“…spiritual experience…”

As you read this, please remember the emotions I present it with. I do not, nor have I, sit in judgement on anyone. Rather, I poke away at the differences. I look under the rocks strewn around this world we live in, rather than accept the standard landscape. In this post, I am exploring my own experiences and exposures to the differences in life, as I have been exposed to them. I offer this post in that vein, and with love.

St. Nikolai

This summer has provided me with opportunities to worship with family, friends, and fellow parishioners, in a variety of circumstances. Certainly the environment we find ourselves in colors our world. It colors how we view so much, including the Divine. The old adage about nature/nurture comes to mind. As an Anthropology major in college, I feel I was blessed to learn about a variety of cultures, cultural norms, and expectations. The USA is a unique blending (remember being taught how we were a “melting pot” back in the old days?) of cultures, languages, and traditions. Quite often we want everyone to be the same because it is so much easier that way. I am often teased by family members and have a rejoinder I use regularly and it is, “You’re right! I wish everyone was like me because life would be so much easier that way.” Of course, in my life, I live variety on a daily basis. We are a mixed race family. When young, my son asked me why he was “chocolate” and I was “peach.” My response to him was (and I still believe this) is that God loves variety. He loves colors. Look at birds, dogs, cats, people – there are very few exactly the same. (Even when you buy your dog from a reputable breeder, there is no guarantee they will be the breed standard. Trust me. I know this from experience and Chet is now over 11 years old and still not the standard for his breed! HaHa!). The rainbow is God’s promise to us that He will not destroy the earth – and He gave us that promise in a glorious array of colors.  God appreciates the different, the “off the beaten path,” the “oddball,” the “square peg” that doesn’t quite fit. And I love that about life.  I love that saying, “Viva la difference!” And I am different, as well.

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In life, we are given a set of circumstances and environments where we grow. We have a certain set of parents, we live in a certain house, in a certain town, etc. Every sibling is unique. Our life experiences are unique. I am saying all of this because I noticed so many unique qualities to the varying worship services I attended this summer.  I was blessed to be exposed to many faiths before I was married. I have attended some Reform Jewish ceremonies, as well as some Orthodox Jewish ceremonies. I even attended what I lovingly referred to as “Let’s Be Jewish” classes with a rabbi many years ago. I studied Mormonism in junior and high school.  I studied various sects of Protestantism growing up, being baptized seven (7) times. Yes, 7! I attended Greek Orthodox marriage prep courses with a college roommate. I’ve explored options within Catholicism, going from a more modern, post-Vatican II experience, to a Tridentine sort of environment, to evangelical Catholicism and even some of the very expressive masses with Liturgical Dancing. I gravitated to the more traditional experiences within the Church and eschewed many of the modern changes to mass and to the interior of Catholic churches, as well as devotional changes and architecture changes. Our eldest son introduced us to an amazing Melkite priest who invited us to “Come and See” and we have never looked back.  We were blessed to be involved with a very strict/orthodox (as in right thinking) liturgical/spiritual instructional period before formally becoming Melkite Greek Catholic. And all of that has colored how I view my faith, and the way in which I choose to worship.

AfricanMigrantsBoatEuropeAerial-500x333As the news of this past week or so hit my internet newsfeeds, I cringed at the photos of people escaping Syria and ISIS.  I cringed because, in so many respects, this should not be happening. When Our Lord instructed His Disciples to go into all the nations, He meant what he said. And they were obedient, even unto death. My son took the confirmation name of John. When I asked which John, he told me, “The Apostle.” When I asked him why he chose him, his response was, “Because he was the only one who died of old age.”  And we all need to remember that the Apostles died for their faith. They went into a world of paganism and evil, preaching the Word of God. And they died to do it; being obedient to Christ cost them their very lives. Today in our world, Christians are once again giving their lives to live within their faith. ISIS is trying to undo a millennia of Christianity. And they are doing it by the sword.

