The Resilient Orthodox – Pentecost Interrupted

Our church was filled with greenery yesterday – the Orthodox color of Pentecost signifying new creation and the breath of life. The priests robes echoed the theme with colors of vibrant gold and green made of materials that reflected the light around them.

In the Orthodox tradition, 50 days following Pascha is Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is a huge day of celebration in the church. Jesus tells the disciples that it was a good thing for him to leave; that there was something better coming. How could something be better than Jesus? How could something or someone come alongside them the way Jesus had during the last three years? And yet, Christ ascended and with his ascent, the Holy Spirit descended, becoming a living reality for those left behind. Like the Trinity, the coming of the Holy Spirit is a complete mystery but one that I gladly accept.

Directly following Divine Liturgy, we settled into special kneeling prayers for Pentecost.

And then in the midst of all of it, a cell phone began to ring. It was a jarring sound that interrupted the prayers and my own thoughts. The ringing was loud, insistent. “Pick me up” it rang. “You need to see who it is, you need to pay attention, you need to obey!” There were shocked expressions and scrambling. All eyes turned toward the area where the sound was coming from.  It was directly in front of me, and for a moment I wondered if it was me. In fact, every one wondered if it was their phone, even if they knew that it couldn’t possibly be. The shocked expressions and wandering eyes found and stared at the guilty phone avoiding the embarrassed eyes of the human who owned the phone, and all the while the vesperal prayers continued.

Do you, then, who are full of mercy and love for mankind, hear us on whatever day we call upon you; but especially on this day of Pentecost, on which after our Lord Jesus Christ had been taken up and been enthroned at your right hand, God and Father, he sent down on his disciples and Apostles the holy Spirit, who settled on each one of them and they were all filled with his inexhaustible grace and spoke in strange tongues of your mighty works and prophesied.

My life in the Holy Spirit is so much like this – I feel the breath of the Holy Spirit, but I am interrupted by the urgency of life, responsibilities, work, people, worries, even joys. I try to listen but the interruptions are loud and insistent. Do this! Do that! Think this! Think that! Obey the urgent and insistent! All the while, the Holy Spirit is gently persistent. And so I come back only to be interrupted again with the tyranny of things that can wait.

The ringing of the cell phone stopped, and most people will not remember that it happened. But it continues to ring in my ears, because of the undeniable truth that it represents, because it so symbolically showed me what my life in the spirit is like.

Shutting off a phone is easy compared to shutting off the distractions of my mind. And yet I continue, ever mindful that the real failure is in deciding it’s not worth trying, that the distractions are just too persistent, I might as well give in to them.  Just as the prayers continued through the insistent ringing of a cell phone, I will continue seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit despite the insistent distractions that call me away.

I stop. I breathe. I pray.

Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present, and fillest all things, treasury of good gifts and giver of life. Come and abide in us, and cleanse us from all impurity. And save our souls, O Good one. 

Advent Reflection – A Mom’s Tears

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Ask any mother and she will tell you that the tears we weep for our children are like no other. They are tears that come from deep within our souls as we cry out in pain, either for them or because of them. They are the tears we weep in solitude when our daughter has faced her first break-up. At that moment, should the boy be present, we would possibly commit a crime that locks us up, unless the lawyer can use the grounds of love, impulse and passion to convince a jury that we are not dangerous.

They are the tears that we shed when our pre-schooler is not invited to the birthday party that every other kid seems to be attending. They are the tears that come when we know that we are helpless to make life better for our children, that the days when we could control who comes and goes from their lives are now gone. They are the tears of rage when we feel wronged or misunderstood by these products of our womb, when the path they are taking is leading to a place that we know will cause pain.

They are the tears of agony when we know they are in deep pain, pain they can’t share with their moms. They are also the tears of unspeakable delight and joy at weddings and graduations; tears of admiration as we are invited to participate in their world; and the tears of happiness as we realize how proud we are and how much we love them.

