“…But the Lord is faithful….”

Jersualem in snowI am pretty sure every blogger in the world who comments on things of faith will be blogging today, the day after the new pope was elected.  I can honestly say that I, too, am excited and hopeful.  Pope Francis seems, at the outset, to be a humble man and a man of the people. His actions in the past show us he is concerned for his flock and that he believes in all the eternal truths Our Lord has taught us. He also believes that he neither has the right, nor the authority, to change these truths. Praise be to God!!!  In addition to that, us Byzantine Catholics are saying a little prayer of thanksgiving because this Pope is bi-ritual with the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and so he understands our Divine Liturgy, our cultures, and our need to keep our eastern-rite Churches intact.  Several Orthodox Bishops and Abbots have also expressed their joy at his election and think it bodes well for the Church in the world.  So as much as I would love to wax on about all of this, I think it is a little early in his pontificate to opine to overly much.  We can all research on the internet the fun facts of his past.  And boy oh boy, both the nay-sayers and those who support him, are heating up the wires, sending and posting and giving their opinions…we certainly do not need more posts about it.  In regards to Pope Francis, I will say just this:

Matthew 16,18

I am also struggling with change in my own backyard, and concerns about the future, in my little world.  It is interesting for me – mostly because I think like this anyway – but when we relocated up here, we got and stayed, lost.  Well, “directionally challenged.”  We had a rough time discerning east and west, let alone north and south!  We did not know where any churches were located, and even when we found them, we had no idea where our hotel was, in relation to them.  So we opted to attend Christmas Mass (Latin Rite – we could not find anything Byzantine at the time) at the Cathedral downtown.  Google Maps led the way (I am so glad my husband opted to turn that woman’s voice off, on his phone…she was usually incorrect and so annoying to listen to)!!  Our snowy journey was something, as we truly got lost, but finally, as we were walking inside the House of God, we did a sharp intake of our breath, because it was amazing.  My heart sang, just looking at the amazing carved doors, and then the sights, smells, and sounds enveloped us sojourners.  We entered and were pretty much blown away by the sheer size (our former parish was a teeny, tiny, little church in a very poor section of town!!!) and the beauty.  There was music playing and the acoustics were incredible.  We found seats, luckily enough, and prepared for Mass.  The music began, the choir was exulting our God,  and my heart was beating so loudly in joyous peace…and when the Bishop processed in, my eyes teared up.  It was traditional music, nothing funny going on, and the sound, incense, and circumstance were so comforting to strangers, so new in town.  The interesting part of our experience was when the Bishop offered his homily, we discovered he had arrived, brand new to this diocese, on the same day we had arrived in town.  He spoke to the journey of Christ, in the womb of His Mother, on the back of a donkey.  He felt like he was a traveler in a strange place and was having difficulty finding his footing. I just wept….because I felt exactly the same way.  My husband and I shared glances, and held hands.  His words of encouragement and assurance went a long way in making our first Christmas here special.  When we relocated, we were staying in a one-roomed hotel “suite” with our son, a dog, a very scared cat, and a stove that set off the alarms whenever we tried to cook anything.  The Bishop welcomed all of us and gave us peace on Christmas Day.  After Mass we toured the Cathedral, remarking at its beauty.  The side chapel was an amazing Christmas Creche with these incredible, almost life-sized statues.  It was amazing.  And the Bishop waited on the stairs, until the very last person left the Church, personally greeting every, single one.  What a blessing it was for us!

The message to me, even almost 3 years later,  is that we are all on a journey. The Pope moved his two bags of clothes from a priest’s hostel to the Vatican this morning; he just started an amazing journey, one he began as a seminarian and priest and is now the Vicar of Christ.  We are packing up to relocate, sometime soon, and preparing to make our way to our new home.  The Pope has, quite literally, the weight of 2 billion souls on his shoulders. (I pray it does not age him too soon).  My husband has the weight of his family on his shoulders and today, well, today he is concerned.  In that consternation of his, though, lies an important lesson.  God tells us over and over again that he will not abandon us.  He promised us He would be with us “until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)  I believe in His promises, and I claim them for myself, and my family.  When we are faced with seemingly insurmountable problems, I believe that is when we cling ferociously to our faith. When the future, our pathway, is a little blurry, that is when we reach for the Hand of Christ to guide us and be our strength.

