Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

What follows is lifted entirely from the blog of an Orthodox Priest (Orthodox Church in America.  And that’s Capital O, as in “Russian Orthodox,” or “Greek Orthodox”).  Father Stephen Freeman has, by now, over a thousand followers of his blog, Glory to God for All Things.  He writes about God, about theology, and about God’s presence in daily life, in a manner completely comprehensible; yet he manages never to “talk down” to his audience.  What he wrote here struck me so particularly that I asked for permission to repost it here.

Beginning The Song of God, by Father Stephen Freeman:

Man is a musical composition, a wonderfully written hymn to powerful creative activity. – St. Gregory of Nyssa (PG 44, 441 B)

In St. Gregory’s thought,  man is not only a singer, but a song. We are not only song, but the song of God. Indeed within one theme of the fathers, all of creation is the song of God, spoken (or sung) into existence. “Let there be light,” is more than the voice of command: it is the uttering of a phrase that sets the universe as fugue. God sings. All of creation sings. The song of praise that arises from creation is offered to God, the Author of all things. It is also the sound of the creation itself, a revelation of the truth of its being. Music is not entertainment: rightly sung, it is the very heart of creation.

The angels within Isaiah’s vision (chapter 6) call to one another in the song, “Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O Lord God of Hosts….” The song of one calls forth the song of the other. Worship is the offering of our whole being, calling forth the song of all creation in union with the song which God Himself sings.

To understand oneself as the song of God, a phrase within His hymn of creation, affirms both our uniqueness as well as our union with the whole. Our prayer, our worship, our lives, are an offering of the song that God Himself has breathed.

Our habits of thought provide ways in which we conceive ourselves. It strikes me as worth noting that our modern concept of human existence has minimized the role of music. Music is something that we do, an industry by which we make money. It is an instrument for the glorification of egos. Music is distorted.

At the same time our culture has made music into a vast financial industry, people have themselves become less musical. The ability to play an instrument (other than air-guitar) has declined deeply. Music programs within schools are considered too expensive to fund. The number of young persons with no formal training or experience in music continues to rise. People rarely sing together (a once universal custom prior to modernity) except in the most structured environments. “Folk” music (the peoples’ music) is rapidly disappearing (these things are perhaps more true of America than Europe).

I would never predict a disappearance of music – for human beings are a song and the song will not disappear. But to live in a manner that is alienated from ourselves as the song of God is to live with an existential emptiness. If man is a singer, then he must sing – and he must sing to God.

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NaBloPoMo prompt from January 6:  “Do you wish the start of the year was in a different season?  Which one?”  Better late than never, I suppose.  (Note that the grammatical error “was” is a quote from NaBloPoMo.  In case anyone from that organization happens to see this blog, the act of wishing takes the subjunctive mood, which in this case would lead to one’s wishing that the start of the year were in a different season — as in, “I wish it were in September — but it’s not.”)

In liturgical Western churches, the First Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the Church Year; in the Orthodox Church, it’s the first of September.  (The Jewish calendar also begins the year in September, but on a different date.)  Many, many years ago, when the thought of becoming Orthodox was little more than the Impossible Dream, I picked up Knitter’s Almanac, by the incomparable Elizabeth Zimmermann.  This was a calendar of knitting projects, one or two per month, that covered the span of a year in a most chatty and engaging way.  I was relatively new to knitting then, and hers was the first book I had ever seen that encouraged “thinking knitting,” i.e., not knitting from a pattern but according to one’s own designs and whims.  Wow.  It certainly changed my life.

But I digress.  The first words for September were, “September is the logical beginning of the year.  Summer heat is nearly past, the weather begins to brisken up [sic], schools open their doors to siphon our beloved young out of the house for longer or shorter periods…”  At the time I thought, “She has a point.”  Nowadays, I think she was prescient.  September is the logical beginning of the year.  If summer heat isn’t quite past – in New York, it isn’t past until the middle of October – there is certainly a busier quality to the days of September.  It isn’t only the weather that “briskens up”; the indolence of the summer disappears as if on a wisp of wind, and the human brain stirs itself, as EZ put it, “… adult activity starts to stir, and Mother forms good resolutions and makes lists.”  And not only Mother; those first few days of school are so wonderfully New.  New notebooks, new pencils, new teacher, new subjects to master (or not), sometimes new classmates – it really does feel like a rebirth of daily life.  Even as a mother of school-age children, I could feel the newness of the year.

