Memories of His Mercy- A Review

IMG_6133It can be a lonely journey.  For those of us who’ve ventured away from the warm, familiar arms of Western Christianity into the unknown, mysterious, and foreign embrace of Eastern Orthodoxy, it is a profound comfort to walk alongside fellow pilgrims.  We find parts of our story in theirs; we can co-suffer, and ,also, rejoice together as we encounter the ancient faith, it’s healing, depth, and richness.

I never met Fr. Peter Gillquist of blessed memory, but in his memoir Memories of His Mercy, Recollections of the Grace and Providence of God, I came to know this fellow pilgrim and heard his heart for His Savior and for the lost.  When he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy he brought not only himself, not only his family, but his whole church with him!  What began as his passion for understanding the early church grew into the discovery that it had never ceased to exist; that it continued to this day in uninterrupted succession.

His memoir beautifully chronicles the ways in which God met him in the journey.  One poignant example was in how God provided money for a breakfast that he and his wife were hosting for fellow Campus Crusade collegians.  The day before they had no money to purchase the needed groceries, but unexpectedly received a ten dollar bill in the mail, anonymously sent.  Again and again he recalls the big and little ways that God encouraged him and his wife Marilyn over the years as they stepped out in faith.

I resonate with how much he treasures his upbringing, his years serving as an evangelical, his experiences at Wheaton and in Campus Crusade.  Becoming Orthodox wasn’t a cessation of that, but a fulfillment.  His ministry has reached so many, and it’s easy to see that it will continue to do so through his books.  May we be encouraged by this faithful, holy, and devout man and his heart to share the gospel.

 

 

The Cross and the Stag- The Life of a Saint in a Graphic Novel

69641967_10157907034903352_5565236816191160320_oPerhaps I’m not the only mother of a child who struggled to read, nor the only to find that graphic novels, comics, and Big Nate style hybrid books were part of the key to helping such a child to ease into reading, spurred on by visual story to decode the text that would give the key to understanding.

When I met the author of The Cross and the Stag, Gabriel Wilson, at a writer’s conference, I was intrigued by his project with Ancient Faith, the Among the Saints Series.  Graphic novels with beautifully rendered illustrations that tell the stories of our beloved saints?  I immediately thought of my newly-illumined eleven year old son and how much he’d appreciate this way of learning about the saints.

The Cross and the Stag tells the story of the life of St. Eustathius, his wife, and two sons through their conversion to Christianity, their seemingly insurmountable trials and tests of faith, and their martyrdom circa AD 118-126.  I had heard his story before, but somehow seeing it illustrated placed and grounded my imagination into the scene, the horrors he faced as he lost all that he held dear were inescapably before my eyes, indelible as ink.

As a mother raising six children, I am so incredibly grateful for every tool available to teach my kids about the heroes of our faith.  Finishing the book in one sitting, my eleven year old wrote out his thoughts, among them:  “Never give up God, even in the hardest times.  It’s hard for me to find God when I miss a playdate or something, but St. Eustathius lost his cattle, servants, grain, and got his wife taken away from him.  He thought his kids were dead, but he kept praying to God.”  What a powerful example of perseverance for all of us to aspire to!

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Dandelions For Kings, A Reflection on Fasting

It is one of the first thoughts as my eyes blink their way into the morning light, as my body stretches taut and I yawn, expanding every cubic inch of bronchial space.  “What day is it?” I wonder, which also means, “What can I make for breakfast?”  My belly rumbles at the thought of buttered toast, coffee with heavy cream, eggs over easy, the yolks running vibrant yellow ochre.  My brain settles the calculation, and oh, it’s Wednesday.  That means black coffee, peanut butter toast, no eggs, no yellow ochre pooling in the plate.

I didn’t grow up this way, and it doesn’t come naturally to any of us to limit our consumption of certain foods as a part of our spiritual discipline.  I’m a very bumbling beginner, often failing to plan enough in advance to have a fasting-friendly meal ready for my large family.  I keep trying to remind myself to just keep getting a little better, week by week, each Wednesday and Friday and during the other extended fasts of the church calendar, not missing the forest for the trees.  Keep picking up the rhythm of soaking beans on Tuesday night, of keeping coconut cream around to make the coffee less harsh, of finding recipes that give us a good protein boost that can be assembled quickly during sports seasons.  I am just beginning to get the mechanics right, and have far to go to fast well, physically and spiritually, to fast from envy, from sloth, from all that hinders growth in Christ.

