The Leo Ray Miller he had sown that night at the reception sprouted and spread like an ugly weed. It grew up through the cracks of whatever lies he told himself. It choked every intention, it poisoned every relationship and turned every so-called good deed into a self-serving con. He wanted to believe. There had to be some relief beyond his short-term capacity to fool himself. He wanted hope.
By Fr. Stephen Siniari
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
People were afraid of Leo Ray Miller. It was years ago when he killed that man at the Marco wedding reception, the reception where someone from the church was captured on video stealing the wedding money.
All these years later, people in the neighborhood were still afraid. They said Leo had a look about him. And he did. The lack of anything in his eyes when he sized you up, like nobody and nothing meant nothing, like he was wearing a rigor mortis mask. People in the neighborhood crossed the street.
When he was in prison somebody gave him two books, a Bible and something called an apophthegmata, a book of sayings by Orthodox Church Fathers on radical self-honesty and living without hypocrisy.
None of the priests would admit to it but we had our ideas about which one would put up with a full-body cavity strip search and go into that particular prison.
The Sunday after he got his release Leo had his wife Aida iron him a new out of the package white shirt. He put it on and buttoned it to the collar. He hated ties. Black pants, his black Doc Martens laced half way up his calves, his old black leather jacket, slicked back his hair, grabbed his two books and headed straight to church. He was so early he was waiting outside when Father Naum showed up with the key. The Bible and the book of patristic sayings left him with nothing but questions he didn’t like not being able to answer.
Naum handed Leo the key. “I have things back at my car. It’s too cold to be standing around outside. Here, take the keys. In case the people start to come. Open up and set the thermostat. Seventy. It’s on the right behind the candle stand.”
Leo Ray claimed he had never met Naum.
Naum never said one way or another. If you asked him he’d only say, “God knows the truth.”
Leo didn’t like it, being alone in the cold dark church. Something in there spooked him. He propped the front door open in case he decided he couldn’t stay.
The furnace made a creeping noise when he set the thermostat. Sitting liquid in the radiators started flowing. Coagulated cast iron rust gurgled in the pipes like a hoarse voice whispering in a language Leo Ray had never heard.
A bus pulled up out front. It kneeled. Buses that kneeled. Something new since his release. A heavy woman was helped by the driver. She was wearing a long double-breasted coat with a fur collar. Her thick gray hair shown from beneath a tight knit cap with ear flaps. She wore mittens. Her shoulder bag could’ve been prison issue, like her boots.
There was their usual exchange, Fedya, and the dark-skinned driver with the sunny disposition. “Wha’dya do in there every week, Miss Fedya?”
“Be wit’ da’ Got’, Mister.” She said.
“Now you make sure you talk with Him about me, you hear?”
“Always lighting candle for you Mister Harold.” Fedya told the driver.
Big Harold the driver unfolded her walker. She pitched it ahead with every step. Her legs looked so stout and strong, it seemed to Leo Ray like the walker needed her. He couldn’t take his eyes off the bag on her shoulder.
She’d been sized up before. She smiled to let him know.
“Thank you.” She said to Leo. Her accent was robust. She handed him ten dollars from her bag and took two thick dark beeswax candles.
He stood there behind the candle stand, not knowing what to do. Leo wasn’t used to people not being afraid. But this one? She had no regard for him. She played it right down the middle. He was just a man behind the counter. He figured she was faking it.
She looked at the ten and said to him, “Enough?”
He pushed a handful of honey-fragrant candles across the counter, the thin ones, and just stared at her. Then folded her ten and put it in a circular gold plate padded in the center with red-purple velvet.
“I’ light two for you.” She told him, and went about her ritual. Lighting a candle. Standing it upright in the sandbox on stilts. Making the cross. Kissing the icons. Saying prayers. Bowing, and doing it all again.
Leo’s belligerence when he was inside had racked him up so much time in solitary with his two books that he found it difficult to be around people, even though he knew in his head that the books advised otherwise. He asked her name.
She said, “Fedya.”
He said, “Leo Ray.”
She went back to her prayers.
He looked at her row of candles and said, “Light is good.”
She smiled and lit another candle. Her column of living light illumined the narthex alcove.
