Moments of travel with Dostoevsky and Elder Cleopa

I left home to go home.

*

There are so many cemeteries on the way from Fagaras to the airport. In the speed of the car, I think I see one with soldiers fallen during WWI. So many young people who could not be mourned by their unborn children… Still, they are my “parents.” I can mourn them. Or I can rejoice in them. I carry them with me, whether I want it or not. And I am most aware of it when I see the cross from my own tomb before my eyes. “The highest wisdom of human beings?” asked Elder Cleopa. He answered, “Death! Death! Death!”

*

“Only in the light of Dostoevsky’s fundamental artistic task […] can one begin to understand the profound organic cohesion, consistency and wholeness of Dostoevsky’s poetics.” Bakhtin is correct: there is consistency and wholeness in Dostoevsky’s work. Perhaps because of his dialogism as well, but for sure for one other reason: death is the one that gives consistency to his world. Everything in Dostoevsky’s writings can be understood as long as we begin with the end, the inevitable end of all of his characters; the inevitable end of all human beings. Dostoevsky’s world is cohesive inasmuch as it is governed by death. Paradoxically, some may say, but most naturally, I would say, it is this death that gives light, brilliance, to all human beings.

*

I got on the plane. There’s a lady next to me. She has two toddlers. “She will cry,” she says, pointing to her daughter. She’s probably one year old, and she’s so full of life. She has no inhibitions and makes sure that everyone around her is aware of her presence. Two seats in front of me, a young adult is playing on his phone. His earbuds in his ears, he’s completely closed to everyone around him. How many prayers does he carry with him? Do his parents’ thoughts embrace him on his journey?

*

A few years ago, I went to Fr. Roman Braga’s funeral. The day before the entombment, the church at the Dormition Monastery was full: clergy and people, all brought together by their love for Fr. Roman. His corps was laying in the middle of the church, facing the altar, and we were all singing: “Christ is Risen from the death, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.”

*

The little girl fell asleep, and so my seat neighbor enjoys some peace and quiet. We all do.

We can be so separated, and still so united. Flying together to various “homes,” flying together to personal deaths. Still, each one of us is embraced by so many angels. Just like this girl, whose mother keeps her in her arms, without complaining for one moment, although she could not move for an hour. She only smiles, looking at her girl. Blessed are those whose arms are other people’s seatbelts. And blessed are those who have their seatbelts on for the moment of landing.

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Immigrant on this earth

A few years ago, we were moving from one town to another in the US. We were a young family with a 10 years old child. That Sunday, we were driving home from church. It was our last Sunday in that town. We had found in the community of St. Alexis in Lafayette a home far from home. I think it was mainly because our priest’s mode of being was the embrace. We were embraced and accepted for who we were.

I noticed my son was sad, sitting silently in the back seat. “I wonder,” he said, “how it will feel when we come back here. Now, it is home, but it will no longer feel like home.”

My heart was aching, but I tried to be a good father and give him some comfort. “It will still be our home, just like Romania is our home and the place we’re going will be our home.” My son didn’t say anything for a minute, but then, in a quiet voice: “In fact, we only have a home, and that is in Heaven.”

This is my temporary home,

It’s not where I belong

This song by Carrie Underwood has the same idea. We are immigrants on this earth. We come into a country that does not belong to us, and we are supposed to return.

Some may say that immigrants do not have responsibility because they do not “belong” to the country they live in. “Windows and rooms that I’m passing through,” as the song says. But the condition of immigrant cannot be understood unless we also see that immigrants still have to fulfill another call, that of shepherds. This is my temporary home, but it has been offered to me as a gift, a gift which I am called to return in Thanksgiving. Father Alexander Schmemann says,

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God […]. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

It is the condition of a traveler, to take that which he receives and offer it back in an all-embracing eucharist.

But there are so many situations in which we are immigrants. We travel to other people’s souls, and we are immigrants in their hearts. In a way, we belong to them, just like a good Dostoevsky book, that dwells into your heart and germinates ideas and even new characters. In a different way, we already have a home. This allows us to never be owned, but it also says that we do not own other people’s souls either. We only come and visit. And they come to us. Love taking place in a freedom in which we are fully connected, but we never possess one another.

In fact, the condition of immigrant on earth is living on a cross: as shepherds of that which has been gifted to us (the horizontal one) and as beings who are in love and yearn eternally for the home where we know we’d return.

