The church was quite basic. A converted nineteenth century Women’s Christian Temperance Union meeting hall with simple icons, a recently-installed iconostasis, a fellowship area into which sixty or so souls gathered after Sunday services.
Julia may have been overlooked among the cluster of morning images–children squirming, men with freshly scrubbed red faces, women patting their hair, smoothing skirts, the movements of the parish priest whose assigned task on this day was to cater to the visiting archbishop.
As the archbishop walked through the open doors, a crescendo reverberated from the choir. He paused in the narthex, pulled at the stripes adorning the sleeves of his North Sea blue cassock, then strode into the sanctuary trailed by colorfully-attired priests, each carrying a small mound of white and gold vestments. In the narthex several adult acolytes were followed by a few women, their heads covered, carrying bouquets of red roses. Then, as chair of the parish council, I trailed behind them.
I had known the archbishop for a few years and witnessed his struggle to maintain humility amidst his privileged life unencumbered by the complexities of a family, albeit without its intimacies. The pull of his vow of chastity was evident as his eyes ascended the terraces from hemline to waistline to bustline to hairline with periodic pauses at the exposures. It was a constant struggle for him (for anyone!) to remain humble and chaste. It was his daily test.
As soon as I entered the sanctuary that morning, I veered from the procession and walked toward Julia, a young woman with a child’s face radiating an eagerness that camouflaged her deep skepticism. She was one of that galaxy of twenty-first century women whose directness can sometimes be shocking, unburdened as they are by many of the contradictions and barriers that constrained their mothers and grandmothers.
For years during Sunday services, we sat next to each other. I knew she watched intently imitating when I stood, sat, crossed myself, or uttered the Lord’s Prayer. That morning, as I approached, she mouthed, “Hi, Mike. I saved you a seat.”
She had progressed from her first visit, when, after communion, I offered her a small square of bread. She had waved her hand, jerked her head back as if repelled, and said, “No. No.” Over the course of the next two years, she would whisper questions during the service, and, to my surprise, I could answer most of them.
She and I watched as parishioners parted to create a funnel through which to guide the archbishop into the center of the sanctuary. After he donned his richly-ornamented vestments, he strode forward, carrying not one but two highly-decorated ceremonial staffs. The faithful crossed themselves and bowed. Several parishioners reached to touch the hem of his garment, continuing the tradition from the Gospel of Luke.
After the tediously long, incense-clouded service, the archbishop walked to the ambo, waved a broad sign of the cross with one staff in each hand as if Moses parted the Red Sea. Once his blessing was bestowed, he, attired in his dark blue cassock, nestled in the center spot of a long table in the fellowship hall flanked by priests, deacons, and subdeacons all in black. His food was served to him by auxiliary members who smiled and bowed. They returned several times to fill his glass with his favorite bottled water.
Parishioners eager for acknowledgement interrupted his lunch, kissed his hand, then bowed as he extended a blessing, after which he would reach for his fork to finish whatever highly-seasoned concoction an elderly Greek or Russian widow prepared. When approached by a younger woman, his professionally dour face flushed, a grin appeared, and as was his wont, his eyes grew active.
“Pardon me…” “I don’t mean to interfere, but…” “Could you…” “May I…” Each time, the archbishop raised his head, placed his fork on the edge of his plate, and repeated a version of “Yes, my child” if they were younger, or “Certainly” if older.
Later, in my capacity as head of the parish council, I sat next to the archbishop to offer the symbolic gift of bread. As tradition dictated, he sprinkled salt across the crust, set it aside, and continued to greet people.
Minutes later, Julia approached the archbishop’s table. She stood silently until the archbishop raised his head. “Yes, my child.”
Julia nodded, then replied. “Oh, I’m not here for you. I wanted to talk to Mike before he left.”