Bread, Fish, and Wine

This is a draft of a story. Please comment with your suggestions or corrections. Thank you for taking the time to read my little tale. Glory to Jesus Christ.

In my grandmother’s village they tell this story. Please sit while I tell it to you.

A young novice stared at the food given by the guards. The bread was gray and spotted with mold. Maggots wriggled atop it. The water had the stench of staleness and promised illness in it’s cloudy depths.

He and the elder monk, Ivan, had been picked up as they traveled from Moscow, returning to their monastery. Many had fled under the communist persecution, hiding in caves, or leaving Russia altogether. But Ivan had stayed, and young Grigori had stayed as well. Brother Ivan had openly worn his cassock and his pectoral cross, so Grigori had worn his cassock as well.

In most places, this accorded them some level of respect and charity, though people had been noticeably wary of being seen to help them as they traveled.

Grigori had asked if they should travel more discreetly, but Brother Ivan had simply said, “God is merciful.” It was an answer which gave no answer, like a lot of things Brother Ivan said. When the police had grabbed them, Grigori began to fight, but Ivan held up a hand, smiled, and said, “Peace, brother,” and with those simple words, Grigori ceased all resistance.

The camp was a horror. The two had been stripped of their cassocks, the elder monks cross taken from him and thrown on the ground, whereupon the elderly man had thrown himself on the ground and kissed it in reverence as the guards laughed and kicked dirt upon him, throwing Grigori to the ground as well beside the esteemed monk.

The tattered garb of a prisoner was given to them. The elder monk bowed to the guard who gave it to them and thanked them, blessing him with the sign of the cross. Despite being naked, the man retained enormous dignity. Grigori felt tears spring to his eyes at the sight and was ashamed of his own fear.

Grigori had been afraid nearly every moment since their arrival. The guards had cut off Brother Ivan’s beard and cut his hair. He looked more naked without his hair and beard while clothed than unclothed with them. Grigori’s own shaving was a less momentous affair as he’d never had much of a beard anyway. When Grigori lamented, the elder monk said, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The other prisoners somehow recognized this man as a man of God, even with no outward sign of his calling. The sick called from their beds, “Father bless.” Brother Ivan was a confessor monk, and so had heard the confessions of those who had them, blessed those who asked, and prayed over the sick. This continued for hours after their arrival.

The brothers were near falling from exhaustion and hunger. Their rations had been sparse on the road, and Brother Ivan shared them with any they came across. Even so, Grigori looked at the food provided and turned to Ivan with a look of horror.

            “Let us pray,” the elder monk said, a look of joy on his face.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, both now and forever. Amen.”

Brother Ivan and Grigori crossed themselves and made their prostrations, as was their custom. Then Ivan picked up the bread, held it aloft and in a loud voice thanked God for it and for the hands which had prepared it. His face glowed as if in the light of a summer sun. Grigori nearly threw up at the sight of the spoiled bread entering the mouth of the elder. But the elder simply ate with a look of satisfaction on his face.

Brother Ivan looked at the plate in front of him and no longer saw the maggoty, moldy bread on a battered tin plate, but before him a small feast. A plate of fine silver held a small loaf of rye bread, dark and rich and pungent, slathered in fresh butter. Beside it, a small fish, grilled to perfection, beside a glass of wine. Each morsel that went into his mouth was better than the one before. “Eat. Eat!” he told his young helper, wondering that he could wait after the privations of the road.

As the elder put a piece of fish to his mouth, Grigori watched the maggot twist and turn in his fingers. He gagged down his bread and nearly vomited from the taste of the water. It was no wonder the people were sick if this is what they were eating. He feared for the elder monk, whose had been sick for months earlier in the year.

As they finished their meager portions, Grigori was thankful it was over. Ivan, however, prostrated himself and said prayers of thanksgiving for the meal. Grigori then wept. The other men turned their faces away. The unspoken rule was to give each man privacy when he inevitably broke down.