My small offerings feel like handing bouquets of dandelions to a king, small bundles of yellow ochre.  I can only offer these little, imperfect sacrifices to the One who offers me Himself.  It’s humbling in the extreme to struggle to even give up my dandelions, the small comforts of foods I love.  The cream in my coffee and the eggs on my plate, running into pools of yellow ochre.diapers3

 

Write The Love

53651619_10157473629653352_4215585030375735296_oOh, the power of our words.  Bad habits can creep in like the dry leaves that blow in the front door, rattling across the floor, accumulating all sneaky-like.  We don’t notice, we’re busy doing this, doing that.  It’s only when one finds a pile of leaves, or an entrenched habit, that the problem is truly seen for what it is.

I’ve noticed our short fuses and resultant words that cut and sting.  The casual put-downs, the snide remarks, the jokes that hurt.  When did we let all these leaves in?

I was walking through our local thrift store, trying to find white clothes for our upcoming chrismations/baptisms.  There amidst a jumble of Christmas items was a little white metal mailbox, with a sticker on the side of cardinals and a cursive “Merry Christmas!”  Fifty cents later, it was mine.

I guess it’s not obvious why I had to have it, but I believe in the power of words, for wounding and healing.  Lent is nearly upon us; how can we remember to fast from hurtful speech?  Perhaps, just perhaps, by feasting on kind words.  Thus, the mailbox.

My children love rituals, traditions, and surprises.  They delight in the suspense, the sense that normal time has been suspended, that a special season is upon us that we are compelled to feel, down in our marrow.  Could I make kindness, encouragement, and love a tradition; could it help us use this gift all year?

I had to make it easy; who has the time and energy to track down a working pen, nice paper, and so on?  I had to make it intentional; it needed a space of its own, right in the heart of the home.  I had to make it fun; personalized and anticipatory.  My Made In China, cardinal-clad mailbox put the rest into motion.

53545858_10157473629373352_6883640889567084544_oFolded cards and writing implements at the ready.  The cheerful mailbox, sporting a paper sign (sorry, cardinals!), stands ready to receive missives.53357806_10157473629448352_4832568313785614336_oUsing glass gems, a drop of transparent glue (you can use clear silicone too), tiny scrap pieces of paper, and little round magnets, I made these little alert gems to signal when the recipients have mail waiting for them.  This protects the privacy of those who are receiving notes as the other children aren’t allowed to look inside the box unless their name is on.  53679360_10157473629488352_5180555068142780416_oHe’s got mail!53089500_10157473629688352_5572183762583683072_oRight beside the writing station is an alms box.  I spoke with the children at length that any giving into it needed to be done in absolute secrecy, so that only God sees.  At the end of Lent we’ll count it together and donate it to a charity we agree upon, or a person we know needs timely help.  53472775_10157473629943352_3927092712758575104_oTo the left of this I assembled a Lenten bouquet; dried weeds and plants from a recent walk, that in their death, still are beautiful.  The brittleness reminds me that Lent can be difficult and can make us feel a bit dried up, especially as important work is done on our souls.  As Holy Week progresses, so will the bouquet, ending up resplendent.  53793183_10157473629773352_5414610397565026304_oOur candle calendar sits ready to mark the days of the Bright Sadness.53270766_10157473630008352_4616132898716647424_oAnd finally, our Lenten devotional, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts”, which will help us once again to gather each evening and be blessed, challenged, and encouraged in our journeys to Pascha.

Tending the Garden of Our Hearts FINAL COVER53509571_10157473629888352_9020214349972635648_oAnd, prayer, sweet, glorious, challenging, prayer.

May your Lenten journey be blessed!

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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The Wilderness Journal

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It was startlingly intimate.  Like sitting in a solitary place, with a familiar book, and suddenly a stranger has approached and spoken softly, without preamble, “And this is how it is with me, with this,” pointing to the text in question, “Here is what my soul felt.”

