” but up to seventy times seven…”

Forgiveness – Matthew 18:21-22
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”

For those of us who are Eastern Rite Catholics, yesterday was Cheesefare Sunday, because it is the last time we eat any dairy and today is called Clean Monday – the first day of the full “Great Fast.” Every year, Lent is prefaced by Meatfare (two weeks ago) and Cheesefare, but more importantly, we also refer to this past Sunday as, “Forgiveness Sunday.” Traditionally, on this day, we are asked by our priest to forgive him any sins he may have committed against us, and we repeat, aloud, “I forgive you.” The clergy on the altar seek forgiveness from one another. In some eastern traditions, this act of seeking and giving forgiveness is expressed in a more formalized, and public, way with a line developing wherein each parishioner personally meets with the priest and other clergy, then joining the line, until each parishioner asks and gives forgiveness to every other parishioner. It can take hours if the parish is large enough.

It was celebrated in our parish, the long way, yesterday. I did not attend Church. I am so hurt in my heart, that I just could not stand to have the hypocrisy of some people played out in front of my face, when I know they gossip disparagingly about my family and I behind our backs. Gossip is alive and well in my life. I was fearful I would say something that would make the situation far worse. For me, and for them.

north_door_of_iconostasis_v-2The icon above depicts the Temptation in the Garden and the Expulsion from Eden and the Shame of Adam and Eve. This icon is used on Forgiveness Sunday to remind us of the Original Sin of Adam. And we are supposed to contemplate our sin, in light of God’s justice in removing Adam and Eve from His Presence. We believe that when we sin, we take a step away, or remove ourselves from, the Presence of God. Depending upon the sin, that step can be minute, or it can create a chasm between us and God. God is consistently standing with open arms, waiting on us to seek Him out, in repentance. In the Eastern Rites, and in the Roman Catholic Church, we go to Confession (or Reconciliation). The Church asks us to go to Confession at least once before we celebrate Pascha, or Easter, and the Resurrection of Christ.

Since last week, I have been thinking long and hard about all of this. I felt that removing myself from this would be better for all of us. I have nothing to prove to anyone, nor do I think my presence should have a definitive affect on others, one way or the other. I have wronged people, I am sure, and need to seek forgiveness from them. But I do not need to do so in a public forum. Do I have anger and frustration in my heart? You bet I do. Do I need to let it go? Oh my, yes I do. And how am I to do that? Therein lies the heart of my moments spent musing over this.

I have been doing this study, which I referenced in my last post, and I quoted from it about the boulders we have in our lives that we need to move out of the way. I have lots of boulders that I need shifted. And I am working on them. I do not think I would have served anyone any good by being at Church. God is working on me. Hard. In the eastern rites, we have no “obligation” to attend religious services. In the Latin Church, there is the pain of mortal sin if you purposely avoid Mass. For us in the eastern Churches, we feel no pain of “mortal” sin; we do not delineate sin in that way. We view sin a little differently and it does not entail whether or not we go to Church. The philosophy behind it is that when you love someone, you want to be with them, above everything else. You will do whatever it takes to be with them. And if you love God, you will do whatever it takes to be there, with Him, at Church. Sin is seen as a step away from God – does your choice put you closer to God, or further away from Him? Does staying home from Church cause you to be further from God or closer to God? For me, I felt that being at Church would be a “near occasion of sin” for me, and for others. And so I stayed away, purposefully.

Today, well, today is Clean Monday. Today we begin the Great Fast in earnest. And today I did something I have never done – I juiced! We bought a juicer and today was its first run. I am now drinking it over ice and I must say, it is pretty darn tasty! With this study I am doing entitled, “The Holistic Christian Woman,” we are also altering our dietary intake and trying to purge our bodies of the stuff that impedes good health. So I thought I would coordinate that with the start of Great Lent. I made my son a smoothie today. It feels good to focus on our health and is such a great way to share Clean Monday and the start of Great Lent.

juicing

Back to why I started this post – forgiveness. It is a rough thing and a touchy thing. To truly forgive someone, you remove the hurt and take it out of your timeline, if you will. You live as if the hurt was never a part of your life. And if the pain is too much, you just give it to God. He has a better way to handle our hurts than we do. He died for our hurts. He hung on that Cross for three hours, taking on the hurts of the entire world. Just for me. Just for you. And He said, as He was being crucified, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).  

Quiet

Do I forgive? Oh, I sincerely do. I really, truly forgive anyone who has ever wronged me. It is as though those things, those words, were never said. And I am completely at peace with that. Do others forgive me? In the same way? Perhaps; perhaps not. But all I can do is seek that forgiveness; how they forgive is between them and God. Forgiving is freeing. I still retain the memories of the hurt, but the pain is somehow removed because I truly let it go. But it does not mean I am stupid. I am not going to consistently, regularly, bang my head against that same wall. Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. I am adult enough to realize that repeating errors is just wasting my time. And it is honestly okay to just walk away….

Nonsense

So I will continue to embark on this Lenten journey. I am focusing on becoming healthier in many ways – emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I do forgive others and I pray for their forgiveness, as well. I read a great blog today by Joel L. Miller enttitled, “The Trouble with me – and  – Jesus Christianity” on Ancient Faith blogs. He talks about the story of the blind men each touching an elephant and describing it to one another. One touches a leg and describes the elephant like a tree trunk; one touched the trunk and described a snake…you get the idea. It is the same with Church, with our faith – if we only see our own interpretation of Jesus, we may only know Him as a tree trunk or a snake. We will not see the entirety of our faith. We cannot be Christians in a vacuum or as islands. Salvation comes in community. We celebrate our faith, we share our faith, we grow in our faith in the presence of other Christians. We listen to the preaching of our priests and deacons; we listen to the Fathers of the Church, who guide us in “orthodox” or “right thinking.” We cannot do this alone. We cannot seek salvation alone. Yes, our faith is between us and our Savior. But the Apostles sought one another and lived in community. We, too, should seek other Christians. So to not attend Church is not the best approach to growing in our faith. However, sometimes removing ourselves from situations that are not life-giving, nor healthy, is the best we can do for everyone. I’m not advocating avoiding communities that help us build and grow in our faith. But I am advocating an intelligent perspective on, as St. John Chrysostom said above, “Let us always guard our tongue; not that it should be silent, but that it should speak at the proper time.” And I believe removing ourselves and spending time alone is a healthy thing to do.

Alone time

This year’s Lenten journey should be amazing. I am working hard on listening more and talking less. On watching less TV and reading more. On making better choices in so many areas. I am working on becoming more fit in my physical, emotional, and spiritual self. This time, set aside each year, is given to us to reflect, repent, and start again. I feel blessed. Working to prepare myself in order to really welcome Christ with Palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna in the Highest.” See you on the other side…

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Procession_in_the_Streets_of_Jerusalem_(Le_cortège_dans_les_rues_de_Jérusalem)_-_James_Tissot

“…the righteous into eternal life.”

Last Judgement IconFor those of us who are Byzantine or Eastern Catholic, this Sunday is Meat Fare Sunday.  What is that?  Well, from this Sunday until Pascha, we will allow no meat to touch our lips. And to begin the Great Fast, we start Meat Fare by listening to the Gospel of Matthew and looking upon the Icon of the Last Judgement.   The icon of the Last Judgement shows much about the coming Last Judgement of Christ.  I love this scriptural reference to the sheep and the goats that we will read and as we read the words, we can see it in this icon.  (Mt 21:31-46).

When our sons were younger and we were living on dairy farms, we had the supreme good fortune to belong to 4-H.  What a wonderful group of people we came to know and love!  We were encouraged to get as involved as we could, which meant we were very active!  I have fond memories of rushing our junior sheep to the State Fairgrounds in the back of a calf trailer.  Once we got them to their designated stalls, we then had to haul out all the hay and feed, watering dishes, etc.  We set up a mini-campsite and someone from our group was with the animals 24/7.  I can personally vouch for washing and grooming sheep – they can be every bit as stubborn as goats!  The goats moan a lot louder, and dig their feet in a little harder, but eventually, they can be persuaded to cooperate. Sheep and goats are so very similar that some people can confuse them.  Personality-wise, as I said, they can both be stubborn, but goats are a lot stronger and tended to be more “loners,” whereas the sheep tended to bunch together and be more fearful of everything.  The only thing they did not fear was their owners, their shepherd.  In fact, we had problems keeping them in their pens. They escaped numerous times, looking for my sons.  They loved the attention and they also knew the boys would always feed and water them.  Goats can be left in an enclosure but you have to give them something to do or they will eat everything…they have to be kept occupied or they would get into trouble. Sound familiar?

