded me of my polar vision: the cat sitting still and everything else being forced to revolve around it “in a swift circular line.” I kept thumbing through the book and came to “Anecdote of the Jar.”

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

When I read that poem I sat up in my chair. This man knew what my vision was all about! The lone individual (here a jar) with the random universe around it. But to Stevens, although the individual is indeed unique and alone (“Like nothing else in Tennessee”), because it just sits there within its circular vision and can take in everything around it, everything around it is “no longer wild”; everything begins to make sense.

By this time I was making not-very-quiet exclamations in the library and my friend was threatening to leave. In the following weeks I read many more of Stevens’s poems. For a term-paper I decided to write about Stevens’s long poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”That was more than twenty years ago, and I’ve forgotten whatever analysis I chose to pursue at the time. But I still recall that Stevens knew the polar vision, and he wrote about it. Stevens understood that each person is alone, each is unique and quite incapable of having more than a fragmented grasp of the world. But to each poor person, that jumbled mass of accidental things and events going on around him has a beauty, an organized, stunning beauty. There seems to be a sort of dynamic going on between the person standing there on his Pole and the world around him. He describes the Man with his Guitar:

He held the world upon his nose
And this-a-way he gave a fling.

His robes and symbols, ai-yi-yi–
And that-a-way he twirled the thing.
Sombre as fir-trees, liquid cats
Moved in the grass without a sound.
They did not know the grass went round.

Now the opposition between my insulated, isolated polar experience and the exciting truth about free with its give-and-take began to weaken a bit. We may be utterly alone, but we are inconstant intercourse with the world around us; we make sense of it; we call it “beauty.”

The theology in all this was not clear to me then. It’s still only hazy to me now. But what is clear is that my spiritual journey, which had started with a few questions in Sunday School, had taken me to Wallace Stevens’s door.

I needed to return to church. Somehow the connection between existential questions and church had been firmly planted in me. I needed to be in a fertile place where these deepest question about the most basic human condition were at home, were ordinary table-talk. And because my vision had been such a physical one, I was desperate for a way of worshipping that was physical as well as intellectual. I wanted liturgy.

In the timid way in which many American Protestants make their move to a more liturgical kind of worship, I became an Episcopalian in my last year of college. The young priest at the local church was eager to help. In the Episcopal Church everything seemed optional, which was a good way for me to take up with liturgy for the first time. You could genuflect or not, cross yourself or not; the degree of “high church” that you adopted was up to you.

It was the form of the liturgy that attracted me. The beauty of the Book of Common Prayer. It appealed to my sense of English history, the way Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare did. It was stately English. And the words of the prayers could in no way be twisted or blunted by the state of mind of the priest.

My polar vision had taught me that one peculiarity of the human condition was the unique and fragmented viewpoint of each individual, no matter how intelligent. Somehow, having the words of worship all written down in a Book of Prayer elevated the worship, took it out of the hands of insufficient people, gave it a universality that was more trustworthy because it was not one single viewpoint. The Prayer Book, of course, was written by people, but there was something long-lasting and proven about it.

I did not become a deeply committed Episcopalian. I graduated from college and attended graduate school for one semester. Then I ran out of money, and I went home to New Jersey and hastily got myself married to a very young man who did not understand my spiritual struggle and seemed to have no interest in the Big Questions that kept me awake at night. I was suddenly drifting, my future hopes up for grabs.

I took a secretarial job at a religious peace organization nearby, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. There I met a couple of people whose conversation soon revealed to me that the Big Questions were not just midnight snacks for neurotics. Tom Cornell and Jim Forest were the only Catholics on the staff of the mostly-Protestant FOR. They had been active all their adult lives in the social justice wing of Catholicism. Both of them had worked at the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day. Both were close friends with people, some of them priests, whose outspoken avowal of nonviolence and readiness to go to prison had made the headlines during the Vietnam War.

Jim Forest told me about Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and friend of his who had died in1968. Merton had been a convert to Catholicism. After entering the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky he continued a life of writing. The body of his work, including journals, essays, and poems, is enormous. At Jim’s suggestion I read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and it excited me. It wasn’t the string of pious platitudes I had come to expect from “Christian” autobiographies (most of the writing I had been exposed to in this genre was the evangelical Protestant variety, usually involving the sudden and miraculous conversion of a mafia thug or a Skid Row prostitute). Merton had been a bright, modern, cosmopolitan intellectual who had been hounded by the Big Questions until he had no choice but to pay very close attention to them.

I read more of Merton’s writings. What fascinated me were his explanations (in many forms — essays and poems) of one’s true identity, of who a person really is deep inside, in the center. My pondering over the polar vision kept me thinking about this very problem. If I stand on some kind of pole, with longitudinal lines emanating from me and encircling the globe, then those lines must start at some very central point within me. That which is not-me is everything outside that minute central point: my body, my clothing, my surroundings. I must have discovered the existence of my own soul. I must have realized that even when I die, when the not-me is lifeless and gone, that brilliant, living center of light will keep on living.

But what was it? Was it just some little essential version of me? I remembered turning around and around, seeing the suburban homes and the pine trees. Was everything in my life simply there by accident, for me to pick and choose from, or to swallow as gracefully as I could? Was every idea that I grabbed for to explain all this random stuff just that — a convenient idea? Was God no more than a convenient idea? And Jesus? And the whole body of Christian dogma? Could I just shrug if it bored me and turn back to my pure, solitary self?

I began to see myself as a kind of onion with layer upon layer of tissue enclosing not very much at the center. I read in Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation:

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.

But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they a real destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.

The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. [Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1961), pp. 34-34.]

Merton wrote that at one’s very center is God himself, who “utters me like a word containing a partial thought of Himself.” This was a great awakening for me. In all my years as a church-going Christian, I had never thought of God as something literally “within” me. Now, with this realization, the still-unanswered questions from my childhood, the polar vision on the bus stop, and the puzzle of freedom all seemed to come together. We are not alone. We are never alone; we cannot be. And “God” is not something “out there,” something we first affirm and believe in, the product of our thought. The first act is God’s within us. God “utters us.” We are couched, cradled within his mercy.

To be free is to assent to God who is the deepest, truest, most central part of us. It is, as my Chaucer professor had told us, to be “dear to the chief,” to be loved by God and in turn freely to give one’s devotion to God. I kept thinking of the bus stop, of what it felt like to stand there and feel so central and alone. The North Pole. All lines of longitude emanating from your feet, crossing each other at one single point at your very center. And at that single point, at your very center, is where God, deep inside you, evokes life in you, generates an endless spring of love and mercy for you.

Finally I knew that what had happened to me on that bus stop was a vision indeed: it Was God’s way of showing me what it felt like to be free, to be loved and touched by grace. I knew that this experience was something I could hold up to every experience of worship I could have, that it would help guide me to a way of worshipping that was true.

I realized that most people, most of the time, don’t choose to stand at that center point. Although it’s hard to avoid being where you are physically, most people most of the time want to be elsewhere. Most people imagine that life would be better and they would be happier if only they were out there somewhere, not at the top of the world, not on this lonely North Pole. If only they were wealthier, healthier, better-looking, married to someone else, someone else’s child, living somewhere else, better-educated, more confident, more graceful, more self-assertive; if only it were yesterday, or tomorrow, or in a few years when the children are grown; if only there were a different government, or a different president, or a different social system. Then life would be wonderful; it would be Paradise; it would be “Heaven.”

For me, as a teenager and young adult, the temptations were certainly there. I had struggled with severe acne for many years. I tended to be lonely and painfully shy. My parents were classic non-communicators, unable to talk to me about problems or pain. If only, I thought. If only I were prettier. If only I were more self-confident. If only my parents were more open tome and more helpful. If only I had been born years earlier so that I wasn’t one of the Baby Boomers who were glutting the graduate schools and deflating the value of graduate degrees. The blinding truth of that bus stop experience was all the more startling because of the desperation with which I longed to be different. But, the polar vision had taught me, the Kingdom of God is here right now, within you. To wish to be elsewhere is sin; it is slavery to a false hope. There is no freedom in it.

This heady stuff came at me all at once. I tried to share it with my husband, but he didn’t seem interested and couldn’t quite understand what the big deal was all about. Realizing that Merton had been a Catholic, I began attending a local Catholic church and started an instruction class with the church’s priest. The priest was not a terribly bright teacher, and he had many of his facts wrong (especially those about Protestantism), but I was so convinced of the truth of Catholicism that I was willing to dismiss his mistakes. I was received into the Catholic church in 1979.

What I didn’t realize at the time, and what I can see now, is that I was looking for the right way to worship. I was looking for Orthodoxy, which literally means the right way to give praise. But I didn’t know anything about Orthodoxy at the time. I had never met an Orthodox Christian, knew absolutely nothing about the Orthodox Church. I had heard of Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, but I figured these were exotic and oriental forms of Christianity that could only be appreciated by Greeks and Russians. In truth, I never gave Orthodoxy a thought.

But now I can see a fairly direct line between the polar vision on the bus stop and my entry into the Catholic church. God had arrested my attention in a startling, physical way. I wanted to meet God again in the same way, in a physical way, standing so that the things around me were organized around me, not tempting me with other flashy false centers that seemed like another, better reality. When I took Communion in the Catholic church, it was an affirmation of God’s life within me. Yes, the church said, God is really deep inside you. In his extraordinary mercy and humility and love, God takes up residence inside.

And this is how I began to learn about the Mother of God. Mary is nothing more than an historical figure in Calvinist teaching, and I was always deeply suspicious of the Catholic regard for Mary when I was a child. Yet the Mary I came to love became real to me when I realized that we are all God-bearers, but deeply, mortally flawed. Mary bore God in a profound, physical way and with perfect obedience.

