THE COPPER PLATE
by Mark Dankof
--St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, chapter 4: 8-9
Biblical anthropology assures us that the condition of sin is one which is pervasive in all of humanity (Romans 5: 12f). There are assuredly many manifestations of sin in this cosmos and in our individual lives, but two which especially come to mind in the midst of the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001 are first, the egregious tendency to focus upon that which is ignoble, evil, impure, hateful, and even clinically demonic. The second manifestation is related to the first--that as the focus of our thoughts becomes despairingly dark, those things that are tangible evidence of Christ's love in our midst are simultaneously ignored or missed altogether.
My nights are often filled as of late with sleeplessness and concern over the future. One night after leaving work at midnight, I treated myself to a mile's walk with my long-haired Dachshund, operating under the assumption that this night trek in the colder air of Philadelphia's pervasive autumn would create an aura conducive to fitful rest. The assumption proved erroneous. After the walk came almost three hours in bed, fully awake, alternating the obligatory tossing and turning with prolonged stares at the characterless ceiling of my basement apartment. In this condition, my mind repristinated the images seen the previous day in the national and international media, snapshots of death, suffering, mass murder, economic dislocation, crumbling infrastructure, and promises of future atrocities yet to come against innocents both here in America and abroad. I could not turn it off.
About 3: 15 a.m. I decided to watch a foreign film purchased recently at Barnes and Noble, a 1998 Iranian film with English subtitles, entitled Children of Heaven. It is simply a marvelous film, the story of a poor Iranian working class family, with special focus on a young boy, Ali, and his sister, Zahir, and what transpires after the former accidentally loses his sister's shoes subsequent to a trip to the cobbler on her behalf. I will elaborate no further on the plot, in case you wish to see it, but will emphasize that at the end of two hours, my mind was no longer occupied with thoughts of terror, suffering, and national disaster. I was, finally, attuned to St. Paul's admonition in Philippians 4, thinking about that which is "true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy." For this I thanked God and two Iranian children, neither of whom I have ever met.
I was still unable to sleep. The reason this time was the incessant mental image of a copper plate ensconced in the storage locker of my apartment. I had procured it a over a quarter of a century ago as a young man in Iran, from an Iranian Jewish entrepreneur who ran a copper and brass shop on Saltanatabad Avenue in north Tehran. The scenes from Children of Heaven continued to remind me of my self-imposed promises to polish and clean the plate for display in my study, as a reminder of better times in my life and in the world at large. I decided spontaneously, at 5:30 a.m., to retrieve the plate and to resurrect its condition.
I felt dyspeptic when the plate retrieval proved to be a brutal reminder of my own failure to provide adequate care for something special that was connected to a past life in a place I'd not be likely to ever see again. The dilapidated, oxidized condition of the plate seemed to be irreversible, the past beauty of the copper past redemption and resurrection. What it had been, and what I had allowed it to become, pierced me. I knew that the sole responsibility for discarding its beauty, and the memories attached to it, was mine. The Law of Paul and Luther had convicted me once more of the sin of irresponsibility, ungratefulness, the failure to love and to care. Duly pronounced guilty under the Law, I decided to begin the potentially fruitless attempt at a new beginning--with two bottles of Brasso, a pile of cleaning rags, and as much physical application and mental concentration as could be mustered in a desperate attempt to recover the beauty of my plate. And the memories attached to its past--and to mine.
Over time and with excruciating effort, I managed to restore enough of the luster of the plate to restore a reflective image of myself. Being sufficiently encouraged, my polishing efforts were redoubled. As I worked incessantly, in the context of an ongoing encounter with my own visual image reflected in the improving bronze hue of the engraved Persian copper, my mind began to travel in a linear reversal, to an idyllic summer 27 years ago. I was suddenly 19 years old again, visiting my American parents in Iran. It was a time before the storm of revolution and hostage-taking, a time to learn about an ancient and Biblical land, and to spend weekends in quiet time with God.
The first night vision pertained to a place called Lar Valley. At night, one sees not individual constellations, but entire galaxies with the naked eye. It is entirely still, except for the constant flow of the river which runs through it. I do not know if the 14th century Persian poet had this hauntingly beautiful, surreal place in mind when he wrote:
Lie down beside the flowing stream
The second night vision, as I polished the plate, returned me to old Armenia, now Azerbaijan Iran. I was again a pilgrim to the Armenian Festival of St. Thaddeus and to the Church of St. Stephanos. A man I had not known, and would never see again, encountered me on a narrow pathway through the mountains as I walked alone toward a higher plateau for a better view of the encampment and the festival below. He evidenced no understanding of my greeting and address in American English, but smiled, raised his right hand in greeting, and then used the same right hand to retrieve something from his pocket. He offered it to me and clasped my right hand with both of his own. I felt a metal object pressed into my right palm. Later that night at the camp, I would be told that the man had given me a "Cross of the Persian Christians."
