Friday, December 31, 2010

Last Thoughts on Peace for 2010

Ring around Supernova 1987A.
 Photo taken on 11/28/03 and found at The Hubble Site.
How the heck did it get to be New Year's Eve already?  Craziness, sheer craziness if you ask me.

I hope you enjoyed reading those two articles I posted on peace.  Yeah, they were long but well worth the time I think.  Peace is so hard to come by these days. We have grown so used to LOUDNESS and commotion that peace is almost extinct as a natural commodity.  Something that should be the rule has become the exception.  Occassionally I find myself startled by the quiet. And so startled that it is unnerving.  To quote Pink from her song "Sober":
The quiet scares me 'cause it screams the truth.
She's right.  And that's why we try to avoid the quiet (where peace resides) because we can't bear the truth.  But bearing the truth seems to be the only route to true peace.  Not bogus peace, but legitimate peace where the quiet is no longer unsettling but a place of rest, and ultimately freedom.  Remember, "you should know the truth, [for] the truth shall set you free." John 8:32.  

No matter what your personal circumstances may be or where you call home, may you find more peace in your soul, a genuine place of serenity from the tumultuous motion that is inherent while living on Earth.

143 and I'll see you guys in January for some fiery preaching from the 4th century.



Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas: A Mystery Unfolding

Icon of the Nativity of Christ by the hand of Constantine Youssis.  This icon can be purchased here from Come and See Icons.
We find ourselves today celebrating the third day of the Feast of the Nativity.  It is a fast free week for Orthodox Christians in America and the feasting continues until Saturday when we celebrate another day, The Lord's Circumcision.  And then, 5 days later, we find ourselves celebrating AGAIN when we remember the Lord's baptism in the Jordan.   Orthodox Christians fast and pray like no others, but then they also celebrate like no others. 

However, even as we are in this time of feasting, it is also a time for continued reflection on what has just occurred. And what has occurred is a mystery.  I'm not just talking about a virgin giving birth, or an angel greeting the shepherds, or three wise astronomers acting in faith by following a star to the sight of a newborn baby in a manger.  These are wonders for sure, but the greater mystery is this:  Why?  Why would God, who doesn't "need" anything from anyone, especially from his created beings, do such a thing?  Why does God, who has always been, enter into human history, and while remaining God, take on human flesh? Why does Jesus Christ, Emmanuel (which translated means God-With-Us), the Divine Logos, the long awaited Messiah prophesied of again and again and again in the Old Covenant, [Isaiah 7:14 is just one example] the only begotten son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, deign to be born in a cave, amongst animals and lay in their food trough? 

The answer:  The Mystery of Love. 

It is this mystery that Christ's mother pondered [it] in her heart. [Luke 2:19].  I must say again, as I have said in another post, that I cannot even begin to imagine what the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos as we call her in our Church, must have been pondering, wondering, hoping.   To know all these tremendous things about the child you just bore and that it is your responsibility to raise Him!  It is for good reason that the Orthodox Church in every generation of its 2000 years has called her blessed. [Luke 1:48] 

And so dear readers, while we are still celebrating in these days, let us not forget the mystery that now rapidly begins to unfold before us, the mystery of the Incarnation of God.   As I heard one Orthodox Christian priest once say,  an Incarnate God is truly the only acceptable God.  A God that takes on our humanity, lives among us, is a suffering servant and ultimately dies a humiliating death, is the only God that can possibly make sense.  Otherwise, God is an uncaring, seemingly capricious tyrant.  I agree.

    “ Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”


Friday, December 17, 2010

A Peace-filled Prayer

As a part of an Orthodox Christian's morning prayers, there is one prayer in particular that converses with God about gaining and maintaining personal peace throughout the day.  It is a favorite of mine and one that I try to recall during the course of the day.

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace.
Help me in all things to do Your holy will.
In every hour of the day, reveal Your will to me.
Bless my dealings with those who surround me.
Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day
  with peace of soul and firm conviction that Your will governs all.
In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings.
In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by You.
Teach me to act firmly and wisely without embittering and embarrassing others.
Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all it shall brings.
Direct my will, teach me to pray, and You, Yourself, pray in me.


I especially love the two sentences in bold. It reminds me that every single person is known by God and that my reaction to this person is also known.  Lovely thing to contemplate, easy thing to forget.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Recipe For Discord

Christ brought love to the table. Let us do the same.  Icon by the hand of Nicholas Papas found at Come and See Icons.

A sure fire way to disturb your peace, and those you around this holiday season, is to cook up a big vat of resentments and bring them to the table. And don't fret if you don't have any really large ones.   Just toss a few small ones in a bowl, get the whisk out and start beating them into a frenzy. That works too.  They can be old, they can be new. There are no expiration dates on resentments.  It's like they are soaked in succulent formaldehyde.  De-lish!

Unfortunately what is tasty is not always nutritious.

O resentments!  I hate you!  I wish you would just go away! I don't let you though and that's the biggest part of the problem.  It's like reaching for that second brownie.  I know I shouldn't have it, but ohhhh, it's just so yummy! I grab it, eat it and then I'm totally bummed because, well, that was 10 grams of fat I really didn't need.  Remember the expression "A moment on the lips, forever on the hips!" Resentment could be "Once allowed in the heart, forever does discord impart!"

Yes, that is a Desert Deliberations original. You heard it here first.

The below link is a brillant article written by the Metropolitan Jonah, the head of the Orthodox Church in America, on resentments and inner peace.  The article is very readable, makes acute observations and gives  tangible, employable advice.

