17.11.2015 18:00 Age: 5 yrs

Women are the guardians of life and men the guardians of the guardians

Women of Hope Conference:  Humbodlt, Saskatchewan October 3, 2015
Sponsored by One More Soul Canada (www.omsoul.ca)
(For pictures, please see post on this blog "Women of Hope Conference" posted October 10, 2015)

At a recent clergy-staff study days for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Saskatchewan, a dozen or so of us men were at the altar performing our priestly duties. One of our female staff members, from the Family and Life Office, was praying with us, in one of the pews in the nave of the church. When I noticed her, we were singing a hymn to “The God-bearing One”, Mary the Mother of God.

Here we were, men at prayer. I imagined Deborah's impressions of what she saw: “These men know how to treat a lady,” she might have been thinking. The poetry and the melody of that particular hymn really are quite a cultural achievement, too. “The reverence they show to Mary will teach them how to relate to us!” she might have added. I certainly hope so.

Men doing what men do as priests of Christ, and by extension, learning how to live in this world, including how to relate to women as daughters of God. In another example, this time from Ukrainian icons and theology, Mary is prominent, front and centre, such as in the icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, other schools of theology marginalize the role of Mary in our salvation history.

This encounter reminds me of a recent women's conference, “Women of Hope”, sponsored by One More Soul Canada, and held in Humboldt. Deborah was one of the speakers at this conference, together with Moira Noonan. Moira credits Mary's protection over her for her return to Catholicism, how “a lady in blue” led to her release from new age spiritualism.
Noonan spoke about subliminal messages in new age religions, and juxtaposed this practice with the exercise of free will that is part and parcel of human rational nature and protected by the Catholic Church. In a statement that shows common themes between the two presenters, even though on the surface they aren't obviously connected, Deborah Larmour referred to the Annunciation as an example of how God respects our human free will. While the Archangel Gabriel approaches Mary to speak of the power of the Most High overshadowing her, there would have been no conception of Jesus in his mother's womb without her free and total consent.

God is not a manipulator, unlike the world of spiritualism from which Noonan had been rescued. The Annunciation similarly shows men, too, how to relate to women. Deborah's presentation gave me an idea, namely that God is not a cosmic rapist.

I attended the conference with one of my teenage daughters. Initially, there was some doubt about whether I would be admitted, since it was a women's conference. Soon, however, I was told, “that's ok, you're a priest.” So I registered. Just kidding, of course, about the priest not being like other men, because very soon after the conference started, I was asked to lead a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel for spiritual protection of all those in the assembly. That is a task for the man in any man, protection of one's family. And like the proverbial yeast in the dough, a little going a long way, one man representing Christ and the Church can indeed pray for the protection of an entire group.

If I had the opportunity to speak to the Women of Hope registrants, I would have spoken along the lines of the hope that is found in scripture and in prayer. In scripture, such as Paul's letter to the Colossians, “For the hope... which you have heard in the word of the truth of the gospel.” In prayer, such as the one sentence prayer from the Eucharist service of the East, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “Glory to you, Christ our God, our hope, glory be to you.”

Pope Benedict XVI, of course, turned that one word into an entire book, In Hope We are Saved. In the prayer quoted, the starting point is an act of will, that I glorify God, a choice I am free to make and rejoice in making. Jesus is the anointed one, anticipated in earlier prophecies about the Christ; and in the humanity he receives from Mary, he is also fully and completely God, therefore capable in any scenario of being our true and trustworthy hope. As Pope Benedict XVI mentioned, while many things can be transmitted from one generation to its successors, hope must be claimed and incorporated anew by a decisive act of will in every time and place and culture. One manner in which to be women of hope in succession of generations, as Deborah Larmour explained, is to cooperate with God in the generation of new life; practically speaking, shun contraception and learn natural family planning, in an attitude towards one's marital relationship that is “free, faithful, total, and fruitful.”

Now that I have been at a Christian women's conference, where there is one man to a hundred women, I imagine what would go over well would be a poetry reading to the group. I tell young men that whenever I translate Ukrainian poems into English and post them on Facebook, the majority of the “likes” come from women, and so they develop their poetry skills if they are eligible bachelors. Just kidding, again, but here are a few poems for such an audience. The first is my translation into English of a Ukrainian language poem, and the second is one that I have written.

