Letters from the Homefront

White violets in bloom near our home

Dear Friends,

A theme I have studied in history is how communities and individuals handle times of need imposed from outside events, like the Great Depression, world wars, plague, and famine. How do we stretch what we have to make it fit what we need? How do we band together to help keep our communities afloat? How do we care for the least of our brethren, especially when even the strong are suffering? I read diaries, like Nella Last’s War, or old magazines, like Kitchen Klatter, fascinated with the responses of families to times of upheaval. Thrift, ingenuity, service, hard work, gratitude for daily bread, commitment to neighborliness were all traits which brought families through. Those times are no longer the faded memories of grandparents – they are upon us now.

As we face a global pandemic the likes of which humans have not seen for 100 years, we are asked to make our lives small and our interactions with outsiders few. Many have used war-like terminology, likening what we must do to slow down the spread of disease to what our ancestors achieved in world wars. Yes, there are ‘battlefields’ in hospitals, with valiant medical professionals who are risking their lives so that victims can survive. There are many unsung heroes who have kept open stores, distribution centers, run transportation, and operated essential utilities. The front lines, however, to stop death run squarely at our front doors. We choose life for ourselves and for our neighbors through staying home.

To hearken back to our roots, while using modern technology, I want to write ‘letters’ to you through blog posts so you can see what we are doing here in our little home front. Melinda Johnson thought this would be a great theme for the #blogtown community; I hope the idea will catch on. I have more time to write now, as many others do as well. Let’s encourage each other to choose the good in our little monasteries, for the love of God and our neighbor this Lent.

Love in Christ –
Anna Neill

The Whirl of Gaiety

After such a tremendous first date, with hearts thumping and brains buzzing with excitement, our hero and heroine could not help to plan a next adventure. They had to wait. A week. The tailor is also an Assistant Scout Master. His troop had summer camp that following week in the sticks of North Carolina. He packed up his gear, including his cell phone, for those brief interludes when he could reach a service area and text out his adventures to the lady. Thus the week passed, with the librarian sighing and giggling with her phone like an infatuated school girl. They hatched plans for another date the following Saturday, when the tailor would return from the wilds.

For this date (and I won’t outline every date, unless you want more), we headed out to lunch, then to the North Carolina Museum of Art, and closed the evening with a homemade dinner at Anna’s place. The dress theme was 1950’s retro, as you can see below. Funnily, there was a Lolita meet up at the museum that day. Their group gushed about how cute we were and took pictures. The most memorable part of the museum visit, for me, was when Drew took us aside to sit in front of a large 17th century painting of the Virgin Mary. It was a moment of kinship and of blessing.

Marcus Aurelius photobomb!

For dinner, I made my old standby – lentil soup, which well nigh everyone likes, along with homemade whole wheat bread. Drew jumped in to help peel & chop the veggies. He marveled at how I just knew how to cook without a recipe. The old adage goes, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. He told me several months later that he knew that night I was ‘the one’. Ladies, if you want my lentil soup recipe for a date night, just ask!

As for my knowing whether this vegan, Catholic, historical tailor was also the one I had hoped & prayed for, that took a few months for me to figure out. On that second date night, I told Drew that I was excited to be with him and truly happy to spend time with him, however, I was like a nervous woodland creature. Because of my past, I was very, very cautious. I had to take time to build trust. No sudden movements. No loud noises. Lots of treats. I also had the Theotokos watching out for me, so, there could have been the heavenly, “No!” at any moment.

Drew, to his immense credit, knew exactly what to do to achieve this ‘life time merit badge’. He calmed my fears that we would go slowly and just enjoy getting to know each other. Since that day, he called me his ‘trash panda’ or raccoon, which is rather true. I like snack and can get myself into mischief.

About two weeks later, Drew asked if he could visit my Church. My parish is like a large, boisterous Italian family. I said, “You are brave!” He jumped in with both feet. After the second liturgy, he was helping wash dishes from coffee hour. He began reading books, listening to podcasts, and asking my priest questions. We spent time discussing the similarities and contrasts between the Catholic and Orthodox faiths. My parish family accepted him with open arms. Every day that passed, I could see that my prayers were being answered with a ‘YES’!

