(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.

(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.

 

(77) adios, 2013 (part 1)

A dozen days in 2014 and you’re only just getting around to bidding goodbye to 2013, Anna?

Yeah, I know, it’s a travesty.

Social media and news media seemed to mostly cram this reflective farewell into the busy week between Christmas and New Year’s. I was by turns nostalgic and tormented during that time — what did 2013 actually hold for me? what did I do? who the heck was I? — but read a blog post that helped me allow myself a little extra time to reflect and then post about it. So here I am, with both feet in the New Year and glancing over my shoulder at the old. What was that year all about?

A married girl living the single life

It is decidedly weird to be married and not living with one’s spouse for an extended period of time, which was the case for us basically 10 out of 12 months of 2013. I could not be more relieved to have gotten the majority of this tour of duty out of the way. In some ways, it was worse in the anticipation. But honestly, there were times that felt just as bad in real life as I’d anticipated it feeling – this might be a first for me (realistic expectations? what?!). The few weeks right around our 2nd anniversary in May were the worst, I think. I remember feeling so emotional and lonely all the time. And then it got a little easier. I’ve learned that marriage is about living the mundane little things of life together and so when you’re 10,000+ miles apart, you talk about the mundane little things of life in lieu of sharing them. And it’s pretty mundane sometimes. But when I got frustrated about this initially, he gently reminded me, “hey, isn’t this small stuff important in our life together?” News flash:  Living apart does not automatically push your daily sorts of conversations onto an ethereal and deeply meaningful plane. Living apart mostly seems to mean that you get to practice caring about stuff and hearing about stuff you can’t really picture and you’re not really part of.

On the bright side, sometimes it’s fun to be independent. And I imagine he probably didn’t mind missing out on some of my fun emotional roller coaster/mood swing moments. Instead he could hear about it afterward (“yeah, I was a little upset yesterday”). I can rush around in a flurry without disturbing his peace and quiet.

On the difficult side, I can’t reach out to grab his hand when I feel frustrated with him to remind myself to settle down and that I love him. And when he’s feeling down or lonely, I can’t do anything except say, “I’m sorry, love.” No hugs, no back rubs.

A motherhood internship

Seriously, who gets this kind of opportunity? I’ve had copious practice changing diapers, packing a diaper bag, buckling and adjusting car seats, and running errands, cooking and cleaning with a tiny companion. I’ve discussed nap schedules and introducing solids and teething and discipline techniques. I’ve been sent to pick up diaper rash ointment and teething medicines at the drug store. And I’ve watched and learned as my sister and brother-in-law have tried many different ideas to help my niece sleep longer or have taught her the preliminary essentials of good behavior. I’ve seen how terribly tiring and difficult the journey of parenting can be sometimes and yet how much joy this small human brings to the world. I don’t think a person ever feels ready to become a parent. But now I do feel somewhat prepared.

Community is messy and beautiful

The first several months of living with my sister and brother-in-law were especially messy, although now we find ourselves in a very natural rhythm with each other. I am deeply grateful for this God-given chance to know them on such a deep level. If I had lived alone this year, I would have been able to be selfish all year if I’d liked. But living with family has stretched me to practice setting boundaries while giving me ample opportunity to give and love in absolutely simple and practical ways all the time. I imagine this will smooth the transition into living with my husband again as well. I will miss the fellowship, the sharing of burdens and also the access to my sister’s wardrobe (!) when I move.

A different way of doing church and living faith

I knew coming into this year that it might be a little challenging and strange living with an Orthodox family. I did not anticipate that Zack and I would embrace Orthodoxy and decide to become Orthodox. I am still surprised by this, I think. At first, I just went to church with my family because I had no friends and didn’t have anywhere else to go. It just seemed practical. Then I took a bit of a step back in the summer. I still had a lot of questions, but I felt somewhat less interested than I had. And then fall rolled around and I continued going, more of my own accord. And for the first time in a long time (years?), I actually wanted to go to church.

Zack wanted to become Orthodox after attending church just 3 times and talking with Father Justin for an afternoon while he was home on leave in October. Then he tossed the ball into my court as he often does. Even though I’d been here for virtually a year at that point, I was thrown off balance by his sudden change of heart. Yet “is anything impossible for God?” I recognized that this could very well be the answer to a prayer I’d been praying since we’d met and I couldn’t justify any alternative other than joining God where He was working and walking with Zack into Orthodoxy.

This has changed the dynamics of our long-distance relationship by giving us prayers to say together, a spiritual book to read together and discuss. I can share everything I’m experiencing with Zack and he wants to hear about it. He isn’t surprised or concerned when I describe going to church several times a week. He’s just sorry to have missed it all. I never in a thousand years anticipated this as an outcome of this year.

And a few more things…

I started a new job in April and struggled with it and against it all year. I’m still don’t really like it and find it frustrating and hard, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately that it’s time to move on from not liking it. Looking back, it’s been a unique blessing this year, giving me a lot of flexibility alongside a decent income that I couldn’t have had otherwise.

I climbed a big mountain. I went on several road trips, collectively driving through Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. I planted a garden and grew tomatoes successfully, maybe for the first time in my life. I realized that I love having friends over for meals and know that I want to do that more often.

Wow. What a year.

There were many things I didn’t get done that I expected to or wanted to, but after listing all of this out, maybe I understand why I felt so busy.

More reflections on lessons learned and in process to come…

(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.”

 

***

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.

(61) lines, boxes, a bush on fire

Theotokos (Mother of God/God-bearer) of the Unburnt Bush

***

We draw the lines trying to keep the dangerous stuff out.
Thick lines of what to do and mainly what not to do
It’s supposed to keep us safe
From all that bad stuff
From evil, from sin.

Or we put all the dangerous stuff in a box and lock it
and shelve it, really high up where it can’t be reached.
Out of sight
Out of mind.

But the real problem is not locked in the box
on the top shelf of an ignored but never-forgotten closet
or trapped securely outside the wide and tidy lines

The real trouble, the real danger is within my heart.

***

I want to live in the bright, open spaces
with a heart exposed to the light and holy fire,
with a heart empty of pride and resentment

where lines are erased and choices made
not because of rules, of lists of “do” and “do not”
but from within love and through love and for love

And in that broad place of love and brightness
I think I may also find the truth of holiness
a way of being that is like the burning bush in Exodus
like the Virgin Mary, who carried in her body the fullness of God
to be a dwelling place of God, to be on fire, yet not consumed.

Because it just is not all about the rules.