When it comes to spiritual things, there are two popular views.
1. Life is working out the way I want. Therefore, God (karma, The Secret, fill in the blank) really likes me!
2. Life is harsh, and people behave badly. Therefore, God does not exist.
And in BBC Sherlock “A Scandal in Belgravia,” Mycroft eloquently offers, “All hearts are broken. All lives end. Caring is not an advantage. Sherlock.”
Still, among the ended lives and broken hearts there is sometimes something going on.
The first time I saw Seraphim, and the last time, and most times between, he was surrounded by a squadron of people who loved him.
The squadron commander-in-chief was Seraphim’s mother, a petite soft-spoken scientist and artist with a modest gray braid of hair. Her bright smile, uncommonly lively eyes behind their spectacles, and a long elegant mundshtuk cigarette holder, called to mind the bright wartime tenacity in photographs of FDR.
She brought me home from church to dinner, and gave me a tour of the family home business, its mail-order/website computer and production studio for relatives and apprentices.
I was impressed that the family’s traditional Russian artwork included crushed gems as a pigment.
“Gems?” I exclaimed. There were many perfectly valid options readily available at lower prices.
“Beauty,” she said, raising her hands. “To last for centuries.”
At dinner I bit in to a delectable beef cutlet full of fresh herbs and greens, while her whole troop of Moscow doctors and scientists start talking at the same time. Their dining conversation was like a rainbowed waterfall, chrysanthemum fireworks, the bubble machine from the Lawrence Welk Show. One would produce some fresh independent thought or fact, and the others would charge in and whack the velvet from its antlers. They argued with zest about the radiation levels emitted by the microwave on the counter, about the species of a bug that flew in from outdoors, about the best way to sheetrock a wall. One actually dropped his fork and leaped up from the table to prove a point by running for a dictionary entry to show us a word — not just any dictionary, mind you, but the Brokgaus-Efron, published in St. Petersburg in the late 1800s in 84 volumes. (His might well have been only the condensed version, 43 volumes. But they sure took up space in the living room.) When they asked me some question about Catholic culture, I gave an example from the Daniel Day-Lewis movie My Left Foot. Instantly they turned on Seraphim’s good-humored brother (who was eating dinner with his right arm in a sling), and began improvising a comedy film about his life called His Left Hand.
Seraphim’s mother had an idea.
“We have a manuscript ready to publish,” she said to me. “How would we do that here?” She described the research that Seraphim gathered and wrote starting at age 16. It was an esoteric yet spiritually beneficial reference work for Russians at home and abroad. (Later, his parents published it on the family website.)
I confessed to knowing nothing about publishing. But the idea sounded wonderful. During our group brainstorm session I was ready to ambush her son with admiring questions until he got in one soft word edgewise.
“Mama,” said Seraphim. “Leave it in peace already. Please, Mama. It’s America: nobody needs it.”
The pain in his eyes stopped us short. Then the family went on talking about anything and everything else.
Seraphim’s father, a tall lean gentle-eyed computer programmer with square shoulders and a sweetly prophetic-looking beard, turned to me. He expressed his deepest condolences on our American national problem, talking “o glaukome,” About Glaucoma.
The family chimed in, recalling what they were all doing the day the historic news bulletin came o glaukome, and its devastation here in the States.
One asked me, “How has this terrible problem changed your worldview as a U.S. citizen?” Then they paused respectfully, waiting for my response.
I looked at their compassionate expressions. In halting Russian I thanked them for their heartening concern, and confessed that I had not earned their kindness because this problem had no impact on me personally. I admitted that we Americans still relied mainly on early intervention by medical specialists.
The family paused, tactfully thanked me for sharing, and moved right along to other matters.
(That night, drifting off to sleep at home, my subconscious mind kept fretting:
o glaukome, o glaukome, o glaukome, oglaukomeoglaukomeoglaukome = OKLAGOMA! I sat bolt upright in bed. They were referring in Russian to the terrible disaster in Oklahoma City. And what reply did they get out of me? 1. Oh well — it does not affect me personally, and 2. any victims should have gone to medical specialists SOONER. Woe is my non-native ear! No wonder my lack of empathy left these hospitable people at a loss for words.)
Somehow, they kept talking to me anyway.
On Sundays, the family gathered after church for coffee hour in the parish hall. Sometimes Mama would wave me over to join their little enclave. When their conversation grew especially spirited and witty, Seraphim would glance over to check that I’d followed the Russian and got the joke; once I did, he’d laugh too. What struck me then and now about Seraphim (which is not his name, but means “fire angel” and so comes close) was the geometry of his mind. On one plane, he clearly enjoyed the constant fanfare of his loyal kith and kin. On another level, during their banter and debate he would sit back and attend to minute details that no one else seemed to notice. Most of all, on a third dimension he was always tuned in to some rarefied frequency, an implicit communion that engaged his awareness so deeply that everyday speech was simply not the coin of his realm.
