This is a big weekend for those of us who take Mary of Egypt as our patron saint, and for many others who look to her as a model of repentance. In the Orthodox Church, she is commemorated twice during Great Lent every year: April 1 (tomorrow) is her feast day, and the fifth Sunday of Lent, which falls on April 2 this year, is known as the Sunday of Saint Mary of Egypt. So, I’ll say “happy name day eve” to my sisters in Christ who are also her spiritual namesakes.
If you’re interested in reading more, here are some previous posts about St. Mary of Egypt:
“Turning Lead Into Gold” (2016)
“Holy Mother Mary Pray to God For Us” (From 2015, this post contains a prayer/poem I wrote to Mary of Egypt many years ago.)
“Forgive O Lord” (2014)
My novel, Cherry Bomb—which will be published this fall—focuses quite a bit on Mary of Egypt. There’s even a weeping icon of Saint Mary in the book, although I’ve never actually heard of one of her icons weeping. More often it is icons of the Mother of God that weep. (But it’s a novel, after all.) I’m excited that this image (above, right) will appear on the back cover of the book when it comes out. It’s a detail from an icon I wrote over ten years ago. My daughter-in-law, See Cushman, cropped it from the original and added the “tears” to make it appear that the icon is weeping, and the graphic designer working on the cover changed the background to gold and added the frame. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result, although my photo is a bit fuzzy and doesn’t do the image justice.
Today I thought I would share a sneak preview from Cherry Bomb. The following excerpt is from a scene in which Mare (protagonist) and Elaine deKooning (her art professor) are attending an opera about Saint Mary of Egypt written by John Tavener. I learned about this opera many years ago from a nun who was visiting Memphis to speak at our parish’s women’s retreat, and I was able to find a CD of the music. I hope it blesses you and raises your interest in the novel, which will be out in about six months!
Holy Mother Mary, Pray to God For Us.
Excerpt from Cherry Bomb, chapter 14:
As they entered the Wells Theatre on Saturday night, Mare and Elaine were greeted by materials, textures, and geometric angles that were part of its Art Moderne splendor. Intricate rectangular carvings repeated themselves along the walls. Gold leaf flickered off every surface. Even the curtain on the massive stage was itself a work of art—tapestries of shimmering gold and copper. The theater seated over a thousand patrons and boasted a state-of-the-art audio system. Just listening to the orchestra warming up sent chills down Mare’s spine. The music wasn’t familiar—it had a foreign, Middle Eastern sound—but even the concordant notes the musicians struck as they tuned their instruments simultaneously had an other-worldly beauty.
“Wow.” Mare had never seen anything like this before.
Elaine smiled. An usher handed them each a program and showed them to their seats. The cover of the program featured an icon of Mary of Egypt and Zosimas. They quickly read the Composer’s Note before the overture began, which was penned by John Tavener.
Mary’s door was wide open, even though her love was misdirected and distorted …
They looked at each other as they read, and then continued to read the rest of the program notes. Mare wondered how the words were hitting Elaine. She remembered how uncomfortable Elaine had been when they visited the Coptic church. What’s she thinking now?
Zosimas’s whole sound world becomes Mary’s. In her he sees ‘love’ and his own limitations. His world, once so dry, now in the dryness of the desert, flowers into what the Desert Fathers might have called “Uncreated Eros” or a hint of the Edenic state. In controlled ecstasy, they both ask each other to give the blessing.
“That’s what’s happening in your painting, isn’t it?” Elaine whispered.
Mare nodded and they continued reading Taverner’s comments:
“Mary of Egypt” is the intent to create an ikon in sound about Non-Judgement. In a sense, Zosimas loves again when through Mary he can dimly see the beauty of God—and who knows how far Mary has gone in her search for the unknowable and unobtainable in her forty solitary years in the desert? Holy Mary, pray to God for us.
The orchestra finished warming up and the lights dimmed. A group of women and men formed two parallel lines on the stage, representing the extensions of Mary and Zosimas. The women’s sensual movements were accompanied by a flute, wordlessly representing Mary whoring in Alexandria. The men were accompanied by the trombone and the primordial sound of the simantron—a wooden percussion instrument used in liturgical music (especially at monasteries) and sometimes with contemporary classical pieces. Each act was more powerful than the previous, building to a climax with the aria, “Bless.” The characters of Zosimas and Mary—without their extensions from early scenes—prostrated themselves on the ground in front of each other, crying out in song the solitary word, “Bless!” over and over.
