Brent Walter Cline
2013 Creative Nonfiction Contest Winner
Creative Nonfiction Contest Judge Fenton Johnson says of Brent Walter Cline's submission: "'On Holy Ground' constructs a weave of two superficially unrelated experiences, i.e., a return to a childhood home and a visit to a West Virginia Orthodox monastery. The essay offers evidence of research undertaken for the sake of enriching the story’s telling, and that always impresses me—evidence that the writer has a larger world view, and understands that his/her story takes place within a larger context and that exploring that context deepens the encounter with the self that forms the foundation of the best writing. “On Holy Ground” most clearly offers evidence of that sense of larger context. The writer understands a connection between his journey back to his roots and the presence of the nearby monastery but he never specifically defines that connection. I enjoyed that absence of the pointing, explaining finger. It’s as if he’s juxtaposed an apple and an orange—i.e., his journey back to West Virginia and the memories it provokes, and his visit to the Orthodox monastery—but hasn’t drawn the dialogue bubble containing the word “fruit” so the reader knows what he’s up to. Instead he leaves the connection to the reader to suss out—he leaves it to our imaginations."
On Holy Ground
There is a degree of intimidation in approaching a monk, even with wood chips in his beard and a chicken in his arm. If he is a simple monk, then the proper greeting is to bow, embrace, and exchange the kiss of peace three times. If he is a monk who is also a priest, then the hands should be cupped with the request of a blessing. Of course, no one would have minded if I simply bowed my head slightly, but I wanted to belong in a place I had never been. Instead, I tried to kiss the wrong hands, and when the right ones appeared I was so hesitant that I simply raised my chin as though I had been introduced to my neighbor’s softball team. I called monks the wrong name almost immediately after meeting them, and then explained that they all looked alike in their black cassocks and long beards. If they worked with the chickens or goats, then I could remember their name only as long as they were working with that animal. When they entered the chapel with their klobuk—a stiff, round headcover with a veil down the back and shoulders—they all looked the same again. As though to prove to them I had the advantage in some way, I said several times, “I’m originally from just south of here in Logan County.” They were always polite about the information, but never impressed. West Virginia was no less abstract a concept to them than the South. They knew the monastery, the neighbors at the bottom of the hill, and the tractor supply store where they bought gardening equipment and feed. Their identity was restricted to these 120 acres on the hillside.
On my first afternoon the priest-monk I had arranged my visit with gave me a tour of the grounds, and I asked him how an Eastern Orthodox monastery ended up in Wayne County, West Virginia. My Christmas and Easter memories were of the bourgeois Methodists in the coal towns and the lunatic Pentecostals in the valley. He said the community started in Missouri, but when a road was commissioned to be built through the middle of it, they took the gift of an elderly patron from Wayne who offered them the land. We walked along the gravel path through the monastery, a kind of horseshoe with the exterior the upward slope of the hills. He showed me the church, the dining hall, the goat pen, and garden. Monks, all still anonymous to me, worked their assigned labor. I told him when I left the monastery I was headed to a family reunion in Logan. None of my family, despite being born and raised less than two hours away, had any idea there was a monastery here. He smiled and held his hands out, as though to simultaneously ask what could be done and suggest he was not searching for answers.
On June 3rd, 1977, what the local newspaper The Logan Banner termed a “mining mishap” occurred at the Powellton Company’s Rockhouse mine. In order to store coal cars on the afternoon before vacation, workers manually drove them down in small groups using a hand brake on the rear of the car. The maneuver, officially condemned by the company, was a common technique used to save time. The danger inherent was obvious: should the car speed up too quickly or should the brake fail, whatever or whoever was in the car’s way became a target. And so it occurred that afternoon. Six cars had been coupled together, the first five with their brake released. The sixth car was to hold the others to a crawling pace, but its brake failed. A slow-moving but nevertheless runaway train had been created. The driver jumped off the sixth car and tried to outrun the train to leap onto the fifth, but the speed was too fast. He yelled to warn others what barreled toward them, but the sounds of the mine yard were too loud. Samuel Walter Knight, an electrician in the mine, was next on the track, using the same maneuver to brake his coal car. The six car train slammed into his and tossed him onto the rails. He reached out and grabbed the step ladder to avoid being sucked completely under the cars. By the time the train was stopped, the lower half of his body had been crushed. That he managed to avoid being cut in half was something of a miracle.
