Words Incarnate

What’s the Good Word?

It is a very special revelation indeed to see that someone, in person, in the flesh, literally suspects you of evil. Something like a switch in the universe goes off, or on, and something like a reversal of the normal laws as you knew them ensues. You were up, but now you’re down. You were big, massive even, an entire cosmos unto yourself, but now you’re a pissant. Or maybe you just always thought you were average, of no particular account in the universe, and have just found out that you might be the moral equivalent of an asteroid to a small community. Call me Wormwood.

This was my experience, at least, in Alaska in the late winter of 2007, when the pilot of my skiff, an Orthodox layman (whom I shall call “Ivan” for respectful anonymity’s sake) from a remote fishing community, who had just ferried me across a little watery notch of the Kodiak archipelago, and was now slowly steering the boat into Monk’s Lagoon of Spruce Island, in a low voice asked me just what I was going to be doing here at St. Michael’s Skete. And then, because that didn’t come close enough to the mark—and, as I read it then, not being one to sin through polite indirectness or vain intimation—he came straight out and said, “You’re from the Baptist mission. You aren’t going over to evangelize the monks, are you?”

In the course of a life, the flesh is heir to a thousand natural shocks. But in the course of a conversation, the mind can be clothed in a whole suit of personal honors, should one be so lucky as to find a partner with a similar sense of civility (i.e., of one’s own personal relevance). But here I was in Alaska, in the middle of the Gulf and mostly off the grid, where religion itself wears a practical oneness in persons, and a useful uniformity with people. Much of this, I have come to think, has to do with the landscape, whose demanding, really unforgiving ruggedness extends beyond the land and indeed exists primally in the sea and sky. Far from any Kierkegaardian leap, faith up here can often seem to take the path of least resistance. (I say “seem” because my own tradition tells me that I lack the eyes, and bear too much imagination, truly to see anyone’s real, inward faith.) For humble vessels at least, the smoothest (and therefore smartest) course is often the slowest and shallowest, because it is the closest to a firm and visible foundation.

And here I was coming to what is arguably one of the most firmly held and clearly visible foundations of Eastern Orthodoxy in Alaska, locally, and indeed in America, historically. For Spruce Island was (and to the Orthodox is) the home of St. Herman, “America’s first saint,”[1] whose life inspired innumerable legends that the faithful continue to tell to this day. Indeed, ask an Alaskan, Orthodox or otherwise, about the character and conduct of St. Herman, and you will likely hear stories marked by the most determined compassion in the midst of zealous persecution, the most unwavering intrepidity in the face of utterly inhospitable weather, and the most unswerving faith in the most hazardous isolation. The Saint’s example continues on in his brotherhood, and his presence persists in his many relics, his chapel,[2] his burial site, his blessed spring, and the devoted attendance of them from pilgrims both Eastern and Western. Even the scenery bears the imprint of the Saint: there is Mt. Herman, Spruce Island’s highest point (which loomed larger as I drifted closer); and there is Monk’s Rock, a large, upward jutting hunk of slate, where the Saint reportedly planted himself amidst a storm in order to stop a raging sea from reaching the village (whose promontory looked to me like the flattened edge of a giant’s gnarled premolar). Yes indeed, Ivan had just ushered me into a religious landscape with a quite concrete cartography.

(An icon of St. Herman with scenes from his life. Photo: St. Tikhon’s Monastery.)

And with what he’d said, I was, in a matter of seconds, stuck in the confines of pejorative terms. I was not an evangelist–like the great gospel writers–but an evangelizer–an intrusive religious subversive. I felt my face become a mask to this man, just as I faced the burden of the past in the present. Protestant-Orthodox relations had had a somewhat checkered history, and here I was in the middle of its continuance. How could I explain that I was there in some complicated sense to honor my missionary grandparents–indeed themselves evangelizers in their own unique way? How could I explain what I saw to be the complex of lies around this word–both proven and superstitious–and the deeper, often unseen truth behind it?

