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.

 

Holding On to the Ship’s Wreckage

Man-Shipwrecked-at-Sunset--87235This 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.

Shipwreck-1024x512

 

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.

Faith on Friday: Wisdom of the Saints

Final_2016_Cover_copy_q8mndnWe have a wonderful calendar that we get each year from The Orthodox Calendar Company called “Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints and Fasting Calendar.” For each day there’s a quote from a saint, information about a saint or feast being commemorated that day, Epistle and Gospel readings, and information about fasting guidelines for the day/season. The company has a Facebook page, and the book is also available for Kindle and other eReaders. (Most) every morning, I use this book with my morning prayers, which I pray in our icon corner in our dining room. It almost always helps me focus for the day ahead. The first line of my Morning Prayers is “Grant me to greet the coming day in peace.” Another line says, “Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Thy will governs all.” Peace of soul. That’s one of the goals of the saints whose wisdom is offered in these quotes. Today I’ll share a few that have blessed me recently, and I pray that they bring peace of soul to you. I’m especially thinking about those suffering from the flood in Louisiana and the fires in California today. Lord have mercy!

One must act in such a way that the soul does not turn to God only when one is standing in prayer, but should do so as far as possible throughout the day. It should be an unceasing offering of one’s self to Him.—St. Theophan the Recluse

If you possess love, you feel no jealousy or envy. You are not boastful, carried away by reckless pride. Nor do you put on airs with anyone. Nor do you act shamefully towards your fellow beings. You seek, not simply what is to your own advantage, but what also benefits your fellow beings. You are not quickly provoked by those who are angry with you.—St. Niketas Stethatos

If you are entirely deprived of something, do not hope in man or be distressed; and do not grumble against anyone. Rather, endure eagerly and calmly—reflecting as follows: ‘I am deserving of many afflictions, on account of my sins; but if God wishes to show mercy to me, He is able to do so.’ If you think along these lines, He will fulfill your every need.—St Isaac the Syrian

That one would be really hard for me if I had just lost everything in a flood or a fire.

Remember never to fear the power of evil more than your trust in the power and love of God.—Apostle Hermas of the Seventy

While we have time, let us visit Christ, let us serve Christ, let us nourish Christ, let us clothe Christ, let us offer hospitality to Christ, let us honor Christ.—St. Gregory the Theologian

z­.;Ìÿ

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Danielle Blount kisses her 3-month-old baby Ember as she feeds her while they wait to be evacuated by members of the Louisiana Army National Guard.

Because even as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto Christ.

I’m sure there are many sites offering ways to help the victims of the flood in Louisiana, but this one seems especially helpful:

“How to Help Victims of Louisiana Floods” (Huffington Post)

 

 

Faith on Friday: No Fasting!

no-fasting-zoneOrthodox Christians—those who make some effort to keep the fasts of the Church throughout the year (including no meat, dairy, fish, or alcohol on Wednesdays and Fridays) look forward to the few “fast free” weeks on our calendar. Like this week—the week after Pentecost. As you know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, I struggle to embrace the Church’s rules for fasting. But I have recently made a small effort with the Wednesday-Friday fast. Even abstaining from meat OR dairy OR alcohol on those days is a bit of an ascetic struggle for me. It’s not so much that I’m a glutton or a drunk—although I’ve been both of those things at times—as it is that I don’t like to follow rules. I like to be in charge of myself. To have at least the illusion of control of my life. (And I do realize that it’s mostly an illusion.)

So when I realized this week was fast-free, I must admit that I’ve been enjoying it a bit more than usual. Like today, when I have plans to go to my favorite restaurant with a Goddaughter who is visiting from out of town. I’ll have a cocktail and fish, and I might even enjoy them a bit more because of having denied myself those pleasures on several Wednesdays and Fridays recently.

If this still sounds like a bunch of silly rules to those of you who have never followed a religious fast, try thinking of it in terms of fasting and feasting, and the contrast they bring to our lives. What if it was Christmas every week? Do children whose parents buy them toys every day or every week enjoy Christmas or birthdays as much? Do they get used to receiving these treats as ordinary, making them less special on days of celebration?

I was thinking about my own childhood recently, and how it was a treat to eat out at a restaurant. And fast food chains like McDonald’s didn’t have drive-thrus until the 1970s. Today many families with small children use fast food restaurants and drive-thrus on a daily basis. It is no longer a special treat because it has become commonplace.

