FAITH: Chiaroscuro by Susan Cushman

Chiaroscuro by Susan Cushman

Shimmer and Shadow

How a spiritual expat from the “Christ-haunted South” found healing through art and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Susan Cushman

Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s and ’60s, I was always attracted to powerful religious experiences.  From my childhood years in the Presbyterian Church, through my involvement with religious movements on college campuses, and finally the Jesus freak hippies that formed a church in my first apartment, I finally landed within the walls of the ancient Orthodox Christian Church in the 1980s.  It is no small thing to leave one’s religious upbringing, especially in the South, for something as foreign as Easter Orthodoxy.  With this conversion came lots of changes, and the process continues today.

Head Coverings and Nuns

First I changed my name.  I chose Mary of Egypt as my patron saint early in my conversion, changing my name from Susan to “Marye,” and adding the “e” for Egypt, a way of distinguishing her from Mary the Mother of God and other saints who shared her name.  I began signing all my correspondence, “forgive me, Marye, the sinner,” and naively used “sinfulmarye” as part of my original email address.  You can imagine the spam that hit my in-box.

My husband had become a priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Church, and so, to add to the peculiarity of my new nomenclature, I started using the church’s traditional title for a priest’s wife – Khouriya – introducing myself in church circles and taking communion as Knouriya Marye.

Then I started covering my head in church.  While head coverings are common in countries where Orthodoxy is indigenous, they’re rare in America, especially in the South, even in our Orthodox churches.  But the custom was cropping up in some convert parishes, and soon a half-dozen or so women at Memphis’s Saint John Orthodox Church were covering their heads during worship.  I’m sure my close friends and family were wondering where it would all lead.

And then I met the nuns.

Everything about Holy Dormition Monastery reflected a high level of care and attention to detail.  The grounds were meticulously maintained, mostly by the nuns themselves, with some help from visitors.  On one of my visits I asked if I could help clean the chapel.  The nun assigned to the task showed me how to clean the iconostasis, the icons themselves, and some of the altarware used during services.  We cleaned the windows, dusted the chairs, and lifted the oriental rugs to clean underneath them before laying them flat and vacuuming them, with special attention to straightening out the fringe on the ends.

“So, how often do you do such a thorough cleaning in here?” I asked, thinking this must have been a spring cleaning of sorts.

She looked at me as though she hadn’t quite heard me.  “Every Saturday.”

The nuns didn’t wait for the house of the Lord to get dirty before cleaning it.  They kept it clean always, the way we should care for our souls.

The same nuns who had been busy cleaning and gardening and cooking and sewing vestments and painting icons and welcoming visitors during the day quickly found their way into the chapel at the sound of the wooden hammer rhythmically beating on the semantron – the gong-like instrument that called us to prayer – and the ringing of the bells before the evening service.  When I entered the darkened nave, my eyes adjusted slowly to the candlelight, and my other senses came alive.  All around was the sweet pungency of incense.  As I took in the shimmering gold leaf of the icons, I realized the nuns were singing, beautiful Romanian melodies whose words I couldn’t understand but whose sense I somehow felt.  After asking a blessing from the abbess, the nuns took turns at the reader’s stand.  The ones who weren’t chanting often prostrated themselves, rolling gracefully into little black balls on their knees for long periods of time, their faces to the floor.

The first time I heard them sing, I felt like Prince Vladimir’s envoys to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople near the end of the tenth century must have felt.  They had been sent to find a religion that Vladimir could embrace and offer to the people of Russia.  After visiting the great cathedral, they reported, “We didn’t know whether we were in Heaven or on Earth.”  Although I had been Orthodox for six years before my first visit to a monastery, my experience of Orthodox worship up until then had been limited, for the most part, to my convert parish, which was still learning the ways of this ancient religion.  The nuns at the monastery had grown up with the Orthodox faith – it flowed through them organically.  They sounded like angels.  Especially Mother Gabriella, whom I often refer to as simply, “Mother.”

I fell in love with Mother the first time I met her.  This beautiful Romanian nun was about my age, and we had both married when we were only nineteen.  But she married Jesus.  Thirty years later she found herself serving as abbess of an active monastery that kept the traditional schedule of more than six hours of church services daily, while welcoming Orthodox clergy and hierarchs on a regular basis, serving dinner for up to a hundred guests most Sundays, maintaining a cemetery, a vegetable garden, a vestment-sewing business, an icon studio, and caring for visitors in its guest house year-round.  In the midst of this busy schedule, Mother always took time to meet with her spiritual children from the outside world.  She took me on; and, as I became a student of iconography in the monastery’s classes taught by Russian iconographers, Mother Gabriella’s guidance never wavered.

Painting Icons: Writing the Lives of the Saints in Colors

Iconography is spiritual work.  It involves adherence to ancient canons regarding style, content, and even the choice of colors for the various subjects illustrated.  After my first three workshops, I became frustrated with the harshness of the Russian instructors, so with Mother’s blessing I traveled to numerous other places to study under iconographers from Greece and the United States.  Eventually, I found my way back to the monastery to take a class under one of the Romanian nuns.  For the next few years I explored a variety of these styles, always using egg tempera and gold leaf.