History

What Ivan could not see was that Spruce Island was also a territory of personal and religious import for me—and that more peculiarly than for the average pilgrim. The not quite 18 square miles of the place had come to manifest many decades of my family history; what occupied a miniscule place on the state map contained many of the biggest sites of Smith lore. It was the place where my father enjoyed and endured an utterly unique American childhood, growing up as one of the few white kids in the mostly native (Alutiiq) fishing village of Ouzinkie,[3] witnessing Alaska’s transition from territory to state status,[4] and not knowing that the exotic banana needed to be peeled before it could ever be properly consumed.[5] It was also one of the places most impacted by the “Great Tsunami” of 1964, which hit the gulf as a result of the Good Friday Earthquake on March 27th—a major moment in many of southern Alaska’s coastal communities, to be sure, but also an event that gained a kind of canonical status in my father’s family and with a wake that continued on into my generation.[6]

And yet, just as Spruce Island was the home of my father’s hometown, so too was it the launching place of my grandparents’ lifelong mission. For from the time they moved to the islands in the early fifties, to the ends of their lives by the new millennium, my grandparents did much of their dwelling by boat, sailing across the Gulf as messengers of the “Good News”–the revived name for the Gospel in their time. In strict denominational terms, they were American Baptist missionaries. But to many local Christians under a capital Ecumenical—both to evangelical Protestants and to certain Eastern Orthodox—they were veritable heroes in life and undoubted legends after death.

But this is where I begin to lapse into legend-like thinking. As the youngest cousin in the family who also had the blessing (or curse) of growing up in California, my exposure to my grandparents was limited to stories. My memories for much of my childhood were mostly marked by a mountainous type distance—they loomed large, but as largely flat figures. Even after getting to know a little more of their humanity firsthand as a young adult, and even after meeting even more of it through the increasingly accountable candor of my parents as an adult, I’ve often tended to resort to mythic terms in attempting to comprehend or convey their lives and accomplishments.

They seemed to be persons equally yoked in essentials, sharing a kind of galloping urgency (which stood ever steady in the pews) and an ox-like endurance (which bore through gales in stiff slacks and white stockings). I like to think that, in their own waspy way, they had the grit to get around the islands, but also the gallantry to seek out its people. If you really think about it, they really did take after the famed circuit riders of earlier awakenings; to live that way, they had to have clung to their itinerancy for dear life—for, as far as they believed, what else were their travels meant to retrieve? Only instead of riding, they piloted. Instead of mounting a saddled horse, they boarded a repurposed boat. Or rather, a floatable church.

(An early colorized photo of the “mission boat” the Evangel. All photos, unless otherwise credited, are thanks to my dad’s website.)

Over the course of what for some must have been a heroic, even kairotic fifteen years,[7] my grandparents, with their growing crew of children, sailed their unique revival tent over the waters. They brought their church to some fairly distant communities—by American standards, some of these villages look to be an islet or two from the end of the earth—but the boat’s biggest payload for the Lord, at least according to the consensus of the folks I’ve met and talked to, came from ferrying local children to Camp Woody (started by my grandparents and still running to this day[8]) on nearby Woody Island. From the looks of it, my forbears packed their tub to a near miraculous capacity, averaging “at least” 40 kids plus baggage.[9] I picture it looking like the archetype of an icon full of little apostles with lolling heads.

But my grandparents didn’t stop at some surface-level likeness—sailing their own seas and stepping out into their own storms. To my mind, at least, they not only went well beyond the stagnant “comfort zones” common in American Christendom, but they also ventured out of the usual (and equally comfortable) confines of the common Christology. This is not to say they were heretical or wayward in all things creedal—if the label of “radical” ever fit them, it would only be in the most original form of returning to the root, and if they in any way earned the term “progressive,” it would likely be due to their sense of racing toward a finish already won.[10] From what I have heard, anyway, their Christ was or could be[11] not the whitewashed post-war savior praying stiffly in the pale moonlight, but the Jewish man who broke bread and body whose breath still breathes. I like to think that, in their own way, through their own place and time, my grandparents saw or were able at times to see this breath as that Spirit at once elusive to human capture and vital to human bonds, a breath to be sought like a wind and to be found abiding like a vine between “you” and “I.”[12]

(One of my grandparents’ favorite artistic depictions of Jesus was “Christ Our Pilot,” by Warner Sallman, 1953. On the one hand, their aesthetic sense was very much a product of their time and place; on the other hand, no one’s time and place so closely matched the content of the picture. It was less romantic, and more realistic, to them than it would have been to other “believers” in milder landlocked climes. It also helped that they thought the disciple-pilot in the painting looked like my grandfather.)

(An Eastern Orthodox icon of “Christ the True Vine.”)

