Affairs never just happen. When the Woman and the Man are found out, the obvious question is asked: how did it happen? A very Greek answer might be, "I don't know. It was on fire when I lay down on it."
The Ecumenical Affair is a creative nonfiction retelling of the gospel and the passionate encounter of the Woman and the Greek-a prominent theologian, philosopher, politician, and ecumenist. When the Woman opens a bestseller by the American author Robert Fulghum, she selects a passage three quarters through. The passage she reads compels her to turn back to the beginning. There, a juicy tidbit rivets her attention. It's about a man rescued from a fire in an upstairs bedroom. When the fire responders ask, "How did it happen?" he replies, "I don't know. It was on fire when I lay down on it."
The Woman closes the book. Words in bold parrot green on a gold mat atop a red leafy cover stare up at her. A smile lights her face. She remembers her bold parrot-green chinos, her gold vest, the fire within her that July night in Vancouver. The Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Canberra. The Seventh Assembly. The colossal tent in the middle of a wide expanse. Five thousand worshippers. The Eucharist. The politics. That denied last supper. How the Greek and she stood far apart, back to back. The dialogue of St. Macarios and the skull. Consolation and hope.
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The Ecumenical Affair
By Linda Vogt Turner
Balboa PressCopyright © 2015 Linda Vogt Turner
All rights reserved.
University of British Columbia
A colossal tent sits in the middle of a wide expanse behind a grey, castellated structure. There on the lawn, with bold circus yellow- and-white stripes, everything is wide open. Like a revival meeting. There are strains of American spirituals, but also chants of "Veni, Sancte Spiritus" and "Kyrie Eleison" coming through the open flaps, beckoning people in suits, dresses and summer leisure.
The time is eight thirty. There are the fresh fragrances of dew and grass mingling with cedar shrubs and potted flowers. The faithful prepare for worship. Local television crews are setting up their cameras. The choir and the chancel focus our attention. Beautiful banners present a vista of mountains, sea and sky — light beams, and the letters o i k o u m e n e arch over a cross in a winged canoe. The shrubs and plants set off the front of a long table clothed in three blue and white foursquare banners. Rows of chairs on the grass wait to be filled. Thousands talking, listening. Hymns, prayers — each in a different language.
It is a revival meeting — lively, jubilant, festive.
Christians and robed, grey-bearded priests and bishops in black fill reserved chairs. They bear heavy iron crosses and sit apart from the rest.
Sitting with them is a middle-aged man, black hair, rugged good looks. Clean-shaven. He is the one who has no name in this story — the one called the Greek. He is Orthodox. He is not a priest.
The priest, the one the Greek is talking with, is a Roman Catholic and younger than the others. He is also Greek.
A woman joins them: short hair. Fair. Mature and confident. Beige summer skirt suit. That's Maria.
Following worship, a younger woman walks into a small lecture theater and takes her place facing those gathered to hear Maria speak. Microphones are set up in both aisles on the stairs halfway down. Maria looks around. There is a desktop lectern with a mike. She puts a folder on the lectern. Studies the faces in front of her.
Everyone has picture ID tags hanging from cords around their necks. The Young Woman doesn't have a picture ID. Pinned above her heart are the words "La Source, Daily Visitor Programme."
Someone takes Maria's picture. Two others rush forward to put tape recorders on the desk. Notebooks open, and writing desks flip up. People recline in soft, plush seats.
The Young Woman whispers to the man beside her. She can't flip up the writing desk. He shows her how.
Maria begins. She introduces herself as a Roman Catholic theologian, saying she has been asked to give a talk on God and gender. Maria says in her country people speak Portuguese and do not use gendered pronouns. God is not thought of as him or her.
The Young Woman listens to the Portuguese voice, each word carefully spoken. Sits in awe.
God is simply that entity who is ever-present with the person.
Maria notices the Young Woman, looks into her starry-bright morning eyes, and they steal her breath. God's Holy Spirit looks back.