I attended the local Catholic church faithfully although I found the worship a bit cloying. I went to receive Communion. This was the single link with the polar vision that I held fast to each Sunday. I tried to ignore the music, which I found distracting. It seemed like an unsuccessful attempt to be modern, relevant, to get people’s attention. The songs the choir sang from “Godspell,” and the other contemporary religious music, were jarring to me. The hymns that the jolly deacon encouraged everybody to sing were silly and embarrassing.

At this point I changed jobs, leaving the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where I had worked on the organization’s magazine staff as typesetter, to take a position in a small graphics and typesetting shop in a nearby town. Typesetting fascinated me, and I wanted to really learn the craft completely. The shop was owned by an Orthodox Jewish family. It was my first encounter with orthodoxy of any kind, and I must say that the extent of my appreciation of Orthodox Judaism had a great deal to do with my eventually becoming an Orthodox Christian. I had never met a family like this before: their religion touched and affected almost every aspect of their lives. Their fasting, their feasting, the mezuzahs fixed to the doorways throughout the shop, everything seemed to float on an undercurrent of faith, seemed to be rinsed and sweetened by faith. I made friends with the couple and they showed me their kosher kitchen, told me about Jewish holidays and beliefs. I began to yearn for that kind of faith: a serious faith that wasn’t timid about advancing into every corner of your life and laying claim to it. But I didn’t know of any sort of Christianity, except for some groups like the Amish, which did this.

So I continued to attend the Catholic church. About two years after I became a Catholic, my marriage fell apart. It died of an absence of care and respect, it died of immaturity and selfishness, of hopelessly divergent interests. There was one child from that marriage, Caitlan, a little girl then five years old. And in one of those crazy twists that life sometimes takes, in a story that a fiction-writer would never touch because it sounds so improbable, I ended up marrying my old friend Jim Forest who had first told me about Thomas Merton.

Jim was in Europe at the time, in the Netherlands, where he had been living for five years. We had been keeping up a friendly correspondence, writing about books we were reading and about our spiritual journeys. His own marriage had disintegrated. Finally at the end of 1981 we decided to marry. So on Easter Monday in 1982, Caitlan and I boarded a KLM flight to Amsterdam and we moved to Jim’s house in Alkmaar, where we have been living ever since.

It was extraordinary living with someone with whom I could pray. It hardly seemed possible, after living for so many years in a spiritually empty marriage. I was eager to begin sharing my spiritual journey with Jim and I began attending church with him. This was the start of a valiant search for a church-home in Holland, during which time we learned a great deal about the state of Christianity in western Europe.

My polar vision was tucked neatly into my heart, still as warm and alive as the day it happened. It had grown up a bit; it was incubating and maturing. It had been enriched by Thomas Merton and Catholicism and my Orthodox Jewish friends. I still regarded it as the spiritual yardstick against which I could measure my attempts at worship.

At first, I accompanied Jim to the Catholic church he attended, Pius X. It was a modern building in a new section of Alkmaar, and it was filled every Sunday with young families. The church had two large children’s choirs, one for youngsters and one for teenagers. It had an active group of lay parishioners who worked hard to make each Mass interesting and relevant to current social problems. The songbook we sang from consisted of popular melodies with Dutch texts, most of them faintly religious with a strong slant toward active social concern. The things I had become familiar with in the American Catholic church were absent there: the holy water fonts were dry, there were no kneelers and no kneeling, the Host was kept in an inconspicuous side chapel, there were no confessionals and no evidence of confession. And Mass was quite different, too. Every aspect of the service was meant to encourage active concern for the Third World, the poor, guest workers, the handicapped, minorities. It was an admirable effort, but for me it had little to do with real worship and communion. The unspoken basis for the church’s direction seemed to be a belief that in order for justice to be done in the world, it had to be specifically fostered during Mass; the dark side of this was a fear that a purely “religious” Mass by its very nature neglected the need for justice.

We decided to switch churches, so we began attending a church near our house right across the canal. We went faithfully to St. Joseph’s almost two years. It was a much more traditional place, with much of the Mass still in Latin and a less experimental approach to worship. But there were no young families in the congregation, no children. It seemed to be a gathering place for older Catholics whose obligation-minded practice of Mass-attendance had been formed well before the Second Vatican Council. No one ever spoke to us. After awhile we left to continue our search.

At St. Laurence Church the Masses were more of the same, so we decided to join the choir. At least, we thought, we might feel some sense of acceptance, feel some proximity to the”action,” if we were actually closer to the altar and singing the Mass. We were clearly the youngest people in the choir, and during the choir practice coffee break we listened to the older members talk nostalgically about the “old days” when the fasts were kept and people went to confession.

I hesitate to use our limited experience of church-searching to evaluate the state of Christianity in western Europe, but I’m not encouraged by anything else I’ve seen. Last Easter we listened to a program on the BBC is which it was revealed that some 60% of Britons responding to a poll didn’t know what event Easter was supposed to be celebrating. A friend of ours, Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest who lived and taught in the United States for many years, returned to his home in the south of the Netherlands for a family visit and went to see an old priest there who was known as a great confessor years ago. Our friend asked the old priest to hear his confession. The old priest was deeply touched and said, “You know, no one has come to me for confession in seven years.” Another friend, who lives here and is active in Pax Christi, wanted to organize a staff retreat for contemplation, recollection, and spiritual renewal. The retreat was finally planned, but the rest of the staff insisted that it be organized around “relevant topics” such as hunger and oppression in the Third World or inclusive language in the liturgy. No one wanted to come together for prayer.

In the meantime, people are suffering from a kind of spiritual anemia which cannot be touched by broad programs for social development or progressive ideology. The state of the parish Catholic church was so deeply disturbing that we didn’t really know where to turn. Our older children (Jim had three children by his former marriage who all lived nearby in Alkmaar) had soured on church entirely. Then something happened that signalled the beginning of a new life for us: Jim had a sabbatical coming up and we decided to spend it in Jerusalem. He was asked by the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, situated on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, to teach a three-month course in peacemaking. We were able to go as a family, which meant both Caitlan, then eight years old, and our youngest child, Anne, who was less than two at the time.

It was in Jerusalem that I first encountered Orthodoxy. It was extraordinarily exotic to me at first, all those icons and incense and chanting, all those monks in black with their various kinds of headdress. I never made many inquiries into Orthodoxy while I was in Jerusalem. I just took in the outward impressions. We visited the monastery of Mar Saba in the Jordan valley where, I later learned, St. John of Damascus took refuge. I saw the hermits’ caves peppering the cliff sides in the wilderness. We were befriended by a leader from Jerusalem’s Armenian community and attended a liturgy in the beautiful, ancient Orthodox church of St. James. But I also visited many Catholic churches that were spiritually powerful places. One of my favorites was the Church of St. Anne.

At the end of our stay in Jerusalem we rented a car and drove around Galilee, visiting all the holy places around Lake Tiberias. One afternoon our route took us to Mount Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration. We drove up the steep, narrow road to the church at the top of the mountain, parked, and went inside. Like so many of the churches built on the holy sites, this one was awesome in its dimensions and decoration. But one interesting aspect of this particular church caught my attention: a round circle laid in the stonework floor in the center of the church, with an X transecting it. I went up to this circle and stood in the center of the X, and suddenly it happened again: the polar vision, the unmistakable brush with pure reality. Only this time I found myself standing not on my New Jersey bus stop but on the Pole of Poles: the place where the Lord himself had been transfigured before his disciples.

Of course, the X had been laid in the floor to indicate the place of the Transfiguration. But when I stood there myself and the whole earth fell away from me on all sides, I was able to draw some unavoidable conclusions: that as Merton had said, the very center of the human individual is God, and that we are so confused and distracted by sin that we are almost never able to be there, where we should be, where we are truly ourselves, where God is. If that were possible, we would be transfigured, too. We would shine like the sun.

Shaken, I joined the rest of the family and we left the church.

I left Israel with little more interest in Orthodoxy than when we had arrived, but among the items we carried back to Holland with us was our first icon. Jim had spotted it in one of those little shops inside the Jaffa Gate in the Old City. It was quite small, a hand-painted icon of the Mother of God with the child Jesus in her arms, and it was almost hidden amidst all the other bits of antiquity, coffee urns, and jewelry displayed in the shop window. The owner, whose bottle of Jack Daniels was already open by 10:00 a.m. and whose interest in the real value of the things in his shop was minimal, said he’d sell it to us for $100. For us $100 was a considerable amount of money, so we let the icon sit in the shop while we went back to our apartment at the Institute to think it over. It was more than just a souvenir, but what it was and why it seemed to have attached itself to us was mysterious. Finally we decided to buy it. We brought it back and set it on our apartment book-shelf. A Melchite priest we had met at the Institute examined the icon and guessed it had been brought to Jerusalem by a 19th-century Russian pilgrim.

We brought the icon home with us and hung it over the mantle. Then we set a little oil lamp in front of it. Then we began praying together before it, using all sorts of prayers: Catholic prayers from our breviaries, Jewish prayers from a Jewish prayer-book we had picked up in Jerusalem. We set other icons around our Mother of God: a copy of the Rublev Holy Trinity, given to us by a friend as a wedding present. A tiny icon of Joachim and Anne embracing each other which we had bought from the Little Sisters of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa. There were other things that we arranged on the mantle around the oil lamp: some acorns from the Oak of Mamre in Hebron, the old Dutch family Bible that my great-grandparents had brought with them when they emigrated from Holland to America. Our “icon corner” was taking shape, and we weren’t even Orthodox yet!