Leo shivered when she said his name, “Leo Ray.” She kissed the icon of Christ. Ink shapes, theory, things he’d encountered on Bible pages were taking life in the woman, Fedya, and in the little things she was doing.
Teddy the Horse came in with Nicky Zeo. They were carrying boxes of doughnuts and talking about when they were boys, about D-Day, Omaha Beach, when they landed at Normandy.
“I can’t believe we made it.” Teddy said. “I still think about the ones who didn’t.”
Nicky saw Leo behind the counter. “Hey, Leo.” Nicky knew enough to keep it simple with Leo.
Teddy said, “Good to see ya’ here, kid.” But he wasn’t so sure.
Leo didn’t answer. He knew what they were thinking. The old blood was heating his brain. Lucky for them, he thought, when they had enough sense not to say anymore and went upstairs to the hall. No way I’m staying around here.
Through the glass doors of the narthex he could see the silhouette of the iconostasis and the outline of the curtain covering the Royal Doors. It had been a long time since he’d considered his crime, his sin, considered it in the light of Christ.
It was an argument that got out of hand. It got loud. It was the intention of both men to go home to their beds that night.
Before, Leo hadn’t known. He thought he did. He’d heard things. He was solid in his opinions. But being in prison, and reading his two books, over and over again, and having no chance for meaningful communication other than with his own thoughts, made him more and more aware of the juxtaposition of light and darkness in the thread of his being, and of what he described to Naum as, “The potency of my violent ignorance.”
What Leo did that night in front of the open bar at the wedding reception bricked him up in the other man the same way people brick-up broken out windows in abandoned houses on dead-end streets.
A dead-end for the other man.
A dead end for that man’s family.
A dead-end for Leo’s family too.
An abandoned dead-end, bricked up against any chance of anyone ever living there again. His walking around body had morphed into a coffin for his atrophy-sick soul.
When he confessed all this to Naum, he told him, “There is nothing, Father, nothing this side of the grave to help me.”
Leo thought of that night. He thought of that night every night. Things in his life couldn’t stay like they were. Who wants to be around a walking coffin with a dead soul in it?
One man committed murder and two men died.
Leo told his wife, Aida, “I ain’t alive.” He told her, “Why you’ staying? Ya’ like being around a talking corpse, ya’ weirdo, don’t cha’?”
He’d tried everything. Nothing offered hope. There was no making it right. No way back.
The life of self-offering, of giving back, making up for your crime by doing good deeds, all that closure nonsense suggested by well-intentioned people only made it worse for Leo Ray Miller, only pissed him off more.
In his despair he told Naum, “I’m tired of hearing all that closure bullshit. I’d rather live with it than pretend there was something I could do about it. Not even your God’s got anything for this.”
Naum told Leo, “I can make an idol out of my sin and end up thinking there’s nothing greater than my idol.”
Leo Ray didn’t like being challenged. He said, “Sin is your idol. It’s your living.”
The Leo Ray Miller he had sown that night at the reception sprouted and spread like an ugly weed. It grew up through the cracks of whatever lies he told himself. It choked every intention, it poisoned every relationship and turned every so-called good deed into a self-serving con.
He wanted to believe. There had to be some relief beyond his short-term capacity to fool himself. He wanted hope. Even if relief had to wait till what was left of his life was over.
There were days when Leo just hoped there was something more, some damn thing. Something he didn’t even know he didn’t know.
And there were others days when he doubted if there was anything he hadn’t already figured out. There were days when he thought why not just hang myself and get it over with?
One thing though, if he was going to do anything, it had to be started here and now. This side of the grave. He could feel it. That’s why he brought his books to church. He didn’t have time to waste.
Naum said to him, “Thank you for opening the church.”
Leo left the candle stand and followed Naum inside. He stood with Naum in front of the Royal Doors. Naum handed him an open book and ran his finger down the paragraphs he wanted Leo to read.
Leo Ray standing there thinking, “Great, another book.”
Naum said, “Blessed is our God, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.”
When Naum touched the word, Leo Ray said, “Amen.”
Leo read the words of the Entrance Prayers assigned to him by Naum.
