[Orthodox Outlook; Fall 2008]
I wrote my most recent book, “The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts,” about the Theotokos, and the main reason was that I felt like I didn’t understand her very well. I recognized that other Christians feel very warmly toward her, but I always felt kind of scared of her. She looked so fierce, in her icons. (I underwent some teasing in an all-girl school when I was young, and maybe that had something to do with it.) I could look at the icon of Christ and see that he looked equally tough, and yet I could understand why, and knew that he loved me. I wasn’t sure that the Virgin Mary did. I hoped that by looking into the way that the earliest Christians saw the Virgin, I would myself learn a healthier perspective.
I already knew that it is possible for a saint to just “show up” in your life, and there they are, no denying it. It would begin, perhaps, with finding that references to the saint are popping up everywhere, and then progress to a sense of presence. I don’t know exactly how to describe what that is. (Do you think that, if you were reading a magazine in a park, and someone began staring at you, you’d gradually become aware of it? It’s that same inner thing, whatever it is, that can sense the presence of another personality.) I had become a Christian due to one of those “Damascus Road” conversions, when the presence of Christ suddenly impinged on me with undeniable power. Over the years since then I’d become alerted to the presence of some of the saints as well – as if at first I was looking at Christ, a brilliant light in a darkened room, but as my eyes adjusted I began to see his friends, gathered around him, too.
Over the years I’ve felt visited, if not accosted, by St. John Chrysostom, then by St. Panteliemon. Once they show up, their presence remains, the distinctive “flavor” of each personality, just as you can sense a summary “flavor” of any friend you think about. It’s like being in a circle of people at a party, in general conversation. If I look over at one saint or another, their presence blossoms forth.
We had a saint show up at our church in a more dramatic way. A few years ago, when we first organized our parish Sisterhood, my husband, Fr. Gregory, asked us to come up with a patron. Members of the group submitted several names, and we gathered on a Saturday morning to pray about which one to choose.
As we sat around the table, Roxann, the church secretary, read the names on the list. When she got to St Nina, several people said, “Who’s she?” Roxann asked who had put her name on the list, and no one there had done so. Nobody knew who St. Nina was. Then Roxann remembered that there was a biography of her in a recent issue of “The Handmaiden,” and got a copy and began to read it aloud. St. Nina, born in Cappadocia, went to Georgia as a 14-year-old (some say, having been abducted and sold there as a slave), and by her preaching the royal family, and then the entire nation, came to Christ.
I was sitting next to Roxann, and on the other side of me was Ina, the Sisterhood president. Soon after Roxann began reading, I noticed that Ina’s breathing had changed. I glanced over at her and her eyes were closed, and there were tears streaming down her face. I like to tease Ina by saying, “Oh yeah, she’s a weeper,” but the truth is that she has had, since her Protestant childhood, a propensity to flow with tears in any number of spiritual contexts. Ina’s chin was lifted and she looked like she was focused intensely on something; she looked noble, I thought.
So Roxann kept reading until she got to the end of the story. We all looked at Ina, and she seemed to “wake up.” Ina asked, “What was that? What happened?”
Of course, that’s what we wanted to ask her. She explained that she hadn’t heard a word of the story. From the moment Roxann began reading, Ina was overwhelmed with the presence of something holy. She couldn’t hear because her ears were filled with the sound of a mighty rushing wind.
Then I remembered something. I had seen a copy of the next day’s church bulletin, and there was an icon of a female saint on the cover. I showed the bulletin to the group: it was an icon of St. Nina. It was her feast day.
We all looked at each other and someone asked, “Should we vote now on which saint to take as our patron?” My husband said, “I don’t think you get to choose your patron. St. Nina has already chosen you.”
There’s a finishing touch: we later learned that our antimins was signed on the feast of St. Nina. Over the years St. Nina has continued to show her presence, attracting to our parish a donated iconostasis-sized icon, and a relic of earth from her grave. She’s a bold evangelist, worthy of the title “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”
I’ve found St. Anna to be an especially good friend. In July of 2007 I was able to see her myrrh-streaming icon, which resides at Our Lady Joy of All Who Sorrow Church (ROCOR) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I don’t recall sensing anything particular that evening, except being entranced by the fragrance of the myrrh. But within a couple of days there she was, leaning right into my awareness. What a wonderful character she is! I had several experiences where I asked her prayers for something and they were answered pretty much instantly—something I never expect to happen. The personality I sense is so comfortable and hearty and happy. It’s a joy to know her.
So of course I prayed to her, “Dear St. Anna, I want to know your daughter. I am not comfortable with her; I feel scared of her. I know that’s nonsense but I don’t know how to change it. Please help me. Please help me to love her.”
Now, I have had, in fact, a couple of experiences with the Virgin Mary over the years. I was driving into Baltimore one Saturday morning, long ago (I’m checking my diary to keep things straight; seems it was November 16, 1991), and had to drive around some construction in one lane. There was a hand-lettered sign noting the obstruction, and I don’t remember what it said, but I remember that something about it struck me funny—it was misspelled or phrased in an awkward way or something. I laughed out loud, and then out of nowhere the presence of the Virgin Mary hit me like a big, wet bag of sand. Wham! I felt overwhelmed. I started weeping. But the whole thing was so ridiculous that I was laughing too. Through laughter and tears I said, “Don’t do this while I’m driving!”
