#Lent2018: Patience and Perseverance

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300Following up on last Monday’s post, “#Lent2018: To Re-spond or De-spond?”… this week I’m continuing my reading in Nicole Roccas’ book Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, and also working with the Lenten reading guide she developed to go with the book.

In Week 1, Roccas encouraged us to find ways to exercise humility. In her “stepping stones for the journey” at the end of the selection, she asked the reader, “What is one way you’d like to try exercising humility this week, based on the readings?” My answer was, “by being honest with myself and others when I fail, especially in the areas of fasting and disordered eating.” I had the opportunity to confess a big fall this weekend, when my husband returned home from a trip around midnight Saturday night and I had experienced an eating binge and purge. But instead of hiding it and letting the failure and secret cause me to despond, I responded to God’s love and forgiveness by confessing it and forgiving myself. As a result, I was able to move on without despairing.

In Week 2, Roccas asks us to read sections of Chapter 2 and 3, as well as a section of Chapter 7, “Patience and Perseverance.” Here are two nuggets from that section that spoke to me:

Patience is a direct counterattack against the restlessness of despondency, which hastens us to the next task before we’ve completed what we started…. We have to be patient with despondency itself. Our first instinct, when the heavy stone of apathy settles in our stomach, is to drop what we’re doing and “fix” whatever has broken with us—we’ll stop folding the laundry or working and seek out the newest blog post, prayer, or experience that will put an end to the feelings we are having.

 

my "work cell"

my “work cell”

I’ve experienced that so many times, especially recently while working on the first draft of a new book, a task that is extremely difficult and sometimes tedious for me. Saturday afternoon I had spent just over an hour on this draft when the restlessness hit me. It was just such hard work, and there were much more fun things available—especially binge-watching Netflix and binge-eating, two activities which seem to feed off each other at times.
Because the second week of Lent includes the commemoration of Saint Gregory of Palamas, Roccas included a quote from his Treatise on the Spiritual Life in this section of the study guide. Here’s part of that quote:

A human being who does not endure courageously the unpleasant burdens of temptations will never produce fruit worthy of the divine winepress and eternal harvest….

Keeping my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard to continue drafting the new book was, at that juncture, my best defense against the “unpleasant burdens of temptations” (Netflix and food binges), but I caved. How could I have won that battle, and what can I do differently next time, because there will definitely be many next times?

Roccas addresses this in her section on “Stepping Stones of Patience”:

My "reading/editing/TV-watching chair"

My “reading/editing/TV-watching chair”

Get to know your cell(s). She is referring to the small space occupied by monks and nuns who live in monasteries, for the lay person, a cell can be a place where we work, live, serve others, etc. As Roccas says:

What is your cell, the space in your life you are responsible to occupy? You probably have many of them, according to different commitments or times of day: the work cell, the cleaning cell, the writing cell, the evening commute cell.

For me, the work cell is the same as the writing cell. And it’s where I should have stayed when I ditched it for the TV and food binge Saturday afternoon and evening. How could I have found the strength to stay put?

Stay put . . . for two minutes. When you feel like fleeing your respective cell, agree to stay put for a short period of time—two, five, or ten minutes to start with…. Say to yourself, “I will keep working on the current task for ten minutes and then check my email,”…. What we’re trying to combat is the impulsivity and mindlessness that bully us into despondent idleness.

 

my "exercise cell"

my “exercise cell”

I experience this same impulsivity when I’m on the elliptical, which faces a big screen TV in my office. My goal is to work out for 20-30 minutes. I turn on a one-hour TV show that I’ve recorded, so that works out to be 40 minutes of viewing without the commercials. I get on the machine and start exercising and watching. But often I don’t even make it to 20 minutes until I’m bored and stop exercising, walk the few feet over to my comfy yellow chair, sit down and continue watching the show without exercising! I feel like Roccas has given me a weapon against this idleness that I can use both while writing and exercising. If I can talk myself into working for two more minutes, or five, or ten, maybe that will breed encouragement and I’ll work even longer. I tried this on Sunday afternoon and it really helped. (P.S. Last week I started working out with a personal trainer at a gym near our house two days a week on the weight machines. At least this part of my exercise routine isn’t self-directed!)

The third thing Roccas says in this section is:

Do more things that require patience…. Read a section of a book, poem, or psalm aloud, slowly, not letting yourself skip over any of the words. Alternately take a walk but move at a snail’s pace or just stand still and look around.