Do Not React, Do Not Resent, Keep Inner Stillness

Here's a brief preview:
One of the things which is so difficult to come to terms with is the reality that when we bear anger and resentment and bitterness in our hearts, we erect barriers to God’s grace
within ourselves. It’s not that God stops giving us His grace. It’s that we say, “No. I don’t want it.” What is His grace? It is His love, His mercy, His compassion, His activity in our lives. The holy Fathers tell us that each and every human person who has ever been born on this earth bears the image of God undistorted within themselves. In our Tradition there is no such thing as fallen nature. There are fallen persons, but not fallen nature. The implication of this truth is that we have no excuses for our sins. We are responsible for our sins, for the choices we make. We are responsible for our actions, and our reactions. “The devil made me do it” is no excuse, because the devil has no more power over us than we give him. This is hard to accept, because it is really convenient to blame the devil. It is also really convenient to blame the other person, or our past. But, it is also a lie. Our choices are our own.

On an even deeper level, this spiritual principle – do not react – teaches us that we need to learn to not react to thoughts. One of the fundamental aspects of this is inner watchfulness. This might seem like a daunting task, considering how many thoughts we have. However, our watchfulness does not need to be focused on our thoughts. Our watchfulness needs to be focused on God. We need to maintain the conscious awareness of God’s presence. If we can maintain the conscious awareness of His presence, our thoughts will have no power over us. We can, to paraphrase St. Benedict, dash our thoughts against the presence of God. This is a very ancient patristic teaching. We focus our attention on the remembrance of God. If we can do that, we will begin to control our troubling thoughts. Our reactions are about our thoughts. After all, if someone says something nasty to us, how are we reacting? We react first through our thinking, our thoughts. Perhaps we’re habitually accustomed to just lashing out after taking offense with some kind of nasty response of our own. But keeping watch over our minds so that we maintain that living communion with God leaves no room for distracting thoughts. It leaves plenty of room if we decide we need to think something through intentionally in the presence of God. But as soon as we engage in something hateful, we close God out. And the converse is true – as long as we maintain our connection to God, we won’t be capable of engaging in something hateful. We won’t react.
A very good read, epecially during a time in which we will soon be reunited with family members and friends.  Let's not present a platter of resentments as our contribution at this year's holiday meal.  For sure, no one will ask for the recipe.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Conversation About Peace

Saint Seraphim feeding a bear outside of his hermitage (from lithograph The Way to Sarov, 1903) source:  Wikipedia

My apologies for the last post.  It was choppy and not well written.  I said what I wanted to say, but it still seems somewhat disjointed and overly wordy.  This post promises to be infinitesimally better because the crux of it is not written by me. Again, my apologies.

So, where were we?  Ah yes...acquiring peace.  And I mean real peace, not say-one-thing-but-really-feel-another bogus peace.  It is a peace that must be spiritually sown, grown and matured in the heart and not the head where we can and often deceive ourselves.  In the Orthodox Christian tradition, the source of this peace is none other than the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity.  When one has the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, peace grows.  As the Aposte Paul, the eloquent and beautiful soul that he is, says in his letter to the Galatians 5:22-25 :
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. 24 And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

Knowing this, the larger question that remains is: How does one then acquire the Holy Spirit in order to grow these fruits, like peace? You are not wrong by answering with the above verse "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit." Okay, but then, how is one to walk? TELL ME HOW TO DO IT!

Not to leave you in suspense any longer, I present to you this:  

A Wonderful Revelation to the World

The above links you to the famous conversation between St. Seraphim of Sarov, a monk, and the layperson (layperson is a regular person like you and me) Nicholai Motovilov.  I don't have the time, nor quite frankly, the talent to write about St.Seraphim other than to say that he was a beacon of light and of love. He is well-beloved by Orthodox Christians, and well-known among most traditional Christians and some "New Age" circles.  I highly recommend the biography written by Valentine Zander published by SVS Press, as well as some of his writings (which include the famous conversation from the link above) from theThe Little Russian Philokalia: Volume 1, St. Seraphim published by St. Herman Press.

I often thought to myself that outside of the Bible, if I could only have one spiritual book, it would be the one containing this simple conversation.  All you need to know about living and, more importantly, growing in the spiritual life is contained in this talk between an elderly sweet monk and this simple layperson.  No big words, no difficult theological concepts, none of that.  The only word you may need to know is "batiushka" which is a very endearing way of calling one "father".

After a quick google, I found a really well written (and short) biography of St. Seraphim written by Fr. James Coles on his blog last year.  You would do well in reading that post too found here.  Read what Fr. James wrote before you read the famous conversation link I posted above.  It will give you a much better idea of who St. Seraphim is.

And so dear reader, I leave you today with this from the "Wonderful Revelation":

“My joy, I beg you, acquire the Spirit of Peace. That means to bring oneself to such a state that our spirit will not be disturbed by anything. For one must go through many sorrows to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the way all righteous men were saved and inherited the Heavenly Kingdom….”

It's a lovely reflection as we drawer ever closer to Christmas.

Friday, December 3, 2010

No World Peace? It's probably my fault.

Okay I've written and rewritten this post quite a few times, so hopefully I've got it right.  Here I go.

Anyone who tells you that world peace is attainable in this life is, in my opinion, delusional.  Now I'm not saying that wanting world peace isn't a noble desire, but if we do a quick check of world history, there never has been a time in which this existed.  Wars, famine, heinous rulers have always been a part of the historical landscape.  Even in the Bible we find this from practically day one.

The famous first couple, Adam and Eve, after being banished from Paradise have two sons, Cain and Abel. And, before you know it, over the course of just a few verses, one kills the other. End of story, so much for world peace.  Here's the whole passage if you are interested Genesis 4:1-15.  

Hmmm, I just re-read that passage and something just jumped out at me which really better explains what I want to say (God beat me to the punch! Go figure.).  This is God talking to Cain right before he kills Abel.

