Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Catching Up

My neighborhood.

After an interval of 15 months, I am finally back in my native land. I was sitting in the lawn of my family home, sheltered by the shade of the octopus tree, when I realized that I had not updated my blog since June. Of course, that needs to be rectified.

I spent most of my summer working part-time in the bookstore. I was in the bookstore for only about twenty hours a week, so I wanted to do something more with my time. I ended up helping Fr. Cyprian reorganize the many, many, MANY keys he has to hundreds of doors in the monastery and seminary. I also started to cook the monastery dinners on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a task which was mostly stress-free because dinner at Jordanville usually involves reheating lunch and maybe making a little bit more salad. I've been using my time in the kitchen to experiment with cooking. After all, one has few opportunities to have at one's fingertips a professional-grade kitchen (complete with a giant stick blender) and a group of diners who are willing to eat almost anything.

Meanwhile, I interacted with both the summer boys and the students of the Summer School of Liturgical Music. There were fewer summer boys this year so I hardly noticed them, but I saw the music people every day for the space of about two weeks since I was auditing typikon classes at the music school. I learned quite a bit about the order of divine services, including more about the Biblical Odes than most people need to know.

I also went to a couple of weddings. My friends Anthony and Bridget married each other in late July, a pleasant wedding with catered barbecue and country music. I got seated with some old Jville friends and had a great time. Three weeks later, I went to the wedding of my friends Alex and Juliana Cooley. But that deserves another blog post. In between the weddings I went to St. Vladimir's Memorial Church in Jackson, NJ for the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus. It was a business trip, just like the one we took last year, but we sold quite a bit more due to the increased number of people.

Last weekend's activities were packed like sardines. First I went to Boston for a meeting with my editor, an event very cleverly disguised as a date. It helped that my editor is also my girlfriend. I then took a bus to Albany for the Cooliana wedding, and went back to Jordanville Sunday night. On Monday morning, I went to Syracuse for my trip to Hawaii. I hope to write about my trip in the several weeks to come, since I plan to be doing more than just sitting around and eating pineapples all day.

A Muddy Liturgy

I woke up on top of my bed in a bright room; I had fallen asleep without turning off the light. I fell unconscious again.

It was a little before six. Groggily I dragged myself out, got dressed, and walked out the door. Fr. Ephraim was standing in the lounge with the summer boys. "John, do you want to come with us to the woods for an English liturgy?" I figured, what the hey.

The Summer Youth Program is a great opportunity for young men to spend three weeks at Jordanville to get a taste of the quiet life of the monastery, do fun things and have spiritual discussions, and also do hard labor build character. It was a small group of five teenage boys. We piled into the big white van and drove up to the lakeside chapel, only to get stuck in the mud. We had to walk the rest of the way to the chapel.

It had been raining hard the past few days. Thankfully we're on high ground, but the people in Herkimer and Utica have had a tough time with flooding. It has gotten so bad that during the liturgy prayers are offered beseeching an end to the rain.

We walked about a third of a mile in the mud and wet grass, to the small stone chapel, with a grayish, weather-beaten wooden roof. A score of people filled the interior. Fr. Luke was serving at the tiny altar. The interior of the chapel is partially frescoed, with prominent icons of both St. John of Rila and St. John of Kronstadt, after whom the chapel is named. The singing was mostly in English, and was sung by some local women and a novice nun. The nun in question was dubbed "the coolest nun ever" by one of the boys because of the bright red galoshes she wore.

The English liturgies at the chapel are done on average once a week, but the schedule is erratic and is known only through word of mouth. But I highly recommend it, especially to English-speaking pilgrims.

Pierre Bezukhov (Part III)

After Pierre introduces Andrei and Natasha, they quickly fall in love and get engaged. However, Andrei’s strict father, Prince Nikolai, is suspicious of the union and makes Andrei wait a whole year until the wedding (they did things quicker in 19th century Russia). Andrei also made the engagement secret, so Natasha would be free to break it off without social repercussions. Andrei then went abroad to recuperate from his old war wounds.

