Lent a Hand

The approach of Lent is everywhere, hints in the flora outside; Lenten roses ready to unfold their majestic petals, the pussy willow whips full of emerging puffs, peeking out under brown husks.  The faithful are eating meat with a certain urgency, and the pre-Lenten Sundays tick by, marking the approach to the “bright sadness”.

It reminds me of my rowing days.  In the weeks preceding a regatta I’d be an absolute bundle of nerves, all that tension settling in my stomach in a hard, twisty knot.  As a catechumen, I feel the same way as Lent approaches.  Will I make it?  Can I fast well, pray more, give more, attend more services, and grow spiritually…and not lose my ever-loving mind?  My thoughts are full of logistics and bean recipes and, honestly, a bit of panic.  It’s not just my journey, but my whole family’s; how can I help my kids connect to the beautiful, difficult season of Lent?  How can I make sure we don’t miss it?Tending the Garden of Our Hearts FINAL COVER

Last year we huddled around our aging laptop and listened to “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts”, a Lenten podcast on Ancient Faith Radio by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger.  It was such an unmitigated blessing to have a spiritual meditation at the end of each day that wove in the strands we’d otherwise miss in our fatigue and busyness.  Stories of the saints mingled with the history behind the services we were attending, helping to anchor what we were seeing in a deeper understanding.  We were all challenged by the holy lives we read about.  This was a catalyst for great conversations with our toddlers, all the way up to our teenagers.

I’m thrilled that the podcast has been adapted into a book, and as I read through it again this month, I’m blessed anew by the thoughtful meditations that will again lead my family through Lent, one living room gathering at a time.  Being a visual person, I decided to make a calendar of sorts to further anchor the stories we read and the lessons we learned in our hearts.  I’ve included it here for your use as well, if it would be helpful for you!

The book is available on ancientfaith.com.  I pray you enjoy it as much as we do!

Tending the Garden of Our Hearts- Lenten Heart Calendar

Materials:

  • 12×12 piece of scrapbook paper for heart
  • scissors
  • thin ribbon, baker’s twine, or yarn
  • small safety pin
  • printable ornaments:  Page 1, and Page 2
  • color pencils
  • hole punch
  • marker

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Fold the piece of scrapbook paper in half, draw half of a heart and cut out.  While still folded, punch 25 holes along the edge.  Unfold and press flat.

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Each day, after the meditation, color in the ornament of the day.  The littlest children may enjoy the word ornaments where they can color quite freely, while the older ones may prefer the more intricate illustrations.  Cut out the ornament.

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Cut a length of your string or thin ribbon that is roughly two times as long as the perimeter of your heart.  Tie one end to the first hole, and the other to a small safety pin for a “needle”.
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Go up from underneath, looping each ornament into place each day, allowing the string to hang for the next addition.FullSizeRender-97

May your Lent be blessed!

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A Little Brave

Photo on 2-25-15 at 9.42 AM I don’t know where the change begins.  But there was, the other day, a very vigorous inner monologue that ran: “I am an artist, and I’d better start living as one”.  So, of course I cut my bangs.  I very imperfectly gave them the shape that I’ve admired on countless others rather than spending one more day without them.

After watching a YouTube tutorial I took our hair scissors in hand and looked into my reflection’s eyes in the splattered mirror and breathed.  And cut, and fixed, and trimmed and near laughed.  They turned out fine (to my taste I should say).  Imperfect and cute and endearingly quirky.  YouTube had also taught me how to do a sock bun and I made a perfectly coifed high bun to go along with my quirky imperfect bangs.  I smiled; it’s a good thing when you’ve wrested even the smallest of victories out of a weekday morning.

Photo on 2-25-15 at 9.41 AMThen it was time to get braver, a little.  I shopped my attic for my oil paintings; those that I could not bear to paint over nor throw out.  Many had met their end covered in white, a blank stretch for some future perfection to cover over.  Others have gone into the trash; sometimes our imperfection can be that painful.

Armed with a screw gun, I started a gallery wall and FOUR of my own works are RIGHT THERE on my wall.  Right on the wall that people visiting our home will see first.  In outright defiance of fear and the pride that hides all but the best, most marketable skills we have.  It was my version of taking a selfie without make-up.

