In Memoriam: Walter Clifton (1918-2010)
January 2, 2010
I went out this morning to sing at Ss. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church in Jersey City; Metropolitan Jonah, the primate of the OCA, presided at liturgy, and some clergy from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia were also present, having brought with them the Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God for veneration. (The icon is said to be over 700 years old, and to have worked many miracles. Mention was made at liturgy of the healing of St. Seraphim of Sarov when he was a little child; his mother placed him on the ground so that the icon would pass over him as it was being carried in procession, and he recovered from his sickness. The OrthodoxWiki article on this icon mentions that it was brought out by the Russian Church both during the Polish-Lithuanian incursion of 1612 and in 1812 against Napoleon.*) After the service, I left fairly quickly, because I was planning to make a long trip in the afternoon; a 40-day memorial service is being held tomorrow morning for my Aunt Becky at the chapel of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary in Brookline, and I was intending to drive up to Boston to attend it, in spite of predictions of snow.
When I got home from liturgy, I found two new messages on my answering machine. One of them was from my choir director, Carol Wetmore. She told me that my friend Walter Clifton had died last night. The other message was from Walter’s wife, Fanya, who sounded distraught. I called my Aunt Mitzie in Brookline; she told me the weather was bad, I told her about Walter, and, to make a long story short, I decided to stay here in New Jersey.
Walter Clifton was born Vladimir Kryloff; on emigrating from Russia to America in the 1950’s, he Americanized his name. If I’m not mistaken, he once told me that his parents died in a Soviet labor camp. I first met him about twenty years ago, when I began attending the OCA parish in Randolph, New Jersey. We would often fall into long conversations at coffee hour after liturgy, sometimes on biblical matters, sometimes on politics or mathematics or science. Walter had one of the characteristic traits of a philosopher, which was that he never stopped asking questions. In recent years, as he entered his ninth decade of life, getting around had become increasingly difficult for him, lately he had begun using a wheelchair, and his eyesight was now nearly gone, but his mind continued to be sharp, and his heart and spirit never aged.
The last time I saw Walter was last Sunday; he and Fanya came to church and received communion. I had been to his house the day before; his two daughters and sons-in-law and four granddaughters were also there, celebrating Christmas; a box of Christmas cookies, given to me by his daughter Anastasia, is still in my kitchen, half-finished. Two weeks ago his youngest granddaughter, Lydia, was baptized in our church.
The Wisdom of Solomon says that God did not make death (Wisd. 1:13; cf. 2:23). The sort of question Walter would love to ask is, how then does one reconcile this claim about death with the biological record, which presents death as an inherent part of earth’s history from life’s earliest traces? (We would not have gasoline with which to drive our cars if, hundreds of millions of years ago, algae and plankton had not died in vast quantities and their remains had not settled at the bottom of the sea under anaerobic conditions; it is worth bearing in mind that the quantity of algae and plankton that did this is finite, and that, once we use up the petroleum currently under the ground, it will be quite a long time before we get any more of it.)
I am not sure what the proper answer to this question is. But it does not seem that it is necessarily a true interpretation of Holy Scripture to suppose that nothing had died before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. It seems clear, for one thing, that other plants had been eaten before the forbidden one. The larger question, of course, is whether the biblical narrative excludes an interpretation that would allow for an earth some billions of years old, and an evolution of life. I don’t know that I have a ready answer to that question, but I would like to think that the God who wrote the Bible also wrote the geological record, and that the two writings, properly interpreted, are not in contradiction with each other.
I will miss my friend Walter and his incessant questions. But I have reason to think that he is in a better place now than in Russia or New Jersey, and that his questions are being answered, perhaps in the way Job’s questions were, when God spoke to him out of the whirlwind.
* I happened to listen to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture some while ago on the radio while driving my car, and noticed how, at the end of the piece, when Napoleon and his troops are being driven away, one hears the strains of a liturgical hymn, together with church bells; I think it is the melody that is sung to the words O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance; grant victory to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries, and by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation.
