Of Gods and Men

I said, “You are gods, And all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men… ~Psalm 82: 6,7

It is a film made with an elegant reserve fitted to its subject. An abstract art that invites the viewer to participate in its creation. Wordless scenes. Gesture. Movement. Long, meaningful gazes. Men who have so long lived together that these are enough. A reprieve from our habitually unrestrained verbosity.

We hear the scuff of shoes against wood floors. Crunch of snow. Soft patter of rain. Bleat of sheep. Lap of lake. Earthy scrape of fork against soil. Unburdened with the din of voices. We see the slow work of filling jars with honey. Placing candles in stands. Driving sheep. Dropping seeds in earth.

Still, words have knit them together. And these words will become refuge. Psalms the brothers sing together will be peace and rest and courage when times grow excruciatingly perilous…

Eight Cistercian monks from France dwell in the mountains of Algeria. They and their Muslim neighbors live in and out of one another. Sharing bread, celebrating together, serving one another. Honor, respect, and love have grown up among them over years. When militant Muslim extremists begin a reign of terror, both are horrified. It is suggested, nearly demanded, by the authorities that the monks flee. It is not their war after all.

Or is it?

What does it mean to give your life away? Is it not enough to have given up family, position, possessions? How far is one called to go? Is it reckless to put oneself in harm’s way for another?

As each man, in community and alone, wrestles with these questions, their agony is my agony. Visible. Visceral. Violent.

They ponder the question with the village elders. “We are like birds on a branch. We don’t know if we’ll leave.” One Muslim woman answers, “We are the birds. You are the branch. If you go, we lose our footing.” And this is where, in the end, they will find their answer. They have been called to this place. To this people. You do not leave the people you love because loving them has become difficult.

It will be a costly decision.

Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to his country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.

~Penned, in the film, by Christian, leader of the community

This is a remarkable film. I was completely undone by it. It is based on the tragic Tibhirine massacre that took place in Algeria in 1996. It is an heroic story, the sort of which we know far too few. I recommend it for all persons of faith and goodwill everywhere. If you live in Nashville, you can see it through Sunday at the Belcourt. It releases on DVD in July.

*Winner of the Grand Prix, Cannes Film Festival, 2010

And Life Reigns!

It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of the mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder. ~Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

Mine was a weekend shrouded in the most delicious mystery. Mystery dread and strange. Mystery radiant and glorious. I was so undone by it that I have been thus far unwilling to attempt to write of it. Even now, I give you only the cheapest of postcards….

Friday Night, The Lament:

The funeral bier is the first thing I see. It sits in the middle of the room, lovingly bedecked with flowers. Candles burn at both ends. The room is very dark, lit mostly by candles. It is right. For the great Light has been extinguished. We stand with Joseph as he prepares the body of the Beloved. We see his tears. And together we sing songs of disbelief. Songs of lament.

Oh my sweet Lord Jesus,
My Salvation, my Light:
How art Thou now by a grave and its darkness held?
How unspeakable the mystery of Thy love.

A mother’s dirge:

Ah, my precious Springtime!
Ah, my Son beloved.
Ah, whither fades thy beauty?

Light more dear than seeing,
O my Son most precious,
How in a grave dost hide Thee?

Then, as little girls scatter rose petals all around the bier and the priest douses all of us with holy water we sing:

Myrrh, the women sprinkled,
Stores of spices bringing
To grace Thy tomb ere dawning.

We process behind the bier. Out of doors. All the way round the church. When we re-enter, we walk under the bier. Covered, as it were. His blood be on us… I take off my shoes afterwards, with some of the little girls, to feel the rose petals under my feet. Wearing the story in my body. This night we leave him in the tomb. But not asleep. Oh no, not asleep…

Saturday Morning, The Harrowing of Hell:

We read the stories of Jonah, and of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, others who were hidden but not idle. I can almost feel the earth rumble under my feet as death begins working backwards…

Today hath Hades sighed, crying, “My power hath vanished because I received a dead Man as one of the dead, but could not hold Him completely. Rather, I lost with Him those who were under my reign. From the beginning of time I have held control over the dead. But this One raised all.”

The priest moves among us tossing rose petals and bay leaves while the children beat on the backs of the seats with sticks. And we are become part of the victorious march through hell. Liberating the captives. I pick up a rose petal and a bay leaf that have fallen on the music stand in front of me. I roll them around in my fingers, inhaling their scent. The scent of freedom.

