Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Handmaiden of God, Anastasia Titov

Anastasia Titov, January 2004, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land

See also:

More Remembrances of Anastasia

A Talking Prayer Book

This past weekend I had the honor of serving at the funeral of Anastasia Titov, who reposed at the age of 92. She was one of the first faces I saw at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Church, when I moved back to Houston in 1992 as a young convert to the Orthodox Faith of not quite two years. Since then she has had a very special place in my heart, but although our relationship was special, I was not unique in having such a special relationship with her. In fact, after listening to the many warm tributes given at her funeral, I believe that she had a special relationship with just about anyone that she had half a chance to get to know.

I want to write more about her, but for now I will just lay out some of the basic facts of her life, and then quote from a tribute posted online from another of Anastasia's special relationships.

I am basing the following on things I have pieced together over the years... if I have remembered something wrong, I hope someone will correct me, and that others will help me to flesh out this story.

Anastasia was born just as the world was entering World War I. She grew up in Harbin, China, where a large number of Russians had fled in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. In Harbin, these Russians recreated the best aspects of pre-revolutionary Russian culture. Anastasia was very well educated, was multilingual, but most of all, she grew up in a world that centered around the Church. When there was a feast of the Church, the first week of Lent, or Holy Week, school’s and businesses were closed, and the people were in Church… for all the services, which during the first week of Lent, for example, means about 10 hours of services... a day.

Unfortunately, the life that made her into the Christian lady that she became did not remain peaceful. World War II began with the Japanese invasion of China, and during this war her first husband was shot by Japanese soldiers. She moved from Harbin to Shanghai, where she worked in the administrative offices of St. John of Shanghai. (I use to say that she had been his secretary, but she corrected me and said that a bishop does not have a woman as his secretary – that is a position usually held by a priest. She told me I should say she was on his clerical staff. She was a lady, in the fullest sense of the term, and such proprieties were very important to her.) It was during this time that she came to know and love St. John.

At the end of World War II, the Soviets invaded northern China, and used the opportunity to forcibly repatriate many Russian refugees, and place them in prison camps… such was the fate of Anastasia’s younger brother.

After World War II, came the communist take over of all of China. St. John and most of the Russian community in Shanghai left before the Communists took control of that city, but Anastasia refused to go, because she still had her parents in Harbin, and would not leave the country without them. She told me how stern the Communists soldiers were… people would attempt to give them flowers, or food, but they would not accept anything from anyone. She talked about how they searched her apartment. She had a chicken on the stove, and so they wanted to know where, when, and from whom she had bought the chicken, and how much it cost; and then they wanted to know were she got the money to buy the chicken. She had sold something to get the money, they wanted to know what she had sold, where, when, and to whom she had sold it, and they then checked out every detail. She also told me how a Chinese Deacon (Fr. Photi) came to her one evening with the antimins and the holy vessels from the Shanghai Cathedral. She told him that she could not even touch, much less take these things because she was a woman. Fr. Photi told her that if she did not take them that the communists would, so she hid them, and then the next night he came back and picked them up. She never saw him again, and did not know what became of him.

She managed to get a visa out of China, at a time when the various embassies were packing up to leave the country themselves. After visiting several of them in an attempt to get a visa, and being refused, she finally came to the Brazilian embassy, and was again refused. However, her tears finally moved the ambassador to make an exception, and to get the necessary documents out the boxes they had been packed into, and he gave her (and I believe her family members) visas… and so this is how she found her way to Brazil. I can’t remember how many years she lived their, but she learned to speak Portuguese fluently. Eventually, she and her second husband Paul Titov moved to the United States, where she worked at the United Nations building in New York.

She once told me about how she and another Ukrainian Orthodox woman came out to meet a Greek Archbishop who was visiting the UN (I believe he was from Crete). They shouted out “Eis Polla Eti Despota!”, which means “Many years, Master!” in Greek, and is the traditional liturgical greeting of a bishop. A UN policeman wanted to get them into trouble. He demanded to know why they were insulting a guest of the UN by calling him a despot!

At some point in her UN career, she had occasion to visit Ethiopia before the Communist revolution there. While there she got to meet the Emperor Haile Selassie.

When she retired from the UN, she and her husband moved to Houston for some reason… I believe something related to Paul’s business dealings. When I met her she was already in her late 70’s.

One thing that always amazed me about her was that it seemed that every time I had a long talk with her, I would discover some new facet of her life, that I had not known before. At her funeral, I discovered many more facets – particularly the deep impact she had on so many lives, and what a witness for Christ she had been throughout her life.

If Anastasia could be in Church, she was. She continued to keep the fasts strictly until the end of her life, when she was no longer able to, because she was no longer able to get enough nutrition no matter what food she ate. She poured herself into her work as the choir director of St. Vladimir’s, and her work as the senior sister of the parish. She radiated the love of Christ to everyone she met.

