Oh no! It’s Friday! Fish sticks!

fish-sticks

I have to admit that for years, when I even thought of fasting, I thought of fish sticks. I grew up in Southern California and the public schools always served them on Fridays. Being raised Protestant, I had no idea why they only had them on Fridays. I liked them. I remember seeing those Gorton Fisherman commercials, too. I never connected why they would show up at the time of year they did, but I use to sing along.  Occasionally my mom would even serve them!

Flash forward 40+ years and here I am, a Byzantine Catholic who fasts. My kids cut out a comic strip for me and hung it on our refrigerator, not saying a word. The gist of the cartoon is one of the sons is poking the Thanksgiving turkey and the mom dead-pan answers, “No, it’s not tofu.”  My boys thought that was hilarious. At one point in time, my family thought I was taking fasting to the extreme. They dreaded anything tofu! They often referred to it as “mystery meat” and during Lent made a game out of guessing if it was “real food” or a tofu concoction. I don’t regret diving in with both feet. I was given some amazing recipes and I will still serve them, even when it is not a fasting period. Diving in also gave me time to realize my talent level with cooking and preparing fasting foods, define my limitations and the limitations of my family’s desire to try new things, and I lost the fear of fasting.

Why do I mention fear? I think it is because we all fear something we are not used to. When I shop, if I see a deal on “pretend” meats, I pick them up and put them in the freezer. You would be amazed at how many times I serve chicken strips on a salad and the family eats it up, only asking if it was tofu after they are done. And more often than not, it was tofu! I can fast all year long without stressing about it, without focusing on the cheeseburgers I am missing. (We actually found a brand of pretend burgers that we like, so it’s no longer an issue). We need not fear fasting but embrace what fasting really means to us.

Have you ever met someone who is totally cranky during Lent, moaning about this or that they have given up? Or complaining loudly that they can’t eat something because they are FASTING? And I did caps on purpose. It almost seems like a shout, when the complaints are non-stop. But let’s examine it in the USA. The Bishops in the Roman Church and many of our eastern brethren (Ruthenian, for example) have relaxed fasting rules so much, you pretty much don’t find it too much of a hardship. They ask you to restrain from full meals on Wednesday and Friday, and when you do eat, to refrain from meat. Every year there are internet discussions about what is permittable under the fasting rules. But the relaxed fasting expectations laid out by these Bishops are not the total picture of fasting. Bring on the fish sticks every Friday, but enjoy them with mac ‘n’ cheese, mashed potatoes, salad with ranch, rolls with butter, soda (“but no chocolate, I gave up chocolate”). Not much of a hardship, is it? We had a friend who used to stop daily at a market and get gourmet water in the largest bottle he could buy, and a loaf of freshly baked bread. He would eat that and drink that all day and feel like he was fasting. He was, in essence, but I think he missed the point. Anyone can eat bread and drink water all day if you eat gourmet bread and drink gourmet water. That is not what the Bishops of the West, nor most of the Eastern Bishops, would like people to do. They offer their guidelines as just that – guidelines to help you achieve a minimal participation in Lenten fasting traditions. Not to be haughty, but to offer another example, lots of Roman Catholics, and most Eastern Catholics, fast like that every Wednesday and Friday all year long. When Lent rolls around, they increase the discipline.

For us in the Melkite tradition, we are encouraged to attempt to keep the full fast. For that, you abstain from all meat, fish, dairy, olive oil, and wine. But that is keeping the strict fast, because the expectation is that you do that for the full 40 days… not just Wednesdays and Fridays. Our Bishops encourage us to participate as much as we can. The same norms apply to those who cannot fast due to age/health, or other reasons. For example, in an area where fish is the main diet, how do you fast from fish? Up here in Alaska, our diets are more narrow due to availability and expense. In the remote villages, fresh fruits and vegetables are very expensive and hard to come by. People eat mostly fish and game, supplementing with frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. We garden and “put up” what we can grow ourselves, but nonetheless, it is a different problem here. So the Church encourages us to do what we can.

We need to look at fasting as an opportunity to take stock of how we feed ourselves, our desires. Our culture has become so hedonistic. It has become a culture of “I want it and I want it now.” How often do parents buy their children a toy in the store to keep them quiet, rather than instilling the discipline of proper behavior, because it’s easier at the moment? How many parents do not attend evening services during the week, and often miss Divine Liturgy, because their children are not behaving, rather than bring them and give their children an opportunity to learn to be still and to appreciate other environments? How many parishes make those same parents feel comfortable and safe enough that they know they and their children are always welcome, even on bad-behavior days? How often do we stop and wait in a long line because we are craving a latte? Trust me, here in Alaska, there are coffee vendors on every corner and I have been fighting a craving for a “Venti Breve Latte, two shots, one Splenda.”  I have literally been thinking about the taste during the day, and avoiding it because for me, it is an example of my gluttonous nature and hedonistic desires (I want it and I want it NOW!). In addition to that, a Venti Breve Latte has 700 calories in just 20 ounces. And this is all a part of fasting. God is giving us this opportunity to rein in all our passions, including our deep attachment to the pleasures we get from food and drink.

Fasting is something to embrace. It means we pay attention to the bites of food and sips of drink we put in our mouths. We make a very conscious effort to control how much and what we eat and drink. But that is just the food portion. What about fasting from the portions of our nature that are not so God-like? Nasty behavior we automatically turn to, out of habit, when someone cuts us off while driving? What about talking behind the backs of others? Slandering others? Not giving others the benefit of the doubt about their behavior before ASS-U-M-Ing they are in the wrong? Just embracing silence (not watching TV, listening to the radio, going online all the time, texting ad nauseam)? Reading more, praying more, attending Church more often?

