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.

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When I’m a Mess

Originally posted on Facebook May 18, 2010. Edited May 18, 2016.

When life hits hard, that sucker punch in the gut;when pain attacks me; when friends turn on me; when the job goes to someone else for reasons no one can put into words; when the losses are overwhelming; when you hear me cry out in pain and you think, man is she a mess, you are tempted to give me platitudes. You are tempted to feed me truths, and at those times, those truths, which I already know, already acknowledge, already believe, have chosen to believe, stop. Those phrases, “God is in control”, “God has something better in mind”, “You just have to trust” and all the other things that you want to tell me hit me like more punches in the gut. They take the wind out of me. Yes, you wound me with truth.

What I hear is that you will not acknowledge the pain and difficulty I am facing, that you somehow think that the pains of life should not be experienced. What I feel is that I am expected to live in some kind of ethereal state of joy that dismisses all problems as meaningless. I feel the pressure to be fake and phony, to pretend that bad things aren’t bad, that painful things don’t hurt, and instead of “counting it” all joy, that is determining it to be joy, or a joy because of a conscious effort of mind and will that acknowledges the result, I am supposed to actually be experiencing joy at the moment of the greatest pains and disappointments.

I have known some people who experienced supernatural joy and happiness at the moments of great pain—the loss of a daughter and of a son. Those times are, I believe, a special gift of God, allowing them to see a window into heaven, or a special measure of grace and comfort poured out on them in their most difficult hours. Do we see this as regular occurrences in life? I don’t believe we do. Nothing in scripture indicates to me that we should expect some supernatural experience at our times of hurt and pain, that we should be miraculously spared the very real human experience of the pain and disappointments of those times. Our Savior was not spared that.

Are there times when God steps in, when the curtain between earth and heaven opens? Scripture shows us times when it does, but these are the unusual occurrences. Our faith is not based on being spared the experience of suffering, of disappointments and of pain, but on the evidence of things not seen. Our hope is not based on the lack of experience of suffering. Our hope is based on knowing who holds us in the suffering, in the pain, in the disappointment. Our hope is in the one who suffered for us and who understands our pain and sorrow. He bore our griefs. He carried our sorrows. We do not walk in this world with teflon coated hearts, shedding all the emotions of this life without any real impact upon us. We experience grief. We experience pain. We have sorrows. We have fears and disappointments, losses and wounds of all kinds. God meets us in those. He teaches us, He matures us, He completes us, He joins us in our suffering and we partake of His suffering. He works things out in us in those things, in these times of pain. What he rarely does is to MAKE THOSE THINGS NOT HURT.

When you respond to me in my own disappointments and in my own hurts and sorrows with easy words, I feel a loneliness that is hard for me to describe. I feel a gulf between you and me that tells me that you do not understand me, that you expect me to either pretend, or to somehow be in a state that is more spiritual and godly than I am, and in that way I am not measuring up.

I’m sure I have said thoughtless things to others that do not acknowledge their pain. I regret that. I don’t remember all the stupid thoughtless things I have said, so I cannot apologize for them individually, but I will if you would but bring it to my attention. I do not want to make others experience this odd loneliness that enters my spirit when such comments are made.

I have given myself permission to be real. I have given myself permission to be a bit of a mess. I see no paradox in acknowledging God’s goodness, in believing he is working everything together for my good, and acknowledging that the process is painful, is difficult and that sometimes it just makes absolutely no sense to me. I do not understand that light is both a particle and a wave, but I do understand that God is good and things hurt, that I can trust him and not like what he is doing, what he is allowing. These are not mutually exclusive things as I see them.

For the record, this thing of not getting this job is not a big deal to me. I did have about five or ten minutes of shock and of doubting myself, of wondering “what’s wrong with me?” That passed. It isn’t earth shattering. Am I sad? Yes, a bit. Do I feel rejected? Sure. Who wouldn’t? I am also glad that I don’t have a seventy-five minute or more commute morning and night. That isn’t the point of writing this.

When I think of how Jesus walked this earth, he does not seem to have hung out with the pretentious crowd. He spent his time with those who acknowledged their sin, who admitted their flaws, who, when they wanted to see him, they did not hide their enthusiasm (think Zacchaeus or the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair). The apostle Paul acknowledged discouragement. Trust and faith and discouragement are not mutually exclusive. Trust and faith do seem to preclude pretense.

