A Pilgrim Tale

As the train carries us from Bordeaux to Bayonne, I am surprised to find myself frightened. For years we have been planning for and dreaming of this moment, and now that it is upon us I feel sick to my stomach.

What if I can’t take sleeping in a room filled with stinky, snoring pilgrims?

What if it rains for days and I can’t get dry and I get pneumonia and die in some Spanish hospital and never see my babies again?

What if I was never really cut out to be a pilgrim after all and have to tuck my tail between my legs and slink off home in utter humiliation?

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Then, all of a sudden we are boarding a bus for the final miles into St. Jean Pied de Port and travelling across fresh green hillsides dotted with white plastered houses bearing striking roofs and shutters of red or green (required). Further on, the jagged, sapphire peaks of the Pyrenees stab a cerulean sky littered with wispy white clouds. And I realize that, even if all those things prove to be true, being in this place–just here, just now–is worth all the trouble.

The bus disgorges a whole gaggle of pilgrims–boots, backpacks  and all–at the bottom of the town, and so begin our first attempts at navigation, some more successful than others. Eventually we land before the door of our first Auberge, Beilari, directly across from the Pilgrim Office. We are welcomed by Maria who receives pilgrims on weekends while the owners are away. She shows us our bunks, the bathrooms, and where to put our boots. She gives us covers for our mattresses and pillows, and tells us that dinner is served at 7:30 and that the front door will be locked for the evening at 10:00.

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After depositing our packs on the floor at the end of our bunks (Never on the beds! Chinches, you understand. Bedbugs.), we head across the narrow street to queue up at the pilgrim office. Here we receive our pilgrim passport, the scallop shell that we will wear on our packs to mark us as pilgrims, a map, and a list of places to sleep.

We wander about town, travelling up to the ancient Citadel for breathtaking views out over the valley. When we return to the auberge, Maria allows us to help her put supper onto the table in the courtyard. Here we gather with strangers over a meal of soup, cheese, chorizo, bread and wine. Two hours later, we leave the table as friends, having shared the stories of love and longing, pain, devotion and curiosity that brought us here.

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Tomorrow we will be separated from several of our new friends (though we will find many of them again before journey’s end). And we will make room for new friends. This is part of the Way. Learning to live in community. And learning to let go.

O how many unknown things
You made known to me.
In how many places
You found room for me.
What was distant, Friend,
You brought near.
The stranger
You made my brother, my sister.

~Rabindranath Tagore

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*On September 14, 2015, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Mike and I began walking the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain. I had planned to blog along the way, but quickly learned there simply was not time enough in our days for blogging. So I journaled, sort of, and took lots of photos, with the hope of reconstructing the stories when we were home. My blog was down for a while in the fall for technical reasons, so I decided the cold, gray days of January might be a nice time to return to sunny Spain. I invite you to come along.

The entries will appear in the form of a travelogue, roughly one per day. I will be relying on journal notes and photos, and my memory. My fellow pilgrims are welcome to provide corrections–or additions–where appropriate.

Travel Note:

There are several roads to Santiago. The most popular is the one we walked, the Camino Frances, which typically begins in St. Jean Pied de Port (France) and ends, 800 kilometers later, in Santiago de Compostella (Spain). For the first few days pilgrims pass through Basque country, a region with a strong cultural identity, much coveted by both France and Spain. Most locals consider themselves Basque first, and French or Spanish second.

 

Metamorphosis

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My blog has had some security issues this year. As a result, it was offline in the spring when my baby boy turned 18, and when he graduated from high school. So here I offer a woefully belated coming of age post. The words are from a blessing that Mike and I had the honor of speaking over Josh at his senior formal. They give a tiny glimpse into the life of this remarkable young man that we have had the profound joy to parent.

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You were born curious. Five minutes in any hotel room and you have found all the best gadgets, secret hiding places, snacks, toiletries, AND the Gideon Bible. Never one to stay on the path, you run ahead and climb things. Ingenuous, you can figure anything out, from all things technical to how to drive a stick shift, nothing scares you. Stay hungry. Never stop learning.

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Senior formal with sweet friend Ashley. Outfit designed by Josh. Shirt hand sewn to his specifications.

The world is more beautiful and festive because there is you. Fashionista and interior designer, you integrate loveliness into all you do. As an accomplished food stylist, you transform the most humble offerings into a feast. Thank you for teaching us to celebrate every season, every day, as gift. The world is starving for beauty. Feed it.

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Convincingly incarnating both a lecherous wolf and a dashing Prince Charming in Into the Woods at the Franklin Theater

When you were 12 years old, you sang Amazing Grace at a school talent show. With the first clean, clear notes, the room fell silent and still, awed by the beauty of it. Whether leading worship, singing with friends, or acting on the stage of the Franklin Theater, you continue to leave us breathless and blessed by your artistry. Your photographs and your words compel us see the world afresh. Marcel Proust said, The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Keep seeing deep, and helping us see too.

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Best uncle ever

Your love knows no bounds. You are a generous and loyal friend; a trusted confidante to many, kind to all. Kenzie adores her uncle Joshie. When dad and I are old and can’t remember our names, we will remember the extraordinary Christmas gift you gave us two years ago, at great cost to you. Heck, we’ll probably lug it to the nursing home with us. Continue to love well, and allow others to love you.

