On February 18, 1952, a brutal nor’easter raged off the coast of Cape Cod. The Ft. Mercer, A T2 oil tanker 500 feet long, severely battered by wind and waves, broke in two. The Coast Guard in Boston and Nantucket were called out to rescue the men trapped on board, twenty miles from shore. With 60 foot seas and 80 mph wind, the mission looked insane. One of the men staying behind, Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Bernie Webber, recalled thinking, “My God, do they really think a lifeboat and its crew could actually make it that far out to sea in this storm, and find the broken ship amid the blinding snow and raging seas, with only a compass to guide them? If the crew of the lifeboat didn’t freeze to death first, how would they be able to get the men off the storm-tossed sections of the broken tanker?”
Heh. Reminds me of the time I was asked to lead a retreat for the women of an evangelical church, and they balked at the Jesus Prayer, charging that it was “vain repetition.” (Yes, this was after we’d sung quite a few repetitive praise choruses.)
Over the years we have seen some touching and marvelous things occur at Holy Cross Church. Here are a few of our stories. 1. We’ve had a couple of “angel sightings” by very young children. (Or rather, a couple that children told us about; who knows how many times they see angels, and don’t tell us about it.) On a Sunday in 1999, a family from Texas came to Holy Cross for the Divine Liturgy, accompanied by their 3-year-old girl. Later that day they were at dinner in Deacon Mark & Shmassey (“deacon’s wife”) Ina O’Dell’s home. The little girl was seated between her mother and Ina, and Fr. Gregory was seated across the table from them. Ina says: “I remember her sitting there between me and her mom saying, ‘Mom! Look, he’s the one!’, while pointing to Fr. Gregory. Her mother asked what she meant, and she said ‘He’s the one that was singing with the angels!’ Beth looked at me with raised eyebrows. One of us asked the child whether she had seen angels in church, and she replied ‘Yes,’ but she was clearly more excited to be seeing Father again: ‘and he’s the one that was singing with them!’”
[January 24, 2016] Today is the feast day of St. Xenia of St Petersburg (1732-1803), a beloved saint of relatively recent times. St. Xenia’s husband died after a night of drinking, leaving her a childless widow at 26. Now freed from all earthly attachments, she took on the very challenging spiritual discipline of being a Fool for Christ. She gave away her home and all her possessions, and became a homeless wanderer. Grieving for her husband, who had died without having made his confession, she word only his red-and-green military uniform (when it wore out, she clothed herself in rags of those colors).
At the time of the Roe v. Wade decision, I was a college student — an anti-war, mother-earth, feminist, hippie college student. That particular January I was taking a semester off, living in the D.C. area and volunteering at the feminist “underground newspaper” Off Our Backs. As you’d guess, I was strongly in favor of legalizing abortion. The bumper sticker on my car read, “Don’t labor under a misconception; legalize abortion.” The first issue of Off Our Backs after the Roe decision included one of my movie reviews, and also an essay by another member of the collective criticizing the decision. It didn’t go far enough, she said, because it allowed states to restrict abortion in the third trimester. The Supreme Court should not meddle in what should be decided between the woman and her doctor. She should be able to choose abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.
This new Russian novel tells the story of a fictitious 15th century saint, a wonderworker and healer. Though secular readers may be inclined to consider his feats “magical realism,” everything in it could be found in the life of one Orthodox saint or another: soul-reading, bilocation, levitation, multiplication of bread, companionship of wild animals, and so on. The book has been greatly admired in literary circles in Russia, and won some significant awards; but its popularity may also stem from the hunger that made Everyday Saints (by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, 2012), with its stories of modern-day miracles, a bestseller in Russia. There is a hunger for recovering the nation’s historic Christian roots, especially in the lives of its saints, both ancient and contemporary.
July 17 is the feast of the valiant St. Marina, who was martyred in the 3rd century. Over the years she has kept intersecting with my life—those odd synchronicities that make you wonder if there’s something going on that you don’t know what to do with. —In 1981 my husband and I (and kids) moved to Woodbridge, VA, where he had been called as the rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church. Funny thing about that name. The woman who donated the money to found the church, half a century ago, asked that it be named for the patron saint of her school, St. Margaret. But by mistake the committee dedicated it to St. Margaret of Antioch, a.k.a. St Marina, and not St. Margaret of Scotland, whom the school had been named for.
Here’s something I use, to keep the certainty of death in mind. Feel the bones in your wrist. Those are your bones, part of your skeleton. If an archaeologist found your remains a thousand years from now, that’s what they would find. Not some other theoretical bones, but your own bones, the ones inside your wrist right now.
The Philokalia is a 5-volume (4 in English, so far) compilation of writings from the 4th to the 14th century on “Prayer of the Heart,” the process of uniting the personality and bringing it into communion with God. It’s a difficult work to approach, and several people have come up with suggestions on how to get started—what works to read in what order. Here’s a list I made, by compiling that advice.
The Rites of Baptism and Chrismation Why are we facing the back of the church? If you have been invited to attend a friend’s Baptism, you would expect to come into the church and face toward the altar. But the preliminary parts of an Orthodox Baptism take place at the back of the church (or in some cases, in the church’s entry hall, called a narthex). This is because, in the early centuries, Baptisms were performed outside the church; the new members of the congregation literally “entered” the church. Now the first part of the ceremony takes place at the back of the worship space, and then the baptismal party moves to the center of the room for the Baptism itself. Finally, they come to the front of the church for the Chrismation, the anointing service that completes church membership, and represents the bestowing of the Holy Spirit (it’s analogous to Confirmation in Western churches.)