Making Up For Our Years Without Christmas

10885594_685613064885216_9056017391288911443_nFor the first seven or so years of our marriage, my husband and I did not celebrate Christmas. As I write these words, I’m surprised that we rejected such an enduring tradition from our lives for so long. We were part of a cult-like group that didn’t believe in Christmas. We interpreted a scripture verse to mean don’t celebrate any holidays:

“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord, and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it.”—Romans 14:5-6 (Orthodox Study Bible)

We weren’t the first people to reject the celebration of Christmas—the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been doing it for many years. But most of the folks in our little group were raised in Christian families and churches in the South, and it was difficult for our families when we chose not to participate. I can still remember how much it hurt to tell our parents that we wouldn’t be giving them gifts and that we ask that they not give us gifts. For so many years our home was not aglow with Christmas lights and enriched with the aroma of pine needles from Christmas trees. A few Christmas cards did arrive in our mailbox, but even those teetered off when we didn’t reply.

Christmas 1978. Jonathan was 16 months old. It was our first year to celebrate Christmas in the 8 years we had been married.

Christmas 1978. Jonathan was 16 months old. It was our first year to celebrate Christmas in the 8 years we had been married.

And then somehow—I can’t remember this part of the story—we changed our minds. I do remember when it happened, because our oldest child was just over a year old. Thankfully he didn’t have to endure years without Christmas, since he was only four months old during the first Christmas season of his life, when we still weren’t participating. I can still remember the joy I felt at seeing his joy—first at the Christmas tree in our home, and then at the gifts, and the sounds and smells of Christmas as we walked through stores and drove through neighborhoods to look at the outdoor Christmas lights.

Burke's 2I love going to stores that are decorated for Christmas. Especially the small stores, like Burke’s Books, where the window decorations are always so creative. As I left with my bundle of books to give as Christmas gifts, I paused in front of the store and sang (yes—and I didn’t care if anyone walked by and heard me) a few verses of “Silver Bells”—especially the part that says, “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style . . . . As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.”

Yes, the music! I had missed singing Christmas carols—and actually I still miss this, since traditional American Christmas music isn’t sung in the Orthodox Church. It’s not that we’re against it—it’s just that those carols aren’t liturgical, and so they aren’t part of our worship. Some of our parishioners do go as a group to sing carols at a local nursing home every year, and some traditional Christmas carols are sung in our church’s annual children’s Christmas play. But being part of the Orthodox Church is still a bit “foreign” to one born and raised in Mississippi, and living for the past thirty years in Memphis. Some Orthodox traditions run counter to our culture.

Like the Nativity fast, which lasts from November 15 until Christmas. This period is similar to the forty days of Lent that lead up to Pascha, the Orthodox celebration of Easter, only a little less strict. We fast from meat, dairy, and even fish and wine on many days. What’s hard about this—especially as compared with the season of Great Lent—is that the rest of our culture is celebrating with delicious food and drink during this time. Everyone else is partying before Christmas (my husband and I are invited to three Christmas parties this year, and look forward to all of them), whereas our church encourages us to begin the celebrations on Christmas, with emphasis on the “twelve days of Christmas” that start with Christmas, rather than ending with it.

I find some of our traditions distract from the season. Like when we celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. We have Vespers, then our teens put on a play about the real Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Parishioners bring toys, which our church gives to a local Christmas “store” for parents who can’t afford to buy gifts for their children. And we share refreshments—candies and cookies that contain no milk, eggs, or cheese. No hot chocolate. No egg nog. These must wait until Christmas Day and after. So it always feels to me a bit like a semi-feast.

Christmas cardsI don’t mean to sound like Scrooge, but I obviously struggle with some of the traditions of my Church. Especially when they seem to tamp down the joy and excitement that I missed during those years when we rejected Christmas altogether. This year I’m trying to be positive and focus on giving to others, prayer, and taking time for silence and inner peace. One way I’m doing that is by incorporating prayer into one of my favorite traditions—writing, addressing, and mailing Christmas cards. As I address each card and write a short note inside, I say a prayer for the person or people who will be receiving the card. Since I send out over 100 cards, this is an opportunity for quite a bit of prayer. And just for fun, last night I counted up the states where our Christmas card recipients live, and found there are 22. It’s fun to think of those friends and family who live everywhere from Florida to the state of Washington, and from southern California to Maine, all receiving our cards, and our prayers.

‘Tis the season, y’all.

The End of the Affair (?)

Hershey's bars 6 packI thought that when I quit drinking in September of 2017, that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Turns out it was just the tip of the iceberg. Turns out Kettle One martinis have nothing on Hershey’s milk chocolate.

Of course it’s natural to crave sugar and carbs when suddenly abstaining from alcohol, which is full of both. And on top of that, I’ve struggled with disordered eating all of my life—not just my adult life. Being molested by my grandfather when I was five, and then being emotionally and verbally abused by my mother most of my life—especially when she was drinking—left me with a messy battle with food, alcohol, and my body. I was hoping that breaking up with alcohol would fix everything. Turns out it was only the end of one affair.