She no longer remembers what she wants to say. Instead, she remembers the Young Woman standing alone in silence after the "Veni, Sancte Spiritus."
Maria looks down at her notes and returns her attention to the room. She remembers now. She wanted to say each human being is an animated body — an incarnate soul on which life depends. This life is a breath that comes from God. Creation and humans are in an everlasting relation with their Creator.
People line up at the mikes. Not the Young Woman. She listens intently as questions and comments bounce back and forth from mike to mike to mike, her ponytail swishing from side to side.
Moralists argue that God created man in His own image first and instructed him to have dominion over the rest of creation. Then God created woman from man's rib — as man's helpmate. It is right for woman to submit to man's rule. Feminists disagree.
It is eleven thirty. The discussion is over. It's time to go for lunch at the Sub. The Young Woman does not know what or where the Sub is. She follows the crush. Everyone has a bleached cotton bag for books and papers. A blue and white silkscreened logo stretches across the front: oikoumene. This Greek word for ecumenism is clearly visible in white on blue, arching over a cross in a boat. Her straw bag cradles books and papers.
The Greek, in his shirtsleeves, slings a bleached cotton bag with the familiar blue logo over his shoulder. Looks at his watch. Lights a cigarette.
* * *
The Greek — older now. White hair. Sits on a terrace in the late afternoon sun. Gazes at the Aegean sea.
The Young Woman. Now middle-aged — now just the Woman — with short, cropped, tawny-brown hair, sits on a gold and green brocade sofa. On her lap is a best-seller she found at the church bookstore. Bold, parrot-green letters and a red circle on a gold mat atop a red leafy cover stare up at her.
IT WAS ON FIRE WHEN I LAY DOWN ON IT
* * *
She folds back the cover. Fans the pages. Stops. Creases it open — quarter way from the end.
"Are there any questions?" This question was asked by a Greek teacher, a philosopher and a legendary peacemaker ... after a two- week Socratic symposium on Greek culture.
As participants rose to leave, Fulghum countered. "What is the meaning of life?"
Hungry to know more, the Woman turns the pages, adding bits from what she already knows:
The legendary philosopher is the general director of the academy dedicated to peace and reconciliation between Germans and Cretans who vowed they would never stop hating each other. The surrounding villagers are fishers, olive oil producers and yogurt makers. This village has a grave yard on top of a hill adjacent to the Academy. In these graves lay the bones of priests, nuns, farmers and fishers who dared to stop the invading Germans. The invaders were armed only with their side arms. The machine guns, ammunition and other weapons were air dropped in canisters. The invading soldiers were horrified to see nuns and priests, old people, and little children killing their comrades. On the opposite shore — in Maleme — is the graveyard of the slain Germans.
The Woman places the book on the cushion beside her. Open. Pages down. Rises. Goes over to the piano. Sees her face reflected in the mirror above the piano. Sees the backs of photos. Shifts her eyes forward to the gilded frames. Sees smiling faces. Blue eyes. Blond hair. German blood. Her children.
Returns to the sofa. Reads how the legendary philosopher, as a boy, found a mirror on the roadside belonging to a German motorcycle. It was broken into tiny bits. How he picked up the largest bit, smoothed her rough edges on a stone, played with her — shining the light she gleaned — into all sorts of places. How when he became an adult, he realized the meaning of his life was tied to that mirror.
The Woman closes the bestseller. Stares at the bold, parrot-green letters and red circle on the gold mat atop the red, leafy cover. Face radiant. Blue eyes bright. Creases it open to the seventh unnumbered page: "Imagination is stronger than knowledge ... love is stronger than death." A mystery here.
Right hand under left elbow. Thumb under chin. Digits curled. First index digit rubbing her lips. Continues reading the author's note. Imagines: This story as a mirror on a fishing line ... with a bait and hook — to help her "show and tell."
Turns to page three and imagines the newspaper story told there is the bait. A juicy tidbit of gossip. It's about a man rescued from a fire in an upstairs bedroom. When the fire responders ask, "How did it happen?" the Woman sees the Greek shrug, saying, "I don't know. It was on fire when I lay down on it."
