Impressions of a Canonization

Photos of the canonization: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/164907/

by Nancy Forest

The canonization of Mother Maria Skobtsova and several people closely associated with her was the occasion of a trip to Paris the first weekend of May, 2004, for many members of our Amsterdam parish. It was my first visit to the church on the Rue Daru. The name of the church itself is the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky, but the phrase “Rue Daru” is used far more often. For Orthodox Christians of the Russian tradition in Western Europe, it’s a way of distinguishing a jurisdiction: “our church isn’t Moscow Patriarchate, it’s Rue Daru.” After the Russian Revolution and the civil war that came in its wake, many Russians — including members of the nobility as well as intellectuals — fled to the west. Thousands ended their journey in or near Paris. With the Church in Russia enduring severe persecution, there was a real question as to the connection between this new diaspora church and the Moscow Patriarchate. The church of the emigres appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarch and asked if they, as Russian Orthodox, could be received under his jurisdiction. This change took place, and now the “Rue Daru” church, so very Russian as it is, is still under the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul rather than Moscow.

This was the situation that Mother Maria Skobtsova and Father Dimitri Klepinin found themselves in. Not only that, but over the years, as more and more French people became Orthodox, and more of the Russians became real Frenchmen, a stressful situation developed between the Russian and the “French” parts of the congregation. The solution was to split the church, with the Russians having Slavonic service upstairs (where the canonization took place) and the French having services in French in the lower church (known among European Orthodox simply as The Crypt). This situation still stands.

This is important background information, and I think it was partly because I knew this that the canonization service struck me so profoundly.

The cathedral is a beautiful building. It’s often included among guidebook sites — one of the spots even a non-Orthodox visitor might wish to see in this part of Paris. According to the guide book Jim and I had with us, it was built in 1861, “designed by members of the St. Petersburg Fine Arts Academy and financed jointly by Tsar Alexander II and the local Russian community.”

The iconography reminded me very much of the work of the 19th-century Russian itinerant painters and iconographers, especially Vasnetsov. These were men who painted ordinary Russians — peasants, women, children — in a very compelling, compassionate way, a style which carried over into their icons. So even though the inside of the cathedral is quite splendid, there is something almost homely about the way it is decorated, something very human and solid. There are two large painted panels on either side of the church — one of Christ preaching from a boat on the Sea of Galilee to a great crowd of people, the other of Christ walking on the water, a small haloed figure in the moonlight moving across a vast expanse of water, and in both you sense that this is Christ of the people, the ordinary people. I have a feeling Mother Maria must have felt very much at home in this place, and that it may even have helped stir her feelings of great compassion for ordinary people.

We attended both the Saturday evening Vespers, which began with a panikhida — a final memorial service for those soon to be recognized as saints — and the Sunday Liturgy. The services were long, but no longer than you would expect for something of this magnitude in the unhurried Russian tradition.

In addition to the services themselves there were other things that struck meeven though we were “upstairs” in the Russian Church, there was a blend of French and Russian used throughout both services. (We spoke with a friend later on, the wife of a French priest, who said this has to be regarded as one of Mother Maria’s miracles.)

The archbishop for the Ecumenical Patriarchal Russian church in Western Europe, Archbishop Gabriel, is from Flanders, and his mother tongue is neither Russian nor French but Flemish. He conducted the service mainly in Slavonic and preached in French. We know him from years ago when he was the priest of the Russian church in Maastricht here in the Netherlands. (When I went up for the blessing during the Vespers service he smiled at me and said “Christus is opgestaan!”, the Easter greeting in Dutch.) Celebrating with him was Bishop Basil of Sergievo of the Moscow Patriarchate in Great Britain (successor to Metropolitan Anthony Bloom). Bishop Basil is an American but has lived in England for 35 years. So standing there in the center of that staunchly Russian church were two Western bishops. On the other side of Archbishop Gabriel was Bishop Silouan, who is serving the Romanian church in Western Europe.

Also present was Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris, who was given a seat of honor in front of the iconostasis. Cardinal Lustiger was a dual representative at the canonization, not only of the Catholic Church but also of the Jewish community, since he is a convert from Judaism and always identifies himself as a Jew. He was born in Paris of Polish Jewish parents. When the Germans occupied the city he was sent to live with a Christian family and was baptized in 1940. His parents were both deported, and his mother was killed in Auschwitz. So this service, and the nature of the martyrdom of Mother Maria, Father Dimitri, Yuri Skobtsov and Ilya Fondaminsky must surely have meant a great deal to him.

We also noticed a very old, white-haired woman on the other side of the church — she had been provided with a chair and given a place of honor — and were later told that she was a fellow prisoner in Ravensbrück with Mother Maria and was with her until the end.

The church gradually filled to overflowing during both services. It must have taken nearly an hour to serve Communion.

Both the cathedral choirs provided music — the Russian choir and the French choir — and they switched back and forth. This meant that neither choir became exhausted, and the singing continued at the same glorious level all the way through both services. So here, again, was another sign of reconciliation — the Russian and the French choirs, singing together.

There were many priests involved in the services, but the most visually interesting was Father Serge Hackel. Father Serge wrote the book Pearl of Great Price, the story of Mother Maria, and it is partly due to his work that the life of Mother Maria became known to so many people in the West.

Father Serge was wearing an old, tattered, faded vestment of coarse fabric, obviously hand-embroidered. There’s a vestment with a story, I said to myself. Later on we discovered that this was a vestment Mother Maria herself had embroidered by hand for Father Dimitri. (We recalled that Mother Maria wrote with disdain about nuns who do nothing but embroider vestments for the clergy; so much for saintly consistency.)

After the Liturgy we met Father Serge out in the church parking lot, carrying his vestments in a plastic bag. Jim asked him if he could take a picture of the vestment, and he was only too happy to oblige. Then we asked if we could touch it, realizing instantly that this was a relic. He told us how he came to have this vestment. In 1967, a German film crew had come to Paris to do a film based on Fr. Serge’s biography of Mother Maria. At rue de Lourmel, in a room that served as the chapel vestry, Fr. Serge discovered vestments Mother Maria had made. Due to moth damage they were soon to be burned, he was told. Instead they were entrusted to Fr. Serge’s care and have since been repaired.

The high point of the canonization service occurred Saturday evening when the icons of the new saints were brought out. I knew this was going to happen, but I had no idea how strong the impact would be. There were actually five saints who were canonized, shown on two icons. One was an icon of Father Alexis d’Ugine Medvedkov, a Russian priest who worked in France after the Russian Revolution in great obscurity and humility; when his remains were unearthed they were discovered to be incorrupt. The other icon was of the martyrs Father Dimitri Klepinin, Mother Maria, Yuri, Skobtsov (Mother Maria’s son), and Ilya Fondaminsky, a Russian Jewish intellectual who was baptized after his arrest by the Nazis. [The icon plus two others are on the OPF website. Also on the site are articles about St. Dimitri, St. Ilya and St. Alexis. See St. Maria Skobtsova]

Many members of Father Dimitri’s family were at the services: his daughter Helene Arjakovsky and four of Helene’s children. Her daughter Tanya, Father Dimitri’s granddaughter, is a member of our parish in Amsterdam and is married to Deacon Hildo Bos. Tanya told us she and her mother felt as if they had been taken out of themselves, the services were so beautiful; they had to pinch themselves to make sure they were really awake. (Helene’s collection of essays — Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings — was recently published in English translation by Orbis Books.)

We were also happy to meet Father Paul Schroeder and Elizabeth and their two children at the canonization. The Schroeders had come all the way from California. After the Liturgy, we went to a small flat they had rented and went out to lunch with Elizabeth and Zachary (who, he told me proudly, is seven).

After visiting with the Schroeders we did something we had very much wanted to do — went on a pilgrimage to 77 Rue de Lourmel, once site of the house hospitality Mother Maria founded. It took some navigating by metro, but finally we found the place — a very ordinary Paris street, it was raining slightly, and once we got there we found that Mother Maria’s building was gone. In its place was a modern block of flats. But at the building’s entrance we discovered that someone had put up a white marble plaque with gold letters, explaining that this had been the place where Mother Maria and Father Dimitri had done their good work and saved the lives of many Jews, and that they had been killed by the Nazis. So even though the building is gone, they are commemorated on the streets of Paris to this day.

Nancy Forest-Flier is a translator and editor living in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

Photos of the canonization: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/164907/

Between Constantinople and Istanbul

Istanbul faces

This is the journal Nancy and I kept during a ten-day stay in Istanbul in 2003. Some of the photos taken in that period are here:

24 April 2003, Holy Thursday

Are we in Istanbul? Or Constantinople? Winston Churchill had no doubt it was the latter. As he wrote in a memo to the Foreign Office on the 23rd of April 1945: “I do not consider that names that have been familiar for generations in England should be altered in England to study the whims of foreigners living in those parts. Where the name has no particular significance, the local custom should be followed. However, Constantinople should never be abandoned, though for stupid people Istanbul may be written in brackets after it…”

We will however tilt toward the whims of the foreigners living in those parts and opt for Istanbul.

We arrived at Ataturk Airport at about 3:00 and had to pay 10 euros for an entrance visa (while those with US passports are required to pay a whopping $100). Ali Gulkaynak, manager of the Artemis Hotel where we will be staying, was there to meet us. Ali is a friend of Beth Forest, Jim’s niece, who put us in touch with him and spoke of him in glowing terms. Ali drove us back to the hotel in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Along the way we passed by many kilometers of ancient city wall erected in the age of Emperor Theodosius II (405-450). They withstood many sieges before a breach was made by Crusaders in 1202. In 1261 Constantinople was retaken by the Byzantines, though the city — stripped of every treasure — never recovered from its occupation by the Latins. Then in May 1453 Mehmet the Conqueror smashed though the walls and Byzantium, by then only a shadow of what it had been, gave up the ghost.

The Artemis Hotel proved to be a very attractive place, a modest size, slightly off the streets frequented by tourists. From the terrace on the top of the hotel we had an amazing view — the Blue Mosque with its six minarets above us, the blue Sea of Marmara below. Under the watchful eye of several mothers, children were playing in the street below. We unpacked and freshened up, then went for a walk with Ali.