Knight was rushed to Logan General Hospital, an architectural monstrosity that teeters over the Guyandotte River, patiently waiting for the final dynamite blast upriver to loosen the support beams and send the hospital into the water. His two daughters who migrated up Route 23 to Columbus came home to make their promises: “If it’s a boy, I’ll name him after you,” and so forth. His youngest son was held fast by his wife. His eldest son, his namesake, a 24-year old with the intellectual capacity of a preschooler, was kept far away from fear of a hysterical reaction upon seeing his father crushed from the waist down.
Knight survived three weeks. A dislodged blood clot from surgery did what the mines failed to do for thirty-odd years. He was buried in Highland Memory Gardens, not far from the Last Supper statue, one of many scenes from Christ’s passion the cemetery uses as landmarks for finding a grave.
My mother, pregnant with me at the time, moved with my father and brother back to West Virginia to help a new widow learn to adapt. My grandmother moved to the living room couch, refusing to ever again sleep in her canopy bed without him. Sammy, her disabled son, moved his afternoons to the front porch where he sat in a plastic rocking chair and told stories to his dead father. The man from the six-car train could not overcome his guilt, even after Knight’s friends tried to convince him that no one was to blame. I am not sure what became of him, nor is anyone in my family.
Here a monk wakes before five in the morning. It is still dark. The only thing he hears outside his cell is the gravel shifting underneath the feet of other monks. If he is groggy or red-eyed he has shed it by the time he enters the church and begins venerating, by way of bowing and kissing, nearly every icon that adorns the walls. At an icon of his patron saint he lingers. He may stand with the small choir in the front corner of the iconostasis, near the icons of Christ and the great proto-monk, John the Baptist. When various psalms are read, he sits down. When the trinity is invoked, he stands.
"Whatever the labor it is an act of obedience, assigned sometimes because he is good at the work and sometimes because he is not; clumsy hands and amateur results will eventually provide him with learning and spiritual discipline."
Breakfast is optional, and like all meals is eaten in silence, so that the first time he speaks may not be until morning labor, and only then if he must communicate with another monk or one of the hired local men. If a pilgrim has been assigned to work with him, he gives the necessary instructions, always bearing in mind that the pilgrim is only tangentially there to make the monk’s work easier. The pilgrim is there to help where needed, certainly; occasionally the pilgrim knows more than anyone else about the work. More importantly, however, the pilgrim is there to participate in the rhythm of the monastic life, and the monk must help this occur. He is not angry at the pilgrim’s incompetence or uselessness. They chat while they work, and it is about their lives, previous and current, because the monk is kind and gracious, and as for the pilgrim: it is precisely this that he comes to the monastery.
The monk could work in the incense or candle workshop. With the goats and dairy cow. The garden and chickens. He could cook. Clean the commons. Run the gift shop. He could be the bishop’s driver, the beekeeper, or the guestmaster. Whatever the labor it is an act of obedience, assigned sometimes because he is good at the work and sometimes because he is not; clumsy hands and amateur results will eventually provide him with learning and spiritual discipline.
He eats his lunch in silence with the other monks as the life or writing of a saint is read from the icon corner. If he is not the cook or assigned to the dishes, he has an hour to rest before he returns to work. After dinner, he changes into his clean cassock and attends evening prayer. It is the day before a feast so the evening vigil lasts nearly three hours, but the monk will be rewarded the next day with rest. On Sundays, feast days, and his name’s day, he does not work.
Before bed the monk reads on his own. It is always a text on spirituality, unless his superior wants him to read Dostoevsky, Hugo, or Dickens. Such reading is for instruction or prevention of the atrophy of affection, but not for aesthetics. The triumph of creativity and innovation is not recognized here. His purpose and attention is directed toward the perfection of a model that has long been designed, which need only be minimally adjusted to circumstance. He need not rebuild to preference, nor invent for a new age. He is an American, and the megalomania of Rasputin is less the struggle than the pathetic daydreaming of Walter Mitty.
