(93) rumblings

Like the roaring of a waterfall you can hear from a half mile away, the joy of Pascha (Easter) is rumbling  somewhere deep already.

Anything I’ve accomplished this Lent seems tiny compared to that roaring.

In the midst of those final days of Lent last week, this Holy Week,  it feels like my whole life is being shaken up and thrown haphazardly into the air. Even the event I’ve looked forward to for so long – he’ll be back in a month – feels unbelievably life-shaking. Maybe it’s an appropriate time to throw plans to the wind and then intermittently beg desperately and hope confidently for some kind of new plan to take shape.

The questions surfacing are way too big for these final days – aren’t we supposed to figure everything out before the grace of Pascha rains down on us?

But no, no, that isn’t the way. As one abbess puts it, the grace of God is always raining down on us and all we must do is turn up our hands to catch it, to receive. Or as my brother-in-law explained, the whole struggle of Lent, in the end, is our struggle to just turn around, to just turn toward God. He travels all the distance between us, He removes all the obstacles, and in truth, He even helps us turn toward Him. The struggle is important, the struggle is soul-shaping, life-blooming, but it is always such a small effort, a child-like effort, in response to the Big Gift. Or as I’ve heard elsewhere, we are like children who want to buy a $10 gift for our parent and have saved up a glorious 25 cents, but must ask our parent for the lacking $9.75 to make up the difference, to buy their own gift.

Do you see? Do you see the beauty hidden here?

And the big questions, the ones surfacing, well, they are the same as always. Who am I? Maybe a plan-changer, one who plans ahead, plans to not change her plans when tired, yet does it anyway. Maybe a wave-maker, who thinks she’d rather live quietly, gently, unnoticed, but actually  can’t seem to live a year without splashing tremendously and sending out echoing ripples. Maybe a homemaking wanderer, who loves being home, but who has many homes and who can’t seem to really ever move back home.

O God, be gracious and let the seeds of love be sown and flourish in the wandering, the plan-changing, the wave-making, the joy-rumbling, the sorrow, the struggling, in the grace-raining. Help me to turn toward You, to turn up my hands.

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(More scattered, simple reflections at the just-past-mid-point of Orthodox Lent)

Unless you become like a little child…”

What is funny is that, in the end, the joy of Pascha/Easter along with the many joys of life, are all freely-given gifts. This is easy for me to say, but much harder to practice. Yet, I know it’s true. No matter how diligently I fast, pray, root out sin, etc., I will never be “worthy” of the grace of Pascha. I will probably always be learning how to live in this extraordinary tension and gift of the overwhelming grace and “enough-ness” of God and the daily practice of taking action, working out salvation, and following Christ in tangible ways.

I came across this story in an amazing book called Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov (trans. Julian Henry Lowenfeld, Pokrov Publications, 2012, p. 209). I think somehow the simplicity of this peasant’s offering to God captures the goal and essence of our childlike approach to Him and I hope the image of his bowl of milk and the little fox stays with me through these last days of Lent.

The Tale of the Prayer and the Little Fox

In Egypt, in whose ancient Christian past there had once been many grand monasteries, there once lived a monk who befriended an uneducated and simple peasant farmer. One day this peasant said to the monk, “I too respect God who created this world! Every evening I pour out a bowl of goat’s milk and leave it under a palm tree. In the evening God comes and drinks up my milk! He is very fond of it! There’s never once been a time when even a drop of milk is left in the bowl.”

Hearing these words, the monk could not help smiling. He kindly and logically explained to his friend that God doesn’t need a bowl of goat’s milk. But the peasant so stubbornly insisted that he was right that the monk then suggested that the next night they secretly watch to see what happened after the bowl of milk was left under the palm tree.

No sooner said than done. When night fell, the monk and the peasant hid themselves some distance from the tree, and soon in the moonlight they saw how a little fox crept up to the bowl and lapped up all the milk till the bowl was empty.

“Indeed!” the peasant sighed disappointedly. “Now I can see that it wasn’t God!”

The monk tried to comfort the peasant and explained that God is a spirit, that God is something completely beyond our poor ability to comprehend in our world, and that people comprehend His presence each in their own unique way. But the peasant merely stood hanging his head sadly. Then he wept and went back home to his hovel.

The monk also went back to his cell, but when he got there he was amazed to see an angel blocking his path. Utterly terrified, the monk fell to his knees, but the angel said to him:

“That simple fellow had neither education nor wisdom nor book-learning enough to be able to comprehend God otherwise. Then you with your wisdom and book learning took away what little he had! You will say that doubtless you reasoned correctly. But there’s one thing that you don’t know, oh learned man: God, seeing the sincerity and true heart of this good peasant, every night sent the little fox to that palm tree to comfort him and accept his sacrifice.” 