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*photo and editorial credit Josh F Mullican

You are a true man of faith. Like every person, your life has had hard places. You have walked these with great courage and persistence. You have not been afraid to wrestle with God, to be raw and vulnerable and to ask tough questions. The result is a faith that is authentic and personal. Never stop chasing after God. He loves you so.

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Dear one, Dad and I labored over these words, wanting them to be the right ones. But, they are inadequate. We are proud of you and love watching your continual metamorphosis into the person God has designed you to be. May your days be many, and may you know much joy. I love you. Always.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young

~Bob Dylan

 

Letting Go

Imagine your departure as a metamorphosis. Through simple acts of intention and attention, you can transform even a sleepwalking trip into a soulful journey. The first step is to SLOW DOWN. The next one is to treat EVERYTHING that comes your way as part of the sacred time that envelops your pilgrimage.

~Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage

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It has been more difficult than I imagined: the weeks, days, now hours, leading up to our departure.

First, there was the injury. A stress fracture, diagnosed just 5 weeks out. Just like that, the marathon was gone. But the pilgrimage? Who could say?

Days before, I had read this admonition in the guidebook: “Remember, this is an inner as well as an outer journey. Be sure you spend at least as much time preparing your spiritual body as you do your physical body.”

Snap.

Immediately a film reel rolled before my eyes: hours spent researching lightweight sleeping bags and backpacks, reading pilgrim forums and attending presentations. And goodness know how many hours on the trail. Yet precious little time asking why I was doing this or seeking God’s design.

Until the doctor handed me the boot. Literally. “This is to protect the bone and make sure it heals straight. But mostly, it’s to slow you down. Stay off it as much as possible.”

So while I was “staying off it” and icing religiously, I decided to embrace this sudden “opportunity” to take a hard look inside. What if this was never meant to be a physical pilgrimage at all? What if there was as much for me to learn sitting here on the couch and letting go of my agenda as there was traipsing across Spain? Could I be ok with that?

I spent some time reading. The book referenced above, for starters. It made for a pretty great perspective shift. I had borrowed the book, so I filled my phone with some of the more radiant, and uncomfortable, phrases.

I pulled other books off the shelf that had been lifegiving to me and scribbled favorite passages into my pilgrim journal. I knew I would want them close to me on my journey. And even closer if the journey didn’t happen.

And I spent a good deal of time being still.

And slow.

I like to think I came to a place of being at peace with whatever God had for me in this. “Be flexible,” my friend Debra said to me on the morning of my doctor’s appointment. “Be willing to walk the path God gives you.”

Turns out the path involves starting, at least. I am cleared to go, thanks be to God. And am advised to take it slowly, a concept which is as foreign to me as the two languages I will be corrupting over the next few weeks. I know that if the pain returns, I have to stop.

Meanwhile, I find myself putting away laundry and fondly stroking the clothes I will not see for ages. In fact, all my worldly goods, at least all the ones going with me, are in that backpack you see up there. Except my sleeping bag, which I haven’t rolled up yet because I still have to treat it for bedbugs, 😳 and the one outfit that I will wear ever single solitary day from this Wednesday until October 21st. Oh, did I mention that all my worldly goods (including sleeping bag) weigh 14 pounds?

Last night, Mike innocently said to me, “Just three more nights to sleep in our own bed.” And I almost cried.

Apparently, part of what this sacred time means for me is to let go. To let go of my demands that this look the way I imagine it should. To let go of clothes, and make-up, and the flowers I had to cut down because they would become gangly and unkempt while I was gone. To let go of the house renovation project that began last week and must continue without me there to hover and get in the way. To let go of my children and the grand baby for a while and trust that they’ll be ok without me. And that I will be ok without them. To let go of friends who are hurting and trust that God will take better care of them than I ever could, and believe that my prayers might be a far better gift than my presence.

It is begun. We leave on Wednesday, God willing. And I will make every attempt to report here from time to time. As best I can. On my phone. Which will not really be functioning as a phone because that costs a million dollars, but as a wifi receptor/the world’s smallest computer. This is my first attempt at posting from my phone so the jury is still out on how that works.

But I am letting go of that.

By the way, I write as though you know what I am talking about, which might not be the case at all. So, if you are new round here: my hubby and I are off to walk an ancient pilgrimage route across Northern Spain. The Camino de Santiago. It culminates at the tomb of Saint James, Apostle of our Lord. 500 miles, give or take. God willing, we hope to commence on the Feast day of the Elevation of the Cross (Monday, 14 September). Two days before this, Mike will run the Marathon du Medoc in Pauillac, France. Alas, I will be cheering him on from the sidelines.

p.s. I corrected the photo on my computer, otherwise it would have appeared on your screen sideways. Incidentally, I didn’t even know it was sideways on my phone. So, be warned, you might have to stand on your head, or at least turn your computer sideways to see the photos I upload into these posts… 😜

 

 

 

Further Up and Further In

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There is no remedy for love but to love more.
~henry david thoreau

It might have been reckless to become engaged only two months after meeting. It might have been reckless to marry only seven months after that. I can’t really say.

This I do know: I expected a great deal of my husband. I believed he would right every wrong in my world, fill all the empty spaces in me. I would, of course, do the same for him. And this would be as natural as breathing. Because we loved each other.

This way of thinking might have been was reckless.

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What we have learned over the 28 years between then and now is that people who love one another experience extravagances of joy together they would never be able to know alone. These same people are also uniquely qualified to cause hurts deeper than those inflicted by the worst enemy. We have known our share of both of these. Our friend Heather said it this way, “Your testimony is broken, battered, beautiful, & redeemed.” That about sums it up.

