This morning I was reading an interesting article about Michael, the Archangel. The headline read “Call upon the Archangel to stand guard over you . . . at night.” The article pointed out that we are the most vulnerable when we are asleep, unable to protect ourselves from harm. The Archangel Michael can protect us. The information, while interesting, was not all that earth shattering. But reading it brought to mind an unforgettable childhood memory.
As a child around the age of five, I didn’t think much of this particular day, but as an adult, I count it as one of my most cherished memories. On top of that, I now see it as an early childhood experience that shaped my view of God and began to prepare me for the vocation of ministry. But I must begin at the beginning to paint a picture of a precocious, spoiled five year old.
My mother was expecting a new baby, my first sibling. I was all in if the baby was a sister, but for some reason, I loathed the idea of a baby brother, which is exactly what I got. I was NOT happy! I remember it like it was yesterday. Yiayia (my grandmother) broke the news. I stomped my feet and declared that my mother could absolutely not return home with a boy baby!
Going on alongside my childish impertinence, the adults were experiencing a completely different reality. It appeared, in fact, that my baby brother would not come home and that his survival was doubtful. As in many Greek families, my brother’s dangerous situation remained “between us,” which meant my grandmother, my father and my two aunts, Eirene and Koula. At all costs, my mother was not to be told of the seriousness of her new baby’s health. And of course, nothing was to be said in the presence of five-year-old Kalliope, though that made no difference at all because my ears had always been finely attuned to family secrets and whispers. When adults spoke, even in hushed whispers, I heard.
So I knew, at least, that something was amiss, and if I am honest, I have to confess that I was glad I would not be having a brother in my world. Until the next day. As soon as I woke up, Yiayia washed my face, made me brush my teeth, and began to dress me. For reasons I did not yet understand, she was dressed in her church clothes and she pulled out a church dress for me. I knew it wasn’t Sunday, but I did not know that I was about to have a life-altering experience. Now you might think that a five-year-old cannot really understand a life-altering experience. But you would be mistaken. This life-altering experience has been lying in my memories for more than six decades.
Both dressed impeccably, we put on our winter coats and walked across the street and down the block to the bus stop. I was cold, ready for the bus to show up. Of course, I asked where we were going and why we were so dressed up. “Siopi! Min milas tora!” was Yiayia’s response. “Hush! Don’t talk right now!” Sensing the fear and grief in Yiayia’s mood, I sat quietly and didn’t say another word as the bus took us to downtown Birmingham. When we disembarked, I knew exactly where we were going, but I did not know why.
As we walked up the front steps at our Greek Orthodox church, I felt the warmth of the building easing the February cold. I was glad to be warm. I smelled the incense, comforted by the familiar fragrance. And I watched the flames of hundreds of thin white candles placed in a bed of sand as Yiayia lit another one, placed it in the sand, and made her cross. Immediately, I made my cross, too, three times, as I was taught to do.
The church was silent. With dim lights, it had never looked more beautiful. As we walked down the aisle through the nave, I looked to each side to see the stained glass windows. I looked up above the nave into the dome of the church where the icon of Christ, Ruler of All, looked back directly at me in a way that almost seemed eerie. I realize that we are going up the steps to the iconostasis, the wall of doors that each had an icon on them. I had never, ever been up those few steps. It was the place, I thought, where only the priest and the altar boys could be.
But up we went, and stood directly in front of the door bearing the image of Michael the Archangel. Finally, Yiayia spoke. “Your brother is going to die. We have to pray for him to St Michael, the protector of all. You pray too.
And so we did, Yiayia with a deep, reverent, desperate fervency that pleaded for the Archangel to save the baby, offering Saint Michael a promise in return for the baby’s life. As for me, I can only remember having a lump in my throat and trying not to cry. But tears streamed down my cheeks as we finished, and I made my cross three times.
We headed silently back to the bus stop to go home. The house was much quieter than usual, and I stayed quiet too, which was a huge feat for me. I didn’t say anything about not wanting my baby brother for a few days, which proves the cunning wisdom of a five-year-old. I played quietly in my room the rest of the morning, but the mood in the house lifted that very afternoon.
My father and aunts came home not many hours after our church experience and announced with unbridled joy that the baby was going to be fine. Yiayia made her cross three times and gave exuberant thanks to God and St. Michael the Archangel who heard our prayers, gave us a miracle, and saved the baby boy.
My mother did come home with the miracle baby, Andrew Michael (named after the Archangel who saved his life). I stood my ground, refused to hold him or look at him, and sternly pronounced that they should take him back and bring me a sister!
So much for my spiritual act of devotion in the church. On the other hand, isn’t that just the way God works with us? Planting spiritual experiences in us when we hardly take notice, knowing that we will hide them somewhere in our hearts for a later time in our lives.
Thanks be to God.