Friday, March 13, 2009

Of Mountains and Memories

What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief? What glory stands immutable on the earth? All things are but feeble shadows, all things are most deluding dreams, yet one moment only, and death shall supplant them all. But in the light of Thy countenance, O Christ, and in the sweetness of Thy beauty, give rest to him whom Thou hast chosen, for as much as Thou lovest mankind.

Yesterday I spent all day driving to, in, and returning from the Atlanta area for the funeral of my dear friend, the priest, Fr Damian. I knew that the service was going to be an emotional one for me, because ever since hearing of his cancer-diagnosis I often cried intermittently, wishing I had the nerve to call him, wishing I had one more chance to see him, and wishing I had said something to him the last time I saw him, to express how grateful I was to be counted among his friends.

We went to a panikhida service at St Mary's in Atlanta, and then to the burial which took place in Resaca at the monastery he founded and spent so many years. Someone mentioned that they didn't realize there was a second cemetery on the hill above the larger, main one. Another person said the monks called it "the Launching Pad" because it was so oddly flat in the monastery's mountainous setting.

It was difficult to feel so sad in a place that had brought me such happiness and joyful memories.

The daffodils were blooming along with miscellaneous bulby plants in various places on the grounds of hardwood forest and English ivy. Azaleas were threatening to blossom, and little blooms of periwinkle were peeking out from underneath the dead autumn leaves.
It is in this place I have witnessed some of the most inspiring and humorous stories I have ever heard.

C.S. Lewis, in one of his recorded lectures, quotes
somebody (when I listen to it again I'll amend this post), saying "I would rather go to hell with the knights and the ladies, than to heaven with the priests and the monks." If that person knew the joy it was to be with priests, monks, and everyone who lived their lives loving the same Person they do, who spent their lives both succeeding and failing at their love of that One Person, then they might appreciate the conversations, the humor, and, yes, the fun it was to be in their presence.

After the burial we returned to St Mary's for the "Mercy Meal" at which we ate wonderful food, but also talked and celebrated the life of our dear friend. There were stories of his rapier wit, quoting him (but, alas, my letters don't translate well into his Eastern North Carolina, growly drawl): "I'll flay you with a toothpick," "he could talk the ears off a brass billy-goat" or "all that woman needs is a sword, a shield, and a tin bra"; as well as the final stories of my friend: nurses, orderlies, and non-Orthodox in his last hospital both asking for his blessing and kissing his hand; and the multitude of people who met him once and remembered him for years.

I have posted elsewhere of the honor I felt at being given a necklace which, during his first visit to the Holy Land, he placed on the tomb of the Virgin Mary. I have also received many visits from him over the years as he came through town. He often recalled a story after visiting us of our son, Max (age three or four at the time), accidentally drinking from a glass of Nimiroff hot-pepper vodka which looked oddly like apple juice. He would start the story, "Do you remember Max and the..." and then fade off into chuckles, as we joined him in the tale of Max's horrified and pained face, and then his spinning around in the curtains, before taking a really long nap.

I just can't help but think the world has lost someone as irreplaceable as, perhaps, the inventor of the polio vaccine, although my poor biography is only a tiny image of what this man accomplished in his lifetime.

I recognize myself as a product of my age. But Fr Damian was like a modern-day dinosaur: a creature leftover from a lost era, and one that won't likely be repeated ever again. That he was an Orthodox Christian, a priest and a monk, only adds to the curiosity of his character in such a generation as well as a geography.

I just don't know what to think or feel, except perhaps a profound honor to have briefly witnessed the life and the passing of a mountain of a man, the likes of which this world will never see again.

With thy saints give rest, O our God, where sickness and sorrow are no more, neither sighing but life everlating!
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