A Resurrection In Jerusalem
It is just past ten in the morning on (Orthodox) Holy Thursday here in Jerusalem’s Old City. I just returned from the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, celebrated in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral that’s part of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher complex. Before I went into the liturgy, God worked a miracle of healing within me. I can hardly believe what happened. I am so exhausted from lack of sleep, but I have to tell you the good news of what the Lord has done for me.
First, let me thank you who have sent me your prayers and best wishes after the announcement that my wife and I are divorcing. I had not realized I had so many friends. I love and appreciate you, and thank God for the blessing of your friendship. One of you asked for my prayers, saying that your wife had just told you of her intention to divorce you. You have them. Let us walk this desolating path together.
Now, I was up very late last night, unable to sleep because of anxiety over the divorce. This was frustrating to me, because I intended to get up for early (5:30 am) liturgy at what the English-language program of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate said would be a service at “the Cathedral of St. James”. I made it out of bed four hours later, got dressed, and walked bleary-eyed over to what my maps app said was the Cathedral of St. James. (St. James was the half-brother of Jesus — believed to have been the son of Joseph from his first wife — and the first bishop of Jerusalem.) But isn’t that the name of the Armenian Cathedral? Yes. Maybe they share it with the Orthodox, or something.
An Armenian cleric walking the street alone told me that the Armenian cathedral was closed. “We had our liturgy yesterday,” he said. I showed him on my phone what the Greek schedule was. He shrugged.
Frustrated, I walked back to the hotel. Maybe, I thought, the Greek cathedral is in the Patriarchate building. I shuffled over there, but found the door locked. I decided to go back to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to pray. This Orthodox priest seemed to be hurrying over there. He scurried out of the way before I could keep up with him.
As usual in the Old City, I got lost in its warren of tiny streets. I was anxious about that, but then told myself: why? Just rest, and open your heart to whatever these stones have to tell you.
Eventually I found my way to the Holy Sepulcher church, crossed myself at the threshold, and went in. Maybe the liturgy is at the Katholikon, in the center of the church? No, it was closed. Well, I thought, I guess I’ve missed it. But I didn’t want to miss another opportunity to pray in the holiest place on earth for us Christians. I decided to walk to a part of the sprawling old basilica that I had never seen.
I ventured into a crypt, where the Armenians have a chapel. It was still early in the morning, and very few people were in the church. No one at all was down here. I looked for a place to pray, and was drawn to a dark chapel to the right of the altar. I walked in, looking for a bench on which to sit and pray.
There were no benches, but I did see this mosaic on the floor:
I went on my knees, crossed myself, kissed it (though I didn’t know what I was reverencing, except the Holy Cross), then traced the Alpha and Omega with my fingertip. I realized that I was at the base of the Golgotha hill, which rose behind the basilica wall on my right. I stayed there in prayer for a few minutes, but then a couple of men came into the area, and were a bit noisy, so I moved back to the main chapel in the crypt, found a bench, and sat down to pray.
The entire church was eerily still, and my heart began to resonate with the unearthly silence. I realized at once that I was in the Chapel of St. Helena, who supposedly found the True Cross on the same journey that she found the Tomb of Christ. Then I realized that the rock I reverenced must be the traditional marker for the place where she discovered the Cross. (Whether she really did find it there or not is beside the point; that’s where that event is marked.) Suddenly I became aware of a presence around me, and a voice in my heart, speaking clearly. Normally I turn on my skeptical mind when something like that begins to happen, and it scares whatever it is away. This morning, though, I was so still that I just let it go.
The inner voice — that calming vocal presence — told me several things. One of the things it told me was that I was at the end of a journey. I had been praying for a long time, wondering what the sword in the stone meant. As you longtime readers will recall, in 2018, a mysterious artist appeared to me in a church in Genoa after a lecture, and gave me an engraving he had done. His English was poor, but he told me he had been praying in his studio that afternoon when the Holy Spirit told him to go hear the American speak, and give him a certain engraving that he had made. This is what he gave me:
“Who is this?” I asked him.
“San Galgano,” he said.