Pilgrims will fail to imagine what the monk has gained through his sacrifice, just as they will fail to see how intensely he must fight for this life. Should a pilgrim see him on his way to confession, the talk at the guesthouse will be curiosity about what a monk has to confess. The monk, however, knows his confession contains everything that any pilgrim’s might. His universe has shrunk to 120 acres of Appalachian hillside, but now his entire universe is holy. When the passions overtake him, restricted as they might be in person or space, they nevertheless do so on holy ground. The pilgrim is perhaps less inclined to transgress while standing in church, but the monk is amidst holiness at all times. Should he know how the pilgrim wants to bow down to him, the monk would be ashamed.
We moved as my father’s job took us more and more north. In the summer, as well as Christmas and Easter, we returned to West Virginia, where my grandmother still lived with her eldest son, Sammy, born with the cord around his neck and raised with a deep and abiding love for Bonanza and Big Valley. Our trips consisted of visiting relatives with whom my parents tried to re-plant their memories in my brother and I. Sammy did his part to sew the past in us, as he constantly reminded us of all the times we had been in trouble and punished; the mere mention of our getting spanked made him cackle. His mental disability so limits him that he cannot bathe himself, but he still vividly remembers when I heaved a yard dart through the picture window at my great aunt’s house. When he reminds me how I “got whooped,” or asks me, “What did you do that for?” he gags on his laughter. When he sits on the front porch to speak with his father, he reports any new or old mischief from his nephews. Then, after some mumbled details, a burst of hysterical laughter.
The last visit on these West Virginia trips was on our way out of Logan, when we would stop at Highland Memory Gardens to see my grandfather’s grave. My grandfather died before I was born, and although that attached me to him due to a shared middle name, I felt nothing of the event but the ritual. My mother did not speak to my grandfather’s flat headstone, nor do I recall her shedding tears. The four of us would stand there, bound for Michigan and my toys and friends. My mother would lean down and dig her finger into the grooves of letters and borders to clean out dirt or debris. Sometimes she would click her tongue, the same sound she made when we watched a movie with too much swearing. My father may have spoken to her in those moments, and she may have responded, but I don’t remember it.
Partially because we were headed north, but more so because her husband was never out of her mind, my grandmother didn’t join us at the cemetery. In the same way that as adults my brother and I learned our mother still mourned by the way she cleaned a grave, we learned our grandmother lived in that Tuesday morning when he told her at breakfast, “Violet, I’m going to beat the traffic this evening.” And so he had in the ambulance. Every birthday card we received included both their names. On her checkbook she is still Mrs. Sam Knight. She didn’t need to tell stories at the headstone nor did my mother need to audibly mourn for the grief to be real. As a child, however, I only picked up on subtlety when it involved getting my way. That headstone was no more than a rest stop on our way back to Michigan.
" . . . it seems only natural that the monks found their home in such an isolated part of West Virginia, for reasons perhaps not too different than those that brought the barons and immigrants."
The monks tell stories about the deep skepticism they encountered when they arrived in West Virginia. Neither their religion nor their intentions were clear to the neighbors, and it took a long time for doubt to evolve into quiet trust. In hindsight, however, it seems only natural that the monks found their home in such an isolated part of West Virginia, for reasons perhaps not too different than those that brought the barons and immigrants. What is shocking then is not that there are Eastern Orthodox monks in West Virginia, but simply that there are monks. As beautiful as the views of hickory in the valley might be, that one would never leave these views is what baffled me. In our daily talks, the priest-monk Father Gregory made it very clear that the gravity of a monastic life was not missed upon him. Upon turning forty he would not awake one day and for the first time see the unusual order of his life.
Our walk had led us to the small cemetery next to the guesthouse. It held eight tombstones of concrete crosses, some in English and some in Russian. Votive candles burned before all of them. Father Gregory looked at them and said, “When I came to this place, I died to everything I was before.” There was gravity in his voice, but no more than when he asked me how I had slept the night before. A career in the arts gone. Relationships largely severed. Nearly the sum total of all attempts at everything made meaningless.
