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Archive for the ‘spiritual warfare’ Category

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:

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 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.

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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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“According to a Gallup Poll, nearly 70% of Americans believe in the Devil. Do you? Why or why not? Why do you think 70% of Americans believe as they do on this issue? Do you think this number is higher or lower than other countries in the world? Why? Do you think the devil is behind the choice of this topic?”

To answer the last question first:  No.  I think that someone over at Post-a-Day has too much time on her hands.

Moving backwards…  Probably this figure (70%) is actually lower than the rest of the world.  Excluding Western Europe, which still suffers from the effects of the “Enlightenment,” every other culture has some form of personification of evil, and it seems to me that, in terms of the Collective Unconscious (thank you, Dr. Jung), for every other culture in the world to have such a belief — there’s gotta be something to it.  Not every culture has the same version of the Creation story, but every one has an introduction of Evil into a fundamentally good world (interestingly, every other culture also has some version of the Great Flood recorded in the Bible.  Hmmm).

Continuing backward, I do think that Americans who believe in the Devil fall largely in the Fundamentalist camp, and at one point in fairly recent history, the Southern Baptist Convention was the largest denomination in the United States (still may be, for all I know).  And that’s just the SBC — that’s not counting other kinds of Baptists, Pentecostals, Holiness types (whatever that is), AME Zion…  Well.  There are nearly 400 Protestant denominations in the United States, and most of them are fundamentalist of one kind or another.  So 70% strikes me as a reasonable figure, considering that the devil figures prominently in the Fundamentalist culture.

As to me personally…  Define “believe.”  Do I believe in the red-tights-and-horns version of the devil?  Give me a break.  Do I believe in a force for evil?  I’m a product of the twentieth century; I’d have to be mad not to.  Do I believe in the devil in the same way that people express belief in God?  God forbid!!!

Do I believe that he exists?  I’m pretty sure that’s where this question was supposed to go, and the answer is:  Yes.  Absolutely.  People who have trafficked in evil have conjured up demons, for one thing, and for another, I certainly believe that there is a force in this world that is steering it steadily towards a path of destruction; and I further believe that without God, mankind is powerless to stop that force to destruction.  By ourselves, we can’t even bring ourselves to believe that such a thing is possible, so how could we be expected to withstand it, alone?

So the real question should be, Do you believe in God?  And on a related topic — why was this question posed on Easter Sunday?!

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Between the annual income-tax burden, the beginning and middle of Great Lent (as opposed to the lesser fasts observed by the Orthodox Church), and the final illness of my stepfather, life has been unimaginably hectic.  I didn’t do this much running around when I had teenagers in the house.

So, having gone into a decline on the last Monday of March, only to “rally” in time for his 96th birthday on April 1 — by “rally” I mean that he returned from near-death to a more stable state of vegetation — my stepfather slipped away last night, April 6, before anybody really realized what had happened.  My sister said that he was in exactly the same state as he had been since last Friday, just breathing but not in any sense alive…his breathing slowed…he took one last breath — and was gone.

The hole in my life is a revelation to me, since, after all, the man was my stepfather.  I didn’t even feel this empty when my mother died.  But then, Dad was a unique human being; I’ve never known anybody with as much innate talent as he had, who actually, seriously, thought of himself as Nothing Special.  Of everybody in his family, he was the greatest of them all:  supported everyone after the death of his own father, patched DC-3s together over and over and over during World War II, even flying them on occasions when the flight crew was wounded; ran into a burning plane, again and again, to rescue every man aboard, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star (and never spoke about it till the end of his life, when he was interviewed by my niece’s boyfriend for a school project).  And he married my widowed mother, at a time when a single woman with a child was suspected of being Loose, since anybody could say she was a widow.

He dropped out of high school when he was 16, and spent his life creating tools and the dies for them — nowadays, boys get two-year associate degrees in tool-and-die making, and call themselves mechanical engineers.  He could make anything and fix anything, and while it wasn’t much to look at — it worked.  And the fix was usually permanent.  He spoke two languages fluently, Polish (his first language) and English, which he only learned upon entering public school in second grade — and he learned it at the expense of his idiot teachers calling him “stupid” because his English was so broken, so all his life, he thought of himself as “stupid.”  And by the way, his English  was so fluent that while you knew right away he was working class, you would never have guessed he hadn’t uttered a word of it till he was seven years old.  This is what shaped my life; these are the shoes his children have to try to fill.  Forget it.  That’s a truly hopeless task.

The last 2 ½ years of his life were spent in a nursing home, courtesy of falling and breaking a hip.  The surgery to repair it messed with his mind, and although he had physical therapy, he became afraid of walking, so that he lived in a wheelchair and had to put up with the indignity of other people taking care of his bodily needs.  Typically, he saw it as something he just had to bear, so he never complained about it.  I don’t know if I could be that humble if something similar happened to me.

And that brings me to the point of this post.  In the Orthodox Christian tradition, we are taught that humility is the key to open the gates of heaven.  Yes, baptism is a part of it, but it’s not the key; it’s the beginning of your life in Christ.  How you live is just as important as being baptized, since how you live shapes how you die; in other words, you can take the gift of Baptism and use it, or you can take it and throw it away.  If you throw a gift away, what good is it?  But if you use it, eventually it brings you to humility.

Dad was, hands down, the most humble man I’ve ever known, in the sense that he never tried to be what he was not, he knew his faults and accepted them, and downplayed his virtues, which were many.  He let his works speak for him, offering advice when it was asked for or necessary, not holding it against us when we refused to follow up on it.  He didn’t try to be A Dad; he just was, in his acceptance of what we were as we navigated the usual changes of life.