True Fasting. St. Basil

Fasting is just so much more than fish sticks on Fridays. And I don’t want to be afraid, ever, of embracing or trying more. I know books that beckon to me, and I know each Lent I peek inside and learn something new. I know prayers that long to be said, and I recite them, feeling better as I do. I know there are foods in my pantry and drinks available at Starbucks, but I know that by ignoring them/fighting that craving and instead focusing on my walk with God, my fasting will be something I can do all year long, but with renewed vigor during Great Lent. And as I fight the urge, even right now, to get that Venti Breve Latte, I will instead reach for my glass of water with Lemon Oil in it. At least this time, I am victorious. We have a long way to go until Pascha, when we celebrate Christ’s victory over death. Let’s do this together, one day, one prayer, at a time. Blessed Lent.

KeepCalm.Pascha

“…but experience.”

St. Nikolai

I have become a connoisseur of scents. I absolutely love to smell frankincense as we enjoy our Pre-Sanctified Liturgies. And because I am now involved with Essential Oils, my nose has become even more “excited.” The scents from a natural oil are amazing. I realized I am walking around smelling like a sachet packet or an old hippie. I let my hair dry naturally yesterday and it’s all wavy and gray, so I do look rather hippy-ish. Oh well! Today I have some frankincense, thieves, and lemon oils on, laced with a little melaleuca, and all floating in some olive oil. In addition to the great smell (and no longer dry skin), it helps me breathe and get over this darn chest cold thing I have been fighting. All I can say is that it sure smells yummy! In the kitchen I am running the diffuser with some purification oil and our home is starting to smell like spring. I am so glad I was introduced to Essential Oils and the loving way to apply them, with thoughtfulness and prayer.

When I walk into our Church, I can expect to be wonderfully assaulted by some amazing aromas. And once the Divine Liturgy begins, I can totally immerse myself in it, through all my senses. I see the beeswax candles and the glow they provide, while I can gaze on the wonderful Icons we have. There is a scent from the candles, too. There is a wafting, pale scent from the past use of incense. It all provides a wonderful environment. As the Liturgy progresses, we smell the incense filling our lungs and our minds with the Holy. The words of the chant can move your heart, even if the singing is not the best. The readings move your mind to the story of Christ and His suffering. A long time ago, a priest once suggested that as we listen to these readings, especially during Lent, that we try and picture ourselves as being present in the story. Imagine yourself as with Christ and the Apostles, walking with them on this journey to the Cross. It moves you in a different way when you place yourself there.

The entire experience of Divine Liturgy should overwhelm us. It should create in us a beautiful sense of faith and deep commitment to follow more deeply the journey Christ takes to the Cross. And I encourage everyone to immerse yourself in this wonderful time of year; a time of re-birth and re-commitment to our faith. It’s just so amazing and I feel so blessed our Church gives us this wonderful Lenten season each year. I know I need it!

cropped-jesus-prayer-candle.jpg

Blessed Lent.

St. Nikolai

It’s as simple as that.

I am a bookaholic.  I admit it, freely.  I love reading.  I think that having poor eyesight is one of life’s most horrible accidents for me.  When I went to my last evaluation, the eye doctor told me that eyesight gets better as you age, because your near-sightedness catches up with the far-sightedness and it makes it more even.  (Ha-Ha! My “even” is still legally blind without my glasses!!)  And that I will loose my eyesight more slowly as I age.  (But I am still loosing).  He then told me how bad my vision had become and I was so depressed.  I went out and ordered purple glasses…just for the heck of it.  And purple sunglasses.  In purple cases!  And when I got my Kindle, I got a purple cover.  For the heck of it.  I read every day, at least once a day, a real book. It may be an e-book, but it’s a book.  We all read a lot all day long and don’t realize it.  We read news, texts, Facebook posts, the captions on TV, signs, directions (well, some of us more than others), and even recipes!  Reading is what we do the most, without even realizing it.  We also reach out with our touch, smell, and sound senses.  For those who are born without their senses, I am so very sad.  To miss out on this is something I could never imagine.  And even though I have very poor eyesight, I am still blessed with sight.

Quite often, I realize I have not listened to anything via media all day.  Nothing has been turned on except my Kindle.  My son and I chatter while he does schoolwork, but no other noises disturb us.  And I love that I can read while he does school; he’s reading while he’s doing school, and we have relative silence.  “Silence is Golden.”  I never understood that as a kid.  But as I age and realize how short life truly is, I appreciate silence so very much.  I had a wonderful conversation with my great-grandmother one time.  She related to me how different the world was when she was a child.  She had immigrated to the USA and she and my great-grandpa spent their years working diligently, building a life here.  And they worked hard.  There is a scene in one of the Iron Man movies where he ends up sitting in a donut sign in LA, after a drunken night out.  (It’s a huge donut and you can see it from the freeway).  Once upon a time, my great-grandparents owned that donut shop and lived a couple of blocks away, right off the freeway in LA.  And she related to me how she missed the quiet years as a nanny on an estate in England.  There were no telephones, no TV’s, and very few radios.  She said you heard the breeze in the trees and the neighing of the horses, and lowing of the cattle.  Occasionally you would hear the bridles and reins of a sleigh or carriage rolling by.  You could sit in the house and read, with only the crackling of the fire as background.  What a glorious age it was then.  I wish I could have experienced that time.  And I often do, in my books!  Another reason I love reading!

