The Resilient Orthodox – Breathe in Holy

As I step into church, I breathe in pungent, sweet incense. I can see smoke rise in front of evening shadows on the wall. Fading light reflects off of gold and burgundy icons.

I take a deep breath and I breathe in holy.

I breathe it in, my whole being alive to incense and all that accompanies it. My ears take in three part harmony from the chant sung on the far side of the room. My body responds in reverence to the saints that surround us.

I was so hesitant to take this journey and yet, every time I enter, I know his presence in ways I cannot articulate. God is in this journey and I can rest.

So I breathe in holy and all else fades away.

Vigil before the Feast of the Ascension from Marilyn Gardner on Vimeo.

Pre-Paschal Reflections

It is ten pm on Saturday night. I sit on the couch in a darkened room. White lights peak through the window from the outside. We are the rare family that keeps Christmas lights up all year long, for who doesn’t need more light in their life?

All day there has been a sense of expectancy in the air, like something big is about to happen. It began this morning when, in the middle of a Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Saturday, the music and tone changed from somber to joyful; from dread to expectancy; from death to life. This afternoon, the entire church was alive with energy as vines were wound around pillars and white roses arranged by icons and stands.

In a short time, we will leave for Pascha – the height of the Orthodox calendar where we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It is a time when we celebrate that he conquered “death by death” and “bestowed life on those in the tomb.”

It’s like getting ready for a wedding, without the stress of envious bridesmaids and relative angst.

It has been seven weeks of preparation, seven weeks of learning to say yes to something better than what we’re saying no to. Seven weeks of a season called Lent

“The strongest man or woman in the world is not nearly strong enough to triumph over his or her sin simply by saying no to it. What we need is the strength-giving grace occasioned by us saying yes to something else, by saying yes, and yes, and yes – ceaselessly – to Someone Else.” [The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns]

And tonight we say a final ‘yes’ to a Resurrection that we believe by faith. A Resurrection that brings life and light, for who doesn’t need more light?

 

The Resilient Orthodox – Healing a Hole in the Heart

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When I was six years old in boarding school, we had prayer and devotions every night. We would pray for the teachers and the house parents; we would pray for our parents who lived far away and did important work; and every night we would pray for Esther Cutherell. I had never met Esther Cutherell, but I knew that we prayed for Esther because she had a hole in her heart. As a little girl, I couldn’t imagine this. A hole in her heart? How is she living? How can she walk around? She was three years younger than I was. I didn’t understand it, but in my child-heart, I prayed.

And then one day the news came. Esther was better. The hole in her heart was gone. She had surgery and she was alive and well, and one day we would all meet her. There was great rejoicing in our little girl’s dorm. Our prayers had worked – a little girl was now well, the hole in her heart was healed.

Esther was a beautiful little girl and she turned into a beautiful woman. I always thought it had something to do with the miracle that had healed the hole in her heart.

I knew that it was doctors who had helped with the miracle, but that didn’t make it any less a miracle in my mind. As I got older, I began to meet people who had different sorts of holes in their hears. These holes were holes left from death and divorce, from pain and abuse, from betrayal and disappointment. I learned that they were just as life-threatening as the hole in Esther’s heart. I learned that those holes desperately needed miracles – only it was a different kind of miracle.

It’s been a long time since Esther’s miracle and the truth is, miracles are not something I talk about or think much about.  They don’t come up in conversation in my rational every day world. When they are talked about, it’s usually in dramatic terms like “we need a miracle to get this grant out the door in time,” where the reality is that we just need someone to do their job correctly.

But on Friday morning I longed for a miracle. The why is not important, it’s enough to know that my heart was heavy with things far beyond my control. It was grace that the timing was perfect. In the Orthodox Church icons play a big role in worship. And there are some rare icons around the world that are considered “miracle-working” icons. On Friday night, I would be going to see one of these icons, an icon of the Theotokos – the Mother of God.

I had purposely left Friday morning free to pray and read. I didn’t know if I would witness a miracle but I did know that my cynical heart needed softening. I reached out to Robynn, I told her about my cynicism, my sadness, and my hurting heart. She responded both wisely and practically.

