A sense of homecoming
Newcomers to a church typically spend some time looking around before finding a secluded spot where they can let their souls become absorbed in the worship and engage in a conversation with God. When we arrived, the service had already begun. I found myself a place at the stasidium, a pillar not far from the entrance that supported a gallery above us.
I had not yet recovered my breath from climbing so many stairs. My pulse was still irregular. My flesh and blood were keeping me from becoming attuned to prayer. I took the prayer beads off my wrist. I was already praying with my lips, but my mind was roaming elsewhere. Secretly, I was inspecting the icons, admiring the inner decor and watching the worshipers. I noticed a priest from Belarus – we travelled to Athos together, but then our ways parted. His companion, an experienced man of advanced years, was perhaps new to the Church. His zeal and disproportionate enthusiasm revealed a new convert in him.
Speaking of new converts, here is an incident that comes to my mind. I was beginning my eccelisastical service as a sexton and reader at the Church of Saint Vladimir in Grodno. The worship office was in progress, and we were preparing to read the Six Psalms. It was a custom at that church to put out all lights, and especially candles for this reading. The choir chanted “Glory to God in the highest…”, and the candlestick attendant moved quickly to put out the candles. I took a deep breath to read the first psalm. The worshippers – and it was a Vigil attended mostly by regular churchgoers – lowered their eyes to the floor in anticipation. Suddenly, a drama began to unfold right before my eyes – or, more exactly, a temptation.
A well-dressed woman with a magnificent hairstyle under a short scarf (most likely a sales agent or an office worker) was standing in front of the feast day icon with a bunch of candles. She was putting up and lighting the candles one by one, making the sign of the cross each time. She was doing this ostentatiously, for everyone to see. Perhaps she was the kind of churchgoer for whom making an impression on others was an essential part of going to church. Hardly had she finished crossing herself, when the candle stand attendant quickly put out the candle that she had just lit. Her eyes gave out a silent cry of bewilderment: “What are you doing? How dare you?” Thankfully, she did not utter a word. She just took out the candle and lit it back again. She put it up with visible effort and crossed herself with relief. But the candlestick attendant put it out again without letting her finish. She did it without saying a word, as she was attuning herself with the rest of the worshippers to the reading of the six psalms. The duel lasted for a while. The woman was diligently lighting her candle, and the attendant was putting it out just as quickly with great meekness and humility on her face. To others, the scene appeared like a quarrel between two children. But the more experienced attendant won: the lady retreated to the church stalls.
Finally, assistants brought out a bundle of prayer notes and began to distribute them among the worshipers. Without waiting for my copy, I moved closer to the exit. Here on Mount Athos, submitting a prayer note costs. The money paid on submission is still a sacrifice, but in some places (though not everywhere) it was more like a flat rate. We had submitted notes at many monasteries and sacrificed as much as we could, and nobody counted the money. But at Saint Panteleimon’s, they were quite strict. Still, everyone had the choice to submit their note or not.
The service ended, and we did a round of the temple to inspect the icons and relics inside. I finished my prayer, and I began to look for a place where I would stand for the morning service. I had little desire to stand too close to the altar. Closeness to the altar gave one a high profile, and I was trying to avoid fame at all costs, like a Russian spy.
At the door, Father Sergius approached me and told me in a nutshell about his pilgrimage to Mount Athos. He listed all the places that he had visited and told me how the monks put him up for a night and treated him as if he were an archbishop. He admired the fish at Xeropotamou Monastery.
How differently we see the places that we visit! Everyone I spoke with had very different impressions of the same places that Father Sergius had been to. Even we agreed to differ on the number of storeys added to the Church of the Holy Protection at Saint Panteleimon’s.
I said 6, Georgievich said 5, and Igor said 10. We had a similar argument over the floor on which our hotel was. But those were trivial things. What mattered the most to all of us was that coming to Saint Panteleimon’s was like returning home.
“Igor, how about taking communion tomorrow?”
“Father Nikolai, are you serious?”
“I am. The confession is after dinner. Prepare yourself!”
“Excellent. Thank you very much!” I sensed how much Igor was looking forward to his communion. He had a thirst for it, like a traveller across an arid desert is thirsty for a drink of water. I listened to my intuition, and I was not mistaken.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds
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