Father Paul was sitting on the deck, drinking. The bottle in front of him was almost empty. He sipped glass after glass, at short intervals, without even tasting the food that had already turned cold. He was drinking obstinately, while deliberately emphasizing the nature of his occupation and smirking to himself: “Hey, dear Orthodox brothers, admire your shepherd!”
The generic name of Orthodox was used by father Paul for all the passengers on the ship. Some of them were already throwing distrustful glances towards the table where the priest stood, carefully searching for the captain of the ship. Some mothers grabbed their children, who were frolicking on deck, by their sleeves, trying to keep them away from the troubling priest. The father, who clearly understood the attitude of the public towards him, had no intention to stop, but on the contrary, he tried in different ways to show his complete indifference. He wanted, most of all, to demonstrate despise and disgust towards a fellow priest who was talking to the passengers on deck.
The impressive outfit, the definite pace, the dainty motions of this person particularly disgusted him. He could not unravel distinguish his face because he was further away at a distance, but he managed to glance at him over his shoulder a couple of times.
“Anyhow, what does the man take pride in?” father Paul thought to himself. “He is a priest just like me, except he serves in the city, perhaps, and his wage is about 2000 rubles. With a living like that anyone can show off... I would really much want to see him in my shoes... Look at him, you can almost tell he is a bishop!”. The Father’s heart turned bitter and bitter from those thoughts, and the malice towards his imposing brother grew. He grabbed the glass, quickly sipped tossed it off on his throat , then spit so energetically on the floor that his hat, which was barely holding on his top, rolled down to his feet. The priest did not show any intention whatsoever to lift pick it up. He allowed all his weight to fall on the table and he fixed his dismayed gaze on the people around. But he noticed that his fellow brother turned around and calmly started to approach him. Without lifting up his eyes, father Paul clinched pricked up his ears to at the softly noise of the steps and the rustling of his cassock. He is near. The desire to throw him a joke or to place him in an embarrassing situation overwhelmed him.
“Father, hey father!” he mocked him, “fancy a glass of vodka?”
The father stopped, gazed at him for a moment, smiled and said:
“Thank you, brother, but I do not drink.” He lifted the hat from the floor, straightened it with caution, and took a sit next to father Paul.
Father Paul was not expecting anything like this. He was thinking that he will would end up, at most, with a look full of hate, after which his “prim and proper” brother will would move on, while he, father Paul, would be laughing behind his back. This behavior, however, completely disarmed him. He turned red with embarrassment. The thought of offending a good-hearted church man made him feel ashamed. Wishing to get rid of the feeling of discomfort and to minimize his insolence, he continued the conversation, passing from sarcasm to a more unraveled tone of a tipsy man.
“Where are you from?” he asked, giving his new interlocutor a sidelong glance.
The guest straightened his cassock, made himself comfortable and, turning to father Paul, answered with a calm and serene voice:
“I am from far away... I travel and admire the great Volga. So much wealth here, so much boundlessness! And so much life! So many people, so many goods, so much movement: should we only count the passenger ships! mostly passenger ships if you count them! Only by seeing it with your own eyes, you understand why our folk love this river so much, why they worship and carry it in so many songs, why it’s missed so much when they are far. It is, indeed, a big river.”
“Well, of course it is!” father Paul nodded. Being born and raised on the shores of Volga, he loved the river and was proud of it, like a true inhabitant of the province. The praise brought by the new comer flattered him. There was no trace left of the old hostility and so, he started to listen more carefully.
“You’ve got great wealth here,” continued the guest, “but also... much sorrow. Many tears and worries. But this is not the greatest pain. I had the chance to observe the life of a small number of people from the outskirts of the country, who live in conditions that are worse than most of our peasants’. They only wear rags and eat cornmeal mush or barley bread, which is never enough. But when you look at them; tall as the pine trees. Their walk is sprightly and their look is so majestic that you can almost tell they are wearing a tunic and not rags. One could believe they have no worries and troubles and that there is no shortage for them. Therefore our sorrow lies not in poverty or troubles. Our sorrow is that our Russian fellow does not know how to manage troubles and bitterness. Burden comes upon him so he either arms himself with either patience, a strong and lasting patience, or starts to complain without any signs of stopping. More often than not he tries to drown his troubles, stifle and silence them. Exactly as you are doing. The plague has reached you and, instead of facing it, you turned to drinking... and you want to add to the previous burden another, bigger one.”
Father Paul was looking amazed at his brother in amazement. “And how does he know I drink?” he asked himself.
“But look how strong you are!” said the guest patting him on the back. “Look what sturdy shoulders you have! With them, you can carry not only your troubles but others’ as well.”
Father Paul suddenly sniffed a scent of liveliness. He remembered that in his home village the peasants, his parishioners, often admitted that nobody could compete with him, father Paul, in working.
“And yet another Russian feature,” the guest carried on, thinking more for himself. “The disaster hits the Russian but yet, he bares it; acting like he does not neither hears nor sees anything, and doesn’t think about the fact that somebody else can suffer from a greater pain. We like to carry our troubles openly, but we fail to notice that, because we are so preoccupied about with our needs, we burden the others with our trouble as well. The exact same thing you are doing right now, my friend.”
“And whom am I burdening with my troubles right now, may I ask?” father Paul wondered.
“What do you mean by whom? Look, you are sitting here, drinking your pain away without thinking, for example, at that man right there... See, the gentleman is sitting there, on the bench. Earlier, we passed near a village with a church, so he took his cap off and made the cross sign on his chest. There is still faith in his heart, as you can see. Now, tell me father, isn’t it painful for him to see a shepherd of the Church devoting himself to such occupation?”
Father Paul glanced out of the tail of his eye at the bottle on the table, ashamed, while his guest discretely called the waiter to take away the bottle and the glass. Father Paul showed no objection, but he tried somehow to justify his behavior.