As Grigori wept, Ivan looked at his plate, and realizing there was some left, took pieces of the bread and fish to the sick men who had not risen from their beds. The men later swore, when asked, that he had brought them fish and “good Russian bread.”

Returning to Grigori, Brother Ivan put a hand on his arm. “Be of good courage.”

Grigori’s tears turned from those of self-pity to those of repentance. Silently he prayed, “Oh God, help me be like Brother Ivan and to bear this captivity well.” He prostrated himself and prayed for some time.

When he arose, Ivan called to him, “Come brother, it is time to sleep. We must rest for whatever comes tomorrow.”

Brother Ivan swore that in the three years, five months, and fourteen days they were in the prison camp that he never ate moldy bread. He claimed that on all days that weren’t fast days, he ate fish. On fast days, he gave his entire fish ration to the sick. When Grigori fell ill, Brother Ivan gave to him a portion of the fish and bread and shared his drink. Grigori was convinced. He was indeed eating fine bread, fine fish, and wine.

The food from his own plate never varied. Moldy, maggoty bread, and foul water. He learned from Brother Ivan, however, to give thanks with a grateful heart for whatever he was given.

            The guards noted that the men in this particular barrack were considerably healthier than the others, and were convinced that someone was stealing food, but their raids never turned up anything. They seemed unable to see the dark bread, the fish, or the wine, or even to smell them. They took to raiding the barrack three times a day, and sometimes at night as well. They would walk right past men eating their fish and stomp back out, angry not to have found what they were looking for. Brother Ivan and Grigori with other men from their barracks were questioned often, with beatings and torture. Grigori wept bitter tears and could no longer walk uprightly when a broken leg healed improperly. Brother Ivan’s prayers often resulted in healing miracles for other men in the camp, but not for Grigori.

Grigori could not understand why the elder monk’s food was transformed, but that his remained unchanged. The other men came and asked Ivan to bless their food and walked away with joy, staring at their plates in wonder. They all began to join in prayers, at meals, and at other times. He could not understand why his leg remained crippled while another was healed. Grigori pondered all these things, but there was little time to talk, and many ears.

“Why does your food change, Brother Ivan?” Grigori asked.

“God is merciful,” Ivan replied.

“Why does mine remain unchanged?” Grigori asked.

“God knows,” Ivan replied, crossing himself.

“Why does my leg remain deformed?” Grigori asked.

 “God knows,” Ivan said again.

The replies did nothing to answer the disquiet in his heart. Nightly, with his face turned to the wall, he muffled his cries with his thin pillow. Daily, as they worked at cruel labor meant to break them, he called silently to God, begging for an end to his suffering.

As often as he could, Brother Ivan held liturgy, reciting the service from memory, with bread and wine from his own meal. He tried to keep the church calendar as much as possible, given the days rolling into one another. Occasionally during liturgy, Grigori was almost certain that he saw Brother Ivan vested properly, helped by men with bright, shining faces. On those occasions, he looked around their barrack and saw visions of icons. Icons of Christ, of the Mother of God, of Saint Nicholas, and others lined the walls. He went to them, weeping and praying. He took the Eucharist with joy, tears running down his face. He spent the rest of the day, on his face in prayer before the Lord, only rising when called by the guards or by Brother Ivan.

Those occasions were rare for Grigori, but he became convinced that this was a regular occurrence for Brother Ivan. Brother Ivan seemed to be in an entirely other place than Grigori, even when they were side-by-side. Ivan held conversations with people Grigori could not see.

One evening, Brother Ivan asked Grigori to take a walk with him. Unable to leave their barracks, this meant that they walked in circles, Grigory limping to keep up, through the room. “I have sad news for you, Grigori,” the elder monk began, “Your father is ill. We must pray.”

