>Coloring Violets With Effie

>[I'm taking a break this weekend from "A Sinner's Lenten Calendar," which will resume again on Monday with the Letter "L."]

Mom’s birthday was February 20, so I sent her a birthday card and wrote inside that I would come visit on February 25. When I arrived at the nursing home on the 25th, I found the card underneath two unopened cards on her bedside table. Having asked the staff many times to please open her cards for her because she has forgotten how, it always saddens me to find these pockets of sunshine hidden inside the darkness of unopened envelopes in her room. I showed her the card I had sent, and opened and helped her read the two others. She looked at all the cards intensely and then said,

“What am I supposed to do with these?”

“Those are birthday cards, Mom. You’re just supposed to enjoy them.”

“Whose birthday is it?”

“It’s your birthday, Mom.”

She looked around at the walls in her room—her eyes searching for a calendar or some other point of reference—and then asked, “What day is this?”

I explained again about the dates—her actual birthday, and then today’s date. And then I helped her open her gifts—two new blouses and camisoles, 6 pairs of sox, and a new pair of shoes. Her face lit up as I put the new sox and shoes on her feet and hung her new blouses on the knob of her armoire so I could remind her about them several times during the visit.

Cookies and M & M’s were next. So we settled into a quiet conversation as we snacked and enjoyed the view out her windows. The nursing home is right next door to a park which is shaded by huge pine trees. Being near them always transports me back to my youth and the pine-filled neighborhood where we built our house in 1956. And so I pulled one more thing out of her gift sack—a coloring book and a brand new box of crayons.

Last weekend when I was at Petit Jean State Park with my friend, Daphne, I found the book and crayons in the gift shop. The flowers on the cover were beautiful and the coloring pages had instructions about what colors to use on each flower. When I bought it, I thought I’d give it to my Goddaughter Sophie, who turned seven this week. But then I remembered how much my mother loves flowers. And that she was very artistic.

But also how much I loved brand new colors and a coloring book. So I pulled it out and asked Mom if she would like to color some flowers with me. At first she said she’d rather just watch, and as I colored the violets purple—her favorite color—and the picture began to come alive, she gushed motherly praise just as any proud young mother would as her little girl colored pictures. I was careful to stay inside the lines because I knew that would please her.

“You are so talented!”

“Thank you, Mommie. You taught me how to color, you know. Don’t you want to color with me?”

“Okay.”

And so she chose an orange crayon and we began to work on the flowers on the next page. There we were—an 82-year-old great-grandmother and her (almost) 59-year-old daughter sharing a delightful time-warp experience, compliments of Alzheimer’s.

“You’ve always been good at art,” she said after we finished the second page of flowers. It was as if I was creating a panel for the Sistine Chapel instead of coloring pictures in a children’s coloring book with a box of Crayola Crayons.

“You were good at art, too, Mom. And also good at flower arranging. You taught me how to do both.”

She set down her crayon and smiled, and then looked wistfully out the window.

“Don’t you want to color any more, Mom?”

“No. I’ll just watch you. Can I have another cookie?”

“Sure. They’re your birthday cookies—you can have all you want.”

“Whose birthday is it?”

And so I explained again and again, and we celebrated the event over and over. My little-girl self taped the pages from the coloring book onto the door of her armoire and basked in the glory of my refrigerator art and the joy of seeing that my mother was proud of me. It had not always been so.

Just as I was about to leave, my friend Sissy Yerger showed up to visit Mom. One of the birthday cards I had opened earlier was from Sissy, so I read the card to Mom again and told her that Sissy has sent it to her. I was trying to help her make a connection, hoping that she would remember Sissy.

She smiled at both of us and then said, “Oh, I know Sissy. She’s a friend of my daughter’s.”

Her words didn’t alarm me. They were just a reflection of her choice, that day, to see me as her child, and to speak of her grown-up daughter as if she wasn’t there. I’m good with that. My inner child needs all the love she can get from her mother, and she’s happy to be the recipient of that love, even when she’s 58 years old.

