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.

“I Will Not Let You Go Unless You Bless Me!”

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There are sometimes few words to describe spiritual struggles. The words seem trite and small compared to how real the struggle feels. So we are left wordless and longing, wishing that somehow, someway, the struggle could be over and our faith repackaged, reconstructed into something we understand.

But if we understood it, would it be too small? 

These are my questions these days as I wrestle with God and as I move into the second week of the Lenten Season of the Orthodox Church. The questions have led me to look at Jacob, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham.

In terms of deceit, Jacob was a master and stole the birthright blessing from under the nose of his twin brother. Poor old Esau is left, becoming the hidden part of a title of a children’s book for the words that are recorded “Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.” I won’t even touch that because it’s too disturbing, but it should be noted that Jacob’s life hardly improved after he received that fatherly blessing. Instead, he ran away and ended up having to work hard for a wife, only to be deceived by his future father-in-law into marrying the wrong daughter.  He ended up with two wives and enough domestic disputes to fill a six-season reality show. Parents who want to censor books that their children read may want to begin with the Bible. It doesn’t take long to find deceit, murder, and rape. But it also doesn’t take long to find redemption woven throughout the narrative and God doing what he continues to do so faithfully: Take a mess and by his mercy change it into something remarkable. 

So while Jacob’s life from the beginning is interesting, my thoughts have centered around an event that is well-recorded in Biblical history; a time when Jacob physically wrestled with God. At God’s leading, Jacob left his father-in-law’s home, accompanied by his wives, his children and his flocks. He hears that his brother Esau is coming, and, remembering how he deceived him so many years before, he is rightfully nervous. Jacob ends up alone in the desert and he wrestles with God. Not an emotional wrestling, a physical wrestling. But here is the astounding thing – Jacob was winning. Jacob, a mere mortal is wrestling with God – and Jacob pins him down. “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” says God. But Jacob will not let him go.

“I will not let you go, unless you bless me!” These words have to be some of the most arrogant ever quoted in scripture. But God listens; God blesses him, and Jacob’s faith finally becomes his own.

I will not let you go, unless you bless me. These are bold words, yet Jacob said them.During this season, these are the words I want to say to God. I want the courage to hold on tight and say “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!”  

As for Jacob? In a few years he would face some of the worst trauma in his traumatic life when he was deceived into believing his beloved son Joseph was dead. Even so, his words as he told of his encounter with the living God are unforgettable: “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.”

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REMEMBER! The book giveaway of Meditations is still open until the Monday after Western Easter! Leave a comment on that post and you will be entered into the drawing. Two copies will be given away, so your chances automatically double.

*Story is from the book of Genesis 32:24-32

Striving to be Kind

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Whether it’s about a red Starbucks cup or a political opinion, we live in a world that is increasingly divided, even as it is more connected than any time in history. In this world of online chatter, I think alot about how to respond to those with whom I disagree. For a people pleaser, this is hard. I want to be true to who I am and what I believe, but I also like people and the truth is, I want them to like me.

These past weeks have been so difficult for me. Those of you who read regularly know that I’ve been writing about refugees since I began to blog.  Refugees, displaced people, the one who doesn’t belong – they have my heart, my time, and my money. So when I see misinformation, misguided claims, and pure meanness about refugees I find it difficult to stay calm, and incredibly difficult to be kind. I want to lash out.

But that doesn’t work. The idea that my being mean and angry will help the situation is ridiculous. “The battle is not won or lost on the public stage.”

And so I pen an audacious blog – “Striving to be Kind,”  as though I have a market on kindness. And I don’t, not in any way. But more and more I am struck by how important kindness is in my responses to people.

In a wise post last year, Robynn wrote: “It’s better to be kind than right.” Those words were important for me to read.

It’s in the book of Colossians that I find a framework for how to be kind.

“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.  Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace,seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Continue in prayer and thanksgiving. I read these words and I realize that without prayer, I don’t have a chance. Just as I need time to strengthen relationships with my husband and my family, so do I need time with God. Prayer strengthens me. Prayer calms me. Prayer centers me. Prayer helps me to be kind, because through prayer I remember the kindness of God toward me.

Walk in wisdom. Wisdom is about knowledge and discernment. Wisdom is about insight and sound judgment. Wisdom helps me know when to stop talking. Wisdom helps me know when to challenge. Wisdom helps me to know when to slow down, when to warm my tone, when to watch my intent. 

Speak with grace. There are ways to speak that are gracious and affirm the other person, even as I disagree with them. Abba Dorotheos of Gaza is a saint in the Orthodox Church. He lived in Gaza in the fifth century. I was introduced to his writings about three years ago, but I began to reread them this fall. His writings are as pertinent today as they were in the fifth century, because they are written toward the heart of man and that hasn’t changed. One of his disciples said this about Abba Dorotheos: “Towards the brethren laboring with him he responded with modesty, with humility, and was gracious without arrogance or audacity. He was good-natured and direct, he would engage in a dispute, but always preserved the principle of respect, of good will, and that which is sweeter than honey, oneness of soul, the mother of all virtues.”*

Abba Dorotheos gives clear instructions not to attack the person’s entire character with our words. It’s one thing to say “The man lost his temper.” It’s quite another to say “That is a bad tempered man.” One speaks to a point in time, the other to the entire character of a man. Let’s be honest – in online communication, character and ad hominem attacks are the rule rather than the exception.

I wonder what advice Abba Dorotheos would give us in this age of online communication, where insults fly between total strangers and anger is ignited across the interweb. I think he would repeat the words that he wrote so long ago: “ Listen to what the Lord says: “Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He shows here the root and cause of all ills and their cure, the cause of all good, namely, that self-exaltation has brought us down and that pardon cannot be obtained except through its opposite, humility.”  

For this is truth: I can’t be gracious if I am full of pride.

I have a long way to go to have this framework branded on my soul, but every day gives me opportunity to practice.  

*“Strive always to love those who hate you. Never forget that we aren’t dealing with a fog-like “movement” but with real three-dimensional persons, whom God loves just as much as he loves you. Christ saves only sinners—people like you. So be courageous, but always loving, for the battle is not won or lost on the public stage but inside the yearning heart of every person.” Frederica Matthewes-Green

*St. Dositheus – disciple of Abba Dorotheos.

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