Silence is sort of why I am typing this.  During Great Lent, silence can be a wealth of blessings to our prayer life.  Silence can feed us.  God can approach us and we can listen for His small steps in our lives.  We get so caught up in the latest song to “drop” or the latest TV show/movie to come out.  I wrote recently about a movie we had gone to see and how we felt so drained afterwards (and how regretful I was we bought the movie).  I realized that a lot of that was because we were drowning in sound.  Sound saturates your whole body and you are exhausted from it.  It seems like surround-sound and special effects are so much a part of movies these days, your ears will actually ache when you get into your quiet car, after visiting a theater.  And then there are ear phones, earbuds, or whatever they choose to wear.  My youngest son (aged 16) is almost 24/7 with earbuds or earphones on, plugged into my old iPod. I have convinced him to keep it out and off his ears for awhile, so we can communicate during the day. We are working on silence as a family. I love Lent.

Silence enables our hearts to still.  It enables our minds to relax.  It enables us to connect more readily with that prayerful part of ourselves we deny most of the time.  Humans are generally pretty spiritual people.  If you research it through history, mankind has always been looking for the answer to the great questions of, “Why am I here?” “Why was I created?” “Where did this all begin?”  In the silence of our hearts, God can enter in and be a part of us.  If we truly believe God is present, as present as He is on the Cross itself, in Holy Communion, in the reading of His Word, then we must believe He can be present within each of us.  “Lord, when did I feed the hungry?  When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.”  He tells us He is within each of us.  We have a space in our hearts, in what the Orthodox refer to as the NOUS, a place that is reserved solely for God. And when He takes residence, we are changed.  Forever.  And silence allows us to commune with the God we believe in, Who lives in each of us.  He is desperate to love us, to guide us, to feed us.  Most of us are too busy, and too loud to ever hear Him.  God loves to whisper. He loves to be present in the mundane workings of life.  He is present in the simplest things, like bread and wine.  He is a part our basic needs, our simplest selves.  We cannot fully commune with God when there is so much going on around us. Many of us build walls between ourselves and Our God.  And it is so very sad.  He is patient; He waits our entire lives for us to welcome and acknowledge Him.

Some people have music on all the time – in their cars, on their phones, in their ears, when they sleep at night.  A lot of people have told me they cannot handle the quiet; they have to keep moving and have to be listening to something all the time.  Why is that?  What would happen if you sat still in silence?  What would happen if you laid in your bed, in total darkness, in complete silence?

And that, for me, is what Lent is all about.  Coming to grasp with what lies inside us, that thing we are afraid to deal with in the dark and in the quiet.  We are fearful because then we have no one else between us and God.  So this Lent I am challenging myself to more quiet.  To more rest.  To finding and holding onto that peace that can only come from the Presence of God in me, in my life, and in how I relate to those around me.  Allowing the indwelling Lord of All Creation to be alive within me is the goal of all Christians.  We just need to dial down the sound and the world, and allow Christ to come in and reside, truly live within us.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s as simple as that.

Blessed Lent.

“What does it profit if…”

 

In the Eastern and Orthodox Churches, Great Lent is upon us.  For those in the West, Lent will start tomorrow, with Ash Wednesday.  Great Lent is when we stop and take a good look at who we are, who we have become, and who we truly would like to be. It is a time for reflection, yes.  But Great Lent is when we embark on a renewed road to God.  It is when we embark upon a time of renewed and vigorous re-conversion.  The Church gives us these weeks every year to re-evaluate ourselves in light of the Teachings of Christ and His Church.

I love some of the questions in prayer books, that we can ask ourselves as we approach confession. In the book, “Holy Things for the Holy” published by the Eparchy of Newton in 2006, there is a list of questions to ponder under several categories: “On the Love of God” – Have I had any doubts concerning the Faith or the teaching of the Church?  Have I taken the Name of God in vain, or spoken disrespectfully of Our Lady, the Saints, or of sacred things or religious matters?  Have I neglected to attend the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and Feasts?  “On the Love of Neighbor” – Have I done my duty toward my family?  Have I watched over my children and the company they keep, the books they read, the entertainments they engage in?  Have I been guilty of hatred or vengefulness?  Have I injured anyone by word or deed?  Have I been immodest in my dress or conversation so as to be an occasion of sin for others? Have I neglected to help the poor and needy when I could have done so?  Have I deceived anyone in business transactions? Have I purposely failed to pay my debts?  Have I given false testimony against anyone or passed judgement on anyone?  Have I gossiped or harmed the reputation of others? Have I wished for things God has not given me and been discontented with my lot? And on “Confession in General” – Is there anything that troubles me that might be a sin?  Do I really intend to avoid my sins in the future?

These are a few of the questions under each section, under each of the Ten Commandments of God.  And just these few should bring most of us up short, should we honestly look in the mirror and contemplate them, myself included.  They are a place to start, when we take these initial days of Great Lent to plan our re-conversion, our re-imagining of ourselves into truly the Sons and Daughters of God.

In the East, we celebrate Forgiveness Sunday. This practice was strange to me, and a trifle intimidating, when I first was exposed to it. But you know how things can build up and you don’t even realize you are carrying around a sack of rocks on your back? The stress that builds from anger, hurt, jealousy, unfulfilled dreams, and many human disappointments?  It is amazing how Forgiveness Sunday can relieve all of that.  Even if the subject or focus of your issues is not present.  There is a Latin Term for priests called “in persona Christi” (forgive me, son, if I said that wrong) and it means, “in the person of Christ.”  Our priests are there, representing Christ for us.  They do not become Christ; they are there for Him, like a “stand in.” (If any theologian reads this, please forgive me for my simplistic explanations).  In the same light, we can look at our parishioners as standing in for those who we are having issues with.  When you hug someone and seek their forgiveness, and they forgive and seek yours in return, it is like you dropped that bag of rocks at the altar. You feel lighter, and much more peaceful. It is almost as good as the feeling you get after a good confession, or a deep heart-to-heart with a trusted friend or counselor. Whew. I love it.