I’m not afraid because I know

This is my temporary home

P.S. Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s Idiot is an immigrant. He is Russian, but he comes from outside of Russia. In a sense, he is a foreigner. But, just like Christ, he is a foreigner who returns to his own people with a better understanding than their own understanding of Orthodoxy. He is an immigrant, an “idiot” perhaps in the sense that he does not speak the “language” of high society people, but an immigrant who knows better than all the others who they really are—promises of divine beings. Myshkin, like Christ, comes from the outside (from Switzerland), but also from the inside (he is a Russian). And, just like Christ, he acts and disappears in anonymity. Does that make his life meaningless?

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A tree on a country road

tree, summer, road, nature, blue sky

A country road. A tree.

The setting of Waiting for Godot matches the condition of travelers that we have on this earth. We are on a road. We don’t remember where it began, and we are not responsible for starting it. The only thing we can do as long as we live is to continue traveling on it. We don’t know what will take place while walking, but we are given the certainty of a tree.

“Two Travellers, walking in the noonday sun, sought the shade of a widespreading tree to rest. As they lay looking up among the pleasant leaves, they saw that it was a Plane Tree.

“‘How useless is the Plane!’ said one of them. ‘It bears no fruit whatever, and only serves to litter the ground with leaves.’

“‘Ungrateful creatures!’ said a voice from the Plane Tree. ‘You lie here in my cooling shade, and yet you say I am useless! Thus ungratefully, O Jupiter, do men receive their blessings!'”

Should Aesop’s fable be considered the key to Beckett’s play? We are on a road, traveling toward Godot, waiting for Godot to make his apparition, while a tree is next to us and we don’t even pay attention to it.

The country road is the road to Emmaus. We explain to the Plane Tree everything that has happened in our terms . We explain to It our story about Its life, and we are amazed that It is the only one who doesn’t know the story, who doesn’t know that it’s not sufficient to stand and litter the ground with leaves. It must bring forward fruit. And we tell It what the fruit should be. All of this while walking toward the “end” of the path, an end that we “know.” But there is no end of the path if we remain in the cooling shade of the broken bread.

Verweile doch, du bist so schön!

“I’ve been here all this time, and I will not run away,” the plane tree would say. For the tree is a beautiful idiot, just as Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin. An “idiot” who makes no sense, who cannot justify his existence. And we want to feast on his body, just as we want to feast on the fruit of the plane tree. Still, an “idiot”does not run away and offers himself to others in spite of the evidence that this offering brings about no positive result, in spite of the fact that our eyes are still not open. And we feast on his body. Some do it in thanksgiving. Others, like the travelers from Aesop’s fable and even Estragon and Vladimir from Beckett’s play, do it without even acknowledging it.

Can we become plane trees that offer shade on the road to Emmaus? Can we become trees which, instead of offering fruit to others, offer themselves? There’s such a long way from an ungrateful traveler under a plane tree to a plane tree. It is the way from obliviousness to thankfulness.

O, moment, you are indeed so beautiful. Open my eyes and let me not run away.

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Self-imposed isolation of man

The problem of “today’s” world for one of Dostoevsky’s characters in Brothers Karamazov is the self-imposed isolation of man, which “is prevalent everywhere now, especially in our age, and which has not yet come to an end, has not yet run its course. For everyone nowadays strives to dissociate himself as much as possible from others, everyone wants to savour the fullness of life for himself, but all his best efforts lead not to fullness of life but to total self-destruction, and instead of ending with a comprehensive evaluation of his being, he rushes headlong into complete isolation. For everyone has dissociated himself from everyone else in our age, everyone has disappeared into his own burrow, distanced himself from the next man, hidden himself and his possessions, the result being that he has abandoned people and has, in his turn, been abandoned” (p. 379-380 in the Oxford edition).

Self-imposed isolation is an epistemic problem. In knowledge, a human is alone, for he must detach himself from all things around him so that he can know them. Isolation disappears when knowledge is replaced by knowledge as love. I cannot love from the outside, but only from within the world, and this love (embrace) is experienced as knowledge of the other who is already part of my world, prior to me knowing it.

Zosima’s perspective embraces all people, including Ivan. Zosima does not reject the problem of evil: he embraces it. And, what may sound outrageous, it also embraces the general who murdered the child before his mother’s eyes. Just as in the unilateral contradiction that Constantin Noica theorizes, evil may reject the good, but the good embraces it.

Perhaps the only one responsible for bringing heaven on earth is “me,” because I am the one who is called to offer love as gift. Offering love is equivalent with regaining that which already is part of me and, at the same time, precedes me. Loving the world, I regain the world as it was meant to be because I cancel isolation. And so the presence of love, regardless of external circumstances, transforms any reality into heaven.

