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The Lenten…Feast

Oxymoron?

Lent is a season of absence…of hunger…of longing. Beginning Monday, Christians in the eastern tradition will not eat meat, dairy or eggs until Pascha. A vegan diet is a clean diet. Plant foods digest quickly. What this means is that we will frequently know the gnawing of a stomach that is empty. And our stomachs will inform our hearts. We will wear longing in our bodies. Viscerally. An inescapable meditation.

Christians of many traditions will choose to clean other clutter from their lives during this season of preparation. Some will fast from media. Others from activity and hurry. Seeking to create a quiet space where they can hear the voice of God. And the voice of their own soul.

But Lent isn’t only absence. Church tradition also encourages us to to admit into this quiet space gentle voices that will help wash our souls. That will strengthen our spirits, even as our bodies know hunger. We need this. Lent is hard. Fasting doesn’t just rid our cells of toxins. Toxic places in our hearts reveal themselves as well. The Church will help with special gatherings unique to this season, beginning with the solemn, beautiful Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday afternoon.

Here are some other voices I will invite into my quiet Lenten space this year:

Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha This will be my third time to walk through Lent with Schmemann as my wise and winsome guide. He illuminates the exquisite services of this season making them even more lovely and profound.

Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives Elder Thaddeus was a wise and gentle spirit who cared for his people in the midst of great personal suffering. May I learn to love as he loved…to see as he saw.

Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts Gratitude is always the antidote to self-pity. In a season of want, I have an idea Ann will be a worthy companion. I have been challenged, inspired, and deeply moved by her blog. I look forward to traveling further with her.

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart Nouwen is a familiar friend. His tender, honest voice always manages to enable even hard truths find a place inside me. This teaching, drawn from the desert fathers, on solitude, silence and prayer, will be rich fuel for the journey.

David Teems, Speak To Me: For a Faith That Comes by Hearing Favorite Scripture passages, articulated in the poetry of the King James Bible, and accompanied by delicious musical artistry, sing their way into the heart. And I am drenched in fluid peace.

The Sisters of St. Paisius Monastery, A Treasury of Spiritual Songs and All-Night Vigil The hauntingly lovely music, the tenderness and truth sing silence into the room. Into me.

The Brilliance, Brilliance Rich lyric…sometimes drawn from Scripture or prayers of the saints. Elegant, spare arrangements. Profoundly beautiful.

So if you happen to hear my tummy growling, don’t worry about me. Where it really matters, I am feasting.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
II Corinthians 4:16-17

What about you? What does Lent look like for you this year? How will you go about creating a space of quiet? Who will be your companions?

Awakening…

I was a spring baby. My first draughts of air were redolent with the fragrance of new blossoms. Returning songbirds sang my lullabies. Like the tender shoots of my mother’s irises, and like my father’s wobbly kneed calves, I had spent the winter hidden. Gathering strength. Waiting…to be born.

I sometimes wonder if this is why I find the idea of rebirth so enchanting. Like God somehow hard-wired spring into my DNA so that I would always be looking for the hidden something… just waiting…

Certainly, He has worked this miracle of regeneration often enough in me. I rage with all the fury and heat of summer, throwing my fragrance, my bold colors, as far as I can. Then, in one last autumnal exuberance of flame, I give all I have.

And I am spent.

Dry. Withered. One who knows me will observe it visibly in my countenance…as wasted leaves fall…one…by…one…

Then the gentle Gardener comes to me. He trims away the unwieldy branches I have thrown too far for my own good. He tucks a winter mulch around my tired feet and invites me to rest. And I sleep. The weary sleep of one who has tried too hard. Who wanted to prove my worth…to the Gardener…to everyone….

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.  ~Aeschylus

With the first warm breezes, the Gardener clears away the mulch. He trims winter damage, feeds me, and invites me to grow. A new season. A new start. A new chance to begin again…

Today is a new start of another sort. My little blog is beginning again, so to speak. To all of you who have traveled with me over the past four years, thank you. To new friends, welcome. I hope you will visit often.

The writing will be much the same. Only the setting is different. I am enjoying the new format, but still have much to learn. This is a work that will continue to evolve. Pruning here, feeding there. Please, be patient with me. And feel free to offer suggestions. I welcome your input.