 My version of this activity today was to sit in my other comfy chair (in the living room) and slowly read aloud a passage from Hebrews that Roccas quotes at the top of this page of her study guide. And then I just sat there quietly for about five to ten minutes, which is a lot longer than it sounds when you’re not doing anything—not reading, not sleeping, not watching TV. Try it and you’ll see.

So, for her “Stepping Stones for the Journey” question at the end of this week’s study guide, Roccas asks the reader:

What is one way you’d like to try exercising patience this week, based on the readings?

My answer:

I will try to keep working on my new book for a few minutes longer before stopping to get online or doing something else that’s easier and more fun. And I will try to keep working out on the elliptical for a few minutes longer before getting off to sit in my chair and watch TV. By God’s grace.

Thanks, always, for reading. Stay tuned as the Lenten journey continues, and please leave a comment here or on my Facebook thread.

#Lent2018: To Re-spond or De-spond?

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300Two weeks ago I mentioned a book I’m reading, Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, by Nicole M. Roccas. As I continue reading, I’m impressed with the timeliness of reading this book during Great Lent, which begins today for Orthodox Christians. Yes, today is “Clean Monday,” and the journey to Pascha (Orthodox Easter) actually began last night with Forgiveness Vespers in Orthodox churches all over the world. (For reminders about Clean Monday, check out my post from 2016, “Gifts From the Sea on Clean Monday,” and from my old blog, ten years ago: “Forgiveness Sunday and Kites on Clean Monday.”)

This morning as I continue reading Nicole’s book, Time and Despondency, I’m especially struck by the crucial place despondency plays in our Lenten journey. From her chapter, “Time and Despondency”:

TO RESPOND OR DESPOND?

As pointed out earlier, acedia—the Greek term for despondency favored by the theologians of late antiquity—connotes the absence of care. In regard to time, however, despondency also manifests itself as a lack of responsiveness. Actualized time consists of re-sponding, unfulfilled time of de-sponding. Both words—respond and despond—contain the Latin verb spondere: ‘to pledge, promise, or guarantee.’ To re-spond literally means to make a fresh promise. When we respond to God’s love, we are essentially re-promising, re-giving ourselves—offering back to God what was given to us….

On the other hand, to de-spond means to lower or cancel a promise. It implies an absence of, or movement downward from, promise. And when we move away from response, when we descend from the opportunity to offer ourselves back to God—who is substance and fullness—our only option is emptiness. Death.

I read these words several times this morning, asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten the eyes of my heart so that I could see what God was trying to say to me on this, the first day of Great Lent. I often dread Lent, rather than looking forward to this season with its greater number of (longer) church services and its stricter fasting program. But this year I feel a shimmer of hope—and the possibility of responding to the gifts God has for me during this season, rather than desponding, as I often do.

respond-to-gods-light

 

Having recently met with my father confessor for help with this next leg of my spiritual journey, I was given advice for embracing the fast in ways that encourage me to respond, rather than to despond. And as my husband—an Orthodox priest—blessed our home yesterday afternoon with prayers and the sprinkling of holy water on the walls in every room of our house while my Goddaughter Katherine, visiting from Gulfport, and I walked with him throughout the house chanting the verses for the house blessing, I felt my soul responding to this annual tradition with hope. Yes, I have hope that this next year, and especially this Lenten season, will be filled with blessings as I learn to respond to God’s love in ways that will affect my relationship with others and my struggles with my personal demons.

And so I say bring on the fast and the longer, more frequent church services with the darker vestments and minor key music. This year I hope to respond to all of this with love, and not with despair. May God bless.

P.S. After posting a link to this on Facebook yesterday, my friend Erin commented about Nicole’s Lenten Reading Guide she just published to go with the book! Here’s a link to it.

 

Blessed Are… the Sermon on the Mount and the St. Herman House of Hospitality

maxresdefaultThis past weekend I was blessed to participate in a pre-Lenten retreat at St. John Orthodox Church, my parish here in Memphis. The topic was “The Sermon on the Mount: The Journey to the Kingdom of Heaven is a Staircase.” The speaker was H. Paul Finley, Director of the Saint Herman House of Hospitality in Cleveland, Ohio.