But it wasn’t long. Jim, who was working as the General Secretary of the International fellowship of Reconciliation, had developed a strong interest in the Russian Orthodox Church after having visited Moscow with religious and peace movement representatives. He began working on his first book about the Russian Church and was invited to visit the USSR and begin research. He made several trips to work on the book, and each time he brought home dozens of books and stories about Orthodox fasting and prayer, about the Liturgy, about the powerful spirituality he found in Russian churches.

In the summer of 1987 I was able to accompany Jim on a two-week trip to Moscow, Smolensk, Minsk, and Brest. Finally, I was to attend a Russian Orthodox Liturgy myself. On the first Sunday we were in Moscow and, being careful to dress appropriately and cover my head, I walked with Jim up the steps of the church of Our Lady of Tikhvin. Beggars lined the outer steps, extending their hands, and parishioners carefully placed money in the outstretched palms. I felt as though I had been transplanted into a Dostoevsky novel.

We went inside. It was a small church, and there weren’t very many people there that day. An old nun dressed in black from head to foot was standing at the front of the church, attending the candles that were being placed before the icons. A young mother came in with her little girl and stood in front of us. When the little girl became restless from standing, the old nun offered her a little chair. But the child just clung to her mother’s legs and finally sat on the floor next to her. How wonderful, I thought, that children can just sit on the floor here.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and when I turned around the woman behind me handed me a piece of paper. Jim told me to give it to the old nun, which I did, and she in turn gave it to a deacon. Later I learned that it had prayer requests written on it for the priest to read off during the Liturgy.

I don’t remember much about the Liturgy because I didn’t understand it at all and I had no groundings. But I do recall the spiritual atmosphere in that church, the intense, serious, profound power that wrapped itself around me. There were no silly religious songs or frivolous attempts to keep the parishioners interested. There seemed to be a basic difference between this kind of worship and all the rest I had ever known: the services in the west were like religious presentations in which the clergy, with or without a “worship committee,” would put together a service with songs and readings and sermons, hoping to keep the people’s attention. It was common to walk out of a church saying, “That was a great Mass!” It was almost like entertainment, like a show. All the action was done by certain actors: the priest or minister, the choir, the readers. You sat in your place and watched. But in that Orthodox church, I felt that every person had a role to play, parishioner and priest alike. There didn’t seem to be an attempt to keep people’s attention by trying to be “relevant” or “amusing.” Once you stepped into the church you were part of a great drama, you stood and acted out your part. You kissed icons, lit candles, bowed, prostrated yourself, crossed yourself. The act of worship suddenly became comprehensible to me. That old question from my Reformed Church Sunday School, “Why do we go to church?” was answered in the Orthodox Liturgy. Because this truly was an act of worship; it was everyone involved in a drama.

There were many visits to Orthodox churches during those two weeks. During one visit I remember going into a church at a time when a Liturgy was not occurring. We walked around the interior with the member of the church council as he told us about the icons and the history of the church. Then, finding myself in the center of the church, I happened to look directly over me and saw a great icon overhead: Christ in glory, painted within a vast circle. As I stood there, trying to understand this amazing place, I was reminded of the church on the Mount of the Transfiguration. Right in the center: Christ himself. And it all clicked: this place was made for worship. I turned slowly around, as I had turned around on that sunny afternoon on the New Jersey bus stop. But instead of pine trees and suburban houses, there were icons of the saints. Some of the saints I knew, many I didn’t, but they all stood there, solemnly facing me.

I knew nothing about icons then. I didn’t know what they meant, how they fit into the Orthodox theological framework; I didn’t know the history of iconography or the stories of certain great iconographers. I didn’t know how icons are “written,” or how the icon painter has to prepare himself. All I knew was that Christ was with me as I stood there at the top of the world, and all the saints stood around me. It was not the “slovenly wilderness” that Wallace Stevens had sensed with his lonely jar on the hill. It was a universe made beautiful not by the beholder but by God, whose love carried forth in the lives of the saints had been witnessed to for centuries in the life of the church. (I learned some time later that Wallace Stevens, about whom I knew very little, had become a Catholic on his deathbed.)

The action during the Orthodox liturgy was not dependent on the charism of the minister or the priest; it was the lively witness of all the saints, of each believer standing on his particular pole, of the priest and the deacons, of all the community in prayer together.

We returned home in the summer of 1987, both of us deeply affected by our time in the Russian churches. Then in January of 1988 Jim was invited to attend the opening celebration of the Millennium of Christianity in Russia. It was to be held at the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicolas of Myra in Amsterdam. We both decided to go, wondering if the intense spiritual power of the churches of Russia could ever find a mirror in the spiritually impoverished west.

It was not a Liturgy, but there was music and prayers. We stood in the tiny chapel that served as the Russian Orthodox Church. It was crowded with parishioners and guests and representatives of all the Christian communities in the area. Afterward we went to the parish house for a social time, and much to our astonishment, members of the parish came up to us, greeted us, expressed interest in who we were, and invited us to return. It was the first time any Dutch church had been so kind and hospitable to us.

We decided to attend a Liturgy, which was quite an undertaking since we live about 25 miles from Amsterdam and we have no car. But the train system in Holland in superb, and we found that the trip by train and tram was quite simple.

We brought Anne with us. The older children had been so turned off by church that it was quite impossible to talk them into coming with along. (We still pray that some day they may be willing to join us.) To our astonishment and joy, the Liturgy was just as powerful and beautiful as we had found it in Russia. We decided to try to return every other week (we were still singing in the choir at our local Catholic church). But after one week back at the Catholic church, which seemed like thin soup compared to the rich feast of Orthodoxy, we realized we had to make a break. We left the Catholic church choir and began the weekly trek into Amsterdam, which we’ve been doing now for more than four years.

That was in January, 1988. On Palm Sunday Jim was received into the Orthodox Church. I needed a bit more time, but not much. I was received on Pentecost.

I am aware that it is a Protestant habit to evaluate one’s choices and experiences from a purely individual standpoint, and that I am in danger of evaluating my journey to Orthodoxy in a Protestant way. In other words, I can look at my journey as a slow working out of a unique experience which happened to me, with my “discovery” of Orthodoxy as the resolution of it all. There is the danger that I might use my own rather primitive experience to validate the Orthodox Church, to say “It feels right to me, so it must be true.”

I admit that at first this was true. The Orthodox Church felt right to me because I could lay my own experience over it and everything seemed to line up. I think the basic truth of my polar experience was that we can only see and judge everything from our own extremely limited situation, and therefore we run the risk of putting everything — even God and the church — together into the collection of things “out there” along with the pine trees and suburban houses. But somehow (and this is the mysterious part of it all) God used this experience to lead me into a new kind of understanding. Although I may stand at this dizzying height (and for me it was dizzying indeed), under the impression that everything is subject to my whim and judgment, it is God who is at the center. And I must struggle to unite myself with God who is the center of my self, and so to continue viewing the world around me.

There have been many words coming to me to describe my journey so far, but few to adequately express where I am now. I am learning to listen and to pray. I am learning what it means to worship (the old Sunday School question about the reason for going to church is no longer so obscure). I am praying for humility, for a penitential spirit, for the spirit of forgiveness. And I am overcome by the knowledge that God in his mercy has shown me his home at the center of the world.

from Toward the Authentic Church edited by Thomas Doulis (Light & Life Books, Minneapolis, MN)

Finland Diary

by Jim Forest

May 8, 1998 / New Valamo Monastery

There’s thunder in the distance and a waterfall-like roar all around the building. I’ve opened the window — three layers of glass — just to better hear and feel it. It’s cool outside but not freezing, though there is snow here and there on the ground and the adjacent lake is still under ice. I’m a lot farther north than I was when I put on my spring jacket and flew out of Holland this morning. This is the Finnish part of Karelia. The nearest city with an airport is Finland’s easternmost city, Joensuu, 375 km northeast of Helsinki and 65 km west of the Russian border. Ten years ago I was on the other side of the border not far from here.

It was an easy flight, clear skies the whole way. After admiring the patchwork patterns made by polder fields near the IJselmeer, I had a fine view of the Waddenzee and its sandbar-like islands, then across the North Sea to Denmark, over Sweden, then to Finland. There were three hours on the ground in the Helsinki airport before boarding a crowded plane to Joensuu, where I was met by Juha Riikonen, staff member of the Lay Academy at New Valamo Monastery.

We drove to the monastery, passing through a shower so heavy that it made me think of Noah’s flood. It was hard to see anything. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started, revealing the wilderness of rural Finland — dense forest and lakes. Finland has a population of five million people and nearly 200,000 lakes: one lake for every 15 people. We had a fine view of a vermillion setting sun sandwiched between grey clouds over lake and black forest.

There was a bag supper waiting when we arrived — by then it was past nine, when the kitchen closes. Before eating it in my little room, I had a walk around just to get a sense of the place. The main structure is a handsome, white-walled, copper-domed church in the old Russian style. The mosaic icon over the entrance indicates the church is dedicated to the Transfiguration.

Saturday night / May 9, 1998

Kristus nousi kuolleista! Totisesti nousi! (Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!) The Paschal greeting is hard enough to write, still harder to pronounce correctly.

It’s 10:00 PM and I’m in an office of the New Valamo Lay Academy adjacent to the icon painting room where a dozen skillful amateurs are busily at work despite the hour. Icon painting is one of the most popular courses here. The quality of the work is impressive, though all the students at this session are Lutherans except their Orthodox the teacher, Alexander Wikström. Lutherans come in great numbers to New Valamo — about 150,000 visitors a year, probably 90 percent of them Lutheran. One of the monastery’s vocations is to be place where non-Orthodox people can learn about Orthodox Christianity. It must be one of the reasons that about 600 adults each a year join the Orthodox Church in Finland — this in a country in which the Orthodox population altogether is roughly 60,000.

