by Catherine Doherty.
“God’s peace be upon you.” “And may it abide in you, too.” How familiar to me, and how beloved, is the memory of this greeting and its response, heard so many times in my childhood and youth!
It must be the constant talks about a lack of peace that swirl and eddy all about me via radio, newspapers, and magazines that have started me on the road to my Russian yesterdays in the days before the Revolution. It is a road I have been taking often lately.
Just last night, for example, my present surroundings vanished, and I was back in our immense apartment in St. Petersburg. It was evening, and a fire burned cheerily in the big fireplace of our dining room.
My brother was drawing pictures; I was sitting on the floor, sewing. Mother was embroidering, and Father was reading aloud the Gospel for the next day’s Mass, pausing now and then to explain some obscure passage.
Suddenly the soft chimes of the front doorbell rang, and a servant went to answer it. A friend walked in. Turning his face first to the icon, a holy picture of our Blessed Lord, he bowed low three times, thus greeting the unseen but ever present Master of the house. Then turning to all of us and bowing again, he said, “God’s peace be upon you all.”
In unison we answered, “And may it abide in you, too.”
This Christian greeting was so commonplace in my childhood that it is no wonder that all this talk about lack of peace brought it back to me.
Only, strangely, in my childhood there was peace—a deep, inner peace that no one could take away from us. But all around me, here today, there is no peace. Perhaps this is because we have forgotten its Source— perhaps because we do not greet one another any more in his name, nor wish one another his peace.
Home? When I was a child, several places were home to me. One was the big apartment in St. Petersburg where we spent our winters.
There were fourteen servants to keep it clean, to attend to the great deal of entertainment that went with my father’s job, and to minister to our wants, which was the smallest part of their jobs.
Not withstanding this big labor force, I was not allowed to live the life of the “idle rich.” On the contrary, I had to help the servants to serve, and in the process, to learn every household task they performed.
The Dignity of Work
It was not that my parents thought their daughter should be a household drudge or confine herself to the kitchen. Far from it! Their concept of Christian life included that of the dignity of work. All kinds of work. And all workers. It also embraced all vocations open to a woman.
I think that always before their eyes was the life of Mary, she who gave birth to God, the Queen of Heaven, who cooked and wove and washed and scrubbed, yet was learned in Holy Scriptures and wise with the wisdom of both God and man.
Yes, like other parents in Russia in those days, they wanted to give their daughter the heritage of knowledge, many types of knowledge. First was the knowledge of God; then, according to one’s state in life, academic schooling and the like, and the arts, which included music, and handicrafts, especially needlecraft.
Then there was the art of making and managing a home, prudently, efficiently, graciously, and in the spirit of Christ and his beloved Mother.
So my life was a full one with going to school and learning a thousand things outside of its scope, not out of books, but by doing them over and over again.
The procedure was a simple one. First, I had to take care of my own room and things. Then I filled in on the day off of every female domestic except the cook. (And slowly I was being prepared for even that.)
Thus it was that I learned how to launder fine table linens, starch them just so, and iron them slowly until nary a wrinkle showed; and how to fold them meticulously and uniformly as well as beautifully.
In the sweat of my brow, and through a thousand aches and pains, I finally found out how to keep kitchen utensils clean, knives sharp, and floors and tables scrubbed until their white pine wood rivaled snow.
Then the day came when I truly enjoyed the sight of clean and evenly cut vegetables, all ready, in their cold-water bath, for the stove and dinner to come, adding color and sunshine to the drab gray mornings while they waited to be cooked.
Painfully came the lessons of mending and darning. It seems as if the holes in the stockings and socks were alive with perversity. They just would not become the neatly mended, almost invisibly rewoven squares my mother demanded.
Patches on linen towels, sheets, napkins, and tablecloths were sheer penances to me. But eventually I mastered this art of keeping things repaired. It even came to pass that I began to like the eternal struggle between me and the disruptive ways of time.
Minding my baby brother, on nurse’s day off was another joy, and this was like entering a new universe, one of diapers, baths, baby foods, and mild bottles that had to be warmed up just right.
Yes, taking the place of waitress, kitchen or scullery maid, baby’s nurse, governess, seamstress, and laundress, on their days off, was an education which I would not have missed for the world. It taught me every branch of house management, by doing it.
It served me well, this training, when, penniless, I came to this new world. But it did more. It gave me a living, a start. It built self-assurance in me and confidence. I needed both desperately. It also brought me the deep and profound understanding of the dignity of all work and all workers.
It made me see that in a Christian home, in a Christian family, in a Christian state, all things go together.
My Parents’ Example
And early in my childhood, the truth that Christ is in my neighbor was shown to me by my parents’ example and words.
No one was ever turned away from our door—“bum” or beggar, woman of the streets or thief.
The men were welcomed by my father. He gave them a bath himself, or Mother would do it for the women. Then they would be given clothing if they needed it. They would be served by Mother and Father and by us children—if we had been good during the week, and thus worthy of serving Christ in the poor—on our best linen and from our best china in the main dining room.
It is thus that we children learned the precious lesson of loving our neighbor as ourselves and to prove, through serving them, our love to God.
But studying, working, helping and serving the poor was not all our life. There was so much gaiety, so much joy in our lives, that somehow it brings tears to my eyes when I behold my own inability to transmit even a little bit of it to the youth of today.
How I wish I could! For it would bring so much happiness, so much peace into their lives, into the lives of their parents, into their communities, and who can tell?—into the whole world.
Our joys, our gladness, our fun came from within. They sprang from that sense of security, love, and belonging, which our parents gave us so lavishly. They came, too, from the sense of Order. I spell it deliberately with a capital “O” because it stems from the great and tranquil order of God himself.
When the life of an individual or a family is rooted in that great tranquility of God’s order, when its ends are Christocentric, and faith is an essential part of it, then joy, true laughter, and real gaiety flower abundantly in that individual’s or that family’s life. Then children grow up in an atmosphere of love and tenderness. Where love is, God is.
And so our fun was simple. Oh, the anguishing moments we experienced in writing plays and producing them, we and the neighbors’ children. And the pride of achievement when our parents and friends really liked both script and production.
Have you ever treasure-hunted in the long twilight evenings of the North? Or have you danced on the threshing floor of a big, open barn to the tune of old violins or played Charades? No? I’m sorry you missed all that.
Our home was not only a place of work, it also was the natural abode of peace and laughter and love.
And who can say that all this did not come from the constant greeting that was exchanged by so many, so often in our home—“God’s peace be upon you… and may it abide in you, too.”
Mother of Christ, keeper of St. Joseph’s house, heart of all hearths, patroness of all wives and mothers, give me the grace to make a home wherever I am. Amen.
Adapted and excerpted from My Russian Yesterdays, pp. 7-14, available from MH Publications.
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