Today is the eleventh anniversary of the death of my Goddaughter, Mary Allison
Callaway. I did a post about Mary Allison last year, which you can read here. This coming Sunday we’ll be praying the Memorial Prayers for the Dead at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis. I’ll be making kolliva—the boiled wheat that Orthodox Christians share following memorial services. The wheat reminds us of Christ’s words: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24)
Instead of writing new thoughts about Mary today, I’m going to share an article I wrote for our parish newsletter, the Evangelist, back in 1998.
Glory to God For All Things
April 5, 1998, the Sunday of Saint Mary of Egypt, was a special day for Mary Allison Callaway, the twenty-year-old daughter of my close friend, Deborah Callaway, from St. Peter in Jackson, Mississippi. Mary had moved in with our family in January, and was working full time at UT Medical Group Call Center while taking classes at the University of Memphis. She planned to enter Occupational Therapy School next year after she completed her prerequisites. Having been Chrismated in March of 1987 together with the entire congregations of St. Peter (Jackson) and St. John (Memphis), Mary, like many of us, gradually learned about Orthodox traditions which help us in our spiritual growth. And so, eleven years later, she “chose” a patron saint—a fourth century ascetic named Mary of Egypt—who is also my patron.
During the nine months that Mary lived with us, we talked a few times about what the Church Fathers say about death—to live each day “with our death before us.” When my own father passed away in July, she joined with our family as we embraced the 40 days of mourning prescribed by the Orthodox Church for family and friends of the departed. We read the Psalter every day and prayed the Prayer for the Departed, both of which brought much comfort. What we didn’t know was that we would very soon have another opportunity to participate in this period of mourning.
On September 18, Mary was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi. She was on her way to visit her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in Indianola. It was her mother and grandmother’s birthdays. I stayed up most of that night, selecting clothes for her burial and packing up her icons and personal items from her room in our home to take to Jackson the next morning. God’s mercy was poured out on all of us from both St. John and St. Peter over the next three days, as we participated in the preparations for Mary’s burial, in the visitation, the vigil, the Trisagion Prayers and Last Kiss, and finally, on Monday morning, the funeral itself. Both Father John Henderson (St. Peter) and Father John Troy (Memphis) gave homilies that day, which, among other things, addressed the question most often asked when a young person dies: “Why Mary?” Those who were close to Mary knew the answer: “She was ready.” Mary had worked very hard for a brief but intense period of time to turn away from influences in the world which had tried to draw her away from the Kingdom of Heaven. Because of her struggles for godliness, I believe her heart was pure before God, even as St. Mary of Egypt and her Guardian Angel accompanied her before the throne of God. St. Theophan, in a book of letters written to a spiritual daughter who was about Mary’s age, gives a beautiful description of the soul of one who prepares to meet God: [quote abbreviated here]
The state of the soul is accurately reflected by its covering…. If within the soul are holy thoughts and feelings, then its covering is bright…. Allow me to ask you how the saint whose name you bear sees you, especially at present, when she is looking after you more attentively, because you turn to her more frequently? How does your guardian angel see you, and the Lord Himself?... How they see you in what you are in fact. For I cannot imagine that you are viewed from heaven as murky or gloomy…. You have a bright appearance. My sincere wish is that you always be that way, so that the inhabitants of heaven see you as being bright. Then from this life you will go directly to them…. What better example is there of a soul so bright than when it is Christian, pure I conscience and devoted to the Lord? When the conscience is pure, the fear of God fills the soul and keeps it inviolable. Then the Lord Himself, Who is everywhere and fills all things, visits that soul, and it becomes a light and shines like a small star.
I miss Mary very much. I miss her bubbly enthusiasm and her beautiful smile. I miss our late night talks. Most of all, I miss her presence in our home, where she was like a sister to my own children. I think that Father Bill will never forget the joy of her daily evening ritual before bedtime. If she could find Jason and Beth, she would bring them along with her and stand, smiling, in front of him and say, “May we have a blessing?” And after his blessing, she always wanted a “group hug” . . . . bringing our family together for a kiss of peace most evenings. Thank God for Mary, and the time God “loaned” her to our family.
So what about the pain? Yes, it’s still there . . . but rather than looking for ways to escape the pain, it seems that God grants us consolation through our suffering. During the final days before my father’s death this summer, I read a book by Matthew “the Poor,” who lived in the Monastery of St. Macarius in the desert in the late 1940s through the 1970s. The Communion of Love is a collection of his writings which was published in 1984. It is from one of these essays that I found some of the answers for which my soul hungered—specifically from his chapter, “Gethsemane and the Problem of Suffering.”
. . .there is no meeting more meaningful than that which takes place in the sharing of suffering, unless it be in the sharing of death itself when we touch immortality. The suffering that oppresses us in this life, whether in body or in spirit, was plumbed to the depths by Jesus . . . . it was in Gethsemane that Jesus made the irrevocable decision to accept the shame of humanity . . . . We meet together in Gethsemane and with that the problem of suffering, which has bowed our back and crushed our soul, comes to an end forever…. All you who suffer, be comforted, for your pain is no longer a result of sin, but of participation in love and in the sufferings of Gethsemane. All you who sorrow and weep, rejoice, for your grief is not unto death; in the sorrow of Christ it is reserved for the resurrection.
God’s grace was again abundant a few weeks after Mary’s death, as women from several different parishes gathered in Florence, Mississippi, for a retreat at which Mother Nektaria from St. Paul Skete in Memphis was the speaker. On Saturday morning we gathered at Twin Lakes Lodge to join Mother in an Akathist Payer, “Glory to God For All Things.” It is a hymn of praise written by a Russian priest, Gregory Petrov, while he was in prison camp in 1940, shortly before his death. The title is from the words of St. John Chrysostom as he was dying in exile. It is a “song of praise from amidst the most terrible sufferings.” I’ll close with a few lines from this beautiful hymn, which brings comfort to those who suffer:
In the throes of sorrow and suffering, you bring peace, you bring unexpected consolation. You are the comforter. You are the love which watches over and heals us. To you we sing the song: Alleluia!
Glory to You, curing affliction and emptiness with the healing flow of time.
Glory to You, no loss is irreparable in you, give of eternal life to all.
Glory to You, promising us the longed for meeting with our loved ones who have died.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age!