In recent months, Hersheys Kisses moved into my life with all the force of a lover in heat. It started with only a few Kisses a day, not even every day. But then it escalated to whole bags of kisses, which I would devour without stopping, usually while watching something dark on Netflix, like Homecoming. When I mentioned my kisses binges to a couple of people, they laughed, not realizing the seriousness of my situation. One of my favorite essayists, Anne Lamott, a recovering alcoholic herself, seems to condone my habit, as she writes in her latest book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope:

Chocolate with 81% cacao is not actually a food . . . . It was never meant to be considered an edible. [Note: AMEN!] . . . .

Don’t let others make you feel unsophisticated if you reach middle age preferring Hershey’s Kisses. So many of your better people do. Also, always carry a handful of Kisses in your backpack or purse to give away. People will like you more.

IMG_5704As I read those words, from someone who like me had ended her affair with alcohol, I wondered if I could enjoy just a handful of kisses without eating the entire bag. I thought back to when and where the attraction to the Kisses began. It was five months ago today—June 15—when I was speaking at the Alabama Writers Conclave Conference in Orange Beach, Alabama. I’m always nervous when I’m going to be speaking, and I was also teaching a workshop at this event. When I was drinking, I would shore up my courage with alcohol prior to any such event, but with that source gone from my life, I innocently picked up a handful of Hersheys Kisses from the snack table in the foyer of the building where the workshops and talks were being held. For two days, I returned to that table again and again, pocketing more and more handfuls of Kisses. (I wrote about this new lover in a post in September, “Disordered Eating Revisited.”)

Recently I wondered if I could slow my roll by switching from Hershey’s Kisses to Hershey’s chocolate bars. One bar had fewer ounces than the smallest bag of Kisses, so maybe I could wean myself off. The taste was just the same—the amazing texture and the instant comfort as the milk chocolate melted in my mouth and pumped its sweetness into my blood stream. I even found myself comparing the rush to that of a vodka martini at the end of a long day, when I’m in physical or emotional pain, nervous, or stressed. But just like the vodka, after a while one was not enough. I would purchase a 6-pack of chocolate bars—intending to eat only one a day—but I found myself eating all 6 in one sitting, more than one time. I knew I was in trouble.

Enter the Nativity Fast. What? Now you’re wondering if this is the same blog post I started out writing. In the Orthodox Church we observe the Nativity Fast from November 15 until Christmas. It’s similar to our experience of Great Lent—the forty days leading up to the celebration of Pascha (Easter). There are some rules/guidelines for fasting during this season, and the Church emphasizes that the point is spiritual growth, drawing closer to God, not just following rules. I’ve always struggled with this, but something I read a couple of days ago gave me pause:

Did not the Lord Jesus Himself begin His divine ministry of the salvation of mankind with a long, forty day fast? And did not He, in this way, clearly show that we must make a serious beginning to our life as Christians with fasting? . . . With this weapon, He vanquished Satan in the wilderness, and with it was victorious over the three chief satanic passions with which Satan tempted Him: love of ease, love of praise, and love of money.—St. Nikolai Velimirovich [quoted in Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints and Fasting Calendar 2018—the Orthodox Calendar Company]

Love of ease. Love of praise. Love of money. I struggle with all three of these. In my brain I can’t understand how fasting can help me let go of these, but I do know that I’m hungry and thirsty for something.

Anne Lamott on Hershey’s Kisses.

An Orthodox saint on the value of fasting.

What’s she going to write about next? (You know I read widely and search diligently for wisdom from many sources.)

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

Last weekend when I was speaking at the Louisiana Book Festival, I met an amazing woman. I was drinking coffee in the author’s lounge on Saturday morning, waiting for my 9 a.m. panel to start, when an attractive, colorfully-dressed, bright-eyed woman came in and sat down next to me. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out she was Sheryl St. Germain, winner of the 2018 Louisiana Writer Award. She would be presented with the award and would give a talk—you guessed it—at 9 a.m. in another room in the Louisiana State Capitol. The other members of my panel joined us on couches and chairs in a circle and laughed about how maybe some of the people who couldn’t get into her talk would find their way to our panel.

Sheryl and I had a short but intimate conversation. I fell in love with her immediately and felt a kindred spirit with her as a writer and as a human. She is 9 years sober, and has suffered great loss in her life, including the death of her son to an overdose. She wrote beautifully about this in her poetry collection, The Small Door of Your Death, which addresses issues of addiction and recovery. Sheryl directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University, but she’s a native of New Orleans. She is also the co-founder and director of the Words Without Walls Program, which offers creative writing courses to those incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail, and also to inhabitants of Sojourner House, a rehab facility for women with children.