It was just the two of them to begin with, then Deacon Dionysios arrived. Then the three of them took turns. Then Deacon David came in with his sons and joined the prayers.
Deacon Dionysios said, Let us pray to the Lord.
The rest said, Lord, have mercy.
Lord, stretch forth Thy hand from Thy holy dwelling place on high, and strengthen me for this Thy appointed service that is about to begin…
The Deacons said, Amen.
Naum asked forgiveness of the Deacons, the boys, and Leo. They did the same with one another. They turned and bowed to the people who were beginning to come in, asking forgiveness. Each one said, God forgives all.
To Leo, the whole thing was like a put-on show that made him nervous.
Naum took Leo aside. He said to him, “Wait here, Leonida. I won’t be long.”
Naum and the Deacons entered the Sanctuary, Naum through the North door and the Deacons through the South door.
Leo Ray heard ever word Deacon Dionysios said. He watched through the open door.
Leo saw them bow three times before the Altar Table.
Naum kissed the Book of the Holy Gospel, the Altar Table, and the Cross.
The Deacons kissed the Altar Table.
Naum came out.
He took Leo to the place of Confession. He showed Leo how to kiss the cross and the Gospel on the stand and how to place his forehead on the Gospel Book. He placed the stole over Leo’s head.
He whispered to him, “Leonida, three things. From what you tell me, it seems that, that night you tried to justify yourself with contentious words. From now on, your only hope is in silent repentance.
“You’re a strong man, Leo. You used your physical strength in actions of anger. Your armor-plated ego got the best of you. The one antidote at your disposal is to become weak in the strength of peace. Like our Master Jesus, open arms, naked and defenseless on the Cross.
“A moment of willful epilepsy blinded you and you destroyed what we are not capable of creating, life. So now, having died with Christ in Baptism, death of self in our Lord Christ is our only hope beyond the grave, and this resurrection can begin for you, here, and now, if, seeing the icon of Christ in all people, you will put others first, starting with those closest to you, and die to self. If there is anything left of your heart, Leonida, you can be saved.”
Leo was under the Epitrahilion overheating, hyperventilating like some chump, panicking like his last week in solitary, and the gold-embossed Gospel cover was pressing a crucifix into his forehead, he just knew it.
“God has planted His garden, the Church and in it,” Naum said, “you will find all that is necessary for union with Christ and for your salvation. Especially people. The temptation to self-reliance is an existential lie. We are saved in the other. Especially those closest to you, like your wife and family. People will help you to see God and know His forgiveness, and you will help others in the same way.”
And whatever blather Naum was prattling about was spinning around his ears like some pesto slurry in a meaningless blur. Leo might as well have had a blender for a brain.
“We have all sinned, Leo. We’re all in it together. Now, do you have to have the courage to find out, was that man, that night, who like Cain, slew his brother, was that really the true you?”
Leo thought, “What a’ bunch a’ bullshit.”
It weirded Leo out. He didn’t like all the people stuff. He was happy carrying his cross by himself. Leo Ray didn’t like what Naum had to say. He was an independent operator.
He wanted to go home and tell Aida church was okay, but putting up with everybody’s idiosyncrasies, bad breath, attitudes, and opinions, when they hadn’t gone through half as much as he’d gone through, was nothing but aggravation in the flesh.
When Naum removed the stole, he bowed to Leonida and said, “Please forgive me.”
Leo Ray shook himself free of the Epitrahilion and said, “Don’t push your luck, Padre.”
He stood there looking at Naum like he was a cockroach in his kitchen. He said, “You want radical honesty, Father?” Here’s radical honesty. If you think you can live without hypocrisy? Then you really are a hypocrite. And you are, ain’t cha’? That’s your scam, sayin’ you’re a hypocrite out loud, but really not caring one way or the other on the inside as long as these dummies keep buyin’ the humility act and givin’ ya’ the priest-bit payoff.”
Naum was afraid of Leo Ray. He had that look about him, standing there in front of the Confession stand. Sizing up Naum, nothing in his eyes.
Nothing and nobody, except Leo Ray, meant nothing to Leo Ray.