Mare wasn’t prepared for how this would hit her—seeing the story she was growing more fascinated with by the day brought to life in such a powerful way on the stage. She felt some of the anger she’d hung onto over the years melt away as the words and music worked to soften her heart. Damn. She quickly brushed away tears, hoping Elaine hadn’t seen them. Sneaking a glance at Elaine, Mare saw that she wasn’t the only one weeping.
Then Mary levitated. The angels lifted her up—with help from nearly invisible wires hung from the stage ceiling—leaving a terrified and awestruck Zosimas to grieve her loss. The opera continued with the conclusion of their story: Zosimas found Mary dead in the desert a year later and buried her with help from a lion, who appeared tame in the presence of the saint’s remains.
Today is the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church. Historically it’s been as big a feast as Christmas, with several services on the calendar to celebrate it. Yesterday morning we had the “Royal Hours,” and last night the “First Blessing of the Water” and Divine Liturgy. This morning at 9 we’ll have the “Second Blessing of the Water” and another Divine Liturgy. The water blessed at these services is used throughout the year in various ways—priests use it for house blessings, to bless icons, crosses, waters for baptisms, etc. Parishioners take some of the Holy Water home with us for use in our personal prayers and when we are sick.
This year our parish—Saint John (Antiochian) is joining up with priests and parishioners from Annunciation (Greek) and Saint Seraphim (OCA—Orthodox Church in America) parishes for a “Great Blessing of the Waters” down at the Mississippi River. We’ll gather at noon on Saturday, just a few blocks from my house, where prayers will be said and a cross will be tossed into the river. In warmer climates—especially in Greece—young men and boys actually dive into the waters to retrieve the cross. Brrrrrr! (I think our pastor is tying a rope to the cross and pulling it back out.)
It’s interesting that this first year that we are keeping this tradition is the coldest weather we’ve had this winter—it’s SNOWING In Memphis today! But our pastor, Father Phillip Rogers, noted in an email to the parish that it’s not as cold as it often is in Russia (see photo and painting).
Now that the twelve days of Christmas are over and we are moving into a new season of the Church—and very soon a new “season” for our country—I pray for God’s blessings and for peace in our hearts and in our homes.
… my true love gave to me: four calling birds! In the Church’s tradition, those birds represent the four gospel writers—the holy apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (seen in these icons). They are “calling” to the world to hear the message of Christ’s incarnation.
So how am I celebrating the fourth day of Christmas? We just got home last night from spending a wonderful Christmas in Denver with two of our kids and all four of our grandchildren. So we are tired but happy. Of course I’m unpacking, doing laundry, and grocery shopping today (and starting back on exercising on the elliptical)… but it’s also a day for opening more Christmas cards and reading through so many wonderful Christmas letters from friends and family near and far. Sending Christmas cards is one of my favorite traditions, and receiving them is such a treat.
This year I didn’t come up with a creative way to display them, so I just spread them out on our dining room table as they arrived. This morning I captured them in photos, then I took down last year’s photo cards from the bulletin board in the kitchen and replaced them with this year’s. Well, some of them. (They don’t all fit!)
It was fun to group some of them:
Thanks so much to everyone who was thoughtful enough to send us a card and/or a Christmas letter this year. I hope you are enjoying this tradition as much as we are!
Just read an amazing (but very long) article in The Orthodox Arts Journal:
“The Altar and The Portico (pt. 2): Gallery Art” by Aidan Hart. Subtitles tell more: THE SACRED AND THE SECULAR… The Relationship of Orthodox Iconography and Gallery Art.
Hart was a secular artist before becoming Orthodox and pursuing iconography. He worked as a sculptor within the Anglican/Episcopal church. Here’s a bit about what was driving him:
As a Christian I wanted this spirituality to embrace the material world, not to be a flight from it. I felt that this incarnational approach was all the more important in a secular age which worshipped matter and where one could not assume any prior knowledge of Christianity.
Hart’s move towards iconography mirrors some of my own interests, although his was on a professional level:
To abstract means literally to “draw out”, and in its original meaning it denotes the discovery and manifestation of the essence of the subject, and not departure from reality as it tends to be understood today.
The art most influential for me at this stage was Egyptian and African work. Although perhaps too disembodied, too extreme in their abstraction, these sculptures helped me to reach some conclusions about how to indicate the spiritual. Most notably I learned the importance of a strong vertical axis or elongation; stillness rather than agitated movement; and emphasis on the eyes. Constantine Brancusi and Modigliani were also influences.