Our Lord used images to teach people and the people he most interacted with were usually connected to the land…farmers.  And they knew the ins and outs of farm life.  They knew the size of a mustard seed; they knew about the threshing floor; they were very knowledgeable about farm animals, especially sheep and goats.  So Christ used them as examples.  It is no different on Meat Fare Sunday, when we muse over the scripture references to sheep and goats, and gaze upon the Icon.  And being intimate with sheep and goats myself, I have always wondered why I identify more with goats than sheep.

The verses we read this week scare me, because of my tendency to be more goat-like.  And Christ does not mince words in these verses, either.  “Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”    I don’t know about you, but being cursed by Christ and told to enter into the eternal fire sort of scares me.  He is lamenting all the times He reached for us and we did not respond to Him. He gave us all free will, an opportunity to hear Him say to us, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;” I would personally much rather hear that,  than the cursing above.  He separates the nations!  On an international scale, that is also frightening.  The Last Judgement applies to EVERYONE.  No one gets to skip this part.  I was taught that we all have two final judgements – the one we experience personally upon our death, and the second one when Christ comes again, at the Final Judgement of the Nations.  It is FINAL. It is complete. It is just.

This Sunday we begin to prepare ourselves for Great Lent by giving up the eating of flesh.  We call it Meat Fare, as I said before.  From this Sunday forward, until Pascha, no flesh may be consumed, but dairy is allowed on all days of this week, even Wednesday and Friday.  The following Sunday is Cheese Fare, and after that we keep the strict Fast of Great Lent, where we do not consume flesh, dairy, olive oil, or wine until the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.  During this preparation for Great Lent, we also celebrate the Saturdays of the Souls, beginning with last Saturday through next Saturday.  This is when we commemorate those who have gone before us.  It all ties in with the Last Judgement.  We pray for the souls of our departed, and pray we see them again, at the Last Judgement.

Mother TheresaSo, when you think of yourself, do you see the cute, little lamb or the cranky, old goat?  Every year I struggle with this because these verses are pretty explicit. And I usually think of Bl. Mother Theresa.  When Christ lists all the ways in which the goats have let Him down, I see Bl. Mother Theresa, out in the alleyways of Calcutta, taking care of all the lost sheep.  She fed, she housed, she clothed, she comforted.  How do I measure up? Not so well.  Now I realize we are not supposed to compare ourselves to Bl. Mother Theresa or any other Christian, we are only to look to Christ.  And I do.  I do look to Christ and when He exhorts us in these verses, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for the one least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40) and I tremble, just a little bit.  Am I doing enough?  Is my heart right with God?  Is He the center of my day?  Where do I lack? Where do I fall short?  Where must I rip out the goat and replace it with the sheep?

lastjudgementSo here I am, struggling with my identity, remembering that Christ was literally comparing sheep and goats.  And I remember some things about the animals we had.   Sheep hang out in groups.  Goats go their own way.  Sheep are meekly led where their master directs them.  Goats you have to chase down and collar them and drag them where you want them to go. Christ was revealing His true self to His Apostles, and “when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21: 15-17).  Christ refers to us as His “sheep.”  It is not because we are mindless drones.  He gave us free will.  We need to understand that our free will can corrupt us until we are goats; we become stubborn and we choose not to follow Christ.  Christ will not drag us by our collars, rather, He will open the gates of Heaven for us, allowing us to meekly enter into Paradise with Him.

I learned something a long time ago that, for me, reminds me of the importance of things said in scripture.  Whenever Christ wants to be sure you get what He is saying, and that He means, unwaveringly, what He is saying, he says it three times.  For example, “Amen Amen Amen, I say to you…” or  “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”  With the proper emphasis, He was telling St. Peter that the flock Christ was gathering to Himself was to be guided, guarded, and fed by St. Peter in His absence.  Christ left us St. Peter and the Apostles, and their wisdom in the form of His Church.  Their wisdom has come down to us over the centuries in the prayers and prostrations, in the exhortations written down for us, in the historical record left to us, all bound together in our traditions and in Holy Tradition; the unshakeable truth that is our Faith.

“This Sunday sets before us the eschatological dimension of Lent: the Great Fast is a preparation for the Second Coming of the Savior, for the eternal Passover in the Age to Come, a theme that is also the focus of the first three days of Holy Week. But the judgment is not only in the future. Here and now, each day and each hour, in hardening our hearts toward others and in failing to respond to the opportunities we are given of helping them, we are already passing judgment on ourselves.”

“The parable of the Last Judgment is about Christian love. Not all of us are called to work for “humanity,” yet each one of us has received the gift and the grace of Christ’s love. We know that all persons ultimately need this personal love—the recognition in them of their unique soul in which the beauty of the whole creation is reflected in a unique way. We also know that people are in prison and are sick and thirsty and hungry because that personal love has been denied them. And, finally, we know that however narrow and limited the framework of our personal existence, each one of us has been made responsible for a tiny part of the Kingdom of God, made responsible by that very gift of Christ’s love. Thus, on whether or not we have accepted this responsibility, on whether we have loved or refused to love, shall we be judged.”  (http://lent.goarch.org/judgement)  

On this day, we sing tones and prayers that have been handed down to us through the ages.  I find such comfort in that.  I also find that as I pray and ponder on this year after year, I am less inclined to be such a goat. I try, rather, to celebrate my uniqueness of self and soul, and to rejoice in the fact that my faith helps me to prayerfully hope that Christ will say to me, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25: 33-34) 

The Kontakion for this Sunday is:
“When Thou comest, O God, upon the earth with glory, the whole world will tremble. The river of fire will bring men before Thy judgment seat, the books will be opened and the secrets disclosed. Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and count me worthy to stand on Thy right hand, Judge most righteous.”
Easter Divine Liturgy

