Glimpses of Holiness

There he stood before the cathedral’s altar, vested appropriately, slowly intoning the words of the Eucharist. Quietly glowing with the joy of the Lord, the bishop bent forward slightly, in rapt attention as he handled the precious elements. Such is proper for a man when he approaches the Divine. The young acolyte, a foreigner, knelt to the side, looking on. He was not new to worship, but never had he been so close to such a precious holiness.

Priest beginning traditional low mass

What had the youth done to deserve this brief glimpse into the world beyond man? It was as if Holiness itself had infused this elder who stood there humbly before God’s altar, whispering the words that he had said every morning throughout a long ministry. But, there was nothing routine about this moment of grace. It was as if this ordinary weekday Eucharist were the bishop’s first liturgy, his only liturgy. Time had stopped, eternity had dawned. Each word read to God at the altar was fresh, filled with an ineffable joy. What had the young acolyte done to qualify as a witness to this moment?

Christ, our high priest

Nothing but to show up. He was in the presence of a rare man of God. The bishop had survived the ravages of the War, like so many Japanese of his ill-fated generation. He never spoke of the unspeakable horror that had been visited upon his aggressor nation, arguably the just desserts for a whole country that had been possessed by a demon and turned wild. The body politic had gone raving mad. Duly humbled, it was now devastated. Their cities were scorched. Those who survived had nothing left. Even those who had money had nothing because there was nothing to buy.

Typical Japanese city firebombed during WWII

There was another man of that generation who later became a priest. He had been taken prisoner by the Soviets just weeks before the unconditional surrender. The captors took countless Japanese soldiers and cast them into brutal gulags. The young acolyte’s father-in-law was one other who had survived such unspeakable mistreatment. Months became years for them. Many did not survive the cruel deprivations. The first soldier who made it through prayed in the prison camp in freezing Siberia. The prayer has been heard before: “Lord, if you help me to make it through this hell, I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to you.” Many forget their heartfelt promise to God once they’ve been liberated, but this soldier did not. When he returned home, he went off to seminary and became a priest. It was this priest who was assigned to guide the young man before he himself went off to the same seminary in Kyoto a generation later.

The elder priest would stand before the wooden altar in the country parish intoning the familiar words of the Eucharistic prayer. The literary Japanese flowed trippingly from his tongue. He sounded like a grandfather, almost like a woman, as he elegantly read through the service, each word precise yet familiar, every step impeccably choreographed through long-practiced custom. Timeless dignity due the Divine who was being addressed, this day like every Lord’s day.

Christ: He who offers and is offered.

What had the hopeful seminarian done to deserve this other glimpse into holiness? He didn’t deserve it. None of it. He scoffed at it. He was full of ambition. Ignore that falderal, he said to himself. He was going to make changes in the Church where changes needed to be made. Oh, the arrogance of inexperienced youth! The stupidity of a young foreigner who had never known the devastation of war! Who was too proud to watch quietly and learn from his betters. If only he had stopped to listen and not been so anxious to disrupt. Proud youth from the victor nation, yet not so unlike the architects of that awful war.

Sunrise, sunset

Those rare moments of grace, those glimpses into holiness are now a generation past. Rarely recalled, they’ve been mostly ignored throughout a life of preoccupations. Both bishop and priest are gone. Their memories are fading in their successors’ minds, busy as they are with the hustle of everyday church life. The once-young acolyte and later priest is now old himself, far removed from the scene. He has time to recall fondly the moments when a bishop and a priest had touched the Divine and he was there to witness it. To touch it himself. What had the young man done to deserve such privilege? He shudders to even think of it.

Author: Lawrence B. Wheeler

B.A., M.Div. Former Anglican priest, convert to Orthodoxy.

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