Last night I went to confession.  This is a sacrament which is so misunderstood in Protestantism, and I am only beginning to understand it.  I accept it as a teaching of the Church, and as such I go to confession, at first hesitant, now willing, but still somewhat reluctant to share my sins and failings with another.  God understands; others? Not so much.  Or that is how I feel.  But I am learning that I can say things to my priest that I would not admit to another human being. And so I found myself, after prayer and contemplation, weeping before my Father Confessor, and my Savior, Jesus Christ, in the sight of all that crowd of Saints who have gone before, in front of the Theotokos, and admitting my sins, repenting, and fearing that my tears are not solely of repentance but of self-pity as well.  The God who forgave David is the same one who looks down on me with compassion. And in this life it is a great comfort to hear those words, “God forgives.”  For it is not the priest who forgives me, it is God, and my confession does something that is hard to describe and explain.  It is a building block in a wall of strength and forbearance in the future.

I will confess to you that the words admonishing me to withhold nothing or be the more guilty (wild paraphrase), is a hard one for me.  How does one make a full confession?  If my sins are as the sands on the shore, I not only cannot know them all, I cannot begin to recall them during confession. Do I willfully withhold? I think that is the key, but I am not the expert here. Do not willfully withhold from your spiritual father. Hmmm.  The correlation that comes to mind is seeing a doctor but not telling them all the symptoms.

I was mortified to be weeping there in the nave (sanctuary), but I remembered a song from years ago, and the words if this is not a place, where my heart cry can be heard, where, tell me where do I go to cry?  I realized that there is no better place to go when you have a need to cry, when you need to unburden yourself, when you need to confess, when you need healing, when you are grieving, when you are lonely, when you are celebrating, when you are joyful…when…

I don’t have a big, grand point to this post, but I wanted to explain in a small way what confession is in Orthodoxy.  I remember having such a revulsion to the idea of confession, as it was related to Roman Catholicism, and as most Protestants will attest, anything that is remotely evocative of the Roman Catholic Church is to be avoided at all costs.

Confession?  Why that just means that you live like the devil all week, but go to confession on Saturday night and it’s all good.  Genuflection? That’s just vain ritual and empty repetition. Robes and vestments? Showy. Chanting? Old and boring. 

I have now come around to where the beauty of these has been revealed, as if the curtain has been pulled back and I can finally see the truth, only the truth is more beautiful and more real than I had imagined.  One of those beauties is in confession. But I don’t go to confession for beauty, I go to confession because it is a sacrament of the Church, and I have placed myself in subjection to her.  Glory to God!


Some Days My Heart Hurts

You know those days? The days when the hurt of others weighs on you and your heart and squeezes your chest tight, and tears swell behind your eyes, and you wonder at the laughter of others. One friend received a cancer diagnoses. One friend is struggling for life in the hospital. Someone you love is dealing with what looks like dementia and paranoia, and the pain in your own body is threatening to overwhelm you. When your concern for others is more than you can bear. A family member has a terrible looking wound that doesn’t seem to be healing, while recovering from major surgery oh so slowly, and the bills are coming in for an injury…and, and, and…

And Christians are beheaded for their faith, others taken captive, still others have not been heard from as the months and years tick on, and so many are refugees running from violence and war, and your heart threatens to leap from your chest to escape the burdens of these hurts, these wounds.

It’s one of those days. It’s a day when I recognize my complete inadequacy to handle anything, when it is all I can do to crawl from my bed and whisper “Lord, have mercy!” And the words of that prayer are both insufficient and utterly sufficient. For where am I to go where His mercy is not sufficient? Do I need to explain what I want to happen? Do I need to tell him that I am asking for strength for the cancer patient, for the hospitalized friend and the family who loves him so, for the paranoid, the demented, for the recovery, for the bills, for the pain? I am going to the God who Knows All, Sees All, Hears All, and whose love is unending. I don’t have to educate Him as to what to do, as I used to think when I was younger.

I have not the strength for the day. Lord, have mercy. I have not the wisdom to know how to handle some family issues. Lord, have mercy. Someone has wounded me. Lord, have mercy. There are new martyrs. Lord, have mercy. There are those captured. Lord, have mercy. There are bills beyond my ability to pay. Lord, have mercy. There is pain beyond my endurance. Lord, have mercy. There is illness. Lord, have mercy.