Some Muslims are also escaping, along with Christians, from the Holy Lands. In the news this week, there have been stories that many trying to get into Germany are converting to Christianity in order to be welcomed. I don’t think it is a conversion of the heart, but rather a conversion of the head. They don’t want to live under ISIS, be they Christian or Muslim. And the world is watching. Many do not want to get involved, nor do they want more Syrians in their country. As a Melkite Greek Catholic, I have been blessed to meet, befriend, and worship alongside some amazing Arab Christians. People who brought just the clothes on their backs, to escape Sadam Hussein, among others. But the reason for this post is that I have read where so many countries are turning these refugees away. They are different. They dress differently. They speak a different language, eat different foods, and their worship (even if Christian) seems foreign as well. Different is often scary. But God celebrates the different! He loves the different.  As His Apostles converted people and established Christianity around the world (in the form of Catholicism) they did so where the people were. They did not change their culture, but adapted the worship of the faith to the country/culture they were in. Roman Catholicism reflects Roman culture when Peter arrived. The Roman Catholic practices evolved around the stricture/structure of Roman culture. The Melkite Church grew up in the Middle East and the Liturgies, while Greek in nature, use lots of Arabic terminology (the whys and wherefores are for another post) and call God, “Allah.” It is the Arabic word for God – it is not a strictly Muslim term. Many Americans wig out when they hear “Allah” from a person like me, especially when used in context about our Christian God. It is a shame more people are not open to, nor even exposed to, the history and truth about how our faith came to be. Christianity is a big tent – there is room for all sorts of diversity.

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The above photo is of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan. This circulated on Facebook yesterday, but was featured in an article by the UK publication, the Telegraph, today. This is a refugee camp that has been there for YEARS; for GENERATIONS. One of the most precious things these refugees hold are keys they wear around their necks. The keys belong to the homes they were forced to leave. The keys are passed down to each generation – that is how long these refugees have been forced to live in these camps. This is not a new problem, but it is a growing one. Yes, they are different. Yes, it is something that is “across the ocean” from the USA. But this is in the Land of Christ. Thanks be to God for the magnanimity and generosity of the Jordanian Royal Family, who has extended refugee status all these years. There is less than 3% of Christians remaining in the Holy Land, the land of our faith.

I was blessed to worship at our Melkite parish on our vacation. It had been 5 1/2 years since we attended Divine Liturgy there. We missed it so much. We attended Mass at our son’s Roman Catholic parish, also while on vacation. It was nice to sit with my granddaughters and worship. So much has changed in the Roman liturgy, it was hard to know what to respond with, but the priest had a wonderful homily. We came home to our Ruthenian parish, where our priest is Ukrainian Greek Catholic, my husband (the deacon) is Melkite, and many of the parishioners are Eastern European (Polish, Russian, and Slavic in general). And I thought about my experiences and was in awe of how truly universal our church is. I mean, I prayed in Arabic, Latin, English, and listened to our priest speak Ukrainian, all within a 3 week period of time – and all within the Catholic Church. How awesome is that?

Different color skin, same souls.

I’ve posted about this issue of differences before. This recent sadness about the Syrian refugees brought it back into the forefront.  Why do we focus on how we are different? All this ugliness toward those who protect and serve our communities. The selling of baby parts by Planned Parenthood; the experimentation on not-dead-yet-babies. The atrocities around this country, and in our world are mounting.  Why? Because of the differences.  Because Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood because she was a follower of Hitler and a white supremacist, who believed anyone not white was less in some way. There are Protestants who believe we Catholics do not even worship the same God, for heaven’s sake, when the Catholic Church is who brought the faith to the world. There are more than 30,000 Protestant denominations around the world, most of which began in the USA. Why? Every time someone had a disagreement (or “protested”) against the Church, they started their own Church. Why? Why do people think because you are black, you think/behave a certain way? Why do people think because you are white, or brown, or tan, or whatever color, you will behave/believe a certain way? And that those differences are inherently wrong? Different is sometimes just different; not wrong.

