Archive for the ‘spiritual warfare’ Category

“What’s your favorite way to spend Saturday night?”

I need to qualify this first, by saying that I almost never get to spend Saturday night the way I would like to.  Due to issues of time, distance, and the fact that I share my life with a spouse, my time is not generally my own, and I usually spend Saturday night either reading or watching something of passing interest on television.

But my favorite, my very favorite, my all-time favorite was of spending Saturday night is…at a Vigil.  As in, preparation for Sunday worship.

Vigil in the Russian Orthodox Church has its own special quality.  Because it takes place in the evening, the lighting is quieter; our parish does use up-lighting along the walls, but it’s very muted, and the only other light comes from oil lamps and candles.  The chanting of the choir is similarly muted, and the rubrics are always concerned with the celebration of Sunday’s Feast – a saint, or a major Feast of the Church such as the Annunciation, or the Transfiguration, or Palm Sunday.  (There are twelve major Feasts of the Church, in addition to Pascha, known in the West as Easter – that’s its own Feast, the Feast of Feasts, and the Vigil preceding Pascha is much more energized and full of anticipation than any other Vigil.)

I like the reflective quality of Vigil.  I like having time to digest the feelings of the hymnographers, and to find an echo within myself of what greater minds and spirits have put into exquisite poetry.  I like the feeling of being washed over by the Feast to come, and the way I leave the church full of anticipation for the next morning.  And I always think, “This is how life should be, this is how wonderful we should always feel about Sunday, the Lord’s Day.”

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday – Pascha – and once again, I will be missing Vigil, due to the distance from church, due to the exigencies of old age, and, selfishly, due to the fact that I have always been a Morning Person, and staying up until past midnight causes me a great deal of physical stress – before the fact, anyway, since I’ve attended the Paschal Vigil many times in the past, and always come out feeling refreshed and energized.  This year I will sit with my prayer book and read the Vigil prayers, think about all my fellow Orthodox Christians around the world who are able to be present for Vigil – and those who are not – I will whisper the familiar music to myself, and tomorrow morning I will wake up to the incomparable awareness:


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“Have you ever gone to a new place or tried a new experience and thought to yourself, ‘I’m never doing that again!’ Tell us about it.”

In the summer of 2000, I was a choir director at a Greek Orthodox church whose chief qualification seems to have been that I was the only member of the choir who could read music, and that I knew most of the music these folks were singing.  And there it might have remained, had I not received in the mail a notification concerning something called the Summer School of Liturgical Music.

When I mention this school to people, visions automatically rise in their minds of old ladies singing, “What a Friend We Have in GEEEE-zus,” off-key.  Well, they have the old-lady part right:  The only person in that choir who was younger than I was my son.  For the rest, though, let me put it this way:  Orthodox services are entirely sung, and the music is supposed to help people understand what Heaven sounds like; when it’s done right, it does sound like Heaven.  You don’t sing off-key, and nobody in the Orthodox world sings cutesy little ditties from the nineteenth century.  I’m breaking out in hives just thinking about it.

And these old ladies were good.  They had sung together since high school, every single Sunday, and they knew this stuff cold.  Which isn’t to say that they could have sung without a director; even though they had known one another for fifty and sixty years, they’d talk non-stop if I let them, and lose their place in the music in nothing flat.  (Or sharp.  Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.)  So they needed a director, and what they got was – me.

Always room for improvement, they say, so when I got this brochure in the mail from the Summer School of Liturgical Music, I jumped at the opportunity to learn a bit more about my craft.  Of course…I should have realized that I was in for an entirely different experience when I saw that one side of the brochure was in English and the other in Russian.

SSLM, to give it its abbreviated title, is held for two weeks every summer at a Russian Orthodox Monastery in Upstate New York, about twenty miles north of Cooperstown (home of the Baseball Museum).  The entire course takes three years to complete. and anyone who completes it earns three college credits.  There are courses in Church Music History, Solfege (sight reading), Music Theory, Voice Production, Choral Methods, and Choir Direction – and that’s only the musical portion of the course.  There are also courses in the Structure of Divine Services and Church Slavonic, the Russian equivalent of King James English.  Students who are graduating that year have two weeks to pull together a disparate group of people who have probably never sung together before, and form them into a choir that can perform a piece of music roughly equivalent to something written by Rachmaninoff.