Amity,

s

P.S. For those of you who may care, the typepad site will remain active for a bit while I finish harvesting content. I have transferred the most popular posts here, though I was unfortunately unable to transfer the comments.

P.S.S. Props to my hubby for helping with the title line at top of the page.

The Four Holy Gospels

My whole body trembled with awe as I stood before it. The centuries old Book of Kells, arguably the most famous illuminated gospel in the world. An accompanying exhibit acquainted us with the painstaking process by which dedicated artists united precious pigments to vellum. It was the work of a lifetime. To create a setting worthy of the words. Of the Word.

Its magnificence gloriously conveys the sacredness…the otherness…of that which is contained within. And the beauty opens a place inside us for the words to rest.

Where are our twenty-first century illuminators?
Who is that artist capable of wedding the triumphs and tragedies of our age with the Story older than time?


CharisKairos

Makoto Fujimura is an avant garde artist living at Ground Zero in New York. He contends daily with Kairos-Chronos tension, employing ancient Nihonga painting techniques to speak with a thoroughly modern voice. His passionate, complex, exhilarating works captivate both mind and soul.

He has, very possibly, created the illuminated masterwork of our time.

MatthewConsider

As I slide the clothbound book out of its elegant slipcover, my heart pounds. A glass case had separated me from the Book of Kells. But I hold this work of extraordinary loveliness in my own hands. I turn the pages slowly, luxuriously, drinking deeply.

The large scale frontispieces are glorious! Charis-Kairos focuses on the Tears of Christtears for the atrocities of the past century and for our present darkness.” Each of the others is inspired by themes within the gospel. Read Mako’s own introductions here.

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Eighty-nine illuminated capitals begin the chapters. And each page contains gorgeous embellishments that illuminate the passage. As I read through The Four Holy Gospels, it is these that wreck me.

Some are representational and rather obvious: a fish, a serpent, a cluster of grapes. But most are subtle and leave space for you to bring your own creativity…your own story…to the page…

A splash of Nard as a woman pours herself out…
Brooding clouds…tinged with blood…over Gethsemane.
Intimations of water beside a storm tossed boat…or a baptism.
A sapphire sky flecked with gold, but with edges of a troubling gray, over Bethlehem.
Parables of the Kingdom laid against great swaths of gold.
The Passion, devastatingly conveyed with drops and smears of blood.
And finally, a tree of life…redeeming, restoring…making all things new.

Johnin the beginning

If you have never encountered the story of Christ, you could find no better introduction than The Four Holy Gospels. Or if, like me, you cut your teeth on them, I assure you they are new here.

If you splurge on only one thing this year…if you treat yourself to one bit of beauty…let it be this book. There is no part of you that will not be nourished, cultivated, challenged, inspired.

Godspeed

Godspeed

Dusk is falling on the snow out of doors. It presses against the windows in shafts of deep indigo. Flames flicker in red glass before the icons. The stillness is deeper than night. We two are alone. He and I. A pillar burns at his head and at his feet. And I read…

Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!

I see him in other days. Reverently standing before the icons. His body weary with years, but his countenance radiant. Illumined from within. I hear his gentle voice in the liturgy, “For Thou art a good God Who lovest mankind and unto Thee we ascribe glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.” And I read…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.

I remember him sitting across the table, eyes twinkling, as he recollected his childhood in Austria, and his vagabond days as a young man traipsing across Europe and India, collecting stories and seeing God with new eyes. I read…

I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.

I did not know he was a potter. An iconographer. I wish I had known him better. This I do know, he was a man of great humility. Softly he moved among us.  I read…

He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.

For almost twenty-four hours someone has stood where I stand, reading the words of the gospels over him. A last gift to this man who has given so much. Standing with him…accompanying him on his journey…to the Presence of God.  I read…

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.

In a couple of hours, the church will be packed with mourners. Six priests, some from neighboring parishes, will pray the funeral service over him, assisted by a host of deacons. We will sing of memory eternal. Then we will file before him one last time. We will bow before him as he has so many times bowed before us. We will kiss his hands, his face. Speeding him on to the great cloud of witnesses who beckon to him.

