The art and faith of pysanky

In the spring of 1988, my then seven-year-old daughter Amanda and I visited a monastery on a hilltop near Orangeville, Ontario. A short visit, but I recall it clearly with both amazement and regret.

I wish I’d asked more questions of the person we’d come to see. I would never see her again.

At the time, the structure was the only contemplative monastery of the Ukrainian Catholic Church outside of Ukraine. Only one person lived there; an elderly Studite nun named Sister Daria, dying, like her order. Cancer gets the good ones too.

Despite her illness, Sister Daria spent her days engaged in two simultaneous full-time occupations: the spiritual disciplines of prayer and contemplation, and decorating pysanky. As she bent over her eggs, she recited the Psalms and meditated.

That year alone, from January to June, Sister Daria decorated 1500 eggs for selling in order to raise money for the monastery. Twenty-five were original highly detailed drawings of Ukrainian Catholic churches in Europe. She’d designed them in honour of the millennium of the adoption of Christianity there. They would fetch high prices in the European market.

The rest of the eggs, in crisp steady lines, featured traditional patterns associated with Kiev, one of the first areas to adopt Christianity in 988 B.C. Patterns that preserved both the sacred art of pysanky and the ancient symbols of the Christian faith.

I’ve thought of that visit often over the years; of Sister Daria, gracious and kind to both Amanda and me. Of her exquisite eggs, each a sacrifice of love, each of symbol of Jesus’ resurrection. They lay by the hundreds in baskets scattered throughout the simply furnished room. Their jewel tones glowed like lamps in the shaft of sunlight peeking through a shrouded window.

Halfway through our visit, the Sister left the room for a few moments, then returned with a tray holding three cups. Amanda remembers they contained apricot juice. I remember how frail she seemed.

Before our visit, before cancer interrupted her quiet life, Sister Daria had agreed to visit our church’s women’s group to talk about her art and her faith and how the two intertwined. When that became impossible, she agreed to host me at the monastery, “so you can pass this on to the rest,” she said. “So they will remember.”

Between her cancellation and our visit, I’d bought supplies and a book and decorated a few simple eggs of my own; not following anyone’s designs; just learning the medium. I’d brought them along, hoping she would correct my technique. She called them beautiful. She called them uniquely Canadian. She told me not to stop. For fifteen years, I didn’t.

As we parted, she gave us a few of her own eggs. I treasure them.

It’s 1:16 a.m. The grandbeans will arrive at eight. A few hours ago, for the first time in sixteen* years, I lined my counter with jars, mixed up some dyes, and prepared the table with everything needed for a passing-on session. Passing on the art. Passing on the faith. And remembering Sister Daria.

*When this column appeared in newspapers earlier this week, it mistakenly read “thirteen years.” My bad, can’t add.