I waited patiently for a voice to emerge – a heavenly thundering that would peel the narrow beam of light into an orange grace. My eyes imagined scenes of redemption in the dance of dust in the honey hue –angels twirling and flapping their satin wings and then settling down again in a free fall. Slow. Deliberate. I lay still. Shallow breathing. My way of playing anonymous.
Today was not the day.
Down below; some 200 meters below, the enraged Lousios is tutored and disciplined by the gorge – also called Lousios - before she marries into Alfeios. But she is difficult. She hides several treacherous pits and slippery basins. A river where Zeus was bathed as an infant is expected to be elegant and lady-like. But not her; she shouts, grumps and spits violently. And the other Lousios also throws in a boulder every so often when she thinks that the river has gained an upper-hand.
I have crossed the gorge several times on my way to the Monastery of Prodromos and each time I look down the wooden suspension bridge, she shouts back at me. Mist of anger so cold that even in summer - when the droplets lands on skin - it burns. Sometimes I wonder if she could have risen so high in her anger to have dislodged a plank or two from the suspension bridge. Who knows?
A sharp cry of an angry seagull echoed in the gorge. Was she angry at Lousios – the river for being so violent or was she angry at Lousios – the gorge for her serpentine contours that confused its navigation.
Today was not the day.
I woke up and sat by the edge of the bed. My feet searching the floor for the slippers and my fingers running through my curly hair and beard to unknot the unions they formed during the night. Then, I opened the window of the room. A gush of jungle freshness welcomed me and set the wooden chimes into an unknown melody. It had been eleven years since I came to this monastery. Nine years since I placed a razor on my cheek and it no longer felt itchy. I along with Father Vaserius- from Cyprus, are the only two resident priests in this monastery. And of course, there is our extended family of cats. Thomas the youngest is the most gentile and often gives me company in this life of solitude.
‘Kaliméra’. ‘Good Morning’, Father Vaserius greeted gravelly as he tossed few peanuts and munched. He nodded his head softly, his eyes eager to see some enthusiasm in mine.
Father Vaserius was 60 maybe 65, I don’t know. We never discussed anything so personal. In fact, we don’t talk much at all, except for the daily greetings and sometimes during the daily chores. Prayers, not talks are our bonding threads as monks. While we dine, the tape recorder would play a prayer to reflect. It is only tourists that we indulged in some talk about monastic life. Some of them are amazed when they hear that the pomegranates, the grape wines, and kitchen garden are all fruits of our toil.
Father Vaserius was sitting outside; in the open passage that connected my room to the courtyard and taking in the warmth of the summer sun. The courtyard and the passages shimmered in the morning sunlight. The grey of the tiled rock blocks spread like a canopy over every structure: the passage, the chapel, and the courtyard.
Praying deep within but appearing to be lazy munching, he was tickling the neck of Simon – the cat. We had at one time 13 cats and all of them irrespective of gender had taken up names of Disciples of Christ: Peter, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Jude, Mark, Matthew, John, Thaddeus, Bartholomew, Simon, and James.
‘Kalimera’. I said; still unsure if I pronounced it rightly. I thought I heard him snicker and cover up with a fake cough. He looked at me and coughed a few more times loudly and then fisted his chest twice ending the elaboration expertly.
I too let him have the pleasure of having tricked me.
’ Koimíthikes kalá?’, ‘Did you sleep well?’ I asked with same enthusiasm.
‘hmm polý kalá’. ‘Very well’. I saw him raise his hand in appreciation. The brief pause in stroking annoyed Simon. He jumped down, shook his coat and hissed at poor Philip who was lying on the floor.
In that impasse, I was jostling my memory for words but then I made some hurried gestures in the direction of the chapel and waited to see if Father Vaserius had understood. Of course, he didn’t understand my gestures; most of the time; but he wouldn’t bother. He just smiled and nodded.
I walked toward the chapel and saw the first visitor of the day – an old Chinese man in heavy glasses, t-shirt and khaki shorts. He looked exhausted from the climb but exuberant when he saw me. He took off his glasses and bowed. And then smiled and waited expectantly – possibly for a gesture. The second stalemate of the morning, I thought.
It was a wrestle with the reluctant latch of the heavyset Iron Gate. The narrow gate was as old as the monastery, completely devoid of any artistry except for a long grill in the form of a cross welded into the body of the gate. The opening cast a long tapering cross of morning sunlight into the darkness. As I pushed the gate, it squealed and defied, breaching its defense just slightly; enough for the sunlight to spread onto the ornate iconostasis and the golden fresco of ‘Christ the redeemer’.
