>As I mentioned on Friday, I’m writing today about the Winter Retreat I went to this weekend at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Birmingham, Alabama for their Winter Retreat featuring Father Thomas Hopko Father Hopko spoke on “Vices and Virtues.” It was a distillation of a twelve-week course he taught at St. Vladimir’s Seminary (where he taught for 35 years) and we got three one-hour lectures. (Father Hopko has many podcasts available at Ancient Faith Radio on various subjects.)
We were told at the retreat that Fr. Hopko’s lectures would be available on the cathedral’s web site soon, but I don’t see a link to them up there today (Monday). Please bookmark the site and check back—these are some of the best lectures I’ve ever heard on healing the brokenness of man. (And for further reading, Father Hopko has written a short piece on “How Can I Know God?” This is a little different version than the one he handed out to us at the retreat, but much of the same wisdom is included here.)
I feel very inadequate to write about this weekend. It was transforming for me in many ways, but I’m still processing the treasures that Fr. Hopko shared with us. Some if it wasn’t new to me, as an Orthodox Christian:
“Our vocation is to be by grace everything that God is by nature.”
“We’re created royal from the beginning (St. Gregory the Thoelogian) and called to take care of everything in the world.”
I already knew what our calling was, but I fall so short of that calling, unable to overcome my depression, my pride, my brokenness from the abuse I have suffered, my anger at those who have hurt me (both within and without the Church). What Father Hopko said that’s “new” for me is that our tendencies to gluttony, alcoholism, sexual sins, etc., are INHERITED—they are predispositions. He spoke eloquently about our sin, which is primordial, generational and personal, and then he explained that it is essential that we understand who we are, why we are, where we are, and how our history affects our behavior:
“We have to deal with what we’ve been dealt. If you don’t vent the anger and grief over what you’ve suffered from your parents and grandparents (etc.) you’ll go crazy. You’ll become paralyzed, depressed, and isolated if you don’t get this healed. This illness especially attacks monks, priests and other spiritual people who sometimes use Church and spiritual things as a substitute for facing their stuff.”
He talked about the necessity of finding one to two people we can tell everything to, or we’ll never be at peace. He spoke about counseling, about psychological therapy, and about medication, saying that over 80% of Americans are taking some sort of medication to heal this issue in their lives, and sometimes that’s necessary.
However we find this healing, he said it’s essential to FACE YOUR TRUTH, FORGIVE YOUR PARENTS, and HEAL YOURSELF.
For those in the grips of addictions and victims of abuse, he said to GET HELP: go to a recovery program.
Speaking to the spiritual side of these issues, he emphasized that HUMILITY is essential to our healing. What is humility? TRUTH—when you live in reality as it is, you don’t make it up, you see things clearly as they really are, and then you act appropriately in the light of the truth you see.
I won’t speak to the specifics of the Eight Vices & Virtues that Fr. Hopko went into much detail about. You can read about those in John Cassian’s “On the Eight Deadly Sins.” It’s not that these aren’t important—they just weren’t the main “take away” for me, from the retreat. I was blessed to be at the retreat with the two friends to whom I can tell everything and receive wisdom, love, forgiveness, and steps towards healing. Together with them, and the professional help I am now investigating, I have hope for healing that has evaded me for most of my life.
And then what? Father Hopko says:
Every adult who gives birth or adopts and leaves behind another generation should be leaving behind a healthier, happier, more whole humanity—we should CLEAN UP THE MESS and SANCTIFY HUMANITY.
All I know is that for me, cleaning up the mess in my own broken humanity is all I can deal with for now. And the next generation is helping me. The love of my children and Godchildren is sometimes the only thing that keeps me from going into the depths of despair. When I’m in the grip of depression, I don’t want to even get out of bed, much less go to church. So, yesterday morning, my motivation for going to church was my Goddaughter, Sophie. My husband and I had planned to take her out after church to celebrate her 8th birthday. She was counting on me, and so I showed up. I was late, and I didn’t take communion, but I showed up for Sophie.
