You will need to know something strange about me before I tell you a story. Whenever I am participating in guided prayer activities in which I am asked to imagine Jesus; what he looks like, what he is wearing, I always imagine Jesus in the context of a Mediterranean street scene in traditional Middle Eastern robes of the first century but wearing a baseball cap and eating fresh fruit. During one such prayer activity I was asked to imagine what Jesus would say to me as he walked up to me and in my imagination I heard Jesus ask, “why do you always imagine me in a baseball cap and what’s with the fruit?” “Because, in a cap and eating fruit, Jesus, you seem more approachable and friendly,” I heard myself say. And in my imagination I saw Jesus smile and nod; take my arm in his as we walk down the street, and say as we go, “then a cap and fruit it is.” Keep those images of Jesus in a cap eating fruit in mind.
Now, the story; I was on my back porch reading one morning last week. It was cold, windy, and gray outside and inside my soul reflected the weather. This was not depression or anything so diagnosable, just the grayness of a winter day in the middle of the asceticism of Lent; before spring, before resurrection. I was reading something by Richard Rohr, only half paying attention to the words as they slid by, and then it happened; the symbolic sun broke through the metaphorical fog. Rohr quoted Dostoyevsky, from the Brothers Karamazov, I smelled strawberries and grinned. This requires explanation.
It was another gray, windy, cool day; cool even though it was late July, cool because even in late July in Leningrad in the old Soviet Union the long and fabled Russian winter was already creeping down from the arctic not far to the north. It was cool and gray and I was lonely. I had been married less than two months when I left my new bride in sunny Texas to smuggle Bibles through the iron curtain and work with the underground church while officially attending the University of Leningrad in a summer Russian language intensive course. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was gray, windy, and cool and I had lived for a month on a diet of boney canned fish, boiled cabbage, hard black bread, and impossibly strong coffee at the University; and I was lonely. And it was in that state of soul that I walked through Leningrad’s bleak streets until I found myself standing in front of the house of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
He was not at home having died just over a century earlier. Still, I went in. The apartment had been turned into a small, intimate museum in which most of his person effects remained as he had left them but lacking the red, velvet ropes of a traditional western museum. The place seemed to have been forgotten and was curated by a single ancient woman who I suspected may actually have been Fyodor’s house keeper. She slept upright in a chair near the door and didn’t stir the whole time I was there. I sat, unbelievably, in Dostoyevsky’s chair, at Dostoyevsky’s desk, looking out Dostoyevsky’s window at the same cold, gray world he must have viewed day after day as he wrote the Brothers Karamazov .
This impressed my mind, but did little to lift my soul and actually succeeded in lowering me even more deeply into the emotional tone of the place. I felt Russian to my core.
And then an extraordinary thing happened. I stepped out onto the front steps of Dostoyevsky’s house, cocked my head to one side, and was puzzled by what seemed to be the nearly intoxicating smell of fresh strawberries. The scent caught me, held me, and drew me along; across the street, down an alley, and into an over grown lot. There, amongst the weeds, was a squat single story building made of that sort of pale, yellowish-brown, featureless brick that shouts “soviet” and from which so much of what must be called soviet “anti-style” architecture was made. Confused by the disjunction between the smell of strawberries and the sight before me I started to turn, to retrace my steps back to the street when I spotted two men in Soviet military uniform with battered Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders standing one on either side of the shadowed entry way of the obviously abandoned building. Seeing my indecision perhaps, one of them beckoned me closer with the wave of a gloved hand and I obediently, if hesitantly, approached the building. And then, I saw Jesus. The second soldier was half turned away from me as I stepped through the tangled weeds toward the entrance. I came nearer. He turned toward me and as he did I saw that he was holding a cone made of news print and full of strawberries. He, in his military cap looking for all the world the way I pictured Jesus, finished the strawberry he was eating, reached into the cone, pulled out a strawberry; and, smiling, offered it to me. Entranced I took it hearing Jesus say in my imagination, “a cap and fruit it is then”. The grinning soldier said nothing, but motioned me into the building. As if on cue the sun broke through the flat, gray sky just as I entered the roofless interior of what had once been a train station and I was overwhelmed by the rush and smell and color of the life contained there that the sunlight illuminated.
The scent of the strawberries that had bribed the soldier to guard the entrance had brought to a “black market” market. Mounds of colorful, fragrant fruit and over flowing bushel baskets of vegetables filled the makeshift stalls erected by farmers from the countryside surrounding Leningrad. As an American in the middle of Soviet Russia I stood out; particularly among these country people looking like they had just taken a break from the set of Fiddler on the Roof. I wandered stunned and giddy along the lanes between the stalls of produce, fresh meat, crusty golden loaves of bread, baskets of eggs and cheeses. Wherever I turned I was greeted by waves, smiles, and calls of welcome. An old woman put a news print cone of strawberries into my hands. Others shined apples on their sleeves and piled them in my arms. A young girl with flowers platted in her Nordic blond hair handed me another news print cone, this one filled with some of the flowers she was selling. No one wanted my rubles. I strolled and laughed, the gray loneliness a distant memory. Eventually I wandered back to the entrance and out with as much fruit, vegetables, and flowers as I could carry all now wrapped in yellowish-brown paper that exactly matched the crumbling brick of the old station; arms full of secret happiness. My Russian soldier Jesus with riffle barrel still sticking up behind one shoulder, still in his cap, still munching on strawberries smiled warmly as I came out. In English but with a thick Russian accent he said, “Come back when you need to”. Then he laughed, winked as he popped another strawberry into his mouth, and swung out an elbow to nudge my shoulder as I turned to make my way back across the gray weeds swaying in the gray light of a much less cold Russian day.
As I sat on my back porch that cold, gray, windy day last week; not quite 20 years distant from the “black market” market guarded by Jesus in Soviet uniform, reading something written by the man at whose desk I once sat looking out at his cold, gray, windy world; I, again, caught the scent of strawberry bribery and allowed myself to be drawn to a secret sanctuary of warmth, light, color, hospitality, and life. And, there again, in the middle of the grayness of soul stands Jesus; grinning in his cap and eating the very fruit the scent of which draws me out of my bleakness and into the light where my hands are filled again with all the good things I can carry off in secret. I laughed again as I sat on the porch remembering the wink and the brotherly nudge of the soldier and I realized with delight that my soul felt now buoyant and grateful. “Come back when you need to” Jesus had said. I guess I needed a visit to that market and Richard Rohr, Dostoyevsky, and the imagined smell of strawberries conspired to draw me there again.
So, if you find yourself sitting metaphorically at Dostoyevsky’s desk looking out at the cold, gray world; dare to step out onto the porch and cock your head to one side; could that be the smell of strawberries? Accept the unanticipated invitation to secret blessing even if it comes from an unexpected source; like a winking, grinning, Jesus in a Soviet military uniform proffering strawberries.