“Light a candle. Take some deep breaths. Take your heart (frayed, fragile, falling apart) and lay it down next to you….ask Jesus to come be there with you next to your heart. If you are brave, ask him to take it up–all of it: the pain, the disappointment, the longings, the hole, the cynicism…..Imagine your heart in his hands….he’s turning it around, he’s looking at it gently with care and compassion….He looks up at you…into your eyes….quiet yourself and listen–what is he saying to you as he holds your precious heart and all it contains? Consider what he says. Receive it. Rest in it. If he doesn’t say anything rest in the silence. Even silence is sacred and sweet when Jesus is making eye contact with you…when he’s holding all that is you. Can you identify where the hole is?”

I found myself sobbing as I read the words. “Can you identify where the hole is?” As I sat in silence, I knew exactly where and what the hole was, and I longed for it to be healed. My broken, hurting heart needed the touch of the One who heals. In one of those all too rare times of soul confession when it’s just you and God, no human to comfort or collect the tears, I gave it up to God. All of it. Like handing over a back pack that is so heavy I could hardly bear the weight of it another second, I handed it over to God.

The day moved on and at five in the evening I found myself in Friday traffic heading to our church. I knew only one thing – I wanted a moment with that icon, preferably alone. I knew the minute I arrived that the alone moment was not going to happen. The church was packed with people, mostly strangers to me. Word had traveled far – I was not the only one with a hole in my heart.

And so we came, the holes in our hearts wide open with longing for the touch of God.

It is too difficult to explain with mere words the power of the evening. But as I think back on it, and as I contemplate miracles, I know this: In every situation, the real miracle takes place in the heart. It may have outer manifestations, like the miraculous healing of the body, the eyesight, the hearing – but the real miracle always, always includes the heart. Because it doesn’t matter how whole the body is, if the heart is not right, if the heart is not fixed, then the healing can only go so far. A healed body is temporal, a healed heart is eternal.

On Friday night, like my friend Esther so long ago, the hole in my heart began to be healed. And that is miracle enough for me. 

The Resilient Orthodox: We Come Needy

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The morning light reflects off the gold of the icons and it is beautiful. The church is quiet, save footsteps walking up to venerate the icons. We are in community, yet we are alone.

We come needy. We come with hearts heavy with the burdens of the week. We come with anger and with pain, emotional and physical. We come with sickness and sorrow. We come with hearts longing for more, knowing that though we are created for eternity, we get mired in the clay of the every day.

And in this place, where Heaven meets earth in divine liturgy, we will glimpse the eternal. 

In any group of people, there are so many stories of life lived, good and bad,

We have children with autism and diabetes; foot problems and depression. We have bodies that betray us and hearts that are alternately hard and soft. We have tongues that choose to speak life-giving words or words that damage and destroy. We have children who weigh heavy on our hearts, ones who we pray will not lose their way. We have parents who can no longer move well, or speak well, or think well. We have burdens deep and wide. But in this space, we can place them before the altar of God’s infinite love.

We are humans made in the image of God, made for his glory and in this space we take time to remember that.

We come needy to the altar and hear the words of the priest as he gives us the Holy Gifts on a spoon. For a short time, we remember. We enter into the eternal and time doesn’t matter. We don’t try to solve the mystery of salvation, we accept it as the needy ones. 

We come needy, and we leave full. 

When Someone Takes Your Paschal Cheese

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Let me tell you about Paschal Cheese. Paschal cheese is a special, sweet dish that originated in Russia and made its way to the United States and I thank God it did.

Paschal cheese is made of cream, eggs, butter, confectioners sugar, candied citron, chopped almonds, golden raisins, vanilla, and farmers cheese. It goes into a special mold where it comes out creamy and delicious, with the Orthodox cross molded into the sides. It is indescribably delicious.

I discovered this cheese at my first Pascha. It was four in the morning and I took one bite and thought it was a bite of heaven. It is creamy goodness full of ingredients you are encouraged to abstain from during Lent. It is the opposite of Lent – indulgence, extravagance, and luxury as compared to moderation, abstinence, and simplicity.

I never make this Paschal cheese because I have discovered that in a church full of Russian immigrants (and an American chef who is incredible) there is no need. Why try to duplicate what someone else already does so well? But at the end of our early morning feast I always try to take a container home, excited to eat it for the next two weeks.

This year was no exception. There was the Paschal cheese in the center table. One large one with a decorated cross on the top and several smaller molds surrounding it. A beautiful centerpiece for the table. I pushed my way through the jubilant crowd of hungry Orthodox Christians until I got to the table. And I loaded a piece of kulich, a sweet yeast bread that is more like a cake, with the cheese. So good.  Put it this way – to describe how good it is you need a thesaurus with a hundred options.