All of this purple language is to say that they were, happily for their time, and sadly still for ours, exceptionally ecumenical in their ministry. From all accounts, they seemed to have behaved with an exemplary neighborliness toward the Orthodox clergy and laity—who were, after all, their literal neighbors. This, for instance, is how one Spruce Islander remembers the outsider Smiths’ entry into this outlying community:

“There are two places of worship in Ouzinkie: One is the Russian Orthodox Church and the other is the Baptist chapel in Baker Cottage (commonly called “the Mission” by Ouzinkie residents). . . . In 1958, Reverend Norman Smith, who ran the Baptist mission boat, the ‘Evangel’, was relocated to Ouzinkie. He and his wife, Joyce, and their four children moved from their tiny cabin in the village of Larsen Bay to the spacious Baker Cottage . . . The Baptist Mission and the Russian Orthodox Church served their community side by side, and Ouzinkie villagers interacted with both. After all, Joyce taught Kindergarten at Baker cottage for 42 years, until her retirement, and served as village health aide for most of that time as well. Norman did everything from minding the city generators to delivering mail from plane to post office, besides providing his Sunday services in the chapel.”[13]

Their overall presence came to be taken for granted—they would become just a matter of the island’s facts. But this seemingly settled and easy communal living was in fact only gradually born over many hard years and a tireless variety of labors. Truth be told, at the time of their arrival, and in the long wake that followed, the Smiths’ chances of causing tension were guaranteed, so that my grandparents had to be prepared to deescalate conflict just after making introductions—and often far before. (I picture them landing on the island bent over backwards.) For they had indeed come to Spruce Island and the surrounding areas to evangelize the people—their purpose was painted boldly across the sides of their boat. But, as my father tells it, my grandparents had serious reservations about being sent to a place already home to a “Christian presence,” and conveyed as much to their denominational dispatch; and they seem to have been savvy to an even deeper problem: that of introducing a Christ where a Christ already is. For the differences (as they always do) would ineluctably solidify and separate—split—to form a diminished incarnation of their own. I believe that, at least on the most conscious level, it was far from their intention to colonize the village, to “Americanize” this belated America, and I believe that the last thing they wanted to do was to create a market of competing churches. They had no spirit for taking on a schismatic face. Thus, before they were able to “tell the story,”[14] they had to explain themselves. Before they could really to speak their message, they had to dialogue.

(The neighborhood Orthodox Church of the Holy Nativity in Ouzinkie.)

But this turned out to be one of the biggest points of their message after all. At least, it is to me, a descendant who has been distant enough to see the glow while close enough to witness the dirt. Knowing plenty instances of their humanity, I believe this ecumenism is one of my grandparents’ truest legacies, being the form in which they may have become the best examples of their beliefs.

Exegesis

The word “ecumenism” comes from the Greek oikoumenikos, meaning “of or belonging to the inhabited earth.” The sense of habitation, of human life and meaning invested in a specific physical place, is essential to the term. In Hellenistic culture, oikumene literally meant “inhabited,” but usually referred on the grand scale to the entire known world or on the small scale to the nearby domestic vicinity. In the case of the New Testament, this often meant the total Roman Empire, or some city or town within its expansive rule. In medieval and early modern periods, “ecumenical” referred to Christian churches working in the same creedal spheres—in gross terms, all those who shared a common faith-life under the same Pope, patriarchate, or protest. In the twentieth century, however, the oikumene of the Christian world took on a global importance, as the known world grew through globalization. In fact, the “Christian world” had been gradually growing for some time, in large part due to the travels of missionaries: many Christians were going to the ends of the earth only to find some very other form of Christian already there. But many Christians at home were also becoming more and more involved with the sometime stranger-Christians in their common but ever-changing and -mixing societies. Thus, the ecumenical movement was born out of the concerted intention to find some unity in the warding otherness, and to put the face of the neighbor onto the stranger faith. The common life was already there—the communion, however, was missing.[15]

(Logo for the World Council of Churches, founded in 1948.)

My grandparents had thoroughly inhabited their contemporary understanding of evangelism, which harkened back to the Greek evangelizomenoi, literally meaning “gospeling” or “good newsing.”[16] Their logic for the spread of the Gospel, for all of its fifties flesh, endeavored to follow the model of the incarnation. As Paul writes,

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-5)

And then, after echoing Isaiah, the Apostle refigures Psalm 19:4: “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”[17] This “world” is that very same oikumene, that vicinity of common life.

How are they to hear without a voice to listen to? How are they to call without an ear to hear them? Blessed is the foot, literally. This or something like it was the thinking behind my grandparents’ going. They wanted to be Christ’s hands and feet at their own little end of the world. But in their staying my grandparents also found the deeper root of “ecumenical” that comes from the word oikos, meaning “house” or “home.”