What we have also learned is that God can use all of this, the sweet and the bitter, to draw us to Himself. The marriage we have today has a richness and a loveliness we did not even know to wish for in the early days. And that is a testament to God’s extravagant grace, to forgiveness 70 x 70 x 7 times, and to friends who fought with us and for us when we were unwilling to fight for ourselves.

In the six years since we have come into the Orthodox Church, we have been privileged to be part of a great many weddings and marriage blessings. Marriage is a sacrament. Therefore, a wedding is seen by the Church to be, not so much a declaration of our intention to love one another, but a vessel of the mystical grace of God. This is a wondrous mystery.

Asking for the blessing of the Church seemed a fitting next step in the work that God has been doing, and continues to do, in our lives. A further grace.

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So on Saturday we gathered with a handful of dearly loved ones before the altar. The prettiest little girl in the world padded barefoot down the aisle in a white dress that once was her mother’s, carrying crowns on a silver tray. And the priest blessed her and took the crowns. And I walked down the aisle on the arm of this good man who I finally understand is God’s provision for me. The epistle reading was St. Paul’s exhortation to husbands and wives, and the gospel was Christ’s first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana.

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Father Stephen began his homily with this prayer from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,

“O Lord our God, Whose dominion is indescribable, and Whose glory is incomprehensible, Whose mercy is infinite, and Whose love for mankind is ineffable: Do thou thyself, O Master, according to Thy tender compassion, look upon us, and upon this holy temple, and deal with us, and them that pray with us, according to Thine abundant mercies and compassions.”

He spoke of the great love that moved the indescribable, incomprehensible, infinite, ineffable God to make a way for us to know Him, so that all of our life can be a progression towards God. And this grace, this sacrament, was an important part of this progression.

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Then he crowned us to one another–crowns that speak both of authority and of martyrdom, and gave us to drink from a common cup, then covered our joined hands and led us three times around the altar.

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And my heart was full.

As Father Stephen reminded us, we are embarked on a journey that continues into eternity. And his prayer for us was that, just as in Cana when the best was served last, the richest and sweetest wine was still to come. May it be so.

This is a significant waymark.

A “thus far”.

A further grace.

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Further up and further in, my love…

__________________

*Many thanks to our dear friend Joel who took all the photos in the post (except Father Stephen blessing Kenz which was taken by Josh. Thanks, Josh. :)).

**The phrase “Further up and further in” is borrowed from C. S. Lewis who uses it in the Last Battle, a favorite at our house.

***Thank you, Alece, for Thoreau. His words are perfect.

****If you would like to see more photos, your can find them HERE.

The Mystery of Art

MysteryThere is a fairly good chance that you know Jonathan Jackson as an Emmy award winning actor from television shows like General Hospital and Nashville, or from films like Tuck Everlasting and The Deep End of the Ocean. You might even know him as part of the band Enation. What you might not know is that he is also a philosopher poet, a budding theologian, and an Orthodox Christian. All of this coalesces in his new book, The Mystery of Art, a beautiful and compelling articulation of what it means to be “an artist in the Image of God.”

Following in the tradition of artists like Flannery O’Connor, C.S Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Makoto Fujimura and others who have spoken insightfully about the intersection of art and faith, Jonathan stitches together wisdom from saints, authors, filmmakers, and friends with stories and observations of his own to clean the lens of our perception.

This is one of the most thought provoking books I have read in a long time. I frequently find myself recalling passages and ruminating on them even though it’s been two months since I read it. I wanted to include more than twice as much of the author’s content in the post than is here. Whittling it away has been excruciating. So, I will keep my remarks brief and mostly let the author speak for himself. I hope you will be intrigued and read the book so that you too may be nourished and inspired.

Whoever wants to become a Christian, must first become a poet. ~St. Porphyrios

In the introduction, the author invites us to remember a Christianity that “experienced Christ by means of a holistic, sacramental, and artistic reality” and to embrace art’s unique ability to penetrate to the heart of things.

Whenever an artist brings someone into the presence of meaning, in that moment his work becomes incarnational instead of ideological…he awakens the heart to a deeper significance.

Art as Beauty:

Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky

Because we are made in the image of the Creator, we ourselves are creative, regardless of vocation. “We are artists in the way we love. We are poets in the way we pray.” In this, we operate in concert with the Trinity:

The artist is never more himself than when his heart is united with the Holy Spirit; when he approaches his craft as a kind of symphony with God.

Art as Mystery and Madness:

Man is at once glorious and broken–magnificently radiant and deeply wounded.

We are all familiar with the image of the suffering artist. This suffering can be “destructive, narcissistic, and tormented” or “therapeutic, selfless, and holy“. Dostoevsky is given as an example of one whose “inner illumination” made it possible to “transform his suffering and give it meaning.”

Art as Prayer and Intercession:

The artist is to become a living prayer.

With personal examples of roles that brought him close to the sufferings of others, Jonathan explains how these became unique opportunities to intercede on behalf of these people; to stand with them in their pain.

The artist’s performances are destined to become not only seamless acts of prayer but also holy acts of intercession. The spiritual artist creates from a place of wounded love and humility–like Christ.

