We are in the thick of winter, the midpoint when the old Finns say “the bear turns over to the other side”. This is the time of the year when we find the feast of the New Martyrs of Russia approaching. We will take down the icons of the feast from their places on the walls of the temple and set them down lower and look at them. I will watch my children all approach them to venerate and each one will pause to look for the appropriate person to kiss and in that moment they will reflect on who each one is and in what gruesome way they died. This day is one of many days in which the altar is draped in red, a stark visual reminder of the blood of those who gave everything up in the name of the God I love.
My husband is ethnically Finnish but a Russian Orthodox priest. Most of the people we serve at this tiny, far-flung community in this rugged wilderness are also ethnically Finnish but not all. Some are from Russia, some arriving a long time ago and some more recently. Some American melting pot families mix into the parish for good measure. The one thing that we all have in common is that the communal memory of the weight of the Bolshevik yoke looms large. Particularly for the more recent Russians, this shapes their way of approaching the mysteries of the Church. Their customs tinged with layers of discreet gestures passed down by babas who worshipped in secret in the days of Soviet bread lines.
I have to find ways of talking about these martyrs with my children and the children of the mission community of the monastery. When children see icons from these days, there are terrible scenes of nuns being thrown into mine shafts and priests falling before the guns of soldiers. A dear friend’s great-great-grandfather was a priest-martyr in those days and when my children recall this, I want them to have a deep familiarity with these truths and to still be filled with awe and hope and even comfort.
I have the new book The Sleepy Bear and the Golden Whispers by T. Anne Mancuso from St. Innocent Press. It is the story of how a bear woke in the deep of winter and sheltered Metropolitan Peter Krutitsy with its own body. She manages to tell readers of how the elderly hierarch was thrown from the boxcar of a train traveling at full speed, and even illustrate it, in a way that is not frightening for children.
One of the strengths of this book is that it avoids being silly and trite, it avoids the fluff but still manages to be tender and gentle. Her words and her art are as soft as the titular bear but also as strong and honest. I cannot abide patronizing and vapid religious literature for children. I want my children to have a faith that can endure, one that is not the silly toys of childhood. This requires stories that can become their framework and give them strength for the world that is out there. That world is broken and is dark at times, it is a place where elderly monks are thrown like garbage from a speeding train. It is a world that needs golden words and not caricatures of faith.
Dear Matushka uses the Jesus Prayer as an element of her story, the words leaving the saint’s mouth as golden breath. This element is carried forward to the gold foil words on the cover of the book. The idea that our prayers are golden is evocative and points to the richness that is our faith.
I am planning on bringing this book to the monastery on the Feast of the New Martyrs. We will look at this icon and read this story and make our own Golden Words and our own bears. We will remember the solace and comfort that God gave to his servant in a very dark time. God is present even in our darkness, He is the light and sweetness that exists there, like golden words and the body of a warm, resting bear.
When the Bolsheviks and the Soviets who followed them martyred all these great and holy people, they lashed out like desperate children throwing weak fists in a temper tantrum. Death was destroyed long ago, it has no power over us. They cannot actually kill us, they can only try. It brings to mind the poem “Prometheus” by Lord Byron.
“Titan! to thee the strife was given
Between the suffering and the will
Which torture where they cannot kill…”
Not included within this book is how Vladyka Peter was finally martyred. On a cold October day, he was shot to death after enduring much torture where they could not kill. He served hard labor in desperate prison conditions that led to partial paralysis. It would be easy to find ourselves questioning God. Would a merciful God allow such a holy and pious man, one who refused to apostatize, to suffer so greatly? The answer is that he was always protected, that God preserved him from before he was born, that real death has long since been destroyed. The bear is a reminder of this. It is the consolation that God sent to remind not just Vladyka but all of us that He knows how we suffer and that He is with us. I want my children to remember that, especially when they look on the icon written by Fr. Cyprian of Jordanville, another figure whose presence sifts into our consciousness like incense in the church.
One of my great privileges is to sing the Canon pieces at Vigil and one that never fails to move me is the Irmos to the Fifth Ode in the Seventh Resurrectional Tone.
“Night is bereft of light for those without faith, O Christ, but for the faithful, there is enlightenment in the sweetness of Thy words; wherefore I rise early unto Thee and sing of Thy Divinity.”God sends to us moments of consolation and light like Vladyka Peter finding the bear in the dark woods. Early in the morning, he rose and found himself in the light of the sun and living in gratitude. When my children look on the icons of the church, and their eyes rest on those stark images of nuns and priests, I want them to also see Vladyka resting with the bear in the snowy woods. I want them to remember that always. When they walk through the snowy woods that surround our farm, I want the memory of bear to fill their imaginations so that they can almost see a bear sleeping, wrapped around a very courageous saint. I want them to pray the Jesus Prayer and practically see the glint of their golden whispers. I want them to see and know and remember.
Vladyka Peter of Krutitsy, pray for us!
As a side note: It is worth mentioning that our own Vladyka, Archbishop Peter of Chicago and Mid-America, is named for this great saint which makes him especially important to the people of our diocese.