Mortality, Exile & Reconciliation:

The Role of Suffering in the Relationship between God & Man (Part 2)

I. Mortality

The problem of death, and what our response should be towards it, often raises confusion and discomfort for many of us in the world today. We don’t have a coherent understanding of death or what it really means. And when others whom we know die, we are often equally bewildered and lost. Death appears to be a problem that we are helpless in the face of; and even for believers in an afterlife, and specifically for Christians who profess faith in Christ and His saving work on the cross and his resurrection, death is still a problem that causes great difficulty and anguish. As Vigen Guroian writes in his book, Life’s Living Toward Dying:

“…in the modern era…death is furtively pushed out of the world of familiar things. Even self-consciously religious people tend to respond to death with an other-worldliness that suggests a weakened belief in Providence and no real sense of grace. Second, vast numbers of contemporary people have difficulty making anything good out of the process of dying and death itself. And all that remains for many mourners today is a vague hope that they are sending the deceased to some far off better place….like its weak religious counterpart, the secular outlook is typically characterized by dread of death and propensity to expel it from the world of the living….Death becomes unnamable.” (Guroian, 13)

For many of us, believers in Christ as well as non-believers, the problem of death, though unavoidable, is still too great a problem to really grapple with, and one that seemingly has no real answer. It is therefore best ignored, and then only dealt with as quickly as possible when necessary, and then forgotten again as best as we can, after we’ve taken care of the dead. And for those who can’t move on from it, they become a burden and a source of discomfort for the rest of us, who just want to avoid the issue and get on with living. But avoidance and denial are rarely successful guiding principles for life, and an ethics based upon these is unlikely to be healthy for us individually or as a society. And for the Church it is even more unhealthy to avoid the problem of death, especially when the core of the Church’s identity and hope is Christ, who came as the answer and solution to the problem of human mortality. Guroian makes the following point in his book:

“Unless it makes death its central problem, Christian ethics runs the risk of mimicking other systems of ethics by focusing solely on the here and now and holding out the prospect of attaining complete happiness in this life….But Christian faith is nourished by the dogmas of the crucifixion, resurrection, last judgment, and eternal life…a Christian ethic must begin with the fact that death claims every human being and would nullify every human effort to achieve happiness and meaningful existence were it not for the fact that Jesus Christ triumphed over death for our sakes through his own freely offered death on the cross.” (Guroian, xxv)

But if we are supposed to make death our central problem—which, I think, is simply to acknowledge the truth, that it truly is our central problem—what is the purpose of doing so, and what good can come of it? In fact, isn’t there potentially a danger in doing so? And isn’t it a bit morbid to be preoccupied with death? Scripture says that wisdom is found in the house of mourning, and it is better to dwell in the house of mourning than in the house of mirth. Many thinkers within the Church have taken up this topic—patristic and ascetic father over the centuries have discussed mindfulness of death, and have explained the importance and benefits of this practice, which we’ll discuss in more detail later. Additionally, many philosophers and psychologists outside of the Church, have also explored the value of facing and contemplating the meaning of death in our lives.

Ernest Becker in his book, The Denial of Death, made an extensive and thorough survey of modern psychologists and existential philosophers on the topic and came to a number of interesting conclusions. Among them being that one of the principle motivations in mankind’s life, is the terror of death, and the means of avoiding that terror. However, he also states that facing this terror can lead man to new freedoms and new insights. He writes: “Cultivating awareness of our death leads to disillusionment, loss of character armor, and a conscious choice to abide in the face of terror.” (Becker, xv) While this sounds treacherous—it doesn’t have to be, for those who can abide this terror—he explains that it can also be a great liberation and source of growth. He continues: “The flood of anxiety is not the end for man. It is, rather a ‘school’ that provides man with the ultimate education, the final maturity….the ‘school’ of anxiety is the unlearning of repression…education for man means facing up to his natural impotence and death.” (Becker, 87-88)

One of the psychologists surveyed in Becker’s book, explains this repression and fear in greater detail:

“Frederick Perls conceived the neurotic structure as a thick edifice built up of four layers. The first two layers are the everyday layers…these are the glib, empty talk, cliché, and role-playing layers. Many people live out their lives never getting underneath them. The third layer is…the impasse that covers our feeling of being empty and lost, the very feeling we try to banish in building up our character defenses. Underneath this layer is the fourth and most baffling one: the “death” or fear-of-death layer: this is the layer of our true and basic animal anxieties, the terror that we carry around in our secret heart. Only when we explode this fourth layer, says Perls, do we get to the layer of what we might call our “authentic self”: what we really are without sham, without disguise, without defenses against fear.” (Becker, 57)

I think this quote sheds some light on the verse from Ecclesiastes which claims wisdom is found in the house of mourning, while fools dwell in the house of mirth. Mourning is the process of confronting the sorrows associated with death and loss. From this process we can realize things more honest and true about ourselves, and understand ourselves and others in deeper and more authentic ways. Becker further explains this process: “When we give up the four-layered lie, we ‘…come face to face with something even more awful: genuine despair. Full humanness means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day.'” (Becker, 59) Again, this sounds treacherous, and possibly an activity not suitable for everyone to engage in, but I think this is where Christianity can offer a further solution.

In the Orthodox Christian tradition, Saint Sophrony has a well-known saying which I think helps us to understand how to address this seeming paradox of facing the terror of death and its attendant despair, while doing so in a way that leads one to greater mental and spiritual health. He tells us to “keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.” Contained in this concept is a constant awareness of death and human suffering—without avoiding this or hiding from it—and yet at the same time, it includes trust and faithfulness in God’s supreme love for us. Both of these actions simultaneously—the former provides many spiritual benefits in our spiritual formation, while the latter draws us ever closer in relationship with God through faith and hope. How does this work? Archimandrite Sophrony explains it in this way: “Spiritual pain is the source of the energy needed to resist the pull of earthly attractions, for the sake of that other divine and eternal world.” (Sophrony, Wisdom 7)  This practice can help us shift our vision from what is earthly and temporal to what is heavenly and eternal. Additionally, it can reveal the true state of our helplessness and dependence, which is often concealed from us by our pride and self-love, when we are living successfully in the world and as we satisfy our temporal desires and needs. Keeping our mind in hell—in the sense of facing our suffering and the pains of death and loss—while resisting the urge towards despair—as we open to the truth of the blessings that God bestows upon us in this life—can lead us to a place of true humility—which enables us to live with greater wisdom and virtue in this world.

Ultimately, it is Christ who we emulate when we keep our minds in hell but despair not. Much in the same way that He emptied himself, crying tears of blood when he prayed in Gethsemane, and when he suffered on the cross and descended into hell before rising again. All of the spiritual benefits which derive from this practice, but in particular the acquiring of humility, engender in us a peacefulness, and a love for others that can be healing. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to face death without sometimes feeling tempted towards despair, and perhaps even succumbing to this temptation now and then. However, it is not inevitable that we feel despair, because God is love and He loves us, and He desires that we know Him and know His profound love for us. We learn of His love by faith and hope, through the action of grace in the Holy Spirit and by our actions of obedience to God. In particular, by the action of “keeping our mind in hell, and despairing not” we can maintain an openness of mind and spirit which allows us to approach and know God and His love for us, further protecting us from falling into despair in the face of the world’s suffering. “By descending into hell, we do nothing other than follow the trail of the Lord Himself. However, the way of the Lord leads to life, and for this reason we should not despair.” (Archim. Zacharias, Christ Our Way & Our Life, 268) We can find hope in this method because it is the way of Christ—strength in weakness, victory over death by His death, and descent into hell, and his resurrection, finally leading to eternal life.

Saint Sophrony’s method presupposes one has a belief in God, and a faith in God’s love and goodness. However, death and suffering are the very things which cause many people to question the existence of God, or question whether he is good, or whether he does in fact love us. Perhaps more than anything else in life, death makes the question of God and God’s goodness relevant. Upon the death of a loved one (or our own, or other significant causes of pain and suffering) we are thrust to a crossroads—even for those who have a strong faith in God—and this crossroads is a decision to draw closer to God or to reject Him. For those who don’t believe in God, this can be one more example in support of their position. Even for those who do believe, it can be a moment of truth and grave mental anguish, as they seriously grapple, perhaps for the first time, with whether or not the God they believe in actually is loving and has their best interests in mind.

However, at this crossroads, a great deal depends upon how we see the situation. The way we frame our understanding of death (or suffering) plays a significant role in how we feel about God. It is easy to understand why someone might choose to reject God on the basis of this suffering—if God is allowing this loss and this pain in my life, he is either not good, or not omnipotent and therefore not God. Yet, what if there are greater and more important issues at stake than simply maintaining our life’s status quo? As much as we love the gift of life in this world, and the countless gifts of family, friends etc. perhaps in God’s economy, and in the view of eternal life, there are other things that are more important. Repeatedly, throughout scripture, we are told that God is primarily concerned with our character and our inner spiritual state. We are told to be holy, to sanctify ourselves, to prepare our hearts for his spirit to dwell within us; we are told to repent of our worldly ways and to seek his kingdom, that we may have eternal life. And we are told that we are vastly important to him. If all of these things are true, it is very possible that God allows death and suffering as a means towards helping us cultivate all of these things within us. Quite possibly the things of this brief, temporal life—as wonderful as they are—are less important than the more wonderful eternal life, which depends, in part, on what we make of ourselves in this life.

I think most of us can look back on painful experiences—after time has passed—and understand the many ways those experiences have actually helped us and have activated positive inner qualities for which we are now grateful. Imagine the inner qualities that are admired, desired and encouraged in this life—traits like pride, ambition, control, or things like wealth, power and prestige—and how are these things going to assist us in the next life? In fact, if we believe what scripture tells us, all of these actually hinder us, and are problems in our way. And what often happens to us as we endure suffering, or face death? We often find that none of these things really matter to us after all, and we are changed; we relinquish these in favor of humility, patience, tenderness and gentleness. We begin to shed the fruits of this world and make room in our hearts for the fruit of the Spirit, which is very dear to God. Framed in this way, we can see value in the role of death and suffering in our lives; for what they can do to help transform us—making of us people that we wouldn’t become in any other way.

Nevertheless, the pain of this process can be grievous. And simply knowing that something is good for us, doesn’t always make us feel better. Being transformed can be very painful. John Climacus in his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, describes this perfectly:

“Violence and unending pain are the lot of those who aim to ascend to heaven with the body, and this especially at the early stages of the enterprise, when our pleasure-loving disposition and our unfeeling hearts must travel through overwhelming grief toward the love of God and holiness.” (Climacus, 75)

He was speaking of and to monks who had chosen this path voluntarily, which is quite different to those of us who have this process thrust upon us involuntarily through suffering and death. As we’ve discussed already, often our response to this involuntary pain is anger and blame. We feel unfairly maligned in the face of such suffering. Because of these natural feelings, people can add to their own suffering through alienating themselves from others and from God in their anger. This is where the body of Christ becomes very important; or, for those outside the body, where simply good friends can play a fundamental role in helping the grieving person. Death carries in its wake depths of loneliness that can be comforted by the love and support from others. How best can we offer that support, and bear the burdens of others?

The book of Job, from the Old Testament, perhaps is a good description of what not to do as a friend when offering consolation for the bereaved. After Job loses all of his wealth, and all of his children die, and he is struck with disease, his friends come to console him in his suffering. At first they sit with him in silence, simply offering their presence as comfort to Job. And this initial effort by his friends seemed to be a good intuition and it worked well, but then they began to reason with Job and to accuse him or insinuate that his suffering was his own fault. Reason, argument, theorizing, even if based in truth, often is unhelpful for the bereaved. As Metropolitan Nikolaos writes in his wonderful book, When God Is Not There:

“Even the most tender movement increases the pain of the suffering person. Even the most subtle comparison to a similar trial is unbearable for them. A word expressed as a rational argument cannot be tolerated. Only tears, sharing the question, silence, and inner prayer are able to relieve the suffering, illuminate the darkness or give rise to a glimmer of hope.” (Nikolaos, 79)

As Job reasons and argues with his friends, it appears that rather than bringing comfort, they add insult to injury by further testing Job’s endurance. Even his wife tests Job, telling him to curse God and die. But throughout all of this, Job never accuses God. Even in the midst of his complaints, Job maintains faith and blesses God. Not everyone can maintain this frame of mind, yet it is healthy to do so. As friends of the bereaved, we can offer love and comfort in silence, sharing their tears, and perhaps guiding them gently—while praying silently—and encouraging them not to put God out of their hearts, even as they wrestle with God through their pain. In the end, Job declares that before, he only knew about God—as one might know something through hearsay, or second-hand—but now, after having suffered, and having wrestled with God in the midst of his pain, now he knows God first-hand.

