I must admit that ever since my family and I returned from Turkey and Israel, I've been scheming of ways to get back there, because of the striking beauty I found in the religious and historic churches, shrines, art, landscape, etc. My heart swelled and my senses were heightened as I found myself falling in love with the ancient beauty of our Church and of Her peoples of the Middle East. I was most especially awed by the omnipresence of Our Lady and the celebration of Her part in salvation history throughout the Byzantine churches of Turkey, namely in Istanbul and Cappadocia, as well as at her final home in Ephesus. She is celebrated and revered by Christian and Muslim alike as our Mama.
Mural of Biblical scenes, Our Lady, angels and saints in Byzantine Cave Church-
Göreme National Park, Cappadocia Turkey
Theotokos- St. George at Constantinople
Theotokos Mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Constaninople
Tabernacle at Armenian Church of Our Lady of Spasms, Our Lady of Jerusalem Triptych
Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem
Milk Grotto of Our Lady- Bethlehem, Palestine
Now don't get me wrong, I know that Arizona is a state of great beauty and even holds one of the world's 7 natural wonders of the world. And with its rich heritage of cultures, there are many who hold a strong love and devotion to Our Lady as seen in the many and varied images of her, most especially depicted as Our Lady of Guadalupe . BUT I was just missing that beauty that was captured in lands that were cradles of Christianity, and on whose soil Our Lord and Our Lady walked and lived. That is when Our Lady surprised me with two delightful gifts, two weekends in a row.
The first unexpected ray of Our Lady's immense beauty was shared with me and with many when the miraculous Myrrh Streaming Hawaiian Iveron Icon of the Holy Theotokos came to St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Phoenix. The Icon is a copy of the myrrh-streaming "Montreal" Iveron Icon of the Mother of God, manufactured at the Sofrino church supply store; it was given as a gift to Reader Nectarios by Archpriest Anatole Lyovin, and began streaming myrrh in Hawaii in 2007. It is said to have healing properties for those who venerate and pray to Our Lady's image and seek to grow in holiness. It is based off of the original picture that St. Luke drew of Our Lady with the Christ Child, which is now venerated in the Church of St. Mark in Jerusalem a Syriac Orthodox community, and in front of which I knelt and prayed just a few short weeks ago.
Just being in the presence of this beautiful image, while beautiful Byzantine chant was sung for one hour in Russian, English, and Latin transported me out of the day to day, back into the sacred and beautiful that I had experienced so strongly abroad just a few weeks ago.
"From thy Holy Icon, O Lady Theotokos, blessed myrrh has flowed abundantly. Thou hast thereby consoled those, in exile, faithful unto thee, and hast enlighten the unbelievers by thy Son's light. Therefore O Lady, with tears we bow down to thee. Be merciful to us in the hour of judgment. Lest having received thy mercy we be punished as those who have been contemptuous of it. But grant us through thy prayers to bring forth spiritual fruit, and save our souls" - Troparion to the Iveron Icon, Tone 7.
The second unexpected gift Our Lady gave to my daughter and I happened when we were on a photography quest. My daughter is taking digital photography at school and was assigned to take pictures that focused on architecture. I took her down to the COFCO Chinese Center in Phoenix to capture the beautiful Asian gazebos and other structures that are so enchanting in the Chinese culture. After taking a myriad of photos, we were looking around and I noticed what appeared to be a church with an Orthodox Cross atop its structure down the street. I told Mira that we should go and check it out. We drove over there and discovered that it was St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church. We began to tour the grounds as my shutterbug continued to click away and capture the lovely exterior architecture. When we opened the door to the church, our breaths were taken away! Inside, was an iconostasis depicting a variety of saints, along with Our Lord as Pantocrator, The Last Supper, and Our Lady, the Theotokos. Domed ceilings captured more stunning images of the 12 Apostles, and many other stories from the Bible. Apparently, artisans from Serbia spent over a year painstakingly creating the Byzantine-style depictions of scenes from the Bible. See http://www.stsava.com/ for more information.
These gifts of beauty from Our Lady were a breath of fresh air for me and my family, as we are thirsting for true beauty, love, and goodness in a time of such depravity, hatred, and ugliness. Our souls recognize true beauty, and Our Lady is the most beautiful and exalted of all of God's creatures. She showed me that I do not have to travel thousands of miles to be touched by Her presence and holiness, but can find her in my own back yard here in my hometown. She wants all of Her children to find Her and to behold Her beauty. When we do so, we instinctively want to draw closer to Her and to do better for God. We strive to transform our hearts and souls to reflect her inner and outer beauty, which radiates the love of Christ. She is right here. We need only turn our hearts towards her and she will come to us and bring such gifts of true beauty and goodness freely to us, Her beloved children.