Archive for March, 2005

Yesterday I had my first “real” confession in two years.

I love confession. For those of us brought up Catholic, the word conveys a sense of either beating up oneself, or getting beaten up by the priest; for those of us who were raised Protestant, the word smacks of “papism,” something Those Catholics do, and therefore to be shunned. But Orthodox confession is a true gift, a time of taking inventory and assessing where one is or is not on track, and if off-track, how to get back on.

To the despair of certain members of my family (you know who you are), my earthly life is governed by a set of 5 x 8 pages, also known as a Franklin Planner. I don’t use this tool as well as I could or should, mostly because I spend so much time on other pursuits, such as my current and concurrent projects of learning Russian and entering the Triodion into my computer in a format that will allow me to take it with me wherever I go, like on early-morning walks around the Common in the middle of our town. Why just say prayers when you can pray with the birds?

Anyway, one of the components of the Franklin Planner is the development of a “personal mission statement,” something that allows you to define your purpose on earth. Mine has been clear for some time: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father Who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Recent events in my life have shown, and confession has confirmed, that not only have I gone off track on this mission statement, I have been altogether derailed. (A little RR terminology for my railroader son…) But hey — derailments happen all the time, right? So you roll up your sleeves, get out whatever equipment they use on the railroad to set trains aright, and get that puppy back on track and under steam.

Under steam I am not, yet. But definitely back on track, with a clearer vision of how to implement this mission statement, now that the “grime” around my particular light has been cleansed in confession. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” And keep after it, so that when, not if, it starts to dim, I’ll catch it before it gets too grimy to be seen. “Let your light so shine before men….”

I love confession.

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Memory Eternal

At 3:35 this afternoon, my Aunt Mary fell asleep in the Lord.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected; she was 83 years old, she had macular degeneration and a wonky heart, and her life over the past year had been rather wretched: one of her sons had mortgaged her house, then defaulted on it, so that she was forced out of a house she had lived in for almost 60 years. She didn’t want to move out to Vancouver, where this son’s job is; she didn’t want to move in with her other son, whom she never liked; so the alternative was to move her up to NH, where she had two nieces and a nephew to keep an eye on her. That move seemed to do something to her soul. She became very bitter, very suspicious of people, and ironically, the only person she really trusted was the son who had occasioned the foreclosure!

So her passing is somewhat of a blessing. What bothers me about it, though, is that for the past year, her entire conversation consisted of reminiscences about her “womanizing” father (not that we ever heard from anyone else in the family!), her “stupid” husband, her “sneaky” second son, and her “brother-in-law, who treated her sister so bad” — since that particular brother-in-law happens to be my stepfather, who worshipped the ground my mother walked on, that was especially tough to put up with. And I used to think about how she would carry that bitterness of soul with her into the next life, and wonder what I could do to get her out of that mode of thinking, so that she could face God with something positive. I never did figure it out.

This afternoon, after she passed, her sons, my sister, my brother, and I sat around making jokes about her life, and about her “setting heaven on its ear” once she got together with her brothers and sister, and that bothers me, too: I know what Orthodoxy says about our passage from this life to the next, I know that it isn’t the current “floating-to-a-better-place” Feel-Good b.s. that our culture promotes. And yet, for that short space of time, I bought into it. On the other hand, what the heck was I supposed to say?!

Well, it can certainly be said that she lived life to its fullest: not just in negative ways, like her drinking and smoking and doing pretty much whatever she felt like, regardless of how her husband felt about it, but also, in the way she opened her home during the post-WWII housing shortage to any of her relatives who needed a place to stay. She took in three cousins (that I know of, there may have been others), her brother and his wife, who lived with her for a number of years, and at one point, one of my brothers who was separated from his wife. (Not all at once, of course!) They lived with her and her husband and sons, paid her rent as they could, ate from her table, and enjoyed her hospitality as long as they needed it. When she and her sister (my mother) bought a summer home in NH, that too became a vast open house for whoever wanted to vacation near the White Mountains. There’s no way I could do something like that.

We all have our gifts, and hers was a strong sense of family. I hope it will cancel out any of the negatives in her life, and there were many. May your memory be eternal, Aunt Mary!

