CHEKHOV’S BLACK MONK ON THE GARDEN

“Look at me, I do everything myself. I work from morning to night: I do all the grafting myself, the pruning myself, the planting myself. The whole secret lies in loving it–that is, in the sharp eye of the master; yes, and in the master’s hands, and in the feeling that makes one, when one goes anywhere for an hour’s visit, sit ill at ease, with one’s heart far away, afraid that something may have happened in the garden.”

–Yegor Pesotsky, the horticulturalist in Chekhov’s 1894 short story “The Black Monk”    


The cancellation of the WTA (Women’s Tennis Assoc) season, I’m realizing, has had a deeply deleterious effect on my mental health. I used to chastise myself for being so immersed in the rankings, scores, tour schedule, tournaments, personal vendettas etc.

But lately I’m finding the phenomenon of lockdown unrelenting in a way I didn’t for the first couple of months. I feel I should always be reading, cleaning, writing, thinking, planning, walking, doing exercises, et cetera et cetera. I see now that tennis provided a much-needed release from my fevered brain.

Here’s the other thing: age. No-one tells you but after you’ve been around for six decades or so a whole thing starts to go on in your psyche, heart, brain and bones where you are constantly but constantly aware of your impending death. It’s not a sad thing exactly, though moments of sorrow come that are well-nigh overwhelming. Or rather the sadness isn’t at the thought of your own death but of how much remains undone. Of how you weren’t able to alleviate the suffering of others. Weren’t able to spread the Gospels to the ends of the earth, at least not remotely, not one zillionth, to the extent that you longed to.

Also you are tired. Man, take a look at those 85-year-old ladies with the styled hair and the manicure. Do you have any idea the strength of will, the character, required for a person to keep herself up like that? I’m not there yet, so I don’t know–but I’m beginning to be able to imagine. To haul your aching body and your weary heart out of bed, out the door, to be civil, cheerful and hopeful? Especially when the world barely even makes sense any more!

Okay then–courage! Self-pity not allowed! I’ve been on a Chekhov short story kick. As you may know, Anton did not tie things up neatly. He laid out a situation, usually filled with terrible sorrow, loss, suffering, nostalgia, poverty, injustice and/or heartbreak. He often gave the protagonist(s), or maybe a seemingly tangential character, a “moment” when the veil parts and they glimpse something of beauty or the eternal or the transcendent.

And then the tire falls off the wagon, the money-hungry relative pours boiling water over the newborn presumptive-heir baby (“In the Ravine”), the fortune is squandered, the would-be husband lacks the courage to propose, everyone gets old or dies, or not, and the story ends with everything uncertain and undone.

Just like life.


“The girls had set out to meet the icon in the morning in their bright, trim dresses and brought it back toward evening, in procession, and at that moment the chimes rang across the river. A huge crowd of locals and strangers choked the street; noise, dust, mob…The old man and Granny and Kiryak–all stretched their hands toward the icon, looked at it greedily and said crying: ‘Intercede for us, Little Mother, intercede!’

Everyone seemed to suddenly perceive that there is no void between heaven and earth, that the rich and strong have not seized everything yet, that there is still protection against injury, against bondage, against oppressive, unbearable want, against the frightful vodka.

‘Intercede, Little Mother!’ sobbed Marya. ‘Little Mother!’

But when they finished the Te Deum and took away the icon, everything was as before, and coarse, drunken voices rang out again from the inn.”

–Anton Chekhov, from the short story “Peasants,” trans. Barbara Makanowitzky


During Mass this morning, Father announced that LA County is again closing down the churches and that as soon as we left the doors would be locked “for the foreseeable future.”

11 Replies to “CHEKHOV’S BLACK MONK ON THE GARDEN”

  1. Heather King, you write about a sadness for this tragic pandemic time: “…rather the sadness isn’t at the thought of your own death but of how much remains undone. Of how you weren’t able to alleviate the suffering of others.” Yes! Unfortunately, miserably, valiantly so – yes! Your post reminds me of the beloved prayer from Henri Frederic Amiel, “Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.”

