>On Monday—just three days after Christmas—a dear friend and fellow member at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis posted the following comment on Facebook:
“put away all of the Christmas decorations…trying to temper the post Christmas blues….”
Her post elicited a long stream of comments. Some were humorous:
“Wait, I thought it was traditional to keep the tree up until all of the needles fall off on their own. Not everybody does that?”
Others were attempts at chasing away the post Christmas blues:
“keep playing Christmas music and turning on the lights on the tree ’til Jan 6th and see if that helps post Christmas blues!”
“Our tree stays up until after New Year. Seems a shame to cut all the festivities short.”
One or two folks replied with comments about early Church traditions:
“Don’t you know there are 12 days of Christmas?”
When the author replied to our encouragements with these words—“Post Christmas blues, for me, have to be fought with a vengeance…I was hoping being Orthodox would change that, but I’m not quite there yet….”—the subject got stuck in my mind, and has stayed there for several days.
At breakfast with a friend yesterday, we talked about the whole Orthodox tradition of fasting and preparing for the feast (Christmas) for 40 days beforehand, and then celebrating for 12 days afterwords—until the Feast of Theophany on January 6. We both agreed that it’s a huge struggle because the Orthodox approach clashes with the culture in which we live.
Our non-Orthodox friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers are celebrating the season all during December, with parties and food and drink and festivities. Our children are enmeshed in this pre-Christmas celebration in their schools. Every shopping mall is filled with shiny decorations and the tempting aromas of chocolates and roasted meats. It’s all so familiar for those of us who grew up with these non-Orthodox traditions, and many converts to Orthodoxy struggle with ambivalence during the Nativity Fast.
One friend told me that she just pretty much gave up on it this year (the Fast) … that it was just too hard to swim against the tide. So her family didn’t focus so much on fasting and didn’t avoid the pre-Christmas parties, but entered into the season with joy. She said that one reason it’s so hard to accept the Orthodox fasting-feasting practice at Christmas is because we really don’t do much “feasting” after Christmas. We deprive ourselves of the festivities going on around us during December and then really only celebrate on one day—Christmas. Often it feels like a let-down after weeks of “preparation,” to cram all the celebrating into one day. Our efforts often leave us with too much of everything: presents, food, drink, and all the stimulation that goes with it. We end up in food comas, exhausted, and yes, often depressed.
I think this was some of what my Facebook friend was expressing. If we’re going to embrace the Orthodox tradition, we need to learn to celebrate the Orthodox SEASON of the Feast of Christmas, with festivities during the 12 days following December 25.
Small parishes that are close-knit and somewhat isolated from the “outside world” probably do a better job of this. And even our parish here in a large metropolitan area offers opportunities, like Christmas caroling at St. Paul Skete the day after Christmas, which is a Feast Day for the Mother of God. And some years we’ve had a mid-week Liturgy with a pizza party following. But somehow those often don’t seem like “enough.” It may take us (converts) many years to adjust to this different rhythm of fasting and feasting.
Another Feast during this season offers an opportunity for celebration, but it
also “clashes” with the secular activities of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Tonight at St. John we’ll be having Great Vespers for the Circumcision of our Lord and for the Feast Day of Saint Basil the Great (my husband’s patron)—both commemorated on January 1 on the Orthodox calendar. Saint Basil established the first orphanage and the first Christian hospital in the world. We’ll have a potluck at church, and I’ll make the traditional Vasilopita, the “Saint Basil Bread,” in which I’ll hide a gold coin. You can read the story of the tradition here. (Be sure and click on the video of the Greek children singing!)
And I just discovered (too late for this year) that you can actually order a special Saint Basil coin for the bread, here.
You know, I’m a worldly person. I love stuff. I love food and wine and parties and music and all things festive. But I also have a passion for the Church and have struggled for over twenty years with this balance between the “Orthodox way” and the “world’s way.” I’m weary from the struggle, and like my friend expressed at coffee yesterday, I just want it to feel “normal.” But I’m not willing to give up on what the Church in her wisdom is trying to offer me.