History Nerd Who Likes to Play Dress Up

I was off to the races in the dating app that evening, swiping left countless times and only swiped right a few times. I had little expectation anyone who caught my eye would even respond. When you are nearing 40, the odds may be good but the goods are odd. Then I found a profile that made me swipe right immediately. Blue eyes. Tweed suit. WWII Navy uniform. Intro tag line: “History Nerd Who Likes to Play Dress Up”. He had joined the app on the same day, also with the same low expectations of finding anyone interesting.

Mr. History Nerd and I began chatting the next morning. We shared witty and flirty repartee. (Mr. Darcy and a wet linen shirt were mentioned.) We also quickly broached two important topics. He said he was Catholic and Vegan. I said I was Orthodox and was mostly Vegan. When those phrases went past in text…I thought to myself, “This could work. This could actually work.” A new relationship would ‘work’, of course, if the Theotokos would allow it. I made an my usual intercession, “Protect me, Mother of God!” I also put in a few heartfelt phrases of a plaintive child that wanted to keep a found kitten. “Please, let me keep him!”

On Friday, we hatched a plan to meet on Saturday afternoon, at his workplace, which is a historic site and open to the public. If we didn’t hit it off, at least I saw a new history place and I was in a safe zone. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If He asked what he should wear – I replied, “A suit!” At this point, dear readers, let me share an important detail: He likes to dress up because he is a historical tailor. Another incredibly fantastic point of commonality! The suit, then, was a dark green wool worsted affair, with a cravat and cuff links, circa 1770, comfortable for a gentleman in all weathers. I wore a modern linen and skirt outfit I had made.

We spent a lovely & sultry July afternoon talking and touring the grounds. He brought down original examples of waistcoats from his collection that I could look over and we geeked about the construction details. By the end of his work day, he asked if we could have dinner at the local Greek restaurant? Why yes, that would be great! While at dinner (not wearing his 18th century suit, just regular street clothes), he said something that made me about choke on my falafel. He described how he became close to the Virgin Mary when he had converted to Catholicism a few years previously. Big Glaring Neon Sign. Silent prayers began to ascend, “OH PLEASE THEOTOKOS! He is SO CUTE.”

The Tailor

After dinner, we still had time before he had to skitter off to his part-time gig. Would I like to take a little walk in the community park? Why yes, I would. We drove over separately. I arrived first. As he pulled up, I got out of the car, close the door, and made a cry of dismay, “EEEEK!” I had locked my keys inside. One of the best uses of money is a AAA membership, let me tell you. I called them up to get help, while feeling deadly embarrassed. To this day, he found this to be an ‘adorkable’ moment, on of many I seem to do. We took a couple turns around the park…and held hands. Alas, alack, he had to leave me, still waiting for AAA to bail me out…which didn’t take long. On my way home, I stopped by his coffee shop, where he gave me a London Fog and another hug. I drove eastward in a romantic swoon…

[This was just the first date! How does this end?!? Check back again tomorrow for part three…or maybe this needs another 7 installments…]

Happily Ever After Takes Work

We all love a happy ending to a story, with all the threads of action tied up a neat bow. We have confidence the beloved characters will continue on in our imagination with everything they deserve in life. Villains receive justice. Broken things are renewed; curses are broken. A village rejoices. True love comes to those who wanted it most.

In the last 18 months, I have been living a real-world fairy tale. Characters in fairy tales rarely write it out as it happens. They don’t know quite how it will turn out and who wants to be a disappointment? At some point, however, there has to be a period at the end of the sentence, a chapter, when you can tell the story to the satisfaction of everyone. We all know, however, as we are still alive to tell the tale, that it goes on and builds and twists and gains even more details. I learned that happily ever after is HARD WORK. That is where I have been instead of writing – making the life where I can write again.

If you had asked if I were happy in life when I began writing for the Brown Dress Project, I would have said yes. I was happier than I had been in a long time. I had career direction, an avenue for creative outlet, an amazing church family, friends, and a well-organized life. I didn’t hate myself or brooded on the past. I liked this version of Anna. She was a better person.

Yet, I was lonely. Even worse – I was lonely without having hope of it ever going away. All my attempts at remedying the situation had come to naught. The Orthodox dating scene, especially for older singles, is slim chance to none. From my tiny perspective, the happy life I had was all I would get. In order to fend off despair, I had to stop all romantic activity completely.

I turned my focus to prayer, especially in building a relationship with the Theotokos. I asked her for two things. First, protect me from the situations or people I should not associate with. Second, show me who I should get to know. As with any mother, the overwhelming word she used was, “NO!” It was uncanny – usually within 24-48 hours – an interesting scenario would quickly go sideways. I felt like I was three years old again. All the “No”. Nothing fun. Nobody. For a year.