I did not feel what it meant to see a monastery through the eyes of a monk, but perhaps for the first time I did not think the monastic life as troubled or foolish. Father Gregory did not use the word holy as he spoke about his first arrival to the monastery eight years earlier, but I could not think of another word for what he meant. Every path in this monastery, whether it was cemetery or chapel or discarded lumber pile, was not merely unique, but transformed. The soil was divine, and the six feet holes in the ground were divine.
“When I came here I knew what to expect. I would live here. Die here. Be buried right here. That’s what I wanted.”
The reality of such a terrifying and strange measurement of a life came only later when I became convinced that Father Gregory desired me to go home and talk to no one about him, to be the subject of no stories, whether among strangers or old girlfriends. It is this realization that still causes me to change his name here, to obscure the monastery’s name despite my geographic accuracy. Though we all, including monks, might imagine our funerals, only they try to do so from within the box rather than outside it.
That I should be the only one in the entire extended family missing a West Virginia accent provided my parents the perfect line for dinner parties and small talk while visiting churches: “It’s because he doesn’t listen to us.” I never really heard the accent like others did. Growing up, friends in Michigan told me they loved calling my house when I was upstairs in my room listening to Nine Inch Nails, since it meant my parents had to shout my name. It wasn’t until I left for college that I told someone it was a patronizing thing to say. Even then I only said it because it annoyed me how often I heard about how cute my parents sounded.
Only by the proof of birth record was I a native West Virginian. My father was never overtly nostalgic about his home state, as to him it meant little more than diminished opportunities for his children to have a carefree life, the only thing a good man raised desperately poor worries about. Occasionally I had bouts of misplaced pride, as in high school when I suddenly cared about West Virginia University football as they contended for a national championship. When my father and I watched Florida wreck the Mountaineers in the Sugar Bowl, he saw me get upset. “Well, what do you care about the University of Southern Pennsylvania for?” I had to open a road atlas to understand the joke.
It was perhaps not such misplaced pride but idle curiosity that caused me post-college graduation to take a trip to West Virginia with my mother as company. Since her children were raised, she and my father became the magnet for holiday vacations; trips to West Virginia were less routine, even for true natives like herself. The stated motivation for the trip was my uncle Sammy’s birthday, an occasion that is generally celebrated with phone calls and gifts from across the country. My grandmother’s basement, which serves as Sammy’s own living room, is filled with the unused tools, clothes, and writing pads he has amassed from all those who had met him over the years, and couldn’t help but to buy him things. He greeted all his gifts with, “Now, that’s what I need,” though he might not understand what the gift actually was.
Shortly after his birthday I got the idea in my head to take photos around Logan, and there is an embarrassing roll of film somewhere in my parents’ home of me standing in front of several pitiful shops and houses from around the county. It is as though I believed this was somehow capturing West Virginia; only later I understood this was little different than my friends’ desire to hear my parents’ accent. In one of the pictures, I am standing at the gates of the Powellton Company’s Rockhouse Mine. Perhaps if that was the only photo of the series, I might be able to convince myself that I was commemorating my grandfather’s death. It is one of many, however, stuck in between photos of me on the porch of a condemned home or leaning against an abandoned school bus.
A few years afterward I made another visit for Sammy’s birthday, though this time I had changed company from my mother to my wife. We presented him what his siblings had bought for him: an electric guitar and small amp. He told us that’s exactly what he needed, and we told him what we needed was a song. Sammy never developed adult teeth, and his baby teeth had to be extracted over the years due to abscess. He only wore collared shirts and slacks, though in recent summers he had allowed for shorts. Though he does not have Down Syndrome, he has the vague appearance, and he is nearly bald. To put it bluntly, his appearance does not seem to accompany an electric guitar. Yet we asked for a song and we didn’t need to ask again: he put his penny loafer on a dining room chair, and with neither rhythm nor anxiety strummed and sang his own proud, private version of his lifelong sweetheart’s most famous song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
That afternoon he asked me, for the first time I can recall, to take him to his father’s grave. The state had expanded US 119 into the Corridor G, and I had trouble remembering where the cemetery was without the normal landmarks. I asked Sammy if we were going the right way, fairly certain that we were too close to Chapmanville, but Sammy told me to keep going. He was right, just as he was right about the Rockhouse mine when my mother took him with us for my photo expedition.