I’m reading her book Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair right now. In this book she chronicles the time she spent in Alaska, drawing surprising similarities to her home state of Louisiana, but also sharing insights from living so close to nature. I’m remembering my own visit to Alaska about thirteen years ago as I read these words this morning:

Juneau lies on a thin strip of land at the mouth of Gold Creek amidst a backdrop of mountains and glaciers that push down from the Juneau Ice Fields, which native people called “Home of the Spirits.” The irony of this name is not lost on me; I’ve seen a lot of public drunkenness since arriving in Alaska two months ago. . . . I’m reminded that the old label for what we now call alcoholism is dipsomania, which means, ‘crazy with thirst.’ As I hammer—with difficulty—the final tent stake into this rocky soil, I wonder if the thirst I have for wilderness and for union with the land is not more deeply connected to my own thirst for alcohol than I have wanted to admit. [Note: this was before she quit drinking.] Carl Jung would write that the alcoholic’s craving for alcohol is the equivalent, on a low level, of a spiritual thirst for wholeness, a desire for union with whatever one understands as God.

There it is—a spiritual thirst for wholeness and a desire for union with God. Yes.

And later she says,

It’s no mystery that Christ’s blood is offered to us in the literal and metaphoric form of wine, and it’s no mystery that alcoholics are such spiritually thirsty people.

I was hoping to give up Hershey’s milk chocolate altogether during the Nativity Fast, and possibly forever. If I can quit alcohol, surely I can quit milk chocolate, right? But I’m wavering today . . . still clinging to the hope that I can just be moderate with it. Hoping that I can stop with one handful of Kisses or one Hershey’s milk chocolate bar. Yesterday was the first day of the fast and I did, indeed, eat only one chocolate bar. I knew better than to buy a six-pack. One day at a time. Stay tuned.

Feeding the Lake

Father Anthony Messeh

Father Anthony Messeh

A few days ago a dear friend (one of my Goddaughters, actually) shared a link to a podcast that really blessed me, so I’d like to talk about it here. The topic of the talk was OCD—but not the definition most of us probably associate with those letters (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

The speaker, Father Anthony Messeh is a Coptic Orthodox priest and pastor of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Church in Arlington, Virginia. (Sidebar: Read more about the Coptic Orthodox Church here. I’ve always personally loved their icons. You can read more about them, and their music, here.) The new spin he puts on OCD is this:

Obsessive COMPARISON Disorder.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Living with OCD Part 1

My friend shared it with me because I had just been talking with her and a couple of other close friends about my struggles in this area of my life. For my whole life, actually. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t always comparing myself to someone else, someone who seemed prettier, thinner, more popular, more successful, or someone who had a happier family, a nicer house, cooler car, more money, etc. When I was a freshman at Ole Miss, I was president of the pledge class of a top sorority, and dating (and soon engaged to) the president of the senior class of the university, who would be going to medical school the next year on a full scholarship. From the outside looking in, I had it all. But I wasn’t content. I kept comparing myself to the other girls in my sorority, even the other girls my boyfriend had dated (some of them were, literally, beauty queens) and I felt less than. From a psychological point of view, I understand that some of that was fueled by the dysfunction in my family, including my mother’s verbal and emotional abuse of me my whole life, and my grandfather’s sexual abuse of me when I was a little girl.

As I’ve grown emotionally and spiritually (and chronologically, at age 67) I’ve made baby steps in healing the disorder, but I still struggle with it. The way it rears its ugly head for me at this stage of my life has to do with my writing career. Just a few years ago all I thought I needed to be “happy” was to get a book published. Now I’ve got four published (and two more shopped out to publishers now) but I don’t have a literary agent, so I didn’t get a book deal with a large publisher for any of them. I’m stuck in a small literary pond, watching lots of my writer friends who are more “successful” than me—some are New York Times best-selling authors, and many (who have agents and publicists) have won awards and reached a much larger audience. I recently spent about six months querying agents (again) for my next two books—a collection of linked short stories and a collection of personal essays. After many rejections, I’ve “given up” and have submitted both books to small presses (which don’t require an agent). I’ve decided to be content—and thankful—if either or both books get published by these presses, which are very reputable and will be good to work with. I’m making up my mind to enjoy this little pond I get to swim in, remembering that Madeleine L’Engle said, “We all feed the lake.” (more on that at the end of this post)

thankful2

 

Close friends tell me how much I have to be proud of, and I get that. I’m working hard and loving what I’m doing, but I’m also realizing how much more I want to experience contentment. A recent experience I had at confession helped. For my non Orthodox friends, the sacrament of confession in the Orthodox Church is (or can be) a very therapeutic thing. It’s not juridical. It’s doesn’t make us “right with God.” It helps makes us right with ourselves. If your priest is a good confessor, as mine is, he will help you see the ways you are hurting yourself or others, and how to move towards healing. The best advice I received recently had to do with being thankful. And I’m finding that the more I practice thanksgiving, the more content I am. I have an incredible number of things to be thankful for in my life, and as I focus on them instead of focusing on what others have that I want, I attain peace. It isn’t a once-and-for-all thing. It’s something I have to return to every day. Sometimes many times a day.