I’ll be taking the coloring book back with me on my next visit, hoping that Mom will be happy to see her little girl again.

It will be near my birthday, and of course she hasn’t remembered my birthday for several years now. Maybe I’ll buy myself another brand new box of Crayolas… maybe even a box of 64 with a built-in sharpener. Why not? I’ll be the Birthday Girl, right?

Read about Effie at 81 here.

And Effie’s 80th birthday here.

>K is for the Knowledge of God: Our Life Depends On It

>[Scroll down to read posts about the letters A-J.]

K

Is
For the
Knowledge
Of God:

A Sinner’s
Lenten
Alphabet
Continues

In Father Stephen Freeman’s blog post from October 13, 2009, “The Knowledge of God,” he says that knowledge of God requires purity of heart, and should be accompanied by ascetic struggle. How does he suggest we pursue this knowledge? I highly recommend his entire post, but here’s his final paragraph (spoiler alert!):

“Study. Pray. Fast. Give alms. Forgive your enemies. Repent of your sins. Cry out to God for mercy. He is a ‘good God and loves mankind.’ He will not leave us in the dark nor ignore the cry of our hearts. ‘This is eternal life,’ Christ says, ‘To know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.’ Thus we pursue knowledge – true knowledge in the way and in the manner given to us as though our life depended on it. It does.”

This coming Sunday, the second Sunday of Great Lent, is dedicated to Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), Archbishop of Thessaloniki. Rev. Dr. Frank Marangos, Dean and Protopresbyter of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in New York City, leads a “Forum on Orthodox Spirituality.” From a summary of one of those forums:


“Saint Gregory took Christian thought (Gospel) and tied it to Greek Philosophy, uniting the divine (uncreated) with the created. In the 14th century, the main theological question was ‘How can we know God?’ ‘By mind or by experience’? St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology favored a scholastic approach centering on knowing God based on intellect. Barlaam of Calabria’s theology was that one can only know God mystically. St. Gregory found a middle ground. Schooled in the Jesus prayer, a meditative prayer (hesychasia), and inspired by the writings of the Three Hierarchs, St. Gregory was led to say that one can know God by experience.”

“P.S.” . . . Leaving our topic of “Knowledge of God,” I found this brief summary of the themes of the Sundays of Great Lent to be very helpful, so I’m sharing it here:

1. Sunday of Orthodoxy: Who is Jesus? The TheoAnthropous, God-Man. God enters creation.
2. St. Gregory Palamas: Why did Jesus come? To heal mankind’s separation from God.
3. Veneration of the Holy Cross: What did he do? He descended to sacrifice Himself and die on the cross in order to release us from the bondage of sin and through His Resurrection re-open the “gates of Paradise” for humankind.
4. St. John Climacus: What does this mean? Mankind can now ascend to heaven.
5. St. Mary of Egypt: What does this mean to me? Personal self sacrifice; submitting oneself to do God’s will, so the gates of heaven open for you.

Two themes on Sundays during Great Lent:

The first, or earlier theme develops between the 4th and 6th centuries and centers on the return of Adam and Eve to the Garden of Eden. The second, or later theme which developed in the 12th and 13th centuries centers on the return of icons to the Church.

The return of icons into the worship life of the Church occurred after the end of the iconoclastic controversy in 843 A.D. Further, we, humans, are living icons as we are created in the image and likeness of God (this also includes free will; the choice to accept or to reject God). The return of the icons mirrors our own return to the Garden of Eden.

>Joyful Journey: A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet Continues

>(Scroll down to read about the letters A-I.)

“Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.”
- Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World.

J
Is
For
JOYFUL
JOURNEY

“And we must recover the meaning of of this great joy…. Joy, however, is not something one can define or analyze. One enters into joy.” (Schmemann, cont.)

James 2:1 says, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” Lent brings its own kind of trials—some circumstantial, some self-inflicted, some just the pain we feel when we deny our spoiled bodies the over-abundance of creature comforts to which they are accustomed.