Art as Listening:

If there were a little more silence, if we all kept quiet…maybe we could understand something. ~Federico Fellini

Silence teaches the artist to listen–it creates space inside of him to discover secrets and encounter mysteries. To be silent before anything or anyone is an act of humility…Humility has no reason to hide or falsify itself. Therefore, silence teaches the artist how to tell the truth.

Art as Belief:

The most brilliant artists possess the gift of faith, whether they are conscious or subconscious participants in this grace.

Art as Prophecy:

Creating is meant to be a form of prophecy…To be prophetic means to live in communion with the Spirit. His intentions become the artist’s intentions, through ceaseless prayer, love-filled repentance, and the transformation of the mind…When an artist abandons the illusion of autonomy, he becomes a vessel of the Divine Flame…

Contrived art for the sake of preaching to people is an offense to the mystery and sacredness of creation. Beauty and honesty are the primary inspirations of the artist: he trusts the grace and presence of the Holy Spirit to lead hearts into the truth. The prophetic artist is one who breaks open the remembrance of humanity, creating an atmosphere for the Spirit of God to breathe new life into creation.

Art as Sacrament:

Poetry is unhindered paradox and contradiction. It seeks to communicate something mystically before that thing can be apprehended cognitively. It is the music of words.

We have become a dualistic society, opposing the physical world to the spiritual. But this was never meant to be. We were created to be fully integrated beings. There is a physicality that is absolutely essential to faith. “Human beings are, in a very real sense, symphonic creatures.”

Art as Offering:

It may seem strange to portray events and characters that are not holy and beautiful or to write songs about troubled souls. But, in reality, it is not strange at all. Who better to prophetically enter into the depths of humanity than those who are living in ceaseless prayer with God?…The holiness of Christ brings us closer to humanity: closer to our true beauty and fearsome darkness. Any talk of Christianity that displays a haughty distance toward the brokenness and vulnerability of humanity has nothing to do with Christ.

Rejoice, O Artists:

Our society seems to think that joy is a conflict-free, lucid state of contentment. It is not. It is an act of rebellion: a holy and sacred rage…It is not placid, passive or docile. It is the madness of love.

One of the lovely gifts of the book is the inclusion of several original poems and prayers. I close with a short excerpt from one of those (from the chapter Art as Mystery and Madness).

O Spirit of Grace, you are complete and utter bliss. You are the ecstasy of a thousand kisses beneath the ocean. You are the rain of restoration and hope. You are the trembling inside my frame. You are the tears that have no end. You are the lightning of inspiration within my temple of wanderings. You are the heart of desire and the warmth of intimacy…Wisdom is your presence. Salvation is your embrace. Heaven is to be seen by you. I fall into your arms of love…

*All quotes in the post taken from the book. All unattributed quotes: Jonathan Jackson.

The Lenten Spring Has Come!

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The lenten spring has come!
Let us begin the time of fasting in light!
Preparing ourselves for the spiritual efforts.
Let us purify our soul; let us purify our body.
As from food, let us abstain from all passion
and enjoy the virtues of the spirit,
So that perfected in time by love
We may all be made worthy to see
the Passion of Christ and the Holy Pascha
In spiritual joy!
~from the Lenten Triodion

Spring Cleaning

It is a time honored tradition, even in Appalachia where I grew up and where we were anything but liturgical. Of course, it is not the only time we clean our houses. But this is a time for going deep. For pulling furniture away from the walls to get to the cobwebs and dust bunnies. For washing windows. For pruning rosebushes and clearing planting beds.

And so it is with our souls. How perfect that Lent is a springtime affair! As I expose and scrub the dark recesses of my home, I ask my loving Father to expose the dark places in me and make them clean. As I prune away the detritus of last season’s growth, the rot and ravages of winter, I invite the Gardener to cut away that in me which contaminates, impeding my growth.

Lent is the liberation of our enslavement to sin, from the prison of “this world”. ~Alexander Schmemann

In the Orthodox church, there are two primary focuses as we commence our lenten effort: fasting and forgiveness.

The Holy Therapy of Fasting

Alexander Schmemann describes the “holy therapy of fasting” as “the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal…our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter and the world.” He points out that Adam’s fall was an act of eating, a grasping for sustenance that was not communion with God but reliance on what he could provide for himself; a transgression of which I too often am guilty. Conversely, Jesus began His work of restoration with a period of fasting…

Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ in the desert. He came to two hungry men and said: eat, for your hunger is the proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said: man shall not live by bread alone, but by God. ~Schmemann

Ours is a prescribed fast. We do not eat meat, dairy, or eggs for the whole of Lent. Olive oil and wine are permitted only on weekends. Vegetables digest very quickly and hunger becomes a familiar companion. And the hunger in my belly becomes my teacher.

In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored…Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. ~Schmemann

Forgiveness

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. ~Schmemann

Lent officially begins for us with the beautiful service of Forgiveness Vespers. It is one of the most meaningful services of the whole year. One by one, we bow before each member of the church and say these words, “Forgive me, a sinner,” and in response hear the sweet words “God forgives and I forgive.” Then we embrace. Who knows how many hurts are carried into that room? Yet not one person refuses to bow. Not one refuses to forgive.

This year I delighted in watching four year old Titus continually press ahead in the crowd, so eager was he to ask the next person to forgive him. And I thought of what it means to have that planted deep in him at this age. May he ever be this eager to seek restoration. May we all.

