Thursday, June 23, 2011

Weeping Icon

I have on one blog or another written about Shura, the talented but dying child artist from Siberia whom we took in 15 years in order to save his life. In both Blest Atheist and my forthcoming book, A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God, I relate the detailed story of Shura and a crazy number of miracles associated with the saving of his life. (You can read the details here: From Siberia to the California Coast Flew Wunderkind Shura.)

Shura's story took many twists and turns. However, we did erroneously think that the story was over when he survived all his surgeries and especially when a couple of years ago he returned to Russia. One of the key players in this story had been Max, the INS supervisor who helped us tremendously when it came to visa problems. We met Max when he coincidentally stopped by St. John's Orthodox Church in Washington DC when the priest included a moleibin (prayer service before surgery) for Shura during a feast day observation on a Tuesday evening when Max felt the need to attend Mass after work, the only time he had been at St. John's in a year because he had moved to Baltimore a year earlier and attended Mass there (and, as it turned out, he never returned after that evening, choosing to continue at his own church in Baltimore). Shura's story was not over because we did not know Max's story until barely a year ago. And so I add here -- and in my second book -- the fuller story of Max.


Just when we thought we had completed the puzzle, the picture expanded. A few months after Shura returned to Russia, Nadezhda Long called me from Washington. She had been reading a newly published book and wanted to share a story from it with me.

“Beth, you are simply not going to believe this,” she bubbled over the phone. I wondered what could be so exciting that it caused her words to tumble out at a speed requiring concentrated listening. I was about to find out.

“Remember Max?” she asked.

Remember Max? Without Max, Shura would have long ago been shipped back to Russia, before his health had stabilized. Without Max, Shura might even be dead now. And, of course, who could not forget the oddity that Shura’s unannounced moleibin was the only Mass at St. John’s that Max had visited in the year since he had moved to Baltimore and, in fact, was the last Mass he ever attended at St. John’s. I mentioned all this to Nadezhda, commenting that his appearance that evening seemed nothing short of miraculous.

She cut me off. “Oh, we did not know but a small part of the significance of Max being there that night!” she exclaimed. Now she had my attention!

“Max is a convert to Orthodoxy from atheism, and his story is included in this book about a special icon.” Instantly, I liked Max even more. His story paralleled mine—but it did not. What Nadezhda then related to me left me without words.

“Years ago,” she said, “an icon that wept oil with healing powers was brought from Europe to the United States, where it was presented at a number of Orthodox congregations. Among these congregations was our church, St. John’s, and among the congregation was a blind boy, who had lost his eyesight to disease. When doctors could not help, his parents brought him to the icon in an attempt to try anything to help their child. When the icon passed by the boy, it began to weep oil. The priest placed the oil from the icon on the boy’s eyes, and the boy saw. From that day on, he was no longer blind. And from that day on, his parents, Max and his wife, having converted from atheism to Orthodoxy on the spot, have been devout worshippers.”

If there had been no icon miracle ten years before Shura was born, there could have been no miraculous appearance of Max on the night of Shura’s moleibin. When Nadezhda relayed the story to me, I had no words with which to respond. I still have none.


excerpted from my forthcoming book, A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God

also posted on Clan of Mahlou

Monday, June 20, 2011

Danielle's Prayer

The “8-pack,” a moniker given to my seven younger siblings and me by my brother Rollie, suffered immense abuse during our childhood. My sister Katrina, in fact, never planned on growing up, certain that she would be killed by Ma before achieving adulthood. However amazing, we all did survive the extensive physical abuse (e.g., being stabbed, thrown into walls, kicked into unconsciousness, pulled down flights of stairs by the hair, and much more), emotional abuse (e.g., being negatively compared with each other, denigrated at every opportunity, and, in one instance, forced to sit on the stairs for hours, expecting to be deliberately set on fire at any moment), and sexual abuse (various male relatives had their way with both the boys and the girls). We had each other for support: the 8-pack was very important to all of us in an age when neighbors and teachers looked the other way. Remarkably, contrary to what most of today's psychologists would expect, we reached adulthood without any lasting evidence of physical abuse or any significant emotional scars.

After coming to faith, I commented to God, “If only You had been with me during those earlier, difficult days, how much easier it would have been.” To that, a quiet, impressive Voice that still startles me when I hear it, responded “I was with you.” Had I only known!