For Orthodox Christians, Lent is a season of “bright sadness.” It’s not about self-flagellation and having a long face. In fact, the Scriptures say that “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting….” (Matthew 6:17-18)

Lent is about joy in the midst of suffering. It’s about overcoming weakness.

I just found this story on You Tube about a man named Dan Miller, who was stricken with polio. He reminds me a little bit of a friend of mine who has post polio syndrome. He’s an artist. And he built his family’s home with his own hands. He’s a joyful person—I’ve never heard him complain. So, whether or not you’re into Gaither-style testimonies and music (which I’m not) please give this video a watch/listen. It’s called “Joy Comes in the Morning.”

A few more sites that are related to “Bright Sadness”:

Milk & Honey: Spiritual Food for Thought

The Lenten Spring by Father Thomas Hopko

Devotions for Lent

Ruminations on Lent: “Bright Sadness”

The Letter J is also for Journey—our Lenten Journey. Father Alexander Schmemann says that when we go on a journey we must know where we are going. The Lenten journey leads to Easter—to Pascha. He addresses this concept of bright sadness in his book, Great Lent:

“A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the “bright sadness” of Lent, we see — far, far away — the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our Lenten effort a “spiritual spring.” The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon. Glory be to God!”

Pascha is only 5 weeks from Sunday. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize, like the
Olympic athletes who keep on going, even in the face of intense political pressures, personal tragedies and physical injuries.

And then when they finish, the JOY on their faces tells it all.

Hebrews 11 is a great Hall of Fame for spiritual athletes who finished the
course. Like them, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the JOY that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

For the JOY set before Him. May God help us recover and enter into His joy as we continue our Lenten journey.

>I is for Idle Talk

>(Scroll down to read the Letters A-H in “A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet.”)

In the Lenten Prayer of Saint Ephrem, we ask God to take 4 things from us that can hold us back in our spiritual growth: sloth, meddling, lust for power and idle talk. And so, the Letter

I
Is for
Idle
Talk

The Abbess Thaisia, a spiritual daughter of St. John of Kronstadt, wrote in her Letters To a Beginner: On Giving One’s Life to God:

“If any sin or any passion knows how to clothe itself in an attractive form, it is precisely—idle talk.”
These are pretty strong words about something that most people would probably consider pretty harmless. But is it? How many times have you been hurt by words? And how did those harmful words get started? Possibly with idle talk? Abbess Thaisia makes a strong case against it:

“Deeply rooted in people is the love of idle talk, i.e., empty, unnecessary conversations, and it has become a beloved pastime among them. It seems we don’t know and don’t believe that idle talk is a sin, and a serious sin, which gives birth to a multitude of other sins: quarrels, conflicts, gossip, slander, condemnation, calumny, and the like.”

So it’s not just being chatty that’s the problem, but what it can lead to, especially gossip and slander and other hurtful behavior. When I was in first grade my teacher put masking tape over my mouth because I wouldn’t quit talking in class. She even called my parents to come get me once, and when my dad picked me up, he said, “You okay, Motor Mouth?” That was one of his nick-names for me. Remember the doll, “Chatty Cathy?” Chattiness might be cute on a doll. And a 6-year-old. But that chatty mouth still gets me in trouble.

Again I think balance is needed so that we don’t become snobby or aloof in our efforts to curb our conversations. Combining hospitality and love for others with self-control in our talk isn’t easy. But I want to learn to bridle my tongue. Without the masking tape. And I think that what comes out of my mouth is a reflection of what’s going on inside my head, so maybe controlling idle talk needs to begin with controlling idle thoughts. That work of hesychia that I wrote about yesterday.

I’ll close today’s post with a nod to my Facebook friends who offered comments on yesterday’s post and suggestions for the Letter “I.” One said to write about icons, but since I include them throughout my writing, I’ll only make a comment on one aspect of these holy images here—they have small mouths. Enough said.