At Highland Memory Gardens he pointed to the Last Supper statue and told me where to stop. He didn’t need to be directed to his father’s grave. His step was sometimes tentative, but that was due to his fading eyesight, not any lack of certainty about where he needed to go. The cemetery was over twenty acres of soft hills of flat headstones, but to Sammy it was only as large as the plots he knew. As limited as Sammy’s mental ability was, you rarely misunderstood what he wanted from you. His boyish joy at Christmas that turned to impatience with visitors once his gifts were opened was famous in the family. His overwhelming desire to spend his days in the basement watching old shows on television could be read in how quickly he got his tv tray at meals and headed back downstairs. He didn’t want to be alone, he just wanted you to stay quiet if you were going to join him. Standing in front of the grave that afternoon, however, I didn’t know what he wanted to do. I couldn’t tell if he knew I was still there.
“It’s me, daddy. Today’s my birthday,” Sammy said. He wasn’t being sentimental. He said the words with nearly the same passion he might tell me good night. The clarity and relevance of his voice, however, were frightening. And Sammy’s need to say it, to have it said only here and not rocking on the front porch anchored me to the plot. For the first time, I felt attached to the headstone, to the man whose first name he shared with Sammy, and whose middle name he shared with me.
On the day before the feast of the Transfiguration, when Jesus was seen by three of his disciples standing next to Moses and Elijah, I was asked to clear the trail up to the highest point of the monastery, what the monks had named Mount Tabor. It was tradition at the monastery that after the liturgy and feast of Transfiguration all the monks and any pilgrims visiting hiked up to Tabor for an afternoon picnic. The hike itself was not a terribly difficult one, and the trail, built years earlier by a monk whose cell was near Tabor, was not terribly overgrown. On a major feast day like Transfiguration, however, the path is to be shorn of its saplings and weeds.
Feasts are set apart by the service schedule, the ordered rest, and most importantly by the nearly giddy atmosphere in the air. Before and after the meal monks laugh and clown with one another, an attitude encouraged since their entire lives should reflect what is meant to be a joyous celebration. The ability of a monk to perform the attitude of a feast could be seen in the increase of pilgrims.
I did not make it a point to speak much with the pilgrims, either at the guesthouse with those who had stayed for several days or with those who arrived that afternoon. The only exception was a fourteen year old boy from Baltimore who had been at the monastery alone since before I came. Soon after meeting him I had asked what he liked about coming here, and his answers were fairly vague but no worse than anything I could have given should he have asked: it was different, it was peaceful, and he liked the monks. He was utterly bored when speaking to me about it, so I trusted his sincerity.
The boy’s mother and younger brother had come to join him for the Transfiguration feast and take him home. After the feast, he and his younger brother wandered to the drinks floating in coolers and pulled out two non-alcoholic beers, which they opened and immediately began to chug. I watched in amazement, and looked over to see a monk named Christopher sharing my mixture of smile and shock. As they ran off with their drinks, Brother Christopher raised his own beer—a real one—and walked with me as the group began to climb the trail to Mount Tabor. We recreated the scene with gestures and exchanged a litany of comments back and forth: That’s one way to celebrate the feast. Which one of you taught them how to do that? They’re going to think they’re drunk, aren’t they? You’re going to get a lot more fourteen year olds visiting. Don’t worry about them, they’re Russian.
"We didn’t speak like we had earlier about the fear of death. I didn’t madly scribble on a tiny notebook the books Father Gregory had told me to read. I didn’t ask him to pray for me and bow for a blessing. It was nevertheless Transfiguration."