The sad part is when people go through motions, but it is nothing more than skin deep.  When people are insincere.  When they laugh behind your back or smirk at you behind your back after something like Forgiveness Sunday is shared.  And that is the crux of the impetus for my post today.  Insincerity.  Deception.  Dishonesty.  When you purport to be a person of God, a Christian, we all make presumptions.  We all do it.  If you say you are a fireman, we presume you put out fires.  If you say you are an attorney, we presume you know the law.  An engineer fixes things.  A mechanic can get your car running.  A nurse can soothe your pain away.  A secretary can organize the heck out of things.  A plumber keeps the water flowing and the toilets flushing. A chef can make you an incredible meal, as a baker makes divine pastries.  We all presume, or profile, about others based upon our perception of their title, or their category/classification.  When you say you  are a Christian, I presume you follow Christ. WWJD?  What would Jesus Do?  Hmmm…sometimes I think He would cringe at what goes on in our churches.  At how un-Christ-like Christians can be towards one another.  Presuming you know Christ and love Christ, and follow His teachings, we all presume certain characteristics about you.  First of all, and for me foremost, is that you are trustworthy and honest.  Christ abhors a liar, as do I.  Being false in any way is not a Christian attitude. “Have I been guilty of hatred or vengefulness? Have I injured anyone by word or deed?”  We’re supposed to contemplate these words before confession.  And we are supposed to live them.  During Lent, we are offered 40 days to reflect on how we are progressing as Christians, and how we are towards our fellow man.  How does dishonesty or deceitful behavior fit into our perspective as Christians? Do we see these as our attributes when we contemplate our own reflections?

Please know that I realize so deeply how far from the mark I, myself, fall.  And I am so very thrilled that the Church offers me these 40 days each and every year to fix myself.  It is an incredible opportunity that so very many of us do not fully utilize.  In the book of Matthew it says, “They give me lip service but their hearts are far from me.”  It is just a sad state of affairs that so many of us Christians do not take advantage of the healing salve of faith our Church offers to us.  The Church offers us countless opportunities to reconnect with our God.  We have prayer times during the week, in our homes, in our cars, on a break, while driving. I have friends who automatically start the Rosary each and every time they are in the car.  People who stop, cross themselves, and acknowledge Christ in the Tabernacle at each Catholic Church they go by – and they know all the ones in their town and the areas around them, so are constantly crossing themselves.  I love that.  They bring the Divine into the every day, in a physical way.  During Great Lent, that can be so enhanced. We can re-focus our energies into our own personal walk with God by re-doubling our efforts at fasting, at praying, at attending weekly services, of reading holy books and books by the early Church Fathers (my favorite Lenten readings are “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives” by Elder Thaddeus, and “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” by John Climacus).

We are personally suffering right now; our hearts are aching.  The little world we inhabit is upset and things are awry.  It makes for a rough start to Lent.  But, as I mourn the Coptic Christians beheaded for our Faith this week, and all those who suffer for our faith, I also feel lousy about complaining and reacting. I feel like crap (excuse me) for being down in the dumps.  People will ALWAYS disappoint you. People will ALWAYS let you down.  People will ALWAYS deceive you.  It is part of being human.  God never deceives, nor disappoints, nor lets you down.  That all belongs to us.  All of that is squarely on our human shoulders.  And that bag of rocks I thought I had left at the altar last Sunday? Well, it’s back up on my shoulders.

I need to remind myself that some people who purport a faith, well, they are not that faithful.  They “Talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.”  It can be for a multitude of reasons.  Life might just totally stink for them.  They could have horrid jobs and even worse home lives.  Divorces, drug abuse, teen issues, their health may be poor, they could have mental issues; they could be facing financial ruin.  I don’t know, nor is it my place to know.  The lesson I have learned is that Lent, Great Lent, is totally about me.  About me and my God. Where I stand with my Creator.  It does not matter where my neighbor stands.  That is between them and God.  It is not my place to judge.  A great man, a Saint, once said, “Let the mouth also fast from disgraceful speeches and railings. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother and bites the body of his neighbor. ” ― John Chrysostom.  Deceit and deception, dishonesty and insincerity may be present because there is evil in this world, too.  There is the pressure that evil puts on us when we try to be better Christians.  There are a multitude of things that pull us away from God. I need to always focus on my walk with God, on my personal salvation. And I need to be sure that I am not deceitful nor dishonest, nor insincere.  I need to pray always, for myself and everyone around me. My issues are petty and minor in comparison to the lot of our fellow Christians around the world.  We need to gain some perspective.  A good place to start is from the Foot of the Cross.

There is so much wisdom to be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers.  So much caution about fasting from meat but devouring our neighbors.  “I must keep my eyes on my own plate,” as St. John Chrysostom was fond of saying. As we dive into this Great Lent, my prayer for myself and for everyone is this:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This year will be epic!

Lately, it seems as though there is less and less respect, respect about a great many things.

