14 February 2019

Matushka Olga, the Theotokos and the ‘stolen sisters’

Today was the the annual march, hosted by the Minnesota American Indian Centre here in the Twin Cities, that was meant to draw attention to the nationwide plight of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. This is a crisis that is affecting indigenous women, not just nationally, but in our own state, on and off the reservations. Indigenous women are ten times as likely as women of other ethnic groups to be murdered, and multiple times more likely to be victims of sexual violence or human trafficking. The statistics are staggering. An overwhelming 85% of indigenous women have suffered from violence at one point in their lives. In 2016, 5,711 indigenous women in the United States were reported missing – in 2017, 5,646 more ‘disappearances’ were reported. In most cases, this happens because law enforcement (i.e., the FBI) does very little to help indigenous communities, or passes the buck to tribal authorities which don’t have the resources to pursue investigations thoroughly, and which very often aren’t even notified of missing-persons cases in their jurisdictions!

The heartbreaking plight of indigenous women in the United States – the violence and the cruelty that they face on an everyday basis – was something I was only vaguely aware of before coming to the march itself. The photos and names of the ‘stolen sisters’ at the march spoke volumes. I have spoken up before on this blog on the need for Orthodox Christians, not only to become aware of and to embrace our historical legacy of indigenous solidarity and culturally-sensitive social evangelism on the ‘Irkutsk model’, but to listen attentively to indigenous persons and communities themselves as part of that same social witness – because they have often witnessed better than we have to the labour truth and the community truth that were implicit to the very life and ministry of our Lord.

We of the Orthodox Christian communities in North America need to pay particular attention to the life and example of one of our local saints, Mother Olga Arrsamsuq (Michael) of Alaska. A slightly-built Yup’ik woman of Kwethluk, Alaska, she was placed in an arranged marriage from an early age with a local post-worker and general-store owner named Nikolai O Michael. The first years of her marriage to Nikolai were difficult – they did not communicate with each other very well, and Nikolai was often out of the house on business. However, Olga bore thirteen children in her marriage, of whom eight survived to adulthood; these children she raised largely on her own. She became known as a skilled midwife, and assisted many of her fellow Yup’ik in giving birth to their own children – she was even able to tell if a woman was pregnant during her first month. Eventually, Nikolai himself became interested in the Church and became tonsured as a reader; from this point it seemed their marriage improved. Eventually Nikolai was ordained to the priesthood, and Olga took readily to the duties of being a matushka, ever hospitable and understanding to those who came to their door in need. She herself sewed Father Nikolai’s vestments that he used in Liturgy, and also baked prosphora, fashioned parkas, warm socks and other clothing for her children and those of the parish. She was generous also in giving away any spare clothes their family had to families who needed them more.

But she was most active in sheltering and giving aid to women in her village who were victims of abuse – and particularly sexual abuse. She would often invite young women into the banya (sauna, or steam bath), which was the one place in the community where women could be alone and out of the gaze and earshot of men. There she would counsel and encourage them, do whatever she could to heal their hurts both physical and emotional, and work even within the confines of a tight-knit and male-dominated community to speak up for them.

A humble and self-effacing woman, in her later years she enjoyed travelling with her husband to regional meetings of the Church and speaking with women in other Alaskan parishes – though she would always be glad to return to her home in Kwethluk. She fought for a long time with cancer, and eventually succumbed to a relapse; she reposed in the Lord in 1979. Before her funeral, which was held during the early winter when rivers would freeze over, a warm southerly wind melted the frozen rivers such that people from neighbouring villages could attend – and hundreds of them did, filling the little church which she had looked after in life. She very quickly rose to prominence as a local saint; with any luck, one day she will be recognised as such by the whole of the Orthodox Church.

The following ‘miracle story’ comes from the Athonite Pemptousia website, and speaks of an encounter that a native Alaskan woman had with Matushka Olga:
“One day I was deeply at prayer and awake. I had remembered an event that was very scary. My prayer began with my asking the Holy Theotokos for help and mercy. Gradually I was aware of standing in the woods still feeling a little scared. Soon a gentle wave of tenderness began to sweep through the fresh garden scent. I saw the Virgin Mary dressed as she is in the icon, but much natural looking and brighter, walking towards me. As she came closer I was aware of someone walking behind her. She stepped aside and gestured to a short, wise-looking woman. I asked he “Who are you?” And the Virgin Mary answered, “St. Olga.”

“St. Olga gestured for me to follow her. We walked a long way until there weren’t many trees. We came to a little hill that had a door cut into the side. After a little while some smoke came out of the top of the hill. St. Olga came out with some herbal tea. We both sat in silence drinking our tea and feeling the warmth of the sun on our faces. I began to get a pain in my belly and she led me inside. The door was so low I had to duck like bowing in prayer.