This is what I signed up for.

Nobody who takes this course has any idea of what it’s actually like before that first year.  It’s a little like military basic training must be:  two weeks of being shuffled from class to class, while instructors throw knowledge at you that takes you through a thousand years of Russian Church history, and seventeen hundred years of Orthodox Church music.  You’re in class for eight hours every day, and the classes held at noon and five p.m. always run over, since those instructors take the opportunity to cram a little extra into resistant brains.  At least they don’t scream it at you, the way DIs do.

Here’s the kicker:  Most of the people there have at least some idea of what the music sounds like.  They’ve been singing it in their choirs back home, and they’re just there to refine skills they already have.  Not me.  Greek music and Russian music are like from two different solar systems.  Sometimes I wonder:  If this music is really sung by the angels, as the Orthodox believe, are there Greek angels and Russian angels in Heaven?  What do they sound like when they get together?  Do they get together?  In this world, Greeks wouldn’t be caught dead singing that “Western-sounding Russian music,” and Russians think that Greek music sounds like camel-calling (hat tip to M.T. Riggs, husband of a dear friend of mine).  That’s how different the music is.  I had never heard any of the Russian music, and I was supposed to have whole melodies memorized.  In two weeks.  On top of Church Slavonic, Church Music History, Music Theory, etc., etc., and so forth.

And all the music was in Russian.  Fortunately, I could read Cyrillic (barely – the last time I was exposed to it, I was fifteen).  And I could read music.  In addition, most of the classes were held in English, so I wasn’t completely lost.  Note the operative word, “most” – there’s one instructor who’s a bit sensitive about his English (which is perfectly good), so he insists on teaching in Russian, and relies on the School to provide translators for us Cultural Illiterati.

This is the environment I found myself in, for two weeks.  No escape possible:  My husband had driven me out, and would be back in two weeks to collect me.  Oh, and the housing arrangements were, to say the least, monastic:  Rooms the size of cells, each with two World-War-II-surplus Army cots, whose springs were so shot that boards had been fastened to the bottoms of the beds to provide support for Flopsy-Bunny mattresses.  Three toilets and one shower per floor – and the showers, that first year at least,  lacked even the most rudimentary flow-control valves, so that you’d be peacefully showering, and someone would flush a toilet – anywhere in the building – and you’d get scalded.  Or someone would be showering on the other floor, and you’d freeze because they had diverted the hot water.

There were two bright spots:  The church services, and the food.  This being a monastery, there were church services every day, beginning at 6:00 a.m., and if you happened to be up at that hour, you could walk the mile from the guesthouse to the church, sit or stand in the back, and soak it all in.  Weekday services aren’t as glorious as Sunday services, but there’s something about worshipping at that hour of the day that more than makes up for the sleepy singing emanating from monks who’ve been up since four a.m.

And the food was nothing short of phenomenal.  The School had its own kitchen, staffed by the wife and kids of the School’s Director, and these people cranked it out three times a day in true Russian style – lavishly, prodigally, and on a shoestring.  I don’t know how they did it, but we never went hungry, and there was always plenty of talk and laughter at the table.  They knew what we only dimly perceived:  There was no way we could sustain the frenetic pace set for us by the requirements of the curriculum, without a lavish diet.  Yet I always lost weight during those two weeks.

At the end of the two weeks, that first year, I was cross-eyed and beyond cranky.  Some of the conducting was so slow that I had to breathe between syllables, forget about not breathing for whole phrases.  I took to mouthing the words without making a sound, so it looked like I was singing, but at least I could breathe.  I gritted my teeth, passed all my classes (except Slavonic – I have never yet passed that course), got through the final exam for the graduates, which was a full hour-long concert, and promised myself I’d never set foot in that School again.

Only one problem:  I couldn’t get that music out of my head.

When I got back to my own choir, Greek music really did sound like camel-calling, and I ended up giving up my post as choir director.  I played my taped copy of the final exam over and over and over, just for the pleasure of listening to that music; I found myself thinking, at odd hours of the day, of the peace that surrounded the monastery.  At 6:00 a.m., it was so quiet you could hear the bees buzzing in their hives.  You could hear traffic approaching from half a mile away.  By Easter of the following year, I knew I’d be going back.