I don’t want to glamorize or give more air time or credence to the new porno movie coming out today, but that is one example of no respect.  The man has no respect for the womanhood, or humanity, of the woman.  I remember how privileged it felt to share in the Divine process of procreation.  Becoming a mother is the one time you cooperate fully in the procreative process with God. God creates all life and He created a life in me..my children. How awesome is that?  This new round of Hollywood madness (and now literary madness as well) has cheapened the physical relationship between a man and a woman. Unfortunately, due to this “success” in the book world, there is now a lot more of this style of writing.  In all genres, and it still has no respect, most especially for women and for the union of man and wife.

I just read an article about Tabernacles being desecrated.  So much so that the local Bishop has ordered all of them in his area closed.  No more adoration.  No more keeping the light on because we know Jesus is home, and we can walk in and chat with Him.  We can even drive by and know He is present.  No more serenity and peace, just being in the same room with Him in a chapel.  Once again, because no one has respect.  I don’t mind if you do not believe in what I believe in. I do not mind that you even dislike what I believe in.  But I offer you the respect of your beliefs and I just want the same in return. I’m not here to shove my beliefs or opinions down your throat.  I just want to practice my faith.  There is no need to destroy the property of a church, or desecrate the Tabernacles within one.  You can voice your opinions in so many other ways, that would perhaps be even more fruitful and cause more people to stop and think.  Even those of other faiths decry the desecration of another church, be it in their belief system or not.  Radical actions by a radical few do nothing to bring others to their point of view.  Please stop.

There are also people out there who share so much, we sort of wish they would not.  Sharing things that should be kept within their family, or their faith family, at best.  Far too much blatant reality and sharing, from my point of view.  Which brings us to blogging.  Some people share far too much on blogs. I have been guilty a time or two myself, and have tried to rectify that trend in my writing.  I feel that when you hope to share your faith and when you hope to bring others over to what you believe, you put your best foot forward.  You don’t disrespect fellow worshippers with poor descriptions of events, sharing your dislike of what happened and continues to be a point of irritation for you.  That does not make anyone want to join you on your journey.  It turns people off, and turns them away.

In our faith tradition in the east, we have lots of opportunity for worship.  We have (in most parishes) evening Vespers, morning prayers, and we have Divine Liturgy. In most eastern parishes, there is one Divine Liturgy a weekend, because we want all our faith family together, worshipping at the same time. In lots of churches, there are so many services offered, you would never have to see the same people twice.  Nor hear the same music or chant twice.  Never have to scurry for the favorite pew seat, because it changes so often.  (We all have people we know who sit in particular places all the time. And heaven forbid someone should come and take their spot in Church…knowingly or unknowingly. I move around all the time, just to keep people on their toes).  We have so many opportunities to live our life of faith, with our community, that we should be so very grateful.  And there are plenty of times when we can worship as a family outside of formal worship, as well as with friends outside of Church time itself.  But we also need to attend and respect the times we are together.

For our tradition, a feast is always prepared with a fast.  And there are readings galore for every feast.  If you attend regularly and read outside of Church, no Saint’s feast day or Holy Day should ever catch you by surprise.  We always lead up to it with readings and fasting.  There are many days we fast in our tradition, and many days that we celebrate with fervor, for long periods of time. We believe a feast begins at sunset the day before.  So we start, for say, Easter Sunday, in the afternoon of Saturday.  We come together in the evening and we stay together until the sun rises and we share our first taste of meat together.  In fact, for the three days until Easter, called the Triduum in the West, we are rarely apart.  Lots of people plan vacation days from work for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Saturday night prior to Easter Sunday, and then a day of rest for Easter itself.  Many of our friends also take the following week, Bright Week, off work to recuperate and enjoy Easter.  In the Melkite tradition, it is my favorite time of year.  The Lenten evening services are incredible and I have felt God so closely during those moments of total prostration and prayer, enveloped by the sound of my priest’s voice and the cloud of incense over all of us.  The Presanctified Liturgy is, for me, like a moment of Heaven on Earth.  Very special moments for me.  Getting into the habit of spending time in the presence of God can change your outlook on time, itself.

In the eastern Churches, we believe that the moment you step into the Church you have left the world of Chronos (looking at your watch) and into the world of God, Kyros.  It is in Kyros that we loose ourselves in the worship of God and time as we know it ceases to exist.  We flow through the worship services, surrounded by chant and incense, and are quite often amazed at how much Chronos passed us by while in the Temple with God.  If you are current on the readings leading to these longer services, and you understand the whys and wherefores of the Liturgy itself, Chronos has little to no affect on you.  If you drag the world in with you, constantly worrying about what is going on outside, fussing over worldly details, Kyros will become lengthy and bothersome, and in fact, you won’t really have entered into an authentic experience of Kyros.  You will loose the essence of God’s time and be stuck in the world. Of course, sometimes the world intrudes (diapers need changing, little ones need comfort, or you just have to use the restroom!!) and they cannot be helped.  I recall a father of many, behind me in the pew one Sunday, handling a variety of upset kids.  Criers, fussers, generally cranky kids.  And I turned around at one point and saw him cradling a baby, eyes closed, swaying to the movement of the chant, reciting the prayers right along with the priest. His face was one of utter contentment.  He was in Kyros, while dealing with the world’s problems in the person of a crying baby.  It can be done, but it requires a determination sometimes to shut the world out.