Distress prayer

Reading Elder Thaddeus’ book has been such a blessing to me. I can now easily slip into the Jesus Prayer, and once again find that same comfort and love of God, even when I am near to “loosing it.”  (Inhale) “Jesus Son of God (exhale) have mercy on me, a sinner.”  There are also so many scripture verses wherein Christ promises us that He will not leave us, and that our faith in Him is enough. He will suffice (“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2Cor 12:19).

Psalm 142,3So I choose to not panic, yet, but to remain faithful to my God and the promises He made me.  I cannot loose sight of the fact that God is MY God. He created the world for little, old, ME. His Son died on the cross for ME. And He would have done it all, had I been the sole creation of His.  What an awesome God!  This is a refrain from one of my favorite songs to sing along to while I am driving:

“Our God (our God) is an awesome God
He reigns (He reigns) from heaven above
With wisdom (with wisdom) pow’r and love
our God is an awesome God.”

With a new Pope in the Vatican, renewed hope in the future of the Church, and with a renewed vigor, I choose to claim these awesome properties of God and I also refuse to allow myself to panic.  The Catholic author, Peter Kreeft, speaks about how it will be when we stand before the Throne of God, naked as the day we were born, clinging to a suitcase.  God will ask us what we are carrying around and we will tell Him we are clinging to our past sins, our cares, and our worries.  Then God will tell us that it is not He, Our Lord, who clings to these things, but it is us…we cannot “let go and let God.”  When we give our sins to God, we are nailing them to the Cross with Christ and He is taking on the suffering due to us.  We cannot take that action back; that sin, once confessed, is now His burden.  Similarly, when we give Christ our worries and our cares, and we tell Him we trust in His Will for our lives, we need to rest in that.  We need to let them go and allow God to work in our lives.  And that is where our free will always snags us…I know it snags me.  And I have to work at my trust.  When we ask a friend for help, as I have stated before, we trust our friend to help us and take care of us, because our friend loves us. How much more does Our God love us?  I pray that I will not even have need of a suitcase before the Throne of God, that I will have completely trusted Him “in all things.” (Psalm 62:8)

A friend spent the weekend with us this past week and she and I had our coffee, were sitting on the couches, and chatting about life, our children, our spouses, the future…everything we could cram into the short time we had to spend together.  We have been friends for about 22 years now and we share pretty much everything about our lives with each other.  I started to share my visit with my firstborn grandson, that I had back in January. And I started to just cry and cry.  Because when I met my grandson (the first time he was just 5 or so weeks old…slept most of the time) in January, and we bonded, I came to finally understand the kind of love Christ has for me.  I would do anything for that child.  And I have no expectation of anything in return…it is completely unrequited at this point and I genuinely don’t care.  He could not, maybe, even look at me, and to just be in the room with him would be enough for me.  To hear his voice, watch him play, and see his smile; it is enough for me.  And I have never, ever, felt a love like that – ever.  I cry now as I type this.  The love I feel for him has become a motivator in my life. And I was blessed to have this revealed to me by a God who loves me, just like that; and every one of His Children.  And when He hung on that Cross, with my sins added to His burden, He did that willingly and out of love.  And when He told me that I could give Him my troubles and my cares, He did that out of love, too.  Just as I would do anything for my grandson, Christ will do that overwhelmingly for me.  And I trust in that love.  So I lay my worries at His feet; at His altar I pour my heart out to Him.  And He takes all of it on Himself.  When these times get troubled, that is when I rely on Him.  And so I am choosing today to rest in His care, in His promises, and allow His will to work in our lives.  God will never leave us; He promised.