I can remember the years I did work hard to keep the fast during Great Lent, and I admit that the food and drink on Pascha (Easter) tasted better than usual. Maybe our bodies need these cycles as much as our psyches do.

So, if you’re Orthodox and you keep the fast, I hope you are enjoying this fast-free week. And if you’re not, maybe I shed some light on this ancient practice and how it fits into our spiritual, physical and emotional lives. Have a great weekend!

Faith on Friday: Heaven’s Lucent Kiss

 

Effie Jeanne Watkins, circa 1938

My mother, Effie Jeanne Watkins, circa 1940, age 12.

A classmate of mine from high school just sent me a beautiful card full of comforting words as I grieve my mother’s death. Inside she also shared this poem, which had been read at another classmate’s mother’s funeral in February. It was written by that classmate’s grandmother-in-law, who was Poet Laureate of Mississippi from 1973-1978. It brought healing tears to my eyes, and I hope it blesses all of you today.

Misnomer

To wake, completely freshened,

On Heaven’s vibrant shore—

To see the ones whom I have loved

And lost a while once more!

To leave behind me nothing

But gasping, mortal breath

To gain the life eternal—

Now would you call it—Death!

To trade the mundane sorrow

For everlasting bliss—

The pinpricks of misfortune

For Heaven’s lucent kiss—

To lay aside forever

The suffering and strife—

Now you may call the marvel Death,

Now I would call it—Life!

          Louise Moss Montgomery

         Poet Laureate of Mississippi 1973-1978

         Clarksdale, Mississippi

My mother circle 1936 or 1939... hard to read the writing on this beautiful tintype

My mother circa 1939. She was 11 years old.

Mental Health Monday: Jammies, TV and Coloring

Fr B Cathy Su kids casketToday is the first day since May 6 I have been at home with some “down time.” Here’s what the past three and a half weeks have looked like:

May 6-19 – Paris

May 19 – home for 15 hours

May 20-25 – Jackson, Mississippi (in hospital with Mom, her funeral, etc.)

May 25-28 – daughter Beth and 4-year-old granddaughter Gabby here with us

May 29 – church, wedding for a friend’s son, reception

And so Memorial Day arrives and my agenda changes to this:

Sleep late

Breakfast in jammies

Watch golf and tennis on TV in jammies

Look through cards and flower notes from Mom’s funeral and start thank you notes

PRAY AND COLOR…

Pray and ColorAbout six weeks ago I let everyone know about my friend Sybil McBeth’s new book, Pray and Color. I was so happy to receive my copy a few days ago, and to begin using it this morning. After reading some of the introductory pages, I chose template #27 and filled in the thoughts/prayers I wanted to offer and then colored in the design. The page fits perfectly with the Prayers for the Departed that I’m continuing for my mother for forty days after her death.

 

 

Template #27Now I feel everything starting to slow down and my body beginning to rest. Thanks for this amazing gift, Sybil.

Faith on Friday: Prayers for the Departed

Our icon corner where we read Psalms and pray.

Our icon corner where we read Psalms and pray.

I’ve begun again the tradition of reading Psalms and praying the Prayer for the Departed for my mother, which I will continue for forty days. Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent article about this practice on his blog, Glory To God For All Things:

Prayers For the Dead

I especially like this part:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. (Wisdom 3:1-7)

The list in the back of our Psalter, where I just added my mother's name.

The list in the back of our Psalter, where I just added my mother’s name.

Last October I had the blessing of praying these prayers for my dear friend Sissy Yerger. When I saw her husband, Father Paul Yerger, and her daughter Wisdom at Mom’s funeral, we talked about how Sissy, who had dementia and visited my mother in the nursing home as she declined with Alzheimer’s, expressed a fear of having to endure a similar fate, and how gracious God was to grant her a quick death. But as a Christian, I try to believe that God loves each of us and to accept the path we have been given to walk.

I am comforted by reflecting on the love so many people showed by coming and sharing flowers and music and hugs and memories. May her memory be eternal.

Effie wedding inv etcMy mother’s cousin from Meridian, Mississippi, where Mother grew up, Mae Jaqua Garrett, handed me an envelope at the funeral. She had found the wedding announcement and invitation to my parents’ wedding from 1948. What a treasure!

