Transfiguration: People Can Change

Transfiguration1-e1353430693909Today is the Feast of Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church. (Read about this feast at the icon here.) I went to Vespers at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis last night, which was beautiful. The icon of Transfiguration at dusk made the reality of what was happening on Mount Tabor more tangible, which is one of the things I love about the Orthodox Church. It offers an embrace for all the senses, with prayerful chanting, incense, and the glow of candlelight on the gold leaf halos of the icons. I wasn’t feeling well this morning, so I didn’t make it to Liturgy for the feast. But at home I prayed before our icons and thanked God for the way He is transforming me into His image, which is what this feast is all about

Eight years ago I wrote a post about this:

“Can People Change?” (Click on the link to read the post.)

And then six months ago, on my birthday (March 8) I did a follow-up post:

“Birthday Musings: People Can Change” #sixmonthswithoutadrink

I don’t really have much to add today, except that I am full of joy and thanksgiving for the way that God is helping me to change as I grow older. In case you aren’t taking time to click on one of the links above and re-read those posts, I’m going to share my favorite quote from Dr. Jamie Moran’s essay, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in the book, Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World:

People who leave a space for God—even for the ‘hidden’ God, which is what the Holy Spirit is: God’s humility—can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.

Dormition-of-Theotokos1I love that this feast comes half-way through the Dormition Fast, because the Mother of God plays a big part in our transfiguration, in our change. In his homily yesterday Father John Troy (Mashburn, our pastor emeritus) talked about healing, and how we must come to Jesus for healing, or someone must bring us to Jesus. I started thinking about HOW to bring people to Jesus for healing, especially if they don’t physically come to church. I remembered what my “yia-yia” Urania Alissandratos told me years ago when she was still living and “mothering” so many of us at St. John. When her children left home for college, she would “bring them to God” by symbolically bringing them to the Mother of God and leaving them in Her care. She did this symbolically by decorating her icon on the solea at church with flowers every year on the Feast of the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Mother of God. At Vespers last night, I found myself praying for loved ones who weren’t there by bringing them to the Mother of God, mentally, spiritually, even physically and emotionally as I wept tears for them. We all need healing, and I know several people who have “brought” me to Christ and to His Mother for healing over the years. I hope that I am paying that forward by bringing others to Him in my prayers. I look forward to another opportunity to do that tonight, as we pray the Paraclesis Prayers to the Mother of God at St. John.

Rebranding Prayer and Mindfulness Revisited

Last night I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up, did some writing on the computer (not a good idea when Church Health Readerone is having trouble sleeping!) and then read for a while. Finally I went back to bed around 3:30 a.m., but my mind was still buzzing. The last time I looked at the clock it was close to 4 a.m. I remember falling asleep with the Jesus Prayer going through my mind and heart. Why didn’t I try that first, before getting on the computer and reading? Why didn’t I think to approach my insomnia and monkey mind with mindfulness?

Earlier in the evening I had gone to a different sort of book event. Two Memphis authors—Suzanne Smith Henley and Greg Graber—discussed their books at the first ever book reading and signing at Church Health Center at Suzannethe Crosstown Concourse. I went because of my friendship with Suzanne, whom I’ve known since 2011 when she attended a creative nonfiction workshop I led at the Fogelman Center on the campus of the University of Memphis. I was also in a writers group with Suzanne for several years, and I was honored to be an early reader for her book, Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New. I did a review of the book here on my blog back in March, and a review on Amazon, Rehab, Heart Attacks, and the Holy Spirit Riding a Harley.” It was fun hearing Suzanne talk about her book again, with her unique perspective on the use of prayer beads and what she called “rebranding prayer.”

GregGreg Graber is the head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, and a mindfulness coach for the Memphis Grizzlies and several other sports teams. He spoke about his book, Slow Your Roll: Mindfulness For Fast Times. Greg also leads mindfulness workshops at the Church Health Center on Saturday mornings. His message about slowing down in this age of smart phones, tablets, and social media is timely and important, and can be incorporated into the lives of people of all faiths.

Suzanne and Greg were introduced by Dr. Scott Morris, founder and CEO of Church Health in Memphis, the largest faith-based healthcare ministry of its type. He’s a physician and a United Methodist pastor. I picked up a copy of the Church Health Reader Scott(Summer 2018, Volume 8, Number 3) while I was at the event, and was interested to read Scott’s article, “The Way of the Pilgrim.” Scott writes about his experience in college and beyond practicing transcendental meditation (TM). He says, “Even though I liked how it calmed my mind, I didn’t feel grounded in anything that was about God.”