I painted dozens of icons over the next several years, and even began doing commissioned pieces, giving lectures on iconography, leading workshops at my church, and teaching classes in my studio at home.  Iconography opened the door for me to find my way back to art – especially to writing.  Or maybe I should say it was a way for me to come in the back door to art.  As a spiritual discipline, it was looked upon favorably by the church and, more importantly, by my pastor and my husband, both of whom I still desperately wanted to please.  It would be a few more years before I would take the next step towards self-realization as an artist.  But first, I had more work to do on my wounded psyche.

Wisdom from a Spiritual Mother

It was the last day of my pilgrimage, and Mother had asked me to wait for her after lunch, on a bench under a tree that overlooked the vegetable garden.  I always anticipated these talks with a mixture of anxiety and hope, as one might feel before a surgical procedure that held potential for great healing.

I sat on the bench, admiring the beauty of the sloping grounds, surrounded by deep woods which formed a protective border around the back of the monastery property.  This was Michigan, and the pleasant breeze held none of the stifling heat of summer in the South.  The Mother of God flower garden was in full bloom, and the vegetable garden was at its peak.  As I waited for Mother to join me, I thought about what I would say to her this time. . . which struggles I would place in the light of her compassionate wisdom.  She knew me well, having been my guide through various stages of my (ongoing) recovery from sexual abuse, eating disorders, and various addictive behaviors.  She was always a safe place for me to land with my anger, especially when it was directed at the church and its hierarchy.  Yes, this spiritual home that I had found after my seventeen-year journey wasn’t perfect.  It was filled with broken people, just like me.  But my experiences growing up with abuse and not finding safety even within the walls of the church had left me in a messy and continuing battle with forgiveness.

Just as I was forming these thoughts for my talk with Mother, I noticed one of the nuns pulling weeds in the garden.  This struck me as odd, because I knew they were excused from physical labor on Sundays, other than the necessary tasks of preparing meals and cleaning rooms in the guest house for incoming visitors.  Bent over in her long black habit which covered every inch of her skin other than her face and hands, the nun labored meticulously, her works – and her very identity – hidden from the world’s view.  It was only when she turned and began walking up the hill toward the bench where I was sitting that I recognized her.  Yes, the abbess of the monastery was pulling weeds in the vegetable garden.  She approached me with a smile and sat beside me under the shade tree, placing the weeds on the ground at her feet to take care of later.  I think she would have sat there silently for a long while if I hadn’t hurried the conversation.

“So, how’s your arthritis?”

“Thank God.  It’s not too bad today.  Some of the sisters have had more pain with the cleanup work after last month’s storm.”

The day before I had seen an elderly nun driving a tractor, hauling broken tree limbs and other debris to the back of the property.  I felt so bad for her that I offered to help, but after an hour or two, I was worn out and returned to the guest house to rest up for the evening’s four-hour church service.  But the old nun kept working right up until the bell rang for Vigil, when she climbed down from the tractor and headed into the chapel and approached the reader’s stand for her shift as chanter.

“What’s that?” Mother asked, pointing to the book in my lap that I had discovered in the monastery bookstore earlier in the week.

“It’s Father Webber’s new book, The Steps of Transformation.  You know it?”

She nodded.  “I think it does a good job of putting the Twelve Steps into an Orthodox framework.  You finished or just starting?”

“Started it just since I’ve been here.  It’s. . . helpful.  But, you know, as far as I’ve come in healing my lifelong wounds – through the sacraments and prayer and self-help books – it seems like I’ve still got an itch I can’t quite scratch.  I was wondering. . . do you think therapy would help?”

Mather was silent for a minute before speaking.  She often did this, pausing to finger the knots in her prayer rope.

“It might, but the thing you have to be careful about with modern-day psychology is the temptation to think you can fix everything in this life.  Some things might not get completely healed this side of Heaven.  Maybe that itch is there to remind you that God’s grace is perfected in our weakness.  It’s fine to seek healing, but we also have to learn to live with brokenness.”

The Middle Way: Finding Balance

Mother had watched my spiritual metamorphosis from “Khouriya Marye” with my monastic yearnings for several years, back to “Susan,” as I reclaimed my given name and focused my energies on finding balance.

After about five years of what some of my friends called my “nun phase,” I took off my head covering and embraced my Southern roots.  Manicures, make-up, and jewelry returned to my arsenal, and my long-neglected hair again received layered haircuts and blond highlights.  The “new me” wasn’t as glamorous as some of my Arab-American girlfriends, but I was making a move towards the center, and it began to feel good.

Soon after that visit I was asked to speak at a women’s retreat hosted by an Orthodox parish in Austin, Texas, I chose as my topic, “The Middle Way: Finding Balance in Our Lives.”

One of the talks I gave at the retreat was titled, “Women Saints Who Found the Middle Way.”  Instead of recounting stories from the lives of saints who had lived in extreme poverty or who had experienced brutal martyrdoms while trying the everyday business of getting meals for their families, caring for the sick, and burying the dead.  Rather than sharing the amazing but bizarre life of my own patron, Saint Mary of Egypt, I chose to speak of Saint Julianna the Merciful and Salome the Myrrhbearer, encouraging my listeners to find joy in living more conventional lives.