Howard with Deborah

Howard with Deborah

I’ve known Howard for many years. In fact, fourteen years ago he married my best friend from St. Peter Orthodox Church in Jackson, Mississippi, Deborah Callaway. It was a joy to have both of them with us this weekend.

Howard gave three talks during the weekend, but it was the first one, on Friday night, that really got my attention. Of course I’ve been familiar with the Beatitudes all my life. We actually sing/chant them during the Divine Liturgy every Sunday at St. John. I’ve always thought of them as something ethereal, poetic, and beautiful, but I’ve never seen such a practical application to my daily life until Howard’s talk.

He explained the beatitudes as “Eight Steps to the Kingdom of Heaven,” with applications/actions to our spiritual and active lives (which really shouldn’t be considered as separate lives.) The first four steps focus on work on our souls, for example:

Step 1: Blessed are the poor in spirit,

            For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

            (Recognize your spiritual poverty, your need for God.)

The last four steps focus on serving and impacting others, for example:

Step 5: Blessed are the merciful,

            For they shall obtain mercy.

            (As you have been shown mercy, show mercy, especially forgive.)

On Saturday Howard expanded these steps, giving us tools to embark on the journey with the right attitude, three spiritual exercises to stay in shape, emphasis on the importance of trusting God, and warnings, which he calls seven spiritual traps.

The three spiritual exercises weren’t new to me—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—as they have been taught in our church for many years. But the way he showed us to use them in our struggles against our vices was really wonderful. If you’ve been reading my blog very long, you know that I have struggled with disordered eating for most of my life, and also that I have problems embracing fasting as it is prescribed by our church. Howard’s words (he’s quite a preacher, by the way, so these notes do not adequately capture his inspired talks, which, coupled with his humility, were so truly life-changing) gave me hope that fasting could help me with gluttony. I’m including pictures of two of his slides here, so you can see how he organized these thoughts.

3 spiritual exercisesPrayer Fasting Alms chart

 

One week from today, Orthodox Christians begin Great Lent with Clean Monday. Western Christians (Catholics and protestants who observe Lent) start their Lenten journeys on February 14, Ash Wednesday. Orthodox Easter, which we call Pascha, will be celebrated on April 8 this year, whereas Western Easter is April 1, one week earlier.

St Herman HouseI look forward to joining all my friends in every religious tradition on our Lenten journeys this year. One thing I know we all have in common is the desire to serve, to help others. One way we do this is by giving alms. If you’re looking for a place to support that helps others in a wonderful way, please give to the Saint Herman’s House in Cleveland. They house around 40 men who would otherwise be homeless, and they also help with meals, clothing, and occupational counseling.

Here’s a video that shows more about this wonderful ministry.

 CLICK HERE to learn how to make a financial donation.

Thanks for reading! I look forward to hearing about YOUR Lenten journeys… please leave a comment here or on Facebook.

Pre-Lenten Encouragement

TriodionIt’s been a couple of weeks since I blogged about my current (and life-long) struggle with disordered eating. (If you missed it, it’s here: “Courage and Hunger.”)

Since that post, I’ve made a spiritual shift that I’d like to share today. In the Orthodox Church, we are in a pre-Lenten period of the three weeks leading up to Lent known as the Triodion. The three Sundays in this time period, and the fourth Sunday, the day before Lent begins, are outlined here:

Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

Sunday of the Prodigal Son

Sunday of the Last Judgment

Sunday of Forgiveness

Many people take advantage of the Church’s intensified calendar (more services, longer services, stricter fasting guidelines, encouragement to give alms, special retreats and speakers, etc.) as a time to jump-start their spiritual lives. Taking a spiritual inventory, going to Confession, and working on “pet passions” that plague you are common activities during this time. I got a head-start this year, with a productive meeting with my pastor last week, and the healing sacrament of confession.

chocolateOne of the main things I went to my father confessor for help with is my ongoing struggle with the disordered eating I mentioned above, which has intensified since I quit drinking back in September. I’ve actually gained back seven of the fifteen pounds I worked so hard to lose last year. (I wrote about this struggle about a month ago, here: “120 Days.”) I shared with him my frustration that I couldn’t apply the same effort (and God’s grace!) that I use every day to not drink alcohol to disciplining myself regarding the junk foods that seem to have me in their grip. He offered me some encouragement—both spiritual and practical advice—and I’ve been praying about it a bit more. Somehow, today, I decided to throw away the rest of the fondue chocolates in the bag in my pantry and not buy any more. And at the grocery store the other day, I made the same decision regarding the kettle-cooked potato chips. I know the struggle isn’t over, but somehow making these decisions feels like a hopeful beginning.