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As mentioned in my previous post, I have managed to almost completely alienate two people whom I care about very much, and have apologized to both. One has accepted my apology, the other…much more resistant.

I can understand that. Some things are harder to forgive than others. For me, there are four things I have struggled with over and over again: (1) my mother’s abuse of me and my brothers when we were growing up; (2) my mother-in-law’s repeated attempts to sabotage my marriage; (3) the neighbor we had, when our kids were little, who lodged a complaint of child abuse against us; and (4) the various teachers my son had throughout his school career, who made no attempt to get to know him and made his life miserable, who knows why.

It’s hard to know which is the hardest to live with. Attacks on your kids are always more painful to live with than attacks on yourself, but ultimately, attacks on your kids are attacks on yourself, since your children are you. The neighbor who reported us for child abuse — ultimately, her allegations were proven false, but colored the whole of our kids’ upbringing, since we lived in constant fear of its happening again, and I knew of cases where kids had been forcibly removed from the homes of loving, caring parents whose chief “crime” was bringing up their kids in a Christian home. The little snipes and digs my mother-in-law excelled at were difficult enough to bear, but the outright lies she told my husband about things I’d said to her were almost beyond belief (such as telling him I was planning to send our son out of the house when he was 20, after I’d expressed to her the hope that he would be able to spend junior year abroad). As for my son’s teachers, all I can say is, if you want cookie-cutter kids, go bake cookies. Chris was so far outside the mold that the only way to interact with him was to take him on his own terms. Those teachers who could, said he made their whole career worthwhile. Those who couldn’t, made his life a misery, and by extension, our lives.

As for my own mother…after 35 years of thinking about it and talking about it, intellectually I can grasp that her own background ill prepared her for motherhood, and that she did her (limited) best with what she was given. The fact remains that my entire childhood was filled with terror, between the sadistic nuns at school and my sadistic mother at home. And this experience colors my entire relationship with God, as I struggle to believe that I have worth in His eyes.

How do you forgive these kinds of things?!

The author G. K. Chesterton wrote of having been slapped in the face so hard, by one of his schoolmasters, that he was deafened in that ear. When he was 80, he wrote that he felt he had finally completely forgiven that schoolmaster. All those years, 70 or so, and at least 30 or 40 of them as a Christian struggling to live life in Christ — and it took him that long. His secret was that every time he thought of the injury done to him, he made a conscious decision to forgive — for the sake of Christ. That it didn’t happen overnight, was his gift to all of us who struggle to forgive wrongs that assault our innocence.

Then there’s my personal model, the Theotokos. I read once that it wasn’t her Yes to the Angel Gabriel that mattered, it was her Yes at the foot of the Cross. If you read some of the Stavrotheotokia of the Church, there can be no doubt in your mind as to what went on in her heart. And she had to forgive those who put her Son on the Cross. She has to forgive — us. Our sins, those things that occasioned the necessity for the Cross. Worse, we actually ask her to intercede for us. What a nerve, to ask such a thing! And, to my eternal amazement, she does. She actually forgives us the pain we have caused, not to her — though that’s bad enough — but to her Son, the worst pain any mother can be called on to endure.

Well then — forgiveness is not an option. It’s a requirement. It’s a struggle, and that’s OK; but it remains a requirement. So I’ll just keep on struggling with it, as I hope others will with me.

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I never feel really prepared for Lent — it’s always all I can handle just to fast. I don’t think a young mother should even think about fasting — being a mother is enough! (One reason it’s such a good idea for our priests to be married — it’s harder for them to get on their high horses about The Church Says when they can see how their own wives have to struggle with the chores of womanhood — like bearing, feeding, and caring for children.) Reminds me of a comment I read somewhere else, from a young mother who worried that she wasn’t able to focus on the Liturgy because her children took all her attention — she was told by her Bishop, “Your children are your Liturgy. Bring them to church, help them to learn how to behave in church — that is your prayer.” Wow.

