Speaking at the St. Herman’s Conference

I am late posting this, but my talk is up, and it is pleasant to remember winter in July! My husband and I spoke at a youth conference for Orthodox Christian teenagers and young adults, 43 of them, with seven adults. It was a very great honor. The conference was dedicated to St. Herman of Alaska, a missionary saint who came to Alaska from Russia in 1793 both to serve the Russians who lived there and to minister to the natives, many of whom became Orthodox.

While the St. Herman’s Conference has been well established on the East Coast — I met my husband at one in 1980 — the midwest St. Herman’s Conference is relatively new. I spoke at the first one in 2008, when there were closer to 20 of us, and it was a joy to see how it has grown. The diocese now has a program to encourage the youth to sing in their parishes, and several of them conducted pieces for the services we sang together.

Each conference has a theme. The purpose of this gathering was to bring people together to discuss friendship, the internet, and God. The kids came from everywhere — Chicago, Alaska, Oklahoma, Texas. They listened attentively, asked sharp questions, shared their lives and problems, and learned to sing the services together. They played in the snow on snow tubes and in a human Foosball game, volunteered for four hours at a homeless shelter, and got to know each other over all- you-can-eat fish tacos and bowling after. We ended the services at the St. Herman parish in Hastings, where our friend Fr. Michael Carney is rector.

My talk was on how to “curate” your thoughts before sharing them on the internet. I could not have given this talk before the studying I did for my MFA in Writing. I had to learn to curate my collection of thoughts and experiences, to share them in the best light and with the right juxtapositions, before I could speak to the youth about what to share and how so we can lift each other up and support each other rather than tear people down though our online participation.

The camp where the conference was held is a place of great natural beauty. The dining hall overlooked a frozen lake, and the sky above was a study in blues and greys by day, infused with orange and pink at sunrise. I had thought of Michigan winters as bleak, because I looked at the snow on the side of the road. When you stand in nature and look up, everything changes.

A bishop friend says, “Private prayer is important, but it is only in the services of the Church that we find spiritual regeneration.” And online contact is important, but it is only by meeting face to face that we truly become close. The internet helped us to organize, but of incalculable value was the face to face contact we made, forging new friendships and deepening old ones.

The world can be so cold, both physically and otherwise. It is essential that we make every effort to overcome it, banding together to share and to spread the warmth.

When Change is Good

It was very strange to start today with eggs, because in my youth, this was a solemn fast day.

Every day is the feast of some saint, in the Russian Orthodox Church. Some days are fast days, on which we eat less and have no meat or dairy,  in preparation for joyous events like Christmas and Easter, others are feast days, others are fast days because the day commemorates something sorrowful, like the beheading of St. John the Baptist.

Today is the anniversary of the killing of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family — the  Empress Alexandra and their children, Olga, Maria, Tatiana, Anastasia, and Alexis. In the West, the deposition and murder of the Tsar is seen as a good and inevitable thing, but the exile and murder of his wife and children cannot be defended, and the results for Russia were catastrophic. The new era of equality and friendship that was supposed to be ushered in became, instead, seven decades of fratricide, genocide, misery, imprisonment — and martyrdom.

Although today is more about the Royal Family, who were killed on this day, in our parish in Boston it was a day to remember all those who died. Before the glorification (similar to canonization) of the imperial family and other new martyrs of Russia (those who died for their faith, rather than just for politics; my godfather, Serge Conus, gravely said, “My Dear One, not all those killed by the Communists were saints, but only those killed for the Orthodox Faith.” But so many were killed for their faith that Russia, in the 21st century, gave the world literally uncountable millions of saints), there was a solemn Liturgy, followed by a vegan, simple meal and long speeches in Russian by Cossacks in their church suits, some speaking with raised fists, others overwhelmed by tears. Their wives, the Sisterhood, dressed in somber colors, and made a penitential meal — kasha with mushrooms instead of sausage and potatoes. We drank our coffee black or with Cremora, and had to sit quietly and still for all the speeches in the hot, not even remotely air conditioned hall.  For us, as Americans, these events were distant and Other. But for our fellow parishioners, this was family, and now that I have lost my parents and brother (to illness, not even to evil people who still wield world-wide power), I begin to understand rather than observe their pain. Even then, we were moved by what we could see, especially when our friend who was translating stopped, saying, “This is not something for children.”

