Sustained By Prayers

Tsar Nicholas and his family. Public domain.

About a month ago, on July 17, Orthodox Christians in Russia and throughout the world observed the one-hundred year anniversary of the assassination of Tsar Nicholas and his family. A procession was held, starting from the Church on the Blood in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, a church constructed at the site where the Romanovs were murdered in 1918. Over 100,000 pilgrims walked 21 kilometers to the Monastery of the Holy Imperial Passion-Bearers at Ganina Yama, the site of the ignoble graves which had held the imperial family for more than three-quarters of a century.

In the early morning hours of July 17, 1918, Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, his four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, and the thirteen year old heir Alexei, in confinement at the Ipatiev House, were led to the basement and shot.  The Tsar and Tsarina died instantly. There was a lot of confusion; some of the revolutionaries may have been queasy to kill young maidens. Jewels sewn in the Grand-Duchesses’ corsets deflected the bullets, and bayonets were employed.  It was a brutal, ugly execution.

The Ipatiev House basement, where the executions occurred. Photo from Wikimedia Commons; public domain.

            Before being sent to the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, the family was under house arrest in Tobolsk, Siberia, and there the Grand-Duchess Olga relayed the words of her father the Tsar:

“… Father asks to have it passed on to all who have remained loyal
to him and to those on whom they might have influence, that they
not avenge him; he has forgiven and prays for everyone; and not
to avenge themselves, but to remember that the evil which is now in
the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil
which conquers evil, but love…”

Facing their death in a Christ-like manner is what makes the Romanovs passion-bearers and saints.

From her birth, Maria had a naturally good temperament, and her great-uncle Grand-Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich nicknamed her “The Amiable Baby.”  When the Bolsheviks decided to move the family from Tobolsk to Yekaterinburg, Alexei was too sick to travel.  Because she was nurturing and cheerful, third-daughter Maria was chosen to accompany her parents on the long journey. She helped tend her ill mother, who often used a wheelchair.  Because she was naturally cheerful, I chose the Grand-Duchess Maria as my patron saint. Complaining comes too easily to me, and I long to be one who shares joy rather than dismay.  I hope to learn from her example.

The Grand Duchess Maria in 1914. Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain.

There’s an expression in certain faith communities: “Be careful what you pray for.” It’s a variation of the common aphorism “Be careful what you hope for.” Because you may get it. Because it may not be what you thought.

For 78 days, the Romanov family kept vigil in the Ipatiev House, suspecting or knowing that their end drew closer.  This past April, my mother fell and never recovered, a broken bone turning into a gradual decline.  Eventually she stopped eating and the end became predictable. For 113 days, my sisters and I visited and attended her.  Her strength failed, and she degenerated from walker to wheelchair to bed.  At times the morphine couldn’t touch her pain, and she would desperately cry out, “Help me.”   For her last four nights, I stayed at Mom’s bedside, recalling my patron Maria, asking for her grace and strength and joy in the midst of my somber watch.

I don’t know how the Grand-Duchess kept her optimism while enduring cruel imprisonment and the knowledge of surely inevitable death. At night I chanted Psalms to Mom and prayed with her, hoping to be an encouragement. I was at Mom’s side when the weak breathing of her death rattle took over. I was there when she breathed her last. I held her hand. I sang to her. I prayed with her. I don’t know how I endured the unendurable.

But I do know.  Through the prayers of my patron, and through the prayers of my friends and spiritual father, I was able to be present with Mom at the end.  The Grand-Duchess and Saint Maria Nikolaevna Romanova kept vigil beside me.

I still haven’t attained cheerfulness.

“Wheelchair.” CCO Creative Commons from Pixabay.

 

In honor of Martha Long, who entered the next life on July 25, 2018.

A variation of this article was posted at “The Sounding” blog on August 11, 2018.

 

Further Reading

Azar, Helen, ed. Madru, Amanda. “Maria Romanov: Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia.” The Romanov Family. August 16, 2015.

Rappaport, Helen. “The Legacy of the Romanovs: How is the Last Russian Royal Family Remembered in Russia?” HistoryExtra. Intermediate Media Co./BBC History Magazine and BBC World Histories Magazine. July 2018.

“Tsar-Struck Russians Mark 100th Anniversary Of Romanov Killings.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.  July 17, 2018.

Walsh, Edmund. “The Last Days of the Romanovs.” The Atlantic. March 1928.