The priest begins to prepare the Eucharist directly on the funeral bier. It is one of the most devastatingly gorgeous moments of all of Holy Week for me. It is almost more than I can stand. With the sound of hammering, and of lament still ringing in my ears, I stand before the funeral bier and receive the Body and the Blood.

Finally, the priest blesses the baskets of bread and wine we have brought to share. We gather for a meal of sustenance. Our journey is almost complete. The very air vibrates with whispers of Resurrection…

Saturday Night into Sunday Morning, Great and Holy Pascha:

We gather at 11:00 and sing hymns and prayers. Just before midnight, all lights are extinguished save the flame that burns continuously on the altar. We pray for a time in the darkness. The tension is almost unbearable. Anticipation causes my heart to pound. Then the lone voice of the priest sings…

Come ye take light from the Light, that is never overtaken by night. Come, glorify Christ, risen from the dead.

The deacons take light from him. We take light from them. And the glow begins to spread across the room. We follow them out into the night. Soon a long ribbon of light wraps itself all around the building. We return to find the doors closed to us. We read of the myrrh bearing women who found an empty tomb. The priest sings prayers of praise to which we respond “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” And as we sing we thrust our flames high into the air.

Then the priest pounds on the door. “Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.” A voice from inside calls back “Who is the King of Glory?” Ten year old Katy, who has come to stand with me, looks up and smiles. It is a marvelous moment. The priest answers “The Lord Strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in war.” Three times this happens before the doors are flung open and we enter a brightly lit church to begin the celebration.

The rest of the service is cacophony and blur and light and joy. At numerous intervals, the priests run up and down the aisle with the censor–the one with the delightful bells–and shout out “Christ is Risen!” to which we respond “He is risen indeed!” They do this in a host of different languages and it is fun to try to figure out how to answer them. Father Stephen delivers St. John Chrysostom’s marvelous Paschal homily. We receive the Body and Blood of the now-risen Christ. And our joy is made full.

Following the service, we feast together well into the morning hours. And the glory of the Resurrection fills our hearts and our stomachs. And Life reigns.

His Blood Be On Us and On Our Children

 

Lights are low as we gather. Tonight we read twelve passages from the gospels that treat of the voluntary death of the Saviour. We begin with John’s account of the final moments Jesus shared with His disciples. Pouring himself into them one last time. Preparing them for what was coming. The tender prayer. For them. For us.

We read of the betrayal. The arrest. The sham trial. The denial. Of Pilate’s cowardice as he washes his hands, magically absolving him of all responsibility. But the people own their choice. “His blood be on us and on our children!” Until this moment, I have never considered the irony in their words. They mean, of course, that they are not afraid of the consequences of their actions. They cannot know yet that this man’s blood will be life to them, and their children, should they choose to accept it.

After the reading of the fifth gospel, the lights are extinguished altogether, all but the candles flickering before the icons. An ominous portent. The priest comes from behind the iconastasis dragging the cross. In one motion, we all sink to the ground. Faces to the floor. And from beneath his dark burden, he sings…

Today He is suspended on a Tree who suspended the earth over the waters.
A crown of thorns was placed on the King of Angels.
He who wore a false purple robe, covered the heavens with clouds.
He was smitten who, in the Jordan, delivered Adam.
The Groom of the Church was fastened with nails, and the Son of the Virgin was pierced with a spear.
Thy sufferings we adore, O Christ.
Makes us to behold Thy glorious Resurrection.

In the dark stillness of this moment, I hear it. The pounding of the hammer. I feel each blow like a kick to the stomach. His blood be on me. I did this.

We read of the agonizing hours on the cross. The mocking. The ultimatums. The vinegar. The aloneness. The mother. The darkness. The veil. “It…is…finished.” The spear. Blood and Water. For the saving of the nations. His blood be on us.

*In Orthodox worship we “anticipate the day”. Therefore, last night’s service commemorated the Passion of Christ. This afternoon His body will be removed from the cross and laid upon a funeral bier covered in flowers. Tonight we gather to sing lamentations for the Beloved. It is important to linger here. To allow ourselves to sink into the grief of this moment. Only those who have tasted death fully appreciate the power of Resurrection.

