After I left Amelia’s art store, realizing I still had most of the afternoon ahead of me, and plenty of time before Father Davidson’s campfire later that evening, I decided to visit the church north of town, where she said I could find Father Seraphim, the priest who he had met in prison so many years ago.
St. Silouan’s Orthodox Church is a short drive north of town, in a densely forested section of the county. It is only a few hundred feet off the main road, nestled against a backdrop of tall conifers, with a wide expanse of grass flanking it on both sides as you approach. At first it appears fairly small, and it blends in with the surrounding trees, but as you get closer the land falls away exposing the lower level, and one is immediately struck by the height of the structure, the elegance of its rooflines, and its shimmering onion domes, which seem to gather sunlight and to glow, even on a cloudy day, which this was.
I parked, and walked across the gravel parking lot to the front doors of the church. From the outside the walls looked like a log cabin—old tree trunks stacked one upon the other and reaching to the sky—broken here and there as they ascend, by angular panels of wood shingled roofs, the ridges of which are each capped by horizontal rows of wood beams, ornately carved and painted in swirling and knotty patterns with crosses interspersed. The lowest roofs spread widely, extending far beyond the first level walls, creating overhangs held up by thick wood posts. Roofs further up grew steeper, and sloped at sharp angles to the sky, drawing the eye up to the pinnacles of the church, where a series of wood cupolas capped with copper onion domes pierced the heavens. Here and there small windows punctured the walls, and dormer windows accented the roofs in rhythmic patterns. It was a complicated structure, yet harmonious, and very exciting.
I opened one of the heavy wood doors and entered this foreign-looking marvel. It was as if I had entered another time and another world. The narthex was dark but for the light of two oil lamps, which illuminated icons on either side of the next set of doors which led into the church nave. These doors were open, so I walked through towards the heart of the church. It appeared that I was alone. Small windows in the side walls here allowed light into this section of the nave, but it was still quite dark. Oil lamps shone upon more icons which lined the interior walls. These were all intriguing and beautiful, but the eye was drawn forward into the church by the abundance of light streaming down into its center from the cavernous space above the crossing. I stood at the very center and looked up, and was greeting by an enormous painting of Jesus Christ looking back at me. He was far above, nestled amongst a forest of wood posts and beams and set into a large dome. Warm incandescent light shone on the multiple layers of bare wood which rose to greet Him; and the natural light, which streamed in and down from several series of windows set into the sloped ceilings, gave the feeling that heaven was descending upon me. The entire effect was captivating and I stood mesmerized for quite a long time, I think, though I lost track of the time.
My reverie was disrupted by a sonorous voice, which filled the church: “Welcome! I see you’ve met the head of the household,” he laughed deeply while gesturing up at the dome. “I am Father Seraphim, how can I help you?” he said, his voice still booming as he approached me from behind the altar.
I introduced myself and told him my connection to Amelia and Father Davidson and that I came to visit at the suggestion of Amelia.
“Are you Orthodox?” he asked me.
“Oh, no. I’m American, I mean, I’m not Greek, or Russian or anything like that. I mean I’m Irish, but I’m, well I grew up Methodist.” I fumbled my reply.
He laughed a large laugh, and beamed at me. “Same here! Although I’m Native American. Not Greek or Russian, a little Irish believe it or not, and Orthodox all my life. But most of the folks here are converts, some from the Methodists like you.”
“I didn’t know.” I replied.
“In fact,” he continued. “This church originally was Lutheran, built by Norwegian immigrants, but is now Orthodox, so even this building is a convert!” Father Seraphim let out a huge belly laugh and slapped me on the back. “So, how can I help you?”
“Speaking of converts, Amelia told me that you were responsible for converting Father Davidson.”
“Yes, it’s true. That was a long time ago now. He was baptized right here, almost exactly in this spot where we’re standing now. Good boys. They will always be boys to me.”
“Can you tell me how that came about? I’m very curious about the Father’s conversion.”
“Yes, well he was a Presbyterian if I remember right. Nice family, I don’t think they attended church much, but they raised their kids well. Meg, the oldest, Amelia, and Josh, well Seraphim.”
“What do you mean, Seraphim?” I asked.
“That was his given name, when he entered the Orthodox Church. I gave him the name Seraphim, same as mine. Seraphim are angels, like ministers of fire. I think it fits him well. It also was fitting since a fire is why we met, and how he came to become Orthodox.”
“How is that?” I asked.
“They started a fire, he and Richard—Bezalel—that was his given name, he converted also, that’s a very unusual name. Can’t think of anyone else with that name. But that’s another story. They were boys, well Seraphim was nineteen, so he was tried as an adult, but Richard was only seventeen, maybe sixteen, anyway, he went to juvenile hall instead of the adult prison. Horrible for that boy, just horrible. But they came to Christ. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, isn’t that right? Yes, it is right! And very Orthodox too. And what kills you makes you stronger as well! But that’s a harder saying. But also very Orthodox, I think! Bezalel, do you know what that means? It means “under the protection of God”. Isn’t that wonderful? Yes, he suffered, but he was protected too. Seraphim protected him then, and God protects him now, as He always has.”
“A fire, how did that happen? Why?” I asked.
“That’s a long story, maybe another time. I have many things to do still, and it is close to Vespers. Let’s talk again. Please stay for vespers though, you are welcome to join us.”
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