Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A rascal enters paradise

Never until I heard Fr Matthew refer to him as a rascal in his funeral service homily did I have a starting point from which to describe the life and antics of my friend Yanni. ‘Life and antics’ is really an understatement when referring to him. Yanni was not his name in the world, only within the Orthodox community of Portland, where he was known in many of the congregations because of his wanderings, his ‘going to and fro in the earth.’ Like everything else about him, his name had to be different. When it came to him, it came as a revelation, and he never let go of it. Named for John, but in Greek, not in English. Which John? The honorable forerunner and Baptist, of course. Only a saint who was a somebody— wild, reckless and enigmatic—could be his nameday saint.

Fr Matthew spoke truly when he related that he knew very few personal details about Yanni, because whenever he was around him, all Yanni wanted to talk about was theology and church history and other religious topics, but never, or rarely, about himself. Not being a priest, I wasn’t quite so lucky. Yanni became as familiar to me and my family as if he were my long lost brother, and because we were both from Chicago, he put every effort into emphasizing that fact, always bringing up places and streets by name, trying to jog my memory and infuse me with the nostalgic fantasy he had about the place of his origin. But of course, for neither of us was it a place of pleasant memories, but for him, it was valuable because it seemed to him a possible inroad into my life and an escape from loneliness.

Yanni and I became acquainted when we were both Episcopalians, and I was the reader of Friday vespers at the parish of Saint Mark. He used to drop by for Sunday service and occasionally to my evensong. Somehow, he followed us when we migrated to Greek Orthodoxy. I seem to remember him sitting in the last pew in Aghía Triás when we joined the Church. Fr Elias Stephanopoulos (memory eternal) was fond of him, and as he did with all strangers and lost sheep, took Wesley (that was his name then) under his wing like a mother pelican, tearing up fragments of her own flesh to feed to her dead babies, bringing them to life, as in the ancient story. Wesley the still-born Christian was born again in the holy font of Orthodoxy to emerge as Yanni, and every bit as mischievous as ever.

A Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, Yanni had been discharged after twelve years because he was beginning to show symptoms of a dysfunctional disease. I can remember driving him to the VA hospital several times so he could have tests done. It ended up that he was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, and though he didn’t die from it, it made his life for himself and for those who cared about and cared for him, a real challenge. In spite of his malady, he lived his life with more and more gusto, or attempted to, and what he really wanted to be—which was denied him because of his disease, among other defects—a priest, well, he tried with all his might to be and do what a priest should be and do, sometimes with hilarious, or pathetic, results.

The last eight or ten years we hadn’t seen much of one another, just meeting occasionally when attending a church service. He found the Greek church, which he always considered his home, uncongenial after Fr Elias reposed. The priests who came after him were not the kind of shepherds that Fr Elias was, going after the lost sheep, not waiting for them to come to him, and finding something for everyone to do for Christ, by calling them, not waiting for them to call. Yanni drifted in and out, but found a new home with the mission of Holy Apostles in the old Northwest neighborhood, not far from our Saint Mark’s. Fr Nicholas and Matushka Barbara always made him feel welcome.

What of his reputation as a rascal? Well, to be blunt, he was notorious for doing things his own way, and for general disobedience. He was the classic offender against all rules, who knows he can rely on forgiveness after a certain scolding, and that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.’ Yes, Yanni was a child, and a very disobedient, mischievous child, whose faith seemed to be a religious fantasy, yet who but he himself had walked in his shoes? Only a few of us knew what he had gone through, both in his upbringing, and in the intervening years. I knew he was harmless, meant well, and was only annoying and contrary because otherwise no one would have paid any attention to him.

The Orthodox funeral service, with its prayers for the pardon of sins voluntary and involuntary, seems to have been made especially with Yanni in mind, but what was evident in him is as much present in us, though well hidden. If Christ were to send someone to test and try our every vaunted virtue, He could have sent no one better than Yanni. Not a ‘fool for Christ,’ which in some ways would have been easier for us, but a ‘rascal for Christ,’ and worse, one that simply never let up. Only physical death could stop him. But I wonder if, even then, was the rascal in him with boyish mischief twinkling in his profusely watering and reddened eyes still chuckling at us as he felt his soul separate from his cruelly tortured limbs?

I didn’t know what I would do when I had to stand before his remains in the opened, felt-covered casket, and look at him one more time. What would I see? Would I be able to bend down and venerate—kiss—his lifeless body as I saw those ahead of me doing? It was difficult to kiss him while he was alive, because of his infirmity and how disfigured it made him appear. I was ashamed to have felt that way, but that is my worst weakness, being terrified of disfigurement. A woman of piety that went ahead of me, paused, prayed, kissed her hand and laid it on his head, heart, cross and hands. Ah, that’s what I could do, so I thought, as my turn was coming next.

‘Yanni!’ I cried inside as I looked on his face, his white headband with HOLY HOLY HOLY written on it crossing his forehead and keeping his whispy hair in place. That face was a face I had never seen before, a face not disfigured, but noble, quiet, serene, devoid of all mischief, beyond grief, clean and wise with closed eyes, a face sleeping, a soul resting in the bosom of Abraham. Not the face of earthly trial and pain, but the face that will meet the Lord, and also me, on the day of resurrection, the face that now looks on paradise, knowing its wearer is finally home, has finished the race, and is now what he always wanted to be, in the presence of Jesus, the King of kings of kings—blessed be He!

Without another thought, reverently pausing for prayer, I bent over and kissed the headband marked HOLY, and took one more look so I will remember to find again that face when we are raised ‘to meet the Lord in the air,’ on that Day. I bent and kissed the ikon lying on his chest, then the pectoral cross which he was never allowed to wear in the altar (since he was not an ordained priest) but which he will bring to the Lord for His blessing, and finally his hands, fingers entwined with the knots of his black prayer rope. ‘Forgive me, brother, for having denied you, forgive my weakness,’ I spoke inwardly as if he could hear. Then, remembering his mischievous eyes, ‘A rascal enters paradise.’

Yanni (left), my wife Anastasia, and me (Romanos) in happier days.

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