Pro-Life Poem from the Russo-Ukrainian War
By Roman Koliada
Translated by Jeffrey D. Stephaniuk

Two Hearts
Dear son,
There’s something you should know
Every mother has more than one heart
Including yours within me
Long before you entered this world
It was beating within my being
Even now I hear the rapid tapping of your heart
As you run to avoid being silenced
By bursts of machine gun fire and the volley of shells
My daily prayer is to the Lord
That they never succeed in depriving me
Or the rest of the world
Of this most beautiful sound
May your heart still beat
May you remain alive
Dear husband,
There’s something you should know
I now have two hearts
One is mine and one our little child
I’ve heard that in the pre-born
The heart begins to beat at five weeks
I’ve seen for myself on ultrasound
How rapidly it trembles
You know what they say
Prayer begins in the heart
Rest assured that constantly for you
Two hearts are at prayer “for your health”
Both of us await your return
And when night has fallen
But we cannot fall asleep
We both listen to the darkness
And beseech the Heavens
May your heart still beat
May you remain alive
Dear father,
Do you remember when you taught me
How to take my pulse?
I realized then that my heart
Beats quicker than your own
And when you gave me a hug
I heard that sound within your chest
“Took-took, took-took”
So constant and so strong...
This evening I prayed to God
For the war to end
You can’t imagine how much I miss you, daddy
May your heart still beat
May you remain alive
Next, here is a poem of mine:

Ring in a Fire

Like a ring in a fire
Returned to the source of its forging
Cast in a rage as intense as the flames and the burn
I thought there was nothing left to do except
Make a gesture of disbanding
By yanking the ring off my hand
To be thrown in the fire in a fit of regret
Incinerate the thing if it could
While the wood spit sparks in the heat
From tongues that startle and hiss in gibberish
As if in incantation to confuse me in my yearning
That she never ever entered my life
To begin with
Or that I ever called her my precious

She brought the fire to the ring
When her precious could not be brought to the flame
Hope beyond hope that what exists against will
Could be cast back into darkness and depths
Vanish at the sight of unbearable anger and rage
Disintegrate the thing if it could
No matter how innocent the ring
Yet even when she pretended
All was abstraction
The intangible held a grip of palpable pain
She was wrong all along
And the fire they said was redemption
From tongues that startle and hiss in gibberish
Was fuelled by their own hatred and lust
Their own discontented sacrifice

I stare at the ring in the fire
Beyond an oppressive ocean of heat
Within reach but beyond reach
Overwhelming primordial traits
Danger in just the right combination
Hostile tongues that startle and hiss in gibberish
Inhospitable to the thriving of life
So I wait by the grate for the embers to cool
Imagine the pain subside too
But the nature of one is not linked
To the fate of the other
I need both water and grace
It’s not that I look for the good with the bad
Rummage for treasure in chaff
But rather my own hope founded on Hope
New life will arise from this death
I close my eyes as I wait
And am met by a sight that was there all along
A silhouette of the sun
Or better, a halo
Ablaze like a ring in a fire

Like a ring in a fire
That makes all things new
Fire of destruction now fire of life
With its colours of orange and blue
And its hues and its hews that taper and bristle
And reach for the sky in a flicker
There’s a reason the crucible is a test
To prove the strength of a metal
The worth of one’s will and the value of sacrifice
And the true from the fraud in the flames
So I poured through the ash with a sifter for flour
In search of the ring from the fire
Desperate once more though not to throw but to find
A defence against tongues that startle and hiss in gibberish
The ring still held meaning after all
And still bound me to her and her hurt
While the silt seemed like flour for bread
A new life to arise from the flames
These ashen complexions as bodies again

There were a few mothers with little children at this conference, and it would have been quite the experience to lead the entire hall in singing a lullaby to put the little guys to sleep. There is a song I use as a lullaby with my grandchildren. On one occasion it had quite the unexpected consequence. It made my grandson, Benjamin, cry. “When I was a little bitty baby,” is the beginning of this popular song, “My mama would rock me in the cradle.” Once when Benjamin was two, or as our girls used to say, “remember a long time ago when I was two,” and they'd be three or four years old recalling this memory; so a long time ago when Benjamin was two – he's three now- his mother, my daughter (and I still enjoy the sound of that: my daughter now a mother to these twins, Benjamin and Abigail!), she had left them in our care and had gone to take a shift at work.

I was holding Benjamin, rocking him and singing. “Do you like this song,” I asked him. I could see his expression was changing and he was bothered by something. “No,” he exclaimed, gasping for breath the way children do when they are crying. “Why not?” I asked, expecting him to say I didn't sing well. But instead he blurted out, “Mama,” and cried some more. He kept that up for maybe ten minutes.

