Myrrh, Trust and Everyday Miracles

My second-most-read post of all time is “Myrrh, Mercy and Oil: Deciding What to Do with It All.” These are not high numbers that I am talking about. My most read post has 352 views to date: “Response to Walter Wink’s Book Naming the Powers.” However, at 348 views to date, “Myrrh, Mercy and Oil” is likely to take first place soon because its views have collected at a slow but steady rate over time whereas almost all the views of my “Response to Walter Wink’s Book” were shortly after I posted and shared it (a while after the post on myrrh and mercy). In the last 90 days, for example, 42 people have viewed my post on myrrh and mercy whereas only 8 have viewed my response to Walter Wink.

Because there seems to be some small lasting value to my post on myrrh and mercy, I’ve decided to add this mini update.

One or two weeks ago, my priest, Father Peter Pier, told our congregation a story that he had been told by his bishop many years ago not to share with his congregation. In his sermon, Fr. Peter was talking about miracles and making the overall point that all of us should feel close to miracles, should know ourselves to be wonder workers. He pointed out that even those of us who have seen and believed in one or more miracles do not tend to think of them as something close to us, something that is a normal part of our lives, something that we do.

Fr. Peter’s story was this. Over a decade ago, he noticed an icon in our church streaming myrrh. He smelled it and wiped it off carefully and noticed it again the next time he was in the church. At that point, he decided to call his bishop and let him know. (this was Bishop Antoun serving Metropolitan Philip, both of blessed memory). Bishop Antoun responded that Fr. Peter was one of about seven priests who had called that same week to report a myrrh-streaming icon. Fr. Peter was instructed not speak to anyone about this within his congregation unless the myrrh-streaming became so visible that multiple people began to comment and ask about it. Therefore, Fr. Peter never said a word about this event to anyone until this recent sermon, even though more than one other icon within our church streamed myrrh again during the intervening years.

Our priest shared that this directive not to speak about myrrh-streaming icons came from Metropolitan Philip to all of his bishops and priests because he did not want congregations to be distracted from the primary and normal means of grace: the eucharist offered at every divine liturgy. As we are nourished regularly with the body and blood of our God, Savior, brother, and friend Jesus Christ, we should give thanks in our hearts primarily for this, and we are likely to be excited and distracted by reports of special events and signs of God’s mercy and love.

Fr. Peter’s primary point in telling this story was that we all work this wonderful act of God weekly (at least). He wanted us all to consider ourselves close to the powerful works of God and to know that we participate regularly in the working of wonders. When we say “Amen, Amen, Amen” during each divine liturgy, we are enacting a miraculous wonder. The occasion of this sermon was the Sunday on which we have the epistle reading about Peter raising Tabitha from the dead. Elizabeth and I named our last child Tabitha two years ago, and she is also a daily means of God’s kind and loving work within our lives.

I suppose Metropolitan Philip’s point about distraction is confirmed by the fact that I am not likely to blog about the eucharist very often or that such posts would not likely be read and pass around by many people. Apparently, we want the unusual far more than we want the wonderful.

One other point that I take from this story is the place of trust or witness in the function of miracles within the life of God’s people. There seems to be some basic reason why what we think of as miracles never lend themselves to scientific replication and verification. I’m not going to try and figure this out fully here. Miracles do hold up under careful rational scrutiny, but they are not replicable, verifiable, or falsifiable in the ways that our modern preferences demand. Most of us today place far more value on the replicability of an event than we do on the character of the person bearing witness to the event. I have every reason to believe the story that my priest, Fr. Peter, told about various icons in our church streaming myrrh over the years. This is because I’ve come to know Fr. Peter well in recent years as a very normal, humble, and loving man with great integrity. However, this kind of testimony will mean very little to anyone reading this who has not gotten to know me or my priest. This is one of the values that we have lost as a result of our increased mobility and lack of intergenerational community within modern society. We no longer have a lot of deep and long-standing relationships in which the testimony of one good person about something that happened over a decade ago might be highly persuasive and meaningful to many others around them. Sadly, this is a large part of the reason why so many do not find the case for the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ to be very persuasive in our day.

This is the point that C.S. Lewis is making he has the Professor say to Peter and Susan that “a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed” (in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Lewis is pointing out that we are no longer able to fully understand the seriousness and the value of testimony to truth that is based simply on someone’s character and reliability. Finally, I suppose that the directive from Metropolitan Philip to his priests (not to talk about myrrh streaming icons without good cause) lines up remarkably well with the last point that the Professor makes to Peter and Susan: “There is one plan which no one has yet suggested and which is well worth trying. …We might all try minding our own business.”

Deësis from Dormition Cathedral in Moscow

I am scheduled to become a godfather for the first time in a few weeks, and I just purchased an icon for the baptismal name that my godson is taking (after John the Forerunner and Baptist). After purchasing this icon, I did a little research to track down its source, and I am recording this here to pass along. (First are the images. Below them is the information that I found regarding the source.)

deisis-din-vladimir-sec-xiii-3

deisis-din-vladimir-sec-xiii-1-4-sf-ioan-botezatorul

deisis-din-vladimir-sec-xiii-1-1

Suzdal_deesis

This Deësis is from Dormition Cathedral in Moscow. Originally written in the first third of the 13th century. Vladimir-Suzdal in Russia. Tempera on wood. 61.5 cm by 146.5 cm. It was located in the Assumption Cathedral of the Moscow (Kremlin) on the southern wall, above the tomb of Metropolitan Philip. Restoration was begun in 1935 in the State Armory, continued and completed in 1936 in the State Tretyakov Gallery.

In Byzantine art, and later Eastern Orthodox art generally, the Deësis or Deisis (Greek: δέησις, “prayer” or “supplication”), is a traditional iconic representation of Christ in Majesty or Christ Pantocrator: enthroned, carrying a book, and flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist (and sometimes other saints and angels). Mary and John (and any other figures) are shown facing towards Christ with their hands raised in supplication on behalf of humanity.