This morning I asked God to help me learn to embrace His Feast in the way He intends for me. And then I read the following words, which comprise the quote of the day on the last page (December 31) of the 2009 Daily Lives, Miracles and Wisdom of the Saints Calendar:
“At the approach of a great feast you must watch yourself with particular care. The enemy endeavors beforehand to chill your heart towards the event being celebrated, so that you will not honor it by whole-heartedly considering its reality. He acts upon us through the weather, or through the food and drink we have taken, or through his own arrows thrown plentifully at the heart and inflaming the entire person, at which time evil, impure and blasphemous thoughts occur to us, and we feel thoroughly averse to the solemnity. We must overcome the enemy for forcing ourselves to meditate and pray devoutly.” – St. John of Kronstadt
Finding these words this morning was truly a gift from God. As I approach this, the 7th Day of Christmas, I find myself going around the house singing, happy to still have Christmas decorations up, and joyfully looking forward to making the Vasilopita and bringing it to church tonight. Even the “young folks” who have plans for bringing in the New Year out on the town later are welcome to begin their evening with this beautiful service of Great Vespers first.
And then tomorrow—on the 8th Day of Christmas, the Feast Day of Saint Basil—my
husband and I welcome friends into our home to continue the celebration. And although we won’t be praying and singing church hymns, I think God will bless our time together watching football, eating, drinking, and playing games, because He created us to celebrate, and He is the reason for our joy.
And I know He will be watching over my daughter, who is on her way to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter in Denver, and my oldest son who is deployed in Afghanastan. Happy New Year’s, Beth, Jason, See, Grace and Jon!
However your family commemorates the day, I pray you will be safe and full of thankfulness for God’s abundant blessings.
And so I close another year of posts here at Pen and Palette. Thanks so much to all my faithful readers. I’d love t hear your comments on this post!
>About a year ago I did a blog post called, “Support Your Local Independent Booksellers.” While I’ll admit that I do order books from Amazon.com from time to time, I really prefer to shop at Burke’s or Davis Kidd in Memphis, and at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi. Why? The service, the atmosphere, the informed staff, the love of the book that permeates the air inside these literary havens.
So, tonight when I took a break from the holiday festivities to sit by the fire and open the January/February 2010 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, I was thrilled to see that Square Books in Oxford was selected for the first of a series of profiles on indie bookstores. You can read the article, which includes Jeremiahs Chamberlin’s interview with Richard Howorth, here.
My favorite part of the interview was this part of Richard’s response to Jeremiah’s question, “With developments like the Kindle and Japanese cell-phone novels and Twitter stories, how does a bookstore stay relevant in the twenty-first century?”
“The way I see it though I think that digital technology will go on, on its own path, no matter what. But in terms of books, I maintain that a book is like a sailboat or a bicycle, in that it’s a perfect invention. I don’t care what series number of Kindle you’re on, it is never going to be better than this. [Holds up a book.] … this thing is pretty wonderful—and irreplaceable.”
And so I’m off to bed with, you guessed it, a good book. Hardcover. First edition. And when no one is looking, I just might run my fingers over the pages to feel the texture, and pull the book to my nostrils to breathe in that comforting “book smell.” It’s all part of the experience. (Flannery O’Connor admitted to loving National Geographic Magazine because of how it felt and smelled.) And like Richard said, it’s irreplaceable.
>There are dozens of beautiful, special, personal Christmas cards on our kitchen counter. We are so grateful to our friends and family who make the effort to connect during this time of year, and I especially love reading everyone’s Christmas newsletters and looking at the photos of everyone’s kids and grand kids. But I also love to receive a “real old-fashioned” Christmas card which also has art work and a well-written sentiment on the inside. And of course homemade cards go above and beyond the call.
So… there are only 5 cards on our mantle. This might sound un-Christmassy, but those are my “favorite” cards for the year. Not because I love the people who sent them more or because they blessed me more, but because of their creativity. Today I decided which one of the five was my favorite, and it’s this one, from Sarah and Joel Finley in Franklin, Tennessee.
