Rediscovering Mercy: Anne Lamott, King David, and Holy Week

books from Lemuria

 

When I was in Jackson, Mississippi, on Monday (my husband had a medical meeting there) I stopped in at Lemuria Books (where I had a reading/signing last Thursday) to visit with bookstore owner John Evans. We discussed this summer’s Mississippi Book Festival and other literary and publishing topics. As I was speaking with one of the booksellers who works there, I discovered these two books at the counter: Joan Didion’s South and West, in which she brings notes from a 1970s road trip journal she took with her husband through Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama into the present cultural and political milieu; and Anne Lamott’s latest book, Allelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. I love Didion and look forward to diving into her essays, especially since they are about the South, but it was the subtitle of Lamott’s book that drew me in immediately: “Rediscovering Mercy.”

As an Orthodox Christian, I am half way through Holy Week, which follows our forty-day spiritual journey known as Great Lent. It’s a “school of repentance” we enter as we walk through Christ’s death and resurrection, but it’s also a time to rejoice in His great MERCY.

This past Sunday our pastor, Father Phillip Rogers, talked about mercy in his homily. I love that both he and our young assistant pastor, Father Alex Mackoul, have kept such a positive, upbeat focus during Lent, rather than overwhelming us with too-heavy burdens for our already difficult ascetic struggles. Instead of reminding us of our shortcomings (don’t we all feel the weight of them without others pointing them out?) Father Phillip reminds us of God’s mercy. He did this with me in a very personal way when he heard my confession a couple of weeks ago. And then he encouraged all of us to discover this afresh in his homily by challenging us to read Psalm 117 every day during Holy Week. He said it would change us. I believed him.

My husband and I love this Psalm, especially verse 24, which we say to each other as greeting and response first thing every morning (a tradition we learned from my parents): “This is the day the Lord has made; Let us greatly rejoice, and be glad therein.” But I hadn’t read the entire Psalm (29 verses) all at once in quite some time. We hear much of it during the services in the Orthodox Church, so the verses were familiar as my husband and I read them together on Monday, and I read them again with my morning prayers yesterday and today. Here are a few verses:

 

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;

For His mercy endures forever.

Let the house of Israel say that He is good,

For His mercy endures forever….

 

The Lord is my strength and my song,

And He became my salvation.

The sound of exceeding joy and salvation

            Is in the tents of the righteous;

The right hand of the Lord exalted me;

The right hand of the Lord worked its power….

 Palm_Sunday-200x300

Appoint a feast for yourselves, decked

            with branches,*

Even to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will thanks to You;

You are my God, and I shall exalt you….

 

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;

For His mercy endures forever.

 

*We were celebrating the Feast of Palm Sunday, raising our palm branches as we processed outside the church remembering Christ’s victorious entry into Jerusalem.

At this time in our country, in our world, we need God’s mercy more than ever. How wonderful to rediscover it this week, both in Anne Lamott’s book, and in Psalm 117. As Lamott says:

I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human; the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.

But what does Lamott mean when she writes of mercy?

Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten…. The idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway…. Yes, because in the words of Candi Staton’s great gospel song, “hallelujah anyway.” Hallelujah that in spite of it all, there is love, there is singing, nature, laughing, mercy.

 

Father John Troy Mashburn annointing parishioners with holy oil during Unction at St. John Orthodox Church.

Father John Troy Mashburn annointing parishioners with holy oil during Unction at St. John Orthodox Church.

 

I am so thankful to King David (who wrote Psalm 117), Anne Lamott, and Father Phillip Rogers for helping me rediscover mercy during this beautiful Holy Week. Tonight I will experience another taste of that mercy at the sacrament of Holy Unction at St. John Orthodox Church. When the holy oil is placed on our heads and hands, the priest will ask God to heal the disorders of our souls and bodies. That healing—which each of us will experience in a personal way, according to our own physical, mental, and spiritual brokenness—will indeed be an outpouring of God’s mercy. I hope I will go forth from this sacrament with the familiar words, “Lord, have mercy,” on my lips and in my heart.

