Tony Woodlief | Author

Temple of bones

Every baptism in the Orthodox Church entails an exorcism, as I learned last Easter when I was baptized into the Church. It was nothing desperate and dramatic like some of us remember from The Exorcist; in truth the devil and his minions flee from Christ and the Cross, having been sundered by both.

There was no desperation in the exorcism, but there was within me. I renounced the evil one with quaking voice, and tried to conjure from dry throat the saliva to spit outward across the threshold where I stood, to spit on the devil and thereby all my past involvement with him and all future temptation to heed him again.

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I could not read my part well for tears, then there was the tub of water and I beneath the water, crouched low and tight as a baby in the womb, lest some part of me remain dry and vulnerable like Achilles’ heel. Then there was air and light and the circled parishioners singing, and I delivered from the tomb.

Delivered, yet enframed by these diseased bones. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” urged the saint who surely knew that working grace into the bones means drawing out its opposite as one might a poison. This is a holy surgery, a divine displacement, and it is by no means easy.

My oldest tells me he is working on cultivating kindness within himself, and he is, we all see it. When he slips he’s discouraged, and so I tell him a hard thing about salvation: It is not only a working out of poison but a workout, which is why St. Paul likened it to a marathon.

I used to pray for humility, I tell my son, believing God would simply hand it over to me. But that’s not so, I explain. He gives me humility by humbling me. He teaches me gratitude by allowing loss. He teaches me to love by letting me be wounded.

So expect to stumble, I tell my son. It’s a sign you’re making progress up the hill. What I don’t tell him, because I think he has to learn this on his own, is how warranted is this fear and trembling. Be careful what you pray for, child. Have a care. There is no grace worth having that comes cheap. These bones are a temple being swept clean and some of them will be scourged.

Have a care for the salvation you seek, I might tell him, for to ask is to receive. It is an indwelling and so an exorcism; it is entering the tomb and springing from your grave and neither will be what you expect.

It is a kind of death, boy. It is dying that you may have life, but it is a dying, and dying is never easy.

I imagine he’ll learn this in his own time. For now his are the labors of a boy, struggling up the hill that is at once the Mount of Olives and Golgotha. There’s time enough, God willing, for him to witness for himself what waits atop each.

On Key

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