Why? Sarah was one of my iconography students, and their card features an icon she did in one of my workshops. It’s called “The Mother of God, Tenderness.” It’s only the third icon she’s ever written.
I will think of her and all my students tonight and tomorrow as we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of Christ. The Feast of His Incarnation. The reason we write icons.
Christ is Born!
>As we approach the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, I have no words with which to adequately reflect on “the mystery hidden from before all ages and unknown even to the angels.” (Eph. 3:9) And so, I will share the words of others—written by theologians, painted by iconographers, and acted and sung by the children at St. John Orthodox Church.
In the winter issue of “The Burning Bush,” the monastic journal of the Dormition of the Mother of God Orthodox Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan, there are two excellent articles, “On the Nativity of our Lord” and “On the Incarnation.” I will quote briefly from these pieces, and if you’d like to receive the journal, you can leave your email address in the comment box or send an email to the monastery at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“God’s Incarnation means man’s deification. In his treatise ‘On the Incarnation of the Word,’ Saint Athanasius says that ‘god was made man that we might be made God’ (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Erdmans 2nd series, pg 65)…. The image has as its goal man’s deification. The ‘icon’ tends towards its prototype. Man looks for God in many ways: in science and technology, in philosophy and art; this searching is ingrained in man’s reasonable nature, so that for the achievement of his likeness and unity with God, the Incarnation of God Himself was indispensable….
“No other religion in the world believes in a god who became man…. By taking flesh the Word of God is the expression of the Father whom we can see and touch; He was hungry and thirsty, He spoke, He walked, without losing His divinity; this is a prefiguration of how we are to be saved. The infinite takes on a human nature and human nature is united with the Infinite….
“God did not come down to earth to found religions. He came for the restoration of man; He came for His creation, not to make Orthodox or Catholics out of us. God became incarnate because he wanted to make man divine, to restore him to the same state to which He originally created him…. So the idea of the Incarnation, the idea of Christ—God becoming man—is in the center of everything, the goal of everything.”
This is why we paint icons, because God has redeemed matter through the Incarnation, allowing us to depict His Son, His Mother, and His Saints, in images that will lead us to Heaven, that will ultimately save the world.
For the past few weeks, the Orthodox iconographer, Dmitry Scholnik, and two of his helpers, having been painting icons, installing icons, repairing icons, and painting decorative borders and backgrounds in the nave and sanctuary at St. John Orthodox Church. The Gospel has truly come alive in color on the walls and ceiling of our temple. (You can see an album with more photos here.)
Our annual children’s Nativity Play was yesterday, and again the children acted out the traditional Christmas story against a backdrop designed to look like an icon of the Nativity. (The scenery was designed, constructed and painted by Nathan Elliott, who is an architect, and Julie Stanek, an artist, a few years ago.) If you’d like to see an explanation of all the parts of the Nativity Icon, click here, and then run your cursor over each part of the icon.
The children ended the play by singing the “Kontakion” (hymn) of Christmas, “Today the Virgin Gives Birth.”
So there you have it—theology, iconography, drama and music—all very physical means of communicating the spiritual. Because God is a spirit, but also because God became Man.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
Since my visit with my mother in November, I’ve been preparing for today’s visit with a little less anxiety and a little more peace and joy. It helped that I had a wonderful “lunch reunion” with three old friends from high school first, because we each shared a little bit about our journeys with our aging parents… one who lost her father to Alzheimer’s, and another whose mother AND mother-in-law have just moved in with she and her husband. A terrible consequence of my self-focused anxiety is that I rarely think about how universal our experience is. Thanks to Kit, Sharon and Sandra, (in photo with me at lunch) I arrived at Lakeland Nursing Home with an even greater sense of peace.