Natasha, who was staying in Moscow with her family, then encounters Anatole, Pierre’s brother-in-law. Although Anatole got secretly hitched in a shotgun wedding to a Polish woman, he didn’t consider it an impediment and tried to seduce Natasha, convincing her to elope with him. Natasha fell in love with Andrei, but she fell in lust with Anatole. Pierre’s wife Hélène, knowing that Natasha was engaged, encouraged Anatole’s depravation, and the plan nearly succeeded until the very last minute when Anatole and his lackey were found out. The damage was already done: Natasha had already sent a letter to Andrei breaking off their engagement, and blinded by her feelings for Anatole became hostile to everyone. She finally became heartbroken when she found out that Anatole was married all along.

Pierre then comes into the picture. Before he left, Prince Andrei told Natasha to go to Pierre just in case anything was wrong, because “he’s absent-minded, but he has a heart of gold.” Pierre comforts Natasha, who thinks of herself as a ruined woman, despite not having yet done anything. Having lost both Andrei and Anatole, she feels unworthy of love. Pierre says differently. He declares to her: “If I were not myself, but the handsomest, cleverest, and best man in the world, and were free, I would this moment ask on my knees for your hand and your love!” From those words feelings awoke in Pierre which he did not realize before. Going home, he sees a comet in the sky—a portent of the coming chaos of 1812. The peace-loving Pierre was about to be enveloped in the horrors of war.Natasha, though relieved by Pierre’s words, still struggled through a long illness and depression. As for Pierre, he gradually fell in love with her, though because of his marriage did not act on his feelings. Nevertheless, he still thought things like: “Well, supposing N. N. swindled the country and the Tsar, and the country and the Tsar confer honors upon him, what does that matter? She smiled at me yesterday and asked me to come again, and I love her, and no one will ever know it.”

His love for Natasha, the coming war with Napoleon, and his Freemasonry all converge together in a rather humorous passage in which he works out the meaning of the number of the beast in the Book of Revelation. L’Empereur Napoleon, if the French alphabet had numerical values like the Hebrew, adds up to 666. Pierre calculates using various names, like L’Empereur Alexandre and La nation russe, before using his own name in various combinations, such as Comte Pierre Besouhoff, Le russe Besuhof and so forth, before finally fudging his own name (and French grammar) to get L’russe Besuhof, which also added up to 666 and made him feel like he, like Napoleon, was predestined for some kind of great act, which would “lift him out of that spellbound, petty sphere of Moscow habits in which he felt himself held captive and lead him to a great achievement and great happiness.”

This Pierre, in the summer of 1812, is very different from when we first encountered him in 1805. As a young man Pierre led a dissipated life in which he had no idea what to do in life and ended up being turned this way and that by the people around him. When he got married and went through the sufferings of a cheating wife and a brush with death, he got a little serious and committed himself to the causes of Freemasonry and philanthropy. Though he still leads a dissipated life, he has a burgeoning love for Natasha. He’s a little better than the beginning, in terms of being an active rather than a passive character. But he has to learn his last, painful lessons through the horrors of the war to come. In the summer of 1812, Napoleon invades Russia and “war began, an act opposed to human reason and to human nature.” The French take Smolensk (which ends up getting burnt down) and threaten Moscow, leading to the great battle of Borodino. Pierre visits the battlefield out of curiosity, but ends up getting caught up in the conflict. Before the battle, he meets up with his old friend, Prince Andrei, and has one last meeting, which both knew would be their last; Andrei is wounded in battle, and dies after a long struggle. When the battle begins, Pierre is at first observing, but soon begins to participate, starting with carrying ammo for the troops. His fancy hat and coat and his demeanor amuse the rank-and-file soldiers, but his persistence in the heat of battle win their admiration and respect for “the master,” as they call him at first mockingly, then endearingly.