Our route took us through the Hippodrome, on the north side of the Blue Mosque, where Ali explained the various monuments around which charioteers once raced. First (on the west end) was the column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, still called the Brazen Column, though the Crusaders stripped its bronze covering eight centuries ago. Next there was the Serpentine Column, made in 479 BC and originally placed in Delphi — one of many ancient monuments Constantine ordered brought to the new capital of the Roman Empire. Then, in the center of the Hippodrome, the most impressive monument of all, an Egyptian obelisk now 3500 years old, selected by Constantine to symbolize where the center of the world was now located. The base set up to hold the obelisk was carved on all sides with images of Constantine presiding at games in the Hippodrome. The stadium itself, said to have held up to 100,000 people, is long gone, though the roadway around the Hippodrome follows the route of the chariots. But many of the treasures that once were here have vanished. These include the famous four bronze horses now at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.

It was here that the Nika Riot exploded in 532. Before it was over many of city’s buildings were destroyed, including a smaller Hagia Sophia, at the east end of the Hippodrome, and large parts of the Great Palace, where the Blue Mosque now stands. It was here that, when Justinian’s troops struck back at the rioters, 35,000 were killed.

We next walked into the courtyard of the Blue Mosque, an enclosed square of calm and beauty with a fountain in its center. We noticed an old man with a white beard and kindly face, sitting on the steps to one side, knitting. He gave Jim permission to take his photos (Ali acting as translator). Smiling warmly he showed us some of what he had been knitting: a whole cloth bag full of hats and children’s booties. Ali bought a cap.

Then we walked out of the courtyard and there in front of us we saw Hagia Sophia for the first time, a red building made even redder by the setting sun. Breathtaking!

Ali, having to return to the hotel, pointed the way to a money changer on the main avenue — Divanyolou Caddesi — where we exchange euros for Turkish lira. One euro equaled more than 1,700,000 lira. At long last we are millionaires! Afterward we stopped at the small shop of a local art dealer and bought an Islamic miniature of Noah’s Ark ($30). Instead of a halo, a design of red flames surrounds Noah’s head. The background, icon-like, is of gold leaf.

We walked back to the hotel and went across the street to the Marmara Café, which Ali had briefly shown us before we had walked up to the Hippodrome. Exotic, ornately decorated water pipes lined the front window. There was the faint smell of sweet tobacco. It seemed at first to be an all-male hangout, but then we noticed women and children among the clientele. The back part of the café is a broad open porch with a sweeping view of the Sea of Marmara. We had tea while watching a procession of ships, some about to enter the Bosphorus, others exiting.

At about 7:00 our friend Shannon Robinson, just arrived from Albania, was brought over by Ali. She comes from Chicago but for the past five months has been principal of a newly opened primary school in Tirana founded by the Orthodox Church of Albania. She had tea with us, then we all went back to the hotel for a vegetarian supper. We agreed to meet for breakfast at the hotel the next day, then walked the short distance to her hostel, the Sinbad (its slogan: “world peace is inevitable”).

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.

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!

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.

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.

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…

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.)

St George monastery from the air

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.

image of St George on the side of the monastery

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…

* * *

addendum re St George Monastery

http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/04/muslims-who-venerate-saint-george.html

April 12, 2011

Muslims Who Venerate Saint George

by William Gourlay / Eureka Street

On an island known to the Greeks as Prinkipo, Ayshe Özakcam spends six months of the year attending a small stall beside a steep cobbled path. She sells home-grown plums, and apples, which she peels and quarters deftly with a sharp knife, to pilgrims passing en route to the Orthodox Church of Ayios Giorgios (St George) on the summit of the island.

What is intriguing about this is not that Ayshe ekes out a living by selling apples, or that she sits all day in the full glare of the Mediterranean sun, but that she is a Muslim, that the island is off the coast of Istanbul, the great Turkish metropolis, and that the majority of visitors to the Orthodox church are in fact Ayshe’s fellow Turks.

Ayshe sees nothing remarkable in this. She doesn’t appear to dwell on the faith or motivations of those puffing past her up the hill. When I ask her who the most common visitors are here she can’t answer definitively. ‘Greek, Turks,’ she shrugs. ‘Everybody!’

On the day of my visit, in late summer, she may not be far wrong. On the island (called Büyükada by the Turks), I encounter well-healed Istanbul locals, Turkish matriarchs in headscarves and dour gabardines, a black-garbed Greek widow, and a gaggle of Iranian tourists who offer around pistachios.

But the busiest day of the year is St George’s Day, April 23, when Turks come by the thousands, taking advantage of the fact that the date coincides with a national public holiday, Independence Day. Crowding onto ferries in Istanbul, they arrive on Büyükada early in the morning, Muslim pilgrims en route to a Greek Orthodox church to ask favours of St George.

‘The path to the monastery is packed with bodies,’ recalls long-term Turkish resident and journalist Pat Yale of her visit on St George’s Day last year. A festive air reigns. At the base of the hill pilgrims buy charms and trinkets designated for whatever they may be praying for: health, love, marriage, children. ‘People unspool cotton along the lower slopes,’ says Pat, ‘and some hand out cubes of sugar.’

These are Muslim customs; cotton threads in white, red or green signify wishes for peace, love or money; the sharing of sugar and sweets is characteristic of Turkish hospitality and communal gaiety.

At the top of the hill pilgrims bustle forward to be allowed into the church in small groups where, with hands upturned in an attitude of prayer, they pass slowly before Greek icons and place handwritten entreaties to St George in a wish box. Outside again they form an orderly queue to be blessed by an Orthodox priest and then proceed on their way.

But aren’t the Greeks and Turks mortal enemies? Isn’t their mutual antagonism prima facie evidence of the ‘clash of civilisations’, the incompatibility of Muslim and Christian cultures? On the face of this, perhaps not. No one is sure when the Muslim practice of venerating St George began, but it is well documented.

In the early 1900s, Edith Durham encountered Albanian Sufis who observed St George’s feast day. In his much-lauded travelogue, From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple tells of Palestinian Muslims crowding into a musty Church of St George near Jerusalem. These are just a few of countless instances of Muslim-Christian symbiosis throughout the Balkans and the Levant.

After enjoying one of Ayshe’s tart apples, I continue up the path towards the church, enjoying sweeping views of the Sea of Marmara and the Asian and European shores of Istanbul. Along the route, remnant cotton threads linger on the trunks of scrubby oak and pine trees, and votive rags flutter from the branches of wild olives.

The church itself is not of architectural note, but it too offers panoramic views. Nearby the Turks have, perhaps inevitably, built a teahouse and restaurant. The site seems quintessentially Mediterranean to me, combining the Greek genius for building places of worship in remote locales with the Turkish predilection for tea and other such sedate pleasures in picturesque landscapes.

A Turkish teahouse abutting a Greek church, and Muslim pilgrims receiving blessing from Orthodox priests strike me as powerful evidence that civilisations do not inevitably clash, that where faiths meet the result need not be a tussle whereby one must cancel the other out. Through long interaction and mutual respect, cultures can fuse and meld, adopting and adapting from each other.

St George, the ‘warrior saint’, may be puzzled by all of this. Known for smiting the dragon he offered inspiration to belligerent Crusaders, but for countless years on Büyükada he has brought members of different faiths together. On April 23rd, as at many times during the year, their prayers in different languages will again intermingle and rise heavenwards.

* * *

Right Where I’m Standing

Nancy Forest (phot by Jim Forest)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 to me 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 i 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 at the church entrance 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 an implicit fear that a purely “religious” Mass by its very nature neglected the need for justice.

We decided to switch parishes, 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, another nearby parish, 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) had soured on church entirely. Then something happened that signaled 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 Melkite priest we had met at the Institute examined the icon and guessed it was several centuries old and had probably 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)

Saying Yes

Nancy holding a scan of her relocated kidney a few days after the transplant

by Nancy Forest

These are extracts from the journal I started in the Fall of 2007, shortly before one of my kidneys was transplanted into my husband Jim’s body. The entire journal, with entries made by both of us, is available in our blog, A Tale of Two Kidneys, at: http://ataleof2kidneys.blogspot.com/

October 24: What goes into making a decision like this, to offer a vital organ to someone?

It took me a long time. Several years ago, when Jim first learned that dialysis was in his future, the idea of a kidney transplant didn’t really hit me. Each time he went to the hospital for tests, we were apprehensive, then relieved to hear that his kidneys were still on the positive side. Then about twenty-one months ago the doctor told Jim he had crossed the line. Dialysis began the next day. From that day onward, Jim was at the local hospital three times a week for three-hour sessions of dialysis.

At first I reasoned that I couldn’t even begin to consider myself a possible donor because, self-employed people that we are, we simply couldn’t afford for me to be unable to work for what might be an extended period. In my darker moments, I imagined the possibility of being bedridden for months, weakened by the loss of the kidney, unable to do any translation work.

In May of 2006, a Canadian woman we had met at a conference amazed us with the offer to donate a kidney to Jim. We were touched and thrilled. She made contact with the transplant people at our hospital in Amsterdam, and they approved her offer. But some months later other factors in her life made it impossible for her to go through with it.

At that point I began to rethink my hesitations. Doing a lot of internet investigation, I learned that kidney donation is only very rarely debilitating. In fact it was more than likely that I wouldn’t be out of commission for long.

Such research is helpful and the internet makes it easy. But research isn’t the same thing as saying yes. You have to reach a certain point when you sit down, open your mouth, and say the words, “I want to donate a kidney to you.”

Recently people have told me how brave I’m being, but believe me, the bravest part of this whole process is just saying those words, getting yourself to that point where you overcome all your excuses and fears.

I kept thinking of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, who finally makes the decision to carry the ring in order to destroy it in Mount Doom. He must make this decision on his own, and when he finally says, “I’ll carry the ring,” he becomes the organizing principle for the entire story.

I have always believed that Tolkien was very deliberate in naming Frodo, and that his name could easily fit into the long etymological entry for the word “free” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Frodo – one who acts out of freedom.

Freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever you feel like if it’s in your interest, because sometimes you do things that you think are in your interest only to discover later on that you did them under some kind of compulsion – peer group pressure, fear of rejection, fear of loss. Acting under compulsion isn’t freedom. But acting out of love, sometimes doing something that’s downright dangerous, is what freedom truly is. (Interestingly enough, the word “free” and the word “beloved” and “friend” are related, as the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear.)

So I said yes. And when I did, I suddenly felt as if all the winds were blowing in the right direction, as if I had made a free decision that was somehow in line with a kind of cosmic truth. I realized that for all the months that I had been saying I couldn’t donate a kidney due to economic worries, I had made myself responsible for a kind of self-wrought logical argument that had to be constantly reinforced with my own insistence in order to stay in place. But the yes floated freely. The yes was borne up by something beyond me and my own logical arguments.

This is not to say that the coming days will be easy or that I feel confident and fearless. I’m still apprehensive. When I think about the operation, now only a week away, I feel my heart beating faster and my breathing becoming shallower. But I wouldn’t go back on this decision for anything in the world.

October 29: Yesterday, directly after the Liturgy, Fr. Sergei anointed us in preparation for the surgery just two days away. The anointing reminded me of our marriage in the church, a similar sense of standing in a zone of pure grace.

November 3: Yesterday – two days after the kidney transplant – was our 25th anniversary, Jim’s 66th birthday.

Jim is going great guns. He was doing e-mail the day after the operation.

In the evening, Dan, Wendy, Cait and Björn came to celebrate both the anniversaries plus the transplant. Having just decorated it, they brought me by wheel-chair down to Jim’s room. Dan took pictures and Jim showed a sonogram of his new (my old) kidney. All the indications are that the transplant was a complete success. Jim’s godson Silouan came, too, with Leonidas chocolates to pass around. Wendy brought a huge fruit basket. We’ve never had a party quite like this before!

Now that I can walk, the nurse said I would be able to go home tomorrow.

November 6: The transplant was a week ago today. I’m not yet up to spending a lot of time behind the computer, but I’m home. The plan is to veg happily and watch movies with the kids, which I think I’ll be able to stand for about a week.

November 10: It’s ten days after the operation. I’m finally beginning to feel enough energy to write. What I hadn’t realized – and should have, of course – is that along with my kidney Jim now has truckloads of energy, whereas I have to be very conservative about everything I do so I don’t wear myself out. My operation took twice as long as Jim’s, and recovery takes longer. In fact I don’t mind gliding around the house in slow motion. I had planned beforehand to take all of November off, so I don’t feel compelled to get back to work. I’m deep into the Harry Potter novels, which I’d never been able to read until now.

The post-surgery pain is over. I can easily get in and out of bed, up and down stairs. It no longer hurts to laugh or cough or sneeze. If I lift a frying pan, I can feel a kind of pressure in the wound area, but no pain. But moving around too much makes me feel a little dizzy.

My project now is to recover my strength and to try to grasp what I’ve done. The spiritual, psychological and physical hurdle of deciding to donate a kidney – and then actually doing it – is something that requires an enormous effort. Maybe that’s also contributing to the fatigue. I never had any doubts before the operation, but I remember a lot of anxiety. I also remember telling myself, “You’ll be glad you did this, and if you don’t you’ll kick yourself forever.” The night before we left for Amsterdam, I jokingly said to Jim, “Me and my big mouth,” but that’s really it – me and my big mouth. When I see him so glowing with energy, and not troubled by the terrible morning coughs that used to exhaust him, “me and my big mouth” takes on a whole different meaning.

November 24: Yesterday we celebrated Thanksgiving. There were ten of us around the table. It was glorious. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to manage such a feast this year, so soon after the transplant. I’m not supposed to carry anything heavy, which includes the turkey, and I’m not supposed to overexert myself. But nobody wanted to skip it, especially not this year when we’ve just come through such an intense family experience and everyone has so much to be thankful for. Cait took a day off work and organized the dinner, Anne picked up the turkey from the butcher, and everybody pitched in with the cooking and clean-up.

My mother said grace. It was hard for her to get through the tears. We loaded up our plates and sat around the living room together. Dan kept everyone laughing, as usual, and Kylie read us a Maori children’s story.

Jim told me later he has never in his life felt such a prolonged and intense sense of gratitude as he had since the transplant.

I’m grateful he’s feeling so well, grateful to all the kids for their amazing support and help all through this, grateful to the medical community both in Amsterdam and Alkmaar, for their constant care, grateful to Dr. Idu (our surgeon, whose skill is something we’ll take with us all our lives), to our friends for their cards, e-mails, phone calls and visits, to the church, both in Amsterdam and all over the world, for praying for us, for Fr. Sergei and Fr. Mel for bringing us Holy Communion, and for my translation clients who have been so patient during all this. But mostly I’m grateful to the mysterious God who gave me the opportunity to give this gift. It was the most difficult thing I have ever been called to do, and it’s almost as if my whole life had served as a period of preparation.

I am daily discovering how the transplant is affecting my sense of who I am and where I’m going. It is immensely humbling.

December 3: At last yesterday we were able to return to church. The welcome was remarkable, even from people whom we had never had occasion to speak with in the past (keep in mind that in recent years ours has become a large parish, with several hundred people present each Sunday). One of the women who speaks only Russian embraced us and, with many joyful exclamations, spoke to us at length. We understood hardly a word, but felt showered in love. An Eritrean woman who also speaks very little Dutch did the same in her native language.

December 12: It’s six weeks since the transplant. Most of the time I don’t even think about it any more. I can’t feel a thing, and the periods of fatigue have passed.

Last Wednesday we went into Amsterdam to attend our daughter Wendy’s graduation from the University of Amsterdam, where she received her Master’s Degree with glowing praise for a thesis on George Orwell. The celebration went on until late at night. We got home at midnight. I don’t think we would have been any less tired if we hadn’t had the transplant.

I’m back at work. I’ve alerted my translation clients that all is well, and the assignments have started to come in.

Life goes on. The big event, which I had been awaiting with quite some apprehension, is passed. All is well. Even the scars are barely visible.

And yet…

And yet there was that thing I did. There was that yes. There was that “fiat.”

When we returned to church the Sunday before last, it happened to be a Sunday with a guest priest assisting in the sanctuary, Fr. Stephen Headley, archpriest of the Russian Orthodox church in Vezelay, France. He preached a sermon on the Mother of God, and he told us that her life is the model of how we should live out the gospel. “Fiat” is the Latin translation of what she said at the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel came to her – let it be done according to your word. She was not a deus ex machina, handily inserted at the right moment to make sure the prophecies were fulfilled. No one said a word to her about prophecies. Gabriel simply explained the situation to her, and she said yes.

I spent many hours of my recovery time reading all seven of the Harry Potter books. One of the main themes is the futility of prophecies. In her creation of a world of witches and wizards, Rowling wanted to make it clear that she was not interested in having her plot hinge on the magical fulfillment of a prophecy. She has little patience with fortune-telling. The one teacher at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft who is responsible for teaching the prophetic arts is depicted as a well-meaning but ridiculous fraud whom no one takes seriously. In the end, Harry is not the victim of a prophecy but the hero of his own freely made decision to act out of love.

Before the transplant, during the early stages of the selection process when I was still undergoing test after test to see if I was a worthy donor candidate, I was asked to meet with the hospital social worker. We talked for about a half hour, maybe longer, and basically what she wanted to know was whether I was being coerced or guilt-tripped into offering my kidney. Donations made under pressure are not accepted. Only those who offer their kidney freely can get past the AMC social worker. This is as it should be.

After having said her yes, the Mother of God – as St. Luke relates it – sings a hymn of thanksgiving, the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

What is she giving thanks for? For the fact that “henceforth all generations will call me blessed,” that her future reputation is secured? For having been chosen to be the Birthgiver of the Savior, for having won a cosmic sweepstakes? Or was she thankful for having been given the opportunity to make the decision in the first place, thankful for having been so fully challenged, thankful that God drew forth from her the full strength of her humanness, thankful that God put her in a place where she was required to fight her fears and to make a decision that was not based on what her friends might do, or what her parents might want, or what “common sense” informed by popular culture might instruct. Her yes was uttered from a deep trust that God would be with her, that her will and God’s will were aligned. This is really beyond obedience, because she didn’t surrender her will to God. She was not a victim of some almighty and unavoidable power. She decided to sing in God’s key, as it were, because she knew that it was the key of truth and love.

When you sing in that key, even if only for a moment, things can never be the same. That’s what I feel right now, even as the scars are fading.

* * *

When you’re smiling — the transplant, one year on

Nancy with granddaughter Lux

by Nancy Forest

Yesterday it was one year since the transplant, and we went out to our favorite Alkmaar restaurant to celebrate. We began talking about what it had been like one year before — coming out of the anesthesia, trying to eat a little bouillon — and my strongest memory was of just lying there in my hospital room, fresh from the operation, with a smile on my face. There was a purity of happiness during those days that still makes me smile.

What was it about that happiness that was so pure and joyful? At first I thought it was simply a matter of coming out of major surgery and knowing that I was still alive and that nothing had gone wrong, that all the weeks and months of stress and anxiety were over. But it was more than that. I’ve been deeply relieved before (when the SATs were over, for instance, or when I got my driver’s license), but I didn’t find myself just lying in bed with a smile of pure happiness. Then I thought it had to do with the joy of giving, the feeling you have when you give someone a big present, when you make a grand gesture. I’ve done that before, too, and it does make you feel good. But if you examine your good feelings about making grand gestures, there’s always that nagging sense that you’ve done the thing partly out of a sense of egoism — if I make this gesture, people will nod and say, “How generous she is.” Even if you don’t act from such a motivation, it’s always there, muddying up the waters.

