Tag Archive - God

Vincible: A Riff on Aging…

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

When the cardiologist’s office offered me an appointment on the same day I was seeing the dentist, I figured this was efficient. I would already be out — and showered (never a given).

I did not realize that these two were engaged in a secret conspiracy to steal my invincibility.

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Despite the fact that it has been five years since my last visit to the dentist, (Don’t judge, I have trauma issues.) I am praised for my hygiene. No cavities. Hardly any plaque.

“There is, however, the matter of these silver fillings. While they will last forever, they are much less flexible than your teeth and with the passage of time have begun to cause cracks. If left untreated, you will begin to have breakage. We need to replace them.”

“Wait, what?! Let me get this straight. Because I am old, I am going to need to come in once a year for the next four years to have silver fillings dug out of two teeth at a time, and those same two teeth fitted with crowns?!”

“Yep. That’s pretty much it.”

“Awesome.”

I walk out into the stifling heat feeling seriously deflated. And old. I think back to my check-up a couple of years ago where the answer to every question I asked was “Well, at a certain age…” I contemplate taking up day drinking. Then I remember the cardiologist and think better of it…

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I had my first episode of tachycardia when I was a teenager. My mom and I were sitting in the living room having a pleasant conversation when my heart abruptly went from beating 70 beats a minute to more like 180. As if someone had flipped a switch. It lasted about five minutes, then was over. It was weird, but I didn’t think a lot of it. I have continued to have these episodes randomly, and infrequently, ever since.

The impact on my life has been minimal for the most part. Only twice has it been problematic. The first time was when I was pregnant. A woman’s heart rate naturally accelerates because of pregnancy. In me, this translated to more frequent episodes that sometimes lasted an hour. I finally saw a doctor who diagnosed the problem and taught me ways to help restore my rhythm.

The other time it was a problem was when I had an issue with my thyroid. But that only lasted about three months. In the ten years since, I have been back to the old pattern of infrequent and short.

Until the morning of July 6th.

That morning, Kenz and I were on our way to explore the playhouses at Cheekwood when I had an episode while driving. It was so severe that I had to pull over til it stopped. Over the course of the morning, I had four more episodes, the last of which persisted almost two hours until, at my doctor’s direction, I went to the emergency room and had it corrected forcibly. (Mike had joined us by then and was driving, lest you fret.)

Because there was no obvious explanation for this sudden craziness, my doctor wanted me to see a cardiologist.

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Dr. Estrada is calm and laid back, and I think to myself that this is going to go well. He sketches an illustration of the heart and its valves and shows me how the several types of tachycardia work, including the one he believes I have. It is not as dangerous as some of the others which is good.

“However, with age, these random episodes like you had a couple of weeks ago are likely to become more frequent, and possibly more severe. At that point they can cause damage to the heart and you may find yourself in the emergency room more often. We don’t have to fix it now if you want to wait and see how it goes. But it is probably just a matter of time.”

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When friends and family have asked about, and even challenged, what they perceive as an overly rigorous commitment to eating healthy and to exercise, I have explained it like this: There are a lot of things about our health we can’t control. Mike and I both have strong family histories of diabetes and heart disease, for example. It seems to me that we have a responsibility to be wise about the things we can control.

That is what I have said.

But apparently, what I actually believed was this: If I do all the right things, I will be invincible. The ravages of age will have no authority over me.

I was wrong about that.

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Wise men and women in the Church have always urged us to be very aware of our mortality. It is a potent reminder to be fully present in the moment. For this reason, it has been common practice in many monasteries to keep the bones of those who have gone before on display. As I understand it, this awareness should be a voluntary practice. Failing that, I suppose some of us must have it thrust upon us.

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And so, I am working to come to terms with the fact that I am vincible. Yes, that is a word. I looked it up. I spent yesterday morning in the dentist chair getting thirty year old fillings ground out of two molars and am now sporting fine, fashionable new crowns. And while I still believe that we have a responsibility to steward well the bodies we have been given, I am being disabused of the illusion that this guarantees a life free of physical adversity.