Due to the distance between my home and the nearest Russian Orthodox parish – fifty miles – I was unable to attend Russian services every week, so it took me an extra year to complete that course (except for Slavonic).  But in 2003, I finally achieved my goal:  I became a certificated choir director of the Russian Orthodox Church.  And I am so grateful I ignored my initial declaration of, “Never again!”

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Well, so much for daily blogging.  It’s been wild around here, and I’m not even talking about Christmas activities – but it’s been wild in a good way.

I thought I’d combine two blog posts in one, by combining two themes from the NaBloPoMo prompts:  “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?” which is tomorrow’s, and “Do you enjoy your current job (or your last job)?” (today’s prompt).

When I was working, I was most enjoyably employed as a secretary.  Being a secretary has a bad reputation nowadays, being seen as a scutwork job for the nearly brainless; in reality, it was the gateway to a wide variety of fields.  Working solely as a secretary, I worked in textiles, publishing, education, law – and law enforcement – and advertising, this last as a secretary in one of the top three advertising agencies on Madison Avenue.

My last job in this field was as a secretary for my parish church, and that was the most fun of all, because the office had been neglected for so long that it was in complete disarray, and I got to construct it from the ground up, creating the filing system, a tracking system for parishioners’ contributions, a parishioner database, the Rolodex for the parish, and a means of tracking parish vendors, as well as keeping track of work done to the physical plant – this way, it was easier for  the Parish Council to see when a contractor had last shown his face in the door, and to follow up on jobs in progress.  I actually was not finished setting up this last vendor system when I was replaced with someone younger and – I can only assume – more ethnically desirable, since I was not of the same ethnicity as the rest of the parish.  That still hurts, though not as much as it did at the time (see beginning posts from January 2010).

So.  If I could have any job in the world?  It would be my old job, or something similar.  The problem is, I’m now of official retirement age, the point at which your shelf life in any field has basically expired, and you’re expected to go out to pasture and vegetate, until the point where the goal of your life becomes providing an income for the health-care industry.  No, thank you.

Since this line of work is now closed to me for good, I’ve made the adjustment – somewhat – to the idea that hey, I’ve worked hard all my life and earned my retirement, and I’m going to get what I can out of it.  An education in art, something I’ve always wanted to understand.  Expanding my knowledge of music, my chief recreation in life.  Most of all, I’m going to focus on the things that matter most:  spiritual warfare, reconciling the demands of this age, and of old age, with the requirements of eternal life; becoming, as best I can, more conformed to the life of Christ, without losing one iota of the snarkiness that is the hallmark of any good New Yorker.  I figure, if God put me in New York at the beginning of my life, He must have meant it to shape my personality.  Now I just need to develop it into a tool for introducing people to the novel notion that Christians aren’t necessarily pious wusses.


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Yes, I missed another day – the hubster was online all blessed day yesterday.  Retirement does have its drawbacks.  That said, today’s prompt is:

“Do you tend to cover up your failings or admit your mistakes?”

Frankly, at this point I’m too old not to have caught on to the idea that everybody makes mistakes – some of them whoppers – and it’s easier if you just own up to them and get on with repairing them.  That doesn’t mean that I like admitting to mistakes, or that I’m proud of them; too many years of getting reamed out for minor, and honest, mistakes in Catholic school keep getting in the way.  I mean, yeah, if you forget one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity on a test, that’s definitely in the Serious-Error-Bordering-on-Heresy category.  But if you’re in second grade, and have barely learned to print, let alone writing in cursive – I think the Holy Spirit would find it in His heart to forgive, which is more than the Dominican nuns would do.

No, this actually did not happen to me.  Being in a perpetual state of terror made it impossible to forget any such thing.  But there were many other occurrences, most of them so minor that I have forgotten them, that have left their cumulative effect on me, and as a result, it takes real courage to admit, “Yeah, I messed up here.”

But that courage is necessary, if only because the rest of the world, not having been terrorized by Dominican nuns (or any other kind of nun), actually does understand that nobody’s perfect, that mistakes are made, and that “that’s why there are erasers on the ends of pencils,” as the saying goes.  (Interestingly, we were forbidden to write in pencil after second grade, nor could we use ballpoint pens – fountain pens only, and if you did make a mistake, you crossed it out with one line.  More than one mistake, and you rewrote the whole paper.)