Recovering the Millennia-Long Track Record of Praying with Icons in Christian Homes

Bridegroom

Surviving the recent death of my mother after her five-year battle with cancer, my father (an ordained Presbyterian minister who works as a college literature professor) asked me for some simple suggestions regarding how to make use of icons in his home where he lives with my four youngest siblings. Two of these siblings are twin girls still in high school, and two are grown children who stayed home to help with my mother and to support their younger twin sisters. Even more recently, after my father made this initial request, he told all of us about his own fight with a second round of malignant melanoma (a fight that just recently started up again with the removal of cancer-filled lymph nodes and that will now involve more testing and treatments to come). Although these notes are written with my father in mind, I’m posting my thoughts here because I want to include some images and also because I may want to revisit my thoughts on prayer with icons at some time in the future.

In his desire to start making some use of icons, my father is referencing a brief passage in a book that has meant a lot to him recently:

“Icons” have a millennia-long track record with the people of God and can be a powerful way of keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind. We might arrange them tastefully present in each of our living and work spaces, so that they are always present in our visual field. We can thoughtfully use them to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts and to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being. [Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart, page 113.]

This passage from Dallas Willard has several key words and concepts to understand and unpack. Here they are in six key phrases.

First, “a millennia-long track record with the people of God:” Before starting to use icons, it is good to start learning a little about the history and the theology of icons (and to keep this up indefinitely as you are able). Here is a simple timeline that will suggest some broad categories in which to search out more articles and books about the use of images by God’s people across many millennia:

  1. God made humans in His own divine image (“icon”). Some Church fathers wrote that this is why humans were not supposed to make any images of God, because we ourselves are the image of God within God’s creation.
  2. In the wilderness, God commanded Moses to build a tabernacle that was decorated with many images of living things, reflecting God’s heavenly throne room, the Garden of Eden, and all of creation. These included images of various kinds of angels as well as many plants and animals. God was not depicted because God was a spirit and was beyond or above (enthroned upon) His creation (not just one of the many wonderful things within His created world).
  3. Each different Jewish temple built by Solomon, Ezra, and Herod followed this tabernacle pattern of ornate images—depicting living things from all parts of creation.
  4. Jewish synagogues (as they developed during the exile and throughout different parts of the world in the Jewish diaspora) were also filled with images of living things as well as many of the great Old Testament saints and prophets.
  5. From the earliest years, Christians adorned their churches and their graves with images of Jesus Christ, his mother, the martyrs, and other great Christians heroes (saints). Many early Christian churches (even house churches and churches in hiding, such as in the catacombs) looked like Jewish synagogues with ornate images. These early Christians also told stories of Greek-style portraits that were painted by Luke (the Greek doctor and author of two New Testament books) as well as of other early images that appeared miraculously, depicting Jesus Christ. As generation after generation of Christians wanted to write their own icons, many sacred patterns and expectations were developed and carefully handed down from one icon writer to the next, so that the key features of each icon would be protected and preserved in ways that would communicate clearly, again and again, across different times and places.
  6. With the rise of Islam, there was a strong pressure to clean up the embarrassing variety of images and strange relics (bones and clothing of saints, etc.) that now filled and cluttered Christian churches and monastic communities. These sacred Christian things were considered very grubby, foolish, superstitious, and idolatrous by the sophisticated, elegant, rational, and tidy Muslims who strictly forbid the use of any images of God and who decorated their mosques with only the most beautiful and sophisticated geometric designs (showing the transcendent beauty of God in ornate yet orderly ways).
  7. Some Christian emperors and clergy began to teach that the ancient Christian use of images and relics was barbaric and a corruption of the pure Christian faith. These were the iconoclasts who often cleaned up churches by force, pulling down icons to put them in storage, paint them over, or even destroy them.
  8. In the Seventh Ecumenical Council, all the leadership of the churches around the Mediterranean world gathered and agreed that the icons (which were so beloved by the people of God) were not only permitted but were required by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s incarnation, Christians should make images of His human person which, in its fullness, reveals God the Father to us. It was taught that icons of Christ and of Christ in His saints were an essential weapon against idolatry.
  9. One of the great defenders of these decisions by the Seventh Ecumenical Council was Saint John of Damascus who suffered and saw great wonders in his battle against a second great wave of iconoclasts that came a while after the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
  10. Finally, these holy images have helped people in their prayers (as powerful means of God’s grace) to come very close into the life of the Kingdom of God. So very many close and intimate experiences of God and of His saints (as well as so many astounding miracles) are associated with so many specific images. Many icons have their own special days of remembrance and veneration. To this day, some images also stream myrrh as a powerful testimony to God’s gracious and compassionate presence with us in our suffering. (Myrrh is one of the key ingredients used in the olive oil that anointed the dead body of Jesus Christ as His body was lovingly prepared for burial once all the hopes of His followers had been destroyed by his death.)
  11. To recap, here are the key ideas in this history of how God’s people have used images in worship:
      • Images depict our worship as taking place within all of God’s creation (as we are made to lead, protect, and support all things in the constant and never-ending praise of our wonderful and loving Creator).
      • Humans are made in God’s image.
      • Images of Jesus should be made because He is the fully human incarnation of God the Son (or Logos) who took the specific human flesh of the virgin Mary (who is then literally the Mother of God).
      • Icons of Jesus Christ (as well as icons of Christ within His saints) are actually a necessary protection against false worship and idolatry (that is from developing abstract and disembodied “ideas” of Jesus Christ within our own minds, hearts, and imaginations).
      • Icons help to keep us focused on the historical and embodied Jesus Christ who:
        • actually was born, lived, and died among us,
        • rose from the dead to reign with His glorified body from the throne of God in heaven,
        • and ministers to us through the material stuff of creation within all of the sacraments of His Church.