I watched my shadow hide details on the fresco and then I became aware of another head on the shoulder of my shadow. The problem with the gesture is the gesture itself. And I think the easterner had assumed a welcome ‘gesture’, and had followed me all the way to the chapel.
I felt his palm rest on my hand on the door and felt the warmth from his hand press onto mine and then it persisted some more. Together, it worked. The gate dragged and splintered the uneven floor. I heard him gasp; I turned in time to see his serene smile stretch from the corners into an elongated oval of bliss. His eyes full of admiration. Gently, he nudged my hand on the door with his chest and then squeezed himself through the narrow passage.
Inside the chapel, I closed my eyes in meditation and dropped to my knees on the kneeler. My senses slowly drew the curtain on the world around until it was dark and silent and then I waited for my redeemer to let me in. It was always a test: the wait; before my lord lets me in. The wait is a cleansing process that starts with surrender, Lord deliver us from evil; the darkness grew deeper and made me restless, Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy. My heart chanted fervently and I sensed the darkness descend upon me like a column. It tightened its strangulating grip around me as it turned into a tornado; so loud that I couldn’t hear my prayers but I didn’t protest. I had surrendered already. I felt myself disintegrate and whirled around. Slapped and bruised. And then the darkness vanished receding away into obscurity and the brilliance of divinity flooded me with a warmth that reminded me of my mother and her choking, loving embrace, stuffing my face into her bosom and wrapping me in cotton arms. I floated timelessly through the golden light ascending heavenwards. Then, a tiny drop landed on my skin and burned into my flesh. It dissolved whatever was left of my already disintegrated body and I no longer existed in that glow; only the glow existed. The state of oneness with the creator. It was sufficient and providing for my soul and time had no meaning.
Still, today was not that day.
It is easy to catch a dragonfly. You tiptoe behind it, wait till it rests its wings and clips your fingers on the wings from underneath and behind the fly. But catching a wasp is dangerous. But we the children of misadventures roaming around with mischief rolled under our sleeves always had a way. We would wait patiently under the snagged shades of the Allamanda tree – hanging straight, hanging upside down and scratching our names or offenses or love confessions on the tree bark that would soon get immortalized with the white latex. Then a drunk wasp would appear circling the trumpet flower and making several misfired launches into the bell. And once it does, we would fold the petals and trap the wasp inside and then carry around the personal humming instrument for everyone’s annoyance. I was that wasp humming and enjoying the divine Congress – a meeting of inexplicable bliss. Until I felt a weight grow on the kneeler and the delicate balance was distorted. I was that wasp that suddenly realized that someone was fiddling with my spiritual deliverance. Maybe it is another test, I thought.
I heard a weak chant. Words that sounded familiar but foreign in the monastery. A language that opened the floodgate of memories and longings that had been locked in the silver trunk of belongings from an earlier life and kept untouched underneath my bed and unattended by my consciousness.
‘Father …. Father Albert’, I felt a warm breath fall on my ears.
I cocked my head gently and fell into the desperate eyes of a man; sick and ill; with grief and anguish. The eyes were a precipice and I plunged into a meandering journey that zoomed past memories. A vibrant frame: of companionship and brotherhood, further away; a golden frame: of welcoming, loving extended arms of my mother and further down; a feather white frame: of six hands, palm in palm forming a circle, a closed tie of unshakable fellowship and vows of unassailable loyalty.
‘James!… James? ‘neeyano?’. Is that you?’ I rediscovered a tongue I hadn’t used in my monastic life.
‘Athe Acha.’’Yes, father’.
My hands rushed and held his palms in a grip that tightened as I struggled to secure the fidgety lid of the silver trunk with heavy vows from my new life. Temptations of a novitiate.
‘Kyrie, eleison; Christe, eleison; Kyrie, eleison’.’ Lord have Mercy; Christ have mercy’. I breathed the prayers until I felt my grip relax and the silver trunk had settled and moved back again underneath the open confinement of faith.
‘Peace be with you’. I concluded the brief intimacy with the sign of the cross.
Two years back Father Vaserius had a visitor from his village: Nicosia, with an unpleasant news. His ailing father had requested a visit; a fair request from a father to his son. A man on his deathbed can be forgiven for any transgressions because death is a reality that the heart and mind recognize together and none can then conspire a lie. Every death wish is an earnest appeal of the soul. But Father Vaserius politely sent back the visitor with a note “I shall meet you with our father in Paradise”. He had disrobed the grandeur of his lineage and luring colors of his past life for the black cassock: a symbol of spiritual poverty. The black cassock held me from disintegrating.