The third night vision brought me to Pasargadae and to the tomb of Cyrus the Great, who inaugurated the era of the Achaemenid kings of ancient Persia, the zenith of the glory of Persia past. In this vision of the night I am standing on the Dasht-e Morghab, the plain of Pasargadae. The tomb stands alone in the midst of a starkly barren plain; the steps up to it are about five feet wide with the tomb chamber itself rising from six distinctive tiers. There is a single, narrow doorway on the northwest side. In my hands are the Old Testament book of Ezra where I am now heard reading the opening verses of this text, against the backdrop of the sounds of a moderate, steady desert wind and the accompanying displacement of particles of dust and dirt moving across the landscape, some of which strike the tomb edifice and me as I stand before it. My voice echoes the text which says:
This scene quickly fades from view. I am now transported to the fourth and final night vision of twenty seven years ago in the mysterious, linear reversal of time. I am once again in the Conversational English language school in downtown Tehran. My job is an easy one--to repeat sentences and phrases in American English for two hours. The students range in age from about thirteen to thirty. Many of the names and the faces in this classroom are now flooding back. Out of all of these, I see the young woman who always sits in the front row, directly in front of my podium and chalkboard. She wears the chador to the class each evening, and does not remove it once inside the room. Her face, however, is unveiled and fully visible. Her eyes are vast, all encompassing, and all knowing. Her smile is radiant. I now remember her intelligence, which seems to border on a penetrating omniscience. But the most striking facet is this--that the outward appearance of pristine beauty and purity is also internally real. This is the mystery and the attraction. The outside and the inside of the "cup and dish" are both clean (Matthew 23: 25-26). This I shall remember always.
The night vision continues. The principal of the school, Mr. [name withheld by author] , has consented to something controversial. The last hour of the last class for the week will be a time when the students may ask me questions in English about myself, my family, my history, and my belief system. He confesses that he is nervous about this exercise, just as he recognizes its value and its inevitability in the context of the Western classroom. After all, his students are striving to get a university education in America or Britain. Using the classroom this way is a new, vital, but potentially dangerous thing. He trusts me to handle political and theological questions with the greatest of care. I now recognize that this man does, in fact, trust me. His future as principal is now in my hands. The hour is a delightful one and Mr. [ ] knows at the conclusion that all has gone well. His students conclude their week in great joy. Mr. [ ] concludes his week in both joy and palpable relief. Our mutual trust is reaffirmed.
In the final sequence of this fourth night vision, I am arriving at the classroom early. It is the first session since the students' elicitation of my biography under Mr. [ ] watchful supervision. There is a plain, but unmarked box on the podium, accompanied by a plain envelope with the uncertain printing of my full name on the front. My instinct tells me to place them in a hidden compartment underneath the podium surface, where I will retrieve them and take them home at the conclusion of the evening class. More students have now arrived. The rote recitations and guided memorizations begin. The young woman in the chador is in her usual location. The source of the box and the envelope now dawns on me.
The fourth night vision concludes with a reading. I am alone in my bedroom in my parents' apartment in north Tehran. There is a letter inside the envelope, which is now unfolded and read. It says:
July 10, 1974
Dear Mr. Mark Dankhof [sic]:
The mystery of 27 years duration is simply this. How does the woman in the chador know the date of my birthday? Is my student employment file with IIAF this wide open? She is indeed Pure, in Union with God, Omniscient, and, as Erasmus would have said, Knows the Sources. I shall not forget her.
The pungent odor of Brasso finally ends the labor of love and the night visions. It is now early dawn. The rags are piled virtually to knee level. My reflected image in the hue of burnished bronze is definitive. The storage room door bursts open. My wife is in the doorway. She asks, "What on earth are you doing in here? It's seven a.m. How long have you been in here?" My reply is an honest and simple one. "I finished cleaning my copper plate. I reclaimed it as mine." She then asked, "Is it time for me to turn on your Internet news sites or the news on television?"
"Neither," I replied with inner satisfaction. "Today, I'm going to think about that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. And the God of peace will be with us."