It began with an invitation from a cyber friend of mine to join an online photo-sharing group called “People with Icons,” which was inspired by a lovely set of photographs entitled, “Women with Icons,” created by the photographer Jocelyn Mathews. The idea being we would all take a picture of ourselves with an icon of our patron saint and upload it for others to look at. After viewing some touching contributions from my fellow group members, I was inspired to submit something of my own and so I walked upstairs to our prayer corner to find our image of the holy prophetess Anna. Upon approaching the far wall, however, adorned liberally with heavenly reminders of what truly represents the “one thing needful,” I looked her square in the eyes and then not without shame, retreated. I wasn’t yet ready, I discovered, for such a project.
When we were joining the Orthodox Church, my husband and I were told to choose a saint, a patron saint whose name we would take as our own, whose identity we would try our best to emulate. We felt drawn to Saint Simeon and the Prophetess Anna; I liked that they’d met the Christ child simultaneously and it was special to me to have an icon featuring both of them together. These patron saints would pray for us, a concept that was new to me yet intriguing. I was at a loss, however, as to how to form a more intimate relationship with mine in particular. For the past ten years, I had heard St. Anna’s name when I went forward to receive the Eucharist; I closed my nightly prayers with, “through the intercessions of the prophetess Anna” …and all the other patron saints connected with our various family members. I revered her - I believed wholeheartedly in her dedication to all of us on earth trying to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, but at that moment, standing face to face alone in our second story hallway, the idea of posing with her for a photograph such as I would take with my best of friends, my mother or my Aunt, seemed inappropriate. I was long overdue in putting forth a concerted effort to better understand this most pious individual and through that acquired awareness, become more Christ-like. Thus began my mission to both uncover information and then meditate on its relevance to my life. I began to seek a way that I might soften the formality a bit and close the gap between us I had created through a lack of communication. Who are you, Anna? Which of your traits can I imitate and draw strength from? It would be well worth my time to find out.
The most obvious place to start were the Scriptures. In the book of Saint Luke I found the following summarization of Anna’s life:
And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband for seven years from her virginity; and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And coming in at that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38).
When I explain to you what struck me immediately upon combing that passage like a detective searching for clues, you will accurately assess that I am, unfortunately, somewhat pessimistic and in need of a faith infused backbone. At a relatively young age, Saint Anna lost her first and only husband to death. This is beyond significant to me as I waste a lot of energy being afraid of that very scenario, at times to the point of emotional paralysis. “What would I do?” “How would I go on?” I wonder, blinking back tears during a bout of insomnia while watching the chest of my own beloved spouse rise and fall steadily with sleep. Anna was once a wife, as I am a wife. It is probable she loved with the same intensity that I do, the partner whose identity had fused together with her own and whose unexpected absence ripped a throbbing and open wound within her heart. Anna grieved, I am sure, she was most likely nervous about the future but notice that the sorrow was not, by any means, the end of her story.
“Oh Holy Prophetess Anna, you endured my greatest of fears, yet through the grace of God were not crushed and beat down ever thereafter. Please pray to Christ that I might take courage in your resilience and trust with all my soul in the wisdom of His plans.”
It is hard for me to imagine, with all the breeziness and comfort I’ve grown accustomed to, being married to the Church, spending every waking moment suppressing the urge to forget that I am called upon to be perfect, just as God Himself is. Anna prayed, we are told, and fasted with fervor unknown to me. Her unrestrained commitment is like a mirror revealing the chasm between what I currently am and what I could be. But rather than taunting our weaknesses the Prophetess Anna provides a respite from mediocrity, beaming like a lighthouse that leads away from the dangers of blindness and into safety.
“St. Anna, I am tired, so very drained from fighting impulses to lie down and rest, to wallow in self-pity. Teach me, by your example, how to weather the tumultuousness of my passions until at last I find the peace achieved through sacrifice.”