I’ve made a couple of real whoppers, but probably the worst was the letter I wrote to the Bishop of our Diocese on the strength of a rumor, asking him not to appoint a certain priest to our parish to replace the one that had left.  Normally I would never do such a thing, but having heard that this priest had definitely been selected, I wanted to know more about him; so I logged onto the website of the parish he was serving, and there found an icon of a decidedly non-Orthodox saint, and a quote from her, as well.  I mean, really.  We have plenty of our own saints to choose from.

So I wrote to the Bishop about this matter, along the way mentioning the parish I was from and to which this priest was supposed to be appointed.  Several years later, having endured much puzzling contumely from various and sundry, I learned that not the Bishop, but his Chancellor, had read my letter, gone to the website of my home parish, and not finding any such icon or quote there (because it wasn’t there), telephoned the departing priest and asked him if I was some kind of nut case.  This poor soul came to the conclusion that I had lied about him in order to get him into trouble with the Bishop, and it wasn’t until his best friend in the parish enlightened me that I found out about the whole mess.

Now, how do you fix that kind of mistake?  You don’t.  It’s out there, and nothing I could possibly say or do will correct the false impression left by an overworked Chancellor who transposed parishes – or maybe he was barely literate in English, for all I know – and caused grief, mayhem, and aggravation all around.

But as a result, I have learned not to write to Bishops.

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Well.  It has been a long time since I last blogged.  In between has been mostly Church or family matters:  the celebration of Pascha (Easter), different church projects I was involved in, preparing for a visit to my favorite music school (my trip was cancelled at the last minute); our son began a new job as engineer on a railroad that takes him right through a neighboring town, so we’ve been spending a lot of time Waving at the Engineer, like a pair of “foamers” (railroad slang for extreme railfans).  And, as always, the daily round of housework, medical appointments (thankfully routine), and family visits.  Not a lot of time for blogging.

However, this month I have signed up for NaBloPoMo’s daily post.  Heaven alone knows if I will actually get to do it daily, but I have promised to make the attempt.  This post is a trial run focusing, at least partially, on their theme for August:  Sweetness.

One of the sweeter aspects of my life is cross stitch.  Not those wussy, cutesy little things, but fine-art cross stitch, the kind that takes up at least half a yard of fabric and involves covering every square inch of it with stitches.  Colors up the wazoo:  my current project has 120 colors, and I pared it down from 208.  In retrospect, I should have left it at 208, since paring it down does affect the detail.

But there is still plenty of detail, and the upshot is, I am actually learning about Art:  how artists perceive the interplay of colors, shapes, details as part of the overall picture – things that never struck me before.  The painting I am working on isn’t tranquil or inspiring, at least, not in the ordinary sense:  It’s a painting entitled Boyarina Morozova, by the Russian artist V. I. Surikov, and it depicts a moment in Russian history that was full of turmoil.  If you’re into the 6-6-6 thing, this event took place in 1666, which is suggestive.

A project like this takes pages – 48, in this instance.  48 pages of little tiny symbols that represent the different floss colors, and – thanks to whatever genius applied his computer-programming skills to needlework – come together in a reasonable facsimile of great art.  As I’m working on it, the same thing occurs over and over:  I work in a ten-by-ten grid of symbols, and as I’m working, I keep thinking, “What the heck am I looking at here?!  This can’t be right!”  I grab the printout of the painting and look at the area where I think I’m working:  Does it look anything like what I’ve just stitched?!  Then I look back at my work, and, given a little distance – yes, it does.  It really does.  What looked like an amorphous blob of color as I was working on it has transformed, with distance, into the face of an old man with a beard, a very lifelike face with contour and shadow.  How do artists do this?!  How do they see these contours and shadings?!  Me, I can’t even draw a straight line, and Surikov, and those like him, see an entire “snapshot” of history, thanks to an eye fine-tuned to color and its nuances.

