(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.

Advertisements

(92) unfinished {3}

(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.” 

(91) unfinished {2}

(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.

 

(57) palm sunday eve

Lent is over.

It is Lazarus Saturday and the eve of Palm Sunday, or the celebration of the feast of Christ’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem in the Orthodox Church. This means a remarkably festive day even in the anticipation of sorrow because the raising of Lazarus from the dead foreshadows our own hope of resurrection.

I surprised even myself by my full participation in the Lenten fast. But my sister told me before it began that part of the purpose of fasting is to practice the discipline of saying “no” to our desires. Food is a good thing, but when we fast, we practice mastering this one aspect of ourselves rather than letting it master us and this discipline has obvious applications in all other areas of life. I wanted to practice this. And my brother-in-law told me that Lent is like climbing a mountain, like the long journey to the highest spiritual high, like that of an epic summer camp. They both were looking forward to it. And so I figured I’d give it a try.

And now I understand.

I understand that at this point when I feel like I cannot go another day without an egg, even though I have already gone without for many, many days; when I cannot imagine eating any type of legume one more time, even though I have feasted on delicious curries, homemade refried beans, homemade bread with ripe avocado and vegan chocolate cake for weeks and have never gone truly hungry; when the only edible substance that sounds good is wine (thank God for wine being allowed on the weekends during the fast); when I know I have eaten, but like the very hungry caterpillar, I am still hungry…

even now, as Lent draws to a close and only one week remains of the fast and it is the Holy Week we have been anticipating for so long…

even in the middle of all of this, I am already looking forward to Lent and Pascha next year.

I cannot really explain this.

I do not think I am particularly more spiritual because I’ve participated in the Lenten fast. I don’t think that I prayed more, although I certainly did attend church more often. I still felt frustrated and overwhelmed with my new job. I’ve still been emotional and tearful for numerous reasons. I haven’t been particularly more selfless or generous or compassionate.

But I do feel really hungry and not just for eggs.

I anticipate that this Holy Week is going to be intense and hard. I’ll be working full-time as well as trying to go to church at least every day. I will be very tired and emotionally stretched. But I bet that when it is over, I will be sorry to close this chapter, to lower the curtain on this season.

I know that life isn’t all about feelings. But even when I have felt raw and broken with loneliness and longing, or when everything has gone wrong again and again in these recent days, I have still felt suspended and buoyed in a sweetness, a tangible grace.

I feel close to Jesus.

And I want to walk with Him through this Holy Week. And then keep going.

And I will probably get off course. Which might be partly why I already know I need to practice the discipline of Lent again next year.

And I can hardly wait.

(55) this strange gift

where are you God? where is the mercy in all of this?

my heart is too tired, too brittle to hold and carry and grieve again and again.

i am ashamed of my relief, embarrassed that, despite the repetitiveness of it all, i still cannot manage to maintain a simple level of gratitude for the ease and blessing and safety of my own life. none of this feels easy, although in retrospect it may someday seem to be. 

i am tied up in knots. i avoided a particular grocery store today because i couldn’t bear facing the homeless standing at each parking lot entrance and exit. i have only been reading the headlines of the news because i don’t have space for detail. instead of joy at a glimpse of his face on a computer screen, i only feel longing and sorrow at the tremendous distance that prevents me from reaching out to take his hand. i want to pray, but i have no words. i want to climb the mountain of Lent with persistence and delight, but i stumble on the question, “it is vegan, but is it Lenten?” i do not know what is in my heart.

i look at my niece’s face and am filled with joy. what boundless wonder! what endless possibility! how is this beauty woven into the same cloth along with such cruelty and unfathomable wrong? if life is a gift, then how can all of this be part of a whole, all part of the same gift?

this latest tragedy among tragedies is not about me. I am untouched, unscathed…once again. and the emotions I feel about this are so mixed, so confused, that I cannot even name them, even as they take on the form of tears. am I crying for those in Boston? or all the billions of others suffering around the world? or simply out of my own griefs and sorrows?

there are times when i have no answers, when most of the basic offerings of elementary Christian faith seem hollow. except that even when all else may be called into question, i do not seem to doubt that somehow my voice is heard, that my hoarse cries matter.

***

God, God!
Come and rescue us!
We are so screwed up,
so far beyond the reach of reason, of diplomacy,
so much in need of healing.
Please hurry!
Please rescue us.
Be merciful,
please God be merciful.

(52) conocer {to know}

conocer – to know; to have an idea of or to understand (capture) intellectually the nature, qualities and circumstances of people or things; to understand or perceive someone/thing as distinct from others; to feel or experience…

***

We were playing a “game” in a marriage book by John Gottman, answering questions about each other and, as Gottman says, expanding or filling in details in our “love maps.”

I asked #49, “Name my major rival or enemy.”

He paused a moment before responding, “Your self.”

“I was going to say you don’t really have any major enemies,” he explained, “but I think the only one would be your self.”

***

I finally took the plunge and did something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: I signed up for an advanced Spanish class through a community continuing-education program. The first night I was terribly nervous. I guess I typically am nervous about going into a new/unknown situation. But by the end of the night, I was excited. I love this language. Beyond that, I am terribly fond of grammar and phonetics. I am deeply intrigued by mutual influence of culture on language and language on culture (is it significant that the complete sentence “I love you” or “yo te amo a ti” is terribly redundant in Spanish? or that many other Spanish sentences employ similar redundancy, probably to emphasize the subjects and objects?)

***

I hear in surround sound the whispered challenge to “know thyself.” From one side, a sister encourages me to hold still and say yes to Jesus. I protest that I do not know how and persist in unending busy-ness. From another, the practice of Lent swells with unending reminders of the stark juxtaposition of our sinfulness and God’s grace. I am tempted to obsess over the rules of fasting, neglecting the invitation to deeper prayer and recognition of who I really am, simultaneously True and Good and full of sinful leanings.

***

I have experienced how meaningful it is to be known, to have my husband pin down an aspect of my self that I hadn’t yet recognized,  to honor my own dreams. See, that wasn’t too bad, was it?

Why, then, am I so terrified to continue down the road of “know thyself”? If I have the potential to be my own greatest rival or enemy and also my own great advocate, if in knowing my self I have the opportunity to also see God’s faithfulness and grace revealed, if, if, if…

then why not?