>T is for Theology

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The Letter

T is for


Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos defines Theology this way:

“Theology – Theologian: Theology is the knowledge of God. It is not a result of studying books or exercising the reason; it is on the one hand a fruit of the knowledge of God and of the personal experience of Him; on the other hand it is the way which leads to the healing of man and the knowledge of God. A theologian is one who has passed through the purification of heart to the illumination of the nous and to theosis. Thus, he has acquired the knowledge of God and speaks about Him in an authentic way. A theologian can be even called one who accepts the experience of the saints, not having himself a personal experience of God. ‘He whose prayer is pure is a theologian’”.

Very few saints of the Church are called “theologian.”

The late Protopresbyter John Romanides has this to say about theology:

“The true Orthodox theologian is the one who has direct knowledge of some of God’s energies through illumination or knows them more through vision. Or he knows them indirectly through prophets, apostles and saints or through scripture, the writings of the Fathers and the decisions and acts of their Ecumenical and Local Councils. The theologian is the one who through this direct or mediated spiritual knowledge and vision knows clearly how to distinguish between the actions of God and those of creatures and especially the works of the devil and the demons. Without the gift of discernment of spirits it is not possible to test spirits to see whether something is the action of the Holy Spirit or of the devil and the demons.

“Therefore the theologian and the spiritual father are the same thing. A person who thinks and talks in search of a conceptual understanding of the doctrines of the faith after the Franco-Latin pattern certainly is not a spiritual father, nor can he be called a theologian in the proper sense of the word. Theology is not abstract knowledge or practice, like logic, mathematics, astronomy and chemistry, but on the contrary, it has a polemical character like logistics and medicine. The former is concerned with matters of defence and attack through bodily drill and strategies for the deployment of weapons, fortifications and defensive and offensive schemes, while the latter is fighting against mental and physical illnesses for the sake of health and the means of restoring health.

“A theologian who is not acquainted with the methods of the enemy nor with perfection in Christ is not only unable to struggle against the enemy for his own perfection, but is also in no position to guide and heal others. It is like being called a general, or even being one, without ever having been trained or fought, or studied the art of war, having only given attention to the beautiful, glorious appearance of the army in its splendid, bright uniforms at receptions and displays. It is like a butcher posing as a surgeon or like holding the position of a physician without knowing the causes of illnesses or the methods of curing them, or the state of health to which the patient should be restored.”

I was going to shorten that quote, but I couldn’t figure out what to omit. For those truly interested in theology, this is but a taste. For those of us too immature to really understand true theology, perhaps we can be blessed by touching the hem of its garment. We are its beneficiaries, especially if we are blessed to have spiritual fathers or mothers who are able to help with the cure of our souls. I have both—a spiritual father and a spiritual mother—who understand my wounds and offer spiritual medicine. But it’s up to me to accept the poultices they offer me, and to apply them to my soul. And since I’m not a theologian, I’m not going to comment further.

Want more? Watch Metropolitan Kallistos Ware talk about “How to Study Theology” in this video. It’s worth a watch. I especially love what he says about wonder, freedom and community. Theology, like other aspects of our lives, can’t exist in a vacuum.


>[Scroll down
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the letters A-R
as “A Sinner’s
Lenten Alphabet”

Years ago I had a friend who began all his correspondence this way: “Greetings and Salutations!” It always sounded kind of British to me. He was a bit formal. I’m sure you’re wondering by now why I chose “salutations” as part of my Lenten alphabet. Well, here we go:

S is for Salutations

The dictionary definition is simply: “an expression of greeting, goodwill, or courtesy by word, gesture, or ceremony.” Lets break it down.

What it is—expression of greeting, goodwill, or courtesy.
How it’s given—by word, gesture, or ceremony.

In today’s urban American youth culture, salutations by word and gesture are usually casual, even “slang-ish,” like “whatup?” and “sup Dog?” (like Randy always says on Idol) and are often accompanied by a certain kind of hand movement. In the business world, the salutation is usually a little more formal, and includes a less creative handshake.

