“..and they rejoiced with her.”

I have been struggling with anxiety recently. We stand on the cusp of some major changes in our lives, and I am one of those people whose brains somehow shift into overdrive the moment my head hits the pillow. And the night before last was the worst. I think I slept maybe 2 solid hours the entire time I was in bed. And I woke yesterday so exhausted. But the one thing that I did do a lot of was, I prayed.

I was told this saying above about not being able to sleep, many years ago. And I have tried to apply that. And so, during my wakefulness, I prayed like crazy for all the people who have been asking for prayers. And I even added some who I knew could use the extra help. A friend of mine, who had suffered a few years ago, told me that she could tell when people were praying for her, because she felt a sense of relief each time the praying would begin. I have always wanted to be that sensitive to the prayers of others, and oftentimes I do believe I can feel that sense of calm, in the midst of the craziness, and then I know people are praying.

My Lenten study has been amazingly right on the nose almost daily. It is like God wrote it just for me. The reading of the Psalms has, quite literally, changed my life. And using a Gratitude Journal has changed the way I look at things. The day before  my night of sleeplessness, our writing prompt had been, “A habit you need to break.” For me, it is SLOTH. Basically, laziness. And I completely addressed that, right away. But the other thing is to always balance that by what we are grateful for. I had a friend who was ill and that friendship came into question; that our friendship was pivotal in my life. I realized it is a friendship that my life would be empty without. We do not see one another often, but like I said in my earlier post, I realized she is one of my anchors in life. And I am forever grateful for her. And I loved being able to balance my need for correction with gratitude for an important person in my life.

And one of the techniques I applied while I was unable to sleep was that I vowed to hand everything over to God. Literally, my life. My family. My future. Our future. My worries. The outcomes. Because our directed journaling the next day was, “Prayer for patience,” I actually laughed when I read it. Timeliness. God is always waiting. Always. And as I could not sleep, I prayed the Jesus Prayer over and over again, giving my sleeplessness to Him, to work for His greater good. In among the many Jesus Prayers, I added a decade or two of the Rosary. As one Mother to another, I know the Theotokos can relate to worry. My situation in no way compares to Hers, but I know She waits to offer us Her comforts. I always think of the Passion of the Christ movie, where Mary lays on the ground, and She can feel her Son in the prisons below Her. My heart breaks every time, because I know that connection intimately. And so I sought the comfort of Mary, in my sleepless struggles.

And through that long night, I felt immeasurable comfort. I was actively assisting in bringing Christ to others, through my prayers. God needed my prayers and I happily offered them. The readings for that day in the Psalms also drew a chuckle from me, at their timeliness:

“I trust in your faithfulness. Grant my heart joy in your help, that I may sing of the Lord, “How good our God has been to me.”” (Psalm 13:6)

Keep me safe, O God; in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord, you are my only God.'” (Psalm 16:1-2)

“I bless the Lord who counsels me; even at night my heart exorts me. I keep the Lord always before me, with the Lord at my right, I shall never be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, my soul rejoices; my body also dwells secure.” (Psalm 16:7-9)

And for my Psalm journal, I found an amazing journaling sticker (yes, they make stickers for journaling) that says, “TODAY – Be an encourager” – and another that says, “Delight yourself in the Lord.” And in my gratitude journal I added stickers that say, “But first, God,” and “God bless this hot mess.” Ha-Ha!  It amazes me continually how all these disparate things just seamlessly come together to make my Lenten Journey this year so very fruitful.

“Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown His great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her.” Luke 1:58

Even though I realized that Scripture was referring to the birth of St. John the Forerunner, I rejoiced in the fact that Our Lord has blessed me during this Lenten Journey. That this study has reignited a faith long dormant. And that re-confirming my dedication to doing the Will of God for my life, has strengthened me beyond anything in recent memory. This joy that Elizabeth experienced at the birth of John was shared by her family and friends. Her husband lost his speech because he did not fully believe what was told to him, but at the birth of his son, his speech returned and he praised God. I like to think that I lost my voice a little bit, too, along the way. But I have rediscovered it and my dedication to sharing what counts in my life with those of you who actually read this has returned. Throwing off the world in social media, in a way, helped me to focus on this blessing of faith, regenerated. Lent is such a gift to each of us, that we need to grab hold to it and wring it out for every blessing contained within it.