I do not think I am better than the one who sends me platitudes, but when I’m a mess, I refuse to pretend that I’m not a mess. When I’m a mess, I will still trust, still believe, still hope. If you understand that about me, about the work that God has done in me, you can feel free to simply acknowledge my pain and disappointment. When I need a reminder that God is faithful and true, you can rest assured I will ask for it. When life is tough, I have been known to call up a friend to say, “Tell me that God is faithful and true.” Their acknowledgment shores up my faith, gives me strength and encourages me.

Some friends know me well enough to be able to encourage me with platitudes. Or rather, I know them well enough, know their loving and encouraging hearts enough to know that they totally get that I’m not falling away from the faith, merely experiencing a tough time. It is a fine line to walk with others. It can be hard to know when you can say certain things without pouring salt in a wound and without making people feel more alone than before. For all of us, we might want to be careful. When in doubt, chose the course of acknowledging the feelings of the other prior to expressing the truths that are dancing on your tongue. For me, I have to be careful not to dismiss other’s feelings in a lot of ways. I recently discovered that the thing many of us do when someone mentions that they (pick one) have cancer, once had a sixth finger on one hand, once suffered from leprosy, or had a facial transplant, is to immediately go into a “oh, my cousin Lenny had (name the condition)”, that thing is considered offensive and annoying. I’m gonna do my best not to do that any more.

If I hear of your pain, your struggle, your trial and respond with platitudes, or merely tell you my own story of experience with that, or the experience of someone else I know in a way that causes you to feel less understood, less valued, less heard, please stop me and let me know. I do not want to be insensitive. And when I’m a mess, I will do my best to forgive and to understand if you say the condescending or dismissive thing to me. You probably don’t mean it that way.

Prayer of St. Philaret

st-philaret-of-moscow-2
from: http://www.orthodoxchurchquotes.com/tag/holy/

 

My Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee.
Thou and Thou alone knowest my needs.
Thou lovest me more than I am able to love Thee.
O Father, grant unto me, Thy servant, all which I cannot ask.
For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation;
I dare only to stand in Thy presence.
My heart is open to Thee.
Thou seest my needs of which I myself am unaware.
Behold and lift me up!
In Thy presence I stand,
awed and silenced by Thy will and Thy judgments,
into which my mind cannot penetrate.
To Thee I offer myself as a sacrifice.
No other desire is mine but to fulfill Thy will.
Teach me how to pray.
Do Thyself pray within me.
Amen.

from: http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/prayers/philaret.html

This prayer came to me, I did not come to it.  I was looking for something else, but this prayer kept coming up in my search, not the one I sought. The words, ah, the words.  How my heart and soul reacted to the words: I know not what I ought to ask of Thee. Oh, Amen. Thou and Thou alone knowest my needs.  Ah, yes.  This is so true.  Thou seest my needs of which I myself am unaware. This prayer sounds in my spirit like a deeply resounding gong calling me to peace. I find myself praying this prayer throughout the day, again and again.

Thou lovest me more than I am able to love Thee.  I love you more, God is saying to my heart.

Steve often says, “I love you more.” To which I respond, “I know.” It’s a little joke of ours, but sometimes I wonder if it’s true. I wonder if my heart is so damaged that I cannot love this man as much as he loves me. That makes me want to try harder, to be kinder, to love him as he should be loved, but then my Father is saying to me, “Love you more” and I can only say, “Thank you. I didn’t remember.”

 

Love you more.

 

Undoing

In and out I moved the hook through the piece, building the blanket stitch by stitch, row by row, enjoying the feel of working with natural fibers and the subtle colors, muted graying browns, tans, charcoal, beige and blue. hour after hour I built the blanket from nothing more than an idea in my head to something tangible.

The more it grew, the more apparent it became that something was off…maybe? Was it my imagination? I kept going for it wasn’t clear, and the pattern of back and forth stitches interwoven with a row here and there of slight texture was pleasing to my eye, to my hand, and the piece emerging soothing in the color and composition. But there, there at the edges. What am I seeing? A couple of nights ago I sat and counted the stitches. Sure enough, I had lost 7 stitches over the course of about 30 rows. So sometimes as I turn the ends I am missing a stitch…not always, just sometimes. I set down the work of about 20 hours in frustration. All that time! All the pain in my hands!

I knew I was going to have to rip it out, as I can’t deal with the obvious imperfection. There are enough flaws I cannot fix, the slightly uneven stitch here and there, the natural variations in the fiber, but this? This I knew I would have to fix. I knew this, yet I argued with myself over whether I could live with it, knowing I could not.

 I was avoiding the inevitable. So last night, I began the lengthy and heartbreaking task of ripping out all of that labor, all that hard work, painfully winding all of that yarn from my elbow to hand, round and round and round as I ripped, slowly and steadily, stitch by stitch. It was a bitter feeling to undo the efforts of my pain-filled hands.

It could not be done in one evening, all that undoing. I have another evening of undoing ahead of me, then I must find someone who can wind that yarn back into a ball, or perhaps I will go purchase a ball winder. I’m tempted to buy or make a nostepinne (a Norwegian shaped dowel used to hand wind a center pulled cake of yarn.)

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My thoughts tend to wander down rabbit trails until, distracted by something, I take off on a deer trail, a squirrel trail, wandering until I can’t remember where I started or how to get back there.

That being the case, I’m pleased that I got all that undoing done, and all the yarn wound into cakes, ready to be reworked. This time I have come up with a solution. I mark the spot where the row turns, the stitch that needs to be the last one in the next row. Since doing that, I have reworked row upon row, losing nothing in the process. The marks surprise me almost every time, appearing to be further than I could possibly need to go.  Since it is marked, however, I am confident in slipping into that one last stitch before turning to begin a new row. I move my marker (a simple strand of contrasting yarn pulled through the stitch) and am off to work another row.

This undoing, un-stitching, and reworking is life. Sometimes we get to a place that, hard work notwithstanding, we look back and realize that we have gotten off. Our work, our relationships, our health, our doing is producing skewed results and we have to go back to where we went wrong and rework, redo. The markers of where we go off track may come as a surprise to us. To me, it came as a huge surprise to realize how judgmental, how fearful, how cowardly I was. I have to put markers in my path to stop myself. I have to mark my way with prayer. I have to regularly talk to my spiritual father for guidance, and it doesn’t seem to matter how many times I do that, I need the same reminders. It helps to look back more frequently, to review and evaluate to see if I’m getting off track. It’s easier to undo a few stitches than a few thousand. just as it’s easier to retrace one’s steps, to get one’s thoughts and habits back on track when we review regularly so the bad habits don’t have a chance to take hold. My goal both in this crocheting project and in life is to learn to recognize those points where I am often go astray. What are those things that draw me off course? Paying attention and living deliberately is where I have those markers.

I read this back to myself and understand that this is something I accomplish SOMETIMES. Other times I am completely overwhelmed by the stresses of life. Sometimes I am thrown off kilter by news out of the blue: “Come to the hospital, there’s been an accident.” Or, “I may not be able to work again.” The list could go on, you know. The seemingly endless series of unfortunate events of the last year sounds made up. I sometimes recite the events of the last year aloud as if in the saying of them I can get my mind to believe the truth of them. My mind resists. My strong, proud husband attacked and badly injured by a stranger over a parking space. In the middle of a sunny afternoon. The many surgeries of my brother-in-law beginning just three days after he came to stay with us “for a month.” The layoff, the car accident, the amputations, the endless round of hospitals, ER visits, PT, home health care, MRIs, etc. I’d like to say they culminated in this final surgery, but the culmination asserts that this is the pinnacle, after which things calm down and get back to “normal.” I no longer believe that I am qualified to determine what is the end of this. There is no end, no blissful pasture beside still waters at which all troubles cease…not in this life anyway. The peaceful pasture may still be there, but perhaps it is a place of the heart, not a place of the body and circumstances.

There are mini-pastures and still waters in the services of the church, and when there is not a service, there is still the nave, with the altar front and center, the icons of the dear Saints, Martyrs, Apostles, of the Theotokos and of our Savior, Christ Our God. This is a holy space, and I bring my troubled, anxious heart in prayer here and receive grace and comfort. There are still waters in prayer, in scripture, in the message from a friend, in the call of a bird on the wind, the gentle music of falling leaves, should I stop to take in the moment and hear the whisper.

I keep thinking about this undoing. It is a metaphor that resonates with me. How many times have I had to go and undo? I look back and cringe at the person I once was, knowing that I probably should be cringing at the person I am. I think of the vile, judgmental attitudes, of the cruel barbs that have flown off my tongue, of the cowardice and fear that plagued me. I was silent when I should have spoken, spoke when I should have been silent, manipulated rather than addressed directly, ran when I should have stood my ground. Ah, it is an ugly picture. But as well as I am able, I am going back, undoing those stitches I put in, making amends as well as I can and reworking. Hopefully what comes out of this painful process is beautiful and straight, if not perfect. To learn to do this differently, I have to study where I went wrong and very deliberately choose to do it right as I turn the corners, I have to study how to do this well, by carefully learning from those who do it well, and letting them examine with me where I am dropping a stitch.

Disturbed

I’ve started reading Frank Schaeffer’s “Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion” and while I can relate to a lot of his coming to Orthodoxy story, I find myself challenged that I am living Protestant in the Orthodox Church. That is, the individualistic thinking and determination of a Protestant mindset has invaded how I try to live Orthodox. I decide for myself that it is okay to say my morning prayers while laying in bed instead of standing or kneeling before my icon wall. I decide for myself how much fasting I will or won’t do. I’m puzzled when people ask for Father’s blessing before doing an endeavor, in a way that proves to me that they will not proceed if Father does not give his blessing. I am baffled by the idea of asking permission to do things.

After all, I think, isn’t it clearly my choice whether to go visit a monastery or not? Isn’t it??? And yet I find that those who have been Orthodox for a long time, culturally as well as religiously, ask. They go for a blessing before travelling. Holy water (or “blessed water”) is taken on a daily basis. Blessed bread is wrapped and taken home to be shared with someone who could not attend liturgy or to be eaten throughout the week.  Some worry about recycling to the point that they are almost paralyzed into inaction because they cannot determine if it is more wasteful to throw away the glass jar or to use enough water to rinse it clean for recycling.  These are not the trivial matters that they appear. They are evidence of lives that are intent on living their faith, lives of people who struggle to redeem the time, redeem the physical world in which they live, to live humbly in obedience and righteousness.

I find myself saddened and sickened by how secular I have allowed myself to be. I read recently (I can’t remember where) that there is nothing that isn’t sacred, but there is sacred and defiled or desecrated. That’s mind-blowing, don’t you think? If everything is sacred, then I should be very conscious what I do with it.

So I am going to speak with Father about these matters, so that I can get some guidance in how to live a sacred life so that I do not desecrate the sacred. And to repent of my independence of thinking that I know best how to live an Orthodox life. I don’t.

Confession

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!

Can you not wait?

In December, Steve was laid off. It was only supposed to be for a few weeks. It’s May 10th. He is still not back to work. He was supposed to go back yesterday, but there is another delay. I was laid off February 10th. I was off for just over two months, and have been brought back temporarily. I am highly frustrated by the delays, the fits and starts, the seeming randomness with which our lives are rolling along. My patience has worn thin and sometimes worn right through.

I’m like Vizzini (“The Princess Bride”), hands thrown up in disgust, bellowing, “I’m WAAAAAAAITING!” The timing of our rescue is outside of my comfort zone. There is also utter humiliation in the situation. We live in a society that boasts that things are in your control. One who works hard enough, is diligent and smart, will succeed. That’s the promise, right? And since we are NOT succeeding, and have NOT been able to land those good jobs, have gone through our savings…then by definition we must be indolent…lazy…stupid. That this is not up to me is something I announce, but in my heart of hearts, that voice keeps whispering that we aren’t trying hard enough, aren’t being smart enough.

Following hard on that whispered accusation is the dark thought that God is disinterested in us. That he cares not whether we are homeless, destitute…and that really, truly, he may be a God of Love, but his lovingkindness contains an awful lot of pain and devastation. Perhaps he has forgotten me? Perhaps I have not met his expectations for me, which seems odd, since he knows that I am dust.

These are momentary reflections, but they trouble me more than I would like to admit, because they reveal the state of my heart—a heart that should be trusting, yet fears and doubts assail; a heart that should be patient, but is impatient for God to reveal himself; a heart filled with pride, that should be humble.

In my impatience I have been contemplating the words of Jesus to his inner circle, those who waited for him outside the Garden while he prayed. He had need of them, yet they could not stay awake. He said to them, “Could you not wait with me one hour?”

In my impatience I hear those words echoing inside, whispering to me, After all we’ve been through together, after all this time, after all my goodness and faithfulness to you, can you not wait with me this one hour? It is the hour when he works in and through me, when he works his own purposes, when something greater than me is happening. Can I not wait and trust for this one hour? This one day? This month? This season? Can I not wait through this one trial? Can I not wait?