2Thessalonians3-3

“God’s got this…”

Akathist to the CrossI am struggling with the fact that things keep “pending;” they keep being put on hold or there are decisions that need to be made and they cannot be made, for one reason or another.  And to still my heart and quiet my mind, I keep repeating, (inhale) “Jesus, Son of God (exhale) have mercy on me a sinner.”  I have helped to sponsor a young man trying to achieve a goal in the Sea Scout program, by passing out these really cool bracelets with the Jesus Prayer on them, as well as an amazing instructional card that goes along with the bracelet, explaining the prayer. The project was also dedicated to the “Year of Faith.”  I shared it with a friend who was visiting this weekend and she read the card, held the bracelet, closed her eyes, and prayed.  When she opened her eyes, she had such a joyous smile on her face.  She said, “Oh, wow, I could feel the peace and calm come over me.”  And we struck up a conversation about prayer and being quiet, and she asked for some bracelets and cards to take and share with others.  I was so excited, because that is what being a faithful Christian is all about.  We share our love of God and our faith with others, and they want to share it with others, too.  And I know that it all starts at the Cross.

Lent is a time of year when I redouble my efforts to focus my prayers and my actions to further enhancing my life of faith.  A friend was reacting to a post I had on my Facebook wall about a great Lenten salad I had made for our meal one evening. In the post I said I had used “fake” sirloin tips and this engendered an entire conversation about what they were and I why I would use fake meat. I explained all about the fasting rules for us Byzantine Catholics, as well as how strictly most of the world keeps the fast.  When I got to olive oil, there were more questions about why that type of oil, etc.  It was a great conversation.  My friend said it sounded “too hard.”  And it is hard; I think that is the point of it.  I shared this morning with my friend that I think that is the point of all of it…trying to refocus our bodies and our minds towards prayer and a more intimate relationship with God, rather than on our comforts.  And I also think that many of us in the West chose a much easier way to observe Lent by fasting only once or twice a week.  McDonald’s fish sandwiches aside (I happen to love them!) I think we can incorporate much more fasting ideas in our lives than we try to, because at the outset, it sounds just too hard to accomplish.  What I did not share with my friend is that in the East, most people fast every Wednesday and Friday, all year long.  Lent is when we really fast! Ha-Ha!  There are many fasts throughout the year, but the Great Fast is the most challenging.  I often told my children that instead of “giving up chocolate” for Lent, why not add a spiritual exercise instead?  Try adding another prayer; try reading a spiritual work; try going to all the Church services offered during Lent. And when we really make that Herculean effort to observe the Great Fast, the first meal after the Pascha evening services is the most amazing thing you will ever eat!  Meat takes on a completely new meaning in your life when you have not had it in over 40 days!  They are moments I will never forget! One particular Pascha, a man in our parish ran out to a popular hamburger place right after the Vigil, and brought back dozens of their burgers (he had pre-arranged a late evening delivery, because it was well after mid-night by then).  He knew our Pastor loved these particular hamburgers and the smell when he walked in with them was incredible! He was mobbed! Ha-Ha.  Good times; great memories.

Elder AMIf I continually remember to keep my eye, my gaze, fixed on heaven, as Elder Amphilochios Makris reminds me, then nothing can shake me.  And we always start our journeys at the Cross.  Lent is leading me closer and closer to the sacrifice that was made just for me.  Christ offered Himself, once and for all, for my sins, my lack, my shortcomings.  I believe that the Church, in all her wisdom, knows I need to keep myself focused all year long, every year, but gave me Lent to help me bring myself back to where I should always be…my gaze fixed on heaven. And in light of renewing my earnest striving towards a more enhanced, a better life of faith, I come nearer and nearer to the Cross of Christ on Holy Saturday evening.  Pascha Vigil is my favorite night of the year.  In the Melkite tradition, the entire congregation processes around the Church.  While they process, all the Deacon’s wives remain inside and we prepare the Sanctuary for the entrance back into the Church.  All the candles are lit and the lamps are made to sway back and forth.  We even had special sticks we used for the chandeliers.  It was a wonderful time of anticipation.  The knocks come at the door and the responses are said and the doors swing wide open, and the entire Church is lit, the lamps are swaying, and the Holy Spirit enters with all the people. It is a great moment.  And we are getting closer and closer.