Contement is not chosen

 

One thing Father Anthony talks about in his podcasts is the way that social media amplifies this problem. The things that people post on Facebook or Instagram (my two go-to social media sites) are usually their best selves. Their accomplishments. Their beautiful families, vacations, homes, meals, children, etc. Bombarded with this, it’s hard not to compare myself with them. Father Anthony recommends taking a time out from social media, or even considering quitting it altogether, but I’m unwilling to do that at this point. I have too many good connections there with friends who live all over the country, and I don’t want to give those up. But I do want to respond differently to the multitude of posts that tend to make me feel less than. Instead of feeling jealous, I am working to be genuinely happy for other people’s successes. And I truly am happy for so many people I’ve come to care about and respect and even love.

 Father Anthony takes this issue a step further in his second podcast, Fighting FOMO Part 2. “FOMO” is “Fear Of Missing Out.” I don’t experience this as much as younger folks might, but sometimes I do, when I read about people I know who are doing fun things that I wish I was also doing. I have an 83-year-old friend who has shared with me much about the good changes we can expect with aging, including contentment with a quieter, much less “exciting” lifestyle.

 So, I’m going to continue to fight OCD with thankfulness, and jealousy with genuine joy for others’ good fortune. I’ll close with these words from one of my favorite authors:

 “If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake’.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

The Zosima Society, Collective Wisdom Project, and the New Hagiography

zosima society IG imageI recently came across Andrew Herman Middleton’s Facebook and Instagram pages, known as “The Zosima Society.” He also started a Facebook group called “Orthodoxy and Culture,” which currently has 288 members. The description for the group is:

This is a place to discuss how Orthodoxy influences culture, and what kind of culture is beneficial to the Orthodox spiritual life.”

Andrew’s Facebook page is “Orthodoxy + Arts” and his page description says:

“An international network of Orthodox Christian non-liturgical artists. Previously OrthArts.”

CB on Zosima SocietyAndrew features non-liturgical artists, musicians, and writers who are Orthodox in his Instagram posts, and has recently begun a series based on my novel CHERRY BOMB, which features an Orthodox monastery, church, nuns, saints, and even weeping icons. He uses the hash tag #zosimasociety for each post, and featured the first one for CHERRY BOMB on Monday, August 6—the Feast of the Transfiguration. Here’s what his post looks like (left). Follow him on Instagram for future posts.

He is also host of the Protecting Veil You Tube Channel, home of the “Collective Wisdom Project.”  Here’s a recent interview he did with Father Stephen Freeman, “Why Did You Become Orthodox?” Andrew hopes to be in Memphis in the next few weeks and has asked me for an interview, so stay tuned.

I’m not sure how he balances all of these projects, but Andrew also has a site called “New Hagiography” which is “the ancient indie folktronica project of itinerant musician Andrew Herman Middleton.” So, what’s the New Hagiography about?

Ancient holy men and women played an important role in the history and development of Western culture, but knowledge of many of them has been  forgotten. Who were these intriguing figures, what animated their lives, what were their hopes and dreams?

New Hagiography retells their stories, beginning with the flowering of Celtic Christianity in 5th century Ireland.

A note about terminology: iconography refers to painted images of Christ and the saints; hagiography refers to the writing of their stories with words.

I’m so happy to have found Andrew and his projects, and I hope that other non-liturgical Orthodox writers, artists and musicians will join him in sharing their work at #zosimasociety.

Transfiguration: People Can Change

Transfiguration1-e1353430693909Today is the Feast of Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church. (Read about this feast at the icon here.) I went to Vespers at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis last night, which was beautiful. The icon of Transfiguration at dusk made the reality of what was happening on Mount Tabor more tangible, which is one of the things I love about the Orthodox Church. It offers an embrace for all the senses, with prayerful chanting, incense, and the glow of candlelight on the gold leaf halos of the icons. I wasn’t feeling well this morning, so I didn’t make it to Liturgy for the feast. But at home I prayed before our icons and thanked God for the way He is transforming me into His image, which is what this feast is all about

Eight years ago I wrote a post about this:

“Can People Change?” (Click on the link to read the post.)

And then six months ago, on my birthday (March 8) I did a follow-up post:

“Birthday Musings: People Can Change” #sixmonthswithoutadrink

I don’t really have much to add today, except that I am full of joy and thanksgiving for the way that God is helping me to change as I grow older. In case you aren’t taking time to click on one of the links above and re-read those posts, I’m going to share my favorite quote from Dr. Jamie Moran’s essay, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in the book, Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World:

People who leave a space for God—even for the ‘hidden’ God, which is what the Holy Spirit is: God’s humility—can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.

