Father Proterij and the Friendly Birds

Below is another selection from the autobiography Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1792), described in detail in a previous post. Here Paisius provides a charming vignette of life in the little skete of Trǎisteni in Ottoman Wallachia, where the small monastic community was split between monks living in common and monks living as hermits- though, as it turns out, their reclusion did not preclude participation in the common life of the community.

Ornament Detail 2

For the holy offices they all gathered together, both those who lived in common and those in reclusion. Among the latter was Father Proterij, a Ukrainian by birth, from the city of Rešetylvika in the regiment of Poltava, who had been a goldsmith during his life in the world. Whilst he stayed in the monastery he made the most beautiful spoons and sold them, and he received visiting monks with inexpressible love.

In his mercy he nourished the many diverse birds that flew in the air, providing them with an abundance of food at a suitable time. They would gather at his cell every day, and would await the time when he would come and open the window; and flying into the cell with no fear whatsoever they would eat the food he gave them. He took into his hand of them he wished, stroking them and letting them go: they in no wise feared him. When they had had their fill, they flew off. As he went to the holy office, many of the birds would gather and accompany him to church, some sitting on his head and shoulders, others flying round about him and singing in their diverse voices. As he entered the church doors, they all flew up onto the church and awaited his coming out. And when he came out of the church they flew down and sat upon him, accompanying him to his cell in like manner. Seeing this with all the others I marveled with great wonder and glorified God for having deemed me worthy to see such a servant of His.

Another of the recluses was the schemamonk named Ivan, a Russian by birth. This man, whenever he provided a meal for all the brethren out of the righteous work of his own hands, would go before the meal to each of the brethren with a vessel suitable for the washing of feet; and stopping at each cell and washing the feet of all, he would give them all a kiss of love. Others of these recluses copied books of the fathers and thus obtained their sustenance.

Paisius Velichkovsky, The Life of Paisij Velyčkos’kjy, trans. by J.M.E. Featherstone (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1989), 70-71.

The Irish Hermit’s Wish

I wish, O Son of the living God,
old eternal King,
a hidden hut in the wilderness
that it may be my dwelling,

A bright blue narrow stream
to be beside it,
a clear pool for washing sins away
through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

A beautiful forest near by,
around it on every side,
for nourishment of many-voiced birds
as shelter to hide them.

Facing south for warmth,
a little stream across its land,
choice ground with many benefits
that would be good for every plant.

A few sensible men
(we shall make known their number),
humble and obedient
to pray to the King:

Four threes, three fours
suitable for every need;
two sixes in the church
both north and south;

Six couples besides,
as well as me myself,
praying perpetually
to the King who makes the sun shine.

A lovely church decked with linen,
a house for God of Heaven,
bright lights afterwards
above pure white Scriptures.

One house to visit
for tending the body,
without ribaldry, without boasting,
without contemplating evil.

This is the housekeeping I would get,
I would choose without hiding it:
real fragrant leeks, hens,
speckled salmon, bees-

Enough clothing and food for me
from the king of good renown,
my being sitting awhile,
praying God everywhere.

Anonymous, Dúthracar, a Maic Dé bí, c. 800/900 AD, translated by Ruth P.M. Lehmann, in Early Irish Verse.

Salt Marsh Cosmology

Sitting here afloat, pockmarked and saltstreaked cordgrass
Shivering up in the gathering morning heat,
I search for a word for the waters under me.
Creek, the map says, but flowing up,
Against the world’s plane,
Reached by the moon, hard to believe,
Like the best things that also are true.
I listen.
Everywhere, motion and sound, just above silence—
An infinite city in reduced scale, plunging
The five or six feet down in the turbid flow, then into
The mud, the worn-away of the ages,
Ancient Appalachians crumbled,
Creatures great and small alive in the bubbling wash,
The ten thousand things circling in and out.
I hover overhead.
I’d say I’ll withdraw, but there is no real away,
Only a slight difference of distance.
Every moment, earth, under
Moon, self, triangulated, over, below
The waters. Here, and everywhere.


We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening—
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encroaching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up,
An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They’ll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every later they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.