The day began with Liturgy in the Church. Before the service, I was able to venerate Finland’s most treasured icon, the Konevits Mother of God, painted six centuries ago on Mount Athos and given to the Valamo Monastery from its foundation. It has miraculously survived many fires and wars.

This afternoon I gave a lecture on prayer with icons to the icon students plus about thirty participants in other classes. By and large Finnish Lutherans, however attracted to icons and other aspects of Orthodox Christianity, seemed surprised at the idea that it might be a good thing to a have an icon corner in one’s home and to use it as a place of daily prayer. I read them Gorky’s vivid description of his grandmother’s time of morning prayer (from the introduction to Praying With Icons), then spent the next hour talking about what we could learn about the fundamentals of prayer from this hard-pressed, uneducated Russian woman who died before the 1917 Revolution.

The Lay Academy has about 3,000 students per year. The average course is three to five days and can be on a wide range of topics that have some bearing on Orthodoxy: liturgy, prayer, icons (not only painting them but learning to see and understand icons), church architecture, church history, monastic life, literature by Orthodox authors, the social dimension of Orthodoxy, and so on. All students take part in some of the services in the church and get a glimpse of monastic life.

In the late afternoon there was a service at a tiny lakeside chapel built of logs and dedicated to St. Nicholas. If it had been yesterday, we would have been chased inside by the rain but today there was only one brief downpour, sudden and fierce, during the Liturgy this morning.

I visited with the abbot, Igumen Sergei. His apartment is entirely furnished by things that had been in the abbot’s residence when the community was on the other side of the border. Apart from electric lights, there was no trace of the modern world. We could have been in 19th century Russia, though New Valamo’s present monastic community is entirely Finnish. Fr. Sergei is not even Russian-speaking. When needed he can sing the Slavonic service, though nearly everything is done in Finnish.

Part of our conversation was about the history of Valamo Monastery, which began on an island on vast Lake Ladoga north of St. Petersburg. For centuries it was one of the centers of Russian monastic life and missionary activity. It was Valamo that sent the missionary saint, Herman, to Alaska in 1794, the first Orthodox priest in the western hemisphere. Despite periodic destruction caused by wars between Sweden and Russia, the Valamo Monastery survived until the “Winter War” between Soviet Russia and Finland in 1940. With bombs raining down day after day, the monks had to flee. The community loaded up every sled they had with church and domestic furniture, books and icons. (Most of the icons they carried are typical examples of nineteenth century iconography — a vaguely Orthodox tribute to the worst Roman Catholic art.) Their trek ended here, in a part of Karelia that, luckily for them, remained part of Finland after Karelia was cut in half following Soviet Russia’s victory.

We talked about problems the Finnish Church experiences these days in its relations with the Church in Russia. “Eight years ago the old Valamo was returned to the Church and monastic life re-started,” Fr. Sergei explained. “The buildings are gradually being rebuilt, in some cases with our help. Unfortunately many monks of the restored Valamo do not regard us as Orthodox at all — for them, you can only be Orthodox if you are on the old calendar.” It is a scandal for them that the Finnish Orthodox Church keeps the main feasts of the same calendar as the Lutheran Church — an arrangement imposed by the state when it recognized the Finnish Orthodox Church as being a second state church. The issue still causes occasional tension among Orthodox believers. For years the Valamo monastic community was deeply divided within itself, part of the community on the old calendar, part on the new. It must have been easy for the monks to imagine Hell.

Still another irritant for the community at the revived Valamo in Russia is that the monks who fled the bombing in 1940 carried away nearly everything smaller than bell towers. While nothing at New Valamo is stolen property, the monks at the original location want it all back. I suggested to the abbot that, though they have no duty to return anything, still it would be a healing gesture if the Finnish Valamo gave the Russian Valamo some of the icons that used to be there — an icon can sometimes melt frozen hearts. Fr. Sergei agreed but said this was not something he could do unilaterally. Such things had to be decided by the Council of the Finnish Church. There are attachments on both sides.

Another source of tension between the Finnish and Russian Churches is the complex problem of Estonia, where the local Orthodox Church was broken in two, some parishes under Moscow, others under Constantinople. Estonian and Finnish are sister languages and the cultures are similar; the Finnish Church therefore has a close tie with the Estonian parishes now linked to Constantinople.

After my visit with Fr. Sergei, I joined Pekka Tuovinen, teacher of the theology of icons at the Lay Academy, in a visit to the nearby woman’s Holy Trinity Monastery of Lintula for the Saturday evening Vigil. Though with a larger community, the convent is a quieter place than New Valamo. While retreatants are welcome throughout the year, the nuns only open their doors to tourists in the summer months. This community too had a Russian base — a group of nuns who fled from the precincts of St. Petersburg in 1939, escaping with only one icon.

After supper, with the sun setting, Juha and I visited the monastic cemetery across the lake from New Valamo, walking among the many wooden crosses. Perhaps half the monks who came here in 1940 were dead by 1945. Many were old men when they arrived. One monk, Igumen Simforian, died in 1981 after 75 years in monastic life. Another had been a monk more than 80 years when he died 1984, aged 110.

Sunday, May 10, 1998

I just left Joensuu by train a little while ago and have been watching trees, trees and more trees out the window with the occasional small wooden house — sometimes a log house — here and there and lakes of various sizes. Juha and Pekka, plus Pekka’s dog Jona, brought me to the city by car, stopping at the social hall of one of Joensuu’s Orthodox parishes for a cup of coffee and a slice of Mother’s Day cake. Mother’s Day has the national flag, a blue cross on white field, flying from many flag poles.

The weather is taking a summery turn. Pekka said the thin ice that was the nearby pond yesterday was completely gone this morning. We saw only a few pockets of snow in deeply shaded places.

It was a very beautiful Liturgy at the monastery this morning — a full choir today rather than two monks taking turns singing the choir parts as happened yesterday. It seems the practice in Finland that iconostasis curtains are rarely if ever used and the royal kept open once the service has begun. As the melodies are in the Russian tradition, I had no trouble following the Liturgy, in fact felt carried into it as by an irresistible undertow. The whole congregation sang all the antiphons as well as Creed and Our Father.

Before the service I had a chance encounter with Igumen Sergei, who once again invited me to return, but next time “with your dear wife Nancy.”

More trees, more lakes, more cloudless blue sky. A perfect day.

Krista Berglund, a Russian scholar, met me at the train station who brought me to the Helsinki Parish guest room, a five-minute walk. The Helsinki “Parish” turns out to be a sub-diocese of 24 local churches with about 18,000 members altogether.

Leaving my suitcase, we walked down toward the harbor, stopping for a light meal at a café called Kappeli (the word means chapel), a mostly glass structure built in the days when Finland was a province of Russia. The heart of the city looks like St. Petersburg but with fewer scars. From our table we had a view of a fountain, the harbor and two great churches, the Lutheran cathedral to the left, the Uspenski Cathedral to the right, the largest Orthodox place of worship in Europe.

Thanks to Krista, I begin to understand why Helsinki has such a Russian flavor. Russians and Swedes were contesting Finland for most of the past thousand years. From the 12th century until the beginning of the 19th, Swedes had the upper hand. Then in 1808 Russia invaded — it was the time of Czar Alexander I — and the following year Stockholm ceded power to St. Petersburg, though Finland under Russia was granted a degree of autonomy. In 1812, the fishing village of Helsinki became the Finish capitol. The city center’s many fine Russian buildings in the classical style reflect this event. It’s one of the reasons Helsinki has played the role of St. Petersburg in such films as “Reds.”

The 19th century, the century of nationalism, saw Finns develop a deeper sense of national identity. In 1863, Czar Alexander II, whose statue still dominates Helsinki’s main square, began a process which made the Finnish language — in Swedish days illegal — equal to Swedish. There are still two “state languages.” In 1917, a few weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution, Finland declared its independence, which Lenin quickly accepted, anticipating that Finland would become Communist. Overnight the Karelian region, which included Valamo Monastery, with its population of Russian monks, found itself inside the borders of independent Finland. This turned out to be a good thing, given what was soon to happen to monks and other believers in Russia. Eighty years ago there was a brief but vicious civil war in Finland between “reds” and “whites,” with the latter winning.

In 1939, the USSR attacked Finland and seized the northern Arctic territories and much of Finnish Karelia — the “Winter War.” Finland, though attempting to remain neutral, allowed Nazi Germany to move troops across its territory against the USSR in WWII, but in 1944 managed to get out the war, ceding land and agreeing to pay reparations to Moscow. In 1948 the Finland reluctantly (“an offer you cannot refuse”) signed a “friendship treaty” with the USSR that obliged Finland to help resist any attack on the Soviet Union that involved Finnish territory and bound Finland to an uncritical role in regard to the USSR. The treaty, though allowing trade and good relations with the west, created a situation in which the USSR could influence Finnish foreign policy.

In 1989 Gorbachev recognized Finland’s neutrality. Three years later Finland and Russia signed a treaty that recognized equality, sovereignty, and positive economic relations. Also in 1992, Finland choose closer links with Europe by applying for membership in the European Union. In 1994 the EU accepted the application, endorsed by a national referendum. It seems to have been a good move — the Finnish economy is currently healthy after a long and deep recession.

One sign of the affluence is the omnipresence of cellular phones. They seem to be used by everyone in Finland but newborn infants. There are 2,500,000 such phones in use in this county with its population of 5,000,000.