I watched with joy as Joyce let Sophie play percussion with the band, and then as the band sang the Beatles’ song, “You Say It’s Your Birthday,” and then “Happy Birthday to You” to Sophie and the whole restaurant clapped for Sophie and she beamed.
She ordered ribeye steak and Caesar salad and ate every bite. She opened her gifts from us and hugged us and thanked us over and over. She told us, word-for-word, the story of the Bremen Town Musicians, and then the folk story that she wrote. After we took her home and were driving back to our house, I thought about how much more she is saving me than I am saving her. And yet I’m called to “clean up the mess” for Sophie and for my own children and grandchildren. And to “sanctify humanity” for the next generation. May God have mercy and help me.
>Our women’s group at St. John Orthodox Church has been studying a book on the spiritual life by a twentieth century Serbian Elder, Thaddeus of Vitovnica: Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica
From the book cover:
Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica was one of the most renowned spiritual guides of Serbia in the twentieth century. As a novice he lived in obedience to Elder Ambrose of Miljkovo Monastery, a disciple of the Optina Elders. From him Fr. Thaddeus learned the Prayer of the Heart and the selfless love that came to characterize his whole ministry to the suffering Serbian people. Born in 1914, Elder Thaddeus lived through all the suffering endured by Serbia in the twentieth century. Over the course of two World Wars, during the Communist takeover, and through the NATO bombings of 1999, he co-suffered with his people. He taught, counseled, and prayed for all who came to him in pain and sorrow. His words of love and hope provided spiritual balm for people from all classes of society. In 2002 Elder Thaddeus reposed, leaving behind a large collection of his teachings, preserved by his faithful spiritual children. His life, teachings, and spiritual conversations are here presented for the first time in English.
Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.
Recently we were reading from Chapter 10—“On Spiritual Struggle,” which includes a section about how obedience and humility bring freedom and peace:
Our life on this earth is such that we are always becoming enslaved to material things, while the angels never are. This life was given to us so that we may learn about eternal life, that we may learn how to become free, to walk freely and with a clear conscience and pure thoughts.
It’s an interesting paradox, this finding of freedom through obedience to God and through detachment from material things. I can testify that during a time in my life—about fifteen years ago—when I was more focused on spiritual things and less involved with “secular living,” I was, possibly, more at peace. But I was living a fairly insular life, and so I’m not sure how real the peace was. And I still had the same struggles I have today with addictions and depression, so I don’t know that I was any more “free” than I am now. And so I read more of what Elder Thaddeus says:
There are times when people become depressed and despondent, which is a type of pride in its own way. If a person loves the things of this world, this will invariably lead to despondency, for he will not find God in them. Each human being feels lonely at times, even when he is among people, until the moment he becomes free from the things of this world. At that point, God comes to comfort him.
The soul feels lonesome because the power of Grace diminishes in it due to its interest in the things of this world. One cannot go both ways! Unless it is humbled, the soul cannot receive the fullness of God’s Grace, for if it received Grace in its proud state it would surely result in great evil, as was the case with the fallen angels.
I have a hard time with this passage, because the Elder seems to be saying that God only comes to comfort a person “the moment he becomes free from the things of this world.” But what if a person is so depressed that he can’t free himself? Won’t God come to him in his depression? And how is that depression a type of pride? I’ve read in some of the Church fathers that it’s a form of pride because it (depression) comes from focusing on ourselves, rather than on God and others. But is it really so simple? And I’m not sure how to clearly delineate between “depression” and “despondency” or “acedia”—and which are emotional or chemical imbalances and which are more spiritual in nature, and therefore more a reflection of our spiritual state. I did a series of posts about a year ago on Kathleen Norris’ book, Acedia & Me, that address these issues.
Elder Thaddeus also says:
Chaotic thoughts are the state of fallen spirits (demons, spirits who have fallen away form God). Our mind, however, must remain concentrated, whole, and vigilant. God can only enter a mind that is whole….