This particular piece, as you will see if the photo ever finishes uploading – if not, you can look up Boyarina Morozova on Google – is tough to look at, tough to think about:  a noblewoman who has been tortured and starved, and is being dragged out of Moscow into exile (ultimately, she was starved to death) for bucking the powers-that-were at the time.  Why choose such a gruesome project?  Originally, I chose it because it’s a very famous painting in Russian culture, and I had hoped to donate it to the Russian Department of our local university.  I had visions of its making a Statement to those Classics weenies who share space with the Russian Department:  Enter at Your Own Risk.  I’m not sure that’s going to happen now; for some reason, the two professors who teach there aren’t talking to me anymore.

There is another reason:  As a Russian Orthodox Christian in a post-Christian era, I’m painfully aware of the persecution that Russian Christians endured during the Soviet era of Russia, and I hold my breath as, little by little, I see signs of the same thing occurring in the United States.  This painting reminds me that Faith comes with a high price tag.  This woman, Boyarina Morozova, paid it.  So did countless other Russians of the Soviet era.  I hope I can show the same courage when my turn comes.

So…what on earth is sweet about this topic?!  Admittedly, not much.  But I must say that I’m enjoying, enormously, my belated Art education.  Color, line, perspective.  Shading, detail.  After a lifetime of wondering how people actually see this stuff – I’m learning to see it, too.

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NaBloPoMo’s theme for March is “whether,” or alternatively, “weather.”  As in, March is such a changeable month, that the real theme for the month is Change.  Yesterday’s prompt asked how the writer feels about uncertainty.

No uncertainty here:  I HATE it.  Life is uncertain enough, thank you, and I don’t need any more uncertainty scrambling my neurons.  I like having things Buttoned Up, the “buttoneder” the better.  I have a daily and a weekly plan for my household chores.  I write down when my mail comes in, and when I send out my bills.  (Sadly, not my letters.  Who writes letters anymore, in this Age of E-mail?)  I have accounting journals and ledgers for my household accounts – nothing as grand as it sounds, but at the end of the month I have a record of exactly where the money went.  And all the receipts are properly filed.

I know that somewhere, someone is thinking, “We have to get this woman help.  Talk about anal!!”  Yeah, probably.  But my sister was recently divorced, and it was a messy one, as her ex demanded his “fair share” of the Vast Fortune she inherited from Dad last year (all of which went to pay his nursing-home expenses).  What saved the day for her was the records she kept; she had every single bill she had paid for the past seven years, and the documentation to show whose checking account it came out of.  The divorce was more of a war of nerves than anything else, unless her ex was really so clueless that he didn’t realize what a careful record-keeper she is.  Moral of the story:  It pays to KNOW where things are.  It pays to know what’s going on in your life.

And it pays to know, or at least have some idea of, where life is going.  Obviously, you can never control every aspect of it; something ugly, like serious illness or the loss of a job, is always going to crop up.  But you’re in better shape to handle it if everything else in life is tidy and predictable.  That goes for very long-range planning, too, as in, planning for eternity.

The priest who hears my confessions – he of the seven kids (the one with five kids is someone else) – often comments on how surprised he is at the plans people make for their lives, planning for all kinds of things that may or may not happen.  “But the one thing we know will happen, with 100% certainty, nobody makes plans for,” he says with a chuckle.  He’s talking, of course, about death and its aftermath.

I have the impression that most folks have some nebulous idea that they will just fall asleep, or die in their sleep, and drift off into a state of unending bliss, unless, of course, they don’t believe that anything will happen at all, which strikes me as singularly silly.  I mean, if you go through life believing in eternity and you die and there isn’t anything, how will you know how pointless your belief was?  And if you go through life believing that death is the end, and you die, and it isn’t – yikes.

And there are good folks who believe that just because they are baptized, they will go to heaven forever because salvation is a Free Gift, and you don’t have to do anything to “earn” it.  Not exactly.  Not that you don’t have to do anything, more like, there isn’t a blessed thing you can do to earn it.  But then, why does St. James talk about “working out” our salvation?  Somebody posed this question on Facebook not long ago, and one of the responses was that we work for it because that way, we value it more.  Which house do you value more, the one you worked and saved for, or the one your parents bought for you, or that you inherited?