The moment we share the Resurrection of Our Lord is a moment of anticipation, of joy, and of relief.  As I prepare to enter more closely into the last days of Lent, there is so much on hold, so much not done, so much waiting.  And I cannot help but relate that to the waiting the Apostles and the Theotokos did, after the Death and Burial of Our Lord.  They waited, not realizing all His promises had been fulfilled in their lifetimes.  In the Upper Room, they gathered; most in shock and most in despair.  St. Thomas was, of course, not there.  He always seemed to miss out on the events, and had his fears and faith renewed, all doubts erased, by Our Lord Himself, as a representative of each of us.  We are never truly late for the events….God has our own time already settled for us.  He will show Himself to us when we are prepared to greet Him.  And I know that all these things that have yet to occur are held in the hands of Christ. He will reveal Himself and His plans for us when we are ready to receive Him.  I continue to prepare, and upon reflection, I am renewed and strengthened.  Often the things we anticipate are not brought to the fruition we hope for, but I know all things do start at the Cross.  As a popular post on Facebook recently said, “God’s got this.”

St.JohnKronstadtOnlyChrist

“…avoid conversation with him.”

Didache

In writing a blog, my intent is to share the walk of faith I am on. I do not intend to preach or teach, just share.  I try to correct the grammar I use and quite often spend a lot of time revising blogs until they seem, to me, to be more sharing and less instructional or preachy.  When you are learning new things, often your enthusiasm is taken erroneously.  And that is sad.  And also quite often, at least in my case, my blogs are taken as “fluff and stuff,” because the reader is older and has “heard it all before.” And that, to me, is also sad.  Some old dogs cannot be taught new tricks, no matter how sweet the treat!

In the United States, especially for those of us raised in the 50s and 60s, we were taught in school to love our country, love our family, to work hard, and to respect others.  The mindset from which we were instructed were the democratic ideals and the Protestantism that shaped much of the structure of our country, from its very foundation.  The people who came to these shores came to escape what they considered to be oppression for their Protestant views in a very Catholic world. And that mindset still permeates our country, and many of us, whether we realize it or not. For those of us who have grown frustrated with western ideologies, and who have searched in the East (as in Eastern rites and Orthodoxy) and back through history, it is hard to be accepted by our western, especially Latin Rite, friends.  And much more difficult to be understood by our Protestant, evangelical friends.

St. John of Damascus

For example, when we left the Latin Rite, or Roman Catholic Church, so many of our former parishioners questioned whether or not we were still Catholic.  So many Roman Catholics, and many Protestants, do not realize how many rites there are within Catholicism.  I have addressed this in past posts, but it is resonating with a loud boom in my life today, as a leftover from an explosion yesterday.

I have been chastised and found wanting in the area of my faith formation.  So many people, most especially the one who spoke to me yesterday, feel they have heard it all before and know it already, and that since I am so much younger, I have not caught up to them, yet.  And I sort of chuckled at that.  (Some people just get older; wisdom does not necessarily accompany their aging process).  We, as a culture, are very ego-centric.  Americans think the world revolves around what we think, say, and do.  I heard Cokie Roberts, a commentator on ABC, speak to a Cardinal who was preparing to enter into the Conclave to elect the next Pope. She thought she should remind this (American, no less) Cardinal that we, here in America, do not agree with much of what the Church teaches, especially in regards to women’s ordination, gay marriage, birth control, and abortion.  He was gentle with her and spoke to the idea that there are truths which are eternal, and those will never change, regardless of who is Pope.  And that is partially the point of this post on my blog – we are but tiny grains of sand in the overall picture of man’s salvation story.  The time of Apostolic Revelation is past – the Apostles were the last to speak prophetically and they are all long since dead and risen.  There is nothing new for Christ to reveal…He and his Church were revealed 2000+ years ago.  In America, we have our version of some sort of democratically-arranged heaven, wherein we choose the seats we are given at the Table; wherein we choose where we are in relationship to the Throne of God.  It is not like some lottery where winning tickets are drawn.  When I have spoken to my Protestant friends, and especially the person I generated this post about, I was told that when they get to heaven, they are going to have a chat with Christ, about He got it wrong!  They seem to forget, that although Christ came in the image of Man, He was still God.  He is the one who zapped nothingness into being; He is the one who created the Universe.  I do not think it is the creature’s place to correct the Creator and chastise Him on how He set things up.  A friend once told me that he will run up to Christ and give Him a big hug, upon his assured entrance into eternity with God.  I related that I would be face-first on the ground, praying and begging for forgiveness.  Just being in the radiance from the Throne of God will be enough for me…nose bleed seats are okay, so long as I am in the arena!  Therein lies a crucial difference in our approach to God and Heaven.  I approach it, standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before me, and left me lessons and a collegiate aggregate of the deposit of the faith.  I do not try to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, or re-invent our faith, the faith of our Fathers.

