My 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!
Thirty years ago today, my husband, Dr. William/Father Basil Cushman, was ordained into the priesthood of the Orthodox Christian Church, specifically the Antiochian Archdiocese. I did a blog post about this in 2010, “Axios! He is Worthy!”
Our recently retired pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn, was also ordained that day, as were several other priests and deacons from St. John in Memphis and St. Peter in Jackson, Mississippi.
This happened the day after a group of about 70 of us “pilgrims” were Chrismated into the Orthodox Church. For some of us, it was the end of a seventeen-year spiritual journey, one that was often wrought with peril, but a journey that ended (and in some ways began) with the blessed gift of finding the pearl for which we had been searching all those years.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a number of years, you know that there were some times when I was frustrated with my church home. Honestly, I still get frustrated at times. Orthodoxy is an ancient tradition (some say it was the first/original Christian church) and sometimes the very “rules” that have helped hold it together for centuries seem to hold too tightly. I’m not an obedient person, and I have always struggled against anything restrictive. But today I’m finding my way in this beautiful faith after thirty years.
Tonight at St. John Orthodox Church—my parish here in Memphis since 1988—we will celebrate our clergy who were ordained thirty years ago. Most of them have served unselfishly while maintaining full time secular jobs, while others have sacrificed those secular careers to serve the church full time. Either way, they are all “full time” servants, and we thank God for them.
And so I say again, as we declared thirty years ago with Bishop Antoun ordained these men, “Axios!” which means “He is worthy!”
This morning I read these words from today’s reading in the Orthodox calendar I often refer to with my Morning Prayers:
God desires and seeks the salvation of all. And he is always saving all who wish to be saved from drowning in the sea of life and sin. But He does not always save in a boat or a convenient, well-equipped harbor. He promised to save the Holy Apostle Paul and his fellow-travelers, and He did save them. But the Apostle and his fellow-passengers were not saved in the ship, which was wrecked; they were saved with great difficulty, some by swimming and others on boards and various bits of the ship’s wreckage.—Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov
I woke up early with messy thoughts. Some were about a conversation I had with a friend yesterday, in which I am sure I hurt her feelings. I plan to call and ask her forgiveness today. Other thoughts were the reverse—my ongoing battle with forgiveness and letting go of past hurts done to me or others in my family, even unintentionally. And finally, I was absorbed with a continuing struggle with my lack of moderation in food and drink, and my subsequent weight gain. I have now gained back 12 of the 17 pounds I worked so hard to lose last year. I am plagued with increasing pain in my right hip for which I underwent physical therapy three years ago. It cleared up after the therapy, but now it has returned, and I feel that my weight gain has something to do with it.
New Year’s resolutions never really work for me, but I understand why people have them. If I had them, they would certainly include (1) exercise more and (2) eat and drink less. Those things would surely help my physical struggles. But this morning I’m thinking that my priorities need to be rearranged. My resolutions should be (1) forgive and (2) repent.
Repentance isn’t a popular word. But our retired pastor at St. John gave a wonderful homily about it yesterday. It wasn’t “preachy” but it spoke to my heart. It was about “turning back” as the prodigal son turned back to his father. And about “turning away from” as he turned away from his wreckless life. I thought about how hard it is to do that—to turn away from the very things that are hurting me. And even about how hard it is to turn back… to God, to friends whom we have hurt or whom have hurt us.
In Saint Brianchaninov’s quote above, I am struck by the image of being saved by holding onto various bits of a ship’s wreckage. I see my life—both physical and spiritual—as that wrecked ship. I would love for God to just reach down and pull me out of the storm and set me on calm ground (like my favorite beach in Florida) but I am learning that He doesn’t always work that way. I might have to swim to shore or hold onto those bits of wreckage. I might even struggle with my weaknesses for the rest of my life—again, both physically and spiritually.
Not very happy thoughts as I enter the New Year… and yet I do feel some measure of comfort as I pray for God’s help and ask His forgiveness. Again.
Today is the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church. Historically it’s been as big a feast as Christmas, with several services on the calendar to celebrate it. Yesterday morning we had the “Royal Hours,” and last night the “First Blessing of the Water” and Divine Liturgy. This morning at 9 we’ll have the “Second Blessing of the Water” and another Divine Liturgy. The water blessed at these services is used throughout the year in various ways—priests use it for house blessings, to bless icons, crosses, waters for baptisms, etc. Parishioners take some of the Holy Water home with us for use in our personal prayers and when we are sick.
