The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 23 “On Repentance & the Mystery of Grace”

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I didn’t know about Saint Mary of Egypt until this past year. What is known about her primarily comes from a biography written by the Patriarch of Jerusalem after her death. She was born in Egypt in 344 AD. At 12 years old she ran away to Alexandria and entered into a life of promiscuity and prostitution. She was not forced into this. This is what she wanted. She would regularly refuse money for having sex, mostly living off of begging or spinning flax. She lived this way for 17 years with no regrets.

At that time she joined a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to attend some religious feasts, although her main goal was to seduce other pilgrims on the journey.

Something remarkable happened when she tried to approach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the feast day. While other pilgrims entered – she was held back. It was a force that she couldn’t see, but she realized that she was not allowed to enter because of her sin, because of her impurity. She saw the icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) and cried out to it, begging for forgiveness and promising that she would give up this life that she knew, give up the “world”. When she tried again to go into the church she was allowed inside. When she came outside again and went before the icon to give thanks, she heard a voice saying “If you cross the Jordan, you will find true rest and peace.” She went then to a monastery on the banks of the Jordan river and received holy communion. The next morning she crossed over the Jordan and went to live the rest of her life as a hermit, ever penitent. It is said she took three loaves of bread with her and after they were gone ate whatever she could find.

One year before she died she told her life story to a priest who, on going into the desert, saw a naked figure who hardly looked human. She asked him for his robe to cover her body and sat down with him telling him her story. She had remarkable insight and perception into the life of this priest. She asked him to meet her a year later and bring her Holy Communion. He returned a year later and found her and gave her communion. A year later he returned and found her body in the place he had last seen her.

The story was preserved for generations through oral tradition until finally recorded by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. And, as in all our lives, there is more to the story. This is a condensed version.

Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

The words of Oscar Wilde are oft quoted. But there’s nothing like a story to remind me of their truth and Mary’s is that story.

There was a time when I wanted a past like Mary’s of Egypt – when I wanted to know that Grace stretched far and deep rescuing me from a life of sin. Instead I grew up in a home that nurtured my faith. I never ran off to Alexandria, Egypt to seduce men. I was never turned away from entering a church. But here’s the problem – there was a time I believed when it didn’t take a miracle of Grace to reach me, when I thought I could do this Christianity thing pretty well, that repentance was for the “difficult to save.” And me? I was easy to save. Perhaps I even thought God was ‘lucky’ to have me in his little group.

But that Pharisaic stance put me in the most dangerous of postures. For Christ offered forgiveness to prostitutes and saved harsh words for the Pharisees. He was friend to sinners, Saviour to the truly repentant.

Saint Mary of Egypt above all teaches me of repentance. What it means to live life, marked first by sin, but remembered for repentance. If I don’t believe it took just as much of a miracle of Grace to reach me as it did to reach her then I have a twisted theology. If I believe that I am ‘easier to save’, if I arrogantly and sinfully pat myself on the back and look up to Heaven believing that the trinitarian Godhead is lucky to have me on their side, then I am the worst kind of Pharisee.

So I am learning more and more about the saints. And I am learning more and more about a sinner – me.

And as I learn I am confounded by the same thing that confounded Saint Mary of Egypt — the Mystery of Grace.

For Mary it was the unseen force, Holy Communion on the banks of the Jordan, years in the desert. For me it was the unseen hand on my 6-year old self in boarding school, the heritage of a family of faith, years of feeling alien yet knowing God’s presence. For both of us, along with a host of other saints and sinners “Those nail-scarred hands stretch out to us in unlikely spaces and places and we marvel at the mystery of Grace.” from The Hard Questions.

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 16 “A Physical Faith”

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

From the beginning I noticed that worship in the Orthodox church is physical. It demands your body. From standing for long periods of time to prostrating, making the sign of the cross and venerating icons, there is constant movement.

When you walk into an Orthodox service, the first thing you will probably notice is that people are standing and children are ever-present. “Holy Noise” they are called. I have never felt disturbed by kids. They tend to wander around but with boundaries. There is no giggling or chaos, and generally if a little one begins to cry they are taken out until the crying stops. Children are an integral part of the service.

Beyond the standing there is general movement. Up to the front to venerate icons, over to the side to venerate icons, across the altar making the sign of the cross, up to the front of the church to greet the priest, up to the front of the church to take communion, over to a pew to sit for a homily, up again to stand, prostrating during certain points in the service, out to the narthex to get a candle to light in prayer for someone. Along with that is the movement of the priests with their censers and incense, the procession of the bread and wine through the congregation, the lifting up of the word of God.