salt Mark 9-50“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” Mark 9:50

My heart is aching because I am divided from someone I love.  I do believe, however, that we are always called to be light, to be leaven, to be the salt.  We are needed in this world, all of us, to share the truths we have come to know.  And perhaps if your “brother” is off on some tangent of his own, it is our call to rein him in, to return him to the fold.  I would be remiss if I did not tell my brother that he is sinning.  Of course, the huge plank that is in my own eye must be dealt with, first.  And I know in my heart that the plank I have had in my eye is being removed little by little, through my increased desire and fervor during Lent to re-focus my life on the path God would have me walk.  There is nothing new under the sun; God has not revealed anything new to us.  We have taken it upon ourselves to interpret these truths, and that is where we have gone astray.  God gave His Disciples the instructions to go out and baptize the world.  They did.  Those they personally baptized have kept for us these truths, intact, in His Church, through Apostolic Succession.

There are those in my “relationship-world” at large who have rejected, for the most part, organized religion.  They learn things off the internet; they attend Churches where no one is looking over what is being taught, who taught the preacher, and from where the information was gleaned.  Some of these preachers actually attend seminaries, but many Protestant seminaries teach that Catholics (and Orthodox) are going to hell.  They believe the Church is the “bride of Satan.”  I have had family members question my salvation and the salvation of my children, because we are Catholic (and now even more bizarrely, Byzantine).  They have questioned my children about their acceptance of Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior,” behind my back.  They have tried to push my children into a “personal relationship with Christ,” never accepting that they might actually already have one.  They also do not accept anyone that I might quote, because they are Catholic or Orthodox, and not Protestant.  Like they assume there is nothing worth listening to or reading unless it comes form an evangelical protestant preacher.  It is so hurtful and frustrating.

I find it difficult to accept the theories and ideas these people want to share with me, because there is no collegiate effort to control or monitor what is said, taught, or passed along.  Within the Church, we have the tradition of the aggregate of thousands of years of teachings.  We do not reinvent what we think might, may, perhaps, could be these eternal truths.  We have what Christ taught us; we have the words the Apostles left for us, and we have the words their disciples recorded for us.  There are prayers in the Byzantine Church that have been uttered, intact, for thousands of years.  These prayers were written by those who walked with and learned at the knee of the Apostles of Christ.  These words are the same words they used to express the faith Christ handed on to his little group of 12 men.  Why would I accept the teaching of someone on the internet, with no formal education, no historical connection to these thousands of years of teaching?  And why do so many reject this tradition? I find it so interesting that those who cling to “sola scriptura” and the fact that if it is not in the Bible it is not Christian teaching, do not want to learn about all the generations who had passed before us, relying on the oral traditions shared by the Church (as well as the writings of the Apostles themselves, before the Bible was even constructed).  That is what I cling to.  There are truths that are eternal and even if they clash with our own mindset or the culture around us, they are eternal – we pass away as numerous as grains of sand, sinful creatures that we all are.

St Isaac the Syrian.2

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.  God grant me peace; help me to forgive, please Christ Jesus, and to just love. (*Huge sigh*) Lord, let me love with Your Love, with Your Heart, those who have lashed out and hurt me.  And Lord, if there are those who slander me and cause me pain, who hurt me and those I love, grant me the strength and courage to let them go. Amen.”