This viewpoint is not respected by lots of people.  They view church as some sort of hour-long drive through where they can get their sacraments and get out, to get on with life.  They complain about lengthy services, about times, about requirements of participation.  My thoughts are, keep shopping.  There is bound to be a church that will cater to your whims and wishes.  Which is not very Christ-like! However, God only asks us to worship Him for an hour a week.  Anything we do over and above that is gravy to our souls.  One lousy hour.  Okay, on a feast day, it may be 3-4 hours.  It is truly not much when you look at the many hours we waste in traffic or in lines for things like coffee.  It comes down to your devotion and your priorities.  And you can complain, yes.  Feel free.  God listens to our joys as well as our sorrows.  But respect the faith that you are sharing.  Don’t turn people off or away by not respecting the very place you turn to for your “God time.”  Perhaps investigate the workings of the Liturgy itself and try to get into the movements of what is happening each week. You would be amazed at what you thought, versus what is.  And if your life just does not have this sort of time available in it, there are places that are faster, simpler, cleaner.  I just find it a shame someone would miss out on the beauty of worship that is relatively unchanged for 2,000 years in favor of a few extra minutes of Chronos.  Giving up the Kyros moments with God?  Not me.  I’m so excited for Great Lent and all the Lenten devotions.  I respect the chosen faith, that for me, fulfills my needs so much more than I can ever properly share.  A Church that has prepared for me for millennia; a Church who knows I need these times to keep my life on track.  I am so blessed, and as I said, so excited for Great Lent.

This year will be epic.

The Rhythm of the Seasons… the Cycles of Life and Liturgy

Things can be so weird sometimes.  And God is always, and I mean ALWAYS, a part of everything.  One of the things I love about being a part of the Church is the rhythm of life is mirrored in the rhythm of the Church.  We have moments of sorrow, moments of joy; moments of deep reflection, and moments of celebration.  And God walks with us through all of it.  His Hand is in all we do, whether we want to deal with it or not.  And for me and my life, it seems like just when things are reaching another apex, the Church in her wisdom, gives us another opportunity to share. And here we are, approaching Great Lent, and this past Sunday we had Meat Fare wherein we give up all meat for the next 40 days. This Sunday is Forgiveness Sunday and is also Cheese Fare Sunday, where we have our last opportunity to eat dairy and chees through Great Lent. And it is one of those sublime times in my life where it all clicks.

My husband and I have been married for 30 years, and together for 32.  Honestly, we did not even check with those calendars that tell you what to give for what year.  We renewed our vows on our 25th, with silver everything! Ha-Ha.  This year, we spent a wonderful evening with another couple who believe like we do, and celebrate like we do. It was perfect and the evening out was our celebration.  The gifts we gave each other? We gave each other the gift of health.  This year we are promising to invest our time and efforts, and our days, in search of premium health.  We have grandchildren we want to share time with, and three amazing sons and their families (potential family with the youngest son) we want to celebrate life with.  We want to dance at our grandchildren’s weddings.  We want to grow much, much older together.  Our parents are all aging.  My father-in-law has passed away and my mother-in-law is facing more surgeries and poor health.  My mom is getting deeper in Alzheimer’s and my dad recently joined her on the same journey.  We do not want our “Golden Years” spent in ill health!  This past year we were faced with health insurance choices and we chose to participate in a health care co-op.  What that means is that we pay a monthly premium, it goes into a large pot (which grew by over 100,000 members this past year) and when someone has an illness and has expenses, the money is taken from the pot and we all support one another.  We put our money where our faith is.  In the early Church, all believers shared property in common (sort of like a modern commune environment).  They all took care of one another.  The program we joined is Christian based, and in addition to sharing our money with one another, we commit to pray for one another.  What a blessing, and even with the Obamacare option, that is what we chose to do.

We also chose to pay attention to our health – honestly and daily.  We started using Essential Oils and it has been an incredible experience.  My husband, the engineer, was the biggest skeptic but has become convinced because of the effect the oils have had on him.  We are convinced, as a couple moving forward.  And we have begun to include oils as a part of our daily life.  But as a family member says, “Oils won’t make much difference if you’re still drinking dozens of sodas a day.”  And she is right (even though we specifically gave up soda years ago, I get the point).  And so we are approaching our diet and exercise commitment/component of our gift of health.  My son and daughter-in-law have an elliptical machine they are going to loan us.  When you live in Alaska, that is a good thing!  We had snow again today and it is a little chilly out there.  We will be able to walk inside our home and this activity will help us to become more limber and able to tackle the great outdoors, when the temps are slightly better. Alaska is the “last, great frontier,” and trust me, it is a rugged place to live.  This elliptical machine will allow us, especially me, time alone and in silence, to build some endurance and flexibility.  The next thing we are tackling is our diet.

When you start using Essential Oils in earnest, they affect your body in a myriad of ways.  Being so pure, they are working against all the toxins we’ve accumulated over the many years we’ve been ingesting them.  Petrochemicals are in almost everything.  And so the toxins have to work their way out.  I’ve caught every bug walking by. My oil consultant even drove in the snow to bring me relief in oils I did not have.  And we spoke today of purity of content in the oils and the foods we eat.  It all is intertwined.  Our conversation only further cemented my desire to change what and how we eat.

Enter Great Lent.  Part of our focus on health has been to control what we eat, how and when we eat.  We’re making our way through boxed mixes and carbs, to get rid of them all.  We are aiming for more simple, pure eating.  We will be trying a program that helps you detox and eat in proportions that are meant for us.  (Do you remember how much smaller plates used to be? How much smaller proportions used to be?).  This program encourages few simple carbohydrates, lots of vegetables and fruits, healthy grains/complex carbs, and clean proteins.  It also allows us the use of pure oils in our cooking and seasoning.  Great Lent means diligent fasting.  What a perfect sense of timing!!!  It all fits into a wonderful flow and movement.