Yurovsky, Yakov. [journal]. “Between Method and Execution: Disposing of the Romanovs.” Lapham’s Quarterly. Vol. VI No. 4. Fall 2013

Advertisements

Evening Song of St. Patrick

To me, Winter is a time of rest and quiet reflection. The weather is cold (usually!) and we stay indoors. I joke that I am part bear.  In January, I hibernate; I refuse to leave the house if I don’t have to.

A sleep prayer is good for anytime of the year, but it seems all the more appropriate when the nights come early and last long.

Evening Song of St. Patrick from “Selections of Irish Poetry” translated by Kuno Meyer

 

May Thy holy angels, O Christ, son of living God,
Guard our sleep, our rest, our shining bed.

Let them reveal true visions to us in our sleep,
O high-prince of the universe, O great king of the mysteries!

May no demons, no ill, no calamity or terrifying dreams
Disturb our rest, our willing, prompt repose.

May our watch be holy, our work, our task,
Our sleep, our rest without let, without break.
 This poem is from Kuno Meyer’s Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry,  and the title he gives is “An Even Song” with the note: “Patrick sang this.” Just Patrick; Patrick is famous enough in all of Ireland to need no honorific.  Translater and editor Meyer notes that St. Patrick himself couldn’t have written this, not exactly, since this text dates from the 8th Century.  Literature has a long tradition of ascribing texts to more famous figures.

The first stanza begins by requesting the protection of the angels. The Celtic world was so mindful of the angels! Their poems and prayers are full of them.  And if my childhood home didn’t petition the angels per se, we still had a popular art print of a guardian angel guiding children beneath a shadowy, ominous, branchy tree. I’m reminded of an Orthodox prayer we say at various times, including night: “Encompass us with thy holy Angels, that guided and guarded by them, we may attain to the unity of the faith . . .”

As for the second stanza, I’ve a mind to never request true visions; certain gifts from God may be humbly accepted, but not importuned.  Still, I have a special fondness for Psalm 16:7: “I will bless the LORD who has counseled me; Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.”  Perhaps God comes to us at night because it is then when the noise of the day has ceased and we are finally able to truly listen.

And if the Celtic worldview was mindful of angels; it was likewise mindful of demons.  Like “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, a lorica prayer of protection which asks for shielding from many ills, including spells of wizards–one translation I have terms them ‘druids’!–this poem-prayer recognizes that demons also may visit our sleep.  I’ll tell you one thing: my bad dreams and nightmares decreased substantially–were practically eliminated–when I started saying prayers before bed, and even now when I awake from a bad dream, I think back to check if I had forgotten to pray before falling asleep.

“May our watch be holy.”  I think of the watchmen in Return of the King as popularized in the Peter Jackson movie. They watch, they wait. They light the signal fire to send a message, to request help, to warn of danger.
This Lord of the Rings segment in turn always reminds me of Bach’s Christmas cantata, 140, “Zion Hears the Watchmen Calling” [Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme].  Which is itself from the Matthew 25, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Indeed, the Midnight Office in the Orthodox Church includes hymns based on this gospel reading. We want to be wise and watchful, wide awake. Why? Because our watch and our work is holy.

I’m a bit prone to “the winter blues”–Seasonal Affective Disorder. As sleep refreshes us to continue our holy, watchful tasks, may the natural contemplation of the winter months rejuvenate us to continue our work when the sun returns to warm the earth. Meanwhile, keep taking your Vitamin D.

“The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” by Alexander Master,  ~1430, from the National Library of Netherlands. Public Domain

Fun Facts
For a discussion of the realism of Peter Jackson’s beacon-lighters, with quotations from the applicable text of Tolkien’s book, visit this Science Fiction and Fantasy Q & A page.

Wikipedia seems to give some pretty in-depth information about Bach’s Cantata 140.

 

Judgment-Free Zone

I saw this sign when I was out running errands:

Judgment Free Zone

 

Judgment-Free Zone.

My heart got a little squishy. I have zero interest in joining a gym, but I reached out toward that advertisement with longing: I want to go to a judgment-free zone.

               It reminded me of that time when as a children’s librarian I was reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are to a preschool group. Usually I pre-read the books in advance, but this was a classic, and I figured I knew it well. I turned the page and got to the line, “And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” And my heart scrunched and my eyes watered up in front of all those three and four year olds. Me too, I’d thought.

where_the_wild_things_are

Despite my disinterest in joining a gym—[I’m overweight; I probably should, but that’s a topic for another day]—I give props to that advertisement campaign. Brilliant. Isn’t that what we all want? Acceptance. In particular, my own childhood was excessively strict and punitive. Nearly everything I did was wrong. To this day I have a hard time trusting—even my friends. I’ve been looking thirty years for a judgment-free zone.