We live most of our lives not really knowing God, not in an ontological, or real and experiential sense. We may know something about him, we may know ideas or concepts about him, but we don’t often seek to know him personally or relationally. Death and suffering are among the most effective means for offering mankind an opportunity for this intimacy with the divine—for bringing us into a personal and experiential relationship with God. In the next section I would like to explore in more depth how death and suffering can bring us closer to God.

~FS

Just Ride It Out

I’ve been told, more than once, that things just keep getting better. This is the basis of our entire economy after all. Each day will bring improvements upon the day before; and with a little more technology, a little more tweaking, a better workout, a better diet, and the conquering of our world’s problems, our future is sure to be a bright utopia. Young people love this stuff. I used to love this stuff too, but I guess we all get to a point in life, some earlier than others, when we aren’t interested in any more improvements. Things are fine the way they are now, I think I’ll just ride it out…

Think I’m just a grumpy old man? Well, I think if someone complains about me ‘just riding it out’ they probably are trying to sell me something; they’re probably instead ‘just taking me for a ride’.

I used to own cars that I could repair myself, (Volkswagen Bus, Toyota SR5 Truck) but now with every improvement, cars are far too complicated and expensive to repair myself, with lots more things that can break (computers, electronics etc). Eventually, I used to buy these complicated kinds of cars, but finally they went too far…now I drive a 2003 Camry with barely more than 100k miles on it. I think I can just ride it out…if I’m lucky I’ll never need another car again. I still can’t repair it, but it’s simpler than the newer models and works just fine.

For work I have to use an iPhone. I suppose it is one of the more current models. I always dread when it tells me to update something, because inevitably the update will screw everything up. I’ve lost countless photos and important documents and the phone settings are scrambled like eggs, whenever I update that thing. The same is true with my computer. I tried to keep Windows 2000 as long as possible but eventually I had to upgrade when I got a new computer. That worked out okay until the new computer told me to do an update. I knew it was a trick, I resisted it for months until the voices of my computer ‘expert’ friends wore me down, and so I allowed the update. It took me weeks to try to fix the problems which that update caused me. It will never work as well as my operating system from about ten years ago. I have now posted notes near my devices warning myself never to succumb again to the temptation of updating. It isn’t worth it. Just ride it out, my friends, just ride those devices out…

Which brings me to the topic of teeth. I’ve worked hard to keep mine in good shape but eventually I always need a new filling or a crown. I always thought this was prudent, taking care of those cavities, since we only get one set in this life. Now I’m on the second or third repair on many of the fillings I first received as a child, and I’m beginning to reconsider my strategy. Is all this dental work really leading to a brighter tomorrow? I visited the dentist today, one of the nicest and kindest persons you could meet. She worked hard to ally my anxieties as she leaned me way back in the chair to do her work on one of my upper molars. Without going into too much detail it ranks high on my list of terrifying activities now. So, why go to the trouble anymore? Next tooth that goes south, I think I’ll have it yanked instead. I’ve got quite a few to spare and even when those go, I could get a great set of fake ones if needed. I had my old filling replaced today because a little bit of new decay was discovered under the filling; it was to prevent future pain. But as with most things designed to make our lives better, there are unexpected consequences, and in this case a nerve is now somehow more exposed than it was before. So the future pain I avoided by getting this new filling, is now a present pain with a nerve issue I never had before. There is a lesson here folks—just ride it out…

Here’s the thing: today is just fine the way it is, and yesterday may have been good as well, but tomorrow is very likely not going to be any better. So just ride it out, friends, just ride it out…and don’t let anyone take you for a ride. Unless it’s in an older model car, that you can fix yourselves.

~FS

Mortality, Exile & Reconciliation: The Role of Suffering in the Relationship between God & Man

Introduction:

Who among us doesn’t yearn for a life without suffering? Suffering, at the very least, is unpleasant and uncomfortable. We try hard to avoid it, or mitigate it and then move on with our lives as quickly as possible—to free ourselves from its impact. We’ve created whole industries to help us with the project of ridding ourselves of pain, either by numbing it through a wide variety of medications, or by running from it through endless diversions and distractions. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that this life includes suffering. There is no life that is completely free of pain. Even as we run from it, we feel it stalking us; and even when our medications are working, we know that their soothing effects are only temporary, and offer us no permanent solution.

What’s worse, we also know that life itself isn’t permanent—that everyone we know and love will eventually die, including ourselves. And this understanding can cause us a profound and existential suffering. The knowledge of our inevitable mortality, and finitude in this world, can often leave us feeling very afraid and alone. And the loss of our loved ones to death can leave us feeling utterly empty; and our lives as though drained of all meaning. Our pain can become so great in these circumstances, that, as St. Basel the Great once said, we become so sensitive that we are like the eye, which cannot bear even the touch of a feather.

This kind of vulnerability is also uncomfortable for most of us. It portends a loss of control over our own lives, and a sense of helplessness in the face of our suffering, as we confront the ontological reality of death and the torments that may flow in its wake. Many of us, instead of admitting this kind of pain, will instead put on a façade—we maintain a stiff upper lip, we wipe away the tears and get on with things, we fight against our natural feelings of sorrow and mourning in order not to succumb to them. While others of us do succumb to these feelings, and might possibly fall into despair, or into anger or other passions which gain the upper hand over us—and take further control of us—against which we may give up fighting altogether, as these feelings suck the energy out of our life. There is a common fear, among those confronting losses brought on by death, that if they mourn, if they really face the feelings they are experiencing, then they may fall into those feelings—as if into a black hole or a well—and they may never be able to get out again. It is as though the power within these emotions is potentially too much for us, and if given license they may turn and devour us, and we may lose ourselves forever.

And against this natural fear of death, there is a natural love of life. Under normal circumstances we all want to live and to go on living; and we want everyone we love to continue living as well. It has been said that the more we love the more we abhor death; the greater the depth of love, the greater the suffering. So what do we do with such a terrible and inevitable source of suffering? Aside from employing the methods of denial and diversion that we have already briefly discussed, we also attempt to rationalize death in order to accept it and become at peace with it. We seem to conclude that if we can’t beat death—which we know we can’t—then we might as well at least come to an understanding and acceptance of it, so we can get on with making the most of the time we have left. Death will eventually come, but hopefully not too soon, and if we’re lucky we can postpone it as long as possible. And when it does finally, inevitably invade our lives, and we can no longer avoid it, we attempt to comfort ourselves and others with notions such as: that death is natural, and it is just a part of the cycle of life. Sometimes we even go so far as to say that it is meant to be, and it is simply part of God’s plan.

These are among the ways which the world attempts to deal with the suffering of death. Even Christians often resort to these tactics, though in reality they have a much different and more hopeful way to face death. Yet, the immediacy of this world’s suffering and the present tangibility of our own experience, can make the promises found in Christ’s death and resurrection seem partially irrelevant to the here and now. The promises of a future life, though wonderful as they may be, can seem too distant to be meaningful—like promising a child an ice cream that they can’t eat until next year. Certainly it will be great, when it finally arrives, but we’d really like to have it now. In fact, waiting, for many of us, is its own kind of suffering. That good thing we’ve been promised, well, why can’t we have it now?! If you are going to give it to me eventually anyways, why wait? What is there possibly to be gained in the process of waiting?

Likewise, what is there possibly to be gained through the process of suffering? Can there be important and positive meaning discovered through our suffering? And what about death, can something positive be found in that, which is beneficial to us in our lives here and now? The Christian view is—and has always been—that death is our enemy; it is not natural, nor is it something with which to accept or to make peace. Therefore, how are we to understand this terrible enemy; and what response can we cultivate towards death that accords with God’s will for us, and is true to our reality in this world and in anticipation of the life to come?

In the book of Genesis, chapter three, the Bible describes the advent of suffering and of death connected with the fall of mankind, and with their banishment from paradise. From that time forward, suffering and death have been interwoven with the experience of exile. Adam and Eve were exiled from their original home in the garden, and through their sinful actions they became alienated from each other—originally the two are made one flesh but subsequent to the fall Adam rules over Eve—and they both became alienated from God—as they hid from Him in shame and in fear. And as a result of their disobedience their sorrows were multiplied, pain became intermingled with life, and toil accompanied their efforts as they worked a land that became cursed. And this is still the experience of mankind even today; though most of us, if not all, fight against this painful reality with all our might.

When the trials of life press upon us we may find ourselves protesting against the unfairness of it; often shaking our fist at God, though this is usually done in private, and rarely out in the open. We can also be like the Israelite’s wandering in the desert and grumbling against God’s provision; or like Job’s wife, we may be tempted to “curse God, and die”. Or, we may even react to these trials of suffering in the manner that the Apostle Peter warns against: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you…” (1 Peter 4:12) In all of these ways, it is our tendency to further alienate and isolate ourselves from God and from each other as we fight against our suffering, often blaming others for it, and also blaming God.

We are born into this world and we make our home here. Yet, the Christian view is that this world is not our true home, and we are merely sojourners here for the brief span of our earthly life. Our eternal home, ultimately, will be dwelling with God, or, God forbid, in eternal exile separated from God’s presence. So, in a very real sense, spiritually speaking, our lives here are a life in exile, even in the best of times and circumstances. Often we may get an inkling that this is not our true home, and that we are merely aliens in this world, but it is typically an indistinct sense and not one that is easy to pin down. Yet, through suffering, and especially in the experience of death, this ineffable feeling is given flesh, so to speak, and we are thrust headlong into a very real and palpable experience of isolation, loneliness and disorientation. It is common for those who’ve lost loved ones to feel in a daze, or a fog which obscures the most familiar things of our lives, and leaves us completely lost.

In these situations most of us struggle to try to regain what we’ve lost; even if we know this is impossible. We want with all our heart for that person who has died to come back to us, we want to touch them again, to do all the things we used to enjoy together, to see them, to hold them, and on and on. This pain of separation can be bewildering. And this same experience of exile, alienation, loneliness and disorientation can happen with other types of losses, not just loss to death. We may lose our own health due to an accident, an illness, or a medical emergency such as a stroke, and the experience is very similar. We want things to go back to normal, back to how they were before this thing befell us. Again, we may find ourselves like the Israelites who had been living in Egypt, in exile from the Promised Land. Once freed from their bondage, though still wandering through the wilderness, they missed the comforts of their previous life. Though Egypt wasn’t their true home, it was familiar and they longed to return.

One of the most interesting things about exile in this world—in a spiritual sense—is how most of us can live comfortably unaware that we even are living in exile. We make our homes in Egypt—again in a spiritual sense—and forget all about the Promised Land from whence we first came, and from where we were banished. We preoccupy our hearts and minds with the immediate things of this world, and create life’s meaning and purpose within the constraints of this realm only. Time and space beyond the here and now is mostly irrelevant to us, and since it cannot be known for certain, it is mainly discounted, or put off to a later time, or considered false comfort and an illusion. The people and things of our immediate world blind us to any glimmers of another potential world, so that God is considered principally, only in terms of how He might help us now, and how He might make our lives more comfortable here.