Second, “keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind:” This is true. Icons can convey complexity and whole story lines (multiple periods of time) as simply and simultaneously present with us in a transcendent current moment (a prayer that brings us close to God’s time which links together past, present, and future). However, it is also true that learning to read icons is as involved and intricate as learning to read any written text. In fact, all Orthodox Christian icons are properly said to be “written” and not “drawn” or “painted.” There are many resources for learning to read icons in general as well as in particular. It is always worthwhile to invest in some education regarding any particular icon that you are using or considering for use. A few key ideas to keep in mind are:

  1. Icons are intentionally two-dimensional and somewhat abstract (with a variety of perspectives and instances in time incorporated into one image). Much has been made regarding reverse perspective (also called inverse perspective, inverted perspective, divergent perspective, or Byzantine perspective) within Christian iconography. This is supposed to make the viewer part of the image or to make it seem as if the person in the image is actually viewing the person outside of the image. However, this technique probably has more to do with ancient drawing techniques and understandings of reality than it does with any intentional attempt by Christian iconographers to include the viewer in the image or to make the image into a two-way window. That being said, there are certainly more recent Christian iconographers who purposefully make use of this ancient reverse perspective to help the icons achieve an “other worldly” sense and to invite those making prayerful use of the icon to stand in another realm with Christ and His saints. This can be a blessing and means of grace.
  2. Another important aspect of icons is actually their frailty as human creations. Although they require practice to make and can be very beautiful in the eyes of anyone, they are not made primarily through technical skill or artistic genius. Icons are written primarily through prayer, and they often involve significant human errors or misunderstands while still carrying sanctity and truth as a line of devout connection to Christ or to those who displayed Christ with their whole life and person. In fact, the misunderstandings or errors in icons sometimes communicate meaning and truth of their own, or sometimes just reinforced the icon’s intent of helping to make otherworldly realities present to us.
  3. In addition to reverse perspective and to errors, icons often contain events from different points in time within one compact image. It is as if a modern cartoonist combined multiple frames into one frame. Almost all icons that cover a story will have this feature. In most nativity icons, for example, the infant Jesus is typically reclining beside his mother in a stable cave while also being washed by midwives near the bottom of the image. Sometimes, the same angels are giving instructions all-at-once to Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi.

nativity icon at st catherines monastery

Third, “arrange them tastefully:” It is certainly critical to consult everyone living in the home and to be tasteful. There is no “wrong place” to have an icon with you in your life as you seek to pray without ceasing. However, if you grow more integrated into church worship with icons, there are some ways to consider arranging icons, over time, that might be given to you by the practices of our wise ancestors in the faith (rather than simply being a matter of taste).

  1. An icon corner is normally near an eastern corner of a house so that you can face toward Jerusalem and toward the rising sun during your prayers (as all Christian churches have always done).
  2. Icons are often located in a corner of a room to promote praying in your heart (not before men), to eliminate worldly distractions, and to allow prayer to be more concentrated or focused.
  3. Often, in addition to the icon corner, a family will hang a small “portal icon” (usually of the Virgin and Christ Child) by the door, which is venerated by family and guests whenever going in or out of the house. If the portal icon or the icon corner is located so that it is visible when one first enters the house from the main entrance, an Orthodox Christian will traditionally venerate the icons before greeting the members of the house.
  4. In addition to a main icon corner as a primarily focal point for family prayers (when said all together), there will typically be other places (within private bedrooms or places of study) with smaller icon corners for each individual member of the home.
  5. Finally, icons are often paired or combined together in units that have a family connection. This is because the kingdom of God is truly centered on an actual human family. Every church altar space is lightly screened off from the congregation by three main icons arranged in the same way every time: Jesus Christ, his Mother, and his cousin John. In the Hebrew Bible, under several Davidic kings, the gebirah (“Great Lady”), normally the Mother of the King, held substantial power as an advocate with the king. We see this function throughout the Old Testament and also clearly at work in the wedding at Cana. It is good to have our vision of the heavenly throne room informed by these biblical images. Over time, it is healthy to have some simple reflections of such royal, familial, and traditional “church arrangements” within our homes. The Orthodox call the home the “little church.”

Fourth, “present in each of our living and work spaces and always present in our visual field:” This is a wonderful point. It is helpful (and a widespread practice) to have simple icons continually in view that are appropriate to each space where you live and work (including while at a computer or driving in a car). This is a support and reminder in our desire and our struggle to pray without ceasing—to have all that we do and think be an extension of our ceaseless prayers within the presence of God. In fact, God is always with us, and we are continually able to be present around His throne alongside the saints and angels who worship there without ceasing in the sunlight of His glorious presence.

Fifth, “to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts:” Not only do icons literal allow us to rest our gaze on the King and all the citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, but the church has consistently experienced the fact that God uses these beloved images as powerful means of grace (in a sacramental kind of way or as “little mysteries of grace” as the Orthodox would say). This grace is tangible and powerful against evil. It is not our own work, but a gift of God as we stumble and struggle toward Him by means of every means of grace that God provides.