But in other countries—especially in Korea, Japan and China—there are actually ceremonies for greeting one another. When our son, Jason, returned from a visit to his homeland, South Korea, about ten years ago, he went to his room and changed into a hanbok—a ceremonial robe—and greeted us with a bow of respect that is given to one’s parents. (I can’t find a picture of Jason in the hanbok, but I framed it later, so here’s a picture of it in its frame. The sleeves are folded under, so you can’t really see the shape, but you get the general idea.)

All that to say that a salutation can be ceremonial. And that’s what we do on Friday nights at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis during Great Lent—Salutations to the Mother of God. These services are done on the four Friday nights of Great Lent. It’s actually a Compline service, with an Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God inserted. A portion of the Salutations is done each week, following the themes of Annunciation, Nativity, Christ and the Theotokos (Mother of God) herself. The entire Akathist is sung on the fifth Friday evening of Great Lent.

So, this coming Friday night, we’ll sing the “Fourth Stasis,” the portion of the Akathist about the Mother of God. It’s very humbling to me that the icon of the Mother of God, Directress, which Kerry Sneed and I wrote, is placed in the center of the solea for parishioners to venerate at this service. I feel like I should have a special hanbok to wear as I greet the Mother of my Lord in this way, making a prostration and then kissing her hand, and the hand of Jesus, on the icon.

I remember the awe I felt in October of 2007, when I venerated an icon attributed to the hand of Saint Luke on the island of Leros, in Greece.

It’s hard to hold onto that sense of awe, but these Friday nights at Saint John really help.

Here’s a little taste of what we’ll be singing:

Ikos 12
While singing to Thine Offspring, we all praise Thee as a living temple, O Theotokos; for the Lord Who holdeth all things in His hand dwelt in Thy womb, and He sanctified and glorified Thee, and taught all to cry to Thee:

Rejoice, tabernacle of God the Word:
Rejoice, greater holy of holies!
Rejoice, ark gilded by the Spirit:
Rejoice, inexhaustible treasury of life!
Rejoice, precious diadem of pious kings:
Rejoice, venerable boast of reverent priests!
Rejoice, unshakable fortress of the Church:
Rejoice, inviolable wall of the kingdom!
Rejoice, Thou through whom victories are obtained:
Rejoice, Thou through whom foes fall prostrate!
Rejoice, healing of my flesh:
Rejoice, salvation of my soul!
Rejoice, Thou Bride Unwedded!

And then we end with one of my favorite hymns, “To Thee the Champion Leader.”

Greetings and Salutations, most precious Mother of my Lord.

>On Being REAL

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







“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

A few years ago I used this passage from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, “On Being Real” as a springboard for a discussion on finding balance in our lives. We talked about healing the gap between our spiritual and our “secular” lives—about being authentic.

Times of renewed spiritual intensity—like Great Lent—often shine a light into the dark crevices of our broken lives, and what we see can be overwhelming. One unhealthy response is to “pretend” … to go through the motions of an acetic struggle, without engaging on a personal level.

The Skin Horse teaches us several important things about becoming Real—that you accept pain as part of the process; that having sharp edges and needing to be “carefully kept” prevent the process; and that letting people love you is a key. “Once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
, in his short book, Meditations on a Theme, writes about the “process of becoming” and the importance of “considering ourselves as a whole” in order to progress in the spiritual life:

“… unless we take full responsibility for the way we face our heredity our situation our God and ourselves, we shall never be able to face more than a small section of our life and self…. Certain things in us belong already, however incipiently, to the Kingdom of God. Others are still a chaos, a desert, a wilderness. And it is for us by hard toil and inspired faith to make the into the Garden of Eden; as Nietzsche says, ‘One must possess a chaos within to give birth to a star.’ And we must have faith in the chaos, pregnant with beauty and harmony. We must look at ourselves as an artist looks, with vision and sobriety at the raw material which God has put into his hands and out of which he will make a work of art….”

[I have that Nietzsche quote on this magnet on my refrigerator.]