Effie Johnson engagement photo

 

 

 

 

 

Faith on Friday: God Created a Kingdom (on Good Friday)

Jesus in agony by Georges Rouault, from God With Us

Jesus in agony by Georges Rouault, from God With Us

In her essay, “Good Friday,” in God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, Kathleen Norris says:

Death tests our faith, whether we are mourning the loss of a beloved family member or contemplating the suffering of Jesus on the cross. We can well imagine the disciples on Good Friday, stunned and disheartened by all that has happened to the dear friend they had dined with just the night before: arrest, a trial on trumped-up charges, and public execution.

I first encountered Kathleen Norris through her book,  Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks and A Writer’s Life, which explores restlessness and despair that so often accompany mid-life. Her life in the past decade has been greatly affected by death.  She lost her husband (the poet David Dwyer), her parents, and her younger sister Becky, who died of cancer. Becky was developmentally challenged and often appeared as a character in Norris’ books, serving usually as her sister’s moral compass. When Kathleen writes about death, I sit up and listen:

Good Friday is a wake-up call, forcefully reminding us that suffering and death are real, and that even the son of God had to endure them. But Good Friday is also about our limited vision. When it comes to death, we are as shortsighted as Pilate, whose kingdom is built on power, the visible might of armies. He can’t comprehend the kingdom Jesus represents, one grounded in truth and love. To us, death seems like an end, but for God it is the beginning of our return to the great love from which we came.

Wouldn’t we be just like the disciples—like Peter cutting off the guard’s ear—trying to protect our friend from the current political milieu? Wouldn’t we also have a hard time understanding that, as Jesus told them, His Kingdom is not of this world? Again, Norris brings Christ’s message home:

On Good Friday, God created a kingdom, and we now live in that new reality.

Listen to this hauntingly beautiful hymn, “Today is Suspended Upon the Tree,” chanted by Father Apostolos Hill.

Blessed Holy Friday, everyone. Only four more church services (at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis) before we arrive at the celebration of His Resurrection, at 11 p.m. Saturday night! Have a glorious weekend.

Writing on Wednesday: Pray and Color

Pray and Color coverMy friend Sybil McBeth has a new book coming out in June. You can pre-order it here:

Pray in Color (an adult coloring book)

I’m excited about this new book, especially since I already enjoy my coloring books with mandalas and also one of modern art. This one will bring a new element into my coloring experience, as I learn to combine the activity with prayer.

Sybilis the author of Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God (2007) and Praying in Color Kids’ Edition (2009). Praying in Color uses doodling and coloring as a way to get still and listen to God. She combines her lifelong love of prayer with her experience as a community college mathematics professor to offer workshops and retreats throughout the U.S. and Canada. Her 2014 book The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Extremist (Paraclete Press, Fall 2014) invites people to experience the richness of the holiday season at home. Learn more at Sybil’s website and blog: prayingincolor.com.

Faith on Friday: Thank God

wreck frontYesterday afternoon around 1:30 p.m. I received this text from my husband:

I’ve been in a bad wreck but think I’m OK—on North Parkway at Dunlap.

My heart stopped. My hands started shaking. But I was able to text him back:

I’m on my way.

 

wreck sideWhen I arrived (in about 3 minutes) and saw his car, I burst into tears. Memories of my wreck almost three years ago came flooding back into my head and heart. But I ran over to where Bill was talking with the emergency responders and saw that he was, indeed, fine.

One Way

 

 

What happened? A woman entered North Parkway from Dunlap on the north side of the street, going south—where it is a ONE WAY street going north. Her car was also in bad shape, but thankfully neither she nor my husband were seriously injured. Bill only has a few bruises, thank God.

Thank God. We say that almost flippantly all the time, don’t we? Even people who aren’t religious say it, especially when expressing relief over something that could have been much worse. The baby was born prematurely but she’s going to be fine, thank God. His cancer is in remission, thank God. She wasn’t shot in the terrorist attack, thank God.

But yesterday and today those words are much more than a platitude for my husband and I. Last night when he finished his evening prayers—which he says in front of our icon corner in the dining room—and came to bed, I asked him again if he was okay. He said he was just thanking God for keeping him safe and unharmed.

As we move forward, dealing with insurance (the other driver has insurance, thank God) and considering new car shopping, we both have thankful hearts and a new appreciation for life. For God. For angels.

Thank God.

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