Vol. 1 No. 1 - Feast of St. Nicholas 2006
Saint Mary of Egypt:
An Intercessor for Canadian cities
Several years ago, a priest who works in inner city missions showed me a simple, yet remarkable, illustration. The small line drawing showed an icon of Saint Mary of Egypt, silhouetted against the easily recognizable skyline of the city in which we stood, walking amid the poor, the drug addicts, and prostitutes. "This," said the priest with a look of seriousness, "This is catechism they can understand."
The fallout from the secular utopian dreams of political leaders is easy to see on the streets of any major Canadian city. Blocks of crack houses crowd the streets of North Winnipeg, where a thriving community of Orthodox immigrants lived a generation ago. Drug-related shooting paralyze Toronto public housing projects that were supposed to be the jewel of the social engineers of the 1960s. Panhandlers and other homeless people are a regular fixture on central Calgary streets, the heart of the ongoing financial boom fueled by Alberta oil. Orthodox faithful, drawn mostly from suburban developments, rarely come to these neighbourhoods, unless called to do specific mission work with those whom the Canadian Dream left behind.
Nowhere is this urban transformation more evident than in the area of East Hastings in Vancouver, British Columbia. Three decades ago, the sweet hopes of those who traveled west to this Pacific lotus land, began to crash amid the cycle of addiction, poverty, and prostitution. Today, nightly barrel fires in winter warm those who can stand to warm themselves in the chilly dampness, while many more lay passed out or dead in nearby alleyways, assured of free needles and advice on every means of preventing the communicable diseases that plague these streets.
A few years ago, during an afternoon family walk through Vancouver's Chinatown, we were approached by one of the city's walking wounded, a woman who appeared to be in her fifties, staggering along in the clothes she wore the night before, hardly able to focus enough to see that the man she was approaching was accompanied by his wife. Yet as we approached her, it became clear this was not a veteran seasoned with years on Vancouver's streets: this was a girl, perhaps fifteen years old, feeding her drug habit by selling herself.
This was the face of Saint Mary of Egypt, whose early life bore many of the same earmarks as the life of the living skeleton who staggered down East Hastings.
Recently, I heard another priest who works in inner-city work declare, "Our parishes have abandoned the inner city". Of course for the most part, he was right. The Canadian Dream - the dream to come to this country, to become comfortable and middle class, to fit in, to escape all the ugliness of the old world - has arrived. Yet in its arrival, we have escaped nothing. As our inner cities grow, producing more children than our double-income suburbs ever will, even suburbia must come face to face with its own demons, addictions, and the passions of the human heart. For those who live on the streets of Canadian cities, these passions are an inescapable part of life every day. When you live in the street, work on the street, and die in the street, it is easy to relate to the life of Saint Mary of Egypt - it is catechism you can understand.
For those of us who are far removed from it, it is a catechism we must suffer to learn, in practical ways that begin with visiting the inner city we have left behind, seeing in each face the face of Christ. For those who cannot go - or cannot bear to go - financial generosity is a beginning.
Our bishop once reminded a parish, the reason we neglect to give away our money to people on the streets, is that we assume we will put it to better use than they will - which is almost never the case. In fact, it is acts of mercy which humble us to realize that our own spiritual condition is only inches away from the faces on the streets, and it is in showing such mercy that we begin to break out of the fakery that we call the Canadian Dream - the Dream that often blinds us to our own passions.
Holy Saint Mary, pray to God for us!
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Feast of St. Nicholas, 2006)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.