My Orthodox friend, Lia Roussos Douglas, used to be a member at my parish here in Memphis, Saint John Orthodox Church. I was so sad when she moved back to her beloved Gulf Coast, although I completely understand her wanting to be there! It’s been wonderful keeping up with her on Facebook, and yesterday she posted something that touched me on many levels. I have asked her permission to publish it here. As we move into the second half of Lent (and prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation—March 25—with a liturgy and potluck at St. John tonight) my spirits are good. I’m not all down and out like I sometimes get during Lent. At the beginning of the season I said I was going to make this a Happy Lent, and so far, that’s working pretty well. Even though I fell and tore a ligament in my ankle. Maybe that’s just part of my cross this Lent.
So, today’s post is from Lia:
My sweet Em Lani was sharing with me last night all the good nuggets she has been learning at yoga teacher training this week. She was sharing about beliefs, for example “Why do I believe I need granite counter tops?” or “Why do I believe frizzy curly hair isn’t beautiful?” and are these actually universal truths?? Also, who molded my belief system? ALL this has to do with my happiness. She also was sharing about “triggers” we have that make us feel a certain way and how to make a conscientious effort to take note of why we are feeling that way. For me, for an easy example, I notice any time someone comments on my hair I get this dreaded feeling. So my hair is a trigger.
Anyway I digress, today in my spiritual reading, (somehow it ALWAYS ties into my life) I read THIS and it struck me as so profound friends. This week as it is midlent for me, half way there to the end and the Resurrection!!! My Church, my faith gives us THE CROSS. The cross of Christ to focus on and meditate on….. pick up our cross and follow him:
As always, St. Paul puts it very distinctly: “I am crucified to the world and the world is crucified to me.” So often, my burdens come from the fact that I judge myself by the standards of this society. The world defines what is necessary for happiness and I believe it. The world defines what is beautiful and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is moral and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is rich and what is poor, and I believe it. The world tells me what is brave and what is cowardly, and I believe it. The first work of the cross is to crucify me to this worldly propaganda and lunacy.—Father Barnabas, Orthodox on Purpose
Such wisdom!!! Why should I allow the world to form my standards of what makes me happy?? Why do I believe such bull crap at times?? Today, I chose NOT to allow FB or the world or some idiotic standards placed on me to define my happiness! We ALL have our struggles in life, our cross to carry if you may. Just make sure you’re not putting these struggles on yourself from some dumb standard you allowed yourself to believe! Don’t let your struggles carry you through this life but you carry them strong and with the knowledge you will be ok! You are ok and all is as it should be!
There’s a lesson in everything if only we care to open our eyes and just LOOK. Sorry this was so long and if you stayed with me til the end! Well! Thank you! Happy Thursday! I love you!
A friend recently sent me a link to a blog titled “God’s Grace and Mom’s Alzheimer’s,” and specifically to a post from August of 2013: “What I’ll Say to My Children If I’m Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s.” I agree with many of her sentiments and recommend the blog to anyone caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. Here’s a sample:
I fear having AD someday myself. (My mind already concerns me too often.) But if that day comes … what I would say to them is this…. Pray and trust God to guide you. Get as much help as you can. I don’t want you to sacrifice your life plans or family for my sake, but I want to always be part of your life.
If you need to find a nursing home for me, I understand. Pray about it and seek wisely. And then visit me often. Even if I don’t seem to know you, believe in your heart that part of me does. Hold my hand and talk to me. Tell me all about your life. Sing to me and read the Bible to me, please. Brush my hair and tell me memories of your childhood.
Everything will be better in heaven. Meanwhile, when I can’t talk anymore; just know that I love you forever and that being a mom to you was an honor and the delight of my life.
What powerful words. I wish I had known about this blog during the decade or so that I was caregiving for Mom, because I think we are kindred spirits. I can’t find the author’s name on the blog (or the blog’s Facebook page) but I’m sending kudos to her, and also saying, “Memory Eternal” since I just read that her mother recently died. Maybe she and Effie are exchanging stories in heaven.
