We tried to get his old shoes and coat ta’ throw ‘em in the trash. Carol said not even the rummage sale at Front and Girard would take his worn-down shoes and screen-thin overcoat. He stuffed ‘em in his paper shopping-bag suitcase he carted all his bishop stuff around in and said he knew somebody who needed ‘em. He never varied from living the life of a monk. Him and his pistachio shell, somehow staying faithful to the apostolic calling, and steeped in the ancient ways, he knew how to overcome the temptations that stood in his way. No episcopal palaces or stately homes on this earth. He had other conceptions of life.
By Fr. Stephen Siniari
Naum drove Peshkopi to the bus station. Two-Beer Eddie sat in front next to Naum. Deacon Dionysios and the Bishop sat in the back of Naum’s old junker. Two-Beer Eddie turned around and leaned over the seat swapping stories with the white-haired Bishop and it made the Deacon cringe every time Two-Beer Eddie addressed the Bishop by his first name, “Skendi, ya’ ain’t gonna’ believe this one.”
The street lights were coming on… Got dark around six that time of October and Naum was taking the cobble-stone trolley route over the tracks west on Girard down past the Marlborough, what some call the Green Tree Tavern, winding his way over to 2nd Street then heading south catching every light.
Ramona and Madeline were already there at the bus station, trying to look inconspicuous, peeking out from the coffee shop inside the Greyhound Terminal, 10th and Filbert, twilight, and both of ‘em wearing sunglasses. Damn cold night too for that early in the fall. They had been assigned by our Teuta Ladies Baking Society to meet the Bishop, ask his blessing, and leave him with a box lunch for his bus ride.
When the Bishop was a young guy, he found an empty pistachio nut shell and it changed his life. He kept it in his pocket. He was never without it. Damn thing had more than fifty years’ wortha’ smooth on it from his praying with it in his hand. Same with his hat, his skufia, it never left his head.
Two-Beer Eddie knew the story. He’d heard it from his father when he was a boy. He said, “Yo’, Skend’, you still got that pistachio shell?”
The Bishop sat back in his new coat. Darn nice coat too. Our Teuta Ladies Baking Society bought it for him special, up at Chelten Avenue Robert Hall, not on sale either. Black, real cashmere and episcopal looking. Long, but not as long as the ratty old cassock he wore everywhere. They tried to give him a cassock and a new hat, but he insisted on that ratty patched cassock and faded out skufia sewn years ago by someone he loved, someone who loved him.
Got him a white neck scarf too, thing was some kinda’ silk not made by worms. Carol, from our Teuta Ladies Baking Society, who owned the Village Thrift down by the river on Spruce Street, said, “The guy who walked into my shop with this scarf was so rich he lived on the top floor of one a’ those Rittenhouse Square high-rises where the doorman checks your ID and if you’re wearing underwear.”
That last part there is a lie, Carol would never talk like that. Two-Beer Eddie made it up. He said to Carol, “That rich guy, the one who jumped naked offa’ his penthouse balcony?”
She said, “He hit the trees in the Square and lived.”
Eddie said, “Oh.”
If the Bishop coulda’ stretched out his legs in Naum’s beater, that 66’ two door lemon-cream Impala, ya’ woulda’ seen the new shoes we got ‘im too… Thom McAn’s… Well, they mighta’ been Florsheims. Leather soled oxblood wingtips, things glowed in the dark.
“Scratch the sole,” Lefty told the Bishop, “Go ahead, stuff’s real leather. Put ‘em on, they fit ya.’ Give ‘em a walk across the carpet.”
We tried to get his old shoes and coat ta’ throw ‘em in the trash. Carol said not even the rummage sale at Front and Girard would take his worn down shoes and screen-thin overcoat. He stuffed ‘em in his paper shopping-bag suitcase he carted all his bishop stuff around in and said he knew somebody who needed ‘em.
Anyhow, there he is, sitting like a silhouette in the shadows back a’ Naum’s car, the Bishop, and he takes out the pistachio shell and starts rolling it in his hand, and he says, “After what happened, I wasn’t sure there was a God. But I wanted something to take my mind off things, and maybe a platform to make known my views on life.”
The old men in the neighborhood, they knew the story, and they told it sitting around nights playing cards, sipping raki, and smoking.
* * *
As a kid Skender was the kind of kid who couldn’t get enough of church. When he was twelve years old, he told his father, “Pop, I wanna’ be a priest.”
His father, Lefter, gave him a thump and said, “You want a life of misery with other people’s problems?”
Most times all it took was a look from his father.
“Don’t make me hit you, boy.” His father said.
Skender knew his father rarely hit him.
And Lefter knew the kid was always with his nose in a book, always lighting candles in front of the icons at home, wanting to talk philosophy and religion all the time with anyone who would listen.
Lefter said to Besime, his wife, “Where did we go wrong?”
There was a factory in the neighborhood, a 19th century brick behemoth that manufactured snow sleds. Lefter said to the boy, “You come to work with me. Mister Samuel Leeds Allen, he invented the Flexible Flyer. I’ma’ teach you how to make the most important part of the sled, not the steel runners, anybody can run a machine can do that. The wood, my son, the beauty in the wood God made. And from a tree, to such a piece of art. It’s an art your soul’ gonna’ love.”
And it was true, the wood was good, but by the time he was sixteen, Skender had quit school and given up on beauty, goodness, truth, and art. Every time it popped up in his brain he squashed it back down in place, along with the calling he’d sensed from boyhood, but it would only pop back up in some other form.
The spite of nothingness spouted up through cracks in his soul, bitter as the eggplant his mother baked in her Patellxhane. “Ta’ hell with it all.” Skendi told his friends.
Every day before dawn he walked with his father over the Sedgley Avenue Bridge at 5th Street and joined the crew in the break room drinking dark brewed coffee that smelled better than it tasted.
“Drini Thike,” his father told him one dull winter morning as they crossed over the unlit bridge… “You remember Drini, he followed the man who molested his daughter…” Lefter spoke so softly in Albanian, even though there was no one else on the bridge, his words hardly entered the ears of his son before they froze and fell like iced drizzle to the rail tracks two stories below.
Skender knew Gjakmarrja. It made him shiver in the frigid predawn. Literally, a blood-taking. Our code of revenge. An unquestioning obligation to take the life of another in order to salvage family honor. There was no final page in our canon of brutal murder for murder. There was no other way to assuage a moral humiliation.
“The last time anyone saw that man,” his father said, “Was when he walked on to this bridge.” Lefter stopped at that spot and peered down over the rail.
Skender said, “Pop, didn’t Drini go to church?”
Lefter said to his son, “You know I always tell you from when you’re a boy, don’t be afraid to turn and look behind you in the night, and keep your faith in your church and your knife in your belt.” Then he spit over the side and walked away from his son.
Skender knew the blood-oath. He’d been steeped in vengeance and it t was around that time that Skender said to himself, “They don’t want me to be a priest, so be it. I’ll take my own vengeance. I’ll be a pirate.” And he started hanging after work with guys his age bent on living fast, dying young, and making a good-looking corpse.
Out front the sign read:
World Famous Sugar House Go-Go Bar
Girls Dancing 24/7 – Blacks – Ricans – Asian & White
Food – Fun – Girls
Dancers Wanted – Make At Least A Thousand A Week
Auditions 9am – 2am – 7 Days A Week
No Experience Necessary – We Will Train
“Time to set it off baby!” Mikie Kershaw, his friend from the factory told Skender. “I got a great spot for a cheap dance from some decent looking females. Five dollar dances at the bar. Drinks are cheap and the bootie-shaking is priceless, man. Oh, and don’t bring your gun, or in your case, your knife, causa’ they pat you down at the door. Otherwise, man, come on after work and enjoy a couple dances. Got lap dances too, twenty and a tip? Can’t beat it.”
Skender went hard for a year before it started wearing on him, on what you might call his conscience.
Something about the darkness of the bar and the dimness of the lighting mimicried the liturgical portal in a perverse inversion of the ecclesial icon…
And even in its distorted form, when the primitive elements were proportionately combined in a certain incendiary setting… Men, women, liquor, and drugs…
There was no doubt for Skender. The fabric of his existence was torn with microscopic fissures. He could feel the interior door opening on a beastly conflagration… Angels, of one kind only, were seeking entrance to his soul, and he knew, it was he who was giving them admittance, no resistance, no pat down at the gateway of his senses.
Sitting there, one too many a’ those blue flaming drinks they set on fire in your glass, and he’d started talking to himself, “There’s only two choices, a good one and bad one.”
“Who you talking to, brother.” Mikie asked.
Skender looked up over the crowd and the dancers on the bar and said, “The horse’s ass in the mirror.”
The night of the fight, Skender found out some things he didn’t want to know; Summer, the dancer he’d been enthralled with, was his cousin. It came out when he got in a fight with Karim, another man obsessed with the same alluring dancer.
Skender found out he was physically stronger than he thought and narrowly escaped arrest when the police discovered Karim had a folding nine inch dragon street knife that he turned on the cops in a cocaine rage.
And Skender, who acted in self-defense, was unarmed, according to the eyewitness testimony of every topless bartender, the fight-inciting patrons, and the dancers on the bar.
And Skender found out the hard way, that Summer, the girl who got the best of his every paycheck, the cousin he never knew was his cousin, was pregnant.
A week after he went to see her at Kensington Hospital, his cousin, Summer, her real name was Vere… Complications with the pregnancy, she lost the baby…
He tried to get on Karim’s visitors list up at CFC prison, but Karim turned him down.
Skender quit the factory, packed a bag, and set off walking downtown to the Filbert Street bus station. He told his parents he’d be in touch and kissed their hands.
“Where you going, my love?” His mother asked.
“To find an indication of the way to Heaven, Mommy.”
* * *
Maybe it had taken time and circumstance, but somehow the good work begun by the Holy Spirit in the baptismal fount had come to the fruition of light, dissolving from his being the generational wound of the blood-oath and the egomaniacal code of vengeance, allowing the true image of humanity given in Christ to say yes to the Father and be born again in his soul.
And a year later, he did get in touch with his parents, because on the day of his departure an encounter with a stranger in the next seat changed his spiritual trajectory and caused him to get off one bus and on to another.
It was during a visit to his parent’s house, by way of a habit he’d developed as a novice at the monastery, praying all through the early morning hours that another thing happened.
His elder had told him that prayers before dawn were most broken-hearted.
He found the pale brown pistachio half-shell as he knelt in the dark on the floor of his childhood bedroom.
It was the empty boat. The vacant vessel that had managed to catch nothing in the night. The one Lord Jesus sat in as he taught the crowds who had been pressing against Him. The one He asked Simon Peter to put out a little from the land.
The boat and all that went with it, left behind after Lord Jesus had filled it, left behind by Saint Peter, left on the shore, even filled to overflowing with good things as it was…
…His father’s words, don’t be afraid to turn around and look behind you in the night, but in following Christ to become a fisher of men, Skender knew, there was no looking back.
It was the sign Skender been praying for, the empty shell, to put out a little from the safety of solid ground, to offer his empty boat, willingly, with every fiber of his being, to present it back again to its Maker.
In the room, where as a boy he had called out to… he did not know a name to call… Maker of the Universe… The restorative reciprocity he received that night took him and his pistachio shell first to the monastery in the mountains by the lake.
When Skender’s Elder, Joseph, was a toddler, he had fallen into a scalding pot of boiling water. His frantic mother rushed him to the village church. The priest held the baby Joseph by his elbow and dipped him in a fount of Holy Water. His elbow was the only place on the Elder where his skin had the appearance, as he put it when he pulled up his sleeve and bowed his head, “Dru i vjetër.” – “Old wood.”
Father Joseph, the priest-elder.
In food and drink, austere.
Moderate in prayer. “Make me be love.”
Always asking “Help my unbelief.”
Quoting Chrysostom: Hard on himself. Easy on others.
One beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.
Knowing there was only One Teacher who did not have to learn what He taught.
“Three things,” he told the young Skender, “Love God. Love people. Repent and become prayer.”
The Elder who rode his bike for miles over hills and snow-packed country roads to buy chocolate for the children.
On a frozen lake at the monastery they built a hut and cut a hole in the ice to fish.
The Elder said to Skender, “Holy Paphnutios said, ‘If any one shall maintain, concerning the married presbyter, that it is not lawful to partake of the oblation when he offers it, let him be anathema, for marriage itself is worthy and without blemish – it is chaste, for it has been sanctified in the mystery of Holy Matrimony.”
Skender had a soul to listen. He tried to let things sink in before opening his mouth. The Elder always reminded him, “The steam bath loses its efficacy when you open the doors.”
As they were returning to the skete, Skender said, “Master, I’m not sure I understand what you said.”
The Elder did not answer.
It made Skender worry. He saw the long black veil in the wind, the whiteness of the Elder’s beard folding back over his shoulders, the movement of the old monk floating over the ice and gliding onto solid ground as they entered the gray wood of the monastery grounds. Skender was always afraid to mention there were never footprints in the snow except his own.
When the Elder looked at him, he said, “You are not married and you are not a monk, but you will be.”
Skender did not sleep that night. He held the shell and in the morning the Elder was found stiff in his cell. A letter he left for Skender said, “I pray that you will trust that all is sent down from God and leave the monastery.”
* * *
Three years went by.
Things had changed since Skender, in obedience, left the monastery.
“Embelsi.” Skender called his bride to be. “Where are you girl, it’s time.”
In two weeks Skender and Embelsi were to be married, and in two weeks more, Skender was to be ordained deacon, and a month later, priest. His Embelsi had hand-sewn his cassock and skufia. “I’ll never get a new one.” He told her.
They were in upstate New York staying with her relatives on a tree-lined avenue paved with bricks. The bishop had sent them to visit the small parish community they would be serving.
The roads were icy. The bride to be was twenty-three. Two years is not a long time to be engaged. Sometimes two years is forever. Sometimes it will just have to do, forever.
The truck slid sideways on the ice. Their car was totaled, but Skender and Embelsi were unhurt. It made Skender worry.
After they got home Embelsi just didn’t feel herself. Then the diagnosis came. But how can a person be expected to know the entire story, if they hadn’t read The Bride…? The story as it was told to Kusheri Nastradin.
Skender would not sit.
Skender, in his wedding garment.
Perhaps he couldn’t.
Standing by his Nuse.
Standing, the bridegroom, by his bride.
The incense rose around her like accompanying clouds.
The priestly vestments, next to her, were shadows waiting to be renewed in the Paschal light of Bright Week.
Her mother stood by the coffin and cried, “Here am I, oh Lord, with the child whom Thou hast given me.”
The bridegroom stood and wept.
And all of us with him.
Skender Dhenes refused to sit. He stood by the coffin of his Embelsi, squeezing the shell till his hand bled, too dead to cry, but not yet dead enough to be buried with her.
Not long after he was ordained, Father Skender took monastic vows. He served for a time, a time long before Naum, at our Fishtown parish, Saint Alexander the Whirling Dervish. There was no one in the neighborhood who didn’t love him, Orthodox, atheists, Jewish folks, Protestants, Catholics, and Muslim alike.
His pockets were always filled with chocolate and candy for the neighborhood kids who greeted him as he shopped along Kensington Avenue, doing his daily marketing, pulling his wire-wheel cart under the Tunnel.
Many a Monday the Teuta Ladies would come in to clean and find the church already sparkling, the church hall, the bathrooms, the trash put out, the sweeper run over the rugs, and the morning Nicky Zeo and Teddy the Horse caught our priest, Father Skender cleaning, the young monastic priest swore them to secrecy.
And he’d sworn Georgie Kendro to silence. “Please, Kenny, not till I’m gone.”
Kenny Kendro, we all called him. Cancer like you wouldn’t believe. The doctors at Fox Chase Oncologic gave him six months. At the check up the Sunday after Father Skender anointed him… Kenny Kendro came to Skender, “Nothing. It’s all gone.” Kenny lived another twelve years.
And there were others with the same story.
By that time, Skender had been consecrated Bishop. He lived in a single room at the back of our Cathedral in University City on the other side of the Schuylkill. He never varied from living the life of a monk. Him and his pistachio shell, somehow staying faithful to the apostolic calling, and steeped in the ancient ways, he knew how to overcome the temptations that stood in his way. No episcopal palaces or stately homes on this earth. He had other conceptions of life.
Once when Nicky Zeo went to visit at the Bishop’s tiny rooms, he said, “Hierasi, where’s all your furniture?”
Bishop Skender had a bed, a floor lamp, a stiff backed chair, a writing table, and a small chest of drawers. He said to Nicky, “Where’s yours?”
Nicky said, “Hierasi, I’m just passing through.”
Hierasi said, “Me too.”
When he was our priest, Father Skender didn’t come right out and punish the disobedient or the unruly.
“Or so it seems,” said Rabbi Aaron at the synagogue across the street.
Rabbi’s wife, Maureen, before Vlad, one of our young men, beat her, you may have read – Rabbi’s Question, another Nastradin story, his wife Maureen said, “Mashugana, Aaron, your middle name should be.”
The Rabbi said, “Yes, so, maybe no overt discipline, or defrocking, or excommunicating the unruly, but boy, when I was a young Rabbi and new here in Fishtown, Father Skendi, he just looks at you in that way, broken heart in his eyes… And you’re the one who deprived him and suddenly are awakened to the fact that you’ve defrocked yourself and cut yourself off from love, God’s love.”
Xenakis Qeni, who the neighborhood boys got to calling Naki Q, in his early twenties, the summer he was on workman’s comp from the putty factory; he’d fallen on his head climbing down from cleaning the three-story funnel – took on his new neighborhood persona as Q the Cop, and chased people through the neighborhood giving out tickets… Kusheri Nastradin calls that story, The Procession…
Naki was so honest, talking to him was like hearing your own confession. He said, “If Father Skender don’t take bribes from anyone for his work and he don’t owe anybody anything, how am I gonna’ arrest anyone for fixing a priest?”
As he was, as a priest, Skender, same as a Father Bishop.
When Bishop Skender came to visit a parish community, he never stayed less than a week.
He stayed in the home of the priest, or with one of the faithful, never in the same home twice, and never at a hotel.
During the week he spent individual time with the elders, the ladies group, the lay-leaders, “Come and have breakfast,” was his favorite line of Lord Jesus from the Gospel. And the Bishop would add, “My treat.”
Weekdays, we’d see him walking the neighborhood during his episcopal visits, talking to people at the bus stop, sitting on the front steps with old folks after putting their trash on the curb, or helping to sweep their pavement in the spring, or shovel their walks when it snowed.
He loved shopping on the Avenue and trading stories with the merchants. It wasn’t unusual for him to visit the children at their schools, from kindergarten to high school. It was almost as if they loved presenting him to their classmates in his cassock, white beard, and skufia at Show and Tell. “This is my Bishop.” And he’d stand there smiling while the class applauded and cheered. He used to visit the sick at Kensington Hospital or take the bus up to CFC prison.
“How are you making it?” He would ask everyone privately. “Is there anything I can do to help?” Then before leaving he would say to each and every person he met, “Please remember me in your prayers.” And he meant it.
The Bishop would ask the priest and the leadership, the choir, and the church school people the same questions… What are you reading for your soul? How is it for you, your prayer life? Going to Confession? Marriage okay? How are the kids, your parents…? “Not easy being a widow,” Sipping tea with someone who’d been left alone, he’d say. “I know it myself.”
“God’s people,” He would say, “Take care of each other, take care of God’s people.”
Once when Naum and his family got a call on vacation telling them to return because the priest covering got sick… Naum got a call, we don’t know how it happened, from the Bishop, “Father, please stay with your family. I’m am covering. I will serve as a priest.”
Walking around the church he would remark on the condition of the building. He would look at the furnace, the windows, ask about the roof and the plumbing, telling the people, “Amazing job. How old is this building?” or “Do we know anyone who does carpentry?” Never overtly criticizing, but there was nothing that missed his eye.