Grigori did not doubt his word for a moment, and the two men fell to their knees, praying for God’s mercy on his father. When Grigori would have ended his prayers and crawled into bed, the elder monk continued praying, so Grigori stayed on. The two men prayed throughout the night. When the light of dawn hit the first window, it shone first on Ivan’s face. He rose with a smile. “Your father will recover. Slava Isusu Kristu!” (Glory to Jesus Christ!)

“Slava na Veeky!” (Glory forever!) Grigori responded.

After fourteen months imprisonment, Grigori noticed Brother Ivan growing increasingly thin. Puzzling over why that would be after all this time, he took to watching him closely. He noticed Ivan slipping food into the pockets of his tunic and slipping it to men from other barracks as they worked in the fields together.

            Often, right in front of the guards, a man would fall to his knees in gratitude before the elder monk, “Bless me, Father,” he would say, and the elder monk would bless him. The guards seemed blind to this. On one occasion, however, the guards took note and beat the two men, both the prisoner on his knees and Brother Ivan.

            The next morning, however, that guard entered the barracks quietly, before dawn, kneeled before Brother Ivan, and with tears, begged his forgiveness. “I have been haunted by bad dreams all night long. My mother came to me, telling me of my sins. She was weeping over what I had done to you. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.”

            Brother Ivan had the man sit next to him on his bunk. The two talked quietly for some time, the guard, wiping tears on his sleeve, and Brother Ivan pronouncing a blessing on him. After that, the guard publicly ignored both Brother Ivan and Grigori, but came to them many nights to talk, to pray, and bringing them treats, such as he was able. One Sunday, he slipped in before dawn, and passed a piece of prosphora to Brother Ivan, whispering, “My wife made it.”

            Brother Ivan’s face glowed with gratitude, thanking him over and over, until the guard, embarrassed, slipped away. Liturgy that morning was very special. Brother Ivan was in tears through much of the service. The night before, when Grigori lamented that there was no bread left for the morning service, Brother Ivan crossed himself and said in the words of Abraham, “The Lord himself will provide the lamb.”

            Years later, in writing to a spiritual son, Abbott Grigori wrote:

I could not begin to tell you all the many wonderous things I saw in that camp, nor the deprivations, the suffering, the inhumanity. We saw much death, many beatings, much sorrow. We saw cruelty I cannot repeat. But I also saw God’s mercy, and the many wonders he wrought for and through Brother Ivan have given me much to think about over the years. We never missed a liturgy, never missed a feast day. We said our prayers morning and evening, as we were going to the fields, as we worked, and as we returned from the fields. Many a night I awoke and saw Brother Ivan kneeling by his bed in prayer. Many a man is alive who would have died were it not for him. Some guards were saved from damnation through his kindness.

But you asked me why my food and water remained unchanged. I have thought on this long and hard, and for many years now. I am no closer to learning the truth of that, except to say that God goes where He will and works as He wills. I have no doubt it was for my salvation. I am content with that. But I am glad that Brother Ivan was blessed with good food and wine to cheer the heart. With it, he blessed many others and through that, God’s name was praised in that horrible place. Glory to Jesus Christ.

Brother Ivan and Grigori were released eventually, but were threatened to tell no one of their imprisonment. How they were to explain having been missing for so long, is anyone’s guess, but they did not keep silent, for there were many left in those prison camps, and Brother Ivan asked Christians everywhere to pray for them without ceasing.

He longed to go back, to minister to those men, but in obedience, he returned to the monastery. Over the years, the monastery received five of those prisoners as monks. Those men told many stories of the wonders there, until instructed by Brother Ivan to say no more.

Upon their return, Brother Ivan asked Grigori if he still wished to be tonsured a monk. “I do.”

Grigori was tonsured a monk the following week.

A year later, the guard Alexi, came and took vows to serve Ivan and Grigori for the rest of their lives. Fifteen years later, upon the repose of Brother Ivan, and the transfer of the current Abbott, Brother Grigori was made Abbott Michael. Alexi remained at the monastery, serving Abbott Michael until his repose in the Lord, on the seventeenth anniversary of the repose of Brother Ivan. Alexei then left the monastery, having fulfilled his vow, and returned to his family.

