January 30, 2012 / Praxis
Flannery O’Connor insists that good fiction must be grounded in place; in this essay, Andrew W. E. Carlson discovers that the same can be said for church.
October 7, 2013
Father Aleksander had gaunt cheeks and a gray beard. He swept across the floor in a long, black robe, in the stately, fluid motion of an athlete. When he glided up to our group of Americans, standing in the center of the Orthodox Cathedral in Krasnodar, Russia, he placed his hands on Olga’s head and made the sign of the cross on her forehead. An electric charge passed between them that I could feel in my own body, several steps away. “I want that blessing,” I thought. “I want Father Aleksander to touch me like that.”
When I returned to my dormitory room at Kuban State University where I was studying on a student visa, I could not stop thinking about him. I sat down with my Russian dictionary at the plain wooden table in my room and composed a note. In clumsy Russian, I asked Father Aleksander if he would meet with me and if there was any way that I could take communion. The note in hand, I headed back to the trolley stop, eager but also terrified. I wanted to deliver my note in person, without the pack of American students with whom I so often traveled. In my mind, the note represented a secret romance, perhaps a spiritual tryst, my own little secret.
But when I approached the stop, I saw Andrei, a Russian student at my school. Andrei decided to accompany me on this mysterious errand and I tried not to act disappointed. “Sure,” I said half-heartedly, “Thanks.”
At the cathedral steps, I stopped to tie a scarf around my hair. Inside, my eyes took several moments to adjust to the darkness. Amid the scent of melted wax, several women roamed from iconostasis to iconostasis extinguishing burnt prayers with their fingers. Andrei asked one of the women if we could speak with Father Aleksander. “No,” she said. She narrowed her eyes at me, taking a long look at the haphazard scarf on my head and my brown loafers.
“Could you pass this note to him?” I asked.
She shrugged and put my note in her apron pocket as she turned away.
I didn’t think my note would reach Father Aleksander, so I was surprised the following week at our Russian history lecture, when Olga pulled me aside. In her hand was my note. I felt breathless and a little sick, seeing it. “Father Aleksander would be delighted to meet with you,” she said.
We arrived in the late afternoon, the sun already fading, which intensified the effect of the candles flickering around the rotunda. Father Aleksander greeted us and then led me to the choir loft where he pulled two wooden chairs next to each other.
He bowed his head close to mine. “Have you been baptized?” he asked. Yes, I said, twice. “Twice?” His thick eyebrows shot up. I tried to explain about Baptists, but he shook his head. “Baptism is a sacrament that should not be repeated,” he said. Then he paused. “Never mind. I will honor your first baptism.” He explained that he would allow me to take communion at a little church where he served as a priest. “But first,” he explained, slowing down so I could catch the significance, “I will hear your confession. Tomorrow evening.” After that, if I fasted, and put nothing in my mouth, “not even a toothbrush,” I could take communion the next morning before class.
The November air was sharp the next evening when I got off the trolleybus and walked the three blocks to the church in the lampless dark. Inside the small Orthodox church, a choir was singing and a priest was chanting in front of a small crowd of mostly older women. I had the same feeling that I always do when I enter an Orthodox church: that the worship had long since begun and would continue ages after I left, that I could never arrive on time, or stay long enough. I just stepped for a few minutes into a flowing stream.
That night, I saw Father Aleksander gathered with a few younger people in a corner toward the back. I went over to them, and he introduced me. I smiled, and again tried to hide my disappointment that Father Aleksander wasn’t my own secret. When it was my turn for confession, Father Aleksander gestured for me to stand next to a little table that had a Bible on it. He towered over me, and I felt the eyes of the others on me as he placed his stole on my head and we crouched over the table. I thought how ridiculous I must look.
I hadn’t known how to prepare for confession, but on the way over, I had thought of one story I might tell him. A few weeks before, my group had been staying at a hotel in St. Petersburg and a man came to the hotel looking for Americans. He said that his daughter was sick and needed an operation, but he didn’t have money. Could we help him? There was something about the man I didn’t trust, and I said no. Then I went to the hotel bar and bought myself a Bailey’s Irish Cream.
Father Aleksander nodded. It was a sin not to help those in need. I felt some relief. I had found the right sort of sin to confess. But then what? A girl on our floor had gone that very day for an abortion, and I was worried about her. I told him this. “Have you ever had an abortion?” he asked. “No,” I said. Then a silence followed. It seemed an impatient silence. I confessed jealousy for my beautiful and talented roommate. There was another silence. Finally, Father Aleksander made the sign of the cross on my head and dismissed me. I felt I had disappointed him. I was neither so interesting as to have dramatic sins nor so sophisticated to know what to confess.