I’ve always been a fan of abstract art. I’ve never thought about why I like Modigliani so much, but I also liked his work before I studied iconography. Hart eventually visited some Orthodox monks in New Zealand—one of who was an iconographer—and found what he had been searching for. He became Orthodox in 1983 and began writing icons. And then he began to wonder how spiritual art could find a place in galleries:
For me personally there are two types of artwork that do this: that which depicts suffering but with compassion, and that which suggests the world transfigured by light…. So first, compassionate art. Such works can help us see the divine image beneath suffering, and even behind ignorant acts. They show us that what makes us capable of suffering is also what makes us human.
Then he writes about the world transfigured by light:
Another form of threshold art is the art of illumination. Ascetic writers both East and West describe three stages in the spiritual life: purification, illumination and union… Icons indicate this luminous grace symbolically by such things as gold lines on trees, furniture and garments, and of course also haloes and golden backgrounds.
I’ve only touched on the treasures in this article, so I hope that if you’re interested in art and/or spirituality, you’ll give it a read. There are also lots of terrific illustrations of Hart’s work in the article. Enjoy!
In the Orthodox Church, today is the feast day of Jesus’ grandparents, Saints Joachim and Anna. Being a grandmother (of four little girls, ages one, four, six, and seven) is one of my greatest joys. Although I live over a thousand miles from my granddaughters, I think about them every day. I pray for them. I smile as I look at their pictures all around my office each day and on the refrigerator. I send them letters and gifts. I look forward to Face Time with each of them, and I often wonder what they will be when they grow up. And yes, I imagine spending time with them more often if we retire to Denver in a few years, picking them up from school and taking them to soccer or dance or art classes, having them for sleepovers, taking them shopping, to bookstores and the theater.
Since I couldn’t have biological children, my husband and I adopted our three wonderful “kids” who are now in their thirties. We waited seven years after we got married before an adoption agency would grant us our first child. At the time, those seven years felt like an eternity to me. All our friends were having children, and my empty womb cast a sad shadow over many of those early days of our marriage. And then God’s blessings began to come to us as He gave us Jonathan, Jason, and then Beth. I was only 34 when we adopted our third child, but we had been married fifteen years by then, and I remember feeling a bit old. Couples were getting married and starting families younger back then.
Imagine how Anna must have felt. She and Joachim had been married for fifty years and were barren. They were often ridiculed by the community—many even said it was their sinfulness that caused Anna’s fruitless womb. (I know that feeling.) Joachim was a faithful Jew who went to the temple and offered sacrifices regularly, giving a third of their income to the poor, a third to the temple, and only keeping a third to live on. Finally God blessed them with a child in their old age. And not just any child—their daughter was Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The Orthodox Church (and the Catholic Church) venerates Mary, the Theotokos (the “God-bearer”) very highly, as it should. But it also holds her parents in high esteem. At the end of every divine liturgy, we hear the priest say these words:
“May the risen Christ, our true God, with the prayers of his pure and holy Mother, the power of the precious and life-giving Cross, the protection of the spiritual powers of Heaven… the holy and righteous ancestors of God Joachim and Anna, and all the saints whose memory we celebrate have mercy on us and save us.”
As blessed as Joachim and Anna must have felt by this amazing gift, I can’t imagine how difficult it was for them to let Anna go and live in the temple at a young age, where she would remain pure, preparing herself to become the mother of Jesus. They gave up the joys most parents experience in having their children live at home with them. And they both died before experiencing the miraculous joy and incredulous pain they would have known watching their grandson grow up and become the Christ, who would eventually suffer crucifixion before his miraculous resurrection and ascension to Heaven. Their mission as His grandparents was over early, but will forever be a cornerstone in the Church’s history. And so we sing to them on this day:
“As we celebrate the remembrance of thy righteous grand-parents, through them we beseech thee, O Lord, to save our souls.”
This wonderful article in the Orthodox Arts Journal, “Contemporary Byzantine Painting: Street Art and the Icon in Convergence,” introduces the reader to the Greek artist, Fikos. Fikos started painting as a child— comic book strips, landscapes and, yes, icons. At age 13 he was studied under the renowned contemporary iconographer George Kordis. His work is beautiful, but it’s his approach to art—both street art and liturgical art—that drew my interest.