>H is for Humility, Hesychia & Hospitality

>[Scroll down to read about the Letters A-G in “A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet”]


H is for Humility

Hesychia and

Hospitality

In my post about the Letter “E” I wrote about the Lenten Prayer of Saint Ephraim of Syria. One of the things we ask God to give us in that prayer is the spirit of humility. In my post on the Letter “F” I wrote that “humility attracts the grace of God.” I first read this statement several years ago in some of the writings of Saint Dorotheos of Gaza, and I find myself coming back to it over and over again.

But why am I grouping “humility” with “hesychia” and “hospitality”? I’m almost finished with a new book by Stephen Lloyd-Moffett called Beauty for Ashes: The Spiritual Transformation of a Modern Greek Community. (Watch for a book review soon.) In the process of building a new monastic community in Preveza, Greece, the Bishop was careful to teach the monks about the “seven parts of monastic life.” One of those was “hesychia,” or inner watchfulness and prayer. Having spent some time at several Orthodox monasteries, I can understand a little about what Lloyd-Moffett describes about the monastics’ struggle to maintain this inner watchfulness in the midst of their other duties:

“The monastery attempted to balance the desire for hesychia and the desire to show hospitality and provide counsel for its spiritual children.”

One way the monks keep their spiritual goals in mind is that they “do not take themselves too seriously but they take the spiritual life very seriously.”

I like that.

I think this same struggle exists on a different level for those of living “in the world,” trying to balance work, family, and our own spiritual disciplines. For me, “success” in my spiritual life—prayer, fasting, almsgiving, reading Scriptures, going to Church—is only authentic when humility is present. Due to my pride, that doesn’t happen very often, but I try to press on.

Of course Christ is our extreme example of humility:

“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself…. Let this mind be in your which was also in Christ Jesus, who…. Humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:3,4,5,8)

One of my favorite icons of Christ is called “Extreme Humility.” Actually, there are two types of this icon that vary a bit in their details, and one is called “The Bridegroom” and the other “Extreme Humility.” The one I painted for our parish is sometimes used during the three services in Holy Week known as “Bridegroom Matins,” as shown here on the solea at St. John.

I’ll close with a gallery of icons of Christ, the Bridegroom, and Extreme Humility. Click here to listen to Father Apostolos Hill chanting an Orthodox Hymn from Holy Friday while you look at the icons.

Or, if you prefer, click here to listen to Norah Jones singing “Humble Me.” Either way, may these holy images open our hearts to see the love and humility which Christ our Lord has for us as we continue our Lenten journey.

>G is for GLORY to GOD For All Things

>[Scroll down to read about the letters A-F in “A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet.”]

Today I am still in Little Rock, enjoying the remains of a beautiful weekend with my best friend, Daphne, and her kids. Daphne, Hallie and I spent a lovely Saturday evening and Sunday morning at Petit Jean State Park, with its gorgeous mountain views and cozy lodge, complete with oatmeal for breakfast before making the winding drive back down to Little Rock on Sunday. This morning I went into my friend’s icon corner to pray while she was driving her boys to school, and I found myself face to face with an old friend—this small icon of the Mother of God, Tenderness, which was the 8th icon I wrote, back in 2003. (The number was on the back. The icon was blessed at St. John on Palm Sunday, 2004.) It was my first attempt at using a different method than I had been taught, and while the results were a little bumpy, Daphne and I both felt something special coming from our Lord’s Mother in this one. I realize it might sound vain for me to say something complimentary about an icon I painted, but icons are not secular pieces of art—they are holy images. They belong to the Church, or if they are venerated in a home, they belong to the faithful who pray before them. And on this particular morning, what I felt coming at me from this humble image was the Glory of God, in spite of the sinfulness of the iconographer.