Near the top of Tabor was a large, cleared field that reached to the edge of the mountain where the picnic had been set up. We sang a hymn together and venerated an icon attached to a tree, and afterward began to eat. Toward the end of the picnic I was asked by one of the monks if I would like a pop-tart. At first I thought it a good-natured dig about being from outside the monastery, but I looked and saw that he was already eating one. Nearly all the monks were, too. I told him I never thought I would be offered a pop-tart from a monk, and that naturally the situation demanded I eat it. One of the monks had grown up on pop-tarts, and the abbot had declared, for reasons known perhaps only to the abbot, that at every picnic on Transfiguration the monks would eat pop-tarts to honor their beloved brother. I stood next to Father Gregory and we spoke about what, I can’t remember, but I do remember laughing at him when he brushed the sprinkles out of his beard. We didn’t speak like we had earlier about the fear of death. I didn’t madly scribble on a tiny notebook the books Father Gregory had told me to read. I didn’t ask him to pray for me and bow for a blessing. It was nevertheless Transfiguration.
At the top of the monks’ Mount Tabor, one can see the monastery below, bending with the mountain into the valley. Father Gregory pointed out different buildings and cells through the endless layers of leaves. Looking further out were waves of trees rising and falling with the slopes of the hills. Looking over the monastery and far into those valleys and summits, I knew I could see Logan County. Somewhere in that swath of rolling green was a family reunion that I was due to attend the following day. My wife and children were already there. And my grandmother, and Sammy, who would be standing giddy next to the patriarchs while mirroring their hand gestures and laughter. My parents, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and the sea of faces who were as strangers to me. Out there too, my grandfather.
During the family reunion, there was a trip planned to Highland Memory Gardens to sing Methodist hymns and visit the graves of each of the siblings of my grandmother’s generation who had passed away. Neither my wife nor I went. The idea of corralling our small children as they ran across headstones and shouted poorly timed, inappropriate questions about death during the hymn was too much to bear. The reunion was large enough that we weren’t missed. Only my mother really noticed, and while she was upset with us, I told her we would visit the cemetery on our way out, just as we always did.
The following day my wife and I did just that, bringing our two children over to my grandfather’s grave. I was only two days removed from the monastery’s daily routine, and could still see the monks walking to their labor, or slowly, patiently making their way from one icon to another inside the church. I could still hear Father Gregory telling me how blessed he was to one day die and be buried here with the other monks. I asked my three year old son to sing one of the few church songs he knew, that Christ has “trampled down death by death.” We said a prayer. After a moment of quiet, the four of us walked to the car and drove back to Michigan.
On a subsequent visit to the monastery I made the hike to Mount Tabor by myself. The trail was a bit overgrown, and the field at the top of the mountain was covered in waist-high weeds. It was still two months until the feast of the Transfiguration. I made it a few steps into the weeds, thought about ticks and snakes, and turned around to sit at a shaded spot on the trail.
I spent an evening in the guesthouse looking through a book on West Virginia: historical milestones, maps, and color photos. I found the monastery on one of the maps, and based on having seen the buildings from Tabor the previous year, realized that when I looked out across the hills I was not pointed in the direction of Logan County, of my family, of my grandfather’s grave. Logan was to the south, and the clearing on Tabor pointed east. The discrepancy did not seem important.
When I left the monastery on that visit, just as I do nearly every visit, I drove down to see my grandmother and Sammy in Logan. I only stayed a night, spending the evening with Sammy in the basement watching an episode of The Rifleman and The Waltons. The following morning Sammy kept asking me if we’d watched the shows together, and I told him several times that we had, and that it was fun.
I did not ask my grandmother if she wanted to come to the cemetery with me that morning. I never did. She didn’t need the visit. She was tied to it more firmly than any physical visit on a Saturday morning might create. Sammy didn’t want to go either. He had broken his foot the previous year, and only with cajoling did he ever want to leave the house. He didn’t need to be at the grave that day. He would instead continue his ritual: sit out on the front porch, rocking in the chair, talking to his father. I went alone on my way back to Michigan.
In that massive cemetery I couldn’t remember which statue to use as the landmark to find the grave. I felt ashamed and hoped the receptionist at the front office wouldn’t ask my relationship as she looked up the location of Samuel Walter Knight. In the end, she only spoke about how her boss had left her alone on a Saturday. She handed me a sticky note with the coordinates and directions: drive toward the Last Supper. Walk seven rows. When I walked, I counted the number of steps, and found him where he had always been.
Originally from West Virginia, Brent Walter Cline is an Associate Professor of English at Spring Arbor University in Michigan.