Out of the Gates of Heaven
by Fr. Stephen Siniari
On way or another, the big black bell had been hosted up into the Mission bell-tower.
1863, I thought, as I rested on the splintered cross-beam and peered out through the slats. The country-side hadn=t changed much since the days when our Mission home had been a one-room country school house.
At some point in its history, someone had built on additional rooms. For a while, the building had been home to a Protestant congregation.
Two summers ago, we began to rent the old school house side of the building from the current own. The additional rooms provide office space for his fire-sprinkler business.
The original bell had once called the local children to classes. Regrettably, a year prior to our arrival, the owner had taken the old bell down and donated it to the town hall.
Asking for the protection of the Archangel Michael, I clanged the new bell for the first time. Old wood and amateur workmanship don=t usually make for a sound bell. When it didn=t fall, I took off my hat and wiped the sweat from my forehead. I made the sign of the Cross and examined my new splinters.
A red pick-up truck pulled into the crushed sea-shell lot. Tow of our women got out. They carried arm-loads of pine-boughs into the church. I climbed down the latter from the trap-door in the ceiling. I didn=t know they were coming to decorate. They didn=t know I had taken a day off from the shelter to come and hang the bell. The community had worked hard the previous week, cleaning, hanging, polishing, and shining.
We were getting ready for the Bishop=s visit. Nativity was approaching. A husband and wife were completing a year of preparation for Chrismation. They had been regular communicants in their former church. They had been deeply involved. Now things had changed in that confession. ATheology@ that changes? Somehow that didn=t make sense to them. They were deeply involved. And it was deeply unsettling. They wanted to know Jesus Christ, Athe same, yesterday, today, and unto ages of ages.@ They had a sincere hunger and thirst after a life of Communion. How can we go a year without the Sacraments? Being born again is an arduous labor. How is one sustained? Someone asked, AIs the child in the womb not nourished?@ AThou preparest a table before me in the face of those who trouble me.@
After a year of acquaintance with the Mission Community and attending Vespers, a young pastor from a local church visited the monastic missionaries at St. Tikhon=s. In an 18 page remembrance, he wrote of his encounter with the evangelical icon of the monastery:
AVespers is the quiet coming together of men who have weathered a storm. Late afternoon gently brings the monks back to one another, back to singing, icons and incense, but nothing about the monks looks gentle this evening. They have worked hard for the pilgrims. They come into the chapel and cross themselves, kiss the icons, light the candles, and as they pass by me bowing politely I see their sweat, their frazzled hair, their smudged black robes. They monks look weary. They stand in front of the closed gates of the iconostasis, praying, waiting. There is a grittiness in this worship encompassing far more of life than I am used to. Here man appears as he is: smudged and stained. Behind the gates there is a soft glow of candlelight and a voice singing alone. The light wavers, the voice is moving around the altar - the throne of Christ - pre-occupied with things that cling and clatter. Finally the gates swing open and the bishop appears clothed in his vestments, a brilliant white robe, golden bands around the chest, a gold crown filled with diamonds that gleam like drops of rain on sunlit grass. Here, in the candle lit smoke and the dirt, out of the gates of heaven has come the glorified image of man.@
The bell is hung in the old school house tower. The catechumens are being called, Chrismated, and received into the Communion of Love. AHere, in the candle lit smoke and the dirt,@ in the work of Mission, God is accomplishing among us, Aout of the gates of Heaven has come the glorified image of man.@ Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
[The Mission Diary series was written by Fr. Siniari between 1990 to
1998. Though Fr. Stephen is now the pastor of SS Peter and Paul
Albanian Orthodox Church in Philadelphia, the St. John Chrysostom Mission
continues to meet at 198 Kings Hwy., Clermont, NJ.