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

PubPharThis past Sunday (yesterday) was the Sunday we celebrate as “The Publican and the Pharisee.”  It begins our three week preparation for Great Lent. It is hard to believe all the fasting and all the preparation for Pascha are already upon us.  But let me tell you, I am excited for Great Lent! It is an opportunity to truly become simple in how we live, how we eat, and how we pray.  We pray more, we attend more services at Church (my favorite is Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. Absolute favorite part of Great Lent. Thank you, Fr. Justin Rose, for that!) and we watch every bite that enters our mouth. It is good for the discipline in our lives, for us to experience Great Lent.  I actually look forward to fasting.  If you could see all of me, I am sure you would find that laughable, because I am overweight.  But I also love silent retreats – by far my best retreat experiences have all occurred at a silent retreat. And since I blog, quite often rather prodigiously, most people find the thought of me being silent laughable.  It is truly a case where opposites do attract!!  I love Great Lent, and I love silence.  Who would ever have thought that???
Our priest, Fr. Michael, gave a wonderful homily this week on the issues brought up by this look at a publican and a pharisee.  Publicans were the tax collectors.  They were not liked by the general population, because they took their money – but quite often, they took more than what was really owed to the government, which is why they were usually very rich.  The Pharisees were seen as the upper echelon of the religious class. They could always be found near the Temple; they knew the law and they kept to the “letter of the law” very strictly.  One of the most famous quotes from this Sunday is “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’”  He is pictured in the Icon standing, with arms outstretched to God, in a place of honor, and prays to God, looking down on the Publican.  The Publican, however, shows us in the Icon that he thinks of himself as a sinner by entering and remaining in a low place, inconspicuous to fellow worshipers, and the famous quote about him in this reading is: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”  Christ then exhorts us all to repentance by saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9-14).  In the Icon, we can see images of how these two men leave the Temple.  The Pharisee is shown leaving the Temple unforgiven and still in need of repentance, whereas the Publican, who came to the Temple, knowing his sinful nature, is shown leaving the Temple, forgiven and exalted.  We are all expected to know our faith and to practice it to the best of our abilities, as the Pharisee.  And we are also expected to behave as the Publican; we enter the Temple and seek forgiveness, knowing how very much we need it.
One of the questions asked during Father’s homily was, “Who do you identify with more, the Publican or the Pharisee?”  And that question made me think.  So often, we preach to others, but we do not live what we preach.  How many of us tell people to fast, to keep Sundays holy, to pray, to keep a holy home, and yet we do not fulfill our own commands to others?  I know I fail miserably in so many areas.  And each Lent I pick myself back up and try it all over again. For me, Great Lent is the time I rededicate myself to my faith, sort of like New Year’s Eve, when people write lists of what they want to accomplish in their year.  For those of us who follow the Church’s calendar, Pascha is the start of our New Year.  Great Lent is when we think about how we want to practice our faith, share our faith, and live our faith.  We start from scratch, so to speak, when we limit food intake and extend prayer time and religious observances.  It is a time to reconsider how we will approach our next year.  I certainly never make resolutions that are life-long, because I know myself and know I am not strong enough to do that. I will let myself down.  So I only take little bites at this.  I resolve things that are doable, and not on some fantasy list.  Great Lent is my opportunity to be still, to listen more intently to what God is asking of me, and to begin to be the person HE wants me to be. I resolve every year to be a better person.  Honestly,  I can say that because I only take small bites, the changes I try to enact usually stick! And that feels pretty good. I am a far better person than I was in my 20s,40s, or even last year.  I believe Great Lent gives me this chance every year to opt to be better at the end of those 40+ days.  (When we add weekends, and exact starting and stopping times, Great Lent is really about 45 days or so).  For us in the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, and for the Orthodox, Great Lent is kept every day, not just Wednesdays and Fridays.  The Church gives us this entire week to eat what we like – even on Wednesday and Friday, to prepare us for Great Lent, and to share with us that the Church knows this next period of fasting and abstinence is a difficult one.  More and more as the years go by, many of my friends and I do not just “give up” something like coffee or chocolate.  We add things.  We pray more.  We volunteer our time in our communities.  We resolve to spend more time as a family.  We read more and watch TV less.  There are so many ways to keep Great Lent as a special time, rather than solely giving up things.
Fifth Sunday of LentPart of Great Lent is facing ourselves, as the Publican did.  We beat our chests and we ask for forgiveness. We see those dark places that are a part of who we have become and we strive to allow the Light of Christ to enter in.  We pray more, we seek God more fervently.  And I am excited to get started!!!  This Sunday gave us pause, gave us a moment with some words from Christ, and a homily from our priest, to stop a moment and ponder – are we more like the Publican or the Pharisee?  The Kontakion for the day tells us:

“Let us flee the proud speaking of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, and with groaning let us cry unto the Savior: Be merciful to us, for Thou alone art ready to forgive.”

How do others see me? To them, am I the Publican or the Pharisee?  God gives us this coming time of Great Lent to work this out for our salvation.  I am looking forward to this opportunity to once again get my “house in order.”

Kneeling Prayer.Orthodox Church“Mine eyes are weighed down by my transgressions, and I cannot lift them up and see the height of heaven. But receive me, Savior, in repentance as the Publican and have mercy on me.”  (Doxastikon of the Aposticha, Saturday Vespers).

“Let my prayer rise…”

Candle Book IconI added a simple prayer to a web prayer group yesterday. The comments that followed have been interesting.  I posted, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  This is known as the Jesus Prayer.  No one is positive about when it was written or how long it has been prayed, in just that format.  But it has been around eastern Christianity for centuries.  Instead of using a rosary, in the east we use a prayer rope.  On each knot we recite that prayer.  The hope is that we can pray it unceasingly, all day and all night long.  It is a cry for mercy and forgiveness.  The mercy we seek is not that of a master over his slave, but rather the loving arms of a Father, gathering in His hurting child.

Prayer RopeOn the page I added my prayer to, some of the comments were strange to me.  But then I realized that it is a site for lots of denominations and rites.  Many people on that site would not recognize the prayer.  The one comment that got me thinking was, “The bigger the sin, the bigger the forgiveness.”  Now, I can take that as comforting.  It implies that no matter the size or content of the sin, forgiveness is waiting for me.  This denotes a demarcation or ranking of sins.  In the west, the common theology is venial and mortal sin.  Venial sin is something that moves you away from God, but does not remove you completely from His Grace.  A mortal sin, as the word implies, kills your relationship with God; you are separated from God totally.  The usual “biggies” are murder (including abortion), adultery, stealing…you get the idea; one of the “Top Ten;” The Ten Commandments.  So the bigger the sin, the bigger the forgiveness.  And when you go to a priest in the western Church, he will give you penance that is appropriate for the sin you confessed.  It may be, for example, 10 Hail Marys, 4 Our Fathers, and 2 full Rosaries (that would be a pretty hefty penance).  If you committed a more grievous sin, the priest may ask you to “do” something in atonement.  He may ask you to return a good you have stolen and offer to work at the place you stole from, for no pay.  He may ask you to turn yourself in to authorities (which could be law enforcement, parents, teachers, school authorities, work place management, etc). He may ask you to volunteer at a homeless shelter or pray at an abortion clinic.  He may ask you to seek someone you have wronged, and make it right. Most Catholics will attend weekly confession, if they can.

Over here, on the eastern side of the aisle, sin is taken a little differently.  And so, when I saw that response to my post, I also examined it in light of my understanding of sin and forgiveness, from my Byzantine (but formerly western) perspective.  In the eastern tradition, sin is sin.  The action or thought either drew you closer to God or placed you further away from God.  The distance is part of the sin itself, but it is still regarded as just a sin.  The experience of confessing in the east is dramatically different than in the west. In our tradition, you stand with your priest in front of an icon of Christ.  He wraps his orarion (or stole) over your shoulders and you bend at your waist in a low bow.  He then begins to pray for you as you confess your sins to Christ, in the presence of the priest.  The priest is just listening and praying for you, all at the same time. It is intimate, and yet you are in the front of the Church, confessing to Christ. He will then speak with you quietly and bless you.

In the east, the priest will not give you 3 Our Fathers to pray, although he just may!  More often that not, he will, instead, ask you to perhaps read a verse from Scripture that holds special meaning for that particular sin; he may ask you to recite a common prayer (like the Jesus Prayer); he may further ask you to commit to regular Divine Liturgy attendance and perhaps to assist in an area that will help you recover and grow from your sinful act or thought.  He may also suggest more frequent confession.  But most importantly, forgiveness is offered as a salve on a wound.  It is offered as a warm, all-encompassing hug from a passionate Father who cares for each of his children. God’s mercy envelopes each of us in its warmth and healing forgiveness.  When we ask for mercy, this is what we seek.

So as to the idea of larger sins requiring more forgiveness, I disagree.  God’s forgiveness is like a huge, down quilt you can wrap your whole body in.  He is wrapping all of it (our sinfulness) in the same garment.  He is forgiving all of what you have done in one moment, covering all you have done.  Believe this or not, but I am a person who is fond of silent retreats. They do the most for my soul.  At a silent retreat many years ago, a priest asked me, as I was partway through my confession, if I would like to come back later and have a “life time” confession.  I had never heard of that but he instructed me and we made an appointment for later that day.  Poor man; I don’t think he realized what he was letting himself in for!  But over about 45-minutes, I laid bare every slight I had committed, every wrong deed done, every bad word uttered, every commandment laid to waste in my life to that point.  And my penance?  To go and sit in the Adoration Chapel and to just be in His presence, in prayer to God.  No formulative prayer.  No memorized, rote words.  Just open myself before God and seek His forgiveness in my soul.  I did as he suggested and just sat in that chapel, silently weeping.  God touched my life in a moment – all of my life, all of my sinfulness, all in one confession.  And His forgiveness was complete.  It was not larger or smaller – it just was.  I don’t think it took God any more effort for a simple prayer of forgiveness or for my 45-minute recap of every sin I could remember committing, back to an extra pack of Frito-Lay Bar-B-Que Chips I took when I was 9 years old and for tripping my brother when he was 3 and I was 5 years old!  Forgiveness was just that – forgiveness.

