Archive for April 9th, 2012

Bright Monday

Art and calligraphy by Joan Coppa Drennan; this originally was the back cover to the Winter/Spring issue of Caelum et Terra, the magazine.

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It was not a normal Holy Week. As I learned early on that Holy Days in a secular society leave a lot to be desired- one stands, trying to worship, dreary eyed after working a 9 or 10 hour day- I usually try and take Holy Week off. The plan was to spend a lot of time painting icons and hanging out with small children during the day, and then, refreshed, attending the nightly liturgies.

But this was not to be. My mother, after a brief spell of remarkable recovery, fell ill again, and when she was released from the hospital, this time it was to a hospice. Like many modern families, my siblings and I are widely scattered, and we decided that the best place for Mom was by my one sister who lives in northern Michigan, where Mom was born and raised. Indeed, it was this move that provoked the recovery, when within a week she went from wheelchair -bound to walking on her own. I thought that breathing the clear air of her homeplace may have done her good.

But like I said, it did not last, and having scheduled the time off, I thought I should make the long drive and visit her. So three of my older children and I set off.

It turned out to be a longer trip than I had figured, an all day drive north. My mother is in Petoskey, a 19th century resort town that sits on hills overlooking Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay. It is a beautiful setting, though like most places it is not as beautiful as it was 30 years ago, before the view was cluttered with big box stores, chain restaurants, a casino, and new hotels.

The hospice itself overlooked the bay, and it seemed a pleasant place for what  it was. Mom looked much better than I expected; we had found her on one of her good days, and she was alert and witty. She loves the Detroit Tigers, and we watched the opening game, which the Tigers won, though not without a fight. While we were there my great uncle and two of my great aunts stopped by, all in their nineties. My Uncle Rod and Aunt Dorothy had driven two hundred miles to pick up my Aunt Margaret and visit my mom. The children had never met any of them, and I hadn’t seen them for a very long time.

As the day wore on and Mom tired, the kids and I hugged her goodbye and left. I took a roundabout way to my sister’s house, driving the 30 miles or so to Afton, where my mother was born.

Afton does not consist of much: a post office, a general store, and St Monica’s church, all surrounded by pine, spruce and birch forests. Northern Michigan turns hardscrabble when you leave the shoreline; no more Victorian homes, a lot more trailers. Afton, when I was a child, was well kept; these days it looks run down, like a lot of Michigan when you get away from the tourist areas.

I stopped at St Monica’s, our main destination. It is a tiny church, with a small cemetery behind it. I explained to the children that grandma had been baptized here, that this is where she worshipped when young. I told them about her childhood during the Depression on a small farm in this marginal agricultural area, of her poverty. About half of the graves in the cemetery were kin to us: O’Connors, McCormacks, and a lot of Hutchinsons. I have never seen this anywhere else, but a lot of the tombstones have photos of the deceased, under glass, so the kids saw photos of their great great great grandma, as well as her daughter and various other relatives. I told them about their great great grandma Hutchinson, whom I remember well and with much love. Her tombstone reads “Edith Margaret O’Connor, wife of Herbert A Hutchinson”, which has to be an unusual thing for a woman born in the 1880s. But then she was an independent woman, ahead of her time. The postmaster of the town, she also ran the general store, and owned a good bit of real estate in her own name.

After our first visit Mom was not so well; she had pain in her side and her feet were swelling from her congestive heart failure, which is hard to control without harming her failing kidney. We had decided to break the trip home into two; another 11 hours in the car did not sound appealing. So when it was time to go we hugged mom and said our goodbyes.

It was a bittersweet goodbye; these days I never know if this may be our last parting, though my mom is one tough 86 year old, and may surprise them all.

We drove to Flushing, near Flint, and attended the Holy and Great Friday liturgy at St Michael’s Byzantine church, where we have attended often when my mother lived nearby. That liturgy is among the most beautiful of the Byzantine year, and I was grateful that if we only got to attend one Holy Week liturgy that it was the one.

By late afternoon the next day we were back home, though Holy Week continued to be unusual. We always attend the Resurrection Vespers on Holy Saturday evening, but as my bride had been alone with the little children, and as the littlest had developed a cold, she had not been able to get out to complete preparations for Pascha. So we helped with that, and had family worship before our icons and attended the Sunday liturgy at our parish.

Great Lent had started hard for me; I am a sensual man and any self denial is a trial, but after a few days I had slipped into routine and the Great Fast passed quickly. Until the last week of Lent and Holy Week, that is. I felt that I had reached the end of my frayed rope, that I could not hold on much longer.

And then I realized that I had been an utter failure. No, I hadn’t indulged in anything I had abstained from, aside from half and half in my coffee a couple of times when traveling, and some cheese that I had requested to be omitted from a restaurant order but had shown up on my plate. I decided it was better to eat it than to fuss.

Rather, I realized that this was pretty inconsequential. I prayed the Prayer of St Ephraim daily, which among other things asks God for the “spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love”. Yet here I was, as Holy Week commenced, realizing with a start that I did not possess any of these virtues any more than I had at the beginning of Lent. And I realized that whatever self denial I did was really a sign of weakness, that because I really find making spiritual progress akin to spinning my wheels in sand, I do something physical that I know I can do: I just stop eating certain things instead of stopping my sinful thoughts.

But Great Lent is designed to induce humility. Either you accomplish whatever self denial you choose and then realize that for all that you really don’t amount to much, spiritually. Or you fail and indulge and feel terrible. Or you don’t set out to do anything and feel guilty. Any way you do it, if you take Christ’s warnings about external observance seriously you aren’t going to be going into Pascha proudly even if you haven’t broken your fast.

Which makes Pascha that much sweeter; the pure joyousness of the Liturgy makes one grateful for the great mercy of God. And whatever you have given up is that much sweeter.

Bright Week is here, a time of feasting after the fast, a time of celebration. It was not a typical Holy Week, traveling far from our Byzantine liturgies. And it is not a typical Bright Week, with a current of sadness as my mother ails, just beneath the joy.

Pray for me and my family, and pray for my mother, that she may be blessed with a peaceful end.

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