In the area of spiritual food, Father encouraged me to “tithe my reading” this year, especially during Lent. I told him that I read almost 50 books in 2017, but only two were spiritual. Mostly I read memoir, literary fiction, and psychology/mental health books. So, 10% of 50 = 5, so I plan to read at least five spiritual books this year. I mentioned that I love Anthony Bloom’s books on prayer, and he agreed that they are a great place to start. I went to my “spiritual” book shelves and quickly found Living Prayer and Meditations on a Theme, both of which I read over twenty years ago.

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280And then I remembered that I had just gotten a new book, Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, by Nicole M. Roccas, which was just released last month. Nicole actually spoke at our women’s retreat at St. John Orthodox Church her in Memphis last year, but I was out of town and missed her talks. (She also has some wonderful podcasts, available here, on Ancient Faith Radio.) We’ve become friends on Facebook, and when I discovered her book I ordered it immediately. I started reading it today, and when I opened it, I found a quote on the page before her Acknowledgments by Anthony Bloom… and later quotes by Kathleen Norris. I knew right away we would be kindred spirits.

In the introduction, Nicole says:

I saw my despondency for what it truly was: a condition that robbed my entire self—body, soul, and spirit—of the freedom to dwell with Christ in love.

I immediately thought about Annie Grace’s book, This Naked Mind, which helped me quit drinking, because Grace talks about finding FREEDOM, although her approach isn’t spiritual. But truth is truth, and I believe God led me to read This Naked Mind as much as He has led me to Nicole’s book.

You might be wondering what despondency/depression has to do with disordered eating (or maybe you’re not wondering… maybe you already get it)… but for me, much of my junk-food addiction and binging have to do with depression. Nicole addresses this several places in the first chapter of her book:

Despondency has an infinite array of disguises and symptoms. Among the most universal signs is inner restlessness…. For still others, despondency begins as an inclination toward sleep, eating, distraction, or worry.

I probably have some degree of (undiagnosed) ADD… I’m always looking for some excitement in my life, and I get bored easily, which is a quick slide into depression. As Nicole says:

… we manipulate even necessary activities like sleeping and eating—normally peaceful and life-giving—to serve our apathy. They become desperate efforts to soak up the boredom leaking out of every orifice of life.

I’ve only just begun reading this book, but I look forward to continuing, and then to re-reading Bloom’s books on prayer. Oh, and to actually praying more. Even before we enter Great Lent. Stay tuned… I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this journey.

Blogger’s Block

We Can Do It! Rosie the RiveterUgh. I’ve been trying to think of something to blog about for several days… After posting faithfully three times a week for ten years (it was ten years in August) I’ve been struggling with my blog for several months now. Sure, I’m busy with a book tour and finishing up a fourth book project and all that, but writing—the thing I tell myself I live for—just isn’t coming easily these days. (Not only for the blog, but for my next project, which I can’t settle on yet.)

What am I doing instead? Binge-watching “Alias Grace” on Netflix (and wishing I could write like Margaret Atwood, who probably never watches TV), taking my computer to the Apple Store to get some wisdom from the folks at the Genius Bar (actually had a very productive session today), taking book festival posters to Michaels for framing (great Veteran’s day sale on custom framing), and binge-eating mango smoothies, my latest food obsession. So, this afternoon I started thinking about what subjects I used to write about the most on this blog. Here’s what I came up with:

My mother. Who died in May of 2016. I wrote over 60 blog posts about our relationship and her journey with Alzheimer’s between 2007 and 2016, most of which ended up as essays in my first book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s.

Iconography and spirituality/religion. I quit writing icons in 2012, but sometimes I still write blog posts about iconography, especially weeping icons and other aspects of this liturgical art that play a big part in my novel Cherry Bomb. So, I’ll probably still do some posts about icons in the future, but nothing is really grabbing me right now. And as all authors know, it’s much easier to write about something when one either has issues with it or is extremely excited about. Both of those things have been true about my relationship with God and my Church over the years, but I find myself in a calm and content place with both right now, which doesn’t give much fodder for my pen. You’ll be the first to know when either of them does something else to piss me off or something earth-shatteringly wonderful. (Not that the Virgin birth or Jesus’ rising from the dead weren’t big enough deals… and maybe I need to pay more attention to these events’ eternal wonderment.)

