I have been stimulated to place words down here again by something someone said, and something I heard and/or read. For me, blogging about things is a way for me to communicate with myself, my husband, family, and friends. More often than not, my stimulus to write is because I am reading or listening to someone, and it gets my mind reeling with possibilities. Today is no exception.
I read some articles yesterday about the Pope’s resignation and how the world, most especially the mainstream media outlets, do not get Catholicism, or organized religion, at all. The other things were an article by an Abbot I love and the introduction to St. John Climacus,’ “Ladder of Divine Ascent,” which is my other reading for Lent this year. All of those combined, in odd, very odd, ways to bring me to write.
Very few in the western mindset of democracy understand those of us who opt to unite our journey towards God with an organized religion. Most of the world (especially the western world and most especially, America) has listened to soundbites throughout history and has allowed those limited words to explain 2,000 years of history and tradition. In my own family, I am the sole practitioner of organized religion. Quite often, even among friends, I am the die-hard of Byzantine practice and that is rarely understood, as it differs so much from Latin or Roman Catholicism, as well as most Protestant denominations. In the forward to the “Ladder of Divine Ascent,” the author explains that most western eyes look to monastics as “different” and even the words surrounding monasticism as “different.” There are a few Roman Catholics who have discovered the wealth contained in monastic orders and they flock to the monasteries for Mass and prayer, even confession, whenever they can. In the Eastern side of the Church, we breathe with our monastics; we turn to them as friends, as confidants, as Spiritual Fathers and Spiritual Guides. One of the incredible gifts of being Byzantine is that we are generally a part of either a monastery itself, or we attend quaint little parishes. The priests and monks are not strangers; they know us. One of the great joys I experienced was attending a conference on Byzantine spirituality of some sort (it may even have been a Melkite Greek Catholic conference…I am not certain and that part of it did not resonate with me) and the most important thing that came out of it for me was the camaraderie that developed within the small group we came to associate with. My husband, being an ordained Melkite deacon, immediately congregated with his fellow deacons. We wives also congregated together. With us, we added a coupe of priests, an archmandrite, and a Bishop. We had the most amazing dinners together and ended up, all of us, in our hotel room, gabbing the night away. I was in awe of the level of intelligence, humor, and love for God and His Church that surrounded me that night. The other deacon’s wife and I huddled in the corner and we whispered together about how cool it was, to witness the repartee that was taking place and the amazing thing (for women) is that neither of us felt the need to speak; we just drank in all the wonderful conversation around us. It is very rare for something like that to occur within other denominations. The priests, Bishops, and other clerics are just not that available to their people. And because I have barbequed, fed the poor, prayed, and worshiped with priests and deacons, I feel so close to my Spiritual Fathers, and so do my children. It is a blessing.
This morning I read an article that explains why we women love to talk. Well, it is not something new under the sun, but scientists can now explain it – biologically and chemically! I feel so much better about myself! Ha-Ha! But I point this out because one of the issues I struggle with is keeping silent. Sometimes silence gains you so much more than chatter. The noisiness of this world can cramp our relationship with God so very much. My son and I were sitting in a parking lot last night, waiting for someone to open the gates for our entrance onto a small, local, military base for his CAP meeting, and he made the most interesting observation: “Mom, have you noticed how much noise is all around us? Did you notice the sounds of all those cars and trucks as we drove here on the freeway? Even here, up on this hill, you can still hear the sound of all those cars!” And we chatted a little bit about how very noisy our world has become. He even said that he cannot wait to get out into the wilds when we move, to experience the quiet of nature. And I believe that part of the misconception about monasticism and keeping Holy Silence is due to the fact that we rarely are in a position of total silence; there is always a gentle humming of background noises, even in the quiet of our homes. And people are very uncomfortable in total silence.
As we enter more fully into Lent, I am pulled to “withdraw” more and more from contemporary noises. As a chatterbox most of my life, being silent is something very few expect from me. Many years ago, a friend of mine who was also known to love talking, asked me to attend a weekend “Silent Retreat” at a monastery. I was scared to death – because I had never been quiet that long, and I was not sure I could do it. The first few hours were especially difficult, as my friend and I were roommates! They asked us to not converse – at all! We did talk over details about rooming together, but then we split up, in order to not talk, each of us exploring the monastery on our own. There were lectures off and on throughout the day, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in a side Chapel all day and we could go there anytime we chose, and there were priests available all day for confessions, as well as all the regular prayer times throughout the day, common to monastic life. Where did I find myself? Well, I did not stroll the wonderful gardens, nor did I take advantage of the wonderful views, nor did I spend much time in quiet adoration; I was inexplicably drawn to their amazing two-storied library. Up in the rafters, a rickety “third” floor that was more like scaffolding, they had all the books they were getting rid of. For a book lover like me, I was delirious! I lost track of time, finding all these wonderful treasures to bring home! The smell of a library filled with old books is something only a book lover would treasure, and I did. I found a niche by a rounded window that I cracked open for the slight, warm, breeze and set to reading books by the Church fathers, some old priests, and even books of prayers. I found myself startled by the sound of the dinner gong. And I had not spoken a word in an entire day. It was actually miraculous. My weekend flew by and my friend and I scheduled that same retreat for several years in a row (until we had just too many children to leave our husbands alone for that long! Ha-Ha!) and we both marveled at how silence was something we both looked forward to each year.
