I first encountered Orthodoxy at a small mission in Central Washington. I’d gone to Washington to pick apples at my (Greek) uncle’s orchard and, just to be polite, tagged along with him and my aunt when they went to church. Though many things were strange and memorable to me there—the services; the icons; the odd vocabulary that priests and laypeople passed between one another like a delicious secret—Pizza Hut was perhaps my favorite part. Pizza Hut was the dinner spot for the community after Saturday night’s Great Vespers. I liked it because people sat around and told stories about their lives and conversions. No pressure; just people.
There, at Pizza Hut, sometime after harvest had petered out, I asked Father if he had any book suggestions for me. I wasn’t exactly attracted to Orthodoxy—it was awfully weird, and seemed populated mostly by old folks—but I was curious, in the same way that one would be curious if, while driving down a highway, one glimpsed a giant, gilded, buttressed structure rising up out among the sagebrush. My curiosity was more like that: What’s this doing here?
Father suggested two titles: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, by Alexander Solzenitsyn, and a book called Father Arseny, by some anonymous monk.
I read Solzenitsyn’s novel quickly, and, as a student of literature, mildly approved of it.
I didn’t read Father Arseny until a month or so later. I borrowed the book from the church library to read on the shuttle to Seattle; I was catching a plane back to Texas for the weekend, and I wanted some reading material for the trip.
I planned on sleeping in the airport that night in order to make an early flight the next morning, so I took the late shuttle. The mountains and towns we passed were nothing but black forms dotted with the occasional bulb of orange light. There was nothing to see out the windows. It was dark, the shuttle to Seattle was slow-going, there was an overhead light; a perfect time for reading.
I quickly discovered that Father Arseny was another Soviet labor camp narrative, only presented as nonfiction. Father Arseny was an Orthodox Priest condemned to a Siberian death camp simply because he was a priest. The temperatures and the guards and the food were the same as Ivan Denisovitch’s, but because he was old and weak, Father Arseny was allowed to stay in the barracks and work there, cleaning and keeping the fire. He was treated badly by prisoners and guards alike. The book unfolded in short vignettes, apparently told to the biographer by eye witnesses.
An early one was about Alexei, a student in his early twenties. He had been condemned to twenty years in the prison camp in the same enigmatic way nearly everyone else had been: the secret police heard his name whispered by a fearful acquaintance.
Alexei got in a fight with a group of criminals. One named Ivan hit him. Alexei was new there, and he foolishly fought back. Fr. Arseny intervened. He told the criminal to stop. Ivan pulled a knife. He said he’d kill both the priest and the young man.
…suddenly the gentle and weak Father Arseny straightened himself up and slammed Ivan on the arm so hard the knife fell from his hand. The he pushed Ivan away from Alexei. Ivan stumbled, fell, and hit the corner of a bunk with his face. Father Arseny went to Alexei and said to him, “Go, Alyosha, wash your face, no one will hit you anymore.” Then, as if nothing happened, he went back to his work.
The shuttle stopped. I looked up from the book. People got on the shuttle.
People got off the shuttle.
Then, when a woman sat down next to me, I realized I was sobbing audibly. My nose was running and my chest heaved.
I closed the book. I looked out the darkened window and saw the lights of the highway traffic streak by us. Why was I acting like this? Why couldn’t I catch my breath, when minutes before my lit-student brain had been building a case against this oddly written book? Quite early on in the book, I’d thought, This is presented as nonfiction, sure, but what corroborating sources are there? Where are the references?
I opened it back up. I began reading again.
Alexei and Father Arseny were dragged to an isolation cell for breaking the camp rules (no fighting). The cell was a small house near the entrance of the camp, equipped only with a narrow bench in its center. It was -22 degrees outside. There was no heat. They had been sentenced to 48 hours.
Alexei was distraught, naturally. He moaned. He railed at Fr. Arseny. But the old man was calm:
We are here all alone, Alexei; for two days no one will come. We will pray. For the first time God has allowed us to pray aloud in this camp, with our full voice. We will pray and the rest is God’s will!
I closed the book again.
My face was wet. I couldn’t stop crying. What was going on? The book was a book. The story, a story. I was still me (former-Baptist converted to student of literature) and I was on my way to the airport. Nothing had changed. For some reason, though, I was weeping, weeping more fully than perhaps I ever had; I was weeping on the airport shuttle to Seattle, while reading a book not particularly well-written or transparently referenced.
Of all the passengers, only I had my overhead light on. I’m sure they could hear my blubbering, but no one turned to gawk.
I opened the book again.
A commandant of the camp finally approached the cell after two days, furious that his subordinates had sent two people to freeze in a cell—what would Moscow think if word leaked? Frozen cadavers. He opened the door.
In the cell stood an old man in a patched up vest and a young one in torn clothes with a bruised face. Their faces were calm and their clothing was covered with a thick layer of frost.
The lit-student in me protested: Absolute fiction. And bad dialog, to boot.
The barracks met them as if they had been raised from the dead. Everyone asked, “What saved you?”
They both answered, “God saved us.”
These old fairy tales again. I was sure it was all an elaborately executed fib. An opiate. A sedative that made people believe in divine justice instead of happenstance, and in God’s will instead of the occasional and (I thought) totally random pauses in the chaos that swirls throughout human existence.
Why, then, was I still weeping?
For the first time since my baptism as a pre-teen, I heard again the ison, some singular tone that had, I think, persisted beneath the elaborate song-of-myself I’d sung all my adolescent and adult life. It went like this: If this was all false, a story, and if this transcendent beauty (an elderly, frail man made somehow powerful; a man trapped in the morass of the worst human cruelty and somehow thankful, somehow alive) was
something fever-dreamed, some sort of drug passed between those who don’t know better—if all of this was just the lie that I’d been trained quite well to ferret out, why was I weeping? Uncontrollably? Snot-dripping, page-wetting sobbing?
And if it’s all just a ruse, why, years later, do I read it and, again, though perhaps not as wholly, still weep?
Ben (Anthony) Dolan