Sixth, “to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being:” This phrase suggests that icons are a point of contact between different realms of reality that compose us and within which we exist. By “levels of our being,” I expect that Willard is referring to those that he writes about: the mind, will, body, social dimension, and soul. In The Abolition of Man, the entire point that C.S. Lewis makes is that modernity has made us into “men without chests.” At the core of our being is our heart (from the Hebrew or Semitic world) or our nous (a Greek word that is typically translated “mind” or “intellect” but that really indicates “our capacity to perceive reality directly without dependence on the physical senses” or we might say our “intuition”). This central area (or chest as C.S. Lewis calls it) rests between the rational thoughts of our brain and the desires, passions, or emotions of our stomach and other lower organs. Our ability to quietly perceive reality with a direct intuition (independent of both calculated thinking and of passionate emotions) should be our most basic capacity as humans and the capacity that we rely upon to give direction to our rational thoughts as well as to our emotions and bodily desires. However, instead, we typically live entirely within our brains or our bellies, and we have left our chests ignored, forgotten, and shut down. Icons can help us to recognize with (and in) our hearts that we are standing before God, at His throne, at all times. Icons can give us a place to rest quietly and patiently, listening for God in our chests. This is not achieved with our eyes or with our sharp mental analysis, but simply with a patient attention to God’s presence. All of God’s creation is made by Him to serve as a means of grace that can help to communicate His presence to us as humans. Icons of Christ and His saints are powerful means of extending this God-revealing quality of creation and of the incarnation into our homes and hearts.

Now to list a couple things that Dallas Willard did not say:

  1. Icons are indented to be aides in the prayer and worship of Jesus Christ (incarnate, resurrected, and enthroned in heaven). This can be done as private, family, or church prayers. If we don’t use icons this way (at least at some simple level privately), we run the risk of abstracting them and of failing to benefit from them as a means of God’s grace.
  2. Also, icons are intended for veneration. They are a tangible focal point and a means of expressing our commitment and love to Jesus Christ. As it feels appropriate and comfortable, it is a blessing to express this love in simple acts of kissing, kneeling, and prostration. This becomes much more understandable and meaningful at home when it is learned slowly (and practiced regularly) within the context of church worship services. However, it is a blessing to learn simple acts of veneration and love within private prayer and devotion even when this is not part of the practice within your church worship.

All this being said, it is best to keep everything simple and small at the outset. Once you begin to make use of icons in prayer, the practice tends to grow naturally.

Regarding what icons to consider starting with, I can give more thoughts if that is wanted. However, the key is really that you find icons that are meaningful and beautiful to you. Do some research and look at a good variety of options on your own. Ideally, the person making the icon should have a deep and prayerful respect for the long history of writing icons under the authority of the church. Here are two great places to purchase icons:

[Note on Christ the Bridegroom Icon at the top of this post: During the first service on Palm Sunday evening, the priest carries an icon of Christ the Bridegroom to the front of the church, where it remains until Holy Thursday. The three days of Holy Week it is there are dedicated to Jesus Christ as the central figure in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13). This parable is perfect for the week leading up to Easter, as its clear message is to be prepared for the coming of Christ. From the evening service: “Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant He shall find vigilant.” (Troparion of the Bridegroom Service) Given the eschatological undertones of the services, it might be expected for the Bridegroom icon to show Christ in Glory, or at His Second Coming. Yet the Icon shows Christ humiliated by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers (Matthew 27:27-31). In a cruel irony, the soldiers mockingly worshiped Jesus and through insults proclaimed Him rightly to be the King of the Jews. Crowned with thorns, cloaked in scarlet, bound and holding a reed, this is how Christ appears in the Bridegroom Icon. The crown is a symbol of Christian marriage in the Orthodox Church, and the ropes binding Christ’s hand are a near-universal symbol of marriage. The reed used as a mock-scepter is a symbol of humility, of a person that does all possible to bend in service to others.]

the depiction of the inner condition of the soul

The icon must depict externals, but also interior life, holiness, and proximity to Heaven. The principal means for accomplishing this is in the face, the facial expression and its look depicted on the icon; also, the rest of the icon must be consonant with that expression. It was on the depiction of the inner condition of the soul, hidden by the flesh, that our Orthodox iconographers focused their attention. The better they were able to accomplish this, the better the icon appeared to be. Often, there would be deficiencies in the manner of depicting various parts of the body – not because iconographers were doing it consciously, but because [their efforts to] accomplish their principal goal did not always allow them to give sufficient attention to secondary aspects of their work.

Elder Joseph the Hesychast in Monastic Wisdom.

what looks both ways

From Sounder by William H. Armstrong:

He looked out of the window too. “If you’re inside you look out, and if you’re outside you look in, but what looks both ways? That’s a riddle; what’s the answer?” …No one answered. “What’s the answer?” the boy repeated, and then he answered his own riddle. “The window is the answer; it looks both ways.”

This passage brought to mind the description of icons as “windows into heaven.”

Introduction to Our Narthex at St John Chrysostom Church in York, Pennsylvania

[Preface: this was written upon request and included in a little booklet prepared by our church (with multiple authors and photographers) to give to guests.]

As with everything else in our church, the narthex exists to point everyone toward Jesus Christ and His ultimate ministry to His people from the heavenly altar (as described in Hebrews and Revelation among other passages). In our congregation, as with all other traditional Christian congregations throughout history, this worship is focused on our own altar at the eastern end of the church. The narthex is the first indoor space that is entered from outside the church building, and it serves as a place of entry, welcome, and preparation. The worshiping life of the whole parish community as one body starts in this space, and services often extend into it. For example, in many services the deacon comes out from the altar and delivers incense throughout the nave and into the narthex. For some services, such as crismations and baptisms, the priest and all participants start within the narthex before proceeding into the nave and finishing in front of the iconostasis and the altar. For every service, worshipers all enter the narthex first and are invited to prepare themselves for prayer and worship.