So why does the New Year fall in January?  It makes no sense.  I could see if people needed a little pick-me-up to get them through the dreariest time of the year, though even then, most younger folk I know welcome winter as its own sporting season (“Think Ski!”), and geezers like me are relieved to have an excuse to sit in a sunny window with books and crosswords and Sudoku, to which I have recently become addicted.  But even without these charms of winter, isn’t Christmas enough of a blood-stirrer to provide you with a sense of jollity and celebration?  Even atheists celebrate something at Christmastime; they must, or we wouldn’t be afflicted with the annual silliness of whether or not to put up public Nativity displays.  Like it or not, that Nativity scene is what Christmas is all about; if you don’t like it, don’t celebrate it.

But since such a large part of the world does celebrate it, in one form or another, I think we should abolish January 1 as the beginning of the year, and go with “the logical beginning” – September.  Perhaps that way, we could return to the custom of celebrating all twelve days of Christmas, from 25 December through to 6 January.  Or, in the case of Orthodox Old Calendarists, from 7 January through to 19 January.  Or, in one particular case (my own), with both an Orthodox Old Calendarist and a Western Christian in the house, from 25 December to 19 January.  Twenty-four days of Christmas!  Talk about Party Hearty!

Post Scriptum:  I would consider myself a disgrace to the world of knitting if I did not direct readers to Elizabeth Zimmermann’s most lasting legacy:  Schoolhouse Press, purveyor of wonderful wools, esoteric knitting tools, enough knitting books to begin a small library, and the incomparable wit and wisdom of the doyenne of the knitting world.  It’s usual, among Orthodox, to greet news of someone’s passing with the words, “May their memory be eternal!” but in EZ’s case, I think her name will last as long as there are knitters in the world; not just her memory, but her work, lives on.

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Oh, yeah, I just realized — the NaBloPoMo theme for this month is Beginnings.  NaBloPoMo stands for National Blog Posting Month.  I blew it off for most of last year, mostly because it was so difficult to get online, with one computer and a retired husband; and given that the same conditions still exist, I’m not sure how much more blogging I will be able to do this year, either.  But I try, I do try.

“Beginnings” is a natural theme for January.  The start of a whole new year, the whole feeling of newness and Endless Possibilities (something of a joke in our family:  this was one of my mother-in-law’s favorite phrases, when my husband was young and had his whole future before him)…  December is so Last Year.

The problem is that at my time of life, Beginnings are harder and harder to come by.  They begin to look more like Retreads.  I was just watching one of the interminable political ads last night, this one for Mitt Romney, in which he referred to the current occupant of the White House as “this pessimistic President,” and my first thought was, “Jimmy Carter?”  Nothing new under the sun.

The other thing you become increasingly aware of, is that the only true fresh Beginning is the moment of conception.  One second there’s nothing, and the next — the future of the world has begun, two cells multiplying into four, into eight, into sixteen, and so on, truly the future of the world, for who among us can know what impact this new life will have on its family, its neighborhood, its community, and maybe even the world?  Could George Washington’s parents have predicted their son’s impact?  (Not to mention the more notorious, not to say heinous, members of the human race…)

Other than that, though, all Beginnings are preceded by Endings.  The accepted beginning of new life is the end of a pregnancy.  The beginning of school is the end of total dependency on the parents.  The beginning of a career is an end to school, though hopefully not to education.  The beginning of a marriage is the end of the Self; no matter how long you are married, the person you married has an indelible impact on you, as you do on that person, and the Self cannot be the same person it would have been if it had remained single.

Every Beginning is preceded by an End.  And every ending heralds a new beginning, including the end of Life As We Know It, to crib a phrase from Star Trek.  I feel so sorry for people who don’t believe in eternity.  What, just because you don’t know anybody who’s been there and back, it doesn’t exist?!  Where would we all be if Columbus had felt the same way?!  Still thinking the earth was flat, among other things.  Not to mention the notion of Cosmic Justice:  People who get away with murdering millions of innocent souls shouldn’t be able just to die in their beds in peace, to put the thing at its crassest level.

Like most people, I’m a little nervous about the Ending, and not all that sure about what the Beginning will look like.  But I am confident in its advent, and full of hope for the future.

There, now I’ve done my NaBloPoMo duty.  We now return you to your irregularly scheduled program.

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…is Change, as the Change Gurus keep reminding us.  You know who they are:  those folks who muck around with our lives, tweaking this and altering that and causing general uproar, all the while assuring us that what they are doing is Normal, because “the only constant in life is Change.”

