bright week, interrupted

Posted by on May 1, 2008

On Easter day I should not have sat down at my computer, because it was the feast of feasts, and I should have known better. But I am still learning; I am still unwise and inexperienced. So, late in the day, satiate with cheese, chocolate, and salami, as if on auto pilot, I sat down in front of my computer, half-consciously knowing that there was nothing worth seeing or checking or doing.

I keep the news on my homepage in order to counteract ignorance of current events. But on Easter day, after having been in church all week to the point of a true connection to the experience of the disciples, the myrrh-bearing women, and the angels, I should have remained within that liturgically wrought brightness, and not ventured back so soon into the jarring fluorescent light of evil tidings. Hell was embittered and the Church was doing all it could to release me into an authentic celebration zone of joy, separate from the relentless pressing of darkness, evil, struggle, sadness, and death, which were all surprised to find themselves trampled down upon Christ’s arrival in Hades.

The week following Easter is called Bright Week, the only week in the Orthodox year in which fasting is forbidden. I find it poetically gratifying to see the word Bright coupled with Week in capital letters, a proper noun on a calendar. I also smile at the coupling of fasting and forbidden.

But on Easter day what met me in the news, unasked for, was not the usual photograph of this or that third world political embroilment, which can certainly be a downer, but easily bypassed and clicked away from. Instead, on Easter day, a new kind of headline with a new kind of photograph met me–that of a psychopath whose eyes looked like windows into everything about humanity that I do not want to know. It was the face of the Austrian man who imprisoned his daughter in a cellar for twenty-four years, fathering seven children by her. I’m sure that by now this story has circulated everywhere. One newspaper said that the Austrian people could not find words to describe this horror, and I’m sure that I cannot either, but wordless, it spread over my heart, lungs, and brow as inky, leaden shadow. I was not prepared; I would never have believed that the grand inquisitor could be permitted to tempt me on Easter day with such a new and raw rendering of the old problem of evil.

During Lent I kept, insofar as I could, steering myself into the path of human holiness. That is, I myself am not holy, or mature, but my strategy was to put myself in the way of those who are, in the hopes of receiving a good influence. I visited a monastery, listened to the podcasts of Orthodox teachers and pastors online, read literature such as The Arena, and The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Jeff and I did not exactly plan this, but it just so happened that the only movie we watched during Lent was a DVD that has been circulating among our South Bend friends called The Island. It is a Russian film, the story of Anatoly, a convict who lives out his days in intense repentance and prayer, until he transforms into a saint. I believe in the good potential of art, but beyond the artistic loveliness of this film, I was so surprised at what it accomplished. I was surprised to be presented with such a true picture of human goodness. It fanned any faint desire I have ever had to be holy and I thought about Anatoly for days, and still do.

So this Lent I did get an inkling of a landscape– a high one, and yet human enough to feel possible, to feel somehow connected to mine through simply sharing humanity with the other humans who have gone there.

But because I am not that mature, I still find it uncomfortable at times to face a maturity far above my own. While at the Orthodox monastery in Michigan, I sensed the limits of what I could imagine holiness to be like, because the community appeared featureless to me in many ways, and, dare I say it, even boring. Orthodox monastics live a life of total renunciation and I have a difficult time imagining what might occupy a person who has given up all the occupations of this world, with its opinions, aspirations, and activities. Yet, I could feel the tension on the monastery grounds and that something dynamic was in fact taking place there, invisible to worldly eyes. I suspect that the life of prayer is dynamic and has more at stake than what is most urgent and important in this world. I’ve read about this in The Arena, and elsewhere. But I still cannot quite imagine it.

This is due to the fact that my Big Struggle often involves ridiculous things such as an afternoon spent on the playground with other mothers and the interpersonal complications that arise. I think I must live in the Midwest in more ways than one. I live in the most middle, most ordinary, decent-looking strata of humanity, struggling with the petty things that happen among such supposedly decent people, struggling with my own pettiest thoughts, words, and deeds. And even here, I can attest that the struggle is not easy, and there are insidious forces both seen and unseen.

But this being the case, it makes sense that I also have difficulty imagining the psychopath, his very existence flaunting the depths of human perversion across the BBC home page. I do not want to share my humanity with such a person, yet there he is.

In seminary, I was a student of Fr. Thomas Hopko, who has a gift for tackling the problem of human behavior at its most atypical, along with suffering, victimization, and pain. Put in different words, he was known by his students, for better or for worse, for always harping on what might be called the weird and the strange. These frequent classroom forays into all that is malformed in humanity could be unpleasant, it’s true, but I instinctively knew that these monsters needed tending to, or one might come upon me unexpectedly and scorch me with fire from its nostrils, knocking me and my little backpack of theology into a canyon of despair.

Somehow, even while trying to be an ordinary Christian in the Midwest, where life falls somewhere mid-spectrum between saints and monsters, I have to admit that both are connected to my humanity. I have to hold onto one without neglecting the reality of the other. This is hard to do, but I think that Bright Week is a good time to learn this lesson, because God did become human, and did enter into hell, but hell could not hold him captive.

  1. anna j
    May 2, 2008

    Dear Julia,
    Thank you for yet another thought-provoking, and hauntingly beautiful, post. I in fact had not heard of this man before reading your words, and I think I am grateful to have learned of it in such a kind manner as through your writings, rather than through media sources.
    I also appreciated your comment that “I live in the most middle, most ordinary, decent-looking strata of humanity, struggling with the petty things that happen among such supposedly decent people, struggling with my own pettiest thoughts, words, and deeds.” This is also the nature of my own normal daily struggles, and I am always grateful for the reminder that I am not alone in this tendency šŸ™‚
    love you,
    anna