Again, I wonder, how few minds God will enter if this is true, because so many of us are not “whole”—we are broken. Our lives are messy. And yes, chaos often rules. I think that might even be more true in the case of artists and writers, as Somerset Maugham says:
“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these, the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.”
With Great Lent just around the corner (it begins on March 7 for the Orthodox Church) I have a measure of anxiety about how my struggle will proceed this year. But I’m not going to begin the journey alone. This afternoon I’m traveling to Birmingham, Alabama, with two dear friends to attend a retreat at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. The speaker will be Father Thomas Hopko and the topic is “Vices & Virtues.” It’s interesting that in the list of vices included in the retreat material, “akedia” (listlessness or lethargy or a sense of futility) is a separate vice from “lype” (sadness or dejection or gloominess or ungodly grief), and “hyperephania” (pride) is another vice altogether.
I’ll be interested to see how Father Hopko explains all of this. I’m also looking forward to one of the break-out sessions on Saturday: “Addiction and Healing.” Check back on Monday and maybe I’ll have a blog post up about the retreat. And please leave a comment with your thoughts on any of these topics.
Looking for something to read here today? Check out my latest update on the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction blog: “New Faculty Member On Board!”
And the new pull-down page, “Resources/Books.”
Cartoon used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi. For more great writer cartoons, visit her site: Will Write For Chocolate.
>My husband and I went to New Jersey and Pennsylvania this past weekend for the wedding of my Goddaughter, Julie Stanek, to Benjamin Stell. (Wedding in Princeton and reception/dinner in nearby Yardley, Pennsylvania.) It’s a second marriage for each of them, and their five grown children participated in the ceremony. It took place in a beautiful temporary chapel of the Mother of God Orthodox Church in Princeton, New Jersey. The small parish there has been using space within the former location of St. Joseph Catholic Seminary. The small basement chapel where the parish meets is lovely. (The parish has bought land and plans to build their own temple soon.)
Father Basil was honored to participate with Father John Cassar, the pastor, in the ceremony, including performing the service of “Crowning.” I wish I had a video, because the music is so beautiful. But here’s a picture of the Crowning. And here’s a video that shows several examples in other Orthodox churches.
The service of the “Crowning” is the climax of the Orthodox Wedding service. The crowns are signs of the glory and honor with which God crowns the bride and groom during the Mystery, the Sacrament of Marriage. The groom and the bride are crowned as the king and queen of their own little kingdom, the home—the domestic church—which they will rule with fear of God, wisdom, justice and integrity. When the crowning takes place, the priest, takes the crowns and holds them above the couple, and says, “The servant of God (groom) is crowned to the servant of God (bride) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” (three times) And then this is repeated with the bride. He moves the crowns back and forth from one of their heads to the other before placing them. They are connected by a ribbon. (In some traditions the Best Man and Maid of Honor do this.)
The crowns used in the Orthodox wedding service also refer to the crowns of martyrdom since every true marriage involves immeasurable self-sacrifice on both sides.
After the Crowning comes the Dance of Isaiah, which symbolizes the couple’s first steps taken together as a married couple. In some traditions the sponsors (Man and Maid of Honor) accompany them, along with the priest(s) in this “dance.” You can watch several more examples of this tradition here. Here’s a picture of Julie and Ben in the Dance of Isaiah.
I miss Julie since she moved from Memphis in 2009, but it’s obvious that she’s right at home back up north near her roots. And I loved meeting her friends from the early years of her spiritual journey, which paralleled mine in many ways. Julie’s dear friend from Boston, Susan Kon (wife of Father Michael Kon of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Boston) and I were instant soul sisters. Here we are with Julie, at the reception.
I’ll just leave a few more photos here for those who know these folks, and for others who just enjoy peeking into spiritual celebrations. Like this one, of the Bridesmaids (the daughters of bride and groom) and the Maid of Honor.
To Julie and Benjamin: May God grant you Many Years!