It’s so easy, I think, to try to copy the way godliness looks on others—whether it be their mode of fasting, prayer, good works, or even the way they wear their spirituality in their body language, the tone of their voice, or the way they dress. There is nothing innately spiritual about dressing a certain way (head covering or not, for example) or speaking a certain way (subdued tones in the voice) or carrying yourself a certain way (quietly, with slow steps or hurrying along to your next task.) For several years I tried to copy some of these outward signs of the spiritual lives of others, but I wasn’t being authentic.

Met. Bloom continues:

“At every instant of our lives we can be authentic and real if we choose the risk of being what we are and of not aiming at copying a model or identifying ourselves with preconceived images. But our true self cannot be discovered merely by watching our empirical self, but only in God and through him. Each of us is an image of the Living God, but an image which, like an old painting that has been tampered with overlaid or clumsily restored to the point of being unrecognizable…. “

Many of the services of Great Lent—especially the ones that include the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete—offer an opportunity for us to face our sinfulness. I’m sure these are written and offered by the Church to help us see that aspect of ourselves as an aid to repentance. But at the same time, As Bloom says:

“It is important for us to learn both how far we are outsiders and how richly we are already endowed with his presence, by the light enclosed in our darkness; our very potentialities can be an inspiration, a way, a hope; how little we need hurry but how important it is to be real, to occupy in relation to God and to the world around us the true situation which is ours, within which God can act. For He cannot act in an unreal situation, in which we are continually placing ourselves through imagination, fantasy, desire and spiritual gluttony, as the Fathers of the Desert say.”

I know that’s a lot to take in. And maybe living an authentic life isn’t a struggle for you, but it’s at the heart of my struggle. The “signature” quote at the end of my outgoing emails is this:

“It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.” ~~ E.E. Cummings

Past posts about Metropolitan Bloom are here:

A Preview of Authentic Beauty

Beginning to Pray

Scootch, Scootch, God, or Grace, Eventually

>Three Things I Didn’t See Coming at the Oxford Conference for the Book

>[I'm taking a break today from "A Sinner's Lenten Alphabet," which will return tomorrow.]

Last Wednesday through Saturday I was in Oxford (Mississippi) for the 17th Annual Oxford Conference for the Book. Last year was my first time to attend, and I knew then I had discovered a treasure, just an hour and a half from my house.

It’s a daunting task to write a blog post about such an event. It’s kind of like going on a trip to a foreign country—is it best to stop in a different place each day or spend more time in a few selected stops? I could “report” on the conference, with a glimpse into each of the speakers, panels, dinners, picnics, and workshops, but you can get that information elsewhere. Instead, I’ll spotlight a couple of things that surprised me about the conference, taking a little cue from one of the conference speakers, Steven Amsterdam, who read from his book, “Things We Didn’t See Coming.” Don’t you love the title? Okay, it’s hard not to just mention that some of the things I DID see coming were the talk by John Grisham and the “party” in Barry Hannah’s honor during the special Thacker Mountain Radio Show on Thursday night; the lovely dinner with the speakers, and the depth of the conference’s “bench”—the panelists who discussed everything from issues of racial identity to the panel of poets led by Beth Ann Fennelly. I DID see fun times hanging out with writing group buddies, Doug, Herman and Michelle, and sharing a suite with my best friend, Daphne.

But the first thing I didn’t see coming was the treasure-trove of wisdom in the one-day writing workshop led by Margaret Love-Denman last Wednesday. Margaret is co-editor of Novel Ideas, a terrific volume of interviews and writing exercises from contemporary authors, as well as two novels and an earlier volume similar to Novel Ideas, called Story Matters. She led a one-day writing workshop with 9 participants, during which she led us through writing exercises and shared pearls of wisdom from her years as a teacher. Each of us had an opportunity to meet with her one-on-one during the conference.

On Friday I walked down the hill to The Depot, where her office is, for my conference. I was at the point of wanting to give up on writing my spiritual memoir and do something else, after two years of trying to figure out how to write it. But Margaret “got me” and what I was trying to write in a way that no one else has. She shared a memoir with me that one of her students in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire has published, and it blew me away. (Meredith Hall’s Without a Map.) She encouraged me not to abandon the project, and is also available for on-going editing/advising, which is an exciting option for me.