It’s an uncomfortable subject, and I guess nobody likes to think about it.   But again, my philosophy is, get it as nailed down as you can.  Make a plan for your funeral.  Start setting aside money to pay for it.  Leave notes as to your wishes (kind of service, where, who’s going to conduct it).  If you have the nerve, you can even write your obituary; that is a humbling experience, as you try to sum up “in 100 words or less” what your life was all about.  With these details out of the way, you can start the real work of preparing for eternity:  building a relationship with God, one that takes you a step at a time towards your ultimate goal in life:  life in God, eternal life.

Going back to what I said at the beginning of this post, I really  hate uncertainty.  I like things as buttoned up as possible.  Eternity is one thing I don’t think I have buttoned up; as much as I might try to conform my life to the life God had in mind for me when He created me, I do such a spectacular job of blowing it, on a regular basis, that I am completely uncomfortable claiming eternal life for a Sure Thing.  By the mercy of God, hopefully it is; but I’m not placing any bets on it until I know.

It’s the one uncertainty I can live with, because it’s the one uncertainty that’s in the hands of the One Who never drops the ball.  Or a life.  Even if I don’t trust myself to get to my ultimate goal, I can trust God to do everything He can to help me get there:  He wants it even more than I do.

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I think I’ve already written before about my weird youngest brother.  He’s weird not because there’s anything wrong with his view of life, but because he comes up with words like “distructions” to cover both “directions” and “instructions.”  On my most creative day, my brain doesn’t work like that.  I wish I knew how he did it.

I mention him at this point because about fifteen or twenty years ago, he underwent some kind of religious conversion – my mother, best described as a “born-again Catholic,” was very happy about it, I remember that – and would sit at his favorite bar, nursing a soft drink and periodically shouting, “Repent, ye sinners!”  It says much for the character of New Yorkers that they didn’t toss him out on his ear.  On the other hand, he was sitting at his favorite bar, and the habitués were probably used to however it is his brain works, and just took him with a grain of salt.  More likely, with a barrel of salt.

My Christian readers will know by now that this is the season of Lent, the season of repentance.  Any non-Christian readers I have are probably rolling their eyes right about now – hang with me, it gets weirder – and any fundamentalist Christian readers are probably itching, right about now, to tell me to invite Jesus into my heart and my repenting days are over.  My Orthodox readers are doubtless holding their breath, hoping I don’t step in it.  I hope so, too; but I don’t think so.

A couple of weeks ago, the priest of my parish preached a sermon on the subject of repentance.  Now, for you cranks who are about to wig out on the general cluelessness of priests when it comes to modern life  – Orthodox priests are married, with children.  Nobody with a spouse and children remains clueless for long.  And the gist of his sermon was the impossibility of sinlessness for anyone human.

Sin is, like, so not cool.  So irrelevant.  Right?  I mean, mention “sin” and the immediate response of the world at large is going to be a variation on Dana Carvey’s Church Lady:  “Well, who do you thin is responsible?  Satan?”  “Rearrange the letters of ‘Santa.’  Could it be…Satan?”  And everybody cracks up because we all know a variation on this dear “lady” and “her” obsession with Sin and Wrongdoing.  (Dana Carvey is a guy.)

That was the point of Father’s sermon.  Sin isn’t necessarily wrong-doing.  That’s a construct of the Roman Church, and all the Protestant churches that split off from it.  Sin is a lack of contact with God, period.  Repentance is a turning towards God, yet again.

No, really, think about it.  What’s “wrong” with thinking about having to do your taxes?  At this time of year, all Americans are focused, to a greater or lesser extent, on this necessity; for all I know, so is most of the developed world.  Either we did ’em and are looking forward to a sizeable refund; or we did ’em and are cranky about the balance we had to make up; or we haven’t done ’em and are trying to find the time to put together all the documentation to get ’em done (into which last category yours truly falls).  Taxes are a necessary evil, and we all have to get the dratted things done.

But while we are thinking about our taxes…we aren’t really focused on God, now are we?  Our thoughts are occupied with anything but God.  Which puts us into a state of separation from Him.  Which, according to Orthodox theology, is a state of sin.  Not a state of being Bad, Evil, Get-Ready-to-Be-Zapped-by-Lightning-You-Damned-No-Goodnik; just, we’re not thinking about God.