As John Maximovitch, the contemporary Russian Orthodox saint, said: “For all the ‘mysticism’ of our Orthodox Church that is found in the lives of the saints and the writings of the Holy Fathers, the truly Orthodox person always has both feet on the ground, facing whatever situation is right in front of him.  It is in accepting given situations, which requires a loving heart, that one encounters God.”

So there I stood with this group of Orthodox women beside a river on a beautiful ranch just outside Austin, trying to keep my feet firmly planted.  As I returned to Memphis, refreshed by my encounters with my new friends in Texas, I found another group of women waiting to guide the next steps of my journey.

Strong Women of Passion

In October of 2006 I attended the Southern Festival of Books at the Cook Convention Center, just a few minutes from my home in midtown Memphis.  The program boasted a few of my favorite authors, especially Cassandra King, whose book, The Sunday Wife, had begun to soften the hard layers with which I had adorned my public persona.  Meeting King, sharing my story with her, and having her write in my copy of her book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is,” were defining moments for me.  I loved her even more after I read her essay, “The Making of a Preacher’s Wife,” in the first volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality.  She described her struggle – “balancing a Southern Belle, good-little-girl persona with that of an artsy wannabe who smoked cigarettes and dreamed of being a writer.”  And she wrote candidly about her years as a minister’s wife, during which she “wrote devotionals and religious poems and church pageants, not out of devotion or true piety, but to please and impress others.”  Finally she “went underground” and wrote a novel about a preacher’s wife who questions her life on many levels, stating that “the writing of it was my salvation.”

As I listened to King and the other women on the panel for All Out of Faith, my heart was beating so loudly in my chest that I was afraid everyone in the room could hear it.  On the inside flap of the book’s cover, I read these words: “The South is often considered patriarchal, but as these writers show, Southern culture has always reserved a special place for strong women of passion.”  That’s me, I thought.  And in the Afterword, the book’s editors, Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, wrote about how “spirituality is not removed from ordinary life but infuses it,” and about the need to “go inside myself, below the roles I’d taken on as layers.”  Yes.

During the festival I also met Lee Smith, who was reading from her latest work, On Agate Hill, and the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, who paints a vivid picture of her own take on womanhood and spirituality in her poetry.  She was reading from her latest book of poems, Tender Hooks.  My favorite poem in that book is “Waiting for the Heart to Moderate,” in which she describes what it feels like to be “all edges, on tender hooks” at every stage of a woman’s life and to still feel the music “booming in her breastbone.”  I’m much older than Beth Ann, but I still hear that music, and like her, in my own efforts “to free it,” I also worry that I “might do something stupid.”  But maybe my middle-aged heart is finally learning to moderate.

As the festival ended, I found myself thinking, where have these women been all my life?  I hurried home with my autographed treasures and poured myself into the strong but tender female wisdom between the pages of their works.  I rediscovered Sue Monk Kidd’s writing, especially The Dance of the Dissident Daughter.  And while my Orthodox embrace of the Mother of God differs from Kidd’s approach to the “feminine imagery of the Divine,” I benefited greatly from her wisdom concerning Favored Daughters who “carry the wound of feminine inferiority,” trying to make up for it by setting “perfectionist standards: A thin body, happy children an impressive speech, and a perfectly written article.”

Writing My Way to Wholeness

Or maybe a perfectly crafted book.  Three short months after my encounter with these strong women of faith, I completed a novel.  But it was a thinly veiled attempt at hiding my truth in the lives of the fictional characters I invented.  And since I had an agenda, the characters weren’t free to chase the creative rabbit trails they longed to pursue.  So I laid them gently on a shelf (to be resurrected later) and I began to write my stories and submit them to literary journals and magazines.  In just over a year I had seven personal essays published, so I strapped on my courage and began the work that had begged for an audience from the beginning – a memoir.  A year later I realized I wasn’t ready to go public with all aspects of my history, so I abandoned the memoir and returned to fiction.  My current novel-in-progress features three strong women of passion as its protagonists.  I don’t know if the writing of it will be my salvation, but it is, at a minimum, an effort towards wholeness.

As the late Madeleine L’Engle said: “Until we have been healed, we do not know what wholeness is: the discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, or write, is an effort towards wholeness.  The important thing is to remember that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us and which we must humbly serve, and in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.”

Learning to serve the gift through writing and painting is bringing wondrous newness into my life every day.  Once it surfaced in an essay about how anger blocked me from painting icons, and how the beach, a dream, and a soft-rock pop song helped me get unblocked.  At other times that newness has shown up to cheer me on as I embrace the darker aspects of my Mississippi childhood by laying down difficult chapters of my novel-in-progress.  Sometimes I feel its presence during the sacrament of confession, when I’ve been up all night facing down my demons as I write, often chasing them with vodka or wine.  Maybe my brokenness, like the egg yolks that I use to make tempera paint for my icons – themselves a form of life interrupted – is part of my offering to God.


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