4 Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, 5 but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
6 So the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”
So God right off the bat says, and I'm paraphrasing, "Hey, don't be mad. I saw your intentions, and they weren't good. Sin lies at the door of your heart and it wants to come in and rule you.  Don't let it."  Unfortunately, Cain didn't apply these words to himself, has a chat with his brother where his jealousy culminates and results in fratricide.  It is this very inability to manage our sinful inclinations that keeps us from achieving world peace, and it was there from the start.

Now I really didn't intend on this post being a bummer by calling everyone a sinner, but I think the point I'm trying to get to is that is we really want world peace, it has to start with ourselves first.   And honestly, it is so much more than "accepting" other people's lifestyles/religions/political views and not acting violently against them.  For while we may say one thing in public, oftentimes in our hearts, it is quite another story.

Using myself as an embarrassing example, I recently heard that someone who I don't particularly care for (I have judged their past actions as mean and uncaring) had something really terrific happen to them.  Outwardly I said "Oh, that's fabulous!" but inwardly I wasn't happy for them, and in fact, I was angry and jealous of their good fortune.  Ouch! Sounds like I have some resentment issues.  Remember this about love from St. Paul's famous 1 Corithians 13?:
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Yep, I pretty much did the exact opposite of all the things listed here. Conclusion:  I did not react in love and where there is no love, there is no peace. 
So, it seems to me that to have peace there is much more to it than not having wars or conflicts, it's an actual change where your first reaction to someone else's good fortune is genuine happiness without a hint of envy. Or in a negative situation, it is when someone slaps you on the cheek,  you don't hit back physically, or verbally or, most importantly, IN YOUR HEART.   Resentments can run very deep and will disturb your peace. 

So then, what is the answer?  How do we banish resentments and curtail the madness which adds to the existing chaos of the world and acquire genuine loving peace?   Well, as you can well imagine, I don't personally have the answers, see said example above.  However, I know some people who do.  Details to follow shortly.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November Wrap-Up and December's Topic

Apologies are in order for sure.  I had such high hopes for this month and yet I could only muster up enough time to highlight three women who rock.  I had so many others in mind.  Truth be told, when you are a mother, your time is rarely your own and other matters had to take precedent over blogging. 

So with December knocking on the door in a few hours, it is time to release the much anticipated topic for the month (I know! It's been keeping you up at night!) and it is...Peace.

With just a mere 25 days until we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, I hope to be able to post quotes and ideas from people much more spiritually mature than myself that might just help us arrive to that silent and holy night with souls infused with peace, ready to take in the mystery of the incarnation of the Savior.

Below is a short 1 minute commercial that is shown during the holiday season here in America.  Perhaps to attain to the serenity of these sleeping babes in the video below is far-fetched, for we all know too much at this point, but nonetheless, it would be a wonderful thing to have.  Enjoy and see you in December.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Girl Named Katherine

Here's the 411 about our latest entry in Women Who Rock, a girl named Katherine. 
  • Born with a silver spoon in her mouth.  Family had status and cash.
  • Highly educated and especially skilled at debate. 
  • Stunningly beautiful.
  • And finally, she was well aware of all of the above and prided herself on it. 
Yes, our Katherine was that girl that made you green with envy because she was both valedictorian and prom queen.  And her parents got her a candy apple red convertible BMW for her 16th birthday. Okay that was an exaggeration, Katherine could not have received a BMW because she was born into late 3rd century Egypt. Maybe she would have gotten a really awesome chariot though. At any rate, Katherine was smart and pretty and rich and well, sort of of herself.  When it came time for her to find a spouse her "only" requirements were that the gentleman had to surpass her in nobility, wealth, comeliness and wisdom.  Oh, is that all?  You get my drift here I think.

Thankfully though, she had a very observant mother.  She knew that her daughter possessed all the traits that were "valuable" according to the standards of the world, but Katherine's mom, a secret Christian, also knew that her daughter needed one more thing.  So, when the time was right, Katherine was introduced to her mother's spiritual father, a Christian monk who lived outside of town.  Her mother sent her there to get "advice" as to how to find this perfect mate, but also with the real hope that Katherine would soon realize that there was something missing from her seemingly perfect life and that was a true knowledge of God.  

Well, you can probably guess what happened.  Katherine becomes a Christian, her pride finally exposed to her and she becomes an even more incredible personality.   She's got beauty, she's got brains and now, most importantly, she has God's grace and power.  Seriously, there was no stopping her.  Katherine left the philosophers speechless in their debates in the public squares and converted them to Christianity through her irrefutable arguments.   She even converted the pagan emperor Maximian's wife, Augusta.  I told you she was good.

Ultimately Katherine paid the price for her belief in Jesus Christ.  The emperor couldn't take the humiliation and set out to torture and kill her.  Much to his chagrin, in the process of her martyrdom, which took some time because his methods miraculously failed at first, another 200 were converted by her fearless witness to the truth of Christianity.  Finally on November 24th, 310 AD, 1700 years ago today, Katherine finally received the martyr's crown and entered into her true Bridegroom's presence. 

Okay, I know...that was really really abridged.  For a more interesting and detailed version, click here.  It isn't very long, it may take 2-3 minutes to read but it is much more in depth than my little bit above.

So, as you can probably guess, this girl Katherine, is actually St. Katherine the Great Martyr.  She is my patron saint and that of many Christian women bearing the name Katherine or a derivative thereof.