His blood be on us and on our children!

Oil of Gladness

Last night I hit the wall.

All distance athletes have a healthy fear of “the wall”. For marathoners it usually comes around mile 18-20. An inscrutable boundary. Despite all the miles under your feet, you suddenly are convinced you can go no further. In 5 marathons, I have never hit the wall. Oh sure, I’ve hit my lactate threshold, where I feel like I have the flu: aches, chills, nausea. I’ve even had to let go of time goals and change strategy. But the dreaded DNF (did not finish) has never seemed an option. Last night it seemed like an option.

I sat in the parking lot at church and sobbed. Physically and emotionally spent. I had talked myself out of even coming more than once. But I knew this was the place where hope was. So I dragged myself out of the car, slogged through the rain, and stepped inside. I stopped to kiss the icon of the Bridegroom and held on to it for a moment. For dear life.

Just as the chanters and the priests began singing the service, a fierce, wild storm commenced out of doors. Ferocious claps of thunder made my body vibrate. Slashes of lightening hurled themselves at the windows. Something deep inside me exulted in this. Almost as if the turmoil inside me had been unleashed upon the elements.

And they sang on. The service of Holy Unction. Anointing. Seven Epistle passages. Seven from the Gospels. About those who were sick being made well. About those who were lost being found. About those who had been restored being sent out into the world to carry life, like bread, to others. One epistle in particular lasered itself to that profoundly weary place in me…

Brethren, we do not want you to be ignorant of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us in answer to many prayers.  ~II Corinthians 1:8-11

When all seven candles had been lit and all seven passages read, the priest held the Gospel book over each of our heads and blessed us. Then we came forward to be anointed with oil.

The blessing of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; for the healing of the soul and body of the servant of God (your name here) always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

I kissed the Bridegroom again as I left. And again I lingered, this time with gratitude. Then I went out into the rain with the oil on my forehead and hands. Bandaged. Fed. Ready to run on…

We haven’t far to go, best beloveds. Keep running!

 

Make Radiant the Garment of My Soul…and Save Me

I behold Thy Bridal Chamber richly adorned, O my Savior.
But I have no wedding garment to worthily enter.
Make radiant the garment of Thy soul,
O Giver of Life and save me.

It is, for me, one of the loveliest, most poignant services of the whole church year. Bridegroom Matins. And the Church is kind enough to give it to us on three evenings of Holy Week. My story is all tangled up in here. And I sometimes feel like God and I are curled up in an armchair looking through an old photo album as He gently whispers, Remember…..

On the third evening we ponder the stories of Judas the traitor and the fallen woman.

I am the arrogant Judas, frustrated that God does not act as I think He should. Willing to take matters into my own hands. Faithless. Disloyal. Greedy. As much as I abhor his choice, it is a choice with which I am all too familiar.

I am also the fallen woman. Desperate. Without resource. Without hope. Standing outside the bridal chamber, filthy and unclothed. So broken that I would risk humiliation to pour myself out at the feet of One…the only One…who can save me.

Why is one saved and the other hopelessly lost?

When the sinful woman was offering her spice, the sinful disciple was making a bargain with the transgressors of the law. The one rejoiced in pouring out the spice so great in price, while the other hastened to sell the Priceless One. The one knew the Master, the other was separated from the Lord. She was freed and Judas became a slave to the enemy. Indifference is evil, but great is repentance

Ah for the wretchedness of Judas! For, seeing the adulteress kiss the traces of His feet, he was thinking with deceit of the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her braids, and he was bound with wrath, offering instead of spice, rotted evil; for envy knoweth not how to honor anything which is good

I belong here. In the Bridal Chamber. Not because I have done the right thing. Not because I have proved myself worthy. But because I have thrown myself upon His mercy. Because He has clothed me in His own righteousness, of His good pleasure.

Near the close of the service is sung the Troparion of Kassiani. She is my patron saint, and it is this hymn, in part, that wed my soul to hers. She has given most exquisite expression to the groaning of my soul.

A woman who had fallen into many sins
perceiving Thy Divinity, O Lord,
fulfilled the part of a myrrh-bearer,

And with lamentations
poured that sweet smelling oil of woe
on Thee before Thy burial;

Woe is me! she said.
For night surrounds me,
dark and moonless
and stings my lustful passions
with a love of sin.