Because of this, when suffering pierces us, as it inevitably does, and when death tears the fabric of our life so mercilessly, we are taken aback, and we can become angry at God. How could he allow something bad to happen to us? Shouldn’t a good God let us live in peace; shouldn’t He bless our lives only with good things? Perhaps, if this were the only life we were meant to live, this might be true. And if we were only meant to live in this world, in exile, estranged from the true home God intends for us, then this might also be true. Perhaps, if this were the case, God would leave us alone, as many people seem to desire; or He would act the part of the benevolent grandfather, which so many of us wish that He were. And yet, the truth is, God doesn’t want to leave us in exile, even if we think we prefer it; and He doesn’t want to leave us alienated, estranged, lonely and disoriented—as we so often are in this life. Instead, He wants to dwell in us, to make His home within us, and to put a final end to our exile.

But mankind does not make the indwelling of God an easy task. And God will not force himself upon us against our will. Our pride, and our passions can act as a bulwark against God’s advance in our lives; and our desires and our own willfulness become the walls of the house we prefer—and the wall of separation between ourselves and God. Repeatedly, in scripture, we are told to sanctify ourselves, to make our hearts holy, in preparation for God to come and abide in us. Yes, to end our worldly exile requires our acquiescence; there is no coming home without our agreement to return. God will not make us captives in paradise. But how can a person choose the path of sanctification that leads out of this exile, when all their lives they have worked to build up a carnal home instead—built upon their self-will, self-love, and the fulfillment of their pride, vanity and passions? Or put another way, how can one depart this life that they love, the people that they love, and the things that they love in order to discover themselves as a new person, in a new life?

Fortunately, Jesus Christ and his Church can show us the way. It is a life of self-emptying, a path of dying to oneself; it is the way of the cross, which Christ demonstrated to us in his love and devotion to doing his Father’s will. For us, it is a life of reconciliation, or of repentance, in which we turn from our old life and embrace a new one. And while the goal is glorious, the path can be difficult—though Christ assures us that He will make it easy as well. But again, how does one choose this? As we’ve said earlier, most of us are happy living in exile in this world—we most likely don’t even see it as an exile—and many of us are happy keeping God at arm’s length. So, for the reasons we’ve already discussed, most of us don’t choose a life of self-emptying, and for the most part we won’t choose it. Even if we understand, theoretically, the merits of following the way of Christ—even if we believe that the way of the cross is the way to a deep and complete relationship with God—still, we’re comfortable with the life we’ve made for ourselves, and the life we know.

I do not presume to know the mysteries of death and the life to come, or the causes for our suffering and pain in this life. And I don’t want to speculate here, like the disciples who questioned Jesus did, whether our suffering is due to our sin, or the sins of our ancestors, or for some other reason. But I do want to delve into the positive role that suffering can have in our life, and in our relationships with others, and with God, since it is an inevitability and we cannot avoid it; and I’d like to explore the role that death in particular plays, in the relationship-building between ourselves and God. Suffering and death can cause us to view our life in a new way. They have the power to disorient us in profound and irreversible ways—removing us from the old familiar roads we once traveled—and presenting us with new ones which have the power to transform us, if we recognize and allow them to do so.

Fortunately, none of us have to be alone in our suffering; nor are we alone as we struggle with the deaths of loved ones, or when we face the fact of our own mortality. Although all of these things can make us feel very alone and isolated, we are in this life together with others who have gone through, or are going through, the very same difficulties. Therefore, we can lean upon one another, learn from one another, and encourage and guide one another through the paths of suffering which are laid before us in this life’s journey. Each of us will likely be called upon to offer care and love to others in the midst of their pain; so each of us has an opportunity to suffer together, and to bear one another’s burdens. It is my hope that this discourse may, in some way, help us to be better prepared when this opportunity arises.

In the following sections I would like to look more deeply into these topics of suffering and death, exile, and reconciliation. In the light of God’s love for us, how might we better understand the role that suffering can have in our relationship with God; and how might we better understand our own role as we share in the suffering of others? If God is love then how does that love accord with suffering and death? And in what manner can we best approach this question; is there a specific answer that is satisfying to us? Or might the very question itself be the stimulus that can lead us into deeper, fuller relationship with God? And is it simply answers that we need in response to suffering; or is it a truer relationship with love itself, that is the goal? I’d like to begin this exploration, in the next section, by delving deeper into the problem of mortality.

~FS

The Isle of Virtue (Complete Story):

Pieter was a fisherman, named after that famous fisherman from Bible times who ended up leading a church. His parents immigrated to the Pacific Northwest from the Netherlands in the early 1900’s, bringing Pieter along as contraband, deep within his mother’s womb. To his father’s surprise, the babe began to show, not long after they settled their homestead on one of the small islands which dotted the Canadian coast, but was in fact actually a part of Alaska.

When his mother finally gave birth to him, his father wanted to call his name, Jonah. But she objected to the inference, saying: “If he was Jonah, what did that make her?” She felt bloated and wasn’t in the mood for such jokes. So they agreed upon the name Pieter instead: whose career, like Jonah’s, also involved surprises at sea.

When Pieter was still quite young he met the eldest daughter of another immigrant family who had moved to the island. Her father was a Russian priest and her mother was Spanish, herself a daughter of a colonel, who had been a close ally and friend of General Vallejo. He settled his family on a large estate north of San Francisco. Prior to becoming a priest, the Russian met and fell in love with the Spanish girl. He married her in an Orthodox ceremony at the chapel connected to Fort Ross, on the northern California coast—where he had been serving as a deacon. Not long after the wedding, he was ordained, and the newlyweds moved north to start their family.

Isabel was their first-born and grew up to be a fine young lady. She was hard-working and had a practical disposition. When Pieter asked her to marry him, she had just turned seventeen but she was no naïve girl. She knew what it took to make a life in their world. It wasn’t easy. So, she wanted some guarantees first that Pieter could provide for her, before she’d agree to anything. She didn’t aspire to wealth but she did want to be comfortable, at least as comfortable as one can reasonably expect to be on a remote island.

Pieter was already a capable seaman when he proposed to Isabel. He had inherited his father’s home, his land, and fishing boat the year before, when his father unexpectedly died; and now at the age of twenty-one, he was prepared to begin a family of his own. These things assured Isabel of a reasonable future, plus she liked Pieter, so she agreed to be his wife. Her father performed the sacrament of marriage for the young couple later that same year, and then she moved into Pieter’s house.

Pieter and Isabel raised three children, who all eventually left the island, and their parents behind, to make lives for themselves in cities abroad. And the couple buried their own parents—Pieter’s mother and Isabel’s father and mother—in their middle years, which was now long ago. The two old souls now lived together alone; having settled into a familiar tranquility that comes from many years of shared experience. Time passed melodically like the waves which lapped the side of his boat, and rolled lightly upon the beach; and the seasons came and went like the tides. 

In the mornings, Pieter kissed his wife before leaving the house, and then he made the short trek down to the rocky beach, where he kept his small rowboat. After he left, Isabel got busy with her work: feeding the goats, gathering wood, chopping it, stoking the fire, gathering vegetables from their small garden, mending clothes, canning, pickling, cooking and repairing. And there were a multitude of other tasks to be done, depending upon the season and the need. She had become old and tired, but her will was as strong as ever, and she did these tasks stoically and even joyfully, despite the pain they had left indelibly throughout her body. Life’s meaning could be found in these little things; and she was grateful too for these chores, as they kept unhappy thoughts at bay. 

Pieter shoved his rowboat out into the water and climbed inside. Years ago his fishing boat had fallen into disrepair so he had abandoned it. It needed a new motor among other things. But he no longer fished to make a living; he only caught what he and Isabel themselves needed to eat. The waters surrounding their island had more than enough to sustain them so there was no need to repair the larger vessel. Therefore, he left it moored. Over time it became a vestige of an earlier time—a relic of happy memories—and a home for birds, otters and barnacles.

Today, Pieter planned first to check the crab pot that he had set out in the middle of the cove the night before; and then he would row south to the kelp beds between his and the neighboring island to do some fishing. The water of the cove was clear and still as he glided across its surface; the blades of his oars barely stirring it, as he expertly pulled his way along. Mist hung over the surface of the water, and caught the rays of the sun, diffusing it into halos of golden light. A fish jumped out of the water, returning again with a gentle ker-plop, sending forth tiny ripples. Pieter pulled at the chain and lifted the crab pot into the boat. Three small crabs scurried around the pot, and he lifted two out, placing them into a bucket near his feet. The third he dropped over the side, and watched as it sailed down through the water and away to freedom; he and Isabel wouldn’t eat more than two tonight.

After dropping the pot into the back of his boat, Pieter took up the oars and rowed out towards the open water. The cove he had called home for his entire life was roughly circular, and took about ten or fifteen minutes to row across. Conifer trees lined its northern half, all the way around it to the west, where his father had made a large clearing back when Pieter was just a baby. To the south there was a large stand of trees about half-way out towards the mouth, but east of that the ground became too rocky to support much more than grass and the occasional shrub. Looking out across this barren point towards the southeast one could see the clouds gathering, or the sun rising over the waters beyond the cove, and gauge what sort of day might be brewing. 

Pieter smiled broadly as he left the cove, because the sky was clear and the breeze was gentle. It would be a beautiful day, easy for rowing, perfect for fishing, and amenable for watching the wildlife. On days like these one could see for miles and catch a passing pod of whales, which might otherwise be obscured by the clouds and the heavy mist which was more typical of the area. He felt excited today, happy to be alive and expectant for surprises. Although he had lived his entire life within this small world, never having ventured beyond the immediate island group—maybe a four mile radius at most—he never tired of it, nor did he feel bored. His kids had often complained and he could never understand them. As he gazed deeply into the water which revealed its emerald green architectures of rock below, highlighted by ripples of light cascading across their craggy surfaces, he thought back to his children’s complaints: “Why do we have to go fishing again?…I don’t want to be here anymore!…This is booriiing!!!” He shook his head and sighed as he continued to plumb the depths of this underwater world with his eyes, and he was delighted to discover colorful starfish attached to the rocks: red ones, and golden ones like living exclamation marks in that green watery world. “How could anyone be bored by this? I can’t understand it,” he murmured to himself. He missed his children though, and wished they might visit someday. It is difficult to live this kind of life, he could acknowledge that. And of course, they had to go and find their own way, make their own families. But it always surprised him that they never returned; wouldn’t they want to visit, at least once?

“Well, no sense in stewing over that. They’ll come if they want to.” He pulled hard on the oars and the small craft leapt forward through the water. This was getting harder to do. He felt the strain in his arms and down his back, and into his legs. He rubbed at his shoulders briefly and longed for the evening when he and Isabel could exchange backrubs back at the house. “That’ll feel good. But gotta catch some fish first. Gotta earn my keep here.” Pieter rowed to the kelp beds and settled in for the day—tossing a small net over the side of the boat, and also pulling an old home-made pole out, and casting a line.

Pieter fished for several hours and caught five small steelhead trout in his net, and two on the line. He kept the two he caught using the pole and three of the largest from the net, tossing them all into the bucket on the floor of the rowboat, where the crabs he had caught earlier were waiting. The smallest of the trout from the net, he tossed back into the water for another day. He and Isabel would eat well tonight. He pictured his beloved Isabel at home preparing a salad using vegetables fresh from their garden, and perhaps roasting some potatoes as well, and baking bread, which they would smother with goat cheese and butter. It would be a feast—a handsome reward for a good day of work.

As he rowed back to the cove, the sun began to dip towards the west; and its golden rays illuminated the peaks of the island at the eastern horizon, far over his left shoulder. He stopped rowing and watched as the sunlight bathed the mountains, illuminating their snowy tops and turning them pink. Was it one mountain or three? It was difficult to discern. There were certainly three distinct peaks, so it must be three. Although they all seemed to share the same base, so perhaps it was one. Ah, no matter. One or three, it was beautiful and glorious to behold.

As the sun finally dipped below the western horizon, Pieter pulled into the cove, and minutes later the sound of land, ground against the bottom of his boat. He jumped out and pulled it onto the shore. Grabbing the bucket of seafood, he walked up the trail to the house. The air was cool and getting chilly. Birds chirped from the trees, which had all become silhouettes against the darkening sky. The warm light spilling from the windows and the sight and smell of smoke coming from the chimney welcomed him home. And once inside, he embraced his greatest love, and commented upon how beautiful she had become.