I keep waiting for someone to state the obvious, that it’s because Change Is the Only Constant in Life that we should dial it back wherever possible.  Think about it:  One day you’re a baby, the next you’re off to school, and a scant twelve years later, you’re old enough to vote, hold a job, drive a car.  Then you get married, and the changes start flying at you:  your own kids, your aging parents, mergers-acquisitions-divestitures at work, your spouse’s altering body (to say nothing of your own), and the next thing you know, you have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.

And those are just the unavoidable changes.  Then there are the changes you make so that your life runs more smoothly:  A new house, a new community, a different school, maybe a different career.  Some of us find God, others abandon Him.  Some of us change spouses like we change shoes.  (I’m not advocating that last one.)

And then along come the Change Gurus.  You go into work one morning thinking about all the projects you have to get done; you boot up, and say what?!  Everything’s different!  The IT Oafs have been at it again!  And just when you were getting used to the last changes!

Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7.  I-Pods, I-Phones, I-Pads, Kindle Readers, MP-3 Players.  Change is Good!  Why?  Because The Only Constant in Life is Change!

I was just thinking this morning that when I began my own career, I learned to type on a manual typewriter.  You really had to pound those keys, and a typing speed of 60 words per minute guaranteed you a good job.  Electric typewriters were just beginning to revolutionize the office scene, and a company that had a Xerox photocopier was progressive, indeed.  Then came the Selectric Typewriter, with the little ball that you could change for different typefaces — holy cow!  Then the electronic typewriter, then the word processor, and finally, the computer.  Who’d a-thunk that in thirty short years, we’d all be computer geeks?!

My stepgrandmother was born on a farm in Poland.  She never went to school, never learned to read or write.  When she came to this country, she hired out as a farm hand — in those days, New York City still had farms.  She lived to see a man walk on the moon, and a Polish Pope, whom she loved.  (No need to bring up which event was the more important to her!)

All of this came to a head for me when my husband ran into an old acquaintance at the supermarket.  They got to talking about one thing and another, and it developed that the acquaintance was in Human Resources (what a ghastly term) at Tufts University in Boston.  Talking about hiring people, he mentioned that age discrimination is a very real tactic in human-resource management; you don’t like to do it, but the simple fact is that people get to a point where they simply can’t absorb all the changes going on in the business world.  This really hit home with my husband, who retired two years ago:  It’s a shocking thing to realize that after forty or forty-five years of increasing productivity, of altering the person you were to fit in with the Change Gurus’ vision, you are suddenly unemployable because you’ve tapped out your Change Viability.  What’s left in life?!

I belong to a church that resists change for the sake of change.  This is not to say that changes don’t take place, only that there has to be a good reason for changing things up.  The joke goes, “How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?” and the answer is either, “Change?!” in a horrified tone of voice, or “Change?  What’s that?” in a tone of complete puzzlement.  This is known as Change-Guru Hell.

But it’s a perspective that I wish we could export to the modern world, the notion that Change isn’t always good, that you don’t fix what ain’t broke, that people aren’t just “resources” to be used up and thrown away, but of intrinsic value, whose rate of absorption needs to be respected until they can make a smooth transition to the place where they need to be, in order to advance spiritually.  That is a “change we can live with.”  More, that is a change we must accommodate, since it prepares us for the final and most critical change of all:  The change from temporal to eternal life.

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Somebody sent me the following, and I offer it here for any of my readers who may not be Orthodox, or who are Orthodox but have never read this.  Fr. Alexander was a highly respected twentieth-century Russian Orthodox priest, whose many writings cover nearly every aspect of modern life.  His son, Serge, has been a correspondent of the New York Times for many years.


The New Year: The Mystery of Time
Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

On New Year’s Eve we feel the mystery of time more powerfully than at any other time. We feel, in other words, that its flow – in which we live and in which everything constantly vanishes as the “past” and constantly places us face to face with the unknown future – essentially contains within itself the main question that everyone is called to answer with their lives.

“Vain gift, chance gift – life, why have you been given me?” asks the poet [Pushkin] in his immortal line. Indeed, it is enough for one moment to turn away from the cares that absorb us, enough mentally to stop the ceaseless waterfall of time, disappearing into the abyss, in order for the question “Why is life given and what is its meaning?” to rise from the depths of the subconscious, where we normally hide it from ourselves, and stand before us in all its implacability.

I was not, now I am, and I will not be; thousands of years passed before me, and thousands will come after… On the surface of this unimaginably infinite ocean I am but a fleeting bubble, into which a ray of life flashes for a split second, just to be extinguished and disappear then and there.

