An article in yesterday’s Orthodox Arts Journal reveals a new icon of Saint Mary of Egypt—my patron saint—who is commemorated in the Orthodox Christian Church on April 1 and the 5th Sunday of Great Lent (this coming Sunday). The article was written by Father Silouan Justiniano, who also wrote the icon. He goes into a lot of depth about the symbolism and style he used, so for my readers with an interest in iconography, Orthodoxy, or art, it’s well worth the read. For my purposes in this blog post I’ll only share a short excerpt, which focuses on the symbolism in the figure of Saint Mary:
St. Mary’s transfigured state, beyond the limitations of corporeality, is suggested not only by the fact that she walks on water, as the Lord Himself once did, but also by her luminescent yellow-green garment. Like precious gold, the yellow of the Sun of Righteousness glows within her, while green overshadows the glow as a symbol of the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, the “Giver of life.” Moreover, by standing on water St. Mary shows her overcoming of the turbidity and murkiness of the watery passions. Her mercuric state has been stabilized, lead has been turned into gold. In dispassion she becomes one with the One in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, her sins like drops of muddy water fall into the Abyss of mercy beyond being, causing a ripple without disturbance, dissolving without a trace, while her true self remains and arises undissolved. Solve et coagula…Through the furnace of repentance she has become an angel in the flesh.
I wept as I read those words on Thursday morning. The previous evening (Wednesday) I had been to a Lenten service at my parish, Saint John Orthodox in Memphis, where the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete was chanted, and the life of Saint Mary of Egypt was read. Throughout the service—while the chanting was going on—parishioners had the opportunity to make their confessions with one of the two priests standing before the icons on the solea. I found myself there following the first half of the reading of Saint Mary’s life, moved to much-needed repentance, and receiving grace and healing from the sacrament. I felt, as the priest prayed the prayers of absolution with his stole covering my head, my true self remaining and arising undissolved. I left the service with a renewed desire to be like her, “a symbol of the purified desiring aspect of the soul”:
She roamed in the desert naked feeling no shame for she regained the garment of her primordial beauty. In her former life she had an “insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth,”[ix] but she is now a symbol of the purified desiring aspect of the soul, the realization of true eros, “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good…who satisfies your desire with good things” (Psalm 34:8; 103:5).
Today is one of two feast days in the Orthodox Church for Saint Mary of Egypt—my patron saint. And so I celebrate every April 1 as my “Name Day.” (Her other feast day is a moveable one, the fifth Sunday of Great Lent.)
In lieu of sharing icons of Saint Mary today, I’ll share this painting which I love and have in my office. It’s by my friend Pam Santi, and it’s called “Heart on Fire.” Pam didn’t know about Mary of Egypt when she painted this but I was struck by the resemblance when I saw the painting at a show many years ago and bought it.
I don’t really have anything new to say about Saint Mary today, so I’ll refer you to last year’s post:
And I’ll wish all my sisters who share this saint with me a Blessed Name Day!
This past December I did a post about Flannery O’Connor that included this quote from A Prayer Journal (published after she died):
I 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.
Writers—and maybe musicians and artists and even people in other walks of life—must have a measure of self-confidence in order to attempt a book, or even an essay or a short story or a poem. It takes courage to put your creative efforts out there for all the world to judge. It would be so much easier to work in a field where your daily assignments are black and white. Balance these books. Add these numbers. Repair this engine. But… make up a story from scratch? Or brazenly tell a true one?
O’Connor acknowledges God’s part in her creative work, and yet she surely must have had some degree of “self” confidence to keep on keeping on, in the face of numerous rejections and other discouraging aspects of the writing life. So how does a Christian balance this self-confidence with faith?
Mother Melania, an Orthodox nun who lives in the community of Holy Assumption Monastery in California, says this:
Self-confidence is a much valued trait in our culture…. What is a Christian to make of this? After all, we would be very hard pressed to find any saints in the Church who ever bemoaned their own lack of self-confidence or tried to increase it in their spiritual children. That’s not to say that the saints were not confident people.