It was then that I realized that the

Letter G is for

GLORY to GOD
For All Things

For if we do not have this hope set before us, how can we endure the suffering of this present age? As the Apostle Paul wrote:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.”
(Romans 8:18)

I immediately thought about a blog I follow regularly, which is called, “Glory to God For All Things” and is written by Father Stephen Freeman in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. But also about a
beautiful Akathist hymn by the same name, which was written by Father Gregory Petrov shortly before his death in a prison camp in 1940. The title is from the words of Saint John Chrysostom as he was dying in exile. It is a song of praise from amidst the most terrible sufferings. The first time I heard this akathist was at a women’s retreat in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1999. It was only a few months after the death of my precious 20-year-old Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway, who was a member of St. Peter Orthodox Church in Madison, Mississippi. Her priest, Father John Henderson, led the Akathist, and her mother was among the women who wept as we prayed this hymn together, including these verses:

“Glory to Thee, satisfying my desires with good things
Glory to Thee, watching over me day and night
Glory to Thee, curing affliction and emptiness with the healing flow of time
Glory to Thee, no loss is irreparable in Thee, Giver of eternal life to all
Glory to Thee, making immortal all that is lofty and good
Glory to Thee, promising us the longed-for meeting with our loved ones who have died
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age.”

As I prayed the rest of this akathist this morning, I heard the birds outside my friends’s home, and I remembered the awe I felt the previous morning as I looked out over the mountains at Petit Jean,(while Daphne was on a two-mile hike) towards the Arkansas River, and heard the birds soaring over the heights and watched the squirrels scampering about for their food before the day’s gathering storms:

“O Lord, how lovely it is to be Thy guest. Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds. All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness. Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Thy love. Blessed art thou, mother earth, in thy fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last for ever, in the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, the cry rings out: Alleluia!”

It’s hard to believe that Father Petrov wrote these words from a prison camp, where he would ultimately meet his death. And yet even there, he saw God’s Glory, and wrote, “how lovely it is to be Thy guest.”

Imagine how it might transform our lives if we could learn to see God’s Glory in everything. May God open the eyes of our hearts during this springtime of his Fast, that we may also sing, “Glory to God for all things!”

>“F” is for the FAST that God Has Chosen

>
[Scroll down to read posts about the letters A-E from the first week of “A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet.”]

Two weeks before the beginning of Great Lent this year, I wrote a post which shared a number of links about fasting, so rather than repeat those comments and links, here, I’m just going to link to that post, “Rules vs. Guidelines: Semantics Matter.”

F
is
for
the
FAST
that
God
Has
Chosen.

It’s been interesting to watch my friends on Facebook share about what they’ve chosen to give up for Lent. Before I was Orthodox, I never thought about Lent, but it seems that many Protestant Christians today do take it seriously. And of course the Roman Catholic Church has its own approach. [I just found this interesting article about the different ways these churches observe Lent.]

Some of my FB friends are fasting from chocolate. Others from sweets. Others
from alcohol. Others from caffeine. A common thread, it seems, is to give up something you love, or something that might have too strong of a hold on you. Not a bad idea.

But it’s not the Fast that’s prescribed by the Orthodox Church.
Orthodox Christians don’t get to pick and choose. If we have special circumstances, like physical illness, pregnancy, or other specific “issues,” we can talk with our priest and ask for a blessing to do an abbreviated version of the Lenten Fast. I’ve done that several times in the past, due to my struggles with eating disorders and alcohol abuse, and it was helpful not to think, at the beginning of the Fast, “Oh, I can’t do this so I might as well not try.” But this year I’m not asking for a lower bar. I know I won’t always make it over, but I also know there is forgiveness when I fail.

Father Nicholas Meyer, our Assistant Pastor at St. John, gave a good homily about our approach to fasting recently. He was a pole-vaulter in his youth, so he used the analogy of sometimes making it over the bar, sometimes hitting the bar, and sometimes going under the bar. But the bar wasn’t lowered just so he could make it over.

God doesn’t lower the bar, but He gives us strength in proportion to our efforts. Especially when we approach the bar with humility. Humility attracts the grace of God.

