Sunday, January 25, 2015

All things visible and invisible

Just a story…

The end of January, and spring is already here. He cannot get enough fresh air in his room or into his lungs, and he throws open both windows wide. Coolness hovers just outside, refusing to pour in—there is no breeze. He ponders the invitation to call a priest to visit his humble home and, praying profusely, splash its rooms and ikons with holy water, the water that was blessed three weeks earlier. Is it still fresh? Does the Spirit still indwell it? Or like the manna, does it go bad if you don’t use it daily?

Stavrakis sits and ponders. He went to church today, this Lord’s day. That makes two in a row. Each time the worship was so different. Last week, no choir, just a cantor chanting in husky, male syllables that intimidated not just the women but even most of the men from singing along. Today, a mixed choir reappeared like an orchestra on tour, bright with womanly voices and, if there were any males among them, they were cleverly disguised. Stavrakis sang both services as best as he could. He loved to sing.

As usual, a blind man is always something of a mystery, and even in church people tend to avoid him. Is it because they think he might accidentally bump into them as he stumbles around the temple? Or are they afraid of hurting him? Perhaps they’re thinking he has been hurt enough already, so it’s better to let him be, leave him alone to work it out with the Lord. After all, who is a better friend and comforter than God? Stavrakis, the blind widower of an insane wife, maybe God doesn’t love him. Who knows?

Without sleeping on it, he decides to call the priest and leaves a message, ‘Come sit with me, take a little tea, and bless my house, Father. I am always at home,’ on the answering machine. It isn’t as though he has been regular at this. He can’t even remember the last time he had his house blessed. Had he ever? He simply can’t remember. Maybe that’s why his house fell into ruin. Stavrakis was never one to be very keen on blessings. When he could still see, it seemed to him that God’s blessings around him every day were enough.

On a walk to the market, he hears a familiar voice. It’s the priest. ‘Thank you, Stavrakis, for your message.’ He feels for the father’s hand, bows slightly and kisses it, smiling but saying nothing. Then the two of them part ways with no more said, as if they were strangers. Did the priest smile? A blind man has the hardest time seeing a smile when you don’t speak. Stavrakis asks himself, ‘Does this mean he will come and have tea with me? Will he bless my house?’ He doesn’t know if the two activities can be combined, and wonders.

Later, a shallow knock at the door. Stavrakis, lost in meditation as he lies on his bed reciting from memory and praying the psalms, thinks he is dreaming. Did I hear a knock? He pauses, and breathes deeply, a little nervously. Did the father come after all? Is he at the door? Better hurry down to see, that is, as much as a blind man can, and while he descends the stairs he hears another knock, unmistakably clear this time. Tap-tap-tap! There it is again. Tap-tap-tap! Always threes, everything Orthodox has to come in threes.

‘Agios! Agios! Agios! Kyrios o Theos…’ Stavrakis mutters to himself as he covers the last few steps to the door handle. To do anything outside himself, he must extricate himself from his prayer. He swims in it as a fish swims in water, unaware that it even is water, unaware that it is swimming. ‘Father, is that you?’ he asks as the door swings open. He’s answered by meeting a faint fragrance of Bethlehem incense, the same as he burns at his own ikon stand against the east wall of his dining room.

‘It is you, Father! I didn’t know if you’d come!’ The priest greets him with clerical reserve tempered by some natural human warmth. ‘I don’t know what to do, Father, so I hope you do!’ he jokes with the young priest to break the ice and make both of them feel a little more comfortable. Slowly, after a few more words of welcome and greeting on both sides, the father begins the prayer. As he prays in each room, Stavrakis stays near, making the responses, smelling the incense, feeling occasionally the overspray of the aspergil as the priest casts holy water about the rooms.

Then, it is over. Stavrakis is afraid to ask, but he forces himself. ‘Father, would you care to take tea with me? I would consider it a great blessing to sit down with you. Maybe we could talk a bit.’ There is a long pause, and then a negative but apologetic response. Then, another longer pause. ‘What’s he waiting for?’ he asks himself. Then, he remembers. ‘Give the priest something for his trouble in coming out to see you.’ His alter ego responds, ‘But that’s what the tea was for!’

‘Perhaps God doesn’t accept tea as an offering,’ he jokingly muses. ‘Even goat’s hair, He will accept as an offering, so say the rabbis. But tea? That’s another matter.’ Stavrakis’ heart is still Jewish like his mother’s, even though she didn’t survive long enough to make a Jew out of him. His Greek father’s grief at her death, like a family curse, was passed on to him: His dead wife, though she didn’t die early, early died her love for him, making life with her impossible to the end.

‘Father, I am sorry, but I didn’t think ahead to have any money in the house to give you as an offering for coming here to bless. Please, look about you. Is there anything in my house that you or Holy Church could use? If there is, please take it. Anything you can see. Please forgive me.’ The young priest takes a few steps and Stavrakis hears the jingle of something metallic, then the sound of something being put down on the dining room table, above which is mounted an ancient Hebrew manuscript.

‘No, brother Myron. There is nothing that I can see that Holy Church or I need to take away from you as an offering. I have already received an offering that I cannot see from you, and so we give you an offering that you cannot see. Your offering is spiritual, ours only material. But please, accept it, let it be our offering to the God you worship in this house, who has blessed me very much.’

And having said those words, the young father departed, leaving his censer on the table for Stavrakis’ prayers.

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