I had no idea who Galgano was, but I thanked him anyway. Later in the hotel room, I looked up St. Galgano, and discovered that he was a 12th century Tuscan who was a notoriously violent man. One day he had a vision of Christ, His Mother, and the Twelve Apostles atop a Tuscan hillside. A voice told him to put down his sword and serve Christ. Galgano, very proud, said it would be easier for him to put his sword in a nearby stone than to do that. He brought his sword down on a rock … and it went in almost to the hilt. He immediately converted, and lived the rest of his life as a hermit by the sword in the stone.
His fame spread quickly, and so did his miraculous healings. When he died, bishops and abbots came to his funeral. The Church opened up a cause for canonization, and sent a cardinal to investigate his life. The Vatican still has the written notes from the cardinal’s interviews with Galgano’s mother (who had prayed for his conversion) and with others who had known him. The Cardinal examined the sword in the stone. Galgano was canonized in 1187, I think. Some time later, a great abbey was built in the plain near the hilltop on which his miracle happened. To this day, you can still go to the small 12th century church Galgano’s bishop built over his sword in the stone. Italian scientists investigated it in 2000, and found the metal consistent with the 12th century.
All very interesting, but what did it have to do with me? I had no idea.
Then, in late spring of 2020, I was deeply depressed over my failed marriage — so much so I hadn’t been to communion in a long time. One night, I forced myself to go, and came back feeling refreshed. I decided to watch a movie. In those days, I was watching the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Soviet-era Russian director. I chose one I hadn’t seen, Nostalghia, about a Russian writer in Italy who can’t focus on his work because he is totally preoccupied missing his wife and children back in Russia. Early in the film, I thought, that man is me. For seven years, I had been obsessed with the happy marriage I used to have, and trying to figure out how things had gone so badly so we could get back to the good times. I had fought so hard to fix things, but nothing had worked. I was so focused on the pain of loss, and trying to figure out what I could do with myself and with others to restore the lost world that I often found it hard to think of anything else.
(I’ve told this story many times before, and only alluded to family loss as the thing I was missing. I had written in my books about how I got very sick after my Louisiana family’s true feelings about me — and my wife, I should add — became clear. But I left it vague for the blog, to protect our privacy about the marriage, which I still earnestly hoped the Lord would restore. There’s no need to be coy now, though.)
There is a passage in the opening sequence in the film in which the protagonist Andrei and his Italian interpreter, Eugenia, visit a rural church. Andrei can’t bring himself to go in. He is so tormented by his nostalgia for his family, and for Russia, that he remains insensible to the beauty around him. Watch that sequence here (don’t forget to turn on the subtitles):
Eugenia, a sophisticated Roman, does go into the church, where she encounters simple peasant women engaged in a prayer service for fertility. It’s Christian, but also strangely pagan. A sacristan asks her if she is interested in asking God’s favor for having a baby, or what. She’s just looking, she says. He tells her that if she wants God’s help, she can’t be a “casual onlooker,” but has to be a “supplicant” willing to kneel sacrificially. If not, “the nothing happens.”
“What is supposed to happen?” she asks. He responds:
Eugenia, a sophisticated Roman, can’t do it. It seems too superstitious, too absurd, too medieval. She offers no sacrifice.
In the next sequence, Andrei checks into his hotel room. It is a long, wordless scene, in which a man numb to the world, and lost in his head, tries to make himself at home in a strange land. I felt his pain intensely. I thought: that’s me.
Late in the film, there’s a dream sequence in which Andrei visits a beautiful ruined church. We hear the Virgin pleading with God to show Himself to Andrei, or speak to Him, because Andrei is so lost. God tells him that Andrei is incapable of hearing or seeing him, because he is so lost in his head.
I thought: yes, that is me.
The film ends with one of the most astonishing scenes in cinematic history: a nine and a half minute one-take shot in which the actor playing Andrei carries a lit candle across a drained pool from one side to the other, to place it atop the stone on the other side. There is no real reason for this, other than a holy fool had asked Andrei to do it. The act focused Andrei’s concentration, for once, and got him out of his head — this sacrificial act based on love for a holy fool. Andrei collapses at the end and dies. Tarkovsky was later quoting as saying that that journey across the drained pool, with Andrei trying to keep the flame lit, is a metaphor for a human lifetime.
All very beautiful, if mysterious (the death of Andrei, which is symbolized by the gathering-together of his shattered world) — but what did it have to do with me? After the movie was over, I googled to see where that beautiful old church from the dream sequence was.
It was the Abbey of St. Galgano, in Tuscany!