I stood in the back while other young people confessed and nursed my sore ego. Prior to coming to Russia, I had been prepared with a great cognitive faith. I had memorized dozens of Bible verses. I was a decent Bible study leader. And I had learned to make my faith personal—to pray privately and publicly. I had learned that faith was important in making moral decisions. Faith to me was words: words inscribed in Scripture, words read in books, words uttered in private devotion, words transformed into right action. But none of this had prepared me for the simple, raw act of confession.
Perhaps an hour later, my knees aching from standing and watching the liturgy, Father Aleksander and I left together. He lived near the university, he said, and he would see me home. As we walked to the trolley stop, it was raining lightly. Father Aleksander was dressed in his priestly robes, a rope belt, and a small box of a hat. Between us, I felt a delicate intimacy, perhaps brought on by the embarrassment of my confession. It wasn’t until the trolleybus came and we found seats under the bus’s eerie yellow lights that I realized how incongruent he looked, like a person walking out of another realm. A young man came to sit behind us. “Batushka,” he said, using the respectful but somehow affectionate address that Russians use for priests, “Do you think that a Russian person must be Orthodox?”
I was startled and a little annoyed. Where had this man come from? Did he ask questions like this of every man in a black robe?
Father Aleksander started to answer, and I noticed that everyone on the bus was now leaning toward him. When we reached our stop, he invited the young man to come and see him at the cathedral to continue the conversation, and then the trolley pulled off and left us standing on the wet street.
We were silent. We turned toward the dormitories. Finally, he said, “Do you know the poet Rainer Maria Rilke? I used to be a German professor, you know. He is my favorite.” He began to quote lines to me in German and then in Russian. I said nothing, but breathed in the soft words. I longed to be the person I imagined he saw in me, a person who read Rilke in two languages and could quote favorite lines back to him.
The next morning, I was on the trolley before seven o’clock. The morning was wet and chill. Leaves piled in the gutters. Commuters huddled in dark coats. As instructed, I hadn’t eaten or brushed my teeth since the night before. I felt dirt, grumpy, hungry, and caffeine-deprived. I felt like all my edges had been worn off, and I was a fleeting film in the world that might disappear like steam or get drained down the gutter with the rain.
When I arrived at the church, the choir was, of course, singing. The women around me bowed and swayed and crossed themselves like trees tossing in the wind, each one listening to an inner rhythm and responding. To bow and sway myself felt fraudulent, purely imitative. Not to bow and sway felt disrespectful. Crouching in the corner felt cowardly. Father Aleksander did not appear. After only twenty minutes, my back and my legs ached, while these old women seemed to register no pain in their solid shoes and thick panty hose.
Father Aleksander and two other priests emerged from behind the iconostasis, and they arranged themselves in a kind of row. A line formed, and I joined it. I was relieved that something definitive appeared to be happening. I tried to study the person in front of me to be sure I was doing the right thing. I noticed hands folded passively across the chest, mouth open like a little chick, the tiny spoon placed in the mouth by the priest, a few words mumbled that I could not catch. I was anxious not to offend. I felt that I was connected to Father Aleksander by the thinnest thread, and one clumsy step on my part and the thread would break. I would go spinning out into the cultural stratosphere, the hungry void from which I had come.
I reached Father Aleksander, and I crossed my arms. He placed the spoon in my mouth that contained both bread and wine. I swallowed. I bowed and moved down the line where the next priest held up a crucifix for me to kiss.
After communion, I caught Father Aleksander’s eye. He nodded farewell, and I went back to the university, still tasting the sweetness of the wine on my tongue.
Despite my intense devotion, religion had been for me an abstract concept: faith was something that I believed “in my heart.” I had tried to be good while adhering to a certain set of ideas and claiming them as true. And being good had meant reining in and controlling desire. Belief could exist apart from any physical act or physical sensation. It could remain safely locked up in my head.
Father Aleksander had started out in my imagination as just this kind of idea—set apart from the rest of my life, kept as a private devotion. But now, through taste and touch, through the smell of candles and the repetitive chants, through sensual presence and a rich silence, he was entering my reality in a different way, a very physical way. He was not asking me to rein in my desire, the desire I had felt in that first electric shock of his presence, but in fact to follow it, blindly, falteringly, directly to communion. Communion was a borderland between the physical and the spiritual, the concrete and the abstract, heaven and earth, that he now occupied in both my imagination and in the path I was starting to trace back and forth from his church. In his presence, powerful hungers were being called forth.
