Nostalgia for Paradise

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Main Gate of Danilov Monastery, Moscow

I will never forget the first time I visited an Orthodox monastery to stay for a month-long missionary school hosted there. I was newly converted to the church and I was still getting used to regular church life. Life in a monastery was like learning to walk on the moon by comparison. I felt the awkwardness of a bum yanked from the street and set before a seven course French Meal. I did not know how to use the knife and fork let alone how to behave in this highly cultured environment. But the hunger and thirst after righteousness kept me from fleeing what was unfamiliar.

The first night I dreamed of every Christian conference I had ever been to, places where my faith had been renewed and my spiritual batteries recharged. But after only one day in the spiritually rich and deeply fulfilling atmosphere of the monastery, I prayed with the psalmist, “Better than one day in your courts, than thousands elsewhere.”

Danilov, South Gate

Even now that I have been Orthodox half my life, I still have not gotten over the initial shyness when I first enter the walls of a sacred monastery. Danilov is the closest one to our apartment in Moscow, just 40 minutes by train. The contrast between the clamor of Moscow city life and the sudden calm of Danilov is startling and refreshing. It derives from the relative peace cultivated in the souls of the monastic strugglers and it quiets my own noisy soul. I am normally talkative and extroverted, but in the presence of such potential for holiness, words always fail me. I am silent.

I am silent, but the conversation continues deep within as I encounter the person I barely know, that strange character known as my own true self. And I encounter an equally strange place that has the mysterious character of a home I have yet to inhabit but for which I long with a deep-seated nostalgia, the same nostalgia felt by our first parents when they were driven from paradise:

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name… These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

— C.S. Lewis, Weight of Glory

Like lovers at the mention of a name, the name of our beloved risen Lord, who has redeemed his bride the Church from the harlotry of sin and has made a home for her in paradise. Christ is risen!

 

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