Touching Heaven through Children of the Past and Present
by Chrissi Hart
Many years before I was born, in 1909, my grandmother lay on a bed under the shade of a grapevine, dying. She was just five years old. Then one day, a kind grandfather figure—a holy man, a saint—appeared to her on his white horse and miraculously changed her life forever. This event not only made my life possible, but filled it with inspiration as well.
A Childlike Faith
When I think of my grandmother as a young sick child, I am truly inspired and awestruck by her experience and her healing through the intercessions of a saint. To have such a story in my family heritage is a great treasure and blessing. She was the granddaughter of a priest who was visited by a saint! By God’s grace, one hundred years later, I would write about Saint Kendeas to glorify his name in the Western world.
My grandmother planted memories for me early on which I never forgot. She did this by frequently taking me to Saint Kendeas’ cave and church in Cyprus when I was an infant and young child. On my first visit as an adult, though I did not clearly remember those earlier visits, I somehow knew I had been there before and felt the saint’s presence outside the cave where he had lived. My mother commented, “Your grandmother used to bring you here all the time as a baby.” The stairs leading down into the cave were in my early memories, but I could never figure out where they belonged until that visit. Years later, I discovered the story that was waiting to be told.
I identify with my grandmother in many ways. I was named after her and am told I look like her—her youthful oval face, light olive skin and dark hair, her petite stature, her smile—and I also share her love of gardening and cooking and, unfortunately, her migraines.
I was three when my parents took me and my one-year-old sister from Cyprus to London, escaping colonialism and the struggle against the British for independence. I never saw my grandmother again, and she foresaw that. She died in Cyprus when I was six. Perhaps the vague memories of being held close and having my hair stroked come from my time with my grandmother—who, I am told, held me often.
Cyprus! I remember the whitewashed village houses, the brilliant hot sun against the clear blue sky, eating halva on my grandmother’s doorstep, the rich red soil beneath my feet, and the sound of cicadas on balmy summer evenings. I loved the enticing smell of fragrant flowers—of jasmine, sweet honeysuckle, and beautiful scented roses—and herbs like mint and oregano. All around the family farm were cypress, carob, fruit and olive trees, orange and lemon groves, and grapevines. All of these memories I associate with my grandmother, who always wore black clothes and kept her hair neatly tucked into her black headscarf.
When my grandmother was a child, she placed her trust in a saint. She had faith and hope when her parents were perhaps losing theirs. Her childlike innocence, acceptance, openness, and trust in one of God’s saints are truly inspiring. Why was she visited by the saint with his beautiful white horse? Perhaps because her mother had sought his intercession. Perhaps because my grandmother herself had asked for his help, or maybe due to the piety of her mother and her priest grandfather. Perhaps it was due to my grandmother’s childlike love, faith, and hope—the three theological virtues converging in one little child.
Living in the Moment
And now my young daughter Sophia—with her wise comments, her evocative questions, her prayer rule, her immersion in the present, her physical likeness to me—inspires me daily. When my grandmother’s story was published, my daughter’s teacher suggested I read it to her second grade class. However, I pondered, worried, and procrastinated about it because of public schools’ attitude to religion and the separation of religion and state in this country. Not long before, there had been a legal battle in a nearby township over teaching creationism in school. Needless to say, the judge ruled against creationism being taught. In light of that, I told myself I was not going to read for Sophia’s classmates. I was not going to take my book into a secular school in case my precious family treasure was criticized. All I could do was imagine the worst.
But Sophia, who was seven at the time, just took the book in and read it to her class, followed by tumultuous applause. She had no anxieties or inhibitions—no intellectual qualms—and she grew impatient with my reticence. She loved the story and wanted to share it, so she did. She had accompanied me with our family on book readings at churches several times already and knew the procedure well. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in her class. What an inspiration! Sophia’s example prompts me to be more like her: to stand firm in my faith and courageous and strong in my ministry to children. This ministry has certainly deepened my own relationship with Christ.
My thirteen-year-old son Adam made a comment while on a trip to Cyprus this summer. Standing at the top of Mount Olympus, overlooking the spectacular view of the Holy Monastery of Kykkos, he stretched out his arms and said, “Savor the moment.” I asked him what he was thinking and feeling as he said that. He replied that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and he wanted to remember it—that it was peaceful and the breeze felt good on his face. He closed his eyes and when he opened them he saw layer after layer of mountains. “It was great! I couldn’t believe the view,” he said.
Only days before, Adam had said this same thing, “Savor the moment,” while climbing a rock wall at a children’s playground in Cyprus. Everything he does, he experiences with all his being. On both occasions, Adam experienced joy and fullness in the moment, immersion in the present, with no thought or concern about the past or the future. I am awed by his ability to connect with everything, to have communion with everything—and with God.
Of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven
My journey as a writer has developed from my work as a child psychologist. Over the years I have worked with many children—including the bereaved, traumatized, chronically sick, and those with special needs. Sister Magdalen writes in Conversations with Children, “A child’s illness is a trial of faith and endurance for all concerned, not least the parents,” and, “sick children are often imbued with faith and wisdom beyond their years.” When seeing such children and their families, I often think about my faith, the meaning of life, and the meaning of the child’s illness, and I pray for them. These children have much to teach us about endurance, love, suffering and sacrifice, and bearing one’s cross for Christ.
Many blessings have come by the grace of God through my clinical work with children, while writing my children’s books and reading to children on the radio, perhaps the greatest of which is telling stories to children about our Orthodox faith to illuminate their heart and soul. And when you write about God, when you tell these stories to children, everything seems to fall into place. What may appear to be coincidences to some are really, I believe, blessings, guidance. and inspiration from the Holy Spirit.
I, in turn, am always inspired by children—by their innocence, faith, thirst for knowledge and understanding, sense of hope and mastery, openness to new experiences, ability to live in the present, and most of all by their wisdom. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Luke 18:16, 17). This scripture refers to the need for humility and innocence to enter the Kingdom of God. Thus, we need to return to that state of childlikeness, of innocence and humility, to achieve communion with God.
As I look at the photograph of my son Adam standing at the top of the highest point in Cyprus, my birthplace—the island of my grandmother and blessed Saint Kendeas—Adam’s arms outstretched, his eyes closed and his face upturned, I think of this verse from Saint Patrick’s Breastplate:
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ in breadth, Christ in length, Christ in height,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
It is as if heaven meets earth. As if I am touching heaven. And I think to myself, “Savor the moment.”
This article originally appeared in The Handmaiden, Vol. 11 No. 4, Fall 2007.
Dr. Chrissi Hart is an author, licensed psychologist, and podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. Her first children’s picture book, Under the Grapevine: A Miracle by Saint Kendeas of Cyprus, was published in 2006 by Conciliar Press. Her next children’s book, about the founding of Kykkos Monastery, will be released next year. She lives in York, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two children, where they attend St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Church.