I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me, God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me.—Saint Patrick of Ireland
Saint Patrick’s Day is often filled with pretty intense partying, although it usually falls during the solemn time of Great Lent. Rivers died green. Pub crawls. Parades. I like a fun celebration as much as the next person, but I also hope that folks will take a moment today to thank God for the saint they are celebrating.
Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, who sends out “Almost-Daily Emos” from The Geranium Farm, says:
Patrick was the first Christian writer to oppose slavery. Its existence as part of the social fabric is assumed without protest in the New Testament, and the theologians of the early Christian centuries had other things on their minds. He came to this position understandably enough: he had BEEN a slave.
So today I thank God for this brave and humble man who fought for human rights.
Have a joyful and safe Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone. I’m off to Little Rock for another literary event for Tangles and Plaques, this time at WordsWorth Books.
Thirty years ago today, my husband, Dr. William/Father Basil Cushman, was ordained into the priesthood of the Orthodox Christian Church, specifically the Antiochian Archdiocese. I did a blog post about this in 2010, “Axios! He is Worthy!”
Our recently retired pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn, was also ordained that day, as were several other priests and deacons from St. John in Memphis and St. Peter in Jackson, Mississippi.
This happened the day after a group of about 70 of us “pilgrims” were Chrismated into the Orthodox Church. For some of us, it was the end of a seventeen-year spiritual journey, one that was often wrought with peril, but a journey that ended (and in some ways began) with the blessed gift of finding the pearl for which we had been searching all those years.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a number of years, you know that there were some times when I was frustrated with my church home. Honestly, I still get frustrated at times. Orthodoxy is an ancient tradition (some say it was the first/original Christian church) and sometimes the very “rules” that have helped hold it together for centuries seem to hold too tightly. I’m not an obedient person, and I have always struggled against anything restrictive. But today I’m finding my way in this beautiful faith after thirty years.
Tonight at St. John Orthodox Church—my parish here in Memphis since 1988—we will celebrate our clergy who were ordained thirty years ago. Most of them have served unselfishly while maintaining full time secular jobs, while others have sacrificed those secular careers to serve the church full time. Either way, they are all “full time” servants, and we thank God for them.
And so I say again, as we declared thirty years ago with Bishop Antoun ordained these men, “Axios!” which means “He is worthy!”
While the folks in New Orleans are still celebrating Mardi Gras (today is Lundi Gras and tomorrow is Fat Tuesday, the final day of the Mardi Gras celebration) and Western Christians (mainly Catholics and Protestants) begin Lent the following day with Ash Wednesday, Orthodox Christians (like me) all over the world begin our Lenten journey today, with Clean Monday. We prepared for the launch of this season of spiritual renewal with last night’s service, “Forgiveness Vespers.” At the end of the litany of prayers, everyone present exchanged the kiss of peace, asking one another for forgiveness and responding with “God forgives and I forgive.” As we formed a line around the inside walls of the nave, exchanging hugs with our fellow parishioners, we stood together against enmity, jealousy, anger, pride, and everything else that often keeps us divided. We stood together for love, forgiveness, acceptance, and community. We did this not only for those of us present in the church last night, but for our families, our neighbors, our communities, and the world. It’s a powerful service.
Great Lent is a time for reflection and repentance, of drawing closer to God by removing some of the shackles that keep us away from Him, which is why fasting is part of the ascetic struggle. We also have many extra church services, and redouble our efforts with our personal prayers. All of this can feel overwhelming at times, and it’s often hard for me to approach it with a positive attitude. The fact that it happens as winter is slouching away and spring is arriving doesn’t help. Our non-Orthodox neighbors are outside firing up their grills and the aroma shouts “fun” while we’re fasting from meat. Spring break vacations and other events are scheduled and often conflict with the added church services. It all goes against the grain of our culture. And yet, I choose to participate, although I have in the past called my participation “Lent Lite.”