In Novel Ideas, Margaret (and her co-editor) write about finding the courage to face the material you want to write about, whether you decide to write it as fiction or memoir. They quote Theodore Weesner, who says, “Identify things that hurt, that caused pain enough to make you change how you perceive the world.”

And reflecting on Weesner:

“Your material is based on what shaped your worldview, but it is not static. It changes as you change. It grows as you grow…. The very process of writing a novel will change you. If it is a good novel, it will force you to break through some wall of not-knowing and teach you what you need to know to resolve something inside yourself.”

I’m ready to get back to work on the memoir now, thanks to Margaret’s gentle wisdom and encouragement. It doesn’t mean I won’t also pursue some other ideas I have for writing—or that the memoir might not take years to finish—but I’m at peace with that. Maybe for the first time.

The second thing I didn’t see coming was the YA (“Young Adult”) writers who presented on Friday morning. The Junior League of Oxford and Square Books contributed hundreds of copies of books for area fifth and ninth graders to read before coming by bus to hear the authors speak. Two things surprised me about these sessions:

The talks given by Ingrid Law and Watt Key were exactly what I needed to hear to inform and inspire my own writing. Recently I’ve been playing around with an idea for a YA book, and their artistry kicked my interest up several notches. Ingrid Law’s first book, Savvy is about a girl named Mississippi. It’s also about what it means to be 13 and in 5th grade. But it’s also about the world of our imagination, as her characters receive their “savvy” on their 13th birthdays and learn to use their new powers. She talked about what’s needed to write a book—specifically courage, research, hard work, and imagination—and I would add perseverance, since she was rejected by 45 agents before finally getting published.

Key’s first published book, Alabama Moon, is actually the 9th novel he’s written, which is another message to me about perseverance. During both authors presentations, I was so impressed, watching an auditorium full of 5th and 9th graders, who acted more like they were watching a favorite movie or music star, rather than an author. They each held their copy of the author’s book in their hands, and eagerly jockeyed for the chance to stand up and ask questions at the end of the talks. It reminded me of this group of Ocoee Middle School Students participating in this video: “Gotta Keep Reading.” YOU MUST WATCH THIS!

And the third thing I didn’t see coming? When I travel I love to take time to pursue things that aren’t on the agenda, to get to know the area better. While relaxing at High Point Coffee one morning, I picked up a copy of the latest “Invitation Oxford” magazine, which featured “Art in Oxford.” I was needing an inner artist date, so when I read the article, “Symbols of Culture,”—about the public art in and around Oxford—I knew I wanted to take a little “side trip” during the book conference.

It started with a visit to City Hall (to pay a parking ticket) where I chatted with “Mr. Bill” on the bench in front of the building—a statue of William Faulkner by Mississippi sculptor and adjunct professor of art at Ole Miss, Bill Beckwith. As I sat there with my latte, I remembered an encounter I had with Mr. Faulkner 40 years earlier. As a freshman English major at Ole Miss, I wrote a paper about “The Sound and the Fury.” I’m pretty sure I just made most of it up, since I didn’t then—and don’t now—have a clue what Faulkner was saying!

Later, walking around campus, I discovered “The Quest” in front of the Old Chemistry building, an abstract piece by Alabama artist Branko Medenica.

And finally, I asked my friend, Daphne, if she would go with me to the University Museum to see the newest piece on campus, Memphis artist Roy Tamboli’s Bardo of the Rose. It was conceived as a tribute for the sufferers of Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. The artist lost his father to Alzheimer’s. Here’s what he says about the work:

“The ring in the piece represents the circle of life. The break in the ring speaks of the gap in relationships created by the disease itself and the patient’s loss of memory. The gap is bridged by coils representing the dedication and devotion of the patient’s caregiver.

“The twisted coil near the top symbolizes the stress and trauma of living with someone who has Alzheimer’s. Finally, the glass globe at the very top represents the pearl of joy found in the surrender of acceptance.”