And one of the many miracles coming out of a sleepless night is the gift of the answering of prayers. The Lord is always, always there. And He is just waiting for us to acknowledge His presence in our lives, and the many promises He made that He is waiting to fulfill for every soul who approaches Him.

“FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD,
THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT,
WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY
FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS.

DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.” (Breviary, Eucharistic Prayer III)

Not all of us feel inclined to come to the Altar. And I get that; I do. I continue to pray for the many who decline to approach God, feeling they have no need of Him or his succor – His aid in times of distress and hardship. I know many who feel that to be a Christian of any stripe is to be weak. And I will continue to pray for them. Because I have been shown, without doubt, the strength of God in my life. I am so blessed.

May your Lent continue to bring you closer to Our Lord. Blessed Lent.

“..it is not yet prayer.”

Have you ever been told that you need to provide more quiet time, so your child does not get “over stimulated”?  Mondays were always the worst day of the week for me. Especially when our kids were younger. Mondays were the day after the weekends. And every Monday morning I have ever had with my kids was always “melt down Monday.” My kids were done. They needed sleep, quiet, time outdoors just digging in the dirt, and this momma needed some quiet time, too. Our house always looked the worse for the wear on Mondays. And I realized it was because our weekends were spent running all over the place, basically just checking in at home to sleep, change clothes, and run out and “do” until we collapsed on Sunday nights.

Well, this grandma is overstimulated. I am raw today. This weekend was insanely busy for us. We went to a meeting with lots of new people on Friday evening, a banquet that we volunteered to help with on Saturday, breakfast with our kids/grandkids Sunday morning (followed by a new Disney movie, so we were there until after 2pm), preparing for the husband’s business trip today (laundry, etc), Church Sunday evening, and dinner was late after Church last night – 9:30pm. My poor husband had an early flight out this morning – 4:30am. Ugh. He is tired! And I am strung out and raw. Sometimes, even though I do love being with people, I prefer being at home. Quietly at home. With my husband and a good book, a nice fire crackling in the wood stove, and my dog sitting next to me. Maybe a glass of Scotch next to me, or a cup of tea, or both! Ha-Ha!

Today’s journaling exercise for Lent was to list 30 interesting things about yourself. It was so hard. And I realized some things. I prefer being at home. Pretty much a homebody. I prefer the company of my husband, most of all, and our family and close friends. I don’t need to go out and party or do a lot. In my younger days, I was in a sorority. I worked at a TGIF restaurant, waitressing and bartending – talk about a lot of people! I have partied until I am not really interested in that anymore. I have had the days of kid’s sports and that commitment, keeping us running all week long. And I adore seeing mountains with snow on them over the beach any day of the week (sorry, Mary!! Ha-Ha!). I realized I am a cold climate person. And I have come to learn that I like silence. I really, really, do. I prefer it to music or noise, of any kind, at all. Who would have thought? (Not my parents when I was 16!!).