Accept the fountain of my tears,
O Thou who drawest down from the clouds,
the waters of the seas

Incline to the groanings of my heart,
O Thou who in Thine ineffable self-emptying
hast bowed down the heavens.

I shall kiss Thy most pure feet
and wipe them with the hairs of my head;

Those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise
and hid herself for fear.

Who can search out the multitude of my sins,
and the abyss of Thy judgments,
O Savior of my soul?

Despise me not, Thine handmaiden,
for Thou hast mercy without measure.

“May He who is going to His voluntary passion for our salvation, Christ our true God…have mercy on us and save us forasmuch as He is good and loveth mankind.”

*All unattributed quotes from the Lenten Triodion, Bridegroom Matins service. Also, you can sample my favorite recording of the Hymn of Kassiani HERE.

Daughter of My Daughter….

I love watching her as she gazes at her baby. We converse for a while, then it happens. I watch her eyes travel to the warm bundle of soft in her arms, and she is lost. No one else exists. She studies every curve, the rise and fall of breath. And I wonder what is in her heart. But I do not ask. It is a sacred moment. I will not intrude.

On Friday, a miracle happened in the world. The sort of astonishing everyday impossible miracle that is all ordinary. And all extraordinary. A fracture. A brief opening between this world and the world beyond.

It was not so very long ago that my daughter was the warm bundle of soft. A breath. A lifetime…dresses and earrings, music and makeup, movies, slumber parties, friends, late night conversations…and now…my little girl…has a little girl.

I replay all of it. The middle of the night text telling me that little bit is on her way. The brave smiles as my daughter breathes through monster contractions. The bags packed with little girl things…by my little girl…the mommy. The nurses praising her courage, her gentleness, her calm. Her face the moment she sees her daughter…for the first time. The way my heart seems to be beating in my face, and I forget to breathe, and the air carries flecks of gold, and I am certain that on the earth there is nothing more holy than this.

There is this boy. By her side. Breathing with her, holding her hand. Bringing her ice. We are all learning our places. How to live in this way. This new way. Together. I am glad he is here. She is glad he is here. He is glad. He is smitten by the warm bundle of soft. I watch him give his heart to her. They are learning their way. The three of them. It is good.

Family gathers….

And while a wicked storm rages out of doors, the radiance of her is the light that warms us.

McKenzie Elizabeth was born at 3:37pm on Friday, April 15th. She weighs 7 pounds 10 ounces and is 19 1/2 inches long. She is pretty much the most beautiful baby girl ever. With the possible exception of her mommy. 🙂 Words are far too pedestrian to begin to treat of something as extraordinary as new life. But, inadequate though the effort may be, life is always a story worth telling. God be praised!

Soul Stink

One of the unfortunate results of a cleansing fast is the stink. Exiting toxins imbue every bodily secretion–saliva, sweat, urine–with the putrid, rotten odor of death. Death leaving the body……

I am SO over Lent!

It is making me stink.

Or rather, maybe, it is making me aware of the stink–the putrid, rotten odor of death–that dwells in me. A few days ago I sat across a table from friends–one Protestant, one Anglican, one Orthodox–each of us keeping Lent in our own way. We talked about how weary we are of Lent. How weary we are of ourselves. Petty, tired, irritable, hungry.

Consider this: In the poignant book, Unbroken, I just read about Olympic runner turned WWII flyboy, Louis Zamperini, whose plane was downed over the Pacific. In the 45 days during which he was at sea (before being captured by the enemy), he only ate every 7 or 8 days or so, IF he could snag a bird or fish. At first I thought, “How could I be so ungrateful while eating fresh strawberries and mangoes?” And then………then it occurred to me that while he was eating rancid Albatross on a boat surrounded by sharks under the burning sun on the edge of starvation, “At least he didn’t have to watch other people eating bacon!”

See what I mean?

And that’s not nearly the worst of it.

Selfishness…

pettiness…

weakness…

Putrid.

Rotten.

Death.

But….

….the earth is beginning to rumble….

Yesterday was Lazarus Saturday. If there was ever a guy with a potential stink problem, Lazarus was that guy. And yet, Lazarus defied death. Even the odor of death. Not by his own power. It was a gift. From One who loved him enough to weep over him.