At the end of Lent at Passion Friday, the figure of Christ in a brocaded shroud is processed with candles around the church and then laid to rest in the sanctuary. Then the congregation members take turns keeping Him company all night long, chanting the Psalms until morning. A devout Russian couple and I signed up so we could cover a late shift together. They warned that a newcomer like me must not undertake the Passion Friday prayer in a night church all alone; the vigil is so powerful that unhappy spiritual forces might try to disrupt it. Back in Russia, they knew of cases where the unprepared solitary chanter was beset by supernatural sights or sounds. Then one had to be a very brave stalwart soul, to stand fast under this kind of tribulation and keep the prayer going until dawn.
Long after midnight we finished our turns with the Psalms, and stayed on to pray in silence.
Then Seraphim walked in, alone and clan-less. At the reader’s candle he read the Psalms not in English or in Russian but in liturgical Church Slavonic. (I’ve just checked my journal for that year. It states that he recited the Psalms from memory, as the monks do on Mount Athos.) Slavonic was devised as a Scriptural language, not a spoken one; but his chanting rose pure and straight from his heart to the cupola windows of black sky and stars, in the scent of incense and beeswax and rose oil, in the flickering shadows and eyes of portraited saints. Anyone could see it: this at last was his time and space, his mother tongue, his true voice, his own words of penitential lamentation ringing out as if he’d saved them up all his life.
Then Great Saturday struck midnight into Paskha. After the night’s vigil, in the dark before dawn I put on headphones to watch as our bell ringer wrought massive plaits of sound (do, mi, so, do) from the four bells. Then he went downstairs. But I lingered in the loft awhile with the echoes in the night breeze. By tradition the lineup of Russian church bells, like horses in a race, each have a name; the largest lowest bell of all is the Festive or the Feast-Day Bell, rung to mark the grandest occasions. Our great bell was a spirited temperamental creature. Our ringer showed me how the footstroke had to be very strong, yet glancing — instantly withdrawn, to clear the first vibration; with any hesitation on impact, the sound was like two colliding subway cars. That night when nobody was looking I worked my shoe into the bell’s foot pedal sling, just testing the feel; for months I’d dreamed of ringing for the service myself. (Only now does that dear irony dawn on me: a person easily lost and unheard in social gatherings yearns to play an acoustic instrument audible to everyone for three miles around. What next? Lighthouse foghorn?)
Downstairs, the congregation was singing the most radiant hymn for the most radiant moment of their year:
An angel cried
To the Lady full of grace
Rejoice O Pure Virgin…
in the Resurrection of your Son.
Then, Seraphim’s mother had an idea.
“Oh, in the loft,” I heard her say to someone on the stairs. “Let’s go greet her…. Khristos voskrese! Christ is risen!” she called out.
“Khristos voskrese!” I wished her and Seraphim.
“Voistinu voskrese, Truly he is risen,” he replied.
They exchanged with me the traditional three kisses. Hers were hearty and exuberant. His were careful and grave and profound.
It’s easy to look back through the years and claim that his small gesture marked the end of one season and beginning of another. But it did.
After that springtime, a simple cough led Seraphim through a cycle of doctors and tests.
I took the commuter train to a town near his, and stumbled over railroad tracks and weeds to the Catholic hospital. Seraphim was in a room with four elderly men behind little curtains, all of them coughing. He was on oxygen, connected to various wires and tubes. His two young daughters were spending summer vacation here with Dad. The girls were making Get Well cards. They adapted effortlessly to hospital life, deftly crawling under and through the wires and tubes so they could curl up beside him, fluffing his pillow and stroking his hair.
Seraphim’s mother had an idea.
“Sit, sit; have some tea,” she offered happily, quitting the room despite my protests and heading for the cafeteria to bring a cupful back for me.
Her son and I looked at each other. I wondered a little late whether dropping in without notice was all right with him or not.
“Kak tvoe zdorov’e? How is your health?” he asked me. That’s when he switched from formal to informal address with me, and first started using my Russian nickname.
“Khorosho, slava Bogu,” I said. Fine, Glory to God.
“Today N___ came to the house,” one of the girls told us, naming a talented apprentice who took lessons at the studio; Mama’s students came to learn, but they ended up becoming one of the family. “And do you know what happened next? For dinner she even cooked us LAMB.”
“Lamb? That’s wonderful. Very kind of her.” He was in no shape to be eating lamb or anything else at the moment, but he looked happy. Lamb — imagine! His eyes were laughing as he looked over at me. “Agnus?”
“Sorry?” I asked him, pulling the chair right up to the bed; his voice was barely audible.
“Lamb. Agnus.” He took a careful deeper breath and inched himself higher. “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi; miserere nobis.” Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.
“Oh! How did you learn that??”