Wash me with my tears, O Saviour, for I am defiled by many sins. Therefore I fall down before Thee: I have sinned, have mercy on me, O God. ~Lenten Triodion, Forgiveness Vespers

The Church strengthens us in this, our first week, with nightly services. Three nights we will pray the penitential Canon of St. Andrew. And the prayers and the prostrations begin to weave repentance into our very cells.

I have discoloured Thine image and broken Thy commandment. All my beauty is destroyed and my lamp is quenched by the passions, O Saviour. But take pity on me, as David sings, and ‘restore to me Thy joy’…As precious ointment, O Saviour, I empty on Thine head the alabaster box of my tears. Like the Harlot, I cry out to Thee, seeking Thy mercy: I bring my prayer and ask to receive forgiveness. ~Lenten Triodion, Canon of St. Andrew

Soul Food

Even as we discipline and deny our bodies, we are encouraged to feed our souls. In addition to availing myself of the services the Church so kindly provides to us in this season, I am also nourishing myself with Scripture and with good books.

Last year, I made a commitment to begin memorizing the words of Christ. I began with the Sermon on the Mount because it is three chapters of uninterrupted teaching. I was surprised by two things: How relatively easy it was to learn (because God honored and blessed the endeavor, I am quite sure) and by how much I have come to treasure those words. When I have difficulty sleeping, I recite them and they still my mind and bring me rest. I rehearse them when I am washing dishes or working in the garden. And it is remarkable how often I have needed those words to share with someone and there they were. I also committed John 17 (my favorite chapter in the whole Bible) to memory. Over the course of Lent, I hope to add chapters 14-16 of John. To hold in my heart those dear words He shared with His beloveds in His last hours on the earth is of inestimable worth.

Here are the books I will be reading. All are re-reads, save The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This book is read in monasteries all over the world each year at Lent. This year, I am joining them.

Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann
The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus
The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton
The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris

A blessed Lenten journey to you all.

Regarding Oscar

The 85th Academy Awards® will air live on Oscar® Sunday, February 24, 2013.

A well made film has a remarkable ability to carry us deep inside the life of another person, another time, another place. It enables us to share the grief and the delight, the heartaches and dreams of persons very unlike us and, in the process, to know ourselves. Some films make us uncomfortable. Some of them help us imagine a world that is nobler and more whole. The very best of them leave us better than they found us.

Eight of these are Academy Award nominees this year for best picture. This is a diverse company, each outstanding in its own way. Though I am unqualified to make predictions about winners, here are my strictly personal viewing notes.

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American Sniper is a modern day hero tale. In Chris Kyle, superhuman vision and marksmanship are wed to a strong sense of loyalty and honor. He finds himself in a place that is more dark and difficult than most of us can even imagine, but for a moment we are there with him. Through his eyes, we taste the terror, the incessant tension and necessary vigilance, the impossible life or death choices that are his every day. We share the whiplash of moving back and forth between the relative safety and ease of life stateside and the horror that is life on the battlefield. And we see its terrible personal cost.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this film.

At every service in the Orthodox Church we pray for our armed forces in defense of freedom everywhere. I never hear those words now without a catch in my throat and a picture of what it is costing them every day to be there on my behalf.

Bradley Cooper gives an astonishing performance in this film. He is a worthy contender for best actor.

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Birdman:

A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

This quote on Riggan Thomson’s dressing room door sets the tone for the film. It is, at heart, an exploration into what gives us worth. Michael Keaton plays an actor who became famous in the role of an iconic superhero some twenty years ago. His fans are not the only ones who have a difficult time separating the man from the myth. Birdman seems to have become an alter ego. A voice he can’t get out of his head. Riggan’s hold on reality is tentative at best.

But he is trying. Trying to shake off a false self he has worn for far too long. Trying to make up for some of the mistakes of the past. Trying to say something worthwhile with his life.

He is not the only one. His daughter Sam is fresh out of rehab and is struggling to stitch together the fragments of her life, while working in the unenviable position of production assistant to her father. Emma Stone gives an extraordinary performance in this role and is hands down my pick for best supporting actress. Broadway darling and diva, Mike Shiner, who is a last minute addition to the cast, adds to the whole existential dialogue, confessing to Sam that the only time he feels like he is telling the truth is when he is on stage.

Michael Keaton is utterly believable in this film, even when he is doing unbelievable things. A stellar performance. And Zach Galifianakis is a great surprise, rendering the role of best friend and tether of sanity, Jake, with dramatic intensity.

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Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years using the same cast. It is impossible to overstate the impact of watching these same people evolve, year after year after year. Sometimes, just watching the character appear on screen with a new haircut (or new piercings) tells something about who he has become before he says anything.

Life is less than perfect for Mason whose single mom is stretched to her limits providing for two kids, and working to improve their situation. Dad is frequently absent, but is all in when he is around. They move too much, and there are a couple of drunken, abusive step-dads along the way. But there is a lot of wonderful too. Baseball games and camping trips, bowling, and bed time stories, and good friends.

This is a coming of age story, with all the best and the worst of what it means to grow and change, to win and lose, to leave and come home. These people become so real that sometimes I feel like I am watching home movies and not an award winning film. And Mason and his sister are not the only ones growing up before our eyes. Mom and Dad are also finally growing into themselves.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel is an absolute delight. The language, the cinematography, the subtle humor, and the lavish ostentation are a veritable feast. Monsieur Gustave H is the consummate hotel concierge; genteel, precise, punctiliously polite. This wins him many admirers and friends. But when a fabulously wealthy admirer leaves to him a very valuable painting in her will, he finds himself accused of her murder.

