little white church

THERE IS A SMALL CHURCH in Viljandi painted white and blue. It has a glinting gold cross that one can see from far away. For me, this sacred place has always provided a taste of the Orient, with walls engulfed in hefty boughs of red-orange pihlakad or mountain ash in autumn. I imagine that on a hot summer day, one might find peacocks and other exotic birds of the East behind its gates. The gates protect the church from outsiders, as does a sturdy wood door. I know this because I went there on Sunday to attend mass. When I arrived at the door, I could hear them praying inside.

The reason I returned was because I saw two old friends one morning at the café. These are long-time converts to the Orthodox faith. Our youngest is their goddaughter. I was taken into the church when she was Christened years ago, which was a special time for me, because I got to choose my given name as my church name, after the revered 2nd century Greek saint, Ioustinos. As such, I am one of a few people who can be said to have chosen their own name.

These pilgrims had just attended an Orthodox Christian wedding at the church, they said, where the bride had the crown placed on her head and was serenaded with song. I have been to a church wedding before and I have enjoyed it. Of course they appeared at the moment that I happened to be denouncing Christianity to a friend. “Because if you translate these words literally,” I was saying, “Christianity starts to sound like some sort of vampire cult. Drink my blood, eat my body? This is like cannibalism!” My friend mostly agreed. “And what about these angels? Who thought that up, and who thought that was more believable than Poseidon ruling the seas or Zeus taking the form of a swan?” 

Obviously, I had plummeted out of the faith. What did we even believe in before Christianity? I wondered aloud that day. That was a good question. I had read that the Baltic Finns, for example, believed that the world was attached to the heavens through the branches of a tree of life, and that the constellations were leaves on this tree. There was also the erotic fresco unearthed recently at Pompeii, the one that depicted Leda, the Queen of Sparta, who had intercourse with Zeus, who had taken the form of a swan and produced triplets. Something about the archaeologists’ brush dusting away volcanic ash from the fresco resonated. That buried under all these centuries of Christian ash was another set of beliefs, one with stories just as compelling. But these are not the kinds of thoughts you impart to good Christian friends, who are kind and who believe. Their saintly appearance let me know that Christianity was not going to let me off so easily with my tree of life and Greek gods. They told me of the wedding at the church and I told them how I liked that church.

“But this church, do you ever go inside of it?” one of my friends asked me.

“I did go in,” I said. “Once.”

“How was it?”

“It was cold. The church is heated by a wood furnace. And there the priest stood in his black robe, his beard flowing, tending to the furnace, with the sounds of the firewood crackling.” 

My friends liked this story, but it left me feeling cold indeed. Was it time to go back? The question began to haunt me.

Then one day soon after, I decided to go for a walk. It happened to be the autumn equinox, a weird, hazy day, and I was walking by that same church when two young women came down the street. I immediately noticed one of the women was very beautiful. She had eastern blue eyes, what the Estonians call piilusilm, and hair that dangled around her like lush branches. 

I only looked at her for a second, and then, when she passed, she looked back at me. As I said, it was a strange day, and I noticed then that she was all dressed in blue, the same blue of the church. She was dressed in the church colors and was standing in front of the church! Who was this woman? I hoped that she was not a high school student. That would be depressing. No, she seemed too mature. Who really knew? These occurrences happened every day now, and it made no sense to hang on to them one way or the other. Still, I liked that moment. I liked the way she looked at me. I felt that I could lie with her for all eternity in some kind of paradise full of gold crosses, peacocks, and that strong church incense from the East. Some kind of new life seemed to rise up and out of that moment, fresh buds blooming into yellow flowers blossoming into the wildest tree of life. Was it God’s love? Or had the mighty Zeus felt especially charitable that day?

Whatever it was, it felt wonderful.

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