“Well, great and heavy is my burden. I am drinking out of pique, as you well noticed, father.”
“It would be better if you got it off your chest, brotherly share it, and perhaps it won’t seem so heavy no anymore. A trouble shared is a trouble halved.”
Father Paul, too, felt the need to have a good grizzle with this kind-hearted father. His gentle face predisposed him and, especially, his intelligent look eyes, serious but sad, and at the same time full of kindness and warmth, gave him confidence. Such people take interest in others not just out of a simple curiosity.
“I have been sentenced to trial, started father Paul, I wedded without documents... The matter is this: a young lad and a girl come and ask me to marry them. She’s orphan, he’s orphan, they both worked at a factory, and behold, the poor couple gave in to sin; so they want everything made according to the law, and with God’s grace – but yet another trouble – they have no papers. She had lived at her aunt’s, then ran away without papers; his papers expired, so he sent to have them changed, but still haven’t arrived. ‘No way, I tell them, without papers it can’t be done!’, ‘But how, father, they ask me, is it better to live like this, without God’s blessing?’, ‘This is your concern, I tell them, go back to wherever you came from.’
So they both stand still there; the bride is crying, and the groom throws himself at my feet... What should I do? I took pity on them, so I opened the church and called them inside.
‘Well, here’s what we’re going to do’, I told them. ’I can see you are both of age, but both of you must vow in front of God and his Holy Face that you are in no way or form related by blood.’ They vowed. So I married them. May God be with you both ... And I did not charge anything for the wedding because, indeed, you could tell they were poor. And to prevent this happening from reaching the ears of our higher ranks, I didn’t write the wedding in any register, I only gave them a certification confirming that they are, indeed, legit husband and wife. And this would have been the end of it all, you see, but meanwhile, all kinds of “comrades” have appeared in my life... I had a fight with one of them, the parson of the church from the neighborhood village, and he told on me to the consistory. So, as it is the custom, they opened a case, they trialed me... And they sent me to the monastery for repentance. I went to the bishop; maybe I could soften him, I thought. Yah! He didn’t even receive me! He sent a word through his apprentice: ’Tell that no good monkey not to show himself in front of me!”. And then I was filled with anger: ‘If that’s the way it’s going to be, then tell the bishop that not only will I not go to the monastery, but I won’t return to the parish as well. Let him appoint whoever he wants in my place!’ I turned my back and left. And that’s how I left the place. I wanted to find another occupation, but who needs a priest in reserve? I wanted to work as a laborer, but heck, people feel uncomfortable to let a man of the church carry heavy loads on his shoulders... So, yeah, I am wondering here and there. I thought of leaving for another diocese, to find a place there, and maybe another bishop with a kind heart who would understand me. So I came to the bishop from around this place. I heard he is kind... But misfortune follows me: he has just left, appointed in another place, and now, a new bishop is expected to take his place. And if this one is high and mighty too, then what am I going to do? Wonder here and there again, but I have my family and children waiting back home... Soon, we will have to bootstrap... How can I not give in to drinking?”
“I would have done the same in your place,” said the father, invigorated. “It isn’t the priest’s responsibility to collect prenuptial documents or to perfect the papers of the betrothed. Grace will not come only for the sole reason that papers are in order, neither do missing papers prevent from accepting the divine blessing. Marriage had existed since the first ages of Christianity, when nobody had any idea about certificates or registrations. However, if you were to wed minors, then that would have been a different matter. It would have been a great sin, since you would have desecrated The Holly Sacrament of Marriage. There would not have been grace in the Holly Sacrament. It is similar as praying for a man already dead to heal, or to perform the Holly Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick on a dead body. By wedding minors, you would have broken the law of nature, which states that only people that have reached a certain age and biological maturity can get married. Because the laws of nature, as well as the moral laws, are both given by God. Notice what absurdity it could be: on one hand, you would break God’s commandment, and on the other, you would ask Him for His grace to do it. Of course, in this case the grace will not come, and instead of performing The Holly Sacrament, you would defile it.
Therefore, you have not committed any sin. It is true, however, that for not respecting the formalities, you have been found liable for punishment; but could you not endure it, at least for the joy that you brought to those lovebirds? I am sure that they were profoundly happy and in deep gratitude.”
“Well, how else then! Even on these days, since I have been traveling by ship... I came out once on the deck, searching to buy some food. Suddenly I hear: ‘God have mercy father, would you like some apples? Please, take some’, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ I answer. ‘How much?’, ‘I cannot charge you father, here... take some. Don’t you recognize me, father?’ I look closer- it’s her, the bride with no papers! ‘How are you doing?’ I ask her, and she answers full of joy: ‘Very well, thank God, father! The Lord gave us a child!’, ‘Well, God bless you all!’ I said to her and she gives me the basket full of apples and nicely asks me to take it. What else was I supposed to do? I took it! I served the passengers with apples the entire trip.”
“Now, there you go! But you started drinking. You have to fight with troubles and pray harder to God. Prayer strengthens the man, it freshens his mind, and a fresh and powerful man will always find a way out in every situation. You have a kind soul, as well as strengths. So do not destroy both yourself and others... Well, it looks like we are getting closer to the city. Soon, we will have to disembark... And it is my first time here. I have been recently appointed. Here’s what I propose: come by my apartment, somewhere near the cathedral. We will continue our chat, maybe invent something, who knows. See you soon! Now, my apologies, I need to prepare my luggage.”
The father stood up, hold his hand and kissed him three times.
“Goodbye”, said father Paul, full of shyness in his voice. “Thank you for the kind words and please forgive me. I did not expect you to be like that...”
“God forgive you!” said the other priest heading towards his cabin.