I’ve spent four years with the Philokalia, my battered copy of the first volume has been the book I packed everywhere, from the beach to a hiking trail.  It is a collection, an ancient one ranging from 300-1400 A.D. of texts written by spiritual masters, by saints and recluses, monks and priests.  Philokalia is best translated as “the love of the beautiful”, and a more apt name I cannot imagine.  In an age of delusion, illusion, artifice, and dissipation, I find nothing as beautiful as truth; it is precise medicine, and when delivered by ones whose hearts have been conquered by Love, healing follows.

I was used to reading the words alone.  Indeed, I didn’t know anyone else personally who was also meditating on it, so my journey was a rather solitary affair.  When I saw that this book by Angela Doll Carlson was available I was overjoyed; a fellow pilgrim!  How did it strike her?  What thoughts had it stirred within her?

“Be vigilant in prayer and avoid all rancor.  Let the teachings of the Holy Spirit be always with you, and use the virtues as your hands to knock at the door of Scripture.”

-Evagrios the Solitary

So I heard her voice, her unpretentious voice, and again, I was surprised; here was no small talk, no wide gulf of academic apologetics to separate writer from reader; here she was, vulnerable, open.

“When my kids would complain about getting up for school, I would say, ‘I know it’s hard.  Do it anyway.’  On the mornings when it is most difficult to get up, I remind myself of this blurry-eyed advice.  Exercising control, leaning into prayer, knocking on the doors of Scripture become a tow rope to pull me from being left to my own devices.  The evidence of our need is clear when the struggle pushes in on us before we’re even out of bed.”                                -The Wilderness Journal, Day 38

Yes.

Reading this work has been something of a book club with a new friend.  I nod empathetically, I see the texts in a new light by how they’ve illuminated her.  In a strange way, I can know Evagrios the Solitary a bit better because of how he is understood by Carlson.  As C.S. Lewis said in The Four Loves, on his chapter on Friendship:  “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.”

The stranger that spoke so intimately gradually became a familiar voice and a regular companion as I read.  We were joined intermittently by guides who introduced the authors of the texts, giving flesh and history and place to the words which however ancient and removed from our times as they may be, have the same direct relevance to our lives, to our souls.  One does not have to be a monk in the desert to apply the spiritual teachings; the Enemy of our souls has not changed over the millennia, and he afflicts both the ascetic and the waitress, the bishop and the accountant.

I am certainly in favor of reading primary sources, but reading in community, even if one can only truly be a passive observer of how a text affects another, is a gift.  Somehow it seems that there are few book clubs that pop up ready to study ancient teachings of recluses and monks, so it is a blessing to have another voice, a fellow pilgrim’s thoughts weighing in on these marvelous texts.

 

 

Is Stress Inevitable?

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We were gathered over our Bonhoeffer biographies, ostensibly discussing Dietrich’s life story, but our words had skipped off trail into the lives we were living.  We were talking about stress; how everyone seems to have quite a lot of it, how it becomes unbearable, overwhelming.  How do we manage it, reduce it, live well with it?

As we spoke, I found I couldn’t fully relate to the levels of stress, anxiety, and it’s corollary, depression, that seem endemic in our society.  Yes, I’d had stressful moments; I think of those times when the phone is ringing, the baby is crying, and someone spills the rice bag across the floor, but they are moments, not a chronic state of affairs.

“Is stress inevitable?” I asked.  The question left a wondering silence.

“Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. In other words, it’s an omnipresent part of life. A stressful event can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, causing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to surge through the body.”  -Psychology Today

Certainly there will always be stimuli that provoke us to internal agitation, but can we determine the dominance of that energy?  Can we contain that disruption and maintain inner peace?  Are we at the mercy of stress?  How does our faith, or lack thereof, inform our response to this malady?

I head to my bookshelf and open my 1970’s Webster Dictionary and look up stress.

stress:  tension; strain

That was it.  Wondering if “anxiety” would yield a more modern interpretation:

anxiety:  worry; concern; disquietude; uneasiness

The modern version of Webster’s Dictionary defines it thus:

stress:  a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.;  something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety

So is it, following Psychology Today’s wording, an omnipresent part of life, or is it a reaction to normal life that can be chosen or not chosen?

