The Gates of Repentance

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I am standing in the park. Snow falls all around me, laying a pristine blanket of softness on the dead, dull ground. There is nothing new about this scene; since childhood I have known the particular kind of silence that snow brings. People stay inside, cars drive slowly or not at all; animals burrow in the ground or hunker down inside trees. And the thick frozen flakes cover everything, down to the last twig on the last branch of the last dormant tree.

The snow has just started to fall, covering the earth in patches. It is late February, and already the green shoots of some brave and daring annuals have poked their heads out of the frozen soil, willing the warm breezes of spring to return. Their presence is a testament to many other living things, unseen but ever-present, growing silently and invisibly beneath the earth. This is the season of latency, of sleep, but the ground is not as dead as it looks; it will soon burst forth with life in shades of green and purple and gold.

Snow is what makes winter tolerable for me; looking at the monochromatic expanse of bare tree limbs and worn grass is tiring to the eyes, and when covered in white it is transformed into a magical landscape. I am sure this point of view is as old as snow itself, but I am still struck with awe when I see it borne out each winter; each year it is nothing short of a miracle.

But this park, and this snow, are the backdrop for a completely different landscape: all around and throughout the trees have sprouted beacons in bright tangerine, tall archways with floating fabric curtains, heralds of the coming spring. They weave in and out of the trees, over bridges, around ponds and across rocky, icy slopes. Their sunny warmth is an unexpected contrast to the colorless landscape, and the effect is one of pure joy.

It sounds like a dream, but for sixteen days in New York City last winter, it was real. The Gates of Central Park, an installation that stood from February 11-27, was elevated into a spiritual experience with the snowfall that blessed its last weekend of existence; rarely does one see such a pure union of God’s creativity and man’s humble attempts at the same. The project dated back to 1979, when artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude imagined a canopy of fabric rippling over the heads of passersby in Central Park. The project was put on hold after being met with much criticism by the Parks Commission, but was revived after a big fan of the artists was elected mayor and the city’s sagging post-9/11 economy needed a boost. As one might expect, the bureaucracy was a nightmare; the anchoring needed to be changed so that no holes would need to be drilled and re-filled, the metal tubing rejected in favor of heavy-duty plastic, which would not rust and pollute the ground. But the fact that it actually happened – 7,500 gates over 23 miles of pathways, visible from any point in the huge park – is another miracle, just as surprising and delightful as a snow-covered field.

Walking around quietly, one might be able to take away the impression that the orange processional threading its way through Central Park had always been there. Many hurried past, scarves wrapped round their necks and faces, hands thrust deep into their pockets, striding as briskly as if all were as it should be. But hundreds more gawked – and probably only some were tourists; I like to think that the unflappable people of New York might have indulged in some good old-fashioned staring for the sake of such a fun project.

And it was fun – there was an element of joie de vivre in what turned a bitter winter day into a social gathering of strangers who, for a moment, were not afraid to lend their cameras for a snapshot. It’s hard to ignore the playfulness of The Gates, and therein lies the element of genius. How does one conceive of such an idea? The two architects accompanying me, one of whom was my husband, and both of whom I have known to be hyper-critical of modern art-cum-architectural installations, were silenced by the creative fervor that laced The Gates with wit and elegance. My husband observed, also, that the project benefited from the almost-universal law of modern art: Do something once, and it’s boring. Do it a whole bunch of times, and it’s really cool.

For me, too, there was a more resounding spiritual element in the experience. Two weeks before Eastern Lent began – and several weeks after Western Lent had already started – we were already singing hymns in anticipation of the fast. One of my favorites is a hymn sung in Matins in Tone Eight, a lilting, pure melody rife with ornamentation: Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life, for my spirit rises early toward your Holy Temple to pray, bearing the temple of my body all-defiled; but as the compassionate One, purify me by Your loving mercy. The melody dips and soars with the words: “all-defiled” changes to a minor chord for a moment, before resolving itself in the major cadence of “loving mercy.” As I walked through the gates of Central Park, watching families play in the snow and friends deep in conversation, this melody played over and over in my head. The contrast between the temple of God and the temple of my sinful self is what leads me to repentance, and His compassion is what allows me to dare to defile one temple with the other, praying fervently for purification through repentance. Lent is coming.

It is perhaps easier to think of repentance in winter, when the trees are leafless and the ground barren and hard. Being outside, in the midst of God’s creation, can almost feel like punishment; we bundle up and try to stay out only for a moment, running for the safety and warmth of our cars and homes. But in the fullest meaning of the word, repentance is joyful. We turn from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, re-aligning our souls with the intent of their Creator. We ask God to make us all that He intended us to be. What could bring more joy than that?

But in winter, though nature is dormant, it is not dead. Like the miracle of life that astounds us each spring – familiar, yet surprising – we are brought, through prayer and fasting, to a closer union with Christ. We deprive ourselves of some luxuries – milk, eggs, meat – but we also ask for, and anticipate, changes. We are growing inside. Like the ugly, amorphous bulbs we plant in fall, we need time for regeneration; we pray, attend more services, and cut back on social activities in favor of what matters most. And we have faith that, like those blobs of hidden beauty, we will be rewarded in spring with blooms of spiritual blessing.

Orthodox prayers do not often conclude without some mention of Christ’s mother, whom we constantly ask to pray for us as we struggle to submit our pleasure-seeking bodies and minds to a deeper connection with Christ. And indeed, in the next breath, this hymn implores Mary, the Theotokos (God-bearer) for help and prayers and encouragement on the Lenten journey, just as we ask our friends and church community for their prayers during this time of renewal. The plea is honest and frank: Lead me on the path of salvation, O Theotokos, for I have profaned my soul with shameful sins, as I have wasted my life in laziness. But, through your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.

Repentance is not all joy; it involves an honest look at our souls, which is usually quite frightening. Accordingly, the hymn then changes to Tone 6, possibly the most dissonant-sounding to Western ears. Richly ornate and minor, the range is staggering, and only lots of practice, and lots of prayer, allows me to sing it at all:

When I, the wretched one, think of evils I have done, I tremble at the fearful day of judgment. But, encouraged by Your loving mercy, like David, I cry out to You: have mercy one me, O God, according to Your great mercy.

Have mercy on me, O God. We will pray this thousands of times in the coming weeks, first in the Canon of St. Andrew, then in Little Compline, when we again call to mind King David, a sinner like all of us. We pray the aforementioned Psalm 51 in its entirety, beginning: Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy: according to the multitude of Your tender mercy, blot out my iniquity. Only through the mercy of God will we emerge, joyfully, from the winter of repentance into the spring of forgiveness, and a restored relationship with Him.

Photo: Gates in Snow - New York City, February, 2005

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.


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