As of tomorrow evening, I will have been back a week from my annual effort to polish my meager musical talents. This year, I was especially eager to focus on a slightly different aspect of Orthodox worship: the Church Slavonic language that was especially formulated for worshipping God, in the Slavic tradition. As the instructor of that course pointed out, the beauty of using a liturgical language like Slavonic is that there are no curse words in Slavonic (other than the curses in the Psalms, presumably), so it is completely suited to addressing God and talking about Him.
Well, I took the third-year course and didn’t pass it, which isn’t too discouraging, considering that I took four swipes at the first-year course before I passed that. The “trouble” with these courses is that they are designed to address the needs of someone who reads this language on a weekly basis, and needs to be familiar with the grammar of what he’s looking at so that he knows how to read it. That isn’t my situation at all; I just want to have passed the course, and to be able to read/sing the funeral service, should we ever have another Russian funeral in our parish.
However, the beauty of Jordanville is that there are always extra snippets that come my way. Last year, there were fewer than usual, and so this year, the balance was restored; it felt as if I was running smack into grace every time I turned around.
There was the young woman (32 years old) who was literally dying of cancer, who had just begun her second round of chemotherapy. So, doesn’t chemo cure cancer? Not always, and in her case, definitely not — at this point — she has peritoneal cancer, which so far is always fatal, and this is her second bout with it. She told me that had it not been for the intercessions of St. John of San Francisco, she should have been dead three years ago. And she talked about all the blessings that had come her way because of her disease. Can you picture talking about cancer in terms of a blessing?! I would feel as if I were betraying a confidence if I mentioned them here, so I won’t, but the peace on her face, and the smiles she had for everyone, were more than remarkable; they were like a benediction from God Himself. This is a girl completely aware of, and completely in acceptance of, her limited time on earth.
Then there was the bonus class — no extra credit, just extra proficiency — in reading Church Slavonic aloud. This was the course I really wanted, and the monk who taught it was very aware of my goals. Nevertheless, we would get sidetracked from actual reading into actual theology, and at one point, he mentioned that one Christmas, he and his brothers stopped in to visit the man who had been choir director of their parish, to say goodbye to him: He was dying of cancer. When they got to his house, the man’s wife said, “Don’t mention anything about cancer or dying to him; you know, Christmas and all that.” So these guys get in to see their former choir director, and the first thing they say is, “You’re not looking so bad, considering what’s going on.” “And the man started crying,” said the monk. “He was so grateful to be able to talk to somebody about what it was like to be dying. Christmas and all the festivities and all the carols and all that stuff had no reality for him. What was real was facing his own imminent meeting with his God.”
OK, I don’t need to go into how I feel about all of this. If you don’t know by now, you haven’t been reading my blog for very long. So when I got home, I e-mailed this monk to ask him: What’s better, to use any means to prolong life, or to accept that it’s at an end and prepare for death? And he answered, God bless him, exactly as I had hoped he would: That we do need to take care of our life in the ordinary way, not take ridiculous risks, eat healthy, and all that stuff, but that when serious disease like cancer strikes, we need to decide what we want: Do we want more time for repentance, or are we able to come to grips with our mortality and go from there? Phew, what a relief that somebody can grasp the real question and answer it!!
The young woman, by the way, is married (no children — thank God for small blessings). Her husband is a deacon, preparing to spend the rest of his life as a monk. What was so remarkable about this couple is that this obviously not the life they had planned for; but they are able to accept it as God’s very clear laying out of their path, and are planning the rest of their lives with this direction in mind. Phenomenal blessings, this trip! More in my next post.
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