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Saint Mary of Magdala

Saint Mary of Magdela is far more than just one of the Myrrhbearing Women the church remembers on the Third Sunday of Pascha; her life is of such great magnitude that it is referred to as the Primacy of Mary. That Mary of Magdala is venerated in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, several Protestant churches, and even in the Baha’i Faith tradition, speaks of her prominence.

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Please forgive me for the very personal remarks that follow.  This is not about me, I know, but “a boy’s best friend is his mother”.  I can’t extricate myself from her story.  It is also very personal for my mother, and I must tell the story, although it has some dark passages, for it is very much mine to tell.

There are several windows that each open on very different perspectives on who my mother was to me.  She was not a simple person.  When I was a boy my primary view was that she seemed pretty tough.  I think she wanted to toughen me up for life.  I was not great material to work with, but I think she succeeded at least to some degree in that. 

As I think about it, I had it right.  She really was tough, a woman with high principles, a firm sense of what must be done, a burning dedication to duty.  I don’t know how she was formed in this way.  Over my whole lifetime I have known her as a person who did not mess around, who put first things first, who thought for herself, who was highly-organized, decisive and courageous, full of conviction and very positive.  She was not the nervous, anxious, dependent type.  Nor was she a sentimentalist, however much she loved; her love, however, was deep and true. 

She was purposeful and strong-willed, but I do not know her to ever have been intrusive.  She was not a busybody, but strictly minded her own business.  When it came to being a mother of her own children, therefore, she did mean business, and it was not about cuddling and coddling.

Not until my own children were into adulthood did I start calling her “Mom”.  Before that it was always “Mother”, ever since the day when as a six-year-old boy I was whining at her and she exclaimed, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy! Call me Mother!”

I had the general impression in my youth that she was not too pleased with me, and quite rightly.  Much later in life I was astonished when she told me that, to the contrary, it was my affectionate and supportive dad, not she, who doubted I’d ever amount to much.  In the end, Dad was happy that I had my own business.  He was that easily pleased, while she had every confidence in me.  What a winning combination of parents!  

Most people knew Mother as a smiling, engaging person. She had a goofy sense of humor and could be a lot of fun.  She is largely to blame for my getting hooked on Scrabble and making up little jokes.  I recall being horrified once as a boy when she laughed out loud at the antic dancing of a drunken man we passed on the street.  I was so judgmental, but she was fresh and open.  She often surprised me.

She was a tender and competent nurse to her children, and years later, with stalwart bravery, she cared for my dad as he died of a horrible cancer, and then, only three years after that, she did it all over again for her second husband, Sam. 

Now that I speak of her sorrows, sorrows far too great even for her unusual strength, I must mention that in recent years she also bore the deaths of her great granddaughter Joey and her son-in-law Frank.  Both of them were very close and extremely dear to her.  My window on what she went through, along with Dale and Shanna and Kaitlyn, gives me only the least perspective on the magnitude of their grief.

And let me say that for Dale’s dedicated service to our mother through these long years my admiration and gratitude will never be sufficient.  I have no doubt that her reward will be magnificent.

For Mother, the center of her life from childhood on was faith in God, and that’s really the core of this story.  She brought my dad to a life of faith when they started dating, and together they served as medical missionaries in Africa for over twelve years.  That fulfilling chapter of their life ended when they left Africa to see to their teen-aged children’s education in the States.  

The new chapter in suburbia began fairly idyllically, but a few years later Mother’s faith, which seemed so firm up till then, was shaken as it encountered a series of shocks and challenges.  The people closest to her, including myself, were letting her down.  Her staunch labors for us were proving inadequate.  Things were crumbling apart. Her faith had to face questions it was unprepared to answer.  

In a person of deep conviction and commitment the shaking of faith can feel much like a death-sentence, the crushing of one’s very identity and, in fact, it came to a point where in angry desperation Mother attempted to end her life.  When she came back to consciousness in the hospital she said that the first thing she realized was that her faith was gone, lost.

I spent some time alone with her soon after that and saw a side of her I had never seen before.  It was heavily bitter and scornful.  I was stunned, and very sad.

However, never did I see that in her again.  She was not one to hold self-pity, nor to quit after a major defeat, and, anyway, to be resentful was not really her.  She was still upbeat and affectionate. Family things settled down, her children married and gave her grandchildren, and Mother moved forward energetically and positively with her own newly-chosen work. 

She took classes in social work, took in foster children and became involved in assisting unwed mothers. Her devotion and sacrifice for these needy ones was a lasting blessing for them.  My Dad bought a farm, a long-held dream, and they settled there. The children and the grandchildren were there.  It was the family gathering place, just as he always wanted.  Mother’s social outreach continued in this new setting.  Moving past the loss of her childhood faith in God, Mother now attended a Unitarian church and developed an interest in Oriental religions.  My dad stuck with her, although as far as he was concerned he was still a Baptist.  Those were pretty happy years.