To help with these preparations, there are three main icons* in the narthex as well as a table with prayer candles to purchase and two sandboxes for lighting prayer candles. For some festal seasons, there is also a smaller icon for the feast on a separate stand beside the table with candles. On Sunday mornings, the table with prayer candles also has bulletins containing announcements and the hymns for the day. The table with candles is located to the right as you enter. Two varieties of prayer candles are offered: simple tapers to place in one of the sandboxes within the narthex and week-long red votive candles that are typically lighted in the narthex and carried into the nave to place before specific icons there.**

The three main icons in the narthex are:

  1. An icon of Jesus Christ (to the right of the main doors leading into the sanctuary and paralleled with the icon of Christ to the right of the main doors on the iconostasis before the altar). In this icon, Jesus is shown blessing and teaching us from His throne in heaven (in image known as Christ Pantocrator).
  2. An icon of our church’s patron, Saint John Chrysostom is immediately to the left of the doors leading into the nave). Saint John Chrysostom was a faithful and courageous leader and teacher of the church in Constantinople, and he is the beloved saint for whom our church is named.
  3. A specific and beloved icon made from a large embroidered cloth and bearing an image of the dead body of Christ as He is being mourned and prepared for burial. This is called the epitaphios and hangs on a north wall of the narthex with a sandbox for prayer candles before it. Epitaphios is Greek and comes from the words “epí” meaning “on” or “upon” and the word “táphos” meaning “grave” or “tomb.” This icon is an important and intimate part of the liturgical services of Good Friday and Holy Saturday in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, marking the death and resurrection of Christ. After these services, it is placed on the altar table and remains there throughout the Paschal season. During the rest of the church year, it is available for veneration and prayer within the narthex.

End Notes:

* If you wish to learn more about the Christian use of icons for prayer and veneration, more information is available in our church library and bookstore as well as in classes for inquirers.

** Lighting lamps and candles as a part of prayer is an ancient practice of God’s people, with many examples in the Old and New Testaments (including within the heavenly temple described by the Apostle John in his Revelation). Lighting candles with prayer imitates and responds to God who often reveals Himself through light (in creation and in the transfiguration for example). As the candle is lit and placed in a sandbox before the icon, a private and quiet prayer is typically said.

A Letter to Lupin and Tonks (and Their Reply)

Nessa Hake

If they were alive this is
what I’d write to them:

3-2-17
Dear Lupin and Tonks,

Wotcher! My name is Nessa Ann Hake. I have a little eight-year-old brother, and my mother is pregnant! I am almost thirteen. Harriet is a family cat that I practically own because we have a bond. She sleeps with me. St. John Chrysostom is the Orthodox Church my family goes to. My whole family works or goes to Logos Academy which is an awesome muggle school. (I think some of the staff are magical though. 😊)

My aunts (my age), my cousin and me all have read books about Harry Potter, and you are in them. I really love the books and you. Please don’t take this wrong because I know you’re humble. But, I just had some questions and would like to get to know you some more.

Here are some of my questions: What was it like fighting Lord Voldemort? What was your childhood like? How do you feel, overall, about life now in these past couple of years? What was one of your worst and best days in your life?

Some of these questions might be hard or uncomfortable for you to answer. You don’t have to, but I really would like to know.

How and when did you start falling in love? How did you tell each other? What was your different stages of love like? When Dumbledore died, what did you feel like? (I felt like it was the end of the world until, I found out you loved each other in the hospital wing.) How do you feel about your friends like Harry, the Weasleys, Dumbledore, Moody, Kingsley, and Sirius?

How many kids do you have now? What do your normal days look like? Does Harry visit often? How is everyone? Could you please give an overall of your life and feelings?

I love you! It would be nice to either meet you or get a reply.

From,

Nessa Hake

 

[And here is their reply to be delivered to our home shortly by the U.S. Postal Service.]

Dictated from a Small and Treasured Double-Portrait
On a Wall of the Potter Home
London, UK

March 5, 2017

Dear Nessa,

Ginny just read your letter to Tonks and I, and now she is kindly writing down our response as we dictate it to her. We were very glad to learn about you and how much you love our story. Of course, we are only the picture-memory of ourselves, but our real selves heard your letter while you were writing it. Our real selves, on the other side of death’s veil, know about the lives and thoughts of everyone who loves their stories. However, neither we, the picture-memories of ourselves, or our real selves on the other side of death could answer your kind questions about what would have happened if we had lived.

We did enjoy hearing your questions about our future lives if we had survived the Battle of Hogwarts, and we love to imagine with you what might have happened. At least, we, our picture-memory selves, love to imagine those future lives with you. We’re not sure what our real selves on the other side of death love to imagine.

Now we hang on the wall of Ginny’s study corner, beside her desk. We were painted from memory by Harry and given as a gift to Ginny on their tenth wedding anniversary. We are a very small painting and not a very good one, but we were made from living memory and filled with love. Teddy also has a painting of us made by Ginny several years earlier. These are the only two paintings that we have to travel between.

You asked how many children we would have if we had lived. Well, Tonks wanted lots of children, and she probably would have gotten her way in the end if we had survived the Battle of Hogwarts. She was always the crazy one of us two. I was afraid to even fall in love, and having just one child terrified me at times. You have to remember that I spent most of my life and energy as a young man just trying not to let my “little problem” cause the death of anyone that I loved. I saw my place in the world as someone who was watching it from the outside (in a way) and trying not to let myself forget that if I became careless or lazy I could end up killing someone whom I dearly loved. I was ruled by fear and loneliness. But Tonks helped to start changing all of that for me. She helped me to learn about some kinds of courage that I had not even known I needed to learn about before I began to love her.

You also asked our imaginary future selves how often Harry comes to visit us. Well, after the Battle of Hogwarts, when Harry and Ginny married, Harry probably would not have been able to visit Tonks and I as often as we would have wanted him to visit. If I had lived longer, I would have been the closest person to a father that Harry still had alive, but Harry was like his own father. Harry would have usually been busy with something that felt more important than visiting old friends, and many times he would have been right. Even now, you notice, we hang by Ginny’s desk, not Harry’s. We were painted by Harry, but our first painting was made by Ginny. We love Harry very much, but he is still learning many things even as a grown man. But you know that Tonks and I were still learning many things when we died. For example, I was still learning the courage that it takes to receive love and to live my life with her. That is maybe one of the saddest things about death. We are still learning who we are in this world, and then we must suddenly be separated from this world.