This year I’m calling my participation “Happy Lent.” I’m choosing to be happy. Matthew 6:17 instructs us to anoint our heads with oil and wash our faces when we are fasting, which pretty much means don’t make a show of it. Don’t look all sad and talk about your self-denial. I know some folks choose to go off social media during Lent, and that’s fine, but don’t tell everyone on Faceback that you’re doing it to be more spiritual. Drawing closer to God shouldn’t make us sad, and certainly shouldn’t cause us to shun the company of others, unless we have need of solitude for a period of time in order to take stock of ourselves. Even as I write these words I realize I can judge others who choose to do this, and that judging is wrong. We each have our own paths and may God bless us all in our struggle.
I just started reading two books (because I’m not sure I’m going to continue one of them) that don’t sound like “Happy Lent,” but I guess I’m searching for something. This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, a memoir by Daphne Merkin and The Dark Flood Rises, a novel by Margaret Drabble aren’t spiritual books. But they both talk about aspects of our humanness that I care deeply about—emotional health and care for the aging. I’ll post reviews if I finish either or both of them.
Meanwhile, I’m thankful today that our son was several blocks away from the nightmare that happened near his apartment in New Orleans on Saturday. A drunk driver ran his truck through a crowd at the Krewe of Endymion Mardi Gras parade injuring about thirty people. People who were celebrating life. Thankfully Jon and his friends weren’t close enough to get hurt, but the incident was jarring, so today he’s too concerned to ride his book the short two and a half miles to a friend’s house for a cookout. There are just a lot of crazy and irresponsible people in New Orleans right now, making the celebrations dangerous for those who are just finding some happiness in the festivities. May God protect him and others during these final two days.
I’m also thankful today for my first (FIVE STAR!) reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I don’t know the reviewer personally, but she asked for a copy of the book and offered to review it in a couple of newspapers and online. What a nice way to start Lent.
May God help all of us who are choosing to participate in Lent—at whatever level we are able and willing.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about my body—specifically about learning to love it and care for it, as one would tend a garden.
In a similar vein, this morning I read Richard Rohr’s daily contemplation, “Stream of Consciousness.” Rohr leads us through a thought process that teaches us to reject bad thoughts (about ourselves) and to be gentle with our souls:
Imagine a river or stream. You’re sitting on the bank of this river, where boats and ships are sailing past. While the stream flows past your inner eye, I ask you to name each one of the “vessels” or thoughts floating by. For example, one of the boats could be called “my anxiety about tomorrow.” Or along comes the ship “objections to my spouse” or “I don’t do that well.” Every judgment that you pass is one of these boats. Take the time to give each one of them a name, and then let it move on.
I do this all the time—I’m a worrier. Always have been. Even as a child worry frequently kept me up at night. I love Rohr’s imagery here… as those “ships” pass through my mind, I can choose to just let them float by. It’s interesting that he says first to give each one a name. Maybe naming our worrisome thoughts can help us let go of them. But it’s also important HOW we do this:
The point is to recognize thoughts and feelings and to say, “That’s not necessary; I don’t need that.” But do it very amiably. If we learn to handle our own souls tenderly and lovingly, then we’ll be able to carry this same loving wisdom into our other relationships.
That’s not necessary. It’s not necessary for me to dwell on my weight gain and my struggles with food. It’s not necessary for me to dwell on issues with family members or friends that might be stressful. What a better approach to those distractions than trying to attack them, or putting ourselves down when we let them overcome us.
I have an appointment with a cardiologist today, because of an irregular EKG at my annual physical a couple of weeks ago. Of course I’ve been worried about it, but this morning’s contemplation is helping me let that ship sail on by. That doesn’t mean I won’t go to the doctor’s office and deal with it. It just means that I won’t let it derail me. It is what it is, and worrying about it won’t help. (Easy words to say… much harder to practice, at least for me.)