apple colors

Did you know there are more than 7,500 varieties of apples grown worldwide, each with its own colors? Green? A little tart for me to bite into; I prefer a nice, red, Washington apple. But I like green ones to cook with! They make incredible apple pies. The secret, I discovered, to making the best homemade apple sauce was to cook a variety of apples all at once. The mixture gave the applesauce a lovely, complex flavor that my kids preferred over store-bought. We have variety all around us. We need to put the differences into the context of a reason to learn, to explore, to grow and embrace, rather than something that is set apart, set aside, ignored, and avoided. The Syrians will keep fleeing ISIS. If we are lucky, all our police and firemen will keep protecting us. People will keep intermarrying and having mixed race families. Languages will come to us and we can learn those, as well as new traditions. I love that my heritage is British, but I have learned to cook Russian dishes via my husband’s family, Arabic foods via my Melkite faith, and now I am embracing Polish and Ukrainian foods from my fellow Ruthenian parishioners.  I grew up eating traditional British fare as a child. I was exposed to Greek food growing up and attended Greek festivals as a child. I love learning new traditions and foods.  Why can we not all enjoy these differences, especially the ones in worship, without judging it to be less than what we are familiar with? When we will extend our hands in welcome and embrace something we are unfamiliar with?

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

“…but with true love.”

Elder Porphyrios2As Elder Porphyrios reminds us, we need to remember that this war we are waging against the pull of the world, more often than not will be won with “true love.”  I admit that I am on Facebook to stay in touch.  I moved an inordinate number of miles away from all that is familiar to me, and while I settle in and make my way, I stay in touch with friends and family on Facebook.  I also belong to several online pages where we discuss various subjects, and offer prayers for one another.  And my journey of mileage has also become a journey of philosophy and theology…a journey of “theosis.”

Theosis is a term that many who study purely western theology and philosophy often disagree with.  As found on OrthodoxWiki: “Theosis (“deification,” “divinization”) is the process of a worshiper becoming free of hamartía (“missing the mark”), being united with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in bodily resurrection. For Orthodox Christians, Théōsis (see 2 Pet. 1:4) is salvation. Théōsis assumes that humans from the beginning are made to share in the Life or Nature of the all-Holy Trinity. Therefore, an infant or an adult worshiper is saved from the state of unholiness (hamartía — which is not to be confused with hamártēma “sin”) for participation in the Life (zōé, not simply bíos) of the Trinity — which is everlasting.”  This definition quite often frightens people because they think, that you think, that you can become God.  And that is not the point, at all.  The point is that we strive for the perfection that is God’s.  We cannot be God, because God is God.  But we can become as God when we strive to obtain that mindset, outlook, and philosophy of the attributes attributed to God.  Basically, we live the Ten Commandments.  And I mean really live them.

I have been reading several different sites recently and I have noticed that all of them seem intent on out-doing one another in their use of terminology and their “holiness” factor.  Personally, one of the reasons I find myself veering more and more to the East is the simplicity of it all.  God just is.  Forgiveness just is.  Love is love.  Prayer is to God.  We act, we live, we believe quite simply that God is LOVE…and we try to live that each and every day.

I read a blog the other day by a single dad. He was lamenting the treatment of a young boy in line, in front of him at Costco, by the boy’s father.  The man belittled his son and made him cower in fear of him.  And I could relate to that so much.  I do not believe for a moment in breaking a child.  I believe we need to guide them and mold them into the adults we see the potential of them being.  And words can be everything to a child.  In explaining the concept to my son, I explained that parents are like the bumpers in bumper bowling…we allow them to sway from side to side, but we keep them heading to the pins at the end of that alleyway.  They may bowl slowly; the may throw the ball; they might just push it to begin rolling.  Regardless of how that ball was put on the alleyway, the bumpers keep it safely on its way to the pins. (Unless it’s me bowling, and the people two or three lanes on either side need to be on guard…I am the worst bowler, ever!  Bumpers or no bumpers!!).