Thus begins a great adventure which includes, among other things, a daring escape from prison, a snowy pilgrimage to an alpine monastery, a deadly encounter with the henchman employed by the deceased woman’s family, and a shoot out in the upper gallery of the hotel. In all of this, he is aided by his protege, young Zero Moustaffa, the lobby boy. He is vindicated in the end, but alas his life is cut short by an encounter with militants aboard a train.

This is not a film that will change the world. But, it is quirky and compelling and nourishes that part of me that loves the creative and the beautiful. I have seen it twice already and am not done yet.

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The Imitation Game:

Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

Alan Touring has always lived on the outside. He has a brilliant intellect, but little understanding of how to interact with others. Yet, untold thousands owe their lives to this outsider.

He becomes the unlikely leader of a team tasked with breaking the enigma code. This unmerry band of confederates will fight and claw and mistrust one another.

And accomplish the impossible.

However, it is decided that it would be a tactical error to let the Germans realize that their code has been broken. This leads to the excruciating task of deciding when to intervene and when not to. Who lives and who dies? It also means that these genius code-breakers will not be properly recognized for their extraordinary contribution until many years later. But this is not the greatest trial Touring must endure.

Early in the story we realize Touring is gay. He experiences a very difficult loss at boarding school when a young man who has become very dear to him dies. He experiences loss again when he realizes it would be selfish to marry his colleague Joane, even though he loves her, because he can not be in all ways a husband to her. But the most tragic loss comes at the end of the film. When, following an investigation into a break in at his home, Touring is found to be homosexual, he is prosecuted for indecency. He is forced to endure medical treatments for two years, intended to reverse his condition. They destroy his health and his mind and eventually drive him to end his own life. It is an outrageous tragedy.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives a compelling and sympathetic performance, complete with all the necessary idiosyncrasies of genius. A challenging and ennobling film.

Are you paying attention? Good. If you are not listening carefully, you will miss things. Important things.”

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Selma

If I have been able to see further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” ~Sir Isaac Newton

Selma introduces us to some of these giants. From the intimate portrait of Dr. King and his lovely and courageous bride, to the snapshots of ordinary men and women who risked everything to make the world right, this film allows us to step inside their lives for a space. To feel the anguish of being dehumanized and unheard. To feel trapped by a system that every day betrays the ideals it espouses.

These were men and women with the audacity to imagine a world that did not yet exist, and with the courage to make it be so. Many of them did not live to see their dreams come to pass. But they believed in the inevitability. Knowing them, being with them, makes each of us more human.

Every day you and I live in a grace purchased for us by the courageous acts of those who have come before us. May their memories be eternal.

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The Theory of Everything

Three things I have “known” for some time about Stephen Hawking: Brilliant physicist, pernicious atheist, physically challenged.

Labels. Categories.

“The Theory of Everything” makes him real.

In this film he becomes curious and funny, quirky and disorganized, and vulnerable. I was surprised to like him so much. His relationship with Jane is sweet, and terrifying, like all relationships are at the start. But in her he finds a partner of great fortitude and persistence who pushes through the hardest trials, and in the process, calls out the very best in him.

While I certainly disagree with a good bit of his philosophy, I must admit that his story is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit.

As acknowledged by the Golden Globes, Eddie Redmayne gives an outstanding performance in a very demanding role. And Felicity Jones is lovely. (Though I am still rooting for Emma Stone)

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Whiplash

If you have ever given your sweat and blood to something you love, especially if that something is music, if you know that anything worth having comes at a price, you will find yourself in this film. It is visceral and intense. I literally found myself feeling nauseous at times.

The pin-ups on the wall of Andrew Nieman’s room are drummers. The greats, like Buddy Rich. Someday, he wants to be one of them. And to make it be so he practices relentlessly, til his fingers bleed. When we meet him he is a first year at Schaffer Conservatory of Music.

Enter Terrence Fletcher, prestigious (and feared) director of the studio jazz band at Schaffer who invites Nieman to take the position of alternate drummer. Nieman quickly discovers that Fletcher employs a vocabulary of terror and intimidation to push players past their perceived limits and to their ultimate potential.

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.

The film is shot mostly in tight frames: in practice rooms, at a table with not enough air, in a crowded theater. This contributes to the palpable feeling of entrapment. There are plot twists aplenty, and just when you think you know where it is going, you don’t. But everything fits. And it goes where it should in the end, whether that’s where you wanted it to go or not.

J.K Simmons is extraordinary in this film as a bad-ass masochist whose conducting hand conveys just enough tender, artistic underbelly to make him human. If he does not win the Oscar for best-supporting actor, it is a travesty.

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It has been a good year at the movies, and  I am grateful to artful storytellers who give us all the opportunity to see the world through their lens.

May your tribe increase.

The Cash Legacy

I had the great good fortune to be born into a family that sings. All the time. Rare is the family gathering without guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, piano, or at least a hymnbook. The afternoon after we laid my grandmother to rest, we crowded into the front room of the farmhouse on the hill, still so full of her presence, and sang with my grandpa. The old familiar hymns were balm to his aching heart. And ours.

Maybe your family doesn’t look like that. But you can get a little taste of what it might be like. Of course, in this case, your family will be made up of Broadway caliber vocalists and Nashville front line players. And the songbook: all Cash.

