“..struggle together toward sanctification…”

15565012-dictionary-booksmaud·lin

adjective \ˈmȯd-lən\

: showing or expressing too much emotion especially in a foolish or annoying way

I was doing long-overdue laundry yesterday and I mistakenly thought my back was healed enough to lift a full laundry basket. Stupid-stupid-stupid.  But I took charge and immediately took 1/2 a Vicodin and put my feet up.  Everyone was gone here and there for the evening, and I was all by myself.  My middle son (they live in CA) was sending me current photos of my grand daughter (she is 10 months old and growing so fast) and some videos of her crawling around.  My eldest son’s wife sent me St. Patrick’s Day photos of my two grandies up here (aged 4 months and 2 years) to my phone while I was video/texting with my other son, and I just started to cry.  I was boo-hooing like a crazy woman.  Partially from Vicodin and pain, I am sure, but also because I love my family so much, and I miss having them all around me. The hen’s chicks were scattered and she was not happy about it.  And then I realized I was being rather maudlin.  I looked it up to be sure, and yep, that was me!

St. Anthony of Optina.2

Emotions are good things, but they can run away with us.  We always need to get ourselves together.  Last night, I started printing some photos of my grandies that my kids had sent me, and I re-arranged my refrigerator magnets so I could update what I had up there.  My world had been looking so colorless with our recent snow storm and white all around us outside, and I had removed the last twinkling lights (credit where credit is due – my husband took them down for me) and our house looked sort of blank.  So printing my new grandies’ photos and putting them up made me smile. They are so stinking cute!  By the time they were up and my refrigerator’s outside was clean and organized, I felt much better.  I was filled with a thankfulness that threatened to overwhelm me into babbling again, so I sat down and read a book!  But I know, deeply, that I am blessed and that the love I feel for my family just keeps growing and growing.

cropped-archmandrite-karelin-family1.jpgA wonderful Orthodox comment on marriage is: “…marriage affords us the opportunity to become a part of something more than ourselves. From this God-given institution, a new relationship is formed, and from this willful joining together, two lives are prayerfully bound together, families emerge, and life continues.”  There is something so sublime and sweet in that perspective.  Our lives are bound by prayer.  In the Orthodox/Byzantine wedding, no vows are exchanged.  The couple does not marry each other, rather, the priest confers the mystery upon them, through faith.  The Orthodox have this to say, “From an Orthodox perspective, this liturgical action (the prayers said and the rings given) serves to seal the couple’s commitment. No vows are requested or required. The couple’s silent participation in this rite presupposes their commitment, and from an Orthodox perspective is a more than sufficient witness of their dedication to one another.”  At one part of the Orthodox/Byzantine marriage ceremony, the couple is escorted by the priest, in the company of their sponsors, around the outer table three times: “After the couple drink from the Common Cup, the priest, couple and sponsor will process around the table. In earlier times, this procession took place from the church to the couple’s home. Today it takes place round the table in the center of the Solea that is located in front of the Icon Screen. Holding the Gospels in his right hand, the priest will guide everyone around the table three times while three hymns are chanted. As the couple follows the priest, their journey together begins, but it is not a journey that they will take alone. The Gospel Book that the priest holds, as well as the presence of their guests, serves to remind them that they have chosen to walk through life with the Holy Trinity and other faithful like themselves.” I also love the symbology of the three times around the table – to remind us of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

cropped-crown50_view1_lg.jpgWhen we were going to celebrate our 25th anniversary, we chose to have a crowning ceremony.  (That is a close-up of our actual crowns above). I told my husband that it was the last time I was marrying him because we were married by a priest 25 years ago (at that time), we had a blessing by a priest when we got back to SoCal for family and friends who could not join us in Colorado, and on our 10th anniversary we journeyed to Nevada with our kids and renewed our vows in a Church with a dear friend, who happens to be a bi-ritual Syro-Malabar priest, attending us (It was so nice, just us, our children, and Fr. Jose Isaac).  I figure we are so married, there is no getting out of it, right? And then we began to delve into the Byzantine/Orthodox view of marriage.  I fell in love all over again. “Above and beyond the legal, psychological and sociological dimensions of marriage that society typically identifies, the Church expands the definition of marriage and describes it as a holy union whereby a man and woman struggle together toward sanctification and eternal life within a community of faithful.”  We struggle toward our sanctification together.  We hold hands through all of it.  That sort of commitment could never be undertaken through the capriciousness of emotion.  Emotions, like my being maudlin last night, come and go.  They are fueled by our minds, how we react to stimuli around us, and from our spiritual perspective.  If we base something like eternity on emotion, we are in for a very rocky ride.