Dormition-of-Theotokos1I love that this feast comes half-way through the Dormition Fast, because the Mother of God plays a big part in our transfiguration, in our change. In his homily yesterday Father John Troy (Mashburn, our pastor emeritus) talked about healing, and how we must come to Jesus for healing, or someone must bring us to Jesus. I started thinking about HOW to bring people to Jesus for healing, especially if they don’t physically come to church. I remembered what my “yia-yia” Urania Alissandratos told me years ago when she was still living and “mothering” so many of us at St. John. When her children left home for college, she would “bring them to God” by symbolically bringing them to the Mother of God and leaving them in Her care. She did this symbolically by decorating her icon on the solea at church with flowers every year on the Feast of the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Mother of God. At Vespers last night, I found myself praying for loved ones who weren’t there by bringing them to the Mother of God, mentally, spiritually, even physically and emotionally as I wept tears for them. We all need healing, and I know several people who have “brought” me to Christ and to His Mother for healing over the years. I hope that I am paying that forward by bringing others to Him in my prayers. I look forward to another opportunity to do that tonight, as we pray the Paraclesis Prayers to the Mother of God at St. John.

Icons Will Save the World

My friend Dr. Joanna Seibert invited me to contribute a guest post to her beautiful blog, “Daily Something.” She’s doing a series of reflections on quotes and images, and I was honored that she included an excerpt from an essay I had published eleven years ago in First Things, “Icons Will Save the World.” Here‘s the post, with the excerpt:

“Icons”

Nave of St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is mentioned in the excerpt

Nave of St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is mentioned in the excerpt

 

static1.squarespace.comI can’t remember how I first met Joanna, but we’ve been friends for many years, and have visited both in Memphis and in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she lives. She is an emeritus professor of radiology and pediatrics at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences and has been an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas for sixteen years. Joanna is the author of numerous books including, The Call of the Psalms, a Spiritual Companion for Busy People and The Call of the Psalms, a Spiritual Companion for People in Recovery, Healing Presence, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food as Seen by a Mother and Daughter, and a two-volume series of sermons, Interpreting the World to the Church.  She has been a writer for Forward, Day by Day, and has been a frequent contributor to the Living Church, and the Anglican Digest.

Subscribe to Joanna’s “Daily Something” and enjoy her inspirational quotes, art, and meditations.

Read more about St. John Orthodox Church, which is pictured above.

 

#Lent2018: Sassy Counterpunches—Chiseling a Crack in Despondency

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is the sixth and final entry in my weekly series of reflections on Nicole Roccas’s book TIME AND DESPONDENCY: REGAINING THE PRESENT IN FAITH AND LIFE, which I’m reading during this season of Great Lent. If you missed my first five posts and would like to catch up, here they are, in order from first week through fifth:

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perserverance

Gratitude & Thankswriting

Confession & Community

Labor & Leisure

For some reason Nicole skips Chapter 6, “Prayers From the Present,” altogether in the study guide that she created to go with the book. I read it before reading the “assignments” for this week, and found some treasures within:

One of the snares of despondency is to assume that more is always better…. [we] somehow get an idea in our minds that we should be praying longer harder, more intensely. We forsake the virtue of knowing ourselves—and our limitations—and cling instead to our fictional superselves.

This was an important “takeaway” for me from the book, because in years past I have gone to one extreme or another (which is my nature) during Lent. Some years I have rebelled against the whole endeavor, and other years I aimed too high. This has been my best experience of Lent in the thirty years since I’ve been Orthodox. Undoubtedly one reason is that I quit drinking six months ago, so this is my first alcohol-free Lent. But also, I’ve approached the season with a kindness towards myself and others that has permeated my Lenten practices—fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. So, when I read in Chapter 6 about what Nicole calls “counter-statement,” I embraced her approach of using short phrases from the Psalms or short prayers throughout the day to “counter” the temptations life sends our way.  As she says:

There is also an aspect of counter-statement that is lively—even sassy. These prayers are quick, punchy, and purposefully confrontational. They carry an energy all their own, helping to reignite the vigor despondency all but stifles.

Sassy prayers. I like that. It reminds me of the little quote I have taped to the lamp beside my computer that says, “Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor each morning the devil says “Oh crap, she’s up!”

oh crap shes up

 

I see these sassy prayers as a wonderful tool for what Nicole addresses in Chapter 7, “Stepping Stones Back to the Present,” where she talks about shifting toward “everyday strategies to mitigate despondency’s stranglehold on our lives.” This is the chapter where earlier she addressed humility, patience and perseverance, gratitude, confession and community, and labor and leisure, all of which I commented on in previous posts. This final week she surprised me by including humor as the final stepping stone. As she says,

The virtue of humor is likely among the last items one would expect to find in a book on despondency—which is why I’ve saved it, literally, for the end of this book…. humor helps us recover the vitality despondency robs us of.

And within the topic of humor, she addresses laughter:

Simultaneously, laughter causes an upsurge of energy within us. Riding on the wings of laughter, our soul can jump up through the cracks of our defenses and grab hold of ideas we would otherwise reject or overlook…. Adopting a more playful attitude toward ourselves and our shortcomings pulls us out of despondent thinking more swiftly than any other approach. It’s not a permanent solution, of course, but even a few seconds’ smile is enough to get our foot in the door of our own mind and start to redirect it toward the heart.

laughter-is-carbonated-holiness-2Anne Lamott calls laughter “carbonated holiness.”

