A year ago, give or take a few days, I was welcomed into the Orthodox faith. On that day I took the name of Saint Theodora of Vasta, whose story echoed in me the moment I read it. Theodora came to the aid of her village while it was under attack, she dressed as a man to fight for its survival and became mortally wounded. As she lay dying it was said her final words were, “Let my body become a church, my hair a forest of trees, and my blood a spring to water them.”
After her death the villagers built a chapel on that spot and over the years that followed trees grew up in and through the small building. From the outside, the tops of the trees can be seen even today, but inside the chapel no evidence of roots or limbs can be found. Scans of the building and the foundation show an underground spring feeding the plant life, which it appears, grew up through the porous areas inside the walls themselves. The amount of pressure on the building is great and scientists proclaim it a “miracle” that the building has stood as long as it has.
Because I love story and I love metaphor, I recognized Theodora as kin and so I chose her as my patron, knowing full well that her feast day would fall on September 11th. When thinking about how to write about this day, my patron’s feast day, my own “name” day, I found myself drawn back time and again, to the chapel of St Theodora and at the same time, to the memory of falling towers, crashing planes, and the heroism of people- responders, pedestrians and priests.
As an American, September 11th held a significance long before I became Orthodox. On this day we suffered the worst terrorist attack we’ve encountered here at home. People of a certain age will always have a “where were you when” memory lodged into their hearts and their heads. Some turn away from the persistence of memory, because it is too painful to linger, because they feel it’s counter intuitive to healing. Some embrace the moment with both arms, grasping and clinging, because that day everything shifted for us all in a real and perceptible way. Regardless of how anyone chooses to remember (or not remember) the loss and the grief and shifting of life, the one basic, real, and honest truth we can keep is that on this day, we are connected by this, even if it is only for a moment.
What strikes me today as I reflect upon the strange intersection of my first “name day” and the 12th anniversary of the tragedy of September 11th is the miracle of Theodora’s chapel. That small stone building on the rocky hill of Vasta on the mountainside near the border with Messenia in Greece stands in the wake of the memory of loss, against the pressure of time and tree roots, supported by unseen limbs, a miracle. The loss is real, the grief is lasting yet the healing comes and the building stands. Something new began when Theodora died, something miraculous and strong.
I’m reminded as I read and pray and remember today the events of September 11th, 2001 how we were shaken and I recognize then, that the loss is real, the grief is lasting yet like that chapel, the healing comes and we stand. Something new began when the world shifted under our feet that day and something miraculous and strong grew into the empty places in the walls of everything we built after that. Against the pressure of time and terrorism, we find we are rooted still, supported by unseen limbs, connected one to another, arms reaching up and around like branches into the sun.