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The Saints of Sophia, Revisited

April 1, 2007. St. Sophia's cathedral in Tsarskoie Celo, Russia, "Village of the Tsars," a small community near St. Petersburg. My umpteenth visit. A feeling of belonging surged inside me, so different from that first time 16 years ago.
November 1992.
They stood immobile with faces upturned, impassive, curious, polite, not putting out a single signal to me, their newmet preacher from afar. Until the moment of introduction they did not know who I was, or even that I was there.
For 2 1/2 hours they had stood singing, praying, listening to the Word, the ancient sacrament consecrated and received by lips still unaccustomed to the freedom, the daring of it all.
Great swirling clouds of incense drifted to the cupola of their ravished, burned-out building, just partly restored from death, from mortar shells and years of burning garbage.
All sorts and conditions of men, women, children: elderly scarfed babushkas, teens in leather skirts and stone-washed jeans, a few business suits, some kids on crutches from a nearby orthopedic c1inic. The smell of incense and candle wax and wine and bodies.
And not a sound, not a shuffle or a cough. Their lanky, bearded priest had dropped a bombshell in their midst. An American priest had shared their worship and now would speak to them.
I really don't remember what I said. The only thing to talk about was the mighty tie that linked our lives, God's Good News. Nothing else would make any sense, any sense at all.
"I come in love," I think I said. "I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in America" — a land some still thought of as The Enemy — "to share with you the joy of God and of bringing freedom to all the nations of the earth.
"I come to learn of your perseverance in adversity, your centuries of rich, unconquerable faith in the face of indescribable hatred and suffering. I come to salute you, to offer you what help we can to restore your people, your buildings and your land to spiritual strength and life-sustaining power. We have been given much; we want to share. But you give to us a greater gift: the testimony of a faith against which the gates of hell have not prevailed."
Something like that, I really don't remember.
The only movement was the tears, a few at first, then hundreds of glistening eyes and dampened cheeks on men and women, old and young. What was happening? What words of mine precipitated such response? My stomach churned, I stumbled on until the words stopped coming. Then, at their priest's invitation, I blessed them. They did not understand my words, but they understood the universal sign, and responded by making the sign of the cross on their own bodies.
I stepped down into the congregation. Into chaos.
They crowded round, to touch me, to ask my blessing, to simply say, "Spaceba, thank you for coming." It was an hour before they all drifted off. I was exhausted, and exhilarated.
I later asked Father Zverev what had happened. What prompted their incredible response?
He said I was the first American most of them had ever seen. Saying such simple words, I had touched their hearts with an impact I could never understand.
He said, "For 70 years we have carried a stone in our hearts. Not just your words, but your presence, has let us know we are not alone. The stone is lighter. That is all."
Today the cathedral gleams in pristine brilliance. They've built a nursing home, a school, a dairy farm. How indescribable to see this Slavic phoenix my friends and family helped rise from hatred's ashes.
This may have been my last visit. I'm getting a bit long in the tooth to go running across the world to see old friends, familiar places, mind-blowing changes. We all knew it, but did not speak of it.
Tbl lublyu ochen mnogo. Do svidanya, beloved enemies.

Editor's note: W. Jackson "Jack" Wilson is a psychologist, an Episcopal priest, a sometime academic and a writer living in Colorado. He writes with humor, whimsy, passion and penetrating insight into the human condition. And in Pushkin, Russia, a toilet is named in his honor.

Editor's note: We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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