Bogland, Seamus Heaney, in Door Into the Dark (1969)

These Low, Old Places

The ceilings are five feet high, house crowded
by history and rotting rafters he’ll have to tear out-
the tall, young man who just bought it.
Beside a stooped old apple
(too long un-pruned to be bowed by fruit),
while the day backs down
behind the ridge, he makes plans.
He wonders, for a moment, what it would have been
like to be born here, though he is hearing
the answer when peepers in the boggy places below
send up their little staggered songs
and let them fall down. If you have had
spring evenings, then you know
how it has always been here: Love always shot
with the feeling this is the last of it.
Always told to outgrow
the mountains that would block your view,
these serious, sad playhouses, these low, old places
where you want to hunker, where you can’t
stand up straight.

Rose McLarney, ‘Living Up,’ in The Always Broken Plates of Mountains (New York: Four Ways Books, 2012).

Late Summer Plants and Blooms

The following are some plants growing and blooming right now in St. Louis’ excellent Botanical Gardens. After a rather rough summer, the weather has cooled and gotten a little wetter, though we are still in drought conditions. Nonetheless, the late summer and early fall blooming plants are looking pretty good, at the gardens at least. Above, Liatris, don’t recall the species. Blazing star in the vernacular.

A Missouri native, Silphium terebinthinaceum, one of my favorites. Everything about this plant is nifty- great big luxurious leaves, remarkably tall spindly flower stalks, beautiful flowers.

Lamb’s ears, Stachys byzantina.

Aquilegia chrysantha, golden columbine.

Salvia of some sort, I think.

Lamb’s ears leaves, up close.

Lobelia cardinalis, cardinal flower, another Missouri native.

Sunflowers, Abandoned Lot

These sunflowers, and various other plants, seem to have volunteered themselves in a disturbed empty lot along Manchester Avenue in the far western corner of the city of St. Louis, a little before Maplewood. Manchester runs through the valley of the River des Peres, which, despite the grandiose name, is these days a large concrete ditch with trickling polluted water. The valley, besides being home to Manchester Avenue, is a patchwork of abandoned green spaces, industrial plant, railroad yards, and, in the area proximate these sunflowers, struggling strip malls. A nearly defunct K-Mart is down the parking lot, along with long lonely stretches of blank facades. I don’t know what used to be in the lot these plants are flourishing in (well, blooming prolifically, at least- they are rather short, perhaps a result of soil deficiencies). There are concrete bits and blocks; the ground has been moved about relatively recently. Perhaps those disturbances awoke or encouraged the plants that have sprung up here this year; perhaps someone seeded the sunflowers as an act of random beautification. My guess would be the former; the other plants are usually classified as ‘weeds’ and do quite well for themselves, with or without human intervention. At any rate, this little patch of green and yellow is, it goes without say I think, a marker of the resiliency of the natural world, and the continual possibilities and life that so often lies just under the surface, waiting.

Here Four Mountains Circled Round

Plans beginning to form, I set out,
walking-stick in hand, hiking alone

through gorges and across streams,
into mountains and over ridgelines,

crossing summits without resting,
tracing creeks back without pause.

Combed by wind and rinsed by rain,
or stepping into dew among the stars,

I sifted through our shallow thoughts
and left their tight compass behind.

Without shell or stalk for divination,
I picked out the fine and wondrous,

cut thornwood staffs and blazed trails
in my search for boulders and cliffs.

Here, four mountains circled round,
a pair of streams winding through,

I soon had a library
facing south ridges

and a teaching hall
against north slopes

a hall for meditation
among sheer peaks

and huts for monks
along deep streams.

Looking into these towering forests hundreds of years old,
I inhabit the savory fragrance of ten thousand passing ages,

and turning to the fresh springs of all boundless antiquity,
treasure the inexhaustible clarity of their glistening liquid.

Leaving behind the elegant towers that stand outside cities
and the human enterprise bustling inside every village wall,

I delight here in origin’s weave, embrace uncarved simplicity,
heaven and earth mingling sweet dew in these fields of Way.

Hsieh Ling-yun (385-433), trans. David Hinton