The Leave-taking of Pascha

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

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

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen!

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

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

Hristos a înviat!

And without hesitation the man replied:

Într-adevăr, El a înviat!

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

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

Christ has ascended! From earth to heaven!

Rediscovering Mercy: Anne Lamott, King David, and Holy Week

books from Lemuria

 

When I was in Jackson, Mississippi, on Monday (my husband had a medical meeting there) I stopped in at Lemuria Books (where I had a reading/signing last Thursday) to visit with bookstore owner John Evans. We discussed this summer’s Mississippi Book Festival and other literary and publishing topics. As I was speaking with one of the booksellers who works there, I discovered these two books at the counter: Joan Didion’s South and West, in which she brings notes from a 1970s road trip journal she took with her husband through Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama into the present cultural and political milieu; and Anne Lamott’s latest book, Allelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. I love Didion and look forward to diving into her essays, especially since they are about the South, but it was the subtitle of Lamott’s book that drew me in immediately: “Rediscovering Mercy.”

As an Orthodox Christian, I am half way through Holy Week, which follows our forty-day spiritual journey known as Great Lent. It’s a “school of repentance” we enter as we walk through Christ’s death and resurrection, but it’s also a time to rejoice in His great MERCY.

This past Sunday our pastor, Father Phillip Rogers, talked about mercy in his homily. I love that both he and our young assistant pastor, Father Alex Mackoul, have kept such a positive, upbeat focus during Lent, rather than overwhelming us with too-heavy burdens for our already difficult ascetic struggles. Instead of reminding us of our shortcomings (don’t we all feel the weight of them without others pointing them out?) Father Phillip reminds us of God’s mercy. He did this with me in a very personal way when he heard my confession a couple of weeks ago. And then he encouraged all of us to discover this afresh in his homily by challenging us to read Psalm 117 every day during Holy Week. He said it would change us. I believed him.

My husband and I love this Psalm, especially verse 24, which we say to each other as greeting and response first thing every morning (a tradition we learned from my parents): “This is the day the Lord has made; Let us greatly rejoice, and be glad therein.” But I hadn’t read the entire Psalm (29 verses) all at once in quite some time. We hear much of it during the services in the Orthodox Church, so the verses were familiar as my husband and I read them together on Monday, and I read them again with my morning prayers yesterday and today. Here are a few verses:

 

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;

For His mercy endures forever.

Let the house of Israel say that He is good,

For His mercy endures forever….

 

The Lord is my strength and my song,

And He became my salvation.

The sound of exceeding joy and salvation

            Is in the tents of the righteous;

The right hand of the Lord exalted me;

The right hand of the Lord worked its power….

 Palm_Sunday-200x300

Appoint a feast for yourselves, decked

            with branches,*

Even to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will thanks to You;

You are my God, and I shall exalt you….

 

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;

For His mercy endures forever.

 

*We were celebrating the Feast of Palm Sunday, raising our palm branches as we processed outside the church remembering Christ’s victorious entry into Jerusalem.

At this time in our country, in our world, we need God’s mercy more than ever. How wonderful to rediscover it this week, both in Anne Lamott’s book, and in Psalm 117. As Lamott says:

I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human; the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.

But what does Lamott mean when she writes of mercy?

Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten…. The idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway…. Yes, because in the words of Candi Staton’s great gospel song, “hallelujah anyway.” Hallelujah that in spite of it all, there is love, there is singing, nature, laughing, mercy.

 

Father John Troy Mashburn annointing parishioners with holy oil during Unction at St. John Orthodox Church.

Father John Troy Mashburn annointing parishioners with holy oil during Unction at St. John Orthodox Church.

 

I am so thankful to King David (who wrote Psalm 117), Anne Lamott, and Father Phillip Rogers for helping me rediscover mercy during this beautiful Holy Week. Tonight I will experience another taste of that mercy at the sacrament of Holy Unction at St. John Orthodox Church. When the holy oil is placed on our heads and hands, the priest will ask God to heal the disorders of our souls and bodies. That healing—which each of us will experience in a personal way, according to our own physical, mental, and spiritual brokenness—will indeed be an outpouring of God’s mercy. I hope I will go forth from this sacrament with the familiar words, “Lord, have mercy,” on my lips and in my heart.

