Orthodox America

  “Grandpa Luke” A story from Holy Russia

The sleigh rides organized during Cheese-fare week in the merchant village of K. were a popular annual event. A merry-go-round, puppet shows, hurdy-gurdy and other amusements were brought in. The festivities drew people from surrounding towns and villages, showing off in their gaily painted sleighs, decorated horses and their own finery. Amid the sounds of the hurdy-gurdy and tinkling sleigh bells of the dashing troikas, it was strange to hear the solemn peal of a bell summoning people to church for penitential prayers and prostrations.

      "Hey, watch out!" came the hoarse voice of a tipsy coachman, shouting at pedestrians ducking under the horses' muzzles. Everyone was in a rush, as if on some vitally important mission--to help a neighbor in distress, when there's not a moment to lose, afraid of being late. Everyone was caught up in the revelry. Where were they rushing? To add one sin on top of another.

      Motia, the fifteen year-old son of the village teacher, had a bad cold and couldn't join in the fun with his friends. His parents had been invited to the church warden's for pancakes, leaving Motia at home with grandpa Luke. They both sat by the window which looked out onto the street. Sleighs whizzed by lifting flurries of powdery snow into the air. Motia breathed on the cold pane, and in the fog traced with his finger: "bored, bored, bored."

      ''That's because you're not feeling well," said Grandpa Luke. "How else could you possibly be bored at your age?"

Motia hadn't expected his grandfather to read what he had written on the window. There was nothing to do, and he welcomed the invitation for a conversation.

"Fell me, grandpa, why can't old people be happy? They're always sighing about something, always seemingly dissatisfied with themselves."

"So it is, my lad."

"Can it be that old age ruins a person and makes him irritated with his own self?"

"Quite the contrary. Old age adorns a man with wisdom or, to put it more simply, with experience and grey hairs, which inspires an instinctive respect for his years."

"Then why the constant sighs and dissatisfaction?"

"I’ll tell you: a man spends his whole life striving to acquire something he thinks he absolutely must have. He races towards his designated goal without giving much thought to the means he's using to get there. Then, when the long path of life draws to an end, he feels tired, his energy flags, he yearns to rest. Like any traveller, he looks back, and at himself. And what does he see? Chasing after a semblance of happiness has only exhausted him and covered him with dirt--not only his body but also his soul. No fancy clothes and jewelry can conceal this moral filth from his own conscience, and he reproaches himself, but what is done cannot be undone. This is the cause of so much grief in old age.

     ''Then why do people spend their lives doing things they will live to regret?"

      ''To answer this we must sort through the past, just like a peddler unpacks his wares, digging down to the bottom of his pack and setting out all his goods to show his customers.

     Let's say I'm a peddler and I've spilled out my pack. I begin my display with what's at the bottom, that is, with my childhood. I recall myself at the age of three. I was taught how to behave properly, to bow and shake hands. I was taught how to dress; new and fashionable clothes always elicited approval; I was even made to look in the mirror; I was taught to dance, to sing, so that my parents could boast of my accomplishments in front of their guests. 1 was also taught to pray, but how?... For good manners I was repaid with caresses and kisses; for being stylish--with praise; for singing and dancing-with applause; and for prayer?--only with reprimands: I don't hold my fingers correctly for the sign of the Cross, I don't bow properly. I was frequently read fairy tales and told entertaining stories. I can remember them even now, they made such a strong impression. But for some reason they never told me anything about God, about His boundless love for people especially for children. They said nothing of the kind that would make a child's heart quicken with wonder, as it does on listening to a fairy tale. When I was made to Pray, I was told, "Pray well, or God will hit you with a stone." Such an admonition gives a child the impression that God is a very stern being whom one must fear, because almost every child knows what it means to be hit with a stone. But since God never has struck anyone with a stone, this false specter eventually faded. Later we were given lessons in the Law of God. But how? By rote. If you memorized the lesson welt, you'd get a good mark, then, "run along and play". They didn't teach us to love God.' But isn't it true that we try hard not to offend only those we love? Only to those we love do we eagerly submit. The result of such an upbringing is coldness towards God and all that is holy, and a thirst for all that is vanity, all that is not only useless but even harmful. Grandpa Luke fell silent.