This icon prayer card can be purchased from Come and See Icons.
 St. Katherine is one of the more popular saints, and since she lived prior to the schism of the Christian East (Orthodox Christianity) and the Christian West (Roman Catholics) in 1054 AD, she is held in high regard by both bodies of believers.  Probably the most famous Orthodox Christianity monastery on earth is dedicated to St. Katherine with her remaining relics residing there. St. Katherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai has been around since the 6th century and to this day is still fully operational.  Click here for more information on this incredible place which holds the majority of the Codex Sinaiticus, the most complete collection of the New Testament from over 1600 years ago.  Here's a fun fact for you...the head librarian at St. Katherine's Monastery is a former American Baptist from Texas.  Now an Orthodox Christian, Fr. Justin is the only American to have ever lived at St.Katherine's monastery.  
As one who honors St. Katherine as my patron saint, I have often contemplated her life story. Certainly there were many miraculous things that occurred (read the link for the juicy details) but I always wondered about her absolute certitude about Christ, even until a tortuous death. Mental arguments are not enough for one to die for, so there HAD to be something else, a complete transformation in her very core, and so much so that she could care less for her "perfect" life in this world. How many of us spend our lives in the vain pursuit of beauty, the acquisition of wealth and knowledge and/or hopefully fame and recognition? St. Katherine had it all naturally and counted it as nothing in comparison to knowing Jesus Christ.  That's a woman who rocks.

So on this day, the 1700th anniversary of St. Katherine's death, I'm going to try to keep my mind and heart, where she kept hers, focused on Christ with the hopes that I too, may assimilate my spiritual life to one she acquired. 
"Let us praise Katherine the radiant bride of Christ, guardian of Sinai, our helper and supporter. By the power of the Spirit, she silenced the arrogance of the ungodly. Crowned as a martyr, she now implores great mercy for all."
This is St. Katherine's hymn which can be sung today, her namesday, on every continent in the world. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

40 days to a new you!

Georgian Icon of St. David the King and Psalmist. This icon is by the hand of Ilya & Michael Balavadze and can be purchased here at Come & See Icons.  The great King David's psalms testify to his intimate dealings with sin, repentance and ultimately the joy of God's love. 
An interruption of "Women Who Rock" to bring you this important announcement...

Today marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast for Orthodox Christians in America. Not only is it 40 days of keeping a primarily vegan diet, and but also a time of increased prayer, self-reflection leading to repentance, almsgiving and especially an increase in Bible reading apart from the normal daily readings we read together as a Church.  We use the 40 days to prepare ourselves for one of the biggest feasts in the Orthodox Christian Church, the Birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, the very incarnation of God's Divine Word ( John 1:1-5 ).

Although to most people, the food element of the fast seems like it would be the hardest, but for me it is the easiest.  The much more difficult part is taking a long honest look at myself and routing out all the junk that resides in my heart and making time for increased prayer. (I have heard that fasting without prayer is called a demon's fast, because demons neither eat nor do they pray. That's scary and not something you want to do!)  It's the pulling myself away from life's daily distractions, like the Internet and TV, and making the time for God that I struggle with the most.   I have to force myself to chose God and the kingdom of heaven and not the world's ephemeral delights.  The Scriptures speak to this very idea here: 

12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force (Matt 11:12)
From my own personal experience I KNOW that this 40 day time period is absolutely essential to my spiritual health.  I have found a spiritual lightness and true joy (Godly joy is not happiness or some sort of emotional "Golly I feel good" rush by the way, it is something completely other) that I have not been able to attain by any other means.  This divine joy is truly inexplicable.  To quote the Psalmist David the King who exhorts (Psalm 34:8-9):

          8 Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him!
9 Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him
Taste and See!  I can't taste and see for you, it's something you have to do for yourself.  I teach my children this very thing about Christ and His Church.  I can tell them about my own experiences but at some point they must let go of my hand and taste and see and trust in Him for themselves.  It's a deeply personal experience that transcends words.  Again, it's not emotional or happy, it's something else, and it stays with you for as long as you allow it.  The world is transfigured, life is somehow different in an awesome way.

I realize that many of my Christian readers are not Orthodox, but that shouldn't stop you from treating these 40 days prior to Christmas a little differently this year.  Perhaps increase the time you spend in prayer, spend more time with your Bible, be a little more merciful with others and maybe even try to take an honest look at the things that separate you from God and make an effort to eradicate at least one of those things.  Participating in these sorts of spiritual exercises is never a bad idea for anyone! Of course, if you are Orthodox, then I'm preaching to the choir for you know that our church "has no want for those who fear Him". (see psalm 34 above) The healing sacraments of confession and communion and our beautiful worship services leave no one in want if one truly desires it.

Oh, and there just one more thing to remember, and it's kinda important.  The most essential part of fasting and all that goes along with it is that it is must be done in love and for love.  Love for God, love for humanity and even love for yourself.  It is not something one does to "get favor" with God, that's something for the Big Bully Deity believers.  God doesn't need your fasting to love you.  He desires your fasting because it will be during this time that you turn to Him and seek Him more diligently.  Remember the Apostle Paul's words to the Corinthians:
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
That is "the catch" you could say.  All of this will profit you ZERO, NADA, NOTHING if not done in love.  I guess I should have disclaimed that at the beginning of the post.

And so my friends, my desire for you is that your days preceding the celebration of the Birth of Jesus Christ be ones filled with Godly endeavours and once you have arrived to this marvelous feast day that you truly understand the Lord's words (John 15:11)

11 “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may   be full."

Oh that joy, that joy!  If everyone would chose this joy and remain in it!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mother Maria Skobtsova, A True Human Being

Mother Maria Skobtsova
My next selection for this month's "Women Who Rock" is Mother Maria Skobtsova, an Orthodox Christian nun who is best known for toiling ceaselessly in the German occupation of Paris and subsequently dying in the Ravensbruck concentration camp gas chambers in 1945.