Godspeed, Father Seraphim! May your memory be eternal.

Father seraphim
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. ~Psalm 116:15

*Unattributed Scripture quotes taken from Luke 24 and the first 6 chapters of John, the portion it was my privelege to read.

On Christ Without the Church

A number of years ago, Anne Rice–famous for her Vampire Chronicles series before vampires were all the rage–made the startling announcement that she had returned to the Catholic church, exchanging atheism for a life of faith.  Recently, she again surprised readers and fans, as well as the faith community, with this post to her Facebook fan page:

“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

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She makes a number of compelling arguments in defense of her decision in a recent interview with Christianity Today.  Though I respect her integrity in following her convictions, and though I identify with a great many of her frustrations, I find I cannot embrace her solution.

There was a time when I thought I could…when I very nearly did.  Several close friends and family members had been trampled upon by arrogant, thoughtless church leaders leaving them wounded and weary.  I had personally known deep disappointment in a community into which I had poured myself for years.  I began to see the Church as an impediment; something standing between Christ and me.

It has been a painful lesson, but I have come to understand that God uses “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious” people in our lives for our salvation, just as He uses us for theirs.  They help that which is hidden in us bubble to the surface.  It’s not always pretty.  But, the Church provides a “safe” place for us to bump up against one another.  “Like iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Prov. 27:17)

I also find myself challenged, inspired, and nourished by the lovely folks in my local parish.  We feed one another.  We care for those who are hurting.  We rally around those in crisis.  We are family.

If I reject Christianity, with it’s contentious, judgmental, angry, abusive members, I also reject the thousands of believers who rush into disaster situations serving, feeding, clothing, building houses.  I reject organizations like Compassion International and World Vision who sustain and empower, one child, one family at a time.  I reject teenagers who work extra jobs so they can go love on kids in Africa.  I reject families who labor tirelessly to help orphans find their forever homes.

I confess, it is considerably more palatable to relate to a Savior who never snaps at you, who doesn’t wag on over dinner, who is not self righteous or needy.  But Christ made it rather clear that we have a responsibility to one another.  And, in his last recorded prayer, that tender lament in John 17, His fervent desire is that we be one.  It is impossible to become one with another while living in isolation.

So I’m in.   For the long haul. Do I wish we more accurately reflected Christ in EVERY action? Most assuredly!  But I hope I will always be humble enough to learn from those around me.  They have so much to teach me.

I close with words of another literary figure who had his own issues with the church.  An observation from C.S. Lewis:

If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament, and you can’t do it without going to Church. I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off.

I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.


*All bolds in the post are mine, used for emphasis, including those in both quotes.

Forgiveness

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Candles flicker.  Lights are dim.  The fragrance of incense hangs in the air.  And my priest bows…TO ME.  “Forgive me, a sinner.”  The humble dignity of this moment is too much for me.

The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world, is division, opposition, separation, hatred.  Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness: the return to unity, solidarity, love.”
~Alexander Schmemann

A father kneels before his young daughter, standing next to me.  “Forgive me, a sinner.”   “God forgives you, and I forgive you.”  They embrace.  I realize I have forgotten to breathe.

Across the room, I see one sister stand before the other.  I can’t hear the words, but I know what they are saying.  I don’t know the stories each of them carries of the other…the hurts, large and small, known and unknown.  But the radiance in their faces as they hold one another, and as smiles turn to sweet laughter, say that the slate is clean…that all is as it should be.

“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”  ~Jesus  (Matthew 6)

My dear friend stands before me.  I think of all the ways I have failed her…all the ways I wish I had been a better friend.  “Forgive me a sinner.”  It feels so small…so simple.  Her eyes tell me all was forgiven before I even asked.

My Tuesday morning Bible study ladies…  As I approach each of them, I think of the prayers, the laughter, the tears, and the truth we have shared.  I am honored to bow before them.  They are my heroes.  “Forgive me…”

This evening’s Vespers ushered us into the Orthodox Lenten season.  It happened before our eyes.  The priests and deacons changed their outer garments to purple, and precious little girls put purple cloths under the icons.  The tones of the hymns became somber.  We were reminded that just as Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden, we are exiles.  We are far from Home.

