Empathy and Almsgiving

Like everyone else, I’ve been watching the horrific images of the devastation that Hurricane Harvey and the subsequent flooding are doing to the Houston area and be beyond. Before we had such immediate images available to us, tragedies that happened far away from our homes didn’t seem as real. Now we often feel that they are in our backyard, and we (hopefully) respond with greater empathy.

Of course the image of the people in the nursing home brought me to tears, especially since my mother was in a nursing home, helpless, in a wheelchair, for the last eight years of her life, so I could only imagine the emotional and physical toil it caused those elderly people to be trapped like that, watching the water rise up above their waists!

nursing home

I’m not in a position to go and help out physically, but my husband I decided to contribute financially. Of course there are many options for doing this, and sometimes it’s hard to know which ones to trust, and which ones will be most efficient in delivering  your contribution directly to the people who need it most.
We are Orthodox Christians, and we decided to contribute through an organization known as IOCC—International Orthodox Christian Charities. Here’s a link explaining how they plan to help, with a button you can push to donate.

I’m off to Atlanta for the weekend, where I’ll be on a panel at the Decatur Book Festival at 3:45 Sunday afternoon for the book I edited, A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE, along with contributor Jessica Handler. The weather report looks good, thankfully, since this is the largest independent book festival in the country. But I’ll continue to think about and pray for the people who are suffering in Texas. Please join me.

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.”

Pilgrim Interrupted

SusanwMoOlympiaI’m putting together a collection of personal essays with the working title, Pilgrim Interrupted. Many of the essays have been previously published, and as I’ve been going through them again, I’ve pulled out a few representative quotes. I’ll share them here, as teasers for what I hope will become my next book. (I’m querying literary agents for this one.) The essays are grouped into six sections: “Icons, Orthodoxy, and Spirituality,” “Writing, Editing, and Publishing,” “Alzheimer’s, Caregiving, Death, and Dying,” “Family and Adoption,” “Place,” and “Mental Health, Addiction, and Sexual Abuse.”

Thirty essays. Four poems. Numerous icons and other pieces of original art. I hope there’s something here for everyone to reflect on, and that my readers will find some measure of joy or inspiration from the journeys I’ve shared. My pilgrimage—mostly in the “Christ-haunted South”—has definitely been interrupted over the decades of my life, but hopefully the prose, poetry, and art that litter the pathway are of some value.

Here are some samples:

“Maybe my brokenness, like the egg yolks that I use to make tempera paint for my icons—themselves a form of life interrupted—is part of my offering to God.”—Susan Cushman, from “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow” (published in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, University of Alabama Press, 2012)

“Sometimes I stop and look at the unfinished images with a melancholy longing. The other day I paused before the icon of Christ, fingering a soft sable brush and scanning the jars of pigments on the nearby shelves. There are eggs in the refrigerator, waiting to be broken for Him. Their yolks, themselves a type of life interrupted, are ready to bind the dry pigments and fill my palette with a range of ochres and siennas for the face of Christ. Everything I need is here, waiting for my touch.”—Susan Cushman, from “Blocked” (published in the Santa Fe Writers Project, literary awards finalist, July 2, 2008)

“Sobriety—it’s about more than not being drunk. It’s clear-eyed brush strokes and poetry that knocks your socks off and page-turning prose. It’s Iris Dement singing, “I choose to take my sorrow straight,” and Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks) turning a personal affront into a hit song with, “I’m Not Ready to Make Nice.” It’s Mary Chapin Carpenter singing, “forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt.”  But it’s also allowing yourself to be human, and turning that broken humanity into something redemptive with every stroke of your pen or brush or keyboard.”—Susan Cushman, from “Blocked” (published in the Santa Fe Writers Project, literary awards finalist, July 2, 2008)

“The distinctive chug chug chug of the wine filling the glass. It’s not really a cork—it’s a rubber wine stopper (from Rabbit) and its phallic shape and texture is tempting. I place it in my mouth and suck the last drops of wine from its surface as I slowly pull it away and push it back into the bottle. The first swallow is always the best, bringing instant gratification, holding promises of relief, of edges softening, jaws relaxing, mind slowing down, dark clouds abating. And sometimes it makes good on those promises, but the relief is only temporary.”—Susan Cushman, from “Eat, Drink, Repeat: One Woman’s Three-Day- Search for Everything,” published in The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul (Rivers Edge Media, 2015)

“After binging all day on chips and grilled cheese and sausage biscuit and wine, the self-hatred drives me to my knees once again. But not in prayer. My reflection in the bottom of the toilet bowl—and a fetid memory long ago encoded in my frontal lobe—are enough to trigger my seasoned gag reflex. This ritual takes less than a minute. I puke up most of what I’ve eaten in the past couple of hours. It brings relief, but not without more self-loathing. I cannot, as James Baldwin urged, “vomit the anguish up.”—Susan Cushman, from “Eat, Drink, Repeat: One Woman’s Three-Day- Search for Everything,” published in The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul (Rivers Edge Media, 2015)