Well, that is enough about our imaginary future lives if we had been able to keep on living. Of course, we can answer your questions about our past selves much more fully. It would be wonderful to sit and chat with you some time. Chatting with portraits is not as wonderful as chatting with our real selves, but even that will almost certainly be able to happen again one day. You remember how Harry was able to chat with the real Dumbledore at King’s Cross station when Harry was almost killed just before the battle of Hogwarts? There is probably more life than we can image on the other side of the veil between life and death, and this veil does not seem like the kind of thing that will last forever.

We will share a little about our past selves in this letter because you were so kind as to tell us a little about your own wonderful and fascinating life. However, Ginny does need to go very soon, so we cannot let this letter get too much longer.

What was it like fighting Lord Voldemort? Tonks never really let the fact that we were fighting Lord Voldemort be the most important thing about her life. This was one of the many wonderful things about Tonks. She could be sweet and funny even at the most dark and terrible of times. She always seemed to understand that life was greater and more important than death even up to the last moment when death took us in the middle of the battle. This also gave Tonks a kind of bravery. In a way, she loved to fight when she had to because fighting was like running into the wind or running through the waves on a beach. Fighting could be a way of living more than it was a way of killing. Ha! Tonks is making faces at me right now in the portrait and saying that I’m too philosophical. We’ve talked together about you, Nessa, before we wrote this letter, but I am doing most of the dictating to Ginny because it saves time. However, Tonks wants to add that I was one of the greatest heroes in the fight against Lord Voldemort because I had learned so much about darkness in my own hard life. She says that fighting Lord Voldemort was sad, so terribly sad. She wanted so much to see life on the other side of this battle with Lord Voldemort, but she never got that chance. But she says that terrible sadness can train some of the greatest warriors like Dumbledore, Snape, and I. So she laughs and says that she loves sadness. I secretly think she is the philosophical one and that she must love sadness so much that she always keeps it hidden quietly in her heart and all she ever shares with other people is life and joy.

What was your childhood like? Tonks had a very normal childhood (except for her clumsiness which was a little more than normal). She says her childhood felt boring to her sometimes, but I think that her childhood is one of the great gifts that she carries with her and gives her a power that I don’t have. My own childhood was stolen from me by Fenrir Greyback, and in a way the love of Tonks has shown me what I lost and helped me to learn some lessons about life and love that I never had the chance to learn as a child.

How do you feel, overall, about life now in these past couple of years? This question actually seems to be about our future selves, and we can’t really answer it. We would be guessing just like you. It’s fun that your questions actually slip back and forth between our future and our past selves.

What was one of your worst and best days in your life? One of the best days of my life was when Tonks first announced publicly that she loved me. This forced me to deal with my love for her which, for a long time, had terrified me and caused me to run away into the most dangerous and serious work that I could find. Tonks says that one of the best days of her life was when she first caught me watching her without even seeming to notice what I was doing. She didn’t let me know about this until much later, but it is one of the things that made her so sure that I loved her just as much as she loved me (even though I would never admit it to anyone for so long). For both Tonks and I, the worst day of our life was definitely when I left Tonks after learning that we were having a child. I had been afraid all my life of hurting someone whom I loved, and becoming a father made me so afraid that I had just passed on all of my own fears to another person. I couldn’t face this, not even with the help of Tonks, but Harry was a help to me that time. He knew something about what it meant to have no father.

How and when did you start falling in love? How did you tell each other? What was your different stages of love like? Our last answer talks a little about this, and this is a topic we could say way too much about because once we start, the stories just keep going. I think that I started falling in love with Tonks first. I used to find myself thinking about her after we had been working together on assignments for the Order of the Phoenix. Everyone in the order respected her teacher Mad Eye Moody, and so they treated Tonks well. However, I think that everyone was also a little annoyed by how clumsy this young auror could be. We were living a dangerous existence, and a clumsy mistake could easily mean that someone would die. But I couldn’t help noticing that everyone always forgave Tonks and that their trust in her continued to grow each day. She was so generous and humble while at the same time having a kind of bravery that was not like the kind of bravery that I knew about. Fear didn’t seem to exist in her world. She was just always modest, hard-working, and full of fun no matter what we were doing: cooking dinner at 12 Grimmauld Place or dueling with Death Eaters. She says that she loved me from the first time that she saw me but only started to notice what she was feeling after she saw that I was falling in love with her. She says that one of the things she loved about me was that I still obviously had so much to learn about falling in love.

When Dumbledore died, what did you feel like? In our own ways, we each felt a little like you did. We felt that the world had ended in some way. Tonks says that she immediately felt that we would all be doomed to die in our fight against Voldemort but that this wasn’t what really mattered to her. Everyone who she admired most had loved Dumbledore so much. She always suspected that, even though Dumbledore held more sadness in his heart than any of her other great teachers and friends, his mischievous smile came from some place deeper than all that sadness. His smile seemed like an invincible charm and a promise of victory even at the darkest moments. She gave up hope of victory when Dumbledore died, but that didn’t matter compared to her sadness at the loss of his smile. She did not despair herself in any deep way, but she felt that one of the brightest signs of life had gone out of the world. She didn’t know Dumbledore in the same way that I did. I was probably more tempted to despair. Neither of us gave up caring or fighting after Dumbledore died, but we shared a sadness at the loss of everything he had been for us and for so many of our friends.

