“…death before your minds…”

St Cosmas of AitolosHave you ever had one of those nights when you awake in a complete panic because you were realizing, in your sleep, that you have already lived at least half of your life?  That perhaps you do not have many more decades stretching before you?  I did.  And boy, was I in a sweat, breathing heavily, and completely panicked.  I sat there, realizing that I am in my “late 50s” and I doubt I will be living to my 100s!  My parents are both in their “late 80s.”  And the clock keeps ticking.  And there is not a thing I can do about that.  And I began to weep.  I wept for my children – how I love them so and do not want to leave them.  I wept for my grandchildren, because they are so new to this world and I want to get to know them, and have them know me.  I wept, and reached over and touched my husband (he did not notice through his rather exuberant snoring).  This man who I have spent my life with, loving and often disliking (I will always love him, but some days he’s not on my “favorites” list.  But that’s the reality of marriage!).  We just celebrated 29 years of marriage and I cannot imagine a life without him next to me.  And I know his life would be so much more difficult without me next to him, too.  We need each other to keep each other “our best selves.”  He is good for me, for my soul.  And I am good for him.  It’s why it works, and has worked, for so many years. But I wept at the thought of not being with him, next to him, loving him and feeling the warmth of him near me.

God tells us in so many places in scripture that we are not to worry.  One of my favorites is Matthew 6: 25-34:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

And as I sat there, catching my breath late last night, I tried to think of this, to think this way.  As St. Cosmas said in the first photo, “There is no better teacher than death.”  And I really think that when we put our very few days here on earth into a global perspective, we truly need to focus.  Life truly is short and the older I get, the shorter it seems.

There are so many little things I should be doing right now.  Why do I procrastinate?  Why do I waste time?  And no, for those of you who read these posts, I have not completed my office, yet.  My daughter-in-law offered to come over tomorrow and said that we can tackle it together. I bought a curtain rod for the drapes I have for the window (a very old wool blanket my parents brought from New Zealand more than 50 years ago hangs there now).  I have file folders ready to go. I even filed and labeled some of the stuff.  So why does her offer frighten me?  It’s almost like I won’t have anything to do if I do complete organizing that space.  And I thought about this and I realized that I am a big baby in many ways. I am afraid of what’s around the corner, because I know I don’t have that many corners left to go around!  And what do I have to show for myself?

St IrenaeusAs St. Irenaeus reminds us above, “The business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.”  In this photo of an ossuary in Eastern Europe, the monks keep the skulls of their brethren who have passed before them. Their names are etched on the skulls and the monks often come to sit and commune with their fellow monks.  We believe that when we die, our souls rise to be with God. If we have lived a holy life, we know, and we expect, that we will be with God.  By looking to those who have gone before us, certain of their salvation, we can emulate their lives and make similar choices in our own.  We also believe that the Church Triumphant, filled with those in the presence of God who have gone before us, await our prayers and will pray for us and with us, the Church Militant, here on earth. There is great comfort in knowing our community is larger than we can even fathom.  At Divine Liturgy, we are reminded that all the angels, “six-winged, many-eyed and soaring on their pinons” are before us at the altar.  We are in the midst of the Holy Communion of God and His people.

We are called to have our own “domestic Church” in our homes.  Places of refuge, prayer, comfort, and safety, where we bring and welcome Our Lord, our family, and our friends. A place where the Word of God is commonplace, prayer is daily, and we have reminders of God and His Saints before us always. I re-arranged our Icons from a wall to more of a corner.  I mushed them all together and left a corner section bare, waiting on my husband to construct an icon corner shelf for me.  Our incensor is waiting, with our candle and an icon of Christ Pantocrator, to be placed in the corner.  I love seeing the Icons, paintings and statues we have around our home; they give me comfort.  On the wall next to our bed is a beautiful painting of the “Flight into Egypt,” a photo of modern-day Jerusalem and the Tomb of Christ from above, another of a painting of the Theotokos holding the Christ Child while the angels serenade Him, and many more, including icons of our patron saints, St. Joseph and Ruth.  And as I panicked in the dark last night, I knew these images were all around me and I took comfort. I offered prayers to Our Lord and I prayed for strength, comfort, and peace. And I laid back down and promptly fell asleep.

Psalm 25-4-5…and all night long, too!

“There is no better teacher than death.”