This year our parish—Saint John (Antiochian) is joining up with priests and parishioners from Annunciation (Greek) and Saint Seraphim (OCA—Orthodox Church in America) parishes for a “Great Blessing of the Waters” down at the Mississippi River. We’ll gather at noon on Saturday, just a few blocks from my house, where prayers will be said and a cross will be tossed into the river. In warmer climates—especially in Greece—young men and boys actually dive into the waters to retrieve the cross. Brrrrrr! (I think our pastor is tying a rope to the cross and pulling it back out.)
It’s interesting that this first year that we are keeping this tradition is the coldest weather we’ve had this winter—it’s SNOWING In Memphis today! But our pastor, Father Phillip Rogers, noted in an email to the parish that it’s not as cold as it often is in Russia (see photo and painting).
Now that the twelve days of Christmas are over and we are moving into a new season of the Church—and very soon a new “season” for our country—I pray for God’s blessings and for peace in our hearts and in our homes.
In the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, I wrote and directed the annual Christmas pageant at our church here in Memphis, St. John Orthodox. Our own kids were in elementary and middle school during those years. The participants in the play each year were between three and about twelve—sixth graders being the oldest. (The high school kids did a different play each year—one about Saint Nicholas.) I have such wonderful memories of those pageants and the children who brought them to life each year. One little boy was a trouble-maker during practices, but always came through with a great performance in the end. What I didn’t recognize at the time was his higher intelligence… he was bored at practice and didn’t see a need to put forth any effort or follow any rules. Today he’s happily married with a creative and successful career. And one year one of the mothers of several children in the play gave me a copy of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and I read it every year for a while…. Wish I could find it again.
And then there was the year I almost (or did this really happen?) caught Sarah Mashburn’s hair on fire. She was playing the part of Saint Lucia, who had a crown of candles on her head. One year we had musical instruments—the three wise men played their recorders (plastic tonette flutes they learned to play in school) and two girls who were studying ballet did a lovely pas de deux as Mary and the Angel Gabriel. I remember each of these events with less clarity about the details but great emotional imprint. And of course there were often moments of humor. But none so funny as what happened yesterday
So, yesterday at St. John, a different generation of children offered the Christmas pageant to a packed house in the nave (sanctuary). Terrific costumes. Booming, clear voices reciting their parts. Lovely choir of angels singing both Orthodox and traditional Western Christmas carols. And then there was drama over Baby Jesus.
Claire, the director of the play, cast her oldest daughter, Zoe as Mary, and her younger daughter, Audrey, was one of the little lambs. Zoe was a terrific Mary, saying her lines clearly, remembering her movements as she entered and exited the solea (stage area) several times, first when she was greeted by the Angel Gabriel, later greeted by her cousin Elizabeth, and finally journeying with her husband Joseph to Bethlehem, looking for shelter.
Once Mary and Joseph arrived at the stable and Jesus was born, the excitement began. Baby Jesus was placed in the manger, and the wise men and shepherds and animals came to worship him. The youngest children were the animals. So when little Audrey came in with the sheep, she hurried to the manger where she tried to grab baby Jesus. Mary (her big sister) had to struggle with her, swatting her hand away from Baby Jesus as Audrey tried to climb up on the chair with Zoe and tugged at the Baby until Claire (her mother) finally had to come up on the stage and take Audrey out. The cause of the ruckus? One of Audrey’s dolls had been cast as Baby Jesus. Later Claire recounted the story on Facebook and said that all the way home in the car after church Audrey kept saying, “That is NOT my sister’s baby!”
Humor is always a welcome element in any drama. And the shining faces of the children as they brought their gifts to Jesus in their acting and singing reminded all of us that He really is the reason for the season. I hope you and your family are catching this joyful spirit as you prepare to celebrate His birth.
Much love to all.
One of my favorite hymns that we sing in the Orthodox Church during the Nativity Season is all about preparing… preparing to receive Christ in our hearts and to celebrate His birth:
Prepare, O Bethlehem,
For Eden has been opened to all.
Adorn yourself, O Ephratha,
For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave.
Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the fruit divine;
If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam.
Christ is coming to restore the image, which He made in the beginning.
One version says “Make ready, O Bethlehem.” Make ready. Make what ready? I guess the main thing is to make our hearts ready. To be at peace with one another. To fast (if that’s your tradition) and feed and clothe the poor and hungry. To spend more time with family and doing things that bring joy to our hearts and to others.