How do you feel about your friends like Harry, the Weasleys, Dumbledore, Moody, Kingsley, and Sirius? I guess that some of our earlier answers have hinted at how we feel about Harry, Moody, Dumbledore and other dear friends. We each loved them in different ways, and it was wonderful to learn a little more about each of our friends when we began to fall in love with each other. We could share more about each one of them, but we really do need to end this letter now.

We do want to add that you are a wonderful girl, and we are so glad to be loved by you, Nessa. Keep on enjoying the secretly magical people at your school, your cat, your little brother, and your family’s new baby on the way. We’re glad to have been introduced to them all by you. Tonks likes to tease me for reading some muggle philosophy and theology now and then, but I couldn’t help noticing that your letter understood how we were real. You were sad that we had died but you were not wishing that we were real. Maybe you will find our portrait someday. That would be fun, but, if not, we are sure that we will all find something even better. This is something that we all enjoy each day on this earth: life together. We have lost that for now. However, we think that Dumbledore’s smile is a sign that life comes from a deeper place than pain and death, and we hope that somehow life together can be restored. In that life, our story will be with you, we are sure.

Love,

Tonks and Lupin

P.S. Here is a wonderful part of another story about life that Lupin once read by a great muggle author who you probably know about, too. This part of the story reminds us of the way that we are able to speak with each other, even though others cannot see the world that we share:

Celeborn and Galadriel … had journeyed thus far by the west-ways, for they had much to speak of with Elrond and with Gandalf, and here they lingered still in converse with their friends. Often long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep they would sit together under the stars, recalling ages that were gone and all their joys and labours in the world, or holding council, concerning the days to come. If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands.

Myrrh, Mercy and Oil: Deciding What to Do with It All

[Note: Quite a while after writing this, I posted a kind of followup to this post titled “Myrrh, Trust and Everyday Miracles.”]

I don’t know what to do with two small zip-lock baggies of myrrh that my wife and I collected last Sunday (June 5, 2016) from a miraculous myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos in Taylor, PA. These two swabs of white cotton soaked in a bright yellow-orange oil are shut up tightly inside plastic, but they still give off a pungent, sweet fragrance that definitely includes rose blossom (along with other scents that are less easily discerned, such as two that my children suggested: “honey comb” and “new doll”).

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy this year (March 20) my kids and I went to church, and the priest said that he had thrown out the notes for his homily yesterday evening after he participated in the Triumph of Orthodoxy vespers at a neighboring parish where several churches from the region were gathered together. During this joint prayer service (which celebrates the restoration of icons after a dispute about them within the early church), my priest witnessed the myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos that was visiting from Taylor, PA. In addition to watching sweet smelling oil flow from its surface, he heard stories of the many blessings and healings associated with this icon. For several years, visitors to this icon had been healed from cancer and other diseases that doctors had declared incurable by medical means. My priest is Father Peter of St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in York, PA, and the priest visiting with the the myrrh-flowing Kardiotisa (“The Tender Heart”) icon was Father Mark of St. George’s Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA. (See image of the Kardiotisa icon at bottom of this post.)

One story told by Father Mark touched Father Peter in particular. It was about a teenage girl who struggled with a horribly negative self-image and who faced harsh bullying at school. When anointed by myrrh from the icon, she was delivered from thoughts of self harm and became a strong and confident young lady who was filled with thanksgiving for God, her family, and her friends. Father Peter also relayed how God clearly did not discriminate between various types of believers when it came to granting mercy through this icon. Those healed included Christians from many traditions as well as Muslims and others. Father Peter had seen many other myrrh streaming icons over his decades of ministry, but this experience had clearly moved him in a fresh way.

While he spoke, I was thinking of my mother who was diagnosed over a year ago with stage four breast cancer that doctors said could never be eradicated by medical means. My eight year old son was evidently thinking of my mother as well. He leaned over to me and whispered, “We should take grandma to see this icon.” After the service, he and I joined the line of those going forward to be anointed with the sweet-smelling oil collected from this icon.

As I said, that was March 20, and it was June 5 before we made it there with my mother. Our visit to St. George’s Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA was rescheduled twice. Then, on the morning of the visit, it was difficult to get up on time, to pack up and clean the house where we were staying for the weekend as an extended family, and to keep our cool while following GPS directions that took us via an extremely strange and circuitous route. (Truth be told, I did not fully keep my cool during this last leg of the road trip.) We made it to the Sunday morning service (called the Divine Liturgy) about half way through (near the end of the sermon), and my extended family followed me quietly into seats within the first two rows of pews on the far right side of the sanctuary. We did our best to pray and sing our way through the remainder of the highly elaborate and largely unfamiliar service. Visiting along with my mother and I that morning, there were also my wife and two children, my father, my young twin sisters (the same age as my daughter), and two of my grown siblings, a brother and a sister (a mother of five) who had her baby boy along with us.

At the end of the service, Father Mark had a lengthy announcement about the proposed purchase of a walk-in freezer for the congregation as well as comments about a recent chemical analysis of the myrrh from the streaming icon (an analysis by a Ukrainian association of chemists that had not been sanctioned by the bishop but that had produced some fascinating results that Father Mark detailed quickly to his congregation). He finally concluded the service by inviting anyone to come forward and to receive an anointing with myrrh from the icon. Every member of my family and extended family came forward, and a visiting priest gave the blessing and the anointing, placing a small dab of myrrh in the sign of the cross on each of our foreheads with his thumb. As we were all going up front for this, my wife checked that all of our family members had noticed the location of the streaming icon near the center of the sanctuary. Its entire surface was visibly wet with myrrh, and some oil could be seen on the outside of the icon’s protective case.