Oh, Lord, have mercy. Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, All-loving God, have mercy.

Empty Ritual and Vain Repetition

This blogpost got me thinking…

There were many obstacles to becoming Orthodox, not the least of which is the ideas that had been drilled into me that the Roman Catholics and other liturgical churches were empty of all but ritual and that the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and others was meaningless. I was horrified by making the sign of the cross over oneself or others, by the bowing, the kissing of the cross, of the priest’s hand…much had the “taint” of Catholicism, and for many (if not most) Protestants that has a chilling effect, a reflexive horror and distaste that is deeply ingrained.

I found it very difficult to cross myself, although, frankly, it is my Protestant brothers and sisters who showed me that this was a fine thing to do. A women’s Bible study I was part of began each video series with a ritual hand motion intended to remind you of  lessons which were to be ingrained in your thinking.  This physical gesture was to remind you of truths.

Some time later when I was investigating Orthodoxy and reflecting on things that were difficult for me, I was reminded of this study. We do things all the time to remind ourselves of truths, whether it is post-it notes of verses stuck inside drawers and cabinets, on mirrors and dashboards to remind us of God’s truths, or if it is a physical gesture.  Remember Carol Burnett tugging her ear to send a private message to her grandmother? She continued it even after her grandmother died.  Ritual? Yes.  Meaningless? No.

In the way we hold our hands as we cross ourselves, we are physically reminding ourselves that God is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that Christ has two natures, fully human and fully divine. We remind ourselves of the cross of Christ with each gesture. Can it become ritual?  Yes.  Is it meaningless?  I suppose it can be. I have now made the sign of the cross thousands of times.  Do I always think of the Triune God? Do I always think of the two natures of Christ? Not consciously, but you would probably be surprised how often I DO think exactly that. I am reminded in my own flesh of that which I believe.

Many Christians, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, wear crosses around their necks.  I do. Mine is surrounded by the letters IC XC NI KA, which means Jesus Christ Conquers, or Jesus Christ Prevails. I do not think of this each time I touch it, but I am reminded of it when I need to be. Is it less valid because sometimes I am unaware of the message? I certainly don’t think so.

There are many things that bear repeating and in the repetition do not lose significance. The National Anthem never fails to bring a tear to my eye, no matter how many times I hear it. Nor does the honor showed to that flag and that anthem when men remove their hats, when we stand and put our hands over our hearts cease to have significance. It is a ritual, surely, but not insignificant. In a similar vein, the significance of the prayers, the hymns sung, the repetition of Lord, have mercy, the procession of the Eucharist, the closing prayers, the icons kissed is not lost through repetition. It never gets old to hear a child say “I love you.”  It is always pleasant to be greeted with delight upon your arrival, and it is not insignificant, vain or empty in it’s repetition.  In fact, I would venture to say that it gains significance through repetition.

The things we do in the body have significance, probably more than I can possibly understand.  It is not enough to do something once or twice, at least with most things, but instead we must repeat them over and over.  It seems arrogant that we used to sniff in derision about people saying “The Lord’s Prayer” or murmuring Lord have mercy. I am ashamed to say I have scoffed at such things, thinking that I somehow knew better, that my prayers were “from the heart” and as such, better than the ritualized prayers of others.

There is so much more to be said here, but I will close for now with one of the prayers of John Chrystostem: “O Lord, grant me mindfulness to confess my sins.”  Now that is a ritual that bears repeating.

Taking the small steps…

I tend to want to run marathons. I don’t mean to I suppose. But I just don’t find myself liking the little steps. We all saw how those 21 fellows were beheaded by Isis for their faith. I want to be ready for that now, not later.

I wonder though, whether those young men were ready last week, the week before that, the month before that, or the year before that. Maybe none of us is ready until we have done all those little baby steps ahead of the big race, ahead of the final finish. Is it possible that we have to be faithful in the little things, and when we are we’re ready for the big things to come?

Small victories have to be okay. Life is made up of small victories. I cannot climb a mountain if I can’t climb the stairs at home. I cannot run a race if I cannot run around my block. I must be faithful in the little things.