And repentance is a state of thinking about God, talking to Him, being in communion with Him.  Period.  (Please, no semantics about Him/Her.  God is a spirit, and spirits are sexless.  However, understanding the limits of human intelligence, God chose to reveal Himself, in every instance, in a masculine form, so that we could have a grammatical frame of reference.  Referring to God in the masculine gender simply respects His preference in His revelation of Himself, and come on – don’t we also desire our preferences to be respected?  So have a little courtesy here.)

It’s Lent, and during Lent, we focus on repentance; that is, on greater contact with God, talking to Him more, considering His desires more, putting more effort into our relationship with Him.   And part of that effort to refocus is the infamous Giving Up, as in, “What are you Giving Up for Lent?”  Chocolate?  Candy?  Booze?  Orthodox Christians observe a modified fast – that is, we eat, but we confine ourselves to a vegan diet.  No meat, no dairy.  That knocks out Giving Up your favorite treat.

Giving up…um…television?  That’s a little closer to the mark.  But what are you going to fill in the time with?  Janet Evanovich novels?  Dishing with the Girls, shredding reputations left and right?  Reading is good, but good reading is better:   The Bible is always a winner, but there are many, many other spiritual books to occupy your thoughts with.

Or – you could fill in the time with talking to God.  About what?  Most of us are so accustomed to the notion that prayer is asking God to do something for us, that we forget it has other components, like thanking Him.  One of the obligations of a really pious Jew is to find 600 things to thank God for every day.  Six hundred!!  Maybe you could start with six?  And build it from there.

This is repentance, not, “I’m such a bad, bad person, and I promise I’ll be good if You…”  You start by recognizing that not only have you sinned, but you also continue to sin – how many times in the past 24 hours did you really think about God? – and then you turn your thoughts and words back to Him.  And you accept that you will never be able to think about Him as much as we’re supposed to, which is all the time; it’s simply not possible.  And that’s OK, in the sense that when we feel like complete failures, we also realize:  of course we’re complete failures.  If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need a Messiah.

I can’t wait to lay this on my brother.  It’ll knock him right off his bar stool.  😉

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For nearly twenty years now, I have kept track of my life with one of those time-management systems (Franklin-Covey, to be exact).  I like being able to track how I spent my days, and there are other components to this system, such as tracking money, auto servicing, and projects, that I haven’t found anywhere else.  I like, too, that it’s a two-page-per-day system; I can keep track of appointments and Things to Do on one page, and on the facing page, make notes about those appointments, or about the events of my life.  (I could wish that the Appointment section were less detailed – I can think of other things to put in that space – but that’s just me.)

One of the lesser benefits of this particular system is that each day has a quote at the top of the Notes page.  I say “lesser” because sometimes, those quotes are in direct opposition to my own philosophy of life, and I find myself composing tirades to someone who will never read them, clearly a waste of time.  Today’s quote, however, is the inspiration for today’s post:

“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.  I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them; I shall use my time.” — Jack London

I’m not actually a fan of Jack London’s Survival-of-the-Fittest writings, but this really struck a chord with me.  People who have known me awhile will remember the horrors of my 2006 surgery, about which I will only say, I have not known a day without pain since that time.  (There are blog posts related to it, beginning in August 2006, if you’re curious.)  What sticks with me from that time, though, is the memory of one of the visiting nurses, who, having reviewed my treatment plan, snarkily added, “And were we considering some Lifestyle Changes?”

Now…I’m fat.  I know it.  I’ve been fighting it since before I should have been fighting it, thanks largely to a mother with body-image problems; in my early twenties, I weighed 95 lbs., and she still thought I was fat.  Now I weigh considerably more than that, and there’s no question:  Even by the most generous measurement standards, I’m fat.  I also know that, given the standards of Orthodox eating, it cannot possibly be related to overeating; even if you pig out on vegetables and fruits, how many calories can you possibly be consuming?!  And my own husband, who’s thin as a rail, has had to concede that he doesn’t understand why I am as fat as I am, now that he’s retired and has seen how I eat.

And I’ve gotten The Looks from doctors when I describe Orthodox fasting practices, the ones that say, “Yeah, right, Fatty.”  I’m at the point where I carry an Orthodox pocket calendar and a copy of the fasting guidelines to every medical appointment, and when I whip ’em out, the only possible reaction is the one I get these days:  “Wow, that’s a lotta fasting.”  (It works out to about half a year, give or take a few days.)