We don’t all make ready in the same way. Some people focus more on the spiritual activities I mentioned above. But others make their homes ready with beautiful decorations—inside and out—to remind themselves and others that something special is happening. Bright lights and colorful, shiny balls and fragrant green trees inside, or even in our yards. We are making ready as we “adorn ourselves,” as the hymn says.
Some folks get upset when people—and especially stores—start decorating for Christmas before Thanksgiving. I don’t know why… in the Orthodox Church we begin the Nativity Fast—and thus our season of preparation—on November 15. Having the American (not church) celebration of Thanksgiving during this season just heightens the spirit of anticipation and joy for me. It’s not like the two holidays are competing for our attention.
I guess the main culture clash between the Orthodox Christian tradition and other Christmas traditions is that our church encourages fasting from November 15 to December 25—with many days of no meat, dairy, and even wine and fish. It’s difficult to keep this fast and join with our non-Orthodox neighbors and friends for holiday parties where so many of our favorite foods and beverages are served. Instead of waiting to have these parties during the “12 days of Christmas” between Christmas and Theophany, most people begin celebrating during what is for Orthodox Christians supposed to be a time of preparation. This used to be a struggle for me, but over the years I’ve gotten more comfortable joining in with those early celebrations. Who am I to judge another’s traditions? And I certainly don’t want to appear Scrooge-like, which wouldn’t seem very loving, joyful, or Christian. Yes, I’m Orthodox, but I’m also American.
So I’m having a wonderful time “making ready”—preparing to mail out Christmas cards with our annual Christmas letter; wrapping gifts (finished shopping!); making cookies for a neighborhood cookie swap, taking toys to contribute to the Memphis Interfaith Association’s annual Christmas store (where parents in need can find free gifts for their children); and decorating our home. I hire someone to help put up lights on our beautiful Japanese Cherry Blossom tree in our front yard, and also our lighted angel, since my husband and I are too old to be up on ladders or climbing trees! Our neighborhood’s annual Christmas parade ends right in front of our house, at “Christmas Tree Park,” this coming Sunday. Santa will be there for photo sessions with the kids, and there will be hot chocolate and cookies and golf carts decorated with blinking lights. I know it’s not Christmas yet—but what a fun way to make our hearts ready as we share in this joyful tradition with our neighbors.
Make ready, O Bethlehem!
Thanksgiving—a favorite American holiday—lands on the calendar every year just a week or so after the Orthodox Nativity Fast begins (November 15). While most of the world, and certainly most people in the West, are preparing to feast on their favorite recipes for turkey, dressing, casseroles, and pies, Orthodox Christians are trying to balance that tradition with a very different one that comes to us from our Church. While it’s not as strict as the fast we keep during Great Lent (before Pascha/Easter), it still involves quite a few days with no meat or dairy, and even a number of days with no seafood or alcoholic beverages. This tradition flies in the face of the festivities most people are enjoying during these weeks leading up to Christmas. I always struggle with this culture clash.
But this year, I’m a little more ready to embrace the fast—or at least to try for some moderation. Why? I’ve been overcome for several months now with an old enemy of the flesh—gluttony.
The Church Fathers have a lot to say about this vice, which St. John Climacus calls “the door of passions” in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. If marijuana is the “gateway drug” to more harmful pursuits, over-eating can open that same door to excesses in other areas of our lives. An overly full belly can lead to sloth (who doesn’t want a nap after stuffing ourselves?), depression, alcohol abuse, and to the abuse of other pleasures which aren’t in and of themselves “evil.”
A few more words from the Church Fathers:
The great attraction of gluttony is not necessarily concerned with large quantities of food, but in the temptation to have just a ‘little taste.’ But if the wish for a taste succeeds in making you a slave to gluttony, the Evil One can then give you up utterly to destruction. For, just as water that irrigates many furrows makes those furrows fertile, so also the vice of gluttony, proceeding from your heart, irrigates all of your senses, raising a whole jungle of evils within you, making your soul a lair of wild beasts. (St. Basil the Great, On Renunciation of the World)
For me gluttony isn’t so much about eating huge amounts of food—although binging is a problem at times—but mostly about craving certain foods or drinks. I can really relate to these words from Abba Dorotheus:
There are two kinds of gluttony. One is when a man seeks food that pleases him and does not always want to eat very much, but wishes to eat only what pleases his palate. Another is when a man is overcome by a tendency to eat much …. He only wants to eat and eat, nor minding what the food may be, only caring to fill his belly. (St. Abba Dorotheus, Directions on Spiritual Training)
I get “stuck” on certain foods at times, and am strongly attracted to eating at nice restaurants with white table cloths and good china… or at certain bars and drinking out of just the right glasses. This type of gluttony is known as “gourmandizing.” My recent visit to New Orleans offered many opportunities for this activity.