It got me thinking about the places and spaces in my life.

I’m fortunate that my church is a judgment-free zone. It’s one of the few judgment-free zones in my life. That and my therapist’s office. Too many people find only judgment in church.

My relationships? Well, perhaps some of the perceived judgment is my own worries and not reality.

Still, that one gym advertisement prompted me to consider:

 

Am I making my home a judgment-free zone?

How do I make my workplace judgment-free?

As a supervisor, I need to require proper employee behavior, but do I encourage or discourage?

 

How would the world look if every place was a judgment free zone?

Join with me and commit to making your world a judgment-free zone today.

 

Grammar Note:

Despite the advertising poster, “judgment” in the preferred American spelling. Judgement (with an e) is sometimes considered acceptable in British English.

 

 

Hermits and Saints

I went to morning prayers yesterday and my priest commemorated, among others, St. Colman of Ireland. A Celtic saint I didn’t know! I was pleased and flummoxed. Flummoxed because I would now have to go and research him . . .

A perusal of Butler’s Lives of the Saints and a Google consultation soon followed (not necessarily in that order). Butler concisely informs that St. Colman was a bishop and hermit in Western Ireland who escaped to the barren Burren “because he had been made a bishop against his will.” (There’s been a few of those, no? Perhaps a topic for another day.) Apparently burren (boireann) means “great rock” in Irish—not a very habitable place. During my 2003 trip to Ireland, we traveled through the Burren. It’s an inhospitable mound of rocks about which one of Oliver Cromwell’s officers famously stated had “not wood enough to hang a man, water enough to drown him, nor earth enough to bury him.”

The Burren, photo by the author, 2003

The Burren, photo by the author, 2003

Tradition says St. Colman retreated to the Burren ‘forests’—had the forest had been cut down by the time of Cromwell a thousand years later? The St. Colman Mac Duagh Burren Forest page has pictures of the dense brush today; I’m not sure I would call those scrawny trees a ‘forest’ but landforms change over the course of a millennium. At any rate, it is a place far more austere than St. Kevin’s lush Glendalough. Not a place I would want to live.

St. Colman later founded a monastery at Kilmacduagh, near Galway. I can piece together the Irish meaning: Kil-mac-duagh, church (kil) of the son (mac) of Duagh. Butler eludes to the legends of St. Colman’s friendships with a mouse, fly, and cock without recounting them, and you’ll have to visit the Russian Orthodox Christianity page on St. Colman to read them yourself.

Kilmacduagh Monastery Ruins by Jerzy Strzelecki By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Kilmacduagh Monastery Ruins by Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Once, I may have wanted to be a hermit . . .

In therapy, I talk quite a bit about my introversion and social anxiety—(although it’s not social anxiety as we normally think of it, it’s still a helpful if imprecise term). My therapist’s advice ranges from the self acceptance of embracing my introversion to cognitive-behavioral promises not to be the first person to leave a party. I attended a family event last weekend—a pleasant, wonderful visit which nonetheless left me utterly exhausted.

In my therapist’s office on the eve of St. Colman’s feast, I lamented adult-ing. I wanted to go back to my high school self and sit in a corner reading a science fiction paperback for the entire duration of a party. I entertained what I call my “Unabomber” fantasy [sans bombs] in which I daydream about living off-the-grid in a cabin in Wyoming and walking into town once a week to buy my groceries and check my email through the public library computers.

I am more functional than I was twenty years ago; I make the effort; I force myself to attend dreadful odious baby showers because it’s the right thing to do. I’m probably less lonely. I’m not sure if I’m significantly happier. People exhaust me.

Knowing of my faith, my therapist spontaneously asked me if there were any hermetic examples or outlets I could explore or learn from. Doubtful, I told him glumly. A good number of hermits are only temporary hermits; eventually, after many years of solitude, they end up getting dragged (against their will!) back into the community and end up abbot of a monastery or something. The solitude teaches them the fortitude they will need for their future endeavors. It happened to St. Colman, and many others. We had a good laugh.

The next morning I learned it was St. Colman’s feast day. Later in the afternoon I discovered it was also National Hermit Day—a day dedicated to stepping away from the frenzy of our lives and the tyranny of our electronic devices. We are encouraged to “retreat to someplace quiet.” The National Day Calendar tips their hats to St. Colman, their inspiration for this nouveau holiday.

Three hermit references within twenty-four-hours. Once upon a time, I would have considered it a message from the Universe.

Status Update, October 2015

I am proud to report that I finished my Rosemont College Creative Writing MFA graduate coursework in August, with my diploma to be conferred in January 2016.