May 12, 1998 / Helsinki

Fr. Heikki Huttunen took me to one of the city’s most remarkable establishments for lunch — the Orthodox Kitchen — two floors below the guest room in which I am holed up. This project of the Helsinki Parish is open once a week to anyone who appreciates home cooking and has little or no money. Fr. Heikki explained that, though the social support system in Finland is strong, there is a growing number of people who “fall through the net.” There were fresh-cut flowers on all the tables. The main decoration were signs in a vast array of languages, all with the Pascal greeting: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.” My main surprise was to find Metropolitan Leo at one of the tables in animated conversation with several men whose faces show as much wear as their battered clothing.

Fr. Heikki regretted that projects like this are so new to the Finnish Orthodox Church — the Orthodox Kitchen is only two or three years old. He blamed the delay in launching social activities on the Finnish Orthodox “refugee mentality.” He explained that 75 percent of the Orthodox community in Finland had to move west to be within Finland’s redrawn borders at the end of World War II. It was like the flight of many Orthodox to the Greek part of Cyprus after the island’s division. The Finnish Karelians were successfully resettled by the Finnish government but had all the usual traumas of uprooted people. Also many Finns regarded Orthodox people in general as Russians. For years many Finnish Orthodox felt like refugees in their own country. “We were for long caught up in our own difficulties.”

In fact Orthodoxy has been in Finland for centuries. The movement to translate the Liturgy into Finnish began around 1780. In 1815 the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided that in the Grand Duchy of Finland the biblical texts could be read in the language of the people. There are Finnish parishes in which the whole Liturgy has been celebrated in Finnish since abut 1850. Much of this was thanks to the constructive role played at the time by Metropolitan Anthony Vadkovsky of St. Petersburg.

Once again Russians are coming to Finland, he mentioned. Something like 40,000 people from the former USSR have becomes resident in the last few years. Last night at Krista Berglund’s flat I met one of them: Sasha Skopets, originally from Murmansk. She told us how tapes by Fr. Georgi Kotchetkov (the Moscow priest who is in hot water for using a modern Russian translation of the Liturgy) played a crucial role in her conversion to Orthodox Christianity.

My lecture — “Nationalism, Orthodoxy and Peacemaking” — was in the same hall of the Helsinki Parish building that is used at mid-day for the Orthodox Kitchen. Though Krista had prepared a translation, it turned out that everyone in the room spoke English fluently. As in Holland, films and many other programs are shown on Finnish TV in their original language, which in mainly English. For many Finns, English has become a second language.

May 13, 1998

I attended the Liturgy this morning at the oldest Orthodox church in Helsinki, Holy Trinity, a short walk from the Helsinki Parish Office in the direction of the harbor. It was like being in an old St. Petersburg parish: good examples of Russian iconography, silver work and architecture of the early 19th century. A choir of four sang.

For an hour in the late morning I met with Metropolitan Leo, head of the Helsinki Diocese, in his top-floor apartment in a building next to the Parish Office. He is a widower living with his father and 23-year-old daughter. We talked about his recent visit in Istanbul with the Ecumenical Patriarch, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, the situation of the Orthodox Church in Estonia, the work of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and also my book on icons. At the end of our visit, he took me out on the apartment balcony, pointing out many Helsinki landmarks. We had a fine view of spring’s impact on Helsinki. You can almost hear the leaves bursting from the trees.

This was followed by a visit with Jyrki Härkönen, editor, of Orthodoksi Viesti magazine, Finland’s largest Orthodox journal, and later talked with their staff photographer, Pasi Peiponen, about the Russian pianist and outspoken Orthodox Christian of the Stalin era, Maria Yudina — a true Daniel-in-the-lions-den.

The next stop was at Krista Berglund’s for lunch: lentil soup and dark bread. Krista is editing a book on contemporary views by Russians writers as to what Russian-ness is all about, an issue much under discussion since the collapse of the USSR. We also talked about St. Seraphim of Sarov and the bear he befriended. Krista has a great devotion to bears. There is a sort of iconostasis over her computer made of photos of people dear to her but mixed in with the human beings are bears. There are more bear photos on the refrigerator door as well as several teddy bears in a corner of her small living room.

The day’s main event was a talk after Vespers at Fr. Heikki’s parish, dedicated to St. Herman of Alaska. The congregation currently uses rented rooms in a sterile business building in a suburb of Helsinki, but the handsome church they’re building should be finished in July and is to consecrated on October 4. Many of the icons that will be used in the new church are now in the rented chapel — all exceptionally good work. Fr. Heikki estimates that there are about 200 Finnish iconographers doing work of a quality suitable for church use.

Deacon Juha Lampinen, who does youth work for the Helsinki Parish, gave me a lift back into the city. It was after nine and, as I hadn’t had supper, I walked from the Parish Office toward the train station, ending up having a Macdonalds Fish- Filet sandwich for supper: 15 Finnish Marks, about $3.50. This is not your bargain basement country. Soon after returning to the guest room, Father Juha came knocking on the door and brought me back to his apartment for coffee and cognac with him and his wife, Maria. Their 11-year-old daughter, Marina, introduced me to her pet turtle. It was a blessing to be in a place where one has to step over toys.

May 14, 1998

There was Liturgy at Fr. Heikki’s parish at eight this morning for a group of 20 or so high school students plus a few adults, then a quick breakfast before we boarded a bus and set off for a two-day Orthodox youth trip, the theme of which is war, peace and Orthodoxy.

Going east, our first stop was the town of Loviisa, which hosts a four-day peace festival that starts each year on August 6, Hiroshima Day. Next we stopped at a rural center where those doing alternative service participate in a month-long program of preparation for whatever they will do in the following 12 months. Quite a few Orthodox young men have done alternative service at New Valamo, which was the first Orthodox institution to open its doors as a place of employment for conscientious objectors. Finland still has military conscription for men and maintains a surprisingly large army, but about five percent of those drafted opt for civilian alternative service though it entails a longer interruption of life.

The last stop of the day was at Lappeenranta, a stone’s throw from the Russian border, once a Russian garrison town. It has changed so little that I could imagine Czar Alexander arriving on horseback any minute. There’s a dirt street down the middle, a string of one-storey wooden buildings painted in pale greens and creams, creamy browns and mustards, several old brick barracks, and in the middle of it all the oldest Orthodox church still standing in Finland, built in 1785 and dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God.

This region is now as peaceful as Lake Woebegone, but 80 years ago, during Finland’s civil war, it was a place of bitter fighting and at times amazing cruelty. Not far from here an Orthodox priest was tied to the railway tracks by local Communists and killed by a passing train. For the atheist “red” side, priests were by definition enemies of the revolution, but occasionally the “white” side also attacked priests and pillaged Orthodox churches, as Orthodox Christians were regarded as Russian.

After a light supper, we sang a short Vespers service in the church, after which I led a discussion on confronting evil and overcoming the fear of death. Probably the most important thing I did was to explain the St. George icon, telling the story of this young martyr and explaining why he is shown in armor, riding a horse, lancing a dragon even though he wasn’t a soldier, had no armor or weapons, and never saw a dragon. What he faced was the dragon of fear wearing the armor of faith and riding the horse of the courage God gave him. His lance is not a weapon but the Cross. Whether or not we become soldiers, we are required by baptism to be warriors.

May 15, 1998

The day’s main event was visiting a training center for army officers and meeting with an Orthodox chaplain who gives a witness to the priority of faith by always dressing as a priest though he is an army officer. Lutheran chaplains prefer the uniform to clerical attire. At least in Finland military chaplains have a choice.

Back in Helsinki, I spent the evening at the apartment of Fr. Heikki and Leena Huttunen in the Tapiola suburb in the city’s west side: lots of trees, a breeze coming in from the balcony door, the sound of children playing outside. A week ago it was almost winter here — today it feels like high summer. I’ve given the last of the Dutch cheeses I brought along as house gifts and am sipping a dark Czech beer.

May 16, 1998 / en route to Amsterdam

Breakfasting this morning with Fr. Timo Lehmuskoski, we talked about was the tension within the Finnish Church between those born in Orthodox families and converts. Among the many converts is the current head of the Church, Archbishop John. The converts sometimes regard those born to Orthodoxy as bit players in the Church, less alert to Church teaching and practice than themselves, while the cradle Orthodox often regard those who came to the Church in adolescence or adulthood as Lutherans pretending to be Orthodox.

I’ve been gazing out the window at the scenery below, the parade of Nordic countries: Finland, Sweden, and just moments ago the last of Denmark. Off the Danish coast I had my first look at a whirlpool — huge arcs of creamy white converging in the sea on a dense foamy core.

Ah! The first glimpse of the Waddenzee islands and the Dutch coastline.

Jim Forest

text as revised June 4, 1998

Istanbul Journal – Bright Friday and Saturday

2 May, Bright Friday

We woke early and taxied to the ferry in time to catch the 9:15 ferry for passage to the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara. The weather was sunny and cool, but it promised to be perfect weather for a day outdoors. We passed the three smaller islands and after about an hour and fifteen minutes got off at the largest — Buyukada — once a place of semi-imprisonment in Byzantine times for princes and princesses who had fallen out of the emperor’s good will. More recently Leon Trotsky, on the run from Stalin, lived for five years in one of the island’s finest mansions — from Bolshevik terrorism to luxurious exile! There are at least two monasteries on the island.

We bought a map of the island at a shop on the quay as well as a cloth hat for Jim and stopped for cappuccino (not nearly Pera Palas quality). We decided to go to St. George’s Monastery in the south end of the island, going part of the way by horse-drawn carriage and walking the rest of the way. There are no cars permitted on the island, except for service vehicles like ambulances and police cars and a few small delivery trucks. The main road is filled with these horse-drawn carriages, quite colorful and fun. As we drove along we were passed by a carriage carrying four young people, the elderly driver tearing down the road and urging his horses on at a gallop. The kids in the carriage seemed delighted, but it was way too fast for such a road and such a vehicle. (A few hundred meters further we came upon an accident — the galloping carriage had lost a wheel, both horses were lying on their sides, the four kids were walking around dazed, and the driver had a gash on his cheek and looked very disoriented. Our driver stopped and helped get the horses up and pull the wrecked carriage out of the road. An ambulance soon arrived to take the driver away.)