I have a dear friend who has Lewy Body Dementia. She’s younger than me, but the disease has already taken away her ability to perform many of life’s everyday functions. She used to have the best sense of humor of most anyone I know, and I miss her laugh. So each time I visit her, I make a point of finding something humorous to say. And once she starts laughing, her whole countenance changes—from the dark, scary, negative images that the disease is pouring into her mind, back to the funny woman I once knew. I try to help her find some happiness, if only for a few minutes.

It might seem strange to be talking about humor and laughter during the last week of Lent and just a week before we enter Holy Week. (Or for my Catholic and Episcopal friends, as you enter Holy Week today.) But I think Nicole makes a good case for its proper use in our spiritual lives, as well as for our mental health. As she says at the conclusion of this chapter:

Wise humor chisels a crack in despondency just wide enough for our souls to slip through, get some fresh air, and see the bigger picture.

biblical10

 

In the final chapter of the book, ““Re-presenting Reality,” Nicole brings us back to the focus, to the reason for all the talk about despondency to begin with. We are preparing to enter into the celebration of Pascha, of Christ’s resurrection:

. . . not to commemorate the Resurrection, as though it were (only) a historical event, but to re-present it—to make Christ present among us as a living fact…. Likewise, we live in the present only inasmuch as we abide in His presence.

This is why so many of our Paschal hymns use the present tense, with phrases like, “Today is the day of resurrection,” and “He is risen!” The Orthodox celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection aren’t just remembrances. We enter into His suffering, and then into the joy of His resurrection in the services of Holy Week and Pascha. As Nicole says:

. . . let us have the courage to profess with St. Paul that today is the day of salvation—not two thousand years ago, not happily ever after in heaven, not when we finally manage to get ourselves sorted out, but today. . . . This is what we lose when we retreat into the slow, apathetic death of despondency. And this—all of this—is what we stand to regain when we return toward home and let the scales fall from our eyes.

#Lent2018: Labor & Leisure (Laundry, John Lennon, and Cherry Blossoms)

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is the fifth in my weekly series of reflections on Nicole Roccas’s book TIME AND DESPONDENCY: REGAINING THE PRESENT IN FAITH AND LIFE, which I’m reading during this season of Great Lent. If you missed my first four posts and would like to catch up, here they are, in order from first week through fourth:

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perserverance

Gratitude & Thankswriting

Confession & Community

This week Roccas’s study guide has us reading Chapter 5, “Prayer and Despondency,” which is the first chapter in Part II of the book. She starts by saying that prayer is “a journey toward a new way of being, a new mode of perceiving the world outside the default of despondency.” Sounds good, right? Especially to anyone who struggles with despondency, to any degree. But it seems like a catch 22 because it’s difficult to pray when we’re despondent, so Roccas starts with some inspiration from one of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen:

Prayers connects my mind with my heart, my will with my passions, my brain with my belly…. Without prayer we begin to disintegrate—fall out of integration with ourselves, our neighbor, and God.

Our passions—and especially for me my belly—definitely need to be connected to our wills, and that can happen through prayer. Roccas talks about two kinds of prayer, which she calls doing and being. The doing part of prayer can be reciting learned prayers, lighting candles, making prostrations, the physical side of prayer. The being part is the interior mode:

Most often, this is experienced as ‘becoming’ rather than simply being; prayer is the expression of our relationship with God….

But then she says “Despondency attacks both the doing and being modes of prayer in different ways.” And she explains how. Including a section on prayer as “monologue or dialogue” and encourages us to open ourselves up to God in a conversation rather than just talking to Him. She returns to Nouwen for more about this:

…converting our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer moves us from a self-centered monologue to a God-centered dialogue. To pray unceasingly is to lead all our thoughts out of their fearful isolation into a fearless conversation with God.

How do we do this? Roccas shares wisdom from Dr. Philip Mamalakis , in an article  about Orthodox pastoral approaches to marriage, that it is “a long proess of learning to ‘turn toward’ your partner.” She compares this to our relationship with God, in which we need to turn toward Him… not just in the big moments, but (here comes the part about TIME) moment by moment, in the small things. As she says:

If there’s any aspect of prayer that will make sense to us in despondency, it’s the short and steady rather than the excessive and unsustainable…. It is in prayer that we learn not only how to reoccupy the present, but more generally how to mark time. It is the way we come to see, gradually and dimly, the life-giving potential of each moment.