So I went to Confession Saturday night and talked with my priest about gluttony. It’s a complicated issue for someone like me who struggles with eating disorders, and who more often than not cares more about being skinny and looking good (and even about my health) than being godly and doing the right thing for spiritual reasons. He was very understanding and non-judgmental. I appreciated his words of advice, but mostly I felt the spiritual power of the sacrament strengthening me for the pilgrimage ahead. I want to enter into the Nativity Fast, but also enjoy the culture’s festivities. As is often the case, it comes back to moderation.
Bill and I are off to Seagrove Beach on Wednesday, where we will spend Thanksgiving alone at my favorite place on earth. We’ll walk for miles along the edge of the ocean, burning up calories and soaking in the salty spray and the sunshine—it’s supposed to be in the 70s while we’re there. And we’ll enjoy fresh gulf fish at our favorite seafood restaurants. I think it will be easier than cooking all those rich Thanksgiving dishes, although I love doing that when our children and grandchildren come for the holiday. And yes, I’ll miss the traditional celebration, but I think this venue will offer a good opportunity for a healthy mix of feasting and fasting.
If you’re entertaining family this Thanksgiving, I hope that your time together will be rich with love, laughter, and favorite foods that feed not only your appetites but also your souls.
Just read an amazing (but very long) article in The Orthodox Arts Journal:
“The Altar and The Portico (pt. 2): Gallery Art” by Aidan Hart. Subtitles tell more: THE SACRED AND THE SECULAR… The Relationship of Orthodox Iconography and Gallery Art.
Hart was a secular artist before becoming Orthodox and pursuing iconography. He worked as a sculptor within the Anglican/Episcopal church. Here’s a bit about what was driving him:
As a Christian I wanted this spirituality to embrace the material world, not to be a flight from it. I felt that this incarnational approach was all the more important in a secular age which worshipped matter and where one could not assume any prior knowledge of Christianity.
Hart’s move towards iconography mirrors some of my own interests, although his was on a professional level:
To abstract means literally to “draw out”, and in its original meaning it denotes the discovery and manifestation of the essence of the subject, and not departure from reality as it tends to be understood today.
The art most influential for me at this stage was Egyptian and African work. Although perhaps too disembodied, too extreme in their abstraction, these sculptures helped me to reach some conclusions about how to indicate the spiritual. Most notably I learned the importance of a strong vertical axis or elongation; stillness rather than agitated movement; and emphasis on the eyes. Constantine Brancusi and Modigliani were also influences.
I’ve always been a fan of abstract art. I’ve never thought about why I like Modigliani so much, but I also liked his work before I studied iconography. Hart eventually visited some Orthodox monks in New Zealand—one of who was an iconographer—and found what he had been searching for. He became Orthodox in 1983 and began writing icons. And then he began to wonder how spiritual art could find a place in galleries:
For me personally there are two types of artwork that do this: that which depicts suffering but with compassion, and that which suggests the world transfigured by light…. So first, compassionate art. Such works can help us see the divine image beneath suffering, and even behind ignorant acts. They show us that what makes us capable of suffering is also what makes us human.
Then he writes about the world transfigured by light:
Another form of threshold art is the art of illumination. Ascetic writers both East and West describe three stages in the spiritual life: purification, illumination and union… Icons indicate this luminous grace symbolically by such things as gold lines on trees, furniture and garments, and of course also haloes and golden backgrounds.
I’ve only touched on the treasures in this article, so I hope that if you’re interested in art and/or spirituality, you’ll give it a read. There are also lots of terrific illustrations of Hart’s work in the article. Enjoy!
In the Orthodox Church, today is the feast day of Jesus’ grandparents, Saints Joachim and Anna. Being a grandmother (of four little girls, ages one, four, six, and seven) is one of my greatest joys. Although I live over a thousand miles from my granddaughters, I think about them every day. I pray for them. I smile as I look at their pictures all around my office each day and on the refrigerator. I send them letters and gifts. I look forward to Face Time with each of them, and I often wonder what they will be when they grow up. And yes, I imagine spending time with them more often if we retire to Denver in a few years, picking them up from school and taking them to soccer or dance or art classes, having them for sleepovers, taking them shopping, to bookstores and the theater.