Street art and liturgical art have something in common? But isn’t graffiti historically a youthful act of rebellion? And what does the graffiti writer and the icon writer possibly have in common? In this interview with Fr. Silouan Justiniano, we learn more about this:
Can graffiti possibly bring us to remembrance of our common humanity, meant to aspire towards a higher life of blessedness? Perhaps… If so even graffiti, or at least some of its more positive strains as found in recent Neo-muralism, can be seen as an attempt to imaginatively transform our bleak post-industrial environments ̶ to offer an alternative vision ̶ by infusing them with images suggestive of a far richer, living and higher reality, imbued with beauty, lyricism, joy, rhythm and hope. So similarities with the icon in fact begin to arise…
That’s what Mare tries to do, in my novel, Cherry Bomb. Along with the street artists she meets in Atlanta, who are protesting poverty and corrupt landlords and the ugliness of the lifeless buildings in the 1980s, Mare throws up images of the darkness she has lived through in her young life. And when she discovers icons and eventually visits churches and monasteries, she embraces the liturgical art of iconography in a way that both surprises and saves her.
Fikos’ work is beautiful—both his icons and his street art. The article is definitely worth a read if you are interested in either of these art forms.
Have a great weekend!
On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have appointed watchmen; All day and all night they will never keep silent. You who remind the LORD, take no rest for yourselves—Isaiah 62:6
This weekend is a significant milestone in the life of our church—Saint John Orthodox in Memphis. Our pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn, is retiring, and our young Assistant Pastor, Father Philip Rogers, becomes our Pastor, bringing along his wonderful wife Kathryn. (And—icing on the cake—Father Alex Mackoul joined us this summer as Assistant Pastor, with his wife Amanda.) An ordinary passing of the baton, right? In many churches this happens every few years, or at least every decade or two. But not in most Orthodox churches. And not at St. John in Memphis.
St. John started in living rooms in the early 1970s and eventually moved to the Barth House (Episcopal Student Center) on the campus of the University of Memphis, before finally purchasing its current property in midtown in 1990. Father John Troy was there from the beginning. And he was still there in 1987 when the clergy were ordained and the people were Chrismated and the group became an official Orthodox mission, and later a parish. A few years later he retired from his secular job to become our full time pastor, which he has been now for over twenty years. I’m not checking the dates as I write this, but I believe he has been serving this group of people for about forty five years.
My husband, Father Basil Cushman, has served as Associate Pastor here since 1988, but our friendship with Father John Troy started way back in college, where the two of them were fraternity brothers at Ole Miss, and Father Troy’s wife, Pamela, and I were sorority sisters. Then in June of 1970, Father John Troy was a groomsman in our wedding. As we continued our journey to Orthodoxy in Jackson, Mississippi, the Mashburns were on a similar path here in Memphis. It seemed almost inevitable that we would end up together again.
The little group of less than forty people who were the original members of St. John Orthodox Church in 1987 has grown to over 350 members today. Our beautiful old (1920s vintage) building has gradually been transformed, especially the nave and sanctuary (altar area) with its wonderful iconography and recently installed hardwood floors. And this fall we begin construction on a new building next door, which will house our new parish hall and kitchen. (We’ll start by tearing down the duplex that stands there now, which the church owns.) Our growing congregation is full of young families and lots of children—a wonderful blessing to us all.
So now I’d like to wish Father John Troy “many years!” (an Orthodox blessing for many occasions) and say thank you for all you have done to help build this wonderful parish. I would love to know how many people you have baptized, Chrismated, churched and married over the years (I’m sure the accountant in you knows those numbers) and I’m sure many will join me in wishing you and Pamela many blessings as you enter this next stage of your life. I won’t go into all the ways you have helped me personally, but you know them. And even through our disagreements, I have always loved you.
And to Father Philip and Father Alex, our new pastors, “Axios!” (He is worthy!)
I miss writing icons. Yesterday I found this link to a wonderful video that demonstrates the process of writing an icon, and I found myself enthralled as I watched. (The iconographers are Anton and Ekaterina Daineko, a married couple from Minsk, Belarus, who are teaching workshops in the U.S. this summer.) I even got a little teary-eyed. And while I feel strongly that I will never return to this liturgical art form, I will always be thankful for the time I spent learning, practicing and teaching it, because of the greater understanding and appreciation of iconography those years gave me. (If you missed my post about five years ago on why I retired from writing icons, it’s here.)