Not much is said of these two men, but it should be noted that they were buried next to each other on monastery grounds. It is said by the local women that those who suffer should come and pray at their graves on the anniversary of Brother Ivan and Abbott Michael’s deaths. If the roses planted above their graves are in bloom, they should pluck a flower and place it in front of an icon of the Holy Mother, and their suffering bodies will find relief.

Many make gifts of bread, fish, and wine to the poor and to prisoners in honor of these revered men.

My grandmother used to tell me this story, telling me how she prayed for my leg to be restored, plucking a red rose and placing it in front of the holy icon at the chapel. It sounded like one of the fairy tales told by the old women, but today I found a photograph of me as a boy of two or three with a badly healed leg which stuck out to the side. I had a tiny crutch and was clearly crippled. I am not crippled now. I do not know what the truth is, but I have made you this meal of bread, fish, and wine. I ask that you come inside my home and eat it with me in honor of Ivan and Grigori. And of my grandmother, may God rest her soul. Slava Isusu Kristu!

On time

I’m lying here in the simple and beautiful guest room in the home of my brother and his wife. The sounds of a less familiar place are slowly recognized and filed away; that is the sound of traffic on Tidewater, there the military helicopters heading back to base. There are also silent spaces where the usual sounds of my husband’s snoring, the dog’s quiet breathing or her gentle mid/dream yips, the barely audible sounds of a podcast from another room would usually be.

I’m wondering what junk I need to clear from my life and what things I should keep. I don’t mean physical possessions, but what focuses, activities, obsessions, passions, what-have-you that I spend my time, energy, thoughts, and emotions on. What things are merely spinning my wheels? Which things are distracting me from following after God? Which are demonic tools to make me fritter away the time?

Does anyone write anymore?

It’s 2020. Let the weirdness begin. Wildfires in Australia; pandemic; isolation, masks, social distancing, empty store shelves, unemployment, more people killed by police, BLM, riots, looting, CHAZ, food shortages; coin shortage, “essential businesses “; “essential employees”, quarantine, rations; business closures; churches shut down; instability, fear; misinformation…

It is crazy-making, inspiring what I call COVID brain. Words vanish like smoke in the wind. It’s hard to remember what day it is, and loneliness and isolation are everywhere. No movies, no ballgames, no concerts.

Everything is different now.

Too much TV, too little conversation, church on TV, as if you can really participate in the divine and sacred properly through the screen.

How do we process this? Are our politicians power-mad? Are they incompetent? Do they have expert advice we aren’t hearing because it’s drowned-out by all the noise and speculation? Is our government striving to abolish our freedom?

I don’t know the answers.

What I know:

  • God is in His heaven
  • Red-winged blackbirds still sing in the cattails
  • Delphiniums are brilliantly blue
  • It is a joy to go to church
  • Books are still one of my favorite things
  • Swimming is delightful
  • Kindness is always in season
  • Sunrise and sunset are both quiet wonders
  • Yellow roses cheer almost anyone
  • Little children are precious
  • White bone china is lovely
  • Good cotton sheets are a treat

Sometimes you can’t be Switzerland

I’ve spent most of my adult life trying not to take sides. Most of the time I find that both sides have their own interior logic, whether I agree or not. In that spirit I try to approach things.

It’s a tightrope walk, but it mostly works for me.

Sometimes, however, when issues and behaviors come to light, I can no longer fly a neutral flag and must take sides.

I’m horrified to find that I have to do this again. I’ve been hoping to be a bridge between two warring parties, only to find out that one party has been hiding things from me. Lying, lets be honest.

I pride myself on being able to read people. Yes, pride is one of my besetting sins. Turns out the signs have been there, but I didn’t want to see them.

The betrayal is huge. My heart is broken. Again. I trusted, admired, believed, followed, and defended the wrong side. I’m not ashamed of that. I was hoodwinked by a professional.