‘What brings you here? James?’ I asked when I was tempted to blurt out ‘Why did you come here’.
‘I just came to meet you… just… you know so many years!’ a hesitation playing on his lips. His arms making arches in air that tried to transport me beyond questions into the silence of understanding.
I loved James, I still did. My best friend. My brother by choice. He must have been in terrible trouble to have come looking for me. I wanted to help, but to what means I didn’t know.
‘Let’s meet outside. Can you wait for me there?’
‘Yes of course… Yes’
On my way out, I noticed father Vaserius lighting the candles on the horos chandelier. Smoke lingered in the air swelling and ascending- lifting spirits and prayers upwards; each lit candle subserviently revealing just enough of the saint’s face so that the soul submits in prayers and not in awe of the painting.
Outside, I saw James standing underneath the canopy of grapevines that arched the stairs that lead from the courtyard to the compound gate. Thaddeus - the black cat was circling around him, rubbing itself on him affectionately. As soon as it saw me, it purred and came running to me and crashed into my legs stalling me; it then rolled and then clawed and played with the hem of my robe.
James my brother, what stories do you bring from a world that I had abandoned? Do you realize that I am not immune to temptations of the past? Do you realize that my faith will be tested today with whatever you will tell me about my parents, friends and their lives? Will you understand that I no longer want to hear any of that? Not because it doesn’t matter but because my ‘Gethsemane of agony’ is the past. A past that you so fondly want to reminiscent. James.
‘James’, I tapped him on his shoulder
‘Chacko.. Can I call you Chacko ..Father Alb..?’
‘That’s fine’. Chacko as in Jacob - a name my parents had baptized me with.
‘What brings you here, my friend?’
He held my shoulder in a firm grip and shook me a little.
‘I am so happy to see you.. this.. meeting you…I want to make a confession, father.’ he said so abruptly that I felt my smile drain from my face and I couldn’t bring it back.
‘Why did you come here for a confession?’ I quizzed unable to understand his motive and clearly aware that a confession is a hearing I cannot deny. It was a divine counsel that I had to give to anyone who asks for it.
‘I am not sure anyone will understand me better than you and I am sure you won’t listen to me otherwise’. He was clearly prepared and I felt abandoned like Jesus - abandoned by the Lord who had lordship over the universe. Eli Eli lama sabachthani?
‘In the name of the father; and of the son; and of the holy spirit. Bless me, father, for I have sinned’.
The confessional was just near the door of the chapel, overlooking the wide courtyard. As the confession began, I noticed naughty Jude run into few doves basking in the courtyard, scaring them away. As the birds flapped, a light wind caught their wings and pushed them sideways, they maneuvered upwards to perch on the branches of the dancing sycamore trees. My eyes followed them heavenwards and I submitted to become the conduit between man and god. My prayers, his confession - Words fluttered and flew with the wind. I isolated the man behind the latticed window of the confessional from the voice that sought penance. I barricaded the man from reaching his friend Chacko. I - father Albert was ready for the confession.
‘Father, for 18 years, we grew up as friends. You, me and Radhika. And then, you decided to pursue your spiritual calling. On that day when you left, I felt a loss I had never felt before’. He paused and I didn’t dare look. I shut my eyes, my ears close to the lattice and my thumb busy rolling the rosary ring on my finger.
‘How could I ask you not to go? Life must move on. I moved on, Radhika did too. Then three years later, out of the blue, I heard about the sad demise of Radhika’ s father. Silent attack, he died in sleep.’ He paused again, as if he wanted me to relive the memories of a jovial man who always treated us like his own children, of the many Christmas carols where he readily agreed to be the fat dancing Santa. Selfless Man. Our best friend among parents.
I earnestly wished he wouldn’t pause so much.
‘The day he was cremated, I busied myself not because I wanted to. I just couldn’t cry, Chacko! He was my father even if he was not… I owe him so much... Would you understand he was like a father to me?’ He choked. So did I.
I remember ‘Jayan chettan’ - Radhika’s father; climbing up mango trees to pluck ripe mangoes, smoking and battling the bees to get us fresh honeycombs , going on early morning fishing expeditions where he would often return empty handed because we were too excited and loud. The several late night movies he took us to until one day it was no longer good for Radhika to go out for late night movies. Our parents educated us. He taught us life. My father always liked him, trusted him like a faithful help. He wasn’t a help, he was just happy to be around and my parents and James’s parents assumed him to be always around.