Now that I am older and my home is less chaotic than when all my sons were running through it, I find that keeping quiet is not that difficult. And I have, on occasion, answered a phone call with a cracked voice, realizing I have not spoken in hours. And you know what? I have learned more and heard more in silence that I ever have in noise. The Lord, it is said, comes in a “whisper.” We have, jokingly, said many times in our family that God needs to use a 2 x 4 so we are sure we get His messages! But I am learning that in the stillness of my heartbeat, and in the quiet of breathing, God is more present to me. I am learning to control my thoughts (thanks to Elder Thaddeus and his book, “Our Thoughts Determine our Lives”) and keep my life from becoming too much about all the stresses that assail us on a daily basis. I find myself reciting the Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart, more often during my day (“Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”) and will often stop to place my mind fully on the prayer. It is amazing when you have these little prayers you can offer all day, how settling they can be.
God is pleased when we give all that we are and all that we do, over to Him. After speaking at length with a friend experiencing a crisis last evening, I shared how much we can change a situation by turning things over to God. There is this amazing book, which I have quoted before in my posts, called, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Heaven, but Never Dreamed of Asking,” by Peter Kreeft. In that book, he wonderfully speaks about truly giving everything over to God. He describes a closet in our hearts/minds that we dedicate to God. In that closet are shelves, with shoe boxes lining them, each with a label on it. Each box is labelled for that particular thing or issue (or person and personal relationship) that you cannot handle on your own. You place that thing in the box, giving it over to God, and close God’s closet door. You truly have to picture yourself giving this thing to God. I have all sorts of things in God’s closet. Because I have that wonderful gift of free will, I will often yank that thing out of God’s closet and think I can handle it on my own. Once more, God, Who is ever patient with us, will show me that I cannot handle this on my own. He gently opens that door and I see quite clearly that box, with its lid askew, asking for my “thing” to be put back inside of it. God is more faithful than any friend we have, who offers to help us out. God will always come through for us. His method, His time, His way…but He always answers our prayers. And sometimes praying can be the single most difficult thing we do. We also will, more often than not, forget to pray for ourselves. We always pray for our husbands, children, friends, community and country; but most of us forget to ask God for something. In the season of Lent, boy oh boy, do I seem to dump everything into God’s boxes!! His arms are full of all the verbalized shortcomings I have come to own. But the funniest things is, He already knows all of that about me. He knows where I am weak and where my strength lays. He is just waiting for me to humble myself, realize that I can do NOTHING without Him, and to simply implore Him for His intercession in my life.
St. John Climacus’ book, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” is the other book I am trudging through this Lent. He addresses our incessant need to talk in his book, as so many scholars before and since have done. One of the messages that came to me was my tongue praises God; my tongue receives God in Holy Communion; my tongue shares my faith with others. My tongue is a holy instrument. How can I defame myself through my words? How can I defame my Lord and my God through profanity? How can I allow negativity and strife to surround me and those near me, through my words, said with my tongue? There was a joke emailed to me this week, about a police officer who came up behind a woman who was gesticulating at an intersection, and yelling and screaming, at the car in front of her. He pulled her over and arrested her. She was brought to jail, fingerprinted and photographed, and left in a holding cell; she was hysterical, not knowing why. He later came to her and apologized, saying that he thought she must have stolen the car because she had bumper stickers like “WWJD,” and “Pro-Llife” and “God Saves” and many more on the back of her car and so he thought that her behavior must have been that of a thief!! We are all tempted to stray; we are all fallible; we are human. The point is to get back up, dust ourselves off, and re-start on the journey we have begun. For me, when my mouth gets tired and I realize I have been talking too much, too long, over trivia, I will quite often stop mid-sentence and sit back, realizing I have not only broken with my efforts at “Holy Silence,” I have outdone myself in the chatter department!!!
As St. Anthony the Great tell us, it is not impossible to reach a virtuous life, but it certainly is not easy! I take great comfort in his words, because I know that God expects a struggle. Christ told us: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36). And because He promised us struggles, even in our own families, why would we expect Lent to be easy? The purpose of these 40 days is to struggle. We are supposed to work towards becoming better at day 40 than we were at day 1. At the very least, if we spend Lent wisely, we should know more about ourselves at the end of it. And perhaps we will have picked up some new, positive, habits along the way. I propose to become a more centered, loving, quiet woman by the time I am praising God on Easter Sunday, for His gift to me of “Eternal Life.” A gift that I am praying I will become more cognizant of, and worthy of, through this struggle we call Lent.