Born Elizaveto Pilenko in December 1891, "Liza" as she was known prior to becoming a nun, fled the political turmoil of Russia and eventually found herself, along with her mother, her second husband and three children as refugees in Paris in 1923.    Her eldest child was born in Russia to her first husband, a marriage that ended in divorce, and the second two children were born "on the run"  between the years 1920 and 1923. Her new life in France was one of  many hardships and deprivations, and to make matters even worse, the youngest Skobtsova child, Nastia, became extremely ill and died at the tender age of 3 in 1926.  Here is a note written by Liza at the time of Nastia's death:

For years I did not know, in fact I never knew the meaning of repentance, but now I am aghast at my own insignificance [...].  At Nastia's side I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life.  And now I want an authentic and a purified road, not out of faith in life, but in order to justify, understand and accept death [...]. No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, 'Love one another', so long as it is [love] to the end and without exceptions.  And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden. [from papers collected by Mother Maria's mother Sophia Pilenko]
Her life in Paris continued on after Nastia's death, and over the course of the next several years, her second marriage more or less fell apart and Liza, in her sufferings, drew closer and closer to God. Finally, in 1932, following her heart's longing, she entered the monastic ranks of the Orthodox Church and became Mother Maria.

Mother Maria was what you would call an "unconventional" nun.  She was known to have a beer and a smoke and she did not always keep to the prescribed schedule of services of the monastic life.  Additionally, she was still raising her son Yuri and her eldest child, a daughter, made the poor and worrisome decision to return to Russia where she soon succumbed to disease.  Because of these worldly matters and cares, a few people believed that she should not have taken on the monastic life, and she was making "light" of the serious decision to live as a nun.  Whatever the opinion, ultimately it was the monastic robe that opened many doors for her.

Upon becoming a nun, Mother Maria worked day and night scraping up money and food to help the needy in Paris.  She slept in the basement or in a closet so others could have a bed.  She opened a school and she sought out the homeless.  Mother Maria never accepted "no" for an answer and always managed to find whatever it was that was needed at that given moment. For eight years, she toiled serving humanity in this manner. However, it was during the fall of Paris to the Germans in June 1940 that her efforts became even more courageous.

From 1940-1942, Mother Maria, along with her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitri Klepinin and Ilya Fondaminsky, continued not only to help the Russian refugees but now the suffering Jews as well.  In July of 1942, there was a mass arrest of 12,884 Jews where a little more than half of those arrested were brought to the Velodrome d'Hiver, a stadium for bicycle races, which was not far from Mother Maria's charity house located at 77 Rue de Lourmel.  Mother Maria, using her monastic robes as an excuse to get into the stadium, was able to comfort the Jewish children and their parents and she distributed any food she could bring in.  The children's book Silent As A Stone chronicles Mother Maria's rescue of a few of these children by smuggling them out in trash cans.  After 5 days in the stadium, all the Jews that remained were sent to Auschwitz, and now Mother Maria became an person of suspicion with the Nazi occupiers.  Mother Maria and her companions courageously continued their work until their own arrests for aiding the suffering Jewish people in 1943. Yuri and Fr. Dimitri were sent to a camp named Dora, and Mother Maria was sent in a sealed cattle truck to Ravensbruck.

Mother Maria spent the final two years of her life in this concentration camp supporting those around her.  She was described by a fellow prisoner as "never downcast, never.  She was full of good cheer, really good cheer.  She was on good terms with everyone.  She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people no matter what their political views might be or their religious beliefs."  [from the afterword of Silent As A Stone, see below for details]  Finally in March 1945, a month before Ravensbruck was liberated by Soviet forces, Mother Maria, prisoner number 19,263, was executed in the gas chambers. 

Soon after the end of WWII, Mother Maria's essays and books became public and in 2004 Mother Maria was canonized as a saint in the Orthodox Church along with her companions. Mother Maria is also honored as being among the "Righteous Gentiles" in Israel.

There is SO much more to her story.  I recommend both the children's book Silent As A Stone written by Jim Forest and the biography Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova 1891-1945  written by Sergei Hackel.   Both are found at SVS Press and Amazon. 

What I love so much about Mother Maria is that she was a regular person who had lived, at least to society's warped standards, an imperfect life.  She was twice married, she liked to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. Additionally, she was a woman who suffered.  She was forced to leave her homeland, two of her children preceded her in death, and she was under the constant eye of the Nazi authorities. Can you blame the woman for wanting a drink or a smoke?  Some of her written spiritual reflections actually have cigarette burns on them. 

Most importantly, for me at least, was that Mother Maria didn't use her past sufferings as an excuse for denying the small still voice of God that resounded in her heart to love every human being.   She carried on for the love of God and the love of humanity.  She wasn't scared or filled with any sort of doubts.  She wasn't a coward.  She was a true human being. 

And as much as I would like to say YOU ROCK!, I find myself feeling this phrase to be a bit disrespectful.  So humbly I ask you St. Maria Skobtsova, lover of God and lover of mankind, to pray for us here in this world that we may have your same tenacity and courage to carry out the Lord's desire for us to love one another.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Prayers for David

Dear Readers,

I humbly ask your prayers for a suffering teenage boy named David.

David is the eldest child of a former meth addict, lived in abject poverty and neglect for most of his young life and was abused by both his mother and her boyfriend. 

Thankfully, a couple of years ago, David and one of his siblings (he is one of five) was adopted by a wonderful loving family.  Unfortunately though, the abuse and neglect sustained by David from his childhood has manifested itself now during puberty with devastating effects. He is suffering with several psychological issues including Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome with Delusional Behaviour.  His therapists see years of therapy ahead for him to have a shot at a halfway 'normal' life.

Please pray for David and everyone in his family.  He is a fourteen year old kid who didn't do a damn thing to deserve any of this.  Thank God that this was caught though and he did not harm himself or others. God only knows how many more kids walk around everyday with similar issues.  