But this was pure. There was no mud in the waters at all. I can’t remember when I’ve ever felt a happiness like this. And I think it has less to do with the gesture itself, the gift, than with happiness at having been given the opportunity to make the gesture in the first place. Before the operation I didn’t feel it so intensely. I remember at the beginning, when I first offered to give my kidney, how thrilled I was to learn that our blood types were the same, and with every test I was equally glad to learn that no problems or anomalies had been found. But there was a complexity of other feelings, too: anxiety about the operation, about how it would affect me to have only one kidney, about how long it would take to recover. I had crossed the threshold and had said my yes, but I still felt that I was moving relentlessly towards a great unknown.

Last night during dinner Jim and I talked about what it had been like the day before the operation, when we were being prepped in the hospital. Neither one of us was nervous. We remembered taking the early morning train to the AMC with our packed bags, traveling first class (which we rarely do), smiles all over our faces. At that point you’ve placed yourself into other hands — the hospital is waiting for you, the bed is ready, the surgeon has you down on his list and all you have to do is show up. Early the next morning, just before the operation, the nurse asked if I would like a pill to calm me down, and even though I didn’t feel apprehensive, my legs were shaking uncontrollably and I said yes. It was half of a little blue pill, and it was very effective. I don’t remember being wheeled into the operating room at all. By the time I got there I was out cold. Several weeks after the operation, a translation colleague who also works as an OR nurse at the AMC sent me an e-mail in which she said she had seen my name on the daily operation roster. She told me she had come up to my bed in the recovery room and quietly said, “Nancy,” and that I had opened my eyes and given her a “lovely smile” and gone right back to sleep. I don’t remember this.

The happiness of having been given the opportunity to do something out of love. That’s what it is. It’s gratitude. It’s gratitude that everything just happened to turn out right: the right blood types, the right tissue matches, the right outcomes on all the tests. It’s gratitude that the medical people in Alkmaar and Amsterdam were all so kind and supportive, and so incredibly skilled. But it’s also gratitude for the strength to cross the line to yes. Freedom is a very mysterious thing. Acting in freedom is not acting in a vacuum. Every yes or no we utter is the product of a lifetime of being exposed to examples, of being taught certain things and of having been loved — or not. Yet each yes or no is not predetermined by these things, and we’re responsible for every decision we make. We’re not doomed by our past to make decisions in a certain way, nor can we get away with taking the easy way out and pointing to our past as the rationale. Contexts are terribly important, and it’s important to give your children good examples and to tell them stories of courage and selflessness. Yet every yes or no we say is uttered, as it were, in eternity, and though it may be shaped by the past, it’s not inevitable. “Love without freedom is slavery,” said our friend Fr. Meletios Webber. Gestures of love must be made in freedom. And to be given the opportunity to make such a gesture is a great thing.

I think that’s what the smile was all about.

* * *

Advent and Groundhog Day

by Nancy Forest-Flier

The odd thing about Advent (I realize after have gone through forty-some of them) is that it’s a combination of the thrillingly unknown and the utterly predictable. It’s as exciting as the little paper doors and windows that our children open each day in the new Advent calendar; it’s as known and familiar as the words to the Advent songs that we can easily sing from memory. And somewhere in between these two extremes lies the meaning of Advent, its significance for us.

Advent is a season on the church calendar. It’s a specific period of time through which we must pass before we reach Christmas. It’s there for a reason. In times past, Christians fasted through Advent the way they fasted through Lent (in the Orthodox church this is still the case) because the church recognized that we need long preparatory periods in order to fully understand the major feasts. Advent, with its fresh newness and its comfortable sameness, is something we need to pass through. Why?

In my mind, these two aspects of Advent are like the front and back doors of the same house. Say it’s your house, and it’s during the weeks before Christmas. The front door is the door you decorate for the holidays. You’ve hung out a wreath, maybe you’ve strung up some Christmas lights. When Christmas comes your guests will enter through this door. They’ll be smiling, bearing gifts, maybe food, and you’ll open the door to welcome them. Who’s coming this year? Some of the people who come to your door may be invited; some may show up unexpected and surprise you. There may even be old friends who you haven’t seen for years. Christmas is that kind of event; it’s the time for visiting, for surprises.

Advent literally means the arrival of someone who is awaited. It’s a happy linguistic accident that advent and adventure are sister words in English, because it’s easy to see the adventure in waiting for the unknown. We are standing at the front door of our house and waiting for the arrival of Christ, and this always makes us happy because we know that Christ came to save us. We know how the story will end. We know that the church will be established and that the saints will be victorious. In fact, we know this so well that it tends to take the adventure out of Advent.

But during the first Advent, of course, the adventure was there in all its terrifying, harsh, bewildering reality. Mary was visited by an angel and waited for her baby to be born, not knowing what kind of life her son would lead or what kind of an impact it would have on her. The pregnancy burst in upon her and imposed a new direction on her life. All she knew was that she was bearing the Messiah, the Long-Awaited One. The rest was pure adventure.

I thought about this aspect of Advent a great deal in the early spring of 1993, when I went through a short pregnancy of my own. It lasted ten weeks and ended abruptly in miscarriage. It was not a planned pregnancy and our children (most of them teenagers) were both excited and embarrassed. (Gee, this is great. But really, Mom, don’t you think you’re a little — old?). As soon as the presence of a new baby became an established fact we began to talk about how we could fit another person into the family. We have little room in our small house for another child. Where would he sleep? I am running a translating and editing business from our home which accounts for a large share of the family income. How would I continue working? As the weeks passed we all realized that life as we knew it would never be the same. But in what way? Who could know?

As we continued on with the pregnancy some interesting things happened. We found that we were touching lives in a way we may never have done before. A dear friend, whose partner had recently died of AIDS, called me up just to put his heart at rest; with tears in his voice, he said he just wanted to be sure that we knew what the risks were, that we knew that children born to middle-aged parents have a higher likelihood of having medical problems. We assured him that we were aware of the risks, and he told us he was going to keep praying for us, and that he admired our courage. (But truly, it did not feel like courage to me. It felt frightening and confusing. What was going to happen to us?) A young woman friend, a doctor, sat on our couch in awe as we explained that we had refused amniocentesis because it seemed pointless; we would go ahead with the pregnancy no matter what the outcome. “I have never heard anyone like you before,” she said to us gratefully. (And I never had either. It seemed like everything I was doing was new. There were no precedents, no assurances.)

I recall only one day, early in the pregnancy, when I was unable to sleep because of fears about the future. And at breakfast, when I told my husband, he said to me, “You know, I figure all the plans we had made for our life before this are nothing but smoke. They’re all dreams. But this – this is reality. This is what our life looks like.” And that helped me embrace the adventure. I remember the weeks that passed after that as a time of deep peace, not because I had been assured of the future but because I was willing to live with enormous, unsettled questions. And when the miscarriage occurred we didn’t really know how to feel. Relieved? Sad? A little of both.

Passing through Advent gives us a chance to recognize that life often consists of cataclysmic interruptions, and that we have to stand at our front door and let in whoever’s coming. Indeed, it is this attitude of expectation and welcome that should characterize the Christian life. Jesus tells us that we will be judged according to our response to those who knock at our door, and he even goes so far as to identify himself with all those unknown visitors. “Into this world,” wrote Thomas Merton, “this demented inn, Christ comes uninvited.” With each knock on the door of our house we await the approach of the Messiah, knowing that truly every visitor is the Messiah and that our salvation depends on how welcoming we are.

Balancing this front door aspect of Advent, this excited expectation, is what happens at the back door. I don’t know about your back door, but in our house the back door is where we take out the garbage. It’s where we go to shake out dirty carpets and messy table cloths. It’s where we clean the dog mess off our shoes. The back door is where the most ordinary, tedious events of life take place. Christmas visitors rarely enter this way. It’s never decorated with wreaths and colored lights.

I say there’s a back door aspect to Advent because, really, who are we trying to kid? Waiting for the Messiah? We can go through the pretense of waiting for something new and exciting, but the fact is that we know very well what’s going to happen. Jesus is going to be born in Bethlehem, he’ll grow up and begin preaching, he’ll be crucified and he’ll rise from the dead. The church will take root and begin it’s well-known history. So what else is new? How can an event that we know so well, that we pass through year after year, have any impact on our lives? The question I’m really asking is, what is the wisdom of the church calendar, of going through long periods of preparation, of fasting, of prayer, of greeting the newborn Christ like a brand new baby?

A film I recently saw helped me understand this a little better. It was “Groundhog Day,” the comedy in which Bill Murray, playing a jaded television weatherman, is assigned to travel with his two-person film crew to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual appearance of the groundhog on February 2. Murray is an obnoxious, sarcastic, contemptuous bore and is particularly offensive to the female member of the crew. All goes well, the cameras are set up, the ritual takes place, the groundhog sees his shadow, and six more weeks of winter are predicted. Murray is barely able to muster enough civility to do the spot with a bit of grace, swearing under his breath that he’ll never cover Groundhog Day again. It’s all just too hokey, too quaint, for his worldly tastes. And to top it all off, Mr. Groundhog is right — a blizzard forces all the roads to close and Murray and his crew have to stay in Punxsutawney until the weather lets up.

The fun starts the next morning when the clock radio in his hotel room goes off, announcing, oddly enough, that it’s Groundhog Day! He’s puzzled. But wasn’t that yesterday? Didn’t we already go through all that? Apparently not. He arrives at the spot where the ceremonies are to take place, and sure enough, there’s his film crew, waiting to get started. He begins to wonder how much he had had to drink the night before. He begins to question his sanity. But he obediently does the spot once again. And as the day passes he sees that everything is happening exactly as it had the day before: groundhog sees his shadow; blizzard shuts down all the roads; the old school friend who he’d greeted so contemptuously on the main street hails him in exactly the same way he had the day before. Every single thing about Groundhog Day is the same.

And this becomes the framework in which Murray has the chance to change his life. Because every single morning he wakes up to the same old Sonny and Cher song, and to the same announcement that “It’s Groundhog Day!” Every day he has to do the same wretched television spot with people who apparently are unaware that they’ve been repeating all this day after day after day. Every day he has to come up with a fresh reaction to an outcome that he already knows. The groundhog is going to see his shadow, but it’s news to everybody around him. Every day he has to cope with being stranded in a dinky town in Pennsylvania with people he doesn’t particularly like (although his female co-worker is starting to look better and better).

