I Was my Mother’s First Heart Attack

“I was my mother’s first heart attack.” So began our interview. Her mother Shirley, nine months pregnant and due at any time had a heart attack. An hour later she went into labor. No one remembers how long it lasted – the focus was on the issue at hand – would she live? This was before the first bypass surgery was performed in the United States so there wasn’t the optimistic hope we have today. Eventually Julie Anne (she was named after a nun) was born – the second of what would be eight children. Today we know her as Mother Macaria.

Mom’s Heart Condition

Shirley had a rare heart condition called Wolfe Parkinson White Type B (a specific type of abnormality of the electrical system of the heart) but they didn’t discover that until 10 years later. As it turns out, a bypass would not have helped since it did not involve clogged veins. Shirley’s episodes caused her to go into v-fib in which the heart beats quickly and out of rhythm. It usually causes patients to pass out, but Shirley never did so she was conscious when they started beating on her chest to stop the arrhythmia, allowing the heart to re-establish an effective rhythm.  She didn’t want to die awake with doctors beating on her chest. Today they would have used a defibrillator to accomplish the same thing. We’ll get back to this part of the story a little later.

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Julie and her family moved to Cincinnati when she was eight. Her father was an executive with Monsanto so there were more moves ahead. A friend of her mother joked that they all bled Monsanto blue. After Cincinnati came St. Louis, Missouri, then Massachusetts for a year, and back to Missouri due to a promotion.

Difficult Years

These were difficult years for Julie. She was the target of bullying and tended to be a slow learner. Other students called her “retarded” and “dysfunctional.” Today she would fall somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum and receive additional help. Back then she was labeled as “First in the Dumbbell Row.” What they didn’t seem to notice was that even though she was a slow learner, once she understood a subject, she quickly advanced several levels.

Julie determined to use every family move to her advantage. She saw each new location as an opportunity to establish herself without the baggage of the past. She came to the realization that she was not stupid! In high school she joined the debate club – what better activity for a desperately shy person  with a speech impediment to learn and grow? Her parents objected. Didn’t she know she had a speech impediment and debate was all about making compelling verbal arguments? Yes, she did know, but what she wasn’t admitting to them was that she hoped to learn how to win an argument at home!

Debate Career

The debate teacher was an amazing man who had a positive influence on her. As Julie struggled to learn, he was encouraging and helpful. His position was that he would invest his efforts in students who would really work hard and Julie definitely qualified. During two summers in between semesters, Julie attended a six week debate course in St. Louis in order to improve her skills. Her debate teacher arranged for her to get speech therapy, which was helpful when he assigned her to participate in an Oral Interpretation competition. The student was expected to read and interpret a poem. Julie’s score was marked down for having memorized and recited the three page poem rather than reading it. “But,” she protested, “I didn’t mean to memorize it. It was an accident!”

In between, Julie had one of her poems published in a literary magazine. When she went to the course the next year everyone knew her as the author of the poem. Positive recognition! This was a new experience. During the second summer she and her debate partner got into the quarter finals in debate. Her struggle to learn and improve was paying off. Of her debating career she says, “It was good to learn to be hyper analytical because that certainly was not my nature!”

During this time she also volunteered at the United Cerebral Palsy Center in the youth and adult section. After high school Julie went to the University of Missouri where she wanted to “major in everything.” She studied creative writing, poetry, and special education among other things.

Back to Her Mother Shirley

When Julie was 22, Shirley jumped at the chance to have experimental heart surgery. Her reasoning was that her participation might lead to finding a way to correct the heart condition that she and others suffered from. She was also convinced that she would die during the surgery and therefore could avoid dying while doctors beat on her chest.

Shirley wrote a letter each to her children and friends. She left instructions that they not be mailed until after she was in surgery. Each letter expressed her understanding that she would die in surgery and then conveyed a personalized message of love and appreciation. Shirley was 22 when Julie was born and Julie was 22 when Shirley died.

Julie had been sensing a call to follow Christ. She considered the courses she had been taking – to what effect? They had nothing to offer except being interesting. She had become interested in a particular community of Christians. Her mother had objected. “Go visit them,” she advised, “and then come back home and think about it.” By now Julie understood that loving and serving God was the higher call – even if it meant leaving your parents. After her mother’s death she joined the community. Her father disowned her, but much later he repented of that. 

Completing her initial training in Chicago and Denver, Julie also took disaster training with the Red Cross. She served in West Virginia and eventually went to California where she put her disaster training to work during the 1989 earthquake (6.9 magnitude). She and another member of the community were on the Disaster Action Team every Friday and Saturday night.

Julie worked and served at the Raphael House in San Francisco for 10 years. It was the first homeless shelter for families in Northern California. She was also involved in regular poetry readings, which  were popular in San Francisco – unless the poets were Christian. Julie got a pass with this critical community – yes, she was Christian, but they thought she was really good so she didn’t get booed off the stage.

Conversion and Baptism: in her own words

“I had begun an inquiry into what manner of life I was called to—marriage or monasticism. This took place within the context of the larger Raphael House community where perhaps 40 or so brothers and sisters had been laboring for many years. Most of us were in our mid-thirties and the sisters in particular were beginning to feel the pressure of their biological clocks. Were they going to get married while still young enough to bear children? The brothers did not seem to feel this pressure at all. I pursued a course of reading and prayer that led me to the conclusion that I was definitely called to be a nun, but there was no avenue for this in the community I belonged to. I wrote the director of the order and pointed out this shortcoming and also pointed out that many of my sisters were quite anguished about their marriage prospects and this needed to be addressed.  