On the 4th of July, 2018, I was bored, at home, on a day off. I baked cookies for a friend. I decided to join a dating app. My cynical nature told me the best I would experience was maybe a nice dinner and a handshake. My hopeful nature thought, well, perhaps you could find a companion to go see museums and theater shows. Just do fun things? No pressure? Add some spice to life? There had to be someone out there who wouldn’t mind my peculiar nerdiness. I certainly did not expect what came next…

[Thanks to Melinda Johnson for kicking off the #bloginstead three day challenge! I needed a way to just get started again. Stay tuned for the rest of the story tomorrow and Friday.]

Book Review for A Daily Calendar of Saints

As with many working Orthodox folks, I try to use the 15 minutes in the morning while I eat toast to read an uplifting section of literature. Now, at 6:00 am, this sinks down into my subconscious mind like crumbs from the toast into the bottom of my tea cup. If you ask me at noon what I had read, 50/50 chance I wouldn’t readily remember. I keep at it with the hopes some of the benefit will ‘stick’ better than jam on my fingers.

My usual reading choice is the Prologue from Ohrid, by St. Nikolai Velimirovich, a profound exposition on the daily Scripture readings and saints. I treasure many of St. Nikolai’s homilies and reflections, as is evidenced with all the flags sticking up from the top of the two volumes. At times, though, I find it a bit too much to digest first thing in the morning. What else could I read that is a smaller tidbit than the Prologue?

Enter A Daily Calendar of Saints by Fr. Lawrence R. Farley, recently released through Ancient Faith Publishing, which generously supplied me with a copy to review. The paperback book is rather simple and straight-forward. Each day there is one or two saints with one or two biographical paragraphs each. That’s it. No homilies or Scripture meditation. The language used to write the biographies is at an accessible level (middle school range) and lends itself well to reading aloud. I thought Fr. Lawrence chose a good range of saints, from well-known to the less familiar. He also had a balance between men and women (though there is always more room for women saints, hint hint.)

I used the book for a solid month before writing this review to see how it would flow with my daily routine. My benchmark was, “Who was the saint for today?” asked at lunchtime. If I could answer it with confidence – then I knew that 5 minutes spent looking at their biography was just enough information for my early morning spiritual multivitamin.  I recommend you try it, with a librarian stamp of approval. Rating – 5 Cups of Tea.

A Beginning Declaration of Purpose

A few years before I first saw a Divine Liturgy or even began learning intensively about Orthodoxy, I had the intuition that my worth in Christ was more than I was being sold. It was a Friday night, and as was often my habit, I was spending it in a bookstore. I circled the Christianity section, seeing if there were any interesting new titles to peruse. A pattern in the book covers grabbed my attention as I stood in front of a section of two shelving units side by side. On the right, all the covers were in the shades of pinks, purples, and pastels. On the left, all the covers were dark browns, blues, black, and greys. You can easily guess what the major subject headings were for each shelf. Men on the left, Women on the right.

In that moment, I thought, “Am I really that different before God? Is my soul composed of cotton candy while a man’s is made of gunmetal? Are my spiritual goals consigned to a fashion doll plastic house of pop psychology with butterflies and stylized crosses attached?”

This was a hunger pang – converts can recognize those moments when you were not satisfied with what you were being fed. There had to be more and better food than what I was being served. What I knew of the Gospel message was comparable to visiting Grandma’s house. There would be a wide spread of food for Sunday dinner, and even though I did not care for the mashed potatoes, I would leave satisfied.

I came to label this cultural approach as Gender Color Coded Spirituality: sectioning men and women based on norms and placating them with specialized messages to minister to their ‘felt needs’, outside of real ones. I was tired of being told that women needed certain treatment and men another and different expectations as to how we lived. The experience is like women only being allowed to eat at a salad bar and drink kale smoothies, while men are served steak & potatoes with a pint of porter.

Do men need the companionship of other men? Yes! Do women have issues that should be addressed through the care of other women? Yes! I do not deny the strength we have together as men or women, lay or monastic. What I fear is the narrowing of concepts regarding how holiness is lived, how that looks in my culture, compared to the breadth and depth of the Church.

