Hard Mercy

The once immaculately dressed man has the detritus of a beard trim and several meals on his dark sweatshirt. His voice is weakened and high- pitched from pain. He stumbles, slightly off-balance, as he moves down the narrow hallway. My heart catches, and stumbles on. I am sick with fear watching this once proud, well-groomed man become elderly, frail. Even his once handsome smile has changed, the victim of age and the poor dental plan offered the elderly in this country. My heart aches to see it as I scan for other signs of decline.

Part of my fear is the thought of losing him, but part of it is for myself, wondering if this is what my own future holds. Will my children one day be scanning my face for signs of decline and find themselves horrified by my loss of dignity? Is this inevitable?

I long to scream in the face of death as an affront, yet I acknowledge it’s inevitability. I believe there is some lesson in humanity and in love that is taught through caring for the frail and failing but I’m not sure I’m learning it. I believe there is also some value in our own failing frailty.

I think our horror has more than one side. One side of it is fear, but the other side is a recognition that it wasn’t supposed to be this way. We were created with the possibility of life without death until sin. And death is now a blessing in a way, in that it allows us to slip into eternity with God, rescued from our depravity, from our frail bodies, and from that which separates us from God.

Our ever-increasing frailty keeps us from clinging to our earthly lives, keeps us from thinking we can do it all by ourselves.

This decline in our physical bodies and in the mind, when that happens, is a hard mercy, preparing us to slip these bonds and to prepare ourselves for meeting our Creator. Lord have mercy.

I can scarcely count the friends, the family who have passed, unwilling to reduce them to numbers. They have names, these precious ones, and instead of counting them I name them: Max, Steve, Grandma, Grandpa, Jack, Jack, Robb, Pat, Bertha, Bob, Craig, Fred, Rich, Tiffanie, Betty, Frank, Jared, Peter, Glenn…oh, I could continue. It’s a blessing the list isn’t even longer than it is.

Proverbs says that it’s better to go to a funeral than to a party because death is the end of every man. A wise person will take that to heart. I believe that. I make it a practice to go to funerals both as a reminder and as a sign of loving respect for the families. It is far more important than heading to a wedding, as much fun as those are.

Such is the end of us all. It is a truly hard mercy.

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Keep the Ugly In

“We are the only humanity left. Here,” she gestures to the people in our church fellowship hall, “in this room.” Everywhere we go, in modern society, our humanity is being erased. We go to the store and the checker has been replaced by self-scan. We call a company we do business with and the automated line is set up to direct us over and over toward doing our business through the website. We have to run the gauntlet of this before, finally, after much persistence, being granted an audience with a living human. She says that mental health and suicide hotlines are the one place that have actual humans answering the phone. I don’t have the heart to tell her of the hotline failures I’ve read about.

We are a self-indulgent society. We want to dash in for groceries without having to deal with another human. We don’t care that self-scanners put people out of dignified work. We don’t care, apparently, that we are paying for the privilege of ringing up and bagging our own groceries.

We seek our connections through social media. We want to be followed and liked on-screen as we don’t know how to have relationships in real life. I can’t curate my actual life to look clean, serene, perfectly made-up, and supremely witty, but I can on Facebook.

Because I have become convinced that this is true, and that Facebook is addictive in the worst way, for me, I have taken a step back. I do some photography work through Facebook, and (try to) run a writers group through it, so I haven’t closed it altogether, but I haven’t looked at it in 24 hours. I know, I know, that’s too brief a time to know if it will take, but it’s longer than I have been off of it in ages. It is certainly longer than I have been off of it voluntarily in ages.

I’m hoping that I will regain the ability to be human–to develop deeper friendships, and to read and write more. Perhaps I can use the time saved to perfect making prosphora. But mostly, I want to control and change that deep disquiet that lets me know that something is wrong.

I have an inner festering wound of discontent and of ugliness that must be addressed. In modern times, we seem to think that this ugly must be expressed. It is “our truth” and we must say whatever is on our minds. This is the opposite of being human, as far as I’m concerned. To be truly human, I must sacrifice the desire to “let it all hang out” in favor of respecting others. Making others bear the ugly in me is cruel and selfish.