Borodino soon turned into a slaughterhouse for both the Russians and the French. Pierre sees his new compatriots die violent deaths one by one. The French keep sending in troops and cannonballs, but the Russians hold their position despite the heavy bombardment. In the chaos he ends up in a desperate altercation with a French officer. “Am I taken prisoner or have I taken him prisoner?” both the Frenchman and Pierre thought to themselves as they gripped each other, the stalemate broken by a closely-fired cannonball. Pierre manages to escape, but not without becoming traumatized by what transpired that day. The French move to capture Moscow, but their wounds at Borodino would prove fatal.

Upon his return to Moscow, Pierre starts acting erratically, and he becomes convinced based on his obsessions with fate and numerology that he, L’russe Besuhof, was destined to end the evil of the Antichrist, Napoleon. He hides out in the house of his old mentor, Osip, and acquires a peasant’s outfit and a pistol. His plan was to assassinate Napoleon as soon as he entered Moscow in triumph.

Several incidents weaken Pierre’s resolve. First, he inadvertently saves the life of French captain from getting shot by a madman. Second, in his wanderings through the deserted and burning city of Moscow, he ends up saving the life of a small child and defends an Armenian woman from a French soldier-turned-robber. For his pains, he is arrested by the French, and having found the pistol on him, is almost executed. He witnesses the brutal execution of suspected “arsonists” accused of setting fire to buildings in Moscow. He is locked up in pitiful circumstances. He is forced to march a long time and is subjected to all kinds of deprivations.

Yet far from breaking his spirit, these difficulties served to purify Pierre’s soul, giving him a new sort of freedom, the freedom that comes from having inner peace, which he had sought in so many ways: “He had sought it in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of town life, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, and in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by reasoning—and all these quests and experiments had failed him.” By suffering deprivation, Pierre learned that the simple pleasures of life, such as having good food and basic hygiene, were the most essential elements of earthly happiness, with anything in excess often becoming a hindrance. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, who realized that pursuit of wealth, glory, and pleasure were in the end paths to vanity. Pierre realizes through his time as a prisoner of war that the freedom that he had was precisely what prevented him from achieving happiness.

Pierre also has a second mentor, after Osip: a simple peasant-soldier named Platon Karataev, whom he met as a fellow prisoner. Platon’s words mainly consist of old folk sayings and stories. His prayers are simple: for example, each night he would ask God to “lay me down like a stone, and raise me up like a loaf.” It was Platon’s simplicity and love in the midst of imprisonment which had a great impact on Pierre. For Platon, life “ had meaning only as part of a whole of which he was always conscious. His words and actions flowed from him as evenly, inevitably, and spontaneously as fragrance exhales from a flower.” Thus, Pierre reaches an epiphany. After a long march, he starts laughing:

“Ha-ha-ha!” laughed Pierre. And he said aloud to himself: “The soldier did not let me pass. They took me and shut me up. They hold me captive. What, me? Me? My immortal soul? Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha!…” and he laughed till tears started to his eyes.
Pierre realizes here that true freedom comes from within, and what’s more, everything is connected with everything else in a mysterious way, and somehow a man encompasses all of it. Looking up to the stars, he says: “And all that is me, all that is within me, and it is all I!” Through this he—and Tolstoy—come close to the Patristic teaching that Man is a kind of microcosm of all creation; indeed, St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite states paradoxically that Man is indeed a macrocosm within the microcosm of creation, because of the superiority of the human being created in the image of God.

Platon dies on the way, being shot by the French because he was too ill to go further. Pierre is freed by some partisan fighters, and when he gained his new found freedom he became a different person. Though he remained the same absent-minded intellectual, he became overcome with a kind of “happy insanity” in which he would love others not for any reason, but merely because they existed. Through this experience of love, Pierre had “grown so clean, smooth, and fresh—as if he came out of a Russian bath [banya]…out of a moral bath…” as Natasha put it after she reunited with Pierre. In the end, Pierre marries Natasha, his wife having died because of mysterious circumstances. His life begins anew, and he becomes tied down—happily—with his new wife, who will not even let him look at another woman without flying into a jealous rage. Like the biblical Job, he is rewarded for his endurance in patience, and achieves external happiness as well as—most importantly—inner tranquility. As Plato once said, “Call no man a hero unless he has conquered himself.”