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The Cash Legacy: A Musical Tribute to the Man in Black is the newest original offering from Studio Tenn. Billed by its creators as a “theatrical concert”, it has the ease of those family gatherings. One song moves fluidly into another without the intrusion of dialogue. Now a rip-roaring hand-clapper with everybody piling in. Then a ballad that is so tender, so personal, all you can do is listen and let the hurt of it, the beautiful truth of it, seep into those places inside you that need it.

It is an evening of memorable moments, but here are a few that have been playing themselves over and over in my head all day…

The evening opened with “Daddy Sang Bass”, plus a little taste of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. It was a lovely invitation to all of us to enter in. My brother and I liked to sing this one when we were little, so right from the get go I had my first personal connection. In a poetic turn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” came back round at the end, except by then we had cried and laughed and sat in this rich music together so that we had grown into one another and all felt part of that circle. I don’t think anyone wanted it to be over.

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Carrie Tillis sat on the edge of the stage with an autoharp in her lap and brought her easy grace to “I Still Miss Someone”. Others began to add harmonies so gentle that I was not sure when they began. Ridiculously talented guitarist, Jake Bradley, showed us his vocal side when he joined Tillis for “Long Legged Guitar Pickin Man”. Their exchange was so playful and fun to watch. Clearly both were having as much fun as we were.

One of the most compelling ensemble pieces was the bluesy “Five Feet High and Rising” where they sang into and out of each other so seamlessly I swear they were breathing together.

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The first time Griffin House stepped up to the mic, my mouth fell open. He sounds remarkably like Johnny Cash. Not in an affected way. Just a tone that is so very like. He and Laura Matula joined forces on the iconic “Ring of Fire”, and both honored it and made it their own, their voices a delicious pairing.

House made me laugh til I hurt, not once, but twice. First on “Busted” which he began singing and strumming while lolled out on the couch. His facial expressions while he poked fun at his ill fortune were priceless. But even better was “A Boy Named Sue”. Sitting on the steps with a bottle in his hand and confiding to his listeners his ironic story in rapid cadence with the most hysterical faces, he had us all laughing out loud.

Laura Matula broke my heart with “Give My Love to Rose”. Truth is, I might have teared up just writing about it. It was a powerful moment. She poured herself out in this song and sang it with such empathy I could see her kneeling at the railroad tracks with this dear, dying man, holding his face in her hands. I have included a video of her singing the song at Sun Studios, where Johnny made so many records, so she can break your heart, too.

I have seen Matula in several Studio Tenn productions, but last night she was dazzling. Girl got some pipes and when she is singing all out, I feel it in my chest. Because she is also a gifted actress, she is captivating to watch. Especially fun was her sassy delivery of “Cry, Cry, Cry”.

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Patrick Thomas was one of my favorites in last year’s The Hank Legacy, and he did not disappoint last night. His powerful voice was just right on “I walk the Line”. And when he sang “The Man in Black”, I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. But I especially loved seeing him with Matt Haeck on “The Unclouded Day”. Face to face, guitar to guitar, they sang this favorite hymn from my childhood like they meant it, and it was all I could do not to sing along.

Sara Jean Kelley showed considerable range, from the quiet, plaintive “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to the lively and playfully vindictive “Jackson” (a duet with Haeck).

All three girl singers gathered round the piano for a sweet and spare trio setting of “Flesh and Blood”. Do you remember those albums Dolly, Linda and Emmylou recorded a number of years ago? Their exquisite harmonies reminded me of those. I kept forgetting to breathe.

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When Matt Haeck stepped quietly into the spotlight with only his guitar and began to pick broken chords, slow and purposeful, I knew it was time for “Hurt”. I had been waiting for it all night, but wasn’t ready for it. Not a sound in the hall but his voice and the lean chords. And every heavy, sorrowful day was in that moment. When you can barely put words to the grief. Then the grieving builds and you feel like you are dragging an impossible weight and everything is so loud and the piano is pounding those incessant octaves and it builds and builds until you think your heart will burst.

And then…

Not a sound in the hall but his voice and the lean chords.

And the silence hangs after.

And still it ends too soon.

I beg you to do yourself a favor and see this show while you can. It plays til March 6 (including Johnny’s birthday, Feb. 26). Get your tickets HERE.

*All photographs and videos in the post copyright Anthony Matula www.ma2la.com

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It all began this morning when Mike and I arrived in the bathroom at precisely the same time to take a shower; I because Kenzie was arriving soon and this was my window, he because he had to leave for a meeting. Of course, he assumed I would yield to him. Because he has the job that actually pays money, I guess. He didn’t say that. But he did get the first shower.

And all day I have wrestled with an issue that has been pestering me, drooping from the front edge of my brain for weeks now. What is it that I do? Who am I anyway? A friend I haven’t seen in some time innocently asked me, just this morning, what I am doing these days. One of my kids even asked, not that long ago, how I fill my time now that all but one of them is grown.

I don’t know. How do I?

God knows, I am not writing. If you have ever followed this blog, you know that. I don’t know why I stopped. But, I can’t seem to make myself start back. When I was writing every day, there was less pressure. So…one day I ramble or write something no one cares about? Maybe next day will be better. But now, when I haven’t written for two months, it should be something really good, right? And I can’t handle the pressure. So I don’t write anything. I just sit around resenting the people who are out there doing it every day. People whose lives are far more productive than mine. And still they find time to write. Still they have something to say.

And maybe that’s it.

Maybe I have nothing worth saying anyway.