That interchange reminds me of the experience of St. Anthony, the third-century desert father. As described in The Life of Anthony of Egypt by St. Athanasius, St. Anthony once hid in a cave to escape demons. The demons reached him anyway and seemed to have beaten him to death. His servant brought him out from the cave, and the other hermits prepared to mourn his passing when he unexpectedly revived and demanded that his servant return him to the cave. There he called out to the demons, who returned to attack him. This time, they were stopped by a bright light which Anthony knew to be the presence of God.

“Where were You before,” asked St. Anthony, “when the demons were beating me so badly?”

“I was here,” God replied. “I wanted to wait and see how well you fought for yourself.”

Telling this to my sister Danielle as we walked about the moon-flooded Maine woods one night while visiting my brother Keith, I remarked that I found it unfathomable as to why we would be so protected by God. One can find any number of stories about children who did not survive abuse. Why should we receive special treatment? She looked at me curiously and said, "I thought you knew."

"Knew what?" I asked.

"What all the rest of the 8-pack knew."


"The very first thing I remember in my entire life—I think I was only two or three years old—was realizing what a predicament we were in, and I said a prayer: ‘Dear God, Dad is gone all the time, and Ma is a child. So, would You please raise us?’"

It took more than fifty years for me to learn about that prayer. Upon reflection, I believe that neither my siblings nor I were ever far from God’s sight, protection, intentions for our lives, or even the tendency to use us to help others. That could only have been the case if God had answered the prayer of a precocious toddler.

Why would I think that God answered that prayer? Because I am alive today, having survived a dangerously abusive childhood. Because my children are alive today in spite of two having been born with multiple birth defects so severe that doctors gave them little hope for survival, let alone the cheerful lives that they now lead. Because I have been chronically happy all my life when a person not protected by God might have attempted suicide. Because I am incurably optimistic even though I endured years of poverty and seven clinical deaths of my children. Because I can see where my siblings and I have been used for improving human conditions and helping people in ways that we could not have accomplished alone. And maybe mostly because I don’t know where the parachute has always come from when I have been in the process of falling off a cliff if it has not been being held out to me by God. I have always taken the parachute. I never used to say thank you because I did not think that there was Anyone to thank. At the same time, I never questioned that there would be a parachute if I needed it. It would appear that I had a tacit relationship with God on a subconscious level while totally oblivious to any sense of God in the conscious world.


excerpted from my forthcoming book, A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God

Saturday, June 11, 2011


In April 2010, the most unlikely of God's people taught me yet another lesson. At that time, the Eyjafjallajokull volvano in Iceland erupted, making travel to and through Europe difficult: long lines, canceled flights, re-routed planes. It was a good time to curtail one's travel, but I could not do that. Neither could many other people, and so at airports one found impatience and irritation rampant.

I quickly ran into these emotions myself. Well, honestly speaking, I fell captive to them when the first leg of a series of flights I was scheduled on was re-routed after we had already boarded. Everyone had to be rescheduled. Most of us were making connections that we would miss, so the line was long and slow, a couple of hours slow.

A Vietnamese couple in line several people behind me kept pushing, trying to get ahead of those in front of them. How not American, I thought, determined to make them take their turn in accordance with my American sense of proper behavior.
There were three of them, actually: the elderly couple and a young woman, whom I assumed to be their granddaughter. They chatted away in an Asian language that I did not recognize but later learned was Vietnamese.

As they pushed forward, the elderly man actually elbowed me aside, trying to slide around me as the line began to inch around the twists and turns leading to the ticket counter. I had watched him use this maneuver to leapfrog successfully in front of about a dozen people, one at a time. Now I separated him from his wife and the young woman, and, having stood in line for close to 90 minutes already, knowing that each passing minute lowered the chances of finding a flight that would allow me to reconnect to my other legs, I was decidedly impatient with the process and irritated with someone who felt he deserved to go first. (Of course, I did realize that this was simply his culture; he probably had no idea how Americans, who are raised to take turns, are annoyed by what would be a normal jockeying for position in his own land.) Still, having spent time in countries where one must jockey for position or never make it to the counter, I was determined to hold my own place and did, continuing to separate him from the two who were with him.

Feeling uncomfortable about the whole situation, I did what extroverts always do. I struck up a conversation. The elderly couple did not speak English. However, Twi, the young woman, who, it turns out was not their granddaughter but just another line-stander, did speak English, albeit almost unintelligibly. She spoke to the couple in Vietnamese and to me in bad English, and slowly a picture of each other emerged.