The word occurs many times in the New Testament, but nowhere so prominently as in Luke-Acts, that two volume work of early missiology. The gospel of Luke is densely populated with one oikos or another, with a verse count of 31 times—statistically speaking, presenting more than one per chapter. At first, Luke focuses almost primarily on the oikos in the sense of a family line: Christ belongs to the “house of Jacob” and the “house of David,” an authentic Jew and a verified fulfillment of prophecy (1:23, 27, 33, 69; 2:4). But very quickly the ministry of Christ serves to expand the meaning of oikos from the “house” of distinct and set apart (and socio-politically segregated) ethnic and religious identity to the “home” of private, personal life. Very often, Christ enters the oikos of persons very different from him in social standing—the poor itinerant with the synagogue official Jairus (8:41) and the tax collector Zaccheus (19:5)—and he associates with those who belong to belief systems ostensibly opposed to his own—the radical reformer who eats and even relaxes in the company of Pharisees (7:36), and on the Sabbath of all days (14:1). Indeed, Christ seems to show a specific “pattern of behavior,” a driving urge not just to associate but to share a common life with all uncommon folk. It is a besetting insistency to those whose job it is to maintain the norms of cultural and moral differences between the current groups: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!” (15:2).

Of course, the purpose of all this socializing is not just the flouting of maxims or the breaking of constructs, but the holistic salvation—whose root after all means “healing,” as in a “salve”—of the lives around him. Nevertheless, the opening up of sphere of whose lives can and must be salved and saved, from the “house of Israel” to every home in the world—this very domestic kind of ecumenism is essential to Luke’s good news. “Return to your house and describe what great things God has done for you,” Jesus tells the man previously filled with “Legion” (8:39), for it is the goal of the Gospel to inhabit the whole life of the world.

(Christ in his oikos healing.)

The Acts of the Apostles is in a deep sense the continuation of this pattern of behavior. Containing 23 mentions of oikos, the book spends much of its time going “from house to house” (2:46; 5:42; 8:3; 20:20), whether in “breaking bread” (2:36) or in believing (16:15), and sometimes in doing both (16:34). Like its gospel counterpart, the Acts make sure to fulfill their original historical and religious home: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus” (2:36).[18] But the disciples, like their teacher, are quick to leave their homes to make the world at home with God. The accomplishment of this is in fact its own ecumenical process, as the notion of what is or is not God’s oikos becomes contested amongst Jews and eventually converted to include gentiles—particularly in the progress of the Holy Spirit in and with and through the figures of Peter (10:9-44), Paul (9:1-15), and the “Ethiopian eunuch” (8:27-39). The Acts of the Apostles collectively form the story of divine homebuilding, being the further embodying of the incarnation as the “divinely intended potential to become a universally inclusive community.”[19]

Besides giving birth to a church, both Lukan accounts were largely responsible for shaping our understanding “in the Christian world” of how one should behave in the world at large. Many of the words we have for “preaching” the Gospel—and indeed the very notion of “missions” itself—come out of this model of the Christ who is always on the move in order to proclaim his message and make disciples, and of this secondary model of his disciples who in turn do likewise. Much of what we understand “discipleship” to mean comes from this very verbal focus on the first evangelisms. And indeed the Lukan accounts present a soteriology of rippling effects; the Gospel cannot but move its witness, and that moved and moving witness will in turn move others, and so on, and so on . . . And indeed the composite story of Luke-Acts does serve to tell of the spread of the Gospel from its original home to its home within the entire world—from the oikos of Judaism to the oikumene of Hellenism; from the road to Jerusalem to the city of Rome. After all, this is a story that ends with the continuation of a message: “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts 28:28).

But the substance of this message, as any good missionary has soon enough learned, and as the first missionaries surely knew, is not purely or primarily verbal at all. The form it takes will often and eventually must be in the word, but the Word itself becomes flesh. The words we have for “preaching the gospel” are after all translations; and any single word, even in its original context, is subject to change. As one of my theology professors puts the problem, “There are no exact English equivalents for the Greek verbal forms, ‘I traditioned’ [preached, handed down] or ‘I gospeled,’ used, for instance, by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:1: ‘Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, how I gospeled the gospel to you.’”[20] But being verbal forms, these original words bespeak original action. And action is decisive life.

But we do not even need to know our Greek to find this out. We need only look at the greatest example. This is Jesus’ first sermon, according to Luke:

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recover of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (4:16-21)

These words are important only insofar as his life will accomplish them. To refigure the words of that first missionary and martyr, St. Stephen, who himself was also echoing the prophet Isaiah, the Most High is not confined to houses made with human hands or mouths, or even minds for that matter.[21] It wills to breathe into and with and through them, and belief is the human acceptance of this breath, being a return to the source of human life itself. This is the good news of God-with-us. This is the meaning of evangelism.

In other words, Christianity is by nature ecumenical. Any Gospel is unbelievable if it doesn’t dwell in houses and break bread.