The following week, I again went to his church in the evening with the intention to confess. This time, other American students asked to come with me. They had started to notice my treks back and forth and wondered what I was up to. We stood huddled in the back, and after only a few minutes, they seemed anxious to leave. The liturgy was boring; Father Aleksander was preoccupied; we all had things we’d rather be doing. Suddenly, the thought of confessing in front of them, of bending over the little table with Father Aleksander enshrouding me like a black-winged bird seemed embarrassing. Without speaking to Father Aleksander, we all left, shrugging into our coats and out onto the street.
The next morning, I got up again and made my bleary and hungry way to the church. When I arrived, one of the young men whom I had seen often with Father Aleksander said, “Where did you go last night? Father Aleksander was looking for you.”
“I had somewhere I had to be,” I lied.
The communion line started, and I joined it. As before, I followed the dark coat in front of me, shuffling forward. I saw the priests ahead with their various instruments. I bowed my head. I opened my mouth. Nothing happened. I looked up. Father Aleksander shook his gray hair gently. He was not holding out the spoon. I moved on, kissed the feet of Christ, and found myself again at the back of the sanctuary.
I had been refused. It was a sting that started somewhere at my lips but spread like a heat into my chest and arms. I pulled on my dowdy, all-wrong, American style raincoat and walked out into the gray drizzle. All the way back to the university, I stared at the dirty trolleybus floor and the pools of muddy water, swallowing hard. At the trolley stop, I bought a bun stuffed with cheese for my breakfast, tearing at the sweet, flaky strips of bread, feeling ashamed of the crumbs now falling down the front of my coat.
The next Tuesday night, the night that had become my night to travel to the church for confession, I spent instead with other American and Russian students in my dorm room. We were having an impromptu party. Denis, from next door, had brought his guitar. We stirred raspberry jam into our tea. I thought of church and again felt the sting of shame. But I concentrated instead on laying out plates of store-bought cookies for our guests.
Late in the evening, one of the American students with whom I had gone to Father Aleksander’s church came into the room. “Someone is here to see you,” he said with a hint of melodrama. I reached the door in time to see Father Aleksander sweep into the hallway. His long black robe trailed on the hard tile floor.
I stammered, I hope, some words of welcome, and got him a fresh teacup. He sat down on a chair in the crowded room. Within minutes, the Russian students began, just like the young man on the bus, to pepper him with questions. He held court.
In my own chair, I could not keep still. What could I say to him? How would I explain my shame, my hiding? Why had he come? He sought me out, my heart whispered. He sought me out.
I spent the next hour trying to compose an explanation, a justification in my head, wishing my dictionary wasn’t half way across the room. When he stood up to leave, he gestured that I should follow him. We walked to the lounge where we sat on a shabby couch. He reached over and took both my hands in his. I stared at his long, slender fingers and felt the warmth. I stumbled through my explanation, and then I fell silent. So did he, for several minutes. I breathed his presence like incense. When he began to speak, I understood almost nothing of what he said. The individual words meant nothing, but the gentle lilt of his voice, the resonance, the careful way that he offered me his presence—these things spoke and I understood.
The next week was the Feast of the Theotokos, Mary Mother of God. I arrived at Father Aleksander’s church with a few other American students. The priests’ robes were satiny white with bright silky blue stoles. Blue and white banners hung from the rafters of the choir loft. Flowers decked Mary’s icons. Even the choir warbled with extra polish.
The liturgy was lush with incense, oil, water. I felt like I was scenting another world. We said goodbye to Father Aleksander, and he placed his hands on my head in blessing. I left Russia with that one touch and just that one bite of communion.
The call that drew me to Father Aleksander has never been an easy one for me to understand. It was a call that came not from my mind alone, nor my heart, nor my body. It was all three at once. Much later I learned a name for this hungry, longing self. The word has no equivalent in English, but in Greek, it is the word nous. It means the mind in the heart in the body. When the nous speaks, my whole being is evoked. The mind that thinks with both the body and the heart. The heart that feels with both the mind and the body. The body that longs with both the heart and the mind. I longed to be a mind in a heart in a body, each one transformed by the other. When Father Aleksander reached out to me, when he fed me, when he touched me, my nous heard and heeded.
Amy Frykholm is the author of three books of nonfiction, most recently See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity(2011). Her essays have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Christian Century, and Relief, among others. She is an associate editor for the Christian Century.