"And then a friend, adding his two bits: 'Why do you laugh? Change the name, and the story is told of you.'"CHAPTER 2
This is what the Woman says.
This is her story.
This is a passion play — a play about people who are crazy-wise, who speak their hearts, who speak Greek.
The crew has doused the smouldering pallet. How it happened matters.
On a tree-lined marine drive stately mansions and cars wind out to the University of British Columbia and its endowment lands.
This is Vancouver in July. The year is 1983. This is the sixth assembly of the World Council of Churches. The air is cool and trembling with heat.
The Woman is walking alone. She's carrying a straw bag. She looks like a student. She's dressed like one. Ponytail swishing back and forth. Bare feet in sunny yellow flip-flops. Wine-coloured toes. Slim. She is the one we saw earlier. The one with the words "La Source, Daily Visitor Programme" pinned above her heart who didn't know about the flip-top desk.
There are people everywhere; the joy, the laughter, the sounds of cutlery and crockery spill outside from inside — this must be the Sub.
Lines of people wait to enter. People are friendly. Class, race, gender barriers seem forgotten. People introduce themselves to strangers standing in line.
A place of communion.
Men in jackets. Some in shirtsleeves. Women in summer dresses. Some in skirts, others in pants, mingling with people in colourful caftans. Men wearing skullcaps. African women with stunning scarves twisted around their heads. Priests and nuns in long black robes. Students dressed for summer sprawl on the grass, talking. One girl has a tambourine. Two others dance, sing and clap.
bim Bom / bim bimbimBom / bim bimbimbim bim Bom/ shaBAT shaLOM (clap)/shaBAT shaLOM (clap)/ shabatshabat sha LOM (clap)
Waiting in line to eat, the Woman turns to the sound. A Hebrew folk song. For peace. She does not know this. The Greek is behind her. He asks how she spent the morning. She tells him about Maria's talk. Says she doesn't understand all the fuss over the issue of Man and Woman. Says: "It's simple. I am a man. I am a female man. I am a member of the race called man. You are a man. You are a male man. You too are a member of the race called man."
She continues: "You — I suspect because you are here at this event — are a humanitarian. You help people. You are a helper, a helpmate of mankind."
His eyes light up.
She continues: "Therefore even though you're a male, you can be a woman."
His whole body bursts into a smile.
She quickly adds: "You are a male being, and you're a helpmate of Man. Therefore, if I — a female being — can belong to the race 'mankind' surely you, a male being, can belong to the race 'womankind.'"
Her eyes take in his maleness. Catches a glimpse of his undershirt beneath his white semi-transparent short-sleeved shirt before she turns and moves forward in the line.
He follows, his eyes taking in the curve of her hips in the tight parrot-green chinos buttoned at her tiny ankles. He asks: "What are you doing for dinner this evening?"
She picks up a tray and turns back toward him, smiling.
He continues: "Have you plans?" He leans forward, picks up a tray, places it on the grooved counter. Slides it forward, looking at her. "Will you grant me the pleasure of your company at dinner?"
The Young Woman puts her tray in line. In front of his. Slides it forward. "I don't even know your name."
Turns back. Looks at his ID tag hanging from the cord around his neck. "Papa what?"
Laughs. Pronounces his name for her. Pushes his tray behind hers, asks: "Do you have a car? If you don't, can you rent one? I'll pay for it. ... Tonight after dinner we could go for a drive and see the sights."
She places a garden salad on her tray. "What about after lunch?"
"No, I have to meet some people. I've got to prepare. I'm speaking in the plenary later."
He asks: "Will you meet me here at six?"
"Can you get a car?"
Later that day in the Plenary.
The official delegates sit at long tables down on the floor facing saffron-draped tables. The blue logo visibly centered on a red carpeted stage. An immense red and yellow parachute-cloth banner hangs from the ceiling. Camera crews and translators are on hand. No one is allowed inside the building without proper ID. The accredited and daily visitors are upstairs in the bleachers. They wear headphones.