We passed many beautiful old wooden houses, some nicely restored, some showing signs of great wealth, some urgently in need of restoration. The island is covered with beautiful trees and seems almost Caribbean.

We finally arrived at the beginning of the road up to the monastery. It wasn’t clear from the map, but this is a long uphill climb on a cobblestone path. We started up and noticed that all along the path there were pieces of fabric and napkins tied to the branches of bushes lining the pathway, and lots of thread running along the path. It reminded Jim of the prayer flags in Tibet. We saw this all the way up the mountain. We also came across a chain of marching caterpillars trying to cross the path, one after the other front to back, as if they were physically connected. Quite amazing.

The view was wonderful, and there were several places along the way where you could sit and rest. Finally we reached the top, but unfortunately the church was locked. We discovered a back corner of the monastery where many people had lit candles. When we arrived, some older Turkish women were there clearly at prayer, hands together, palms up — one of those instances where Muslims worship at Christian shrines. On one side of the monastery a large family gathering was underway around a long table. Behind the monastery we found a small café where we shared a bottle of beer and sat in the shade, admiring the scenery and resting. Then we walked to the place where the candles were — many were lit — and lit two ourselves, praying. Then we walked back down the hill and took another carriage back to the village.

A member of the staff at the Artemis Hotel had told us to look for the Milano restaurant for lunch, and we found it — one of the several restaurants all lined up along the water’s edge running south from the boat dock. Sitting right on the waterside, we had an exceptional lunch of grilled bluefish. Then we walked around the village a bit, making our way to the boat landing, found an ice cream stand whose homemade product was astonishingly good, bought return tickets and took the 3:35 boat back to the city. It was 5:20 by the time we got back, and we walked to the hotel to rest.

At 8:00 Ali called us to let us know that he and Gabi were taking us to “Istanbul’s best restaurant.” We took a taxi to a kebab shop in Sultanahmet just a little way down the street from one of the city’s oldest mosques, where we were met by Ali’s partner, Metin Sidirtmac. To enter, you had to walk down a couple of steps. It was a single small room with a grill built into the wall. There was a counter and a table where the cooks — father and son — were preparing kebabs. Two round knee-high tables for provided for customers. We sat on little reed-seated stools. There were photos on the wall from the town where Ali grew up — Gaziantep — which was where the owner also came from. Jim told Ali if we had to find this place, looking only for Istanbul’s best restaurant, he would have walked past it several times without imagining this was it.

The cook was making kebabs on a charcoal oven in the wall. Ali told us he trims all the fat off the meat so it’s very lean, and took us outside to show us where the fatty scraps had been left for the street cats. The cook makes kebabs from lamb chunks and a kind of sausage meat, nicely spiced. In a few minutes he brought our meal to the table — a huge tray with long oval sheets of bread on the bottom, covered by the two kinds of kebabs plus grilled eggplant, onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers. You tear off a piece of bread, arrange all these things inside, roll it up and eat it. Because you’re sitting so low, it’s easy to sort of hunker over your meal without too much mess. We drank ayran (the standard Turkish drink of yogurt, water and salt), which was perfect with the spicy food. There was also water at the table. The forks were plastic — there’s no place to wash dishes. The owner and his son were busy making more vegetables and kebab and a wonderful salad of chopped tomatoes, parsley and onions with sumak sprinkled over them. He made this on a big thick chopping block that had been used so much it had a well in the center. His knife was a big cleaver. The atmosphere in the place was great.

Ali asked them to play a particular CD of a famous Turkish poet and singer — also from Gaziantep — who had recently died. One of the songs he was singing was a song demanding that America leave Turkey alone. The guys at the next table smiled at us, and we just smiled back, fully agreeing that the world has had more than enough empires.

After a huge meal we walked back to the hotel, passing Constantine’s Column on the way, 35 meters high, standing next to a tram stop. In the fourth century it was the pedestal — at the time even higher — of a large bronze statue of Constantine but this is long gone.

Back at the hotel we sat in the lobby and drank some wine, then Ali suggested we go up on the roof terrace. His partner brought a bottle of Hungarian wine — Black Bull — he had hidden away for a special event and we sat around a table under the stars, watching dozens of birds circle around the lights of the Blue Mosque, drinking wine and telling stories, until about 11:30. Our last night in Istanbul. Perfect.

3 May, Bright Saturday

After packing there was time to visit the Blue Mosque — we had walked past it time and again but never entered — followed by a final cup of tea at the Marmara Café. Then off in Ali’s car to the airport…

Istanbul Journal – Bright Wednesday and Thursday

30 April, Bright Wednesday

We found a fruit and vegetable street market had been set up along the White Moustache Street. On each stand the display of vegetables was a work of art. Then we went to the Museum of Archeology, an amazing collection of ancient pieces beautifully lit and exhibited. The sarcophagi from Sidon were especially amazing, so perfectly preserved, and the large Byzantine collection was also extremely good.

We had tea in the museum’s tea garden, then walked to the crafts center near Hagia Sophia where our kick-boxer waiter, Josh, served us and gave us a piece of marbled paper he had made himself.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a Ministry of Culture shop and bought a silver spoon as a baptismal present for Alexander Bakker, Jim’s latest god-son. His baptism will be this Sunday. From there we headed for the Museum of Mosaics just behind the Blue Mosque where the Great Palace had stood in the Byzantine era. Along the way we stopped to admire a large pilaf platter, beautifully painted. The shop owner came out and offered to sell it for 37 euros, too good a price to refuse. We took it, and the man wrapped it up in bubble wrap for us.

Then we walked to the Museum of Mosaics and admired the beautifully preserved mosaics that had graced the imperial palace. It was thanks to Harry and Lyn Isbell that we had put this on the “must see” list. Harry had written: “It’s amazing what can happen when good taste meets up with unlimited money. Though the mosaics are huge, as would befit an Imperator Deluxe, the museum and its capacity are quite small because one views them from a narrow catwalk built over and around the edges.”

We next walked to the nearby Time Out restaurant for talk with Ozgur over tea — he wanted to discuss his struggle with depression — and then walked back through the street market, where Jim bought prayer beads made of green stone (just over one euro). We went back to the hotel, then spent some time at the Marmara Café where we had apple tea, tried a water pipe (very cool and mild, with an apple flavor), and wrote postcards.

The day ended with dinner at Ali and Gabi’s home. The main dish was some delicious and spicy Hungarian goulash that Gabi had cooked herself. Ali’s business partner was there as well, and a young woman who is a friend of theirs and also works in the hotel business.

1 May, Bright Thursday

Jim’s day started with a long taxi drive to a post office building that handles packages — he had to pick up copies of his Albania book that had been sent by the World Council of Churches. Fortunately one of the hotel staff came with him to help or Jim would still be waiting at one of the many windows to obtain yet another stamp on yet another form. If this is a typical experience of Turkish bureaucracy, one feels immense compassion for the Turkish people. Apart from the time in the taxi, it took about an hour to receive the box of books. There was a 10-million lira payment to be made (about six euros), and the taxi fare coming and going was 20-million. All for eight copies of a book that we had hoped to have waiting for us at the hotel on arrival in Istanbul so that Shannon could take them back to Albania. Now the books will fly back with us to Holland. Mailing anything more substantial than a letter from Istanbul is out of the question.

We walked to the Spice Market where we purchased of Iranian saffron, sweet paprika, cardamon, sumak, dried apple (for making apple tea), and a pound of Turkish delight, then walked across the Galata Bridge, this time on the lower level, where which is filled with shops and fish restaurants. Rather than climb the hill on the other side we took the Tünel (one of Europe’s earliest subways), then took the tram to Taksim Square (full of police because of May Day demonstrations in the area). From there we walked back more or less the same route but with numerous detours, among them a nice visit to the Armenian Church — Holy Trinity — where we were given a warm welcome by a church official complete with tea. We had a light lunch in a restaurant in the Cicik Pasaji; stopped in at the Robinson Crusoe bookshop where we bought a Turkish-language Amsterdam guide book for Ali and Gabi (to make more real our invitation to them to come stay with us sometime in the future) and a copy of Hamlet for Ozgur. We had a first-rate cappuccino at the Pera Palas Hotel (built in 1892 to receive passengers of the Orient Express) but had no encounter with Agatha Chrystie or Graham Greene. It was at the Pera Palas in 1926 that Chrystie started writing Murder on the Orient Express.

We then went down hill on foot from the Galata Tower, walking back across the bridge but this time on the lower southern side, pausing occasionally to watch the many ferries and smaller boats and also admire the many fish restaurants.