(“Supper at Emmaus,” Rembrandt, 1628.)

I believe that in some fashion, at certain times, my grandparents had gathered into themselves the fuller life of Christ that is synonymous with the Gospel. I believe that in leaving the oikumene of the lower fourty-eight and entering the oikos of Ouizinkie, they were seeking as best they could to embody that most incarnate Good News. I believe that they did this not just in their preaching, but also in their very communal lifestyle on the island.

They went from house to house, visiting and sharing meals. They fed those who couldn’t afford to share, and shared company instead. They healed the body and the soul as best they knew how for their time and place. My grandmother in fact helped establish the health aide program on the island, where much of her work, besides assisting doctors in diagnosis and administration of medicines, was going from home to home to interpret for villagers the doctors’ esoteric instructions—all of which she did for the first ten years without any pay whatsoever; and I remember her telling me of how my grandfather, among other acts of chaplaincy, used to frequent the bar after work hours, and order a soda, just so he could be available to anyone afflicted, usually with anger or despair (of which there was not a little in those parts).

(Skyline of Ouzinkie taken by my father.)

They cared for the orphan, and indeed for all the little children. Because they preached, certainly, but they also educated and even entertained. When Baker Cottage ceased being an orphanage, they turned it into a kind of community center, which provided childcare, various clubs, film showings, holiday celebration, and a kindergarten; and a little later they created Camp Woody for all the local youth in the Kodiak area.

(Village children after finishing a craft project in Baker Cottage.)

(My grandfather leading kids in morning devotions at Low Inspiration Point at Camp Woody.)

(Campers coming up from the Evangel onto the Woody dock.)

My grandfather in particular had a Heschel-like sense of proclaiming without words. He had a life-long zeal for gentleness: he had a famous maxim that no matter how far gone a drinker might be, they would always remember in the light of day that you’d treated them kindly; and he had a personal theology of non-violence, and impressed upon his children the power of their peaceful presence as an example of Christ’s love—a principle that, truth be told, sometimes proved burdensome in the face of bullying and boisterousness. My grandmother, by the end of her life, had earned such a high place of respect in the community that the village made her an honorary member of the tribe.

Indeed, so much of their presence was undeniable good news to the world as they knew it.[22]

Perhaps the differences they wore on the outside more clearly pronounced their deeper ecumenism with the Orthodox. Their doors were always open for both Christmases and both Easters, and in fact the differences between church calendars helped to provide time and space for taking turns. Traditions were shared like food—and indeed so much of it was food. My grandfather in his visits adopted Eastern and native customs in his own Western way. He famously took his “Russian tea” like the English—with milk. For my grandmother, there were two family recipes for bread to break on Easter: kulich and hot-cross buns. It was the latter that became the particular tradition for her yearly Eastertide visits with the monks and nuns.

For however different their ideas of salvation might have been, my grandparents’ practical theology (largely unspoken) found a kind of common spirit with their Orthodox neighbors. It helped that they were stuck in the same singular oikumene—that they were all Americans and Alaskans on this small island in this tiny village. And nominally they could all be considered “Christians.” But the demarcating edge of denominations too often cut the name “Christian” apart as “mine” or “ours” and “only true faith,” leaving the rest of the believing and practicing world—sometimes both East and West—to float away as helpless as a severed hand. (This, I would come to see, was especially true in Kodiak, where indeed the denominations are more populous and the competition over genuine Christian product is much stronger.) It was really due, I think, to a deeper understanding of their world as being both infinite and intimate, as too important for petty names and too compassionate for isolationism, that helped them to build this kind of oikos. Really, it was their understanding of the source of this world that helped to make this home. They were citizens of the same far country come close on earth.[23]

After the death of my grandfather in 1996, my grandmother in particular continued to engender an affectionate sisterhood with the monks and nuns from the sketes on the other side of the island. Of course, this is only half of the truth, as it was these friendly fathers and mothers who hazarded waves and weather to come visit this aging, widowed Baptist in her three-story WWII-era “cottage.”

It was because of this fellowship that the passing of my grandmother in 2006 brought the monks and the nuns back to Ouzinkie. At her celebration of life service, amidst numerous native Orthodox laity and in front of a few white Protestants, these Christians of a very different color celebrated the heroic life of a Baptist missionary whom they all knew best as “friend,” “teacher,” “nurse,” and “pastor.” “In town” (which is to say the city of Kodiak proper), the evangelicals would recount her learning Hebrew and Greek to help my grandfather through seminary, or to her finally receiving honorary ordination from the American Baptists for her years’ long service. But on Spruce Island, men in beards and black cassocks told stories of the day-by-day communion of this stooped, stalwart woman. To hear them speak of her, my dad later told me, it was “as if she were a saint.”

