i’ve been reading a number of books lately. one of them is john oliver’s book entitled “touching heaven”. it’s part spiritual biography, part narrative about his pilgrimage to the valaam monastery in russia. so far i’ve gotten a lot from the stories of monastic life and what we learn from it. last night i read about his experince of participating as a “monk for a day”, basically spending a day in the monstic cycle. getting up at three in the morning for services that lasted till dawn. working five hours in the sun, shoveling sand, and the ways the monks tranformed the physical actions and made them both physical and spiritual efforts. at the end of the day, he had met with an english speaking monk who talked to them of confession and preparing for a life confession to give at the evening service. this is what john spoke of:
the english speaking hieromonk stodd waiting. he was wearing a special stole, the sign of a priest who is ready to hear confessions. i reached into my back pocket for a dusty and sandy piece of folded notebook paper, the one that held my broad inventory of when and where i had been an image-maker, an image-breaker. holding my life in both hands, i approached the hieromonk. standing to his right, before an icon of Christ, i unflided the paper and waited for his cue. he lifted his stole and placed it gently over my hunched shoulders and nodded his head. i began to read softly.
the hieromonk and i went on our own pilgrimage through the once-forgotten land of my past. my inventory of where i had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God seved as narration. in the comforting womb of Valaam’s temple, we visited the home of my youth and the dark spaces of my family; traveled through high school and college and through years of adolescent discovery and frustration; journeyed through the direectionless post-college wasteland where lessons are learned only in hindsight and stained around the edges with regret.
standing motionless, we wandered the secret airless places. and at the end of that dark inventory, the one that included every moment and experience i could remember when i had chosen unwisely, i stood silent again. the hieromonk leaned closely toward my ear and in an english shaded with russian accent he offered this: “it is good that you have come to valaam. leave your burden here, and from now on learn to love God above all. go with the assurance that you are forgiven.”
no sermon was necassary; the sacrament of confession had done its work. the stole was removed from my shoulders as i bent to kiss the icon of Christ, before whom i had confessed. “