Thursday, September 28, 2023



Words have meaning, and that meaning makes them powerful. That power affects the people around the speaker, and those effects have consequences.  We must be careful with our words. We should mind what we say because sometimes we are not the only ones who pay the consequences for what we speak. We should not casually say, “I love you.” Physicians should not absent-mindedly announce a diagnosis of cancer. Jurors should soberly deliberate before pronouncing a judgment. Journalists should check and double-check their facts. The more widely we can spread our words, the more gravity with which we should approach our speech. We cannot take back the words once they leave our mouths, and we owe it to society to remember that. This makes the absolutely slanderous and libelous content of the Foreign Affairs magazine far so dangerous. They declared an entire group of American citizens to be foreign spies based on poorly gathered facts and emotive speculation, and those words were incendiary, dangerously so.

Today, I was at home with my younger children when I received texts from my two sons who are students at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, New York. Because of a bomb threat, they had to evacuate the church, seminary, and monastery while the police blocked off roads and the bomb squad began the painstaking task of clearing the numerous buildings on campus. My young sons were safe, but I worried about the potential.

Just this past spring, my oldest daughter, a senior at Michigan State University, hid in a bathroom with her three roommates in their ground flour on-campus apartment while a ruthless gunman shot and killed her fellow students. We stayed on the phone, texting so that we could silently communicate with her while the entire tragedy unfolded. Now, we were waiting to find out what could be happening a thousand miles away in a small rural enclave that holds a central place in the hearts and minds of Russian Orthodox Christians like myself, like my family, like my husband who happens to be a priest. Fortunately, no bomb was found, and while I am deeply grateful, I also know that next time might be different. We are one radicalized and unstable person away from serious injury and loss of life.

I hold many people responsible but none as much as Foreign Affairs Magazine and specifically Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan who claimed that Russian Orthodox clergy was being recruited to act as spies for the government. Among other claims in their shockingly poorly fact-checked piece was that we have 2,380 parishes. This figure probably comes from a thirty-year-old estimate of the total number of faithful, that is parishioners. Not parishes. This is a strong indication of the gross failure to perform due diligence in their reporting. They state, “FBI privately warned members of the Orthodox community in the United States that Russia was likely using the church to help recruit intelligence sources in the West…” which is absurd on its face. What could American priests tell Russian intelligence operatives that could not be learned from watching the national news or reading Twitter? The Russian government could not possibly be interested in us, we are nobodies. Shouldn't the FBI know that? Shouldn't Foreign Affairs? It would be laughable if it had not led someone to decide to at least consider bombing a church and school. We should recognize the road we are on because we have traveled it before.

Americans are known for their short attention spans so it should come as no shock that we have already forgotten the Japanese internment camps. We, as a people and a nation, became so fearful that our friends and neighbors who happened to be Japanese could somehow pass along some kind of useful information to the Japanese government that we actually dispossessed them and relocated them into camps. We became no better than our Nazi enemies who established ghettos. These were ordinary citizens who had no more access to government secrets than any of their neighbors but because they were Japanese, found themselves subject to cruelty, judgment, and bizarre accusations. We stopped short of the Nazis in that we did not kill the Japanese for the supposed crime of being Japanese, and thank God for that, but we should be horrified at how like our enemy we became.

Is this what is next for Russians and American converts to Orthodoxy? Or will we find ourselves hunted down by our neighbors instead after irresponsible and click-hungry media outlets and savvy politicians looking for a pickup have whipped the electorate into a frenzy? Foreign Affairs and the other outlets that have rehashed and reheated their dubious reporting (Newsweek, I am looking you hard in the eye) are to blame for the anger that they generate in Americans and the fear that we, also Americans, feel. Words have consequences and we face them while they sit in smug comfort somewhere else not worrying about their children and their friends and their holy sights.

It doesn’t matter what we say. It doesn’t matter what our bishops write. It doesn’t matter that my Russian Orthodox bishop was formed in a Ukrainian monastery. It doesn’t matter that each Russian Orthodox bishop has instructed his priests to include prayers for the suffering people throughout this region and an end to fratricide. It doesn’t matter that we raise money and send it to Ukraine for the people there. It doesn’t matter what we say or do because Foreign Affairs has many ears for the inflammatory words they speak and we are small, much smaller than they suggest, and we do not have the platform they do. We reap what they sow and the harvest is bitter. This threat has deep meaning for us; it cuts deep, even if Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, Soldatov, and Borogan don’t realize it. They owe us an apology, but we will never get it. Right now, we are the whipping boy for Americans who pretend their hands are clean and their history is fair and just. We must be satisfied that we know that we are not spies or agents or even remotely dangerous. We are just ordinary Americans, living and working and praying in a manner that they have deemed unfit, but there is no one to appeal to because there is no one to listen to our words. Theirs are just too powerful right now.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

A life well lived…


Elizabeth Johnson was a creative woman. She fashioned children and raised them to strong and creative adulthood. She cultivated grandchildren, sharing stories and her ever-expanding homesteading skills with them. She then expanded her world to include her students, the children she tucked into her heart where she could give them warmth and support so they could thrive in a cold world that teaches children to ignore rather than wonder.

From her sunlit, window-filled room, she led classrooms of students in wonder. They read and studied poetry and art and learned to think. She made it a family affair. Her daughter also taught with her own daughters in tow. Her granddaughter presented poetry and art lessons. Her broad wooden farm table was stacked with books, and the New York mountains filled the space behind her, and both things pointed to her creative personality. She loved words, writing, gardens, her yellow house, her husband, Brad, her family, the ox team she trained, and the sheep she raised. Her students looked through their computer screens like looking into a window on her life.

