I met an angel at Jordanville once. That angel took the time to correct and challenge me to see the beauty, the holiness, in every person and not just in a select few.
One important part of our faith is going on pilgrimage to holy places. Some holy places, like Holy Trinity Monastery are especially unique because they offer the opportunity to say prayers to God at the grave of a holy person. In those special moments, we thank God for the life of the reposed person, and we ask that we too can aspire to live such an extraordinary life of holiness.
Some years back, I had the opportunity to visit the grave of Brother Jose Munoz-Cortes in Jordanville. This grave marked the resting place of Brother Jose, a saintly person who was martyred in 1997. Sadly, I confess that I can become overly excited about visiting these places of holiness dedicated to extraordinary people. Albeit, the feeling of combined excitement and reverence might be normal, but the exorbitant level might be a bit much.
When I approached the large cemetery that summer morning in New York to offer a prayer at Brother Jose’s grave, I was ecstatic. I had wanted to visit his grave for some time. The grave was very easy to find as it was covered with flickering candles, folded papers containing prayers, and icons. I noticed a tall man sitting near the grave. He was disheveled with long blond hair and ragged clothes. He wore no shoes, and he had a single backpack that overflowed with peanut-butter sandwiches. He had strikingly blue eyes. He resembled what I imagine Huckleberry Finn looking like.
As I approached the grave, I asked the stranger if it were okay for me to offer a few prayers. He gave a polite nod and gestured me to the grave. As I did my prayers, I could see out of the corner of my eye that the stranger stared at me. He did not stare at me in a genteel way, rather it was like an old coach staring at his prize athlete as he studies the athlete’s every move.
After a short while, I completed my prayers, crossed myself, and backed away from the graveside. Moved by the experience I looked around at all the other gravestones, most of which had names written in Russian, in which I was not fluent. I knew about holy hierarchs buried in the crypt at the Church on the monastery property, but maybe there was another saintly person buried in the cemetery? Surely, one visit to the grave of a holy person was not enough for the day. The strange man noticed I was looking around the cemetery (he continued to stare at me) and he asked, “Father, are you looking for something?” I replied by asking him if he knew whether there were any other holy people buried in the cemetery. He thought to himself for a few seconds and then he pointed at a grave in the distance and said, “Svetlana is buried over there… She is a saint.” As I gathered myself to basically sprint over to Svetlana’s grave, the strange man spoke up again, interrupting my movement, and said, “that’s the grave of Yuri over there, he was a holy person.” My excitement was through the roof at this point. Three holy people in one cemetery; I had lucked out!
Again, he spoke up, “And over there is Alexsander… and there’s Olga, and Dmitri… and over there, Elena…” He rattled off dozens of other Slavic names. I must have looked like a crossed-up squirrel at that point trying to figure how to zig-zag to all the graves. Then he calmly slowed his talking and said, “Father?” He said it in such a way that it beckoned me to look at him. Then he replied ever so poignantly, while staring at me with his deep eyes: “Father, there are probably a thousand saints buried here. I don’t think you’ll have the time to pray in front of all of their graves.” He then promptly grabbed his backpack and started walking away very much shoeless.
I believe that stranger was an angel in disguise. He was a messenger sent to challenge me, or rather tutor me about how beauty and holiness does not reside just in the special designated saints of our Orthodox faith. Rather, there is beauty, holiness, and the image of God in every person, if we choose to see it. The image of God is in every person no matter whether their grave has candles and written prayers on it. Maybe the image of God is covered up with lots of muck from the mistakes we have made, but that image is there at the core of who we truly are. What I learned that day from the messenger is that every person contains beauty and holiness within them. The most important question and the challenge to us is whether we choose to open our eyes and see the beauty in every person around us who is endowed with the image of God within them, whether they are saints or sinners.