When it came time to head home I had my two take away boxes — one of them full of the cheese and kulich. There were many of us filling take away boxes with delicious foods that we hadn’t eaten for seven weeks.

We drove over the Charles River as the sun was coming up, its early morning glow reflected off the tall buildings in Boston that we see from the bridge. We arrived home tired but euphoric – it had been an amazing celebration and it was now time to sleep. Except first I would look at my Paschal cheese before putting it into the refrigerator.

I looked in the first take out box. Nothing. Oh right – that’s because I put it into the other take out box. As I peeked in I couldn’t believe what I saw.

There was no Paschal cheese. Since all the take out boxes looked the same, someone had taken my Paschal cheese and I was left with a poor substitute. I couldn’t believe it! No Paschal cheese??? I need my Paschal cheese. It’s the only thing I really wanted from that table that was laden with food. My husband had purposely not taken any, knowing that I would fill a take out box with this sweet, creamy goodness.

No Paschal cheese. And oh how I wanted that Paschal cheese. 

Other folks would probably just let it be, but because I am who I am I pondered this. How much I had looked forward to this dish, how disappointed I was that I ended up without it. Why was I so disappointed? It’s just a yummy food – and the truth is I don’t need it at all.

But I wanted it! And it was special! And it was tradition! 

It’s Monday morning and I can’t help thinking that life is full of moments of Paschal cheese where what we long for, what we want more than anything is not available. And usually it’s way bigger than Paschal cheese. We make ourselves crazy trying to get what is unavailable. Or we feel someone took our take away boxes. We try so hard to box up what we love, what we long for, and someone accidentally exchanges our takeout boxes for theirs.

All the while God gently but persistently urges us that if we trust and rest in Him, we will have enough. He will enter those longings and slowly, steadily re-shape them, until we realize that in Him we have what we wanted for all along. 

Photo Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/russia-golden-ring-historically-704855/

The Resilient Orthodox: Pre-Paschal Reflections on Faith

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It’s Saturday evening and bright, soon-to-set sunlight still shines through our windows. It is a blessed contrast from what the weather has been for the past two months and we delight in it.

It has been quiet around Communicating Across Boundaries this past week for it has been Holy Week in the Orthodox tradition. It began with Palm Sunday last week and took us through somber and reflective services until last night’s Lamentations service to commemorate the death and burial of Christ. It is at this service when we walk through Allston – a busy area where bars meet with restaurants and students, where the sacred seems difficult to find – with a decorated bier chanting “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Us.” People stop and openly stare for it is a sharp contrast to the world that surrounds us.

And then today the somber tone turned to joy–Great and Holy Saturday. In Orthodox tradition this is one of the most important days of the year, where we believe Christ descended to Hades. Madeleine L’Engle puts it well “Where was Jesus on that extraordinary day between the darkness of Good Friday and the brilliance of Easter Sunday? He was down in hell. And what was he doing there? He was harrowing hell, or to put it in simpler words, he was ministering to the damned.” We have an icon of this – the Resurrection Icon where Jesus reaches down with strength and unyielding power, taking hold of Adam with one hand and Eve with the other, rescuing them from Hades. It is an incredibly powerful depiction of this event between Good Friday and Easter.

All week there has been a sense of something big coming, but today even more so, for tonight is our Pascha — our Easter celebration. We will gather at the church around midnight and celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Our priests will stride through the crowd shouting “Christ is Risen” in many languages and the joy will be palpable. In the wee hours of the morning we will end the celebration with a feast to top all feasts – lamb, ham, chicken, special Paschal cheeses and breads, fruit, cream, chocolate – it will all be there and in abundance for we have kept a fast, free of dairy or meat for seven weeks. Tonight, that ends and feasting begins.

So there is much to anticipate, much to look forward to, but now I sit in the quiet and think about the mystery of faith.

We all live by faith. Whether we acknowledge it or not, faith is a huge part of what it is to be human. Make no mistake – even if we believe nothing, we walk in faith. Some would argue it takes more faith to believe in nothing than to believe in a god or gods.

Woven through our life journey is a journey of faith. We’re all born – whether it be in Shanghai, Karachi, Los Angeles, or a million other places around the world. We all go through early stages of childhood where we are shaped for better, or sometimes, for worse. We move on into later years and our lives are shaped by circumstances, our response to those circumstances, those around us, and faith.