  2. Laura M Knutsen says: Reply

    Heather- this post rings so true for me as well. I’m feeling weary (something akin to existential dread) as the pandemic marches on. I’m 56 and everyday I’m looking a death counts like they’re numbers on a rolling slot machine with souls attached. It’s making it hard to breathe in the glory of life some days and many of my friends are expressing the same sort of angst. My 33 year old Son (also in recovery) lives in LA and among other things is a gym rat with no gym to visit now (again). I feel helpless but must remember to ATG (Always trust God).
    Here in Minnesota our churches are still open (praise God) and it’s the fingernail I’m hanging on.
    I’m grateful for your writings and for your journey which has lifted me many times. I just finished “Shirt of Flame” for the second time, and it was truly healing. Press on and keep the faith.
    Peace-
    Laura

  3. Thank the Good Lord I’m not reading Chekhov right now…I already feel some days I won’t be saved because I haven’t done enough, stood up for enough, spoken out enough, etc. I have lots of faith but have I had enough works? I know where those thoughts come from but it does weary one. I find myself praying, Jesus, I trust in you, a lot.

  4. HEATHER KING says: Reply

    Thank you dear women! That prayer from Henri Frederic Amiel is priceless, Mel. Chekhov actually cheers me up because he writes of life as it is, and with all that he is not a pessimist. And he has real love for his characters. It’s not so much I don’t feel I’ve done enough (and prayer to my mind is THE most important and essential and useful activity we can give to the world)…more that what I have done has been so mostly…ineffective. But that’s from a worldly point of view–not for us to say–and it’s also majorly the human condition. So I’m in good company with my feelings/thoughts, and that gives me comfort, too. I am hard at work on various projects, it cooled down (to probably a mere 90 ) today and we can still have Mass outdoors after all. So we will all press on and keep the faith! Plus look at those artichokes! Love to you all–

  5. Oh gosh Heather – this is such a beautiful post. You have such a gift of capturing what is ESSENTIAL and which expresses both the transcendental and the gritty – which is all of life, I guess, if we’re willing to look and be vulnerable enough to see it…

    I’m feeling so very wearied by lockdown now – compounded by my dear mum being diagnosed with cancer (prognosis likely to be pretty poor when we hear more on Friday) only 2 years after my dad died of cancer. It’s yet another opportunity to learn more deeply that my ways and plans are not God’s ways and plans! The unpredictability of life…

  6. PS I’m so pleased you can have outdoor Masses!

  7. You really speak to me Heather! This post rings so true. I am 65 and marvel how I ache and feel slow and think often about how little time remains. I love your observation about the glamourous 85 year olds …so funny and I need the laughs. I live in New Jersey and we are trying to open up here but I have just recently realized that will not really happen for a long time and it really is depressing. OK no pity party…lets count the blessings and pray and enjoy what we can. Lets figure out how God is calling us in these times. Love everything you write…thanks so much

  8. Patrick Dooling says: Reply

    Hi Heather! The big surprise is that doing nothing could be so exhausting. I’m about toast around noon. The gift for me, as the garden is for you, are animals: I continue to feed Blue Jays from my hand, I visit Canadian Geese who landed here in Monterey and decided to never go north again, and to interact with my blessed Bull Dogs. The hardest thing is the closed cathedral next to to the rectory: we hope to distribute Holy Communion in the plaza and go on from there. Special gifts: reading Timothy Radcliffe’s ALIVE IN GOD and slowly reading and savoring Irish novel THIS IS HAPPINESS. Despite many sins and frailties, still feel spoiled by God…relentlessly. So glad I had the chance to connect with you and your readers.

  9. HEATHER KING says: Reply

    Bless you, Lizzie and Maureen! Yes, we are proceeding with the outdoor Masses…grateful that we can connect with one another this way and share our griefs, struggles and triumphs. Yes, let’s figure out how God is calling us in these times…certainly to be voices of truth, light, hope and let’s never forget a sense of humor–love to you both and many thanks.

  10. HEATHER KING says: Reply

    Hi Father Pat! (Fr. Pat is a priest at the San Carlos Mission Cathedral in Monterey, CA, people!) Ah yes, Mass in the courtyard–we are doing the same at St. Andrew in Pasadena…just like the olden days–and maybe we are the better for it. How much we’ve taken for granted…and who knows what tomorrow brings. I looked at both the books you mentioned and they both sound pretty great…I am a frequent visitor to the Pasadena Public Library curbside pickup. Cooking up new projects down here, working in the garden, discovering new artists, writers and ways in this ever-evolving world–that is anchored, for eternity, in the Eucharist. Spoiled indeed. Peace, joy and love to you, the bluejays and the bulldogs! Always happy to hear from you.

  11. Lawrence McDonald says: Reply

    Another beautiful reflection. Thank you. Black Monk is my favorite Chekhov story. Followed by Frost. As a friend o mine said quite recently, during these hard , hard times of worry and isolation: Well, there is always Chekhov ! And Heather King,
    I will add.

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