During Great Lent, in the Melkite tradition, we refrain from all meats and fishes, all dairy, all olive oil, and liquor (especially wine) for the entire 40 days of Lent.  In other traditions, they have moderated the strictness of the Fast and only fast, for example, on Wednesdays and Fridays. It’s just a matter of tradition.  Fasting is not new.  Why do you think McDonald’s has their fish sandwiches and offers specials during Lent?  They get it.  Fish sticks and salmon steaks are featured items in grocery stores.  Why?  Because big commerce likes to earn money from our fasting traditions.  I remember the cafeteria at school had “fish-stick-Friday” when I was in HS, over 40 years ago.  The world at large is aware the Church fasts now and then, it’s just that a lot of people haven’t been doing it at all, or just remember to eat fish on Fridays.  Great Lent gives us a chance to dive into fasting, in earnest.

And the Church also gives us this time of 40 days to reflect, to clear ourselves of the junk in our lives.  It can be diet, yes, and the Church helps us to get rid of the stuff that is making us sick. We can cut back and cut out.  We can change.  You only have to do something for 21 days for it to become a life long habit.  We can add things, as well.  We can make more time for silence and for prayer.  We can dedicate our evenings, devoid of media, to attending Lenten prayer services, or Vespers if offered.  We can gather our children around our icon corner (or our paintings or statues) and we can pray as a family.  We can spend time pouring over Scriptures, discussing the themes throughout Lent.  Our parish is planning inserts into our bulletin, highlighting ideas to share with our kids and Scriptures to read with them, as an aide for families.  Great Lent is a time for great change, as we prepare to share in the single most life-changing event the world has ever known – the suffering, death, and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Great Lent is upon us and we are at the apex of great change in our lives. I love how God has made our world (our little world of our family) spin to the point where we are very ready for great changes.  We are poised to leap into a different way of eating and growing. We are paying attention to how we eat, and how we treat our bodies.  Our youngest son hits the weights every morning, without prompting.  The oils are coming along with him (another skeptic in the family) and we’re working out recipes we can all live with. We are adding scent and silence, prayers and fasting to our lives and it could not come at a better time. I just smile, as I drink my lemon oil in water (a purge) and smell the Thieves oil, decontaminating our house.  I think this Lent will be amazing and as weird as it may sound, I am excited for it to begin.  Praise God.

Blessings.

Stillness, prayer, love, and self-control…

 

Stillness.prayer

 

I am struggling with this issue and so I am working it out on my blog.  There are just so many motivators in our lives.  Things that impress upon us, and then are gone.  Other things that leave an indent, a note in our hearts that let us know this is something really important.  Recently, my mom’s battle with the most insidious disease, Alzheimer’s (and unfortunately, Dementia), has caused me to sort of shut down and reflect.  Truly, once Alzheimer’s touches your life in some way, it leaves a mark.  Loosing your mind is just such a horrific thing.  I know of soldiers who would rather have lost limbs than suffer through TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury, which mimics Alzheimer’s and Dementia.  My mother is blessed with both Alzheimer’s and Dementia.  Depending upon the source material, they are strains of the same thing.  One is considered an illness, one a disease. One starts the process, one completes it.  I’ll explain it this way: Dementia means I can’t remember the past 10 minutes.  Why am I in this room? Did I eat breakfast? What day is it? Did I talk to you earlier? And the world revolves and comes back to the same point about every ten minutes.  There are periods of lucidity wherein the person knows they don’t know.  And those moments hurt.  When my mom and I have a lucid moment together, she knows she is sick. She knows she forgets people, places, and things.  She knows it hurts us and is hard for us. And she gets very angry because she knows that soon she won’t have these lucid moments and is frustrated that she cannot stop it.  Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, involves more of the physicality of the person, as well as basic memory.  They forget what a fork is for, or how to use it. They forget to get to the bathroom, or even what a toilet is for. They forget to bathe.  They often don’t eat.  They wear the same thing, day in and day out, not realizing it.  Eventually, the body’s autonomic functions are affected to the point where they cease to function, and death ensues.  It is almost as if the body cannot remember how to function, and they die.  A person with just dementia can live until a ripe old age.  A person with Alzheimer’s has a limited lifespan. My mom, as I said, was doubly blessed.  Her world is contracting.  The past two weeks, it has been contracting at a rapid pace.  Events and occurrences have brought her disease to the forefront.  Medications aren’t really doing much at this point.  We are almost where we have to start making choices for her, decisions that affect her, whether she likes it or not.  We are going to have to define her level of competency.  And I know, after today, that I will have to go in person soon, meet with her caregivers and physician, and start taking over the decision making for her, and it is frightening.  We thought we had another 2-3 years, at least we had hoped we did, but it is looking more and more like something will have to happen in 2015.  My stepsister and I have agonized over this, and we are both so very sad.

My father is 88 years old.  He is almost exactly 30 years older than me.  My oldest son and I are almost the exact same distance in age apart, as well.  My dad has always prided himself on his ability to think.  He pursued, doggedly and even when success eluded him, advanced degrees.  He was raised in England and New Zealand and studying in America was very difficult for him.  He struggled but finally got his Master’s and PhD.  And he is proud of his accomplishments.  He and I have always struggled because he maintains he is always right.  He told me, “I’m right until you can prove me wrong.”  Ever so simply and confidently, taunting me to think more about what I wanted to share with him, never letting me be intellectually lazy.  And now he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s as well. He has moderate-onset, which is much milder than my mother’s has become.  The fact that they both have Alzheimer’s and are on the exact same medication and dosages is ironic, at best.  They live in vastly different climates and situations, in different states, but both talk about one another when they talk to me, and both ask about the other.  Like I said, ironic, at best.

