The Ancient Modern

All the Writing of the World / Joshua Alan Sturgill

I am uncomfortable in religious situations. Funerals, church
weddings, liturgies. It’s because the timid, outsider part of me
feels very exposed there. I never feel invited, but I go anyway
and I suffer the heat of my own awkwardness, while I wait for
that cautious voice to exhaust itself. Worse than Sunday at my
local congregation is a trip to a monastery. I really don’t fit,

and it isn’t just insecurity. Everything on, in, about me screams
tourist! and while I’m there the inner panic and contempt
reach a crescendo like storms meeting over an unbroken plain.
I’m a wreck all the first day, nervous all the second. But on the
third day, I feel a little revived. My tunnel-vision eases; my talk
gets less artificial; my brain stops racing itself. And it was on

one of these visits to a monastery that I learned something
worth knowing, which I’ll share with you. After the storms
had calmed and I finished the small tasks guests are assigned,
I took a break from the hot afternoon, and walked to the chapel
to see the icons and smell the myrrh breathing out of the walls.
One of the monks was there: tall, a little older than me, head

bent under his black hat, hands grasping a knotted rope. He
prayed soundlessly, but the prayer stood out against the silence
of the room somehow, like a bright image on a pale canvas. He
must have heard me come in, because after a pause he turned
and smiled and nodded in greeting. His eyes seemed ancient
but his smile was child-like, and without meaning to, I asked

out loud a question I’d intended to keep to myself. The monk
drew the question out of me, or so it felt. I said, “tell me,
why did you become a monk?” And I assumed he would
decline to answer. But he blushed—not from embarrassment,
but from modesty. And he looked around to see if anyone
was listening. “Not here,” he said, “outside, where we can sit.”

He turned to a little door in the wall I hadn’t noticed, he
opened it, and we stepped down into private garden between
the chapel and the sleeping quarters of the monks. Absolutely
hidden, absolutely forbidden. But I’d been invited. I knew
this place was offered to me for a moment as the setting of his
answer. “I came here,” he said, “because of something I read

when I was quite young. I didn’t leave the world immediately;
the words took time to sink in and do their work. But from
the moment I read them, I knew they were outlining a course,
signaling a call. It was in a bookstore in my hometown. I was
eight or ten. The store was quiet, and I saw this old book
with the word ORIGEN stamped in gold letters on its leather

spine. I thought it was ‘origin’ misspelled, and that made me
quite curious, and I took the book down and opened it. I
didn’t get very far; it was a difficult text. But it left a strangely
strong impression on me, though I was immature and not
religious and didn’t care about anything at that time. Of all
the writings of the world, I read, the Scriptures are the heart;

and of the Scriptures, the Gospels are the heart. And of the Gospels,
Saint John’s is the heart. And no one can understand Saint John’s
Gospel, unless… Here the monk paused and lifted his face,
eyes closed, up to the sky as if the rest were a child’s recitation
or an old priest’s prayer, …No one can understand Saint John’s
Gospel unless, like Saint John, he leans his ear against the breast

of Christ, then, standing in the shadow of the Cross, is given Mary
to be his Mother. We waited together in silence for a space. Then
he said, “brother, I have given you these words. I don’t know what
they will do in your life. Don’t think about them too much, or
try to decide what they mean. They’re your invitation. For myself,
they were like the frayed end of a long piece of string, and I simply

had to follow that string wherever it led. Maybe for you, they
will be like little drops of water on an immovable rock, slowly
dissolving and changing what you thought couldn’t be changed.
God knows. Take these words with you secretly; they are ancient;
like a gold coin folded in a piece of faded cloth, or like the whole
meaning of the cosmos scribbled in the margin of a fairytale.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Joshua Alan Sturgill. All rights reserved.

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