There is also the verbal participation. The chanting, the reciting of the Nicene Creed, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, singing the Beatitudes, the phrases “Lord have mercy” and “to thee O Lord” in sung over and over in harmony with the choir.

And it doesn’t end when you go home. Because at home there is the physical act of fasting and the venerating of home icons. It is a faith that demands your body and all of your senses.

It is an active, physical faith.

A 2007 article called “Men and Church” by Frederica Matthewes-Green speaks to the physicality of the faith. She says this: “People begin learning immediately through ritual and symbolism, for example, by making the sign of the cross. This regimen of discipline makes one mindful of one’s relation to the Trinity, to the Church, and to everyone he meets.” 

I’ll admit – it’s taken a while for me to adapt to this physical faith. I’ve written before about sore feet and physical irritation, about how long the services are, about how awkward I’ve felt at points. Bottom line — I’m lazy and would love to be coddled. But more and more I am grateful to be challenged in this way, challenged with a physical response, a physical faith. Because all of this reminds me that this is not about me. This is designed to be Christ-centered and everything is designed to point me to a single truth: that this is about the triune God and as such demands all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my body.

“[Orthodoxy demands] the self-denial of a warrior, the terrifying risk of loving one’s enemies, the unknown frontiers to which a commitment to humility might call us. Lose any of those dangerous qualities and we become the ‘JoAnn Fabric Store’ of churches: nice colors and a very subdued clientele.” from Men and Church by Frederica Matthewes-Green

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 13: “Taught by a Star to Adore Him”

On Tuesday, while the rest of the world donned work attire and trudged off to jobs at offices, restaurants, hospitals and more, we prepared to head to our second Christmas – Holy Nativity celebrated on January 7th.

Before that day part of me struggled. While in theory it sounded nice “Two Christmases? Wow!” when reality hit I was done. We’d had a great western Christmas — the candle light service, the Christmas eve brunch feast that has now become a tradition at the home of our best friends, the presents, the joy, the laughter. And now I was in the aftermath when lethargy hits and you’re just done.

I kept on trying to push myself into excitement, into ‘feeling’ something. It didn’t work. So on Monday night – spent from a long day of work, I ended up with tired legs and weary heart at the vigil service, a Christmas eve service, to prepare for the Nativity celebration the next day.

And it was there that my tired heart found solace and a rest for its longing. For in that vigil there were not gifts, no tree, no Santa, no wrapping paper – pretty and shiny at the beginning but cast off with the garbage at the end. In that vigil was my call to remember the incarnation, remember that God became man and we were never the same.

Over and over we sang these words – words that I had not heard before but have now found a resting place in my heart:

“Thy Nativity O Christ our God has shown to the world the light of wisdom. For by it those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Son of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee!”

With tired feet and revived heart I left the church that night. Mystery replaced magic –  the mystery of the incarnation, that act that has confounded and comforted through the ages. “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One”

The next morning we arrived to a church bathed in sunlight, the gold of icons reflecting the light from stained glass windows. We arrived to witness and participate in the joy and celebration of the birth of Christ. With the choir leading, we sang the words “Taught by a star to adore him” over and over, planted in my brain forever I think. The Nativity – showing to the world the light of wisdom.

Our second Christmas — my journey of faith, continuing to see the world in new ways through the Orthodox church. It’s not that I don’t know all of this — it’s that sometimes I need to hear it in a new way, so that my old heart can be resuscitated and reminded that just as those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore him – I too need to be taught to adore him.

Blessed Nativity! Christ is Born!

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 9 “On Prayer”

A small, brown book sits on our altar, beside our dining room table. The cover is engraved in gold with the simple words “Orthodox Prayer Book”.

It feels unfamiliar, the pages not yet worn. Our priest recommended this book to me in the late spring. “Sit with me” he said one day after Divine Liturgy. He didn’t waste time, no small talk. “What are you reading these days?” he asked. I stumbled a bit. Dare I tell him Man in the White Sharkskin Suit? Or Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest stunning novel?

Perhaps I could just start with saying “The Bible.” Evidently I said it with a question mark at the end, as though I didn’t quite know. Truth is — I dd know. At the time I was reading a slim but astounding paperback called The Incarnation. At times I had to put this down. My head would begin to pound with the layers of mystery that surrounded it. The Incarnation — a mystery we will never fully understand on this earth yet, if we are willing, we benefit from it daily.

The talk went on. I was moved that he was truly interested, he really wanted to know what I was doing to grow spiritually, how I was learning more about faith and God. One of the things Father Patrick recommended was the small prayer book.