IncensorLet my prayer rise before you like incense, 
And my hands like an evening offering.–Psalm 141:2

I believe in the power of prayer, in the corporal prayer of our community when we gather, and in the power of God to hear us, to forgive us.  God is good; He is omnipotent, omnipresent, and all-encompassing.  To discuss a hierarchy of sin and its equivalent forgiveness puts God in a box He does not fit in.  It is man-made and our own perception.  God forgives. Period.  The scope is unfathomable and I bow in thankfulness each time it touches me.

“Rejoice with the man whom you envy…”

“You will be able to check envy if you rejoice with the man whom you envy whenever he rejoices, and grieve whenever he grieves.”

St. Maximos the Confessor

Troy PalomaluNo, that is not St. Maximos, the Confessor! It is a photo of a Pittsburgh Steeler football player, Troy Palomalu.  He had this quote on his Facebook page the day of the NFL playoff games.  I thought it was rather insightful and wanted to share it.

I have been contemplating the role sports play in our lives, especially in light of the impending Superbowl game.  So many people in the world barely understand American football, let alone bother with the players.  For our house, we all love football.  My husband is an avid Denver Broncos fan, and I have been a Kansas City Chiefs fan since I can remember, and recently fell in love with the Seattle Seahawks, as well as other Seattle teams.  My oldest son has labeled me a “bandwagon” fan and accuses me of leaving my team.  He often says it in such a way, that it is, rather hurtful, even if said in fun and teasing.  In fact, for Christmas, my daughter-in-law (his wife) made me a reversible blanket; one side is red with Chiefs’ logos all over it; the other side is blue with Seahawks’ logos all over it.  She told me, “That way, whoever is playing, you can show that side.”  It was pretty funny; even if it was teasing me (and I love it – it’s so warm and cuddly!).  Right now, the Broncos blanket hangs over my husband’s recliner, and the Seahawks’ side of my blanket shows atop of the couch where I sit.  All that being said, a Bronco-Seahawks Super Bowl should be interesting!

But the reason I am bringing all this up is that emotions have become very taut and strong over this.  There was an interview with a defensive player that went viral, because he spoke rather conceitedly about his talents and lambasted a player from the opposing team.  The loosing team is now accusing the ref’s of all sorts of mis-calls, saying the game was robbed from them.  It has created furor online and in the media.  Major media outlets are abuzz!  But why is that?  Why do we even care?  Why do we pay attention to it?

When we lived in the greater Seattle area, the Churches lamented sports’ seasons because the pews would be empty if a “big game” was on TV or being played in town.  If the sun was out, people were outside and not in Church.  The first snowfall, no one was in Church but out skiing or enjoying other winter sports.  Almost any excuse to not attend Church.  Lots of quotes about, “My church is nature,” or “I pray better outdoors.”  Pretty lame excuses to my way of thinking.  The Church we were married in, in Colorado, had windows all across the back and they would open the drapery if the snow was falling or it was a good view of the Rocky Mountains.  In Seattle, the local RC parish had an adoration chapel that was largely glass. It was very pretty.  But there was no sense of “church” or being in a place of worship…it was just greenery and trees, flowers and wildlife.  Yes, those are things of God, but they are not, to my way of thinking, God’s temple. Below is a photo of just the upper walls and ceiling of a Church in Russia.  That is a Church!

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA FEDERATION - JUNE 29:Interior of Church Savior on Spilled Blood . Picture takes in Saint-Petersburg, inside Church Savior on Spilled Blood   on June 29, 2012.Troy was quoting St. Maximos the Confessor to show that he was rejoicing with his fellow football players, and not envying them or wanting to take their glory from them, but rather, to share it with them.  We all grieve when players are injured, regardless of the team they play for.  No one wants to truly, and honestly, see someone hurt.  But why all the emphasis on sports teams and/or players?  And why the heightened emotion regarding all they do and what they do, how they do it, and who wins?  What is being adored here?

There is an old saying, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.” (Edmund Burke).  When I look at football stadiums, when I see crowds devolving into maniacs of sound and even witness fighting in the stands (I recall one soccer stadium actually falling apart and partially collapsing on the fans, as a result of fighting by the self-same fans) I am drawn back in time, back to the era of the Roman Gladiator.  The Roman Coliseum was developed to enhance the viewing pleasure of the Caesars in power.  They would hold all sorts of contests of skill and strength, and often to the death.  These forums were also the scene of untold horror for those who had lost favor with the ruling classes.  These coliseums existed throughout the Roman empire.  Some were small, some were very large, but all held the Senatorial crowds in thrall of the events carried on there.  Eventually, these stadiums became the scene of the torture and death of Christians, who refused the Gods of Rome and devoutly gave their lives for Christ and His Church. When you look at the historical events held in coliseums around the world, you cannot but note the similarities.  Our football, baseball, soccer, hockey, basketball players (and all the other popular sports) are held in the same esteem and fame as the gladiators were.  We root for them; we bet on their talent and the outcome of their “contests;” we fete them at banquets and we foist honors upon them (Hall of Fame, Super Bowl Champs, etc).  We hold events where all the people can come and watch one team, or one player, defeat another.  And the crowds that attend these things are boisterous and unruly, much like the Senatorial crowds at the coliseums in ancient Rome.  Because of the expense of attending these events, it has also become a rich-man’s (or at the very least, upper middle class man’s) event, just as in Rome when only the Senatorial classes could attend.  Even baseball games!  I remember days of getting into Angel Stadium (newly constructed) for $5 and having a hot dog and beer (bad college student that I was) sitting in the nose-bleed seats during a weekday afternoon.  My roommate and I would take our books and study up there, all alone, watching some baseball.  But no more.  A hot dog and beer can cost you $25 or more, let alone the cost of admission.  And where does this leave our culture? Where are our values?

Worth Christ dying forOne of the hardest things for me is to be able to just enjoy watching a sport without the vehemence of others ruining it; of having to be careful of what I say, what I post on my Facebook wall, or how I approach the fact that the team I’ve been rooting for has won.  Because the temperature got pretty darn hot in regards to these playoffs.  The vehemence is what has surprised me.  Trust me, it has nothing to do with having the Seahawks make the Super Bowl.  I truly believe the Broncos will win and I am not usually rooting for the Championship team, so am not accustomed to “backing the winning horse.”  I just enjoyed watching the games.  I can honestly walk away from it because I have security; I know sports and whomever is playing does not enervate my life.  My life is not lived for sports.  It is lived for salvation in Christ.  I love God first, my family second.  I am not even sure where a team would make the list of who I love, if at all.  It is ENTERTAINMENT only.  And not my sole source of entertainment, nor my major source of entertainment.  And even as I type this, I know of people that I could not talk with about any of this because they are so angry, so upset.  On the surface, all is fine. But if the subject would be brought up, the power behind their emotions is a little frightening; the quickness of turning to anger and hotly contesting the entire issue! I am frightened for the confrontation (another instance where silence, as espoused by Elder Thaddeus, gets me through the rough stuff) and so I avoid it at all costs.  And my fear is for their soul, because they are living without the guidance of a life of faith.  They love their families; they love their country; they pay taxes and are decent folks.  But they do not live for Christ.  They have no faith.  And so, sports teams, celebrities, and reality TV has supplanted, and become, their God.

If we are listening to, or paying attention to history, we should all be a little afraid.  At the very least, we should be aware.  Our culture in comparison to Roman culture, and its demise, are eerily similar.  The patterns of despots is also similar.  The way our culture aggrandizes things our parents and grandparents would have abhorred is, in itself, frightening.  Yes, these things happened in darkened rooms and behind closed doors.  However, it was not on jumbo-trons or on big-screen TVs in homes for all to watch. It was not common for young people to adore sports figures and not know basic facts about God.  It was not common for families to steer their children away from vocations to the priesthood or convent life; it was an honor to have at least one child choose a vocation.   It was common for entire families, every Sunday, to attend Church – as a family.  Young people lived at home until they got married.  Young people expected to be poor and have lean years before success, not moving into homes their parents took decades to own.  People took their duty as citizens seriously – they were educated about issues and candidates and they voted.  What is happening?  Why are we so apart from our Christian roots and why have we walked away from our faith?