Only later did I learn Russian, and learn some of the stories. These men had lost family members throughout the years since the revolution — grandparents and beloved aunts, then fathers, and brothers and sisters. My godfather’s father, the famous violinist Julius Conus, whose exercises for students were the norm across Russia, died of starvation on the streets of Moscow in 1942; he had been declared an enemy of the State, and one could be arrested for feeding him. When I was thirteen, that was only thirty-four years previous, as if it had happened in 1983 now. Our priest’s father had been locked in a barn with other engineers at the beginning of the WWII and the Communists set the barn on fire so the approaching German army could not capture that much brain power. Others had seen their relatives die rather than be repatriated during Operation Keelhaul. Many of the people who killed their loved ones were still alive, still in power, gloating.

День Непримиримости was what the Cossacks called it, a day to come together for mourning and prayer. The Russians were mocked for their belief that Communism would some day be overthrown. I recall a reporter chuckling politely when the actor Peter Ustinov, a distant cousin of the bishop who later headed our church, was asked in an interview where he was born. “St. Petersburg,” he said, “temporarily known as Leningrad.”

There will always be someone who mocks you for having hope and faith that things will be better. They are often wrong, and always are short-sighted.

Things got better. 1981, our church glorified the New Martyrs of Russia, recognizing them as saints. In 1991, Communism was overthrown in an almost bloodless coup in Russia, and in 2007, our church reconciled with the Moscow Patriarchate, from whom we had separated ourselves until we were sure it was no longer the captive of a State hostile to its very existence, who used the Church for its own purposes. Lenigrad is back to being St. Petersburg. Churches that were turned into museums, theaters, toilets, and beer houses have been returned and restored. New churches are under construction to replace those destroyed and to hold all those who now freely pray. Miracles have happened in our lifetime.

Now the day that was a solemn time of prayer and mourning is instead a feast. As has happened so often in the life of the Church, the horrible things that those opposed to Her did to believers became trials they overcame, rather than brutal acts of suppression that ended something and someone. Their sufferings were a semicolon, not a period. The power of love for God transcends death and imbues sufferers with strength and love that can be used to help others. As Joseph said to his brothers, in the Old Testament, “ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.” (Gen. 50:20)

All over the world, in places that we know of and in places shaded by the darkness of oblivion, there are men, women, and children suffering because they choose to believe in God and to live the life that faith requires — praying, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, even when the sick and suffering have been declared less than human by the States in which they live. There are people in unspeakable conditions in prison, under political pressure at their jobs, forced into silence at home by hostile in-laws, silenced and punished by ideologically motivated teachers. But where there is love, there is hope, because God is love.

Today  this former fast day is a day for Divine Liturgy followed by festive foods, cake and ice cream and presents in the homes of those celebrating the feast of the saints for whom they are named, and we all remember that when things look their darkest, God has a plan in place for overcoming evil. If we don’t conform ourselves to evil, we may suffer in this life. But through suffering with love, we can be changed into saints.

Larks

Today is the halfway point of Orthodox Lent, and is the feast of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. These were soldiers serving under Agricola who chose to suffer death by standing in freezing water rather than give up their faith. The Romans ordered heated baths to be built to entice the Christians to relent and accept the pagan faith, and one of the men who would be martyrs stepped out of the water to become warm, betraying his faith in Christ. One of the soldiers guarding the martyrs saw forty crowns of martyrdom descending from Heaven, and stripped, ran into the water, and joined the Christians in order to claim the rejected crown. The martydom served as his baptism.

This is the time that the larks return in Russia, and so to commemorate the saints, and to rejoice in the Spring, Russians make a vegan treat called “Zhavoronki,” or “Larks.”

My recipe follows.

The feast of the forty martyrs was the first time I ever went to Orthodox vespers, and my goddaughter Emerald is named for one of the martyrs, Saint Smaragdus, whose name means “Emerald.” I love this feast because of the bravery of the martyrs, their contagious love for Christ and each other which spread to their pagan guard, and I also love the ideas of the birds returning. My favorite Shakespearean sonnet is number 29, in which, when the speaker remembers his loved one, his heart “like to the lark at break of day arising/from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate.”

The poem continues, “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/ that then I scorn to change my state with kings.” I like making the larks, then, for my husband, whose love makes everything better. When I grate the orange peel that goes into the dough, I remember that the next orange peel I grate will be for my cheese pascha that I will make for Easter. For today, the whole kitchen fills with a yeasty, wonderful smell. Winter is on the run. Lent is halfway over. The crowns of victory are near. Whether the buns come out beautifully, like my friend’s zhavoronki above, or more like Mothra, like mine, below, from 2011, the making, baking, and sharing of zhavoronki brings us closer to light, Spring, and the Resurrection.

Photo credit: Ann McLellan Lardas

Here’s the recipe. Be uplifted!