This is what prayer and confession are for. To heal the ugly without damaging others in the process.

What does it mean to be human? What constitutes the best way to express our humanity? These are large questions to which I do not have the complete answers. What I can report is that many of the ways we chose to express ourselves are actually making us less human.

I’ve begun watching a documentary about a religious group, and the way they expressed their individual longing for connection and community led to physical violence, sexual abuses, and even rape. Yet those who were part of this ignore those parts in favor of the times they felt they were part of an amazing experience, of community, and of something grand. They seem ignorant of the abuses of others that they were a part of, actively or passively. So desperate were they that they gave up a bit of their humanity. Some gave up nearly all.

I see this in the desperate souls. The need for connection is so great that they fall for the first thing that promises community. Some ignore the damage they do to others in the name of this great search. Their pain is to excuse to act out in any way they see fit.

Honestly, aren’t most of us like that? We use our pain as a reason to say hurtful things, to mock, to ridicule, to attack, and to belittle. We let our ugly out.

Let’s do our best to keep the ugly in. People say that you must excise a wound to get the infection out, but we don’t do that indiscriminately. We go to a surgeon, not to our neighbor or our spouse and children. We go to someone who is trained, not only to aid us in the healing, but ensuring they are not infected themselves.

May I suggest that you and I do the same. Let’s not make our friends and families bear the weight of our ugliness, but instead take that ugly to God, to our confessor, or to a counselor.

The Blessing of Humiliation

I was talking to a priest this evening and we discussed some situations where not only are things out of control, but the limbo is humiliating. Job hunting has its own inherent humiliations and the waiting period is a horrid kind of limbo. There are other situations in my life that are humiliating as well. The embarrassment of being treated with disdain by someone who is supposed to hold you in high esteem, or being told your help is completely unnecessary when volunteering (after being asked.)

I am not needed, nor apparently wanted for these tasks. Humiliating. My cheeks are red just remembering. Didn’t you ask me to help just a couple of weeks ago?

I have been ASKED to apply for jobs but not had my application even acknowledged.

I don’t need sympathy, but say this so you know that I truly understand Humiliation.

But this priest told me of a prayer spoken by the priest who prepares the prosphora for holy communion. One part of it says: “In his humiliation his judgment was taken away. ” Does that take your breath away? It did mine. It brought me to tears.

Perhaps in my humiliation my judgment is being taken away. While I struggle to find the good, perhaps the good is woven into the trial itself! Perhaps I am to learn to take my humiliation as Christ did. Silently. Prayerfully. For the joy that is to come, though I despise the shame, I can accept this time of humiliation, and find it a blessing.

One Perfect Sentence

I want to write one perfect sentence. I’d like to write more than that, but if out of all my scribblings I create that one perfect sentence that expresses beauty, joy, and truth, that would be a fine thing to leave behind.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been listening to college courses in writing, and I’ve been trying to find time and places to sit and concentrate on my work. What is that perfect sentence? Is it something like Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” or “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Beautiful, no? Even after reading those many times, and typing them here, I feel that same sense of grand wonder, of joyful sorrow, that feeling that Lewis mentioned, of beauty that is so beautiful that it can only remind you of the longing for that more beautiful other. The promise that more is on the horizon, on those white shores…

But to write such things it requires all the other words, all the other sentences. It requires the discipline of pen to paper, of fingers to keyboard. It requires dedication; I wonder if I have it.

The course I have been listening to for a few weeks now, “Writing Creative Non-Fiction”, has introduced me to a number of concepts, words, expressions, and techniques that I think I should have been exposed to in my previous education. Did I miss them somehow? For some reason, the professor, Tilar Mazzeo, despite an annoying habit of beginning points with “After all…”, gives an enormous amount of information in the course. I would like to listen to it over and over again to glean more.