Abba Agathon

As Abba Agathon warns us, no other labor is as difficult as prayer.  The enemy knows this and is on the prowl for our souls.  Right now, our abhorrent attention the the things of this world has colored our attention to the things of God.  We have friends who have been married for 9 or 10 years.  They have 6 children in their home, all under the age of 12.  They are foster parents, right now caring for two who are definitely a challenge.  They were both married before, outside of Church, and in some difficult situations.  But the thing they wanted the most in life was to share the Eucharist together.  And so they have spent months regularizing their marriage in the eyes of the Church and this weekend, they will have a crowning, with all their children, family, and friends around them.  Why do I mention this? Because it is something bright, something positive, something Godly in a world going haywire.  Two people want to stand next to one another, in a Godly marriage, and receive Christ in Holy Communion.  And guess what?  They have no clue what teams are playing who, who is in what sort of bowl, and they are deliriously happy! They are letting God rule their lives, outside of the rhythm of this crazy world.  And I am so glad to be a witness to it.

crown50_view1_lg

So today, today I resolve to carry on in silence and not tempt the tempers by bringing up sports!  Today I resolve to pray for those who have lost their way and for those struggling to make their way.  I always taught my children to be “sticks in the river, standing strong against the current.”  I want to stand strong for my faith, to share how I feel and what I believe in a soft, gentle, loving way.  I want all of us to love God first, because if we can order things properly in our lives, we can all then enjoy these sporting entertainments, and keep them where they belong.  And they belong in context to a life lived in faith.  And then perhaps we can all live more according to how St. Maximos encourages to live, “You will be able to check envy if you rejoice with the man whom you envy whenever he rejoices, and grieve whenever he grieves.”

St. Maximos the ConfessorSt. Maximos the Confessor

…is the final act of love.”

Writing is such a personal, intimate thing. Authors are usually people who look inward and create fantastic worlds for us, report on the world around us, or help us reach back into the past and see the world as it was.  I have always thought of blogs like having your personal diary open on your desk and other people stopping by and reading it.  Each post added to a blog is like turning the page in that diary.  I write because it’s sort of like something that needs to come out.  Some days I write a lot.  Sometimes I have gone, quite literally, months between posts.  Most often, I write to get something off my chest, or to express something that feels like I have a need to share with others or I will burst!  It’s like my cell phone.  (Bear with me a little here).  My iPhone is so complete, I usually only use my computer for doing this blog or paying bills (I know the arguments against that, but it is just so much simpler!).  All my information about family and friends is in my phone.  I lost my phone for a few hours last weekend in the snow.  A kindly stranger turned it into a customer service desk and I cannot tell you how relieved I was…because I realized it would take me FOREVER to get the information back that I had stored in my phone. It has so many neat apps on it and one of my favorites is Notepad. I use it ALL the time!  Well, if you ask me someone’s phone number, email address, or house address, I’d have to excuse myself while I looked it up on my phone. I don’t have to remember things like this anymore, because my phone does it for me.  And when I write, after it is written, I am usually over the issue and I forget about it.  I am also one of those types who gets angry (hard to believe, I know).  I may yell or speak harshly (ask my boys) but once I do, I move on. I don’t harbor grudges or stay mad at people.  I blow up and then it’s done.  I use my writing as a way, sometimes, to ease the pressure…sort of like the steam escaping a boiling teapot.  Once you release the steam, the pot settles down.  That’s me.

And so I am musing over something that is really bugging me.  I have noticed that I am loosing my ability at times, to think clearly and remember details. It worries me because my mom has dementia and Alzheimer’s. And I realize that I forget things all the time. People say to me, “Oh, you remember when we….?”  And honestly, many times I don’t.  I’m not sure if it is because my brain gets lazy, if I rely on my iPhone too much to remember for me (gasp!?! Reliance on technology!) or I just get distracted.  Am I not giving the moment the attention it deserves and so I cannot recall it later on?

Abba AseniosIn our world of chaos and noise, I often think that adding to this noisy chaos by blogging is not helping the situation.  Computer usage really draws us away from others.  Computers can, however, bring disparate people together – those who are geographically separated can connect and it eases that separation somewhat. I do try, however, to keep more silence than aimless chatter.  I try to steer away from adding to gossip or just the noise around us.  So does my memory loss have more to do with going through them and throwing out the ones that truly don’t matter? Is it important I remember the color dress I wore 10 years ago, or if it was raining or sunny at some event I attended?  Perhaps not.  Someone with Alzheimer’s will know those details, though.  A person with dementia can’t recall yesterday, let alone years ago.  A dementia patient has short term memory and that is about it.  Alzheimer patients cannot recall what a fork is for, or remember to eat, but they know incredible details about years past.  So I am leaning towards a sort of mental evolution, if you will allow that terminology. A pattern of memory losses and gains, I guess!

I am learning that God is never through with me.  He allows me to trip up and make mistakes over and over again, until His lesson gets ingrained in me.  All of us come from somewhere.  We all have pasts that perhaps are not worthy of remembering.  I have let go of many things from my teen years and young adulthood that do not speak well of me. I have been taught, and I have learned, over the years to adjust my vision to things that are not so much “of the world” and tend to the more philosophical and theological.

2Thessalonians3-3

I was recently helping my daughter-in-law to make a memory book for my mom.  I have been told these sorts of things help them to cling to their own history, and to see their lives in snapshots helps to keep them grounded.  As I was going through the 84 years of my mom’s life, I was drawn back to memories I thought I had lost.  I realized I had put them “on a shelf” and let them rest there.  But when I wanted to, I could recall all sorts of details (my poor daughter-in-law had to sit and listen to them with me for over 6 hours earlier this week!  God bless her!).  And I so enjoyed remembering my life as a young child and the things my brother and I did.  I could pull them off that shelf and remember, fully, all the wonderful times of my childhood.  The Lord is good; He has allowed me to live in His light, in His love, and has guarded me from the evil one.  He has healed many of my memories and has allowed many others to just fade away, all while helping me retain what is good and positive about my life.

St Tikhon 3This is the season where we prepare to welcome the Son of God as a Child.  We should get our “houses” in order in more ways than one.  Confession is good for us and helps us become clearer-headed and hearted, as we wind our way to Christmas.  If you do not believe in confession to a priest or cleric, it is certainly priceless to sit and contemplate before God all your sins and seek His forgiveness.  I personally feel incredible after a good and holy confession. And I believe it is more important to prepare our hearts than our homes.  Decorating for Christmas is so fun and I love it, as you would know if you have read my posts before. I love pretty much everything about Christmas.  But I also know that my spiritual preparation is more important than baking cookies and buying gifts.  Christ smiles at us when we are clear and free in our hearts and spirits after confession.

There is a wonderful Catholic theologian and author, Peter Kreeft, who I quote quite often.  In one of his many books, he spoke about Confession and told this wonderful story (which I will totally paraphrase):  When we face the judgement seat of Christ, we can picture ourselves standing there, before the Throne, with nothing but a couple of suitcases.  Christ will ask us what we have brought with us.  Our response will be, “Lord, I brought my sins with me.”  And He will tell us that when He forgave us our sins, it was as if they never happened.  He will go back into the timeline of our lives and pull those sinful acts or omissions out of our timeline and it will be as if they never existed.  We are the ones who need to forgive ourselves and to let our sinful pasts be just that; our past.  And this is what I think is happening to me and some of my memories – they are memories that are best forgotten because I was (and still am) a fearful sinner and I lug these sins, over which I have sought forgiveness time and again, with me wherever I go.  I need to let them go.  As I am maturing in my faith, and I find holes in my memory, I am learning to be okay with that.  I trust God and I know He is guiding me in the way I need to go.  He is allowing me to forget certain aspects of my past, in order for me to have a better future.