Zhavoronki – Lark Buns
Serves 40
• 6 cups flour
• 1 cup sugar
• 2 sticks margarine
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 2 cups warm water
• 1 package dry yeast
• orange zest, to taste
• raisins, for eyes
________________________________________
Mix the warm water, yeast, sugar, and enough of the flour so that you have a batter about as thick as sour cream. Let the batter sit until it has risen slightly and is bubbly.
Add the rest of the flour, the margarine and the orange zest (if using). Knead well (about ten minutes). Place in a greased bowl and let rise until doubled in size.
Using a knife or pastry cutter, divide the dough into 40 pieces. Roll each piece into a long hot dog shape. Tie each piece into a knot. Make one end into the shape of a head for the bird by pinching a beak. The other end will be the tail feathers … with a knife create that look. Put a raisin on each bird for the eye.
Place on a greased baking sheet and bake for 20-30 minutes at 325 degrees.

Unexpected Joy

There are perfect moments in our imperfect world.

The hardest part of being an adult is that the people you love are in many places, and so you simply cannot be with all of them at once. On some level we accept this fact, in order to function. The motherly portion of my heart is split into quarters and hovers over the four States where my adult children live. My sisterly heart is similarly torn yet holds together: I understand that my siblings are unlikely to walk through my front door, since the surviving four are all married with children and live one to four hours away. And one is moving further than that soon.

We’d had a beautiful day at church. It was the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, and my husband blessed flowers and herbs that people brought. The Sisterhood made an amazing yet healthy lunch of seasonable things — salads with fresh tomatoes, a salad of watermelon, brown rice, feta and cucumbers, roast chicken with shallots, farmer’s market peaches with whipped cream for dessert. He’d come home and was having a post-liturgical nap, the blessing of a day of rest. I drove some friends home from church, changed out of my good clothes, and was decompressing when my cell phone rang.

It was a very local call from someone who lives far away. My younger brother was driving home from seeing our sister to the south, where he and his dogs had visited. He and his wife are in the process of moving two thousand miles away; she and the kids are settling in while he attends to last minute East Coast business, which includes visiting us all. But I thought we had had our moment when we all went out for dinner in New Hampshire last week.

Sometimes you are hanging out at your cluttered desk, barefoot, in your hippy cotton dress, with your straps showing and your hair down, and something amazing happens that transforms your day.  Isn’t it wonderful to be surprised by joy?

I had left the front door unlocked.

My brother was calling from my living room.

I turned around, cell phone in hand, and there they were, he and the dogs.

Happiness.
Happiness.

The drive here had been grueling. I got to play with the canine niece and nephew while my brother snagged a nap, and then I got to feed him while we talked. We gave him Mock Convent Pilaf (recipe and story to follow) and talked for several hours. Then it was time to say goodbye again, which is what life is, a bunch of practice departures leading up to the final one, after which, if God so grants, we get to see everyone good again.

But “goodbye” is a compression of “God be with you.” And it implies so many other good things: God be with you till we meet again.

It implies: we will meet again.

Meanwhile, hug everyone while you can.

 

Quick Trip

My youngest son is working as camp counselor in upstate New York, and needed some things he’d forgotten at home. Our parish also had some items for Holy Trinity Monastery, in Jordanville, New York, so I decided to make a quick overnight trip and bring everyone everything.

The monastery has a seminary and a cemetery. In the Orthodox Church one should be married or a monk to be ordained. When my brother started seminary, he invited me to a conference. That’s where I met my husband. George became a married priest. Joseph eventually became a monk.

My brother is buried behind the church, in front of the cemetery, right in the middle of everything. I visited his grave and those of some of the monks and bishops who are dear to us. Then I went up to the cemetery on the hill where our godfather and more friends are buried.

Photo credit: Chad Husby via Remodel Blog / CC BY-SA
Photo: Chad Husby via Remodel Blog / CC BY-SA

The sky was blue, the weather gentle, and it was good to spend time remembering. A well tended grave is an act of love. It gives us a focal point for grief. And when we have adjusted to a loss as one learns to live without a limb, a hand, then the pleasure of wisdom passed on and time spent together has the potential to eclipse grief. Not always. Just as, with a regular eclipse of the moon, sometimes it’s too cloudy for us to see, sometimes we are too cloudy.

But I grew up near the sea, at low elevation, and I tend to concern myself with the diurnal and the pragmatic. So to be in the Adirondacks driving past cliffs of rocks, soaring trees, and looking down on sweeping verdant plains is a vacation for the heart, a rest from the mundane. Love does not die. And so it is a comfort to walk from place to place where people you love are safely stashed.

So much of our treasure is already laid up in Heaven.

Top photo credit: Chad Husby via Source / CC BY-NC-ND