But we are journeying.  Together.  Toward the Kingdom.  Toward Home.  We begin…clean.  Tonight, in one of the most moving services I have ever been part of, each person in the church bowed before every other person, one by one, and said, “Forgive me, a sinner.”

Who could know all the stories that lay under those words?  The hurt feelings, suspicions, misunderstandings…  But tonight, we humbled ourselves and proclaimed, one to another, I am sorry for my sinfulness.  I am sorry that I hurt you.  Please, forgive me.

It was astonishingly beautiful.  I couldn’t stop weeping.  I thought of how my heart grieves when my children hurt one another, and how sweet it is to see them reconciled.  I imagined God looking down upon so many of his children tonight as they were reconciled.  His heart must be glad.

“I pray for them…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  ~Jesus  (John 17)

We closed the evening singing a Paschal hymn. “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”  We sang it in hushed voices, knowing there is yet a long, treacherous journey ahead of us.  But the words fill us with hope.

I want to travel unencumbered by unsettled business.  I am asking myself, “Where are the other relationships in my life where I need to ask forgiveness?  And who have I not forgiven?”  Forgiveness is a gift I can choose to give, even to someone who has not asked for it.

How about you?  Is there a name that has already popped into your head?  Someone with whom you need to have a difficult conversation?  Today.

Forgive me.

Sometimes I Wish I Weren’t Me

I am not thoughtless enough to complain about my circumstances.  I know my blessings far exceed my merit.  But the person inside…the one nobody sees…  Sometimes, I hate her.

I am sick to death of my lack of originality.  I battle the same demons over and over.  I am plagued repeatedly by insecurities that don’t even bother with camouflage.  They tell me the same ridiculous story and I buy it every time.  And just when I think I am gaining ground…that I have learned to recognize the lies and the deceit for what they are…they strut right back into my life and own me.  And I am sent reeling from the surprise of it.  Like some pathetic dog that crawls back to an abusive master, tale wagging, thinking that somehow this time it will be different, only to be kicked in the face.  Again.

I want to be strong.  I don’t want it to matter what people think of me.  It matters.  I don’t want to need to feel significant.  I need it.  I don’t want to have expectations of those closest to me.  I have them.  What is wrong with me?

I am tired. And sometimes I don’t want to fight any more. I don’t want to submit.  I don’t want to obey.  I don’t want to expose myself to the attacks of an enemy whose cunning is too much for me.  I want to be someone so impotent and inconsequential that he won’t care what becomes of me.  I just want to be done. Would it matter?  If I just withdraw from the game, who would care, really?  What would be different?

I wonder.

What kind of arrogance is it to think anyone wants to know about the crap inside my heart?  My friend, Anne, tells me that when we share our stories, no matter how dark and difficult they may be, we give others permission to speak.  We help them understand they are not alone.

To the best of my ability, I have used the pages of this blog to share beauty.  Words, images, and stories that speak of transcendence and the otherworldly.  But there is a dark side to the world beyond.  And that is where I find myself at present.  It’s not the first time.  Not nearly. But it is the first time I have been sure I had to write about it.

I’m not sure why.

“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love…
…Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”

Psalm 51: 1,12

Sacred Threshold

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sacred the power, being, or realm understood by religious persons to be at the core of existence and to have a transformative effect on their lives and destinies.

threshold any place or point of entering or beginning…

 

I probably should not write this at all.  I know I will not say it well.  For every breath I help you breathe with me, there will be a thousand others unbreathed. And yet, words brought me here.  I wonder how many of those who shared their words with me thought they did not say it well?  For every fragrance, every whisper of wonder, of holiness, on a page or across a table…how many others were left locked up in their hearts?  So I write.  I treat of that which defies explanation.  I invite you to peer with me inside a mystery…

Sometimes life takes the most unexpected turns. A couple of years ago I came to a place of crisis with God.  I felt I had pursued Him all my life, and that He had eluded me.  And I was angry.  Perhaps I had approached Him badly, in error, but it was not for lack of trying.  Funny how sometimes the very road we try to take to God is the one that perpetually leads us away from Him. I felt compelled to prove myself to God, as though I must earn His love.  I would have told you I did not believe this was true.  But I lived my life every day as though it were.