In notifying family and friends of his passing, I made the statement, “If humility is the key that opens the gates of heaven — Dad owns it.”  I’d love to have seen the look on his face when those gates swung wide to welcome him home, judgment-free.  In accordance with Orthodox tradition, I’ll pray for his soul; but in my own heart, I’ll also be asking for his prayers for us.  May his memory be eternal!

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“What’s something you never believed until you experienced it?”  The bonus question is, “What is something you believed in, until an experience changed your mind?” but the thing I never believed in — the love of God — far outweighs any of my disillusionments.

(I actually hate prompts like this:  It’s practically an invitation for every nut case to come out of the closet and either Witness to Jesus Saving Your Soul, or say that God let him down, therefore there is no God, accompanied by the (in)appropriate potty-mouthed expressions.  But I’m flat out of Experiences, except in the Shelf-Life Department.)

Unhappily, I do know someone who believed in God until he was in a coma for four days, and experienced total nothingness.  Why this should have changed his mind about God is beyond me.  I mean, it’s not like he was dying or anything.  What did he expect, a visitation?

Me, I expected nothing.  Well, not nothing; what’s the point of praying if you expect that nothing will come of it?  I knew that God loved Mankind, in an abstract, impersonal sort of manner, and that He was generally disposed kindly towards us lowlifes, provided we didn’t screw unto others or cheat on our income taxes (or spouses).  And I knew that it was okay to pray to Him for others, but not for oneself — that’d be selfish, and was practically daring God to Smite us.  It was infinitely better to pray to Saints, because they had God’s ear and could put in a good word for us; whereas we clueless idiots might actually trigger God’s temper, the Saints knew just how to approach Him to get a favorable outcome.  Catholicism is nothing if not structured on Hierarchy.

Trouble was, the Saints had never done anything for me, no matter how nicely I asked.  And the thing I wanted was important:  I wanted to know God’s will for my life, in a certain matter.  So I asked.  I didn’t actually expect an answer, like a thunderbolt or anything, but I thought something might happen to make things clearer to me.

I guess this state of affairs perked along for three months or so, me asking for just some kind of nebulous guidance, when one day, deep in prayer, I had a thought.  It was more than a thought, actually, and much less than a voice; Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green describes it perfectly in her book Facing East.  In her case, Christ said to her, “I am your life”; in mine, He said simply, “Do you believe that I love you?” and then, “Will you let Me handle this?  Just give it over to Me?”

What did I have to lose?  Sure I gave it over.  I was sick of worrying about it anyway.  I won’t say what the situation was, or what the answer was, but I will say that the appropriateness of it, for all parties concerned, was its own thunderbolt:  It had never once occurred to me that the details of my life were so important to God that He would take the time to arrange them Himself.

This has continued to happen in my life from time to time, this sense of being utterly overwhelmed by the personal and detailed attention that God gives to my life.  You can’t overcome an entire upbringing with just one experience, although you can (and should) spend your life trying to eliminate the false ideas you may have grown up with.

I’ve come to recognize that this is what Orthodoxy calls the Struggle, the Combat.  You may not ever be what the world would consider a truly evil person, but when you get down to wrestling with your own demons, you come to learn a couple of things:  (a) They really are petty, mean little creatures, and (b) the hold they have over your life is so out of proportion to their size because you yourself have given them that power to enslave you.  There’s only one way to freedom, and that is to trust in the profoundly personal love that God has for you, deep within His heart.

Or, as one Orthodox priest puts it:  “Christ didn’t come to earth to make bad men good.  He came to make dead men live.”  Believe it.

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Which, I am reliably informed, is how Russians say, “Let’s get back to work.”  Interesting that in the USA, we say, “Back to the salt mines” — which were always a feature of Russian life.

“If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?  Bonus: What is the worst job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it?” is today’s prompt.  For the record, I skipped the last two days because there’s only one computer in this house, and it had been Commandeered.

If I could have any job in the world, I’d want my old one back.  I was a secretary for a church, and I loved it — not necessarily because it was church-related, but because the office was in such disarray that I constructed all the procedures from scratch:  the filing system, the way mail was processed, the way mass mailings were organized, year-end procedures for closing out the prior year and setting up the systems for the new year — the whole ball of wax was mine, all mine.  Till the Parish Council decided it didn’t want to pay a secretary.  (Well, initially they did.  They constructed a fairy tale about my retiring so they could hire someone of a more acceptable ethnicity, and no I don’t mean race, who didn’t even want the job and had never been a secretary in her life.  Three months later, they decided they couldn’t afford her, either.)

The fun of that job was that it was the culmination of thirty years’ worth of secretarial experience; I was able to pull together everything I had ever learned on the job, and put it to good use in an environment that worked.  Maybe that’s what Greeks find scary, an environment that works.  When you consider the current state of the Greek economy, it explains a lot about the treatment I got.

As for the worst job I ever had, ironically, that was also as a secretary.  I worked for an accountant, and I lasted exactly three weeks.  I had Issues with being required to inch my way across an ice-covered parking lot (the only spots cleared out were for clients), and having to stand in front of the copier catching photocopies as they came out of the machine because the accountant was too cheap to get the sorter fixed.  And what I learned from that job was to ask around about firms that were looking for help; turned out most of the people I knew, knew this accountant’s reputation for being stingy, and I could have saved myself a lot of embarrassment if I’d asked first — it’s the only job I ever walked out on after only three weeks.  But there are some things that self-respect requires, know what I mean?!

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