Of course I never know, each time I drive down here, if Mom is still going to know me or not, and thankfully, she recognized me today. (She no longer recognizes any of my children’s names or pictures in photographs, and even gets a vague, far-away look when I talk about Daddy.) But today I gave out homemade fudge (Mom’s recipe) to all the folks at the nursing home who take care of Mom, and then found her sitting in her wheel chair in the hall near one of the nurses’ stations. Her face lit up when she saw me.
I was feeling guilty (a recurring bad daughter theme) because the home was having a door decorating contest and I hadn’t done anything for her door, so I was thrilled to find this joyful snowman décor done by the activities director with help from Mom!
But later, when we were sitting in the lobby, I asked her if the new slipper-boots were comfortable and she said, “Yes. You know, a boy in one of the classes gave me these boots. I don’t remember his name, or when he gave them to me, but I said sure I’d love to have them.” This was about 15 minutes after I gave them to her. I wonder if she was thinking of one of the students she taught 50 years ago.
I just smiled and said, “I’m so glad you like them!”
We held hands and watched the sunset in the midst of the tall pine trees outside the lobby windows, which are about 20 feet tall. For a while we didn’t speak at all, which is very unusual for Mom and me. Twice she just looked and me and said, “I love you.” And more than once she said, “I really like it here.” And then she looked out the window at the trees and said, “You know, I feel so small. And when I think about dying, I think I’ll be okay if I can go to a small place.”
“You mean, like Heaven?” I asked. “You know Dad is there, waiting for us to join him some day. But I don’t think of Heaven as being a small place, do you?”
She was quiet for a minute, then struggled with her words, and finally said, “well, I think my part of it will be small, and I’ll be happy there.”
Her words reminded me of a sad but powerful conversation a friend told me about last night. The precious 28-year-old daughter of some friends of ours was in the hospital as a result of seizures she had during the day yesterday. Sara has always been one of God’s “innocents,” and she told the people with her at the hospital, “I’ll be happy to go to Heaven because I won’t have Down’s Syndrome there.” And then she died of a pulmonary embolism. Sara’s parents are dear friends of mine from Jackson, and today I’m thinking about how happy she is in Heaven, although I know her family is missing her so much. Sara fought a hard battle, psychologically and spiritually, and in her shadow I’m feeling pretty small. Her funeral will be Monday night at St. Peter Orthodox Church here in Madison, where my Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway’s funeral was held eleven years ago. May her memory be eternal.
>Busy week, so I’m going to link to my post this time last year, about our church’s annual Christmas caroling event at Kings Daughters & Sons Nursing Home. Please take a minute to read the post,”Born to Raise the Sons of Earth,”here.
Singing Christmas carols to the folks in a nursing home is only one way to raise the Sons of Earth during the Christmas season. It’s cold here in Memphis. One day last week I put a heavy blanket in my car and drove a few blocks from where I live into an area with a fairly heavy traffic of poor and homeless folks. I saw a woman pushing a shopping cart with lots of bundles. She seemed homeless, so I pulled over and asked if she had a warm place to sleep that night.
“Could you use a really warm blanket?”
Her face lit up. “Yes, ma’am! That’d be real nice!”
So I got out of the car and handed her the blanket and her eyes filled with tears, but no more than my own. We embraced, and as I was about to walk away, I turned and asked, “Have you got something to eat for supper?” It was getting dark outside, and she was about a mile from the mission where they serve meals downtown.
I reached in my purse and found some cash and gave it to her. More hugs.
As I turned to get back into my car, an elderly man in a wheelchair with only one leg approached me. “Ma’am? Have you got another blanket?”
My heart sank as I thought about the extra blankets in our closets and attics at the house, where we would be warm and toasty.
“No, sir, I’m sorry. I didn’t bring more with me today.”
He nodded and wheeled off towards a church a block away, where several people were sitting on the steps. I said a prayer that someone would help him.
When I got home, I found a couple of more blankets we don’t need and put them in the trunk of my car. I’m about to head back out today on errands, and I’ll be keeping an eye open for folks who might be sleeping outside tonight.
Have you got extra blankets at your house? It only takes a few minutes to find someone who needs them…. the poor and homeless… the Sons of Earth.