On Frizzy Hair, Triggers, and the Cross at Mid-Lent #Lent2017

holy crossMy 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!

Happy Lent, Mardi Gras, and Five Star Reviews

keep-calm-and-happy-clean-mondayWhile the folks in New Orleans are still celebrating Mardi Gras (today is Lundi Gras and tomorrow is Fat Tuesday, the final day of the Mardi Gras celebration) and Western Christians (mainly Catholics and Protestants) begin Lent the following day with Ash Wednesday, Orthodox Christians (like me) all over the world begin our Lenten journey today, with Clean Monday. We prepared for the launch of this season of spiritual renewal with last night’s service, “Forgiveness Vespers.” At the end of the litany of prayers, everyone present exchanged the kiss of peace, asking one another for forgiveness and responding with “God forgives and I forgive.” As we formed a line around the inside walls of the nave, exchanging hugs with our fellow parishioners, we stood together against enmity, jealousy, anger, pride, and everything else that often keeps us divided. We stood together for love, forgiveness, acceptance, and community. We did this not only for those of us present in the church last night, but for our families, our neighbors, our communities, and the world. It’s a powerful service.

Great Lent is a time for reflection and repentance, of drawing closer to God by removing some of the shackles that keep us away from Him, which is why fasting is part of the ascetic struggle. We also have many extra church services, and redouble our efforts with our personal prayers. All of this can feel overwhelming at times, and it’s often hard for me to approach it with a positive attitude. The fact that it happens as winter is slouching away and spring is arriving doesn’t help. Our non-Orthodox neighbors are outside firing up their grills and the aroma shouts “fun” while we’re fasting from meat. Spring break vacations and other events are scheduled and often conflict with the added church services. It all goes against the grain of our culture. And yet, I choose to participate, although I have in the past called my participation “Lent Lite.”
2009-02-lent-big copyThis year I’m calling my participation “Happy Lent.” I’m choosing to be happy. Matthew 6:17 instructs us to anoint our heads with oil and wash our faces when we are fasting, which pretty much means don’t make a show of it. Don’t look all sad and talk about your self-denial. I know some folks choose to go off social media during Lent, and that’s fine, but don’t tell everyone on Faceback that you’re doing it to be more spiritual. Drawing closer to God shouldn’t make us sad, and certainly shouldn’t cause us to shun the company of others, unless we have need of solitude for a period of time in order to take stock of ourselves. Even as I write these words I realize I can judge others who choose to do this, and that judging is wrong. We each have our own paths and may God bless us all in our struggle.

Happy readingI just started reading two books (because I’m not sure I’m going to continue one of them) that don’t sound like “Happy Lent,” but I guess I’m searching for something. This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, a memoir by Daphne Merkin and The Dark Flood Rises, a novel by Margaret Drabble aren’t spiritual books. But they both talk about aspects of our humanness that I care deeply about—emotional health and care for the aging. I’ll post reviews if I finish either or both of them.

Meanwhile, I’m thankful today that our son was several blocks away from the nightmare that happened near his apartment in New Orleans on Saturday. A drunk driver ran his truck through a crowd at the Krewe of Endymion Mardi Gras parade injuring about thirty people. People who were celebrating life. Thankfully Jon and his friends weren’t close enough to get hurt, but the incident was jarring, so today he’s too concerned to ride his book the short two and a half miles to a friend’s house for a cookout. There are just a lot of crazy and irresponsible people in New Orleans right now, making the celebrations dangerous for those who are just finding some happiness in the festivities. May God protect him and others during these final two days.

indexI’m also thankful today for my first (FIVE STAR!) reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I don’t know the reviewer personally, but she asked for a copy of the book and offered to review it in a couple of newspapers and online. What a nice way to start Lent.

May God help all of us who are choosing to participate in Lent—at whatever level we are able and willing.