Last fall, on the trail of the mystery, I made a pilgrimage to pray before the sword in the stone, and then to see the ruined Galgano abbey nearby. Again, take a look at the original report I made, to see images of me at the sword in the stone, and in the ruined abbey.
I prayed for God’s will to be known to me, and for God to give me the courage to do it. There was no woo-woo; as far as I could tell, nothing happened. I returned to America, and to the fight to save my marriage.
What if our marriage was not going to be healed, as I know that both Julie and I wanted? If that was the case, then what? I had thought that maybe God was calling me to sacrifice my desires for a restoration of our happy marriage, for the sake of honoring the marriage covenant, and protecting our kids. Surely that’s what the sword in the stone meant, right? But I didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want to face the prospect of living in this pain and loneliness for the rest of my life. Still, if what I learned from the anti-Communist dissidents I wrote about in Live Not By Lies means anything, it is that sometimes the Lord asks us to suffer for His sake. That seemed to me to be the unavoidable conclusion here.
Yet I fought it. Both my wife and I were suffering terribly, and had been for a long time. Nothing was working. What did God ask for? An Orthodox priest (not my parish priest) who had known us both for a long time told me that only a miracle could save this marriage, and maybe we should consider divorce. I didn’t want to face that. But more than anything, I wanted to do the will of God.
Almost three weekends ago, I was on pilgrimage at a Romanian monastery. After talking with monks about my situation, I made a promise to the Lord to stop fighting this fate, to sheath my sword in a rock of faith and make that tremendous sacrifice. It was settled. I came down from the monastery with my heart full of resolve, though not happiness, because the road ahead was going to be very long and difficult.
I didn’t realize that while I was at the monastery, my wife was at her lawyer’s. I found out the result one week later. Now, you might think that makes me look more noble. Wrong! In retrospect, and in light of a lot of facts I’ve been thinking about this week, I sincerely think Julie made the braver and more intelligent choice, and that the Lord has worked for us both, through her choice, a severe mercy. But I had to make the choice I did, for reasons that will soon become apparent.
The morning after I found out that my wife was divorcing me, I came to Jerusalem. I have spent a lot of time atop Golgotha, praying for her, praying for me, praying for our kids. I have been grieving. God has given me an ability to see my wife as someone who has been suffering greatly too. I have not been able to muster anger at her. We are just so unbelievably exhausted from all this. Nine years of it.
So: as I sat in that silent crypt this morning, I thought about the sword in the stone, then I remembered that today is Holy Thursday, the day that Jesus Christ was taken in the Garden of Gethsemane to his trial. On this night, Peter drew his sword to protect the Lord from his enemies, but Jesus told him to put it away, and surrendered to his fate. Jesus knew that what was about to happen had to happen for all righteousness to be fulfilled.
I heard the inner voice say to me that now was the time to put away my sword — that is, to stop fighting for a restoration of the past. In fact, said the voice, I had done that at the monastery. I had made the long nine-year journey across the empty bath with the flame alight; now I needed to place it on the stone and be free. Then it hit me: that stone where I had just been praying was the stone that marks the spot (traditionally, if not necessarily literally) where the Romans discarded the Cross. The inner voice was telling me that the fight was over, that what was about to happen — meaning the dissolution of the marriage — had to happen.
But why? I asked. Why not just restore the marriage?
I didn’t wait for an answer, but banished the questions. I may never know, and that’s beside the point. Why did Jesus have to suffer and die? We are dealing with the deepest mysteries here.
The voice said to me that he was with me throughout the long walk across the desertified pool, and would be with me always. He — because I was pretty sure that it was Jesus — told me, “I will send my brother James to help you.” And then: “And I will send you a sign: where you see the stars, there I am.”
Then the episode ended. I rose and went back to the stone in the Finding of the Cross chapel. I knelt down, kissed it, and left my sword there, buried in it, at the foot of Golgotha. I turned and walked out, a free man. The knot that had been tied so tightly in the cords of my heart untangled itself. I was light as a feather. I felt born again. Now I was walking in the joy of the Lord.