Having been at the Pera Palas, we stopped briefly at the train station which is the departure point for the Orient Express, lately revived, Ali tells us. Then another walk through the Topkapi grounds followed by a brief pause at the Time Out Restaurant to give Ozgur his Hamlet. We had a cup of tea with Ali and Gabi on the Artemis roof, giving them both the Amsterdam guide book and Jim’s Albania book, then went out to supper with Ali and Gabi at the Asitane restaurant next to the Chora Church — at last they were our guests…

Istanbul Journal – Bright Monday and Tuesday

28 April, Bright Monday

We agreed with Shannon to do separate things today as this was her last day and she had to find gifts for various people, both relatives and colleagues. We had breakfast, then walked to the outer courtyard of Topkapi Palace. The Archeology Museum was closed but a sarcophagus (early Byzantine?) near the entrance caught our eye with its simple, very sober bas relief of a married couple and their two children. Back in the Topkapi park, we walked over to the executioner’s fountain where swords and hands were washed after beheadings — our joke is that the occasional rude tourist is still dispatched here from time to time. Then we paused to shop in a government-run craft store to buy a few small gifts: a black alabaster cat for Anne, a small copper coffee pot for Cait, a meerschaum pipe for Jim, a leather bag for Nancy. We then went to the café that caught our eye two days earlier, the Cafer Aga Courtyard, in the 16th century a Moslem school, now a school of traditional crafts with an inexpensive restaurant in the center. Our waiter is learning to make marbled paper; he is also a kick-boxer who aspires to Hollywood.

In the afternoon, accepting an invitation from Ali, we drove with him to Eyup, a section of the city on the Golden Horn just beyond the Theodosian walls. After lunch at a beautiful traditional restaurant in which we seem to be the only non-Turks — an inspiring meal — we walked the short distance to the Eyup Mosque, one of the holiest shrines in the Islamic world as one of the principal collaborators of Mohammad is buried there: Eyup Ensari, who took part in the first Moslem siege of Constantinople in the 7th century. When the city finally fell to Mehmet the Conqueror eight centuries later, one of Mehmet’s first actions was find the place where Eyup Ensari was buried and build a mosque and tomb. Most of the people we saw were either locals or pilgrims. There was an intense sense of devotion in the vicinity of the mosque. Both inside and out we were hit by a powerful sense of sacred space. The Dutch and French tour groups that arrived while we were there tended to underscore the inappropriateness of purely secular interest in such an environment. While people nearby were at prayer, the guides were pointing out details in the mosque’s decoration. But soon the two groups were back in their buses and the disruption was over.

We left, deeply moved, and made our way home.

We met Shannon for our last dinner together in Istanbul. We had promised Ozgur that we would have a meal in his restaurant (“If you eat here, you will not be sorry”), and so went to Time Out for a simple meal. Ozgur spent a lot of time with us, talking. He is both shy and eager to talk, an unusual combination. As we left, he asked Jim if we would come back before we left as he wanted to talk to us about something important.

29 April, Bright Tuesday

We had breakfast with Shannon at the Artemis Hotel, then helped get her on the tram to the airport. After seeing her on her way, we stopped at a bookshop and bought Strolling in Istanbul, a thick guide with few pictures but an immense amount of detail, and a well-illustrated Turkish cookbook, as Nancy has taken to Turkish cooking and wants to bring something of Istanbul back to our table in Alkmaar.

Back at the hotel, Ali introduced us to Gabi, his wife, whom he met in Hungary when he had a business there. All four of us drove up the Bosphorus on its European side, stopping at a massive castle built in 1452 by Mahmet II — Rumeli Hisan, also known as the Fortress of Europe — in preparation for the attack on and conquest of Constantinople the following year. Those final months before the city fell its citizens must all have felt like condemned prisoners around whose necks a rope was being slowly tightened. The weakened city fell on the 29th of May after a 54-day siege. Ottoman cannons had carved a huge hole in Theodosius’ walls.

After scaling some of the fortress walls, we drove up to the Bosphorus Bridge and crossed over to the Asian side, driving south with the goal of a late lunch at the Maiden Tower restaurant, a former Istanbul lighthouse which can only be reached by ferry. We then took a much larger ferry that accommodated cars across the Bosphorus to the south shore of the Golden Horn near the Galata Bridge.

That evening we had a light supper at the café near the southwestern edge of the Hippodrome after a young man belonging to the owner’s family came out and gave us his pitch. We went in and had kebabs. Afterward our host sat with us, ordering coffee and baklava as his treat, and told us about what a special restaurant this is. He pointed to a monument by the restaurant entrance that was erected in remembrance of victims of terrorism. His brother was among those who were killed. His father is a political journalist. Everyone working at the restaurant is a member of the family. Our host had studied architecture but now wants to be more politically involved. His family borrowed money from all over to buy the restaurant.

Istanbul Journal – Pascha

27 April – Pascha

We went out for breakfast with Shannon to break the Lenten fast. Shannon, having eaten almost nothing since yesterday afternoon, longed for something resembling an American breakfast, but also didn’t want to spend a lot of money. We searched and searched, asking several people where we could find an American breakfast. One man responded, “But this is Turkey!” Finally we had omelettes at an open-air café called the Dervish near the Blue Mosque.

After breakfast we set off for the Suleymaniye Mosque, widely regarded as Istanbul’s most beautiful mosque. It’s a vast structure that crowns a hill adjacent to Istanbul University just to the northwest of the Grand Bazaar. Along with an associated hospital, school and hospice for travelers, the mosque was built in the 1550s by the famous architect Sinan.

While walking there Jim asked directions of an older man who volunteered to show us the way. We learned he is a Kurdish rug merchant whose home is near the Iraqi border, We stopped for tea at a small street café adjacent to the mosque, inviting the man, Salih Cefin, to sit with us. He accepted, only insisted on paying for the tea, telling us that when he comes to our country we can pay for his tea. After saying goodbye, we entered the mosque, a place as quiet as it is huge. Hundreds of lights are suspended not far above head level giving the impression of a border of light between our ordinary world and the divine presence — something not unlike the iconostasis, except the border here is overhead and horizontal. Like so many mosques in Istanbul, this one clearly drew its architectural inspiration from Hagia Sophia.

Finally we walked around the grounds, then sat in the sun for a while — our first warm day in Istanbul — eating bananas and strawberries that Shannon had just bought from a nearby shop.

Then we headed downhill toward the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn. On the way Shannon stopped to buy some kebab skewers and paused to see a smaller mosque next to the Spice (or Egyptian) Market while we waited for her in the courtyard of the New Mosque facing the Galata Bridge. The square before the mosque was packed with locals and flocks of birds. Not a tourist group in sight! In fact this part of town is a continuous street market, a micro economy in high gear. Shannon came back and we walked across the bridge, watching the people fishing as we made our way towards the Galata Tower, a massive medieval structure put up in 1348 when the Genoese had this patch of the city — their reward for helping end the Latin occupation. The most direct way to the tower requires climbing a long, steep set of stairs.

This is the city’s Beyoglu district whose main street is the Istiklal Caddesi, where there are many fine bookshops. In one of them Jim found a particular guide book — the Istanbul volume in the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide series — he’d been looking for all over the city. We then hailed a taxi and took it to a large modern shopping mall, Akmerkez, near Margo and David’s apartment, a landmark easier for taxi drivers to find than the actual address we were going to. (Ali notes that one need have nothing more than a driving license to drive a taxi in Turkey; no special knowledge of the streets is required. Neither do any drivers we have come upon possess a street atlas.)

The only obvious difference between this shopping mall and similar malls in America is that everyone entering this cavernous building has to be checked as if he were at an airport. The mall has security guards and metal detectors at every entrance. Once admitted we found ourselves in a cathedral of consumer products that’s much more elaborate than anything we’ve seen in the Netherlands. We headed for a supermarket on the third level, as Shannon hoped to find a few things that were unavailable in Tirana, and then called David on Jim’s mobile, who talked us from the mall to their nearby apartment complex.

We found it no easy task getting past the apartment complex’s security guard, a young uniformed woman. Finally Jim called David, who came down to rescue us. Margo and David’s apartment was beautifully decorated for Easter, with an egg tree, carefully laid table and a handsome book of Chora photos that had been opened to the Anastasis icon. There was an older American-Greek couple there, as well as Paul Gikas from the Patriarchate (also American) and his Turkish girlfriend, a beautiful young woman on her way to becoming Orthodox. Diedrich was very happy with all the company and attention.

The meal was exceptional — lamb, spare ribs, chicken, salad, delicious cake. The Turkish wine was excellent. The entire meal was wonderful and the company around the table even better. It was hard to leave, but finally we took a taxi back home and crashed into bed, since our previous night’s sleep had been brief.

Istanbul Journal – Holy Saturday

26 April, Holy Saturday

Shannon came over and we walked toward the Topkapi Palace complex whose many buildings fill the eastern heights of the old city just beyond Hagia Sophia, all within its own set of ancient walls. Before entering the gate we walked along the outside of the wall where we noticed a promising café that doubles as a school of traditional crafts — a place to come back to on another day.

Then we walked down a hill along an appealing narrow street and came upon a small gift shop that was remarkable for the simple fact that the owner didn’t hound us. He quietly read his newspaper, leaving us to gaze in the window. His passivity was so refreshing that we went inside to browse. Nancy ended up buying a scarf and a striped cotton shirt. The owner turned out to be Iranian.

We then walked back along the Topkapi wall past a row of well restored Ottoman wooden houses painted in soft colors, then entered the Topkapi gate.

Just inside the entrance is a large park and just to the left stands Hagia Eirene Church, the same age as Hagia Sophia — sixth century. Both the earlier Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene were destroyed by fire during the Nika Revolt in 532, and both rebuilt at the orders of Justinian. Hagia Eirene — reconsecrated in 537 — means Holy Peace, but it may be that the name of the church refers to one of the saints of the same name, possibly St. Eirene the Great Martyr, executed in Thessalonika in the early fourth century. We have been told that it’s the one ancient church in Istanbul that was never made into a mosque. After the conquest of 1453 the church was placed behind the wall enclosing Topkapi and was turned into an armory.

