Every Easter Is the Same

 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.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.

 

Getting It Perfect

Last year was the centenary of the birth of Russell Kirk, so with my typical lag-time I was reading about him and found that he loved ghost stories, and that his fiction may have generated more royalties for him than his influential books on conservatism. So I checked into the Dallas Public Library and checked out Kirk’s 1962 thriller, Old House of Fear.
    The copy the library delivered up to me is an early hardcover printing. It has been around for half a century, obviously much read. I found it gripping, just the sort of book, I thought, that my late wife, Susan, would have loved: well-written, clean, full of twists and local lore (here, an old Scottish island), a quite unexpected love-story, and a haunting yet satisfactory ending.
    Since Susan is no longer here for me to pester about this, may I recommend it to you? Eerdmans has reprinted it, I see, in a paperback edition. It has a certain theological interest. And you might find a decent old copy in your own municipal library.
    One question it raises is the reality of ghosts, spirits, old haunting things. They appear, or are feared, in various points in the action, and yet the weird phenomena turn out to be explainable in other, more normal ways. Another question is the reality, as it were, of evil, and here the book is more ambiguous. The chief villain, who seems to be able to perform such acts as making furniture float in air, is someone, the heroine thinks, who once was good and is haunted by his memory of the tortures and killings he has perpetrated in his life. Nonetheless, he is truly bad and, it seems, irredeemably so. When he dies, his body is simply gone—never found, never washing ashore.
    A similar thing happens to the villain in Muriel Spark’s The Comforters: she drowns and there is no body. Evil is a rejection of reality—and at the end, there is nothing there.
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    So I’m reading this old book with great enjoyment, and then I find a penciled mark on a page. This is the only writing in the book. I do not like it when I find writing in library books—it seems to me a betrayal of trust for a reader to impose upon future readers his thoughts and underlinings and so on. So I was prepared to growl and pass on.
    But this penciled comment was actually a correction of grammar. It was a place where the text had “whomever” but should have had “whoever.” And the reason for the “whoever” was also indicated.
    At once I felt admiration for this public servant who had improved the text, correctly so. It was a shock to see that Kirk, or his publisher, had fallen into a rather sophisticated yet real grammatical error. Yet, apart from that one word, the entire text seemed to be perfect.
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    In the books that I own I tend to mark errors (as well as, since they are my own books, making a lot of other comments). An eminent theologian confuses Paul and John: I note it. A translator supplies a biblical reference for Augustine, but to “Cor.” rather than “1 Cor.” You can see I can be rather tedious.
    If only we could get everything right! O, the desire for perfection!
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    It haunts me. In Up with Authority, I refer to a sort of geometrical inversion that Dante performs in his Paradiso as a “slight of hand.” Where is the “e”? That wrong word (I went back to check this) was in every draft of mine, in every review by the copy-editor—I had a score of opportunities to notice it, as did others, yet none of us did. Now it’s in print.
    But a friend said: It’s only a slight error!
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    When I was a young man someone explained Navaho rugs to me. There’s always an imperfection deliberately left in them, I was told, so that the spirits won’t be trapped therein. Might Russell Kirk like the thought that there was an imperfection in his book that takes us so close to evil and uncanniness?
    And I am reminded, only Christ is perfect, his only is the perfect word.
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    Out & About. This Sunday, April 7, my “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will meet to discuss Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the short novel that amazingly got into print in the USSR in the 1960s, during a brief thaw, and that depicts human resilience in the midst of the horrendous conditions of a Soviet concentration camp. If you read the book you are welcome to our conversation from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.
    I will be preaching next on Maundy Thursday and at the Easter Vigil at Incarnation.

 

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."