This is, perhaps, one of the losses of an online education–that the student misses out on the lectures. Good lectures add so much to the learning process! I am not generally an audible learner, but I use a mixture of my primarily visual learning, added to the physical process of writing. But…add an audible portion and I learn even more. I have learned to add visual learning to audio lectures by picturing the words. Sometimes I see the words appearing in beautiful script in the sky or on the wall. “Seeing” the words helps me to absorb the audible.

Taking notes can help, but I often listen to lectures in the car when note-taking is rather hazardous. Visualization allows me to cling to the spoken words and thoughts, rather than tune them out, as I often do.

In this way I am creating a more immersive learning environment for myself. And this is what I need to do to write better, I suppose. I need to create an environment where I can shut out the extraneous and concentrate. Sometimes I have to go to a coffee shop or the library. It isn’t that conversations aren’t going on around me, but that they don’t involve me, so I can tune them out mentally.

Continual education helps me become a better writer. Let me illustrate:

This morning, my grandson and I filled the bird feeders, and scattered more seed on the ground. Within half an hour, the avian neighbors seem to have spread the word, and I am currently watching a golden flicker, a mourning dove, black-capped chickadees, house finches, black-eyed juncos, scrub jays, and a couple of feisty squirrels feasting. When I first moved into this house and set out the feeders, I enjoyed watching the birds, but they were all largely foreign to me. I could tell you their general category, but I could not have said their names or identified their behavior. But in the months that have passed, I have faithfully fed them, studied them, and researched them. Because of that, I can spot a black-eyed junco from the next rooftop. I know that the scrub jay is a bit of a bully and the other birds will stay out of his way. I can anticipate the behavior of these birds because I know how they interact. I know their patterns. I have a deeper appreciation for them and a greater affection for them, having come to know them.

In the same way, the more I know about building great sentences and great paragraphs, about constructing characters with depth, and about compelling narrative arc, the more capable I become of creating better work. I know more why my words do what they do, and why they don’t do what I want. While this blogging forum is not my best work (I rarely do extensive edits), it helps me to think things through, to practice certain skills, and to express ideas in a way that solidifies them in my own head.

Buying Orthodoxy

A friend tells me of her mother who, under communist rule, had a single icon hung in the back of a wardrobe, hidden behind all the clothes, she would draw them aside each morning and say her whispered prayers. The danger was real; her faith profound.

When I became Orthodox a few years back, I was given a cross pendant and told to wear it always. I was also given an icon of Christ. Precious gifts.

In the approximately six years since, I have acquired, by gift or purchase, an embarrassing wealth of icons, books, and other items.

At times I sense in myself some avarice–a rapacious need for the trappings of Orthodoxy to fill the need for true spirituality. I must fight this, repent, and recognize that the ability to sense that in myself is a gift from God.

If I do not heed the call to repent, I will dull that sense, and soon will not know that I am filling a need with a lesser thing.

I have given away some items, because looking at them was a reminder that I had purchased them out of avarice and not reverence.

Would that I had one icon hidden in a closet, treated with reverence, than a thousand silver and jewel-encrusted icons and all the manuscripts from a thousand monasteries, with illustrations and illuminations by the finest hands.

I don’t know if others struggle with the merchandising of everything on our world, but it strikes me that we often spend more than necessary on things we can do simply.

Instead of walking around the neighborhood in my jeans and t- shirt, I prefer a treadmill in a gym. I then pay for the membership, athletic gear, sports drinks, and a gym bag.

I wanted to add to our meal variety. I could have looked up recipes online and purchased the ingredients. Instead I ordered a meal service which sent the precise amount of ingredients and sauces to use in the recipes. It did get us out of a good rut, but I bought my way out.

There are no shortcuts for some things. I cannot become a better writer without writing, studying, editing, revising, and basically putting in the time. A $3,500 piece of athletic equipment won’t help if I don’t put in the time using it. I cannot buy my way into humility, patience, peace, gentleness. I can’t acquire the Holy Spirit by buying icons, books, jewelry, or devotional items. The mercantile does not possess what I need. I can’t replace kneeling prayers, fasting, alms, and good works. I must actually pray, attend Liturgy, etc., there are no shortcuts.