Saint Isaac of Syria writes these words about fasting:

“The Saviour began the work of our salvation with fasting. In the same way, all those who follow in the footsteps of the Saviour build on this foundation the beginning of their endeavor, since fasting is a weapon established by God…. Our Lord was the leader and first example of this victory…. As soon as the devil sees someone possessed of this weapon, fear straightaway falls on this adversary and tormentor of ours, who remembers and thinks of his defeat by the Saviour in the wilderness…. A man armed with the weapon of fasting is always afire with zeal.”

How is fasting such a weapon? I think it’s not just the act of not eating certain foods that gives us power, although obedience and self-control are surely powerful in themselves. I haven’t experienced much of this personally, but I’ve observed it in others who are stronger than I, and whose lives, as a result, are pillars of light and love to those around them. They are most often found combining their fasting with prayer and almsgiving.

So what is the Fast that God chooses for us?

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your home the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
And your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall be before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”

Isaiah 58:6-8

>E is for Ephraim’s Prayer: A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet Continues

>
[Scroll down to previous posts to read about the letters A, B, C & D.]

E
is
for

EPHRAIM’s
Prayer


Saint Ephraim
was a great poet and father of the Syriac Church. Years ago a friend gave me a gift that I still treasure—St. Ephraim’s book, A Spiritual Psalter.

Later I got his wonderful Hymns on Paradise. Ephraim writes in isosyllabic verses called madrashe.

But sometimes he just beckons us to our knees with a few simple yet dynamic lines of heartfelt prayer, like this one, which has come to be known as the “Prayer of Saint Ephraim.” Orthodox Christians pray this prayer during their personal prayers at home during Great Lent, and it’s also part of most of the Lenten services of the Church. The Orthodox tradition is to do a prostration (bow to the ground on your knees and back up) or a metania (bow from the waist) after each line. A longer version is to also do twelve metanias at the end of the prayer, and then repeat the prayer again with only one prostration at the end. These are not rules, but spiritual traditions that aid in prayer. I find that sometimes when my mind/heart/nous is weary, my body can lead and my heart will follow. It’s not mindless repetition, but the spiritual and physical working together.

So, I’ll leave you with the prayer without commenting on its contents. I believe that if we pray, God will reveal what we need to learn from the words. (But some of St. Ephraim’s words might end up as “stars” in future post of the Lenten aphabet.)

The Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust of power and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother; for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

>D is for Death: What’s On Your Bucket List?

>[Scroll down to previous posts if you missed the letters A, B, and C of my "Sinner's Lenten Alphabet."]

D is for DEATH. Whoa. She’s jumping from “Coffee and Cheerios” to “Death.” But isn’t life like that? One minute it’s about Cheerios and the next it’s about a phone call from the nursing home and your heart skips a beat and you wonder if your mother is dying. Or you see something on the news about Afghanastan and you instantly say a prayer for your son who’s over there flying helicopters for the Army. And as much as we love our children and our parents, the older we get, it’s hard not to be a bit nervous when we go in for our annual physical exam. That’s when our mortality stares us in the face.

In 2001 I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. My first reaction was to clean out my underwear drawer. Who wants strangers—or even your children—going through those things after you’re dead? Thankfully the cancer was cured with surgery, but it was definitely one of those God moments I will never forget. I found that my greatest concern in the face of death was, “who would take care of my mother?” And that was a good, human concern. But along with that I found myself wanting to be as much at peace with God—and others—as I could.

It’s an ancient spiritual tradition—not only during Great Lent, but always—to live with an awareness of death. St. Benedict said to “Keep death daily before your eyes,” and, simultaneously, to “Look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” Which is why Great Lent is a good time to re-focus our thinking about death.

I’ve wondered about those prisoners on death row who order rib-eye steak and their favorite dessert for their final meal. I’d like to think that if I knew I was dying tomorrow, I would be hungry for spiritual food—eager to partake of the treasures of Heaven—and no longer interested in my favorite earthly foods.