Meanwhile, with a skill and elan that only I possess, I have managed to anger two people I really care about, right at the beginning of Great Lent. I don’t know how I do this, but I’ve done it pretty nearly all my life — caring about people, in trying to express that, I manage to tick them off no end. As of yesterday, I was just about ready to give up trying, just crawl into a corner and not contact anybody or do anything that wasn’t strictly necessary for the upkeep of the house. And then, in Touching Heaven, I read this:

An encounter with [a staretz, an elder] may reveal a clear and brilliantly lit path, the very one you have been patiently seeking. Or, it may not. The gift one gets may simply be permission to go on struggling. We seek guidance, and sometimes receive; we seek relief, and sometimes receive only the encouragement to keep fighting the good fight….Occasionally it feels as though the world has an overwhelming power to crush us; that is, if our human nature doesn’t finish us off first. But there is absolutely no sound promise offered from the circles of holiness that life is free from struggle. To struggle is to engage, and to engage the spiritual life is one of the few worthy pursuits of man.

Or, as we used to say in my youth, no rest for the wicked. Not struggling is not an option, in this calling. Dang.

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It’s snowing. Again.

Normally, I like snow. I certainly prefer it to the broiling heat of summer, when the sun glares down on you through a haze of humidity and all you can do is sit around the house in survival mode. When it’s 25 or so degrees out, and the snow is falling in big, fat flakes that cover all the bare branches of the trees with a coat of white, there’s no wind, and it looks as if all the world is drowsing — that’s beautiful. I don’t even mind shovelling in such circumstances, because as dusk falls the street lights pick up the sparkle in the snow and it looks like “poor man’s diamonds.” It’s almost a moment for prayer.

That hasn’t been our weather since the beginning of March. Today’s blizzard is the third in two weeks — March 1, March 9, and now today — and though at the moment there’s no wind, it’s supposed to pick up considerably and stay that way for the rest of the week. I still haven’t recovered from Wednesday’s storm, when we had sustained winds of 40 mph and gusts near 80. I stayed in all day; my poor husband was the one who went outside and coped with the waist-high drifts and the brutal winds. To top it all off, Jim, despite 25 years of living in New England, still thinks like a New Yorker, that we are supposed to have crocus in our garden by March. (Hasn’t happened yet. We usually see crocus sometime in April, forsythia around the first of May, and lily-of-the-valley — known elsewhere as “Maybells” — in June. IOW, we’re a month behind almost everywhere else, except maybe Canada.)

I’m trying to find some spiritual benefit in all this, but all I can think is that last week, I missed church due to my cough, and this week, I’ll miss church due to the weather. The final two Sundays before Lent, and I’m missing church. This does not bode well for my spiritual state, during a time that always brings its own struggles, when you definitely don’t need anything extra to have to cope with. Like taxes. Or weather. Or the commuter bus breaking down three times in a week, as it did to Jim this week. (When he mentioned that to the bus company yesterday evening, they told him they’d give him a free bus pass for next week. Small compensation for getting home at 7:30 p.m….)

Podvig takes many forms, I guess…

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Have had a comment to my last post on my Xanga site, asking, “What is a Triodion, and what is an Octoechos?” Worthwhile answering in a separate post.

The Octoechos is the weekly prayer cycle of the Orthodox Church. It was set up in the eighth century A.D. by St. John of Damascus, and consists of an eight-week cycle of musical “moods” — not to be confused with the do-re-mi scale of Western culture — used for praying liturgical prayers. The closest you can come to this structure in Western culture is a knowledge of the “ecclesiastical Modes,” the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian scales, and their “plagal” tones — I must admit to being a little fuzzy on what constitutes “plagal,” but it seems to be a fifth above the “base note,” or tonic, of the original Mode. So for example, Dorian mode begins on the key of D, and on a piano you would play an octave starting on D and going straight up, without any sharps or flats. In Byzantine Church music, that’s Tone 1. We’ll be in Tone 1 in two weeks — this week is Tone 7, known in the Greek Church as “varis,” or Grave. (I don’t know why — it doesn’t strike me as all that somber! But it is considered somber enough that in the week following Pascha, when all the Tones are sung one per day, Tone 7/varis is the only one omitted — too “grave” for Paschaltide.)

The Triodion is based on the Octoechos. Again, the basic 8-week melodic structure is used, but it adds prayers that are particular to Great Lent, the 40 days preceding Pascha.