(A diminutive photo of a larger than life woman. The modest mural at the front of the chapel presents Jesus proclaiming, “I AM THE LIVING ONE”–a rather apt summary of my grandparents’ Christology and practical theology.)

But this speaking of her was also a service to her, a sign of belief in my grandmother’s goodness because of her belief in theirs. To hear of this—so unheard of in “our” factional society as I knew it—was like good news from a far country. There was something more to evangelism than mere preaching, something truer to life. Fuller with life. “Discipleship” was more than the simple recitation of a three-step prayer, more even than the plenary inculcation of the scriptures.

Late in his life, Jaroslav Pelikan, that greatest of experts on creeds, often reflected that in order to fulfill its incarnational logic—really its incarnational promise—the Christian faith had to take on something of the human form of the time and place in which it came to live and give life. A necessary aspect of the work of missionaries, he said, had to be inculturation—just as Jesus bore the marks of first century Judaism; just as the apostle Paul identifies with both Jews and Greeks; just as every gospel shows signs of its relative author’s various religious and intellectual priorities. This was a difficult dialectic to maintain, Pelikan granted, and the follower of Christ had to be very careful indeed in just how much the Gospel transformed within new situations without becoming essentially transformed itself. Marvelous works had been done when missionaries helped to “Africanize” Christianity. Horrible works had been done when the Nazis “Germanized” it. The dynamic relationship between the Word and the person, the Spirit and the people, had to be in constant conversation.[24]

The testament of my grandparents points to the kind of reciprocal conversion that can happen through this conversation. For them, it was a life-long conversation, and the kind of conversion they saw over the years may have more closely resembled that Will to be “on earth as it is in heaven.” My grandmother led many people through prayer throughout her life, but by the end of it she had also be led into the tribe. And my grandparents had indeed evangelized the monks. But the monks had also evangelized them.

(Detail from an icon of St. Herman. The words of his message read: “FROM THIS DAY FROM THIS HOUR FROM THIS MINUTE LET US LOVE GOD ABOVE ALL AND FULFILL HIS HOLY WILL.”)

Almost Idling

(Ouzinkie (center) and Kodiak Island proper (upper left) as seen by plane.)

And so I, at the age of twenty-one, had gone up there to see and to hear for myself some of these things. I was a sixth-grader in southern California when my grandfather died, and I not been able to make it to my grandmother’s Ouzinkie service the previous fall; thus I had only ever experienced the ecumenism of my grandparents’ life at secondhand. I had a powerful draw toward seeing these things for myself, of really living with them for a while, but I did not yet have the words for explaining why doing so was so important to me. Nothing like hearsay would suffice. I needed the real places, the actual, physical faces.

My most common explanation of myself to others was that I was “retracing my roots,” or, when I really felt the need to overcompensate, “doing research.” Both were attempts to convince myself before others that I was devoted and studious, a good grandson and a great student. To many Protestants in town, I had become known as “Norman and Joyce Smith’s grandson.” To a few of the Orthodox I had met along the way, I had earned the designation of “pilgrim.” The first had fed me with an undue sense of celebrity, and the second had made me a myth to myself.

But now, in the settling skiff, sliding into the tall and crowding quiescence of the tree-line, I heard myself become an object of suspicion. Every aspect and article on me seemed pernicious—I appeared evil simply sitting in my pants. As he continued to look away from me—no doubt under the guise of guiding us into Monk’s Lagoon—and as recollection slowly swam up through my churning brain, I realized I had all this time been wearing a partial stigma in his eyes. I remembered how among some of the Orthodox in town, there was sometimes a stereotype that all Protestants were habitually mobilized preachers, from the mild to the militant, ever ready to convert—just as there had been among some of the Protestants I’d met a suspicion that all those down-to-earth Orthodox were really just idol-worshippers the moment they came before the face(s) of their icons. I felt the instant iron chains of years-long associations. Ivan had feared I was a preacher, and now my fear put the proselyte in me. I very nearly crusaded on my own behalf. As for myself, both parties had considered me with a quizzical question or gaze—an idler or an idoler. Thank God for the words we had in common, or else I never would have become a pilgrim or an academician, and thus escaped casual condemnation.

But Ivan was still waiting . . .

I don’t remember any exact words I used—the term “ecumenical” was purely academic, and I had just quit college—but I know that I came, as if by grace, upon the word “friend.” It was a miracle to me to have thought of so universal and potentially disarming a word, and a word that was truly in the family line. I told Ivan the story of my grandparents’ relationship with the monks. My grandparents were friends. I am a friend. Please let me have my face, my voice, my thoughts back.