One grey-bearded man, sitting behind the Woman, sees her. She's listening. Watching intently as the lights dim, while from the shadows an icon is projected onto a movie size screen. The headset voice says:
"God is Love because God is Triune ... Andrei Rublev, the Russian Orthodox monk who painted it in 1422, intended it as an affirmation of Life ... icons are a kind of spiritual window between earth and heaven ..."
At the break, the bearded man follows her outside. She asks him about the Greek. He says he doesn't know him. They don't go back in. They watch the plenary session on closed-circuit TV. They talk about Jungian psychology. She writes down some books that he recommends: Man & His Symbols. The Feeling Child. The Primal Scream. The Sex Contract.
He asks: "Why do you think you wear your hair long?"
"Because the Magdalene did."
"Are you worried about what could happen — if the Greek should come on to you?"
Blushing and fidgeting with her earring she says: "No."
Purses her lips. Why should I worry? I'm the one with the car.
He grins and tells her how he and others went skinny-dipping at Wreck Beach on the weekend.
She glimpses his wedding band.
So what if the Greek comes on to me? Why not enjoy the ride? Everyone is going to think I did anyhow. What would the Magdalene do? She kissed Jesus' feet, for Pete's sake. If Jesus is no sinner, neither is she, nor she who speaks with a he ... at noon or ... under the cover of darkness.
The Greek is late.
When he arrives he apologizes and says he hopes it's okay. He's invited his roommate, Dimitri, to dine with them. He explains. Dimitri is a Roman Catholic father from the Vatican. They grew up together.
Dimitri asks her what she thinks about the protesters picketing yesterday outside the Student Union building.
She says: "They're evangelicals, fundamentalists. They take the Bible literally and are always trying to scare people about the end of the world, or the Antichrist. They say he's here at this assembly. What makes them so sure the Antichrist is a he? He could be a she."
Dimitri says: "I'm evangelical. I take Scripture literally. I believe the Scripture is the infallible Word of God. It's central and fundamental to my faith."
Undaunted, she continues to argue with Dimitri about the authority and interpretation of Scripture. She tells him how silly it is to think Moses actually heard God's voice speaking to him from a burning bush. "There are so many more possibilities. A bush can be a person, you know — a sage. Or a bush can line a gun chamber or be a pivot hole. So perhaps Moses saw an exciting loophole in the law, and this loophole let him speak with God in a new and exciting way."
Dimitri speaks — silences her. He's pleased. Jubilant. Looks right into the Greek's eyes and says: "Moses said he heard God speaking to him from a burning bush, and I believe him."
The Greek dressed for dinner. White shirt, black tie, olive-green suit. Pushes up his suit sleeves. Lights a cigarette.
He and Dimitri exchange words rapidly in Greek.
The word anthropos catches her attention.
On the way to the car the Greek says: "It will go bad for you if people see us together. Let's hurry."
At the car he says: "I need to stop and get a coat. Wait here. My room is up there." Points to an apartment tower.
He returns. As he closes the car door, she says: "It's my mom's. I borrowed it this week while my husband's away. He has ours. It's a Rally Sport."
"Sportster models are dangerous. Too racy. Dimitri mustn't see us leaving together. Go. That way."
The Woman drives along the marine drive winding its way out. Leaving the castellated structure behind.
The Greek says: "I've taken in all the tourist things. Stanley Park. Grouse Mountain. SaLmon"
His accent makes her smile.
"What kind of a doctor are you?"
"Of philosophy. I'm a gadfly."
"What's a gadfly."
"You know. Like Socrates. I go around stinging people out of their sleep."
He grabs her thigh, above the knee. Grips it hard. She feels the pressure of his hand. His desire. Removes it. Gives him a cool stare.
Excerpted from The Ecumenical Affair by Linda Vogt Turner. Copyright © 2015 Linda Vogt Turner. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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