My mother needed to use the restroom after this, and I hung out near the sanctuary hoping to catch a word with Father Mark, who I had corresponded with several times over the past few weeks in preparation for this visit. He was busy with a portion of his congregation offering a prayer service for a recently departed member of their church. I checked on my family situated in the social hall attached to the church and returned to the sanctuary, where I waited and finally had an opportunity to greet Father Mark. He was praying with a devout and emotional young couple who were clearly also there to seek help from Mary at her myrrh-streaming icon. Father Mark was also busy with some of his deacons and several remaining members of the congregation, lifting the protective cover from the icon and examining the cotton swabs packed into a tray along the icon’s bottom edge to collect the myrrh. He and several others were expressing joy at the quantity of myrrh as it dripped from the protective case itself, and one woman reached out to catch the drops before they fell to the floor.

With some persistence, I was able to get Father Mark’s direct attention and introduce myself. He seemed to vaguely remember corresponding with me, and then he warmly welcomed my entire family and extended family. He asked each person to hold out their hands as he held up the icon and waited for one drop of myrrh to fall into the hands of my father, mother, four siblings, wife, son, and finally my little nephew. My daughter quietly declined. During this time, as the drops fell one-by-one into outstretched hands, two older women from the congregation were alternately praying out loud and chattering with members of my family (telling them many stories about the icon). Father Mark invited us to leave any written prayer requests in little decorated blue boxes at the back of the church. These requests would be read out loud in the sanctuary and placed into a large wooded chest that was kept near the icon. One of the elder ladies explained that a member of the congregation had given this chest to the church for this purpose and let us know that hey had another chest stored within their altar area that was already filled with paper slips holding prayers from previous visitors. In one last effort, I asked Father Mark if he would pray specifically for my mother right then and there. He agreed and prayed for her out loud before the Mother of God’s myrrh-streaming icon. Father Mark was a generous and unassuming man who radiated simple joy and good humor. I felt bad to ask for so much, but he gave graciously.

As we were finally leaving, several members of the congregation came forward to receive pieces of cotton that were torn off, one-by-one, from the larger swabs that were packed into the trough at the base of the icon. These were soaked with myrrh and were placed in small zip-lock bags for members of the congregation to take with them. My mother and sister hesitated at first. However, Father Mark was clearly liberal in the distribution of these bags, and they each ended up with one. My grown sister overheard Father Mark telling a little girl in the congregation to take one with her and teasing the girl by telling her to go and tell her brother that Father Mark said he couldn’t have one today. My wife and I each got a separate bag as well.

Scripture is full of references to oil used for cooking, with sacrifices, and for anointing. All four Gospels speak of the myrrh-bearing women who came to anoint Jesus with the same kind of expensive perfumes that Mary had poured over his feet and wiped off with her hair not long before his crucifixion. These ladies are described beautifully in the book Christ in His Saints by Patrick Henry Reardon. He explains that they spent a lot of money (and some no doubt risked the wrath of their unbelieving husbands) to get up before sunrise and to take this myrrh to anoint the dead body of their Messiah (whom they had seen placed within a cave behind a massive stone and under the watch of a professional Roman guard). How they planned to move the stone and to get past the soldiers is unclear. However, one thing is clear: they had not imaged the possibility of a resurrection. When they arrived, nonetheless, the stone was gone, and they met angels instead of Roman soldiers. Reardon ends his account of these devoted women with an intentional note of irony by asking us to consider “all of that myrrh gone to waste.”

In 1 Kings 17 and then again in 2 Kings 4, we read of first Elijah and then his disciple Elisha making a jar of oil flow continually in the service of God as well as an old widow who is seeking to care for her destitute family. In a vision from Zechariah 4, we again see an endless supply of oil. In this account, two olive trees provide a continual stream of oil to keep a beautiful lamp stand alight with seven flames (like the lamp in the tabernacle and temple as well as the seven lamps that represent each of the churches written to by Jesus Christ at the beginning of St. John’s Apocalypse).

In many of these Biblical references, the oil is connected to the Spirit of God bringing light and life to all His creatures. And there is also another theme, one of anointing with medicines and perfumes. The word “mercy” in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word is based on an older Greek root meaning olive oil, a substance that was used as a soothing agent for bruises and wounds (as we see in the story of the Samaritan who was a good neighbor).

Keith Green sings: “My heart is hard, my prayers are cold / And I know how I ought to be / Alive to You and dead to me // Oh what can be done for an old heart like mine / Soften it up with oil and wine / The oil is You, Your Spirit of love.”

And before this, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote within an astounding poem: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / …It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?”

This song and this poem both capture a lot, in different ways, about God’s presence as it has been mediated to us all daily, in unexpected ways. After writing all this, however, I am not much closer to making a decision about what to do with my bag of myrrh. My wife and I have shared a few ideas with each other, both immediately afterward and in the following days. Regardless, I am simply grateful to have had its beautiful smell in my home for this week and to be faced with the strange dilemma that it brings. I’ll probably try to share my myrrh somehow (the wise men gave away all of their myrrh after all), and I will also seek ideas from others who are older and wiser than myself. And your suggestions, dear reader, are welcome too.

[Note: shown in the photo at the top of this post are the two bags that I mention, containing cotton swabs soaked with myrrh. Also in the picture is my son’s small prayer book (a recent gift to him from my mother) and two small (prayer-card-sized) icons gifted to us by friends about a year ago (depicting Hawaii’s Myrrh-Streaming Iveron Icon and Saint Elizabeth the New Marty who is a granddaughter of Queen Victoria).]

you know the ghosts are there when you see as they see

Ghosts attend such events. I don’t know how else to say it. This was 1967. Mr. Feltner had been dead for two years, and Virgil for twenty-two. You know the ghosts are there when you see as they see, not as they saw but as they see. You feel them with you, not as they were but as they are. I never shed a tear that day, but all day long I saw Margret as her father and her grandfather saw her. I loved her that day with my love but also theirs. …I saw her as as Virgil and Mr. Feltner saw her, and I thought I would perish with the knowledge of loss and of having.

From Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry (118-119).