He goes on to write about how the Jesus Prayer opened him to a Christian form of mindfulness:

When I first tried the Jesus Prayer with Henri Nouwen, it immediately seemed like TM. I just replaced om with the short prayer…. Years later I picked up a little book—it was only about three inches long—titled The Way of the Pilgrim…. I needed to try something, so I said to myself, ‘Start praying.’

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’

These days we hear less about the Hari Krishnas and TM, but mindfulness and meditation are widespread and have proven health and spiritual benefits. Many people of faith use mindfulness practices for the same reasons I’ve used the Jesus Prayer all these years—to let go of everything that clutters our mind and be fully present in this moment, to be present in prayer, to experience it more clearly, and perhaps to find God waiting there.

There’s also an article in this issue of the Church Health Reader by Tim Stead titled “Mindfulness in the Christian Tradition,” which addresses the differences in the Buddhist approach and the Christian approach.

And another article by advanced practice psychiatric-mental health clinical nurse specialist Jane Slatery, “Will It Really Make Me Feel Better?” It’s about the research on mindfulness and medicine.

Some of these articles are available online (the ones with links) but others are only in the print edition. SUBSCRIBE to the Church Health Reader HERE. I just started my subscription and am looking forward to future issues. Join me?

Icons Will Save the World

My friend Dr. Joanna Seibert invited me to contribute a guest post to her beautiful blog, “Daily Something.” She’s doing a series of reflections on quotes and images, and I was honored that she included an excerpt from an essay I had published eleven years ago in First Things, “Icons Will Save the World.” Here‘s the post, with the excerpt:

“Icons”

Nave of St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is mentioned in the excerpt

Nave of St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is mentioned in the excerpt

 

static1.squarespace.comI can’t remember how I first met Joanna, but we’ve been friends for many years, and have visited both in Memphis and in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she lives. She is an emeritus professor of radiology and pediatrics at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences and has been an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas for sixteen years. Joanna is the author of numerous books including, The Call of the Psalms, a Spiritual Companion for Busy People and The Call of the Psalms, a Spiritual Companion for People in Recovery, Healing Presence, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food as Seen by a Mother and Daughter, and a two-volume series of sermons, Interpreting the World to the Church.  She has been a writer for Forward, Day by Day, and has been a frequent contributor to the Living Church, and the Anglican Digest.

Subscribe to Joanna’s “Daily Something” and enjoy her inspirational quotes, art, and meditations.

Read more about St. John Orthodox Church, which is pictured above.

 

#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

Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (a book review)

Bead by Bead coverBead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New

By Suzanne Smith Henley

 

Suzanne Henley is an artist. And a renovator of old houses. And an author. Her book, Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New, is being released by Paraclete Press on March 13. TODAY! I wrote a bit about it back in January, here:

“Prayer Beads and Weeping Icons”

I’ve been looking forward to this for many reasons, but mainly these four:

 

Prayer bead necklace made for me by Suzanne in 2013

Prayer bead necklace made for me by Suzanne in 2013

(1) In 2013 I was in a life-threatening car wreck. I broke my neck, right leg, and ankle, and was stuck in my house for the first few months of my recovery. One day Suzanne came to see me and brought me a beautiful necklace she had made from these exotic beads from all over the world. They were prayer beads. And a she had written a description and meditation to go with it. I held them as I lay in my hospital bed (at home) and prayed. And later I hung them on the wall near my computer as a reminder of her kindness and God’s grace and healing.

(2) I share a love of art and spirituality with Suzanne, although my art takes the form of writing (painting) icons in the ancient Byzantine style using egg tempera. And I have been taught to make and use Orthodox prayer ropes—tied with knots rather than strung with beads—as part of a practice of meditation and prayer.

(3) For several years I was in a writing group that Suzanne hosted in her home here in Memphis. I knew right away that she was a gifted writer, and when she submitted sections of her work-in-progress for us to critique, I knew it was something special. Part memoir, part spiritual meditation, her personal essays—which is what they seemed at the time—eventually joined with chapters about prayer beads, and Bead by Bead came together.

(4) A fourth reason for my excitement about this book is that Suzanne contributed a wonderful essay to a collection I edited, and which was published last year by Mercer University Press: A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Her essay, “Beyond This Point There Be Dragons,” is a gripping story of personal trauma and her eventual blooming into a stronger, more amazing woman. And so for these four and even more reasons, I celebrate Suzanne’s book.