He nodded toward a book on the table.
I picked it up. A complete old-time bilingual Missal! The kind we used to see at Mass, with black crinkle-leather covers and gilt-edged pages and silk marker ribbons in red and green and gold. Many Orthodox people in good conscience have expressed to me their hurt and sorrow over the Roman Papist schism and its heretic views. But here he was, reading this!
Later his mother told me about it. At a garage sale he recognized the book right away, and pounced to buy it. Then when he entered the hospital, a nurse offered a visit from the chaplain, not for the Sacraments but simply for company. Seraphim first asked his mother to bring his Missal. He spent his hospital stay studying until he felt suitably prepared. When the priest stopped by, he found an Orthodox patient speaking Missal Latin, for the first time since who knows what bygone age.
It’s just as well that the hospital offered chaplain services; certainly on my two visits there I saw no sign of any medical personnel actually interfering with the patients in that room. Judging by his mother’s extended absence that first evening, it was all my fellow Schismatics could do, to obtain water with a teabag. But in no time, contacts at church turned up a bed at the main research hospital in the city. After that, his care moved very fast. Slender and fair by nature, Seraphim lost his lovely blond hair and became thin and translucent as a lighted candle. On Sundays after the long Liturgy he would sit on the garden bench to rest in the sun.
By then our Ringer was away more often, so I had permission to harness up and ring the bells after Liturgy. With practice I worked out the regular ringing patterns for the services. Then before Liturgy and Vespers I started hovering on tiptoe, waiting for them to pick me to go do the ringing.
But somehow they’d always pick someone else. Even if the someone else had never rung before. Even if the someone else looked very doutbtful about stepping outside in wind-driven sleet to sort out ropes and tongues.
So, I kept practicing on Sunday afternoons. And each time for the finale I’d play a long 4-note arrangement of “Night Rolls In” by Al Stewart.
Maybe that was the problem. At the time I didn’t know that Orthodox ringers draw from a well-defined heritage of intricate regional and seasonal patterns; they studiously avoid melody as a Western affectation. Perhaps the Hierarchy has a Decorum Hotline, and some anonymous tipster within 3-mile earshot dropped a dime to report rock anthems in the loft?
At any rate, after practice I’d come down to the garden.
“Nice,” Seraphim would always say. “And when will you ring for service?”
“The minute they let me,” I always assured him. “They haven’t yet.”
“You just keep practicing,” he assured me. “I’ll be here listening. One day I’ll hear you.”
Late in a cold autumn we had one inexplicable summer day. In the church garden, bronzed oaks rustled under the deep blue sky. White butterflies tumbled over red and white clover; forsythias and dandelions bloomed out of season.
In the loft I finished “Night Rolls In,” humming the words as I ran downstairs (And now the world in all its works and ways / Grays on novembering days; a fire still glows that once was a rose a long time ago…).
In the garden, the dynasty of Moscow scientists and doctors brought their cake and coffee and crowded round Seraphim’s bench to discuss his treatment plan: research protocols, experimental studies, laboratory tests, internet and journal articles, phone calls to specialists and colleagues here and at home.
Mama had an idea. “Propolis!” she greeted me. “What can you tell us?”
“There’s some in my toothpaste,” I said. “Comes from bees. Said to have healing antiseptic properties. But, I haven’t read the research.”
Meanwhile, the family children played in the grass at Uncle/Dad Seraphim’s feet. The youngest gripped his pants leg to practice standing. The toddlers frisked the dandelion fluffclocks into the air while the girls braided gold blossoms in a wreath for his shoulders.
Seraphim looked over at me and opened his thumbs to signal his usual question. What? No bells for service?
I turned up my hands in a shrug. There will be. When they say so.
Mama summed up the family’s consensus on the next phase of treatment.
Seraphim listened, nodding with respect at all her projects and plans for success. Then he caught my eye across the flowers and the sunlit lawn, and winked. What do we know, really?
One night, the family held an anointing service at the church. For once they came in silence, hands on Seraphim’s back, getting him a chair before the altar.
As a Catholic I’d seen this sacrament as routine consolation for any parishioner who felt like coming up after Mass for a brief prayer, absolution, reassurance, and a blessing with the sign of the cross in oil. But none of that prepared me for this. Seraphim’s anointing, like his cancer therapy, was an act of war.
The ritual was harrowing in length and complexity, an arduous program of Psalms, prayers, and Scriptural readings before seven different anointings with chrism and wine on brow, cheeks, hands, and over the heart. As the service marched on Seraphim stood at resolute attention, shirt open in the drafty sanctuary, husbanding each breath, summoning all his strength. The captain of the family ship knelt beside her son, absolutely straight and motionless. The wind rose, moaning at the cupola windows of black sky and stars while his people with their candles called down forgiveness and mercy, forging links of promise and prayer from heaven to earth.