The elderly couple stopped pushing. The four of us were now a group and could proceed through the line together until we were separated into two groups at the ticket counter. The elderly couple took the first open ticket agent. Twi, who had asked me to interpret for her, and I took the second. It is not the first time that someone whose language I do not speak has asked me to interpret. You see, if you work with foreigners frequently, you learn how to speak broken English in a way that they can understand when they cannot understand grammatically correct and well enunciated English. You also learn how to understand what they are trying to say when they know only 1-2 words out of the dozen that they need. So, I interpreted for Twi and successfully arranged her new flight for late afternoon. Since she would have a 6-hour wait, she called her husband to meet for lunch. He would meet her at the baggage claim, where all our bags had been sent.

As for me, I had to go pick up my bag, as well, because my new flight was leaving from another terminal. San Jose Airport is easy to navigate, but Twi was new both to the airport and to the English language, so I offered to walk her over to the baggage claim area and get her on the right curb to meet her husband. After that, I could catch the bus to the other terminal.

As we left the ticket counter, I saw the elderly couple standing by, looking confused. They had just received their new tickets but clearly had not understood anything about what their next step should be. I looked at their tickets; they were on my flight. Twi explained to them that they would have to get their luggage and take a bus to the other terminal. They panicked until they understood that I was on their flight and would accompany them the whole way.

Having crossed the overpass, obtained our luggage, and dropped Twi at the right curb, the couple and I were ready to clamber on the shuttle bus. I stepped up first and threw my bag onto the shelving. Then, I noticed the elderly, stereotypically small, Asian man struggling to lift two large bags. Equally small but a farm-raised girl with eight years of military duty under her belt, today I can lift and swing heavy suitcases much the same way as I used to lift and swing bales of hay. I hopped back out, grabbed the two suitcases and swung them onto the rack.

We stayed together, minimally communicating, given the lack of a common language, until flight time. They got off first in Phoenix, my first layover and an airport I know well. They were muddling through an interpretation of the airport signs when I disembarked, being rewarded with a second chance to help them.

I understand the lesson God wanted me to learn that day: be kind, be helpful, avoid irritation and impatience as unrewarding traits. In the process, I was given a chance to become acquainted with two people who otherwise would have been only faces in a crowd. How interesting that once we know someone, our attitude dramatically changes for the better. As for them, they were very grateful. “Thank you” was the one American expression they did know, and they used it over and over. In spite of the aggravation of disrupted travel, I arrived cheerful, thanks to two people I did not know and whose language I did not speak.

Now, when faced with long lines at the airport, as happens more frequently than not, I try to remember this lesson. I have often been the recipient of the kindness of strangers when I travel. I like it when the shoe is on the other foot, when I can be the stranger who shows kindness. At the end of the day, we are all God's children; we should work together and play together in ways that demonstrate that we know this.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming book, Believer in Waiting.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011


The question of coincidence versus divine intervention is one I find intriguing. Once, in discussing some of the serendipitous events in my life as likely divine interventions, a priest asked me, “Don’t you believe in coincidence?”

“Of course, I believe in coincidence,” I responded, “But when coincidence piles up upon coincidence and all the coincidences have a uniform objective and impeccable timing, I have to ask whether perhaps something other than coincidence is involved.”
Jung, in his book, Synchronicity, describes life as flowing in streams. These streams often bring together events that are not cause-and-effect yet co-occur in meaningful ways even though the likelihood of the co-occurrence is low to nil. Jung defined synchronicity, which he placed on the far end of a cauasality-synchronicty axis, as “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events.” He attributes such acausal connectivity to a larger framework of human ideas that he labels the collective unconscious.

I do not deny simple coincidence or serendipity. Neither do I deny the more elaborate kind of coincidence subsumed in the concept of synchronicity. However, there are serendipities, coincidences, and synchronicities that seem more readily explained by divine plan or divine intervention because of the need for all the players to be in the right places at the right times either for a one-time event or over a long history. While it may never be possible to win the argument of coincidence versus divine intervention or even to know for certain to which to attribute a specific event, when the timing is absolutely impeccable, I am drawn toward seeing God’s involvement. After all, there is that saying that coincidences are simply those times when God chooses to remain anonymous. As for that “collective unconscious,” it just might have another label: God.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Confession III

This week, I have stumbled over a post on Fr. Charles's blog, A Minor Friar, that just begs to be shared. The post is on confession of priests, and is wondrously written. The title of the post is simply "Priests at Confession." So that I do not spoil the reading of it for you, I suggest that you just click on the link I have provided and read it in the original for yourself. I am certain that you will enjoy it.