>For most of January and the first couple of weeks of February, I’ve been blue. That’s what my mother would call it. Probably my deepest bout of depression in many years, or possibly ever. Just feeling sad (and yes, some of it probably was SAD–Seasonal Affective Disorder.)I’ve been exhausted, weepy, achy. And then the sun came out and the temps rose, and I made another trip to Jackson (Mississippi) to visit my mother, and it was 74 degrees and sunny. I went to dinner with a group of ladies in a wonderful book club in Jackson and spent the night with one of them. Jonni is a potter, and I enjoyed watching her work in her studio the next morning. My two days in Jackson definitely lifted my spirits, and hopefully I brought a bit of that sunshine back to Memphis with me. I’m bracing myself for a return to the cold as I fly to Pennsylvania this weekend for a friend’s wedding.
Anyway, I thought I’d share another reflection from my work-in-progress, Sleeping With Poets: How Poetry Pimped My Prose. Here’s Day 43. It’s from Sharon Auberle‘s poem, “February Blues.” Enjoy, and have a great weekend.
Enough of Everything
Day 43—Sleeping With Poets
Sharon Auberle’s wonderful poem, “February Blues,” dropped into my email inbox today (from YourDailyPoem.com) and I immediately knew it was a gift.
enough of everything
buttoned up, battened down
Even here in Memphis, we’ve had more snow in the past few weeks than in the past few winters combined. When we have snow, it isn’t the dry, fluffy stuff they have out in Colorado (where I spent a delightful New Year’s weekend at Breckenridge). Oh, no. It’s WET and it chills you through to your bones, especially if you’re old, like me. Or feeling old. Counting the days down to my 60th birthday (March 8) has felt like a dying woman checking off the squares on a calendar. And so I find myself screaming with the poet Auberle, “enough of everything”! (My exclamation mark, not hers.)
My mother’s birthday is one week before mine, and I just returned from one of my regular visits to her in the nursing home. Her Alzheimer’s continues to progress, and she really doesn’t understand what a birthday is. As I tried to explain to her that she has been alive for eighty-three years, the clouds remained over her eyes and her mind and a smile was fixed on her beautiful face. We shared a box of Pangburn’s Millionaires and I searched for things to talk about—the pansies on the patio at the nursing home, the unusual seventy-four-degree day in February—and then I thought about how beautiful she was when she was young. Her skin is still beautiful—olive, smooth, unblemished. And I thought about the romance she had with my father, over sixty years ago. I wish I had taken a poem with me to read to her (next time) like Auberle’s “February Blues.”
I want to be called Camelia
under a pink moon,
with the fragrance of apple
blossoms in the air.
I take a deep breath and close my eyes, hoping that some early spring fragrance will invade my blues-laden body, but it’s still a bit early. Because Mother doesn’t remember anyone but me now, and sometimes my father, I have to do a bit of world-building to keep a conversation going. We talk about the pansies over and over again, because she forgets that we just talked about them. And the hummingbird feeders, waiting to be filled with sweet sugar-water to welcome the hummers to the patio again this summer. Sometimes I bring coloring books and we colors pictures of flowers together, but today I only brought chocolates.
I imagine painting tulips
And so I try again to bring her back into the world of our family, because she never asks any more, “How are the children?” and because she has no concept that she has great-grandchildren.
“Mom, can you believe that you have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren? And Beth is getting married in May?”
She stares at the pansies and up at the bright, azure sky, which is speckled with small clouds, an artist’s dream. She looks back at me and says, “You are so smart to organize all that.”
I don’t know if she thinks I organized the clouds in the sky or the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but this is a typical comment these days. We sit silently for long periods of time now as I struggle to find things to say that she can understand. And yes, I’m anxious to return home to my writing, which is not so unlike the world-building I’m doing with my mother. Except that my readers’ minds are not erased the way Alzheimer’s is erasing the content of my mother’s life. They will understand what I say when I write about the world of art in Savannah and Atlanta. But will they enter the world of the fifth-century Egpytian prostitute, Neema? I must paint her world for them, filled with details from her life as the child of a government official in Damanhur, Egypt. I have to make them see the chiton—her morning tunic—and taste the hot raisin cakes, soaked in milk, that she eats with her fingers. And yes, I also have to make them feel the horror of the abuse she suffers at the hands of her Uncle Imad and his boss, Hasani. I have to help Neema go somewhere else in her mind when her young body is invaded. Poetry helps me imagine, as Auberle says
us, floating in a warm sea.