Reaching people with words and sermons and theology sometimes does not allow them to proceed where they need to be headed.  Sometimes our lofty terminology and theology turns them completely away from organized religion.  Sometimes our words make them walk out the door, and opt to never go back inside.  When I read some posts and I see things like, “There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church,” I get a little “sideways.”  Mostly because people who say that often mean that unless you attend a Roman Catholic Church, are baptized, confirmed, and receive communion in a RC Church, you are going to hell.  There are those who feel that Catholicism brought Christianity to the world, so all Christian religions are tied to the Catholic Church. Protestant sects are ones that have “some” of the truth, but do not live in the “fulness” of the truth, but can find salvation.  Then they talk about the Orthodox as Christians gone astray through politics and governments running their Church, when in fact their theology was brought to them through seekers sent by Tsars and others to investigate Christianity around the world. They loved the Byzantine worship they came across the best and took it back with them to their homelands and there developed their version of it.  So it has some of the markings of the Church (apostolic? not so much) but once again, do not enjoy the fulness of the truth to be found in Catholicism.  See how hurtful words can be?  What is interesting to me is that there is no mention of all the Eastern Churches who are independent Churches but align themselves with the Bishop of Rome (sui juris).  People speak, using words that are often hurtful to those they speak about, without knowing what they are really saying.

We had a group at a former Latin parish that were very much a part of the exclusionary ideas of Fr. Feeney. (Feeneyism is a term for the doctrinal position associated with Leonard Feeney (1897–1978), a Jesuit priest and founder of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Fr. Feeney favored a strict interpretation of the doctrine extra Ecclesium nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation” – Wikipedia).  They did not believe that anyone who, even if they led a good life but did not know Christ, would enter heaven.  It caused many heated debates, even though the Church excommunicated Fr. Feeney for his “opinions” in the late 70s.  Words can hurt.  Sermons and posturing can hurt.

I have many relatives who are not Catholic.  They believe that I am going to hell; that my husband, children, and now grandchildren will go to hell with me.  They have talked to me, my children, and extended family members about my family’s terrible predicament.  They have never accepted that our faith is true, and honest, and real.  One family member is a former Catholic, who left the Church as a young adult, with an 8-th grade-confirmation-class-understanding of the faith.  Making adult decisions based on knowledge gained at 12 or 13 is not the wisest road to choose.  And words can hurt.  They have hurt – for years.  Non-acceptance is hurtful.  Using words to try and drum-home a point of view that is contrary to the one you are talking to, can hurt.

Elder Sophrony of EssexWhen my heart is heavy, and words become a noisy gong in my life, I tend to retreat.  I know that a cup of tea, as Elder Sophrony shares, can be a great reliever of stress and despair.  And I quite often retreat to enjoy a hot “cuppa.”  But my mind is still rolling over words.  I am finding myself more and more put off by strong rhetoric, be it in the marketplace (the mess with Target and identity theft comes to mind), sports (a previous post when I addressed the NFL playoffs), politics (so much, SO MUCH, comes to mind there), and even my faith.  Why is it that we have to resort to harshness when GOD IS LOVE?  WWJD?  Indeed, what would Jesus do?  He sat with sinners; He laughed with them and dined with them, and He loved them.

The Church is not a place for those who have “made it.”  It is not for those who “are saved.”  The Church is a huge tent, in which there are many rooms: “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way I am going.” (John 14: 1-3).  Christ tells us that there are many rooms and that if we believe, He will come for us and receive us “to Myself.”  It like a previous post when I spoke about the grace and healing we find in confession – the mercy that envelopes our whole self, all of who we are, all at once.  God is mercy; God is forgiveness; God is love.

Why cannot our words reflect that? Why cannot our methods of reaching one another reflect that?  Why do we strike out at those who are different than we are? If it is not exactly what we think it should be, it obviously has to be wrong?  Why do our perceptions of the Divine Truth separate us from our families, our friends, or even fellow believers, who are also seeking the Divine Physician in His hospital, the Church?

 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” Matthew 10:34-40

We come into this world alone; we leave this world alone. The very least we can do is to be kind to each person we touch, every day we come into contact with others.  We need to begin in our homes, in our families, with our friends, and in our parishes.  God is Love!  True Love!

Eph 5-8