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  • Daniel G Opperwall


Fr Luke lifted the hat brim from his eyes. He did not sit up right away, but shifted slightly until the hammock swayed under him. The gentle rocking, the perfect acceptance of his weight--these were worth enjoying for a moment. He lifted his wrist and looked at his watch. He had napped just a little too long. He had one hour until the meeting. With three minutes to wash up and put on his cassock and shoes, and a seventeen minute drive to the parish, that made forty minutes to plant. A little less than he had banked--still enough. He twisted himself and sat up, dropping his bare feet into the warm grass and shifting the hat back onto his head.

Fr Luke took a stride toward the shed, then stopped, trying to shake off a sense of melancholy. In the height of spring, in the perfect weather, such a feeling did not belong. The shortness of the time--this slice of real existence--wanted to draw him to disdain the moment, as if it were not gift enough for being there at all; the shortness of time said that he should remember instead the upcoming shouting match, two hospital visits to follow, the evening's vespers done hastily, confessions, three kisses goodnight for three little girls, one for a wife, a moment to sleep, the morning liturgy, a ladies' luncheon, the rest rolling on forever. He looked at the garden, the begonias and the tomatoes spread out along the walkway, waiting to be planted. He took a breath. “Not my will, Your will,” he said.

His ears pricked suddenly--the car in the driveway, a sinking feeling; they were home early. The girls' laughter would follow, yes, but the quiet--he had wanted just a little bit of that quiet and sun. He shouldn't think that way--there was nothing for it. “Not my will, Your will,” he said again. But, then--no, the car backed up. It wasn't them. He sighed in relief, then felt a pang of guilt at the feeling.

Fr Luke leaned over and picked up the spade sitting next to the shed, along with his gloves. He counted the plants again--three dozen. He looked back across the lawn at the flower patch and the vegetable patch--visualized where everything would go. He picked up the tray of begonias first.

He stopped halfway across the lawn as if seized. He turned his face up into the air. The odour of it had taken him up for a moment--he breathed it in--coal smoke. Someone was lighting charcoal. He smiled to himself--it was always the charcoal, not the incense, that brought him back--back to memories of hallowed places; the Holy Mountain this time--many years ago.

He shook his head at himself and let recollection rise--the crooked bench near the cliff, and a grey-bearded monk speaking with a twenty-three year old man. Luke was, then, two years Orthodox, all zeal and energy--evangelism--the Church holy in his eyes and constituted (so he thought) only of still prayer and piety and peace and rigid adherence. He was asking the old monk for advice; he was explaining his desire to become a priest. He was asking....

Fr Luke clucked his tongue. The thought of the impending council meeting had suddenly cropped up, trying to crowd out the old memory. “Always looking for a way in,” he said quietly to himself. He cleared his mind, held it steady in tension. “Not my will, Your will.” He continued to the flower patch, set down the tray of begonias, and let his toes caress the loose black dirt. Then he knelt down, put on his gloves, and began to dig.

His lips started to move without thought--the prayer trained and automatic. His mind was here, on the warm soil, on the spade cutting into the earth, on the heat of the sun on his back, his hat slipping forward. Then, like a cascade, he noticed it--noticed the motion of his lips--and began to focus. The prayer was now in the mind--the wrong place--with memory soon to follow, and dread soon to follow that. He could see it coming, but he had nothing for it. Try to hold the prayer, get it back into the heart--try to slip back away from his awareness of it. It wasn't going to work. The faces of the council members were already in front of him.

What would the old monk have said? Nothing. He would have shrugged, just like he had shrugged on that bench those years ago while the waves crashed over near them. “Fine,” he had said. “It is good to be a priest.” How Luke's heart had leaped up to hear that--to have everything confirmed! How his thoughts raced, as they always did then, pondering the thousand sermons already being written in his mind. “It is good to be a priest,” the old monk repeated. “If everything is prayer, then everything is given to God.”