“Vain gift, chance gift – life, why have you been given me?” What, in comparison with this only honest, rueful question do all the loud theories mean that seek to answer this with tiresome theoretics of a “bright future”? “We will build our new world. He who was nothing will become everything” [from The Internationale]… The most naïve, gullible, and dull-witted person cannot but know that all this is a lie. For both the very one “who was nothing” and the one who “will become everything” will disappear from the face of the earth, from this hopeless mortal world.

Therefore, regardless of whatever we were taught by pathetic prophets of a pathetic happiness, only one real question stands eternally before man: does this ever-so-brief life have any meaning? What does it mean, when compared with the boundless abyss of time, that this flash of consciousness, this ability to think, rejoice, and suffer, this extraordinary life that, however seemingly futile and random, is still looked upon by us as a gift?

Now the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s. And as long as it strikes life for twelve short seconds stops and pauses, and everything as it were focuses on what is now to begin, posing and responding to the same torturous question: what is this – another step towards a meaningless end and disappearance, or the unexpected flashing of a ray of renewal and new beginnings? In response come words from an infinite loftiness and an infinite profundity: That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth… And of His fulness have we
received, and grace for grace (John 1:9-12, 14, 16).

These are the words of the Evangelist John the Theologian in the very beginning of his Gospel. They are thoroughly imbued with the joy, confidence, and love of a man who has seen the light of true life, about which it is said that it shines in darkness and was not overcome by the darkness (John 1:5). Listening attentively to them, the very same joy, the very same confidence, and the very same love begin to be kindled in our own souls. Time is powerless if this light shines above us. Life is not vain, life is not chance, but is a gift from on high, from God, about Whom the same John the Theologian said that in Him was life, and this life was the light of man (John 1:4). And every man that comes into this world is once again set alight, is once again gifted this life, and the love of God is addressed to each one of them, and to each one of them is addressed God’s commandment: “Live!” Live, in order to love! Live, so that your life will be filled with
love, light, wisdom, and knowledge! Live, so that in your life darkness, meaninglessness, and eventually death itself will be overcome! For eternity already shines through this world and through this earthly life. This gift of life in the world and with the world is given us that eternal life with God and in God may become part of us.

Yes, suffering, doubt, trials, the bitterness of separation – all these have fully become part of our lot. How often we are weakened in this battle, and give up, and fall, and change! How often we are scared and lonely, how often we lose heart when we see how evil and hatred are triumphing in the world! But the One Who gave us this life and granted us freedom taught us to discern good and evil; He gave us the loftiest of all gifts: love. For He said, and continues to say: In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). We, too, can overcome in this very world, and in it our lives can shine with that same light that once flashed forth and continues to shine – that light that the darkness has not overcome.

The clock strikes… Let this mysterious future come to us; for, whatever it might bring with it, we know and believe that God is with us, that Christ has not orphaned us, that He is faithful that promised (Hebrews 10:23). Here are the marvelous words of Vladimir Soloviev:

Death and time reign on earth,
Do not call them your masters;
Everything, whirling about, disappears in the haze
The only thing fixed is the sun of love.

Yes, this is our calling, our freedom as children of God: not to call “masters” those things whose dominions have been destroyed, and not to close ourselves from access to the Sun of love, faith, and hope.

The holiday will soon be over, and routine, labor, fatigue, and depression will begin. But let us not permit the daily routine to overpower ours souls! Just as sunlight penetrates through closed shutters, so too let the light of Christ, through this mysterious holiday, become present in our daily lives, rendering our entire lives an ascent, a communion with God – a difficult but joyful path to eternal life. For the Apostle John said: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

Happy New Year!
Translated from Russian

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It’s quite a few years back that I saw, in Reader’s Digest’s “Toward More Picturesque Speech,” something that ran along these lines:

“No sun, no flowers, no warmth, no leaves, no grass, no daylight — No-vember!”  Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

And yet…

Maybe it’s because I live on a Main Street, which means we get a lot of traffic through here.  And maybe it’s because of the biker bar down the street from where I live, so that all summer long we have motorbikes roaring through here at full throttle.  Maybe it’s the fact that a busy State road is less than a quarter mile away, just down the hill.  But I find that as I grow older, November has grown on me.

My favorite month used to be October, with its riot of colorful leaves; there’s something so exuberant about October.  Even on a rainy day, there’s a vibrancy about October — the leaves seem to glow even brighter when they’re wet.  By November, that’s pretty much history; most of the deciduous trees are bare, and those that are not, have leaves well past their prime, sad remnants clinging to the last dregs of dear life; sort of, “nursing-home leaves.”