Mental health. Especially about sexual abuse, addiction issues (both food and alcohol), and depression. Instead of blogging about these issues lately, I’m finding myself reading more. I’ve just re-read memoirs by Mary Karr and Carolyn Knapp, and some of Joan Didion’s writing (and did you watch that amazing documentary about her on Netflix? In “The Center Will Not Hold,” Didion said, “Novels are often about things you cannot deal with.” True that.) I think what I’m finding as I read the wisdom of others and watch their talents on the screen is that I don’t have much to say right now that’s very important. I thought about blogging about #MeToo but so much has already been written about it that I don’t see a void to fill. But if you’re looking for something good to read about overcoming life’s adversities (and especially abuse and difficult childhoods) read Meg Jay’s article in today’s Wall Street Journal, “The Secrets of Resilience.” Dr. Jay is a clinical psychologist and has a book coming out on Tuesday: Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience. As I think about my own struggles and the horrific stories that are being shared on the media right now in the #MeToo “movement,” I think Dr. Jay’s words are very wise and timely:

Finally, remember the ways you have been courageous and strong. Too often we remember what has gone wrong in life rather than what we did to survive and thrive. Think back on a time when you were challenged and give yourself credit for how you made it through. You may already be more resilient than you think.

Good words to close with. Maybe next week I’ll have more to say here, although I will be traveling again with my book tour on two days and learning to Skype with a book club in Texas one night. Talking about my writing is so much easier than actually writing. Pray for me.

Saint Francis (the Peacemaker) and the Wolf

Never has the world needed a peacemaker more than today. We need a peacemaker to settle the wars in the Middle East. We need a peacemaker to keep us from a new war with North Korea. We need a peacemaker in our cities and communities to help prevent the growing mass murders and acts of terrorism. We need a peacemaker to help families mend and prevent domestic violence. We need a peacemaker to tame the wolf.

9f03a897af0c9727569cdf6f6c164315--st-francis-san-francesco

 

 

4525287889_e0bd25fbe9This morning I read the following excerpt on Facebook. It’s from Jim Forest’s book, The Ladder of the Beatitudes. I haven’t read this book, but I loved his book Praying With Icons. I’m reprinting the excerpt about St. Francis here with the author’s permission. I hope lots of people read this and share St. Francis’ message of peace, courage, faith, hope, and love.

Today is the feast of St Francis. He was born in Assisi, in central Italy, in 1182. He started out as a wealthy man-about-town until he fell into a serious illness in his 19th year. He was praying in the dilapidated Church of St. Damiano one day in 1206, and he heard the voice of Christ saying, “Go, Francis, and repair my house which, as you see, is fallen into ruin.”

One of the stories of his many efforts as a peacemaker comes toward the end of his life and concerns Gubbio, a town north of Assisi. The people of Gubbio were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.

Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life,

“Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp … and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.”

Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running as if to attack him. The story continues:

“The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God . . . stopped the wolf, making it slow down and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, ‘Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”

The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.

“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”

The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”

Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”

Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were now obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf.”

After living peacefully within the walls of Gubbio for two years, “the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis.”

Is it possible that the story is true? Or is the wolf a storyteller’s metaphor for violent men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend, Sister Rosemary Lynch, told me that during restoration work the bones of a wolf were found buried within the church in Gubbio.

Francis became, in a sense, the soldier he had dreamed of becoming as a boy; he was just as willing as the bravest soldier to lay down his life in defense of others. There was only this crucial difference. His purpose was not the defeat but the conversion of his adversary; this required refusing the use of weapons of war because no one has ever been converted by violence. He always regarded conversion as a realistic goal. After all, if God could convert Francis, anyone might be converted.

“They are truly peacemakers,” Saint Francis wrote in his Admonitions, “who are able to preserve their peace of mind and heart for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite all that they suffer in this world.”

Morning Prayers

iconsIt’s been a couple of years since I abandoned my blog “themes,” but old habits die hard. I often find myself waking up on Mondays thinking it’s “Mental Health Monday”; on Wednesdays wondering about ideas for “Writing on Wednesday”; and on Fridays with “Faith on Friday” on my mind. That’s what happened this morning.