If you read my blog regularly, you know that my mother has Alzheimer’s, so this piece is especially meaningful to me. If you’re interested in reading more of my posts about my mom, and also about Alzhimer’s and art, here are a few links:

Coloring Violets with Effie

Not Becoming My Mother

Piece of Mind

So, I ended my four-day stay in Oxford by visiting the University Museum and then sitting up on the balcony at Square Books reading some of my new treasures on Saturday afternoon. A final dinner on the square with my friend, Daphne, and I headed home to Memphis, inspired by the things I didn’t see coming and comforted by the old familiar people and places that become more precious to me with every visit to Oxford, Mississippi.

>Q is for QUIET, Please

>[Scroll down to
read about the
letters A-P in
A Sinner's Lenten Alphabet.]




Quiet, Please

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post called, “Soul Chatter.” The title came from this quote from St. Philotheos of Sinai:

“Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together.”

Having just returned from a four-day conference for writer and readers—the Oxford Conference for the Book—I can tell you that it was quite the talkative environment. (Watch for a post about the conference soon.) So, I returned home last night and woke up to get ready for church this morning, only to learn that a dear friend’s daughter is in the intensive care unit. She gave birth on Friday—early due to pre-eclampsia—and is having pulmonary problems and is on a ventilator. The baby is fine, but this precious 29-year-old woman whose family I’ve known for forty years is fighting for her life. I wept as I prayed for her while getting ready for church and again during the Divine Liturgy this morning. I didn’t stay for coffee hour after church because I had a very rare (for me) desire to be quiet.

After lunch with my husband, I sat down at my computer to begin a lengthy blog post about the book conference when suddenly the words rushing through my head began to sound, well, loud. So loud I could barely hear the beautiful songbirds in my back yard. This is the first warm, sunny day we’ve had in a long time, so I walked away from the computer, picked up a book, and sat on my patio reading in the sunshine for about an hour.

And then I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and tried not to think about anything at all. I was tired of being bombarded by the incessant noise within my head. And my heart began to remember what quiet feels like.

I Peter 3:4 says that a “gentle and quiet spirit” is “precious in the sight of God.” Why? Maybe so we can hear His voice and experience peace in our lives. And maybe that starts with a quiet mind.

Tomorrow is my birthday so we’re going to dinner tonight with friends (yesterday was his birthday) and I’m looking forward to it. But right now, I’m going to try to hold onto a couple of more hours of quiet. We’ll see how it goes. Shhhhhhhhh.

>P is for Passion, Pleasure & Peace: The Prodigal’s Party


[Scroll down to read about
the Letters A-N
in A Sinner’s
Lenten Alphabet.]

As an artist and writer, I struggle with the concept of “passion.” I think it’s important to be “passionate” about my work, but I also know that my “passions” can overcome me, whether those passions involve food, drink, sex, money, or just the buzz I get from creative activity. Even if that activity is “spiritual”—like writing icons. And so today’s post is about the Letter P:

P is for


Pleasure &

Peace… and the



Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos (A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain) writes about passion, pleasure and peace:

“Passion: Passion is a repeated action which dominates man. In ascetic theology the movement of the powers of the soul contrary to nature is called passion.”

A repeated action which dominates man.
So, the individual actions of drinking, eating, and creating aren’t bad, but if we allow them to dominate us, to “move the powers of the soul contrary to nature,” they can destroy our peace. Metropolitan Hierotheos continues:

“Pleasure: The pleasure that man feels enjoying an object, an idea etc. There is sensual pleasure and spiritual pleasure corresponding to the body and soul accordingly. The pleasure which derives from God is connected with peace whereas the pleasure which derives from sin and the devil causes disturbance. Also, a pleasure which causes pain and guilt comes from the devil and is connected with the passions.”

I’m a big sensualist. So was Flannery O’Connor. She loved to smell the pages of the National Geographic Magazine when it arrived in the mail. I smell the pages of new books when I open them, and I love to feel fabrics in dress shops and linen stores. I love 600 thread count sheets.

Before taking a bite of food or sip of a drink, I often pause to smell the food or beverage first. I want to experience the height of pleasure in everything. Like Mary Chapin Carpenter, I want “a comfortable bed that won’t hurt my back…. Pens that won’t run out of ink, cool quiet and time to think… and passionate kisses.” This is sensual pleasure.