And so this morning when I went to our icon corner to do my morning prayers, I smiled as I read about the saints who are commemorated in the Orthodox Church today. And especially about this event, which is also commemorated: “The Appearance of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God.” In 1579 in Kazan, Russia, a terrible fire destroyed part of the city, but spared a nine-year-old girl named Matrona, although her house was burned. The Mother of God appeared to Matrona and directed her where to find a miracle-working icon, buried under a stove, covered in ashes, but wrapped in cloth for protection. The icon was taken to the Annunciation cathedral, where it became known for healing the blind and curing eye diseases. A church was built on the site where it was found, but sadly it was later destroyed by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.
I found this wonderful poem in the book, Mother of God, Similar to Fire (given to me by friends a few years ago), which contains beautiful icons paired with poems—a form of ekphrastic writing that I enjoy immensely. The icons are written by William Hart McNichols and the poetry is by Mirabai Starr. I don’t have permission to publish her poem in its entirely, so I’ll quote a part of it here:
Our Lady of Kazan
You lived a fully, deeply human life,
And this humanity is what helps us feel connected to you.
This world is yearning for your Mother-Love.
Show our leaders how to guide us
With respect for our dignity and well-being.
Teach us to love one another
With boundless patience
And unbridled joy.
I found these words—and the beautiful icon (which I’ve only shared a detail of here) comforting to offer as a prayer as our nation mourns the loss of more lives to violence on our streets and in our homes.
One of the largest icons at our parish, Saint John Orthodox in Memphis, is of the Feast of Pentecost (at left), which we will celebrate this coming Sunday. Art, poetry, and music are all important aspects of the spiritual world for me, so I’m going to share a bit of art and poetry with you today in anticipation of the feast on Sunday.
Whatever your spiritual tradition, I hope that these images and words will bring peace and joy, which are fruits of the Holy Spirit—the One we celebrate at Pentecost. (To see a slide show of all the icons in the nave at Saint John, click here.)
Note the first poem mentions a “maid,” which refers to the Mother of God. I’ve included an icon of Pentecost in which she is seated with the apostles.
The Icon of Pentecost
At the Church’s birth,
Licked clean by flames of Spirit
Maid and Apostles in horseshoe
Make sweet maternal crib
In whose dark cave
The World, that Old King,
Waits with a swaddling cloth.
Frances Hall Ford
Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.
An article in yesterday’s Orthodox Arts Journal reveals a new icon of Saint Mary of Egypt—my patron saint—who is commemorated in the Orthodox Christian Church on April 1 and the 5th Sunday of Great Lent (this coming Sunday). The article was written by Father Silouan Justiniano, who also wrote the icon. He goes into a lot of depth about the symbolism and style he used, so for my readers with an interest in iconography, Orthodoxy, or art, it’s well worth the read. For my purposes in this blog post I’ll only share a short excerpt, which focuses on the symbolism in the figure of Saint Mary:
St. Mary’s transfigured state, beyond the limitations of corporeality, is suggested not only by the fact that she walks on water, as the Lord Himself once did, but also by her luminescent yellow-green garment. Like precious gold, the yellow of the Sun of Righteousness glows within her, while green overshadows the glow as a symbol of the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, the “Giver of life.” Moreover, by standing on water St. Mary shows her overcoming of the turbidity and murkiness of the watery passions. Her mercuric state has been stabilized, lead has been turned into gold. In dispassion she becomes one with the One in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, her sins like drops of muddy water fall into the Abyss of mercy beyond being, causing a ripple without disturbance, dissolving without a trace, while her true self remains and arises undissolved. Solve et coagula…Through the furnace of repentance she has become an angel in the flesh.
I wept as I read those words on Thursday morning. The previous evening (Wednesday) I had been to a Lenten service at my parish, Saint John Orthodox in Memphis, where the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete was chanted, and the life of Saint Mary of Egypt was read. Throughout the service—while the chanting was going on—parishioners had the opportunity to make their confessions with one of the two priests standing before the icons on the solea. I found myself there following the first half of the reading of Saint Mary’s life, moved to much-needed repentance, and receiving grace and healing from the sacrament. I felt, as the priest prayed the prayers of absolution with his stole covering my head, my true self remaining and arising undissolved. I left the service with a renewed desire to be like her, “a symbol of the purified desiring aspect of the soul”:
She roamed in the desert naked feeling no shame for she regained the garment of her primordial beauty. In her former life she had an “insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth,”[ix] but she is now a symbol of the purified desiring aspect of the soul, the realization of true eros, “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good…who satisfies your desire with good things” (Psalm 34:8; 103:5).