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.


The Look of Love

I forget the first time someone smiled at me. I forget whether anyone ever looked at me the way you do when love is so strong that your face glows and your body can barely contain the enormity of your love. I do, however, remember when I realized what that looked like.


            I bit my lip nervously as I checked into the women’s retreat at Bear Trap Ranch. Already out of my comfort zone, I had ridden with someone I had only known a short time. I had no means of escape.

My new red and black striped pajamas were tucked away in my luggage, for a much-needed boost of confidence.  They silently told the lie, “Why yes, I always wear nice new color-coordinated things to sleep in. I would never sleep in faded, holey un-matched things.” My dresser had looked at me with disdain as I packed, quite aware of my deception.

The weekend involved a lot of silence. I felt I was on the outside looking in. Individual conversations faded, specific words lost, mostly because I didn’t talk much. I was fairly new to the church and just finding my way. I don’t recall the speakers, or most of the activities, and think I may have led music with Del. I just remember slowly relaxing around Lori, Sandy, Dori, Kelli and Ellen, who seemed so calm and comfortable with each other.

The air was crisp with the tang of pine resin, and the gravel crunched beneath my feet as I walked the property alone, to relax from trying to fit in. I secretly longed to go rappelling, but I was nervous that I would be unable to climb the steep bank to reach the 130-foot rock face, or be unable to physically manage the descent. I stood for over an hour watching others rappel down the cliff, the longing so strong it tightened in my chest to the point of pain, but could not overcome my fear of embarrassment.

In the evening, we gathered in the timbered lodge. Peals of laughter came from one group of women in the game room area. The lodge had a shelf of old hymnals, the covers frayed, smelling of dust and old paper. The women thumbed through them, laughing a bit in puzzlement at this other, old-fashioned style of worship, and the musty, dusty books.  I knew those hymnbooks backwards and forwards, so the evening dissolved into several of us gathered around a heavy wooden table with years of wear scarring its surface beautiful. Someone would call out the words of the first line of a song and I would sing all the verses I knew. I knew nearly every one with “the Baptist verses” memorized. “First, second and fourth as the last,” just as the song leader would have called from the pulpit. Lori looked delighted every time. I was embarrassed, but pleased to be able to recall the songs I’d sung since my childhood.

We drank hot cocoa from heavy ceramic mugs, and ate popcorn and chocolate chip cookies someone brought with them, and Lori and I sat up late talking. I told her about walking in on a family member molesting a young girl. “I’ve been angry with him ever since.” I confessed. “I’ve never forgiven him.”

“Has he ever said he was sorry? Has he asked the girl to forgive him?” her voice was earnest, angry.

“The only thing he ever said is when he followed me out of the house, still zipping his pants, and said, ‘You’re not going to tell are you?’ It was awful.” I never tell this story, and am not sure why I told it then, to a near stranger. The dark night wrapped around us.

We talked of forgiveness, grudges and other hurts, things that I don’t recall, and while someone started a movie in the other room, I wandered off to bed in the snug, rustic cabin, happy to be wearing presentable night clothes.

Soon after chapel started in the morning, Donna tried to slip in unnoticed with her new foster-baby, given into her care the day before.

I wish I could preserve that moment forever. It was precious, quiet, momentous and, dare I say it, holy. Donna had miscarried many pregnancies and the deepest longing of her heart was to be a mother.

As she looked into the eyes of the baby who would eventually be adopted into her family, time and space ceased all meaning. The love on her face radiated a beauty that hurt. it was so powerful, and so intense. It was too beautiful to look away and yet so holy and private that looking felt as if I was desecrating this sacred moment.

That love could be felt to the edges of the room and beyond. I realized that I was seeing true love, mother love, for possibly the first time in my life. My ears were filled with silence that pushed away nearly all sound but the those of that infant and that mother. Space seemed a fluid thing, containing gaps that had no meaning. This moment was more important than space, than time, than sound. It was the essence of humanity at its purest and best. In her face was something otherworldly—a love too pure to be contained by the mere firmament. In that moment, I swear I saw the face of God.

I’ve replayed that moment many times over the years, Donna’s makeup-free face glowing like a Madonna in a room full of women who probably knew what that was like. I hope I have looked at my darling children the same way, but can you ever fully give what you never received?

That moment is sacred, woven with the scent of pine, with dark timbers and fading carpet, with shared joy, with red dirt, with granite cliffs, and with the beauty of one woman’s face as she beheld her child. The rest of that weekend may be details fading into soft oblivion, but one thing stays with me—I know what love looks like.


Before taking the long drive west, I came to her one last time to visit, to talk, and to tell her I was going. I had a cough and laryngitis, neither of which were troubling, the likely result of ragweed season. I padded my way up the boardwalk, loving the dune grasses and shrubby evergreens and soft sloping sands.

As my head cleared the top of the walkway, suddenly I could see her in all her splendor. She flirted with me, coming closer, then pulling back. She was so confident, my lady, elemental really. She put on no airs, begged no pardon; she simply is. Sometimes stormy, sometimes calm, she can be a lovely playmate, but you should never forget that she is never fully safe.

I set my chair in the sand, set down my bag and simply watched her, breathing deeply of the warm salt air. It’s good to gauge her moods before making a final approach. Sometimes it is best not to engage with her when she’s wild, stormy and clawing at the shore. Anyone who goes to her then could be pulled into the deep.

The Atlantic is a woman, and I am in love. I love her songs, her whispers, even her roars.

img_0774This day she was slapping the waves hard in places, loud noises that startled me, moving this way and that. Her sister, the Pacific, tried to drown me years ago, and I have never forgotten the memory of that day. I was remembering that day as I looked out at the Atlantic, thinking that the water was too rough for me, so I sat and watched her frolic for some time.

She enticed me with seafoam chasing along the shore, moving along invisible paths. I approached a float of foam, enchanted by the rainbow shining off the bubbles, which formed and disappeared, growing smaller and smaller as I watched. I had chosen a safe bit, high on the shore, but the foam was soon gone and I followed another pile of seafoam and then another, until my feet were in the silky waters. She lapped around me sweetly, reminding me of other times, other days of sunshine and play.

She called me to come swim, but I didn’t trust her. She can be a trickster, hiding her furies in coyness like a southern belle, all smiles and sweetness with daggers hidden in her words. I stepped deeper. The water was pleasantly cool and the waves, as they reached me had lost their fury, curling around my ankles and caressing my calves. I treaded deeper, mid-calf now, in love with her. A surprise surge slapped me about my hips before pulling back. There was no strong undertow, as I was expecting. Where I was standing the pull was a playful tug, nothing more. The waves further out calmed as she beguiled me. The water effervesced. She was in a spa mood, it seemed.

The red danger flags are posted for a reason, but conditions change, right? And I longed to swim, buoyed by the briny deep…all was calm, the wind warm. I decided that I wouldn’t submerse myself due to the nagging cough. I hate being cautious when adventure awaits, but an adult has to be smart, and I remember crawling to shore in Carlsbad, all but drowned, so many years ago.

So I stayed in the shallows, kicking and playing in the luscious water, the salty smell in my nose. A few of the waves heading toward me were bigger than before, but they calmed right before reaching me and stroked my skin as they splashed me to the waist.

I dipped down and dashed water on my arms and shoulders, careful to avoid my hair. A rogue wave hit me from the side, splashing up and over me, pulling my feet from under me. I got up, spluttering, and laughing, soaked from head to toe. It iwas a fairly gentle shove. Ah, she was in a playful mood now. For the next hour or so we played together, the water warm and soft. I heard her breathing, her exhalations on the shore and then the wide intake of her breath, deep and balmy as she withdraws.

After a time, she had nearly lured me into complacency, but I felt it when she grabbed at my ankles and pulled. She didn’t want me to leave, and I had to decide whether to stay with her permanently or to regretfully leave her behind. She wasn’t quite patient enough and I was still on guard. I felt her greed for me, her longing to pull me to her bosom for a last, wet kiss, and I quickly turned and walked up the beach.

I stood for a long time at the top of the walkway, saying my goodbyes and attempting to burn her sights, her sounds, her smell into my memory, trying not to cry.

That evening, I discovered her final gift to me. By 8 o’clock, my lungs whistled, and sucked, and pulled like the surf. Within a couple of hours, every breath sounded like whale song. By morning, the doctor at Urgent Care had diagnosed me with bronchitis and pneumonia. I’ve had them before, but I’ve never heard breathing sounds like this. My lungs were pulling like a rip tide, and still calling to humpbacks. What I coughed up in the night hours looked suspiciously like a long muscled tentacle, though that could be my imagination.

It’s my final gift from the Atlantic. She doesn’t want me to leave. It’s not that she loves me; I’m not so arrogant as to believe that, it’s more like she’s greedy for her human admirers. I can’t honestly say. But for now, I wish the only whale song I was hearing was on a noise machine or a PBS documentary. And no matter how horrid her parting gift to me, I will always return. Love isn’t rational. It just is.