“I think you became more beautiful than you were when I left you this morning,” he exclaimed. “What did you do to yourself?”

Isabel smiled and laughed, “You old fool. It’s just your eyes, you’re just blinder than you were this morning.”

They both laughed, and Pieter took the bucket out to the shed to prepare the fish and crab for dinner. Isabel put another log in the stove and continued to stir the soup she had prepared. During their supper they shared stories from their day.

“You know, those mountains to the east, I’ve never gone there. I was looking at them today and they are really pretty. I think I’d like to head over there and see them up close.”

“You mean those hills? Hardly mountains. Oh, don’t be silly. That is at least ten miles away. Too far for you to row.”

“You’re probably right. But they look so nice. I can’t believe I’ve never gone over there. In all my life.”

“You should have gone before. You’re old now, old man. Too old. You lost your chance. It’s too far to go now,” Isabel answered.

“You’re probably right. Ten miles you think? That’d take a good part of the day just to get over there. Probably would have to spend the night. Probably take some blankets…some food. Ten miles isn’t that far,” Pieter reasoned.

“What are you blabbering about? You’re not going over there. I can’t afford to lose you out there. You’d kill yourself trying to get all the way over there,” Isabel responded.

“Yeah, you’re probably right….You should go with me!” Pieter exclaimed.

“What?! You want to kill me too?” Isabel retorted.

They both laughed and finished eating their dinner. Isabel had gone on to think about other things, while Pieter lingered, silently mulling over the details of a theoretical trip to the mountain. “Naw, she’s probably right. I’d probably kill myself.” He got up and cleaned the dishes and then returned to the table and rubbed his wife’s hands, which had become stiff with arthritis as the years had worn on. Once he got them reasonably limbered up, Isabel returned the favor and rubbed his back, which had grown hard and sore from years of rowing. Tired, they both prepared for bed and tucked in early, watching the glow from the stove as they fell off to sleep.

The next morning Isabel awoke to find Pieter at the far end of the room, staring intently out the window. She reached across the bed to the nightstand and grabbed a mug that was placed there. Pieter always set a hot cup of coffee for her there at the start of each day. She sat up in bed and sipped the hot liquid as she watched her husband. He was standing still, but his head bobbed up and down and side to side, as he craned forward, apparently trying to get a better view of something.

“Is it an eagle?” She asked.

“Naw…that group of trees down there…I think if I cut a few of those down we could see that mountain across the water,” he replied. 

Isabel snorted and took another sip of coffee. “You’re still fixated on that mountain? It’s been there all your life and you’ve never given it a second thought.”

“Yeah…well.” Pieter said absentmindedly as he continued peering out the window.

“Now all of a sudden. You can’t live without it!” Isabel laughed.

“Yeah…I think I’ll knock down those trees!” Pieter exclaimed suddenly and turned to face his wife. “You’ll see. We’ll get a nice view of that mountain!” He rushed past the bed, stopped abruptly and kissed Isabel on the forehead, and then hurried out the door. “I’ll be back later!” He said, as the door shut behind him.

She smiled to herself—a knowing smile—she knew her husband well. He would be gone most of the day chopping those trees down. Perhaps she should get some lunch put together and bring it down to him later; she noticed he had forgotten to take any food with him when he left. But there would be plenty of time for that; so before getting up, she sat in bed enjoying the rest of her coffee, and then snuggled down under the warm covers for a little while longer.

Pieter stopped by the shed and grabbed his long chainsaw, a small can of chain-oil and a file—and an extra chain. He smiled inwardly, pleased with himself that he had remembered that last item; it always seemed to be needed—an extra chain. And he always seemed to forget to bring one, causing himself wasted time and wasted energy hiking back to the shed to get it in the middle of the day. But today he didn’t have far to go, just down the trail to a small stand of evergreen trees, not more than a few hundred yards down-slope from their home.

Pieter followed the trail down the hill, and then cut across a small meadow, filled with pale-blue lupine, their flower spikes shifting gently in the breeze. Here and there he spotted the brilliant red of a scarlet paintbrush; these were Isabel’s favorite flower. He made a mental note of these, and planned to pick a few for her on his way back home. The wind picked up just then and Pieter pulled up the collar of his jacket as a defense against the cold. The sky was growing dark and cloudy, and looked about ready to let loose with buckets of rain. But rain was common here and Pieter barely took notice; if you let a bit of rain get in your way, you’ll never get anything done.

A half dozen Spruce trees, that was all that he’d need to take down, to adequately open up the view. Pieter figured this would be about a half-day’s work. The lupine-filled meadow wrapped around the stand of trees, and provided an easy place to drop them all, without danger or damage. None of the trees stood much over fifty feet tall, and not a single one was even sixty feet high, he estimated; and they were all under two-feet in diameter, easy to slice through with his long-saw. Before working on the trees he took a walk to survey the area where he’d bring them down. He never wanted to drop a tree on an unsuspecting critter. He wasn’t a bleeding heart; and he could kill for food. But still, he never wanted to bring unnecessary suffering to a fellow creature, what purpose would that serve? A bit of planning and some forethought could make all the difference to a little ground-squirrel and its family.   

Once he made sure the area was clear, he prepared to cut through the first tree. Pieter had been cutting trees down all his life and could do it with his eyes closed. The first Spruce fell within several minutes, then he moved on to the second tree. This one fell almost as quickly as the first, and then he began to cut the third tree. But then, at some point, as the tree was falling to earth, he lost track of things. He couldn’t remember what exactly hit him, but it hit him pretty hard, and he fell to the ground, and he slept there for most of the day. It was Isabel who roused him hours later with a splash of water to the face. Pieter peered up into her worried face.

“What’s got you so affected, my dear? I must have just dozed off a bit.” He said, as he tried to pull himself up off the ground, and then gave up and rested back down.

“Just resting, husband? Then what’s got you so bloody?” Isabel replied as she bent down and wiped his forehead. She showed him the bloody rag.

“Hmmm…I don’t recall how that might have happened. Must’ve been hit by something.”

“Let’s get you home and cleaned up,” Isabel said as she helped Pieter to his feet. He reached for his saw, but she stopped him. “You’re done for today. Just leave it. It’ll be fine there.”

Back home, she cleaned him up and wrapped his head, and sat him in a chair by the window where she could watch him, as she made their dinner. After a few moments he called out excitedly: “Isabel, Isabel, look! There it is…the mountain. I see it there, there it is! Come on, come and look!”

She put down her knife and walked to the window and peered out. She gazed past the stand of trees where Pieter had been working, and out across the water. Through the haze she could make out a solid form in the far distance.

“See it?! Pieter asked, as he leaned forward in his chair. “Yep, that’s it right there, just to the right of the trees,” he said, as he pointed out the window. “Looks like I don’t need to chop any more of those trees after all. I think three will do it…I wish the clouds were gone though. Can’t see much through all that soup.” He leaned back again, feeling satisfied. And murmured quietly, as he drifted off to sleep, “I wonder what’s over there though…I sure wish I could see it.”

As Pieter slept, Isabel watched him and wondered what this new obsession with the mountain meant—if anything. She saw his jaw relax, and his mouth slowly open and then he began to snore. He’d sleep now for quite a while—certainly the rest of the afternoon—and possibly even through the night until the following morning. She turned and glanced out the window, searching for the mountain, but still she could barely make it out through the cloud-cover and the gathering darkness of evening. Just then, she remembered a small brass telescope that she had been given years ago by her father. He had explained to her that it had originally been a gift from her own grandfather—on her mother’s side—the colonel in General Vallejo’s army. He had given it to her father as a gift upon his ordination to the priesthood, saying he hoped it would help him see the heavens, and to find God. But if not that, then at least it might help him find his way here on earth. And that was the same hope her own father expressed to her, when he gave the telescope to Isabel on the occasion of her marriage to Pieter.

She hadn’t seen nor thought of that little telescope in years. But she remembered where she had stored it, in a box at the back of their closet. She hurried off to search for the box, excited by the prospect of setting it up as a surprise for her husband. She indeed found it where she had remembered, tucked into the same box where she stored her wedding dress and other items from their early marriage. She pulled it out and examined it; it was small, just a simple spyglass on a tripod. But it was well-constructed, heavy, and made of brass and ebony. There was an inscription on the side, but it had faded and was in a foreign language that she didn’t recognize. Seeing it now made her miss her father. How quickly the years pass by; how much she yearned to talk with him again.

Isabel carried the telescope back to the window and set it on a small table. She slid the table up close to the sill, and extended the tripod to raise the scope to a comfortable height for viewing. She peered through it, but it was too dark outside now to see anything. They’d have to wait until the morning. So she went to the kitchen and made herself a simple supper and after she ate, she threw a few logs into the stove and then went to bed; leaving Pieter comfortably nestled in the chair by the window, where he snored throughout the night, content within the world of his dreams, but making it difficult for Isabel to enjoy her own. In the middle of the night she finally tossed a pillow at his head, and this stopped his snoring long enough for her to cover her own head with her pillow; and she drifted off to sleep before he started up again.

In the morning Pieter felt renewed; and he showed no signs of any lingering problems from his accident the previous day. Upon waking he immediately noticed the new telescope and he leaned forward in his chair to have a look through it.

“Aaahhh, yesss! That’s better…yup.” He approved of the enhanced view and turned to thank his wife, but she was still fast asleep. Glancing again through the telescope he focused it upon the mountain and gazed intently, attempting to discover new details. The mist had lifted, which gave him a clear view to the base of it, though the top was still shrouded in clouds. Just then something caught his eye. “Oh! And what’s this?!” Pieter observed a thin, light line, snaking up the side of the mountain; it followed a course from the treeline near the base, zigging and zagging up, and then it disappeared as the wind blew layers of mist across his view. He stood up and went into the kitchen and made Isabel her coffee, set it on the nightstand, and then returned to his chair to continue his examination of the mountain. But he barely had sat down, when a new thought entered his mind and he bolted up again. He gathered a few things, put on his jacket, boots and hat and left the house, quietly closing the door behind him, so as not to wake his wife.

Isabel was already awake; but she was still groggy from her interrupted night of sleep, so she was unable to call out to her husband before he had rushed out the door. She gathered her wits a few moments later, and the smell of coffee roused her foggy mind. Reaching to the nightstand for her mug, she took several sips from it and sighed contentedly. Her body ached this morning, as it often did, but the coffee was a nice momentary distraction.

Pieter pushed the rowboat out into the water and climbed inside. As he rowed out across the cove he felt a rush of excitement. He pulled hard on the oars and they cut through the water, and the little dinghy lurched forward. “This’ll just be a little test,” he said to himself as he left the bay and proceeded out into open waters. “I won’t go the whole way, just give it a little try and see how it goes. Sample the waters a bit.”

It wasn’t the best day to be out on the water, especially in a small boat such as his. Tiny whitecaps danced upon the surface of the strait, and the wind was picking up from the east, blowing directly into Pieter’s face. “It’s not ideal…but it could be worse! Let’s just see how far I can go.” His rowboat lifted and crashed down with a thump, repeatedly, as he continued to row out across the sea towards the mountain. “Ten miles isn’t all that far, maybe I could do it today after all.” And it was true, he had made a lot of progress already, buoyed by a good night’s sleep and an over-abundance of excitement. But it was getting more difficult as the wind continued to increase, whipping him in the face, slowing his momentum, and beginning to push water into the boat. His arms were getting tired and his back began to tighten up. And it looked now as though he was farther from the mountain than he had been just moments ago.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Isabel sat in the chair by the window and put her eye to the telescope. She also noticed the trail which climbed the side of the mountain, which her husband had seen earlier, but she saw much more as well. The wind blew the clouds away and revealed the mountain peak. The trail climbed to the top and vanished into the surrounding rock. But near the very top, just to the side of the summit, she noticed a structure standing. It was small, and painted white, a beacon against the dark granite rock upon which it stood. She focused the telescope upon this building to get a better view. It was quite small, perhaps only ten feet square, and it had a little dome at the top of its peaked roof, and atop this little dome was a small cross. Isabel smiled as the recognition dawned on her; this was an Orthodox chapel. Memories of her father again rose in her mind, and she sighed wistfully. Her own father had built a very similar chapel himself on their island, when she was just a little girl; and he had served as priest in it for his entire career. She never knew there was a chapel across the water on that mountain; she wondered who built it, and if it was still in use.