So what does all this have to do with me? As a church musician and former choir director, I like to sing my prayers, and I also went to great pains and expense to learn all of this, so I don’t want to forget the melodies. I also like my prayers to be portable — when I’m on the go, I still want to be able to say them. So, last year, I took the basic Octoechos prayers I purchased at a monastery and entered them into my computer, in a format consistent with a Franklin Covey Compact Day Planner (www.franklincovey.com), and every week I take out the previous week’s Octoechos and insert the new Tone. Now I’m doing the same for the Triodion/Lenten cycle — entering it into my computer and printing it out, week by week. Fortunately, the Triodion is already available online, so all I have to do is format it and print it out (which takes considerable effort anyway, since what’s online is in modern English, and I prefer liturgical English). I’ll do the same, God willing, with the Pentecostarion, which is the cycle of prayers from Pascha/Easter through the week after Pentecost.

Hey, we all have a compulsion of one sort or another. Mine’s more harmless than gambling.

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Winter’s Work

Here we sit, in the middle of yet another blizzard, this one with not so much snow, but with winds howling all around — sustained at 20 mph, gusts up to 50. It will be good for starting to work on the Triodion — yes, now that the Octoechos is finished, I decided to go ahead and enter the Triodion, greatly assisted by the fact that it’s available online (I was going to try to post the url, but I can’t get into it without losing this post. If anyone’s interested, let me know, and I’ll look it up before I post next). All I have to do is cut, paste, and format, and I have everything in front of me for my prayer rule — Vespers and Matins. (Note: This is Music Geek or Liturgy Geek stuff. Stick with the prayer rule your priest gave you!)

Stayed home and worked on it yesterday, in fact — for the past week I’ve had a cold, and it just wasn’t going away. When I woke up dizzy yesterday, I figured I’d better not even try to drive to class, and instead visited the doctor, who prescribed an antibiotic. I feel better already. But boy, it’s been some winter; I don’t believe I’ve seen a winter like this in all my life, and I can recall some pretty nasty blizzards in the 1960s. One or two per season, though, not one after another like this year.

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Thy creating command was my beginning and foundation; for desiring to fashion me into a living being out of that which is invisible and that which is visible, Thou didst form my body out of earth, and didst give me a soul by Thy divine and life-creating breath.

— from the Aposticha for Friday evening Vespers, in Tone 6

Had an e-mail from my son this morning that has sparked all kinds of contemplation, this final week before the start of Great Lent. Somehow, he has found out that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and wants to know why we never told him about in the 25 years he lived in our home. Good question.

Asperger’s is classified as “high-end autism,” and its chief characteristic seems to be that people with it can function beautifully in the world of books, of ideas, of creativity — but not with other people. They can’t pick up on “body language,” and it causes them all kinds of grief. As I wrote to Chris, we never told him for the simple reason that it wasn’t even recognized as a condition in this country until 1994, when he was halfway through high school; and even then, we ourselves didn’t find out about until our son-in-law, who’s a teacher, had a kid who was coded for Asperger’s, and while researching the condition on the net, he came across the description. And our daughter recognized her brother right away. By that time, Chris was 21! And yeah, it sounds like him; but there was nothing we could do about it, at that point. There’s also the matter that by adulthood, the condition is considered much less severe, mostly because a kid with Asperger’s has been acting like an adult all his life, and as his peers catch up to his intellectual level, he just doesn’t stand out as “odd” anymore.

I read my son’s e-mail before starting my prayer rule — one problem with the cold I have is that it interferes drastically with my sleep cycle, so I was up and wide awake at 3:00 a.m. — and as I began my prayer rule, all I could think of was that God made this beautiful, beautiful soul — and nobody appreciates how wonderful he is. (OK, not “nobody” — his father and I do!). But all his life, he’s had to carry this cross that had no name, being made to feel as if something was “wrong” with him, that he was “flawed,” or somehow “broken.” And in this society, when something’s broken — we throw it away.

But how can you throw away a person? I don’t know. But we do that too, in this society. If you don’t fit the standard model, if you’re in any way “weird” or “different” or “nerdy” — you’re a reject. That’s what he’s lived with. That’s what we’ve lived with.

