The Temple Transparent

by Vigen Guroian

Trellis in Guroian's Garden (Photo by Vigen Guroian)
Trellis in Guroian's Garden (Photo by Vigen Guroian)

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me; and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple. —Malachi 3:1, KJV Huge trunks! and each particular trunk a growth Of intertwisted fibers serpentine … Nor uninformed with fantasy, and looks That threaten the profane; a pillared shade … Of boughs, as if for festal purpose, decked … … there to celebrate, As in a natural temple scattered o'er With altars undisturbed of mossy stone, United worship; or in mute repose To lie, and listen to the mountain flood. —William Wordsworth, "Yew Trees"

This autumn, after an awful summer drought, the trees blazed in lustrous shades of red and orange, but the flames on their branched candelabras were short lived. Heavy rains snuffed them out, and cold winds sent the leaves in trembling flocks to an early earthen rest. It brought to mind some lines from Robert Frost: "The same leaves over and over again! / They fall from giving shade above / To make one texture of faded brown / And fit the earth like a leather glove" ("In Hardwood Groves"). One November morning, I was perched in a posture of prayer, as at a kneeling rail, on the second-story hall balcony that overlooks the great room of our new home in Culpeper, Virginia. Out the Palladian window, my eyes followed the mowed path from the unfinished patio down the terraced perennial beds, in which waved gay plumes of ornamental grass and dried bouquets of goldenrod, on through the vegetable garden, haunted by withered vines and skeleton stalks, into the meadow, all amber this time of year, and out toward the gray scarf of naked trees and briar thicket that hugs Hungry Run. The sun rode low in the east, just high enough, however, to illuminate the wooded hill and pasture on the far side of the stream. The light, as in a Byzantine icon, seemed to issue not from an external source but from within temple walls. I missed this scene last fall. While our home was being built, I dug in dozens of shrubs and perennials and hundreds of spring bulbs on the backyard slope. But I worked late in the day, at sunset, when shadows shrouded the wood and pasture. My wife, June, and I moved in on Holy Week. By then, the daffodils that I had planted were spilling down the bank out back like yellow paint from a tipped-over bucket. And the maple trees were opening their clenched fists and drawing a sylvan veil over the temple sanctuary. In late November, the entire Blue Ridge rises transfigured. As the leaves fall from the trees, the summer veil is lifted, and darkness is made visible. Through temples transparent, saints and sinners see into secret earthen sanctuaries. I am reminded that when Jesus died on the accursed Tree, the curtain of the Temple tore open, and the Holy of Holies was shown. In late November, Advent begins, and the great Epiphany draws near. The naked babe, blanketed in supernal light, is the Holy of Holies, opened to ordinary eyes. St. Ephrem the Syrian says that,

The Lord of all
is the treasure store of all things:

upon each according to his capacity

He bestows a glimpse

of the beauty of His hiddenness,

of the splendor of His majesty.

Hymns on Paradise, 9:25

Forty days after his birth, according to Jewish tradition, Mary and Joseph took the Child to the Temple, where he was blessed by prophet and prophetess and named the Most High. (In the Christian East this is celebrated in February as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, and in the West it is called Candlemas.) The tiny body that old Simeon held in his gnarled hands was the same person whom John the Baptist bathed in the River Jordan, and in whom all of Creation was cleansed, and Paradise was renewed. An Armenian Epiphany hymn proclaims,

The Creator of heaven and earth Appeared as God and man in Jordan's streams: By His flesh intermixed with God He washed the universe from sin.

I know all about the explanations that authorities give for why Christians celebrate Jesus' birth and baptism at this time of the year — winter solstice, pagan festivals, and so on. But nature gives her own reasons. The cold autumn rains, the gray austerity of winter woodscape, the pearl purity of December snowfall — all awaken a desire inside of me that, I know, God will not disappoint. "Not yesterday I learned to know / The love of bare November days / Before the coming of the snow" (Robert Frost, "My November Guest"). One sunny morning in early December, 1 carried hand trowel and rake out to the northwest corner of the yard where an old fence of weathered cedar and rusted barbed wire separates field from forest. On the far side, a broad woodland path wends two hundred paces down to Hungry Run. I cleared away patches of berry vines and briar and planted drifts of white narcissus and blue Siberian squill deep in the ground. In April they will rise and light my way like foot lanterns that line the aisles of a darkened theater before the show comes on. All summer a leafed canopy kept out the sun and left the path safe and secluded. It is the kind of place where children might play hide-and-seek, or Adam and Eve conceal themselves from God. On this day, however, I, in my middle years, all soiled and weary, ambled down it, playing a timeless gardener's game, imagining what beauty there might be in spring when the flowers bloomed. As I reached the bottom, it was as if I had entered a house of light. The walls were not solid, and the powder-blue sky was its dome. But the temple was tangible, nonetheless, in sheer luminescence; and Hungry Run flowed through it like a silver thread. The light of these short winter days is almost material, like the thick smoke of incense; watery, like summer moonbeams. I was bathed in it, drowned in it. I forgot my gardener's dream and for one mystical moment was old Simeon, stripped of age and weakness, refreshed by clean water, blown dizzy like a leaf on a gust of wind, lifted on cherubs' wings, gripped with yearning, propelled by hope, spirited by joy into the temple.

Savior! Today You came into the Temple and the elder received you into his arms
and said:

"Now lettest Thou thy servant depart

in peace, 0 Master."

Christ our God! Today you appeared to the world as light and to the universe as salvation. Save us, 0 Lover of man. —Armenian Hymn for the Presentation of the Lord

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is professor of religious studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia. His books include The Fragrance of God and Inheriting Paradise.

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