One of the Orthodox icons depicting Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer, is an icon that shows Mary with seven swords going into her heart. The icon is called the “Softener of Evil Hearts”. In Orthodoxy, these seven swords are seen as representing the immense sorrow that the Theotokos experienced at the foot of the cross; the sorrow that was prophesied by Saint Simeon when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”*

I had been a mom for many years before I first heard about, and then saw, this icon. I thought about it for a long time. Here was one who understood far more about a mother’s tears then I could ever imagine. Sitting there at the foot of the cross, helpless and watching her son die, she did not yet know the full picture. The resurrection would be three days later. Her heart was pierced by a sword many times over before she saw the risen Lord on that Paschal morning.

I think about this icon as I shed tears for my children. Though we know but a fraction of this pain, our hearts too are pierced. We shed our tears and we too, wait; wait for the God of resurrection and miracles to comfort and strengthen us.

We wait for our souls to heal, for wrong to be made right. And we press on.

*Luke 2:34-35

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

 

The Resilient Orthodox: Pepper & Salt


My Godmother came into my life around four years ago. At the time, I didn’t know she would be my Godmother. In fact, she didn’t know she would be my Godmother.

When I first asked her to be my Godmother, she looked at me with not a little terror in her eyes. At that moment, I knew I had made the right decision.

The Godparent/Godchild relationship is taken seriously in the Orthodox Church. Every person, whether a child or an adult, is to have someone who takes on this role. The role and responsibilities are lifelong. From baptism and onward, the Godparent is to pray for their Godchild, to take interest in who they are both in and out of church, to model faith in all of life, and to cultivate a relationship.

But I didn’t know all of this when I asked her to be my Godmother. I just knew that it was something I was supposed to do. And it had taken me long enough to get on the bus for this journey; I wasn’t going to let the matter of a Godmother stop me. Still, it was not easy to ask, especially when I didn’t know her well.

She didn’t respond quickly. Instead she paused and looked at me. “Well…,” her tone was measured. “If you need to get together all the time and talk, then I’m probably not the right person.” I breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing I wanted was an overly sincere, motherly Godmother. I wanted someone who would walk alongside me but not be pedantic. I wanted someone I could trust, who wouldn’t guilt me into being someone or something I couldn’t be. Most of all, I wanted someone who knew that Orthodoxy was a long journey, not a short hike.

And so, she agreed.

We are two different people, she and I.  

I am pepper and she is salt. I am feisty and angsty, reactionary and passionate. She is calm and rational, thoughtful and steady. I am the questioner, she the receiver of questions.

But we both know the long road of obedience is never easy.  We both know that community takes work. We both know that we are desperately in need of grace. And so the differences dissolve, the tastiness of pepper and salt realized in the relationship. Slowly, I realize that Salt is not only my Godmother, she has become my friend. 

Now these four years later, I wonder sometimes – if she really knew what the role included, would she still come alongside? I like to think she would. 

Reflections on Morning and Evening Prayers

 

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It’s early morning. The day is waking to summer in all its blue-skyed glory. Birds sing and chirp loud in chorus  – a liturgical chant to welcome the day.

I am standing at our icon corner, the place in our home where we say our morning and evening prayers. It is here where I try to begin the day. It is here where I take a few moments from the frantic busyness that can take hold if I’m not careful; here where I thank God for the morning, for a new day. I shake my head in wonder as I read the words “at dawn I might sing the glories of thy Majesty” – this is what life is to be.


It is less than an hour later when my morning peace is challenged, where I shake my head in frustration at someone who jostled me on the subway, where I hold my breath because the smell of urine is so strong in the Park Street T stop.

This is my life. Perhaps it is yours as well – peace and contemplation forgotten as we face everyday life wherever we are. My everyday life is the city, where homeless find shelter in door ways and tourists meander, their faces hidden by maps and sun hats. My everyday life is data mixed with stories, real people who need cancer screenings, real communities that face various difficulties.

I stop for a moment and think of the words of Frederick Buechner: Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. 


It’s at the end of the day when I hold out my hands in a physical gesture of surrender. We are doing our evening prayers, a discipline we began three years ago. We stand with our faces lifted toward icons: The Christ Pantocrator, the Theotokos, and our particular saints – St. Sophia, St. Mary of Egypt, and St. Isaac the Syrian. A tall, thin beeswax candle made by nuns at a monastery is our only light, but it is enough.