fold-clothes-stock-today-151214-tease_5359ed47ea22557deb26ae8cdd47f4e1On the practical side, Roccas gives us stepping stones to learn how to make use of our times of both labor and leisure to turn towards God. The church fathers have always seen light manual labor as a source of healing from despondency, and this can be done with activities as simple as folding laundry. I could relate to this because I actually like to do laundry. I see it as a nice break in the intense labor of writing. I don’t necessarily pray while I’m folding our clothes, but my mind tends to rest from its normal busy state as I remove my husband’s shirts from the dryer (I love the way they smell) and smooth them and place them on hangers. Also folding our casual clothes and our towels, creating neat little stacks on the bed—a visual show of something accomplished without a great deal of mental energy. As Roccas says:

There is humble creativity in performing ordinary tasks like making the bed or folding clothes—jobs that must be redone day after monotonous day and that fail to amount to anything momentous in the end. Yet such tasks are intensely creational—they bring a new layer of order and beauty into the world we inhabit. When we can manage such tasks with even a hint of grace and care, they are transfigured into something holy.

She goes on to help us learn to “nurture a more meaningful practice of leisure,” saying that “Long-term spiritual growth is sustained by balancing activity with restful contemplation.” This part get tricky since despondency can feed on laziness, but she clarifies:

I would add that perhaps laziness itself doesn’t consist of excessive rest but is instead a symptom of a broken, fallen form of rest.

Indeed. She mentions the difference in restorative rest and the mindless “vegging out” we often do with binge-watching Netflix. This is definitely something I need to work on and will focus on more intensely for the remainder of Lent. This week I will choose, from her suggested “stepping stones for the journey,” this one:

Keyboard

 

Choose your rest.  I will develop a list of activities that are both restful and re-creational rather than mindless (like Netflix). Roccas’s suggestions include taking a walk to observe nature, or even a longer break like visiting an art museum. One thing that hit me as I read this section was that two years ago my husband gave me a really nice electronic keyboard for my birthday. For a while I sat down at the keyboard for a few minutes every day to play something (I took lessons in my youth) but I found it to be more difficult than I remembered, so I gradually quit playing. Maybe I can recover this as a re-creational activity and find in those moments of creating music some rest from the other areas of labor in my brain and body. Today I will begin again with a book of Adele’s songs. Oh, and one from John Lennon that I love, “Grow Old With Me.” And here’s a bonus… while sitting at my piano keyboard, I can see our Japanese cherry blossom tree blooming outside out living room windows. And somehow these moments of rest bring me joy and turn my heart towards God.

tree 1

Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (a book review)

Bead by Bead coverBead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New

By Suzanne Smith Henley

 

Suzanne Henley is an artist. And a renovator of old houses. And an author. Her book, Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New, is being released by Paraclete Press on March 13. TODAY! I wrote a bit about it back in January, here:

“Prayer Beads and Weeping Icons”

I’ve been looking forward to this for many reasons, but mainly these four:

 

Prayer bead necklace made for me by Suzanne in 2013

Prayer bead necklace made for me by Suzanne in 2013

(1) In 2013 I was in a life-threatening car wreck. I broke my neck, right leg, and ankle, and was stuck in my house for the first few months of my recovery. One day Suzanne came to see me and brought me a beautiful necklace she had made from these exotic beads from all over the world. They were prayer beads. And a she had written a description and meditation to go with it. I held them as I lay in my hospital bed (at home) and prayed. And later I hung them on the wall near my computer as a reminder of her kindness and God’s grace and healing.

(2) I share a love of art and spirituality with Suzanne, although my art takes the form of writing (painting) icons in the ancient Byzantine style using egg tempera. And I have been taught to make and use Orthodox prayer ropes—tied with knots rather than strung with beads—as part of a practice of meditation and prayer.

(3) For several years I was in a writing group that Suzanne hosted in her home here in Memphis. I knew right away that she was a gifted writer, and when she submitted sections of her work-in-progress for us to critique, I knew it was something special. Part memoir, part spiritual meditation, her personal essays—which is what they seemed at the time—eventually joined with chapters about prayer beads, and Bead by Bead came together.

(4) A fourth reason for my excitement about this book is that Suzanne contributed a wonderful essay to a collection I edited, and which was published last year by Mercer University Press: A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Her essay, “Beyond This Point There Be Dragons,” is a gripping story of personal trauma and her eventual blooming into a stronger, more amazing woman. And so for these four and even more reasons, I celebrate Suzanne’s book.

Suzanne doesn’t claim to be an expert on prayer beads, or even on prayer itself. But I love what she says about prayer in that very disclaimer in the beginning of her book, in the section called “Rebranding Prayer”:

I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have to come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself. I think it is the psychic glue between my conscious and shadow self where we all wrestle with Jacob’s angel and count our scars later.

 

Suzanne Henley

Suzanne Henley

She introduces the book by explaining that the stories she has included represent “a prayer bead in my life’s rosary…. The book is also an adult version of Show and Tell of some of the hundreds and hundreds of sets of prayer beads I’ve made—each unique, many commissioned to be carried to diverse people around the world. Many of the stories I tell are accounts of these real people for whom praying bead by bead has become an essential spiritual practice.”