And so I post now and then.  I blog. I add to the cacophony of sounds around me by tapping away on my laptop.  And I allow issues to come and go and I try not to cling to those things I need to let go. I get out of God’s way and allow His healing to reach deep into my heart and rip out the things I need to let go of.  And I am finding my way to that peace that knows no understanding, that peace of God.  (Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7)

My prayer is for forgiveness from past sinful acts or omissions. If I have offended you in any way, please forgive me.  I extend my hand to you as a friend and a fellow journeyman on the road to Divine Eternity with God.  I pray for company on this journey and as I ponder the things in my life, I extend an offer to join me by reading this blog.  Let us not judge one another, but love each other as God intended us to love one another: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35).

ON Forgiveness

“He’s the one you’re following.”

Dostoevsky

“A proud man, at the time when other people are speaking of any other person’s virtues, is wickedly afraid lest this person should be superior to him in virtues, and should eclipse him, for the proud man considers himself above all, and does not think it possible to find similar or higher virtues in others. The rivalry of others is a great misfortune to him.”
(St John of Kronstadt)  This quote of St. John was posted on the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross’ Facebook page earlier, and it’s been eating away at me.  Dostoevsky’s quote seems to go along with this quote from St. John, too.

I have struggled most of my life with trying to win the approval of others.  I always feel like I fall very short because their scales, their method of measurement, are so very different than mine.  I have tried to approach things with their perspective, but just cannot seem to do so.  At various times in my life, I was far removed from religion.  I certainly did not practice the Christian virtues in any way.  In those times, I was more in step with those who judged me, because their perspective seems more in tune with worldly values and accomplishments.  When I chose a different lifestyle and chose to become a different person in my life, it became apparent we lived very disparate lives.  As I have aged, and hopefully matured, I realize that comparisons are rather silly. I can never be those who look at me; those who judge me….they are on the outside of the person I am and they are pursuing their own desires, their own answer to the same questions we all have: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?”  “What is life for?”  “Is there a greater power guiding all this? “Is there a God?” And I recently have been able to reflect, and to let it all go.  I am no longer comparing myself to others who seem to be exceeding their own expectations.  I am no longer in the same race; I took a step back and stepped out of it!  And that is a humongous difference and a huge weight off my shoulders. I can honestly say that since I have become more in tune with the peace of God in my heart, deeply felt within me, I have given up participating in their race.  I run my own race; my personal race to eternity.

Don't compare

We keep the goals we are after in front of us, always, to spur us on in our journey.  For example, we are relocating near our oldest son.  I keep a photo montage on our refrigerator of his family and my visit with them in January.  When I get down or disgruntled with how this move is progressing, I go and look at my grandson, at my son and his family.  It keeps me focused on where we are going and why!  Our mantle had family pictures on it.  As we decorated for Christmas, I packed them away.  Once Christmas was over and that was packed up, my mantle was bare.  So I relocated our Icon corner to front and center on our mantle.  For me, it keeps my eye on the prize.  And quite honestly, the noise, the clutter, the chaos that others bring to my life through their judgements and their opinions, are fading away.  They no longer concern me, guide me, or inform me, because I realized that it is just…opinion. Using their methods of judging me, I will never measure up.  I will never be the perfect daughter, sister, mother, friend.  But I can be the perfect Child of God, because God loves me no matter what, and uses no scale to measure me against other Christians.  The only measuring I am concerned with is how God perceives me, how God wants me to be.  And I believe that if I can mirror the message of Christ effectively, all these other scales and issues will fall by the wayside, because Christ’s message is of perfect love for others.  (“This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12)  He gave His life for me, and for each of us who heed His message.  He did not come to save everyone, because many, many people choose not to heed His message.  For those who opt to live their lives for the moment, for the fullest enjoyment that this life can offer, that is what they can find – here.  I pray that when they meet Christ at their death, their repentance is sincere and they choose wisely; they choose eternity with Christ.

ON Forgiveness

“As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)I know that many of my extended family and some of our friends feel that since we have become Melkite Greek Catholic and have embraced an eastern viewpoint on theology, that we sort of “went off the deep end.”  Still others appreciate the insight, the “breath of fresh air” we share with them, breathing through our eastern, Byzantine lung.  Still others do not accept what we share or what I share here, because it is old, and it is Catholic or Byzantine, or Orthodox.  They do not accept the authenticity!  All of that makes me sad.  Christ came 2,000+ years ago and the “deposit of faith” is so immense, there is room for all these wonderful things to be shared.  There is also room in the House of God for many viewpoints.  Christ’s message of forgiveness should reach to other points of view, but quite often, in matters of faith, it does not. Today I am sharing that I have been illuminated in a profound way, that what I am being shown is making me a better person and I believe that light can be shared with others, and they, in turn, will be lit with this Divine Knowledge, and changed; changed for the better.  This is not said out of pride, out of some haughty place where I think I am correct and feel sorry for everyone who does not think like I do.  Far, far from it.  I have been told over and over again, by a protagonist in my life, “I know I am right; prove me wrong and we can discuss it. Until you do, you need to accept that I am right.”  And for them, it is for every subject you can broach with them.  Every subject.  That is a very difficult position to deal with, because with their own personal scale, I can never be right.  Empirically or emotionally!  And so I am choosing to step away from the argument, the contest, or whatever it is supposed to be and I am allowing myself the Peace, the Grace of God to comfort me.  I acknowledge my own ineptitude, my own weakness, my own lacking in certain areas, and I opt to forge ahead, as poor a specimen as I am.  I choose to allow the Grace of Christ to inform my conscious, to form my spirituality, and to be the sole judge of who I am. I let go of the rest of it.  Whew….such a relief.  I truly cannot express how incredibly freeing this viewpoint is.  I feel like I can choose for me and mine and there are no repercussions, because my sole judge is God.   I leave you with these thoughts, expressed so well, by St. John of Kronstadt:


“Our soul, as a spiritual, active being, cannot remain idle; it either does good or evil, one of the two; either wheat grows in it or tares. But as every good comes from God, and as the means of obtaining every good from God is prayer, those who pray fervently, sincerely, from the depths of their hearts, obtain from the Lord grace to do good, and, before all, the grace of faith; whilst, those who do not pray, naturally remain without these spiritual gifts, voluntarily depriving themselves of them by their own negligence and spiritual coldness; and as the wheat of good thoughts, inclinations, intentions, and works grows in the hearts of those who labor and pray fervently to the Lord, so in the hearts of those who do not pray, the tares of every evil grow, smothering the small amount of good that has remained in them from the grace of baptism, chrism, and subsequent penitence and communion.
Therefore, we must most carefully look after the field of our heart, lest the tares of evil, slothfulness, luxuriousness, self-indulgence, unbelief, avarice, envy, hatred, and others, should grow within it; we must daily weed the field of our heart–at least, at morning and evening prayers, and refresh it by salutary sighs, as by healthful winds, and water it with abundant tears, as by early and late rain. Besides this, we must by every means implant in the field of our heart the seeds of the virtues, faith, hope in God, and love for God and our neighbor, fertilize it by prayer, patience, good works, and not for a single hour remain in complete idleness and inactivity, for in times of idleness and inactivity the enemy zealously sows his tares. “While men slept, the enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way.” We must also remember that it is impossible to do good works without efforts. Since our voluntary falling into sin the kingdom of God cannot be taken otherwise than by “violence, and the violent take it by force.” Why is it that only the narrow way and narrow gate lead to life? Who makes the way of the chosen narrow? The world oppresses the chosen, the devil oppresses them, the flesh oppresses them; it is these that make our way to the kingdom of heaven narrow.”

180px-Ioann_of_KronstadtSt. John of Kronstadt, Russia

“…We cannot fight on our own…”

Spring droplets

Spring is trying to break through.  Spring is a time of rebirth, or rejuvenation.  In its wisdom, the Church gave us Lent to prepare for the glorious day of the Resurrection, when rebirth, the rebirth that matters, takes place.  God overcomes the world, the sting of death, and grants us eternal life.  Wow.  Every year, we are given this gift.  Every year.