As we approach the celebration of our Lord’s Incarnation—His becoming Man in the flesh—my mind immediately thinks of icons. Why icons? Because icons are incarnational art. Yes.
Two years ago this month my essay, “Icons Will Save the World,” was published by First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life.
For those who don’t have the time (or the inclination) to read the entire essay, I’ll re-print one section here, “Incarnational Art”:
In the “First Apology of Saint John of Damascus Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images,” Saint John talked about Old Testament images like the ark of the covenant (an image of the Holy Virgin and Theotokos) and the rod of Aaron and the jar of manna. These are all visible things that aid understanding of intangible things. We read in Exodus 25–26 how God instructed Moses to use images in the tabernacle—including angels woven on the veil of the holy of holies. It’s true that later on God forbade the making of images because of idolatry—because of man’s misuse of something God intended for good. But that was before the Incarnation, as St. John explained:
It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw His likeness. When He who is bodiless and without form, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you may draw His image and show it to anyone willing to gaze upon it.
God’s Incarnation not only made it possible for us to draw and venerate his image, but also the images of men and women who have been transfigured by him—the saints and martyrs. The Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), which upheld the doctrine of the veneration of images as an inevitable result of the Incarnation, said this about icons of saints:
These holy men of all times who pleased God, whose biographies have remained in writing for our benefit and for the purpose of our salvation, have also left to the catholic Church their deeds explained in paintings, so that our mind may remember them, and so that we may be lifted up to the level of their conduct.
The icons are visions of what we can become if we allow God to penetrate every aspect of our lives. Those who attain this God-likeness to the fullest extent recognized by the Church are saints. Their lives, their stories, lift us up to be all that we can be—as we are transformed by God’s grace and love.
The Incarnation should cause us to take our humanity seriously, as Vrame says. And if we take our humanity seriously, we will not scorn the physical, material things that the Church in her wisdom has given us as aids for transforming that humanity, for restoring the image that fell in the beginning.
I met Lee at a one-day CNF workshop at Ole Miss in September of 2007, and it was a life-changing weekend for me. I finally had words to describe what I was trying to write–personal essays and memoir are both forms of the genre known as creative nonfiction. And Lee’s class that day opened my eyes to the craft in a whole new way.
The following March, Ole Miss again hosted a CNF Conference, complete with keynote speakers, panels, pitch sessions with editors, agents, and publishers, and two critique workshops, led by Dinty Moore and Kristen Iversen. I submitted a different manuscript to each of these critique sessions, and learned so much from Dinty and Kristen and my fellow students. One of those students was Sarah Einstein. I’ve enjoyed staying in touch with Sarah through our blogs and email. (Sometimes I’m a huge fan of the social media!)
Check out our event page on Facebook: 2010 Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference, and leave an RSVP if you think you can come. Spread the word, and keep watching my blog and Facebook for more information as plans are made. Read my blog posts about the CNF Workshop in 2007 and the CNF Conference in 2008 for reflections and photos about both of those wonderful events.
Help us Bring Lee Back to the South! Um, well, not that Lee….
>Blessed Saint Nicholas Day! It’s almost midnight, so I’m getting this post in just under the wire for this special day. I’ve been thinking about it all weekend…about the wonderful play our teens put on at St. John last night as part of our Saint Nicholas weekend celebration. And reflecting on this feast in years gone by. But I’ve been too busy decorating the house and wrapping gifts to write anything today.
Here’s the (tiny) tree…
I call it our “Gracie” tree in honor of our granddaughter Grace… I got these precious little Asian girl ornaments at Pier 1 last week.
No time for writing, but I’m going to link to a blog post that I saw on Facebook tonight….. it’s called “Sacred Threshold.” The blogger became a member of St Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tennessee today. Her blog post is such a blessing. If you take a few minutes to read about her spiritual journey, I guarantee you will be blessed.
Holy Saint Nicholas, pray to God for us!
