By Dawn LaValle
I spent the morning before the vigil of Sts. Peter and Paul meticulously cataloging the graffiti that centuries of pious pilgrims and casual visitors had etched on the walls of the church. Creating their own versions of saint-like figures, crosses, names, horses, birds, these unknowns had felt confidant enough to insert themselves into the row of staid frescoed saints adorning the long walls. Under the towering fresco of St. Anthony a crude graffitoed horseman galloped past the saint’s feet on his way off the wall, while further above a meticulous Greek hand had calmly written: “Saint Anthony, OUR Saint Anthony”. Their ease of possession made me jealous.
When I went back to the church that night for the evening liturgy celebrating the feast, without flashlight, camera, or tracing paper, all of these little things faded away, hidden in the shadows cast by the candles tucked around the corner in the brilliantly lit central space of the church. I was in shadows, with shadows behind me of the saints on the wall. And I was left feeling like I didn’t have a means to insert myself into the liturgy, into this experience of God, with any of the confidence felt by those 18th century graffiti writers. How could I, as a Catholic, participate in this strongly Orthodox place? The feeling of slight but persistent alienation had become normal to me by this point, especially during the liturgy. Tonight I felt disconnected as usual, trying to catch bits and pieces of the Greek, just as I was trying to catch bits and pieces of a view into the nave, a space that I have been politely excluded from as a non-Orthodox.
From the spot where I stood in the side room of the church, the only thing I could see clearly was the monastery’s beloved icon of the Deposition of Christ. After Jesus is lifted down from the cross, his mother clasps her dead child to her with such fierceness that their bodies seem to form one shape. At my oblique angle I could see the chanting nuns, who were separated from me by a thick wall, reflected in the icon glass. One my one, the faithful approached the icon to kiss Christ and his Mother, unwittingly also kissing the reflected faces of the nuns. I was jealous of their ease of possession too.
The distance I felt was particularly frustrating because I had come to church that night with a strong desire to celebrate the feast well. My special affinity for the feast had begun six years earlier while spending a summer in Rome. On June 29th, 2004, I participated in the Papal mass for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. It was a momentous day: the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, had come to celebrate Rome’s patronal feast with Pope John Paul II. They stood together on the altar for half of the mass, reading from the Old and New Testaments, reciting the Creed together, a sign of hope for the eventual reunion of the churches. Ever since that day, I have held the feast as a particular feast for Orthodox and Catholics, for the hope of unity. But apparently this year I wasn’t going to be allowed to enter into the feast in the way I had hoped, with happy and easy participation.
As the liturgy progressed, a slow realization grew, and a frisson ran through me as I looked up to see that I had unintentionally chosen to stand in the spot directly under the icons of Sts. Peter and Paul, the two saints facing each other and firmly supporting a model of the church between them. Gazing quietly at each other on the wall, you would never think that there had been the most heated of disagreements between these two men, now ironed and soothed in the memory of time and art. The only thing left was the necessary and mutual support they lent to the church. My shadow flickered among their shadowy figures, leaping up to join the row. Not by bold graffiti, then, nor by kisses, could I participate, but in this unbidden way, in the flickering shadow that would be gone as soon as the last candle was extinguished. It was enough, and I was grateful for it.
As my shadow leapt over the figure of St. Paul, I decided to intentionally bring out of my memory each of my Orthodox friends one by one, and raise them before God in thanksgiving and petition. Why had God guided my life to be so closely entwined with Orthodoxy without myself being part of it? Why had I so often been required to hold up a mystery of friendship with people who thought that I was wrong and misled? Perhaps to teach me nothing more and nothing less than that friendship is meant to be a true site of ecumenism, the most immediate instantiation of the dialogue of charity. Perhaps to remind me that disagreement need not lead to the destruction of love.
I consider it a special grace to have been able to celebrate the feast of these two pillars of the Church for the last two years as a Catholic in an Orthodox monastery, surrounded by the welcoming hospitality of the sisters, while at the same time constantly reminded of the distance that still remains between us. May we be granted the grace be a faithful reflection of the icon of Peter and Paul, bearing up the Church between us, despite our differences. And may I in the meantime rest content to remain outside of the nave, my surest connection the maternal embrace of the broken body of Christ.