It’s an Orthodox Thing…

My friend Tanya often will interject in a conversation, “Oh, you know, it’s an Orthodox thing.” This is when things are un-explainable to most people, but when something happens (or doesn’t happen), when the word comes at just the right time, or the perfect house shows up just when you have finally decided that you are okay with whatever God has in mind, be it staying in the cramped apartment…living in a part of town you don’t want to live in, giving up a spot in the garage for your own car…whatever…

At that time, you say to yourself, I won’t show him this house because even though I love it, I know he won’t, and he looks at it without you there and puts in an offer without you even stepping foot into the house.

It’s when you have an inexplicable experience while venerating an icon or praying in the nave. It’s when there is a rescue immediately following urgent prayer. It’s not always what we might call a blessing, but somehow you know deep inside that something otherworldly has happened, that the veil between the here and now and the glorious forever has thinned and grace has shown down on you.

Such a thing happened to me on Sunday. I will not tell the story here, for it is not the kind of thing you say publicly. It is the kind of thing we Orthodox often keep between ourselves and our closest confidants. I will say, however that that moment, that touch of heaven, or whatever you want to call it (an Orthodox thing), felt like the loving hand of God.

It stayed with me through a difficult day when I thought my husband had a heart attack. The paramedics were also concerned that something was happening that wasn’t good, perhaps his heart. I was weeping, yet fairly calm. I remember clearly, as I was standing over him as he lay on the carpet saying over and over and over, “I just need to catch my breath.”

In that moment, when he looked horrid, when he said something about his chest hurting, when all the events of the previous hour swirled through my head and I thought he might die…in that moment, I remembered the touch of God from earlier in the day, that touch that said to me that God loved me, despite myself. I knew that no matter what happened, that it would be okay. No matter what.

I kept that in mind as I called 911, as I talked to the operator, as I was dealing with an ill man who did not want help but needed it badly. I was reminded as I watched the paramedics and firemen gently talk my husband into letting them help him, and as I rode in the ambulance with him. It stayed with me as I sat in the waiting room as they treated him.

Because of his condition at the time, it was deemed best that I wait outside while they treated him. I pulled my crocheting out of my bag and waited.

I was thinking of that loving touch which occurred during Divine Liturgy, and the comfort it gave me was profound. That comfort (I’m tempted to capitalize that word, for the comfort was so great) aided me as I crocheted and prayed the Jesus Prayer. Double crochet, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, single crochet, have mercy on me a sinner. Over and over and over again, the hook wove in an out of the growing piece of fabric. Over and over and over, those words grew in me.

Lord, O Master of all creation. Jesus Christ, O, that sweet name. Son of God, Son of God, of one essence with the Father, True God of True God. Have mercy on me, Oh what manner of love is this that the Father has bestowed upon us? What mercy? What grace? That I can COUNT on that mercy as part of His very essence? A sinner, ah, how blessed am I to be forgiven.

Others have gone deeper into the Jesus Prayer, and know so much more. But I have been graced with this comfort from the very Comforter. It’s an Orthodox thing.

Smoke and Candles

In the heat of summer, I wrap a sweater around my shoulders to combat the chill in the nave. I have four, thin, beeswax candles in hand, purchased in the foyer, called the narthex, on the way in. I fancy I smell honey in their golden softness.

I cross myself as I enter, first three fingers of my right hand pinched together for Father, Son and Holy Spirit, ring and pinkie pressed to my palm for the two natures of Christ, and sweep my fingers from forehead to abdomen, then from right shoulder to left shoulder, “Push, not pull,” as taught. There are no windows in this space, save for those which let in a small bit of light from the windows in the narthex. Soft up-lights cast a glow on the ceiling. Recessed lights direct light onto each of the tall icons running the length of the room on both sides. In the gentle, unobtrusive light, the candles and vigil lamps in front of the altar area cast a warm glow. There is a familiar scent of spice, resin and rose incense, an aroma which permeates everything.

