Michael Ossorgin—“Mr. Ossorgin” to us students, although in the rest of the world he would have been addressed as “Father” or “Doctor”—a Russian tutor (=professor) at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, had built a chapel on his home property. There was a small congregation that gathered there. No signs announced services; no ads were placed; it was entirely word-of-mouth. Some other students told me about it, and I joined a few of them for an Easter service.
It was in the middle of the night between Saturday and Sunday. Although the mountain air was chill, the chapel was warm with candles burning. There were no pews. Women who were pregnant or nursing would sit on some benches by the wall. The structure was adobe, classic Santa Fe, home-made, and not very large. I remember only a few details. At one point, all the icons and so forth were taken in a procession outside, around the building. As they were being distributed, I heard Mr. Ossorgin say, “Give the little ones to the little ones.”
I also remember the red eggs. We who were not Orthodox could not receive communion, but we were welcome to take one of the eggs with us. They were hard-boiled, plain red-dyed eggs.
The service was long and I didn’t understand it, although the chant and smell filled the visually beautiful chapel with even more beauty. There was also great excitement. I do remember one chant, repeated endlessly with parts and a low bass-line that the men took particular delight in: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. And upon those in the tomb”—the bass line went very low for “in the tomb,” and then it was repeated—“And upon those in the tomb, He granteth life! He granteth life!”
Giddly with the warmth and strangeness and joy of it all, we few students went afterwards into the Ossorgins’ home, where all the congregation gathered for a great feast. This was, what?, one or two A.M. Lots of people had brought lots of food. There were many I didn’t recognize, but I do recall real plates and silverware and people sitting at the table or on the sofa and in many other places, and lots of good food, and pascha! This was the first time I saw it: a pyramid of sweet cheese, with candied fruit marking its sides with Easter symbols. And kulich. And so much more.
There was a game that people played with their red eggs. You would hold yours in one hand, one end out; another person would do the same; and you would hit your eggs together. One will crack, but not the other. The game continues until every egg, save one, has been cracked. The person with the remaining uncracked egg is the next one who will be married.
Being a novice at this, my egg of course cracked the first time.
I was sitting at the table during the feast, and one of the Ossorgins’ sons was beside me. “Isn’t it great,” he said, “how every Easter is the same!”
He said it in that Russian way of suggesting much more than you are saying. Every Easter really is the same event: the remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection. But of course it is not a remembrance of something in the past. The Orthodox are Platonic in this way: Easter is something like a timeless, unchanging reality. It is of course a historical event. But it is an event that is with us, every time we celebrate it.
In the decades since, I have spent Easters in Santa Fe, New York City, Wappingers Falls, Hopewell Junction, in the East Bay, in Oklahoma, in Dallas, sometimes with children, sometimes with my wife, sometimes with old friends. These Easters have been at night and in the morning, super great productions and simple home-made services. The people change: there are new little ones, and some of the old ones are gone away. But it is true. Every Easter is the same.
Out & About. This Sunday, April 28, I am to give a talk on True Friendship—David and Jonathan, or Job?—at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, at 9:30 a.m.
Muriel Spark, the Scottish Catholic novelist, celebrated a centennial last year. An early novel of hers, The Comforters, concerns a woman who discovers she is a character in a story someone is writing. It’s a good book. That character is a new convert, and she is perhaps rather unhappy about belonging to God, who is of course her author.
Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (a later work) will be discussed at the next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar: at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, at 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 19, and if you read it, I hope you can join us. I do not recommend the movie.
My Maundy Thursday sermon is here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Da4KaKJS8tfOILy7RbqcNWpL38V9-Y3G/view
My Easter Vigil sermon is here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1hSyPns7jQB96FaUjKhN0KA-c9Yg40Eux/view
Last week I urged you to read Grievous, recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The author’s name is Heather, but she goes by H. S. Cross—which I forgot to say, which gives me a chance now to repeat my recommendation of this novel set in an English country boarding school in the 1930s, with themes of music, sport, punishment, and second chances.