End of Year Book List

2016 has been an industrial year for me, as I finished querying presses and signed 4 book deals. And now here at the end of the year, those 4 books are in various stages of organization, editing, pre-publication, and marketing. As a writer, I feed my creative spirit on the works of other authors. Often I read more than one book at a time, usually a novel and a nonfiction book. I rarely read short stories (although there’s one excellent collection in this list) or mysteries, but I love poetry, memoir, literary novels, books about spirituality and art, books about courageous and interesting women, and some “self-help” books.

woman-reading

 

I read 38 books in 2016. Fifteen are by authors I know personally. I would love to meet the other 22 one day, although a couple of them are no longer living. Here they are in alphabetical order. If you click on the links, you can read my blog posts on any of them you are interested in.

A Charmed Life by Mary McCarthy

A Lowcountry Heart by Pat Conroy

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

All the Way to Memphis by Suzanne Hudson

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

American Happiness (poetry) by Jacqueline Allen Trimble

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Delta Rainbow: The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson by Sally Palmer Thomason

Dimestore: A Writer’s Life by Lee Smith

Dispatches From Pluto by Richard Grant

Drifting Too Far From the Shore by Niles Reddick

Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style, and Substance by Tish Jett

Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of  Lent and Easter Edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe

Guests on Earth by Lee Smith

How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions From Both Sides of the Therapy Couch edited by Sherry Amatenstein

Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir by Martha Stettinius

Journeying Through Grief by Kenneth C. Hauck

Lines Were Drawn: Remembering Court-Ordered Integration at a Mississippi High School edited by Teena F. Horn, Alan Huffman, and John Griffin Jones

Woman_reading_a_book_(3588551767)Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

Little Wanderer (poetry) by Jennifer Horne

My Southern Journey by Rick Bragg

Not a Place on Any Map by Alexis Paige

Pray and Color by Sybil McBeth

Robert Walker, a novel by Corey Mesler

Still Life: A Memoir of Living Fully With Depression by Gillian Marchenko

The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe (winner 2017 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award for Fiction)

The Courage to Grow Old by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton

The Feathered Bone by Julie Cantrell

The Gift of Years by Joan Chittister

The Headmaster’s Darlings by Katherine Clark

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro

The Sanctum by Pamela Cable

Waffle House Rules by Joe Formichella

West With the Night by Beryl Markham

Why We Write About Ourselves edited by Mereditih Maran

Books for 2017What’s in the queue for 2017? (also in alphabetical order) Watch for reviews on my blog next year!

*Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Garden in the East by Angela Carlson

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race edited by Jesmyn Ward

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

The Statue and the Fury by Jim Dees

*When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

*On Barnes & Noble’s list of the Top 100 bestselling books of 2016

Happy reading, everyone! I’d love to hear what your favorite books from 2016 were!

Thanksgiving and Gluttony

gluttonyThanksgiving—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.

807c3295e6d88c31570994e1b33c4147Bill 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.

I Can Sleep When I’m Dead

He Qi. Christ in the House of Mary and MarthaChinese, ca.2005

He Qi. Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
Chinese, ca.2005

A couple of weeks ago I did a post about Barbara Crafton’s “almost daily eMos” from her online site, “The Geranium Farm.” Crafton takes a work of art and reflects on it in these posts, and I look forward to them every day. Today’s post shows a contemporary Chinese painting by He Qi, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.” As Crafton reminds the reader of the scriptural account of these two sisters and their different approaches to serving Christ as a visitor in their home, I thought about how I have played each role during different seasons of my life—sometimes the busy Martha, serving my family and volunteering for everything at church, and sometimes the contemplative Mary, metaphorically sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Crafton shares an essay she wrote earlier, “Lazybones,” as part of her reflection on Mary’s seeming laziness set against Martha’s physical acts of serving. I love these words from Crafton’s essay:

People who sit and read—anything—are honoring their Mary selves. I am sure that starting anywhere, even with the silliest of novels, is just fine: the efficiency you build as a reader and your growing sophistication as a person will lead you toward more substantial fare, and to grow in knowledge of any kind is to grow closer to God.

