The first peer-reviewed academic publication I authored was a chapter in a collection, Via Crucis, in memory of J.E. Cross edited by Tom Hall, a professor of mine, with assistance from Charles Wright and Tom Hill, my dissertation director and his dissertation director respectively. Thus was I mentored into an extended academic family of the old school, one rich in source study and aspects of philology and paleography in particular.
My article was on “Gildas and Glastonbury,” and I thought of it today as I served as third Deacon at St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Mayfield PA, a Church with its own rich stories from the past up-valley in Pennsylvania’s northeastern coal region, and its rich living traditions.
That article was based on my M.A. thesis in the Early British Studies program at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, supervised by D.P. Kirby in the History Department with tutoring also from Marged Haycock in early Welsh studies and Jeffrey Davies in archaeology, among others. That time spent in Wales studying early Christianity and saints in Britain and visiting the places associated with them was, unknowingly at the time, also part of my path to Orthodox Christianity, a pilgrimage before I knew I was a pilgrim.
In the Cathedral this morning, Archpriest John Sorochka, our Dean, gave an inspiring homily on the dedication of the Myrrh-bearing women, asking us if we today will choose to have such conviction to nurture and preserve our faith.
With them commemorated on this third Sunday of Pascha each year is St. Joseph of Arimathea.
He helped make arrangements for Jesus’ burial despite the hostility of the religious establishment in corrupt collusion with the political powers of the day.
But he is also known to tradition in England’s West Country as the apostle to Britain. Early Church tradition has other early apostles to Britain as well, including St. Aristobulus of the Seventy, and the Apostle Simon Zelotes. And various traditions and legends credit other early biblical figures with bringing Christianity to the western isles of Europe as well. A branch from a blooming bush descended from his staff, according to English tradition, is still brought at Christmas time to the English monarch’s table.
One relatively early source is the Celtic St. Gildas, who in Britain wrote in the sixth century of how Christianity had come to Britain at (depending on how his Latin is read) a very early date, only several years after Jesus’ Crucifiction, Resurrection and Ascension. These traditions became associated in legend with Glastonbury. Hence the title of my article.
Suffice it to say that there is quite a complex of legends in the Glastonbury landscape, with perhaps more questions than answers, but a landscape of mystery and faith in which the Arthurian legends are also embedded. My article made the case that an early date for Christianity in Britain at large and the West Country in particular was completely possible as indicated by recent archaeological interpretations of Roman British remains, among other evidence including Gildas’ text.
By coincidence that was meaningful, the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women and Joseph of Arimathea was also the day on which Matushka Olga and I married, in the small old Russian Orthodox Cathedral near downtown Chicago. Holy Trinity Cathedral had been designed by the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan in beautiful Russian style. St. John Kochurev of Chicago, the first priest-martyr of the Bolshevik Revolution, had helped to oversee the construction.
So many strands came together that day of our wedding. There was the rich tradition of Orthodox Christianity, to which I had converted a few years before on a torturous but ultimately unworthily blessed path, thanks to God’s grace. There was the Russian Orthodoxy of my wife’s background, into which I entered specifically, connecting with my love of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s writings since I had been in high school.
It was the first Orthodox Church into which I had wandered several years earlier, when I was asked if I needed a wife, prophetically it seems now, by the wife of the senior priest, Fr. Sergei Garklavs, himself keeper of the famed Tikhvin icon in its exile from Communist Russia. His son would be my witness at the wedding.
Then there was the connection of the temple at which the wedding occurred to Louis Sullivan and Chicago architecture, a meaningful link for me as a former writer on historic architecture and planning for the Chicago Sun-Times, and a native of the city, with deep roots there, who loved its history.
There was the presence of many friends from different parts of our past, including Jerry Lewis, a Native American Potawatomi elder and mentor to me, with an interest in Russian culture himself, who had helped me to understand the Native history of my region and a lot of practical aspects of life, even as I traveled towards a Russian Orthodox spiritual tradition itself rich with Indigenous American cultural engagements in Alaska.
The ringing bells of the cathedral kept on for a long time at what was to be the start of the ceremony, as we awaited my elderly mother’s arrival. Our Swedish neighbor Leif Olson, whom I could always reach at the last Swedish deli hangout in my mom’s old neighborhood of Andersonville where she had grown up on a farm in the city, was driving. He picked her up typically very late, then sped recklessly through the city streets like a last-minute Viking.
They roared up to the doors, and then my Bride and I were crowned in the Orthodox ceremony, circling with the priest, symbolizing our marriage in Christ. The ancient Christian rites, not contractual but covenental, with the iconography and chanting, evoked the living tradition of the faith continuous from apostolic times. That faith rooted in my family back into pre-Schism days in England and around the Baltic, and perhaps to St. Joseph of Arimathea among others. I am not a skeptic about the mystery of Orthodox Christian faith tradition that ultimately must be experienced.
A while before Fr. John at that Cathedral married us, he had counseled us by asking, “what is the most important thing in a marriage?” I said love. Matushka said respect. He said, “No you’re both wrong! It’s commitment.”
So it is, just as in the account of the Myrrh-bearing Women and St. Joseph of Arimathea. In our mission’s Bible Study reading the Epistles of the New Testament this year in light of the Church Fathers, we have discussed the Apostle John’s epistolary emphasis on how we as Christians must “love in truth.” That truth is our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” There lies our commitment, our conviction, our faith, and the goal and source of our love.
Fast forward to this morning. At the end of the service, “many years” was song in Slavonic for us and for another couple, Deacon Michael and Matushka Masha Pavuk, celebrating their anniversary also. It was like an echo of the same song from a movie that I had loved long before becoming Orthodox, The Deer Hunter, with its long Russian wedding scene. But now this was real, and I was in it, part of the story, itself connected now to the Story of stories. So the tradition of the Myrrh-bearing women and St. Joseph of Arimathea, their conviction and spreading of the Gospel, is real as we live it and join them, unworthily, through God’s grace.