As I said, I was a new convert when I met her, as was my wife. We had left an English speaking mission of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Oklahoma City, and found ourselves in a mostly Russian speaking parish here in Houston. It was a difficult adjustment. For the first few months, my wife was in the parish alone while I was staying in upstate New York. She was a stranger in a strange place… not only was she a new convert, but she was herself from China, but unlike Anastasia she was ethnically Chinese too, and even English was not her first language, much less Russian. Anastasia took her under her wing, made her feel at home, and often spoke of the two of them both being Chinese compatriots.

I learned so much about the faith from her, that I should probably save that for future articles.

Her funeral was like a second Pascha. Everyone who was there was moved by it. Nearly a week later, I am still moved by it in a way that I have never been by any funeral I have ever attended.

So with that lengthy introduction, here is what Matushka Ann Lardas had to say:

She was an amazing woman whose life spanned three continents. She warmly greeted everyone. She and Paul became godparents for many newcomers, and nobody was ever merely accepted, but rather was warmly embraced. Fr. George and I were not just Batiushka and Matushka. To her, he was "Batiushka Dearest," and I was "Matushka Rodnaya." She always addressed the children in the diminutive, so that John thought that "Vanya" was Russian for "John." She insisted on doing things properly but was the first to cover for those who did not, and maintained every year that the only proper way to serve blini was "by the hand of the hostess." She cooked just about every Sunday we were there, always fasting foods during a fast and festive foods the rest of the time. She sang. She conducted. She came midweek to iron vestments and clean the parish house and she cooked and fed anyone who came to the parish. If they were poorly dressed, the next time they came she would give them clothes, new and in their size.

She loved all the children of the parish, and gave them candy on every occasion she could. We have a photo of Anastasia among the children and their Pascha baskets, and she looks like guest host on the Muppet Show. She told funny stories and could have an earthy sense of humor, besides (when I chided her for not even taking time to sit down and eat one busy Sunday, she said held up the plate she had just served herself, arched an eyebrow, and said, "Don't worry. Didn't you know the Russian proverb? 'A good horse does everything standing.'") Even after we moved, she would call on birthdays and namedays to sing, and when we called for her birthday and nameday, she would say, "And now everyone is accounted for." On Annunciation, when I was a new conductor and she couldn't get to church from illness, we sang "Archangelsky glas'" in harmony over the phone, a thousand miles apart and yet together.

If you look at the Normal Sisterhood Bylaws, you will see that Anastasia made sure she covered them all:

The duties of the sisterhood are:

a) maintenance of the Church building, both during the divine services and apart from them; care for the vestry; and the adornment of the church;

b) visitation of the sick; inquiry into the cases of those in need and aid for them; visitation of prisons and aid for the imprisoned;

c) visitation of the dying and informing the priest of such cases; reading the services over the dying; moral support for the families of the dying and care for them;

d) concern for the un-baptized and the unwed; bringing them to the church, that the Holy Mysteries may be performed over them;

e) to aid, with all the means at their disposal, schools for children within the parish.

f) collection of materials and funds, in accordance with pledges distributed by the parish council, signed by the pastor: for the needs of the church (this is done outside the times appointed for the divine services), for the sick, the poor, invalids, etc.

g) to help the church's warden (starosta) in acquiring and distributing religious and liturgical literature, etc.

As sorry as we are to lose her, I am glad that her terrible trial of illness is at an end, and she can be with her beloved parents and husband once more.

May her memory be eternal!

In Christ,
Matushka Ann Lardas


Here is another story about Anastasia that I included in my spiritual autobiography "A Pilgrim's Podvig":

There are many aspects of Orthodox piety that are subtle, and not the sort of thing you are likely to read about in a book on Orthodoxy, and it is these subtleties that a convert can pick up from being around those who are more deeply rooted in the Faith. One example of this was at the Vigil of the feast of the Dormition. We were singing the sticheron of the feast, which is sung after Psalm 50, and we were singing it in Slavonic. My Slavonic being far more limited, I was not emphasizing the right words, and so since there is a long prayer immediately after this hymn, Anastasia Titov took the opportunity of the pause in singing to explain to me the meaning of the hymn in order to explain what words should be emphasized. She then did an on the fly translation from Slavonic into English which was remarkably accurate (which I knew because I had the Festal Menaion in English opened to this text, and was glancing over at it as she explained. As she read the words of the hymn, and got to the part in which it says “And Peter cried aloud to thee, weeping: “O Virgin, I behold thee clearly stretched out, the life of all, and I am amazed, for in thy body the Delight of the life to come, made His abode! O all-pure one, earnestly entreat thy Son and God, that thy flock be saved unharmed,”” she read it with such warmth and piety that I was almost moved to tears. Her point was that the awe of St. Peter should be reflected in how we sing the hymn, but in making her point she expressed a love and reverence for God, the saints, and the services in a way that a book cannot. My ability to sing that hymn in Slavonic had not improved, but my ability to appreciate hymns on a spiritual level had. I was fortunate to have had such instructors.