Let us praise the divine leader and namesake of courage, first-called disciple and Peter's kinsman. For as of old Christ called to him so he now calls to us: Come, we have found the Desired One.
-Kontakion, Tone 2
First called apostle of Jesus. Brother of Peter. Fisher of men. Courageous. Crucified.
Holy Saint Andrew, on this the 15th day of the Nativity Fast, pray to God for me that I might stay focused on Christ, on my preparation for His birth. It's getting harder, and more tempting to wander. You are a stunning example of perseverance.Read More
Over the weekend, I was hugged no less than fifty times by the thirty-some in-laws who had gathered with us in Rockford, IL to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was a joyous occasion to be sure, one in which the expressing of affection and gratitude was as delicious and abundant as the Thanksgiving meal itself. “It’s so great to see you,” we said to one another, but also we embraced, both upon arriving and leaving. We communicated physically what was etched there on our hearts: this family is a cherished source of comfort and support. We are blessed.
When my youngest daughter Mary woke us up at 1:00 am on Friday morning by vomiting on the floor, I empathized with her suffering by stroking her hair and kissing her forehead.
Saturday night, I watched, for the fourth time, the movie Lars and the Real Girl and, for the fourth time, was moved so profoundly tears welled up in my eyes and dripped down my cheeks.
If I get anxious at night, I’ll pull the arm of my sleeping husband up over my shoulders and melt into the warmth of his chest.
The smell of spearmint Certs makes me nostalgic for my grandfather.
Hearing Rod Stewart’s 1988 hit, “Forever Young” brings back overwhelmingly vibrant memories of my first high school dance.
When St. Veronica, the woman with the issue of blood, was desperate for healing, she wrestled her way through a crowd and reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment.
As human beings, we are dependent on our senses for interpreting and responding to our highs and lows, to love and loss, to the sacredness and banality that surrounds us.
In the Orthodox Church, we worship God not just with our souls but with our bodies. An Orthodox service might look (and feel and sound and smell) a little strange at first to those not used to such a sensory rich expression of faith; I will never, ever forget my initial shock at the incense, the icons, the brightly colored vestments, the lilting hymns, woven together throughout the liturgies and vigils I attended as a nervous inquirer into Orthodoxy. On the other side of that unfamiliarity, however, I discovered a treasure, a feast. The Kingdom of Heaven, once an airbrushed, streets of gold themed, vague idea, became a fiery, holy, mystical reality via the sacramental and unearthly experience of engaging my whole being in the timeless and communal veneration, alongside my fellow Orthodox Christians and “the great cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews 12, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
“Take, Eat, this is my body which is broken for you,” said Christ at the Last Supper, mercifully becoming for His feeling, hearing, seeing, hungry children consumable food. And thus we use our arms to make the sign of the cross, we light candles, we sing, we kiss, we inhale the ancient aroma of incense (“Let my prayer be set forth before you as incense” wrote David in the Psalms), we wear a cross around our necks, we sometimes even fall down on our knees – face to the floor, and, beyond all comprehension, we open our feeble mouths and partake of Christ, our Savior, through the Eucharist. We participate, using everything we have, including our minds, our souls, our flesh, our resources in the lifelong pursuit of salvation.
“We Orthodox would say, make some prostrations when you pray,” said Father Thomas Hopko regarding number six of his fifty-five maxims for spiritual living, “ Kneel down, bend over, bow down, use your body. As Saint Ephraim said, ‘if your body is not praying when you’re praying, you’re not really praying.’ Prayer is not just an activity of the mind and heart. It’s an activity of the whole person.” Well, doesn’t that just change everything? I mean, if worship encompasses more than merely our invisible inner parts, our spirits, our thoughts – if even our skin, our bones and muscles, our stomachs and tongues can become prayer, than our opportunities for serving and praising Christ increase exponentially. No longer need we view the drive to work, the preparing of meals, the ironing of clothes, holding hands with our spouse, cradling our weepy children in our laps, using our ears to listen, as but trivial exploits. Oh how reassuring and convicting to realize prayer is a verb, an action. And how compassionate a God we have to consider our very real need for a tangible means of interacting and communing with Him and receiving, through His Church and each other, the strength and courage we long for to help us press on toward the finish line.
After five days away visiting with loved ones, my house is FULL of chances to pray physically. I am off to unpack and clean. Maybe today, I will keep the radio turned off and my mind more engaged in the process of loving, of praising God, through manual labor. A blessed Monday to you!