Just then she caught sight of another bright white speck. This one was very tiny, down in the water—like a flake of salt, lost at sea. She aimed the telescope at this dot and brought it into focus. It was her husband, with the white bandage she had placed around his head. “Looks like he lost his hat,” she muttered to herself, as she watched him struggle with the oars. “What is he trying to do?! The old fool. Is he trying to row across to that mountain of his?!” She watched him as the wind battered his boat, and drove Pieter back towards their island. “He’s not going anywhere today. That’s for sure. Not in this wind.” She chuckled a little as she watched him finally give up, bring the boat around, and make his way back towards the shelter of the bay.

“He’ll be wanting some hot tea when he gets back,” she said as she got up and went to the kitchen. “And some nice fish soup. I’ll heat that up for him as well.”

Later that evening, after they both had eaten, Pieter rubbed Isabel’s gnarled hands. “You know, my dear, yours are the most beautiful hands ever made; did you know that?” He said as he looked deeply into her eyes.

“Oh, is that so, husband…and why is that?” She inquired, with a hint of skepticism.

“Because, my dear, these are the very hands that will soon be rubbing my tired back!” Pieter chuckled.

“Oh, is that so?!” Isabel pulled her hands away and folded her arms across her chest. “How can you be so sure?”

“Oh, Isabel. Don’t be like that. I need you…I need those hands of yours! How can I live without you?!”

“Truer words have never been spoken,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I also think you need my help getting over to that mountain of yours as well.”

“Really!?” Pieter exclaimed.

“I saw you out on the water today. You’ll never make it there alone…so keep rubbing, mister!” She shoved her hands across the table to her husband. “They need limbering up if I’m going to be rowing for you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!? Really?!” Pieter exclaimed again. “Then I’ll rub them all night!” He took her right hand into his and began to massage Isabel’s fingers. “And why, dear wife, have you decided to join me? Is it to keep me from killing myself?”

“That…but if you’re going to go, I want to go with you. I can’t manage this place by myself…And there’s a chapel on top of that hill, I forgot to tell you that. I saw it this afternoon through the looking-glass…after the clouds cleared, I could see the top while you were on the water…there’s a tiny, white chapel up there…and I’d like to go see it.”

Pieter shifted to her left hand, and began rubbing her thumb. “Well, well, well…isn’t that interesting…a little white chapel…I wonder how that got there?”

“I wondered the same thing. I never noticed it before,” Isabel concurred. “It looks like the one papa built…but a little smaller. It has me curious.”

“Well, sure it does,” Pieter agreed. “Of course it does. Why wouldn’t it? It has me curious now too!”

“So, I’m coming with you!” Isabel decreed.

“Amen! You’re coming with me!” Pieter echoed.

“Now, let’s get some sleep so we’re fresh in the morning for our adventure,” Isabel suggested, as she pulled her hands away and got up from the table.

“Not so fast, my love, first you owe me a backrub!” Pieter reminder her with a smile. And she returned the smile as she came up behind him, and began rubbing his shoulders. Not long thereafter, Isabel tossed several logs into the stove; and then the two tucked into bed, falling asleep almost instantly.

The next morning both rose early and made preparations for their journey to the mountain. The sun had not yet risen, so in the half-dark Pieter packed the rowboat with blankets and extra clothing which were stuffed into water-proof bags, and a small tent, several jugs of water, along with some tools for fire-starting, digging, and chopping. In the gathering light Isabel walked down the trail from the house, with a backpack and carrying a small cooler, both filled with a variety of food items. She handed them to Pieter who packed them in around the other things and then the two pulled the boat into the water. As Isabel climbed inside, Pieter gave a final shove to free the hull from the shore, and then pulled himself into the boat as well.  

Pieter took the first shift, and rowed across the tiny cove and out the mouth, into the open waters of the strait, just as the sun was peaking over the eastern mountains. Bright rays greeted them, blinding them for a brief moment. And as their vision oriented once again, the waters spread out before them, shimmering hypnotically like a giant sequined dress. The day was calm, with a slight breeze blowing across the water from the west, which would help their journey eastward. After an hour or so of rowing they were already a good distance from shore, and Pieter stopped to let the boat drift for a few minutes to test the tides and the currents.

“Yep, it definitely wants to pull us southward,” he noted, as the small craft drifted slightly across the sun’s path. “We’ll need to aim further north…hopefully we can make up for it.” He pointed towards their destination, and then about thirty degrees north of it: “I may be wrong, but let’s shoot for that little slope up there on the horizon…if we’re lucky we’ll end up where we want to be.”

Pieter picked up the oars and began rowing again. The couple sat without speaking for a time, enjoying the sound of the waves, the oars as they cut through the water, and the seabirds as they called out to one another. By mid-morning Isabel finally asked Pieter: “So are you going to let me row? Or, am I just along for the ride?”

“I wanted to row, while I felt fit,” Pieter answered her. “And I’m doing pretty well, so far. But now that you mention it, I could use a break.” And as they switched places, a pod of porpoises came alongside, slowing their progress in order to get a good look at the two old bipeds. Before continuing on their way, several in the pod remarked to one another, how glad they were not to be confined to a small wooden box like those two old folks; and how happy they were to be porpoises, free to roam where they pleased.

Isabel took the oars and rowed until just past noon, while Pieter lay in the bottom of the boat, trying to rest his back. She worked hard to keep the boat aimed north of the mountain—their destination. But despite her efforts they continued to drift to the south, carried along by the current. By the time she called to Pieter to get up, they had drifted a mile, perhaps further, south of the mountain.

“We’ve lost some ground…looks like,” Pieter said nonchalantly, as he lifted himself to gaze out over the rail of the boat.

“I think the current is too strong for me,” Isabel confirmed.

“Hmmm…let me give it another go,” Pieter suggested. And Isabel got up off the seat and moved to the stern, as Pieter hauled himself up off the floor and into position where Isabel had just vacated. He pulled hard on the oars and soon the rowboat made up a little ground, but it was too difficult for him to keep advancing, and he also began to drift further south again. “Tell you what, my dear, come up here next to me, and you take the right oar, I’ll take the left and let’s pull together. Maybe we can do it that way.” So Isabel sat next to her husband, and with both hands each placed upon their oar, they pulled in tandem, and the dinghy cut across the waves and back north in the direction of the mountain.

“Hah, ha! We’re doing it!” Pieter exclaimed. “Just needed a little team-work, that’s all!”

But again, after a short success, their efforts began to fail. Even so, they did continue to advance towards the eastern shore, so all was not completely lost, though they were dismally far to the south of their destination by mid-afternoon. And they had both grown very tired, but they continued to row, despite their disappointment. After another hour of rowing they took a break. They had a small meal of salted fish and drank some water to replace what they had sweat out of their bodies throughout the day. As they ate and drank, and enjoyed a rest, Isabel was first to notice a subtle change in the movement of their boat.

“Darling, I believe we’ve stopped drifting south,” she stated cautiously.

Pieter stopped chewing and held his breath momentarily, to help himself focus on the waves. After this pause, he agreed: “Yes! I believe the tides are turning, my dear! Soon, they’ll be on our side! We’ll make it there today after all!”

Within a half hour, they began to discern a new drift northward; their boat was now moving on its own, without any coaxing, and in the proper course. And with the wind at their back, they made quick progress towards their goal. Towards evening they came within a mile of shore and again, it was Isabel who first noticed something unusual: a thin coil of smoke rose from the beach. But they were still too far out to see its source clearly.

“Looks like a welcoming party,” Pieter decided.

“Maybe so,” Isabel agreed.

“I’m hoping the island is populated by masseuses,” Pieter quipped.

“Good thinking…and manicurists!” Isabel added. And they both laughed, as they continued to row.

As they approached the beach, the sun dipped below the western horizon, and in the dimming light they could now discern a small camp-fire built amidst the larger rocks, not far up from the water’s edge. A short while later they finally reached the shore and Pieter climbed out of the rowboat and pulled it up out of the water; the hull scraped against the rocky beach. Isabel climbed out onto the rocks and observed:

“There’s nobody here…I wonder who could have started that campfire?”

“Good question,” Pieter agreed. “And look at that…what’s that on the fire? Looks like some fish…and is that bread?”

Isabel peered intently at the campfire. “Yes, I believe so. How strange! Cooked fish and several small loaves of bread.”

They both glanced up and down the rocky shore but could see nobody. Just then the breeze picked up and between that and the recently setting sun; they became cold. So they climbed up the rocks and sat close to the fire to warm themselves. Pieter looked at the fish longingly.

“Those fish look like they are ready to be eaten. That one right over there is looking at me. He’s definitely asking me to eat him; I can see it in his eyes. I wonder if it would be alright though. I don’t want to eat someone else’s dinner, but I’m starving!”

“And what’s that?” Isabel noticed a sheet of paper tucked under a rock across the fire from where they were sitting. She stood and reached across to pull it out; and then she read the note out loud:

“Welcome friends. Please eat and enjoy. Afterwards, make your beds at the shelter up in the trees. It is prepared for you. I apologize that I am unable to greet you in person tonight, but I will come to you in the morning. And then we can ascend the mountain together. I’ll be your guide. Be at peace.” 

                                                                                 ~Brother Herman

And with that assurance, Pieter sighed with relief and pounced on the fish, and broke a large piece off a loaf of bread—devouring both instantly. Isabel joined him and they had a fine meal and warmed themselves delightfully by the fire, before making the short hike up to the tree line, where they found a simple wood platform with a large mosquito net suspended over it, hung from the branches up above. Pieter went to the rowboat and got their bedding and returned to the shelter, where Isabel had already fallen asleep on the bare wood floor. He woke her just enough so they could spread out the blankets together, and then they both retired for the night.

The next morning, after Pieter and Isabel had awaken and prepared themselves for the day, Brother Herman arrived as promised. The old couple were the first people he had seen since arriving at the mountain so he was happy to meet them, and to have someone to talk with. As the three sat warming themselves around the fire, he regaled his inquisitive guests with a brief history of his life and how he came to be here now with them.

Brother Herman was born Dmitri Lestenkov, son of a chief of the Unangan people of the Pribilof Islands. This small group of islands is located in the Bering Sea, roughly two-hundred miles northwest of the Aleutian Island chain, and five-hundred miles east of the Siberian coast. His heritage, on the Russian side, traces back to the late 1700’s when Russian fur traders began settling the islands. And on the Unangan side, his ancestry went much further back of course, with family-members having settled much of the Aleutian archipelago for many centuries, or more.

Dmitri had a sharp intellect coupled with an astute interest in the things of God. Even as a young boy he set his sights firmly upon the altar of the Lord, both figuratively and literally. He great joy was serving in the altar during Sunday Liturgies and indeed throughout all the services of the Church. By the time Dmitri was sixteen, his uncle Mikhail Lestenkov, himself a deacon in the Orthodox Church, began preparing him for seminary. So that by the time Dmitri turned nineteen he was already thoroughly familiar with church doctrine, the great mysteries of the Church, the cycles of worship, hymnography and hagiography. So when he enrolled and began his first year at St. Herman Theological Seminary, on the island of Kodiak, he was already well on his way to becoming a knowledgeable and competent priest.

Following seminary, Father Herman, as Dmitri was now known, joined a small group of monks on nearby Spruce Island, the former home of North America’s first Orthodox Saint—St Herman of Alaska, for whom Dmitri had taken his new name. He served this fledgling monastic community, becoming one of the brothers and also serving as priest there for a number of years, and even acting as abbot for a brief time. Brother Herman would have been completely satisfied to have lived his entire life on Spruce Island within the monastic community there—and likely would have done so—were it not for the unexpected request by the diocesan bishop late one winter, that he should move and begin serving as priest for St Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka, some six-hundred miles to the east. 