Thanks guys.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Lillian Moller Gilbreth, American Superwoman

Lillian Moller Gilbreth, pic from Wikipedia
 On August 26, 1920 the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America became law. This amendment finally granted women the right to vote.  One of the many reasons people opposed this amendment was the misconception that since women should be focusing their time on raising their children and taking care of their households, they would or could not be able to concern themselves in worldly matters.

Now, I don't disagree with this comment entirely.  Women should not ignore their children, and it is important for us to create an enviroment in our households that is loving, safe and generally happy.  But c'mon people, because women take care of their families they can't have a clue about their country?  Wrong.

Case in point, meet Lillian Moller Gilbreth.

Here's her brief bio, courtesy of Wikipedia.
  • Born May 24, 1878
  • BA, MA from Berkeley, 1900, 1902 in engineering
  • Married Frank Gilbreth, 1904
  • Had 7 children between 1905 - 1915
  • PhD from Brown University in Industrial Psychology, 1915
  • Had 5 more children between 1916 - 1922
  • 'First American engineer ever to combine a synthesis of psychology and scientific management" (quote from Wikipedia, see link below)
  • Advisor to Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy & Johnson "on matters of civil defense, war production and rehabilitation of the physically handicapped" (quote from Wikipedia, see link below)
  • Wrote books, gave lectures
  • Did I mention she had 12 children?
  • 22 Honorary Degrees, some from Ivy League schools
  • Died at the ripe old age of 93 on January 2, 1972
Here's the Wikipedia link to her story.  It is simply astounding, almost unbelievable.  She was the founding mother of multi-tasking.  The books Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles On Their Toes were written by her children about their life as a large family. 

So today, let's remember Lillian Moller Gilbreth, wife, mother and an extraordinary American citizen who lived in the midst of the suffrage movement and was fortunate enough to have been granted the right to vote for most of her adult life.  Not all of us have the ability to emulate her life exactly, and we can't, we aren't Lillian.  However, it is evident that she didn't sit around and wait for things to happen.  She used her God-given intelligence and abundunt energy and put it to use. 

Congratulations Lillian, You Rock!

Monday, November 1, 2010

New Month, New Topic...WOMEN WHO ROCK!

A complete departure from the prior month's heavy topic on health, I'm shifting gears and going with some lighter fare...Women who, in my humble opinion, rock.  Some you will know, some you won't. Some are American, some are not.  Most will be from the past 150 years or so, however there will be at least two from 1500+ years ago.  All of them have one trait in common though and that is COURAGE.  Courage to speak up, courage to act, courage to carry on, the courage to listen to their hearts and not to the popular opinion of their era.   

This topic stems from a discussion I had with a woman a few weeks ago who was in the process of writing a book about the trials and hardships of our grandmothers and our obligation to honor their memories by living a life worthy of their sufferings.   My great-grandmother didn't risk life and limb on a ship that almost sank in the Atlantic with her young children in tow so her future great-granddaughter born in a cushy New York Metro area suburb could spend her free time getting her nails done and watch reality TV.  No my dear Anna Barna,  I owe you much more than that.   

First post will be tomorrow, November 2nd, which also happens to be election day here in the US.   So after you cast your ballot ladies, a right won by persistent women not so long ago, stop by here and find a woman who rocks.

See you then.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A last thought on health

Somehow I have found myself almost to the end of October and I see that there is so much more I could or should have said about health, especially from the spiritual aspect of it.  I have been pressed for time lately, and have many more ideas, but I really need to sit down and sort them out in a cohesive manner that would make sense to all readers.   Probably come springtime, during Great Lent, I can make a better go at this, but for now I need to wrap things up with a conclusion.  And that conclusion is this:

We cannot have good health in isolation from each other.

God said from the very start: "And the LORD God said, 'It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.'" Genesis 2:18   From a lesser authority, Wendell Berry in his book The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture  states this: "To try to heal the body alone is to collaborate in the destruction of the body.  Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness.  Conviviality is healing.  To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation." (pp.103-104, from Chapter entitled "The Body and the Earth")

As an Orthodox Christian, I really dig that last line about the feast of Creation. We fast and feast in our Church like no one else I know.  Particulary, the wedding feast imagery is huge in Orthodox Christianity.   Christ's Church is the bride, and He is the Bridegroom. It is not for nothing that the first wonder that Jesus works in the New Testament is turning the water into wine at the wedding at Cana.  There will be much more on this Bridegroom imagery once we get to Holy Week.  It is so beautiful and other-worldly, I can't wait to share it all with you.  I wish it were Holy Week right now.  Sorry, I've digressed once again.

In order to further prove this point of healing with the involvement of others, I will relay to you this brief testimony of someone "being there" for me.  You may think it's lame, but at the time, it meant the world to me.

This occured during a time that I was a bit down in the dumps about some things, nothing earth shattering, but unpleasant enough that I wasn't my usual self.   I had been walking with a woman, who was no more than an aquaintance, and having just pleasant chit-chat about nothing really when she suddenly stopped the conversation and said, "You know, you have really beautiful hair."  I thanked her of course, but then quickly had to excuse myself because I was on the verge of bursting into tears.  I know it was a compliment on my appearance, but it was so unexpected and sincere that I almost could not contain the joy it caused me.  It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me in awhile, and at least for the next few days, I lived on that kind compliment.  And here's the kicker, this woman was in the process of recovering from late stage cancer surgery.   So when she could have been talking about her trials with this very serious illness (and rightfully so!!!) instead she must of sensed something amiss with me and said whatever she thought might cheer me up.    We should all have such awareness of each other!