Suzanne doesn’t claim to be an expert on prayer beads, or even on prayer itself. But I love what she says about prayer in that very disclaimer in the beginning of her book, in the section called “Rebranding Prayer”:

I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have to come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself. I think it is the psychic glue between my conscious and shadow self where we all wrestle with Jacob’s angel and count our scars later.

 

Suzanne Henley

Suzanne Henley

She introduces the book by explaining that the stories she has included represent “a prayer bead in my life’s rosary…. The book is also an adult version of Show and Tell of some of the hundreds and hundreds of sets of prayer beads I’ve made—each unique, many commissioned to be carried to diverse people around the world. Many of the stories I tell are accounts of these real people for whom praying bead by bead has become an essential spiritual practice.”

In the Prologue, Suzanne tells the story of her employee, O.G. Pierre (“Original Gangster Pierre”) who asked her to make prayer bead necklaces for all the members of his gang, using a Star of David for each one, since it was the symbol of the Gangster Disciples. She had to decline that request.

In “Talking to God in Braile,” she traces the history of prayer beads in various pre-Christian religions, and then continues with the history of prayer beads being used by Christian faiths, including Orthodox prayer ropes and Catholic rosaries.

In “Clearing Your Cache and Beginning to Pray,” Suzanne explains how to use the beads—physically and spiritually—in your daily encounters with God.

In “Prayers, Poems, Lectio, Music, Silence,” she encourages the reader to write her own prayers, but she also offers some traditional prayers for use with prayer beads, and talks about the use of hymns, chanting, and even classical music and opera to assist in prayer.

In “Praying the Beads Without the Beads,” she offers opportunities for prayer while grocery shopping, waiting in traffic or a doctor’s office, doing laundry, and other everyday situations. In this and other chapters, she infuses her writing with humorous true stories from her life, like “Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon.”

Her chapter, “Homework: Life as a Set of Prayer Beads,” contains the story of her experience having a panic attack and checking into a psychiatric facility, which she wrote about in her essay for A Second Blooming. She also writes about the business she started, renovating homes in a historic district here in Memphis, offering a strong parallel between her rehab in the psychiatric facility and rehabbing these houses:

And, as trite as it is to say, we are all, of course, rehabs. Every moment. Every day. Even when we seem to be stuck out in some endless, parched desert, our hearts and souls cracking and dying of thirst, we’re handed the gift of starting over. Failure simply means an opportunity to begin again. We get to wrench out those old, rusted nails we worked so hard to hammer in crookedly, pull out the warped boards, and try once more to hammer a straighter nail. Every day.

BEAD BY BEAD would make a wonderful gift for Easter or Mother’s Day or… just because!

#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?

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.

Morning Prayers

iconsIt’s been a couple of years since I abandoned my blog “themes,” but old habits die hard. I often find myself waking up on Mondays thinking it’s “Mental Health Monday”; on Wednesdays wondering about ideas for “Writing on Wednesday”; and on Fridays with “Faith on Friday” on my mind. That’s what happened this morning.

I’ve blogged about my Morning Prayers several times over the past ten years. (Yes, I’ve been blogging for ten years!) Here are a few. (Just click on any that interest you.)

“Holding On To the Ship’s Wreckage”

“Faith on Friday: Wisdom of the Saints”

Faith on Friday: God in the Morning”

“Faith on Friday: Just Do It!”

“Faith on Friday: If I’m Lucky I Pray”

“Mental Health Monday: Keep Calm and Pray”

“Saint Patrick, Morning Prayers, and Writing at the Beach”

Sometimes I feel like I’m just going through the motions with my morning prayers. But that’s okay. God still hears them and my heart is softened by the process. But this morning—and many recent mornings—I was keenly aware of God’s presence. And also of the Mother of God, to whom I often pray. I always pray for my husband, children, my grandchildren, my Godchildren, our priests at St. John, and a few best friends and their families. Also for special “requests.” And when I have the energy, I pray for the world, and the people who are in such great suffering due to hurricanes and floods and fires and war and threats of war and domestic violence and poverty and….

I also pray for my own personal struggles, which often involve my health, both mental and physical. And personal relationships. The Morning Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, which is part of my routine, continues to bless me, so I’ll close with it this morning.

O Lord, grant that I may greet the coming day in peace.

Help me to rely upon Thy holy will at every moment.

In every hour of the day, reveal Thy will to me.

Bless my association with all who surround me.

Teach me to treat whatever may happen to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Thy will governs all.

In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings.

In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by Thee.

Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others.

Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will.

Teach me to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me. Amen.

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.”

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