This person has caused so much pain. And my pain is not just for myself, but for the others who have been hurt, betrayed, slandered, and deceived.

Friends against friends.

Taking sides that should not have to be taken. Psalms 101 (100 in the Orthodox Bible) 6&7 says: Mine eyes shall be upon the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me: he that walketh in a perfect way, he shall serve me. He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house: he that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight.

These verses helped me figure out which side I’m on. I’ve observed my friends, and seen them walk uprightly. I’ve never known them to lie, hide, or prevaricate. When they spoke truth, I recognized it, despite my deep wish that it not be true.

Betrayal hurts. And we all get sucked into it.

My friend Charlie said “when someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Wise advice.

Despite what I want to be true, believe the evidence of your own eyes.

And no, my husband is not who I’m speaking about.

The pain is real, however.

Discovery

I tried to understand my part in the difficult relationship my dad and I had, I really did. Only recently have I begun to see my own sin in that relationship.

I didn’t act in the most loving way. I nursed my pain. I acted superior. I lacked respect. Even when I was respectful on the outside, I was arrogant on the inside. I tried to forgive, but held onto my pain, wielding it ineffectively, but refusing to set it down.

Perhaps, had I been humble, kind, and truly loving and forgiving, he could have softened and let the sweet guy, the one on the inside, out. Perhaps not, but I would have, could have had fewer regrets.

Darling Girl

When a friend dies, it’s hard. When they are young, it’s harder. When they kill themselves…

I can’t find the words.

There are moments, hours, days, even when the disbelief is something I wish for. The weight of this certainty is crushing. There is a hole in my heart. I’ve cried so many tears I think I’m dehydrated.

Striving for equilibrium. I feel like I’m falling and am surprised when I don’t hit the floor. I feel my insides screaming a primal sound that no one hears.

Ah, Lord have mercy.

Put Your hand over my mouth. Let me be kind to those around me.

A True Account

How to tell the story? Born an only child of parents who did not want children, he was leashed to a clothesline to keep him from falling in the creek when he played outside. From a very early age he was shipped off to his grandparent’s farm where he would spend his summers working, returning home for the school year.

Left largely to his own devices, he became an avid outdoorsman, skier, fly fisherman, and trumpet player. He lettered in baseball and football. He worked as a logger, an active job that kept his Type I diabetes unnoticed until he went to college.

He met and married my mother days before his twentieth birthday. Neither set of parents was thrilled.

He studied math and computers, and engineering. He was good enough to be hired on to program large military radar systems without completing his degree. He was brilliant, but never believed it.

He became a Christian and changed the course of all our lives. He gave up playing in dance bands and afterwards devoted his extraordinarily fine playing to God.

He attended Western Conservative Bible Seminary in Portland, OR, where his fourth and final child was born. Unable to support his family and finish, he returned to his previous line of work, maintaining friendships with professors which lasted throughout his life.

He became an itinerant preacher, finally realizing his dream of a full pastorate in a small country church. His brief tenure there was difficult and costly for the family, but also reaped rewards for some who sat under his teaching in their formative years.

He was a difficult man, frustrated by his work, where he was berated by a superior who would, nonetheless, present Dad’s work as his own. His longing for a full-time pastorate, together with his health problems, and the difficulties relating to others added to his frustration. Friends and family speculated that he may have had some high- functioning form of autism or adult detachment disorder, but no formal evaluation was ever made.

He could be abrupt with people who disagreed with him, made jokes in such a dry, dead-pan way that even those who knew him best would not realize he was joking.

But, for all the difficulties, I adored him. I think that’s why I could get so angry with him. When he didn’t act like the person he could be, it hurt me deeply. It wounded me when he was sharply critical of me or of others. I knew he could be better than that. He would pick up strangers on the road. He took in strangers, feeding them, giving them a place to sleep, and assisting with practical needs. He brought food to those in need, and sometimes paid tuition for other students in our private school.