And so dear ones, I end with this quote from the ancient Jewish Philosopher Philo Judeaus (15 BC -50 AD).  Ponder it, but more importantly, put it into use.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
Ain't that the truth.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The positive effects of smiling

Sunflowers, in full bloom, know how to smile.  Photo from my backyard.
Okay this is a little out of left field maybe, but I ran across this really interesting article on smiling and suicide prevention published by the American Journal of Psychiatry found here.

Suicide, without trying to make light of a devastating topic, is the antithesis of good health.  As Americans, we value life.  From the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  Life was believed to be a right of every human being according to the authors of the Declaration.

Of course, not everyone loves their own life and sometimes suicide appears to be the only way out of what looks to be a desperate or embarrassing situation at the particular moment in time.  A few weeks ago in a quiet Arizona community, a man killed his wife, two children (ages 8 & 10) and then himself.  Here's the story if you wish to read it for yourself.  The article says his wife was taken away in extremely critical condition, however according to subsequent articles, she did end up dying two days later in the hospital.  I read in another place that the children were wonderful students and the family car had the special "It Shouldn't Hurt To Be A Child" child abuse awareness license plate.  Obviously there was some other hurt deep within this man that led him to do such a terrible thing.  Sadly, these stories are becoming all too familiar lately.  Maybe it's the economy, maybe it's not.  This gentleman had been employed and was portrayed as a very likeable person by his co-workers, so that doesn't seem to be the case in this particular story.   Whatever the man's "reason" for this, the end result was tragic. 

So back to the original article that inspired me to write this little bit.  According to the American Journal of Psychiatry's article (and it is very readable, no technical jargon to get in the way) a genuine smile can prevent someone from taking their life.  The simple act of showing just a fleeting interest in another human being can have enormous positive consequences.  I have read in some Orthodox Christian literature that smiling at another person is a form of almsgiving.  That's a really great concept if you think about it.

Now I'm not suggesting we all walk around like a bunch of jackasses with a big stupid grin on our faces all day long, but maybe we should be a little more aware of how we carry ourselves.  There are some days when we can't smile.  We all have had those days.  However, there are also days in which we can.  Perhaps, even if it is just one day a week for five minutes that we are happy, we can max out those five minutes by flashing someone a smile or a kind word. 

At any rate, read the article above and let's all make at least a small effort to smile more.  There is an upside for women too.  The more women genuinely smile, the less wrinkles they have.  Google it, there is research to support that theory!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Our part of the health equation

The last post clearly states God's role in helping us with our  health.  I can truthfully testify that God is first place I go when I need help.  HOWEVER, if you actually read my little blurb on salvation, there is another important factor in our health, and that is us.

I am responsible for me.  It's not that God can't do all the work, but what I have found is that He wants me to be part of the process as well.  I can't pray to lose weight yet refuse to monitor my caloric intake and ignore exercise.   I can't ask God to find me a job, yet refuse to take one that is offered to me that doesn't meet all "my" requirements.  I can't pray to God for a peaceful resolution to a conflict with a person, yet go around bad mouthing and re-telling people how I have been wronged by said person.  It's like this joke:

A man was standing on his front porch and his neighbor came by and told him that a flood was coming and that he had better evacuate.  The man replied, "No worries. God loves me and will save me."  Well, the flood came down his street and came up to the level of his porch.  A police officer then came down the street in a boat and said "Sir, the flood is only going to get worse, climb into the boat and we'll move to higher ground."  The man then answered back "No, that's okay, God loves me and will save me."  A few hours later, after the man had to move to the roof of his house because the flood waters had overtaken his home a helicopter hovers over the man and drops down a ladder to lift the man to safety.  Sure enough, the reply was the same, "No thanks.  God loves me and will save me."  Sadly, the flood waters rose so high that the man drowned.  The man is now in heaven and says to God "Where were You during my time of trouble?  I thought you loved me."  And then God calmly answers back "What are you talking about? I do love you. Don't you remember? I sent you your neighbor, a police officer and a helicopter."
Two lessons learned:
  1. God provided for the man, but the man refused to take his help. 
  2. Help = Love

Love can come from a variety of sources and but usually it is our pride that gets in the way of taking it.  And although pride is never really justified, it is understandable where it comes from.  If your whole life someone has been telling you that you are stupid or instilled some sort of irrational fear into you and then you finally resolve to undertake some sort of endeavor and this person wants to help you, you may become defensive and say "No!  I can do it myself, I don't need your help."  I am ashamed to admit this, but I can recall many times either saying or thinking this very thing. It's hard habit to break, especially if in the past people have offered their help and really they had ulterior motives the whole time.  Or if there was a person who you told you repeatedly that they loved you, but in the end you found yourself betrayed one way or another.  No one likes to set themselves up for heartache or hurt.  It's a tough spot for sure and defensive-ness is often the knee-jerk reaction to any future offers of help from other people.

So what exactly am I getting at here?  I guess that it is this. 

We HAVE to let others love us.  When we deny their love, we are ultimately denying God's love for us.  Yes, there are crummy people out there, wolves in sheep's clothing as they say.  But, there are also some very good people out there who legitimately want to love us and, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are expressing God's love for us through their actions.  These are the same people fulfilling the words that St. Paul says in his epistle to the Galatians: "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." Galatians 6:2 We are denying these helpers/lovers the chance to fulfill the law of Christ, and that's not nice.  Not nice at all.