Our reading today was about how we pray. And I learned some things about myself. I realize that I love the Lenten season above any other season. I love these protracted times of reflection and lessons, of reading Scripture and learning how to pray more often and more fruitfully. I love learning how to be more simple, more quiet, more reflective, more in tune with God. Some quotes by St. Theophan the Recluse really touched my heart today, in a profound way. “Prayer itself is the piercing of our hearts by pious feelings towards God, one after another – feelings of humility, submission, gratitude, doxology, forgiveness, heart-felt prostration, brokenness, conformity to the Will of God, etc.” “When these feelings are present, our praying is prayer, and when they are absent, it is not yet prayer.” And it spoke to me about the quality of my prayer life. Do I prepare my space, my mind, my heart, before I pray? Do I jump back up and rejoin the world once I have completed my prayers? Do I allow those wonderful feelings to follow me out into my day? One of his suggestions was to “focus your thoughts, casting off from them all earthly activities and objects. Then call to mind the One to Whom you are praying, Who He is and who you are, as you begin this prayerful petition to Him.” How often do we center ourselves, detaching our minds from the world, and wholely giving ourselves over to this connection with God? I have spent many years, in many different ways, trying to accomplish this feat. And often I have come up against a sort of roadblock to what I feel is a successful time of prayer. And St. Theophan said this, “..stop, do not read further, but stand with attention and feeling in that place, and use the prayer in that place and the feelings engendered by it to feed your soul.” And I felt that I had learned something valuable. Quite often we read scripture and we only retain a word or two, perhaps a phrase, but the entire reading is off, floating out of our minds. Or when we read the words of philosophers or the Church Fathers, we retain such a small bit of it, and we feel like we have failed. But today I learned that it is not a failure, but it is precisely what I was intended to receive from that exercise. My soul was touched and I felt buoyed by reading that tract of writing, from whomever, and was able to retain what was pertinent to me and my soul.

As I read the Psalms today, a verse here and there struck me. For example, “…God is on my side. God, I praise your promise; in You I trust, I do not fear. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Psalm 56:10-12) and then “My soul rests in God alone, from Whom comes my salvation. God alone is my rock and salvation, my secure height; I shall never fall.” (Psalm 62:2-3). And I was touched, in light of my experiences and our current political climate, by this: “..they bless with their mouths, but they inwardly curse.” (Psalm 62:5) . And that last is just a portion of a phrase.

I was able to take these moments from Scripture and feel them in my heart. I stopped and recorded them, so as to keep them close to me. I believe St. Theophan was right when he said, “All praying leaves prayer in the soul – continual prayer in this manner gives it root, and patience in this work establishes a prayerful spirit. May God grant this to you by the prayers of our All-pure Lady, the Theotokos.”

Sometimes our resolve to live peacefully gets dashed upon the rocks of reality. My weekend totally invaded my space, and used up any of the “social” energy I had within me. Don’t misunderstand; I totally enjoyed my time out and spent much of it laughing (especially at the cross-eyed and mounted Mountain Lion they were trying to auction off) with friends. But, I wore my psyche out. And, more than usual, I was looking forward to my prayer time today. As our Sunday wound down, things got worse and worse. Our drive-through experience at 9:00pm on a Sunday night? Well, we waited 20 minutes in a line we were stuck in; our food finally arrived and off we went only to spill the drink in my new car as we pulled into our driveway, and the bags broke as we exited the car, with burgers flying into the snow…even the last bag split as we made our way inside. It was an exhausting end to a very “peopley” weekend. Thanks be to God for silence, quiet, and prayer time to rejuvenate my mind and soul. And as we laid our heads upon our pillows, we both apologized for the misplaced anger we had towards one another, and just rested. I recited the Jesus Prayer over and over, as I drifted off. And I knew my husband would be tiredly flying off to his commitments across the state, and I would be blessed to spend my morning with God, in prayer. My husband has blessed my soul in so many ways, but chiefly among them, is the ability to be at home. Thanks be to God for these priceless moments and opportunities to pray, for generosity of faith of my husband, and for this wonderful season of Lent, lately realized as my favorite time of the year.

Blessed Lent

“…and He shall sustain you;”

For it is not an enemy that reviled me—that I could bear—
Not a foe who viewed me with contempt,
from that I could hide.
But it was you, my other self,
my comrade and friend,
You, whose company I enjoyed,
at whose side I walked
in the house of God.