Every once in awhile, I am unable to remember the simplest things.  I will think about something and my mind will be a blank, white, wall.  Not even a scratch on it. Not a trace of a memory.  And it scares me.  Truly frightens me.  I do not want to end up like my mom.  My dad is at the stage where he is just angry, trying to wrap his head around his dilemma, because he is just beginning the Alzheimer’s journey.  My mom is getting nasty with others and her short term memory is down to 10 minutes on a good day.  And I am scared that it will be me before long.  I know I can become more proactive to prevent this situation, but the genetics are there and it is frightening.  I always remember relatives who were considered, “looney old aunt Mabel.”  Most people had senile people in their family trees.  If only Dementia and Alzheimer’s were so simple.  I pray I become just senile and it stops with that, because the last thing I want to be is an emotional and physical burden to my husband or children.  And I know how it feels to watch the two people in your world who always cared for you, and were always strong and there for you, wither away as mine are doing.  And I wish, I pray, that the decline wasn’t so rapid and obvious. My heart is breaking.

I started this post on my blog with a meme about the “4-horsed chariot, bearing the intellect to Heaven.”  Those four things are stillness, prayer, love, and self-control.  As someone facing the issues I have with my parents, I am longing for peace, for assurety and confidence in my future, in their future, and their eternity.  My mom pretty much ignores faith in her life.  She went to Church with my stepdad because he insisted on it; he wanted to go.  He was Catholic and somehow was able to go to confession and receive communion; he was anointed just prior to his death.  He felt at peace.   My mom has not gone to Church since he passed. I believe perhaps once or twice to connect with friends, but she has long stopped attending Mass (she is not even Catholic).  My dad sought out faith like a dedicated miner.  He dug through a lot of philosophies.  When he came up against the historic Church, however, he stopped looking.  He told me once, “If I wasn’t married to who I am married, I would be Catholic.”   My conundrum is that I worry for their eternity. My father has worked out his own, personal salvation with God and I am leaving it in His hands. I worry mostly for my mom because no one in her life ever bothered to catechize her and whenever I tried, she pushed me away.  It actually angered her when I would talk to her about it.  Although, to be honest, she told me often that she wished she had what my husband and I have…our faith.  I am sorry, too.  I feel like time is catching up with me on this, and I need some time to stop, recollect, ponder and work this out.

Some days I feel like I am standing on a precipice and that I’m about to fall; I don’t feel like the landing will be gentle. I’m overwhelmed with regrets and sadness for the life I never had (My parents staying married; a place I could take my kids to that said, “This is Grandma and Grandpa’s house and I grew up here.”) and was not able to give to my kids (We have moved a lot).  I’m sad my parents divorced and how nasty it was and how much hurt it generated, even if it was done when I was in my early 20s.  The pain was intense, even for a young adult.  I sought counseling for it and am eternally grateful for the therapist, who on my first visit, was smart enough to hand my a box of tissues and just sit there while I spewed.  And bawled. And spewed some more. I don’t think we had an actual discussion until my 3rd or 4th visit.  Ha-Ha.  Smart woman.  I worry about my agnostic brother, who keeps his distance and has his own demons chasing him.  I regret I haven’t been able to share my faith with him and help him to find more peace in the world (he thinks religion is for weak-minded people and he has no need of it in his life). I remember so much joy in my childhood and cling to the memories of times at my grandparent’s home, surrounded by extended family.  I remember the smell and feel of holding my children as infants and am reminded of their unbridled joy each time I hear my grandchildren laugh.  And today I sit on this precipice with all these things around me.  Some have left deep indents, and my heart knows they are important, as I said above.  Some I let go, knowing they aren’t truly life-altering, and I gave them too much credence.  Others, well, I am wrestling.  Wrestling with doubts, fears, longings, and love.

As I prepare to enter yet another Great Lent, I am looking at what I need to deal with.  A wise priest once told me that during Lent, we can give things up, or we can choose to do things we haven’t tried, yet.  I truly believe this meme has given me the groundwork I need to focus on, the basics, to assist my “intellect to Heaven.”  Silence is something that I love and have embraced far more than most people who know me would think.  Being still, and allowing silence and stillness to envelope you can be such a peaceful moment; it can heal.  In the still, silent world we can erect around ourselves, we can enter more deeply into prayer.  We can listen for God’s whispers in a still and silent world much easier than in the chaos of this world.  When we listen for, and hear, God’s action in our lives, we are overwhelmed with Love.  The love of God, of other.  We can get outside of ourselves and help the person next to us. It can re-energize us enough to carry on.  And self-control is much simpler in a still and quiet place we erect, filled with prayer and love.  My four-horsed chariot, as St. Thalassios the Libyan so wonderfully stated.

There is much work to be done to make this happen for me.  I am ditching much of the social media in my life. It only adds to the noise and rattling I really don’t need to listen to, anyway.  My prayer life has slackened lately and it needs to be rejuvenated.  The love I feel towards my family and friends will only be more focused with stillness and prayers, and I am determined that while I can, each of them will know how much I love them.  The self-control, for me, comes in regards to speech (stillness/silence), being out and about outside of my home, and my health/weight. I need to control my appetites in a few areas.  Mostly I want to focus on being healthier, so I do not expose my family and friends to what I am going through with my parents.  I want to be healthy for my grandchildren.  I want to share their lives as long as I can, as healthily as I can.  All horses need regular feeding and exercise, as well as practice.  Especially horses that are destined to be leading my chariot, and in it my intellect, to heaven.

Great Lent is right around the corner.  It is time to prepare.  Pray for me as I will pray for you, in the stillness.

Lent is a time