Saint Mary of Egypt and Sneak Preview from Cherry Bomb #Lent2017

Mary of Egypt weepingThis is a big weekend for those of us who take Mary of Egypt as our patron saint, and for many others who look to her as a model of repentance. In the Orthodox Church, she is commemorated twice during Great Lent every year: April 1 (tomorrow) is her feast day, and the fifth Sunday of Lent, which falls on April 2 this year, is known as the Sunday of Saint Mary of Egypt. So, I’ll say “happy name day eve” to my sisters in Christ who are also her spiritual namesakes.

If you’re interested in reading more, here are some previous posts about St. Mary of Egypt:

“Turning Lead Into Gold” (2016)

“Holy Mother Mary Pray to God For Us” (From 2015, this post contains a prayer/poem I wrote to Mary of Egypt many years ago.)

“Forgive O Lord” (2014)

Original icon from which detail of Mary was cropped. This is Saint Basil and Great and Saint Mary of Egypt, a "marriage icon" I wrote as a gift to my husband, Father Basil.

Original icon from which detail of Mary was cropped. This is Saint Basil and Great and Saint Mary of Egypt, a “marriage icon” I wrote as a gift to my husband, Father Basil.

My novel, Cherry Bomb—which will be published this fall—focuses quite a bit on Mary of Egypt. There’s even a weeping icon of Saint Mary in the book, although I’ve never actually heard of one of her icons weeping. More often it is icons of the Mother of God that weep. (But it’s a novel, after all.) I’m excited that this image (above, right) will appear on the back cover of the book when it comes out. It’s a detail from an icon I wrote over ten years ago. My daughter-in-law, See Cushman, cropped it from the original and added the “tears” to make it appear that the icon is weeping, and the graphic designer working on the cover changed the background to gold and added the frame. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result, although my photo is a bit fuzzy and doesn’t do the image justice.

Today I thought I would share a sneak preview from Cherry Bomb. The following excerpt is from a scene in which Mare (protagonist) and Elaine deKooning (her art professor) are attending an opera about Saint Mary of Egypt written by John Tavener. I learned about this opera many years ago from a nun who was visiting Memphis to speak at our parish’s women’s retreat, and I was able to find a CD of the music. I hope it blesses you and raises your interest in the novel, which will be out in about six months!

Holy Mother Mary, Pray to God For Us.

Excerpt from Cherry Bomb, chapter 14:

 

As they entered the Wells Theatre on Saturday night, Mare and Elaine were greeted by materials, textures, and geometric angles that were part of its Art Moderne splendor. Intricate rectangular carvings repeated themselves along the walls. Gold leaf flickered off every surface. Even the curtain on the massive stage was itself a work of art—tapestries of shimmering gold and copper. The theater seated over a thousand patrons and boasted a state-of-the-art audio system. Just listening to the orchestra warming up sent chills down Mare’s spine. The music wasn’t familiar—it had a foreign, Middle Eastern sound—but even the concordant notes the musicians struck as they tuned their instruments simultaneously had an other-worldly beauty.

“Wow.” Mare had never seen anything like this before.

Elaine smiled. An usher handed them each a program and showed them to their seats. The cover of the program featured an icon of Mary of Egypt and Zosimas. They quickly read the Composer’s Note before the overture began, which was penned by John Tavener.  

Mary’s door was wide open, even though her love was misdirected and distorted …

They looked at each other as they read, and then continued to read the rest of the program notes. Mare wondered how the words were hitting Elaine. She remembered how uncomfortable Elaine had been when they visited the Coptic church. What’s she thinking now?

Zosimas’s whole sound world becomes Mary’s. In her he sees ‘love’ and his own limitations. His world, once so dry, now in the dryness of the desert, flowers into what the Desert Fathers might have called “Uncreated Eros” or a hint of the Edenic state. In controlled ecstasy, they both ask each other to give the blessing.

“That’s what’s happening in your painting, isn’t it?” Elaine whispered.

Mare nodded and they continued reading Taverner’s comments:

“Mary of Egypt” is the intent to create an ikon in sound about Non-Judgement. In a sense, Zosimas loves again when through Mary he can dimly see the beauty of God—and who knows how far Mary has gone in her search for the unknowable and unobtainable in her forty solitary years in the desert? Holy Mary, pray to God for us.