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Book Three, Part Two, ch. 21, there is a description of an icon being brought out for veneration before the Battle of Borodino; it is not the Kursk Root icon, but the description is still worth reading:
A church procession was coming up the hill from Borodino. First along the dusty road marched a company of infantry with their shakos off and trailing arms. From behind them came the sound of chanting.
Soldiers and militiamen ran bareheaded past Pierre to meet the procession.
“They are bringing her, our Holy Mother, our Protectress! … The Iberian icon of the Mother of God!”
“The Holy Mother of Smolensk!…” someone corrected.
The militiamen, both those who had been in the village and those who had been at work on the battery, threw down their spades and ran to meet the procession. Behind the battalion which came marching along the dusty road walked the priests in their vestments — one little old man in a hood — with attendant deacons and choristers. Behind them soldiers and officers bore a huge icon with a blackened face and silver mountings. This was the icon that had been brought away from Smolensk and had since accompanied the army. Behind, before and all around walked or ran crowds of soldiers with bared heads, making obeisances to the very ground.
At the top of the hill the procession stopped. The men who had been holding the icon aloft by the linen bands attached to it were relieved by others, the chanters relit their censers and the service began. The scorching rays of the sun beat down vertically; a faint fresh breeze played with the hair on bared heads and fluttered the ribbons trimming the icon; the singing sounded subdued under the open sky. A huge bare-headed crowd of officers, soldiers and militiamen stood round the icon. In a space apart, behind the priest and a chanter, were gathered the personages of rank. A bald general with the order of St. George hanging from his neck stood directly at the priest’s back, and not crossing himself (he was evidently a German) patiently waited for the end of the service, which he thought it necessary to listen to, probably so as to arouse the patriotism of the Russian people. Another general stood in a martial pose, looking about him and making swift little signs of the cross in front of his chest. Standing among the crowd of peasants, Pierre recognized several people he knew in the circle of officials, but he did not look at them — his whole attention was absorbed in watching the serious expression on the faces of the throng of soldiers and militiamen, who were all gazing raptly at the icon. As soon as the weary chanters, who were singing the service for the twentieth time that day, began languidly and mechanically to sing: “O Mother of God, save thy servants from all adversities,” and the priest and deacon came in with: “For to thee under God every man doth flee as to a steadfast bulwark and defence,” all those faces were fired with the same consciousness of the solemnity of the approaching moment which Pierre had seen on the faces at the foot of the hill at Mozhaisk, and by fits and starts on many faces he had met that morning. And heads were bowed more frequently and hair tossed back, and there was the sound of sighing and beating the breast as men crossed themselves.
The crowd round the icon suddenly parted and pressed against Pierre. Someone, a very important personage to judge by the haste with which they made way for him, was going up to the icon.
It was Kutuzov, who had been reconnoitring the position and on his way back to Tatarinova had stopped to join in the service. Pierre recognized him at once by his peculiar figure, which distinguished him from everybody else.
In a long overcoat over his enormously stout, round-shouldered body, with his white hair uncovered and his puffy face showing the white ball of the eye he had lost, Kutuzov advanced with his lunging, staggering gait into the ring and stopped behind the priest. He crossed himself with an accustomed movement, bent till he touched the ground with his hand, and sighing heavily bowed his grey head. Behind Kutuzov was Bennigsen and the suite. Despite the presence of the commander-in-chief, which drew the attention of all the superior officers, the militiamen and soldiers continued their prayers without looking at him.
When the service was over Kutuzov stepped up to the icon, dropped ponderously on his knees, touched the earth with his forehead, and then for a long time struggled to rise to his feet but he was too heavy and feeble. His grey head twitched with the effort. At last he got himself up, and naïvely thrusting out his lips as children do kissed the icon and again bowed and touched the ground with his hand. The other generals followed his example; then the officers, and after them the soldiers and militiamen, came up with excited faces, pushing each other and shoving breathlessly forward.
From L. N. Tolstoy, War and Peace, Rosemary Edmonds, tr., vol. 2 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), pp. 906-908.