You know, I don’t just worry about negative things. I worry about good stuff, too! Like the exciting book tour I’m embarking on in March. Now that the books are getting published and the events are scheduled (both wonderful accomplishments to be proud of and excited about) my “worry wart” (what my dad used to call me) brain wants me to be anxious about those events. What if not many people show up? What if I’m too nervous to do a good job reading and talking about my books? What if I don’t sell enough books at the expensive venue I rented for one event? What if too many people show up in a small bookstore and there’s not room for them to sit? (Wouldn’t that be a wonderful problem?)
Sail on by, worry boats. I’ve got good things to focus on today. And a wonderful soul and body to care for.
I’m reading my fourth and fifth books of 2017 simultaneously, as I often do. Especially when they’re so different. That way I have choices: which book to read with my morning coffee? What am I in the mood for with a cocktail in the evening? Which one will I take to bed with me?
One of my current reads is Angela Doll Carlson’s Garden in the East: the Spiritual Life of the Body. Two years ago I reviewed another of Carlson’s books, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition. There was so much I could relate to in that book, so I was excited to see her book on the body. See, I’m a bit obsessed with my body. Always have been. Maybe because of my childhood sexual abuse. Maybe because my mother always told me I was fat. Maybe because I couldn’t stop comparing myself to the beauty queens on the Ole Miss campus when I was a student there in 1969-70. If you’ve been reading my blog very much, you know that I always struggle with weight. I worked so hard to lose 17 pounds in the last few months of 2015 and early months of 2016, only to gain back most of it last summer. I’ve been stuck with it ever since, and it sends me into bouts of depression and self-loathing on a regular basis. Not to mention the discomfort of my clothes not fitting. I don’t know what I’d do without my extra large yoga pants.
This morning I went to my annual physical exam—my first since turning 65. I am so grateful for my wonderful internist. She’s (1) smart, (2) communicative, (3) energetic, and (4) non-judgmental. I bubbled over with an apology for the weight gain before she could even bring it up, and she made no comment at all. No lecture. She knows that I will do something about it when I can. Or I won’t. But her words won’t make a difference.
But Angela Carlson’s might. Using the metaphor of our body as a garden, she writes about the importance—and the joy—of tending that garden. Of loving it. These words remind me of how I feel when I remember that I could be dead or paralyzed after my wreck in 2013, which left me with pretty continuous aches and pains (broken neck, leg, and ankle, all full of permanent hardware):
In my best moments, I am grateful to be walking around, upright and active. In those moments, I am not noticing the forward jut of my head, misaligned form age and bad postural habits built up over time. I am not worried about the creaking of my knees or my elbows. In my best moments, I am thinking about deep issues like world peace and schoolyard bullies and what’s for dinner.
Oh how I love those moments when I am not obsessing over my body! For me, those “best moments” usually involve writing, editing, reading, or watching an excellent movie or television drama. Sometimes they involve music. Or taking in the beauty of a spectacular sunset, at the Mississippi River (three blocks from my house) or a beach on the Gulf of Mexico. I can easily pour out my love and appreciation for these things and places that bring me joy. So why can’t I express that same love for my body, my garden I’ve been given to tend? Carlson says:
This body is a garden and it is mine. I am responsible for its care. I am responsible for the words I use when I describe it, even to myself, even when I’m alone.
Carlson continues the garden metaphor, even laying out for us parallels involving loving and caring for both, which includes the way we speak to our garden. I’ve never been much into growing things, and I’ve certainly never spoken to my plants. But I used to talk to my cat all the time. And the tone in my voice told her she was loved, just as the tone in our voices sends a positive message to our children, our spouses, our friends. So how should we speak to our bodies? Carlson says we should tell our body that we love it. That it is good and strong and beautiful—an amazing mystery created by God and given to us to cradle our spirits and allow our souls to grow and be happy and at peace.
Maybe if I learn to talk to my body, I’ll eventually learn to love it. Or at least not to hate it.
