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Backtracking to Forge Ahead – Part 3

Editor’s Note: Joshua Sturgill has returned to college eighteen years after trying the first time. He’s blogging his way through this first semester.

I’ve decided that the only way I can make sense of my return to college as a return to the heart is to think of it as a fairytale. A simple description or explanation isn’t adequate. No one who has heard Vigen Gurioan speak at CiRCE conferences will be surprised by this. The story of each one of our lives is much too complicated to be merely cataloged. It has to be mythologized.

I am not alone in thinking that the over-arching theme for many of us is the search for what is lost. Every type of “lostness” or “foundness” intrigues us – from the Prodigal Son to the latest SciFi or mystery novel. Whenever I read a quote about finding the heart or about being found by God, my attention is seized.

In fact, the related themes of finding what is lost, of returning home, of searching for love or truth, etc., are everywhere in the Fathers, in the ancient hymns, and in Scripture – though we often miss these references under a pile of interpretations. The Road of Return used to be a common theme in Christian discourse, but somehow the idea of finding the lost heart has been lost along with the heart itself.

A fairytale of finding the heart might read something like this:

Once upon a time, an exquisite Church stood at the center of an ancient city…

According to legend, this Church was transportingly beautiful, and many miracles of grace occurred there in previous generations.

But one day the key to the ornate and welcoming front doors was lost. Old men and women who had been in the Church could describe accurately the liturgical grandeur of the worship, and their stories were told with a genuine sense of grief at the loss of such a treasure. A few generations later, only the most skeletal details of the Church were remembered, and there was no sense of loss or deprivation, though the piety of the people was still strong and they kept the courtyard of the Church clean and beautifully gardened.

After more time had passed, however, the Church and its yard were in danger of neglect. Across the city, other Church-like structures were built, but they kept only a faint resemblance to the Original. Each architect claimed that his new structure was an exact copy of the First Church, but since there seemed no way to be sure, these claims became first debatable and then meaningless.

Subsequent generations doubted the existence of the Church altogether. In its early days, the city centered around the Church, and without It, streets and houses, businesses and buildings became random and scattered as the city expanded. Museums and Shops and Offices vied for attention and commerce. “Our city was always like this,” most came to believe. “Completely random. The work of chance and unconscious needs. The ‘Myth of the Center’ is beautiful, but untrue, and we should not waste our time thinking about it. Let’s think about how to make it livable as it is and find meaning in its chaos – even if there is no such thing as meaning.”

However, secretly and quietly in every generation, some looked at the map of the town saw that the oldest roads seemed to radiate out from a center point. The oldest books and the oldest paintings described an experience of something like a real Church, not merely a mythical idea. These people began to look for the Church – sometimes singly, sometimes together, but always with the purpose of finding that legendary Beauty.

In the days when the Church was almost completely forgotten, a young girl visiting a museum happened to see an early map of the city and decided that she would begin to look for the Church and never stop seeking until she found it.

After many years, never giving up belief in the Church but afraid she would never find it in her lifetime, her difficult journey brought her to the Center. She found the Heart of the city.

In the courtyard, its walls draped with wild flowering vines, she saw people gathered. Some had just arrived. Some were born to families who had never left the neighborhood of the Church and had the difficult task of keeping the front doors clear and polished during the long centuries of neglect and forgetfulness. All – pilgrims and neighbors alike – were welcomed to this gathering.

At once she begged to be told the full story of the Church, and an elder of the group called to her and with a simple gesture offered her a seat beside him.

“How have so few of you been able to preserve the Church for so long?” she asked.

“The Church is so well-built that we have never needed to repair the foundation or replace the paving stones in the sanctuary or the tiles on the roof,” he said. “The few of us gathered here are a very small portion of the Church’s congregation. We have the job merely of keeping the courtyard and the outer gate clear so that pilgrims like you can more easily find your way in.”

“Where is the rest of the congregation,” she asked, “if just a few are here?”

“They are inside the Church.”

“But the key is lost,” she said.

The elder looked at her for a moment, and then past her to the Church door. He seemed to be praying. “There is no key in the sense you are thinking of. The only ‘key’ to the Church is knowledge and desire combined with patience and prayer. The door to the Heart has no lock. But it can become overgrown, neglected or forgotten.”

“Can I go inside?” she asked.

“Yes. But first you must listen to everything I tell you about the Church and let me give you the proper clothes. Entering the Church is much more extraordinary than entering a mere building – like the museum you entered when you were a child. In entering the Church, you are entering a Liturgy, and you must prepare to take your place among the celebrants. Now that you are here you will find out that nothing in your life has been wasted or unnecessary. Everything has prepared you to open the door now that you are here.”

“Will many others find their way?”

The old man sighed. “The edge of the city gets further and further away from the Center. But even still there are people who see the original beauty of the buildings or notice the names of the streets or really observe the old maps. A longing for the Church wakes up in them and they will begin to search for Her, even if they don’t know what they are looking for. They will be moved toward the Center by their longing and by the singing of the Choir – which calls to them even if they cannot yet hear it.”

As they talked, the Church bells began to ring, and the melody seemed so familiar that the woman began to sing along as if she’d known it all her life. The elder handed her a simple white robe and kissed her hand.

“Suddenly, I’m a little afraid,” said the woman. “I’m used to being in a city without a center. What will happen to me now?”

Gently, the elder corrected her. “Your city has always had a center,” he said. “The Church, your Home, is here, whether forgotten or remembered. The bells are ringing for the evening service. The doors are now open for you. There is a place prepared for you inside.”

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