Thursday, December 24, 2009

Between the Awesome and the Ordinary

Tuesday, December 22, our church was honored by a visit of the 13th Century Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God.

She (as Fr Serge refers to the icon) arrived in Summerville Monday night with her delegation including Fr Serge, Rdr. Peter, and Rdr. Gregory. Fr Mark received a text from Peter upon their landing at the Charleston airport, "The Mother of God is in the South!"

Fr Mark and Rose drove to the services at Sts Cyril & Methodius in Summerville Monday afternoon while I scrambled around the house cleaning and cleaning and preparing for our honored guests. When the time they were supposed to arrive drew near, I was called and told they were going to be (of course) early. I exhorted my husband to drive the speed limit so I could finish working. I suppose this wasn't a very nice thing to do to the tired clergy following him, but alas, I still had to mop.

The icon arrived and Fr Serge removed the covering from it in the driveway so that I could venerate it as it entered our home. We spent a few moments discussing the placement of the icon and modifying the analogia so the it wouldn't slip off. We put the icon on an analogia Fr Mark had brought home from the church and had placed in our prayer corner. Then we spent the rest of the evening chatting as I sat on the floor two feet from this famous, 700 year-old icon, serving beer, hot tea, cookies, chips, and boiled peanuts to our guests.

This is an icon that has healed and has been venerated by countless faithful, and has stood in the company Tsars, royalty, martyrs, and saints. In September it returned to Russia for the first time in 90 years to a reception of thousands. The Russians made a special bullet-proof case for it, and the government gave assurances of its safety and that of the delegation. When the icon returned to Kursk, its hometown, the entire population of 500,000 came out to greet the icon, some standing in line for eight to twelve hours, to spend two seconds kissing the holy icon.

I am still in awe of the honor I felt when I was told that the icon would stay in my bedroom overnight. When the time came, Fr Mark decided it wasn't necessary to move the analogia upstairs, so he placed it on top of a blue analogia-cover draped over the front of my dresser. He lit an oil lamp and we went to bed.

Because the guests were sleeping in my children's rooms, my younger four spent the night with my parents, and Rose slept on our bedroom floor: directly in front of the icon.

The three of us were transfixed by the icon and by the honor we were receiving. We looked at the icon, then at each other, then back at the icon.


But, unlike Fr Mark, Rose and I fell asleep.

He got out of bed around 5 AM and started getting ready to leave for church. I woke up and resumed staring at the icon. I took a few pictures in the dark and a few of Rose sleeping at the foot of my dresser, beneath the icon. I realized that this might come across as my being silly or disrespectful, so I told my husband that it just seemed natural to document the moment. He affirmed my thoughts and said, "It's the most natural thing in the world that a child should sleep peacefully at the foot of her Mother."

And so we got ready to leave. Fr Mark left early. Rose left about 15 minutes before us with the two young men. Then Fr Serge and I were told to delay our leaving with the icon for 15 minutes because Fr Mark & Fr Columba had been stuck in traffic. We left for the church at 7:45.

She had already honored not only my family, my home, and my own bedroom, but now my car and soon my church.

I was struck, in the same way I felt about Rose sleeping at the foot of my dresser, how ordinary it all seemed, and yet how awesome it truly was.

When the icon finally entered the church I was so overwhelmed that I physically shook as I tried to hold my arms and my tears lest I should start making noise as I cried. It was like a relief and also like a prize. It was like perfect joy, but recalled every pain in my heart. It was so beautiful that the liturgy and the moleben was over before I was ready.

So, having witnessed a full year of previously difficult-to-imagine visits to our storefront church (a piece of the Holy Cross, Bishop George and Metropolitan Hilarion, and now the Kursk Root Mother of God), Fr Mark & I said that we couldn't imagine a greater honor than what we have already received. To a certain extent saying so was a relief, as one would describe finally seeing the bounteous fruits of his labor. But we also felt this satisfaction as a couple, as a family, as friends, and as part of a community.

To another extent we said it with a sigh: "how can we top this year?" After all, we still don't have a free-standing building for our church; we still are in our storefront, which many (perhaps understandably) look at with derision, despite what has taken place within its walls.

The ladies and I sometimes talk about how sad it will be to leave the storefront when the time comes, having had so many of our children and our own people baptised here. In my mind I liken it to how I feel about my ten year-old mattress: four children were born on it in my home, so the idea of getting rid of it for something of better quality or more practical makes me feel, of course, a little melacholy and stupidly sentimental.

But until the time comes, we'll plod along and glorify God with the extraordinary people and the beautiful place we have.

And by the way, I hear the relics of St Elizabeth the New Martyr herself might be coming here this summer.