Every once in a while we meet someone who leaves an indelible and transforming mark on us. They can be longtime friends, casual acquaintances, or people who cross our path one time only. They can leave us with good or bad memories, yet the effect they have on us is profound, often for reasons we don’t understand. In the rarest and most blessed moments of our life, encounters with such people can serve as signposts that point the way into the Kingdom of Heaven.
I recall a visit to a monastery long ago, and the face of an Orthodox monk who was seated by a window in a small library. He looked up from his book and greeted me with a warm and gracious smile. I don’t remember the few words he spoke, or even the specific subject. What I do remember is his face, what the French call the “regard.”
There was a radiant peace about him, and a stillness that came from deep inside. He spoke quietly, when he spoke at all, and his words conveyed something beyond their usual meaning. He was a simple monk who said simple things. Yet his presence, and the way he spoke, left an extraordinary impression. What I most remember of that conversation is that I left it with a mixed feeling of peace and longing. I never learned this man’s name, but he conveyed to me something precious, beyond anything we usually give to or receive from our closest friends. He made real and palpable the presence of Christ. Not many people can do that, and it’s a treasure beyond words.
Also many years back I served the Divine Liturgy one Sunday morning in a small Russian church on the outskirts of Paris. Before the service began, several elderly folks came up for confession. One, a woman we had known for many years, had tears in her eyes as she venerated the Gospel book and cross. All she had to confess was the fact that she wanted to receive the Holy Eucharist on that feast-day morning, but she had not read the canon of repentance the night before – only the prayers in preparation for communion, together with her usual nightly intercessions. There was nothing at all feigned about her tears. She was a genuinely humble soul, whose failure to do the “required” readings before receiving the Holy Gifts brought up to her what she experienced as a lifetime of sinfulness: lack of faith, selfishness in relation to others, neglect of persons who depended on her, failure to love God with all her heart…. Her tears made me aware of my own utter unworthiness to be doing what I was doing, hearing confessions and serving the Liturgy. The gift this woman offered me was a healthy sense of shame and regret at the casual and even resentful way I often took on activities connected with priestly ministry. In her presence I stood in the presence of Christ – as Judge, but also as the merciful Lord who time and again calls us back to our senses, puts things in perspective, and allows us to begin again, no matter how far we have drifted away.
One of the most influential people in my life and the life of my family was a Roman Catholic nun, who founded a contemplative monastic community in France some fifty years ago. She is “dead” now, no longer visibly with us. But we don’t need photographs to remember her face and her words. She had no formal theological training, yet she could speak theology to her sisters and to gathered laypeople with an unmatchable eloquence. She spoke from personal experience of the living Christ and His Holy Mother as friends and companions she cherished and loved. In her presence, they were present, too, more really, more concretely than through iconography or even services of worship. Her name, like that of so many anonymous nuns, was Marie. Just a few minutes with her, and the veil that so often covers spiritual reality in our daily life was lifted. She was a theologian because she prayed. And that prayer somehow enfolded the rest of us and lifted us, for a moment, to the heights we longed for.
There are so many others we have been blessed to know, even if their depths of faith and expressions of self-giving love leave me feeling empty and spiritually bankrupt. What has become clear over the years is that people like this exist virtually everywhere. We simply need to look for them and pray God that He will enable us to discover them.
It’s easy to see hell in other people, at least it is for me. Maybe first of all it’s easy to see it in myself: in my faithlessness, my doubt, my impatience, my neglect of people I love. That hell is merely the absence of God (merely!), an absence I provoke sometimes, I suspect, on purpose. I create it in myself, and I allow myself to create it, as it were, in others, or rather in my perception of others.
The miracle is that those same people really do bear God’s image, and it’s always possible to discover that image, in them and in myself. Yet it is special people of the kind I’ve mentioned who convey to us the real truth, both about God and about ourselves. In their simplicity and depth, their inner silence and eloquent wisdom, they make Christ present to us. Most of them have made their own journey out of darkness and into light. Like Adam and Eve, and other Old Testament saints in the paschal icon of the Descent into Hell, they have reached out and been grasped by the hand of Christ, then lifted by Him from the realm of death into the glory of His resurrected life.
These people have known, even in their earthly lifetime, what it is to live in, with and for Christ, in the beauty and splendor of the communion of saints. Their gift to us is to call us back to reality, to what is essential. When they do, their simple words and silent presence lift us out of our ourselves, to set us, gently and firmly, on the threshold of heaven.