In this post, I have a series of memories that connected in my mind during this week: a week of deep struggle as a parent, yet also a week in which prayer, and visions of something beyond the struggle, would ultimately win out.
Jen is pregnant with Rosi, and listening to a CD for the Hypnobabies method, which helps pregnant women mentally manage the pain of labor. In Hypnobabies, women, as well as their partners, are encouraged to envision a “safe place”- a special mental place in which they feel safe, and which they can use to internally focus on something beyond the pain of labor. We work to picture our family together, laying in bed in the early hours of the morning in a cuddling state, slightly sleepy but highly content. We envision all of us sitting around the Saturday brunch table, having coffee and juice, and enjoying each other’s company on a day off. These images serve as training images; though they are ultimately unused due to Rosi’s unusual birth circumstances, they nonetheless stay with us throughout the years.
We are spending the day as pilgrims at St. Anthony’s Monastery, located about an hour from our former home of Tucson. Sitting on the benches of the outdoor St. Seraphim Chapel, we listen to the sound of the wind gently blowing in the palm trees as we look intently at the icons of St. Seraphim of Sarov and St. Xenia of St. Petersburg.
Of all the chapels and churches of the monastery, this is the one that brings us the most peace. It is small, open-air, and a chance for our family to sit together, seeking shelter from the desert sun. A photograph with Mari and I, holding hands near another chapel, later becomes the mental image that sticks with us long after we leave Arizona.
We are flying to my family home in Indiana from Tucson, via Atlanta. Our plane is bouncing up and down, as the pilots struggle to get the plane through a major Southern thunderstorm. Rosi, at eleven months old, is in our arms. Four-year old Mari is playing with her Kindle, riding along. Our plane is dropping and raising altitude like crazy. At one point, I am unbuckled while waiting for Jen to come from the bathroom with Rosi, and am consequently lifted about eight inches out of my seat.
(A screenshot of that day, courtesy of FlightAware. A terrible, strong storm.)
Jen and I- not known for being the best of flyers- gather closely to one another, foreheads leaning against each other, saying the Jesus Prayer in tandem. I put the view of the monastery in my mind, with its sun, calm breeze, and icons of interceding saints. It is a calming image that doesn’t take away of all the anxiety, but is distracting enough to make a major difference. It is a much better alternative to the clouds outside of the window.
Eventually, things begin to calm down. The ride is smoother as we pass further away from the storm, and while our hearts are racing, we are grateful. As we land, we are shaken, as could be expected for flying through a severe storm, but we are okay, eventually celebrating our landing with Chick-Fil-A in the Atlanta airport. Eventually, we arrive in Indiana, having had a less dramatic second leg of the journey.
As a catechumen in 2009, I read the stories of Father Arseny, a Russian priest who spent many years as a prisoner in the Soviet gulag system. The story, “Where Two or Three Are Gathered in My Name,” in which Father Arseny and a young prisoner are left to die in a punishment cell in mid-winter, is one of the first stories that captures my novice Orthodox heart.
The cold had taken over Alexei completely; his entire body was numb. He no longer knew whether he was standing, sitting, or lying down. But suddenly the cell, the cold, the numbness of his whole body, his pain from the blows he had received and his fear all disappeared. Father Arseny’s voice filled the cell, but was it a cell? Alexei turned to Father Arseny and was stunned. Everything around had been transformed. An awful thought came: “I am losing my mind, this is the end, I am dying.”
The cell had grown wider, the ray of moonlight had disappeared. There was a bright light and Father Arseny, dressed in brilliant white vestments, his hands lifted up, was praying aloud. The clothing on Father Arseny was the same as on the priest Alexei had once seen in church.
The words Father Arseny spoke were now easy to understand, they had become familiar—they entered directly into Alexei’s soul. He felt no more anxiety, no more suffering, no more fear, only the desire to become one with these words, to understand them, to remember them for the rest of his life. How had they gotten here? And why was there someone else here with them? Alexei saw with surprise that there were two men assisting Father Arseny. Both were dressed in the same bright vestments and both shone with an undefinable white light. Alexei did not see their faces, but sensed that they were beautiful.
It is late, and Mari is having a meltdown in our living room. There were enough of these this week, that we cannot even remember the reason behind it, but it was one of the most intense episodes that she had had to that point. There was a lot of physical and verbal aggression towards us, including at least one kick to my head. Talking with us and trying to respond empathetically, only results in further verbal aggression. At this point in the evening, we have exhausted all solutions.
I take the holy oil from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and I put it on my forehead. I attempt to do so on Mari’s hands, but am met with anger. The paranoia she has is a side effect of taking Adderall to counter daytime sleepiness, and in this case, it makes her literally think that her skin is burning. I sit down in front of our icon corner, and I start praying the Jesus Prayer, just as I did on the plane. I bring myself to the monastery, to create an image of a safe place inside my mind- a place that she also loved. Even though she yells at me at first, she eventually calms down, comes back to mental Earth, and asks for forgiveness. We give her holy oil for her forehead, and eventually bring her to her bed.
The following day, after another series of meltdowns at school, we call the neurologist, who tells us that Mari should stop taking Adderall immediately. At her neurology visit today, she is calm, listens well, and transitions very nicely. She is very sleepy, but she is not the girl she was a few days ago.
On this day, I think of how Father Arseny, through his prayers, survived a situation that was not designed for survival. Punishment cells were designed for inmates to not survive more than a short time, let alone be warm.
I think of how Father Arseny found a place of peace in the worst of situations.
And there is hope in that peace.