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The spring of love

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return to the earth. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

Forgive me, my brothers, for crying when I say these words, Fr. Zosima says in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, but they take me back to my childhood.

And I remember the small church in the cemetery, in Fagaras… the great Lent, and many children sitting down in the church, listening to Fr. Aurel… And incense.

But Job is naked, his children died and he lost all things.

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

“Only evil contradicts good, but not the other way around,” Constantin Noica says in his Becoming Within Being.

“One can love a man only when he’s out of sight; as soon as he shows his face, that’s the end of love.” How can we love a naked face from the “dressed” perspective of our being? The face troubles us, takes us out of our comfort; it tells us to do things we don’t want to do. And we don’t want to do them because we are not naked, but dressed in the “clothing” that we have made for ourselves.

She passes by me and I smile to her. She smiles back. We’re in an airport. Our eyes lock for a moment, they dwell within each other, and I feel so alive. An old woman, with fragile steps, but so much present in the void of these full airports.

She reminds me of the Lady in No. 6; I have no idea about her life, but she lives in me and I in her. The Kingdom is at hand.

Only when we are so old, only, we are aware of the beauty of life.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return to the earth.” Blessed be this nakedness, out of which streams love.

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Moments in life with Lady Gaga

On the road again, on a bus… A beautiful, sunny day. Three people around me are sleeping. The only one awake is an older man, unmoved, his eyes looking into an absent horizon. And music.

So when I’m all choked up

But I can’t find the words

Every time we say goodbye

Baby, it hurts…

The man is the age of my dad; he just said goodbye to his son, most likely a graduate student. When his father got on the bus, the young man took his phone out of his pocket. “So soon?” I thought. Most likely, though, a coping mechanism: the young man had tears in his eyes.

When the sun goes down

And the band won’t play

I’ll always remember us this way.

Sunny today, but who knows how many storms around me. Does the band still play in the heart of the man who just left his son? He places his jacket on the seat next to him and looks straight ahead, unmoved.

Every time we say goodbye

Baby, it hurts…

I am going to a conference. He’s going home. Both of us have left a “home.”

But all I really know

You’re where I wanna go

The part of me that’s you will never die

Sunny today. Perhaps a storm tomorrow. But let us take our umbrellas and go through it. For truly, The part of me that’s you will never die.

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The Wolves – poem by Noemi Marin

On Tuesday, April 9, Noemi Marin will speak of her poetry volume, Aerul Departarii. For this occasion, I translated one of her poems. Here’s a link to the Tuesday event. I’ll join her to speak about C. Noica’s Pray for Brother Alexander.

The mirrors through which I walk my soul scare me;
at times, I am so alone within me,
I do not dare to take a glance to see my face.

I got tired amidst the wolves of soul,
the predators of me;
I attempted to show them
how beautiful I am,
and I know,
and they know,
that I am.

What kind of self-love would I need
to be able to detach my wing,
frozen as it is in the glass of the window.

Sleep comes to wash away the memories,
I listen to the soul in the quiet of the glade,
The wolves leave to pursue another prey.
They, the wolves,
touched me,
and they carry with them
the brilliance of the starry sign
in the night.

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Moments of beauty in anonymity

Photo by Bernard Sabolio

I wake up early, and so I witness moments of remarkable beauty. A dawn that still allows the moon to be seen above a cloud, sun rays breaking through the branches of a tree… moments that I would have missed if I had not waken up. Moments that so many other people miss, and not only because they are not awake at this hour, but because they work, they live in other parts of the world, or simply because they see other moments of beauty, which I cannot see.

There is so much beauty in the world that happens in a second, regardless of whether we see it or not. Beauty in anonymity. Of course, there are those private moments that we occasion for one another, in the anonymity of our lives: the caress a grandmother has for a child, the smile of a parent when a daughter takes her first steps, or the serene forehead of your wife while sleeping next to you in the early hours of the day. Moments of which nobody else is aware–perhaps not even those who allow you to have them.

All of these moments we create for one another and we are aware of their unicity: we even desire them to be so. The caress is for me and no one else. But what about a sunset? Or what about a dawn that is not witnessed? For “my” dawn this morning would not have happened if I chose to sleep in. The sun would have still risen, of course, and the moon could still be seen, people may still have rejoiced in it, but that particular moment in which the beauty of the dawn took life in my soul would have missed its conception.

The world is indeed beautiful. And it is beautiful in anonymity, just as a forgiveness that is always there, always with its arms stretch on a cross, waiting for me to come before it so that it can embrace me.