Or we could take tango lessons.
The net effect is the same.
The poet is escaping the winter blues through remembrance of flowers and pink moons and apple blossoms, of floating in the ocean, and yes, of tango lessons. I love that she titled the poem, “February Blues.” My mother always called depression “the blues.” Well, she would usually just say she was “feeling blue.” I’ve been feeling blue for about a month now. Like the poet,
I want your skin to smell like the sun
oranges, wild beach roses
salt and breaking waves.
>The 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction (CNF) Workshop site is officially open! If you’re writing essays, memoir, travel writing, food writing or other forms of creative nonfiction, mark your calendars for September 23-25, 2011 and join us for this workshop. It’s for beginning, emerging, and experienced writers.
Read all about it here. And SUBSCRIBE to the blog to receive regular updates by email.
For today’s “Wordless Wednesday” post, I’ll post not one but four photos, to introduce the FACULTY for the 2011 CNF Workshop. Go to the CNF Memphis site and click on FACULTY to read more about each of them.
Neil White from Oxford, Mississippi
Kristen Iversen from Memphis, Tennessee
Bob Cowser, Jr. from Canton, New York
Kory Wells from Murphreesboro, Tennessee
>Happy Valentine’s Day! My gift to you today is these five little “Writers’ Hearts” from five of my favorite inspirational books about writing, art, and spirituality. I could have spent hours on this and come up with dozens more, but alas, I have a book to write, a writers’ workshop to organize (more on that soon!) and (yuck) a doctor’s appointment. (It should have occurred to me how quickly the nurse suggested this date when I called for the appointment. Who wants to go to the doctor on Valentine’s Day?) Anyway, I hope you enjoy the hearts! (Want to create some of these hearts to send to someone? Click here.)
I want people who write to crash or drive below the surface, where life is so cold and confusing and hard to see. I want writers to plunge through the holes—the holes we try to fill up with all the props. In those holes and in the spaces around them exist all sort of possibility, including the chance to see who we are and to glimpse the mystery. – Ann Lamott (Bird by Bird)
Here is what I want from a book, what I demand, what I pray for when I take up a novel and begin to read the first sentence: I want everything and nothing less, the full measure of a writer’s heart. I want a novel so poetic that I do not have to turn to the standby anthologies of poetry to satisfy that itch for music, for perfection and economy of phrasing, for exactness of tone. Then, too, I want a book so filled with story and character that I read page after page without thinking of food and drink, because a writer has possessed me, crazed me with an unappeasable thirst to know what happens next. – Pat Conroy (My Reading Life)
Your job is to marshal the talent you do have and find people who believe in your work. What’s important, finally, is that you create, and that those creations define for you what matters most, that which cannot be extinguished even in the face of silence, solitude, and rejection. – Betsy Lerner (The Forest for the Trees)
I do feel, when I’m writing at a fever pitch, that intensity that you feel when you get saved. There’s nothing else that makes you feel like that. There’s getting saved, sex, and writing…. That pretty much says it all. Except, of course, chocolate pecan pie, which some people say is better than sex. – Lee Smith (interview in All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality)
The important thing is to recognize that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us, for which we can take no credit, but which we may humbly serve, and, in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness. Picasso says that an artist paints not to ask a question but because he has found something and he wants to share—he cannot help it—what he has found. We all feed the lake. That is what is important. It is a corporate act. – Madeleine L’Engle (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art)
>My monthly guest post is up today over at Jane Friedman’s Writer’s Digest blog, “There Are No Rules.”
“The Evolution of Reading.” (Click on the title to follow the link.)
I thought about titling it “It’s Mass Chaos,” (thanks to John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi) but we decided “The Evolution of Reading” gave a better picture of the story. Please drop over and leave a comment!