And then she goes on to give examples of saints whose courage and faith inspired generations. And then she says:
The different between their confidence and our self-confidence has to do with at least two things—the purpose of this confidence and the person in whom it is placed. The saints had confidence in the goodness and power of God…. We, on the other hand, have a multitude of purposes for our self-confidence—an easier life, more money, increased status… even to do good for our fellows. But if the purpose is not to love God and neighbor, what possible sense does it make to place that confidence in myself?
Today is the feast day of the Annunciation in the Orthodox Church. We commemorate the event described in Holy Scriptures when the Archangel Gabriel told Mary that she would become the Mother of God. I can’t even imagine the confidence it took for this humble young girl to respond with “be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:28). She was facing public humiliation and scorn and disbelief on the part of many. Her life was about to change in ways she could barely imagine. Any plans she had for her future were immediately set aside. Was it “only faith” that allowed her to respond so obediently? I think she also had a measure of confidence—in self and in God. Again, from Mother Melania:
The root word in ‘confidence’ is fides…. ‘faith, trust, confidence; belief, credence; loyalty; honestly; allegiance; promise; security; protection.’… to place our confidence/fides lovingly and humbly in the Lord of the Universe Who willingly died that we might share in His life is an unspeakable privilege, a great adventure, and unimaginable joy. Grant this, O Lord!
I love this video, “Be Done Unto Me.” May it inspire you on this Feast of Annunciation!
Many saints and theologians talk about knowing God. Some say it is the goal of the Christian life, and surely everything along the spiritual journey leads to knowledge of God. The same could be said of loving God. But I’m stuck in a spiritual childhood when it comes to these things—unable to soar to the heights of loving and knowing God. The best I can do, most days, is believe that God loves and knows me. And being loved and being known are enough, for now.
Two things recently reminded me of this. The first was this past Sunday when I visited Apostles by-the-Sea Anglican Church in Rosemary Beach, Florida. The first words out of the pastor’s mouth were “Jesus loves you.” The authentic smile on his face and the joy in the faces of the people in that small chapel reflected that love to me. His second words were also printed in the Sunday bulletin:
The first thing we’d like you to know is that we love Jesus and we want everyone to know the love and joy of living life in fellowship with him…. People are never quite the same after they encounter Jesus. Some are fed. Some are healed. Some are forgiven. Some get mad! Some are known more deeply than ever before.
I embraced the reality of being known more deeply. And as a first time visitor, at that moment I believed that God loves me, and as we sang hymns and recited Scripture and prayers, I heard my own grownup voice telling God that I loved Him, too.
The second experience was my visit with my mother in the nursing home in Jackson, Mississippi, yesterday. It was so hard to leave Seagrove Beach after four glorious days in my favorite place on earth, and stopping in Jackson to see Mom wasn’t necessarily making the trip home easier. It was just the right thing to do, or as Father Philip Rogers said in his homily at St. John Orthodox Church this past Sunday (I wasn’t there but a friend told me about it), “It’s what we do.” (Something he learned from his mother. I can’t wait to listen to the rest of his homily once it’s posted online.)
Anyway, when I got to the nursing home, Mom was dressed (wearing someone else’s glasses) and in the dining room with the other residents listening to some really good country music. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, so they were serving lots of green refreshments and everyone had on green beads. Mom was smiling and fingering her shiny beads when I pulled up a chair beside her. (The aids can’t find Mom’s glasses and thought these belonged to her. Hopefully their owner isn’t too blind and they’ll sort it out soon.)
“Hi, Mom! It’s Susan. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.” And I gave her a kiss. She always puckers up when she sees my lips approaching hers—and I love that her kissing reflex hasn’t been destroyed by the Alzheimer’s. But so much else is gone. She no longer knows me, and that makes me sad. But then I thought about how important it is that she is known. By me. By God. By the sweet people who work at the nursing home and always smile and say, “Hi, Miss Effie! Oh, look—your daughter is here today!”