>When I’m angry, and don’t deal with that anger in a healthy way, it leaks out in destructive behaviors. That’s what happened a couple of times this week, when I allowed my pride to be wounded and my feelings to be hurt by unintentional slights. First I unloaded my anger on a dear friend, who received it with such tenderness that she turned my ranting into tears and softened my hardness by her embrace. Amazing what love and acceptance can do, isn’t it? And later that night my sweet husband listened patiently and offered gentle encouragement without judgment. And while I am thankful for both of these kindnesses, I knew I still needed to address my own sinfulness—the anger itself—directly.
I believe there are healthy ways to deal with anger—the most effective for me being the sacrament of Confession. And sometimes talking with the people I’m angry with can help, but not if I’m just after an apology. I’ve learned from past experience that it’s not healthy for me to try to ignore the problem, because it won’t usually resolve itself. The last time I felt this level of ire was a little over two years ago. I wrote about it here.
And I guess a good thing that came out of that struggle was my essay, “Blocked,” which was a finalist in the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal’s 2007 awards.
And yes, I eventually got “unblocked,” but spiritual health is not unlike physical health, in that we have to keep our souls cleaned out or they get clogged up. I was reminded of that in a beautiful way Thursday morning at our monthly women’s meeting, led by our pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn. We’ve been reading some of the writings of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich. Yesterday we read from his beautiful volume of spiritual poetry, Prayers By the Lake. (You can read many of the poems here.) Father John Troy had shared these poems with me many years ago, but I hadn’t read any of them in quite a while, until yesterday morning, when they arrived like soothing oil on a wound. First we read Saint Justin Popovich’s Introduction, which was a blessing in itself. St. Justin says, of St. Nikolai and his writing:
“He will be the hearth where those who have been frostsbitten by skepticism and lack of faith will come to thaw and warm themselves….
“He, a wonderworker of prayerful rhythms, has power over my soul. I tell myself: ‘I am locked in the senses, I think by means of the senses, but when his wonder-working prayer flows through my repentant soul, at once the senses, these shackles of the soul, are unshackled, and my soul, my wounded bird, regains her wings and flies off, diving into the sweet depths of Eternity.’ And my paralyzed heart tells me: ‘He breaks out of the cocoon of time and space which engulfs and suffocates your soul, and he dries the butterfly of our soul out into the blue expanses of infinite Eternity.’”
[Side note: When we read that part about the blue expanses of infinite Eternity, I thought about the work that our iconographer, Dmitry Shkolnik and his helpers are installing at St. John right now… and especially about the celestial effect of the new blue background in the altar. I’ll post pictures and notes about the new icons soon. A post from his last visit, in February of 2008, is here.]
We only read a few of St. Nikolai’s poems Thursday morning. St. Justin recommends that you read only one per day, and to read them slowly, and prayerfully. This volume of poems would make a wonderful Christmas gift for someone you love, or buy it for yourself and read a poem with your prayers each day. I’ll just share a few lines to show the healing power of his poetry:
“O Lord, Lord my only happiness, will You provide shelter for Your injured pilgrim?
“O Lord, my ageless youth, my eye shall bathe in You and shine more radiantly than the sun.
“You carefully collect the tears of the righteous, and with them you rejuvenate worlds.”
I think the following are the words I most needed to hear today, when my self-inflicted wounds of pride and anger were so raw:
“Do not be afraid of the inextinguishable fire that He brings into you. For a long time the junk accumulated within you has been in need of a bonfire. The bonfire will last a long time, because the old junk within you has rotted.”
Oh, yes, I need a bonfire to burn up the vanities I have stored in my soul for so long. This week that bonfire comes to me in the warmth of my friends’ understanding, my husband’s loving embrace, and the healing sacraments of the Church, especially the mysteries of Confession and Communion. And it comes to me through the gifted theologian and poet, Saint Nikolai and the other saints who “know the mysteries of our Orthodox soul, they know how the rebellious and Christ-fighting … soul can be molded into a Christlike soul.”
Holy Saint Nikolai, pray to God for us.