There is a price to be paid for the wisdom that hopefully comes with age. All that learning takes a toll on the body. And maybe the toll itself has a wisdom in it.

I’ll let you know.

To Wear Forgiveness…

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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.

~Alexander Schmemann

Slanting rays of late afternoon sunlight fall on the solea as the priest bows before the first deacon and says these words, “Forgive me, a sinner.” The deacon replies, “God forgives, and I forgive.” The deacon bows before the priest and says the same. They repeat this ritual with the second deacon, and the third. Then, one by one, we add ourselves to a line that eventually snakes around the whole church, bowing to one another, “Forgive me…” til each person in the temple has bowed before the other, asking for, and receiving forgiveness.

There are tears. And hugs. Some of us barely know one another, others have complicated histories. We do not take time to enumerate the many ways we might have hurt one another. God knows. But by our words and the humbling of ourselves, we say we would like it to be other. That we want to be made right.

With this, we begin our Lenten effort.

And because, in her ancient wisdom, the Church understands that we need lots of practice, she gives us the whole of this week to contemplate repentance and forgiveness. The services are filled with a great many prostrations, mingled with reminders of my propensity to seek my own way. But this is not punitive. This is liberation. I speak to my friend Jack one night after praying the penitential Canon of St. Andrew and ask him if he is tired after chanting so many long services this week. “Not at all. I love this service! It’s invigorating.”

Invigorating? A service whose primary focus is repentance?

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.

~Alexander Schmemann

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’.

~The Lenten Triodian, Canon of St. Andrew

It just so happens that a couple of days before Lent began, I had an encounter with a dark cloud from my past. A reminder of a difficult season in which I made choices I am not proud of. And I allowed that cloud to rain all over me and put me in a terrible funk.

Perhaps this is why I need this week so much. I need to physically stand inside forgiveness. I need to look into the eyes of another who will say to me, “You are forgiven. By God, and by me.” I need to know hunger in my belly. I need the opportunity to touch my face to the floor, not as a grovelling worm, but as one who recognizes my vulnerability. I need to wear forgiveness in my body so that the next time accusation visits, it finds no harbor in me.

It is only when we have lost all love of ourselves for our own sakes that our past sins cease to give us any cause for suffering or for the anguish of shame. For the saints, when they remember their sins, do not remember the sins but the mercy of God, and therefore even past evil is turned by them into a present cause of joy and serves to glorify God.

~Thomas Merton

May it be so.

Forgive me.

*A parenthetical word on dates: The Orthodox and western dates for Pascha (Easter) frequently differ, usually by just a bit, but occasionally (as this year) by more than a month. You can read about why that occurs HERE and HERE. Hence, as our western brothers and sisters are ramping up for Palm Sunday, we have only just begun the Lenten season.

 

A Pilgrim Tale: day twenty-three

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The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.
~Dolly Parton

Thanks, Dolly.

Thanks a lot.

Tough day for me. Rain coming and going all day. Jacket and pack cover on…off…on…off…ad nauseum. And stuff hurts. The front of my calf. My knee. My shoulders. Tired. Plus I have a bad attitude. Mostly, I have a bad attitude

And yet…

The whole day is braided with luminous moments. The best one comes early in the day. We stop at Meson el Llar for a little second breakfast. There we run into our friend Josh who we met at the very start in St. Jean. He has become a pied piper of sorts, gathering a whole group of young people around him. Almost immediately, we are also joined by Otto and Jose, Jorge, Kelly, Kathy…SO. Many. Friends.

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The counter is lined with all sorts of delectable temptations: tall, luscious looking tortillas, French toast, meatballs, fancy teas, a whole jar of muesli… And the busy proprietress is laughing and bossing people around while golden oldies are cranking on the stereo. And then it happens. A spontaneous eruption. Like a single spirit moves us all at once.