Since I couldn’t have biological children, my husband and I adopted our three wonderful “kids” who are now in their thirties. We waited seven years after we got married before an adoption agency would grant us our first child. At the time, those seven years felt like an eternity to me. All our friends were having children, and my empty womb cast a sad shadow over many of those early days of our marriage. And then God’s blessings began to come to us as He gave us Jonathan, Jason, and then Beth. I was only 34 when we adopted our third child, but we had been married fifteen years by then, and I remember feeling a bit old. Couples were getting married and starting families younger back then.
Imagine how Anna must have felt. She and Joachim had been married for fifty years and were barren. They were often ridiculed by the community—many even said it was their sinfulness that caused Anna’s fruitless womb. (I know that feeling.) Joachim was a faithful Jew who went to the temple and offered sacrifices regularly, giving a third of their income to the poor, a third to the temple, and only keeping a third to live on. Finally God blessed them with a child in their old age. And not just any child—their daughter was Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The Orthodox Church (and the Catholic Church) venerates Mary, the Theotokos (the “God-bearer”) very highly, as it should. But it also holds her parents in high esteem. At the end of every divine liturgy, we hear the priest say these words:
“May the risen Christ, our true God, with the prayers of his pure and holy Mother, the power of the precious and life-giving Cross, the protection of the spiritual powers of Heaven… the holy and righteous ancestors of God Joachim and Anna, and all the saints whose memory we celebrate have mercy on us and save us.”
As blessed as Joachim and Anna must have felt by this amazing gift, I can’t imagine how difficult it was for them to let Anna go and live in the temple at a young age, where she would remain pure, preparing herself to become the mother of Jesus. They gave up the joys most parents experience in having their children live at home with them. And they both died before experiencing the miraculous joy and incredulous pain they would have known watching their grandson grow up and become the Christ, who would eventually suffer crucifixion before his miraculous resurrection and ascension to Heaven. Their mission as His grandparents was over early, but will forever be a cornerstone in the Church’s history. And so we sing to them on this day:
“As we celebrate the remembrance of thy righteous grand-parents, through them we beseech thee, O Lord, to save our souls.”
We’re in the Atlanta airport waiting for our connecting flight to Denver. I was going to skip blogging today until I realized that I’ve got a bit of time here. And then I was thinking of writing about Elvis and the Mother of God—who are commemorated on August 14 and 15—but then I realized that I did that last year. And yet the Mother of God is on my heart today.
For the past two weeks Orthodox Christians have been observing the “Dormition Fast” and praying Paraclesis Prayers to the Mother of God three nights a week—or at least that’s how it plays out at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis. These two weeks lead up to the Feast of the Dormition (death/passing to Heaven) of the Mother of God on August 15, a celebration we will miss as we will be preparing to travel back home from Denver that morning. Anyway, many times during those prayer services we chant the line, “Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us!”
These are words that sometimes cause non-Orthodox Christians to stumble a bit. Well, except for Catholics. Growing up in the Presbyterian Church I heard very little about Mary, other than at Christmas when she seemed to receive a place of honor. But Orthodox Christians look to her for help, as this verse of the Paraclesis says:
“After God do all of us for refuge flee unto thee.” After God. Not equal with God. We don’t worship Mary, but as “Theotokos,” which means God-bearer, we venerate her, we love her, and cry out to her with love and praise but also for help in time of need. Especially as a mother and grandmother and Godmother, I find myself turning to her to intercede for my children and grandchildren and Godchildren. It is as natural to me now as saying, “Lord have mercy.”
If you’d like to read something more theological about this, here are two (among many) good articles, both by Orthodox priests:
“Why the Orthodox Honor Mary” by Father Stephen Freeman, and
“Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us!” by Father John Breck.
As we fly to Denver today to celebrate two of our four granddaughters’ birthdays and enjoy being with two of our four children and their families, I’ll be thanking the Mother of God for keeping them safe and healthy, and for the joy and blessing of having them in my life. These Asian images of the Mother of God and Christ are for you, Jason, Beth, Grace, Anna, Beth, Gabby and Izzy.
Most Holy Mother of God, save us!