Most of all, if I knew I was dying, I wonder if I’d be more—or less—motivated to get a book published, to live on the beach, to travel to Italy. But wait, I am dying. We all are. So, how do we balance these desires for earthly pleasures with deeper longings for the things that matter more?

The movie, “The Bucket List,” did a good job, I think, of showing some of this balance. Yes, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson’s characters did pursue the “earthly pleasures” on their bucket lists—sky diving, traveling the world—but in the end, they also healed relationships with people they loved.

Just this past week or so I got together with two friends (separately) whom I had hurt. One had also been hurt by others and was struggling with forgiving them. Fortunately both friends forgave me. One of the conversations in particular reminded me of how much pain I had inflicted on myself by remaining angry with people at times.

Watching this video from “The Bucket List,” and listening to Tim McGraw sing, “I gave forgiveness I’d been denying,” reminded me of the importance of living each day as if it were my last.

What would you do today, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? Are there people you need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from? Would you give your money to the poor, buy that dream car you’ve been wanting, or find some sort of compromise? Would you go to church, even if you’re not sure you believe in God? Would you finally confess that sin that’s been eating at your heart for years? What would your bucket list look like?

>C is for Coffee & Cheerios: “A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet” continues

>(Scroll down to previous posts to catch up if you missed “A” and “B”)

Day 3 of Orthodox Great Lent is half spent, just as the Roman Catholics are getting out of the starting gate today with Ash Wednesday. It’s rare that the celebrations of Eastern Pascha and Western Easter coincide, as they do this year, and will again in 2011, but that’s a story for another time. And now it’s time for my 3rd entry in A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet:

C is for… COFFEE and CHEERIOS.

Before you start rolling your eyes and saying, “are you kidding me?” and moving on to something else to read, let me just say that I really DID consider some other, more spiritual, words for this entry. Words like “Cross” and “Chastity” and “Confession.” But each of us has a different cross to bear, and today, mine includes a struggle to be more “chaste” in my eating and drinking habits. And here come the “Confession” part.

I woke up with the realization that it was still Lent. Very early in Lent, in fact, and remembered that I really wanted to make a better effort to overcome my food and drink addictions this year. Limiting alcohol, and avoiding Sonic hamburgers, McDonald’s sausage and biscuits, and my other food cravings was going to be hard. So I reminded myself that I could have coffee and cereal, and that I had made a commitment to eat oatmeal and Cheerios to lower my cholesterol.

Sweet husband brought me my first cup of coffee in bed (which he does most
mornings) and I followed that with another… and another … and yet another… as I hit the computer to write. 4 cups of coffee later, I remembered that we have the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts at St. John tonight, so I needed to keep a liturgical fast (from all food and drink) from 12 pm on…

so I headed into the kitchen to get a bowl of Cheerios. And then another. And yes, I ate 3 bowls of Cheerios. Frosted Cheerios.

Gluttony doesn’t have to be fancy—that’s really another passion altogether, one the monks call gourmandizing. Maybe that’s what the Letter G will be about. We’ll see.

All that to say that fasting during Lent isn’t just about not eating certain foods. It’s about paying attention to our passions, so that we’re in control of them and not the other way around.

Ever wonder why people who keep a “strict fast” during Lent don’t always lose weight? (Not that losing weight is the goal.) It’s easy to pig out on foods that are “allowed” and miss the point altogether. Like I did this morning during my coffee and Cheerios orgy. But we always start again, as I’m doing this afternoon, trying to prepare for the service at St. John tonight. I love the music, especially this part:

Now the powers of heaven do serve invisibly with us.
Lo, the King of Glory enters.
Lo, the mystical sacrifice is upborne, fulfilled.
Let us draw near in faith and love, and become communicants of life eternal.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.


That should be worth an afternoon fast.

This music is actually from the 4th week of Lent, but it will give you a “flavor” of the music of this service. Click here.

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