 

My thesis project is a novel with the working title “The Stolen Child” about faeries in America.

I’ve got one more draft to go and then I start shopping it to agents and editors.

thesis

For my cover art, I used an image of “Spring,” a stained glass panel by John La Farge made 1901-1902 which is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Spring by John La Farge;

Spring by John La Farge

In other news, I just passed my one-year anniversary for starting to blog for “The Sounding” blog on Orthodox Christian Network.  You can follow these posts on OCN or on my Facebook author page, Cynthia Long, Writer.

Thomas Merton: Man of Poetry and Prayer

All across America, people can’t stop talking about Pope Francis’s recent speech to Congress. And although he’s not my Pope, I still admit to being inspired by him. His historic speech to Congress is notable for many reasons, and I especially appreciate his references to Thomas Merton, the monk-poet. Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was an instant bestseller and has sold over one million copies and been translated into fifteen languages. Thomas Merton, perhaps better than anyone else in American popular culture, brought the notion of contemplative prayer into a somewhat widespread awareness and conversation. The Poetry Foundation website credits him “with introducing the mysticism of Eastern spirituality to Western Christians.”

I myself confess a certain fondness for a poet who conjures the image of the dim “light of early Lent.” Those of us who keep Lent know what he means.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMerton_Trappist.gif

Thomas Merton from Wikimedia Commons

 

Winter’s Night (1946)

When, in the dark, the frost cracks on the window
The children awaken, and whisper.
One says the moonlight grated like a skate
Across the freezing river.
Another hears the starlight breaking like a knifeblade
Upon the silent, steelbright pond.
They say the trees are stiller than the frozen water
From waiting for a shouting light, a heavenly message.

Yet it is far from Christmas, when a star
Sang in the pane, as brittle as their innocence!
For now the light of early Lent
Glitters upon the icy step –
“We have wept letters to our patron saints,
(The children say) yet slept before they ended.”

Oh, is there in this night no sound of strings, of singers!
None coming from the wedding, no, nor
Bridegroom’s messenger?
(The sleepy virgins stir, and trim their lamps.)

The moonlight rings upon the ice as sudden as a
footstep;
Starlight clinks upon the dooryard stone, too like a
latch,
And the children are again, awake,
And all call out in whispers to their guardian angels.

In the first stanza, the internal rhyme and harsh assonance of awaken, grated, skate, and breaking call to mind the cracking of ice on the frozen river. This poem is sad and hopeful both because it is the innocence of children who have wept letters to their patron saints, the faith of children whispering to their guardian angels, tentative faith balancing in the dark nights between Christmas and Easter. I am chagrined to realize that I do not cry out to the saints with such weeping pleas nor do I whisper secrets to my guardian angel. I am reminded that Christ called us all to become like little children. So too the poet conveys a patient, doubting, desperate hope—hope in the midst of despair—hope awaiting the far-off Bridegroom. The children awake to this hope. However dark and cold the winter, they have not lost faith; they still whisper to their guardian angels.

Merton’s poem reminds me to latch tightly to hope in a world hovering in bleak midwinter. It may be a seasonal poem, and perhaps I’ll return to it again in February. But for now, every day may I cry out to my saints and angels as I await the heavenly Bridegroom.

“Merton was above all a man of prayer . . .” Pope Francis said. As much as I respect Merton’s poetic career and social consciousness, I wonder if he best appreciates being remembered as a man of prayer. I hope that at the end of my career, I will be remembered as being a person of prayer.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for calling to remembrance God’s servant Thomas Merton, for publicly lauding a poet, and for reminding us that poetry and writing can be a calling from God.

"Thomas merton sign" by I, W.marsh. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_merton_sign.jpg#/media/File:Thomas_merton_sign.jpg

“Thomas merton sign” by I, W.marsh. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_merton_sign.jpg#/media/File:Thomas_merton_sign.jpg

References

“Thomas James Merton.” [Biography]. N.Y.: Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/thomas-james-merton. Web.

“Thomas Merton’s Life and Work.” Louisville, KY. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. http://merton.org/chrono.aspx. Web. [Check out their website for some great photos of Merton.]

Pope Francis. Address to Congress. September 24, 2015. “Pope Francis Addresses Congress: Read the Full Remarks.” Vox Media, Inc. http://www.vox.com/2015/9/24/9391549/pope-remarks-full-text. Web.

“Winter’s Night.” Index of Thomas Merton’s Marian Poetry. Dayton, OH: The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute. http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/poetry/merton.html#toc. Web.