I’ve blogged about my Morning Prayers several times over the past ten years. (Yes, I’ve been blogging for ten years!) Here are a few. (Just click on any that interest you.)

“Holding On To the Ship’s Wreckage”

“Faith on Friday: Wisdom of the Saints”

Faith on Friday: God in the Morning”

“Faith on Friday: Just Do It!”

“Faith on Friday: If I’m Lucky I Pray”

“Mental Health Monday: Keep Calm and Pray”

“Saint Patrick, Morning Prayers, and Writing at the Beach”

Sometimes I feel like I’m just going through the motions with my morning prayers. But that’s okay. God still hears them and my heart is softened by the process. But this morning—and many recent mornings—I was keenly aware of God’s presence. And also of the Mother of God, to whom I often pray. I always pray for my husband, children, my grandchildren, my Godchildren, our priests at St. John, and a few best friends and their families. Also for special “requests.” And when I have the energy, I pray for the world, and the people who are in such great suffering due to hurricanes and floods and fires and war and threats of war and domestic violence and poverty and….

I also pray for my own personal struggles, which often involve my health, both mental and physical. And personal relationships. The Morning Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, which is part of my routine, continues to bless me, so I’ll close with it this morning.

O Lord, grant that I may greet the coming day in peace.

Help me to rely upon Thy holy will at every moment.

In every hour of the day, reveal Thy will to me.

Bless my association with all who surround me.

Teach me to treat whatever may happen to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Thy will governs all.

In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings.

In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by Thee.

Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others.

Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will.

Teach me to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me. Amen.

Thy Will Be Done

This morning I read a quote by Evagrius the Solitary with my morning prayers. Here’s part of it:

Pray not to this end, that your own desires be fulfilled. You can be sure they do not fully accord with the will of God. Once you have learned to accept this point, pray instead that “Thy will be done” in me. In every matter ask Him in this way for what is good and for what confers profit on your soul, for you yourself do not seek this so completely as He does.

17332278I’ve been praying for success. For each of my books to find publishers (which they have) and now for Cherry Bomb to become a success. To sell well. And my most recent prayer is that the agent I queried for my new book will sign me. All of this is about me asking for my will to be done, right? But isn’t it natural for a child to ask these things of her father? Even Flannery O’Connor prayed this way:

I want very much to success in the world with what I want to do…. Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted…. Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel. I want to do this for a good feeling and for a bad one. The bad one is uppermost. The psychologists say it is the natural one…. (A Prayer Journal)

A good feeling and a bad one. I wonder what the bad one was. Was it pride she was worried about? Another place in the same prayer journal she says this:

Portrait Of Flannery O'ConnorI want so to love God all the way. At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even. If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me.

I also want to love God “all the way,” and I wonder if wanting success as a writer is really “opposed to it,” as O’Connor suggests here. Maybe humility is the key. She does credit God for her success in the same paragraph.

Saint Mary of Egypt, detail

Saint Mary of Egypt, detail

At any rate, this morning I found myself releasing the tension a bit as I stood before my icons in prayer after reading Evagrius’ words. I felt my shoulders relaxing and a slight smile crossed my lips—especially as I looked at the icon of Saint Mary of Egypt, to whom I have been praying for success for Cherry Bomb. I was reminded of a conversation I had with a writer friend back in May—one who is a strong Christian—and her words about trusting God with her work. She has several successful novels and is coming out with another one in a week or two. But her countenance is peaceful, unlike my natural state of anxiety. She encouraged me to trust God with my work, which seems like an obvious thing for someone claiming to be a Christian, or a person of any faith, right?

nuns chanting at Holy Dormition Monastery, Rives Junction, Michigan

nuns chanting at Holy Dormition Monastery, Rives Junction, Michigan

It’s been several years since I visited the monastery in Michigan where I spent many weeks over a decade or so as a pilgrim and also studying iconography. The abbess there was somewhat of a spiritual mother to me during those years. The most striking thing about her wasn’t her wisdom, although she was very wise. It was her abiding peace. There’s a Psalm (I can’t find it right now) I remember the nuns chanting that said something about how “God arranges everything” for our good. He gives us what we need. But I wonder if prayer doesn’t change our desires, so that we eventually learn to ask for what we need. So that our will and His become more aligned? At some point, will it be okay to do what Jesus said in Matthew 21:22:

And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.