During a more intense spiritual season of my life, I only read religious books. I must have devoured fifty volumes by early Church fathers, monastics, mystics, church historians, and theologians during a two-year period in the mid 1990s. I withdrew from “the world” in the sense that I also didn’t listen to secular music and rarely watched television. When I came out of this season, I found myself starved for good literature, good music, and good theater, movies and television drama. As I began to write seriously, my thirst for reading increased. It was as if the words I devoured in novels, memoirs, and essay collections had become the fuel for my own work. That’s still true today.

indexI couldn’t go to sleep last night. I went to bed around 10:30, but I had another bout of “monkey mind” and just couldn’t turn it off. So I got up around 1 and read until about 2:30 this morning. I think I finally fell asleep around 3 a.m. My current read is British travel writer Richard Grant’s amazing book, Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta. It’s about the move he made from New York City to the small Delta town of Pluto, Mississippi, where he discovered what he calls the best-kept secret in America. And because I probably have ADD and usually read two to three books at a time, I’m also reading Barbara Crafton’s short book, The Courage to Grow Old, which is a soulful reality check for those of us in our sixth decade and beyond.

Sometimes, as a writer, I just sit. Yes, I sit and read, but sometimes I just sit. This would appear lazy to someone who doesn’t understand that sitting still is part of a writer’s work. This sitting can take place in front of a blank page on a computer screen, or on a bench by the Mississippi River, just a few blocks from my house. It can take place in my living room, or (maybe especially) when I’m driving alone on a trip. I rarely turn on the radio when I drive, enjoying the familiar or new scenery, but also allowing my mind to wander in a way that it rarely does when I’m at home. I’ll be doing that tomorrow, as I drive over to Little Rock to visit a friend. And although it’s not part of the Mississippi Delta, the miles of flat fields and the occasional crop duster flying over my head on Highway 40 between Memphis and Little Rock will remind me of Grant’s life down in Pluto, Mississippi, and the lessons he learned there.
So I’ll walk through my Friday a bit sleep-deprived but filled with images and words that feed my soul. Like Jason Michael Carroll says, I can sleep when I’m dead.

I Want More

sign_languageJust over three years ago I posted this:

Mental Health Monday: We Want More!

I wish I could write something encouraging today about how I’ve overcome those cravings for “more” and have become a disciplined, moderate person. That would make a great fiction story. The truth isn’t as uplifting—my cravings are just as strong as they were three years ago. The only time in my life those cravings left me was a period of several months right after my car wreck, which happened about a week after that blog post. Lying in a hospital bed with a broken neck, leg, and ankle, metal satellite-looking beams sticking out of my leg, my neck in a brace and pain meds and muscle relaxers keeping me afloat, I noticed that I had no appetite. I didn’t crave anything—not carbs, not alcohol, not sweets. Three months later I had lost fifteen pounds without trying, and without exercise.  (And six months later I had gained it back.)

more1-150x150Our cravings begin in infancy, but our appetites are simple at first. We just want mother’s milk. Or formula. And our appetites are dictated by physical hunger. But as we get older we are introduced to things that tempt us to cravings that have nothing to do with physical hunger. Sugar. Simple carbs. Salt. Soft drinks. One of the most common “signs” that parents often teach their toddlers—before they can speak—is the sign for “more.”

And so the struggle continues. Yesterday morning I read this wonderful post by Father Stephen Freeman, “To Have More—Pleonexia.” Father Stephen writes about our cravings for more as an addiction, but also as a spiritual issue. And he makes it clear it’s not just about food or drink:

If the desire to have more were limited to material goods, it would, perhaps, be but a bothersome thing. However, the disease of pleonexia is spiritual and infects the whole of our lives. Pleonexia is not a disease that can be isolated to a single area of our lives. We want more of everything: more things, more sex, more food, more entertainment, ad infinitum.