“Inside the hill was dry and warm and very quiet. The light was very soft coming from a shallow bowl and from the open hole on the top of the hill. Everything around me felt gentle, especially Mother Olga. The little hill house smelled like wild thyme and white pine in the sun with roses and vio­lets mixed in. Mother Olga helped me up on a kind of plat­form bed like a box filled with moss and grasses. It was soft and smelled like the earth and the sea. I was exhausted and lay back. St. Olga went over to the lamp and warmed up something which she rubbed on my belly. I looked five months pregnant (I was not really pregnant at that time). I started to labor. I was a little scared. Mother Olga climbed up beside me and gently holding me by the arm, she pretend­ed to labor with me, showing me what to do and how to breathe. She still hadn’t said anything. She helped me push out some stuff like afterbirth which kind of soaked into dried moss on the box bed, I was very tired and crying a little from relief when it was over.

“Up until this she hadn’t spoken, but her eyes spoke with great tenderness and understanding. We both got up and had some tea. As we were drinking it, Holy Mother Olga gradu­ally became the light in the room. Her face looked like there was a strong light bulb or the sun shining under her skin. But I think the whole of her glowed. I was just so connected to her loving gaze that I didn’t pay much attention to anything else. It was like the kind of loving gaze from a mother to an infant that connects and welcomes a baby to life. She seemed to pour tenderness into me through her eyes. This wasn’t scary even though, at that time, I didn’t know about people who literally shone with the love of God, (It made more sense after I read about St. Seraphim.) I know now that some very deep wounds were being healed at that time. She gave me back my own life which had been stolen, a life that is now defined by the beauty and love of God for me, the restored work of His Hands.

“After some time I felt like I was filled with wellness and a sense of quiet entered my soul, as if my soul had been crying like a grief-stricken abandoned infant and now had finally been comforted. Even now as I write . . . the miracle of the peacefulness and also the zest for life which wellness has brought, causes me to cry with joy and awe.

“Only after this did Holy Mother Olga speak. She spoke about God and people who choose to do evil things. She said the people who hurt me thought they could make me carry their evil inside of me by rape. She was very firm when she said: “That’s a lie. Only God can carry evil away. The only thing they could put inside you was the seed of life which is a creation of God and cannot pollute anyone.” I was never polluted. It just felt that way because of the evil intentions of the people near me. What I had held inside me was the pain, terror, shame and helplessness I felt. We had labored togeth­er and that was all out of me now. She burned some grass over the little flame and the smoke went straight up to God, who is both the judge and the forgiver. I understood by the incense that it wasn’t my job to carry the sins of people against me either. It was God’s, and what an ever-unfolding richness this taste of salvation is.

“At the end of this healing time we went outside together. It was not dark in the visioning prayer. There were so many stars stretching to infinity. The sky was all shimmer with a moving veil of light. (I had seen photos of the northern light but didn’t know that they move.) Either Matushka Olga said or we both heard in our hearts -I can’t remember which -that the moving curtain of light was to be for us a promise that God can create great beauty from complete desolation and nothingness. For me it was like proof of the healing -great beauty where there had been nothing before but despair hidden by shame and great effort.”

What is one to make of these accounts? If nothing else, for now, one can acknowledge the special place that Matushka Olga has had in the lives of certain native people and a growing number of contemporary women. But it is in the slow and gradually expending process of knowledge which moves from local veneration to broader awareness that God reveals how He can be “wonderful in His Saints.” Matushka Olga herself was a midwife and may also have known from personal experience the traumas of being abused earlier in life. Perhaps it is in this role as an advocate for those who have been abused, particularly sexually, that God will continue to use Matushka Olga in drawing “straight with crooked lines,” His work of “creating beauty from complete desolation and nothingness.”
As one of the signs at our march said: ‘Our women are sacred.’ That, they very much are: every single one of them an icon of the living God and of the Most Holy Theotokos. As Mother Olga might tell us, though they might be forgotten in our justice system, not a single one of them is forgotten in æternity. Again, the relevance of this miracle story as well as Matushka Olga’s service in life to the young indigenous women of Kwethluk to the current plight of her ‘stolen sisters’ in the modern day, all over Turtle Island, is immediately apparent. It’s an excellent thing that several outlets of our church already acknowledge it – but we should certainly not stop there. This protective, healing and advocacy work of Saint Olga of Alaska must continue, as it can, with us. Holy Mother Olga of Alaska, pray to God for us sinners!

Blessed Matushka Olga Arrsamsuq (Michael) of Alaska

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