to normal, and back again
I took this photo today from our car as we were leaving the town of Normal, Illinois. Normal is three and a half hours away from where we live and we just drove there and back in one day. I had never heard of this town until Friday, when I learned that Eric Iliff’s funeral would be held there, at Holy Apostles Orthodox Church on Saturday, March 17. Eric was a student with Jeff at St Vladimir’s Seminary, during a busy time in our lives. Jeff and I were part of the married student “overflow” who lived in seminary subsidized apartments off campus. I was working full time doing communications/PR for the seminary while Jeff was under pressure to swing the best possible GPA and studying for the GRE so that he would have a shot at continuing his graduate studies elsewhere. There were many students, particularly the ones who lived in the dormitories, who I saw often but never got to know.
At least, that’s how I look back and explain to myself how it is that I never really got to know Eric. In my mind’s eye, I am passing him in motion. Eric coming up the hill on his way to vespers while I am going down the hill at the end of the work day; Eric on his way to a morning class while I am headed off campus on a coffee mission. Eric in his cassock, Eric in his jeans, by turns. We seemed to be forever passing each other briskly, and he was always the first to look me fully in the face, smiling. Eric was handsome and neat in his appearance, polite and gentle, socially sensitive. These were just my impressions, but they do stand out starkly–far more starkly, in fact, than impressions I have of very many of the people I merely passed on the same paths during those years. Some sort of invisible but palpable goodness was plain in him.
When tragedy happens, the news spreads like a brushfire, especially within the small world of the Orthodox Church. Jeff received a call from his friend Fr. Christ, a priest in North Carolina, this week and learned from him that Eric had committed suicide. Jeff and I were stunned. I hate putting down the word suicide in print, just as it is hateful to say out loud. No one said this word at the funeral, and I’m sure that no one, including me, wanted to hear that word spoken. It would have been unseemly among the prayers of hope and resurrection and memory eternal. For that matter, the word seems woefully incongruent with Eric, the person.
But Eric’s personhood shone brightly at his funeral. The church, filled to the brim with attendents, graciously invited everyone to a meal after the funeral service. People who had exited the church with red, puffy, wet faces, began resuming calm expressions and even some smiles in the fellowship hall. At one point in the meal, Eric’s family invited people to share their memories of Eric. Piece by piece, it became obvious who Eric truly was in life.
One of the first to get up was a friend, obviously Eric’s age, I believe from high school, who recollected a time when, after hanging out with friends, he was getting a ride home from Eric and they were talking about God. (Apparently, Eric liked to talk about God a lot.) This friend said that Eric presented him with a concept that was new to him and which he never forgot. Eric said that it seemed that there are people who are close to God by virtue of their position, such as priests, who serve at the altar before God, speak the words of God, read the words of God, and so on, but may not try to truly face God and bring themselves close to God internally. Then there are others, like prostitutes, who in their external circumstances are far away from God but may be trying hard internally to face God and present themselves to God. I am paraphrasing this really poorly, but hopefully communicating the idea. The friend, weeping, said that this idea has stayed with him permanently.
A member of the parish told another interesting story about Eric. She said that she and he had worked together at painting the rooms in the fellowship hall (where we were gathered), and at one point before they began painting a room he took his brush and painted a large cross on the wall. He let it dry a little and then they eventually painted over it in the same color. At first you could still see where it was underneath, but it gradually faded and blended in. She said to him, “Oh, the cross is gone.” And he replied, “That’s the point: you can’t see it, but it’s still there.”
Other stories were just about Eric’s kindness, his beaming smile, and accepting ways. Ann Campbell, another seminarian and close friend of Eric, said that he was a person who made her feel she could be completely herself; she remembers confiding in him and bawling while he just held her hand and let her cry, making her feel it was o.k. to not try to be something that she wasn’t. There were many, many stories, but I don’t trust myself to recount them all accurately.
As a listener, I started to understand Eric as someone who excelled at placing the proper value on inner, hidden things, even while struggling with the brutal world of externals, as we all do. But this brutality must weigh more heavily upon some lives than others, and clearly he struggled under a weight much, much heavier than I can understand.
Fr John Brown, the rector of Holy Apostles, ended the meal by sharing more memories of Eric, particularly his faithfulness to the parish. Eric had served at the altar and also written and donated the very first icon the mission had. (I had no idea Eric did iconography.) I asked Fr Brown later if I could photograph the icon and here it is (above the cross). It is displayed directly behind the altar table at Holy Apostles:
After everything was over, Jeff and I stood in the gravel parking lot and caught up with several people, all connected through the seminary, who had come from New York, Indianapolis, and Greensboro, North Carolina. I also heard that there were more people from the east coast who tried to come but couldn’t because of a snowstorm. I’ll post a picture here of most everyone– students and alumni– who were at the funeral from the seminary (although some people, like Jenny Schrodel and Dn Alex Cadman, are missing because they had already left). I was so very tempted to leave this picture out, because I think I look awful in it–disheveled, lumpy, and, well, post-partum. But then it occured to me that Eric wouldn’t care, so I’m posting it for his sake, albeit small:
But what I wanted to say is that overall the funeral felt like a strong coming together of people who cared very much. Eric’s parents said more than once that the way people had mobilized to show their support made an unbearable time bearable for them. I myself felt that Eric’s death did not happen in sad isolation, but was caught in a wide net of community and belief and prayer. Therefore it was able to have profound meaning for many people, even me, who perhaps knew him the least.
Jeff and I were reflecting on the oddness of the name “Normal” for a town. I’ve been meaning to google it to get to the bottom of why the town carries that name. Eric came from Normal, worshipped in Normal, and was most recently living in Normal. Now he is buried in Normal. But I don’t really believe that Eric or anyone else breathes the air of normalcy or swims in the waters of normalcy. We live in a very fallen, sinful, deadly world, and we all suffer for that just as Christ did, with the difference that Christ maintained normalcy, and now is the only normalcy we can reach for. It is clear, according to the impressions and testimonies of many people, that in life and in death Eric was reaching for Christ, and did not suffer all alone. I wanted to finally add this picture of Eric which I swiped off the seminary website: