I don't think I've ever lived in a place more filled with more eccentrics than Rome. I know there are eccentrics everywhere, of course, but the sheer density of them in Rome is remarkable and quite frequently made visible because they are so often religious types and are sporting distinctive garb of some sort or another. Imagine if every true eccentric you know had a sort of uniform that announced to all that he or she was eccentric – that's the general idea. (Now I've just spent ten minutes actively imagining what the official uniform of an English eccentric would be … back to writing Alaric!)
I met one such of Rome's eccentrics one evening many years ago in the Church of Sant'Antonio dei Portoghesi in the centre of the city, just around the corner from a shoppe called “Sempre Natale!” - “Always Christmas!” – which always made me smile, especially in the summer months when sparkly door wreaths with reindeer jumping out of them didn't exactly fly off the shelves. I went to the church to listen to an underwhelming performance of Bach's solo partitas and sonatas for violin by a young woman who was so nervous she was sweating profusely, which I think made her fingers slip every now and then, producing notes I'm fairly certain Bach had not intended. At one point in the concert, my head lowered so as to appear serious, I looked across the aisle and saw a pair of feet dangling just above the floor of a pew, swinging slightly back and forth as small children often do with their feet in such situations. I looked up from the feet and was shocked to discover that they did not belong to a child, but to a small man decked in the black robes of an Eastern monk, complete with that stove-pipe hat (kalimavkion – I am gleeful that I get to use that word) which rested over a not insignificant mane of yellow-white hair. I was struck by how much he looked like a Christmas tree ornament of a happy but slightly off-putting young Father Christmas, unnervingly beardless, that I received as a gift from my local Chinese restaurant my first year in Rome. What was this gnomish man's story, I was asking myself, slippery violin performance all but forgotten, when he looked up and caught me staring at him. This happens a lot to me, so I just smiled and nodded as if to say “I wasn't staring at you, per se, but rather was looking in your direction in hopes that I could give you a smile and a nod of greeting.” He smiled back, and his eyes went into little slits, making him look even more like my odd Christmas ornament.
After the recital, he hobbled up to me. Without the hat he probably would have come up to my chest, but with the hat he arrived at just under my nose. He told me his name was Father Chrysostom and I willed myself not to slip up and call him Father Christmas. He was, indeed, an Orthodox monk who said he taught Patristics at one of the Roman universities. “Which one?” I asked, to which he replied, “That's not important.” Whereas many would see this as a brusque push-off, the oddity of his answer seemed to confirm his eccentricity in my mind and made me like him all the more.
We began walking and chatting. He was a bit mono-topical in his discourse, as everything he had to say ended up being about how we in the West always got theological things wrong. (A not invalid criticism, perhaps.) On and on he waxed – in some detail – about many of the theological nuances that we miss in the West because we are “like irate orangutans in a crystal factory” – a far superior way of saying “bull in a china shoppe” that I decided on the spot needed to become part of my conversational arsenal. Every now and then he would stop to make a particular point which he would punctuate by shaking his cane non-threateningly in my face. (The cane had a ceramic serpent's head with faux ruby eyes, and I was desperate to ask him its story but never got the chance.)
For one such discourse we had stopped in front of Sempre Natale! And after Father Chrysostom had finished that particular rant he looked up to see a shop window positively bursting with Nativity nick-nacks, including many images of the man he himself resembled. He just shook his head in disgust.
My eye caught a round ceramic dish with the depiction of the O Antiphons that was actually quite lovely, and wanting to stand up for things I hold dear (the Western Christian tradition, Christmas tat, and camp – not necessarily in that order) I pointed it out to Father Chrysostom. He moved his head closer to inspect it, knocking his kalimavkion (again!) on the window. He sighed, clearly exasperated.
“Why is it in the West that you seem to be against equating Christ's voice with that which came forth from the burning bush?”
I wasn't entirely sure that we were against it – or at least I had never heard such an accusation so couldn't really properly respond.
He was, of course, referring to today's O Antiphon in which we hear O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
His point, which he articulated with an astounding animation, was that it was the literal voice of Jesus which spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, something he said was stressed in the East but didn't get much press in the West.
“That's an interesting image,” I said noncommittally.
“Interesting?” he shouted, shaking that snake's head in my face. “It's only what it's all about! How can we prepare for the return of the Word if we don't pay attention to when he's already been among us? News flash: Jesus – Adonai – did not just suddenly appear at Christmas. He is God from the beginning.”
I thought saying “news flash” was a tad condescending, but I let it slide, as I had no doubt that I would someday use the story of being berated by a diminutive Father Christmas lookalike wearing a kalimavkion (again!) shaking a snake-head walking stick in my face. “We prepare for Christ to come by remembering Christ who is and Christ who will be,” he then said softly and tenderly. And then he tapped that snake head lightly on my chest – it seemed almost a caress – and said “And we remember here.”
I love that image: preparing for Christ to come by remembering the Christ who already was and the Christ who will be. So often Christmas seems to include looking back in nostalgia – and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing – but every now and then we need to remember that that babe in the manger is eternal, and was a part of the story of God before our very world was formed. He's not something that gets trotted out once a year, not a ceramic figurine who knows his place in the tinsel-decked tableaux which we construct for him. He is eternal and limitless and was found, is found, and will be found where he wills it. He is Adonai – Lord – and finding him brings us nothing short of redemption itself via his outstretched arm. And we remember all of this – remember him – not solely through the ordered letters of dogma, but primarily in the sometimes rather messy business of the heart, where the love which is eternal beats with an insistency which makes us powerless (if we let it).
We continued walking, stopping for a late night coffee. Father Chrysostom had moved on from his O Antiphon rant to something else (“Don't even get me started on the fillioque!” he said stirring in three packets of sugar) but I was only half-listening. Instead I was thinking of the same voice which cried out to Moses from the burning bush and cried out for us all at Calvary, and was at that moment crying for me to pay attention to him then and there, in sometimes unpleasant music, in eccentric monks, in dirty streets, and in my own beating heart.