And today….

Today, that One comes riding on a donkey…a parade of victory that belies the agonizing road that awaits Him. And yet, He carries LIFE with Him. I will greet Him with hope. Because I need Him. As desperately as Lazarus needed Him. I am wallowing in death. I am covered in its stench. I need LIFE

Hosanna in the Highest!! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!!

 

With All Due Respect…An Apology to the Treadmill

I see you looking at me. Those sad eyes. Full of accusation. You say to me, “Why do I not see more of you? I have provided you a convenient alternative. Why do you not love me?”

It’s nothing personal. Not exactly. It’s just that…

While it is true you offer protection from the elements, you have never taught me the smell of rain. Or how it feels when tiny drops of it fall against hot skin. From you I did not learn the silence of snow, the trickle of thaw. Or the sweetness of shade when the sun burns fierce and unguarded. You insulate me from brooding skies and from the tiny particles of cold carried in sultry air that portend rain. From the breeze that dries my sweat and creates little piles of salt. You do not lead me underneath a sapphire sky with pinpricks of diamond, where the lowing of cattle is the only sound.

You do offer me the chance to read if I am willing to move slowly. But you never carry me past gurgling streams, spring buds just gathering the courage to unfurl, unexpected fields of cornflowers or violets. Not once have I been accosted by the delirium of honeysuckle or of wild roses when I was with you. And, it has to be said, you are not much of a conversationalist. Nor do you give me the opportunity for serendipitous encounters with friends. And, while we are on this topic, you are quite exclusive. No squirrels, chipmunks, red tailed hawks, herons, or bird songs are ever to be found when I run with you.

It is true that I have taken advantage of your incline for hill training more than once. But tell me this, if the same effort could take YOU to the top of Pikes Peak or to the…end of the treadmill. Well…you see my point. And, I hope this doesn’t come across as critical, but you have a bad habit of promoting injury. That whole lack of surface change exacerbates poor technique and abuses the body. Sorry. It’s true.

Running is a discipline, to be sure. But running is also an adventure. Discovery. Dilemma. Drama. Dream.

Thank you, dear treadmill, for being there when I need you. And sometimes I have needed you. But don’t try to guilt trip me into spending more time with you. With all due respect, you are not an ideal date.

Thanks to @JeffHolton who provided provocation for this post. It was such fun to write. It took a whole of about 15 minutes…which might be obvious. 😉

The Things I Can’t Fix…

I remember reading somewhere that a baby’s cry is designed to be specifically uncomfortable to its own mother. In a hospital nursery where several babies are crying at once, it’s YOUR baby’s cry that will cause your milk to let down. It’s YOUR toddler’s cry that will propel you across a playground to rescue your little one and kiss his broken skin.

What nobody told me was that this never changes. That when my teenager or my adult child cries over a broken heart or over circumstances that are trying in the extreme, I would still feel my body course with adrenaline, ready to annihilate the enemy and make everything right. But, long gone are the days when the milk of my body or my kisses are enough to fix my children’s problems.

It is a difficult thing to not be enough.

Not wise enough. Not powerful enough. Not even whole enough to avoid mixing my own insecurities and hurts in with theirs.

Thing is, they have a Father who IS enough. Wise enough. Powerful enough. Whole enough. So why do I work SO hard to fix things myself? Why do I lie awake for hours stewing over them, worrying…repeatedly rehearsing ways I have failed them…things I wish I had done differently?

I don’t trust Him.

Not always.

I know God has used the dark, desperate places in my life to rid me of delusion, to create a fertile place in me for grace, to bring me healing. If this is true, why would I take every painful experience from my children if I could?

I am learning to divert some of my worry time to prayer. I wish it were my first resort. It is not. Yet. I am choosing to open my heart to the possibility that God has good for my babies in the hurt they walk through. To dream of what that might look like. I am learning to whisper hope over them as I hold their sobbing bodies. To gently remind them that there is One who loves them even more than I. Who is relentless in bringing beauty from ashes.

Some days are better than others. This has been a week of other.

Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.

Black Rook in Rainy Weather

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, not seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Leap incandescent

Out of the kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then —
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel.
For that rare, random descent.

~Sylvia Plath

Page 29 of33« First...1020«2728293031»...Last »