And in the Altar, “Come, Father, show me the Antimension. Oh, the chalice and the spoons are so clean. Hmm…? What do you do with the communion cloth when it comes to this condition?” Never chastising, but never tolerating sloth.
“And Father,” he would ask the priest, “Has God shown you any vocations among our faithful? Do any of our men have a calling to serve God’s people? Pray and God will show you who has a heart to suffer with our Lord Christ for the sake of those He loves. Someone prayed for you, and for me. A healthy body replicates its cells.” The Bishop always said.
He would sit with Naum, alone in the Altar, for an hour or more, looking deeply, face to face, with the man he had blessed to attend seminary all those years ago. “Father Naum,” the Bishop would tell him, “It’s not wrong to follow the example of our Master, for us to have disciples. There is only one priest, Lord Jesus, and we, all of us have a different obedience in His one priesthood. Call out to God and ask him to show you the next generation of servants and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.”
The choir and the church school staff, much time with them. And asking everyone, “Is the liturgy so beautiful that Heaven shows through?” He wanted to make sure the ancient fires were being kept alive as they were once delivered and always full of life.
He would always ask our parish leadership, “Is there anything I can do to help with the finances?” It always took them by surprise, and when Carol, our parish president asked, “What can we do for you, Hierasi?”
He said, “A bus ticket to my next visitation, and a box lunch would be nice.”
People would ask him, “Hierasi, why the bus?”
Teddy the Horse who ran Auto Heaven on the Avenue said, “Hierasi, I’ll give you a car.”
He traveled everywhere and visited all of his parish communities by bus, many of them he had planted as missions, the little white-bearded old man in the black dress with the paper-bag suitcase. He travelled to his parishes in the USA and Canada, coast to coast and as far north into Canada as Edmonton and Alberta.
The Bishop was self-sufficient, thick-headed, what we call, Koka Dru, in his desire to be independent, not a burden to anyone, and yet he was able to maintain a balance of give and take in relationships throughout his life, a reciprocal existence as befits a monk.
Perhaps the only indulgence he left himself was the memory of his Embelsi. Once when Naum asked him, “Hierasi, what do you do after the services are all over, when liturgy is finished for the day?”
He said, “Father, I go home and I sit on the edge of my bed and I cry for my Sweetness.”
Naum knew her name meant Sweetness.
He was our first and earliest Bishop in America. He was from among us. He walked the bridge from the factory in the cold before light.
Those who came after? They were from the seminary, or somewhere…
When Captain Stefani’s wife died, the retired cop offered, “The kids are raised and off on their own. I got nowhere to go, Hierasi, and all day ta’ get there… Pay my own freight, got a good pension… Teddy’ a’ give us the car, let me be your driver. It’d be an honor, please.”
For a short time, Bishop Skender had been one of Naum’s professors at seminary. He lived with the other monastics across the road from student housing.
A monk called Vasily, who’d know Skender for a long time told Naum, “Besides his love and prayer, the main characteristic of his life is his pastoral devotion, no matter the situation, wherever God places him, he prays to see God’s purpose and to be a responsive icon of God’s love.”
Bishop Skender told Stefan the retired cop, “I very much appreciate your offer to drive. But one of the ways I manage to keep a balance of interior life, of prayer, and of pastoral service, is, in fact, by his taking the bus everywhere. I encounter so many people of such diverse background and need…
“Sometimes, because of how weird I look to the American eye, I am a witness for Christ just by presence and strange appearance amongst so many who otherwise would never have a contact with Christ or the Orthodox Church. I don’t even have to tell them… They seem to know.”
“At the same time, Stefani,” the Bishop said, “such trips allow for large portions of time in which I am able to pray in silence.”
Stefan said, “Understood.”
Later Captain Stefani told Kusheri Nastradin, “Don’t wanna’ lie to a Bishop but, truthfully, I’m not sure that I do understand. ‘Specially the story he told me about the devil sowing seeds.”
Nastradin knew the story.
Skender took a bus from 10th and Filbert the day long ago when he quit the factory and first left the home of his father and mother.
The stranger who sat next to him on the bus was a woman called Artesia. She was writing in a journal. They didn’t speak. Skender was on the bus south, determined to join the Marine Corp at Beaufort, South Carolina.
