Of Icons and Akathists

Of Icons and Akathists


It’s a warm June evening, and the nave glows in the long golden light that filters through the windows in the dome. The church is light and airy, and makes me think that some of the glory of Hagia Sophia is captured here, in this tiny wood and glass building. I pace around the nave, then outside, wondering why I’m so nervous and what on earth is going to happen. Never did I think that writing an Akathist and praying at an icon would bring me to this place in this time for my own healing.

In Vancouver, BC, women had been disappearing from the poor and dangerous downtown eastside. Over twenty years, more than seventy women had vanished. The police had finally made an arrest after an intensive and detailed search of the man’s farm. The missing women hurt my heart and I found myself praying for them, but it wasn’t enough just to say, “Lord have mercy”. So I’d started an Akathist to St. Mary of Egypt in memory of the missing women and for all women who end up on the streets. It was amazingly difficult to write, and a friend of mine lent me an icon of St. Mary painted by Heather MacKean. The icon sat on my prayer table, where I could glance over and see it from my desk while I struggled with the Akathist. 

Now, I was in Oregon for a week’s working holiday with other Orthodox writers and Heather herself.  I hadn’t brought the icon with me to Rockaway, but I had brought the Akathist, and it seemed that the icon came along in the scribbled Biblical quotes and crossed out phrases in my notebook. It hovered at the back of my mind as I wrote and erased, scribbled and scratched out, paced the beach in the warm sunshine and fell asleep to phrases and lines of poetry running through my head. It hovered there as Heather and I walked and talked about St. Mary and Heather’s experiences with her name saint. The Akathist was a major challenge for me, but I had narrowed down the themes and Biblical references I wanted to use even if I hadn’t got much farther: The Song of Solomon(Mary’s tale is, at root, a story of misplaced love, perhaps the mother of all “looking for love in all the wrong places” stories if ever there was one); Peter’s attempt to walk on water, since Mary did that too; and the Samaritan woman at the well in the gospel story. On the Thursday of the week in Oregon, Heather and I drove from the coast to Portland to see our mutual friend, Jenny Schroedel and hear her talk about her book, Naming the Child, about miscarried and stillborn infants.

I had reviewed Naming the Child when it was published, and by the end of the first chapter, my tears blurred the words on the page. Jenny wrote about the ten miscarriages my parish had suffered in a single year, and remembering those lost children and their mothers’ grief tore at my heart. But I cried too for my unborn children whom I hadn’t thought about in too many years: James, aborted when I was 17, Tabitha, miscarried in my 20s and likewise shoved into the very bottom of my mind. And Juvenal, my husband’s and my last child, whom I lost the same day I learned I was carrying him: also shoved away and forgotten. Reading Jenny’s book began a healing process that wasn’t yet finished. I knew there was more to be done. But honestly? I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to do more. Yet, sometimes, heaven gangs up on you. 

I know more is going on at this small Portland church than just a visit with my friend.  I’ve felt full of nervous anticipation all day, and I’ve promised God that I will accept whatever happens here. Yet, when the reader announces “a reading from the Song of Solomon,” and the verses are exactly the ones I was working with earlier in the day, I feel as if I’ve been hit with an invisible two by four. St. Mary’s icon may not be here, but she sure is.

At the end of Vespers, Father announces a panakhida for our dead children just before Jenny’s talk. I’m not ready for this. I’d expected that I’d get choked up, sniffle, maybe even (horrors!) actually cry in public during the talk, but a panakhida? Hoo boy. That could mean serious emotion, publicly displayed. But there’s something in my middle that is stirring and needs dealing with: healing, lancing, hot compresses, something! I both long to have it out, and am terrified at learning what it is I’ve buried for so long.

I promised God that I’d be open to what will happen, so (deep breath) I add my children’s names to the panakhida list. I walk outside, enjoying the summer flowers, the warm air, the golden evening light, pacing, smoking, pacing more, anything to calm me while Father prepares for the service. ‘What’s to fear from a panakhida?’ I ask myself. I’ll cry – but so does everyone – that’s what it’s for – to remember the dead and pray for them, and acknowledge that the pain doesn’t completely go away. I can do that. So why am I still nervous?

