Cynthia Long is a librarian, folklorist, and writer with a focus in Celtic folklore, mythology, and history. She earned her M.F.A. in Fiction from Rosemont College in Rosemont, Penn., in May 2016. In August 2017 she presented at Doxacon, the Orthodox Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, on the topic of fairy tales and the famous C.S. Lewis quotation that says, "Some day you will be old enough to read fairy tales again." Cynthia was Chrismated in September 2012 and attends St. George Church in the Philadelphia suburbs, where she tends the parish library.
Early in the morning the devout women of the community would rise before the rest of their households and, before beginning any of their daily chores, “wended their way though the gray dawn to kneel in the cold nave of the church, their peripheral vision cut off by babushkas pulled far forward” whereupon they “buried their faces in their red hands and prayed . . .” One day a young girl woke early and went out with her aunt. “ ‘It’s so quiet and pretty here,’ ” the girl said, and her aunt shushed her. “ ‘Don’t tell anyone,’ ” the aunt cautioned. (Adapted from Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves.)
It has been more than a dozen years since I have read her book, but the story from her childhood which psychologist, storyteller, and author Clarissa Pinkola Estés relates has long remained with me. For Estés, it illustrates the importance of hardworking, care-taking women having a quiet time and space free from interruption. Attending church at the break of dawn was the only time all day when a woman got respite from her household responsibilities. Estés describes it as a time when the women found the “peace, strength, and insight” to fuel their lives.
Although the story doesn’t mention it, I can imagine a pale dawn gradually sifting through high windows to fill the church with a subtle glow. I imagine icons too, bursting with color like daybreak. (Although the author is probably heterodox, one gift of storytelling is making stories our own.) Our churches face East, toward the dawn, symbolic of facing the light of Christ. The first thing every morning, the community of women entreated Christ and the community of saints.
And while Estés is commenting on the importance of a women’s space temporarily free from the demands of family, the specific location and activity she describes is noteworthy for all of us: Church. Prayer.
My Christmas this year was more hectic than usual. We spent most of the holiday visiting a family member in the hospital. Instead of making a festive dinner, I cooked and packed homemade jars of soup and a tray of baked ziti for the immediate family. Afterwards, either stress or a 24-hour flu took its toll, and I spent the day after Christmas in bed. The next afternoon, it was back to the hospital. I didn’t get to Liturgy at all, not even the following Sunday.
That weekend, I became increasingly irritable and out of sorts. I felt more than frazzled and overwhelmed—I felt lost, adrift. About that time, I realized that I had been neglecting my daily prayers. While I know that prayer sustains me in ways I can’t comprehend, even when my prayers are rushed and perfunctory or distracted, there I was anyway, jumping into action as soon as I woke up and pouring myself into bed at the end of long days. Without prayer. Gradually, I remembered.
In the story, the aunt’s injunction to keep the quiet beauty of a dawn-infused church a secret should not be viewed selfishly. The aunt knows that prayer is a priority. She knows that self-care is a priority. The aunt’s admonition is akin to the lecture a flight attendant gives about using the oxygen masks in an emergency: first take care of yourself; then you can help your family. It’s the same lesson I learned in Lifeguard class and as a high school ambulance corps cadet. Keep yourself safe first when helping others.
As in the story, making prayer a priority is necessary to empower our days and our lives. The morning prayer of St. Philaret of Moscow says it well: “Grant me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day and all that it shall bring.” Without prayer, I lack the strength to face my challenges or take care of others. Again and again I learn and relearn this lesson. The first act of self-care is prayer.
Notes: Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves. N.Y.: Ballantine, 1992. p. 284.
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