250px-IIWdD015(Probably wildly inappropriate here, but I am a Star Wars fan and I love this scene…love the old-fashioned dress with the lace and veil! And boy, did they have a rocky road based on mis-placed emotions! So it is somewhat appropriate…)

There have been many who have spoken to marriage and its whys and wherefores recently, especially in light of same sex initiatives on ballots, bakers not baking for same sex weddings, and demonstrations even yesterday in New York, of people wanting to use the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to push their agendas as they paraded by onlookers. It’s up-front and center in many political debates recently.  And I believe (which means it is my perspective so if you disagree, I apologize now) that it partially comes from our disordered view of what marriage is.  From the Roman Catholic perspective, according to Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, “Everyone knows in their right mind that the whole purpose of marriage is to have a family.  It’s not about making people happy. It’s not about love.” and he also said, “It can’t be the condition (love), otherwise you can sanction all the kinds of things I’m talking about.” (This was quoted from an interview on CNN regarding same sex marriage).  The interviewer, Chris Cuomo, made a point I would like to ruminate on when he said, “You do not own marriage. It was not developed by Christians. It is a civil situation. It’s secular,” he added.”

The issue, as I see it, is that we have this skewed view of marriage as only a contract.  And contracts can be broken. We have civil divorce and we have Church annulments.  (As an advocate for the Tribunal, I do understand much of this controversial subject).  There are things that make a marriage in civil court; there are things that make a marriage for a Tribunal, which enable a ruling of validity or non-validity.  Sometimes, actually, most times, these things are worlds apart.  The issue, as I see it, is that the idea that marriage is a contract, devoid of emotion and the process of sanctification, fulfills a worldly perspective on the institution, but devoids it completely of the sublime and peaceful, beautiful, sacramental thing we enter into through faith, in front of our family, friends, and faith community.

As the Crowns are placed on a couple’s head, their domestic church has been formed. They are the guardians of faith for everyone in their home. They impart their faith to family and friends alike.  A faith community grows through the interactions of these small, intimate, domestic churches.  God acts in individuals, but he also acts in couples.  The children born of this union are blessed because their parents have the grace imparted through the mystery of holy matrimony. In this sacred space, families experience all sorts of craziness, and all sorts of trials and temptations.  Through the grace of matrimony, they survive, and grow, and become sanctified.  This process of sanctification is lifelong. It is not bound by words on a page; by words spoken over me and my husband…it is bound by the grace of God in the prayers prayed for us. It is bound by our participation and consent.  Further comments by the Orthodox are, “...these prayers (during the crowning ceremony) communicate significant theological truths about marriage. They remind the couple that God’s love has brought them together, and will sustain them in “peace and oneness of mind” across the marital life cycle. They also remind the couple that they are standing before God, family and the Church pledging to enter into an “indissoluble bond of love.”

I was sitting the other day, looking at my husband, and this absolute well spring of love bubbled up for him. He asked me why I was smiling and I said it was because I realized I am not in this alone – ever.  We are together for eternity.  We are bound to one another out of a deeply held conviction that God had brought us together.  We emotionally bonded with one another, yes, and we continue to do so as the years just race by.  Those moments of deep connection are the glue that holds us together.  In the day-to-day world, we often forget this treasure we hold.  This magnificent gift of eternal life, holding the hand of our very best friend, our spouse.  And it eclipses all the discussion of contract and equality and rights.  It profanes one of God’s gifts to us, this sacrament, when we foul it up with contractual language and perceptions.  In this article I have been pulling from, the “goarch.org” website, the Orthodox say this:

“From an Orthodox perspective, sacraments are God-given gifts that have emerged from Holy Tradition, and have either been instituted by Christ or the Apostles. Orthodox Tradition also refers to them as mysteries. That is because a dimension of these experiences is tangible and can be explicated, and another part must be accepted by faith.  The sacraments are best understood as God-given points of contact, where God makes Himself available to us on a very personal level. Moreover, as we choose to faithfully participate in these mysteries, God’s life giving, life changing grace touches our lives and, by extension, makes us holy.”

We believe the Church bestows these sacraments, these mysteries upon us as a way of celebrating God’s institution of marriage.  In regards to Mr. Cuomo’s statement that we “don’t own marriage,” and that “it was not devised by Christians,” well I would have to heartily disagree.  Because the world has set God off to the sidelines, of course he would feel “it’s a civil situation; it’s secular.”  And for that and it being what it is, I agree with him.  For those of us who pursue a marriage in a Church and want that sort of “blessing” on the whole thing, we need, as a culture, to realize what that means.  There’s the rub…because God is on the sidelines and we only call Him in when we want to confer a sacrament (as in, “We’ve always been Catholic.  Even though I don’t go to Church, I need to be married in Church”…or “I need my child baptized because my family has always been Catholic. No, I don’t go to Church.”) we often feel like if we want it “un-done” we can do that, in a court of law.  Entering into a sacramental marriage requires foreknowledge and agreement with what you are about to enter into.  So many people, because God resides outside of their lives, do not live sacramentally at all.  And that is when I would agree that their marriages have become purely a contractual thing, with no vestige of the faith they claimed to have.

But if we delve into the beauty of the faith that we profess, when we live what we believe, then marriage becomes something entirely different.  It becomes a spiritual walk that we take with our beloved through eternity, in the arms of Christ. And along the way, we assist one another in our process of Theosis, of becoming, of knowing. I cannot express how comforting and what a sense relaxation came over me, when I realized this man I pledged myself to 30 years ago will ever and always be at my side. I will never be alone; I will always have him by my side…”even from now, until ages of ages. Amen.”

“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (Song of Solomon 6:3)

warkentin,Crowning1(Warkentin Crowning from Orthodox Wedding Crowns website)

“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