Not Knowing Where I was…
Taking a look around and seeing the Central Russian temple architecture, I felt at home, just as I did in St Elias Skete. The Russian saints were peering at me, a small bug crawling through the darkness. Guessing (rather than seeing) their stern faces, I prepared to give an account of my hope and report to them what an unworthy priest like me was doing there. As if in indecision, I reached for my prayer rope and began to recite prayers slowly and audibly. Making several circles through my fingers, the woolen knots stopped for a moment, as I saw the familiar faces of saints and knew that they heard me. I was once again entering the long-forgotten state of prayer. I remembered my parishioners, friends, relatives, offenders, the offended and even complete strangers. I was praying consciously and fervently, not knowing whether I was on earth or in heaven. Was my soul recovering from a lingering spiritual illness, or was it contracting a new ailment called “prelest”? Considering my sinfulness, I admit the latter but at that moment I had no doubt that my prayer was true.
A monk came by, whose duty was waking up those who had fallen asleep during the service. He looked at me, I looked at him, and we did not see each other again until the release of the first hour. But I saw someone else.
Having remembered everyone whose names and faces the Lord brought to my memory, I returned to reading the Jesus Prayer with my prayer rope. The night was still deep and filled with grace. Suddenly I heard steps to my left and behind. It was not a rhythmic footstep of a self-confident person. In musical terms, the gait that I heard was syncopated (with a displaced rhythmic basis) or simply out of time. The footsteps were walking all around the temple. A transparent shadow emerged from the darkness. Stopping at the column with an icon of the Mother of God, the shadow continued down the aisle and disappeared in one of the stasidia, but after a minute it moved on. Finally, this phantom approached me, looked into my face, turned around and headed in the opposite direction. Sighs and rustles were heard behind my back until the wandering soul finally found peace and everything went quiet. What looked as an ethereal entity in the unusual setting of a night worship turned out to be Valera, rushing around the church for some time. As I later found out, Valera was going through some temptation at the time, but he was reluctant to talk about it.
The censing during Matins on Mount Athos deserves special attention. From afar it resembles a troika of daring horses galloping in rhythmic dashes. It gets closer and closer until suddenly, a hierodeacon emerges from behind the column with a hand censer, strewn with bells and looking like a dragon or a fairy-tale Phoenix bird. Holding the censer by the handle below, the hierodeacon shakes it to the sides sharply and rhythmically. It seems as if a restless bird, sitting on his hand, is trying to break off and fly away. The recent surge of fatigue disappeared without a trace. The censing cheered me up, dispersing the demons of despondency, watching for pilgrims during lengthy divine services.
“Glory to You who Showed us the Light”!
During the reading of the first hour, the pilgrims, appearing out of the blue, formed a line to venerate the shrines kept in the church. Joining this line, I suddenly realized that it was not us venerating the relics of the saints, but the saints welcoming us, lifted above the ground during the service, with a special greeting, “Christ is in our midst”!
The Liturgy began. After venerating the relics, the congregation gathered in the left side-altar, where the reading and singing of Matins had previously taken place. There were about twenty of us already. Antiphons, litanies and exclamations were chanted and pronounced in Greek, but that was no longer important. We were sailing on the same rescue ship, with each of us standing on his own watch and doing a common cause. Before I knew it, the Communion began. The service passed quickly, like a long-awaited holiday in childhood, when the waiting and preparations seem to take ages, and the next thing you know is that the guests are leaving.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds