“The rest really doesn’t matter.”

My “take away” from my day yesterday was my status on my FB page this morning:

“God, family, and friends are what make the world go ’round.  So blessed to have them. The rest doesn’t really matter.”

I had quite a day. First of all, I was reluctant to post my feelings about being Eastern Catholic, for fear of offending anyone.  Some of the comments, made publicly as well as privately, have engendered good conversations.  Those I had hoped would not take offense, did not, and for that I am grateful.  I also believe that by exposing some of my feelings about the process of becoming a Byzantine Catholic, it was helpful and reflective of the journey of many others.  And that is one of the main reasons I started this blog in the first place.

Kneeling Prayer.Orthodox ChurchFriends that I had prayed were friends, still are!  So God is good.  I also was concerned, as one of my fellow bloggers pointed out, that I would confuse non-Catholics or Catholics who had wandered away from the Church. Perhaps I did add to their confusion.  For that, I do apologize.  But it planted a seed for me, too.  Why do Protestants and many Catholics (cradle or convert) not know the history of this amazing faith we all share?  When I was in college, my brain was so excited at all the enormously new facts I was learning.  It’s funny to think how cocky you are when you are a High School Senior, knowing everything! It’s not until you to start to truly learn, that you realize how little you know. Your world is so small while in high school, many times being bordered by the confines of where you live and where you can drive. I remember going to drive on a freeway that had not been completed or open to the public, yet. They allowed Driver’s Ed programs to practice on it.  We practiced getting on and off the freeway, and changing lanes, slowing and speeding up. It was neat because there were no other cars on the road, except for us.  But what took me by surprise were all the other neighborhoods and shopping areas and schools I had not realized were even there! The elevated roadway showed me areas I had not seen any of, before then.  I did not know how small my world was.  Interestingly enough, that freeway became a major thoroughfare and I used it constantly while attending college, and well into adulthood.  And in college, my world view grew and expanded. My knowledge of history just exploded.  And as I got into my minor of Biblical Archeology, I wondered why the entire world was NOT Catholic.  It made perfect sense to me that the Catholic Church was the Church established by Christ through Peter…every Protestant sect could trace its origins to it.  And then I discovered the eastern world.  It is not something we are typically taught, as we are a western country, fully embracing western philosophy and thought.  When I discovered that the Catholic Church was all over the world, I was mesmerized.  But when I learned there were 22 other Churches aligned with the Roman Church, I was stunned.  Why did we not know this growing up? Why were we not taught the glorious history of Constantinople?  Why did we not know more about the Crusades and what really happened?  Why were we, as a country, and as a culture, in the dark?

Icons.lamp When Christ gave His great commission, did we think they would not do as He instructed?

“But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Matthew 28: 16-20

And as I delved deeper, I discovered this treasury of faith that just enveloped me.  I did not throw off western ideology, per se.  I just embraced eastern thoughts, philosophy, theology, and practices in place of it. I found that it suits me and my personality so much better. But I live and deal with western thought and philosophy all around me, all day long. I operate in a western culture and live a western life.  I prefer to worship, however, in an eastern way.

cropped-incensor.jpgThere are some fun sayings that have become part of the lexicon of our speech. One of them is, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  And I think about this often as it applies to our expressions of faith.  St. Peter stopped along his way towards Rome in the east.  He stopped long enough to establish a Church there.  We Melkites like to joke that we had Peter first!  But the Church he left us in the middle east is a Church that reflects the life of the nascent Church and the environment in which it grew up.  It is primarily Greek in orientation, and its Liturgy is that of St. John Chrysostom.  It was where the term,”Christian” was first used. The tones used in the Divine Liturgy of the Melkites are so ancient that when they were first written down, no one knew where they originated, they had been used for so long.  And when you hear someone who can sing the tones properly, intone the Divine Liturgy, it is as one commenter said, “Like being in Heaven.” It is Divine.  It is hard to explain if you have not experienced it yourself, but it is very different from the tones used in Gregorian chant, for example. The tempo and sounds are vastly different.  Not to mention the incredible infusion of beeswax candles and incense, adding to a total religious experience.  And I just happen to love the eastern style more. It harkens back, for me, to the ancient Church.  Not the early Church of Rome, but further back, into antiquity.

250px-Colosseum_in_Rome,_Italy_-_April_2007After Peter left the east, he journeyed to Rome.  And, as he and each of the Apostles did, taught the people where they were, to bring them to an understanding of Christ and His words, to facilitate conversion.  In Rome, society was structured, ordered, precise, militarily-oriented in ranks, so to speak.  And the Church grew up around that.  (Think of confessionals…boxes.  Roman culture had people in specific places, or boxes.  Their roles in culture were specific and immutable). The early Roman Catholics were renowned for how they loved each other, and shared all they had with each other. This was a foreign idea to a culture with castes (boxes) from which people did not leave. Born a slave, born a bread maker, born a soldier – die the same way. In the early Christian community, they changed that when they said (in Colossians 3: 11) “…a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.

The cult of Christ grew up in an era of conflict and Christianity was a bastion of peace in amongst warring nations.  Even now, Christianity finds itself among warring nations.  And one of the cradles of the faith, Syria, finds itself being purged of its Christians.  Just today a new article came out stating that something like 1.5 million have escaped but another 4 million are in refugee status!  But that 150,000 have been killed in the past three years!  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10737682/Syria-civil-war-kills-over-150000-people-in-three-years.html)  Do we not see what is happening?

Icon wallI love being Melkite. I love being Melkite Greek Catholic.  Yes, it is one Church standing, with another 21 Churches, alongside and in union with, the Church of Rome.  But I am not Roman Catholic. My blood still bleeds red, my friends. I love my fellow Christians, and my fellow Catholics.  My expression is, however, decidedly Melkite Greek Catholic – it feeds my soul.  I have been shunned by many I thought were friends, accusing me of leaving “the Church.”  I realize their ignorance of this amazing Church is what caused them to behave the way they did.  Catholic is a term that loosely means, “universal.”  If people only realized how universal the Church as a whole really was, they would stand in awe, inside any “Catholic”, sui juris Church.  Our separated brethren in the Orthodox world have not been subject as much to some of the westernization of our sui juris Churches.  And I take great comfort in the spiritual treasures there, reading all I can from the Holy Fathers.  One of my favorites is Elder Thaddeus and his work entitled, “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives” and others are St. John of Kronstadt and St. John of the Ladder (St. John Climacus, whose feast we celebrated this past Sunday).  These Church Fathers and writers have enhanced my life immeasurably over the past few years and I treasure their wisdom and their words in my life.  And they are decidedly not western in thought or approach, and I feel greatly blessed by their eastern insight and philosophy.

StMarkCathAlexLike a person who commented about my embracing the Melkites said, “it is almost like when you walk into a Muslim (or Coptic – St. Mark’s in photo above) temple – you remove your shoes.”  That is pretty much what describes my immersion in the faith of the east. I am immersed in it and I love it so, and I really appreciate how my faith has grown because of it.  I am saddened that my total immersion has some questioning my choices and my sanity, but that is okay, too.  It also does not mean there is no merit in other faith expressions.  Frankly, if someone is attending Church at all in this culture, I am thrilled! Be fed where you can.  My father and my siblings are NOT Catholic, and I don’t think they understand it, either.  And that is okay, too. (Other than the fact that they think I am “married to the bride of satan” and going to hell part).  That being said, I somehow know in my heart that if they could but step into the many eastern Churches I have experienced, the overwhelming presence of God would affect them, too. (Below is a fisheye – camera view of a Russian Church).

Fisheyeview.churchinterior.russiaSo the term, “my take away,” is a neo-pop-psychology term meaning, “what I got out of it.” Yesterday was a test, and a testimony, to the power of faith, of God working in my life. It also demonstrated that none of us are immune from the uncertainty in life. We pray, we try to live as best we can, and occasionally life will throw you a curve ball.  Yesterday was a curve ball, in another area of my life.  I was able to stand my ground and defend my family and those I care about. I was not in the least intimated, and I was praying, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” the entire time.  It was good in that God presented me with a situation, I chose not to back down, and I felt the courage to speak truth in a room of lies and lying people.  And I felt pretty beat up by the whole experience (I have for some time).  But after dropping by some friends’ home, and then speaking with friends and family today, I am feeling how God is so good in my life. He has placed people in it who add to it and help build it up when it feels like the edges are folding in on me.  I was able, and have been able, to express myself regarding my faith through this blog and through some wonderful conversations.  It gives me strength to do what I need to do to ensure my family and friends are taken care of, taking comfort in their love and the love of God. And even with all the ugly going on around me, I know God has blessed me, truly blessed me.  Because, as I opened with,  “God, family, and friends are what make the world go ’round.  So blessed to have them. The rest doesn’t really matter.”

cropped-archmandrite-karelin-family1.jpg

 

“In the name of the Father…”

Cross sunlight rocksIn making the sign of the cross, believe and constantly remember that your sins are nailed to the cross.+ St. John of Kronstadt +

I was attending the Crowning (blessing their civil marriage of some 9 years) of some friends, who had invited lots of different friends to witness their committment. I ended up sitting behind the groom’s mom (as I was asked to do), in order to help corral some of the kids, and next to a friend of hers I had met at a birthday party earlier in the year.  In addition, her friend had her two children with her; her son was about 10 and her daughter was 4 years old.  Her daughter ended up on my lap most of the ceremony, and I spent most of the time leaning over, explaining a Byzantine Crowning Ceremony to these Protestant guests.  And the kids had so many questions about what they were seeing and hearing for the first time.  I loved every moment of it.

One of the things I noticed, especially when I began explaining it to someone who had no previous experience in a Byzantine Church, was how often we make the Sign of the Cross in any Byzantine or Eastern Rite Liturgy.  The young boy sitting next to his mom, leaning over her towards me, kept asking me what I was doing.  I had to explain that we believe that whenever we hear the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we make the Sign of the Cross. Whenever we hear the word, “Trinity,” we also make the same Sign of the Cross.  He asked me why.  And I thought about it, realizing mom and daughter were also listening, and I replied that I did it to remind myself of Christ’s sacrifice for me, and that He had died on the Cross for me, taking my sins upon Himself. And to remind me also that God is Father, God is Son, and God is Holy Spirit – Three in One – the Holy Trinity.  He saw my husband, who was assisting at the Crowning as a deacon, make the Sign of the Cross across his lips once or twice, and asked me why he “did it then.” I explained that he had made a mistake in the words he was saying, or the prayer he was praying, and signing his lips with the Cross was a way to ask for forgiveness for the mistake, and to seek a blessing from Christ for his efforts, and to protect him from making the mistake again.  The little boy asked me, “You can do that?”  I was surprised and answered, “We do it as often as we feel the need to do it.”  I also told him that God appreciates us turning to Him on the Cross and seeking His aid in everything we do.  We also make the Sign of the Cross as a protection against any evil, or bad things, we see or feel around us.  Sometimes we do it to remind ourselves that God is ever and always present around us.

My husband signs the cross on my forehead before he leaves for work, as I groggily kiss him goodbye and tell him I love him. I don’t think my day starts as well without his loving blessing.  We bless our homes this time of year in the Eastern Churches.  The priest comes, and in times past, he pokes into every nook and cranny, praying and sprinkling holy water, carrying incense.  (Talk about deep cleaning before someone comes to visit!!). I think it is wonderful that our parish priests come to the home of each and every parishioner, at least once a year, to bless our homes.  I love knowing my house is blessed.  I sleep better in a house that has been blessed.  Our priest has not blessed our home yet, but I have.  I always have Holy Water on hand!  There’s also candles and incense in our home, accompanying our icons, statues, and Holy artwork.  This past Sunday we celebrated the Presentation in the Temple of Christ, and the meeting of St. Simeon and the Prophetess, Anna.  As part of the celebration, we were all given lit candles, to remind us that Christ is our light.  We light candles at home, to keep the light of Christ in our homes. We light candles and burn incense when we pray, when we need comfort, when we need to know Christ is here with us. It gives us comfort, as well as reminds us that He is with us always, in all things.

Icon Corner.candlesAnd I thought a lot about making the Sign of the Cross.  I do it all the time, without even thinking about it. I bless my day, cooking, my kids, any project I propose to do. It especially helps me when the chores I dislike are due to be completed (the dreaded laundry or bathroom cleaning!!). It comes as easily as breath.  And I wear a holy object every day.  A Byzantine cross, usually, but I have a selection.  My favorite is a beat-up silver St. Olga cross I bought for myself in Los Angeles, years ago.  It used to have blue inlay, but that has long since worn off.  I love the feel of it around my neck, and reach for it often, when in distress. Most days I also wear a prayer rope, to remind myself to keep praying, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  I say it over and over again.

IncensorThe little girl on my lap was pointing away to the area behind the Holy Doors.  She kept asking me, “What’s that? What’s that?”  I was naming off all sorts of things (icon, altar, fans, cross, Holy Bible…) but nothing was the right thing.  Then I noticed the incensor swinging its way back and forth, occasionally visible from the right side, behind the Holy Doors.  “Are you asking me about the smoke?”  “Yes! Are we on fire?”  Ha-Ha!  “No,” I assured her, we are not on fire.  That is called an incensor.”  She looked so confused. I asked her to close her eyes and to breathe in deeply.  She was so cute, as she squished her eyes shut and took quite a loud, deep breath. “Oooo, what is that smell?”  I asked her if it smelled good to her and she told me she loved that smell.  I then told her to watch the smoke, as it rose above the altar and made its way to the Icon of Christ above us.  She was so adorable as she moved her head and strained to watch the incense.  I told her we love to cleanse the Church of the everyday smells (she, of course, asked about what smells.  That lead to a whole other discussion about hot dogs and coffee – her questions – and lead to her question of, “How much longer is this? I’m starving!!” Kids!). But back to the incense. I explained that incense reminds us that there are angels all around us, that our prayers rise with theirs to God, and that our prayers smell sweet to God.  She loved that explanation.  And I loved that a little child, stopping me long enough to notice all those little details of our worship, caused me to not forget the whys of what we do.

There were lots of other questions about altar boys, what they were carrying, why we hold the Bible up and why we decorate it, why we bow our heads, why we pray the Lord’s Prayer more than one time, and what the priest and deacon were up to (consecration).  The young boy was especially impressed that women don’t go up there, but just boys and men.  He smiled pretty big to his mom!  I explained about communion and the mom quietly asked her daughter, “Remember when we get the little cups at Church? What is that for?”  She answered, “Jesus’ blood.” And then she asked her daughter, “And what are the little wafers we eat for, that we take out of the plate?” “Hmmm”….as she squished up her face and looked dramatically to the ceiling…”I know this. I know this….”  Her mom said, “Jesus’ bod…” And she smiled and yelled, “It’s Jesus’ body!!!”  The little one was so happy she remembered.  I told them they could come with me and receive a blessing if they wanted to, that the priest would place his hand on their heads and say a prayer for them. Well, that little child was not letting go of my hand for anything!  It was so beautiful…their entire family went up with me and received a blessing from our priest during communion and it felt so nice to have them walk with me, holding that little 4-year-old’s hand!

Holy Gifts up closeWhy do we keep all these symbols around us?  What is the purpose?  Why should we?  I think I have shared above some of the reasons, but like the family I sat with at the Crowning of our friends, there are always lots of questions of whys and wherefores, even among all of us who are of one of the many Eastern Churches, or Catholic, or Orthodox.  None of our Churches does it the same way; they just don’t.  I have been at enough of a variety of liturgies that I can attest to it.  And the Protestants are different than any of us!  There was a comment on a Facebook wall that said something to the effect of “Why don’t we all just become one, Eastern Church, then unite with Rome?”  And it is just so hard for me to even fathom that. Yes, we all want to be united in our faith, but our ways of doing things are just a tad different.  My son commented yesterday that automated driving, where you get into a car and give it your destination and it takes you where you want to go, will never happen.  He said it won’t because we are too independent and don’t want to give up our freedom that much.  I tend to agree with him.  It’s why carpooling is just not what it could be.  Or why more people don’t support mass-transit.  We are a group of individuals…and keeping our sense of self is so important to us.  God granted us free will.  We express ourselves to our God in our own ways…that’s why there are so many Churches “in communion with Rome,” and it’s also why there are so many denominations of Protestants around the world…that darned old free will.  We hate being told what to do, or worse, how to do it! Ha-Ha!

Personally, having been on a wild journey of faith my whole life, I appreciate the differences.  I love the differences. I respect the differences.  I think God loves variety; He created variety.  Not all the earth looks the same; plants come in an infinite variety, as do the species of animals, and mankind is an endless spectrum of varieties.  I think it makes God smile.  I would not expect a Latin Rite Catholic from say, Iowa or Arizona, to understand the worship of the little Ukrainian Catholic parish we found in Washington, where the Liturgy is only in Ukrainian.  Nor would I expect a little babushka from the heart of Orthodox Russia to understand the Liturgy of the Melkites, who hail from the Middle East and celebrate most of their Liturgy in Arabic.  And I would not expect a Protestant from a mega-Church in SoCal to understand the Byzantine Liturgy we celebrate up in Alaska.  We can all appreciate the differences, but we can also look to our sameness.  We all worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The Roman Catholic may make the Sign of the Cross backwards to the rest of the Eastern world, but we still see it is the Sign of the Cross, and we can argue which side to start on, or we can just smile that we all make the Sign of the Cross.  Although, our Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ do not practice making the Sign of the Cross (or most of the other examples from our worship I cited in this post) we can still pray for them and they for us.

light in monastery windowThe little boy and girl I shared a slice of Byzantine faith with, I tried to leave with positive memories of an afternoon at a Byzantine Church where they saw a Bible decorated with gems in a golden case, held up for all to see and venerate, explaining how we love the Word of God; that the wonderful “holy smoke” they smelled will be a warm memory of the enticing smells of an Eastern Church; that the fans emblazoned with images of angels with six wings will remain with them; the stories in the many icons will warm them some day; the kindness of our community and the blessing of our priest will one day be an impetus to join us again, or at the very least, to pray for us.  Perhaps if we all share our love of our traditions, the differences will be swallowed up by the warmth of the love of them, and only the things we have in common will be remembered.  And as I made the Sign of the Cross with those children, it renewed within me my own dedication to sharing what I believe with others.  I also have some more children to pray to God for…to help entice their guardian angels into keeping that loving memory of an afternoon encircled by “holy smoke” and crowns on the heads of their friends alive for them as they make their way in the world.

St John of Kronstadt.4,jpg

“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