The weather delayed his move until later that summer. When he finally arrived he was greeted gratefully by the bishop and expectantly by a great throng of parishioners, everyone placing their hopes desperately in Father Herman. The parish in Sitka had suffered a number of recent and rather severe challenges, and the people were in need of someone who could guide them with a wise mind and a steady hand. In a short time, Father Herman restored faith in the church, and gave the parish new hope, even bringing a heightened sense of loving communion throughout the surrounding community. Father Herman expertly exercised his office as priest, for over a decade in Sitka. However, while he loved his church and the people in it, he was personally dissatisfied. The seemingly endless tide of administrative tasks made him weary—administration was never his forte or his interest—and he longed for a more contemplative life.

He made several petitions to the bishop over the final years of his tenure at St. Michael’s, to be granted leave to pursue a monastic life. Eventually, after the bishop secured a trustworthy replacement for the church, he granted Father Herman’s request. Upon leaving, he was offered by several members of the church to settle on some land owned by their tribe, located a day’s journey to the southeast. He had been considering a return to the skete on Spruce Island and to his former community there, but this new offer intrigued him. The land had a cabin by the water which he could use, and also a small chapel further up a nearby mountain. Both had been built by a local priest over a half-century ago, but had been sitting unused for decades. They would certainly need a lot of work to become livable and usable again, but he was welcome to live there as long as he wished—for the rest of his life if he desired.

Brother Herman’s life always moved in an eastward direction. He always sought the stars of morning and the risen sun. From the far-western regions of the Bering Sea as a child, to the Island of Kodiak and Spruce Island as a young man, to Sitka as an adult, his life had been a constant migration eastward; so that when faced with this decision, whether consciously or not, he felt an inner calling, or a compulsion to continue east. He moved to the Tlingit land with a feeling of deep gratitude and reverence, and with a joy inside he hadn’t really felt in many years. He was ready to pursue an intimate life with God within the throne room of the natural world.

“I wonder if that is what I’ve been feeling too,” Pieter mused, after Brother Herman had finished his story. “I felt drawn here too…almost like a compulsion. It’s a strange thing. I had never paid any attention to this place before…but, maybe it’s because you’re here now!” Pieter suddenly exclaimed, looking at Brother Herman’s face for an answer.

“God’s call is irresistible, once we begin to hear it,” Brother Herman suggested.

Isabel interjected then, “The thing that surprises me, what I can’t understand, is that I never noticed that chapel before, at the top of the mountain here…it stands out like a bleached bone.”

“Not always,” Brother Herman answered. “I just gave it a fresh coat of paint two days ago. It was woefully dilapidated prior to that. You would never have seen it, the wood had aged to the color of rock, blending into the surrounding granite.”

“It’s beautiful now,” Isabel reflected.

“Then let’s go see it!” Brother Herman stood, while nodding encouragement to his new-found friends.

“Let’s do it!” Pieter agreed.

On the way up the mountain, Brother Herman led the way, several paces ahead of Pieter and Isabel. The path was narrow, and led first through a dense covering of trees, and then opened onto a slight meadow, before it turned and grew steeper as it ascended. The mist was heavy so Pieter and Isabel pushed themselves to keep pace with Brother Herman, to keep him in view. For his part, Brother Herman slowed his pace to make it easier on the older couple who were following. Isabel leaned close to Pieter as they walked, “He reminds me of my father. Doesn’t he remind you of dad?”

“I hadn’t thought of it, but yes, now that you mention it…yes, quite a bit,” Pieter agreed.

“I like him,” Isabel stated.

“Yes, isn’t that interesting. Hmmm…I’ve missed him,” Pieter observed.

“Me too!” Isabel agreed.

And then the couple fell silent, as they continued to follow the monk up the mountain through the cool, white mist. At the summit, the chapel gradually appeared through the clouds as they approached it. Brother Herman turned and waited as the couple caught up.

“I saw you coming across the water yesterday, in your boat. I’ve made prosphora…I’ve made bread for us to celebrate if you’d like. I have the wine and the bread prepared for us…if you would like.”

“A liturgy?” Isabel asked with surprise.

“Yes…and communion…the eucharist together in the chapel,” Brother Herman motioned towards the door.

“Let’s do it!” Pieter exclaimed, as he headed to the chapel.

Inside, they celebrated the liturgy together—Brother Herman leading, and the couple singing along when they could remember the words. Pieter felt the liturgy wash over him, as if it were a spring, or a cascade of warm joy, which seemed to bathe him in a buoyant light, and his smile grew broader as the service carried him along. And Isabel felt the chapel was strangely familiar. She glanced curiously around the interior of the little room and felt extraordinarily at home, and safe. And as Brother Herman moved about the room, and the fragrant incense from his censor filled the air, her gaze was led to the altar, where it rested for a time, as she took in the details of the old wooden artifact. And a dawning recognition formulated in her mind—the memory of her father, long ago, carving with his own hands, this very altar. She could remember it clearly now, when she was only a little girl, how she loved to watch him carve—his strong and able hands shaping the wood into these images from his imagination. And as the images from her past swirled and then solidified in her mind now, she caught her breath in surprise, and then tears of happiness filled her eyes. No wonder she felt so at home here, this truly was her father’s house, which he had built so long ago. Amazement filled her heart, and gratitude, that she was here now. How could it be that she had never known about this place, or had she forgotten? And how could it be that she had found it now? These were questions that didn’t really need an answer, it was enough that she had made it, and she was here—with Pieter—and at peace.  

Isabel felt Pieter take her hand in his, as Brother Herman continued to sing. Pieter leaned over and whispered into her ear: “Well, wife, are you glad you came all this way, for this?”

“I am, my love,” she replied with a smile. “And what about you, husband? Is it what you hoped for?”

“Even better!”

The End.

~FS

The Isle of Virtue (Conclusion):

The next morning, after Pieter and Isabel had awaken and prepared themselves for the day, Brother Herman arrived as promised. The old couple were the first people he had seen since arriving at the mountain so he was happy to meet them, and to have someone to talk with. As the three sat warming themselves around the fire, he regaled his inquisitive guests with a brief history of his life and how he came to be here now with them.

Brother Herman was born Dmitri Lestenkov, son of a chief of the Unangan people of the Pribilof Islands. This small group of islands is located in the Bering Sea, roughly two-hundred miles northwest of the Aleutian Island chain, and five-hundred miles east of the Siberian coast. His heritage, on the Russian side, traces back to the late 1700’s when Russian fur traders began settling the islands. And on the Unangan side, his ancestry went much further back of course, with family-members having settled much of the Aleutian archipelago for many centuries, or more.

Dmitri had a sharp intellect coupled with an astute interest in the things of God. Even as a young boy he set his sights firmly upon the altar of the Lord, both figuratively and literally. He great joy was serving in the altar during Sunday Liturgies and indeed throughout all the services of the Church. By the time Dmitri was sixteen, his uncle Mikhail Lestenkov, himself a deacon in the Orthodox Church, began preparing him for seminary. So that by the time Dmitri turned nineteen he was already thoroughly familiar with church doctrine, the great mysteries of the Church, the cycles of worship, hymnography and hagiography. So when he enrolled and began his first year at St. Herman Theological Seminary, on the island of Kodiak, he was already well on his way to becoming a knowledgeable and competent priest.

Following seminary, Father Herman, as Dmitri was now known, joined a small group of monks on nearby Spruce Island, the former home of North America’s first Orthodox Saint—St Herman of Alaska, for whom Dmitri had taken his new name. He served this fledgling monastic community, becoming one of the brothers and also serving as priest there for a number of years, and even acting as abbot for a brief time. Brother Herman would have been completely satisfied to have lived his entire life on Spruce Island within the monastic community there—and likely would have done so—were it not for the unexpected request by the diocesan bishop late one winter, that he should move and begin serving as priest for St Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka, some six-hundred miles to the east.  

The weather delayed his move until later that summer. When he finally arrived he was greeted gratefully by the bishop and expectantly by a great throng of parishioners, everyone placing their hopes desperately in Father Herman. The parish in Sitka had suffered a number of recent and rather severe challenges, and the people were in need of someone who could guide them with a wise mind and a steady hand. In a short time, Father Herman restored faith in the church, and gave the parish new hope, even bringing a heightened sense of loving communion throughout the surrounding community. Father Herman expertly exercised his office as priest, for over a decade in Sitka. However, while he loved his church and the people in it, he was personally dissatisfied. The seemingly endless tide of administrative tasks made him weary—administration was never his forte or his interest—and he longed for a more contemplative life.

He made several petitions to the bishop over the final years of his tenure at St. Michael’s, to be granted leave to pursue a monastic life. Eventually, after the bishop secured a trustworthy replacement for the church, he granted Father Herman’s request. Upon leaving, he was offered by several members of the church to settle on some land owned by their tribe, located a day’s journey to the southeast. He had been considering a return to the skete on Spruce Island and to his former community there, but this new offer intrigued him. The land had a cabin by the water which he could use, and also a small chapel further up a nearby mountain. Both had been built by a local priest over a half-century ago, but had been sitting unused for decades. They would certainly need a lot of work to become livable and usable again, but he was welcome to live there as long as he wished—for the rest of his life if he desired.

Brother Herman’s life always moved in an eastward direction. He always sought the stars of morning and the risen sun. From the far-western regions of the Bering Sea as a child, to the Island of Kodiak and Spruce Island as a young man, to Sitka as an adult, his life had been a constant migration eastward; so that when faced with this decision, whether consciously or not, he felt an inner calling, or a compulsion to continue east. He moved to the Tlingit land with a feeling of deep gratitude and reverence, and with a joy inside he hadn’t really felt in many years. He was ready to pursue an intimate life with God within the throne room of the natural world.

“I wonder if that is what I’ve been feeling too,” Pieter mused, after Brother Herman had finished his story. “I felt drawn here too…almost like a compulsion. It’s a strange thing. I had never paid any attention to this place before…but, maybe it’s because you’re here now!” Pieter suddenly exclaimed, looking at Brother Herman’s face for an answer.

“God’s call is irresistible, once we begin to hear it,” Brother Herman suggested.

Isabel interjected then, “The thing that surprises me, what I can’t understand, is that I never noticed that chapel before, at the top of the mountain here…it stands out like a bleached bone.”

“Not always,” Brother Herman answered. “I just gave it a fresh coat of paint two days ago. It was woefully dilapidated prior to that. You would never have seen it, the wood had aged to the color of rock, blending into the surrounding granite.”

“It’s beautiful now,” Isabel reflected.

“Then let’s go see it!” Brother Herman stood, while nodding encouragement to his new-found friends.

“Let’s do it!” Pieter agreed.

On the way up the mountain, Brother Herman led the way, several paces ahead of Pieter and Isabel. The path was narrow, and led first through a dense covering of trees, and then opened onto a slight meadow, before it turned and grew steeper as it ascended. The mist was heavy so Pieter and Isabel pushed themselves to keep pace with Brother Herman, to keep him in view. For his part, Brother Herman slowed his pace to make it easier on the older couple who were following. Isabel leaned close to Pieter as they walked, “He reminds me of my father. Doesn’t he remind you of dad?”

“I hadn’t thought of it, but yes, now that you mention it…yes, quite a bit,” Pieter agreed.

“I like him,” Isabel stated.

“Yes, isn’t that interesting. Hmmm…I’ve missed him,” Pieter observed.

“Me too!” Isabel agreed.

And then the couple fell silent, as they continued to follow the monk up the mountain through the cool, white mist. At the summit, the chapel gradually appeared through the clouds as they approached it. Brother Herman turned and waited as the couple caught up.

“I saw you coming across the water yesterday, in your boat. I’ve made prosphora…I’ve made bread for us to celebrate if you’d like. I have the wine and the bread prepared for us…if you would like.”

“A liturgy?” Isabel asked with surprise.

“Yes…and communion…the eucharist together in the chapel,” Brother Herman motioned towards the door.

“Let’s do it!” Pieter exclaimed, as he headed to the chapel.