But windows only show a slice of life and never the full picture. If we could have spun the view around, they could have seen her house for all of its glory. She and her husband, Brad, lived an extraordinary life in an extraordinary way. They lived in a glorious yellow hobbit house, one literally set into the side of a hill. It tunneled into the hill, but the sunny front poked out like a turtle peeking out from its shell. Her wide front door opened onto her gardens and expansive property filled with her various creative projects. For the rest of my life and that of my children, when we read about Tolkien's Hobbit and consider his description of a hobbit hole, we will know that he meant her house.

One of the last times that we saw her, Elizabeth sat outside with us in her little garden area and read unpublished stories to my children, swearing them to secrecy and drawing them further into her heart. She showed them her latest creative outlet, fairy gardens. As her strength faded, her ability to influence the world around her felt smaller, and she described her world as smaller so she intentionally influenced smaller worlds. In a complex system of hanging baskets and window boxes, she created a series of separate but interconnected worlds, each with its own theme. There was a fairy world, a dragon world, and a pixie world, and sometimes the figurines would visit other worlds. My children's favorite was the Beatrix Potter world, where all their favorite stories came to live in charming little gardens within a larger garden within her homestead. Always the loving grandmother, she also made a section for her grandchildren to influence their own little worlds with flowers and figures just for them and she let my own children play in it. For as much as she believed that her world was getting smaller, it was continually growing as she pulled people and projects into it. Her heart flowed with love, and it poured out and saturated everyone who came into contact with her.

Elizabeth was a gifted writer with the ability to paint worlds with her words and find ways to describe feelings and moments and scenes so that she could take the thoughts in her head and put them in other people's heads. She was magic and filled every moment with magic. Even those who didn't know her through the classes could get to know her through her books. One of the most wonderful things about her books is that they captured her; they feel like what it feels like to be in her home and her garden and soak up the love that she so generously lavished on others. I think she was a fairy herself, capturing thoughts and emotions, bottling them, and sprinkling them throughout her projects like flower seeds. The entire world was like her fairy garden and full of beloved figures and beautiful plants all tended with loving care.

She lived in New York, and I don’t, but I am often in New York. I have two sons in seminary there, and my sons have spent many summers in the Summer Boys program at Holy Trinity. For the last several summers, I had boys coming home from seminary in the summer and other boys going back for summer camp, coming home just giving me a brief respite before bringing those seminarians back again. Four trips back and forth along the New York turnpike each summer gave me ample opportunity to visit her and look into her world when the time was short.

On one of those trips, one of my seminarians was with me to take boys to the summer program. This son is a deep thinker, a philosopher like his father, and he carefully considered everything she said. Elizabeth had planned her own funeral and put everything that her family and friends would need to execute her vision into a plastic tote. She wanted us to see the glade where she would have her funeral. She told us how she commissioned the icons, including one of her patroness. She discussed her "home birth" plans with my son who took it in with so much gravity and profound respect and nodded in agreement. This is the way it was meant to be done.

After she had reposed, her daughter, Celeste, sent me an iMovie which showed the depth of her mother's plans, more than I had seen over the summer. Beyond binders, the pavilion, and the glade, she had made a map of where and how to set up the tables and chairs and even assigned chores for everyone. She provided the candles and candle holders and paper plates, and other items needed for her mercy meal. She had pulled her friends into her plans, given them their assignments, and then placed everything they would need in this bin. She thought her world was small, but through her magic, her world was ever-increasing, ever-growing as she reached out and embraced others and pulled them into her. Her life teaches us how to live, and her death teaches us how to die and how to die well with every moment stepped in love.

The other night, in the hours after she slipped away, I lay awake in my bed and I wept. I was thinking of Celeste and the family’s plans to wash, dress, and prepare Elizabeth for the moment she had prepared for because her home birth was at hand. I lay on my side, facing away from my husband, and tried to hide the tears. My husband pressed against my back and told me about something that struck him in the adult class he had led in the evening. St Anthony of the Desert wrote that the common interpretation of Job is one of endurance in suffering and how it is wrong. What it is really about is the powerlessness of the Devil. He can do nothing without the explicit permission of God, and even then, he is severely limited. No matter how powerful we might think he is, satan can do so very little in the presence of a single holy man.

Elizabeth was a single, holy woman. She loved God and, through her books and classes, taught others to love Him. She reposed on Radonitsa; in the Slavic tradition, this is the day that we take red eggs to the cemetery and greet our beloved dead with the Paschal tropar and gifts signifying the resurrection. It is the first time after Pascha that we can have the service of the memorial, the Panikhida.  One of my great sadnesses will be that she reposed so shortly after vespers and the panikhida, but my husband immediately served another for her the next day. I stood at Kliros and looked at the Pascha decorations, and I struggled to sing, but I did it. I breathed deeply to give me stability, and I sang every word and thought of Elizabeth and how greatly she will be missed. Every anniversary of Radonitsa now belongs to her in a special way, she can be remembered at the first memorial, and we can greet her with red eggs and sing to her the paschal tropar and again be drawn into her world, her new world where she will wait for us to follow.

In your generosity, remember her in your prayers and the services of the Church. She is Cripina in baptism. She wrote several books but her book, The Miracle of the Red Egg, will now be iconic given that she reposed on the day we bring red eggs to our beloved reposed. I will always think of her happy death on Radontisa, and I will remember that death has no power here and suffering has no meaning because God’s love is greater. May the Theotokos comfort all who grieve and may Crispina's memory be eternal.