Trial by Fire

I thought stuff didn't matter

Toward the end of his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content."

I learned recently, the hard way, how far I am from that state of being.

My wife and I were sitting down to a Sunday dinner—pork, roasted fruit—when we saw the lights flicker and heard an alarm downstairs. I opened the door to our apartment and saw smoke curling from under the door to our landlord’s apartment on the first floor. We knew they were away—they had left for dinner some twenty minutes before. We called 911 and waited outside. I had the presence of mind to leave our door unlocked and made sure the firemen were able to get through the glass outer door downstairs without smashing it. We watched as smoke billowed from the windows on the first floor and the windows were smashed, and wondered how far the fire would spread. The lights in our apartment went out. Someone in the gathering crowd asked if we had apartment insurance, and I said no, but it really didn’t matter. What would be lost, if the apartment burned, couldn’t be replaced: an icon and an oil painting I inherited from my parents, my uncle’s chalice, photos of the family, letters from friends. We watched, wondering if we were about to lose not only everything we owned—all of those things—but also a place we had grown to love being in: a light-filled apartment, a great view of the sky.

After a couple of hours, we were let back in. We were lucky. If we had not been home, or if we had been asleep and oblivious to alarms, the whole place would have gone up in flames and, since the building is part of a row house, neighboring homes would have burned too. Our apartment smelled like smoke, but there was no real damage, and we lost nothing. We spent four days in a hotel within walking distance. Then the heat and electricity were restored and we went home. Our landlord was not so lucky. The family will need to spend months away while the apartment is remodeled. There was fire damage in the back rooms and smoke damage everywhere.

What I realized, watching this, was how difficult it is to maintain a genuine sense of detachment and not-grasping. All religions, with the exception, probably, of cargo cults, tell us that it is futile to try to hold on to anything.

It is easy to understand this intellectually. But when you realize that what you hold on to, or want to hold on to, is not just a collection of stuff, but a way of relating to a place, to your routines, and that you must be prepared to surrender even this—when you are forced to confront this by seeing that it may literally go up in flames in your face—you realize that a serious surrender of the self has less to do with things, with possession and wealth, and much more to do with expectations. Even the Buddhist idea that desire is the source of our problems seems heavy-handed next to this.

I realized how much place means to me. I thought of Psalm 103: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; / for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, / and its place knows it no more.”

That idea of being known by a place struck home. There was a kind of dialogue between me and this place that I had become used to, and it was more important to me than I knew. It had to do with the silence of morning, with the freedom I have to read and write in these rooms, with views of clouds and a red maple from these windows. Four days in a hotel room got in the way of that, and I found myself resenting it.

Regina and I are back home, the apartment has been cleaned, and for us everything is as it was. But the tentativeness of life, its scarily contingent nature—something I thought I knew—has been emphasized for me more viscerally than I like. We had thought of going into Manhattan that evening, and decided not to. If we had, it probably would have meant the end of the apartment. We might have been asleep. That might have been the end of us. And of course this is nothing new in our part of Queens: I have seen fires in this neighborhood, and knew, intellectually, how rough it must be to go through such a thing, just as you know, intellectually, that you will die. This experience has made me question myself a little more fiercely. If I can be thrown for such a loop by something like this, something that ended well, how would I handle, for example, a terrible medical diagnosis or some other really bad news? It’s been a lesson in the ways your life’s events can be an important school of spirituality, and it’s been humbling.

Published in the 2006-11-17 issue: 
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John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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