In the Prologue, Suzanne tells the story of her employee, O.G. Pierre (“Original Gangster Pierre”) who asked her to make prayer bead necklaces for all the members of his gang, using a Star of David for each one, since it was the symbol of the Gangster Disciples. She had to decline that request.

In “Talking to God in Braile,” she traces the history of prayer beads in various pre-Christian religions, and then continues with the history of prayer beads being used by Christian faiths, including Orthodox prayer ropes and Catholic rosaries.

In “Clearing Your Cache and Beginning to Pray,” Suzanne explains how to use the beads—physically and spiritually—in your daily encounters with God.

In “Prayers, Poems, Lectio, Music, Silence,” she encourages the reader to write her own prayers, but she also offers some traditional prayers for use with prayer beads, and talks about the use of hymns, chanting, and even classical music and opera to assist in prayer.

In “Praying the Beads Without the Beads,” she offers opportunities for prayer while grocery shopping, waiting in traffic or a doctor’s office, doing laundry, and other everyday situations. In this and other chapters, she infuses her writing with humorous true stories from her life, like “Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon.”

Her chapter, “Homework: Life as a Set of Prayer Beads,” contains the story of her experience having a panic attack and checking into a psychiatric facility, which she wrote about in her essay for A Second Blooming. She also writes about the business she started, renovating homes in a historic district here in Memphis, offering a strong parallel between her rehab in the psychiatric facility and rehabbing these houses:

And, as trite as it is to say, we are all, of course, rehabs. Every moment. Every day. Even when we seem to be stuck out in some endless, parched desert, our hearts and souls cracking and dying of thirst, we’re handed the gift of starting over. Failure simply means an opportunity to begin again. We get to wrench out those old, rusted nails we worked so hard to hammer in crookedly, pull out the warped boards, and try once more to hammer a straighter nail. Every day.

BEAD BY BEAD would make a wonderful gift for Easter or Mother’s Day or… just because!

#Lent2018: Confession and Community

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is the fourth in my weekly series of reflections on Nicole Roccas’s book TIME AND DESPONDENCY: REGAINING THE PRESENT IN FAITH AND LIFE, which I’m reading during this season of Great Lent. If you missed my first three posts and would like to catch up, here they are:

Gratitude & Thankswriting

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perserverance

In Chapter 4, Nicole writes about our tendency to escape the present—to avoid our current circumstances, whether it be work, dealing with a difficult situation, relationships with other people, or anything that brings discomfort or requires effort. When we are despondent, we want to escape place and people, which is why confession and community are both important to consider at this juncture. We become restless, and we try to escape in three realms: physically, mentally, and spiritually:

The uncertainty of the present moment confronts us with an ever-unfolding reminder that we are not God, that we are not the masters of our own universe, that there are things we cannot choose or control. Whatever the present looks like at any given moment, there are only two possible ways of responding to it: to enter or exit it, to respond or despond.

Acedia

 

 

Of course one of the primary means of exit—of desponding—that I fall into often involves the physical act of gluttony, or “emotional eating,” as well as over-indulging in television and laziness in general. And one that she mentions that surprised me but makes perfect sense, is “unnecessary busyness.” I love being busy, and I’m sure I use busyness as an escape at times. This might sound confusing as I know I’ve heard that being active is good medicine for depression, but I think that healthy activity and excessive busyness are two different things.

Nicole Roccas, authorNicole goes into depth to expand our understanding of ways to mentally escape the present, including the understanding of two primary roots of despondency in the mind—desire and anger. As a creative (writer) I’ve always struggled with any idea of having my desires and passions stifled by the church. But understood correctly, I don’t think that’s what she is saying here, as she quotes the Dutch Catholic theologian (and one of my favorite writers) Henri Nouwen:

Spiritual disciplines are not ways to eradicate all our desires but ways to order them so that they can serve one another and serve God.

And what does she say about anger?

The anger of despondency is the anger of thwarted wishes, of reality not aligning with our silent demands—the anger that covers the pain of a lifetime spent trying (and failing) to be one’s own god.

So what does all this discussion about living in the present and not escaping it have to do with confession and community? I really like how she tied the importance of community in with our battle against despondency:

The relational context of confession reminds us how vital it is to cultivate fruitful community in the midst of despondency, which continually pulls us toward isolationism.

journal 1Her discussion and reflection questions helped me to reaffirm my commitment to do more spiritual (and not exclusively secular) reading during Lent, to participate as often as possible in the weekly services at church, and to continue to struggle against my tendency to escape with food/gluttony when I’m uncomfortable living in the present.

As she did with the previous chapter, Nicole gives us “Stepping Stones,” in this case, for confession and community: participate in community; initiate community; and learn to see confession as medicine. She asks the reader to consider one way to exercise the stepping stones this week. I hope to reach out to friends and neighbors who have special needs, initiating community and keeping despondency at bay.

P. S. I am really finding blessings in keeping my “thankswriting journal,” which I wrote about in last week’s post and began last Monday night.

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