Gender Color Coded Spirituality is a mentality that does not translate into Eastern Christianity and it ties into several other mindsets which I see creating an unhealthy angst in women as we struggle in our salvation. Over the course of my writings here, I want to address these imbalances, both to the right and to the left. In many of my opinions, I have developed a middle of the road approach. I hope that women (and men) will be encouraged from what I write to go out and live the Gospel wherever they are.

When reading the lives of the saints, I am in awe of how women have behaved with courage, in every time and place the Church has occupied. History is specific and surprising. Grand theories only work to give a bare bones structure for understanding the past. If you stop there, you miss the vitality of lives who are remembered for being at once ordinary and extraordinary. The saints defy our generalizations at every turn. Over the last 2,000 years, women saints were educated or illiterate, wealthy or poor, married and served their families or single through choice, mobile or never left their village or monastery, held political power or shunned it, evangelized their nations or held witness to Christ through their blood.

A couple years after the bookstore epiphany, I found myself kneeling in St. Benedict Orthodox Church , a Western Rite parish, in front of an icon of St. Scholastica, waiting for a blessing along the communion line. There were questions in the back of mind that others had posed, as they learned of my new interest in Orthodoxy, “Aren’t you concerned with how they treat women?” Their underlying concern was that I would somehow be ‘subjugated’ or made to be of less worth than men by joining a religion defined through a male hierarchical leadership. As I gazed at St. Scholastica’s steady and kind face, she communicated the answer I needed:

Holiness is the equalizer between men and women.

The unbelieving reader may perhaps laugh at me for dwelling so long on the praises of mere women; yet if he will but remember how holy women followed our Lord and Saviour and ministered to Him of their substance, and how the three Marys stood before the cross and especially how Mary Magdalen — called the tower from the earnestness and glow of her faith— was privileged to see the rising Christ first of all before the very apostles, he will convict himself of pride sooner than me of folly. For we judge of people’s virtue not by their sex but by their character, and hold those to be worthy of the highest glory who have renounced both rank and wealth.
St. Jerome, Letter 127, to Principia.

Our struggle towards salvation is of equal worth in Christ’s Church. Our martyrdoms are honored the same way. Our service to the needy is as unto Christ. Our memories are held with esteem and icons are written. We all live with differing responsibilities and in different contexts. What counts is how we choose to obey God with what we are given. This is why hagiography has captured my attention: the medium of storytelling within the Church is neutral and holistic insofar as it shares to acts of heroic faith. It universally encourages all the faithful.

I will continue my thoughts and share my experiences of what it looks like to live out holiness in parish life. Be encouraged, women, there is a place for you in the Church!

What is Hagiography?

St. Luke the Evangelist

What makes a good story? Is it a compelling plot? Or do you need an emotional tie to a main character? Are you disappointed with unexpected endings? Are you a fact-checker with sci-fi or historical novels and give up if the author gets the details wrong? We all approach stories with assumptions about what makes them good or dissatisfying. Hagiography, or the recording of the lives of Orthodox saints, has these unspoken assumptions, or in modern terminology, ‘tropes’ for a specific goal. Over the course of several posts, I will explore what hagiography teaches us and the fruits we can gather from the lives of every kind of saint.

I am a trained archivist; my work was to take a jumble of papers from a person or event and impart physical order so as to make a coherent system for finding information. When working with personal papers, there were several ways to go about this, but the overarching picture was to keep in mind the whole of this person’s life trajectory. As I began creating lessons centered around the lives of women saints, I delved into dozens, if not hundreds of stories, sorting out representatives to help my students understand a particular theme. I naturally picked up on patterns in the language used to describe our Orthodox saints.

Were these patterns made by unspoken little ‘t’ tradition or were there rules? Like within the tradition of iconography, are there understood symbols and depictions transmuted in language? I quickly learned there has been no academic or lengthy analysis on what hagiography is or rubrics delineating how we remember the saints. This is surprising considering how much of our liturgical life is guided through well-honed patterns.

To start with a basic definition, hagiography is writing about holiness. The goal of writing about a saint is to record what is profitable from their life story for our salvation -or- how their lives are joined with God in the world. This act of recording takes a great deal of wisdom and is much more complex than a social historian like myself would encounter when writing a biographical essay in my discipline. My emerging thesis is that hagiography is mythos meets ethos using logos or a recurrent structured story that builds towards a defining shared character for a group of people which shows the Divine life in the world.

In the next post of this series, I will explain what hagiography is not (if in doubt, go apophatic) and what are the hallmarks of good hagiography. This will be a fun rabbit trail, I promise!