We clapped (and I sang along) while the musician played and sang “Margaritaville” and I laughed at the irony. I had just driven six hours from the beach to the nursing home to find Jimmy Buffet bringing joy to a roomful of people who would probably never see the beach again in their lifetimes. And yet his music was there. And that music—and the green beads, cookies and punch—were tangible ways in which these people were being known. Being loved.
As I enter in—a few days late—to the Orthodox season of Lent, which began on Monday, I plan to look for ways to see that God loves me and knows me. Participating in last night’s Compline service at St. John helped, as the many readings of Holy Scripture and the beautiful Lenten hymns washed over my soul. And hopefully, as Lent continues until we celebrate Pascha on May 1, I’ll step a little bit closer to the experience of knowing and loving God right back.
This coming Sunday is known as “Cheesefare Sunday” or “Forgiveness Sunday” in the Orthodox Church. It’s the day before “Clean Monday,” the official start of Great Lent. Our parish (and many others) has a tradition of asking and giving forgiveness to everyone during the service called Forgiveness Vespers. We actually thread around the outside of the nave facing each person and saying “Please forgive me” and receiving the words “God forgives and I forgive” or something similar, followed by a hug. And then the process continues until everyone present has exchanged a very physical, verbal and spiritual kiss of peace. (Read a nice article about this service by Frederica Mathewes-Green here.)
Each year my experience at Forgiveness Vespers is very different and very personal, marking spiritual landmarks in my life. I can remember evenings many years ago when I was so distraught over my sins that I fell prostrate on the floor in front of several people, asking their forgiveness during this rite. That’s not a reflection on my piety, but truly a gift from God that was needful at the time. But I can also remember at least one year, and maybe more, when I didn’t go to Forgiveness Vespers, intentionally avoiding the opportunity to give forgiveness. I was withholding it from certain people, and so I entered the Lenten season with a hard heart. I don’t ever want to do that again.
And yet I will miss the communal kiss of peace at St. John Orthodox Church this coming Sunday, as I’ll be at the beach with a friend. I don’t think I’m running away—the dates of our trip just happened to conflict with the beginning of Lent. But forgiveness is always a messy venture for me, and perhaps for others. It’s not cut and dry, black and white, one and done. It’s a process.
Father Stephen Freeman writes about it in a recent blog post, “Forgiveness—the Hardest Love of All.” One of his suggestions really hit home to me:
Do not struggle in a small way but throw yourself into forgiveness.
Throw yourself into forgiveness. He’s speaking specifically about forgiving people who have hurt us or those we love and haven’t acknowledged that wound. They haven’t asked for forgiveness. I can see how one can only achieve this by God’s grace and throwing ourselves into it. How can we do that?
In another post, Father Stephen writes about the advice given to Raskolnikov, the axe-murderer in Crime and Punishment. Sonya the prostitute tells him:
Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: ‘I have killed!’
The spiritual concept of each of us taking responsibility for the sins of the world—in imitation of Christ—comes into play with Sonya’s advice. Perhaps I will find the grace to hear her words and act on them while I’m at the beach this Sunday, as Father Stephen says:
We take a burden far greater than Raskolnikov’s into Great Lent. Bow down, kiss the earth you have defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud: “Forgive me!”
Maybe I’ll make those bows on the beach. Or maybe I’ll make them in the privacy of my heart, or with acts of kindness that God makes available to me in the coming weeks of Great Lent. As Rumi says, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” One of my favorite music CDs is Kris Delmhorst’s “Strange Conversation.” I especially love “Everything is Music,” (adapted from Rumi) where she says:
Stop talking now, open up the window
The one right there in the middle of your heart
Give us your hands, sit down in this circle
You know you got no need to keep yourself apart
Today you wake up sad and empty, don’t go back to sleep.
