Theophany: The Day I Came Home For Good
For us Old Calendar Orthodox, today is Theophany, the day in which Jesus Christ was baptized in the Jordan. We had a priest assisting Father Matthew today, an old friend of his from the Pacific Northwest, Father Athanasius. The visiting priest delivered the homily, dwelling for some time on the words God the Gospel tells us He spoke from heaven at the baptism: “This is my Son, in Whom I am well pleased.”
Those words resonated so sweetly in my heart. For all my life, I’ve struggled with the fatherhood of God, and whether or not He was pleased with me. I was certain that He wasn’t. Yes, yes, I know what He says in the Bible, but I was prepared to argue with Him about it. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see that this is wrapped up in the sense of distance and exile I had from my own sometimes-difficult childhood relationship with my dad. I wrote about this in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. To some extent this was his fault, and to some extent it was mine; blame is not important here. The key thing was that I had stayed away for so long mostly because I couldn’t come home. My dad and my sister loved me, but were in some real sense disappointed in me (and in Ruthie’s case, angry at me) for failing to be the person they thought I should be. I knew they were wrong, but in some deep sense, I feared they were right.
For all the good things that came out of my return to this place in 2011, I couldn’t make it all the way home, at least not within my heart. If you’ve read Little Way, you’ll have a good idea why. Some journeys cannot be completed, and for reasons that are beyond one’s control. It’s a complicated story, not worth getting into here, but my doctors say it has had a lot to do with my debilitating physical illness in this past year (the anxiety deeply suppressed my autoimmune system, and let the Epstein-Barr virus run rampant). And I was powerless in the face of my pain and anxiety over it.
Then my priest, Father Matthew — that’s him above, today — gave me a long and demanding prayer rule, for every day. It was grueling, but I did it because he told me to, and besides, I was out of options. The contemplative prayers were like the slow, steady work of an axe hacking slowly through ice. Then I started to see a therapist, even though I kind of thought that was ridiculous. I didn’t need anybody to tell me what my problems were. I knew what they were. Who needs this Dr. Phil crap? Not me.
But I went because my doctors told me to, and because my wife, who had taken on so much extra work around the house because I was so weak and tired all the time, told me to. Besides, I had my back against the wall with this sickness. On the first day, the therapist said, “You can’t control what goes on in the world, but you can control your response to it. My job is to help you see that.” I was skeptical, but I took my medicine, because I was so sick and so tired. Slowly, slowly, it began to work, or at least I began to see the same old facts in a different way. But still, I didn’t know how I was going to get over.
I had begun reading The Divine Comedy around the time I started therapy, which was around the time I began observing the daily prayer rule. Going on the imaginative journey out of the dark wood with Dante, a spiritual and psychological pilgrimage through self-analysis and ascetic discipline, and towards learning how to re-order my understanding, brought the work my priest and my therapist were trying to do within me to astonishing fruition. I have been so ecstatic about Dante in this space recently because the power of art, working in conjunction with the power of prayer and the sacraments, and with the advice of a wise counselor, really did heal me. For example, when the pilgrim asks Marco the Lombard, in Purgatory, to tell him why the world is in such a bad state, Marco reminds him that blindness is in our nature, but that God gave us free will, and therefore power to change our fates, or at least control our reactions to events. This is nothing that my priest and my therapist hadn’t been telling me for some time … but there was something about hearing a penitent tell me these words along the pilgrim’s route with Dante and Virgil that made it catch fire inside my moral imagination.
This happened a lot. And without me quite realizing what was going on, God re-ordered my heart. It was confession, it was prayer, it was the liturgy, it was vespers, it was talking with my therapist, and it was, of course, reading Dante. One day I’ll write more about exactly how this came about; it’s why I am so on fire to talk to you readers about how Dante can save your life. Anyway, the point is, one day I woke up and knew that God the Father loved me. After that, everything fell into place. I could see clearly. The fear, the anxiety, the despair — all gone. And so was the chronic fatigue.
All this happened recently. I told my wife last night that for the first time since arriving home, I feel at home. Settled. Stable, in the Benedictine sense. Healed. Free. Nothing has changed externally; the change was all within. But I see the world with new eyes now. Yes, the virus is still in my body, and always will be, and if I am flooded with anxiety or despair again, it will take me back down. But I am hopeful that I walk on higher ground now.
When Father Athanasius, in liturgy today, spoke of God the Father seeing Jesus rise out of the waters of the river, and saying, “This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well-pleased” — well, I too felt like I had come not only out of a dark wood, but out of some turbulent waters. After he finished his sermon, I thought, “Theophany is the day I finally came out of my exile, and into my home.” Because it marks the day I was finally able to put everything aside and let God the Father welcome me.
After the liturgy, we all drove down to the Mississippi River landing for the blessing of the river. The congregation stood on the river bank in the cold wind, listening to Father Matthew pray the prescribed prayers. As I looked across the river to the west bank, the thought hit me. I recalled this passage from Little Way. It was the day I left St. Francisville for good, in 1984, when I headed off to boarding school in north Louisiana:
And so, in August, the day finally came for me to leave home. With our pickup full of my worldly goods, we met my old friend Jason McCrory, the other kid from our school to win a slot in the inaugural LSMSA class, and boarded the car ferry across the Mississippi together. Jason and I stood on the bow of the boat, saying nothing. I thought about what I was leaving behind. The intolerance, the social conformity, the cliquishness, the bullying. At sixteen this is what I thought small-town life was and always would be. There, on the far side of the river, was the rest of my life, straight ahead. I had no intention of looking back.
The river’s edge where I had my feet planted this morning was the precise spot that marked the borderland between my old life and my new life. It was the exact place where I stepped away from my home and into exile for nearly 30 years. And there I was on this sunny winter’s morning, celebrating the blessing of the waters with my church family, and with one of the Virgils sent by God to bring me home, really and truly home.
Here’s what I saw this morning, so clearly. If it hadn’t been for my suffering, I never would have prayed like I did, never would have humbled myself enough to put my soul into Father Matthew’s hands. I never would have humbled myself enough to sit down with a therapist. And I never would have read past the first tercet in the Divine Comedy, never would have experienced the power of great art to change one’s life. And without those things, I would still be in exile in the dark wood of my heart from God the Father, who was there all along, though I could not and would not let Him see me. One day, when the time is right, I will tell the whole story. It is ultimately a story of the transformative power of Divine Love, communicated in prayer, wisdom, and art. I thought the tale I told in Little Way was the end of the story, but it was not. The story became even more beautiful, and redemptive. “But,” as Dante says, “if I would show the good that came of it, I must talk about things other than the good.”
From this day on, Theophany will always be the day I celebrate my homecoming. This morning, we had a visitor at church, a man from a town one parish over, who had seen Father Matthew shopping in the hardware store, and asked to talk to him. One thing led to another, and there the man was, in our midst today. After the liturgy, I introduced myself to him, and asked him what brought him here.
“I’m looking for God,” he said.
“Brother,” I said, “you’ve come to the right place.“