So when Nurse Snarky came out with her comment, I made one of the stupidest remarks of my life:  “Don’t even go there.”  Needless to say, the relationship deteriorated from that point on.  Now, though, I know what I should have said:

“Lifestyle changes?!  Oh, yeah, I am so there!  You’re not kidding!  It’s time for some major changes!  And for starters, I’m gonna go back to eating dessert!  Hey, all these years of never having ice cream or a lousy piece of birthday cake have obvioiusly not done me any good at all, so what the heck?!  You only live once, and I’m not gonna live without ice cream anymore!  And exercise?!  Hey, walking a couple miles a day hasn’t done me any good in that regard, either, so you know what?  I’m not gonna waste another second of my valuable time on exercise!  I’m gonna park my butt in my favorite chair and read all the books I’ve been neglecting for exercise, and then I’m gonna stitch my fingers off on all the needlework projects I haven’t been able to get to because of all that stupid walking!  Now, let’s Do It!  Go Lifestyle Changes!”

Not entirely.  I do actually enjoy walking, though not in the current subzero weather (although I understand that the Norwegians say, “There is no bad weather, there is only bad clothing,” in which case, my wardrobe needs a major overhaul).  And dessert was never a part of our diet, anyway.  Not to mention that for at least half the year, ice cream is off limits (no meat, no dairy during fasting periods).

But the point is this.  You can do everything the medical people tell you to do:  eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet, work out religiously, get all the standards checkups and tests, and generally spend your days on various medical appointments.  Or you can decide what’s important for your life, and go out and do it.  And frankly, what’s important for me is not preserving my life at all costs, but living it:  reading those books, working that cross stitch, putting warm woollies on my family’s bodies, and most important of all, maintaining my spiritual life.

This last can, and does, involve long periods of sitting in a car, driving to and from church services; the services are never as long as the total amount of time spent driving.  A doctor would be aghast.  A nurse would think it sheer folly.  But know this:  No matter how much maintenance you put in on your body, eventually it will wear out, and you will die.  The wisest use of your time, therefore, is to spend it on matters eternal, storing up experiences that “neither rust nor moth will consume” (Matthew 6:20), leaving behind a legacy that will follow you into eternity.  In other words:  LIVE.

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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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Having rashly committed to WordPress’s Post-a-Day program — which fell apart completely, in my case, by late January — I cannot resist their final topic for the year. printed below in its entirety:


 Clearly I can’t count – what can’t you do?

Topic #347:

As the number above points out, my skills at counting leave much to be desired. As there are 365 days in a year, I’m 8 topics short for offering you a topic a day for the entire year How lame – I’m hanging my head in shame right now (Before you tell me it should be 9, remember there’s one more for tomorrow).

But this does offer us a good topic for the day: what ordinary skill are you bad at? Maybe its tying your shoelaces, or parallel parking cars, but we all have something very simple that we just don’t do very well. Write about yours.


As a putative accountant (having earned my degree late in life, I never actually got to practice accountancy), I can’t claim to be bad at numbers — I had better not be!  But there is one skill I have often wished I could cotton onto, let alone acquire skill in it, and that is…tact.

How do people Do tact, anyway?!  Without exception, every time I fall all over myself doing my very best to be Tactful, people tell me not to be so blunt!  I once worked for a man who had Hodgkin’s disease (lymphoma), and thinking I was being sympathetic, I commented on how tired he looked — and he blew up at me:  “I don’t need to hear how awful I look!!”  OK, but when I look like death warmed over, I personally appreciate hearing about it — it confirms for me that I really do look as awful as I feel.  Clearly, “Do Unto Others” doesn’t always work.

About ten years ago, I finally decided that there was no point in my trying to figure out the Tact thing, and I thought, “They think this is being blunt?!  I’ll show them blunt!”  And I started saying pretty much what was on my mind.  Not as crassly as, “Geez, where did you dig that thing up?!  It adds fifty pounds to your face alone!” but, “It makes you look washed out/it’s not your color/it doesn’t do anything for your [name best feature].”

Somehow, I don’t get the Blunt comment anymore.  I don’t know if my bluntness shocks people into silence, or what else might be going on, but these days, nobody tells me not to be so Blunt anymore.  Which is a good thing because, face it — I’ll never get the Tact Thing.

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