Jayan chettan - Jayettan. I will miss you and I will see you on the other side of life. Laughing loud ‘Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas’
‘Radhika and I became closer in the following months. Not that we weren’t close. You know she just had me. Her relatives just kept saying ill about Jayettan for having forgotten his duties as a father. Their question – Who will marry off Radhika now. At one point I think I said I will if it comes to that. I thought that was enough for her to know my feelings.’
‘And so did she agree?’
‘She never said No’
‘Did she say- Yes?’
‘She didn’t. But she didn’t say no either!’ he said agitatedly. I saw him hang his head and shift uneasily.
‘James, you don’t have to delve into details. You know the truth about your position and so just concentrate on the contrition’, I whispered into the lattice.
‘I did tell her one more time father! But she didn’t reply... Something changed between us and I don’t know what that change was because she never told me…then... she got married’, he paused and my heart reached out to my brother.
‘James… James’, I implored.
‘Chacko, she married someone else without telling me a word. Not even the day before her marriage when I phoned her. She just talked as usual and then I heard she got married… How can someone do that? I heard she wanted it as a private affair; with just a few relatives… private? So private she didn’t even care to inform me, her lifelong friend! ’ a resentment clouded the confessional and my prayers couldn’t clear it.
‘James, are you prepared to forgive? This confession only makes sense if you can forgive’
‘Oh, I forgave her. Father. I forgave her long back. I uprooted her memories and let them dry and shrink to death. I saw her every day without thinking about her. Every day. Every day until she became one in the crowd.’
He bit his lips. ‘Every day for seven years... But I didn’t falter, father... I didn’t let my eyes or my voice reveal the wounds’, he spoke contemptuously. He paused to check his senses. I saw in him a man who didn’t want to dig the grave. He breathed deeply several times before he continued.
‘I lived a life of solitude. Working to Live, living to work. Until six months ago, I got a letter. A letter from her. Radhika. She professed her love to me.’
My prayers stopped.
Today was not the day. Today should never have happened.
I stood up, hooked the purple stole and walked towards the Templon. I stood there gazing at the icon of Madonna and the child. Madonna had child Jesus in her arms. A child capable of protecting the universe yet she held the child so protectively. Sometimes truth needs to be protected even if it is capable on its own.
Radhika should never have sent that letter. Why would she send a letter? She could have phoned. She could have mailed. Why did she decide to send that letter after seven years of marriage?
James was still at the confessional. Kneeling.
‘Did you destroy the letter?’
‘Destroy? It destroyed me, Chacko. I had built a fort around me with hate and anger. Her letter breached every layer of that fort and hit straight at my heart. I took the phone and called her like a man possessed. I poured out my love without hearing her. And when I finished, she cried on the phone. She must have thrown the phone on the floor or the bed and she wept. I heard her, I heard her worried kids run unto her. They cried too. Her husband must have heard. He came running and he pacified her. I so wanted to comfort her.’
I started slowly, words pouring out through divine intervention.
‘James … where is your guard? The biggest mistake was that you called her. You destroyed her peace.’ I paused a second to ensure that my words are not received as a reprimand.
‘Confession is between man and god, here right now, I am his conduit, not your friend. Even now you refer me as Chacko… You shall not call me Chacko again when I am in this sacred cassock… James you must not let your feelings cloud your judgment.’ I moved away from the screen to recite prayers of absolution.
‘In his great mercy may God grant you peace and for..’
‘..give all your sins and bri..’
‘Father Albert’, James interrupted me.
‘Father, I haven’t finished. May I finish my confession?’
I thought he had already made his confession. Lust veiled as love for a married woman, despondency; two of the seven deadly sins. There was more?
‘In my fit, I went to her home in a drunken stupor, shouted her name and asked her to come with me. I was overcome by everything I had lost ... everything I had wanted to experience with her. Love, affection and life.’ James rushed, ashamed of his action.
‘She came out and with folded hands... She cried that she had not written any letter. Her husband grabbed me by the collars and nailed me down. Neighbors came running and pulled us apart. By then I was so furious that she was denying herself that I threw the letter on his face. He read a few lines from it and walked away. The damage was done and it was too late, his children ran after him, she wailed and ran to bring him back. He never did. She ran back to me and spit on my face and tore the letter and threw it up. I can still hear the thump of her chest. Thump of rage. I have sinned father. I destroyed a family.’
‘What about the letter who wrote it… If it was not her. Who wrote it?’
‘I came to know of it later… I was arrested. I mean after I was arrested’
‘I was arrested that night for nuisance and incarcerated on her charges for willfully creating marital discord! I was questioned in front of her and her husband. It was her, she had written it but a long time ago.’
