Met. Kallistos Ware famously shared the story of his conversion (at least its initiation) as he ducked into a Russian Orthodox Cathedral one afternoon only to encounter the service of Vespers in progress. His account contained no detailed analysis of what he saw. Rather, it was the story of a heart – a heart confronting the Holy in a profound manner. It is the sort of an encounter that can change your life.
I have been thinking about his story this past week in the wake of the news of his passing (memory eternal). I had many opportunities to be with him over the years, including a 10-day pilgrimage under his leadership in the Holy Land back in 2008. His story, in many ways, carried more weight with me than all of the many lectures and such that I have heard from him. It is, in a very important way, at the very heart of our faith.
To walk into a building and find yourself immersed in the presence of God is a story worth telling over-and-over. It is not an account of persuasive words or the emotional waves of an enthusiastic crowd. I believe that God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” but, for various important reasons, we often seem completely impervious to that Presence. I do not take this to be the fault of creation itself – but a fault within ourselves. Those moments in my own life, when I have gotten past the seeming opacity of creation and encountered God, are treasures. In particular, I treasure them because they seem to have caught me at my best, either at a place where I was capable of seeing in a healthy way, or, more commonly, because the encounter created in me a health that had been lacking only moments before.
When I’m honest and reflect back on these experiences, I can see that they have not always been in an Orthodox context. The first “liturgy” that I ever saw (and encountered the presence of God) was a standard Anglican (old prayerbook) in a 19th century gothic Church building, complete with magnificent stained-glass, fine pipe organ, and choir. In truth, it was one of my earliest encounters with beauty. My rural Baptist background had been utterly devoid of art and beauty of any sort – I jokingly call it my “beige period.”
Other experiences, on the whole, have come only occasionally. There was a Catholic Church in my wife’s hometown where, when visiting, I used to slip off to and pray. It was a very traditional Church that simply seemed to invite prayer.
In a very interesting case, I had a profound encounter in my first private meeting with Fr. Zacharias of Essex. There was a largeness that surrounded him (I don’t have any other word for it), and, quite strikingly, seemed entirely focused on me as person. I’ve never experienced anything else like it.
More than anywhere, I think I have had such numinous encounters in dreams. Not often. But when these have occurred, I woke up humbled, in a state of deep awe, and wishing the dream had lasted much longer. I recall that when Jacob dreamed of a ladder stretching to heaven with angels going up and down on it, he woke and said, “How awesome is this place! It is none other than the house of God!” (Gen. 28:17) It is an amazingly un-modern response. We would, of course, assume that the dream was only an event in our brains and wonder what we had eaten the night before. Jacob associated the dream with the place he was sleeping. Orthodox commentary would say that the Ladder he encountered was the Theotokos, the woman who became the “House of God,” one who stretched from earth to heaven as Christ was incarnated in her womb. Angels ascended and descended on such a place. On a regular basis, I think that I am drawn most often to that inner place of encounter through interactions with the Mother of God.
Finding the door to the heart is not an easy thing. The stories of such encounters (as in the life of Met. Kallistos and so many others) are surprises at the very least for what they tell us about our own heart. I have pondered the Theotokos’ role in the approach to my heart many times. I have thoughts and suspicions about why she is so important to me on that level. But I leave such explanations to God.
What I know is that we should pay attention to these moments in our lives. They are not given to us in order to create a fetish. Indeed, most often, what happened once will not happen again, or never in the same way twice. The reason, of course, is that it is a revelation of the heart and not a discovery of technique.
This week, as I continue to remember Met. Kallistos, I will think of him as an 18-year-old teen who ducked into a dark church one afternoon in 1952. He found the door to his heart there. What became truly blessed in his life was his ability to whisper something of that encounter to others. His books, his lectures, and so much else suggested that there was such a place of the heart and that there were doors of entrance that could be found. He particularly helped so many thousands to understand that Orthodoxy was uniquely tied to that place. Orthodoxy, in its deepest and most authentic moments, invites us into that secret place of the Most High.
O dark and fearful wonder!
(Photos: A rainy walk in London; with His Eminence at the Jordan River in 2008)