In the narthex of the church, there’s a book called “The Illumined.” The book is open to a page of handwritten names of the baptized and chrismated members of St. Nicholas. On the facing page, there’s a line drawing of the Samaritan woman at the well. Next to the book is an icon of Jesus pulling Peter out of the water after his walk to Christ on the surface of the lake. So far, we’re batting three for three: every single theme in the Akathist has presented itself to me this evening. The only thing I haven’t seen is an icon of St. Mary herself, but Heather’s is never far from my thoughts, and it rises in my mind as I walk back into the nave. I get the feeling St. Mary of Egypt has been nagging God on my behalf. I’m grateful, but if she’s trying to reassure me with these non-coincidences of my themes appearing here, it’s not working. Whatever this is, it’s going to overwhelm me, and I’m not ready for it, I know I’m not.

I stand up at the front where no one will see me when I cry. And it’s okay. We’re allowed to cry here, and I can hear sniffles behind me. I’m not the only one present who’s lost a child, and I’m grateful that these men and women know this pain too.

But there is no pain. As the service starts, on my left, I can feel the presence of James standing by my left shoulder. He’s the child I aborted, but he’s a man now. On my right is Juvenal – he’s a teenager, and shoulder to shoulder with him is Tabitha who is in her twenties. My dead children cuddle me between them. I can’t feel them physically, but they are as there as if they were present in the flesh. The tears course down my face, and I gasp with the effort not to sob aloud as, like cool water over parched and feverish skin, like a cool sterile lance into a hot, infected wound, James’s forgiveness flows over and into me.

I aborted him when I was 17. And while I was pressured into the choice, it was still my decision and one that I buried so deeply I wasn’t aware I felt guilty over it until James’s forgiveness lances the infection. I’m crying for joy, not sorrow. How can I be sad when my children are beside me, and they love and forgive me? How can I be sad when they feel as real to me as my living children? How can I be sad when a guilt that’s weighed me down for years and taken up most of the space in my heart is washed away and I’m suddenly roomier inside? The relief is amazing! I feel almost light enough to float away.

The service flows over me like healing balm. Along with James’s forgiveness, and Tabby’s and Juvenal’s love, I feel a deep, deep peace. I have my children back, and I never even knew I missed them. They stay with me well into Jenny’s talk, and the last thing I feel are kisses – one on my left cheek, and two on my right. Then they are gone, and it’s just me and St. Mary of Egypt – the icon is still hovering at the back of my mind.

I have my children back, and I’ve been forgiven. Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t forgiveness or joy, but God and His saints always surprise us.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+

About author

Bev Cooke

Bev. Cooke has been writing for publication since 1989. Her first love is writing for young adults, and she has three YA books on the market: Keeper of the Light, a historical fiction about St. Macrina the Elder in 2006. Royal Monastic, a biography of Mother Alexander (Princess Ileana of Romania), also published by Conciliar came out in 2008. Feral, an edgy mainstream novel was released by Orca Book Publishers in 2008. Her latest publication is a departure from her regular work - an Akathist to St. Mary of Egypt, published by Alexander Press in 2010, which was written partly as a response to the seventy missing women from downtown Vancouver's east side, and as a plea to St. Mary of Egypt to pray for those women, and the men and women who live on the streets.

Bev. and her husband live in Victoria, BC where they enjoy two seasons: wet and road construction. They have two adult children, two cats and attend All Saints of Alaska parish.

Bev's very out of date webpage is bevcooke.ca and her blog is http://bevnalabbeyscriptorium.wordpress.com/. It's a little more up to date than the webpage. Bev is planning to blog more and update her webpage very soon, so keep checking back to them and be sure to "Like" her FB page: Bev. Cooke, writer.