We have been endeavoring to keep the fast each day.  We have not been as successful this Lent as we have in the past.  Things are so upside down right now, that keeping the strict fast has fallen by the wayside.  And it shows. I think both my husband and myself have gained weight, eating junky meals and not paying attention to our overall health.  We have decided to change that.  One of the reasons is that we are feeling older than our years and we have all these new grandchildren we want to keep up with!  We want to be the fun grandparents who play with their grandchildren.  And we still have a teenager in the house!  To that end, we have opted to eat a more raw, simple diet.  Today is day #2.  We got this new thing called a NutriBullet and what it does is pulverize your food to a drinkable liquid, the texture of which you choose for yourself (more water, less thick, etc).  It is like a smoothie, only everything you put in there is dissolved to its molecular level, making it more “bio-available” to your body (stems, leaves, seeds, skins, etc).  This morning I had (all fresh) spinach, blueberries, blackberries, banana, flax seed, and water in my “Blast.”  It is filling and tastes so good!!  Yesterday’s “Blast” had strawberries instead of blackberries, but I am a blackberry lover, so I changed it up!  Tomorrow I might try peaches and pineapple!  It is changing how I shop and what is in the cupboard and refrigerator.  And it is also making our nutrition simpler, fresher, and basic.  The teenager is balking a little bit, but I am sure I can win him over!!  Taste and texture are everything, not to mention drinking something green goes against his better judgement! Ha-Ha! Today I added a little organic vanilla to his and he’s drinking it up.

The point of this is that I am working at overall change during Lent. I am refocusing my prayer life, my internal core of spirituality, and now the body that houses all of this.  I think that it is time I took my life and how I approach it, in a different direction.  I was shown so clearly through reading Elder Thaddeus, that we need to separate ourselves from the world and become more in tune with God and His plan for our lives.  We are a cluttered, noisy, overweight, poorly nutritioned, hedonistic society; a culture lacking in the serenity of the peace that only God can give us.  “If it feels good, do it!”  I think that by cutting back, turning off, and tuning out, we can work towards the best relationship to Our Lord that we can, while still being in this world.  Most of us were called to the married, family life and we are not monastics.  But we can try to live as closely to it as we can. We can turn off the TV, we can back away from media influences, and we can spend more time in simple pursuits.  We can read a spiritual work rather than watch some inane program where we tune out emotionally anyway!  I am praying that when we move I can grow these fruits and vegetables we eat, that we can hunt and fish for the mainstay of our diets, and we can get in shape – physically, as well as spiritually.  Today, I am high on the hope scale!  Today my cup is a little more than half-full.  Today I am optimistic for the future I can carve out for myself.  Little steps, little changes, and a re-direction of priorities can make all the difference. (I am smiling).

We need to acknowledge that we are in this world….I keep reminding myself every day, that I am not special, not different, but that I can choose to live differently; I can choose to approach all things in my life in a simpler, more direct manner. Elder Thaddeus reminds us that: “A materialistic person cannot understand a spiritual person. Anything that a spiritual person says is fantasy to a materialistic person, because heavenly logic is completely different from the logic of the world.  However, when one talks to a materialistic person one may bring him to the conclusion that there is, after all, something that moves the world, and that there is harmony in the universe and disharmony on the earth.”  He goes on to say, “We Christians have been called to spread upon the earth the atmosphere of heaven, eternity, love, peace, truth, and stillness.  But it is very difficult, since from our youth we have learned anger and disobedience; we have become accustomed to returning blows and to approaching everyone with distrust and reserve.  We have accepted much evil into our hearts, and now we need to get rid of it.”  Elder Thaddeus, once again, speaks to me and my life.  I am so blessed to have been able to learn from his wisdom.  Using his lessons, I have been able to allow others to get angry with me; I have been able to let things happen, which are outside my control, and not get upset about them.  I still feel that initial pain, that hurt or that anger, but I am able to calm myself and remember that all things happen for God’s good. (“But we do know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to purpose.” Romans 8:28).  I am also learning that these little hiccups in life are sent by a loving God Who wants what is best for us, and is training us for His plan in our lives.  I have mentioned this before, but a priest friend used to tell me not to pray for patience, because that was when all hell would break loose….because God had to teach us patience. It is not a gift that descends upon you and you automatically become more patient; rather, it is a learned attribute or characteristic.  Taking that idea and applying it to other areas of my life, I know that these little kinks in our plans, the things we think are going to happen but often do not, these are all ways the Lord is reaching out to me, trying to hone me into a better child of God. And what better time to focus on improving myself, than Lent!

“There is a constant struggle between good and evil.  We wish to be good, but the spirits of wickedness do not want us to have a single good character trait, only bad ones.  This is why we must fight.  We cannot fight on our own, but the Lord is our Protector, for as soon as we ask Him sincerely to help us, He will immediately come to our aid.” (Elder Thaddeus).  And it seems that when we focus in a strong way on improving ourselves, that is when we are beset with troubles.  Because I have taken these lessons to heart and am earnestly trying to apply them daily, the hiccups seem to go away a lot quicker.  They just need that “spoonful of sugar” to help them go away – they require my earnest prayer, my sincere supplication to Our Lord.

John of Kronstadt

Once again, St. John of Kronstadt perfectly states what I can take 1300 words to say!  I also wanted to share that this journey continues on, through and past Lent.  Because in the light of the Resurrection, our heightened experience of the Risen Christ will only inspire us to a greater, stronger, truer relationship with Him. There are tones, refrains, and sayings that are reserved for the days immediately following Easter.  I cannot wait to sing them, to say them, to think them.  This weekend is Palm Sunday for us on the western calendar.  This weekend is the weekend Our Lord was led into the city a hero, someone the crowds adored.  How quickly the tone changes; how quickly the adoration faded.  It is through the Church that we are given the opportunity to annually re-apply ourselves to our faith, to our personal journey, so that we are not led astray by the change in tone, by the crowds around us in this wacky world.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Ephesians 6:10-18

Armor of God

“He is ever present…”

We are like the weather: now the wind is blowing, a storm is raging, there is thunder and lightning and rain – but then the sun comes out and we feel well.  Then another storm comes and so on…”  (St. John Kronstadt)

LighteningI sat in my car last evening, during a pretty amazing rain storm, and was reading Elder Thaddeus’ book, “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives,” when I came across that quote above, in Chapter Twelve – Inner Peace.  I found it so perfectly timed for me to be reading this particular chapter, at this particular time.  God works through the instruments He provides us – people, places, situations, even things. The Lord prompted me to begin this Lenten journey with a desire to find peace.  And the instrument He provided for me was this incredible book.  It seems like each time I reach for it, my spirit is waiting for more illumination, poised and ready to grow in faith.  And every time I read this book, God speaks to me through His instrument, Elder Thaddeus.  My husband is the one who bought it and he originally found the book at a shop we were visiting, looking for a gift for our future daughter-in-law, and an icon for the first home she and our son would share.  God lead him to this book and finally brought the book to me; we are blessed.

Today, we had an amazing weather pattern in this area.  We had a downpour quite early this morning, around 7am or so.  Then we had the most beautiful skies.  Within an hour, the sun was gone, and huge, black clouds had moved in, and the wind was howling. Before we knew it, the rain began to pelt the house.  It was so loud, we stopped what we were doing and went to the patio – it was hailing!  In less than an hour’s time, we were graced with sunny skies and these gorgeous, puffy, while clouds.  Well, it’s been about three hours since then and we have seen it all – sunshine, incredible rain, howling winds, flying branches, more rain, and a drop in the temperature to the low 40s; the winds have not let up, yet!  This weather prompted me to remember this particular quote by St. John Kronstadt (one of my favorite saints) and to recall my Lenten journey, as well.

I spent some time yesterday going over past posts.  It is interesting to see where I was just a few months ago, and where I have journeyed.  My experiences have certainly been similar to today’s weather, and to what St. John stated above.  In this same chapter, Elder Thaddeus quotes, “St. Isaac the Syrian says, ‘Preserve your inner peace at all costs. Do not trade your inner peace for anything in the world. Make peace with yourself, and heaven and earth will make peace with you.”  

