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.

The Heavens are Crying

The skies are gray and it is raining. It’s not a gully-washer at this point, more a constant drizzle that seems suited for this Good Friday. The world has gone quiet and hushed.

It is not lost on me that the Lenten period and this Holy Week are periods set aside for repentance, for reflection, and for self-control. We are, in fact, to set ourselves aside. This is a difficult thing, though some make it look easy. Sometimes even getting to the services is a challenge, not of logistics but of physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual challenges (although we do not break these into separate categories, seeing them as all intertwined.)

For some of us, this period has been punctuated with death, death of friends, of loved-ones, of celebrities who have touched our lives, of the death of loved ones of those close to us..touching us by degrees and making us think of the end that is to come for us all on this earth. It is somber; it is sobering.

The dogwoods by the church are in bloom, a sudden profusion of delicate pink. It is a reminder that even though the world seem dark and dreary, life returns–resurrection,  life from death, comes to bring hope to this world.

Knowing this, we cannot be fully stricken with grief.  Our joy, our relief tempers our grief and sorrow, just as our joy and our relief are tempered by the knowledge that we haven’t fully experienced the resurrection. I think the earth weeps with us that it is so.


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.)


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.


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.


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!

The Journey So Far (Part 2)

Well, much has happened since the first part of this series.  I had intended to write more quickly, but found that my thoughts were scattered and that this, among other things, was rather distressing.  One of the things that I must grasp to be able if there is a possibility of understanding Orthodoxy is their claim that scripture does not stand alone, and scripture was and always has been together with verbal teaching.  I was taught that scripture stands on its own, is able to be understood and interpreted by individuals, and that nothing else is needed for instruction in the faith and in Christian living.  That this is different from my personal experience never occurred to me.  Also, it made it seem that scripture is written by men, while I have always understood that men wrote scripture as they were inspired (or breathed) directly from the mind of God.  How, I was asked, do you think the early church had any notion of how to behave, how to have a service, how to live, since scripture had not been written (after what we term the “Old Testament”)?  Where did scripture come from, I was asked.  Was scripture not the compilation of the history of the church and of letters written to the various churches?  Were the apostles teaching prior to the written word?  What determined that these letters and these gospels are inspired scripture among the many that were written?

The question is answered as it has always been. The church determined which letters and books were scripture and were inspired.  I had never thought much about that, but in this context it really threw me.  If men determined which books were scripture, is all of faith merely something determined by man?  Was my faith merely a made up thing, a construct of man?  I struggled with this, although my experience with God was never in doubt.  How could I know in my innermost being that God is real, having spoken to him and heard from him, having seen the unexplained and having had his healing touch on me, and yet be wondering about scripture and the church?  Unless you have been a person of faith, you may not understand the shaking that went on inside of me, the feeling of living in an earthquake.

I was at the time enchanted by some wonderful science documentaries, reading some books on physics and scientific history and preparing for some additional science classes in college, and enjoying the studies greatly.  The math of it, even though I don’t understand it all, seemed so beautiful, so magnificent and so clearly designed by a Creator.  As I heard once  again the scientific theory of the Big Bang and the explanation of it by a famous physicist, it struck me how this sounded like the creation story–from nothing something, from no time to time, from a formless earth, to seas forming, and on and on, until it seemed to make poetry of the Genesis story of creation, just as the Orthodox understanding of the creation story had been explained to me.

Additionally, I have some health challenges, one of which seems to bring out the inner snake oil salesman in every crowd, every nutritionist, every wacky theory and so many differing opinions from health people that it is confusing, so I tend to take the things presented to me and look for the scientific tests behind it, the facts, the proofs.

One day as I was thinking through the problem of scripture being inspired or man made, it occurred to me that there was no difference in this and scientific theory.  How do we know that the earth is round?  People used to believe it was flat!  They used to believe that earth was the center of the universe.  How do we know differently?  We observed.  We studied.  Theories were written, equations formulated, tested and put up for peer-review.  While the initial review of a round earth theory was ridiculed and rejected, continued review proved it to be true.  The science didn’t make it true, what was true was simply observed and then the observation was reviewed by others and the consensus was that, yes, the earth is round.  Other scientific theories are presented the same way.  Einstein didn’t make the universe behave in a way it hadn’t previously, he simply observed and developed a way to explain and quantify what was already there.  The math was there, waiting to be discovered.

In the same way, God and his ways are not created by man, but observed, explained, and witnessed by man.  The truth of those observations, explanations, witness testimony and understandings are then put to the test by others.  Others who have made it their life to observe, explain, witness and understand God and his ways, and the ways of Christ and his Church, then discuss those things and come to a consensus.

The difference between what I feared was being said about scripture and what was being said is this:  Scripture was written by men, inspired by God, and the understanding and approval of this as Scripture and truthful teaching has been tested and approved by the Church and her leaders, by those who witnessed and told of those events and truths, it is not simply made up by men.  It is peer-reviewed, as it were.

With that struggle out of the way, I need to examine what the church teaches and what I believe, what those contrasts are and determine–is this the true New Testament Church?  Are they what they claim to be?