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(More scattered, simple reflections at the just-past-mid-point of Orthodox Lent)

Venerable Ephraim the Syrian

There is something about knitting together words and physical movement that makes these words enter into my life more deeply. They are part of a prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian that we repeat often during Lent, usually punctuated by deep bows or full prostrations (knees, hands, forehead on the ground). I didn’t really bow to other people or before God very much before I began this journey into Orthodoxy, but I kind of like it. For me, it takes this theoretical concept and transforms it into something tangible as my body engages too. On Forgiveness Sunday, we have the opportunity to bow deeply before the others in our community and ask their forgiveness. And then throughout Lent, we fall to the ground again and again asking God for help: “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Your servant. O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, for blessed are You unto ages of ages. Amen.”

“Grant me to see my own sins…” But isn’t this the main point, after all? In the Enneagram, awareness is the first step toward transformation. And yet, how often am I completely anxious or simply reluctant to take a step toward self-awareness? (Still. Even after talking about this and writing about it for what feels like so long, even knowing that it’s important, I’m still scared. Yep, I am.) Maybe this is why, even as we try to push ourselves from one direction with a little fasting, a little more praying, a little more church-going, we boldly, grittily, repeatedly, come to take hold of Jesus’ feet, clamoring for His help from the inside out.

If the Church is the hospital, sin is soul-sickness, and Christ is the Great Physician, then maybe Lent is elective exploratory surgery to really find out what’s going on, along with the initiation of the necessary treatments.

(90) unfinished

Scattered, simple reflections at the just-past-mid-point of Orthodox Lent (part 1)

“Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little and have a cup of tea.”
(Elder Sophrony of Essex)

 

That quote that our priest always mentions took on practical meaning last week. On Saturday, I felt like I had reached the edge of the abyss and Chinese takeout was the unexpected proverbial back-breaking straw. I was done, done with Lent, overwhelmed, definitely beyond my ability to carry forward.

It’s a miraculous thing, really. What am I doing other than avoiding meat and dairy products? Life carries on as normal in so many ways – we still eat, work, play, pay bills. But maybe because this season has a name and because the Church is explicit in articulating the purpose and focus of this season, life’s intensity is heightened. Circumstances don’t change, but we make choices to try and eliminate distractions and to focus more precisely on our issues, our struggles, our sins, and opportunities to grow. It seems that once you say to God that you’d like to grow, that you’re open to changing, to becoming more like Him, then He floods life with opportunities for growth. Unexpectedly, these opportunities take many forms, from the sublime to the ridiculousness of shrimp fried with their heads on (true story).

Now that Pascha is glowing on the ever-nearer horizon and the overwhelming power of Holy Week is tangibly close, I am holding these two paradoxical realities in my hands: I have grown, thank God, and I see that maybe those few times when I took a few breaths instead of responding in anger, when I caught myself in the act of judging and tried to choose compassion instead demonstrate that little budding of Love. And in the same breath, I’m floored by these stories I’m reading of remarkable Christ-followers who were clairvoyant, healed people, survived tremendous difficult with great joy and I am convinced that I’m still a beginner, that I’m barely getting started in this journey toward becoming like Christ, and certain that I’ll need Lent again next year to shake me awake again to all of this.

 

(87) a wake up call

“The Wake-Up Call for the One is feeling a sense of intense personal obligation…” (The Wisdom of the Enneagram)

Funny that this little line should land in my inbox tonight.

Intense personal obligation.

You mean about things like feeling responsible and stressed about issues with someone else’s child’s health insurance, a matter I cannot help with or solve and one they are handling perfectly fine?

Or somehow being available in relationship, all the time, to just about anyone who crosses my path, from the stranger at the back of church, to the friend I haven’t talked to in half a year who calls out of the blue, to the family I live with?

Or possibly about orchestrating peace at a funeral weekend with a large extended family, some of whom I haven’t yet met, and between whom there are a variety of very confusing and seemingly volatile relationships?

This last one is a heavy burden at present, although it’s a burden no one asked me to shoulder. When parties on all sides are loudly calling on everyone else to grow up and act like adults, well, I feel infuriated and queasy, wondering if I’ll even be able to hold myself together and act like an adult in the middle of it all. I am just not that good at hiding my anger or other emotions. As much as I’d like to bring peace with me, I don’t exactly know how one becomes a peaceful person. If peace is a feeling, I’m not feeling it right now. If it’s a gift, I’m not sure I’ve received it.

It would always be easier to face this kind of thing if I was in “a good space,” you know, centered. But then again, more often than not, it seems we’re thrown into these sink or swim occasions without all the proper preparation we believe necessary and, more often than not, that turns out to be okay, or even a good thing.

In the middle of it, in the sinking or swimming, in the raging, nauseating, unjust craziness of it all, well, I suppose I can learn to trust Jesus.

He knows the stories. He knows these people, inside and out. He even has me figured out on a level I can only begin to imagine and He isn’t worried. Maybe if I can lay down that intense personal obligation and just reach out for His hand — forget sinking or swimming — I can walk on water.

(76) the thing about Christmas

The thing is this: I just don’t feel ready for Christmas. I’m unprepared.

I’m listening to the music and everything. I’ve been to a couple Christmassy concerts. I’ve walked in the snow and marveled at the lights. I’ve even been participating in the Nativity fast as a means of preparing.