Fr Luke had stopped looking at his hands as they dug--an easy mistake--the memory vanished. He was thinking now about what he was going to say in thirty minutes--about the money. It was a waste, what the council wanted. The entry steps to the parish were only a few years old--in no need of repair. But the donation had been made for only one purpose: new steps, needed or not. It was practically spite, the money; and everyone's hands were tied. Fr Luke shook his head to himself.

He drew his mind back to his work. He was on the tenth begonia already. His hands were doing the digging as if of their own accord. “If everything is prayer,” he said to himself, “then everything is given to God.” He heard it in the monk's voice as well as his own. He tried to believe it either way. Ten begonias, given to God. The sunshine on his back given to God. And then the bickering and the giving up and the walking away? “Given to God,” he laughed softly. He shook his head.

Fr Luke paused and wiped the sweat from his brow. He looked up into the clear sky, the depth of the blue-white light perfect and still. He let his eyes strain as if looking for its limit--but the blue-white poured backward, as always--the light never quite to be grasped. He tried to take a deep breath--tried to chase the adrenaline out of his veins. One funeral, one gift, one meeting, and here was his stomach turning upside-down. He tried to focus on only this, only the sun, only his hands, only the smell of the charcoal and the green of the grass--the blue-white sky, that light--above all that light.... He looked back down at the begonias, remembered:

“Serve quietly,” the old monk had said, though frowning as ever. “Pray. Do what your bishop tells you. Hear confessions. It is good to be a priest.”

Of course. Pray as if there was any time for it. Hear confessions as if there was anyone there to give them. Obey the bishop as if he had anything to say. And then (unmentioned), be left to die of exposure, wind-whipped by what must arise amid parish councils, every service lost to hurried repetition--the mind poured out on the scowling people standing just inside the narthex, only a fragment of real light managing its way under the dome.

Fr Luke was planting the first of the tomatoes, it seemed. He could not remember walking back over to the shed to get them, and now he was back on the soil. He took a deep breath, and let a shiver run across him. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, felt the light of the sun on his palm. His right fist, holding up his weight off the ground, was bound tight. He could feel that he was angry--his heart began to beat quickly. If his mind couldn't clear, where could he send it? To the old monk, to the bench? No--there was no comfort there. Then, another shiver across his spine, a deep breath, the hand beginning to relax. “If everything is prayer,” he tried to say again, “then everything is given to God.”

But then he paused, turned his head sideways. He clenched his fist again. “But if nothing is prayer,” he now retorted, his lips nearly speaking aloud, “then nothing is given to anyone.”

“It is good,” the old monk answered. “You will have more time with holy things.”

“And less time for the garden, and the sun, and the light of the sky,” Fr Luke shot back, his voice breaking aloud into the yard.

There was silence. Fr Luke listened for an answer. There was silence. “If everything is prayer,” Fr Luke snipped finally, more softly, “then why not just plant a garden?”

He might have asked that on the bench--on the Mountain--but he did not know then how to plant. He did not know how to bask, and to be. He knew how to do, and say, and speak, and teach--the least of all things, nothing more.

Fr Luke shook his head once more and patted down the soil around the last tomato.

“Why not just plant a garden...” he repeated slowly to himself.

“What's the difference?” It was the monk's voice suddenly--as clear as if he were standing there, the tones curled by his accent, teasing and real. Father Luke looked up and saw him, the monk's sullen Greek face now a bright smile, blooming with light. The monk had never smiled like that on the Mountain--all was sternness then.

Fr Luke stared for a moment too bewildered to be amazed, then nodded. “Right,” he said finally in response. “Not my will, His will.”

“Even if you make a mistake!” smiled the old monk, an unruly stream of sunshine pouring out from a cloud behind him.

Fr Luke let his head drop, then sat up on his knees, and checked his watch. Five more minutes. Five more minutes not to move--to, instead, be here. The memory was gone completely--there was no monk, just tomatoes and begonias, freshly planted, in need now of some water. He looked around at the light-soaked spring, at the blue-white sky. He felt his heart beat as his mind went clear.

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