That is from Psalm 55:13-15. And it was just a small portion of my readings today. But this series of comments from the Psalmist really hit me. It is the lament of a betrayal by someone the writer was intimately friends with. I think that those who we walk in a common faith with, have a certain place in our hearts that is special, and reserved for them in a special way. We tend to trust those we pray with, those we “walk in procession in the house of God,” in a special way. And when those people turn out not to be what they presented themselves as, that presents a special ache in our hearts. However, the Psalmist also says, “God will never allow the righteous to stumble.”(Psalm 55:23)

I took great comfort from this. It is not a matter of one winning and one losing. It is, rather, a protection for both. Because as I read this, I came to see that through my continued prayers and time spent with just God, and His Word, I have been able to control my anger more and more. I journaled about the fact that I am not normally an angry person. I do get frustrated, and that can lead quite easily to anger. But when I have felt betrayal, I have reacted in anger, out of a deep, deep hurt. But God does not allow us to stumble. He will protect us from our worst selves. And he has done that for me. Even when I have felt that betrayal from those closest to me, I have been truly able to let it go. I have quite literally felt the anger, and the pressure of that emotion on my body, leave me. I felt lighter, and so much peace. Our journaling prompt today was to think on how we let our anger go. And I honestly have been able to let things go so much easier, relying on the mercy of God and His Providence over my life, rather than those old patterns of knee-jerk reactions. God has been kind to me. And my continuing growth through this process can only lead to even better outcomes. I love this quote by Saint Seraphim, “Acquire a peaceful spirit and thousands around you will be saved.”

I read this article today about the 5-Second Rule for making decisions and choices…which is not about picking food up off the floor before the germs invade. Rather, it is giving yourself a 5-second delay/review period before making a decision, saying something, reacting in some way to input you are receiving. And after that 5-seconds, you are to do something, say something, react, and be physical in your reaction. That 5-second break is sometimes all we need to stop ourselves from making a poor decision. And it is sometimes the small review period we need to make the right decision. Sadie Robertson, of Duck Dynasty fame, spoke to how using this is helping her navigate growing up in a world where poor choices are rampant and much easier to make. She was pretty articulate in how this method has helped her be a better person, and make better choices. Well for me, I did not realize that I had actually started doing that, too. In those 5 Seconds, I have been silently saying the Jesus Prayer, when these things happen to me. And it is working! I am finding myself becoming more patient, quieter, and much happier.

“God will never allow the righteous to stumble.” If I truly want God to be in charge of my life, He will not allow me to stumble. All He asks is that we listen. Just listen. There was this popular country song entitled, “Jesus, take the wheel,” wherein the woman is lamenting her life and crying…she was driving home to visit her parents for Christmas and it was snowing, her small baby sleeping in the back seat. She was not paying attention and hit a sheet of ice, coming to rest in a snow bank. And that’s when she asked Jesus to “take the wheel,” because she was regretting the “road she was on” and asked Him to just “take the wheel, take it from me.” And I am thankful I did not need to careen off the road on a sheet of ice (well, okay, the hubby and I recently experienced life in a snowbank, after trying to stop suddenly on an icy road, so I know how she feels) but it did not take that sort of 2 x 4 to my head to make me stop the road I was on. Instead, the Church gave me Great Lent. It caused me to stop, to think, to pray, to re-evaluate, to re-order my priorities. We are so blessed we are given this “annual review period” to get our lives back on track.

Continued prayers and blessings for an amazing Lent this year.

“…can go with a stream…”

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.                 Martin Luther King.

This is just such an ugly day in America. There have been so many ugly days. And it seems to be escalating. It makes my heart just sick.

Our family has had an interesting history in America. My parents immigrated here in the 1950s. They were met with extreme prejudice by shopkeepers and others they had to interact with. They put their money in Bank of America because they thought that was the bank for all Americans. They tried to buy their goods at local shops. They collected “Green Stamps” and joined local civic organizations, trying to assimilate. They even attended American churches, so they could learn how “they did it.” My mom watched soap operas, trying to learn American culture. They were repeatedly turned away from retail establishments like the butcher shop, because they could not be understood. My mom was told to come back when she could speak “English.”  The funny part? My parents are from New Zealand.