On Facebook I wrote:

My great-grandmother Nora, whom I am named after, was a brave woman. During the Great Depression she had the nickname “Mrs. Got-Rocks” because even though times were hard and lean, she’d go out dressed to the nines with all her sparkly costume jewelry on. She learned to paint in her eighties, producing hundreds of works in oil and watercolor. She wasn’t afraid to try new things and she rejoiced in beauty. I thought of her today as I hung up three of my oil paintings which have been hiding in the attic. I often respond to my art with a mix of shame, fear, and joy; joy that something of what was in my heart was translated into color and pattern and form, shame and fear in dreading what label or impression another set of eyes will give it, have from it. I hung a small oil painting of hers, “Violets”, right above one of my works “Pears on the Horizon”, and just diagonally from them I hung an unfinished still life that I bought secondhand. It’s a smudged charcoal sketch of an apple and a pear; the pear’s stem rubbed out and begun again numerous times. There is in-progress-beauty all over it and also the frankness of being unfinished. How fitting a reminder for me, that God is always working on my heart, but that there IS present beauty, and I do not need to be afraid to display it.

And that’s where I am.  A little braver.  A bit more of an artist.  A bit more honest.

 

Customary Love

cropped-img_2107.jpg“Arising from sleep, I thank You, O Most Holy Trinity, that, for the sake of Your great kindness and long-suffering, You have not had indignation against me, for I am slothful and sinful….”

My voice was near a whisper as it formed the words and the morning light filled the window over my prayer bench last week.  The children’s school had been delayed and they’d gotten off to a later start so no candle was needed to illumine the words.

Neither have You destroyed me in my transgressions.  But You have shown Your customary love toward mankind, and have raised me up as I lay in heedlessness, that I might sing my morning hymn and glorify Your sovereignty….”

Fast forward to today, in which I was furious.  I looked into my childrens’ rooms and saw there every possible form of chaos and lack of care.  This has been a recurring theme for as long as they’ve been mobile, and we’ve tried every methodology we could think of to train them into neater habits. Yes, even boxing up their toys and putting them in the attic, but their hearts weren’t changed.  My voice was eerily calm as I gave them a monotone speech at breakfast that I was seriously considering getting rid of all their toys, since clearly they didn’t care about them.  Tears and quivering chins and promises that they’ll never let things get to such a state again.  I dryly remarked that I’d heard that a thousand times and yet they hadn’t reformed their ways.  Time was up, I was done, they’d gone too far, too many times.

Do now enlighten the eyes of my understanding, open my ears to receive Your words, and teach me Your commandments.  Help me to do Your will, to sing to You, to confess to You from my heart, and to praise Your All-Holy Name:  of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.  Amen.”

I had finished the prayer and let the warm light pour over my kneeling form, and even with my eyes closed it was bright.  I got up from the floor and for whatever reason I turned around to sit a moment on my bench, lifting my eyes to the other side of the room.  There was our icon of Christ, a gift at Pascha last year from our dear friend Leon Miller, where I had placed it near our Lent candle calendar just the day before.

It was absolutely, stunningly, glowing.

The face was so full of light that I was startled.  Like I’d caught someone staring at me boldly.  The morning light had come in at just the right angle, and just at that moment, leaving only the face illuminated and everything to the sides in darkness.  I sat there dumbfounded, and it seemed special, but in a way I don’t have words for.  Many of the things of God are like that; He seems to leave us margin to see or not to see the burning bushes in our lives.  To take them as holy or coincidental.

I sat and I thought.  I had just begun the practice of saying the morning and evening prayers from my Orthodox study Bible the day before.  If the weather had not been predicted to be bad, the children would not have had a delay, and my prayers would have been in the morning’s dark rather than the light.  I had just placed the icon there the day before, and uncharacteristically, I placed it oddly, off-center; not at all as I would normally arrange things.  I had turned around and sat down, I hadn’t just leapt up and started in on the day’s duties as I normally would.  The light had filled that one square foot of space and no other, almost like a spotlight.  But, still, it could be a happy coincidence.FullSizeRender-43Icons might be one of the most misunderstood things in Christianity.  In western eyes they are at the worst, idols, and at the best, unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

ICON:  A transliterated Greek word meaning “IMAGE”.  Icons of Christ and His saints depict the reality of the incarnation; because the Son of God became Man, He can be imaged.  Orthodox Christians honor or venerate icons, but never worship them, for worship is due the Holy Trinity alone.  The honor given to icons passes on to the one represented on the icon, as a means of thanksgiving for what God has done in that person’s life.  (The Orthodox Study Bible, p.1782)

This icon is known as Christ Pantocrator, “Ruler of All”.  In this year of church-homelessness I have been blessed by this visual, physical reminder that God has all things in His control and that he steadily cares for us.  As the prayer reads:  “You have shown Your customary love towards mankind...”  Customary, as in habitual, constant.  What grace.