Eventually, the repetition begins to look very much like ritual. Sitting in the park, he predicts the barking of a dog, the approach of a Brink’s truck, the moment when a passing woman will adjust her bra strap. His affection for his co-worker grows with each passing February 2nd, and he keeps getting new chances to figure out how to win her approval and affection. It takes a long time, and he makes an enormous number of blunders. But in the end he gets the girl, not by trying hard but by giving up trying. It’s the thorough turn-around — conversion — that suddenly makes him appealing to her, and in the end he is a much nicer guy. In the end he is saved.

Advent, and all the other seasons of the church calendar, are something like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, only stretched out over a year. We need the repetition because, like the jaded weatherman in the movie, we need plenty of opportunity to get it right. We need to go through all that back-door activity day after day, year after year, taking out the garbage and keeping our shoes clean, and when it comes time to say, “Oh, look, Jesus is born!” we have to learn how to say it — not with ho-hum sarcasm, not with sentimental pretense, but with some kind of apprehension about what it all means for us. And for most of us this takes a lifetime to learn.

It’s within this necessary repetition of Advent that we come to learn how to welcome in all the surprises. Some of them are pleasant (sometimes we get the girl). Some of them are not (six more weeks of winter). Some of them are staggering in the demands they place on us. But thank God the church has given us a ritual life within which we can act out the splendid surprise of Advent again and again — until we get it right.

* * *

Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: forestflier@gmail.com

* * *

Hospitality and Marriage

Joachim & Anne
Saints Anne & Joachim, parents of the Mother of God

by Nancy Forest

When I was growing up, in the fifties and in the suburbs, hospitality was something that had a definite ring of social class to it. It suggested entertaining at home, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and leisure wear — a lifestyle of “gracious living” that my parents, who were shy people of modest means, did not share. Even today, we tend to think of money and charm when we think of hospitality, or the “cordial and generous treatment of guests,” as the dictionary still puts it. (Google “hospitality industry” and you’ll come up with millions of hits for hotels, restaurants, fashion and home decorating.)

So when my husband and I married and Jim suggested we try to “practice hospitality,” I wondered what on earth was in store for me. But Jim had been educated in what might be called the Dorothy Day School of Hospitality, which has nothing to do with affluence.

After more than three decades of welcoming people into our home and our lives — from friends to strangers, from Nobel laureates to backpacking kids, from the sensitive and helpful to the socially clueless and energy-consuming, from the friends of our children to my 90-year-old mother — my own understanding of hospitality has grown, deepened, and endured testing.

Far from an optional pastime, hospitality, I’ve learned, is an essential part of the Christian life. Indeed, hospitality is the Christian life. We can no more do without hospitality than we can do without prayer and the Eucharist. It’s that important.

This kind of hospitality, of course, is a far cry from the leisure class idea of popular culture. For Christians, hospitality is not the acquisition of elegance but the decision, made in freedom, to open your heart and your life to whomever God brings to you, and to welcome them with joy and gratitude. Hospitality is the constant effort to break through the various walls we build to protect ourselves, and to approach the Other in love.

For some people hospitality comes easy. For others it takes a lifetime of prayer and ascetic exercise, and even then it may only manifest itself in a kind word to your next-door neighbor. Hospitality, like Christianity itself, is not a “place” but a “way.” It’s the determination to get beyond the fear, or the distrust, or the distaste for the Other and to get beyond the desire to look out for Number One (which our culture holds up as the meaning and purpose of life). And not only because being open to others is a moral good, although surely it is, but also because it is the key to salvation, the key to true freedom. It is the sole content of the Last Judgment.

In Matthew 25, the great Gospel chapter on the Last Judgment, Christ says that to practice hospitality is to enter into the Kingdom “prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” As St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris wrote,

At the Last Judgment I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practiced asceticism, nor how many prostrations and bows I have made before the holy table. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoner in jail. That is all I will be asked.

Having dedicated our marriage to the practice of hospitality, Jim and I have discovered that hospitality is really at the heart of Christian marriage. It isn’t just something we decided to do as a Christian couple; it is the sacrament of marriage itself made manifest in everyday life.

Marriage is a sacrament, Fr. John Meyendorff explains in Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, because to be married is to participate in the eternal Kingdom of God. Marriage is the prototype of breaking through the walls of our selves and fully accepting another person in love. In St. Paul’s teaching on marriage in Ephesians, the text read at every Orthodox wedding service, the mystery — the sacrament — of marriage reflects the sacrifice of Christ. As Fr. John writes, “The husband becomes one single being, one single ‘flesh’ with his wife, just as the Son of God ceased to be only Himself, i.e. God, and became also man so that the community of His people may also become His Body.” The mystery of marriage is that the door through which I welcome another into my life is the same door by which I enter into the Kingdom. By its very nature marriage is a denial of self. Husband and wife offer hospitality first to one other, turning from the exclusive pursuit of their own personal concerns and deferring to each other in self-giving love. Yet at the heart of their mutual submission is the Eucharist.

Fr. John also points out the importance of the Eucharist in the lives of married Christians. “When in marriage a man and a woman become ‘one flesh,’ and if both are members of the Body of Christ, their union is being sealed by the Holy Spirit living in each of them. Now the Eucharist is what makes them members of the Body of Christ.” The early Church, he explains, did not have the kind of wedding rite it has today. Until the ninth century, the normal practice was for a Christian couple to enter into a civil marriage, then partake of the Eucharist together. Communion was considered the seal of the marriage.

So the Eucharist forms the model of hospitality — of sacrifice, self-giving love and submission — upon which Christian marriage is based. Just look at what we do when we approach the chalice, and see how true this is. After preparing for the reception of Christ through fasting, prayer and confession — like a young couple making their wedding preparations, making their bodies ready for each other — we approach the chalice with our arms folded on our chests, literally disarmed, putting up no defense whatsoever to protect our selves. Christ the bridegroom, whose love is unconditional, open and ever-sacrificial, bursts forth from the Royal Doors and receives us into His Kingdom. And we, in turn, humbly take Him into our bodies in a stunningly physical way that is beyond rationality and analysis. We pray for Christ to receive us: “Receive, therefore, O Christ who lovest all men, even me, as the Harlot, as the Thief, as the Publican, as the Prodigal.”

If we understand ourselves to be the “worst of sinners,” we understand that true Christian hospitality knows no limits, for if I — the worst — can be received, then no one can be excluded. And we pray that despite our wretchedness we may be deemed worthy to receive Christ — “so now take it upon thee to enter into the manger of my dumb soul and my soiled body.”

Hospitality in marriage begins there, but it doesn’t end there. As Fr. John put it, the “Great Mystery” (in St. Paul’s words) of marriage is “the possibility and the responsibility given to both husband and wife to transfigure their ‘agreement’ into the reality of the Kingdom.” Hospitality in marriage opens out like a series of concentric circles, and the responsibility given to married people to “transfigure ‘their agreement’ into the reality of the Kingdom” involves a real effort to move further and further outward. At the center of the circles is Christ in the Eucharist. Then beyond that are the couple themselves, loving and supporting each other. Within this context, the wedding reading from Ephesians (which continues to trouble so many people) makes perfect sense: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord…. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

We don’t happen to live in a world that looks favorably on submission and sacrifice. Ours is a more rights-based world, where we’re encouraged to demand what’s coming to us, to make sure we don’t get cheated, to exert an enormous amount of energy protecting our precious selves from what we regard as the injustice of others. Focusing on rights, and insisting on equality, forces us to look at each other, and our neighbors, in a certain way. It forces us to adopt a constant attitude of comparison: how do I stand in relation to my husband, my wife, my neighbor? Does he have more than I have? Is he getting a better deal than I am? Should I try to get what he already has? Am I being fairly treated?

In his journal, Fr. Alexander Schmemann addresses this in an entry about the ordination of women to the priesthood. He writes:

There is deep falsehood in the principle of comparison which is the basis of the pathos for equality. One never achieves anything by comparison — the source of envy (why he, not I?), protest (we must be equal), then anger, rebellion and division. Actually, it is the genealogy of the devil. There is nothing positive; all is negative from beginning to end. In that sense, our culture is demonic, for at its basis is comparison. (February 11, 1976)

Marriages that operate on this principle are doomed. If a married couple are unwilling to disarm themselves and to receive each other, based on the model of the Eucharist, there’s no hope at all for living a life of hospitality. And if hospitality is the key to our salvation, this is a very serious problem indeed.

The next circle beyond the couple themselves are the children with which they may be blessed. It may seem odd to speak of practicing hospitality towards one’s own children, but in a sense they really are strangers, and very demanding strangers at that. They come into your life fully convinced that you have been put on earth to tend to their every need, and they’re right. But as they grow you’ve got to help them become selfless and hospitable themselves, without withdrawing too much of your active support and care. It’s not an easy balance to strike. We found that one of the best ways to do this is simply by your own good example.

When our children were small, due to Jim’s work with an international organization, we often had guests come to dinner or stay overnight. These were the next concentric circles in the life of hospitality: family and friends, and even total strangers. They came from all over the world. We kept a world globe next to the dinner table (it’s still there) so our guests could show the kids where they came from. They loved having such interesting people in the house. One evening when we were about to have a rare dinner without guests, our disappointed daughter asked if we “couldn’t call the office and have them send someone over?”

Not everyone has the opportunity — or the inclination — to practice this kind of heavy-duty hospitality. But children don’t need the world at their table every night to learn what it means to open your door to strangers. Hospitality, as I said before, is not just a particular way of running a household. It’s simply the Christian life. It doesn’t take much to show children, by your example, that the world is not full of threatening strangers, and that your mission in life is not to protect yourself from them. You may have little money, or time, or room; you may be terribly shy; you may have disabilities and other kinds of special difficulties to deal with. But none of these should prevent you from being determined to open your heart, and your life, to the people God puts in your path.

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Nancy Forest is a translator, editor and writer living in Alkmaar, the Netherlands. An earlier version of this essay was first published in the Summer 2008 issue of In Communion.

The icon is of Saints Anne and Joachim, parents of the Mother of God. It is often given to couples on the day of their marriage.

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A brief account of Margot Muntz’s life

by Nancy Forest

Each one of us has his or her own memory of Margot. They’re all so personal, and we’d be here all week if we were to begin to share them all. Margot had a unique way of making her relationship with each person very special, and what we treasure about her is not only what she meant to us as a group, but also what she meant to each one of us personally — our particular friendships with her.

I’m not going to talk about my relationship with Margot. I’m just going to talk a bit about her life — what I learned about her amazing history. We had a lot in common, which only really means that I know a little bit about the place she grew up and what she went through in her life.

Elizabeth Zwatschka was born on May 26, 1914, in New York City. Her mother was a Polish immigrant and her father was from Germany. Her father was a baker and eventually they opened a shop of their own in New Jersey. She had two brothers, John and Fred, and one sister, Lillian, who was killed in a car accident at the age of six. At that time, the early 20th century, the New York area was a real melting pot. It was the very end of the great flood of European immigrants that had been coming to America since the late 19th century. They sailed into New York harbor, many of them very poor. They landed on Ellis Island, within sight of the Statue of Liberty, and from there they were on their own. Most of the immigrants had the addresses of other people from their home countries, and they would seek those people out for help in finding a place to live and a job. Whole towns grew up in New York State and New Jersey, and in many other parts of the country, that consisted of people from one particular European country. They had their own churches, shops that sold the food they were used to eating, and the older ones spoke their own language. But the younger people wanted to assimilate quickly — to become Americans and to learn English — so the children of most immigrants never learned the language of their parents. Margot didn’t speak Polish or German, but her mother was a devout Catholic and she was raised in a Polish Catholic milieu.

One thing that the children of immigrants had in common was that they were influenced by their parents’ ambition and courage. It took enormous courage to leave Europe back then and to immigrate to America, knowing you’d probably never ever be able to return, not even to visit. I think we could see that ambition and courage, and a real sense of adventure, in the way Margot lived her life. Another thing the children of immigrants often had in common was their parents’ Old World ways. These immigrants brought with them a kind of 19th-century Old World grace and elegance that crystallized when they got to America. They never became 20th-century Europeans, but they didn’t become 20th-century Americans, either. I think we could recognize that in Margot, too. It was in her blood, in the way she was raised.

Her parents had a very difficult marriage. Her father was a very ambitious, violent man who was always looking for a better opportunity and better work. The family moved over and over again, from town to town, and Margot became tired of all the moving. Margot adored her mother; she regarded her as almost perfect, a woman of measureless love and devotion. She was afraid of her father, who drank too much, smoked too much, and made life miserable for her mother. “Your father is my cross,” her mother used to say. She said all she remembered about her father was his dark moods and frequent violent outbursts; he never smiled or laughed. Margot was determined never to allow herself to lose control the way her father did. She said she thought it was because of her father that she never learned to deal with her own anger in a constructive way.

She was very bright, but she didn’t go to college. Many girls didn’t back then. College was expensive for middle-class immigrant families, and if you sent anybody to college it was the sons. But Margot had a great love of books and a love of culture. Somerville, New Jersey, is quite close to New York City, and she went to New York — she may have lived there for a while when she was older — visiting museums, going to the ballet and to the theatre, going to bookstores. She especially loved the ballet, and she took lessons for many years. She never lost her love of ballet, and you could see the training she had in the graceful way she walked — her straight back and the relaxed, flowing way she moved her body. But she didn’t become a professional dancer. Why not? She told me once that she didn’t have “the right kind of body”. Maybe she was too small. At any rate, she new she had to support herself somehow, so she went to nursing school and became a nurse.

When she was in her twenties, in the late 1930s, she and one of her girlfriends decided to do something adventurous. They decided to take a Caribbean cruise. This was pretty adventurous at the time, but it wasn’t out of the question for young women from New Jersey. Europe would have been out of the question, but a Caribbean cruise was affordable. Maybe they went to Bermuda. At any rate, on the boat Margot met a young Russian seaman who was one of the crew. His name was Pierre Muntz. Pierre was from Odessa, but he was living in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam and he had become a Dutch national. Margot and Pierre fell in love. When the cruise was over, Margot went back to New York and Pierre to Amsterdam, and they promised to write to each other. Then the war broke out. It was impossible for Margot to go to Holland and impossible for Pierre to visit America, but they kept writing letters — for 7 long years. In 1946, after the war was over, Margot decided to do something that was just as adventurous as what her parents had done. She left the US and came to Amsterdam to marry Pierre. She had only been with him once, on that first cruise, and she hadn’t seen him in 7 years. This was not a romantic Europe she was going to. It was post-war Europe, Europe in tatters, Europe still on rations, with the trauma of the war still fresh. What a risk she was taking!

But she came, and they were married. They moved into the little apartment so many of us remember so fondly, on the Nicolaas Maesstraat.

Pierre worked as a seaman for the merchant marine, and he was gone nine months out of every year. So Margot was on her own much of the time, and she had to make a life for herself. As far as I can tell she and Pierre had a wonderful marriage. They were always deeply in love. Even at the end of her life she would say, “I didn’t deserve him!” But she was used to living in an intensely cultural city, and she made her way. It was through Pierre that Margot first met Matushka Tatiana and Father Alexis – way before the St. Nicolaas Church had been started. She once told me about meeting Tatiana for the first time. Tatiana and Pierre were both from Odessa, and Tatiana thought Pierre was a pretty wonderful guy — tall, handsome, intellectual. So when he introduced Margot for the first time — this tiny little American girl — Tatiana couldn’t believe it. At least that was Margot’s memory of the occasion, and she laughed when she told me.

Margot continued visiting museums and the theatre here in Amsterdam. At some point she decided to try her hand at translation work. There must have been a huge need for good native-speaking translators in the city at the time. With her interest in art and literature, she had no trouble finding work. She became one of the leading English translators for the Stedelijk Museum, and only stopped doing translation work for them when she was in her 80s. She never learned to use a computer, but they were quite willing to take her typewritten translations and have them converted to computer disks. What I never knew was that Margot used the money she earned as a translator to support a poor child in Greece.

Pierre was a heavy smoker. It’s hard for me to imagine Margot living in that tidy little apartment on the Nicolaas Maesstraat with a guy smoking like a chimney, but she did. At a certain point Pierre became ill and was diagnosed as having emphysema (emfyseem). He had to stop work, and Margot, with her nurse’s training, cared for him at home. One of her strongest memories from that time, I believe, was reading to Pierre from her beloved books as he got worse and worse.

Pierre died in 1964. They had been married 18 years, and Margot was 50. Sadly, they had been able to have no children. But after a while she was able to pull her life back together and keep on going. She started traveling — to Greece (she learned modern Greek), to Finland and to many other countries — making friends wherever she went. She kept writing to them, they would come visit her whenever they were in Amsterdam. Some of them are probably with us today.

Margot attended a few different churches in the Netherlands, both Protestant and Catholic, and was particularly enthusiastic about Huub Oosterhuis’s Studentenecclesia. But in about 1974 she was received into the Russian Orthodox Church — chrismated by Metropolitan Anthony in London — and was given the name Margarita. She was one of the founding members of the tiny St. Nicholas church and served as its treasurer and then its starosta until 1989. In December 2000 she received a certificate of appreciation from Patriarch Alexis II for the work she had done for the church.

Margot Muntz with Fr. Alexis and other members of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam

Margot Muntz with Fr. Alexis and other members of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

Margot kept her mind alert by reading. She loved books and had a small but very fine library. Poetry, novels, travel books — she spent a lot of time and money at the Martyrium on the Roelof Hartplein. Many of us have stories about Margot’s love of theatre — going to the ballet with her, to the opera, to museum exhibitions. She was filled with enthusiasm, sometimes. It was hard to keep her on the ground. But she also had a sharply-honed critical faculty, and if she didn’t like something she’d say so.

But what interested Margot the most, I think — more than books, more than museums and the ballet, more than art and the theatre — were people. She was simply fascinated by people. She loved nothing more than to sit down and talk to someone. She had an interesting way of carrying on a conversation. It was almost as if she had organized the questions in her mind. She would tick off the questions she wanted to ask one by one – how is your work, how are the children, how are your parents? At a certain point the conversation would develop a life of its own, but she had a wonderful way of getting it started.

Another important element in Margot’s life was the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, of which she was president from its founding in Holland in 1988 until a year before her death. She may also qualify as the most careful and dedicated reader of the OPF’s quaterly journal, In Communion. Soon after each issue appeared, we could always anticipate a phone call from Margot in which she would comment on each article, then make suggestions for the next issue.

And she never complained — not until the very end. She was a person full of joy. I remember her saying to me, “I can’t help it. I’m just joyful. That’s the way the Good Lord made me.” Once we were talking about a person who had had a particularly hard life, and she said to me, “How blessed we are. We have had such good lives and we have nothing to complain about.” And I thought, “Margot! You lost your dear husband after only 18 years of marriage. You weren’t able to have children. And you have nothing to complain about?” But she never did. She saw herself as enormously blessed.

Let me say one personal thing. For me, Margot is an example of a real Christian woman. She was not what I would call an effusively religious woman. That is, she didn’t act like she was a member of an exclusive club, the Christian Club. She just acted like a Christian. And there’s a big difference. She was the very picture of hospitality. We first met Margot back in 1988 at a special church event at the old Parochiehuis on the Kloveniersburgwal, and if it hadn’t been for her warm welcome I really wonder if we would have been so eager to start coming to the St. Nicholas church. But we did. In her life, she was what we are all called to be — people who are really on the lookout for strangers, ready to welcome them, to ask them where they come from, to let them know that we’re glad they’re with us. How many of us can remember being new in the church, and having Margot come up to them with her bright smile? How many of us have stories of talking to Margot, of her showing real care for us. She was exceptionally good at that, and most of us are not. We have so much to learn. But thank God for her example. And thank God for blessing us with her life and her goodness — and her joy.