A season or two later he and I met again, after Liturgy.
For the first time, he approached me and initiated a conversation. He looked solid and substantial now, with a new head of short fine hair grown darker. “Masha! You haven’t been to church in months! Why? Did you give up on the bells?”
Yes, I had. The parish children had discovered bell ringing. Now the loft was teeming with willing volunteers. They didn’t wait around to be called or chosen; they just flocked upstairs before every service. As it happened, bell-ringing had been the last in my series of attempts to fit in with the congregation. But despite the hospitality of the priest and choir director and their families, the parishioners could never seem to classify me at all. Finally I started taking long Sunday morning walks on the river instead. “I just haven’t found a place here,” I confessed.
“But neither have I.” His soft eyes were concerned but reproachful. “Ringing, though. Can’t give up on that.”
“Well, they’re not going to ask me. Are they.”
“I’M asking, Masha,” he said. “Come back. I’m waiting to hear you ring at service.”
I was away from church walking on the river a few weeks, and wasn’t there to see the clan bring him in to Liturgy. This time they fixed a pallet and oxygen tank for him on the carpet. The whole congregation knelt down at his side one by one to ask his forgiveness. He asked for theirs, and blessed each one of them. Days later someone mentioned it to me. I went right home to the telephone.
Seraphim’s father answered, and we exchanged greetings.
“They tell me Seraphim is not feeling well,” I dived in. “Please, is he there at home?”
His father contemplated the dimensions of the question and the answer. “Yes, he is right here.”
“May I speak to him?”
Father pondered some more, lining up the words of the reply as gently as possible.
So it is that some day, in the Book of Life, we will read about this father. There will be a page about him there, illuminated in crushed gems. It will state for the record that a man who had just lost his 33-year-old son and was sitting vigil beside his body thanked a caller for thinking of his family, and inquired about her health.
Before the funeral, a choir member was picked to toll the bell.
I ran up to him. “Have you rung before?”
“Why no,” he said.
“They want the bass bell, the Great Feast. To ring it, you have to pull back instantly on the foot stroke as soon as you hit it, or it will only crash instead of ringing. Or… I can do it.”
That day there were so many people arriving, so much to do, so much for the choir to think about, that at last — “Go on,” they said. “And hurry.”
I ran to the great Feast-Day, and roped my foot to the heavy pedal.
It tolled and tolled while the people came and filled the church. (Just this week on the anniversary of that day, Seraphim’s father emailed to thank me. He remembered, over 20 years later, that I was the ringer for Seraphim’s service. And what a beautiful word he used for it: otpevanie, from ot = from/away, + pevanie from the verb to sing: the day we sang his son away.)
The worshippers paused at the casket to give Seraphim a last kiss in farewell. After they all did I went up behind the casket and touched his hair, and then went downstairs to sit on his garden bench.
After the service, his mother had an idea.
“We can take you in our car.” She took my hand. “Come with us.”
They were offering to share their seating for 6 hours in the funeral procession, find room for me at their hotel, feed me, and bring me back. But how could I go? For a journey like this, it seemed only right to let family go with family.
As they all stood conferring in a circle about the trip to the cemetery several states away, Seraphim’s daughter stepped to the center. She began to dance. She twirled on one foot while her lovely long blonde hair spun around her. Those girls had been awake all night. They were at their father’s side right from the start, and with him right at the end; when he was laid out in the sanctuary for the all-night vigil and reading of the Psalms, the girls kept vigil beside him until dawn while their Grandma took the midnight to dawn shift chanting the prayers. Now before a 300 mile drive and his monastery burial, one of them was taking a little break to twirl in a sunbeam.
During his last illness, Seraphim made sure that his daughters had a fresh flower in their bedroom every morning. He planted a lot of white lily bulbs outside their window, so the next spring the girls could look outside and see lilies rise from the ground to say “Khristos voskrese!” all in white petals. And, he built a little village for their bureau, the model train kind. It had fields and woods and cotton for clouds underneath with tiny star lights inside the houses. Knowing him, it probably had a church too right in the center. That way, later on if the girls woke up at night and felt afraid, they could look at the village and remember where their father went, preparing the way to make a nice home for them in one of God’s many mansions.
“Last night,” his daughter came close and looked up at me, “Grandma was chanting in the church while my sister and I went to sleep. But Grandma was so tired! Finally at 5:00, she fell asleep. Then everything was so quiet that I woke up. Oh no — the prayers! I jumped up and took the book and started chanting. I read and read until 8:00. Finally, I looked up at the dome windows at the sky. And do you know what happened next?”
Speechless I gazed at her. A young girl who kept awake and at watch with a candle in the dark at the body of her father; co-heiress of a village in the stars and lilies of the field. “Yes?”
“I was SURPRISED BY THE LIGHT,” she exclaimed, hands opening in air. And she went on dancing.