This morning I read these words from today’s reading in the Orthodox calendar I often refer to with my Morning Prayers:
God desires and seeks the salvation of all. And he is always saving all who wish to be saved from drowning in the sea of life and sin. But He does not always save in a boat or a convenient, well-equipped harbor. He promised to save the Holy Apostle Paul and his fellow-travelers, and He did save them. But the Apostle and his fellow-passengers were not saved in the ship, which was wrecked; they were saved with great difficulty, some by swimming and others on boards and various bits of the ship’s wreckage.—Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov
I woke up early with messy thoughts. Some were about a conversation I had with a friend yesterday, in which I am sure I hurt her feelings. I plan to call and ask her forgiveness today. Other thoughts were the reverse—my ongoing battle with forgiveness and letting go of past hurts done to me or others in my family, even unintentionally. And finally, I was absorbed with a continuing struggle with my lack of moderation in food and drink, and my subsequent weight gain. I have now gained back 12 of the 17 pounds I worked so hard to lose last year. I am plagued with increasing pain in my right hip for which I underwent physical therapy three years ago. It cleared up after the therapy, but now it has returned, and I feel that my weight gain has something to do with it.
New Year’s resolutions never really work for me, but I understand why people have them. If I had them, they would certainly include (1) exercise more and (2) eat and drink less. Those things would surely help my physical struggles. But this morning I’m thinking that my priorities need to be rearranged. My resolutions should be (1) forgive and (2) repent.
Repentance isn’t a popular word. But our retired pastor at St. John gave a wonderful homily about it yesterday. It wasn’t “preachy” but it spoke to my heart. It was about “turning back” as the prodigal son turned back to his father. And about “turning away from” as he turned away from his wreckless life. I thought about how hard it is to do that—to turn away from the very things that are hurting me. And even about how hard it is to turn back… to God, to friends whom we have hurt or whom have hurt us.
In Saint Brianchaninov’s quote above, I am struck by the image of being saved by holding onto various bits of a ship’s wreckage. I see my life—both physical and spiritual—as that wrecked ship. I would love for God to just reach down and pull me out of the storm and set me on calm ground (like my favorite beach in Florida) but I am learning that He doesn’t always work that way. I might have to swim to shore or hold onto those bits of wreckage. I might even struggle with my weaknesses for the rest of my life—again, both physically and spiritually.
Not very happy thoughts as I enter the New Year… and yet I do feel some measure of comfort as I pray for God’s help and ask His forgiveness. Again.
Today is the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church. Historically it’s been as big a feast as Christmas, with several services on the calendar to celebrate it. Yesterday morning we had the “Royal Hours,” and last night the “First Blessing of the Water” and Divine Liturgy. This morning at 9 we’ll have the “Second Blessing of the Water” and another Divine Liturgy. The water blessed at these services is used throughout the year in various ways—priests use it for house blessings, to bless icons, crosses, waters for baptisms, etc. Parishioners take some of the Holy Water home with us for use in our personal prayers and when we are sick.
This year our parish—Saint John (Antiochian) is joining up with priests and parishioners from Annunciation (Greek) and Saint Seraphim (OCA—Orthodox Church in America) parishes for a “Great Blessing of the Waters” down at the Mississippi River. We’ll gather at noon on Saturday, just a few blocks from my house, where prayers will be said and a cross will be tossed into the river. In warmer climates—especially in Greece—young men and boys actually dive into the waters to retrieve the cross. Brrrrrr! (I think our pastor is tying a rope to the cross and pulling it back out.)
It’s interesting that this first year that we are keeping this tradition is the coldest weather we’ve had this winter—it’s SNOWING In Memphis today! But our pastor, Father Phillip Rogers, noted in an email to the parish that it’s not as cold as it often is in Russia (see photo and painting).
Now that the twelve days of Christmas are over and we are moving into a new season of the Church—and very soon a new “season” for our country—I pray for God’s blessings and for peace in our hearts and in our homes.
Happy New Year! For my first blog post of the year, I’m simply going to share an amazing video. Grab a cup of coffee and WATCH THIS to see how books are made by hand, the old-fashioned way.
And on this 9th day of Christmas, I offer you 9 ladies dancing. In church lore, they represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continency [Chastity].