Ivan had long shut off the motor, and we were far enough away from the shore to glide almost motionlessly in the silence. After a forever somehow elapsed, we came close enough that the layers of trunks began flashing past.

Before we landed I saw him climbing slowly down the hill. A spare, spry figure in black hobbling quickly over the mounds of moss. A face with a long red beard, a pointed nose, and pink cheeks raised with what was probably smiling. It was Father Andrew. This outlandish looking man, with every kick of his skirt accenting his coming from a world that was far older than America—this form of person was my grandparents’ friend and, by the very human covenant of civility, one of my own. This celibate man was a family friend. This selfless self was presumably my friend.

We met on the beach—he in his black monk’s cassock, his skirt stained with salt lines, and me in my Protestant pants, shifting like the shifty type—and he asked if I was who I was, and I said, with the relief of recognition, “I am.” He looked me in the face only long enough for the brain behind it to feel vainly clean-shaven. He came up and embraced me—but with an actual hug like any non-churchgoer would—and enveloped me in that scent which, I would soon learn, would prove as strong as incense, and which, in its concentrated essence, might be called human myrrh: the body odor of monks, which should never be profaned as “B.O.” for all its Levitical volatility. I had asked for the real place and the physical face, and I had already received so much more.

That night, after having met the two other monks at St. Michael’s Skete, and having settled my bag and guitar in the cell of the “tower”—a solitary room, little more than a cupola, on the top of the main structure—we strange four of us sat down for the evening meal before compline, the last office of the day. After we finished our food, however, I became acutely aware that it was now them and me. We were not together at table. For all of their surprisingly stentorian eating—I guessed because they were free from the vanity of manners—I was the one who was loudly out of place, and once again I felt as if I were committing just by sitting. They stared off at nothing, out the window maybe, but mostly inwardly—a monastic form of nonverbal silence I would come to learn over my stay.[25] And I sat alone in my clamorous watching.

Finally, still looking out the window—no doubt to shun me for the impertinence of my actually being present for my visit, let alone expecting any conversation with it—Father Andrew swallowed audibly, gave a low hum, and said, “Well, Nathan, if you wouldn’t mind, tell us a little about why you’re here.”

I still had all my explaining to do. And I still do.

Notes

[1] Ryassaphore-monk Adrian, in his preface to F.A. Golder’s Father Herman: Alaska’s Saint, p. 7. See also: “Address of the Great Council of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America: Concerning the Canonization of the Spiritual Father Herman of Alaska.”

[2] The chapel sharing patronage with St. Sergius.

[3] As my dad is fond of saying, if you have any idea of just how to pronounce this name, you’ve probably grown up here.

[4] January 3rd, 1959.

[5] This came from the false but understandable associative theory he had devised that, as oranges are bumpy and need to be peeled, and as apples are smooth and do not, bananas, being smooth, therefore also do not.

[6] It’s striking for me to reflect on just how different the sea- and landscapes really were for me. For the Orthodox, Monk’s Rock is like a memorial, a marker of former miracles. For my family, the shoreline and any current structure near it—or any structure near any shoreline, for that matter—are like warning signs of past hazard and future folly. Where someone like a Saint makes you want to say, “Intercede for me!” and “Always!” something like a tidal wave makes you want to say, “Stay away!” or “Never again!” Amazing that such things can happen in a lonesome six-mile radius.

[7] To read my dad’s own expert coverage of the Evangel, you can go to his website here.

[8] For the latest (on lost and found, I think): https://www.facebook.com/Camp-Woody-Christian-Retreat-Center-401941479843089/

[9] Again, see my dad on the subject, under “Evangel Vital Statistics.”

[10] But perhaps every “radical” and “progressive” would consider this true of themselves.

[11] And perhaps “could be” is about the best anyone could say of someone’s Christ.

[12] John 3:8; 15:4.

[13] Fran Kelso, Plant Lore of an Alaskan Island: Foraging in the Kodiak Archipelago, p. 12.

[14]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Love_to_Tell_the_Story

[15] And for some very complex reasons too. The project of ecumenism always bears much discussion, even as it has birthed much good, and it continues to create conflict and conversation today. (I for instance in seminary took a course on “Inter-Christian Dialogue,” which specifically focused on the nigh hopeless but much needed task of conservative-liberal relations.) For starters, see Jaroslav Pelikan, “Ecumenism” and “Sobernost’” in The Melody of Theology, p. 63-6, 237-8, and “Ecumenism” by Michael Kinnamon in New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology, eds. Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price, pp. 150-2.

