Wednesday, November 26, 2008

File Under Gratitude: My First Parish

After church in Santa Rosa, California, someone would inevitably approach me to share the afternoon Paul would want to go to a "pub", and we'd invariably drink pints all afternoon, maybe see a movie, talk about his desire to return to Finland forever ("you just like it because you only go there on vacation," I would tell him. "It would be different if you moved there"), various women, our mutually discordant but similar protestant pasts, the time the Abbott in Calistoga falsely introduced him to the local press as his novice, and the years he spent living in Ben Lomond before everything fell apart. We might take off for a few days to Santa Cruz, visit Abbot Jonah and the monks and their birds in Pt. Reyes, or crash for the night on the church grounds of St. Nicholas in San Anselmo.

Or, Dylan and I would hang out, maybe go to Berkeley, talk about his adventures at the various monasteries of Mt. Athos, or go to his parents' house where he and his mom (on drums) and dad (guitar, lead vocalist) would play music until the cops came; when Dylan played he made a funky guitar-face.

Mark and I drove the twenty minutes to the Napa valley to taste wine; I was working as a valet at a car dealership, and though he was an accomplished artist, he was working as a substitute teacher for the local school district. The attractive girl planted and weened in the California air asked us as she handed us each a glass of sweet dessert wine what we did for a living, and I was about to tell her, but Mark interupted me, "I'm an artist, he's a writer," and that worked well enough. Mark is now the monk Ephrem and writes icons in a monastery in the wildwoods of northern California, and I have not seen nor heard from him in ten years.

James was about twenty-five years older than me, a one-time Roman Catholic monk, ex-hippi rebel, and he lived near me in South Park, and after church he would sometimes give me a ride home, or invite me to dinner. A fool-becoming-holy, known for her mental incapacity, called him James the Lesser, or the Second, because he was baptized after me, which made me James the first, though I could have been his son (some people, usually visitors or newcomers, thought it was the case).

My godfather, Patrick, ever busy, might have me over for dinner amid his bustling family, or more often meet me for coffee at Dennys for serious talk, then always, glancing at the placard by the register that said, "We Do Not Accept Personal Checks" would ask, "Can you take a personal check?" I shook my head, and said, "I can't take you anywhere."

When I first started to attend St. Mary's Orthodox church in Santa Rosa, the services were held in a small building with blue trim, now a chapel, that, lacking pews or chairs, would quickly fill until there was barely room to move. During my first Holy Week, when my legs felt like they were made of steel bolted to the dloor, everything began to shake and my girlfriend looked at me and cried out, and I felt myself falling; I fainted, someone called 911, and I was brought quickly into the dining hall, surrounded by a clutch of older ethnic women, one of them waving smelling salts in my face. The paramedic asked me, "do you know what time it is?" and I automatically looked at my watch, and everyone laughed.

The first day I attended my girlfriend and I walked several miles from Sonoma State, where she was living in the dorms, in order to make a catechism class, which was occuring outside in the beautiful California summer of 1994. We met the priest, Fr Michael, who had so much energy he seemed to be twenty years younger than his actual age, which would have made you think he was in his mid-fifties. The first thing he ever said to me was "are you going to work at the Glendi!?" His request was insistent but honest, truly fervent -- you couldn't hold it against him; he was possessed of some deep bottomless well of energy that forever manifested itself, whch also tended to cloak the true depths of his wisdom. "Go sign up to work at the Glendi!" Fr. Michael was totally outside of himself, gregariously hiding his wisdom; he knew more about what was going on than he let on to know, and was a true shepherd whom I grew to love, who called me, on occasion, "Hemingway".

During the time I was there, a new building was built on the land, financed to some large degree , I think, by the aforementioned "Glendi" ( an annual food festival). It is a huge traditional Orthodox building. The older blue building was named St. Mary's "chapel", the temple called "St. Seraphim of Sarov's", and the parish called, "Protection of the Holy Virgin", a mustard seed that has burst out voluptuously, ironically but appropriately named after the recluse who hid himself in the wilderness and in the shelter of his tearful prayers. A few years after moving away, I went back for the dedication of the temple, a daylong service and celebration, which was enormously beautiful, and the new building, five times the size as the old one, was filled the way the old blue building used to be. I nearly wept with emotion when i saw the old building, the place of my baptism, the ghosts of myself and my friends at catechism class outside in the shade. There were so many new people that I hardly recognized anyone; and some of the people I did reocognize had forgotten me. I saw Paul and Dylan, and Ephrem, who had helped to paint the Byzantine icons, a student of Ouspensky.

After the long service, everyone went to eat. Multitudes of tables were set for a true feast, which we ate in fellowship with each other until we were full; the old women and men broke out their bottles of vodka, wine was passed around, a meal was served. James the Lesser and I sat drinking wine and vodka until we were drunk, and closed the place down, and I drove off with new friends, Juliana and Anna, and have never returned.

These were the saints during that personal era in my private unwritten hagiography, my sisters and brothers, the progeny of apostles and martyrs.