The post below is from my 2008 Thanksgiving podcast. I admit, it is one of my favorites. This piece is not incredibly well written or anything, just very close to my heart. Coming back to it two years later, I can't help but marvel at all the changes that have taken place in my life, all the prayers answered in such unexpected ways. "This too shall pass," I was told several times, through several difficult stages of mothering. Well, I am pleased (and relieved) to verify, my kind friends, that that hard to believe statement is t-r-u-e, true. I'm thankful for the wisdom, patience and strength on the other side of sacrifice, perseverance and suffering. I wish for us this Thanksgiving weekend many sweet revelations concerning how blessed we truly are. So much love to you!
I'll be back on Monday.
It was this time of year in first, second, third, fourth and fifth grade, that I would make turkeys at school from out of handprints, or Popsicle sticks, or paper bags, even. I would also list on autumn themed worksheets, which we would tack onto bulletin boards designed to look like giant cornucopias, what exactly I was thankful for. Though I can’t say for certain this is true, I would bet that if you compared those lists side-by-side they would be nearly identical. “I am thankful for my family,” they would undoubtedly have included, “and God, and having food to eat.” In the latter grades, I may have mentioned “freedom” or possibly our mangy Shi-tsu dog, but all in all it is pretty safe to say I covered the basics, the expected, and was done with it.
In but a few short days, I will gather around a festively set table with my in-laws where everyone present will take turns sharing why it is they are grateful. In the past, I’ve mentioned pregnancies, employment for my husband, a new home, and yes, God, food and family. There’s nothing wrong with stating the obvious. Counting frequently my overt blessings is an excellent way to dispel the myth that we are somehow missing out on that greener grass up yonder. But I am thinking of mixing things up, just for kicks, perhaps taking my cue from a popular Orthodox morning prayer: In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. This Thanksgiving, I’d like to try and redefine what constitutes, as Martha Stewart might say, “a good thing” by digging around a bit in the dirt, examining closer what appears on the surface to be nothing but plain old yuckiness, in search of meaning, enlightenment – gold. So here is it, a rather unconventional, 2008 version of my thankful list displayed here for your viewing pleasure in no particular order:
Last winter at this time, I became ill with a nasty sinus infection, which moved swiftly to my lungs and rendered me agonizingly unproductive for nearly two months. I couldn’t sleep at night, couldn’t function during the day. Our house reeked of sick and sadness and claustrophobia. Remembering back on how my steady diet of sugar and caffeine mixed with zero aerobic activity, had (surprise, surprise) not really fortified my immune system, I determined a few weeks ago to make some serious changes in preparation for the upcoming flu season. Out of sheer terror, I began exercising regularly, watching what I stuck absentmindedly in my mouth, taking my vitamins consistently, and going to bed before 11:00 pm. Although it’s completely possible that I will still get sick despite these extra precautions, the side effects of my wellness inspired vigilance have been remarkable. I am awake, wide awake. I have fewer cravings for empty calories. By hitting bottom, I became desperate enough to better myself physically and ultimately emotionally as well.
The Demanding Threes:
Oh, I know what they say about the terrible twos, how that period from 18 to 36 months is the most trying for parents, the most frustrating. But having lived through that stage four times over, I beg to differ. For me, it was (is) the threes – the “demanding three’s” I like to call them. At three-years-old, each of my children turned a corner developmentally and they used all those burgeoning verbal and reasoning skills to strip me of patience, with the speed and utter thoroughness of piranhas ripping flesh from a floating carcass.
My daughter, Mary, for instance, was a mild mannered baby. She’d play quietly with her toes, smile readily, and drift off in her crib peacefully without me rocking her or pacing the floors back and forth swinging her steadily in my arms. In August, however, she left toddlerhood behind and crossed over the threshold into preschooler territory. Ever since then, pouty lips, nonsensical requirements (such as socks that are neither too tight, too stretchy, too purple nor too bulky, for example) and clinginess have replaced her previous ability to independently entertain herself. She’s also stopped taking naps unless I lie down right beside her until eventually she falls asleep, at which point I can sneak, with ninja-like stealth, out of her bedroom.