So my day went on and the afternoon found me in study at my desk._MG_4776It’s a cherished spot in our home.  The children love the special occasions when I let them do work there, but most of the time it is a place set aside just for me.  Again, for whatever reason, I turned my chair around and looked across the room.  I have there hanging a print of Christ praying in Gethsemane.  It was an image clipped from a Ladies Home Journal in 1922 and carefully matted with strips of cardboard by a loving hand.  I’d purchased it at a thrift store, stunned by the care someone had given to preserve the cheap print.

Well, the face was glowing bright.

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My first thought was that I’d never noticed how drastically the painting was done; like a Rembrandt with his startling use of shadow and light that made the bright points of the painting near leap off the canvas.  I kept staring and was suddenly sure that something was different; the painting had never been so striking before.  I got up and walked toward it.  All of a sudden the light calmed flat as my presence interrupted a singular ray of light that had pierced the filigree on my front porch, sliced through the uppermost corner of one of the tall windows and hit solely upon the inch-wide face of Christ, leaving the rest of the painting in shadow.

I stepped back and the face filled with that singular light again.  In another moment the light had shifted and was gone.

Again, God leaves margin; there is nothing miraculous in sunlight striking where it pleases as the earth rotates and orbits the sun.  It is, however, highly unlikely that the face of Christ in two distinct works of art would be illuminated singularly twice in one day and that both times I would pause uncharacteristically in my work and witness it.

I was hesitant to tell my husband; afraid I’d be dismissed as the sort who saw the Virgin Mary in a tortilla or something of that sort.  But it felt so special, so astonishing, that at evening’s end I did share it with him.  He shared my wonder and my pleasure and the mystery of it.  We didn’t try to wrangle a meaning out of it.  I was left with two strong emotions:  joy and surprise.  It was the feeling when you know someone thought of you especially and sent you flowers or a note.  That “I am noticed and loved” sort of pleasure.

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I had sent the children up to their rooms to clean, my disapproval a palpable presence in the house.  There was a nudge in my spirit though, and I was drawn to the morning prayer.  God filled my heart with the words;

“Arising from sleep, I thank You, O Most Holy Trinity, that, for the sake of Your great kindness and long-suffering, You have not had indignation against me, for I am slothful and sinful.  Neither have You destroyed me in my transgressions. But You have shown Your customary love toward mankind, and have raised me up as I lay in heedlessness…”

Daily He extends mercy and grace.  Daily I fall into sin and repent of it bitterly.  I resolve in my heart to hold my tongue, to exercise more patience and grace, and daily I must repent of my failings to do so.  I was ashamed that I had offered my children less than I had received.  I called them downstairs.

I read them the prayer and tears filled my eyes.  I told them the story of the debtor who was forgiven his great debt and then had demanded unjustly the payment of a small debt from another in anger.  I told them that I had no grounds on which to withhold forgiveness and mercy from them when they failed, because forgiveness and mercy were not withheld from me when I did. Seventy times seventy times seventy.  I looked into their eyes that swam with emotion which matched my own.  I said, “You will screw up, just as I do.  But I will forgive you as I have been forgiven, and each of us will try again.  God promises to forgive our every failing and to help us to do what is right.”

The prayer writes of the “customary love” that God has for us, and that is just what I seek to grow in; customary, habitual, constant love, a reflex of sorts towards compassion and mercy and kindness.  The experience with the light last week has reminded me of God’s presence with us, His interest in us, and His lovingkindness towards us.  The prayer has reminded me to extend that great mercy and love to those who’d be most keenly effected by the absence of it in my words and actions, my children.

God whispers in His Word and in our hearts and through art and burning bushes, and let us pause so that we do not miss a word of it.

 

On a Sabbath Made Strange

The song played as we drove.  We laced our fingers together, which was way too warm and just right.  Tears rolled freely down my face as the passing landscape smeared by.

We’d been invited to lunch with dear friends; we had looked forward to sharing of their warm hospitality and always-wonderful food, but we had to cancel.  The raging waves of grief were breaking hard on our first Sunday as “homeless” Christians.  We needed to drive, so we drove.

We let the song break right over us, let it pull the grief open for us, and we sang along, downright belting it out.  Not sure what the kids thought.

We pulled into the Baltimore Museum of Art; it was free and I needed beauty.  Maybe some won’t understand that.  Beauty has a way of pulling my soul up from my feet and feeding it.  It speaks to that soul laid-low in the language of color and line and strokes of cadmium red.

Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Matisse, Raphael, Klimt; they all showed up and did my soul a service.  1,700 year-old Antiochian mosaics helped too.  And “The Thinker”, stooped over in thought; at least I’m not the only one stumped.

I might be grieving a bit hard.  But that is because I love hard.  Mildness is not my modus operandi.  If you have once worked your way into my heart, it is highly probable that you shall always have a residence there.

The day winds down to a wash of grays growing darker.  But I see green coming up, I see green.

When You Want To Disappear

It was a sneak preview of our upcoming play, Dancing At Lughnasa, held in front of the student body.  I was Maggie and I was nervous.  I had solo singing parts, I danced an Irish jig, I had lots of lines.  I had polka dot underpants on.  Curse you, polka dots.

It was several weeks after the performance, which had been blessedly uneventful (so I thought….).  Someone nudged me in a laughing, knowing way about how funny it was when my skirt twirled up in my dance during the show and everyone saw my underwear.

Oh.

Ahem….I was not aware….um….what?!

The urge to melt right through the floor, or vanish, just simply disappear, I’ve had that urge many-a-time.

….

It was a small room, steadily warming up to uncomfortable tropical temps.  A free papier mâché class at the local library for Reuben’s age…what could go wrong?  There were ten kids and that many mamas and papas.  The table was quickly mounded with torn newspaper strips; the parents industriously ripping enough to stuff a king-size mattress.  I left Reuben to rip his own (giggle).  Plus, I had a baby on my hip, and wasn’t this thing his project after all?

So the plan of action is to blow up a balloon for the body, wad a ball of paper and tape it into a head shape, attach egg carton eyes, cut out cardboard ears, wire up a trunk (and cover that in paper and tape), and do the same for a tail, then add four paper towel roll legs and cover them with tape.  Reattaching all the parts that kept falling off also.  And weaseling the tape away from the tape-hogging-mompetitors.  And that’s just the base.  Then you drag strips of newspaper through Elmer’s glue and you need 2-3 layers of the stuff all over that poor creature, which alternately sticks to the mountain of paper strips, or falls head-over-heels, being so heavy in the head.

Did I mention that this was for six year-olds.  And that we had two hours?

So, Reuben was doing his thing and the balloon belly exploded.  Just…BAM!  And all the mamas and papas jump and look at us.  Henri bursts out into wailing.  I go in search of a new balloon.  The teacher explains to me how to be careful not to pop the balloon with the wire for the tail.  Did I have the heart to tell her we weren’t even remotely close to making a tail yet?

So we worked (yes, by now I see that Reub’s is woefully behind because his mom isn’t doing it for him, so I come to help) at getting the deflated, mangled, lump of tape and towel tubes unstuck.  We got the new balloon situated and BAM!  Explosion number two.  There was a moment there where I considered scooping Reuben up and fleeing the room, yelling “OKAY….okay….we’re just going to go get ice cream….ICE CREAM! YEAH!  THANKS!”.

I got another balloon.  Reuben was still game to keep on-keepin’ on.  He blew it up again and handed it to me to tie off.  Some diabolical twitch in my fingers happened.  The balloon took off, took off farting lustily across the wide table, over the mountain range of paper, past the recognizably-elephantine shapes, past the startled eyes of the mamas and the papas.  And nearly nailed a man in the head.  Did he pretend not to notice?  Because I needed that balloon back.  That slobbery balloon.  Sir?  Sir….can you….um…there’s a balloon on the floor behind you.  Could you….yes….could you please hand me that slobbery balloon and a side of dignity back?  Thanks.

While the balloon was on its noisy trajectory, I really did consider ducking under the plastic tablecloth and hiding.  I just needed to not see what I just did.  To just let the whole world forget I did that, okay?

Reuben was giggling beside me.  I smiled at him.  I thanked him for having such a good attitude about this whole thing.  I told him I was proud of him.  He took it all in stride.  He really enjoyed putting his hands into the glue and ignoring the fact that we had, oh, twenty minutes to finish.

It was not a marvelous experience, but a memorable one.  It was an opportunity to persevere, it was an opportunity to see my son keep his cool and his humor in the midst of a frustrating debacle.  I’m sure all he’ll remember is the escapee-farty balloon and that he thinks he made an elephant.  I’ll remember my boy, and seeing something real and precious in his personality that I’d never seen before.  It’s the sort of thing which keeps me from hiding under the table, it makes me downright shine.