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.
We 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
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)
Orthodox 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!
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.
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
Today 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:
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…
About 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.
Now I feel everything starting to slow down and my body beginning to rest. Thanks for this amazing gift, Sybil.
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:
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)
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.
My 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!
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.
My 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.
Yesterday 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.
When 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.
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.
This past December I did a post about Flannery O’Connor that included this quote from A Prayer Journal (published after she died):
I 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.
Writers—and maybe musicians and artists and even people in other walks of life—must have a measure of self-confidence in order to attempt a book, or even an essay or a short story or a poem. It takes courage to put your creative efforts out there for all the world to judge. It would be so much easier to work in a field where your daily assignments are black and white. Balance these books. Add these numbers. Repair this engine. But… make up a story from scratch? Or brazenly tell a true one?
O’Connor acknowledges God’s part in her creative work, and yet she surely must have had some degree of “self” confidence to keep on keeping on, in the face of numerous rejections and other discouraging aspects of the writing life. So how does a Christian balance this self-confidence with faith?
Mother Melania, an Orthodox nun who lives in the community of Holy Assumption Monastery in California, says this:
Self-confidence is a much valued trait in our culture…. What is a Christian to make of this? After all, we would be very hard pressed to find any saints in the Church who ever bemoaned their own lack of self-confidence or tried to increase it in their spiritual children. That’s not to say that the saints were not confident people.
And then she goes on to give examples of saints whose courage and faith inspired generations. And then she says:
The different between their confidence and our self-confidence has to do with at least two things—the purpose of this confidence and the person in whom it is placed. The saints had confidence in the goodness and power of God…. We, on the other hand, have a multitude of purposes for our self-confidence—an easier life, more money, increased status… even to do good for our fellows. But if the purpose is not to love God and neighbor, what possible sense does it make to place that confidence in myself?
Today is the feast day of the Annunciation in the Orthodox Church. We commemorate the event described in Holy Scriptures when the Archangel Gabriel told Mary that she would become the Mother of God. I can’t even imagine the confidence it took for this humble young girl to respond with “be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:28). She was facing public humiliation and scorn and disbelief on the part of many. Her life was about to change in ways she could barely imagine. Any plans she had for her future were immediately set aside. Was it “only faith” that allowed her to respond so obediently? I think she also had a measure of confidence—in self and in God. Again, from Mother Melania:
The root word in ‘confidence’ is fides…. ‘faith, trust, confidence; belief, credence; loyalty; honestly; allegiance; promise; security; protection.’… to place our confidence/fides lovingly and humbly in the Lord of the Universe Who willingly died that we might share in His life is an unspeakable privilege, a great adventure, and unimaginable joy. Grant this, O Lord!
I love this video, “Be Done Unto Me.” May it inspire you on this Feast of Annunciation!