St Irenaeus

To some, most especially my Protestant friends and family members, the practice of many Orthodox and Byzantines of having an “ossuary” (An ossuary is a chest, building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains. They are frequently used where burial space is scarce. A body is first buried in a temporary grave, then after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary. The greatly reduced space taken up by an ossuary means that it is possible to store the remains of many more people in a single tomb than if the original coffins were left as is) to remember the dead seems highly morbid or gross. In addition to that, many of the skulls kept in an ossuary are engraved with the deceased’s name and birth/death information.  In many places around the world, cemeteries are a luxury that cannot be afford to a particular place or situation, or perhaps for financial reasons.  In the USA, we often have crypts or mausoleums where we inter our deceased in caskets.  Lots of people do not want to be placed in the ground, or perhaps they choose cremation.  In Orthodoxy in particular, we do not cremate.  In the Byzantine tradition,  it is not favored, but is allowable.  There has been a return, in recent years, to simplicity in burial and to even “green” caskets, where the casket actually decomposes over the years so as to not add to the landfill and allow the remains to be returned “from whence they came,” as in “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”  I met an incredible man at a homeschool conference a couple of years ago. He was a boat maker and he loved wood carving and working with wood. He watched Pope John Paul II’s funeral on TV and was moved by the simplicity of his casket.  It moved him so much, he relocated his family to Vashon Island in Washington state and providing these amazing caskets has become his life’s work. (You can find him at http://www.mariancaskets.com/ and I highly recommend his magnificent and simple caskets). When I first saw one at our conference up here, I stood next to it and wept – the simplicity and beauty were overwhelming. It seems odd to recommend someone get in touch with a casket maker, even if there is no impending death, but these caskets are one-of-a-kind and are each handmade with craftsman-like attention to detail.  Very worth planning for!!

Marian Casket Company

Today marks one year since the death of my father-in-law.  He was diagnosed with cancer and exactly (I mean to the day of his diagnosis) two months later, he had passed on into life eternal. (May his memory be eternal).  He changed quite dramatically in the small period of time in which he was ill.  There were good days and there were some pretty bad days. Through days of pain, his demeanor was that of a man who knew his days were few, and was peaceful.  Most importantly to all of us, he had made peace with God, and it was evident to all of us around him.  [A side note in all this was that he even encouraged his wife to get rid of things in their home, saying it was just “stuff” – a HUGE thing in our family.] He also actively participated in the choices that were made regarding his last days, his burial, and his internment.  He was calm and resigned, but more importantly, he was peaceful, and at times even joyful.  He gathered his family around him, he expressed his love for each of them, and he said his goodbyes.  He was the eldest of 10 children and each of his siblings that could, came to see him and spend a short amount of time with him, bidding him farewell. He had his wife, sons and daughter all around him at one time, which was miraculous considering we resided in several states, and had so many complications in getting together.  (My sister-in-law had just given birth to twins, but was able to fly out to spend some time with her dad).  All of my sons were there, and my oldest son brought his wife and newborn baby, so that my father-in-law could meet his great-grandson.  It was beautiful.  And when he took his last breath, the Kaiser world was rocked.  He had, probably without even realizing it, become the planet we all revolved around…his siblings, his grandchildren, god children, nieces and nephews, various in-laws and outlaws, and friends he’d kept since early childhood.  His funeral was beautiful and his internment quiet and peaceful.  He was laid to rest in peace, and it was a celebration of his life.

The year since his death has been one of so many wonderful occurrences in our immediate family – we’ve had the college graduation and wedding of our middle son, and now his impending fatherhood.  Our oldest son’s firstborn son celebrated his first birthday a month ago, and now we are awaiting the birth of his second child.  Our youngest son became a member of CAP and entered his middle teens going full blast, challenging us and keeping us on our toes every day!  My husband changed jobs late last year, is changing jobs again, and now we are moving thousands of miles from here. For me, it was a big year in that I started blogging! Our lives are in full swing.

My father-in-law has left us a legacy, and a lesson.  A priest we know used to love to say, “You are not guaranteed your next breath.”  I believe that when my father-in-law breathed that last breath, he was willingly walking towards his eternity in peace and fully engaged in the process of “meeting his Maker.”  I pray that I, too, keep my eye on meeting my maker and that each moment of every choice laid before me is spent spiritually aware and is profitable to my salvation.  I was also shown through the experience of the death of my father-in-law, that family is the single most important thing Our Lord gave us.  Everything we learn about who we are, everything that we have been given, has come through our family.  I am now determined to keep family close by me, and I never tire of telling my family that I love them.  Lent is always a rough time of year; it is especially rough this year because we are in mourning, at the one-year anniversary of someone who was pivotal in so many of our lives.  My husband, youngest son, and I had lunch together today and my husband was able to share tidbits with our son about his father.  And he was able to smile; we even laughed a little bit.  It is good to smile and laugh when we contemplate those who have gone before us, rather than always to mourn.  Today our middle son had an interview and it was a little nerve-wracking (he really wants this job).  We chatted a little about invoking the saint names of my father-in-law and asking them to intercede for my son. Although a year ago today my son was sitting with him as he passed away, today he can ask his grandpa to spiritually sit with him in his interview.  What a wonderful gift!!  Our faith is not an easy thing, but it is also such a comfort on days like today.

St Cosmas of Aitolos

So today I remember my father-in-law and ask his prayers for the family he has left behind. I pray for his soul and wish him peace and repose.  I also am more focused on my own path to salvation, as this time of Lent gives me so much to reflect upon and pray about. God is working in our lives and He has a plan for us.  When we contemplate our own death in light of those we love who’ve gone before us, it makes our own struggle seem much more real, and very timely.  The days grow shorter for each of us and I pray that each day I have, God will manifest Himself in me more and more, and that everyone will know I am a Christian, by the love that emanates from me towards all those around me.  My prayers go out today to our family-at-large and “May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.”  Memory eternal, Joe….

Cross sunlight rocks