“…but experience.”

St. Nikolai

I have become a connoisseur of scents. I absolutely love to smell frankincense as we enjoy our Pre-Sanctified Liturgies. And because I am now involved with Essential Oils, my nose has become even more “excited.” The scents from a natural oil are amazing. I realized I am walking around smelling like a sachet packet or an old hippie. I let my hair dry naturally yesterday and it’s all wavy and gray, so I do look rather hippy-ish. Oh well! Today I have some frankincense, thieves, and lemon oils on, laced with a little melaleuca, and all floating in some olive oil. In addition to the great smell (and no longer dry skin), it helps me breathe and get over this darn chest cold thing I have been fighting. All I can say is that it sure smells yummy! In the kitchen I am running the diffuser with some purification oil and our home is starting to smell like spring. I am so glad I was introduced to Essential Oils and the loving way to apply them, with thoughtfulness and prayer.

When I walk into our Church, I can expect to be wonderfully assaulted by some amazing aromas. And once the Divine Liturgy begins, I can totally immerse myself in it, through all my senses. I see the beeswax candles and the glow they provide, while I can gaze on the wonderful Icons we have. There is a scent from the candles, too. There is a wafting, pale scent from the past use of incense. It all provides a wonderful environment. As the Liturgy progresses, we smell the incense filling our lungs and our minds with the Holy. The words of the chant can move your heart, even if the singing is not the best. The readings move your mind to the story of Christ and His suffering. A long time ago, a priest once suggested that as we listen to these readings, especially during Lent, that we try and picture ourselves as being present in the story. Imagine yourself as with Christ and the Apostles, walking with them on this journey to the Cross. It moves you in a different way when you place yourself there.

The entire experience of Divine Liturgy should overwhelm us. It should create in us a beautiful sense of faith and deep commitment to follow more deeply the journey Christ takes to the Cross. And I encourage everyone to immerse yourself in this wonderful time of year; a time of re-birth and re-commitment to our faith. It’s just so amazing and I feel so blessed our Church gives us this wonderful Lenten season each year. I know I need it!

cropped-jesus-prayer-candle.jpg

Blessed Lent.

St. Nikolai

“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

“..not theory, not philosophy…”

Icon wallToday it has been raining almost all day. It rained most of the night, too.  It was the sort of day where you want to wrap yourself in a cozy blanket, hold a cup of tea, and sit before a warm fire.  But we rarely do that on Sundays.  First of all, my husband is a Deacon and so we are obligated to attend Sunday Divine Liturgy.  But more than that, our Sunday would seem hollow if we did not get ourselves out and off to Church.  So off into the rainy day we went.  I have often posted photos of the interiors of Churches and I tend to favor those with candle-lit scenes.  The one above is one of my favorites; the Icon wall.  In our parish we are blessed with an amazing array of icons and our Iconostasis (the Icon screen that goes across the altar area) is beautiful.  We are also blessed with beeswax candles! Many parishes use the thin tapers, but they are not beeswax.  I feel blessed that we have them.  As I lit a candle each for the intercession of the Theotokos and Our Lord, I stood before their icons, bathed in the mystery, the awe, the solemnity of them.  But I was also awash in my other senses.  I could hear the rain spattering along the roof line and into the downspouts.  Everything smells wonderful when it rains.  And I could smell the incredibly aromatic beeswax candles.  Trust me, if you have never experienced them, they do make a difference.  The light they emit and the scent surrounding them is heady and enhances the whole experience.  So instead of snuggling on my couch with my blanket and cup of tea, I was surrounded by the essence of my faith in sight, smell, and once morning prayers and then Divine Liturgy began, the sounds of my faith.  It was truly a morning of heaven on earth!

St. NikolaiI have used the above photo quite often, too.  I truly believe that a large part of our faith is the faith we experience in our community.  As I stated in my post of the Dormition, we come to our faith in a corporate way, as part of a larger community.  Even if you have a “born again” experience as a Protestant, it is normally within a faith community; the community that brought you to that pinnacled moment in time.  I am often asked, “When were you saved?”  I have pondered it many times and have come to the conclusion that my salvation is a process.  Yes, I have come to know and experience Christ in my life. I am blessed to belong to a Byzantine faith where encounters with Christ happen quite regularly.  My personal encounters have been shocking, sublime, timely, and extremely profound.  And they keep coming.  Each time I am in contact with that moment where Our Lord touches me, I am deeper into my relationship with Him.  I am blessed in that.

Today, after Divine Liturgy, I met some wonderful women.  One of the women in our parish is an incredible soup-maker.  Today she provided the parish with broccoli soup that was so incredible, with warm bread to accompany it.  As we sat around and gabbed, enjoying our soup and the company, I realized how much I would have missed had I chosen to remain on my couch!  My faith was enhanced and I met some wonderful ladies, and enjoyed some incredible soup.  Our conversation was as edifying in many ways as our experience during Liturgy.  Because when you sit and talk with people and share your faith, you serve God.  His kingdom is solidified and strengthened when you share your faith with others.  There was so much wisdom at that table.  I find myself sitting with the widows and older women, rather than the younger moms with small children;  I suppose it is because they are closer in age to me, but I am not sure.  I do chat with the other moms who have children, as I have a teen still at home, but I sure enjoy sitting with these older ladies.  Today I shared the concept of “Holy Silence” and also the concept that “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives” and it generated a lively chat.  Since most of them have numerous children and grandchildren, keeping Silence is often not something they think to practice first!  I was praying the entire time we chatted and I loved their insight and wisdom and I think they gleaned something useful from me, as well.  Experience…it is truly a great teacher.

CandlesI am glad that I roused myself and went off in the rain to Church. I came away edified and strengthened.  Father’s homily today reminded us of our great responsibility for our own faith.  God waits for us; He does not force us to welcome Him into our hearts.  He invites us to experience Him in our Church, in our fellow Christians.  We may not all worship in the same style or the same environment, but we are all believers of the True Faith.  Our corporate experience of the Divine makes Our Lord more present to each and every one of us…together and in solitude.  Let us also remember those who gave up everything, and are still sacrificing for their faith.  They are part of our faith, too.

Egyptains prayingIn our Silence, which I do try to practice as much as I can (being a homeschooling Mom, I am often relegated to moments of solitude to keep Silence.  Those are the moments when I choose Silence over distractions or chatter and are sometimes the only quiet I may have in a day) we commune with God and are part of the Church Militant – those of us still here, combating evil and seeking the Divine.  We share in the state of this militant Church through our prayers, our actions, and our thoughts.  Let us hold one another up as we struggle to combat the evil in this world.  Let our common experience as a community strengthen us on our personal roads to salvation, as well as helping each of those we come into contact with on their own journey towards the Divine.  Some areas of our world are rife with war and violence; there is little of the Holy Silence available in places where gunfire is more common.  Let us all unite in our common faith, holding up the Church Militant and conjoining the with the Angels and the Saints in the Church Triumphant.

I know I am glad I got off that couch this morning and enjoyed Our Lord and our community, celebrating the gift of the Divine in our lives!!