Dostoevsky was right: beauty does save the world. And it does so in anonymity.

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Our images in other people’s worlds

Photo by Min An from Pexels

There is something touching about the idea that people live in their own world, in which I belong as a constituent, a world different than mine (I am not a character in my own world, but I am a character in their worlds): the responsibility I have for all because I belong to their worlds (you can read here some musings on this issue). What I mean here is that I don’t have to listen to Tavi, to wait behind him in line at a supermarket, or to deal with him as my spouse or as a driver on the highway. All the other people with whom I interact (and I would claim that all other people in the world, but this is a discussion for another time) somehow need to “deal” with me, depending on the relations that are established between us. So I am responsible for their worlds. At the same time, it is not really “me” who belongs to their world, and this is due to the way in which people see their own lives; or to the way in which people take a bite of their own lives.

There is one more level, though, and I sometimes wonder about the responsibility I have for that level: how responsible am I for the image of Tavi that is created in the discourses other people have about me or about what I say? Consider this situation: Mary and Johnny have a discussion, and Johnny describes something I said, but this description is filtered by Johnny’s own emotions and interests. The result is that Mary is hurt by “my” comments. Am I responsible for Mary’s feelings?

The first response–and this is the response that the majority of my students would give–is that Johnny has responsibility for what he says. I have done nothing. First, the description of my words is out of context. Second, I have not intended to say something that could have harmed Mary. Thus, Johnny is exclusively responsible for any harm Mary may have suffered.

However, the reality is that the event involves me, regardless of whether I contribute to it voluntarily or not. My problem is not whether Johnny is responsible or not for what Johnny does; my problem is how I contribute to his life and, by consequence, to Mary’s life. The paradox is that I am responsible even if I have no control over it.

The prayer before communion

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.

Of course, people hear “responsibility” and believe that this is a “moralist” approach. But the beauty of it is that it is not a moral responsibility, but rather the acknowledgement that I leave a trace in this life, for the good and for the bad. Regardless of my intentions, what I say or do can be interpreted, used, truncated. The point is, though, that I am an ingredient in this wonderful soup that is life (actually, this blog truly started with a text about this; you can read it here: the story about the death of a rabbit). And I cannot complain about its taste. As I was saying before, belonging to it makes me part of its beauty and of its ugliness; it makes me part of its taste. And since I participate in ugliness most of the time, regardless of whether I want it or not, I need forgiveness. It is not the moral or juridical forgiveness, but rather the curative one. If the world suffers and I am part of it, then the world and I need to be cured. 

Perhaps everything that happens to us is, if we read it well, another call to humility–one may say that this is the genuine condition of theosis. I cannot say it better than Anthony Bloom:

To me, humility is not what we often make of it: the sheepish way of trying to imagine that we are the worst of all and trying to convince others that our artificial ways of behaving show that we are aware of that. Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed.[1]

And Mitya Karamazov comes to mind: “Gentlemen, we are all cruel, we are all monsters, we all cause suffering to people–to mothers and their infants–but, have it your way, I’m worse than anyone.”

Another paradox: this is an occasion for joy!


[1]Anthony Bloom. Beginning to Pray. Paulist Press, 1970, p. 35.

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Cooking toward the unknown

Photo from the public domain: https://www.goodfreephotos.com/food/cooking-ingredients-with-avocado-mushrooms-eggs.jpg.php

A friend told me a story about how, in his youth, he and his family visited a lady. It was during lent. The lady went to the kitchen and started cooking the “Romanian way.” She took a pan, threw in some oil, and started frying some onion. “What are you making?” my friend’s sister asked her. “I don’t know yet,” the lady replied.

I find this cooking toward the unknown fascinating, especially because this is what life usually is. We are always “cooking” something toward the unknown, even when we “know” what we are doing and we follow a plan. In this case, however, I think it was a different kind of pursuing the unknown. It was not that the lady did not know what she was putting in her meal; it was rather that she was not making something that she has done before, so she could not exactly know the result. As it usually is the case during lent, you use whatever you have in the house for cooking. At times, those ingredients have not been together in a meal. So, although you know what you are using, you do not know what will come out of it. You only have a guess, according to how you may have used these ingredients previously.

But truly this is just like life. Every day throws at us different ingredients. And we use them to “cook” something with them. We have an idea about what may come out, but we haven’t lived the day previously, so, after all, we don’t know what will come out of it. Things get even more complicated because of the multitude of cooks. The point is, however, to go ahead and start cooking. Thrown some onions into a pot. Somehow, they will end up nourishing someone.

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