My in-laws are from Russia. They are called “Germans from Russia” because they are Germans who were brought to Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great, who was German, and wanted to bring Russia into the more modern age. She brought skilled workers to Russia, to share their expertise with her new country. My husband springs from these “Volga River Russians.” When they came to America, to escape communism, they settled in the farmlands of Kansas and Colorado. It resembled their homeland. They developed communities and built churches, but they were not allowed into the “white” areas of these towns. They could only attend schools and churches they built themselves. They were not particularly welcome. During WWII when German distrust was at its highest in the USA, our last name was definitely a hinderance to them. My father-in-law had stories of his youth that made me just shake my head. He was going through all of that in the heartland of the USA at the same time my parents were trying to assimilate on the west coast. Just a bit prior to my lifetime.

I have friends who were “Creole” and escaped the South because they were not welcome in either community – black or white. They relocated to the melting pot of Southern California, where there is pretty much representation from every country on earth. They were strong Catholics and became well-known in local Catholic circles. They brought their deep faith, nurtured in the Deep South, to Southern California. Their mom told me they escaped the South because she could not sit on the same bus or eat at the same restaurants that she could in SoCal. She said it was easier to “pass” in California, but that in the South she had a rough time of it. She said in SoCal she could just be a woman…not hyphenated by black or white. This was very much in my lifetime. *Shaking head* *Sad face*

blackwhitehands

Fast forward 18 years ago and we adopted a child outside our race. Last night, as news of Dallas was shared around the dinner table, I laughed as my very pale grand daughter cuddled with her favorite uncle, many shades darker. I asked her if she loved her uncle and she squeezed his neck and covered him with kisses, saying over and over, “My uncle, my uncle…will you jump on the trampoline with me?” Pure bliss and love and no thought to color.

As a mixed race family, my joke has always been, “I can never have a bad hair day, because people always notice us.” And it is true. I have been hassled by both communities. But truthfully, prejudice is a learned behavior. It is introduced to children. As Webster defines it (it can be both a noun and a verb):

prej·u·dice
ˈprejədəs
noun

preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

verb

give rise to prejudice in (someone); make biased.

My parents raised me in a very mixed race area. I attended inner-city schools wherein I was in the minority. We lived through the Watts riots, up close and personal. My best friend was black and I often stayed with her family, attending Church with them where I was the sole white person for miles around. I was set upon and beat up in the 8th grade because I liked a Mexican boy (oh, the memories of Armando!!) that a black girl also liked. She set her “gang” on me when I had my legs in casts (my knees were a problem as a girl). My little 4’11” mom saw a pile of girls with chunks of hair flying and dove in, not knowing I was on the bottom! Mom to the rescue. Later, my younger brother was attacked by her younger brother. We decided to sell and move out. We relocated to a very white area, with a few Mexicans thrown in, and I was in culture shock. Seriously. I missed my multi-cultural life and my friends who were black. Several made the trek out to see me, taking busses to get there. But it was too hard to maintain a friendship being so far and having no means to get to each other.

God gave me this opportunity, I believe, so that I do not see color. When I look at my youngest son, I just see my son. When we were in the adoption process, the social worker asked us if we were prepared to raise a good black man. My husband’s response was, “No; I am prepared to raise a good man.” We have never differentiated between our children. And my son never realized he was different until a kid in 4th grade said to him, “Dude, your dad is white. I saw your mom. Dude, you are adopted.” My son’s response, “What’s adopted mean?” He had no idea he was different. He always said he was chocolate and we are peach. He said that when he gets a cut, he has skin like me…peach. And when I get a cut, I get scabs that are brown like him. He also commented that our feet and hands match. He’s hanging out right now with his best friend, who is strawberry blonde, blue-eyed, and freckled. They don’t see color first, either.

love your enemies

The only way we are going to free our country from becoming something none of us recognize, is to love everyone. And trust me, I know it is hard. I find it difficult to love everyone. I have practiced selective elimination of people from my life who are toxic. I get that not everyone can be tolerated. And I don’t espouse blind love, either. We need to keep our eyes open, yes. But we also need to not judge people, prejudicially. How can you hate someone who is different, just because they are different?