“We were only beginning to discover Orthodoxy. At that point many of us would have been shocked at the idea of converting. We were Christians and had left all the outer trappings that had enticed some of us to the order far behind. We had been working through the history of Protestant theology and then Catholic theology. Thomas Merton was one of the most popular authors of that time.  It didn’t appear that Orthodoxy was going to change everything. Several things happened at about that time. I had been appointed to EPIPHANY  Journal  editorial board. I was a writer and poet and was grateful for this work. The man who directed the order was actually leading the board in a course of study to develop their critical thinking skills and teach them to think more metaphysically. These were mostly the intellectuals and most of them were men.  

“Most of the brotherhood was not interested in the theological and philosophical wrangling we had begun to engage in.  But I thoroughly enjoyed it. This involved me in a sped up catechesis and conversion process  compared to many around me. When I wrote the director about my own desire to be a nun and the needs I saw in my sisters –his response was swift. He came and addressed the whole community on the subject of marriage and monasticism. For many this led to pairing up and a race to the altar. He asked me if I would be willing to visit a real monastery. It was only a few weeks before I went for the first time to the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina. The nuns lived there at that time with the abbot in Wildwood at St. Xenia Skete and the monks in Alaska. This was about 1985.

“I had been under a vow of poverty for many years by then but I had never seen it practiced in such a profound way. The nuns impressed me with their piety and simplicity and their rags.  Later when we did Vespers at the grave of Fr. Seraphim Rose. I found  myself filled with a deep peace and realized that I had come home.  Which meant I had to leave the home I had to then. After that, my conversion was in many ways a forgone conclusion.  This was not the case with those around me. Our conversion has been described as a group conversion.  But I am not sure there is any such thing. Everyone moved at their own pace so that while some were chomping at the bit, others were dragging their feet as much as they could.  That put considerable stress on everyone. This was something that was going to completely change our lives and what we had vowed ourselves to. But guess what? Change was coming anyway.

“Our community  was dependent on a single workforce and would not maintain its works well if half of that workforce was home raising children. We had all come to serve Christ, young, naïve, and full of idealism, literally giving up everything of our former lives. At that point, our lives seemed stable and secure but the ground was shifting under us.  There was no way that this could be anything but a difficult and painful path of major change for each one of us.  Most chose to become Orthodox but there were those who returned to the churches of their childhood.

“It might be noted that at this point, there was no particular doctrinal unity among us beyond accepting the Nicene Creed.  We were not even aware that there should be.  So coming to an Orthodox understanding was full of drama and struggle. For me, the process was more peaceful. I had been overwhelmed with the peace at Fr. Seraphim’s grave and prepared  by my work with Epiphany Journal and my own searching into the nature of my calling.  I was baptized in 1988 as Macrina and at the end of 1989 I left for a wilder adventure on Spruce Island. Dropping everything in your life to join a monastery in the Alaskan wilderness  feels very much like choosing to jump off a cliff.”

Spruce Island
Spruce Island
Spruce Island

“If you want to make it in Alaska, you have to be willing to fail every day.” Other, more able bodied women had not succeeded as monastics on Spruce Island. Due to her health, Macrina had to wait an extended time before she was allowed to go. One profound lesson from Alaska that affected the rest of her life was that the road to failure is often paved by self-will – a desire to use your own energy to accomplish your goals. However, the road to success is built on laying down self and accepting God’s direction in every situation and effort. If you fail at one aspect – glory be to God – re-establish yourself in His will and continue on.

After Alaska Macrina was back in California where she was part of a group of women who were tonsured as nuns. That’s when she was given the name Macaria (although the text function on her phone often signs her off as Mother Macaroni).

Next Stop: Indianapolis

Mother Macaria was next assigned to Indianapolis where she joined Mother Katherine and became the manager of St. Seraphim’s Bookstore. She was soon informed that Fr. Stevan had blessed her to be the editor of the Epiphany Journal. It was like having two full time jobs. Mother Macaria did not want to sacrifice her monastic life, so in order to manage, the bookstore was given new, shorter hours and a cadre of volunteers were recruited and trained to serve the customers. Mary Lee and Patrick Snavley were the first to sign up. As her health was getting worse, Mother Macaria made an appeal for direction and was told to choose one thing: managing the bookstore or editing the Epiphany Journal. It is not a spoiler to say that she chose the bookstore.

When the bookstore is open (and we hope it will be soon), Mother Macaria spends Thursday afternoons there where she processes incoming books and has conversations with people who seek to know more about Orthodoxy. She has a cyclopedic knowledge of the subject and serves as a fountain of information.

She published her first poem in a professional literary journal in college and published off and on over the years. She won a few literary contests in San Francisco. She still publishes a poem here and there because she has an obedience to do so. 

Mother Macaria
Mother Macaria
Mother Macaria

Mother Macaria’s poems have been published in Endless Winter Nights at Monk’s Lagoon (a book of her poems) and Bearing Myrrh (a collection of poetry by Orthodox women). She is also the author of Saint Nikolai Velimirovic, “The New Chrysostom”: His Life and Service and Spiritual Treasure in Filthy Rags: An introduction to the Paisian Tradition through the Optina Elders. She can be reached at blxenia@sbcglobal.net.

Writer Anna Glass is a member of Joy who serves on the Parish Council. She has been blogging for us for almost three years. Please send your suggestions and submissions for future blogs to her at annetteglass03@gmail.com.

Watch a short (5minute, 20seconds) video about a pilgrimage to Spruce Island here: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=spruce+island+alaska&docid=608056197981144710&mid=6FD52F6E2B25932F63706FD52F6E2B25932F6370&view=detail&FORM=VIRE


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