Walking Straight Through Crooked Ways: Living Witnesses of Christ

by Sue Talley

Spring/Summer 1997

   There is, of course, a danger that the following piece will be misunderstood. I am willing to accept that possibility, although I hope you will also read this "prologue".

   By God's grace and no merit of my own, I am an Orthodox Christian. Many people contributed to my faith. It is those people to whom I shall always owe a debt I can never repay for whom I write this meditation.

   Please forgive my boldness, but I am very much concerned that some of us who have joined the Church through what we sometimes proudly feel is our own choice bring with us attitudes that do not represent the Orthodox tradition, as I understand it.

   When I was fourteen and Protestant, I asked my Russian piano teacher, Miss Galina Michniuk, with some anxiety, whether or not she believed salvation was possible for non-Orthodox people, of whom, of course, I was then one. I believe if she had said, "No," it might have ended my interest in the Orthodox Church. (I believe some people would have said, "No.") Instead, after listening to God for a moment, she said, "Dear, last week the father of one of my students died, with the Holy Name of Jesus on his lips. He was not Orthodox."

   I have never forgotten her words. She was a very Orthodox lady, as many of her friends could tell you, perhaps with a smile. She deviated as little as possible from the Tradition. But she also represented a tradition passed on to the Orthodox Church in America--the tradition of the Russian Religious Renaissance. There was, and remains, in this tradition, a kindness, a lack of rigidity and judgement of Christians outside the visible Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. There was a longing not to exclude, but to include--to influence not by argument, not by pointing out the flaws of other theologies, but by sharing and acting Orthodoxy with love.

   To my way of thinking--and I stress that it is certainly not mine alone--that kind of love is a powerful influence.

   Not only as countries, but as groups, we seem to be in retreat, in fear that our God-given convictions may be swallowed up in a homogenized religion, something which, upon close examination, looks very much like Antichrist. Such a development would be sharply opposed to the faith of the heart and to Orthodox teaching--which, however, encourages each of us to think of him/herself in first position among sinners--and rightly so.

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A Parable for Peace

by Sue Talley

This is a double portrait--
a diptych of two true ladies,
one from Russia,
one from Hungary.
In more than geography they are miles apart--
even death has not separated their spirits.

I was a young pianist with a soul of wax
and these were and are my teachers.
One did things reverently the Russian way,
one in the great Hungarian tradition.

But not only did they teach my fingers to play
and my soul to respond to music
but they taught my heart to respond to God.

Miss Galina sat on boxes and crates
and from her small salary, gave us treats
and free lessons in drawing and painting.
Her piano lessons were painful at times,
But as practical as they were Russian.

In the corner of her room was an icon,
A portrait of yet another lady:
Mary, Virgin and Mother.
A candle burned before Her and Her royal Son.
It was the Vladimir Mother of God
In the "beautiful corner".

My father was a Protestant believer
Not skilled in, but sensitive to music.
He did not understand her accented English,
and wondered why Miss Galina
dressed in whatever came to hand.
He did not understand--such things
can have much to do with faith:
Miss Galina was a Non-Possessor.
My father would never understand his child
but would break his heart with love.

I found Miss Galina strangely strict
but her godliness touched my heart.
A seed was planted in her humble home
which would not flower for many careless years.

But my father, upon hearing my pieces,
said he'd had enough tragedy in his life,
and he did not like tragic music.
After an hour in which my scales and exercises
shook the walls of our small apartment
he worried about the landlord
and considered the nerves of the neighbors.
But our good Dutch neighbor
had bravely endured the Occupation
and she could have lived through my technique.

Miss Galina found time to tell me
about the siege of Leningrad--
about the stick of wood her mother found
when she was desperate for kindling.
When something glinted from the castoff scrap
and the piece of wood was rubbed clean
there shone from it the Mother of Tenderness.
Instead of burning the fragment
the family lived in the hope of deliverance.

Miss Galina made time to tell me
of the bombing of Berlin
when she lived through the shelling by the Allies.