At first this new cramp in my afternoon schedule made me fume inside with annoyance, thinking of all I wasn’t accomplishing just lying there for half an hour, staring at the walls. After several days of this, however, I surrendered to the present situation at hand, the one that wasn’t changing no matter how stern I got or how many bribes I offered. Mary’s dainty little body inhaling and exhaling, her warm and delicate breath on my face, began to lull me into a state of relaxation. I now look forward to our naptime, or at least I don’t resent it and that is kind of like being thankful, so it counts.
My Husband’s Long Work Commute:
Oh boy, this is going to be challenging.
I knew that when we left the city and yet Troy’s job didn’t, a major downside to our otherwise lovely life in small town America would be the twelve-and-a-half hour work days Troy would have to put in due to a really long train ride in and out of Chicago. What this has meant for me is that at 5:30 pm, when I naturally start shutting down, he isn’t there the way he used to be to tend to the kids while I finish making dinner. He isn’t there at 6:30 pm to start the bedtime routine while I clean up. He can’t come home if I feel sick, can’t go in a little later if I’m particularly exhausted and unfortunately, there’s very little “us” time in the evenings. And now I need to interject a moment to tell all of you single mothers or mothers with husbands in the military gone for weeks and months at a time, that in my eyes you’re akin to cape sporting, high-flying, super heroes and just knowing you’re out there raising your children all on your own makes me actually feel very sheepish about my bellyaching.
But thankfulness, back to thankfulness. I am thankful for the minutes that come after my declaration of: I simply cannot do this anymore! Because it turns out that when you have to go on, despite the fear, loneliness and weariness, despite what looks and tastes and smells like insurmountable obstacles in your path, by God’s grace, you somehow do. And though our methods for staying afloat may not be pretty or ideal (i.e. Elmo or pancakes –again- for dinner), the fact that you made it through to other side of those baths, that tantrum, that never ending, teeth- clenching afternoon means that you and I are more resilient than we ever imagined we could be. It means that yes, yes we can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).
The High Price of Food, Clothing and Technological Gadgets:
So I was standing in the middle of Aldi not too long ago holding a calculator and a shopping list. Things were tight, the refrigerator was empty, and payday was another week away. I’d brought cash so as not to overspend, as is easy to do with credit cards. What I had was what I had. Period. I began with my staples– milk, eggs, cheese, fruit and vegetables. From there I had to separate my actual needs from my perceived ones, which, it turns out, were merely “wants” masquerading as things we absolutely, positively, cannot live without. I pared down that original list, more than once, by the time I got to the check-out line. I left the store with a dollar in change and an unexpected sense of fulfillment at having successfully avoided the costly trappings of impulse buys and convenience foods. By thinking twice, I had beaten a system based on knee-jerk decision-making and an “enjoy it now, pay for it later” mentality.
See, here is the thing (the thing I’m trying to explain to our kids who swear backwards and forwards to m
e that if they only had that one special item, they’d be satisfied forever): having stuff is addicting. I know this because, say, I get a dress – automatically, I want shoes to go with it. New pillows for my couch – I’ll want a throw rug. What’s cable without a DVR? What good’s a cell phone without Internet access? A new winter hat? What about gloves, a scarf – heck, a better quality coat? A-h-h-h! Somebody stop me! Oh wait…I can’t afford any of those things, not when my children need to eat and stay warm and become educated. By not having the minimal funds necessary to even begin competing in the game, I am totally disqualified from playing. So, once again, I am oddly thankful, thankful for the financial limitations that, for now, are protecting me from getting caught up in a rat race I’m not yet disciplined enough to simply stroll through without getting trampled.
And then there’s the engine light that’s gone on in our minivan and the mysterious leak in our attic. What about $3.00 ATM fees or all that spam in my e-mail inbox? Maybe next year, I’ll have matured enough to find their silver lining. After all, it is a process, the changing of one’s mindset from superficial to eternal, one I’ll struggle to undergo throughout the rest of my life. But here’s the good news: God is patient. He understands how hard it is to stay spiritually alert what with all that distracting noise and, what the younger generations like to refer to as, “bling” up in our faces. Thus His gifts of the holy Church, the holy sacraments and the Holy Spirit, to help us stay focused. ‘Tis the season, as they say, for remembering our great fortune at having access to Christ’s goodness and mercy in even the most difficult and trying of circumstances. I wish for you and for me, an extended spirit of gratitude made more palpable by our hope and acts of kindness.
“Pray without ceasing.”
- I Thessalonians 5:17
All This and More
BY MARY KARR
The Devil’s tour of hell did not include
a factory line where molten lead
spilled into mouths held wide,
no electric drill spiraling screws
into hands and feet, nor giant pliers
to lower you into simmering vats.