Significant Among the Trivial

Twenty-one heads hit the dirt. Twenty-one martyrs for Christ, made the ultimate sacrifice, and I stayed home from Divine Liturgy because of a sore throat. I’ll grant you that my throat was mighty sore, but these twenty-one men had their throats cut. Twenty-one families lost husbands, sons, brothers, fathers, and my attention? It’s on the storm raging outside my window, though there is a bigger storm going on throughout the world. The People of the Book are waging war against the People of the Cross. I need that cross written in blood across my heart. I need that cross weighing on my hands, my back…

While I sit here, safe and warm, my concerns seem so trivial, my pleasures so trite. There us a deeper and truer place to walk, it seems, though the road appears to be the same. It’s like The Matrix, what seems real and beautiful and enjoyable are simply keeping us quiescent in the face of our own destruction.

I recently watched part of the Grammy Awards. The opening number boldly proclaimed that we are on a highway to Hell. The crowd danced and clapped, and sang along, sporting devils horns on their heads. I could have wept. I probably should have. Proudly they proclaimed something so dreadful, so awful. All in fun, of course.

The evening continued on, but I couldn’t help but think that our national past time seems to be to laugh at the very idea that we could be on the highway to hell. But I believe most fervently that these 21 latest martyrs are welcomed into the arms of our Savior. I have to wonder if there is enough evidence to convict me of being a Person of the Cross.

What is Not Said

If you want to understand the conversation of my family, you must learn to hear the things that are not spoken, those tails of conversations, the ellipses that contain silence and truth. “How are you?” I ask. “Oh, just fine.” The unspoken part of this conversation is carried on in the mind of the second party.  “I’m fine” is followed by the unspoken conditional statement by which the first is colored. “Considering I was hit by a bus,” might be that statement, and if you don’t know that part of the conversation, you might believe that person to actually be “fine.”  “She’s been having a difficult time of it,” may be expanded greatly by the understanding that “she” just lost a baby, or was diagnosed with cancer, or lost her job, or lost her wallet.  Any of those things might be the follow-up to that statement, but as it is never spoken, the listener either assumes they know the entirety of the situation, or they bumble along and perhaps either don’t offer needed solace or assistance, or they offer too much.  After all, losing one’s wallet is not remotely as traumatic as losing a job, or having a miscarriage.

In response to this, I often over-share and qualify, expand and define.  The situation might call for an “I’m fine” response, but I will give all the qualifiers to a person who was just using the query in place of “Hello.”  It’s a balancing act, and one I don’t feel I do well.  I teeter between, “I’m fine,” (considering I just lost my job, my car died and I’m suffering from such severe depression that I can only force myself to leave my apartment once a week.) and “I’m fine, but a bit down about the Redskins letting Mike Shanahan go, and someone ran into my car in the parking lot and just drove off, and…”  I have to wonder sometimes if part of this is because there is an art to conversation and that art is rarely innate, but is most often learned, and my teachers could neither properly converse nor could they teach us how to do so.

I have learned, at least and at last, that “How are you?” is not as straight-forward a question as you might think.  For some people it is a courtesy, a polite pleasantry for which the response is expected and required to be “Oh, fine, and you?” That this is the expected response is revealed by the fact that the first party absently smiles at whatever you respond and say, “Fine, thank you,” as they have continued to walk across the room, either to hang up their coat, or speak to the person to whom they are genuinely interested in speaking.  It is a way of acknowledging your presence.   That this is true is revealed by their startled response some six or seven feet away as they realize you just said to them, “Not well, as they just found the tumor that has been causing Jack’s dizzy spells.” Try it out, and you will be surprised by the responses.  It’s not considered a polite thing to do, so you might want to go easy on them by saying something milder, like, “I’m fine, but you have a three foot piece of toilet paper hanging from your waistband.”  Be sure to have a pleasant grin on your face as they turn to you with a startled look on their faces.  “Just checking to see if you were listening.”  Then wink at them.  You’re being charming.  How can they take offense?

As you can imagine, sorting these things out when you come from a family who leaves so much to the imagination is rather difficult.  When the doctor asks how are you, you are tempted to polite pleasantries, when really you should tell them the truth.  “I cannot lift myself out of the tub any more because my shoulders just can’t take any kind of pressure.” “My diet consists of a daily banana for breakfast, a sweet potato for lunch and a salad for dinner, but I am not losing any weight.” “I’m suffering from crushing depression to the point that summoning the strength to wash my hair is a feat to be followed by a two hour nap.” Or, perhaps, “I’m doing just great!  That exercise program you suggested has really lifted my spirits and has helped with my headaches!”  Something other than “fine.”

I find it helpful to pre-determine the type of relationship as a guide for defining the expectations from a “how are you?” query.  A business acquaintance is not looking for the run-down on your nephew’s trials and travails within the Illinois penal system, and your postman is probably asking as more of a greeting than a literal questioning of the state of your being.

Within your family, such prevarication is not normal, is it?

It’s not clear to me how much of the world manages communication.  I know folks who are completely comfortable having conversations with each other in the bathroom.  I consider that serious alone time.  If you are in the bathroom, you might as well be on Mars for all I’m concerned.  I’m not speaking to you until your return.  I wish to be treated the same.  In fact, why don’t we just call it the “Mars Room?”  That would make it clear that upon entry you are no longer part of this world.

Aside from that, I’m puzzled by women who speak to their mothers 3-4 times a day on the phone.  What do they talk about? What are these quantities of vital information that must be conveyed from one to the other?  I truly do not know.

Of course, I must admit that in general I’m not much of a talker.  In fact, a while back I was ordered by the ENT doctor’s office to talk more.  I was ordered to speak.  Have you ever heard of such a thing?  I was having serious vocal problems and part of the answer was to speak more often and longer to build up the muscles.  I found myself stymied.  What on earth would I say for several minutes at a time?  I wasn’t afraid to speak, that is different entirely, I simply could not figure out a worthy topic of conversation.  If I have a decent conversationalist on the other side of the conversation I can hold up my end just fine, but if you get me together with my people, none of us knows how to get the conversation started. It just lies there flapping around helplessly like a fish out of water, until finally someone escapes.

Hungering and Thirsting for Blood

One of the pleasures of being 50 is looking back and realizing you are not who you used to be.

When I was younger, I am ashamed to say, I was greedy for information on the rich, the powerful, or celebrities, even people I knew, but did not consider “friends”, particularly the things that would embarrass or humiliate them. I enjoyed the feeling of superiority it gave me when one of them had a public fall, or was revealed to be an alcoholic, druggie, or had serious relationship problems. It was a blood-sport, like the Roman Coliseum, and I was one of a large crowd, hungering and thirsting for blood. I told you, I’m ashamed.

Now I see these as people, and I turn away from the public airing of their suffering, their pathos. How can I judge these people? Why did I feed on their sadness and misery? Where once I couldn’t look away, now I can’t look away fast enough. I recognize the lust for this as a parasitic animal. I drank in their pain.

Now I can clearly see that this is akin to the rapaciousness of the crowds attending lynchings in the Jim Crow South, to hangings, to the Salem Witch Trials, blood sports all–even akin to guards at the concentration camps making sport of the torture of their captives. These things cannot happen when we see others as people made in the image and likeness of God, and as beloved of God. If I see people this way, the rejoicing in their suffering becomes anathema to me.  And in seeing people this way, it changes me too.  I become more human.

Did you know that they used to paint the sand in the Coliseum red to hide the amount of blood pouring from the victims there? I have to wonder how much blood has been spilled on my behalf.  How many actresses have cried themselves to sleep to see their weaknesses displayed on screen and in the checkout aisle for the entertainment of the likes of me? How many have read cutting comments about their weight, their choices, their morals? How many have their bodies used to shame them to try to keep up with some impossible and outrageous ideal of perfection? How many have been pushed to fix noses that aren’t broken, to flatten the smallest curves, to try to look youthful only to be mocked for their efforts? Have these women push themselves to excessive amounts of exercise to appear that they never had a child, never ate a piece of bread, or more, just to please the fickle public? Have I painted the ground red so that I won’t have to see their suffering?

I still have moments, I’m sorry to say, where I forget to see the spark of the divine in others, where I forget to see them with love and compassion. Old habits die hard. But now, before clicking on that news story, or planning to watch the interview with the latest celebrity in crisis, I hesitate and recognize that blood-lust in my own spirit as vile and distasteful. Thanks be to God! “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” (Romans 7:18 ESV. )

It is only by the grace of God that I am able to see this as sin, to recognize the disease, and to receive the cure. For that I am profoundly grateful.