“It was surreal— like an invasion of the profane into the sacred— and it continued for about forty-five minutes. They would enter to the right of us, in their khaki shorts, fanny packs, and white Keds and cameras (which weren’t allowed inside the cave) and move slowly along the wall where Saint John had once sat, dictating to his scribe, Prochorus. The tour guide alternately pointed to the hole in the wall where the disciple pulled himself up after sitting for hours on end, and the crack in the ceiling where he heard the voice of God. Their mouths formed large, silent “O”s as they crept along, nodding at one another. Then the guide would wave the tourists through the tiny chapel, and they would walk in front of us as they exited.”—from “Pilgrim Interrupted” by Susan Cushman

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.

The Leave-taking of Pascha

Today is known in the Orthodox Christian Church as the “Leave-taking of Pascha.” (Here’s a talk given on this topic by a Russian Patriarch in Moscow in 1980. I share it here because I think it sheds some light on the continuous nature of Orthodox feasts.)  We have celebrated Christ’s resurrection for 40 days, and tomorrow is the Feast of His Ascension into Heaven.

784783e28222ccae5b9ef79e28aba7b8

 

For us, Pascha (Easter) isn’t just one day. We live the spirit of Pascha year-round, as every Sunday’s divine liturgy is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. But when the feast comes around, we celebrate with much joy during the entire Paschal season. We greet one another with this greeting and response:

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen!

Tonight will be the last time we will use this greeting and response at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis until the Feast of Pascha next year. (Tonight we will have a vesperal divine liturgy for the Feast of the Ascension, which is tomorrow.)

It’s interesting how people from countries that are historically Orthodox have this greeting and response ingrained in them, whether or not they are actively involved in church. Recently my husband and I were in Beaufort, South Carolina, where we met a delightful Romanian man at a dinner in a friend’s home. When we met him, my husband looked at him and said (in Romanian):

Hristos a înviat!

And without hesitation the man replied:

Într-adevăr, El a înviat!

How did my husband know this greeting in Romanian? In our church many people learn the greeting and response in other languages, and our clergy shout out the greetings as they cense the congregation during Paschal services, and the people shout back the response in the same language. We have people from Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and other countries in our parish, and having this greeting and response said in their languages is a blessing for them and unites us all in our common joy over the resurrection of Christ.

StGeorgeToledo - Ascension of the Lord - Fr. Theodore JurewiczI’ll be missing the service at St. John tonight, due to a book reading/signing that had been scheduled several months ago, (for Tangles and Plaquees: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, at Trezevant Manor Senior Living’s Performing Arts Center, where I’ll be the presenter for their monthly “Southern Author’s Tour”) but I’ll be there in spirit. And tonight at the Feast of the Ascension, parishioners will exchange a new greeting and response:

Christ has ascended! From earth to heaven!

Rituals

 

Mom and me when I was crowned queen of the little league, circa 1961

Mom and me when I was crowned queen of the little league, circa 1961

With Mother’s Day coming, I find myself thinking about happy memories of my mother. I’ve been doing this a good bit this last year, since my mother’s death last May. And this first memory might surprise some of you (who remember that my mother was frequently abusive to me, verbally) but I think you’ll understand once I explain it.

When I was a little girl—probably around seven years old—my mother would come to my room every night to kiss me goodnight. My brother and I had small rooms right next to each other at that point, and I would hear her go into Mike’s room first, and then come to me. I don’t remember us saying prayers or having long conversations at bedtime, but I clearly remember the words she said just before leaving my room every night:

Good night, darling. I love you.

Those exact words. I would close my eyes, wrapped in an emotional security blanket, and go to sleep. No matter how she had treated me during that day, this was what I craved, what I longed for and thankfully received just before sleep. My mother’s blessing. If I heard her say something to Mike after that, I would call her back into my room to say it again. I wanted those words to be the last I heard before sleep. A benediction of sorts.

Fast forward forty years to 1998. My father was dying of cancer, and I spent the final days of his life in my parents’ home in Jackson (we already lived in Memphis) helping Mom with his care. (We also had help from Hospice.) Dad had a lung removed in May of 1997 and lived for fourteen months as a semi-invalid, on oxygen and often in a wheelchair. I would visit them about once a month during that time, and that’s when I observed their rituals. Dad bringing Mom coffee in bed (which he did for me on school mornings when I was in high school); Mom and Dad reading their morning devotionals together; and especially the greeting and response they said to one another every morning:

This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

I remember telling my husband about this and we decided to begin this ritual, which we do to this day. Something about that mutual encouragement to acknowledge God and to decide to rejoice often kick-starts my day in a positive way. When my husband is out of town, sometimes we text the message first thing in the morning:

TITDTLHM.

