Saturday, January 28

Missing Music

"And I was born one dark grey morn with music coming in my ears, in my ears." ~Simon and Garfunkel

My sweet cousin posted some lyrics to one of my very, very favorite hymns yesterday; "Be Thou My Vision." When I became Orthodox, I made my sister promise that when I die; we will have a good Irish wake. At that wake, we will sing "Be Thou My Vision" and the "Angles All Around" song. (The Angles All Around song is another story, but a good one.) When my cousin posted this song, I commented that it was my favorite Western Christian hymn, which set me to to wondering what my favorite Eastern Christian hymn is. I am of the West and the East; of the Protestant and the Orthodox. This is why my death will require not only a good sacramental Orthodox funeral but an Irish wake. (I also think that the world owes me some time in pantyhose since I've never gotten married, which would have necessitated three days of bridesmaid services.)

When I was a punk kid in my youth group, we were blessed and lucky to have had Rich Mullins and a host of people he brought with him from Ohio come and love on us. They loved us in the best way they knew how. Spiritually, I was born with people playing guitars and piano all around me. I was given the gift of living communally with poetic artists who would shyly plunk a devastatingly beautiful new tune out on Doris' old piano and say, "Do you like it? Really??" That was the first time in my life that I had been given the gift of healthy community, and I drank it like rain.

This week, Ashley Cleveland came to town. What an amazing set of pipes, what a storyteller!! She toured with Rich in '95, which was after I was out of the youth group picture, and I'm sure he was on the rez. Having her in town strumming her guitar took me back, so far back.

Music is like love. If you are not very careful, it will crack your cold heart open and demand a response of you. These days, I am surrounded with healthy community and beautiful music once again. So much of this experience is like that former one; like the key players in La Belle Epoque, chasing Beauty, Truth, and Love. But tonight, I heard the music like I used to.

I miss Mullins. Tonight, the music came to me as it once had. It cracked my soul open, like a sternum does in heart surgery. I had to force myself to stay in my chair and let the music do its healing work. Painfully. Thankfully.

"I'm alive
I'm being born
I've just arrived
I'm at the door of the place I started out from
And I want back inside..."


Friday, January 20


"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see."
A few weeks ago, I got to thinking about St. Brigid of Ireland. She was a contemporary of St. Patrick's, and founded women's cenobitic monasticism in Ireland. The story goes that she, St. Patrick, and St. Columba of Iona share a grave. So you know she was no slouch when it came to being a Christian. 
When I looked her up, I was particularly struck by the story of one of her miracles, and particularly the faith of the nun Dara: 
"The miracles performed by St. Brigid are too numerous to relate, so only one will be given. One evening, the holy abbess was sitting with a blind nun named Dara. From sunset to sunrise, they spoke of the joys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and of the love of Christ, losing all track of time. St. Brigid was struck by the beauty of the earth and sky in the morning light. Realizing that Sister Dara was unable to appreciate this beauty, she became very sad. Then she prayed and made the Sign of the Cross over Dara’s eyes. All at once, the blind nun’s eyes were opened and she saw the sun in the east, and the trees and flowers sparkled with dew. She looked for a while, then turned to St. Brigid and said, “Close my eyes again, dear Mother, for when the world is visible to the eyes, then God is seen less clearly by the soul.” St. Brigid prayed again, and Dara became blind once more."

God created matter and said, "It is good." It is a danger to think that this good world He has given us cannot reflect His glory. "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." Romans 1:20, emphasis mine. 
That said, there are times that I think many of us wish we could close our eyes to the cacophony of this world and open them on a bit of peace; a vision of God seen clearly by the soul. Sometimes it's not even God that I am concerned to see, but just a moment of serenity... (My personal need for SERENITY NOW peaks during high-stakes testing season, grade card time, and parent/teacher conferences. Oh... and particular family functions.)

When I was a kid in youth group, I used to think that to "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things" (Colossians 3:2) meant that I was not supposed party on the weekends or let myself get too silly about boys. And maybe one day I WILL stop being silly about boys. But being ancient, as I now am, has afforded me this knowledge: there are many, many good and holy "earthly things" that can still take my peace. 
 I need, I want, I have to do... too many things. These things choke my soul. I think that was why I was so drawn to the story of St. Brigid and the nun Dara. The singular focus on the One Thing that matters is paramount. 
 The Greek word nous is usually translated in English as "intellect" or "mind." But that is only a fragment of the meaning of the word. The Orthodox tradition holds that the nous is the "eye of the soul." I think this is the sight that Grace gives us. This is the sight that Dara was accustomed to. 
St. Theophan the Recluse gave this advice on prayer: 
“You’ve got to get out of your head and into your heart. Right now your thoughts are in your head, and God seems to be outside you. Your prayer and all your spiritual exercises also remain exterior. As long as you are in your head, you will never master your thoughts, which continue to whirl around your head like snow in a winter’s storm or like mosquitoes in the summer’s heat. If you descend into your heart, you will have no more difficulty. Your mind will empty out and your thoughts will dissipate. Thoughts are always in your mind chasing one another about, and you will never manage to get them under control. But if you enter into your heart and can remain there, then every time your thoughts invade, you will only have to descend into your heart and your thoughts will vanish into thin air. This will be your safe haven. Don’t be lazy. Descend. You will  find life in your heart. There you must live.”

To descend with the mind into the heart is one way to regain sight with the eye of the soul. 

I pray that I begin to choose, like Dara, to see with the nous and live there. Whatever the cost.

Peace of Christ to you.

Saturday, January 14

For a Year Now

My best friend says she loves it when I blog. Of course she does. She's my best friend. She's liked hearing what I have to say for decades now (God bless her). I think she might start assigning me topics, as she knows I love to write, but need subjects. (I also asked her to give me deadlines, but she refused; saying I'd start dodging her calls as if she is an editor.) She requested this topic: My first year in the Orthodox Christian Church.

As of December 26th, 2011, I've been Orthodox for a year. For those that are Orthodox, you know that one year is no big shakes. It's like having been born for a nanosecond. That's what happens when you join a tradition that sees itself as having spanned through all of time. You have a sense of being nurtured, held, home. But I also have a sense of smallness; in the best way. Being in this tradition is like being in the mountains or at the ocean; I am a small, small, but integral part of this whole beautiful Church.

 C.S. Lewis said of prayer: “I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God- it changes me.” After a year as an Orthodox Christian, this is how I feel about not only prayer; but the church calendar, the sacraments, Liturgy, community... living within the life of the church. After a year, I am convinced more than ever that this life is God's gift to me. Some of the biggest surprises of all those gifts have been:

The Liturgy itself: I knew that I had fallen in love with the beauty of the Liturgy as sung in the Orthodox church. The amazing truths, beautifully stated and proclaimed for centuries. (For those of you that have not heard the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, it is burgeoning with Scripture.) I knew that the Liturgy was organic throughout the church year. It is ever the same, yet always changing during the seasons, during our fasts and feasts.

What I DIDN'T know was how that Liturgy would plant itself in my mind and soul. It comes, unbidden, into my heart at the times I am most in need. One of my friends, a beautiful poet, said that it leaves "striations in the heart." I breathe in and out the Liturgy when I am not there. I am enveloped by it.

The marking of time: Orthodox Christians see time as a function of this world, and God as having always stood outside of time. Time is the measure of movement (Aristotle), and we cannot imagine the timeless ocean He is. But the liturgical day, week, and year help me number my days aright. I can mark my time with His timelessness.

I awake, and pray. I close the same day with prayer. The liturgical week: Wednesday-Christ's betrayal, Friday-His Crucifixion, Sunday-His Resurrection day. Every week is a miniature Lent and Pascha. The liturgical year itself, the cycle of fasts and feasts.

The marking of time in the Orthodox church is important because my heart IS that fickle, that forgetful. I forget beauty faster than I forget anything. I need a structure that reminds me that I AM held and home. I need a structure that reminds me of the Trinity that holds all things together. I need this every, every moment.

The Sacraments and the Organic, Holistic Nature of the Faith: I went to WAY too much Bible college. Both my head and heart have been exhausted at the practice of having faith be primarily a set of intellectual suppositions. Orthodoxy will have none of that. God and I meet each other in the physical and sensate, the spiritual, and in the intellect. I need His Body and Blood, not just a symbol of it. I need to fast and feast. I need to celebrate with beautiful song and incense, the way He did in the Temple. I need wine, bread, oil, and water to bring me His grace. He used mud to open the eyes of the blind. How did that work? Who cares?? He met people with physicality. I need that just as badly now as anyone ever has.

All of these things that I have found in the Orthodox Church are my joy; His gifts to me and to all who will come. In participating in all of these, I have done Him no favor. My thankful response is what I can bring to Him. Feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, telling the Good News... and exemplifying that the Good News is, in fact, really, really GOOD. How can I respond with enough thankfulness? I can't... my heart overflows.

My beautiful new friend Anne said to me of her conversion to Orthodox Christianity: "I decided that I'd rather be bad at this than good at anything else." Of all the truth and beauty that I have seen and lived in the past year, I think this phrase sums it up most honestly. For all the gifts I have been given, I will bring my thankfulness, such as it is.

" Bring before your eyes the blessings, whether physical or spiritual, conferred on you from the beginning of your life down to the present, and call them repeatedly to mind in accordance with the words: 'Forget not all His benefits' (Psalm 102:2). Then your heart will readily be moved to the fear and love of God, so that you repay Him, as far as you can, by your strict life, virtuous conduct, devout conscience, wise speech, true faith and humility—in short, by dedicating your whole self to God." ~St. Mark the Ascetic

 “What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would give a lamb,
If I were I wise man I would do my part,
But what can I give Him?
I’ll give Him my heart.”

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