But I also want to experience the “pleasure which derives from God” which is “connected with peace” rather than with disturbance. I know that feeling of disturbance all too well—when I’ve eaten or drunk too much, or spent too much money, or laughed too loudly and said things I later regretted. But oh, how wonderful is that (for me, rare) feeling of peace that comes from spiritual pleasure—from not allowing our passions to rule us.

I am in Oxford, Mississippi Wednesday through Saturday for the Oxford Conference for the Book. A friend called Tuesday morning and we talked about how the atmosphere at the Conference will be changed due to the sudden death on Monday afternoon of the conference honoree, Oxford writer Barry Hannah. Oh, there will still be workshops and panels, speakers and book signings, dinners with the speakers, drinks on the balcony at City Grocery and parties at Square Books. But there will surely also be a somberness that would not have otherwise been present. Barry was greatly loved and will be missed. (Here’s a good article about Barry in Garden & Gun Magazine, November 2008.)
(And an interview with Barry in The Oxford American.)

Anyway, my friend and I also talked about how different it is to participate in a conference like this during Great Lent. If we’re making an effort to be still—to draw closer to God through fasting and prayer—it’s difficult sometimes to be around crowds of people who are in a festive mood. We were both looking forward to seeing our friends in Oxford, to being together, and to hearing the speakers. But we want to try to hold onto ourselves. I hope we can experience the pleasure that derives from God and be at peace in our souls.

Last Sunday during his homily at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, Father John Troy Mashburn was talking about the sacrament of confession, also known as the sacrament of forgiveness. At one point he said, “Confession is like the prodigal returning and his father running out to greet him and saying, ‘Let’s have a party!’”

I loved the image he was showing us—that confessing our sins and returning to ourselves is an occasion for joy, not for sadness. And so Great Lent continues as we struggle to find this balance in our lives. By the time this post is published, I will have already finished the writing workshop on Wednesday, the panels on Thursday, Dinner with the Speakers on Thursday night, and probably some time up on the balcony at City Grocery with my writing group buddies. But hopefully I also will have taken a solitary walk on the beautiful Ole Miss campus, spent some time reading or writing up on the balcony at Square Books, and even some time alone back in my hotel room. Maybe I have also made an effort to keep the Fast, and to pray. Yeah, I guess P should also be for Prayer. But most of all, I hope to be at peace with God, myself, and others.

>O is for Obedience: A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet Continues


[Scroll down to read letters A-N.]





In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky lays out for the reader the importance of the integration of the lives of lay persons living “in the world” with monastics, living in at least partial isolation from the world. One of many things the lives of the monastics teach lay persons is the importance of living in obedience to others. As Dostoyevsky says, “in spiritual subjugation, that is, in absolute obedience to Christ, one finds limitless freedom.”

Freedom through obedience to Christ
. The concept of obedience to others isn’t very politically correct in today’s society. And it’s something that I’ve always struggled with, starting with “Wives, obey your husbands,” (Ephesians 5:22) and moving on from there to obedience to the Church’s rules for fasting and other disciplines. I’ve been Orthodox for over twenty years, and I’m finally beginning to quit bucking against God’s authority at every turn. And yes, I have experienced a small taste of the peace and freedom that comes from obedience. But I’ve got a long way to go.

There’s a good article at the Orthodox Christian Information Center by Father Alexey [now Hieromonk Ambrose] Young called “Obedience and the Layman” in which Father Ambrose discusses the difference in the level of obedience most Orthodox Christians experience with a higher experience that can be attained through obedience to a spiritual father. But obedience of this sort isn’t the norm, as Father Ambrose says:

“Many converts never progress beyond this initial requirement to obey the principles of an Orthodox way of life; some actually spend their lives struggling against it altogether. But those to whom it is granted to go deeper, to go beyond the baby milk of spiritual life, there awaits the experience of the strong wine of Orthodox obedience.”

The strong wine of Orthodox obedience
. I want to believe that living in obedience would be that pleasant. And at some level I do believe it.

Even Jesus did this, according to Hebrews 5:8: “though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.”

It’s humbling to think about Jesus—the Son of God and third Person of the Trinity—learning obedience. Even obedience unto death on the cross. (Phillipians 2:8) And for what?

