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The Beauty of a Broken and Contrite Spirit

The picture above is an example of a beautiful kintsugi repair. Originating in Japan, masters of kintsugi mend tea bowls with lacquer and gold.  A bowl mended with gold becomes more valuable than the original.

I recently read a profoundly moving collection of short stories that illustrate broken beauty: Stephen Siniari’s  Big in Heaven. Each story involves the people of Saint Alexander the Whirling Dervish, a fictional Eastern Orthodox congregation.  Siniari created a gritty, no-nonsense Philadelphia working-class neighborhood called “Fishtown.” Memorable characters like Teddy the Horse, Two-Beer Eddie, Officer Nardozzi, Rabbi Aaron, and Father Naum live out their faith in and around places like Shooky’s Taproom, Lefty’s Barber Shop, and Little Harry and Getzy’s Salvage.

But these stories are neither nostalgic nor sentimental. They bear almost no resemblance to Christian fiction I’ve read. Stephen Siniari, himself an Orthodox priest, evokes a place where honest, broken people are to various degrees touched by Christ’s mysterious power.  As David R. Fox writes in the forward, “Father Stephen’s stories are about the kind of people perhaps never even imagined by most American readers… stories that break the mold of what a religious story out to be.”

The first two set a realistic tone with great power. The opening story, “Big in Heaven,” immediately immerses the reader into the world of a flawed congregation where love is at work. One of the parishioners, Mary, vocalizes the anti-immigrant wing of the church. She yells at Raskova, an elderly woman, “Get your foreign ass over here and clean up this baby shit.” Raskova served as a tank mechanic in the Soviet Army in WWII and was a prisoner at Dachau Concentration Camp. She responds, “Don’t worry for me… I clean baby shit. It a small thing (sic)… but big in heaven.”

While the first story powerfully prepares the reader for the kind of people Father Naum serves, the second, “Two Things,” takes us into the broken beauty of Naum himself.  One of the church members records the humility God brought about in him after he was hospitalized:

Two things became important to Naum after that: a broken kid’s license plate, that kind of little plastic thing kids have on the back of their bike; and an enameled hand censor, looks like a cup on a stand, the kind with a cross on the lid that you stand up on a table or your icon corner. Naum had the busted-off lid, but the cross supposed to be on the top of the censor ended up missing.

Orthodox church censer

Both of the items had to do with anger. Naum’s son Stevie had training wheels on his bike. He wanted him to ride without them, but the kid was afraid. Naum got mad. He “yanked the kid off the bike, picked up the little two-wheeler, and threw it into one of those metal trash cans…”

Naum’s own confession is then recorded:

“Later I went back and got the bike. What I did, the way I acted—I was wrong. The little plastic license plate with his name on it was broken into pieces. To this day, I keep it in the icon corner of our house. I apologized to him and my wife… My heart could not be any more broken, broken like his little nameplate license plate, what I did to my son.”

As for the broken censor, Naum slammed the door in anger at his wife, and the censor came crashing to the floor. “I keep that broken censor there too, up on the icon corner. My wife never came back to church after that. Why come to church when you live with the head guy and he’s phony?”

I was initially shocked by this story. Then I remember that I’ve displayed that kind of anger at my family. The difference is that I have not always admitted it and make amends. I hid behind my self-righteousness.

In the stories that follow in Big in Heaven, the reader sees that Naum’s weaknesses qualify him to be a sympathetic priest. He is not what we would typically call a “good” man. He is flawed, broken, and lonely. Yet, he loves. He extends himself to people who are sometimes apathetic, dismissive, or ungrateful.  He is humble, but no self-pitying coward.

May we, like a kintsugi pot, become more beautiful as we enter and own our brokenness, welcoming the mending work of Jesus Christ.

My fuller review of Big in Heaven will appear in The Englewood Review of Books.

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