Elder Thaddeus further states, “We must always be vigilant. Vigilance and discernment are the things we need.  The Lord said to Joshua, son of Nun, ‘Whatever you do, think it over carefully.’ (Joshua 1:8)  If at first we believe that what we are about to say will be to someone’s benefit, but then, after we use our discernment, we decide that our words will only hurt the other person, then it is better to remain silent.  Everything should be done with discernment.  When one uses one’s discernment, then one is also vigilant.” I believe this to be some of the best advice I could hear.  So many sayings over the years urge us all to more silence, and I know this has been one of those areas in my life that has always needed work!  I am a woman and we tend to gab more often than our male counterparts, but keeping silence instead of jumping in with both feet, can quite often be the better play.

Lent is a time when we take ourselves a further step away from the world around us.  We step back from gluttonous behavior in all aspects of our lives…in eating, socializing, media “ingestion,” unhealthy habits, etc.  The goal is to replace those things with things that encourage our spiritual life.  Elder Thaddeus tells us that, “You should learn to love little things.  Always try to be modest and simple in everything.  When the soul is mature, God will give it peace.  The Lord looks upon us and is pleased when we yearn for His peace.  Until such time as the soul is mature enough to receive the Lord, He will only sometimes allow it to see and sense that He is present everywhere and fills all things.  These are moments of indescribable joy.  But after that, the Lord hides Himself from us once again, in order that we might yearn for Him and seek Him with all our heart.” I think this is what St. John Kronstadt was alluding to in his quote at the start of this post.  When we look at the times when we felt further away from the Lord, our lives were in turmoil!  The Lord granted me a glimpse of Him one day, and I believe I shared this in an earlier post, but it occurred during a Presanctified Liturgy one year.  At the procession with the Presanctified Gifts, as Abouna (Melkite Greek Catholic/Arabic term for “priest,” which means more like Daddy or Papa – it is a term of affection) passed by me carrying the Presanctified Gifts, a corner of his cloak rubbed over me (I was prostrate at the time) and I felt like a jolt of lightning had passed through me.  Later on that same week, when Abouna and I were having a chat about something else, he mentioned the moment to me.  He had felt that same thing.  It reminded us both of the Scripture that said, “But Jesus said, “Someone deliberately touched me, for I felt healing power go out from me.” When the woman realized that she could not stay hidden, she began to tremble and fell to her knees in front of him. The whole crowd heard her explain why she had touched him and that she had been immediately healed. “Daughter,” he said to her, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” (Luke 8:47-49). It has become, for us both, a moment of sublime faith.  And left me wanting more!

Holy Cross MonasteryHoly Cross Monastery

God is leading me on an incredible journey and the one thing I can say that is different, is my core.  You know how the fitness experts tell us we need to exercise to have a strong core?  That is what this feels like.  As if I have been doing spiritual exercise to build my inner core, and it is getting stronger.  The other day I felt derailed, like my foot had been ensnared by evil and I was being dragged down but today I am feeling pretty good.  And I do believe the difference in my growth right now is my inner core, my soul, has been getting stronger.  You know what they say? “No pain, no gain”!!  I have been tested and I have still felt this inner calm, this peace, that my “bumps in the road” have not shaken.  I have felt put upon and lost the quiet I love having inside, but I quickly pray and it is back, again, stronger than ever.

“We must give ourselves over to the Lord. We must commit ourselves and all we have to Him, for He is ever present.  He wants us to be quiet and at peace…”  Elder Thaddeus

God is good

“…a shield to all…”

There’s a great writer who posts regularly on Facebook and today he posted this:

“Second thoughts are often wiser than first thoughts…more virtuous, too.

Silence can be powerful.
Scripture doesn’t record one word from St. Joseph.” Mark Hart (the Bible Geek)

I found his words prescient in so many ways, and also mirroring my current dilemma.  I feel so strongly that God works in our lives in so many ways, always trying to get our attention.  He uses people, places, and events to get our attention.  I have seen billboards while driving that are completely black, with small sentences in white on them that say simple things like, “We need to talk. -God,” and “C’mon over and bring the kids! – God,” and “Let’s meet at my place before the game. – God.”  He is constantly looking for our response to His Word in our lives, and always ready to be with us, console us, comfort us, and talk to us.  I know that in my own life, in my own home, sometimes it is just too loud and too busy.  We are loosing our sense of quiet.  And quite often I find for me, the quiet is where God speaks to me the most often, and speaks the loudest.

Today, Abbot Tryphon, in his Morning Offering, spoke about Fruitless Discussions and said, “Better to demonstrate truth by holiness of life, patience, and kindness in our response. Entering into heated words most often leads to a standoff, where only the demons win in the end.” He went on to further state, “Responding to the embittered man, the angry man, or the stupid man, while hoping to win him over, does nothing for him, and eventually gives power to the demon who would devour the man’s soul, and consume your own. Thinking you have to prove the correctness of your point of view does nothing for truth, but only gives power to the demons of pride, anger, and stupidity. The power and influence of good deeds always wins out in the end.”  Thanks be to God I have such wonderful examples in my life, people and sources who further illuminate this precarious pathway I am taking, on my way to eternity!  I know that God speaks to me through people, places, and situations, and today rocked!  And when you come to a realization in your life, not only do you feel like a huge light bulb went off, but you relax and feel peace.  It’s an “aha moment” with a spiritual blessing added to it! I almost feel like doing a “happy dance”!

I have struggled most of my life with trying to forge my way on my own, using my own attributes, trying to please.  I have often felt alone in my quest to better myself, in that those who I wish would praise and support me, are usually silent.  I see others in my life praised and honored for things of this world.  I often felt like the brother of the Prodigal Son, always there, plugging away, and not being noticed.  But I heard a homily once on the Prodigal Son that made me look at it differently.  The good son, always at his father’s side, was prideful and envious, and angry that his brother could go out and do what he chose, squander the gifts he had received from their Father, and yet be welcomed home.  How often I have felt exactly that…and how wrong I have been.  I now realize, more than ever, that I am the Prodigal Son, in need of repentance and forgiveness; I am also his envious brother.  My spiritual house is certainly in disarray and I have no foundation from which to be critical of others, in their struggles.  We all need forgiveness and each of us has our own path to walk to God.  I cannot judge my brother, while struggling with the plank still stuck in my own eye.

Canon of St. Andrew3

Last evening, and this morning, I came to a realization that the peace I seek and the quiet I long for, are already here.  I am the one, standing outside, tapping on the glass, and asking to be let in.  It is within me and my relationship with God that I find my peace and serenity; it is not to be found in this world.  Too many people in my life have let me down; so many have disappointed.  I only ask that people treat me honestly.  Do not tell me what you think I want to hear; do not treat me one way in my company and speak of me to others in a completely different light.  The truth will always come out and then relationships can be irrevocably damaged.  Forgiveness is always there, but along with forgiveness often comes a scar – things are never quite the same.  There is a funny saying that goes something like, “Leave her alone. She is happy in her world; everyone knows her there.”  Quite often when the blindfold is removed or the truth unveiled, we long for “ignorant bliss,” and want to return to our “own little world.”   For me, when things like this occur, I normally “react” in kind.  But thanks be to God, I can now react in peace – and silence; praying for those who hurt me.  It is useless, as Abbot Tryphon stated, “Thinking you have to prove the correctness of your point of view does nothing for truth, but only gives power to the demons of pride, anger, and stupidity.” The most incredible thing for me is that I have realized I am able to turn from this sort of knee-jerk reaction, choose to change my “normal,” and become something different.  I can choose to follow the quiet, the peace, the silence of communion with God. I can choose to truly, honestly, and whole-heartedly pray for those who cause me pain.  What an incredible lesson!  What an awesome experience!  It has kept me thinking and reveling in the power God can give us to overcome this world and its disappointments, because it is showing me that my total reliance is on Him, and He alone it is who grants me total acceptance and love. The relief in my heart is almost palatable and I know God is gracing me in my journey, He is guiding me, feeding me, and protecting me.  Glory be to God!

2samuel 22,31