“And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” (Hebrews 5:9)

I think obedience, like humility, must be an acquired taste. As I often tell my spiritual father during confession when he asks if I want to turn away from whatever sin I’m putting into the light, “I want to want to.” It’s a beginning.

>N is for Nous & Noetic Prayer: A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet Continues

[Scroll down to read about the letters A-M.]

N is for

Nous, &

Noetic Prayer

These “N” words were unfamiliar to me before I became Orthodox. But they have much to do with our Lenten journey, which is really just an intensified version of the rest of our spiritual life. Even when it’s not the Lenten season, Christians try to pray and draw near to God. And for these actions to have value to our souls, we need to engage our nous.

Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
writes this about the nous:

“The word has various uses in Patristic teaching. It indicates either the soul or the heart or even an energy of the soul. Yet, the nous is mainly the eye of the soul; the purest part of the soul; the highest attention. It is also called noetic energy and it is not identified with reason.”

I remember once when I was visiting with a Greek friend and he was explaining the nous this way:

“It’s like when I was a little boy and I would misbehave and my Yia Yia would say, ‘Paul! Where is your nous?’ Which was her way of saying, ‘What were you thinking?’ She would say this when I was acting in a way that contradicted the core of my person, of who I am.”

The fathers say we should pray “with our mind in our heart” and “with our nous.” How do we do that?

Metropolitan Vlachos says that “Noetic prayer is the prayer which is done with the nous. When the nous is liberated from its enslavement to reason, to the passions and the surrounding world and returns from its distraction within the heart, then noetic prayer starts. Thus noetic prayer is done with the nous within the heart, whereas the prayer of the intellect is done within the reason [which is] the power of the soul through which we perceive the surrounding world and we develop our relation with it. We acquire experience of God by means of the nous and we formulate this experience, when required, by means of reason, in so far as it is attainable.”

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
says: “The Nous is not primarily the rational faculties but a spiritual vision that we all possess though many of us have not discovered it. It must be cultivated through study and training and developed through prayer and fasting. It can be something higher than the reasoning brain and deeper than the emotions.”

Higher than the reasoning brain and deeper than the emotions.
I love that he doesn’t reject either the brain or the emotions, but rather encourages us to go further up and further in.

There are many more patristic writings about the nous and noetic prayer that I could quote from and link to, but you can Google the terms and find lots of theological writings to read if you’re interested. Instead I’ll close with another poem—this one is not mine, but is the work of an Orthodox poet, Scott Cairns. (I met Scott at a spiritual writing workshop in Oxford this past November.) This poem is from his book, Philokalia: New and Selected Poems.

“Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous”

You could almost think the word synonymous
with mind, given our so far narrow
history, and the excessive esteem
in which we have been led to hold what is,
in this case, our rightly designated
nervous systems. Little wonder then
that some presume the mind itself both part
and parcel of the person, the very seat
of soul and, lately, crucible for a host
of chemical incentives—combinations
of which can pretty much answer for most
of our habits and for our affections.
When even the handy lexicon cannot
quite place the nous as anything beyond
one rustic ancestor of reason, you might
be satisfied to trouble the odd term
no further—and so would fail to find
your way to it, most fruitful faculty
untried. Dormant in its roaring cave,
the heart’s intellective aptitude grows dim,
unless you find a way to wake it. So,
let’s try something, even now. Even as
you tend these lines, attend for a moment
to your breath as you draw it in: regard
the breath’s cool descent, a stream from mouth
to throat to the furnace of the heart.
Observe that queer, cool confluence of breath
and blood, and do your thinking there.

>M is for Mary of Egypt

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







Mary of Egypt is my patron saint. Having been a prostitute in 4th century Egypt, she became a hermit in the dessert after her repentance. You can read her story here.

St. Mary’s life
is read along with the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete on Wednesday night during week before the Sunday of Saint Mary of Egypt.

You can read more about Saint Mary of Egypt here, and here.

I went through a particularly dark time in my life in the early 1990s, and I believe that Mary was praying for me, and helped pull me through. So, when I was visiting Holy Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan, in April of 1997, I wrote the following poem.