But not in Orthodoxy.

In Orthodoxy we have Fools for Christ, those people who give up even the appearance of sanity, like St. Xenia of St. Petersburg. At monasteries, there are monks and nuns who are a little “strange” in the head — not that they represent any harm to anyone, but they just don’t function like Everyone Else, maybe they obsess on music or they can’t bear to be touched, or they have some other off-the-wall “defect.” At the monastery where I go every summer, there’s a man who has lived with the monks since he was 10, when he developed meningitis, which left him at the mental level of a 10-year-old. He’s now in his 80s, and still living there, still an important part of the community. In Orthodoxy, it isn’t just that there’s room for a wider variety of people; it’s the recognition that God made them as they are, and therefore what they are is good and right in His sight. That’s the fundamental problem in this society, we’ve forgotten God — so we’ve forgotten that He makes all kinds of people. Including people with Asperger’s. Including people with more severe forms of autism. And He not only loves them, He cherishes them.

Recently I was reading in Guideposts about a woman with a “weird” son, a kid who isn’t into sports or competition, but who loves animals, and who works at an animal shelter. One day he brought home a dog that no one could keep — she was just “untrainable.” Got into the laundry, chased people just for the fun of chasing them, rooted out anything they tried to hide, drove the family nuts. Somehow the kid introduced his dog to a cop, who said, “This dog would make a great police dog.” They ended up taking her and training her to be a member of their K-9 unit, and, as the mother said, “Everything I thought was wrong with her, was what they were looking for in a great police dog.” And I thought, there’s a place for everybody in God’s plan. Everything that’s wrong in one situation, is exactly what’s needed in another. There are no “rejects” in the sight of God.

My son, whom I love more than life itself, whose great beauty of soul has always been my inspiration… Help him bear his cross, O Lord, and lead him to that place where he is exactly what’s needed. He has so much to offer, my beautiful child.

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There’s something to be said for getting sick at, or near, the beginning of Lent.

Since Saturday I have had a cold, although on Saturday I didn’t know it, and on Sunday I was just beginning to wonder about it. By Monday it was definite, and yesterday was the worst; and today, I’m still not fit for human society. Now, if you’re going to get sick at all, the best way to get sick is with a cold, or even the flu. It’s not serious enough to cause you to die by inches, in unimaginable suffering, but it’s enough to cancel all your usual plans, lay you flat, and get you to do some thinking, even if the depth of your thought is nothing more metaphysical than, “God, why me?!”

The thing is, being sick reminds you of the one awareness Americans spend most of their lives running from: We are weak. It’s almost unAmerican to be weak. Nobody likes weaklings in this country, and to be fair, America wouldn’t be America if we hadn’t had a sense of our innate strength. (I’m thinking of my great-grandmother on my father’s side, one of those tough old Kansas pioneer women who was a child in the days of Wyatt Earp and Jesse James, and who died at the age of 105.) It took stamina to settle the West!

But the fact remains: We are weak. My grandmother on my father’s side went deaf at age 10 from measles. My stepfather’s sister died from measles, also at age 10. (Come to think of it, I was 10 when I had measles…) My grandmother on my mother’s side died from complications in childbirth, leaving behind six children aged 11 to 6 weeks. Nobody wants these things to happen, but they do. Nobody wants to get sick, but we do. Why? Because there’s only so much stamina we possess, and when we tap it out — we get sick. And then what do we do? Stay in bed, drink hot fluids, growl at everybody, and grouse to ourselves that our lives have to be put on hold. And — at least, I do this — periodically I look up at my icons with bleary eyes and say, “This sucks.”

In other words, I turn to God.

It’s good to be reminded at the beginning of Lent that our own resources are limited at best, and probably more realistically an illusion. It’s good to turn to God, even if only to say, “This sucks.” And God, in His mercy — allows us to have this experience without pulling the rug out from under our feet (“You have two months to live”). Just enough to remind us that we can make all the Five-Year Plans we want — He’s still in charge.

Point taken, Lord. Now, what else would You like me to learn from this upcoming Lent?

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