Clearly this isn’t only a modern problem; life’s stressors may have changed over time; we may no longer worry as much over marauding bands plundering us, nor famine, nor dying of a simple infection; but we fragile humans have always had provocations to worry.  What has changed though, is how we regard this agitation, and what we believe about it.

Christianity has always taught that worry and anxiety are sins; a choice to not trust God.

“O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” (Mt 6:30–34)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; . . . not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)

 “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  (Philippians 4:6)

Today though, it seems, we are led to believe that stress, anxiety, worry, and depression happen to us, and that it is the norm.  It is something, thus, to medicate, moderate, and live with.  When did it go from being a choice to a  chronic condition?  I do not speak here for those with chemical imbalances in their bodies who wisely have sought medical treatment; I am not a doctor and certainly not an expert on mental health; I address only here the very common experience of being regularly “stressed out”, anxious, and/or depressed without an underlying medical condition.

Understanding stress, anxiety, and depression as external to choice would have been unfathomable to our Christian predecessors; if God had commanded us to not worry, nor be anxious and cast down, would He not also provide us with help to fulfill that command? Could it be that we are to take life’s stressors as good medicine for us, rather than reasons to fall into despair and fretting?

“Sometimes men are tested by pleasure, sometimes by distress or by physical suffering. By means of His prescriptions the Physician of souls administers the remedy according to the cause of the passions lying hidden in the soul.”  -St. Maximos the Confessor

“You have anxieties about your life… Pray fervently to the Lord from your heart in this way: ‘I place my fate in Thy hands, O my Saviour. In the way that Thou knowest, arrange my life as is best. From now on I cut off every care about myself, having but one care, to do what is pleasing before Thee.’ Speak to God in this way, and by doing so you will already have placed yourself completely in His hands, not being concerned about anything, but calmly accepting every sort of situation, pleasant or unpleasant, as being arranged for you purposely by God. Your only concern should be to act according to God’s commandments in everything. This is all that is required of you.”  -Saint Theophan the Recluse

 “Without winter there would be no spring, and without spring there would be no summer. So it is also in the spiritual life: a little consolation, and then a little grief—and thus little by little we work out our salvation. Let us accept everything from the hand of God. If He comforts us, let us thank Him. And if He doesn’t comfort us—let us thank Him.”  – St. Anatoly Zertsalov, 19th Century Optina Elder

 

That admonition, “Let us accept everything from the hand of God,” has changed me deeply, causing joy to seep into the cracks where despair and anxiety had reigned.  If I truly trust God to be working diligently on my soul through the hardships, blessings, and day-to-day occurrences in my life, to make me more like Christ in all of it, then I have no reason to worry.  Being captivated by worry and anxiety would be like turning away my face from Him, the Great Physician of my soul, and declaring that the prescription was all wrong, and that I’d take care of my self, thank You very much.  I speak not as someone who has arrived at a constant state of peace, but as someone who has discovered a tool to help me get there.

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Well, how do we learn this trust then?  How do we stop the swirling, anxious thoughts, the mounting stress, and the harrowing depths of despair?

Here, as in many things, children are a good example for us.  If they have good and loving parents they do not worry that they’ll not be fed, clothed, and cared for.  They can look back and remember that all of their days everything necessary was provided for them with loving hands.  In speaking with their parents they feel the love and kindness in their voices; they hear good words and feel assured.

So also with us, we must look back and acknowledge that God has been faithful to us, bringing us through, sometimes in spite of ourselves.  We must speak with Him and listen to His loving voice.  When thoughts swirl we must take them captive, holding on to truth, praying for God to help us.  We must trust in His abiding love which does not let go.

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“O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You. You alone know what are my true needs. You love me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on You. My heart is open to You. Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to You. I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will. Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen.”   – Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow

Is stress inevitable?  The causes for stress, yes, however our reactions to stress need not follow a dark trajectory.  We have, through constant prayer, a good defense from fear and melancholy, from anxiety and fuss.  We choose, and we can learn to choose well.