These things I want more of seem to take turns, one or more of them always pushing their way to the front of the line, vying for my attention. The Church fathers talk about food/gluttony being a key passion that can affect the other areas of our lives, and sometimes I find that to be true. If I have the gluttony under control, sometimes I can get a better handle on the bigger issues, like greed, jealousy, anger, and depression. This is why the Church encourages us to fast, a practice I have always struggled with. But as I get older, I’m beginning to believe that it can help with the cravings. Even to keep the Wednesday/Friday fast (no meat, dairy, or alcohol) is a huge effort for me, and I fail at it weekly. But to have an awareness of the discipline and to even make small efforts seems to help.

So, this ends my first week of blogging without the themes, “Mental Health Monday,” “Writing on Wednesday,” and “Faith on Friday,” in several years. It’s funny, but I almost fell into those themes organically this week… creature of habit, I guess. But it did feel good to have the freedom to write about anything on any given day. We’ll see what next week brings. Thanks, always, for reading!

Mental Health Monday: A Time to Grieve

 

Mother's Day 2007, at Ridgeland Point Assisted Living Facility

Mother’s Day 2007, at Ridgeland Point Assisted Living Facility

This past Friday marked 40 days since my mother’s death on May 22. What’s the significance of 40 days? In the Orthodox Church, we pray the prayers for the departed (and read Psalms) every day for 40 days after a loved one dies. It’s very comforting, directs the heart and mind towards God and our own death, and petitions Heaven for the salvation of the departed, which is a belief held by Orthodox Christians, if not by our Protestant friends. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Meanwhile people continue to ask me “how are you doing?” My closest friends and relatives know that mine is a complex grief for several reasons. The most obvious is that I already grieved the loss of my mother a few years ago when she no longer recognized me due to Alzheimer’s disease. And then there are the issues of our mother-daughter relationship being complicated by the verbal and emotional abuse I suffered from her for most of my life. I was able to forgive her for that a few years ago, so I’m left with the choice to remember the good things about her.

She was the queen of celebrations. Every birthday, every holiday was a cause for major decorations and gifts—all handmade and very creative. She taught me how to celebrate.

She was a wonderful grandmother. Her grandchildren seem to remember mostly the good things about “Granny Effie.”

She was a supportive “helpmate” to my father, who was very well-loved and successful in many arenas—including sports, religion, and the business world. In retrospect, I believe she set aside some of her own desires and pursuits in order to support his careers, especially as he became a hero of sorts in the world of running and marathon competitions.

jtg_book_1_coverAnd so now I’m left with only a little paperwork to wrap up her financial affairs, since she no longer owned property, and with those memories. This morning I looked again at the brochure I received from the good people at the church she and my father helped establish in the 1950s in Jackson, Mississippi—Covenant Presbyterian—titled “A Time To Grieve: Journeying Through Grief,” Book One, by Kenneth C. Haugk. The accompanying letter from the church’s “Stephen Minister and Grief Ministry Chairman,” Mary Lewis, says that more brochures will follow. It’s really a nice way to reach out, especially considering I haven’t been a member there since the early 1970s. The brochure is well-written, and addresses many issues that the bereaved might be facing. I found this section especially on point:

Quality of the Relationship

Some relationships are very close, others distant; some are amazingly harmonious, others fraught with conflict. The quality of our relationship with a person will affect our grief when he or she dies. It’s often said that the closer we were emotionally to the deceased person the greater our grief. While that is certainly true, it’s also true that a strained relationship can make grief more difficult…. The death of an abusive parent or spouse can result in feelings or relief rather than loss.

I think I would have felt that relief when Mother died, except that I already went through those emotions a few years ago when she lost most of her mental capacities to Alzheimer’s. She became sweeter. She “forgot” how to be mean to me or to speak ill of others. That was a relief. As a result I found the ability (by God’s grace) to forgive her and to begin to love her more. And so I truly mourned—I wept and I wailed—when she died.

Papaw and Granny EffieAnd so today I am no long grieving. I am at peace. And I pray that she is, too. I picture her in Heaven with my father.

When I look at the last picture I have of them together (from about twenty years ago, before my father’s life was cut short by lung cancer, and before the plaques and tangles had begun their devastating work on my mother’s brain) I cry tears of joy. And I ask them to pray for me and for their grandchildren.

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!

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