He told Naum, “Forgive yourself, old man. You think your way back is the only way, you and your church? I’ll take my chances on my own. Ya’ ever heard a’ Pascal’s wager?”
“I am a hypocrite.” Naum said, “Who isn’t? But you know, for us, from the beginning, it hasn’t been our way. He’s the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Put aside your own will and live. His will is for you to return and live.”
Leo said, “I’m dead already anyway.”
“Better dead with Christ, Leo,” Naum said, “Than alive with the devil, and alone.”
Leo said, “Don’t worry old man, you may be, but I ain’t alone.”
Naum said, “God protect and save you in the end. The fathers say just because a man commits one murder, he doesn’t have to be marked forever a murderer.”
Leo Ray said, “Wha’da you know?”
Leo took his time leaving. He hardened his face into that rigor mortis mask.
In the narthex, Teddy and Nicky watched as Leo blew out all the candles in the sandbox on stilts. Then he snapped each candle in two, one at a time. He stared them in the face, took Fedya’s folded ten out of the circular gold dish and put it in his pocket.
He came out the door of Saint Alexander’s onto the cold pavement and laughed at the people waiting for the bus. “Bunch a’ halfwits. What was I thinking putting that asshole on my visitor’s list?”
They coiled around the far side of the wooden pole like a clowder of cats with a primal fear of snakes.
“Here’s some books for ya’, suckers.” He dumped the Bible and the apophthegmata in the wire trash basket chained to the telephone pole.
The people waiting for the bus knew better than to look Leo in the eye.
Leo Ray Miller marched down the pavement goose-stepping his boots and swinging his arms. People in the neighborhood saw him coming, and crossed the street.
Pretty self-satisfied when he told Aida, “Kicked the old man’s philosophical ass. Suddenly had nothing ta’ say when I told him, I have my reasons, oh great bearded one, and my heart’s got reasons my reason don’t know nothing about.”
Naum would like to have given him the full quote from Pascal, but he knew better.
The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart that feels God, not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.
Aida said, “Wow, Leo. Where’d you get that?”
Suddenly Aida was afraid.
Leo didn’t think she knew the reason he took her last name. Miller, when they married. But Aida did. Girl found out what she didn’t wanna’ know… And there stood Leonida Rezart Marku, wound tighter than a dagger with a corkscrew blade.
But she knew how to untwist it too, how survive when Leo Ray Miller got himself all tightened up.
For a spring-loaded second he just stared at her.
She could feel the coiled tension in his stance.
Then he said, “Wha’dya’ saying, Aida?”
Aida said, “Leo, I ain’t saying nothing. I just never heard it before. You know I’m not smart like you.”
“Made it up when I was locked up.” Leo didn’t tell her it was Pascal, The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.
There was a time when Naum would have spoken the truth in love and said, “Yeah, but, Leo, if our heart hasn’t been broken by suffering, by love for the other, by knowing how much God loves us and how far we are from Him, then what reason can the heart know beyond its own appetites?”
Leo would’ve told Naum he sounded like the mandatory faggoty group sessions in the prison detox unit.
Naum was pretty sure he would’ve had Leo’s cold spit dripping off his nose like early winter rain.
Bow your head, Naum, in front of Leonidas, be still, make the cross without moving and call God to remembrance.
Be patient… until the coming of the Lord… Behold, the husbandman waiteth… being patient over it, until it receive the early and the latter rain…
After she retrieved them from the bus stop wire trash basket and asked Naum’s blessing, Fedya gave the books to Mister Harold, her friend, who helped her with her walker and drove the kneeling bus.
About the Author
Father Stephen N. Siniari is a priest of the OCA Diocese of the South. During more than 30 years as a priest, Father Stephen served parishes in New England and the Philadelphia/South Jersey area while working full-time for an international agency as a Street Outreach worker serving homeless, at-risk, and trafficked teens. He currently lives on the Florida Gulf Coast with is wife of more than 40 years.
He is the author a three-part series of stories, featuring the fictional Father Naum, long-time priest at Saint Alexander the Whirling Dervish Parish in the ethnically diverse Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown. The first volume, Big in Heaven: Orthodox Christian Short Stories, is forthcoming from Ancient Faith Publishing.