Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Our Lady of Sitka

This got rejected from Relevant Magazine online. That's ok! I still like them a bunch and I still like this piece a bunch. They were courteous and kind in their rejection...

I was raised a lukewarm Catholic; we went to church once a month or so, I didn't get my First Holy Communion until I was around thirteen, and never got confirmed. I don't begrudge my parents this lack of formality, for we talked about God often, and my father is still the most spiritually fulfilled person I know. What I did take from my early years in CCD was a love for Mary: for her grace, for her beauty, for her strength. I felt her presence and comfort when I became a mother and understood just a touch of what she must have felt at such a young age. How frightened how she must have been! How did she keep the fear at bay during those long months of pregnancy? Indeed I felt her presence stronger in times of fear, pain, depression, and sorrow. The icons that have been painted mainly in the Eastern and Russian Orthodox traditions have been an aesthetic foundation for me, bold in their gilded light. They show Mary as someone approachable, loving, beautiful, and of course motherly in an ancient, earthy way.

When we moved to Anchorage, Alaska in late 2008, we were greeted shortly after by a rumbling Mt. Redoubt, a fairly ancient volcano a little over a hundred miles from Anchorage. Being from the Midwest, I had never been formally introduced to these natural phenomena. I was so afraid of that mountain and its ash, so afraid the unknown that my lungs were practically paralyzed - constricting attempts at deep, relaxing breaths. One day while sitting at my desk at work, after the alert level had been upgraded to a code Red (eruption immanent); I felt fear become a tangible being in my body. It crept up and out and my extremities began to shake. I don't remember much about how I went about my day (I'm sure no work was actually done), and I do know that I left to pick up my son Xander, but I honestly don’t remember anything from the time I left that afternoon to late that evening.

That evening, when I finally fell asleep after staring at the ceiling for a couple of hours, I entered a lucid dream that felt like an epic film. After a long journey through dusty caves and dark basements, I found myself at my lonely desk at work, stock still. The volcano had erupted and the office was shaking in its boots with black smoke swirling all around the file cabinets behind my cubicle. I was looking out of a big picture window at the snow, gone grey with ash. The mountains had completely disappeared into mist. The fear that I felt while awake started to swirl through my veins, turning my blood into ice water, my stomach into a frozen knot. Almost paralyzed but not quite, I had the impulse to swing around in my chair and there, in front of the file cabinets (how very 21st century, not exactly a knoll in France!) was Mary. She had a gold, gossamer veil with embroidered flowers; her face was a perfect oval. And her hair! It was as black as raven feathers, with little wispy strays flying around her forehead in the swirling smoke and wind and shaky ground. I was afraid to meet her gaze at first, but once I did I was immediately calmed. They seemed giant, almond shaped, crystalline, opal, tortoise shell. She didn’t say a word out loud, just put her finger to her small mouth and looked at me with those mysterious, calm, wondrous eyes and held my gaze steadily. I felt an intense feeling of calm, of joy, of “Every little thing is gonna be all right”. I knew it was Mary, who else would she be? All fear was gone; all hope was home again. I woke up less shaky, less sad, less confused, and more certain of the existence of true love and good in this world and beyond.

A few weeks into the series of volcanic eruptions I saw Mary in my waking hours in the form of an iconic postcard. In my dream I knew it was Mary, but imagine the "aha!" moment when I saw her on a postcard while browsing through Russian Orthodox Museum in downtown Anchorage. I recognized Mary immediately in the icon of Our Lady of Sitka, complete with the same raven hair, gossamer head scarf, and those deep calm eyes that seemed to look at me directly in understanding. I bought a few of the postcards, not shocked, just calm, and told my husband that I had seen her face in my dream the night before. I quickly pulled my husband to look at her with me. Now, my husband is a spiritual person but he's also quite the realist. He noted that I probably saw the icon before and just didn't remember, and that my brain held onto that image, filed it away, and brought it back to my subconscious exactly when it thought I needed it. I thought, "Well if that's the case then that's a beautiful thing, too!" and I told him so. Whatever the rhyme or reason or scientific explanation, she had visited me. I chose to believe that Mary cared about me personally, and that God had sent me the "proof" in the postcard after sending her to me in those strange in between dream states. I still feel that way.

I bought about three or four postcards, and put them in a few quiet places in our home. So now, should (and when) I feel that trembling fear starting to course through me again over a myriad of worries, I pick up one of the postcards, look into those eyes that Vladimir Lukich Borovikovsky painted so beautifully and feel the same calm wash over me. I immediately remember when she quieted all the fears I’ve ever had and will ever have. I know now that one day her cool hands will calm and guide me somewhere that none of us can imagine.

The volcano erupted around sixteen times that Spring. On Easter Sunday a huge lava dome collapsed and Redoubt filled the air in the Anchorage area with grit and microscopic rock fragments that gave those in the ashfall sore throats and dirty cars, but no real damage was done. We were safe. I was safe.

- Christine Johnson, Anchorage, Alaska


Cootiebug77 said...

This. Is beautiful. How wonderful it is when we can have such an affirming & strengthening experience. Thank you for sharing it!

Chrissy Johnson said...

And thank YOU for visiting.