They merged into the next chapter with Dad’s illness.  When Dad died in 1991, the dynamic quality of Mother’s character burst forth.  She went to live for a while with people in Vermont that she didn’t even know. Coming back to Connecticut, she fell in love with—and married—Sam Reynolds, who adored her.  (And we all adored Sam.)  Together they built a house next to the farm house. All too soon, their marriage ended with Sam’s repose.  He was indeed blessed to have been granted to finish his days with my mom, and she was very happy with him.  Then she moved to Mexico for a year, making more friends there, of course. 

Not long after this begins the great and final chapter of this traveler’s saga.  Having settled back in the house she and Sam built, she packed up her dog Pepper and drove up to visit us in Central New York.  She was eighty years old.  It was so good to have her with us for a few weeks.  She came with an open heart and mind to share as she might in our Orthodox way of life.  She sat in the room us as we had morning family prayers and she came to church with us on Sunday.  She loved it.

At church Mother happened to mention her interest in oriental religions to the wife of one of our priests.  Thus, Mother was given a book called Christ the Eternal Tao.  In the section called The Gospel of Lao Tzu it reveals Jesus as the embodiment of what ancient Taoism taught.  It presents the Eastern Christian tradition as retaining the experiential spirituality which has mostly been lost in the Western world, but not in the Oriental religions.  In other words, what attracted her to the Oriental religions, and the wisdom there that her childhood faith had not provided, was to be found in Eastern Christianity.

Mother was a reader, and she began to read this book.  As she slowly wended her way back to Connecticut in her little Saturn sedan she was pondering deeply.  Near her destination her thinking crystallized.  She had again united with the truth of her faith.  She stated it out loud:  “Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

Mother did not tell me how Pepper responded, but probably she thought she heard the word “dog” and wagged her tail.

Once back home, Mother entered catechism at the Greek Orthodox Church in Norwich.  On the bright day when she was received as an Orthodox Christian with the name Evangelia (for the Evangelist, Forerunner and Baptist John) my wife—her daughter-in-law—became her godmother.

Mother’s joy in receiving the Orthodox Faith and being a member of its body was exhilarating for me to behold.  She may have been in her eighties but in her enthusiasm and excitement about the Church she was just like many a young convert I have known.  She was reborn.  Now I was not only her son, but also her friend and companion in Christ, and we became very close, one in the Spirit. 

Along the way, Mother and my mother-in-law, Anne, became friends.  Anne was also a widow. She had been partly paralyzed by a stroke and Judith and I had enticed her into coming from Massachusetts to live with us.  After a year she and Mother hatched a plan to live together in a house next to our church, and this they did.  It made their friendship deep and lasting, and, on top of it, it allowed my mother to attend each and every church service.  In the year Mother lived there she became a much beloved grandmother to our parish, friends with one and all.  That was a taste of heaven.

When Anne found a home in Massachusetts Mother again lived with us briefly.  That was more heaven, but she then returned to live at Frank and Dale’s.  I protested, I wanted her to stay, but she had decided.  She found a new Orthodox church in Willimantic, closer to home than the Greek church, and formed a beautiful relationship with Fr. Marc. He has taken good pastoral care of her throughout the years since, for which I am so grateful. 

I believe that Mother’s participation in the Orthodox Way crowned her eighties and nineties, her final years, with faith, joy, peace and growth.  She followed the path of prayer and repentance.  She confessed and communed regularly.   She traveled to holy places for retreats.  Mother exemplified spiritual focus and spiritual warfare  to the very end of her strength.  I am so, so proud of her.

Many, many people have offered me their condolences on her repose, and I have welcomed many hugs. The compassion they express is heart-warming.  I must say, though, I need no consolation at this time.  I feel her joy and her strength in me.

She was with us in the flesh for a long time.  It is those who lived with her, especially, who will feel her physical absence acutely.  I, too, feel the pangs of loss because Mother has gone.  I have tears, to be sure, but I think my tears are not of bereavement, not of emptiness and aching absence, but of a power and a presence.

I am flooded with gratitude. I am gladdened by her happiness.  I am in awe of her dogged labors and outpouring of love and service.  I do not grieve.  Rather, I weep with thankfulness for the life-long noble struggle and the grace-filled repose of Evangelia, my good mother and best friend.  This is for all of us an occasion of solemn triumph. This is the best way to leave this earth.

In her former church, Holy Transfiguration in East Syracuse, New York, this past Sunday, just a few hours after Mother’s release from death, we held a small memorial service for her at the end of the Divine Liturgy.  At a certain moment in that service I acutely felt and saw that she was with us, blessing us from above, radiantly rejoicing.  I suspect she is with us here and now. 

More than that, I believe we have a festal reunion with her to look forward to, a new story without any dark chapters, a story always beginning and without an end. 

Glory to God!

Norman Coppola

(reproduced with permission)

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