LURABGII.

Are we simply creatures of habit, or is there something more spiritual—perhaps even more ethereal—at work here? I believe that rituals are a big part of why I love the Orthodox Church. There is something comforting about the rituals we find in our church tradition.

6088bb5795d4447b8b1a56bd32e67bc3When our children were young, we would bless them before bed. If my husband was around he would do it, partly because he’s a priest. But as a mother, I often said a blessing before kissing my children goodnight, and made the sign of the cross, touching their forehead, chest, right shoulder and left shoulder. (Or even just signing them in the air in front of their faces.) The intent was to call down God’s blessing on them, yes, but also to give them comfort. My husband does this for me most every night, and also says a special blessing for me whenever I travel. And when we travel together. We get into the car, sometimes set the GPS, and then he says a prayer/blessing for our safe travels.

I remember a priest sharing with me many years ago his habit/ritual of crossing himself in the process of putting on his seatbelt when he got into his car, and saying, “Lord have mercy.”

There is something comforting about the repetitive nature of the liturgy. How many times during each service do we say, “Lord have mercy”? Can we ever say it too much? Why do we love the repetition?

Ths article in Psychology Today says we engage in rituals for several reasons. One is to try to maintain a sense of control and order to our lives. Another is to find meaning and comfort after a loss, like when people pray after a tragedy. In the Orthodox faith, we have specific prayers for the dead at regular intervals after their death, and sometimes special liturgical foods are shared after the prayers. One practice is to read the Psalms for forty days after a loved one dies. I’ve done that many times over the years and I always find comfort and draw closer to God during those days. Part of that is, I’m sure, that I’m more aware of my own mortality, having just buried someone I love, especially when the person is close to my own age or even younger.

reading to my three oldest granddaughters at the beach last month

reading to my three oldest granddaughters at the beach last month

Have you ever noticed how children love to watch the same movie over and over (often on their iPads now) or read the same books over and over? When I first started reading to my granddaughters and noticed this I would think, “Wouldn’t you rather read something new?” But they seem to find comfort in the familiar, and never tire of the same episodes of Paw Patrol or the latest Disney movie or the words and pictures in a favorite book.

As I finish today’s post, I’m thinking about how writing for this blog has become a ritual of sorts. I started the blog ten years ago this August and have posted three times a week—usually Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—for almost every week of that decade. I wake up on those days thinking about what I’m going to write, if I haven’t already written the post earlier and saved it to publish on a certain day. Of course there are days when I can’t think of anything to say, and it bothers me throughout the day until an idea comes to me. Once it’s done, I find myself calmer, like a child whose mother has just kissed her goodnight.

 

DeSoto Magazine and Southern Writers: Two Upcoming Articles

In the midst of a busy and wonderful book tour, I’ve been invited to contribute articles to two wonderful magazines.

April17FC-4small-460x610“Tangles and Plaques” will appear in the May issue of DeSoto Magazine. Just in time for Mother’s Day, my short piece will be part Polaroid, part cautionary tale, about the changing relationship between my mother and me during the last eight years of her life. She died on May 22, 2016 of Alzheimer’s Disease. I’m so thankful to my friend Karen Ott Mayer, DeSoto’s editor, for this opportunity. You can subscribe to the magazine, read it online, or pick up a copy at many places in Mississippi and surrounding areas, like Memphis.

A second article, “Four Book Deals in One Year: A Journey in Independent Publishing” will appear in the September issue of Southern Writers: The Author’s Magazine. I discovered the magazine when my friend (and fellow Dogwood Press author) John Floyd was featured in an interview in their January/February 2017 issue.

six-covers-w-shadow-jan-2017_1_origAnother short piece (750 words), this one details my journey through writing and finding publishers for four books within one year. (Three are being published in 2017 and one in 2018.) I share my struggles querying literary agents and finally working with one for many months before parting ways due to our different visions for the book. There’s lots of “how to” in this short piece, including researching and querying academic and independent presses, working with editors on revisions, marketing, and more. Again, many thanks to Susan Reichert, editor-in-chief of Southern Writers, for this opportunity. A great magazine for writers and readers alike, you can subscribe to the print, online, and digital formats here.

So, it’s Holy Friday and I’ve already been to three services during Holy Week at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis. I’ll be at two more today, two tomorrow, and one on Sunday. It’s a beautiful marathon, where we walk through Christ’s passion, and celebrate His resurrection. Thanks, always, for reading. Have a beautiful Pascha/Easter weekend (I’m so glad the East and West are celebrating on the same date this year) and I’ll be back on Monday.

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.

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