It is one of the singularly most memorable moments in an ocean of memorable moments.

We finally tear ourselves away from this warm, friendly oasis and resume the walking. Despite my best efforts to be a total grump, God keeps pelting me with beauty until my resistance is finally spent.

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In Rabanal, we attend an evening candlelight service. Several pilgrims read passages in a variety of languages. Our friend Jorge reads here in Spanish. A mercy of peace at the end of what has been, in some ways, a turbulent day.

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The Most High has wounded me with His Spirit,
filled me with His love,
and His wounding has become my salvation…
All the earth is like a memorial to Thee,
a presencce of Thy works…
Glory to Thee, O God,
Thou Who are forever the delight of Paradise.
Alleluia!

~The Odes of Solomon

*Hat tip to Mike who captured our proprietress at Meson el Llar.

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…

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*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.

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

background

*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.

Lean on Me

lean on meI wish I had learned earlier to trust others with the deepest parts of me. I wish I had understood that there are people who can know the worst about me and still love me, people who are willing to go to hard places and sit there with me as long as they need to, people who refuse to let me get stuck in my misery, who call out in me what is good. How different my life might have been.

For me, it took a crisis to plunge me, almost without my consent, into finally living vulnerably. It has been one of the great, good gifts in my life.

The same was true for my friend, Anne, though she got there much younger than me. She has written beautifully about that experience in her new book, Lean On Me.

Lean on Me is not a stale “how to” book with seven action points to automatically fix all your relationship woes. It is a story. A glorious, difficult, hope-filled story.

I am comforted in the idea that Jesus rarely instructed without parable. Truth is communicated through stories; they are principles that wear flesh and breathe air and feel pain and joy. Recalling a quote from Madeleine L’Engle, “Jesus was not a theologian. He was God who told stories.”

Like any good story, it will speak to different people in different ways. Here are some of the passages that were particularly poignant for me.

On Practicing Vulnerability:

A great misunderstanding in the world is that we must wait until we feel safe to be vulnerable with other people. They must earn our trust and show us they will not take our wounds and cause them to bleed more. We misconstrue the wisdom of guarding our hearts, our life’s wellspring, as a command to build a fortress around them.

We are never safe from pain, and safety has nothing to do with vulnerability.

Vulnerability will hurt…It is a paradox: once we realize being vulnerable is never safe, we are then free to be vulnerable. We guard our hearts by giving them to the Guardian. We accept the fact that hurt will come. We see wounds as gifts. When this dramatic shift in our spirit occurs, fear no longer controls us.

I love the chapter Persevering Through Pain. On the “slow and inefficient work of God”. On letting “the waters of grace slowly, moment by moment, smooth out my heart.” Her Holy Week reflections and her ruminations on the struggles of both Paul and Christ are powerful. But the poetic and evocative language defies reduction. You simply need to read the whole of it.

On Receiving and Returning:

I did not see myself worthy to be served like this, so unconditionally…Why do you still love me? I feel so helpless…I continued pushing away the love that was trying to envelop me, to be lavished upon me.

I choose faith, and it says go, love, and believe. Enter in where there is pain and love. Do not worry about if it’s enough. Believe it is enough for the moment.

From Circles or Spirals:

No kind of action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves. ~Amelia Earhart

The principle that we cannot give what we do not first receive works in reverse as we cannot receive what we do not give…It is a constant circle of pouring out and being poured into.

From Big Challenges and Small Steps:

…Sometimes my relationship with him felt empty. God appeared silent. It was only over the course of time that I recognized the hope he was giving me was often expressed through my relationship with others, spirit to spirit.

We will always feel a complex, two-sided longing–the craving for relationships and the desire to be on our own–creep in as we pull our feet through the mud of the daily. When this comes, we must take a heavy breath and command our spirits to rejoice and reach out…We are children of the One who has loved us in the past for eons and will love us into forever for eternity. A Man died in our place, painting us pure and lovely, and nothing can steal this away from us. Not even our own selfishness.

