Vigil for the Dead

At 11:40 the church was ablaze with lights, a shining, welcoming jewel in the darkness. I had changed into dress pants and blouse out of respect for the solemn, sacred duty ahead.

I rattled the front door. Locked. Checked the side entry. Also locked. I returned to the front and, being early, waited outside. The warm wind whipped through my hair. It was late, but comfortable enough to spend a few minutes seated on a bench awaiting my time slot. I wanted there to be some overlap in case there were instructions to pass on.

At ten ’til I rapped on the door. Moments later, a woman opened the door, scarf wrapped around her hair, still reading out the Psalms from the psalter she carried.

The deceased lay in his coffin, peacefully facing the altar area, the faces of Christ, the Theotokos, angels and saints surrounding us. Above him the beautiful chandelier, imported from Eastern Europe, is ablaze, brass shining. Candles flicker from candle stands, from tall, narrow jars beneath various icons, and next to the readers stand.

As the clock flipped to midnight, the reader finished one Psalm and handed off to me. As I began, she made her reverence to the icons as we usually do when entering or upon leaving a service, and hurried off into the night.

I enjoy chanting. Chanting in this temple is a delight. The architecture allows the voice to fill the space with little effort. Something happens as I pray, read, chant, or sing. It feels as if my voice is joined by something unseen.

My head turned to catch a perceived movement from the corner of my eye. Though I saw nothing, I felt something there–something glorious, ethereal, warm, bright, otherworldly. At this point, it would have seemed normal to find angels winging overhead.

The newly departed looked peaceful. He had not been embalmed, so I was surprised to find him looking like this. It was an honor to chant the Psalms for him on his last night above ground.

Have you ever noticed how many of the Psalms talk about death? Standing vigil, you become aware in a new way. Reading aloud of God’s goodness, His faithfulness, His mercy, and His glory in the presence of the dead imbues it with a sense of depth, of eternity, of…dare I say, holiness.

There aren’t proper words for what happened last night. The departed, asleep in his beautiful handcrafted casket, resting in this peaceful ceremony, so full of humanity in its best form, and in the divine, the veil between this world and the heavenly so thin it seems a mere breath could pierce it and heaven blaze through…it seemed entirely reasonable and to be expected for the deceased to sit up, to rise from his casket and join in praising God.

I was surprised he didn’t.

This duty, this task, despite chanting myself hoarse, did something unexpected. I went, thinking I was doing a service for the deceased and for his family, but left feeling honored and privileged to have been able to participate. Something happened there that is more than reading, more than praying, simply more. I sense that I am changed in some way. I feel more…human.


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.

Prayer of St. Philaret



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.


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.


Chasing the Sun

Paint the world
Calm the heart, the mind and spirit with a fall drive.

Chasing the sun along fields and forests, the round bales of hay dotting fields against the fiery leafed edges in shades of crimson, gold, mustard, orange, oxblood, chestnut, shades of red and orange of every description, against skies of gray clouds slowly shifting to skies of clear blue. Shafts of sunlight lit the occasional tree with heavenly light, like Moses’ burning bush. The gentle cacophony of bird song carried through the open skylight. Wonder and awe lifted my sorrow. Wrapped in glory, my eyes were lifted from earth to heaven.

This glory, this peaceful glory wrapped around my heart and lifted me in my grief, and hinted, no, insisted that there is more than this.  There is more than this earthly glory and it was almost visible for a time. The veil that separates us from the eternal other was thin. In those moments, grief, so real, so profound, was nonetheless overwhelmed by glory. Comfort in the bliss of colors that came from the hand of God himself, lit by heavenly glow, colors too vibrant, too many to grasp in my finite mind.

Today I am comforted in the fading glow, the residual memories of that glory.  I know that is there, and I long for it again. That thing which seems to be the perfect fall day, but is achingly more than that… I am unable to explain why this is such a comfort, but having tasted this comfort which is also discomforting, this glory which aches for more glory, I must hunt for more.  I must seek more solitary wow.  I must seek more of those glimpses that cause me to cry out, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”  and “Glory to Thee, O God. Glory to Thee!”

Ah, help me in my grief, O my Savior!


The River Called Sacrifice

There is a river called Sacrifice,
and my Savior bids me jump in.
But the current is swift and the waters are dark,
I look back at the place where I’ve been.
I can return to the meadow called Safety and Peace,
but He calls me on, “Jump in.”
“The river’s awash in the blood I shed
as a sacrifice for sin.”

I’ll just dip a toe in, I think to myself,
and see if the water is warm.
I’ll test the flow to see if it’s safe.
But I can’t find a gently steeped shore.
The choices are two, stay put or jump in.
There’s no choice for half-out and half-in.
So I must now decide to stay or to jump
in the river called Sacrifice.

God has sometimes parted the river,
but many are swept off their feet.
It is not a safe, lazy river.
but turbulent, wild and deep.
Stephen was stoned in the river,
Victorious when they thought he was beat.
O, many have died in the river;
Is this somewhere that I want to be?

I look at the current so swift and so dark,
and the end I do not know.
But I leap from the bank at the love on His face
and find peace in the midst of the flow.
I’m surprised when I land to find shallows,
and it gently tugs at my feet,
but as I keep going I know that each step
could carry me down to the deep.

When I jump in there is no going back,
the bank behind me too steep.
But there is a joy in the river,
that mingles with sorrows so deep.
The pain is so strong in the current,
but He whispers, “Be still,” and “Have Peace.”
And my heart is calmed in the midst of the flood
that may soon sweep me off my feet.

I see in the river the martyrs
the saints who have gone on before.
From the prophets of old to disciples bold
they cheer from the far distant shore.
There are faces among them I know not,
but I know now for whom they died.
And they show no regret for the lives that they gave
in the river of Sacrifice.

The river shows me many faces.
It shows scorn and ridicule, too.
It shows gunshots, stabbings, beheadings,
and beds filled with sickness and woe.
It shows me the face of rejection,
the bankruptcies, scandal and strife.
It shows me the wrong accusations;
it’s all in the Sacrifice.

I find Him in the midst of the river,
in a way that I never have known.
I see his love and compassion
and I see wounds–scars for me he bore.
Such mercy, and tenderness found there;
such grace and forgiveness untold.
His love has a depth with no start and no end
in the river called Sacrifice.

Should the current grow strong and o’erwhelm me,
don’t cry and plead from the shore,
don’t pray for my safety, or for my release,
for I’m here in the river by choice.
For my Jesus is in the river
and I share in his sufferings here.
But where he suffered abandoned, alone
I have him with me, e’er so near.

So if you are standing in safety
by the pastures of pleasure and rest,
and you hear his voice calling “Come join me.”
oh, come in, for the water is blessed.
Of pain I can promise you plenty,
of purpose I promise you more.
But the sweetest gift here in the river
is Jesus, the one I adore.

Oh, there is a river that flows here.
It’s name is called Sacrifice.
And it flows with the blood of my Savior;
the one who for me has died.
He bids me join Him in the river
and makes me no promise of life.
But he gives His comfort, and joy and peace,
in the river called Sacrifice.

(revised 6/3/15)

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.


It is tempting…highly tempting, when someone has “written you off” or done the unimaginable insult to you, to respond in kind. It feels…right…justified even.

And yet…

At one of these moments where I am reminded yet again of being painfully written off by a loved one, that though we do this to our God once, a dozen times or a dozen, dozen times, He does not respond in kind. When Christ had his very creation hurling insults at him on the cross—as he made the way for our reconciliation and healing, he bore the weight for all of us, those who stood by him weeping, the ones who fled, the ones who stood by saying nothing, and those who screamed for his death—he did not reject, he did not respond in kind.

If I am to be like Jesus, I must not write off those who have mistreated, who have failed in love, failed in fellowship. And where I have written off, cut off, erased my hurt by erasing the bonds of friendship, severing the lines of communication to keep myself from pain? In those places, in those relationships, I must once again write back those bonds, that they may be cashed in. I must restring the lines and be willing to take that call, answer that email, to listen, to hear, with my heart open and willing to have relationship again. Not requiring it, but willing. Not forcing, but welcoming.

It sounds lovely (and perhaps a bit foolish) in the abstract. In reality it is a painfully difficult thing, to open one’s self to relationships with those who have wounded, who can and probably will still wound—to be ready to forgive and to cover over an offense. It sounds…almost Biblical. Oh dear, that’s because all that forgiveness and mercy and grace and covering over of offenses is the very Christ-likeness we are called to have.

My conscience is pricked. I long to be able to speak from the long experience of one who has done well, but I find myself speaking from the place of the fallen. I must wipe my dirty knees and crawl to my feet to arise to a new way of living, no matter how many times I fail, no matter how many times I fall. How often will I come to the place where I realize that what I thought was right was…just…wrong? Protecting my heart from more pain sounds good, and for a while, perhaps it is okay to withdraw from the battle to heal, but at some point, and that point is this one, for me, I must re-enter the battle. Not to fight, but to bind up the wounded, even when they have wounded me. I must love, even where there is hatred. I must bleed and pray for those who cut me, knowing that in doing so, I am following Christ.

Today—this very day—I was reading a verse, about God’s unfailing love, and a friend, one who has distanced herself and cut the bonds of friendship, came to mind. I knew in that moment, that though I had been developing bitterness toward her over this wounding, that I was to repent and to reach out in love once again. Not requiring anything in return, but to reach out and remind her of the love of the Father for her. No pressure, no guilt, no recriminations, and as I was doing so, the bitterness began to be replaced by the feelings of friendship that had run so strong we had said that nothing would damage them. And then I thought of another with whom I have had strained relations. If God loved them with unfailing love, how could I continue to harbor bitterness toward them? How could I leave the bridges of friendship falling down?

I was brought to shame recognizing my pettiness, and the very way in which I have acted, in my heart, so very unlike Christ. Christ who was on the cross, who was buried and who rose again, “trampling down death by death, and to those in the tomb restoring life!”

Ah, but the beauty is that he restores me as well, in his unfailing love, not wishing me to remain in my bitterness, in my selfish, self-protection mode…he restores me. Through his word, through the Spirit, speaking to my conscience, reminding me of love and bonds and forgiveness. Unfailing love allows for all kinds of restoration.

Isaiah 54:10, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” (NIV)