Somewhere in rural Maryland the woman got off the bus and walked into a field. He watched her as the bus pulled away. When she turned and stopped, Skender felt she was looking directly at him. He watched till the woman in the field was out of sight. He never saw her again.
On the seat was the book, Artesia’s Journal… And in her own hand.
The devil went forth to sow his seed
Some of the devil’s seed fell on rocky ground where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow. But when the sun rose, the devil’s seedlings were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.
Question 1: How deep is the soil within you? What have you cultivated to grow in your soil? Is the rock in your rocky ground the Lord Jesus? Is your soil for rooting evil appetites shallow or deep? What within you will wither when the Son rises?
Other of the seed sown by the devil fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the seedlings.
Question 2: His crown of thorns, is it not enough for you, to choke the seedlings sown by the enemy?
Still other evil seed fell on ground ripe for the rebellion of egocentric individuality and produced a crop – a hundredfold, sixtyfold, or thirtyfold.
Question 3: When the seed of temptation to turn from God’s love and neighbor is sown in your heart, does it find good fertile ground for producing a crop of evil, of thirtyfold, or more?
When he showed the journal to Stefani, the retired cop who had offered to be his driver, Bishop Skender said, “I’m hoping to one day return this book to its author.”
And that’s all he would say.
Naum found an empty meter at 8th and Market and parked his old Impala. It was only a few blocks from the bus station and he had enough quarters in the ashtray for an hour.
Two-Beer Eddie said, “Findin’ a spot that close, and him having four quarters, now there’s a miracle, Bishop.”
Deacon Dionysios opened the trunk and handed a soft caramel colored leather satchel suitcase to the Bishop.
The Bishop held it up. “This?”
“Your paper-bag suitcase and all your episcopal paraphernalia are inside, Hierasi. We wanted you to have a sturdy bag with a good strap.”
His mitre and staff, all his vestments and books, he carried wrapped in old pillow cases inside his travel-worn paper bag.
“Thank you, Father Deacon.” Said Bishop Skender.
In the terminal, the Bishop sat himself on one of the hard plastic seats bolted to the floor and told Naum and the men, “I am grateful. Thank you.”
Two-Beer Eddie asked, “If ya’ could wave your bishops candles… what’re they called?”
The Deacon said, “Dikirion and Trikirion.”
“Yeah, those, if ya’ could wave ‘em over all these homeless slumping around the walls and change ‘em ta’ citizens, would ya’?
The old Bishop was tired. He said, “God has given freedom, who am I to take it away?”
“Would ya’ at least try an’ counsel ‘em?” Eddie said.
“I’m a man of God, Edon,” the Bishop was gentle with Two-Beer Eddie, “not a counselor.”
No one noticed our Teuta Ladies, Ramona and Madeline, in the coffee shop.
The Bishop told Naum he wanted to be in peace, thanked the men again, and they left with his blessing.
Half an hour later, Ramona nudged Madeline, both watching through tears. “Don’t tell Carol about the scarf.”
The Bishop opened his leather satchel and removed his old paper-bag suitcase. He took off his new shoes and put on his old ones. Stood, shed his new scarf and coat, smiled like he had seen an old friend in an unexpected place, and slipped into the comfort of his worn brown Chesterfield overcoat.
Then he went among the men huddled along the wall. He found one with no shoes, another without a coat, and one, carrying all his things in a black plastic trash bag, suddenly had a new caramel colored soft leather satchel.
He gave out chocolate and candy, went back to his seat and took out the worn journal of Artesia from his paper-bag and sat in his skufia quietly running his fingers over each page.
Ramona and Madeline swore each other to secrecy and left the 10th and Filbert bus station agreeing that if the time ever came, hypothetically speaking, when they just couldn’t resist, they’d play rock, scissors, paper, to determine which of them would have to Confess to Naum and tell the girls in the Society about the Bishop giving away his new leather bag, his leather-soled oxblood Thom McAn’s, the beautiful coat and scarf, all gone to the homeless, and confess they’d gotten so hungry waiting all that time that they’d eaten his box lunch.
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.