St. Paul and Women

by Nancy Forest

for the Sourozh diocesan conference, Oxford, June 2, 2002

St. Paul has been the victim of a bad press as far as women are concerned. Some have regarded him as an out-and-out misogynist whose basic message to women is to shut up, cover their heads and listen to their husbands. In the thirteen letters of St. Paul, there are probably no passages that are as difficult for modern Western readers as those having to do with women. It’s hard to read them without wincing.

My own introduction to St. Paul came when I was quite young, listening to the sermons of the Dutch Reformed minister of my childhood back in New Jersey. He was a man who loved St. Paul and could quote enormous passages from memory. I can still see him standing in the pulpit in his black robe, a great smile on his face and his arms outstretched, proclaiming, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s!” I remember the writings of Paul for their power and breadth, not for their knuckle-wrapping and border-drawing. Paul was a missionary, after all, who worked to expand the church beyond the initial small community of Jews to include an increasingly larger collection of Gentiles of every variety. So what are we to make of these difficult passages, which seem to exclude rather than include? How are we to understand them – without blinking past them and dismissing them out of hand? Can we see them as any more than an unfortunate justification for the shabby treatment that women have sometimes received inside and outside the church during the last two millennia?

My intention here is not to present a detailed exegesis of these passages, which I am not equipped to do. I’d simply like to discuss this question: why do St. Paul’s statements on women bother us so much? Is it his own background and milieu – in other words, is the criticism of Paul justified? Or is it us, our way of reading him – in other words, are we being careless and myopic? Do we have to look harder? Or is it a combination of these? What I hope to explain is that by probing this question we can come to a more profound understanding of some of the passages in question, and indeed of the whole body of Paul’s epistles. And we can learn something about ourselves in the process.

Let’s start with the passages themselves.

In 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 Paul writes: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” He goes on to say that “any woman who prays or prophesies” should keep her head covered, whereas a man should never cover his head, “since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.)”

In 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, Paul gives us the famous injunction, “… women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” This theme is taken up again in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, where women are instructed to dress modestly and to keep silent in church: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

Ephesians 5:21-32 is the passage that is read at every Orthodox marriage ceremony, so it’s already quite well known to us. This is the passage in which women are told to be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord, which Paul repeats briefly in his letter to the Colossians (3:18). The husband, Paul explains, “is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” While women are to be subject to their husbands, so men are to love their wives “as their own bodies.” “This is a great mystery,” Paul says, “and I take it to mean Christ and the church.”

So what are we looking at when we read these passages? Let’s begin with Paul himself. Are these the words of a man with a problem? Was Paul a misogynist, as some feminists claim? Was he simply a woman-hater who couldn’t stand the idea of a woman with something to say? Did he regard women as lower in the Christian pecking order and thus further from the fullness of Christ, to be avoided by men who take their faith seriously?

Those who support this argument generally cite other passages which suggest that Paul preferred the celibate life and urged it as a model for the rest of the church. “It is well for a man not to touch a woman,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 7, apparently in response to a question. “But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” And later, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” All these passages have been used to support the idea that in terms of spiritual growth and development, the celibate life is to be preferred – that marriage is for the weak, those who aren’t cut out for the advanced ascetic effort required of celibacy.

There’s no denying that this kind of thinking exists. Christianity has always been plagued with a preference for celibacy over the married state, with a belief that marriage is a concession to the weak but celibacy is for the real spiritual athletes. In his book Woman and the Salvation of the World (pp. 26-27), Paul Evdokimov writes, “Certain forms of asceticism that prescribe avoiding one’s own mother, and even animals of the female sex, say a great deal about the loss of psychic balance. This loss explains the opinions about married love held by certain Doctors of the Church – opinions drawn, it seems, from manuals of zoology, whereby the couple is viewed from the perspective of breeding.” And so we get statements like those of Tertullian, who said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is the fatherland of eunuchs” (De monogamia, III, 8), St. Ambrose: “Married people ought to be ashamed of the state in which they live” (Exhortatio virginitatis, PL 16:346), and St. Clement of Alexandria: “Every woman ought to be overcome by shame at the thought that she is a woman” (Pedagogus, II, 2, PG 8:429).

But is it fair to pin this all on St. Paul? Was he really a misogynist? Perhaps not. First of all, he seems to have had great respect for women. After all, if he really had hated women so much he would have directed everything in his letters to men alone and would have spoken of women as if they were locked away in a closet. But women were full members of the church, full partakers in the life of Christ, just as much in need of his advice, encouragement and correction as men. One of Paul’s great themes is the church as the body of Christ into which we are all baptized, each of us with his or her own spiritual gifts, and no one is left out. “The parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians (12:22). And Paul’s analogy – that man is to woman as Christ is to the church – is well known to us. The unity and harmony we share in Christ transcends earthly borders: the border between Jew and Gentile, men and women, and slaves and free men. “For he is our peace,” Paul says, “who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” (Ephesians 2:14-15) This doesn’t mean that the borders no longer exist in this life; Paul was not out to abolish slavery and to struggle for the social equality of women. As Elisabeth Behr-Sigel points out in her book The Ministry of Women in the Church, Paul “was not interested in the legal status of women or of slaves.” (p. 70) His overriding concern was not for the improvement of existing social structures but for the establishment of unity in the church, the one body of Christ. This means that in Christ – the new Adam – the division created between men and women by the Fall and the old Adam is healed. Paul’s understanding of the unity now held by men and women transcends any social divisions we may still recognize. So when Paul insists that women should not speak in church, he adds “as even the law says,” reminding his readers that this is the law and we’re all going to live with it. But women are no less “partakers of grace in Christ” than men.

And there’s another point: Paul depended on women to help him in his ministry, and he thanks them in his letters by name – Phoebe, a deaconess, who “has been a helper of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:2), Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians (4:2-3), who, he says, “labored side by side with me in the gospel.” If he really despised marriage, would he have spoken so warmly and repeatedly of the couple Prisca and Aquila, whom he referred to as “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks.” (Romans 16:3-4)

And then there are the texts themselves. Not only does Paul address men and women equally in his letters, but he is also careful to point out that some of his comments are merely his own opinion. Throughout his letters, Paul emphasizes that what he is saying is the authorized Gospel of Jesus Christ and not simply his own ideology. But interestingly, in 1 Corinthians 7, when Paul seems to be urging Christians to adopt the celibate life, he also adds, “I say this by way of concession, not of command” and “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” and finally “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you.” Paul seems to be going out of his way to impress his readers with the fact that what he is saying is his own suggestion, and nothing more. In Paul’s humble opinion, married life is a cause for so much anxiety that it distracts a person from his or her devotion to the Lord; this may have been Paul’s experience with marriage seen second-hand. Or perhaps he was concerned about what he feared was to be a future of great uncertainty and tribulation for the church – the “impending distress,” as he put it (1 Cor. 7:26) – and was giving what he felt was sound pastoral advice. This was no time to take on a complicated relationship.

So if Paul can be cleared of charges of misogyny, perhaps we can pin his attitudes towards women on these kinds of historical considerations: the concerns of the church at the time and Paul’s own background as an educated Jew, “a Pharisee and a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6) an intellectual heir to the hellenism that was so influential at the time. Paul, after all, was just as much a child of his age and upbringing as anyone else. In the Judaism in which he was trained, relationships between men and women were subject to the laws of ritual impurity. If a man so much as touched a woman at the wrong time of the month he could become ritually impure himself. In Leviticus, the law stipulates that a woman who has given birth to a daughter must undergo a period of purification twice as long as that for the birth of a son. And among the daily prayers (the Eighteen Benedictions) recited by Jewish men is this: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, for not having created me a woman.” So Paul grew up with a certain way of regarding women, and some of the comments he makes about women can probably be ascribed to his own background.

And then there’s the whole issue of the accepted social hierarchy. As Elisabeth Behr-Sigel points out, “In a Jewish and hellenistic milieu, the submission of the wife to the husband went without question as the foundation of the family order, and in turn, of the order of society.” The first Christians had been accused of rocking the boat, and Paul wanted to make it clear that Christians were not anarchists. In 1 Corinthians 14, for instance, a very interesting chapter, Paul discourages people from speaking in tongues, which apparently some were eager to do. “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit,” he writes (v. 12), “strive to excel in building up the church.” And later, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (v. 19) “Do not be children in your thinking,” he pleads, “be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature.” (v. 20) “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” (v. 33)

The hellenistic worldview was one of order, not of chaos. Man did not impose order on the world around him; it was there already. Paul applies this notion of the cosmos – a word which in itself implies order and beauty (hence our own word cosmetic) – to the perfect beauty of the Kingdom of God. But the interesting thing is that within this order we are free, even free to create disorder and to choose to be enslaved by sin. “For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self,” Paul writes in Romans, “but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin, which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:22-24) And in Galatians, “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)

Another of Paul’s big themes, then, is visualizing a social order that is based on love and mutual submission. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” he writes (Galatians 6:2-3). “For if any one thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” And again, “I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think,…we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans 12:3-5) In everything we do, Paul suggests, our basic attitude should be, what can I do, in love, to serve and strengthen my brother and sister? Is there anything I am doing now, even for my own spiritual edification, that might cause my brother and sister to stumble? For the fact is that “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.” (Rom. 14:7)

Seen within this context, then, Paul’s statements about women tend to take on a different tone altogether. Pull them out of context and they seem like an effort to consign women to the lower levels of Christian society. And unfortunately they have been interpreted that way, time and again, to the detriment of women and the church as a whole. But seen within the context of all of Paul’s writings they serve to reflect and reinforce the message of mutual submission in Christ.