Now used occasionally as a concert hall, it is otherwise closed, but our guardian angel came to the rescue. We found the custodian and, in exchange for five million lira (about three euros), we were allowed to enter. For at least an hour we had the vast church to ourselves! In a gallery upstairs we recited some prayers for Holy Saturday and read aloud from the Gospel of Matthew. The church’s main surviving decoration is a large mosaic cross in the apse. The original mosaic icons were destroyed not by Moslems but by Christians in the era of iconoclasm. Below the apse, in what would have been the sanctuary, is a synthronon — several tiers of seats in a half circle around the periphery of the apse. The altar is no more, though one can see stones that once served as the altar’s foundation.

Once outside in the park and on our way to the admission gate, we passed one of the many groups of school children waiting to enter the museum. Throughout our time in Istanbul, we passed such groups, many of them in neat school uniforms, who liked to practice their limited English with us. This group was no different. They called out, “Hello!” and Shannon, ever the school teacher, decided to respond. She stood in front of them and said, “What is your name?” That floored them, but one little boy was able to tell her the answer. She talked with them a bit, and then said, “Now I want you to sing me a song,” so they sang a Turkish song for her.

Near the admission gate, we were accosted by a man who wanted to be our guide. Jim engaged him, but soon after entering we realized this was a mistake. The man talked too fast for us to absorb what he was saying, and we could not walk through the exhibit at our own unhurried pace. A lesson learned. If we are to hire a guide again, it will only be after making sure his pace matches ours. After one part of the exhibit — a collection of ornate carriages used by sultans in days gone by and an exhibition of porcelain — Jim released and paid him, and he went off to find other customers. On our own, we paid a second entrance for the harem quarters and joined a group to see this maze of tiled rooms and pavilions, fountains and ponds, where the sultan and his many women, waited upon by slave eunuchs both black and white, once lived a life one can barely imagine.

We had lunch at the little restaurant on a terrace at the far end of the Topkapi grounds, giving us a broad view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Mamara Sea, then left, but not before visiting several more buildings along the way, including one that contains relics of Mohammed, and the Treasury with case after case of diamond and ruby-encrusted objects, among which is the dagger that was the thieves’ goal in the film “Topkapi” and the 86 carat “Spoonmaker’s Diamond” (found uncut in a rubbish heap in the 17th century and traded for three spoons before making its way to the sultan’s hands). None of these famous objects stopped us in our tracks; rather, they made us feel relief not to be drawn to such things. But then in one room we came upon a display case like all the rest except the treasures in this case weren’t gems but relics of John the Baptist’s skull and arm, one of the few major relics in Constantinople that escaped removal by the Crusaders but at last found their way to the sultan. We were staggered. Though taking photos in the Treasury is prohibited, Shannon managed to get a photo of the relics with her digital camera. All of us prayed.

We walked back to the hotel by way of the “White Moustache Street” where a young Kurd named Ozgur, who works at the Time Out Restaurant, invited us in to have tea. Something about his shy manner and quiet eyes made us say yes. We had a long talk with him on the rooftop terrace area of the restaurant. When we left, we promised to come back for a meal after Pascha.

Then we walked back to the hotel (and Shannon to her hostel) and took a nap in preparation for the all-night service. We were awakened at 7:30 by Ali, who had decided to take us to dinner at a restaurant near an ancient aqueduct, to the northwest of the Grand Bazaar, in what was a Moslem medreses — a religious school — founded in the 16th century. Much like a cloister, the rooms surround a paved square with a fountain in the center. We hadn’t planned on an evening meal on Holy Saturday but could not say no. It was a wonderful dinner where we sat on cushions on the floor in a small former classroom, leaving our shoes in a box at the doorway. Ali ordered the food, carefully choosing vegetarian dishes. It was all splendid. Our drink is ayran: salted yoghurt thinned with water. As it was a chilly evening, the waiter lit a fire in a little fireplace. Very cozy.

Before coming to Istanbul we had assumed we would attend the All Night Service at St. George Cathedral, but the crowds last night made us instead opt for a service in a parish church, Holy Archangels, in the more “European” part of the city on the other side of the Golden Horn, the parish of an American couple, David and Margo, with whom we have had contact via e-mail, thanks to a mutual friend. They have also invited us for a Paschal meal at their home Sunday afternoon.

Ali drove us to Margo and David’s apartment, and from there, with their three-year-old son, Diedrich, we drove on to Holy Archangels Church, which we found under police guard. The building wasn’t crowded when we arrived, about 10:30, but by 11 it was packed. At the moment of the Paschal proclamation an hour later we were startled by bomb-like explosions in the upper part of the church. It was ear-splitting and disturbing — we thought the church was under attack, but David assured us this was only a Greek custom. A little later we noticed a couple of young men trailing the smell of gunpowder coming downstairs with big smiles on their faces. We stayed for the liturgy, but not many others did. Where there had been two or three hundred people there were perhaps 20 left in the church. One of them, a young woman, seemed to spend most of the liturgy focused on her mobile phone, either exchanging messages or busy with games. Having received a blessing before the service, we were able to receive Communion. Margo told us the local priests do not encourage frequent Communion — normally only four times a year.

It was an interesting experience, but we did not have the great jubilant sense of Pascha that we have in our own parish in Amsterdam. There were no repeated shouts of “Christ is risen,” no repeated singing of the Paschal hymn, no red eggs, no carefully arranged flower decorations. However, when the priest read St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal sermon, we knew what it was even though it was being read in Greek, the language St. John himself would have spoken, and that was very moving indeed.

Finally, at about 2 in the morning, we took a taxi back to the Sultanahmet and got to bed by about 3:00.

Christos anesti! Christ is risen!

Istanbul Journal – Good Friday

25 April, Good Friday

We had breakfast with Shannon, then walked back to the Hippodrome where we were hounded by postcard sellers and various venders, the first of many similar experiences. We walked through the Blue Mosque courtyard again and went on to Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the world’s largest building for many centuries and still astonishing both inside and out. It is always a stunning experience to see for the first time something that you have only heard about, and perhaps seen pictures of. We had expected to see a great city edifice engulfed by even bigger modern structures, an anachronism and a mosque to boot, with little bits of the Christian past tucked away in corners. But what we saw was an almost pastoral setting, beautiful gardens and the surrounding waters, no other great buildings except the Blue Mosque, which does not conflict with it or overshadow it, and Hagia Sophia rising brick red and solid out of the earth. Only a little of the church’s mosaic iconography has survived but what remains is profoundly impressive. It is not tucked away in corners; you see it immediately as soon as you walk in. Nancy stood in the doorway and wept.

On the gallery on the west side we found the Pantocrator icon that is so often seen in books and postcards but which, even though so familiar, was surprising in its intensity and freshness. Christ’s eyes have the same authority as his spoken word.

After several hours in Hagia Sophia, we went for coffee to a nearby café with many colorful lamps hanging from the ceiling, then took a taxi to the Church of the Savior in Chora (Chora meaning “in the fields”). The church originally stood outside the walls that Constantine erected but is just inside Theodosius’ walls. During the time of Crusader rule, it was the only church in Constantinople where Orthodox Christians were not under Roman domination, though in that period the church was in a badly decayed condition. After the Latin defeat Theodore Metochites, then Prime Minister of the Byzantine Empire, used his wealth to subsidize the church’s restoration during what is known as the Byzantine Renaissance. This included not only repairing the building but commissioning mosaics and frescoes, many of which have survived even though the church had been made into a mosque after the Islamic Conquest. Today it is museum.

Chora’s amazing images remain among the most beautiful treasures of iconography to survive the fall of Byzantium. Perhaps the most stunning is the Anastasis icon filling the apse of a funeral chapel on the west side of the church: Christ effortlessly lifting Adam and Eve from their tombs. In another section of the church there is a complex series of mosaics of events leading up to the birth of Mary and finally Christ’s Nativity. Chora alone is reason enough to come to Istanbul.

We had a good vegetarian lunch at a hotel restaurant — the Asitane — next to the church: our first glimpse of a Turkish cuisine of a level we never imagined existed going by our occasional visits to Turkish restaurants in Alkmaar. A place to return to after Pascha.

We took a taxi to the Grand Bazaar and its adjacent book market. The Grand Bazaar is similar to certain districts of Jerusalem’s Old City, including the experience of many offers to stop and have a cup of tea or coffee. Shannon bought a lacquer box for a friend in Tirana.

From the Bazaar we walked on to a city park close to the Hippodrome where a persistent and rather cunning shoeshine boy tried to get money out of us.

We sat for a while in the sun for awhile, then caught a taxi for the Good Friday service at the Orthodox Patriarchate at the Fener. The taxi driver had a great deal of difficulty finding the place, but — after stopping several times for local help — was at last successful. Entrance to the walled compound requires passing through a police guard and metal detector. Tiny though the Greek community is in modern Istanbul, there are still those who seek the expulsion of all Greeks. Bombs have been exploded here in recent years, while a patriarch was once executed by hanging at the compound gate. The church — St. George’s Cathedral — is surprisingly small, considering that it is the home church of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The building dates from 1710: practically new by local standards.

When we arrived, shortly before the Good Friday service started, not many people were yet present but gradually the church filled up until finally there was an overflow in the courtyard. Most of the crowd seemed to be people who had come by bus from Greece. Patriarch Bartholomeos presided, assisted by six bishops. The icon of the body of Christ was a cloth over which was a canopy covered with white flowers. There was no real procession as we know it (such processions not being permitted in Turkey), but the patriarch and bishops carried the cloth down the aisle and into the courtyard, then back in again, and anyone standing near it tried to reach out and touch it.

We stayed at the church for about two hours, then went to a nearby restaurant for a late dinner made up of vegetarian appetizers. By midnight, having taken a taxi to the square in front of Hagia Sophia, we were back at the hotel after walking Shannon to her hostel.