I make another reverence in greeting to the icon of Michael the Archangel, whose stand is just behind the pews. I ask him to pray for me, to guard me and to help me, before another reverence. At the end of a slow walk down the center aisle is an icon stand, so beautifully carved I want to caress it with my fingers and examine every centimeter of the polished surface. On the stand is the icon of the week. This week, as it often is, it is the icon of the Theotokos, Mary, Joy of All Who Sorrow. Mary is depicted standing, in a red cloak. Around her are small scrolls which state what she is credited with; but the print is too small to read so the explanatory scenes that surround her remain a mystery to me. This icon, as the others, is precious, otherworldly. The deliberate lack of perspective can be unnerving at first; but over time these representations of Saints, Angels, and  the Holy Trinity have become as beloved as treasured family photographs.

Beside the icons of the Theotokos and  Jesus Christ are large, gleaming brass stands for candles. After bowing and crossing myself, lean in and kiss the icon of Christ, soundlessly; the scent of beeswax and frankincense fill my senses. The icons are mounted with gold leaf which shines in the light of the candles. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” My whispered words, as I lean in to kiss the icon again ask, “Help me.” I cross myself again and bow slightly, always conscious that the truly devout often bow to the floor. I wonder, is my bad knee an excuse to avoid embarrassment should I need help getting back up from the floor, though there are few others present at the moment. I ask forgiveness in case that is true, as, taking a candle from my hand, and lighting it from the central flame, I whisper the name of a friend who longs to be married and have children. The smoke curls up toward the heavens, taking my prayer with it. The candle burns for about an hour and a half, and in all that time, that smoke will be a representation of my heart cry, the whispers of my soft prayers.

I cross the narthex to stand before another icon of Mary; this one showing Christ coming forth from her, a representation that she carried the creator within her, a wonder that cannot be fathomed by my human mind. I cross myself, bow my head, kiss her icon, and breathe the words, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Pausing, then continuing, “More honorable than the seraphim and more glorious beyond compare than the cherubim, who as a virgin gave birth to God, the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you.” I cross myself and bow again, pondering the honor that Jesus might wish me to show to his mother. I ask forgiveness for any lack of respect or understanding I might have. After lighting my other candles, I placing them in the stand filled with wheat berries to hold the candles upright. These candles represent the loved ones who have died. I whisper their names, “Robb, Bob, Pat, Jack, Rich.” A co-worker’s son passed recently, so I add, “Nicholas.” I whisper the names of my grandparents and my niece, also deceased, “Chet, Doris, Berger, Isabella, and Tiffanie.”

There is a song we sing during Lent that runs through my mind as the smoke from these candles goes up, “Let my prayer arise in your sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” There are clouds of smoke from the incense curling around the doors to the altar, and soon the service will begin. I am happy to be here early to have time to greet the saints that line the walls, Joachim and Anna, Saint George, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Seraphim (a particular favorite of mine), another favorite, Saint Nicholas. There is Saint Xenia, who lived in the cemetery by her husband’s grave from her late twenties until she died, no matter the weather, with only her late husband’s overcoat to keep her warm. Many of the saints have stories as yet unknown to me, but I greet each of them with a kiss. I kiss my fingers and touch their cathedral size icons on the walls. I whisper to each of them, “Pray for me. Help me.”

Saint Seraphim, for some reason, always brings tears to my eyes. No matter which depiction of him it is, I recognize it immediately; and as I gaze into his eyes, I think of the icon of him I have at home, an icon that is so peaceful I can scarcely bear the holiness.

My final stop is the icon of the Synaxis of the Saints of Carpatho-Russia, which looks over the area where the choir sings. Most of these saints have stories I do not know, but greeting them, asking them to pray for us, and to give us strength to sing the service well is a special but ordinary part of this preparation.

It is in this time before the service begins that my mind and heart is calmed. This is the time to try to set aside the worries of today. Soon the rest of the choir will come up the stairs, music stands will be shuffled, purses stowed beneath the seat, precious floor space apportioned, elbow room claimed, and it will be difficult to pay attention to the prayers arising from those candles. I entrust my prayers to the saints, to Christ and to the Theotokos, and trust that they do not need me to guard these prayers, but that they are safe where they are.