And yet…

Only very recently did I realize that Christmas actually wasn’t 3 weeks away anymore, but rather next week. In my mind it had been 3 weeks out for a while and I guess I expected it would somehow continue to be 3 weeks out forever and ever amen. Not so however. Which led to a small fantasy world (the fantasy world in which Christmas was perpetually at a distance) breakdown. Because I’m unprepared. Christmas cards hadn’t been written. Gifts haven’t been collected and wrapped and mailed. Baking hasn’t been done.

Then I went into philosophical freaking-out over-analyzing mode (oh-so-difficult to imagine me plunging into this, I know), because one of the Big Problems is that I don’t actually know why we buy all these gifts. Part of me felt anxiously compelled to rush out (or online) and quickly buy and mail! But the louder part was just confused. Remind me again, what exactly is the point here?

I realized that I know what I want the gift to communicate. I want it to say to the recipient: I love you, I’ve been thinking of you, even praying for you all year, then I saw this goofy little thingy-bop and it made me chuckle and I hope you’ll at least smile, maybe not because the gift is all that great, but because now you know for sure that I was thinking of you.

All of that in a silly little gadget that they might not even need. All of that somehow communicated unspoken in a thing – just how plausible is that really?

My motives are cloudy. The cultural tradition of gift-giving is muddied with materialism. And I live in a peculiar situation among the majority of the world in that most of the people I would give to don’t actually need anything, not really. Which makes it all seem kind of empty. And at this point, it seems too late anyway. I’m just letting it go for now. I’ll try to explain my conundrum in person to the affected parties. I anticipate that everyone will let me off the hook this year, excuse what feels like a moderately messy failure to me. Maybe if I just plan ahead, if I started thinking about this in July next year…(although this is ironic, since I have actually been thinking about this Christmas gift conundrum for a couple months at least, but took no action because I apparently was in denial that Christmas would tangibly come).

I am actually stuck at this point in the story right now. I’m writing this from the middle of it, not at the end when I can sum everything up in a brilliant one-liner. But here are a few things I’m gleaning today:

I think the so-called Christmas spirit might be more of a way of living to practice (one of generosity, compassion and unconditional love), rather than a transient wave of emotions. Which means that I can practice living the Christmas-way anytime. And this also means that it is fully unsurprising if it is, in fact, difficult to practice this Christmas living. It seems that all good practices are difficult along the way.

And I was reminded of two iconic Christmas figures as I sort-of trudged home from the store tonight, wrapped up in angst about all this:  Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch. Both stories are about someone missing the point of Christmas and then coming to his senses and finding joy. I do not enjoy being challenged to embrace joy when I’m in the middle of a good sulk. Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, I enjoy sitting down in my distress. But do I really want to join the ranks of those missing the point? Maybe all I need sometimes is to step out of my distress, throw my energy into loving and expect to see the big reality of God bursting the seams into my mundaneness.

Which brings me to this last thing, a quote that our pastor sent out tonight that is somewhat overwhelming, yet also makes all my words and worries seem small in the shadow of what is Really Going On Here in Christmas:

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him…

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.”

– St. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Christmas Morning”

Come, let us observe the Feast.

Yes. Let’s do that.

(75) Glory to God for all things

“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” (source)

One of the most breathtaking characteristics of a truly holy person, someone who is pure in heart and has seen God, is this tendency, this inclination, to truthfully give God glory for all things. When you read about the saints, or hear about contemporary Christians suffering persecution or watch godly people suffer the loss of health or loved ones or other sorrow, this characteristic is a theme.

It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow, which happily coincides with my recent reflection (obsession?) on (with) this phrase. It’s almost a cliché to say this, but I’ll say it anyway:  It’s easy to thank God for the stuff that seems good to me. I suppose this is an appropriate starting point – learning to give God glory for the “good” things – but it is just that: A starting point. After all, how do I really know what is “good” for me? I perceive sweet, gentle, pleasant, fun, convenient things as “good.” But as our priest so often says, if you’re sick and the doctor prescribes a bitter medicine, wouldn’t you take it regardless of how unpleasant?

“Glory to God for all things” means that I trust Him to absolutely act correctly, to accurately provide exactly what I need for my greatest benefit, to prescribe the perfect cure for my soul-sickness.

I am so unbelievably far away from living this out, it often seems. And I am so absolutely terrified of really opening willingly toward God’s molding, shaping, hand in my life. I’m afraid of suffering, I’ll admit it.

But this is the path I am on and I am curiously drawn deeper into this life of trust and welcome and thanksgiving. In the same breath that it is terrifying, it also helps make so much sense of what I see in the world around me, in the lives of others and even in my own life. Maybe if I start on the “easy” stuff now, I’ll be more prepared to say this when the harder stuff comes around.

“Glory to God for all things.”

 

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In case you didn’t follow the link to the source of the quote above, this is from a hymn called “Glory to God for all things,” (also called the Thanksgiving Akathist) which has been attributed to Fr. Gregory Petrov, who supposedly wrote it before his death in a Gulag prison camp in 1940. Alternately, it may have been written by Metropolitan Tryphon of Moscow (a Russian bishop during the Russian Revolution) as per this source.