by Katherine Sanders
Back in Edinburgh, we went to the Orthodox Church at the end of a day when churches are open for visitors – my husband has always been an unusual man and as a church architect, we had lots of reasons to go and see this unique place.
We turned up at the small chapel of St Andrew the First-Called in the university area at the end of the day and were shown around by Presbytera Elizabeth Flegg, an ex-gym teacher who was spry, funny and very bright. She insisted that we stay for vespers, since it was already 6pm and that, as they say, was that! The lights were dimmed. The candles were lit. Incense rose with the voices in four-part tunes and I felt at home. I can’t put it any more or less strongly than that. I was home. I was at peace. Here was some deep presence of God in the flickering flames, the constant prayers, the harmony of worship. Afterwards, we descended the steep stone stairs to Archimandrite John (Maitland Moir)’s study for some truly awful coffee. We met a young Canadian couple who had come to their first service in Edinburgh, having arrived for study.
They were part of a vibrant parish in Vancouver, were full of excitement and joy in God and the Orthodox church and very quickly became our good friends. They answered a lot of my questions about the faith, as did Fr John, who would usually be found at home, sitting quietly in an antique hard wooden chair, praying in silence. He never sent me away and in time, we began to sit quietly together. He would whistle a little under his breath, make a little note in his unusual script, using a tiny pencil on some re-used slip of paper, then return to silence. It wasn’t ever a difficult one though and he would merely wait for whatever awful question I had dredged up to surface.
We were both Scots in a predominantly Greek and Cypriot community, so had a way of communicating with economy that seemed to suit us very well.
I am not going to say that my path since then has been straightforward or easy. I found the conflicting demands of different groups within the parish pushed me beyond what I could bear easily – there were many days when I had to leave because my anger had grown so great I couldn’t even pray. Fr John would counsel me to always return, as soon as I could, to hold onto the Jesus Prayer, to pray for those I felt anger towards and most of all, to keep my eye on the cross. If nothing else, to focus on that one thing. It worked, albeit slowly.
I was baptised (fully) within a year, after attending daily vespers and weekly and festal Liturgies (“by far the best way to understand Orthodox theology.. Absorb it and let it wash over you”) and moved out of the flat I shared with my then-boyfriend (now husband). Not many men would accept their girlfriend turning their lives upside down, cope with a radical change in not just my behaviour but my clothing, my cooking, our relations and the rhythm of our life being dictated by church services, but he did.
A few years after my baptism, we were betrothed in a highland chapel with huge icons on the wall, as it is within a castle owned by a Scots-Greek shipping magnate, then married in a tiny Scots collegiate church, surrounded by my friends in the choir and with another Scottish Orthodox priest (Fr John Raffan) who had baptised me and given me my Orthodox name.
It took many years of prayer but in the course of time, he too has been baptised (for four years now) as is our daughter.
He too was converted by attending the services – he came with me and our baby every week, became part of the community and one day quietly announced he would be getting baptised. He had long been an example to me of how a Christian should behave (my temper is still a cross/Podvig) and at last, we were all able to attend the Eucharist as a family.
I have now been Orthodox for twenty years; I cannot imagine my life without the faith of my fathers, as indeed it was once. I have trained as an iconographer for more than half of that time and am currently pursuing a year long project to produce high quality icons of the saints of my country, ones which firmly place them within the fellowship of the better known saints of the Church rather than the folk-art type or amateur ones which are often seen.
I believe that God has guided my steps since childhood, has given me a guardian angel who has steered me away from some of the worst rocks and storms I could so easily have succumbed to, that my saint in heaven – Katherine of Alexandria – is steadfast in helping me continue in prayers even when I am struggling.
My faith does not grant me immunity from the insecurities of modern life, even if to the outside world it seems that I am a painter of ‘medieval’ type icons, I worship in a way that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years, I stay at home and light candles daily – rather, it helps me to endure, knowing that we have ‘no continuing city’ and I will one day God willing find myself in ‘the homeland of my heart’s desire’.