Inside, they celebrated the liturgy together—Brother Herman leading, and the couple singing along when they could remember the words. Pieter felt the liturgy wash over him, as if it were a spring, or a cascade of warm joy, which seemed to bathe him in a buoyant light, and his smile grew broader as the service carried him along. And Isabel felt the chapel was strangely familiar. She glanced curiously around the interior of the little room and felt extraordinarily at home, and safe. And as Brother Herman moved about the room, and the fragrant incense from his censor filled the air, her gaze was led to the altar, where it rested for a time, as she took in the details of the old wooden artifact. And a dawning recognition formulated in her mind—the memory of her father, long ago, carving with his own hands, this very altar. She could remember it clearly now, when she was only a little girl, how she loved to watch him carve—his strong and able hands shaping the wood into these images from his imagination. And as the images from her past swirled and then solidified in her mind now, she caught her breath in surprise, and then tears of happiness filled her eyes. No wonder she felt so at home here, this truly was her father’s house, which he had built so long ago. Amazement filled her heart, and gratitude, that she was here now. How could it be that she had never known about this place, or had she forgotten? And how could it be that she had found it now? These were questions that didn’t really need an answer, it was enough that she had made it, and she was here—with Pieter—and at peace.  

Isabel felt Pieter take her hand in his, as Brother Herman continued to sing. Pieter leaned over and whispered into her ear: “Well, wife, are you glad you came all this way, for this?”

“I am, my love,” she replied with a smile. “And what about you, husband? Is it what you hoped for?”

“Even better!”

The End.

~FS

The Heart’s Conundrum

Perhaps, if I were a perfect person I might have held my tongue. For there is great wisdom to be found in silence. Yet even so, when I spoke I never wanted to hurt anyone with my words; least of all friends and loved ones. I only wanted to express my pain; to alleviate my suffering a little bit; and to share my soul.

This has been a year of bewilderment. My beliefs and my opinions, and even my actions, have been the cause of pain and suffering for many others whom I love. Some of these dear souls no longer want to talk with me, after decades of sharing together. Other dear ones have kindly said that my expressions cause them too my pain, and they must turn away from me to protect themselves.

And I always thought I was generally a good person, oh my! But on the contrary, I have discovered that I’m not apparently as good as I had believed; at least by the standard of many whom I love. Some of these have argued with me, they have called me names, they’ve accused me of stupidity, callousness, and unlove. Some have even backed away in my presence, essentially running from me (in terror). Have you ever read Frankenstein? It is an excellent novel…and now I understand a little how that wretched creature felt.

And now, some of these loved ones no longer want to be near me at all, and some may never allow me to come close to them again. And this is a heartbreak! It has torn me asunder. And yet, I could remedy all of this in an instant. If only I would do what they ask, if only I would think as they think, if only I would believe as they believe. If only I would do these things, then everything could be made right again. Don’t I see that it is my own fault? Don’t I understand that I am the one that has brought all of this upon myself?!

Certainly I do blame myself. I don’t want these people, who I care about, to be in distress. I feel very badly about that. I like people; I even love them, quite a lot. So it is a conundrum to discover that my true self is the cause of such suffering in those I love. Shall I just change myself? Perhaps who I think I am is only an illusion, or a lie, and it is simply a matter of coming to a better understanding of myself. Then all can be made right again. But what if this really is me; what hope is there then of reconciling with those who are so disappointed in me, who fear me now, or pity me, or shake their head saying: “He used to be such a good guy…remember when he was smart, and when he had so much potential? Oh, what a shame!”

I have heard these things said, and I’ve taken them to heart. And this is why my heart is in such a shambles. Shall I think and do what they want, and thus (supposedly) make the world a happier place? Or shall I stay true to my inner self, hold fast to my convictions, and maintain some integrity? If I love myself, I would say I should do the latter. Others would say I should do the former, and capitulate, if I really love anyone other than myself.

This is the very definition of a conundrum. It is said that love never fails. My love must be weak; and this must be why my heart is failing these days.

~FS

People Are Complicated

Are any of us, really, the simplified caricature that those with opposing views make us out to be? Is any human being, who is truly so complex and varied, and with a wealth of experience, just a mindless cartoon character—as we all are portrayed to be, by people with a different opinion? 

I really doubt it. In fact, if we look inside ourselves we likely will find that we have thoughts that we may be surprised by, and our opinions are nuanced to a high degree.  Few of us are so monolithic in our views that we fit squarely into the opposition party as it is defined—no matter how much our media culture wants to simplify all of us. Fact is, we aren’t simply two camps, but rather, we are a people with a vast spectrum of ideas and opinions that can’t honestly be divided only into this, and that.

However, though this may be true, all of us are in danger of allowing ourselves to become shallow caricatures, if we aren’t attentive to our thoughts, and if we aren’t cautious to resist allowing our thoughts to be molded and shaped entirely by others. We must not let ourselves be defined by our culture and specifically our media; in other words, we shouldn’t simply believe what they say about us. And as a corollary to this, we certainly shouldn’t believe what they say about them.

In other words, don’t accept that your supposed-opposition is really the cartoon character you’d like to believe that they are. Because most likely they are just as sophisticated in their thinking as you are, they may be just as informed as you are—or possibly even more informed than you—but they draw different conclusions from the information than you do. Does that really make them idiots? Are you an idiot?

I really doubt it. But we have to live with each other and this is a complicated task—to live with each other’s varied desires, goals, expectations, hopes etc. We may frustrate one another, we may not understand how each other arrives at the different conclusions that we do, based on the same information. But I propose that it is best to maintain a generosity of heart—keeping our hearts open—to one another in the midst of disagreements. One way to do this, is to resist allowing ourselves to be deceived into thinking that others are simple.

Though it is convenient, and may make us feel more secure, to simplify the opposition, by turning one another into straw men, it avoids the truth. And if we avoid the truth of one another, we miss the opportunity for real community and we are all diminished by this. Ours is not a safe world, and we cannot make it safer for ourselves by pretending that it is simple, or that other people are simple and therefore stupid. We live in a dangerous world, with dangerous ideas and a treacherous complexity that none of us fully understand. Better to face this difficult truth honestly, and grapple with the complexity of this life together, than to create false simplicities that merely lull us into a self-satisfied stupor. 

~FS

The Isle of Virtue (part 4):

The next morning both rose early and made preparations for their journey to the mountain. The sun had not yet risen, so in the half-dark Pieter packed the rowboat with blankets and extra clothing which were stuffed into water-proof bags, and a small tent, several jugs of water, along with some tools for fire-starting, digging, and chopping. In the gathering light Isabel walked down the trail from the house, with a backpack and carrying a small cooler, both filled with a variety of food items. She handed them to Pieter who packed them in around the other things and then the two pulled the boat into the water. As Isabel climbed inside, he gave a final shove to free the hull from the shore, and then pulled himself into the boat as well.  

Pieter took the first shift, and rowed across the tiny bay and out the mouth, into the open waters of the strait, just as the sun was peaking over the eastern mountains. Bright rays greeted them, blinding them for a brief moment, and as their vision oriented once again, the waters spread out before them, shimmering hypnotically like a giant sequined dress. The day was calm, with a slight breeze blowing across the water from the west, which would help their journey eastward. After an hour or so of rowing they were already a good distance from shore, and Pieter stopped to let the boat drift for a few minutes to test the tides and the currents.

“Yep, it definitely wants to pull us southward,” he noted, as the small craft drifted slightly across the sun’s path. “We’ll need to aim further north…hopefully we can make up for it.” He pointed towards their destination, and then about thirty degrees north of it: “I may be wrong, but let’s shoot for that little slope up there on the horizon…if we’re lucky we’ll end up where we want to be.”

Pieter picked up the oars and began rowing again. The couple sat without speaking for a time, enjoying the sound of the waves, the oars as they cut through the water, and the seabirds as they called out to one another. By mid-morning Isabel finally asked Pieter: “So are you going to let me row? Or, am I just along for the ride?”

“I wanted to row, while I felt fit,” Pieter answered her. “And I’m doing pretty well, so far. But now that you mention it, I could use a break.” And as they switched places, a pod of porpoises came alongside, slowing their progress in order to get a good look at the two old bipeds. Before continuing on their way, several in the pod remarked to one another, how glad they were not to be confined to a small wooden box like those old folks; and how happy they were to be porpoises, free to roam where they pleased.

Isabel took the oars and rowed until just past noon, while Pieter lay in the bottom of the boat, trying to rest his back. She worked hard to keep the boat aimed north of the mountain—their destination. But despite her efforts they continued to drift to the south, carried along by the current. By the time she called to Pieter to get up, they had drifted a mile, perhaps further, south of the mountain.

“We’ve lost some ground…looks like,” Pieter said nonchalantly, as he lifted himself to gaze out over the rail of the boat.

“I think the current is too strong for me,” Isabel confirmed.

“Hmmm…let me give it another go,” Pieter suggested. And Isabel got up off the seat and moved to the stern, as Pieter hauled himself up off the floor and into position where Isabel had just vacated. He pulled hard on the oars and soon the rowboat made up a little ground, but it was too difficult for him to keep advancing, and he also began to drift further south again. “Tell you what, my dear, come up here next to me, and you take the right oar, I’ll take the left and let’s pull together. Maybe we can do it that way.” So Isabel sat next to her husband, and with both hands each placed upon their oar, they pulled in tandem, and the dinghy cut across the waves and back north in the direction of the mountain.

“Hah, ha! We’re doing it!” Pieter exclaimed. “Just needed a little team-work, that’s all!”

But again, after a short success, their efforts began to fail. Even so, they did continue to advance towards the eastern shore, so all was not completely lost, though they were dismally far to the south of their destination by mid-afternoon. And they had both grown very tired, but they continued to row, despite their disappointment. After another hour of rowing they took a break. They had a small meal of salted fish and drank some water to replace what they had sweat out of their bodies throughout the day. As they ate and drank, and enjoyed a rest, Isabel was first to notice a subtle change in the movement of their boat.

“Darling, I believe we’ve stopped drifting south,” she stated cautiously.

Pieter stopped chewing and held his breath momentarily, to help himself focus on the waves. After this pause, he agreed: “Yes! I believe the tides are turning, my dear! Soon, they’ll be on our side! We’ll make it there today after all!”

Within a half hour, they began to discern a new drift northward; their boat was now moving on its own, without any coaxing, and in the proper course. And with the wind at their back, they made quick progress towards their goal. Towards evening they came within a mile of shore and again, it was Isabel who first noticed something unusual: a thin coil of smoke rose from the beach. But they were still too far out to see clearly.

“Looks like a welcoming party,” Pieter decided.

“Maybe so,” Isabel agreed.

“I’m hoping the island is populated by masseuses,” Pieter quipped.

“Good thinking…and manicurists!” Isabel added. And they both laughed, as they continued to row.

As they approached the beach, the sun dipped below the western horizon, and in the dimming light they could now discern a small camp-fire built amidst the larger rocks, not far up from the water’s edge. A short while later they finally reached the shore and Pieter climbed out of the rowboat and pulled it up out of the water; the hull scraped against the rocky beach. Isabel climbed out onto the rocks and observed:

“There’s nobody here…I wonder who could have started that campfire?”

“Good question,” Pieter agreed. “And look at that…what’s that on the fire? Looks like some fish…and is that bread?”

Isabel peered intently at the campfire. “Yes, I believe so. How strange! Cooked fish and several small loaves of bread.”

They both glanced up and down the rocky shore but could see nobody. Just then the breeze picked up and between that and the recently setting sun; they became cold. So they climbed up the rocks and sat close to the fire to warm themselves. Pieter looked at the fish longingly.

“Those fish look like they are ready to be eaten. That one right over there is looking at me. He’s definitely asking me to eat him; I can see it in his eyes. I wonder if it would be alright though. I don’t want to eat someone else’s dinner, but I’m starving!”

“And what’s that?” Isabel noticed a sheet of paper tucked under a rock across the fire from where they were sitting. She stood and reached across to pull it out; and then she read the note out loud:

“Welcome friends. Please eat and enjoy. Afterwards, make your beds at the shelter up in the trees. It is prepared for you. I apologize that I am unable to greet you in person tonight, but I will come to you in the morning. And then we can ascend the mountain together. I’ll be your guide. Be at peace.” 