My neighbor is depressed about finances, her moody children, and she and her husband’s strained marriage. And what do I have to offer her? A lot more than I actually give, which is usually a nodding head and a sympathetic expression. It’s always sitting there on the tip of my tongue, the conversation about love—Christ’s love specifically—and how it transforms even the grimmest of situations. But what would she think of me if I unleashed that un-neutral bombshell? I suppose it shouldn’t concern me, and in all actuality should probably spill from my lips because my spirit cannot contain it - my gratitude and joy at having found the sacred pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45, 46). How can unashamed convictions and impartiality walk hand-in-hand? Why am I so timid about openly speaking the Truth? The Prophetess Anna, my holy namesake, was defined by her enthusiasm, her message about God and the imperativeness of repentance that never wavered, never fluctuated, never watered itself down to appease the masses.
“I need words and motivation, I want to share with others what I’ve experienced through the Church in terms of clarity, mercy, and a sense of purpose. You, O Prophetess Anna, were a mouthpiece until your last days on earth for what was and still is the very crux of all creation… for God. May your zeal get under my skin like a splinter that persistently irritates the normal goings on of my daily routine. May I never settle for “good enough” when before me shines your tirelessly impeccable standards so bright that anything less than a total commitment to the Faith I am trusting to save me feels only dull, cloudy, and unsatisfying.”
How fortuitous, don’t you think – that I was linked for all eternity to one whose spiritual muscle’s bulge where mine hang soft and limp and in need of some serious weight bearing? Or is nothing coincidental when it comes to salvation? Here’s the honest truth – I need all the help I can get and praise be to God for the tools He’s set before us including Eucharist, confession, and the earnest intercessions of His saints. Can I afford to take for granted any one of these pulsating lifelines through which nourishment is provided like a cord attaching a baby to the sustenance of his mother, before labor and delivery finally free him from the flesh restricting access to his source for all security and satisfaction? Well there’s a no-brainer…I think not. So how do I proceed in my quest for friendship and closeness with someone who’s journeyed onward from out of this life and into another beyond it? I suppose with her Troparion - the hymn sung in Saint Anna’s honor on her day of commemoration, February 3rd:
In the Temple thou didst embrace as an infant God the Word Who became flesh,/ O glorious Elder Symeon, who didst hold God in thine arms./ And also as a Prophetess the august Anna ascribed praise to Him./ We acclaim you as divine servants of Christ.
I should know this, I should recite it on a regular basis; I should anticipate our Name’s Day instead of scratching my head two days after its passing asking, “H-m-m, now when was that again?” I should maintain an ongoing conversation, sharing my thoughts and insecurities along the way. I should remember that she is watching and witnessing my progression from a spineless observer to what I pray will be a bold and obvious beacon for Christ’s glory. I should remember her utter joy at having met her God incarnate and be stimulated to likewise rejoice. Pray unto God for me, O Holy Saint Anna, well-pleasing to God: for I turn unto thee, who art the speedy helper and intercessor for my soul (antiochian .org).
I’ll have my mother come over to give me a hand, to hold the camera while I position myself in such a way that will visually, artistically represent my forging of a connection with a reality that binds heaven to earth, sinners to saintliness, me to an ancestor who has completed her race and now stands at the finish line compelling me to press onward. I will feel within my grasp the painted wood, a very touchable representation of that which blows my mind if I think about it too logically, instead of mystically or innocently like a child. I will use this opportunity, this invitation as a springboard to dive ever more deeply into the mysteries of the Church, into Her bosom of magnificence and righteousness. I’m a slow yet willing learner who admits to a habit of feet dragging but is now quite good and anxious to get started.
Holy Prophetess Anna, I implore you to bring my burdens, all my baggage and my blunders before the exact same of Son of God that you held with such reverence in your aged arms. Please beseech of Him that my vision be enhanced, that the scales on my eyes be lifted, that I might see you, know you, venerate you, and be wiser, braver, more confident because of it.
Forgive me for not asking this of you sooner.
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