#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

#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.

#Lent2018: Gratitude & “Thankswriting”

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is my third in a Lenten series in which I’m reflecting on Nicole Roccas’s book Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life. If you missed my first two entries, here they are:

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perseverance

As I continue to follow along in Nicole’s Lenten reading guide, this morning I read the sections she suggested for Week 3 of Lent, in which we are moving towards the second Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Elevation of the Cross.

The first section I read this morning was chapter 3, “What is the Present Moment?” Her words in this chapter fit well with the “homework” Father Philip Rogers, our pastor at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, gave us during his homily yesterday—to spend five minutes in complete silence every day during Lent (and maybe to let that practice continue beyond Lent, as the other spiritual practices we have awakened in our lives should also continue). This dovetails nicely into the other books I’m (re)reading during Lent this year: Living Prayer and Meditations on a Theme, both by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. I discovered Met. Bloom’s books many years ago, but I like to revisit them to help re-center myself in prayer and silence—two things that aren’t organic for me, but require a lot of effort. In this chapter, Nicole says:

Why is it so crucial to “be present” in the way St. Theophan and the neptic Fathers admonish? Because the present moment is the only time in which we can encounter the Resurrection and Christ Himself. We cannot meet Him in the past or future; the only time we have is now.

This might seem obvious, and yet, as she points out later in this chapter, we tend to live in the past and the future:

Perhaps the first step of despondency—the first departure from the present moment—is numbing ourselves to care and all the pain it can bring. Counterintuitive though it may seem, fostering regret and anxiety toward past and future are part of that numbing process, because they extract us from the arena of caring and deposit us in the cesspool of rumination, where the mind can manipulate its own reality.

I have experienced this constantly throughout my life—this “cesspool of rumination”—where I let my mind take me to past regrets, to past hurts so that I hold onto them and undo the forgiveness I worked so hard to give at some point, or to anxiety about the future, to the point where I obsess over things as immediate as the success of my literary career or as (possibly) far off as failing health, especially with my family history of Alzheimer’s. So what help does Nicole offer us to counter these tendencies, which lead us down the path of ongoing despondency?

the-real-gift-of-gratitude-robert-holden-quotes-sayings-picturesIn chapter 7, “Stepping Stones Back to the Present,” the section we read this week is about GRATITUDE. She shares the story of a man who struggled with depression and was giving a talk on mental health and faith:

Just before a major depression struck, he would notice that he had stopped giving thanks for ordinary things in life…. A cessation of gratitude was the most consistent forewarning that another storm was on the horizon and he needed to change course.

I have a close friend who always seems to be thankful, even in the midst of her struggles. We talk on the phone frequently, and I’m always impressed with how often she injects thanksgiving into our conversations, reminding me that Christ’s love is with us, especially in our struggles.

1gratitudepooh

So, this morning, I combined Father Phillip’s “homework”—to sit silently for five minutes—with Nicole’s suggestions about giving thanks. As I sat quietly, I interrupted my silence only to name things I was thankful for: Our oldest son’s visit with us from New Orleans this weekend. Almost six months without a drink (I’ll blog about that on Thursday). A new friend I’ve recently made and the joy of that mutually encouraging relationship. A special lunch with our fifteen-year-old Goddaughter and how precious she is and how wonderful our relationship with her is. Some good reviews of my latest book. The loveliness of our home. The growing love in my marriage of almost 48 years.

thanks journalAt the end of this section in Time & Despondency, Nicole offers several “Stepping Stones of Thanksgiving.” I’m not going to list them here, but when she asks in the reading guide, “What is the one way you’d like to try exercising gratitude this week, based on the readings?” my reply is to follow her third stepping stone:  “Thankswriting.” This seems like an obvious choice for a writer, doesn’t it? I will keep a small journal (just found one in a drawer in my office) on my bedside table, and every night I will list one or two items that I am thankful for that day. It lifts my spirits to just think about doing this simple act of being present, of living in the moment, and accessing its power against despondency! Join me?

#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.

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