                                                                                 ~Brother Herman

And with that assurance, Pieter sighed with relief and pounced on the fish, and broke a large piece off a loaf of bread—devouring both instantly. Isabel joined him and they had a fine meal and warmed themselves delightfully by the fire, before making the short hike up to the tree line, where they found a simple wood platform with a large mosquito net suspended over it, hung from the branches up above. Pieter went to the rowboat and got their bedding and returned to the shelter, where Isabel had already fallen asleep on the bare wood floor. He woke her just enough so they could spread out the blankets together, and then they both retired for the night.

~FS

The Isle of Virtue (part 3):

As Pieter slept, Isabel watched him and wondered what this new obsession with the mountain meant, if anything. She saw his jaw relax, and his mouth slowly open and then he began to snore. He’d sleep now for quite a while—certainly the rest of the afternoon—and possibly even through the night until the following morning. She turned and glanced out the window, searching for the mountain, but still she could barely make it out through the cloud-cover and the gathering darkness of evening. Just then, she remembered a small brass telescope that she had been given years ago by her father. He had explained to her that it had originally been a gift from her own grandfather, on her mother’s side, the colonel in General Vallejo’s army. He had given it to her father as a gift upon his ordination to the priesthood, saying he hoped it would help him see the heavens and to find God. But if not that, then at least that it might help him find his way here on earth. And that was the same hope her own father expressed to her, when he gave the telescope to Isabel on the occasion of her marriage to Pieter.

She hadn’t seen nor thought of that little telescope in years, but thought she remembered where she had stored it, in a box at the back of their closet. She hurried off to search for the box, excited by the prospect of setting it up as a surprise for her husband. She indeed found it where she had remembered, tucked into the same box where she stored her wedding dress and other items from their early marriage. She pulled it out and examined it; it was small, just a simple spyglass on a tripod. But it was well-constructed, heavy, and made of brass and ebony. There was an inscription on the side, but it had faded and was in a foreign language that she didn’t recognize. Seeing it now made her miss her father. How quickly the years pass by; how much she yearned to talk with him again.

Isabel carried the telescope back to the window and set it on a small table. She slid the table up close to the sill, and extended the tripod to raise the scope to a comfortable height for viewing. She glanced through it but it was too dark outside now to see anything. They’d have to wait until the morning. So she went to the kitchen and made herself a simple supper and after she ate, she threw a few logs into the stove and then went to bed; leaving Pieter comfortably nestled in the chair by the window, where he snored throughout the night, content within the world of his dreams, but making it difficult for Isabel to enjoy her own. In the middle of the night she finally tossed a pillow at his head, and this stopped his snoring long enough for her to cover her own with her pillow; and she drifted off to sleep before he started up again.

In the morning Pieter felt renewed; and he showed no signs of lingering problems from his accident the previous day. Upon waking he immediately noticed the new telescope and he leaned forward in his chair to have a look through it.

“Aaahhh, yesss! That’s better…yup.” He approved of the enhanced view and turned to thank his wife, but she was still fast asleep. Glancing again through the telescope he focused it upon the mountain and gazed intently, attempting to discover new details. The mist had lifted, which gave him a clear view to the base of it, though the top was still shrouded in clouds. Just then something caught his eye. “Oh! And what’s this?!” Pieter observed a thin, light line, snaking up the side of the mountain; it followed a course from the treeline near the base, zigging and zagging up, and then it disappeared as the wind blew layers of mist across his view. He stood up and went into the kitchen and made Isabel her coffee, set it on the nightstand, and then returned to his chair to continue his examination of the mountain. But he barely had sat down, when a new thought entered his mind and he bolted up again. He gathered a few things, put on his jacket, boots and hat and left the house, quietly closing the door behind him so as not to wake his wife.

Isabel was already awake; but she was still groggy from the interrupted night of sleep she had had, so she was unable to call out to her husband before he had rushed out the door. She gathered her wits a few moments later, and the smell of coffee roused her foggy mind. Reaching to the nightstand for her mug, she took several sips from it and sighed contentedly. Her body ached this morning, as it often did, but the coffee was a nice momentary distraction.

Pieter pushed the rowboat out into the water and climbed inside. As he rowed out across the bay he felt a rush of excitement. He pulled hard on the oars and they cut through the water, and the little dinghy lurched forward. “This’ll just be a little test,” he said to himself as he left the bay and proceeded out into open waters. “I won’t go the whole way, just give it a little try and see how it goes. Sample the waters a bit.”

It wasn’t the best day to be out on the water, especially in a small boat such as his. Tiny whitecaps danced upon the surface of the strait, and the wind was picking up from the east, blowing directly into Pieter’s face. “It’s not ideal…but it could be worse! Let’s just see how far I can go.” His rowboat lifted and crashed down with a thump, repeatedly, as he continued to row out across the sea towards the mountain. “Ten miles isn’t all that far, maybe I could do it today after all.” And it was true, he had made a lot of progress already, buoyed by a good night’s sleep and an over-abundance of excitement. But it was getting more difficult as the wind continued to increase, whipping him in the face, slowing his momentum, and beginning to push water into the boat. His arms were getting tired and his back began to tighten up. And it looked now as though he was farther from the mountain than he had been just moments ago.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Isabel sat in the chair by the window and put her eye to the telescope. She also noticed the trail which climbed the side of the mountain, which her husband had seen earlier, but she saw much more as well. The wind blew the clouds away and revealed the mountain peak. The trail climbed to the top and vanished into the surrounding rock. But near the very top, just to the side of the summit, she noticed a structure standing. It was small, and painted white, a beacon against the dark granite rock upon which it stood. She focused the telescope upon this building to get a better view. It was quite small, perhaps only ten feet square, and it had a little dome at the top of its peaked roof, and atop this little dome was a small cross. Isabel smiled as the recognition dawned on her; this was an Orthodox chapel. Memories of her father again rose in her mind, and she sighed wistfully. Her own father had built a very similar chapel himself on their island, when she was just a little girl; and he had served as priest in it for his entire career. She never knew there was a chapel across the water on that mountain; she wondered who built it, and if it was still in use.

Just then she caught sight of another bright white speck. This one was very tiny, down in the water—like a flake of salt, lost at sea. She aimed the telescope at this dot and brought it into focus. It was her husband, with the white bandage she had placed around his head. “Looks like he lost his hat,” she muttered to herself, as she watched him struggle with the oars. “What is he trying to do?! The old fool. Is he trying to row across to that mountain of his?!” She watched him as the wind battered his boat, and drove Pieter back towards their island. “He’s not going anywhere today. That’s for sure. Not in this wind.” She chuckled a little as she watched him finally give up, bring the boat around, and make his way back towards the shelter of the bay.

“He’ll be wanting some hot tea when he gets back,” she said as she got up and went to the kitchen. “And some nice fish soup. I’ll heat that up for him as well.”

~FS

The Isle of Virtue (Part 2):

The next morning Isabel awoke to find Pieter staring intently out the window at the far end of the room. She reached across the bed to the nightstand and grabbed the mug that was placed there. Pieter always set a hot cup of coffee for her on the nightstand at the start of each day. She sat up in bed and sipped the hot liquid as she watched her husband. He stood still, but his head bobbed up and down and side to side, as he craned forward, apparently trying to get a better view of something.

“Is it an eagle?” She asked.

“Naw…that group of trees down there…I think if I cut a few of those down we could see that mountain across the water,” he replied. 

Isabel snorted and took another sip of coffee. “You’re still fixated on that mountain? It’s been there all your life and you’ve never given it a second thought.”

“Yeah…well.” Pieter said absentmindedly as he continued peering out the window.

“Now all of a sudden. You can’t live without it!” Isabel laughed.

“Yeah…I think I’ll knock down those trees!” Pieter exclaimed suddenly and turned to face his wife. “You’ll see. We’ll get a nice view of that mountain!” He rushed past the bed, stopped abruptly and kissed Isabel on the forehead, and then hurried out the door. “I’ll be back later!” He said, as the door shut behind him.

She smiled to herself—a knowing smile—she knew her husband well. He would be gone most of the day chopping those trees down. Perhaps she should get some lunch put together and bring it down to him later; she noticed he had forgotten to take any food with him when he left. But there would be plenty of time for that; so before getting up, she sat in bed enjoying the rest of her coffee, and then snuggled down under the warm covers for a little while longer.

Pieter stopped by the shed and grabbed his long chainsaw, a small can of chain-oil and a file—and an extra chain. He nodded inwardly, pleased with himself that he had remembered that last item; it always seemed to be needed—an extra chain. And he always seemed to forget to bring one, causing him wasted time and wasted energy hiking back to the shed to get it in the middle of the day. But today he didn’t have far to go, just down the trail to a small stand of evergreen trees, not more than a few hundred yards down-slope from their house.

Pieter followed the trail part-way down the hill, and then he cut across a small meadow, filled with pale-blue lupine, their flower spikes shifting gently in the breeze. Here and there he spotted the brilliant red of a scarlet paintbrush; these were Isabel’s favorite flower. He made a mental note of these, and planned to pick a few for her on his way back home. The wind picked up just then and Pieter pulled up the collar of his jacket as a defense against the cold. The sky was growing dark and cloudy, and looked about ready to let loose with buckets of rain. But rain was common here and Pieter barely took notice; if you let a bit of rain get in your way, you’ll never get anything done.

A half dozen Spruce trees, that was all that he’d need to take down, to adequately open up the view. Pieter figured this would be about a half-day’s work to get the job done. The lupine-filled meadow wrapped around the stand of trees, and provided an easy place to drop them all, without danger or damage. None of the trees stood much over fifty feet tall, and not one was even sixty feet, he estimated; and they were all under two-feet in diameter, easy to slice through with his long-saw. Before working on the trees he took a walk to survey the area where he’d bring them down. He never wanted to drop a tree on an unsuspecting critter. He wasn’t a bleeding heart; and he could kill for food. But still, he never wanted to bring unnecessary suffering to a fellow creature, what purpose would that serve? A bit of planning and some forethought could make all the difference to a little ground-squirrel and its family.   

Once he made sure the area was clear, he prepared to cut through the first tree. Pieter had been cutting trees down all his life and could do it with his eyes closed. The first Spruce fell within several minutes, then he moved on to the second tree. This one fell almost as quickly as the first, and then he began to cut the third tree. But then, at some point, as the tree was falling to earth, he lost track of things. He couldn’t remember what exactly hit him, but it hit him pretty hard, and he fell to the ground, and he slept there for most of the day. It was Isabel who roused him hours later with a splash of water to the face. Pieter peered up into her worried face.

“What’s got you so affected, my dear? I must have just dozed off a bit.” He said, as he tried to pull himself up off the ground, and then gave up and rested back down.

“Just resting, husband? Then what’s got you so bloody?” Isabel replied as she bent down and wiped his forehead. She showed him the bloody rag.

“Hmmm…I don’t recall how that might have happened. Must’ve been hit by something.”

“Let’s get you home and cleaned up,” Isabel said as she helped Pieter to his feet. He reached for his saw but she stopped him. “You’re done for today. Just leave it. It’ll be fine there.”

Back home, she cleaned him up and wrapped his head, and sat him in a chair by the window where she could watch him, as she made their dinner. After a few moments he called out excitedly: “Isabel, Isabel, look! There it is…the mountain. I see it there, there it is! Come on, come and look!”

She put down her knife and walked to the window and peered out. She gazed past the stand of trees where Pieter had been working, and out across the water. Through the haze she could make out a solid form in the far distance.

“See it?! Pieter asked as he leaned forward in his chair. “Yep, that’s it right there, just to the right of the trees,” he said, as he pointed out the window. “Looks like I don’t need to chop any more of those trees after all. I think three will do it…I wish the clouds were gone though. Can’t see much through all that soup.” He leaned back again, feeling satisfied, and asked quietly as he drifted off to sleep, “I wonder what’s over there though…I sure wish I could see it.”

~FS