Excerpt from Nearly Orthodox: On being a modern woman in an ancient tradition
When I was a kid and we’d lose things, we’d chant, “Tony, Tony look around, something’s lost and can’t be found,” in the hope that St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, would shine a magical beam of light on the missing object. When what was missing was inside of us and we felt desperate and alone, we’d pray to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. If we were inclined toward music, we were instructed to pray to St. Cecelia, patron saint of music and musicians. We took it a step further with poor St. Joseph; we buried statues of him in the yards of houses we were trying to sell. St. Joseph, patron of carpenters and workers, stepdad to Jesus, long-suffering. He was quick to act when a dream tipped him off about the soldiers who came looking for his infant son, and now we’d bury statues of him in our yard in the hopes of selling property.
The saints I knew opened windows when God closed doors, stepped in when things were dire, sat in the passenger seat and kept us safe while driving. The idea I came away with was that we had someone on the inside putting in a good word for us. When God felt unreachable, we could call on the intercession of the saints or the Virgin Mary. They were the advocates for us, and they all had their appointed areas of expertise. I liked having this compartmentalized for me. Though the Vatican didn’t sanction the more superstitious aspects of this, this daily living out of the faith held long and held true. We learned church doctrine in our religion classes at St. Teresa, but we learned how to live as Catholics from our heritage, our family members, and our neighbors.
By the time we’d been attending Orthodox Liturgy for about a year, my kids had developed their own particular rituals for navigating the long service. It was probably the only time during the week they were required to be still and quiet for a ninety-minute chunk of time. Riley staggered her bathroom visits to break up the time, Chet drew, Miles wedged himself into a corner near the back and scowled at people. But my middle son Henry would wander around, staring at the murals and the icons. He was quiet and respectful, so I didn’t stop him. Once in a while he’d come back and report to me what he’d discovered.
Henry was absent most of the Liturgy one Sunday, wandering around the nave and the narthex, as he was known to do. After a length of time I went to look for him, to be sure he hadn’t gotten lost in what felt like a maze of catacombs in the basement of the building. I found him in the narthex staring at the mural of St. Xenia, listening as Christopher, a church friend, explained the saint’s story, that St. Xenia was a widow, that she became a “fool for Christ.” Henry stared at the mural, taking that in, listening then questioning, quietly. The mural of St. Xenia painted in the narthex of Christ the Savior is hard to miss. She greets visitors, standing just above and to the left of the icon of Christ. I spotted her the first time I entered the church, waiting for my turn to venerate the icon.
I recognized Xenia’s name only because my first college was in Fairborn, which was near Xenia, Ohio. We pronounced it Zeen-yah, and as far as I knew, its claim to fame was that it seemed to be a sort of tornado magnet. Springtime at Wright State University brought the storm warnings I was used to, having been raised in the Miami Valley, but it seemed as though Xenia always got the worst of it. The town was named for the Greek word meaning “hospitality,” but the Native Americans had always called it “the place of the devil wind.”
My dorm room was on the first floor and had concrete walls with windows facing a courtyard, so during tornado warnings I’d stay in my room, watching as much of the sky as I could see, watching for the green overlay that came when a tornado was brewing. The sirens came from the nearby Wright Patterson Air Force Base, so they were especially loud.
Tornado warnings never scared me. I didn’t worry about what could happen; I didn’t worry at all. It was perhaps the only time I felt some sense of peace, letting go the future and the past, living just in that moment. I’d seen a tornado once, from the picture window at my Aunt Yvonne’s house. We watched as the sky grew black and the sirens wailed. The clouds above the tornado were grey and green, expansive as they penetrated the sky around them. The funnel was long and skinny, like a string dancing and swaying. We watched the tornado for a long time, having no idea what destruction it caused, seeing only the massive beauty and power it commanded there through the picture window, and I felt peaceful. I felt respectful, knowing nature was not evil, it was simply itself, doing what it had done long before men decided to place houses and schools and car washes in its path.
After a long time of watching the slow-moving cloud, my uncle ushered us to the basement quickly, telling us it was hard to predict the path of tornados, that though it looked like it would miss us, we couldn’t be sure, and that even from here the winds could send debris though that glass. So we sat on the floor in their basement, in the dark, listening to the wind outside and the battery-operated radio at our feet, hiding from a force of nature.