Our spiritual journey can include many events and even more emotions. Perhaps we’ve gone through a period where we are so angry at God that we feel bile rise in our throats. Perhaps we have yelled to the Heavens that life is unfair. Other times maybe we have questioned whether God is good, or whether there is universal truth. And throughout this journey life happens: friendships are formed, marriages made, babies birthed, funerals attended.

There was a time when I saw this faith journey as black and white. If I deviated from the path then there would be unforgivable consequences. There was a “perfect will of God path” and I had to find it. More recently I’m grateful for ‘process’; that God is a God of process. He takes the clay that he has and molds it, shapes it, and then often reshapes it – an artist that works with our soul and our character, creating something worthy, something beautiful, something that reflects its maker. There was a time when I thought the struggle was a problem, that it had to be eliminated. Through my own struggles and the struggles of those I love I have found that the struggle can and should be honored.

But there are those other times like the one I anticipate tonight – when my faith is celebrated with joy and in community. When I don’t try to make sense of this journey, but accept the mystery and grace that are a part of it. Where I take the body and blood of Christ, “not for judgement or for condemnation, but for the healing of soul and body.”*

So now I sit in the quiet, watching the sunlight fade, grateful for this week, this day, this faith. 

*From the end of the prayer before receiving Holy Communion.

Photo Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/pottery-potter-s-wheel-crock-457445/ Word Art by Marilyn R. Gardner

The Beginning of Lent – Eyes Wide Open

I idly sit down at the bench waiting for the subway. I am part of this early morning crowd, here before sun up. We are a quiet, sleepy group.

As I look around my eye rests on something someone has left on the bench just a foot away from me. I open my eyes wider as I realize it’s a used, out of the packet, pregnancy test. From where I sit the result is clear: two distinctive pink lines. The test was positive.

I feel a wave of profound sadness come over me. A pregnancy test sitting here, inanimate and silent, on a subway bench. What is the story here? Why was it left? What are the circumstances of the woman who used it?

In the world I long to inhabit, pregnancy tests don’t work this way. Pregnancy tests happen with joyful expectation, to couples who are healthy and secure.

But this is the world I live in, where babies come when they are not wanted. Where abortion clinics thrive on a woman’s crisis. Where a used pregnancy test is discarded on a bench in a subway station.

Somehow that I see this on the first day of Lent in the Orthodox tradition seems right. It is my eyes being opened wide to a hurting world. My eyes wide open in realization that the world is not as it should be. And it is into this world and for this world that the greatest sacrifice of all was given.

So I move into a Lenten journey, a journey not of legalism but of grace. A journey that beckons me forward, even as my stubborn heart wants to stay put. A journey that better equips me to pray for, and sit with, the hurting of this world: the homeless mom of five by my office, the displaced refugee at a clinic, the woman who leaves a pregnancy test on a subway platform, the colleague/friend who unexpectedly lost her dad. A journey that is both practical and spiritual — asking me to go with almond milk when I want thick cream; beans when I want meat; humility when I want glory.

A journey that demands I have my eyes wide open though I want to keep them shut. 

Excerpt adapted from The Reluctant Orthodox – On Forgiveness & Fasting: In the Metropolitan Museum of art there is a sculpture called “The Struggle of the Two Natures in Man”. It sits in a large atrium and shows two men wrestling, one stands over the other, his foot firmly placed on the other man’s arm. My friend James is a wrestler. He says this about the sculpture:

“Having wrestled throughout high school, I thought I could lend a bit of insight to the sculpture. The two poised are actually in a pretty precarious position. It is really ambiguous who is winning. The one standing has his foot on the other’s arm, but the one lying down has the “planted” leg of the standing man in a scissor lock. Most of the standing man’s weight is on that one leg, so by “scissoring” his legs the lying down man can topple the standing man. Depending on what the standing man does, he could counter and establish control or be taken down to the ground none-too-gently (e.g., face-plant).”

This powerful and beautiful sculpture resonates with me at this time. The part of me that loves God and moves forward gladly in obedience wrestling with the part of me that whines for comfort and basks in my own will.

This is the picture I will carry with me during this time of Great Lent, knowing that God reaches out to my wrestling soul, beckoning me with a love beyond understanding. And as he persistently beckons, I slowly come.”

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