How can I be this old, and this tired, and have accomplished so little?

Sure, I have raised some pretty great kids. But so have plenty of other folks who also held down full-time jobs and brought home a pay-check every week. And the truth is, though I love my kids and am proud of them, not one of them has had an easy road. So what was it that I thought I could give them by walking away from a job that I loved and giving myself entirely to being their mom? Would they have been better off if I had been less involved?

I honestly don’t know.

This past Sunday, the teaching of the Church was on the Pharisee and the Publican. Humility. And I sat and piously nodded my head and resolved to spend some time this week thinking about that. But I am pretty sure self-loathing, and rage against feelings of being invisible and under-appreciated and maybe having wasted my life thus far, are not exactly what the priest had in mind.

On the up side, I gave myself permission to write it all down. On the not so up side, it kind of looks like so much vomit on the page and I wonder if, in a couple of hours, I will pull it all down and hope nobody saw it.

Here is what I really wish I knew: What is it that gives value to a life? How do you know if you are doing/being that kind of person, the one that matters, the one whose absence will be felt, the one whose presence will live on, long after they have gone?

The Radical Defiance of Giving Thanks

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Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. ~I Thessalonians 5:18

Much of the time I feel like I lead a charmed life saturated with beauty and grace. Gratitude, for me, is as natural as breathing. But there have been seasons in my life when choosing to be grateful was an act of radical defiance. A trembling candle held out against the gathering dark. Maybe you know what that feels like. Maybe you are there now.

Gregory Petrov knew. A priest, he had been imprisoned by revolutionary forces in a Siberian gulag. Here, he would meet his death. In his personal effects, they found a prayer. He had titled it “Glory to God for All Things”–words uttered by St. John Chrysostom as he was dying in exile. An act of radical defiance. “A song of praise from amidst the most terrible sufferings.”

Last night we prayed his words. At times, their piercing loveliness caught in my throat. My heart swelled and my eyes filled with tears.

Wherever you find yourself on this day, I offer you his words. Perhaps they simply give voice to the deep joy in your heart. But, perhaps they are a vehicle for you to ride into a place of gratitude. A borrowed thanks. A radical defiance against your own gathering dark.

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O Lord, how lovely it is to be Thy guest. Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds. All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness. Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Thy love. Blessed art thou, mother earth, in thy fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last for ever, in the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, the cry rings out: Alleluia!

Thou hast brought me into life as into an enchanted paradise. We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing. We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams. We have tasted fruit of fine flavour and the sweet-scented honey. We can live very well on Thine earth. It is a pleasure to be Thy guest.

Glory to Thee for the Feast Day of life
Glory to Thee for the perfume of lilies and roses
Glory to Thee for each different taste of berry and fruit
Glory to Thee for the sparkling silver of early morning dew
Glory to Thee for the joy of dawn’s awakening
Glory to Thee for the new life each day brings
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

How glorious art Thou in the springtime, when every creature awakes to new life and joyfully sings Thy praises with a thousand tongues. Thou art the Source of Life, the Destroyer of Death. By the light of the moon, nightingales sing, and the valleys and hills lie like wedding garments, white as snow. All the earth is Thy promised bride awaiting her spotless husband. If the grass of the field is like this, how gloriously shall we be transfigured in the Second Coming after the Resurrection! How splendid our bodies, how spotless our souls!

Glory to Thee, bringing from the depth of the earth an endless variety of colours, tastes and scents
Glory to Thee for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature
Glory to Thee for the numberless creatures around us
Glory to Thee for the depths of Thy wisdom, the whole world a living sign of it
Glory to Thee; on my knees, I kiss the traces of Thine unseen hand
Glory to Thee, enlightening us with the clearness of eternal life
Glory to Thee for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

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When the sun is setting, when quietness falls like the peace of eternal sleep, and the silence of the spent day reigns, then in the splendour of its declining rays, filtering through the clouds, I see Thy dwelling-place: fiery and purple, gold and blue, they speak prophet-like of the ineffable beauty of Thy presence, and call to us in their majesty. We turn to the Father.

How near Thou art in the day of sickness. Thou Thyself visitest the sick; Thou Thyself bendest over the sufferer’s bed. His heart speaks to Thee. In the throes of sorrow and suffering Thou bringest peace and unexpected consolation. Thou art the comforter. Thou art the love which watches over and heals us. To Thee we sing the song: Alleluia!

When Thou didst call me to serve my brothers and filled my soul with humility, one of Thy deep, piercing rays shone into my heart; it became luminous, full of light like iron glowing in the furnace. I have seen Thy face, face of mystery and of unapproachable glory.

Glory to Thee, transfiguring our lives with deeds of love
Glory to Thee, making wonderfully Sweet the keeping of Thy commandments
Glory to Thee, making Thyself known where man shows mercy on his neighbour
Glory to Thee, sending us failure and misfortune that we may understand the sorrows of others
Glory to Thee, rewarding us so well for the good we do
Glory to Thee, welcoming the impulse of our heart’s love
Glory to Thee, raising to the heights of heaven every act of love in earth and sky
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but Thou canst restore a conscience turned to ashes. Thou canst restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With Thee, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. Thou art love; Thou art Creator and Redeemer. We praise Thee, singing: Alleluia!

Glory to Thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

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*I assigned myself the arduous task of choosing only a few stanzas to share with you. I encourage you to read the whole of the prayer HERE.

**All bolds in the text are mine.