That’s the end of that story, and I know it’s a strange one. It was memorable, all right, though I never knew what to make of it.
The next story that I can remember is more recent—May 29, 2004. My husband had recently gotten a new car, and had gone to the extra trouble of getting one with a standard transmission (not automatic transmission, like most Americans drive). A month later I wanted to move it a bit further up the driveway and decided I didn’t need to go get the key—I’d just put it in neutral and let it roll forward.
Well, it did roll, but I discovered that without the key the steering wheel was locked and I couldn’t turn it. The car rolled on down the driveway and, as the driveway curved slightly to the right, it continued to go straight, right up onto the retaining wall at the driveway’s left edge. It kept on rolling, and I realized that it was headed to glide off the retaining wall and fall to the left, dropping some four feet into the neighbor’s yard—landing right on the driver’s door. The brakes weren’t responding. (Maybe I was pressing the clutch by mistake?)
I had no idea what to do. It was too late to open my door and jump out—the car would land on me. I couldn’t jump into the passenger seat, with the stickshift in the way and time running out fast. It was certain the car would be smashed, and I didn’t see any way that I wouldn’t share the same fate.
Then the car ground to a halt. The retaining wall had been rising a bit, and it had become just high enough to lift the car off its wheels. And there it hung, the two wheels on the driver’s side in the air, suspended halfway into the neighbor’s yard.
I got out as quickly as I could. Fortunately, my husband wasn’t home. I called for a towtruck. They came, took one look, and went back for a bigger towtruck. During that time my husband came in the door and I said something that started with, “Honey?”
By this time it was dark. It took the towing company quite some time to get their equipment fitted around the car in order to lift the front end and roll it backward. The mechanic told us that the car would surely need some expensive repairs. He explained that as it rolled up onto the retaining wall the undercarriage would have been thoroughly scraped. The car might even be totaled.
I went into the dining room where I could look out at the situation through the window. I was praying hard, the “Please please please please please” kind of prayer. (I recently read this quote from Scott Peck: “Worry is my favorite form of prayer.”) Then I noticed the little statue of the Virgin that my mother had given us, right next to me on top of the china cabinet. This was a 16th century statue carved of boxwood, about a foot tall, and my dad had bought it decades ago when the Metropolitan Museum in New York was selling off some excess items in their collection. As long as I could remember it had simply been an attractive bit of decor. No one prayed before it. But somewhere along the Rhine it had been carved for a church, and it was originally made for prayer. So I prayed, “Mary, help us! Please let everything be OK!” I wish I could say that I had some spiritually elevated prayer about God’s-will-be-done, but all I wanted was for the car to be all right.
And it was. And that statue of the Virgin now sits on my desk, getting the attention it deserves. When a friend brought me a bit of quartz from Mt. Athos, I put it at her feet, so she can look down and see something familiar.
Here’s a third story. On October 23, 2005, I went to see the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Sitka when it visited Washington, DC. The service was being held at St. Nicholas OCA Cathedral, and though there was a big crowd, somehow I wound up standing right in front of it, facing her directly, during an akathist that lasted an hour or more.
Now, this is an unusual icon. Our Lady of Sitka was painted in 1850, commissioned by Russian laborers in Alaska as a gift to the cathedral there. It’s an especially delicate and tender Theotokos, and looks more like a portrait than an icon usually does. She looks like a precious, innocent young girl, and it’s sweet to think of what she meant to the tough old guys swinging pickaxes in the wilds of Alaska.
The main thing is, she’s not scary. She looks alert and interested and kind. So I just soaked in that presence for awhile. My daughter Megan, who was with me, was praying for a physical healing, and as the worship moved on I began to have a strong sense that the healing was taking place. It was; her son Michael was born 9 ½ months later.
And here’s one more. On Nov 20, 2005, I was getting ready to turn out the light. I had finished my prayers and bible reading. Then I became aware of the presence of the Theotokos, and had a sense I should go on paying attention to it. I felt a question form, from her to me: “Are you hurt?”
The question surprised me. I sure didn’t feel hurt. I thought over the day, and could think of a couple of incidents that had marginally hurt my feelings—nothing serious. I indicated those moments to her, then said, “But they aren’t big hurts. It doesn’t matter.” The answer came flying back at me, almost before my reply had been expressed: “It does matter. The reason you were hurt was because they hit your pride.” Wham!
It’s only been in the last few months, however, that I’ve begun to become more comfortable with her. The biggest help in this healing was actually something rather simple. I had begun saying a more expanded version of bedtime prayers, and there is one that goes:
“Let us hymn the most glorious Mother of God, holier than the holy angels, and confess her with heart and mouth to be the Mother of God, for she truly bore God incarnate for us, and prays without ceasing for our souls.”
It was that last phrase. The thought that she “prays without ceasing for our souls,” that she prays even when we don’t ask her to. That she prays for everyone; that it is just in her nature to pray, and to love.
That sounds like someone I could trust. I’m looking forward to knowing her better.