‘What do you mean?..Long time ago?’
‘Father it sounds silly but it was the cruelest joke. The police traced the letter to a post office in a nearby village - Sreekrishnapuram. Seems it was posted by one Govindan on behalf of Vasudev. The letter was indeed written by Radhika some seven years back, before her marriage and it was delivered to ‘Devalayam’ house. You see the similarity my house is called ‘Deva Deyam’… and she had forgotten to put the postcode...’
‘So it was wrongly delivered! ... seven years ago?’
‘Yes. Devalayam I heard, is a dilapidated ancestral property that was recently visited by its heirs and they found this letter and posted it again. This time I got it – rightly, but not quite.’
‘Hmm’, I sighed. My foolish friend. Will my forgiveness matter? - if so I forgive you this moment! As much as you are blameless, you are guilty too. Heedless haste. Look where you landed with it.
‘What about Radhika’, I asked even though I shouldn’t have.
‘I haven’t heard… I don’t know where she is... I wanted to apologize to her. My father doesn’t look me in my eye. My friends don’t recognize me and I just live a loner. Do you think I can live here… with you here?’
‘James, let’s get finished with the confession first’
Roman 6:23 says ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. I lead James through the rest of the sacrament of penance and at the end absolved him in the name of the father most merciful.
Later, when the clouds of sorrow had passed and radiance of life had filled him with purpose, I walked him through our orchard plucking ripe pomegranates. Some of them, I crushed in my hand and left on the ground underneath the shades. James was watching me closely intrigued but he didn’t question. He thought I was still playing with the idea of asking him to stay. But I knew this monastery was not a place for him. Not for the reasons he wanted to stay.
‘Father’ he spoke softly.
‘You can call me Chacko now, my friend’
‘Chacko, can I stay with you here in the monastery’, he requested
Father Vaserius walked by with a spade balancing on his shoulder. A line of cats followed him.
‘Good afternoon’, he greeted with cheer, his cassock mopping the stone tiles.
I looked at James –a foolish expectant smile. Innocent maybe. His innocence annoyed me.
We started walking down the stone stairs toward the courtyard. The wind was cool, the rustle of the sycamores soothing and gurgle of the Lousios melodious. The church bell rang a soft cue.
‘James, do you know why I dropped a few fruits?’
‘Yes, they were overripe’
‘Hmm. Well, that is how you see it’, I pointed his gaze towards the pomegranate tree. A knot of sparrows were feasting the crushed fruits. Lazy sleeping cats in the courtyard didn’t mind the chatter or the feast, their ears habitually turning at every chirp.
‘Envy’ my friend is what makes you covet what is not rightfully yours’. We had walked quite some distance from the orchard and were standing near the bower that supported the grapevines. I took his travel bag that was kept nearby and handed it to him.
‘You must learn to forgo things that don’t rightfully belong to you. This monastery where you stand right now is miles away from you. You want to stay, but you don’t have to’
‘But... father I want to’
‘You want to, but you don’t have to my friend. Staying here is not an escape from life. It has a purpose. It has a calling. You want to stay here because you think the world as you see doesn’t like you for your past. But you don’t have to carry the burden of the past. The past is behind you. You must find your purpose and go back to where you belong. This monastery is the end to my purpose, not yours’
‘This is my purpose’, he retorted
‘You just think it is’. James my dear friend, why are you so lost.
‘Chacko, what will I do?’
Live life. That’s what you should do. Not mine. Not Radhika’s. We are all your past, my friend. Why do you want to punish yourself with a past which has flowed past you? Life moves on, whether you like it or not. It must. Right now you are driven by feelings. Emotions. The very nature of which is transience. You can prolong it by thinking about the past but it will end and it will become tasteless. Leaving you with nothing. Whereas if you make a decision today, whenever you falter whenever you think you are at the end of things with no ray of hope, you will still know that it was your decision. Your promise to yourself… James learn to make promises and learn to keep it. Most importantly keep the promises you make to yourself… Make a promise to never let your past hurt you. Then all that you see as challenges will become surmountable.… Good Bye, friend. I won’t see you again. But you are welcome to come here for prayer. Only for prayer’
I reached inside my pocket and with closed palm, I folded a rosary into his hand.
‘Pray and find strength’
I left him at the courtyard and moved toward my room to pray. I heard the Chinese traveler enquiring with James. I heard footsteps leading away from the courtyard. But I didn’t turn to see if they left together or was it just James. My promise was to let him learn to live on his own.
I closed the door of my room. Maybe tomorrow will be the day.