It has been my privilege to know Anne for several years now, and to see her walk the portion of her life chronicled in the book. She is a radiant grace-bearer and truth-teller, with her words, and with her life. I highly commend this book to you, wherever you find yourself in the world of community and sharing life with others. It will nourish and challenge you.

Mother of God

 theotokos

It has been a process. Coming to know Mary, I mean. Still is.

For years she was mostly an ornament in the Nativity scene; the fretful parent when her 12 year-old goes missing; a grieving mother watching her dear one die.

Then, there was the year I was pregnant at Christmas. I thought a lot about her that year. I would run my hands over my belly and imagine her, feeling this miracle baby moving inside her, as she walked past whispers and pointing fingers on the way to the market or the well. Rehearsing the angel’s words over and over in her head,

“Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou among women…You will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his Name Jesus…that Holy One who is to born will be called the Son of God.”

A tender knowing opened between us that year. It was a beginning.

Five and a half years ago we stepped into a tradition that holds Mary in highest esteem. She is not worshiped, but she is constantly held before us as the example of complete surrender. She is the first one to bear God in her body. And, because of her, we can now bear him in ours. So we mention her often. Her images fill our churches alongside those of her Son, and of the saints who followed her example of surrender.

We ask her to pray for us. Because we believe those saints who came before us are ever in the Presence of God, we ask them to intercede on our behalf, just like I might ask you to pray for me. And this is where I have come to love her best.

In this season of grown-up or almost grown-up children whose lives are mostly their own, I have very little control. Perhaps I never had very much. But I still worry about them, I still want good for them. And so I pray. I have always prayed for them, but as more and more of their lives are out of my reach, I pray more.

And it is good to be able to ask Mary to pray for them as well. Because she knows. More than anyone, she knows what it is like to see your child have to walk a very difficult path. To be misunderstood. To pour himself out for others, then have those others turn on him. She knows what it is like to watch a child die. It is difficult to imagine any experience that would fall outside her compassion.

I speak to her of my godchildren and their families, friends that are hurting, young adults in my life who are navigating the world alone and who need a mother to watch over them. We grieve together over children in places like Syria and Iraq who are being driven from their homes. Hungry. Scared. In constant danger.

As we walk these stories together, as I bring my mother’s heart to hers, we are knitted every more deeply together.

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Today we commemorate her falling asleep in the Lord, and her translation to Heaven.

On Wednesday we gathered to decorate her funeral bier. Kenzie and I brought blossoms from our garden. That evening we sang songs of lament; tender, intimate, sweet. And the grief in those hymns, and the joy, was my grief, my joy. I kissed her icon with a love born of knowing.

“Receive, O Mother, from thy children our love and these hymns and odes to bid thee farewell which we offer from the depth of our souls.”

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Last night we celebrated her life. We considered the icon in which Christ holds her in His arms, as she so often held him, carrying her into heaven. Bringing his mama home. Our priest reminded us that just as she preceded us in bearing Christ in her body, so she precedes us in her entrance to heaven. And the words of welcome that Jesus speaks to His mother, he will someday speak to us.

“Come, My most lovely one and enjoy the beauty of thine own Son thy Maker. Come indeed, My Mother, come into divine joy and enter into the Kingdom.”

May it be so.

*Quote at the top of the page is from the first chapter of Luke. The others are from the Lamentations at the Bier of the Mother of God.

*If you are interested is spending some time with the Mother of God yourself, or would like to understand more of the teaching of the ancient church with regard to her, may I recommend these excellent resources:

Mary as the Early Christians Knew Her: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts by Frederica Matthews-Green
Mary Mother of God: Her Life in Icons and Scripture by Giovanna Paravicini
Full of Grace a glorious recording of the music of Dormition Vespers by Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Chorale

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