Instead, a circle of light
opened on your stuffed armchair,
whose chintz orchids did not boil and change,
and the Devil adjusted
your new spiked antennae
almost delicately, with claws curled
and lacquered black, before he spread
his leather wings to leap
into the acid-green sky.
So your head became a tv hull,
a gargoyle mirror. Your doppelganger
sloppy at the mouth
and swollen at the joints
enacted your days in sinuous
slow motion, your lines delivered
with a mocking sneer. Sometimes
the frame froze, reversed, began
again: the red eyes of a friend
you cursed, your girl child cowered
behind the drapes, parents alive again
and puzzled by this new form. That’s why
you clawed your way back to this life.
I'm exhausted. The drab fog enveloping my house, my van, my neighborhood is an appropriate backdrop for this spiritually comatose version of me. Raising my gaze up heavenward sounds about as doable as bench-pressing an elephant at the moment. I’ve gone weak in the soul for some reason, a startling reminder of how susceptible I am to apathy – a state of mind far more dangerous than seething anger or gut-wrenching fear. What does one do when they’re dry as bone to keep from deteriorating and becoming scattered like ashes when breathed upon by even the mildest gust of adversity?
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy upon me a sinner!”
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy upon me a sinner!”
… is all I’ve got. It is everything I’ve got. The Jesus Prayer is an umbilical cord connecting my emaciated spirit to the Source of sustenance, me being too sidetracked and clumsy to feed myself. Reciting continuously, sometimes silently, sometimes out loud, this ancient prayer of the heart is paramount for keeping at bay the indifference, the numbing stimuli and the self-doubt more than capable of lobotomizing me. With it, I too am clawing my way from out of mere existence and back into Life.
On Maxim number five of fifty-five, Father Thomas Hopko says, Have a short prayer that you constantly repeat when your mind is not occupied with other things. This short prayer can simply be, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy.” A person might just say “God,” but just some short prayer that fills the mind when the mind is not working in order to have the remembrance of God in one’s life, in one’s heart.
I swear it’s like a congested highway up in my head, what with all of those unconstructive thoughts, worries and ponderings merging, crashing, changing lanes, running out of fuel. Repeating Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me when I am lying in bed, washing dishes, driving around town, before opening my mouth to speak, etc., etc., and etc., quiets the noise and clears up the traffic holding my mind hostage, and pulls me into the present, where Christ resides. On an afternoon like this one, when I’ve run out of steam, the Jesus Prayer becomes an incomparably palpable gift of grace by divinely filling my empty mouth and heart with an offering to God I haven't the wherewithal to produce on my own.
The name of our Lord Jesus Christ is a divine name. The power and effect of that name are divine, omnipotent and salvific, and transcend our ability to comprehend it. With faith therefore, with confidence and sincerity, and with great piety and fear ought we to proceed to the doing of the great work which God has entrusted to us: to train ourselves in prayer by using the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. "The incessant invocation of God's name," says Barsanuphius the Great, "is a medicine which mortifies not just the passions, but even their influence. Just as the physician puts medications or dressings on a wound that it might be healed, without the patient even knowing the manner of their operation, so also the name of God, when we invoke it, mortifies all passions, though we do not know how that happens"
- St. Ignaty Brianchaninov
When faced with the indefinable Mystery of salvation, I find it best to proceed as simply and humbly as possible – to keep my head bowed alongside the publican, my attention transfixed on my own desperate need for a Savior, echoing his authentic plea for mercy within each season and situation that I find myself, seeking not things, satisfaction, approval, respect, but Christ. Christ alone. Less of me, more of Christ.
Today my cross is weariness; God help me to bear it patiently and keep forging ahead.
“ 'A faithful friend is a strong defense’ (Ecclus 6:14); for when things are going well with you, he is a good counselor and a sympathetic collaborator, while when things are going badly, he is the truest of helpers and a most compassionate supporter.” St. Maximus the Confessor, (Philokalia II).
These photos, and the people in them, mean a great deal to me. Thanks to the Larsens, the Provenzanos, Kara, Beth and Paige for their healing dose of love and generosity this weekend. I haven't laughed that hard in ages. My heart is aching a little tonight from unearthing seventeen years worth of treasured memories in the too brief span of two days. Life is precious, and fragile, and passes in the blink of eye. I miss you all so much already.