So part of our problem with Paul lies with us – with our tendency to read his statements about women out of context and to point our enraged fingers at him. Not only that, but we must remember that we, too, are children of our age, and as we read Paul we are looking through all the intellectual lenses that we are heir to. The strongest of those lenses, perhaps, is our sense of justice and our demand for equality. We demand our rights – we demand equality – and with that in the forefront of our minds we turn to Paul. Of course he enrages us! Nothing has been drummed into us more than the importance of standing up for our rights. It’s what wars are fought for, what heroes suffer and die for. Great literature has been based on it, it stirs our hearts, it makes us weep. All American schoolchildren memorize these words from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Self-evident? It may have been self-evident to Thomas Jefferson, but it wasn’t to St. Paul. Paul wasn’t terribly interested in rights. Paul’s great vision of the church was that of the Body of Christ, whose members are united to each other in Christ, in love and mutual submission. Paul does not urge us to insist on equality or to fight for our rights. His message is quite different. It is this:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

The only time Paul discusses the issue of rights is in 1 Corinthians, when he points out that he has foregone certain rights, of his own free will, in the service of preaching the Gospel. (1 Cor. 9) “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful,” he writes. “All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” (1 Cor. 10:23-24)

Focusing on rights, and insisting on equality, forces us to look at our neighbor in a certain way. It forces us to adopt a constant attitude of comparison: how do I stand in relation to my neighbor? Does he have more than I have? Is he getting a better deal than I am? Should I try to get what he already has? Am I being fairly treated? In his recently published journal, Fr. Alexander Schmemann addresses this in an entry about the ordination of women to the priesthood. He writes:

There is deep falsehood in the principle of comparison which is the basis of the pathos for equality. One never achieves anything by comparison – the source of envy (why he, not I?), protest (we must be equal), then anger, rebellion and division. Actually, it is the genealogy of the devil. There is nothing positive; all is negative from beginning to end. In that sense, our culture is demonic, for at its basis is comparison. (February 11, 1976; p. 107)

This principle of comparison is just the opposite of the attitude that St. Paul tried to engender in the young church. The only language of comparison that Paul uses is when he calls himself “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), which has become part of the prayer that every Orthodox Christian prays before receiving Holy Communion. Not better than others, not even equal to others, but worse – the very worst.

The trick in adopting an attitude of submission with regard to your neighbor is to adopt it with integrity – not becoming like Uriah Heep, whose humility was really a manipulative strategy for gaining power over others, not humility at all but howling selfishness and greed. Paul’s message is to stop looking at yourself, to focus your gaze from yourself to the Other. The only way you can do that is to look out from the center of your Self, from your heart, from that center where Christ lives, so that it is not we who live, as Paul says, but Christ who lives in us, and to view the world from there. Insisting on equality forces you to abandon that center and to look at yourself from a distance, as if you were someone else, and to see how “you” stand in relation to the Other. This is no longer being who we really are, who God really calls us to be. It is the stance of the modern individual – the basis of the scientific method, of our entire approach to education. We spend the bulk of our lives developing this way of seeing things, viewing the world empirically, learning how to compare one thing to another, developing standards, quantifying, analyzing, testing. And when it comes to ourselves, then, we apply ourselves to the same kind of analysis and comparison, and see how we fit in – as if we were watching ourselves from the moon. But if Christ is living in me, if I have “taken on Christ,” I adopt the attitude to the Other that Christ did. If I as a women adopt an attitude of submission to my husband, Paul is suggesting, I am not doing it because I am essentially any less than my husband and I have no other choice; I am doing it as a radical exercise of my freedom, and I am entering – as is he – into the submission of Christ.

I’d like to return to the first passage I cited, 1 Corinthians 11:3. Here Paul writes, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” What struck me when I read this passage over carefully is the last part: “the head of Christ is God.” This, Paul says, is what it really means to regard someone as your “head.” It means to adopt Christ’s attitude towards God, which he explains more fully in Philippians 2:5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

So the model for women is Christ himself, who was equal with God but freely chose to empty himself. This kind of submission is terribly hard – for men and women alike – but it’s probably even more difficult for women, who for so long have been the victims of twisted, misinterpreted caricatures of Paul’s teaching. The natural response, of course, is what we’re seeing in certain parts of the feminist movement – anger and militant insistence on a flattened, two-dimensional equality. The great challenge to Christian women, however, is not to insist on some kind of equality, which for Christians is a meaningless phrase. Nor is it to assume an attitude of exaggerated self-effacement. What both these attitudes have in common is that the main focus is the woman herself – they imply a person who has abandoned the center of her life and is out there looking back at herself, trying to decide who she is. The real challenge to Christian women is to learn to understand the difference between being a doormat and adopting the attitude of mutual submission – in freedom and love – that St. Paul has set before us.

Beauty Will Save the World

by Nancy Forest-Flier

Dostoevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” I used to think of this as a romantic idea, that we will be saved by the beautiful things around us, that the world will be saved if it can be made more attractive. The idea seemed romantic, something expressed by such sentiments as “there’s beauty in everything, if only we would stop and smell the flowers.” This suggests there is a gulf between the world and ourselves — we have to put on the right eyeglasses to see it properly.

Today I realized that what Dostoevsky meant is that beauty must be our principle of life — that beauty is not a perception, an influence, to be found outside us; it is the principle which must characterize the way we do everything. Everything we do must be done in beauty, with grace. The phrase “the beautiful gesture” kept coming back to me. Everything we do, even digging a ditch or scrubbing the floor, must be done in beauty. This does not mean that we are trying to make a beautiful ditch or a beautiful floor. It doesn’t mean that we are trying to become beautiful ditch diggers or floor scrubbers. It doesn’t even mean that we are trying to make a sort of ballet out of our ditch digging or floor scrubbing. It has to do with the way in which we execute the task, the way we live every minute as we do what we do; it has to do with being attentive to the activity at hand, acting without being concerned with how we look as we act. It is an innocent acting, not concerned with appearances or results or rewards; it is not concerned with being treated fairly, with getting even, with showing off, with making an impression, with getting the damn work out of the way, with wallowing in self-pity over one’s misfortune. I would think it is not even concerned with acing out of certainty that this is God’s will. I think it is simply making the beautiful gesture.

But why? Because this is the radical application of being at the center, where God is.

As I was cleaning the bathroom today, I was suddenly overcome with this sense that I must do this work as a beautiful gesture. This is the only free action available to me. If I act out of sense of resentment (because other people in the family are not doing what I’m doing), or anger (because the bathroom has a way of getting very messy very often), or self-pity (poor me!), then I’m a slave to my self and my work will be exhausting. Even if I work out of sense of pride (I’ve got to make this place shine) or some simple ethic of good behavior (God expects me to be a responsible wife and mother; this is how I become a good person), I’m still a slave to my self. The only way to go about it with joy, as a free person, is to work in the presence of God, in prayer. And this, I think, is how beauty will save the world.

I felt this all day long. I started the day making blueberry muffins, I finished the day making soup and pita bread, thinking all the while about the beautiful gesture.

The paradigm for living this way is the Liturgy. Every action that we perform in the Liturgy should be a beautiful gesture, from lighting candles and reverencing icons to receiving Holy Communion. It’s the school where we learn how to live from moment to moment. The climate of continual prayer, the entreaties of the choir washing over us, the attitude of attention all teach us how to be grace-full people.

But cleaning the bathroom as though you were standing at Liturgy? It sounds scandalous, but I think it’s true. A monk once told my husband you should wash the dishes as though you were washing the baby Jesus. Every gesture deliberate, beautiful and free.

Nancy Forest-Flier is a translator and editor as well as treasurer of the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

published in In Communion, issue 6; the journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship

Russian Easter in Amsterdam

by Nancy Forest

published in The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate for August 1988

The Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam is a community of contrasts. At no time was that more evident than during the Easter Liturgy this year, my husband and I being the first example of contrast with us: we are Americans living in the Netherlands who, looking for a place to pray and grow, came to St. Nicholas’. We find ourselves within a mixed community of Dutch, Russians, English, American, Eastern European — Christians who have also made this Church of St. Nicholas their spiritual home.

The Church itself takes up residence in an unused chapel of a huge Roman Catholic Church, “The Dove,” which had been slated for sale and demolition by the bishop but consequently was “squatted” by the congregation, who occupied it illegally until the city rescued it by declaring the building an untouchable monument. So we came together from West and East to celebrate the Resurrection this year, crowded into a corner of an old Catholic monument abandoned to the bulldozer by its own hierarchy. In this secular city, St. Nicholas is like a flame in the snow. [In 1995, the congregation needing larger space, the parish moved to its own building at Kerkstraat 342, not far from the chapel it formerly rented.]

We arrived at 10 PM on Saturday evening for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles. Boris Chapchal, the church’s reader, began in Dutch. The reading was delegated to others as they entered the church. My husband Jim and I both read from the English Bible we had brought. Some chanted, some read, and the reading proceeded as more and more people entered the darkened church.

At 11.30 PM, the reading ended and Matins began. The enlarged choir had gathered in the balcony above the church was packed — far more people than usual came: Romanians, Serbs, Greeks, Romanians, Georgians and others, each holding an unlit candle.

It was something that many present had grown up with, but it was my first Orthodox Easter. Our family had come through the Great Fast for the first time and had come to an entirely new understanding of the spiritual benefits of fasting. Far from being a penitential burden, the fast had served to clean the clutter from our lives and our hearts. We came to the Liturgy with a sense of pure, simple, attentive anticipation.

The procession took us out into the Amsterdam streets, busy with Saturday night activity. We walked into this vast, dark space, the choir singing with great power, and Fr. Alexis Voogd (a Dutchman) cried out in Slavonic, “Christ Is Risen!” we answered him, also in Slavonic, “He is Risen Indeed!” and the doors opened to the corridor that led us back into church where the wall could hardly contain us.

At the end of Matins, we fell to hugging, kissing and greeting each other, which went on for quite some time. Familiar faces unfamiliar faces, candles in hand, red-dyed Easter eggs, more joy than I have ever witnessed in a church at Easter, not to mention more joy than I have ever witnessed in a Dutch assembly of any variety.

The Liturgy followed and went on until 3.00 AM, Fr. Alexis repeatedly holding up the flower-garlanded cross and proclaiming “Christ Is Risen!” — in Slavonic Dutch, English, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, French, and German. Each time, those of us who knew the response in that language cried out, “He Is Risen Indeed!” It felt like Pentecost.

With the Millennium year, many in the West are learning about the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time. For some it is a curiosity, something peculiarly Slavonic and eastern, colored with national identity. But for many others, the Orthodox Church, with its wonderful spiritual treasures, is an unexpected gift from the East.