MOG TendernessBelieving. Today I ask for faith to believe that His will is best for me.

Taking a deep breath, I look at the icon of Christ and His Mother, “Mother of God, Tenderness,” (who often seems more accessible) and say aloud, “Thy will be done.”

Life is Hard

Yesterday I attended a funeral for the brother of a young friend who goes to my church. His brother took his own life. Father Phillip Rogers, our pastor at St. John Orthodox Church, gave a wonderful talk at the grave-side burial service. Basically (but with much more eloquence and with tears) he said:

  1. Death is terrible. Whether it happens to a child or an older person, or someone in between, it’s not what God created us for, and we mourn it.
  2. Life is hard. Whether a loved one dies from a physical or mental illness, young or old, often it reflects a struggle to find light in a dark world.
  3. Christ is risen! When Father Phillip said these words, many of us at the service responded, “Indeed, He is risen!” as we often did during the recent Paschal (Easter) season at St. John Orthodox Church.
  4. God loves us. Even more than the family and friends who were present at the burial love their son, brother, or friend who died.

thoughtAnd then my friend Ethan spoke (also eloquently) about his brother—their lives growing up in a rural setting where they enjoyed nature and the beauty of God’s creation. Their mother’s love, and her love for God, which she instilled in them.

There was a slight breeze at Elmwood Cemetery, as I found relief from the early summer heat under the shade of the green tent set up near Erin’s grave. Our pastor’s words (and his tears) also gave relief, to our grief, to our near-despair. But I won’t despair, as I believe Father Phillips’ words that God loves Erin, and has him in his loving embrace.

Life is hard. But Christ is Risen!

Truly Human: Recovering Your Humanity in a Broken World

My dear friend Kevin Scherer has written an important book. I was honored to be an early reader for Truly Human. Today I’m sharing the review I posted on Amazon for Kevin’s wonderful book, TRULY HUMAN: RECOVERING YOUR HUMANITY IN A BROKEN WORLD.

OCE_MainSlide_Truly_Human

 

In Truly Human Kevin “retraces the steps of humanity” from the Garden of Eden (first three chapters of Genesis) through the actions and emotions of the humans at “the pit” at Ground Zero in New York City, saying:

“Someone who is truly human will manifest the activities, or energies, of God in their life.”

But most of the time we don’t manifest those energies. Why not?

He lays out in clear theological and psychological terms what man’s condition is, why we are the way we are, and how we can own our brokenness and find healing. Along the way he deals with some tough topics, including a straight-forward answer to a universal question:

“Why is there evil?” And, if a good God exists, “Why does He allow it?” If we are made in the image of an intelligent God, these are fair and reasonable questions, and the same scripture that informs these questions also gives us the answers…. We know from the first three chapters of Genesis that God created only what was good. It’s the human distortion of this good that we call evil. God allows this distortion, because to prevent it would require Him to restrict our free will, and without free will love and relationships are impossible.”

I’ve always struggled with why God allows suffering, but Kevin puts it in a clear light for me, helping me accept its place in my life. He describes the cycle of suffering that we are caught in because of the fall: victimization, survival, and perpetration—especially as parents:

“Despite our parents’ deep love for us, they were trying to survive their own pains and suffering. As a result, sometimes we were the emotional victims of their coping mechanisms. They, like us, didn’t set out to harm anyone else, but the reality is that they did, and we do too. When we can face up to the reality that we often victimize others in an attempt to manage our own pain, we reach a spiritual turning point.”

I have already worked through a lifelong process of forgiving my mother for her verbal and emotional abuse of me, but this insight also helps me forgive myself for the ways I failed my own children. And in recent years, I’ve begun to embrace suffering on a very small scale. Kevin’s words help me continue the process:

“Ultimately, the goal is not to remove suffering from our lives, but to transform it into a redemptive experience. Like Christ on the cross, we can abandon ourselves to the will of God and offer up our suffering in anticipation of His mercy. In these moments, we become truly human.”