The orchestra finished warming up and the lights dimmed. A group of women and men formed two parallel lines on the stage, representing the extensions of Mary and Zosimas. The women’s sensual movements were accompanied by a flute, wordlessly representing Mary whoring in Alexandria. The men were accompanied by the trombone and the primordial sound of the simantron—a wooden percussion instrument used in liturgical music (especially at monasteries) and sometimes with contemporary classical pieces. Each act was more powerful than the previous, building to a climax with the aria, “Bless.” The characters of Zosimas and Mary—without their extensions from early scenes—prostrated themselves on the ground in front of each other, crying out in song the solitary word, “Bless!” over and over.

Mare wasn’t prepared for how this would hit her—seeing the story she was growing more fascinated with by the day brought to life in such a powerful way on the stage. She felt some of the anger she’d hung onto over the years melt away as the words and music worked to soften her heart. Damn. She quickly brushed away tears, hoping Elaine hadn’t seen them. Sneaking a glance at Elaine, Mare saw that she wasn’t the only one weeping.

Then Mary levitated. The angels lifted her up—with help from nearly invisible wires hung from the stage ceiling—leaving a terrified and awestruck Zosimas to grieve her loss. The opera continued with the conclusion of their story: Zosimas found Mary dead in the desert a year later and buried her with help from a lion, who appeared tame in the presence of the saint’s remains.

On Frizzy Hair, Triggers, and the Cross at Mid-Lent #Lent2017

holy crossMy Orthodox friend, Lia Roussos Douglas, used to be a member at my parish here in Memphis, Saint John Orthodox Church. I was so sad when she moved back to her beloved Gulf Coast, although I completely understand her wanting to be there! It’s been wonderful keeping up with her on Facebook, and yesterday she posted something that touched me on many levels. I have asked her permission to publish it here. As we move into the second half of Lent (and prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation—March 25—with a liturgy and potluck at St. John tonight) my spirits are good. I’m not all down and out like I sometimes get during Lent. At the beginning of the season I said I was going to make this a Happy Lent, and so far, that’s working pretty well. Even though I fell and tore a ligament in my ankle. Maybe that’s just part of my cross this Lent.

So, today’s post is from Lia:

My sweet Em Lani was sharing with me last night all the good nuggets she has been learning at yoga teacher training this week. She was sharing about beliefs, for example “Why do I believe I need granite counter tops?” or “Why do I believe frizzy curly hair isn’t beautiful?” and are these actually universal truths?? Also, who molded my belief system? ALL this has to do with my happiness. She also was sharing about “triggers” we have that make us feel a certain way and how to make a conscientious effort to take note of why we are feeling that way. For me, for an easy example, I notice any time someone comments on my hair I get this dreaded feeling. So my hair is a trigger.

Anyway I digress, today in my spiritual reading, (somehow it ALWAYS ties into my life) I read THIS and it struck me as so profound friends. This week as it is midlent for me, half way there to the end and the Resurrection!!! My Church, my faith gives us THE CROSS. The cross of Christ to focus on and meditate on….. pick up our cross and follow him:

As always, St. Paul puts it very distinctly: “I am crucified to the world and the world is crucified to me.” So often, my burdens come from the fact that I judge myself by the standards of this society. The world defines what is necessary for happiness and I believe it. The world defines what is beautiful and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is moral and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is rich and what is poor, and I believe it. The world tells me what is brave and what is cowardly, and I believe it. The first work of the cross is to crucify me to this worldly propaganda and lunacy.—Father Barnabas, Orthodox on Purpose

Such wisdom!!! Why should I allow the world to form my standards of what makes me happy?? Why do I believe such bull crap at times?? Today, I chose NOT to allow FB or the world or some idiotic standards placed on me to define my happiness! We ALL have our struggles in life, our cross to carry if you may. Just make sure you’re not putting these struggles on yourself from some dumb standard you allowed yourself to believe! Don’t let your struggles carry you through this life but you carry them strong and with the knowledge you will be ok! You are ok and all is as it should be!

There’s a lesson in everything if only we care to open our eyes and just LOOK. Sorry this was so long and if you stayed with me til the end! Well! Thank you! Happy Thursday! I love you!

I Arise Today: Celebrating a Former Slave

St PatrickI arise today through God’s strength to pilot me, God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me.—Saint Patrick of Ireland

Saint Patrick’s Day is often filled with pretty intense partying, although it usually falls during the solemn time of Great Lent. Rivers died green. Pub crawls. Parades. I like a fun celebration as much as the next person, but I also hope that folks will take a moment today to thank God for the saint they are celebrating.

Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, who sends out “Almost-Daily Emos” from The Geranium Farm, says:

Patrick was the first Christian writer to oppose slavery. Its existence as part of the social fabric is assumed without protest in the New Testament, and the theologians of the early Christian centuries had other things on their minds. He came to this position understandably enough: he had BEEN a slave.

So today I thank God for this brave and humble man who fought for human rights.

Have a joyful and safe Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone. I’m off to Little Rock for another literary event for Tangles and Plaques, this time at WordsWorth Books. 

Happy Lent, Mardi Gras, and Five Star Reviews

keep-calm-and-happy-clean-mondayWhile the folks in New Orleans are still celebrating Mardi Gras (today is Lundi Gras and tomorrow is Fat Tuesday, the final day of the Mardi Gras celebration) and Western Christians (mainly Catholics and Protestants) begin Lent the following day with Ash Wednesday, Orthodox Christians (like me) all over the world begin our Lenten journey today, with Clean Monday. We prepared for the launch of this season of spiritual renewal with last night’s service, “Forgiveness Vespers.” At the end of the litany of prayers, everyone present exchanged the kiss of peace, asking one another for forgiveness and responding with “God forgives and I forgive.” As we formed a line around the inside walls of the nave, exchanging hugs with our fellow parishioners, we stood together against enmity, jealousy, anger, pride, and everything else that often keeps us divided. We stood together for love, forgiveness, acceptance, and community. We did this not only for those of us present in the church last night, but for our families, our neighbors, our communities, and the world. It’s a powerful service.

Great Lent is a time for reflection and repentance, of drawing closer to God by removing some of the shackles that keep us away from Him, which is why fasting is part of the ascetic struggle. We also have many extra church services, and redouble our efforts with our personal prayers. All of this can feel overwhelming at times, and it’s often hard for me to approach it with a positive attitude. The fact that it happens as winter is slouching away and spring is arriving doesn’t help. Our non-Orthodox neighbors are outside firing up their grills and the aroma shouts “fun” while we’re fasting from meat. Spring break vacations and other events are scheduled and often conflict with the added church services. It all goes against the grain of our culture. And yet, I choose to participate, although I have in the past called my participation “Lent Lite.”
2009-02-lent-big copyThis year I’m calling my participation “Happy Lent.” I’m choosing to be happy. Matthew 6:17 instructs us to anoint our heads with oil and wash our faces when we are fasting, which pretty much means don’t make a show of it. Don’t look all sad and talk about your self-denial. I know some folks choose to go off social media during Lent, and that’s fine, but don’t tell everyone on Faceback that you’re doing it to be more spiritual. Drawing closer to God shouldn’t make us sad, and certainly shouldn’t cause us to shun the company of others, unless we have need of solitude for a period of time in order to take stock of ourselves. Even as I write these words I realize I can judge others who choose to do this, and that judging is wrong. We each have our own paths and may God bless us all in our struggle.

Happy readingI just started reading two books (because I’m not sure I’m going to continue one of them) that don’t sound like “Happy Lent,” but I guess I’m searching for something. This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, a memoir by Daphne Merkin and The Dark Flood Rises, a novel by Margaret Drabble aren’t spiritual books. But they both talk about aspects of our humanness that I care deeply about—emotional health and care for the aging. I’ll post reviews if I finish either or both of them.

Meanwhile, I’m thankful today that our son was several blocks away from the nightmare that happened near his apartment in New Orleans on Saturday. A drunk driver ran his truck through a crowd at the Krewe of Endymion Mardi Gras parade injuring about thirty people. People who were celebrating life. Thankfully Jon and his friends weren’t close enough to get hurt, but the incident was jarring, so today he’s too concerned to ride his book the short two and a half miles to a friend’s house for a cookout. There are just a lot of crazy and irresponsible people in New Orleans right now, making the celebrations dangerous for those who are just finding some happiness in the festivities. May God protect him and others during these final two days.

indexI’m also thankful today for my first (FIVE STAR!) reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I don’t know the reviewer personally, but she asked for a copy of the book and offered to review it in a couple of newspapers and online. What a nice way to start Lent.

May God help all of us who are choosing to participate in Lent—at whatever level we are able and willing.

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