And many thanks to my contributors for this post:
Ten-year-old Susan plots her escape from Girl Scout Camp in the summer of 1961. She’s been writing her way out of boring situations ever since.
P.S. Come back on Friday for a link to my guest post over at Jane Friedman’s Writer’s Digest blog, “There Are No Rules.” (LOVE that title!) Better yet–SIGN UP to receive email reminders from me and Jane when either of us puts up a new post, and you won’t have to keep checking back:-)
If you missed my interview with Nicole from February 6, 2010 on her last novel, Saving Cicadas, you can read it here. That post also has a good bit of biological info, which I’ll skip here and get right to the “interview”—3 Q & A’s with Nicole Seitz:
P&P: Hi, Nicole. Thanks for taking time to answer a few questions for my readers again. If you don’t mind, I’m going to take a bit of a different tact with these questions—focusing more on the craft of writing than the story itself, especially since quite a few of my readers here (and on Facebook) are emerging or established writers themselves. So, let’s get started with a question about tense and point of view.
I like the way you wrote each section through the voice and point of view of a different major character—George, Magnolia, Joe, and Annie. I’m doing this same thing with my novel-in-progress, so it was fun and helpful to see how this worked in your book. But I have two questions about your technique here. (1) Why did you choose to write the flashback sections in present tense rather than in past tense? and (2) Why did you write the two sections (in chapters 40 and 46) subtitled “Joe” in third person rather than in first person, the way you wrote the sections featuring the other main characters?
NS: The flashback scenes are written in present tense because they are in Magnolia’s mind and Magnolia LIVES in the past. The two sections of Joe are in third person because he is more removed from the world and from himself than Magnolia is. In many ways, he’s living a third-person life with senility.
P&P: Wow. He’s “living a third-person life with senility.” That’s a powerful answer, Nicole. I’m thinking now about my own mother, who is in a nursing home, with Alzheimer’s. Okay, on to my next question:
I’m intrigued by your “Additional Author Note” at the end, where you acknowledge some of the real, historical people, who inspired two of your characters, and the real locations that are fictionalized for the book. Again, part of my novel-in-progress is set in Macon, Georgia, so this is particularly interesting to me. Did you consider that your readers would recognize these people and places, making the book of greater interest in so doing? Or, is the Additional Author Note simply a way to acknowledge and thank your sources?
NS: You said it well. Here, the additional author note was a way for me to acknowledge and thank my sources, but also to let people know there are actual facts they can research if their interest is piqued by the book. I always have little facets of truth in my books that become fictionalized. As a reader, I’m always interested in those little kernels of truth.
P&P: We discussed this next question in my interview from a year ago, but it keeps cropping up—it’s about genre. Once again it seems that some folks at Amazon are insisting on calling you a “Christian author,” although your books are, as you said in our last interview, “character-driven novels, often with a touch of magical realism—part myth, part Southern drama, part mystery.” What do you think Southern authors have to do to prevent folks from putting you in a box, trying to isolate you from the realm of upmarket literary fiction, even when your ISBN number is listed under “Fiction/General/General”? Do you think your spirituality scares them, or what?
NS: Susan, I wish I had a good answer for you. Part of it is that my publisher, Thomas Nelson, is KNOWN as a Christian publisher, so bookstores and book vendors label the work as such, no matter what the ISBN says. For me, I simply try to write the best book I can (often crossing genres and often ruffling all sorts of feathers), and I don’t worry about who labels it what.
P&P: I noticed this one reviewer (who reads 450 books a year!) ended her February 6 review of The Inheritance of Beauty this way: “Interesting note: even though this book is published by Thomas Nelson (a known Christian publisher) I don’t feel this book is Christian fiction at all.”
Thanks so much for taking time to “chat” with us today, Nicole. Your writing inspires me, on many levels. I hated missing Girlfriend Weekend this year—mostly for the opportunity to visit with you, and to see what kind of cute costume you came up with this time! I wish you great publishing success with The Inheritance of Beauty.