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”…Genesis 1:27

God created every creature that roams the earth. Everything. Everyone. No, I do not agree with some creeds and beliefs. I do not. But I believe that God will reach each person in the best way they can be reached. I do not believe that because they have not been “saved” nor ever heard the “Word of God,” that they will be eternally damned. That’s the anthropologist in me! But it is also the Mercy of God. I cannot be friends with everyone. Some people just rub me wrong. And I am sure I rub others the wrong way, too. God did not intend for this world to be perfect; that is for the perfection of Heaven, in an eternity of Grace with God. But on this world and in this life, we are called to love others, even those who persecute us. We are called to allow others to make their choices in how they believe, where they live, how they act, what they eat, what they wear, who they marry, what career they choose, etc. Which is pretty much what freedom is all about and why so many come here. So many come here to have a better life, or to escape persecution. Some were brought here, generations upon generations ago, against their will and have lived here for 100s of years, assimilating as best they can, into our American melting pot.

jesus prayer 2

The only way we can affect true change in America is to change ourselves. We cannot expect our government to change for us. We cannot expect our neighbor to change for us. The change has to start in my heart and my soul, in my relationship to God and those around me. It would create a ripple, reaching all the corners of our world. We cannot always go out and fix the world at large, when our backyard is a mess. I really hate it when people criticize how people keep their house, when they are secret hoarders or something. My opinion is that we have to stop criticizing our neighbor and get out a mirror and affect change in ourselves. I am a poor sinner. A poor sinner. And I fall to my knees every, single, day! The choice I make is to seek my Maker, and get back up again. Each and every Christian needs to examine themselves and then reach out, refreshed in the Spirit of God, to their neighbor, one heart at a time. And we have to stop being dead in the political world, the marketplace, the schools, the neighborhoods. Enough is enough.

logjams

“A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” – G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 1925

“What does it profit if…”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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).

“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

“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.

“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

“…and have a cup of tea.”

Elder Sophrony of Essex

Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, I can loose sight of those simple goals I was striving to work on during Lent – peace of mind and a closer relationship to Our Lord.  Today I read about the banks in Cyprus closing until Thursday, and 6.75% of people’s savings accounts were “requested,” which is a nice way of saying “taken without their permission.”  Gun laws are changing and for those of us who own them, it is causing concerns.  North Korea is arming itself and aiming at the USA.  The Defense Department announced they are setting up missile defense systems in reaction to North Korea, in Alaska, but that it will take until 2016 until they are ready (so comforting).  This past week, a friend’s sewage system backed up and caused some major damage to a newly-finished basement.  Their frustration and anguish was felt as much as if it happened to us!  We’re still packing up and moving, but now are looking to other options as to when and where, because things we had planned have taken on their own twists and turns.  This past Friday, we buried my stepdad.  I spoke to my mom this morning and she was surly and very terse with me, which tells me she is struggling.  This weekend, my husband suffered a debilitating migraine – his first.  I so need to step back from the brink and have a cup of tea!!!

Our Orthodox brethren celebrated “Forgiveness Sunday” this week and are now on our Lenten journey with us.  So many wonderful things were posted about forgiveness.  And it is helping me to re-focus myself on keeping a clear head and keeping the peace of God reigning in my heart, and not the world.  Here is one that caught my eye and gave me pause: “The soul must watch and anticipate carefully so that it is not even for the twinkling of an eye taken captive by the devil’s power. Even if only one part of an animal is caught in a trap, the whole animal is held fast and falls into the hands of the hunters; and the same thing is liable to happen to the soul at the hands of its enemies. The psalmist makes this quite clear when he says: ‘They prepared a trap for my feet and bowed down my soul’ (Ps. 57:6. LXX).St Symeon Metaphrastis ; Paraphrase of the Homilies of St Makarios of Egypt.