There’s a million ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Last Sunday Father Philip Rogers, Assistant Pastor at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, gave a wonderful homily. It was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, and Father Philip reminded us of God’s love. Sounds simple, and it is. Simple to understand but often difficult to actively believe in a way that affects our lives on a daily basis. As Father Philip said (about God’s love for us):
We are supposed to accept it and reflect it back.
(You can listen to Father Phillip’s homily here. And also Father John Troy Mashburn’s wonderful homily from the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee here.)
Of course the prodigal son didn’t reflect back his father’s love when he chose to ask for his inheritance early and leave home and live a life of wallowing in the mud. But his father loved him so much he allowed his son to make those choices. And of course he forgave and welcomed him home with open arms when his son “came to himself.”
But the thing that brought tears to my eyes during Father Phillip’s homily was the way God treated the thief on the cross. How difficult it is for us to rejoice when God treats with kindness and forgiveness those who have hurt us personally. Or those who have hurt someone we love. I found myself thinking about several people in those categories on Sunday. I thought about the forgiveness I struggle to give. And I wondered why it is so damn hard.
Then on Monday I read Father Stephen Freeman’s article in “Glory to God For All Things,” “It’s a Crying Shame.” The shame Father Stephen writes about here is what we feel when struggle to forgive those who have hurt us. As he says, “…forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult spiritual undertaking. I believe the reason for this is clear: to forgive is to endure shame.”
Why does forgiving sometimes cause us shame? Father Stephen explains:
The experience of shame (how I feel about who I am) is easily the most vulnerable point of encounter in our lives…. Any foray that another makes into the territory of who we are will immediately provoke a defensive response (in one form or another). Encounters that shame us are deeply provocative. It is in this vein that actions requiring forgiveness involve shame. Everything that we experience as a sin against us, is an action involving shame. The shame is the source of its power and is the engine of our protective efforts. To forgive is to drop our guard and expose the nakedness of our selves.
It’s not so hard to forgive when someone acknowledges their sin against you and genuinely asks for forgiveness. But when they don’t—or even when they disagree about an event or they are even unaware that they hurt someone—that’s when shame comes in. Because to forgive them when they don’t ask for it feels like giving in. It feels dishonest. It feels like letting go of something that we feel is “right” in order to humble ourselves and forgive.
I think this is a process. Maybe I can focus on this during Great Lent this year. I’m so thankful for the Church’s wisdom in organizing the themes of the Triodion (three Sundays before Lent) to help us get ready. It’s so counter intuitive to move past the shame into a spirit of humility. Lord have mercy.
Two weeks ago I did a post, “Friday After Ash Wednesday,” with quotes from and comments on an entry from the wonderful book, God For Us. The authors are from diverse Christian faiths—including Catholic, Episcopal and Orthodox. One of the editors is Orthodox. Greg Pennoyer talks about the Lenten season in his preface to the book:
Lent’s reputation as a time for the “denial of the flesh,” for self-flagellation and a vaguely spiritualized gloominess, made it much more difficult to engage. But my entrance into Orthodoxy, a set of challenging personal circumstances, and the desire to produce this book impelled me to learn more about what the great Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann called the “bright sadness” of the Lenter and Easter season.
And so today I read the selection (on the Western Christian calendar) for the “Second Friday of Lent,” by Lauren F. Winner, an Episcopal priest. She writes about how uncomfortable the readings from the lectionary are during this season of Lent:
They discomfit. They tell me that: a)my wrong-doing matters to God and b)I have a chance to decide what I want to do about that wrongdoing…. I think about my erring ways, and I feel very alone, very far away from God, very far away from a friend, close only to the sin.
Her words would be depressing if she stopped there. If she didn’t continue to say that she is not alone:
So I will let the saints who have gone before remind me that I am not alone. I have friends, I have a church, I have a pastor, and, above all, I have a friend in Jesus.