Truly-Human-Kevin-Scherer__53082.1496150954.500.659In Chapter 3, “The Logic of Suffering,” Kevin takes this experience further:

“The personal experience of suffering begins when we perceive that our reality is unbearable and out of control. Our perceptions give way to feelings. Generally, when we feel out of control it triggers a self-protective and aggressive emotional response—fear, frustration, anger, bitterness, resentment, etc. These feelings can be directed outward or inward, but they are always characterized by a deep dissatisfaction with the way things are.”

That dissatisfaction often leads, as Kevin explains, to our lives being controlled by vices, rather than by living as truly humans:

“The experience and living out of these vices is the story of humanity. By understanding the psycho-logics and interconnectedness of these vices, we will begin to see the areas of our own life in need of healing and develop a deeper empathy and compassion for others who struggle with them.”

Here’s an excellent description of how the vices work together against us:

“Gluttony, lust, and greed are vicious thinking patterns targeted at how we relate to food, people, and possessions. These vices comfort the pain of our broken emptiness and give us the illusion of an identity. These vices are fueled by, and in turn produce, vanity and pride. And when the first three vices inevitably fail to satisfy the God-given longing in our hearts, they produce the vices of anger and self-pity which, if left unchecked, leads to the vice of despair. This cycle perpetually feeds itself and leads its victims into a deeper and deeper experience of hell on earth.”

So how do we “wake up” from this cycle and move towards becoming the human beings we are meant to be? Kevin says it starts with building a personal inventory (sounds a bit like a twelve steps program, but it’s so much more):

“There are five basic questions we can begin using immediately to build a personal inventory. I call them Identity Paths. These questions act like paths that lead us back to what we really believe about ourselves—the truth and the lies. When used in conjunction with the psycho-logic model, explained in chapter three, they can help us embrace the distortions of our lives and who we’ve become.”

Scherer outlines these questions in the book, and suggests we ask them in a specific way in the presence of a friend, pastor, therapist, family member, etc. In the Orthodox Church—of which he and I are both members—this is available in the sacrament of confession, in which I continue to find healing on a regular basis. But it’s also available through professional counselors, trusted friends, and family members. Kevin describes the healing provided by the church in Chapter 6, “Checking Yourself In,” where he talks about the importance of the church being a spiritual hospital.

And then in Chapter 7 he moves us from the church to the outside world in “Giving Your Life Away,” with the importance of reaching out to those in need, to the poor and suffering in the world. His personal stories of working as a volunteer at Ground Zero in New York City after 9/11, and also on the campus of Virginia Tech after the shootings there, as well as leading young people on pilgrimages to help others in various places around the world are real-life testimonies to the way these interactions can change our lives:

“I’ve discovered that the Christian life can only be fulfilled in sacrificial acts of love. Everything else is just talk. Love is our human vocation, and it is most perfectly revealed on the cross.”

He has helped the young people he has worked with see everyone—especially the poor and homeless—as “real people” and not just random faces:

“We must be willing to take the time and emotional energy to see people for who they really are and the situations in which they really live. We must seek to love real people, not caricatures—“for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20).”

Kevin takes us a step further by helping us learn to control our minds, to stay in the present, where the real work of becoming human happens:

“Our broken humanity has lost its natural intuition and no longer knows what to do with the present moment. The mind is designed by God to be active. It is the organ He gave us to be co-creators with Him. With our minds we learn, solve, and plan. In the case of the past or the future, our minds race endlessly to solve the problems of our anxieties and fears.

With the present moment, however, our minds are confused as to what should be done. Unless there is a clear and imposing objective, our minds naturally speed past the present moment toward the areas of greatest pleasure or pain. In the case of pleasure, the mind races to clear the path or duplicate the experience; and in the case of pain, it seeks to alleviate the stress and discomfort of psychological/emotional equilibrium—they are both distorted survival mechanisms.

In order to fully recover our humanity, we must regain control over our minds. The first step in this realignment operation is to help our minds stay in the present moment.”

photoThis book isn’t just for Orthodox Christians, or any “brand” of Christians. It’s for everyone who is open to understanding why we are the way we are, and how we can change and become the humans God intended us to be. I can’t recommend it highly enough. BUY IT NOW. READ IT. SHARE IT.

Kevin Scherer is a writer and speaker with twenty years of pastoral counseling experience. As a former evangelical pastor and Eastern Orthodox priest, he has pastored in seven churches and served as the executive director of two nationwide Christian ministries. He also served as a chaplain at Ground Zero following the events of 9/11 as well as the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings.

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