St Isaac the Syrian4

“You are light when all is dark.”

candle holy crossSometimes when we are troubled or need to focus our thoughts, it has been said we need a “focal,” like a lit candle in front of a cross or perhaps an Icon, gently lit by candles.  I find that candles and dimly lit rooms helps me to calm my mind and allows me to focus my thoughts on what I need to chat with God about.  Elder Thaddeus tells us that prayer should be like talking to our Parent, our Father, in a very personal way.  God knows our thoughts, so trying to gel them into something coherent is not necessary for God to understand our coming to Him in prayer, but it helps us to focus our issues and perhaps even to whittle them down to something tangible.  For me, I often find myself rattled over things like budgeting for things that are coming up, and trying to manage our household in a thrifty way, to secure our future.  More often than not, when I actually dive into a spread sheet, things are much simpler and not as horrid as I thought.  Numbers arranged in pluses and minuses is somehow easier to manage than my imagining it! Our minds are powerful things that can carry us off into waters we needn’t necessarily be wading into.  Which is why my Lenten reading is more important than ever for my peace of mind!

Abba AgathonAs I was waiting for a friend last night (we try to meet about monthly while I wait for my son at his CAP meeting) I was enjoying a nice cup of Hazelnut Latte (easy on the hazelnut) and reading Elder Thaddeus.  His book is great in that you read it in sections, and within those sections are numbered items he is relating to that topic. It is almost like a tabletop book you can easily pick up, except that the content is pretty “heavy” at times.  Earlier in the day I was waiting at the DMV while we got my son an ID card and one of the workers called out to me, “What are you reading?”  I did not realize, at first, he was speaking to me, but when I looked around me, he continued, “Yeah, you; you’re the only one in here with a book.”  When I told him the title (again, Elder Thaddeus), he shrugged it off, more interested in why I was reading a book instead of using a “Nook” or “Kindle.”  He has no use for books, so my reasoning did not interest him in the least.  I tried to explain that I love books and love the process of reading from one.  I feel so much more connected to the toils of the author and the words contained inside the pages, if I am holding the book.  My son has a funny habit of smelling a book before he buys it.  He insists that if it does not feel right in his hands or smell right, it won’t be a good read.  I have met many others who feel the exact same way!  And I am clinging to the process of reading a book from a book, rather than an electronic reader.  I just do not want to switch over.  The content of Elder Thaddeus’ book would seem to agree with me, in that he is always cautioning us, in all things, to be simpler and quieter.  Therefore, using an electronic device to read that seems somehow wrong to the intent of the book.

This morning I am all a-twitter over our immediate future and am praying almost non-stop, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The “Jesus Prayer,” or “Prayer of the Heart,” is an ancient way of connecting to our Lord.  As I drove across town to the CAP meeting last night, I had the radio turned off and used my fingers on the wheel to tap out each time I prayed that prayer.  What I do is start by offering the prayer for a particular intention, and then just keep praying.  I know God is listening and is pleased by the words I am using, but much, much more is occurring while I pray.  I found that last night, as I was driving and praying, I was also thinking about what I was praying about.  It was an amazing thing.  I actually could still feel myself tapping out the prayer each time I said it, with my fingers, and I also knew I was driving and that I was talking to God on a completely different level.  The traffic did not stress me out; I was able to answer my son when he asked me questions from the back seat (where he was, of course, watching a movie on the DVD player); I was also able to continue praying.  My mind was settled and my heart was clear – and it was amazing.  I did not allow the distractions of the world to stop me from continuing my prayer.  Elder Thaddeus says “Because God is everywhere, the fallen spirits cannot do what they want.  They can harm us mostly through other people. We can protect ourselves from them only with the power of God. Man has been given great strength, and if only we could concentrate our thoughts in prayer, the fallen spirits would not be able to harm us or do anything contrary to the Will of God.  Where there is prayer, the fallen spirits have no power.”  I know that God allows distraction and temptation in our lives in order to strengthen us, and it is amazing to witness inside your heart, the power of that prayer to overcome the distractions in life.

St. Ambrose of Milan2