I think this explains how we can strive for peace and keeping God uppermost in our thoughts, and when the world creeps in; those pesky details of life seep in; we loose our footing and realize that one foot was ensnared by the devil.  And because I had been snagged just a little, I was completely derailed.  What a tenuous grasp we have!  This is where I disagree about the whole “salvation” outlook many of my Protestant friends and family members have.  They have told me that they believe in “once saved, always saved.”  And I think that we, who truly believe in God, we struggle (Christians of all types).  We are tripped up constantly, and we are constantly snared by the evil in the world.  Some Protestants refer to it as “backsliding,” still believing in the fact that salvation, complete, 100% salvation, took place once and for all.  Whereas we Byzantine Catholics believe we fall, and we loose sight of God, and we become angry sinners, but we can choose to get back up again….we can choose to seek forgiveness once again.

St. John Chrysostom2

I keep finding myself going over scenarios of things that perhaps took place, and because I wasn’t there, I am guessing.  My husband gently reminded me that Elder Thaddeus teaches us that if we do that, we are not keeping our focus on God, but allowing ourselves to be derailed. And he was so very correct.  (Inhale) “Lord Jesus Christ, (exhale) Son of God, (inhale) have mercy on me (exhale) a sinner.”  That gave me the moments I needed to bring Peace (“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” John 14:27) back into my heart and enabled me to tackle an issue with a more serene outlook, and to deal with the issue with a better mindset.  Today, once again, I realized that I was not being the person I should be to others, because I was grasping at that same serenity I had yesterday, but I left a key component out of the equation – I was neglecting to ask God for help.  I was trying to do this more as a breathing exercise, rather than an opportunity for prayerfully communing with God.  (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Philippians 4:13).

I believe that I tend to want to rip the reins away, and take control.  Humility is an attribute that allows me the perspective to realize how minute I am, and no matter the struggle I put up, I am so not in charge.  I quite honestly cannot do much of anything without God taking the reins.  A recently-recorded country-western song, made famous by Carrie Underwood, is entitled, “Jesus Take the Wheel” and this is the refrain:

“Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can’t do this on my own
I’m letting go
So give me one more chance
To save me from this road I’m on
Jesus take the wheel”

I realized today that I am such a “side-seat-driver” in that I love to bark directions, even when I am not driving.  (God bless my husband!!).  And for those of us who are used to doing things our own way, “letting go and letting God” is something that does not come easy for us.  I have had so many incredibly sublime moments when I knew God was present with me, in a particular place and time.  I know without a doubt Our Lord was right there, right then, fully present.  Those moments were so very incredible, I doubt I will ever forget them.  They left me in an incredible state of Grace and warmth, knowing my God loves me, and they also left me wanting more of them.  Which was partially the impetus for my struggles this Lenten period.  For those of us still on the western calendars, we are in the home stretch here, folks!  Lent is over in 12 days…less than 2 weeks! And I feel so very much like my toe is snagged and I am being dragged away from the progress made thus far, this year.  I feel anger, frustration, disappointment, and a deep sense of loss, which brings with it a renewed sense of longing.

“Have you sinned? Go into Church and wipe out your sin. As often as you might fall down in the marketplace, you pick yourself up again. So too, as often as you sin, repent your sin. Do not despair. Even if you sin a second time, repent a second time. Do not by indifference lose hope entirely of the good things prepared. Even if you are in extreme old age and have sinned, go in, repent!” …. “For here there is a physician’s office, not a courtroom; not a place where punishment of sin is exacted, but where the forgiveness of sin is granted.”  St John Chrysostom

Pope FrancisSo I pick myself up again, clinging to the promises Our Lord made to us, and renewing my desire to “get right with God.”  I also know in my heart that, as the old saying goes, “Those who try to get closer to God, the devil knows about and tries even harder to get their souls.”EphesiansAs I get nearer and nearer to the Resurrection, I know that evil will enter and try to dissuade me.  Because I know this and am aware of this, I think that consciously acknowledging it further empowers me to fight it off.  Let us all keep one another in prayer as we journey through this messed up world with all its temptations to despair.  I offer my prayers to the Lord, and also ask anyone I have offended to please forgive me, while praying for those I know I have let down.  “…Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”   — Ephesians 6:12-13

And as Elder Sophrony of Essex suggests, I think I will go have a cup of tea.