Touching Heaven

I have been wanting to post a few sections of a book that Jesse and I have been reading out loud together in the evenings. Unlike Jesse, I am not a voracious devourer of Orthodox books, simply because I feel like I swung so far into the “rational” side of Christianity before, that I am now content just “living” it for a while. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it would be a much longer conversation than I have time for at the moment (hello, I have a desk to clean out, people!).

But I am in love with this book. It reads beautifully, which is part of the reason we are reading it out loud. It’s also the reason I don’t want to sit down and read it all in one sitting– like poetry, it is meant to be savored. Sometimes, the author truly is pushing the extent of his poetic abilities, and I find his figurative language predictable and unnecessary. For the most part, however, this book has been an absolute joy to read.

It is written by a man named John Oliver, who travelled to the ancient Russian monastery of Valaam. The first couple chapters, however, just document his journey into Orthodoxy back in the 90s. So far, I can relate with 95% of what he says he felt at that time. Many of our friends have told us that they “still don’t get why we became Orthodox”. John Oliver says it all, I think, better than I ever could.

Anyways, I would like to share a small section from the Prologue with you. It only took Jesse and I 10 minutes to read out loud, so hopefully it won’t take more than 5 or so minutes to read. Definitely worth the time, even if just to understand where Jesse and I are coming from. The 5th paragraph is especially pointed at Americans (like himself).

And if you want to listen to the actual Valaam men’s choir singing, here is a clip. It might give you an idea of what John Oliver is talking about as he writes this. This song, “Rejoice, Bride Unwedded” is the same song and tune that I taught my kids (in English!) at St. Peter’s this last year (you can hear it at minute 7.30 of the St. Peter’s documentary I posted a few months ago). If you were at Jason and Jenny’s wedding, we also sang it there.

Prologue: Entering Wonder

Deep in a northern Russian forest of jade and brown, far from any hint of civilization, Valaam Monastery sinks into the seasons of the year as it has for a thousand years before. Nearly one hundred monks labor in this place that rests on an island over 100 miles north of St. Petersburg, and an immeasurable distance from the Western world. Valaam is accessible only by ferryboats that must cross wide Lake Ladoga, and the lake isn’t always cooperative. The trees, plants, animals, water, air, soil, and the whole life cycle here in this wilderness flourish without much stain from over-population or industry. It is quiet here, and these quiet roots run deep. The paradox of Valaam is that this place is peaceful but not without violence.

In our world, the treasure of stillness requires a fierce guarding. Remember, it is not a flimsy sign but a flaming sword that protects the Garden of Eden. The Gospel according to St. Matthew puts it best: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” (11:12). One traditional interpretation of that verse is that the Christian life is not for the faint of heart. The renunciation of self, the taking up of one’s cross, the salvation work of “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12)– these are solider-images that suggest a disciplined struggle is needed if we are to enter fully into the journey of defeat and victory that is the Christian life. Defeat can bring humility, and victory, joy. The monks at Valaam are a band of fierce fighters who sing and pick wildflowers. When I stayed at the monastery, the fullness of life there revealed some gaping holes in my own.

I was told to “enter in” to the monastic cycle of services. As a young American, I do not “enter in”, I observe…cautiously. But I did what I could as often as I could with as much devotion as my feeble spirit could produce. It took a few days to lay down my resistance and accept that this is how they do things here. Inded, this is how they have always done things: wake with the sun, offer prayers in the church, eat, labor: more prayers, more labor, a bit more food, a walk in the woods, more prayers into the night. The Christian year is built upon the Christian day, which is built upon the Christian hour and the Christian moment. When it was time to pray, we prayed. What it was time to eat, we ate. When it was time to play, we played. The civil war between what my spirit craved and what my flesh would settle for eased as the days passed. Monastic life has a rhythm, and I wanted to learn it. Or, at least, I wanted to absorb enough of it so that I would never forget it, but spend the rest of my life trying to get it back. It’s a bit like pruning a small shoot off a plant and then planting the shoot in soil elsewhere so that it will grow into a life of its own.

Then, a key thing happened during the Divine Liturgy one Sunday morning– during the Little Entrance, that moment when the Gospel is carried in the uplifted hands of the priest before the people. The church is dark and cool. Candlelight illuminates the smoke of incense into silver scarves stretching towards the ceiling. There is quiet movement around the long cement room as candles are lit and icons are venerated by monks, novices, pilgrims, and residents of a small village nearby. Then there is the chanting; this music that has been seasoned by centuries of honored use resonates within my deepest places. I stand very still. The chant, so beautiful, is offered as one sound, no monk louder than another. The language of the service is Slavonic, but in this moment we are deeper than language. The door on the far left of the iconostasis opens and the monks and celebrants bring the Gospel into the view of the people. The people bow; I strain my neck to observe. And there is the difference.

Our culture in America is in a passionate love affair with itself. An unbridled pursuit of personal happiness and a worship of individualism have spawned a worldview inadequate to receive the mysteries of God. I am a product of this culture and have sacrificed myself to it. Its worldview discolors my own. Certainly there are good and honorable qualities of our culture, but they are not the qualities toward which I naturally gravitate. I am thoroughly American in that life is lives on my terms; I am emphatically Christian in that I believe it shouldn’t be. Rebellion, of course, respects no geography; it is present in all humans everywhere. But as I’ve studied the Holy Scriptures, for example, I have noticed my tendency to want to master, rather than be mastered. Consider this passage from The Communion of Love by Matthew the Poor, a monk and spiritual father in the Monastery of St. Macarius in the Egyptian desert:

There are two ways of reading the Holy Scriptures: The first is when a man reads and puts himself and his mind in control of the text, trying to subject its meaning to his own understanding and then comparing it with the understanding of others. The second is when a man puts the text on a level above himself and tries to bring his mind into submission to its meaning, and even sets the text up as a judge over him, counting it as the highest criterion.

Notice the difference? When I come to the Word of God on my own terms, I am trapped in misguided questions: “How do I feel about this?” “What does this do for me?” “How does this satisfy my understanding?” “What argument can I win with this information?” If my desire to learn and apply the practical truths of Holy Scripture is disconnected from the Holy Tradition of the Church and left to my own clever thinking, it can deteriorate into treating the Bible as the brightest gold on my throne or the heaviest weapon in my arsenal. But here at Valaam, in the precious hush of the ancient Divine Liturgy, the Holy Scriptures are held high above bowed heads and bent knees. These Orthodox Christians chose the only attitude appropriate for a people before their God– humility. And as an Orthodox Christian living in American culture where humility is dismissed as a sign of weakness, I was blessed with the sacred exposure to another way of doing things.

The violence at Valaam Monastery is the violence of spiritual warfare. And it is the violence I will carry with me when I leave Valaam, if I ever want to live at peace with God, with my neighbor, and with myself. It is the renunciation of those selfish parts of myself so that I may become more like the loving Christ: it is the taking up of my cross so that the comfort of the Holy Spirit is made known; it is the salvation work of laying down my arrogance so that I may draw near to the Holy Scriptures in the context of the Church, the way a dying man draws near to the only medicine that an save him. I do not have a clear sense of how to do this, of how to become this man of whom I have caught a glimpse at the monastery. I do know, however, that it begins with learning how to bow in humility to the Lord Jesus, rather than straining my neck to observe all the interesting things He can do for me.

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