She had been secretly tonsured--
I did not know she was a nun until after she died.

In fact, her family were caretakers
of the family Shahovskoy--
A great house in imperial Russia
a greater house in post-czarist poverty.

She was a most faithful caretaker
guarding the life and works of an Archbishop.
She was a faithful servant until--
precisely at the moment of her departure--
her icon flame went out
and she entered into the joy of her Lord.

But long before that
when I was fourteen
when my father's conscience
Could no longer brook the criticism
which he was sure the neighbors
were feeling, if not saying,
he found another teacher
as remarkable as she was different.

Mme. Katinka was from Hungary.
She had also suffered greatly.
Great portraits hung on her walls
of her imperial parents--
she had lost a palatial home.

She and Miss Galina
were unnatural friends, because
through the ironies of resettlement
in a country proud of its tolerance,
they had overcome their natural enmity.

As dedicated to Roman Catholicism
as Miss Galina was to Orthodoxy,
Mme. Katinka also found time
to share brief sketches of her history.

She and her godly husband
were students of Ernst von Dohnanyi
Who was a student of Liszt
who was a student of Czerny
who was a student of Beethoven
who was a student of God
as far as I was concerned.

Her home in prewar Hungary--
the Hungary of storied empire--
Became the summer-home of Marshal Tito
which (though a communist!) he did not share.

My forefathers and foremothers both came
from a disputed territory:
Alsace-Lorraine.
I have heard of bitter conflict
but I can only imagine
what it was to come from a country
which had been Slovakia
Then was swallowed by a powerful empire
and now is Slovakia again
And will not grant her a visitor's visa.

She performed and taught in Budapest.
She drank the cup of suffering
Inflicted indiscriminately
By this devil of a century
On the helpless and the powerful.

But suffering may be the forerunner
of greatness, even sanctity.
Her life continued,
in contrast, but parallel,
to that of Miss Galina.
It was not Hitler's aggression
but Stalin's which finally displaced her.

Her eldest child was born
under the rubble of Budapest.
Russian soldiers took her to a makeshift hospital
but on the way, seized her warm coat.

It is hard to realize
that this aristocratic lady
was imprisoned, enslaved, and tortured
and forced to raise her children
alone for eleven years.

She lost her technique to hard labor:
she insisted on signing the Cross
whenever she passed a church.
Women, she told me, could torture
with more cruel pleasure than men.

Once, in a straitened oppression,
sixty priests and nuns were hidden
within the walls of her villa
while secret police encircled the outside.

When all had escaped to safety,
they sent her a cryptic message:
"I was a stranger, and you took Me in."

After his peaceful departure
she took me to the grave of her husband
and I asked her to read the Hungarian
and it told me he had been a prince,
sixth in line to a throne.
I had not known during his lifetime.

Great ones do not need their titles,
as nuns can be nuns without them.

I believe I have said enough
to help you to understand
how the friendship of two great women
made the deepest impression on my spirit.

They met over the grave of both men
who had been important to their lives:
To the one, her princely husband,
to the other, the princely Archbishop.

Although she sometimes complained
that communism was but a symptom
of the soullessness of Russia,
(which we know from its many martyrs
was a far from accurate assessment)
the Hungarian was at the side
of the Russian Archbishop's deathbed
and told me what I knew already:
She had stood at the side of a saint.

Years ago, I stayed at her home
and her husband appeared in a dream
and told me to be faithful to God.
I did not obey him for many years:
You know that I struggle still.

See what this indifferent century
has given to me and to all of us,
in the parable that was and that is
the life of two valiant friends
who dared to be united by prayers
said fervently on different rosaries:

There was a time to hate.
There is a time to love.
There was a time to kill.
There is a time to heal.

(To the eternal memory of Miss Galina Michniuk, d. 1996, formerly a member of Our Lady of Kazan Parish, Seacliff, New York.)

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Sue and Dana Talley live in New York City with their son Jonathan, when not travelling as part of their full time ministry of Christian music. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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