[16] See Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief, pp. 148-52, 356n.3.

[17] Emphasis mine. This is of course Paul’s Greek translation of the Hebrew tebel for “world.” His use of this glorification Psalm creatively assimilates the transcendent language of creation into the human communication of the creator. Whereas the preceding verse literally states that the heavens speak through nature “without voice and without words,” in Paul’s hands the proclamation becomes the good news of God’s continued incarnation in Christ’s followers.

[18] I have left out the specification of “whom you crucified,” not because it is dismissible, but rather because it is so important a question as to require its own space for discussion.

[19] Howard Clark Yee, “The Formation of Christian Communities” in The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, p. 609.

[20] Morse, Not Every Spirit, p. 356n3.

[21] Acts 7:48-9: “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you guild for me, says the Lord, and what is the place of my rest?’

[22] Much of this testament remains readily available, and not just in my dad’s personal and compendious website, and not just according to the American Baptists, but also as a part of the permanent history of the area, as attested by the Alutiiq Museum and the Alaska Health Aide Program.

[23] “For Luke [the traditional author of Luke-Acts], one is not a disciple alone, but one finds profound personal significance in becoming one of the people of God who live as citizens of God’s kingdom in a manner consistent with God’s intentions for the life of all humanity as brought and taught, shown and known in Jesus Christ.” From Marion Lloyd Soards’s introduction to Luke in The Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 95.

[24] See his popular interview, “The Need for Creeds,” with Krista Tippet in On Being. For the “conversionist” approach to Christ in culture, see H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic, Christ and Culture, Ch. 6: “Christ the Transformer of Culture.”

[25] In Western monasticism, this is called “custody of the eyes”: the practice of keeping your physical eyes downward to focus your spiritual eyes inward. In Eastern monasticism, there is an emphasis on custody of all the senses, keeping entire soul pure through every aspect of the body.

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Taking up the Cross in the Twenty-First Century

“Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” -Mark 8:34

We have now lived through another Easter—technically two. This Sunday marks the arrival of the pascha of the Eastern Orthodox Church. We who inhabit the Christian world (really worlds) have lived in some approximate way through the life and death and life-again of Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever we may think of him or his life or his death (or his life-again), the tradition and our calendars tell us it is all in some sense over. Complete. As the man himself said, it is finished.

In the East this means that everyone has said, and will be saying for some time, to their church and household and neighbor those great ancient words “Christos Anesti!” (“Christ is risen!”) and has heard, and will be hearing for some time, the great response, “Alithos Anesti!” (“In truth he is risen!”). In the West we do this as well. But nowadays to have celebrated Easter is also to have borne witness to a steady parade of Easter-related posts from friends and family. I myself a Friday ago saw my fair share of flowery tombs (empty, indeed) and crepuscular crosses (of the bloody sunset or rosy sunrise varieties). In fact, it is the crosses that show the most variety, and it’s this variety that shows the most interesting spectrum of interpretations. Where do we find the cross in our current place and time? Well, with the Russians—on Facebook.

But we’re long done with crosses now, aren’t we? Easter itself is over, but only because it has opened us up to spring in the largest sense, to the hope of renewed life even after death. Why should we go back to death, back to the cross?

Continue reading “Taking up the Cross in the Twenty-First Century”

Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings

Christ and the People Mosaic(Photo thanks to Picture Mosaics.)

Nowadays, we see people wherever we go–you might even say more than wherever we go. They follow us, and we follow them. They are virtually always with us, even in our most private moments. Oftentimes, without any personal connection, without ever hearing the sound of their voice, we watch their behavior, and scrutinize it, and display our own views on their persons to the rest of the “public.” We see what they’re up to while we sit in the bathroom. There was a time when we never would have thought of doing this. We have already seen them so often, so inveterately, that we no longer see just how we are seeing them. I myself have been as blind to this “seeing” as I am to the nose on my face.

I personally see them only as “them” and never as “we.” They are strangers I know everything about.

We live in an age of personally but digitally mediated people. This is the genesis of the “technoself.”[1] We have instant, individual alerts and updates of live events, brought about by people made into headlines made into capital letters. This is the viral-but-virtual, public-in-private complex of twenty-first century media. This is the current “BREAKING” on our 3.5-inch screens. Of course, picture and video more fully relate what has happened in real-time situations. But even then it is a clipped reality, a tiny square of our many quilted and rippling dimensions, narrowed to a focus, frozen out of time, and flattened for our screens.

We live in an age of platformed people. Continue reading “Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings”