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.

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Partings

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.

Conflict

I’m not good at conflict. I hate it. I think I get this from my mother, but I’m not sure.  The thing is that fighting and arguing makes me feel ill. I hate tension around me. So when two people I know started verbally sparring in a meeting the other day I left. I left as quietly as I could, but I left and I think that made a statement, but I wasn’t trying to make a statement, I was just trying to get away from the tension and unpleasantness in that room.

Ordinarily I would have stayed. I would have been silent and unhappy, but I would have stayed. But my patience was at a bare minimum and I was afraid of what would happen if I stayed. I am often afraid of my own mouth. I have a temper. I try to keep it under control, for it is an ugly thing and I don’t want to spew ugliness. Plus, I have never found that I am helpful in these situations.  I don’t diffuse the bomb as I’m trying, I always seem to cut the wrong wire.  I try to be gentle, I try to be kind, I try to inject humor…none of that works. If I intervene it precipitates an explosion.

Maybe that is what is needed, an explosion to clear the air, but sometimes what you say you cannot take back. And who am I to instruct someone else on their behavior?  I’m the last person who should do that.

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.

Resting

It is Holy Week for us Orthodox folks, and I feel totally peaceful for a moment. Holy Week is a big part of what drew me to Orthodoxy. Some think I’m drawn to the “glitz”, that is the incense, the candles, the icons, the vestments, but initially, that was off-putting.  But I had a craving for something more…

I had vaguely heard of Holy Week services, although I could not have told you what or where, but I thought that somewhere the church was celebrating these moments, going through and commemorating the events of the Passion Week.  I tried on my own to pay attention to what would have been happening in the life of Christ in that week preceeding his death, burial and resurrection, but I had a sense that it was missing that communal–something.  The shared reverence, the shared expression of faith, the shared suffering, the shared joy…all of that was somehow missing, and a longing that I cannot describe came from the depths of me. I was hungry for this and yet could not find a way to satisfy this hunger.

Where did this hunger come from? Surely not from my upbringing. I’m not faulting anyone; we did as we have always done.  We prepared for Easter with a cantata, a choral presentation of the story of Christ. Yet still, my heart longed for more.

Where I attended church at the time was insufficient.  I have written about this previously, so I will not restate it now, but suffice it to say that the Easter service of that year, in that church was a defining moment in my life. I was done. How is it that the defining moment of our faith was not commemorated in a suitably massive way?  Why weren’t we happier about it?  Where was the joy? Where was the deep spiritual focus? Was it really this thing?

I did not jump easily. In fact, I secretly explored this weird Orthodox thing in Venice, Italy, the middle of a Roman Catholic city and was moved far beyond anything I could have imagined. I was particularly moved by an ancient icon of the Nativity.457px-mcb-icon12

This is not the actual image, but a similar rendition, from: http://serbblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/mir-bozhi-hristos-se-rodi-vaistinu-se.html

It…disturbed me.  Even today, the memory of that sort of empties me. It is a mystical thing that is difficult to describe adequately. Gazing at that icon I was both less and more than I felt I had ever been. It was and is holy. The prayers of hundreds, perhaps thousands, have made an impression here. The prayers of the one who wrote the icon, the blessings of priests, perhaps of bishops, it is there and it is a palpable thing.

It shook me.

This Holy Week I am similarly emptied and filled, just as I was at that museum. As I think of the path of Jesus and his disciples this week, in some ways we live this with them. The death, burial and resurrection are all too real. Glorious and humbling in the reality. There is a touch of holy in these weeks leading up to the triumphal celebration with which we will welcome the resurrection on Saturday night into Sunday morning.

At midnight, with lit candles we will circle around the church as we sing. We will gather at the church doors, our candles lit, our faces glowing as we hear the gospel reading and then begin to sing for the first time this year, “Christ is Risen from the dead!  Trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs restoring life!” It is a joyous occasion, and we celebrate with song, with shouts, with bells ringing, with scripture… oh my it is glorious and my heart is so ready to drink in this celebration. How I love these people that I celebrate with!  And as it happens, the same will be happening all over the world.  We will be celebrating with those in our time zone, but as the celebration continues, we will continue to sing.  Children will fall asleep only to waken each time we shake those bells and shout “Christ is Risen!”  “Indeed He is Risen!”

In the meantime, we grow quiet inside as we pray. Many of us go through great trials at this time. It seems almost universal that great challenges arise at this time, whether illness or struggles at work, or family issues…it is difficult. I’m learning to rest in it. After all, my God shall supply all my needs.  And really my struggles are small. So many are going through horrific things.

The so-called glitz is not what drew me.  At first I found it repellent, but I had read Exodus and was dumbfounded by the elaborate nature of the preparations for the tabernacle.  The plans are so precise, so detailed, so beautiful and ornate, how can I find an Orthodox church overmuch? It isn’t the church that is the problem, it is me that was the problem. That scripture, read over and over and over again, came back to me and informed my view of the Orthodox church. And I have grown to love it, to learn the beauty of icons, to enjoy the smell of incense and to appreciate the smoke swirling through the room, to enjoy the faces as they light their candles and place them in the stands as they pray.

The glitz did not draw me, but the thing which once made me uncomfortable is now a delight. I love the gleaming candle stands, love the swirling smoke rising from the censors, swinging from the hand of the priest or his helpers. I love that we bind the Gospels in the finest we have to offer. I love that our treasures are here and shared with the community as a fitting offering to our God.

 

 

 

 

Drowning

Despite an allergy regimen that involves antihistamines (oral and nasal), decongestants, cough medications (one kind for day, one for night) and oral steroids, I am drowning as my body tries to fight off the masses of pollen.  At this point, I’m not even sure it is the type of pollen as much as the sheer mass of it that is doing me in.

Everything is affected, my energy, my thinking processes, my breathing, sleeping, focus, emotions…all seems to be centered around this one thing, trying to breath freely.

It is difficult, nearly impossible to make decisions at this time, or hold rational conversations.  I’m trying to decide whether to trade in my car for something smaller, less expensive and with a greatly reduced car payment.  I can’t seem to decide what to do.  And I have a greatly increased workload this week that I am slogging through.  Lots of balls in the air to keep afloat. Spin, spin, spin.

And yet…for some reason, I am resting in this drowning. I recognize that I can’t fully get my breath, that I can’t maintain full focus, that I have to work extra hard at concentration, and I’m okay with it all.  Today, anyway.

I’ve got some stuff coming up…medical tests I’m awaiting results on, another dr. appt for a surgical consult…I’m in the midst of a class, and it is still Lent, what with additional services and choir practices and such.

Sleep is elusive, except for when I’m supposed to get up in the morning, which seems to be when I have reached my deepest state of sleep and cannot be roused by that beeping, beeping, beeping that is the backdrop of dreams.

On the upside, the steroids have helped with my pain, ENORMOUSLY.  I’ve worn heels–HEELS–two days this week.  HEELS, I’m telling ya! And a friend gave me this marvelous raw honey/lemon stuff that has been making a huge difference with my cough and even some of the congestion.  Why?  I don’t have any idea.  But I’ll take it!

I ordered two boxes from the manufacturer.