There is something about this evening prayer time, something about this physical opening of my hands in release. Those things that I have worried about and held tight, the backpack full of burdens, even the pain in my body is held out to God. It’s during evening prayers that I fully accept what I know to be true – I can’t do it alone. This thing called life is too much for me. There is too much hurt, too much sadness, too much pain. I cannot go to bed with all this – I must release it.

So I do.

With hands lifted up, I give it all to God. I pray the words “Visit and heal our infirmities for thy name’s sake.”

For those few moments, all that matters is this time where earth drifts away and Heaven seems a bit closer.

Holy Saturday 


Yesterday was Good Friday, a day when all of Christendom takes a moment to stop and pause at the memory of sacrificial love. 

But what happens between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?
What happens to us on the days between tragedy and healing? What transpires when the crisis is over, but the end is not yet revealed? The days after the car accident, but before the broken leg has healed and the insurance has been paid. The days after diagnosis of cancer, but before treatment. The days after a funeral, but before we’ve adjusted to the loss.
These are the days between, when instead of darkness or light there is a lingering nervousness and knowledge that something is not quite settled, not quite right. The days between are often the most difficult and the most lonely, and they are undoubtedly the most common.

So has this day often seemed to me – this day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, where we are suspended between death and life. 

“It is Finished” has been spoken, “He is Risen” is yet to come. 

In the West the day is often filled with shopping for marshmallow chicks, chocolate bunnies, and fake grass to line plastic easter baskets. 

 As I’ve moved into the Eastern Orthodox Church, I’ve formed a different view of this day between. A day between – yes, but a day of immeasurable importance in the Christian faith tradition. 

Madeleine L’Engle describes her journey of greater understanding of this day in her book, The Irrational Season:

In the Western Church, we jump directly from Good Friday to Easter Day, with Saturday a vague blank in between. But in the Eastern Church, Great and Holy Saturday is one of the most important days of the year.”


She goes on to say:


“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.”


Madeleine L’Engle says this about the first time she ever saw the fresco of the Harrowing of Hell over the altar in the Chora Church in Istanbul: 

“I stood there, trembling with joy, as I looked at this magnificent painting of the harrowing of hell. In the center is the figure of Jesus striding through hell, a figure of immense virility and power. With one strong hand he is grasping Adam, with the other, Eve, and wresting them out of the power of hell. The gates to hell, which he has trampled down and destroyed forever, are in cross-form, the same cross on which he died. . .”

This same icon has become a part of my church tradition. 

I am almost ready to head out the door to our Holy Saturday service, because I have come to realize that what happens in the days between, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is crucial to the final outcome.

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 – Now Lay Aside All Cares

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It comes at the perfect time of the service, after we sing the Beatitudes and the gospel is read. After the homily and during the service of the Eucharist. It comes when my mind has started to wander and the worries of the coming week begin to creep in.

The choir leads us in what is called the “Cherubic Hymn” and we sing this phrase “Now lay aside all cares.” It is part of a longer hymn but this is the phrase that challenges me, draws me in every time. It’s repeated twice – for needed emphasis. This phrase beckons me, calls me out, asks me if I can, for this short period of time, lay aside all those things that bother and irritate, all that causes pain and sadness, all that causes confusion and anger – can I lay all of it aside? Can I come to the Eucharist with body and mind fully fixed on the eternal?

Each week this calls me – Lay aside all earthly cares.

Some weeks I do this willingly, so glad to drop my backpack of burdens at the feet of Jesus. Other weeks I hold tight. Worry and earthly cares are clasped in my tight little fist like a child grasping tight to something that will hurt them. During the first time we sing I still want to hold on, but by the second the words soak in and I begin to release. It’s as though God takes that small act and works with it, accepting my paltry attempt at release and honoring it.

Lay aside all earthly cares – who else says that to me all week? Who else gives permission to rest, release, focus on the eternal? It’s a rhetorical question for the answer is obvious. No one. The only time that I am outwardly and verbally given permission to lay aside these earthly cares is Sunday morning when earth meets Heaven in the body and the blood of Christ. I would be a fool to hang on. And so I slowly release the tight grasp I have on all things temporal, on all worries and fears that haunt and threaten to destroy, I lay them aside for this time and a small sigh escapes my lips.

“Now lay aside all earthly cares” – it’s not a suggestion, it’s a command. And so I do.

When do you lay aside all earthly cares?