It was actually on the Sunday of Mary of Egypt—the fifth Sunday of Great Lent. Saint Mary of Egypt has two feast days, April 1 AND the 5th Sunday of Great Lent. In 1997 these days were the same. The poem is actually a prayer:

Saint Mary of Egypt

Fill my soul, O Lord
As you filled the soul of Your Holy Mother;
Let there be no room in my soul
For anything but you.

Fill my belly, O Lord
As You filled blessed Mary in the desert;
Let my sustenance be only You
And the blessing of Your Saints.

Fill my mind, O Lord
As you filled the theologians
With words to teach us Your ways
And wisdom that gives life.

Fill my mouth, O Lord
As you filled the mouth of David,
Enabling him to sing your praise
And teaching repentance through his psalms.

Fill my days, O Lord
As you fill each moment of time
With good works appointed for our sake
Increasing us in virtues and piety.

Fill my nights, O Lord
As you filled the desert nights
With watchfulness, tears and victory
For holy saints who sought you there.

Fill my flesh, O Lord
As you fill those who keep the fast;
With Your own Body and Blood
So that it becomes my only satisfaction.

Fill my eyes, O Lord
As once you filled Saint Mary’s eyes,
First with humble tears of repentance
And finally with your glorious Light.

Hymns to Saint Mary of Egypt:

Troparion (Tone 8)

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O mother,
For you took up the Cross and followed Christ.
By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away;
But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal.
Therefore your spirit, O holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the Angels.

Kontakion (Tone 3)

Having been a sinful woman,
You became through repentance a Bride of Christ.
Having attained angelic life,
You defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross;
Therefore, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

>L is for Lamentations: A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet Continues


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

L is for Lamentations

Our society isn’t big on expressing grief. We don’t like to mourn. Funeral homes go to great lengths to sterilize the process, making it as neat and easy for friends and family as possible. Unless you’re African American. The black funerals I’ve been to are a lot more “real” than most of the white protestant funerals I have experienced.

When my father died in 1998, the pastor and others who organized the funeral service called it a “Celebration of Life.” Everyone said nice things about my dad and we sang uplifting hymns. The church was packed to overflowing with more than 500 people that day. Dad was well known and well loved. People wanted to celebrate his life, but they didn’t know what to do with their pain. They had lost a friend in his prime—he was only 68 years old and was still running marathons just a little over a year before his death. A leader in the business community and at his church, his death was a huge loss to many. But they showed up with their best smiles that day. Until I got up to speak.

I talked about suffering—Dad’s and Mom’s—and how it changed their marriage during the 14 months that he suffered with cancer. I talked about the pain of loss and the frustration and helplessness we all felt. People wept. And afterwards, at the reception, several people thanked me for “giving them permission to mourn.”

Two months later, at the funeral service for my 20-year-old Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway, there was plenty of weeping and wailing. The Orthodox Church makes room for human emotions to express themselves at the intersection of the physical and the spiritual worlds. These words, which are part of the Orthodox Funeral Service, express the true feeling of mourning—of lamentation—at the death of a loved one:

“I weep and I wail when I contemplate death
And behold our beauty, fashioned after the image of our God lying in the tomb disfigured, dishonored and stripped of all form.”

During Orthodox Holy Week, there’s a service on Holy Friday called The Lamentations. Jesus’s body has been taken down from the cross and is laid in a funeral bier, decorated with flowers. As the people come forward to venerate the bier, these beautiful lamentations are sung. As we enter into Christ’s death, we also lament our own sins.

Click here to see pictures and videos of Holy Friday at Saint John in 2008.

Lamenting isn’t about being “down” or negative. It’s about being real. It’s about letting ourselves experience the grief that death brings. Death isn’t “natural” or “beautiful.” God didn’t create man to die. Death is a result of man’s sinfulness. And so we mourn for our own sins and for the suffering that death brings. But we do not mourn “as those who have no hope.” (I Thessalonians 4:13). The cycles of services during Great Lent and Holy Week in the Orthodox Church lead up to the pinnacle of our hope–Holy Pascha.

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