“I encourage you to look at morning and evening prayers” he said. “There are many different prayers marking many different situations. You may find it helpful.”

Slowly, tentatively we began doing prayers. On our own in the morning; my husband and I together in the evening.

They began with humor. “Is this the right tone?” we would whisper to each other, as though our new Orthodox brothers and sisters would hear, miles away in their houses, tucked into beds. “No – I think we go lower on this part”.

We, who have been on a faith journey of many years, were hesitant, walking into this with some reluctance.

“O 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 of all impurity. And save our Souls O Good One.”

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal – Have Mercy on Us. (x3 said the little, brown book)

So we began and slowly this is becoming an important habit. Some would say this is rote, they would argue that it is more meaningful speaking words of our own. But words of our own also become rote. Something is only rote when we make it rote, when we stop thinking about the meaning behind the words, the call to us through the words. Habitual repetition of anything can lose its meaning.

But habitual repetition can also move souls, and move my heart. As I walk through the streets of Boston, and day after day see the homeless, huddled together under thin, dirty blankets I can say the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me, have mercy on them.” and it doesn’t feel rote. It feels like the only response possible. For I have nothing to give, nothing to offer that can change their situation.

So I clutch my prayer book with reverence, praying that I will learn more through these prayers that are right now unfamiliar. Praying that as we take on this habit we will be changed into people who reflect the icon above us – the Christ, Son of the Living God.

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 7 “From Mary in the Blue Dress to Most Holy Theotokos”

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The image comes from my Sunday School days of long ago. Mary is pale and pure, always in blue, probably to match her distinctively blue eyes. Her head is draped with a white cloth, somewhat like the dupattas I’m so familiar with. She is sweet, submissive, and not a little frail. She looks a bit like the wind could blow her away as she sits in reverent awe of the wee one in her arms. Joseph is always standing. “Does he never sit” asks the irreverent child in an audible whisper.

And of course there are ox and ass and sheep and shepherds and a dirty stable. Because that’s the story that made its way into 20th century Sunday School classes, no matter how erroneous it is.

Mary, just a girl, a teenager who said ‘yes’. Just like you or me.

And then I meet Eastern Orthodoxy and the image goes from white and blue to brilliant golds and reds, deep greens and oranges. I’m aghast! Where is my wee Mary? Where is my sweet Mary?

It turns out she doesn’t exist in the Eastern Orthodox church. Not that Mary. The Mary I’ve been introduced to is a warrior. She is the Theotokos. The God-bearer. She is far more than the young thing that said yes to the angel Gabriel.

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most ven...

I have been introduced to the woman to whom Elizabeth cried “Blessed art thou among women!” and “From now on, all generations will call you blessed!” These are powerful words, words that many in Christendom have forgotten, for I’ll be honest – I’ve not heard Mary, the mother of Jesus, called blessed once in the past 20 years in any protestant church I’ve attended. She’s not mentioned but on Christmas, and then only in the scripture passage read during the Advent season.

Mary, who both nursed the Christ-child and wept with tears that pierced her soul at his blood stained body on the cross. Mary who urged Jesus to intervene at a wedding. Mary who scolded Jesus for staying behind in Jerusalem, worried sick was she at her son’s disappearance.

And I can’t help thinking, she must abhor the controversy about her. She must shake her head in despair at the extremes that emerge when it comes to views of her role in Christianity. The skeptic in the west who fears any mention may lead to an out of control adoration and the superstition in the east that can lead to a view that puts her on equal footing with God.

So I ask and I search to find out more about this new Mary, who bears no resemblance to the old Mary, the one I was so comfortable with, who was so safe.

I read and I question and I first find what the Orthodox do not believe. They do not worship Mary. They venerate her — just like they don’t worship icons, they venerate them. They hold them in high regard and respect, they are careful in the ways they treat them, careful not to treat them with apathy and disregard. The Orthodox do not believe Mary was born without sin. Nor do they believe that she is “co-redemptor” with Christ.

And then I move farther and I find that Mary is a picture of what it is to become Christ-like. As the bearer of God, the Theotokos, she represents a willingness and humility to bear the Son of God. She, just as all humans before and after her, had free will. She used that free will to say “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word.”

Mary was a precious and contributing member to the early church, cared for by the apostles and loved by early believers.

It turns out when it comes to Mary, I am not a Reluctant Orthodox, but a hard-core believer that this woman who exudes strength, humility, truth, and the deepest obedience is worth respecting and loving. I am grateful for a fresh view, a new view of Mary. She is, after all, the Mother of my Lord.