Look at the face of this man, leaving the stone. That is the look of relief. That is the look of the peace that passes all understanding:
I am returning to a world of pain and brokenness as the disassembly of my marriage and life as I knew it begins. But I know that God is in this. I don’t just believe it; I know it. I know that He won’t abandon us. I know that somehow, for reasons that we may never understand, He allowed this horrible thing to happen for some greater good that can come if we cooperate with it. The same Lord who turned his shameful, bloody, violent death on the Cross into the cosmic victory over death is at work in our grievous divorce, to redeem it from the jaws of sin and death.
I climbed the twenty-nine steps out of the crypt and into the light of new life.
Somehow, I thought, something about my willingness at the Putna monastery in Romania to make that sacrifice must have jarred something loose in the spiritual world. I don’t know; maybe so. I couldn’t understand why I felt so light, then it occurred to me that I had left my cross in the same place, symbolically, where Jesus had left His.
That was it. That was my healing miracle.
I walked out of the church in a joyful daze. But was there a liturgy anywhere? Where is this St. James Cathedral? Standing in the small plaza outside the Church, I saw a stout, grey-bearded Greek priest passing.
“Where is the liturgy?” I asked.
He pointed to a doorway nearby, then passed through it. I followed, then saw the sign saying that this is St. Jacob’s Cathedral. Of course! “James” is the Anglicization of “Jacob”. The English translation from the Greek Patriarchate had not taken that into account. When I arrived into the cramped cathedral (really the size of a small church), one liturgy had ended, but one celebrated by Patriarch Theophilos had begun. As I pushed my way into the jam-packed nave, I looked around, then up. This is what I saw:
The ceiling covered with stars! And then, a few minutes later, out from the altar came Patriarch Theophilos to bless us:
I thought: there is James! James, the stepbrother of the Lord (St. Joseph’s son by his first marriage), was the first bishop of Jerusalem. Patriarch Theophilos stands in an unbroken line of succession back to St. James. You know how Catholic sometimes call the Pope “Peter”? This man you see there is James. The Lord sent him to me, under a canopy of stars, to confirm that what had just happened to me in the crypt was real, and that I could believe in it confidently. That is my conclusion. I imagine the light pealing off my face the moment I realized that could have illuminated the entire church.
And who do you think I saw at the end of the liturgy? Father Timotei, a monk of Putna!
I marvel at the face of the man in the purple gingham shirt. Look how happy he is. You would never know that he is in defeat and disgrace. You would never know that his marriage had failed, because of his sins and the sins of others. You would never know that he faces the terrible task of overseeing the orderly disintegration of his marriage of 25 years, and the comforting of his children, who now bear a heavy burden because of the sins of their parents, and grandparents. You would never know that he was a man who still feels a responsibility to go back home and fulfill his promise to his suffering wife to work with her to end the marriage peacefully and with as little pain as possible after all this time. You would never know that for a very long time, that man would have preferred to die (if they killed him quick) than to keep living in this grinding way.
What you see there is a happy man: a sinner who knows that his Redeemer lives, and knows that he met by surprise that Redeemer at the foot of Golgotha this morning, and allowed Him to heal his ravaged heart. That man knows that life remains a blessing, although he cannot bless. But he thinks maybe he can bless others, if he tells them the story of how Jesus the Lord is at work making things new, and turning suffering to His glory for those who are willing to share in His passion.
If I had known where to go for the liturgy this morning, I never would have wandered around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I never would have found that cave chapel. I never would have prayed silently there under the earth, amid the limestone. And I never would have heard the still, small voice tell me: you’re free.
I don’t know what comes next. I do know that I need to go back and try to share some of this unmerited grace with my wife, who needs to taste the same freedom and healing that Christ gave me. Jesus has made it possible for me to go home without resenting, or mourning, or in a spirit of destruction, but rather in a spirit of peacemaking and love and rest. How? How did this come to me? I have no idea, but I will not stay stuck in my head and refuse it because it came so suddenly, and doesn’t make sense so soon after the horrible stroke of the divorce announcement.
What I know is that this very afternoon, as soon as I publish this, I will walk down to the Garden of Gethsemane to be where the Lord told Peter to put down his sword and follow Him, so to speak, through the Passion. I am going to be fully open to the movement of the Holy Spirit these next three days, leading to Pascha, and rejoice in every second of it, because I know that resurrection is coming. I knew it by faith, and this morning, in the city where he died and rose from the dead, Jesus of Nazareth touched my heart and made it rise from a living death. Jesus Christ conquers! Glory to Him forever!