But as I said, November has grown on me.  I like its quiet.  I like the way things seem to be settling down for a long nap.  The frenetic and eponymous Holidays are already trying to push their way into our consciousness, but they are comfortably far off enough that we can ignore the attempt for at least a couple more weeks.  November has its own rhythms, its own chores, its own demands:

Clean the garden tools, give the grass one last mow before it snows (something we actually didn’t have a chance to do this year, as a freak snowstorm blanketed all of New England), clip the hedge one last time.  Arrange to have the trees pruned.  Check the garden one last time for any stray root vegetables that we may have missed.  Rake the last of the leaves and pile them into the garden for mulch.

And oh, all right, start making out gift lists for Christmas.  Might as well.  That’s my chore, anyway — all that garden stuff belongs to the hubster, whose enviable green thumb is responsible for all the outdoor chores that get dumped on him.  Besides, he loves being out of doors.  I don’t.  Woman-like, I enjoy buying gifts for my family.  I enjoy it even more since the advent of online shopping; I’ve never been a crowd person.

And then there are the other delights of November.  “No light” means that we draw the curtains earlier, eat supper earlier, have more time to read, knit, or whatever.  Nothing else clamors for attention.  I can spend a good part of my day preparing the savory soups and stews that I love to make, that have no place in the summer; who wants to eat hot food in the summer?!  Summer’s bounty is stored or given away to our neighbors; now we all hunker down to enjoy the fruits of one another’s labors, as well as those of our own.

The Aran sweater I abandoned after May is calling me to finish it.  Pumpkin spice coffee is brewing.  National Novel Writing Month beckons.  (Not this year; I’m clean out of ideas at the moment, but there’s always next year.)  With it, too, November brings the memory of “Allerheiligen” and “Allerseligen,” All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, celebrated in the West on the first and second of November.  There’s just something about November that is consonant with remembering “those who have fallen asleep.”

Thank God for November.

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“Name one thing you wish you could go back and change about your education.”

Only one?

Considering how my life has unfolded, the biggest change I’d make is that I’d have gone to college right out of high school.  Back then — and I didn’t know this at the time — it didn’t matter what your degree was in, the main thing was that you had a college degree.  You could go anywhere with that magic piece of paper that had Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Sciences on it.  Knowing that, I’d have chosen to go for Music; but back then, I thought you had to know what you wanted to do in life, and that college was supposed to be tied to what you did for the rest of your life.  And a career in music was the equivalent of a Bachelor’s in English nowadays:  I would have expected to spend my life singing, “You want fries with that?”

And yet, music is what I have spent my life doing, whether playing piano (badly — not enough lessons) or singing, or, for two exasperating and wonderful years, directing a choir.  If I had realized any of that, I would have let nothing stop me.  Particularly exasperating is that, having been brainwashed by the Cost of a College Education (even 50 years ago, it wasn’t cheap), I thought, what was the point in trying?  My family could never afford it.  It wasn’t until long after I was married that someone told me that the City University System of New York was absolutely free, if you went to the college of your own borough.  In my case, that would have been Queens College.

And, in light of that piece of information, I can’t help wishing that I had gone to a public, rather than a parochial, school.  We got a fantastic grounding in the English language — its mechanics, as well as putting together a coherent composition (not that you could judge by this post!) — but not in much else.  Again, I was an adult before I realized the importance of the Iroquois Nation in New York State history; what we learned, this being Catholic school, was, “The Iroquois were the bad guys because they sided with the English, who were Protestant, and the Hurons were the good guys because they sided with the French, who were Catholic.”  I hasten to add that the Hurons were up in Canada…  And this had what to do with New York State history???!  Our math and science education was also minimal, and the Arts were non-existent.

So yes, there is a very great deal I wish I could have changed about my education.  That said — it was still a better education than what my kids got, described by my daughter as “eleven years of brainwashing, followed by one year of real education.”  Both my kids took three years of Latin (and no foreign languages), and learned in three years what I learned in one.  (And I took three years of French, besides.)  Neither learned very much at all about European history.  In fact, I used to love it when my son would get suspended from school for fighting; we’d watch public television together and talk about what we’d seen.  One program focused on an island in the Netherlands where cars are banned altogether!

Foreign cultures, foreign ways:  Now that’s a real education (from the Latin “e”, “out of,” and “duc”, the root of the verb “to lead” — as in, “leading one out of one’s own experiences, and into a wider world).

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