One of those “friends” Winner calls upon to help with her lonely Lenten struggle is the poet George Herbert, who writes:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn and take me by the hand and more,
May strengthen my decays.
Winner explains about how “decay” refers to what happens to the organic materials when they are transformed by decay into humus. She uses this metaphor as a spiritual lesson:
That is Lent: the transformation of our organic materials under controlled conditions so that our raw ingredients are transformed into humus—into life, into fertility.
Her words help me as I approach the Orthodox calendar for Lent, which begins on March 14 this year. I don’t look forward to the stricter fasting regimen or the longer church services. But maybe this year I’ll remember that I’m not alone. Even on days when I don’t want to leave the house. Or when I get disappointing news—as I did yesterday, when another literary agent turned down my request for representation for my novel. I take encouragement, again, from Pennoyer’s words in the preface to God For Us:
In Lent we learn that the meaning of life is not dependent upon the fulfillment of our dreams and aspirations. Nor is it lost within our brokenness and self-absorption…. Lent cleanses the palate so that we can taste life more fully. It clears the lens so that we can see what we routinely miss within our circumstances.
I hope to do more posts from this book during Lent. Here’s a teaser: an interview with Scott Cairns, an Orthodox poet and writer who contributes to the book.
I’m so thankful to these inspirational authors who are helping me avoid seeing Lent as “a vaguely spiritualized gloominess.”
Great Lent doesn’t begin until March 14 this year. And Pascha doesn’t arrive until May 1. Wait… didn’t we just have Ash Wednesday?
Once again the Eastern and Western commemorations of these seasons are several weeks apart on our calendars. And once again I find myself wishing we were all “on the same page.” I’m already receiving blessings from my Episcopal friends’ Lenten journeys. Here’s an excerpt from my friend Ellen Morris Prewitt’s Facebook post on Ash Wednesday:
I’ve been all over the world wondering what my Lenten practice will be this year…. Today, at St. Mary’s Ash Wednesday service, in the course of talking about this and that, Dean Andy Andrews said, “Be generous.” Ok, I thought, that’s what I’ll do. This Lent, I’ll be more generous. Every time an opportunity to give—in any way—arises and I feel that constriction/assessment/flick to reality, I will recognize it, and move more deeply into whatever it is I’m being asked to do. #Lent2016
I love this because it’s a positive choice rather than a list of things not to do. This is also the emphasis in Richard Rohr’s essay, “Friday after Ash Wednesday” in the wonderful book God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter. You can catch up on my previous posts from this book here:
In “Friday After Ash Wednesday” Rohr asserts that Jesus didn’t really preach fasting. In fact, when his disciples question him about it, he changes the subject and talks about the wedding feast instead (Luke 14:7-24). As Rohr explains:
This is how Jesus understands fasting, fasting from our prejudices, our superiority, and our ethnic divisions…. Jesus is inviting humanity to a common celebration at which all are invited, and the only fasting needed is from our fears and divisions.
The Orthodox Church has very specific rules for fasting, not only during Great Lent and the Nativity Fast, but all throughout the year, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays. If you’ve read my blog for very long you know that I have always struggled with this practice. During this past Nativity Fast, I agreed (with our new assistant pastor) to try it on a limited scale, and I did, perhaps, find some benefit in humbling myself to the will of another. But I still prefer the emphasis to be on love. And giving, as my friend Ellen said.
Rohr does say that
There is a place for fasting, and humans do need liturgies of lamentation in times of grief, but God does not need our fasting. Maybe we do, especially in this addictive society, but of itself it does not bring us into deeper union with God.
I’m sure many of my Orthodox friends will take issue with this, but I’m happy to see another approach to this season of Lent. I’ll close with the prayer at the end of Rohr’s essay:
Gracious Host, Loving Bridegroom, eternal wedding banquet God, show us when we need to fast and when we need to begin the eternal feast. Keep the party open, and help us not to close it down. Show us that the only fast we need is from ourselves, our smallness, and from our shriveled hearts. Amen.