I came to a place of devastation when it became clear to me that I was incapable of being good enough…when I could truly see the blackness inside me.  I was in deep despair.  I felt that if I were to surrender my endless, futile attempts to find worth in myself that I would simply cease to exist.  It felt like death!

It was the best thing that ever happened to me.


“When we are nothing, we are in a fine position to receive everything from God.”
~Richard Rohr God began to woo me.  I know He has done it all my life, but much of the time I was too busy doing things ‘for Him’ to take notice.  He met me on runs and in early, quiet hours when everyone was still asleep.  He met me in novels, in poetry, and in His Word.  I saw Him in His creation and in great works of art.  He spoke His healing words to me through friends.  You know who you are.  There will never be enough words to say to you how important you have been to me.  I love you more than I can say.

Then came the most unexpected gift of all. Up until about three years ago, I had never known anyone personally who was Orthodox.  My only encounter with Orthodoxy was purely historical.  But all of a sudden, I was ambushed.  Blessed Ambush!  A friend, then several aquaintances, then a circle of beautiful, wise women, and finally a family.  Books, podcasts, music…I couldn’t get enough.  And worship! That was the most compelling of all.  Orthodox believe that in the Divine Liturgy we literally enter the Kingdom of God.  I believe it.  I believed it the very first time.  There is a blessed otherness…such a profound sense of holiness.  Sometimes I can hardly breathe for the weight of it.

Today, on Saint Nicholas Day, I crossed a threshold.  Today I became part of the Orthodox Church.  Mike and I have walked most of this last year with the congregation at St. Ignatius.  We have fasted together, celebrated together, struggled and learned together, and entered the Presence together.  My soul has been nourished in ways I could never have imagined.  And I am learning to live in God…to revel in His Presence…to come to Him honestly with all the best AND worst things about me, and to experience His joy in me.

God knew my heart so much better than I did.  He knew how to help me find Him. My friend, Monte, tells me that when a lifeguard goes to help someone in distress, he will not engage the swimmer until he stops struggling, otherwise the distressed swimmer can drown them both.  But once the swimmer has exhausted himself, then he can be saved.  Once I was thoroughly exhausted, God helped me find the means whereby I could finally know Him.

Yesterday, I made my first confession in preparation for today. I began with a written prayer, then shared those things with the priest that weighed most heavily on my heart and those that present persistent challenge.  It was a solemn and weighty experience.  He spoke words to me that Christ would have spoken had he been there.  After this, I knelt and Father Stephen placed his stole over my head. He told me that just as the stole covered my head, Christ’s blood had covered my sins.  Hot tears flowed down my face as his words planted themselves deeply within me and forgiveness became a palpable reality.

This morning, after affirming that we accept and submit to the essential tenets of the Orthodox faith, we were anointed with Holy Chrism (oil).  As Father Stephen made crosses with the oil on our foreheads, eyes, nose, ears, chest, hands and feet, he said “the seal of the Holy Spirit” and the whole congregation cried out “SEAL!!” I felt like my chest was a great ball of fire.  I could not stop the tears.  That God would be so kind to bring me to this place where I could breathe Him and wear Him when I had been so ready to walk away from Him is too much for me. Receiving the Body and Blood for the first time with my dear sisters and brothers was a completely transcendent experience.  Heart pounding, knees trembling, filled with wonder.  May it ever be so.

At lunch today my dear friend, Gail, said to my fellow celebrants, Giorgio and Mike, and to me that today we only lifted the lid to the treasure box.  She assured us that there are enough treasures inside to last us a lifetime.  I believe her.

“You do not resolve the God question in your head…it is resolved in you when you agree to bear the mystery of God.” ~Rohr

Photographs in the post courtesy of our friend Joel Smith.  At the top of the post, Mike and I with Father Stephen.  Above, with Mike and Gail Hyatt, dear friends who have been such an important part of our journey and today stood with us as our sponsors/godparents.  Also, Keith Coley and Giorgio Kemp.  Beautiful irony: Giorgio was in my third grade choir.  His mother Rhonda was my homeschooling mentor.  We have danced in and out of one another’s lives for years.  What a blessed gift to be Chrismated on the same day.  Many years, dear friend!

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