      "There's more in the pack," observed Motia with a smile.

      'There's a lot left," replied Grandpa Luke, 'but each customer is shown only those items which he needs; while what he doesn't need is set aside. So, too, I've shown you only that which is for you to know now.

      ''You go to school. Tell me, Motia, do you ever think of what you're being taught from the Law of God?"

"No," answered the boy frankly.

      ''There---it's a universal childhood illness, a universal neglect on the part of parents, teachers and educators. Children are taught to engage their minds in math problems and composition, while the Law of God is always last on the list of importance.

      "You see how everyone is amusing themselves outside. They're all dressed up, with happy faces. What is the occasion? The Holy Church instructs us to devote this week to preparing for Great Lent, i.e., to more fervent prayer with prostrations, to repentance of our sins... But what are we doing? I say 'we' because I cannot exclude either you or myself.

    If we are not taking part in this vain turmoil, it's only because you're sick and I'm old."

         "But that's how everyone celebrates Cheesefare Week," objected the boy.

         "Most, but not all. And if it were all, is this any kind of justification before God? One can't use 'everyone' as an example. Each of us, individually, must answer to God; each person will have to give an accounting of his deeds through the course of his entire life.

       Remember, occasionally, your Grandpa Luke, and what I have to say.

         "Here you are, sitting quietly -even though it's because you're sick and not by choice----and listening to your old grandpa, who wishes you every good, both heavenly and earthly. And you will never have to repent of it. If, however, you spent your time running around after amusements with your; friends, a heaviness would settle on your conscience, unconsciously at first, but still.., it would be there. Now just imagine the burden on your soul which collects over the course of your whole life if you carelessly indulge yourself in various passions and transgressions on grounds that "everyone lives like that." I also lived "like everyone else," but when old age arrived I feared for my soul. One is faced with the insistent question: how will I come before the face of my Judge? I feel the gnawing of my conscience, I feel that I must make peace with God, Whom I have angered. But how? I have no strength left for physical exploits; to pray--my back hurts, my knees don't bend; I would be glad to weep but tears have dried from my eyes.

     'This is why old people aren't light hearted. One can only be happy in old age if during one's lifetime one tried to please God--rather than constantly giving in to sinful habits. It is these people one should emulate, and not everyone, who lives without giving thought to his soul."

        The simple conversation with Grandpa Luke made a lasting impression on the boy. Two days later Motia had fully recovered, but now he looked on the Cheese-fare merry-making with different eyes. A special close bond had developed between grandfather and grandson. Motia often asked his grandfather to show him some more things from his "pack", and his grandfather was glad to oblige. He showed him Scenes from his life which contained such good lessons that the boy began thinking seriously about many things He learned to think ahead to the consequences of each of his actions, and made it a rule to act according to his conscience even in small matters. One day the Son of an innkeeper, one of Motia's classmates, offered him a nice penknife in exchange for a colored pencil, and he refused-even though such exchanges of small items were common enough among his peers.

        Why don t you want to trade? After all, my penknife costs thirty cents and your pencil costs only a penny," said the innkeeper's son.

       "That's just the reason I don't want to trade. It's unfair to you."

         Amazing, replied the boy.

       Motia would no doubt have traded if he hadn't recalled one of his grandfather's stories about Some advantageous deal which needled his conscience for the rest of his life·

      Grandpa Luke was just an ordinary man, but he performed an invaluable service in bringing up his grandson to be an honest and religious person by his simple, warmhearted discussions. 

A. Botkin 

(Originally appeared in the Russian magazine Kormchi, Feb. 8, 1903; reprinted in Raiskie Tsveti s Russkoi Zemli, Russian Orthodox Youth Committee, Baldwin Place, NY)

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