After we were sent to bed, Dad, accompanied by Mom on the piano, would play his trumpet. He never attempted to play quietly, as far as I can recall. My lullabies were trumpet solos. Not just any trumpet, but Dad was one of the finest trumpet players I’ve ever heard. It was painful when his health no longer permitted him to play.

Likewise, he was an artist with a fishing pole. I loved to scramble along the riverbank following him. Words fail me. The music of the river, the wind stirring the cottonwoods, the rustle of the shrubs all faded when hearing the singing of the line, whipping in a serpentine arc before snapping forward and lightly slapping on top of the river. It was physical poetry.

Who will tell the campfire stories now? Who will tell the fate of Nate? Who will sing the silly songs? Who will blaze the trails?

Ah, Dad. This is just a small part of your story. Love you forever.

Stop That!

I told her how angry I was with some family members in the wake of Dad’s death. I didn’t recognize this anger, hostility, and desire to lash out.

“Stop that!” She said it firmly and sternly. “You need to say the Jesus Prayer 200 times a day.”

Moments later she apologized for being so abrupt with me, but she had no need. She said what I needed to hear in the way I needed to hear it.

Understand, she was not telling me not to grieve, but instructing me how to do it without damaging my soul and my relationships.

I have been surprised to have a few people provide me with a game plan for my Dad’s passing and for afterward. These things are helpful at a time when you are floundering and your thoughts are scattered.

Read the Psaltry aloud. Hold his hand. Tell him you love him. Read the prayers for the dying. Keep talking to him and praying, reading the Psalms, after his heart stops, as the person may live on for 8-9 minutes afterward.

These instructions guided me. Otherwise, my guidebook would have been a mush-mash of tv and movie scripts.

I’ve heard some say that Orthodoxy is a bunch of empty rituals. We may have rituals, but empty? I’ve found them rich, meaningful, and full of life.

Surprised by Grief

“Are you surprised by how hard you are taking this?” She asks the question as I sit at her kitchen table. I think I’m doing well, considering that Dad has been gone less than a week.

What surprises me isn’t that I am grieving, but that grief makes me feel tired, slow, sore, and forgetful. My body feels like I have a low-grade flu. My brain isn’t processing quickly.

Having no funeral feels wrong. It is an occasion without commemorating. It’s Easter without Church, Thanksgiving with no meal, 9-11 without a moment of silence, moving without a goodbye meal, an inauguration held in the kitchen, not on the steps of the Capital. Certain events, both happy and sad, cry out for ceremony.

I feel like I’m waiting for the event.

But I don’t think I’m taking this too hard. My Dad died. I would be surprised if it was easy.

A back itch has me in tears. The last time I was at Mom and Dad’s (now it’s just Mom’s) Dad was rubbing his back on a corner to deal with persistent itching. I asked which uncle used to do that. “Ward,” he answered.

I found myself at Salvation Army this afternoon looking for the clothes we donated. Where are his suspenders? His shoes? I didn’t see one familiar thing and couldn’t decide if that was good or bad.

I feel substantially older.

What do people expect of me? I went to work today. One week after Dad died. I went to work. Yes, I cried. But I was there. I made two mistakes and fixed them. I was relieved when the day was over.

My hair has been clean almost every day. This is a good sign. I can’t seem to remember to take my meds and vitamins, but that will come.

How easy was this supposed to be?

In His Shoes

At some point in the 70’s, my dad bought a pair of shoes. “How much were they?” To Moms horror and disbelief, they cost $400. According to Bureau of Labor, that means these shark-skin shoes would cost about $1,200 in today’s dollars.

He walked a lot of miles in these shoes. They are beautiful shoes, even today. They carried him for nearly 50 years. They have been re-soled once. Yesterday they found a new wearer–my son. They will see many more miles on this earth.

It feels good to know these shoes will carry a new generation and Dad’s investment will carry on. Go handsomely and stylishly into the world, carrying a piece of your grandfather (and my heart) with you.