“You miss your mama?”

“Yes” came the reply, sobbing, in his high octave voice.

Contrary to that song about the ideal country song that sings about mama and trains and prison, I learned what could happen when you sing about mama to a little child who misses his mother. Benjamin has since grown up by a year and a half, and now sings that song with me without bursting into tears.

In Ukrainian music and poetry, there is a song that resonates with this sentiment that stirred within my little grandson. It was written two hundred years ago by Taras Shevchenko, considered to be the Robbie Burns of Ukraine. In the song, an old man, melancholy due to some unspecified heartache, makes a request of a musician, a wandering bard. “Play a song for me, old man,” he says, “the kind that I remember from my childhood. I'll give you whatever you want, money or wine, whatever your heart desires.”
The poem continues with a description of his depression, “a fierce pain that threatens to break my heart.” Then he reveals the remedy he seeks, an evocation through music of that relationship he had with his own dear mother: “Play the kind of songs that my mother once tenderly sang to me when she would rock me to sleep.”

Little Benjamin at two years old expressed an honest sentiment that seems to be harboured throughout one's life well into adulthood, a longing to keep or re-establish one's relationship with one's own dead mother. I learned recently of another type of bonding and re-bonding, when a radio program asked callers about memories of reading books aloud and who read aloud to them. Repeatedly, the fondness was for mothers reading to them in their childhood. Here, then, is another way in which a man learns how to treat a woman.

I have some thoughts on the four words Deborah Larmour spoke about, “free, faithful, total, and fruiful.” These words are a summary of the Theology of the Body of Pope St. John Paul II and also are found in Blessed Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae vitae. Incidentally, the four words also appear in their appropriate categories throughout the Mystery of Crowning, or the wedding service of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, among others.

Christianity does not survey sociology or anthropology to determine what its teaching on marriage should be. It doesn't survey how things are or were in exotic cultures, past or present. Instead, we learn about marriage by learning about Christ. Men learn from the cross, then, how to be men, and how to treat women. Men and women learn about Christian marriage from the life of Christ. He freely gives his life, “no one takes it from me,” as he himself states. Mary freely gives her body at the Annunciation, and Jesus learns from his mother to give his body freely. Jesus is faithful to the end, even with his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Take this cup from me... not my will but yours be done.”

Other examples of faithfulness include the success he has at resisting temptation, both after returning from the desert at the beginning of his ministry, and throughout his life, since the one tempting him left him alone on the expectation that he would try again on some different occasion. Christ gives of himself totally through his suffering, not just pretending to be a human being, but actually as a human being. His death is a complete human death with the usual finality of the end of a life, before his bodily resurrection from the dead.

And Christ's life and death are fruitful. While those who killed him expected his generation and inheritance to end with his death, he initiates his inheritance from the cross itself, even before he dies, when he gives John to Mary as son and Mary to John as Mother. He does not abandon his mother, who now represents the Church, to be alone in the world. John becomes the beginning of the inheritance that in its own manner will be “as numerous as the stars” of the promise made to Abraham.

Jesus knows how to treat his mother, Mary, as woman and as mother, and the Church continues with a place of prominence for her who tangibly offers her intercession and protection, of the type for which Moira Noonan expressed her gratitude to her in her personal life. As she stated in her testimony during the conference, she had “walked away from the protection of the faith and the Church at age 15,” but years later, it was Mary's flesh and blood reality that was “the first glimmer of light in a very dark night.” She describes Mary's role in her return to faith as “a window that opened that day.”

Deborah Larmour spoke to the theme, “Searching for Truth.” At one point she mentioned a story that was addressed to everyone, but which I singularly noticed. Earlier that morning she had been at a prayer service and reception in Saskatoon for the Papal Nuncio to Canada, the Ambassador of the Holy See, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi. Asking about where all the young men were, Archbishop Bonazzi commented that “our young men need to wake up.” Speaking to a room full of women of various ages, Deborah made the remark that “It's best to wake up young men with a kiss.” In this context, she added that “We as women have very special gifts.”

Almost as if a summary of what I had been feeling, and what Moira had also mentioned, Deborah Larmour concluded that her reference to the Papal Nuncio by making a statement about women being the guardians of life and men being the guardians of the guardians: “The heart of a man is tender,” she explained, “and they want to be our heroes, and the heroes of the Church.”