I know it's hard, and it's not something you can jump into all at once.  I take baby steps towards this.  If someone offers to open the door for me when my arms are full, I say yes.  If someone sees that I'm under the weather and offers to make dinner for my family, I say yes.  If someone notices that I am not my "normal self" and they ask me what's bothering me, I tell them and don't pretend everything is okay when it is not.  Now, obviously I use discretion and I don't blab out every single detail to every single person who asks because I also need to be mindful of what St. Paul says a teeny bit later "For each one shall bear his own load." Galatians 6:5.  Certainly measure the severity of your issue with the known severity of the one asking you the questions before you respond.  I heard a story of a priest and his wife who, while sitting and watching their very premature baby struggle for life in the NICU, had a woman come in and try to "help" by saying she knew how they felt because her dog had been really sick once.  While maybe this lady loved her dog as much as a child, comparing the two really wasn't the right thing to do in my opinion.  Perhaps the better response could have been "I know this is tough time for you.  Let me know what I can do to help." 

Well friends, I think I may have come full circle on this part of my ramblings on health.  Maybe for the balance of the month I'll post on things like healthy eating and the like.  I hope you enjoyed this.  I know I did.

143 My Friends!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Suffering - Part Four - Dealing with it

There are many ways in which people deal with suffering.  Certainly this isn't new information to anyone.  Excessive drinking, drug use, isolation.  Some are very good at concealing their sufferings and some are not.   I suppose it depends on the person and the situation.  Like I have said before, I'm no trained professional, just an observer.

Also, as I mentioned in a prior post, no one is immune to suffering.  Even if you have had a minor illness, you have suffered a bit.  Or perhaps not even a physical suffering, maybe some sort of other disappointment in your life.  You cannot live on this planet and not have a time when something did not go your way.  It seems to me that sometimes the smallest of disappointments can have monumental effects on your health.   An unkind word to you as a child can sometimes hang with you for a lifetime unfortunately.  I don't agree with the saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."  A broken bone will hurt but will eventually heal, however an unkind word can hurt much longer and may never heal.  We really need to be mindful on how we speak to each other and teach our children to do the same.  Bullying is no joke and kids are killing themselves.

Realizing that this blog is a public forum, I am not going to talk about myself. Quite frankly it's none of your business.  God knows, I know, some people close to me know.   Some people are comfortable talking about their lives publicly, but I'm not.

I really don't know where to go with this other than to say that healing from these sufferings is found with God.  Sufferings will never go away entirely, disappointments will never cease in this life. But the hurt and the healing of these things can be found with God, and if you are Christian, this healing is specifically made possible by Jesus Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection. We find this in the Old Testament "But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed."  Isaiah 53:5.  And in the New Testament "who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed." 1 Peter 2: 23-25.  In other words, it is called salvation.

Salvation in the Orthodox Christian Church is a little bit different than what some people think.  And not different in an opposite direction, but different in that it goes a little bit deeper than the popular definition.

On the top of this blog I have posted something about salvation from the perspective of an Orthodox Christian priest.  If you are interested, click here.  Some of you may agree with this, and some may not.  America is a free country (Thank God) and we all have the right to our own opinions.   I simply offer this explanation as food for thought.

God bless you all and have a great day.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Suffering - Part Three - A Meditation on God's Will

I'm letting myself off the hook for another day and postponing my next entry by posting the following meditation by St. Nicholai Velimirovic (1880-1956).

This is from a beautiful little book that breaks up the Lord's Prayer into segments.  The portion below is from "Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven..."

Heaven and earth are Thy fields, O Father.  Upon one field Thou sowest stars and angels, upon the other thorns and man.  The stars are moving according to Thy Will.  The angels sing on the stars as on the harp, according to Thy Will.  The thorns grow up and sting men, according to Thy Will.  But man meets man and asks:  what is God's Will?

How long will man be ignorant about what is Thy Will, O Father?  How long will he abase himself before the thorns under his feet?  Thou didst create him for equality with angels and stars, and lo!  he is beaten even by thorns.

But behold, if a man will, he can speak Thy name better than the thorns, and as well as the stars and angels do.  O Thou, the Spirit-giver, and Will-giver, give man Thy Will.

Thy Will is wise, and fresh and holy.  This Will moves the Heavens: why should not the same Will move the earth, which compared with Heaven, is as a drop of water compared with the ocean?

Thy Will is wise.  I listen to the tale of bygone generations, and I look up to the sky and know that the stars are moving as they have done for thousands of years, always in the same way, and are bringing in due time summer and winter.

Thou are never wearied in acting with wisdom, our Father.  No foolish thing ever finds a place in Thy plan.  Thou are fresh in wisdom and goodness today as on the first day of creation, and tomorrow Thou wilt be as today.

Thy Will is holy as it is wise and fresh.  Holiness is inseparable from Thee as we from the air.

Whatever is unholy may climb up towards Heaven, but no unholy thing ever descends from Heaven, from Thy throne, O Father.

We pray to Thee, our holy Father, that Thou mayest soon bring the dawning of the day when the will of all men will be as wise, fresh and holy as Thy Will;  and when all Thine earthly creatures will move in harmony with the stars in Heaven;  and when our planet will sing in chorus will all Thy wondrous stars:

O Lord, teach us!
O God, lead us!
O Father, save us!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Suffering - Part Two - From the Very Start

Okay, I'm back.

We took a few days off, went out of town and now I feel completely refreshed.  It's really amazing how a simple change of scenery, even if for just a few days, can change your outlook on things.  Those last few posts were bringing me down.  They should though.  Suffering sucks and is zero fun to talk or reminisce about.  Trust me, I know.

Any we are and I'm attempting to procrastinate once again...okay...I'll stop. Could somebody please hold my cyber hand as I attempt this once again?  You will? Thanks, I always knew I could count on you.

Suffering is not new.  It is something that has been a part of the human condition since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.  Both begin their sufferings in this harsh world.  Adam is forced to work the ground, Eve bears the pain of childbirth and then watches one of her sons kill the other. I have heard that there is a terrific book called "The Lament of Eve" that can be found at SVS Press.  I have not read it, but it's on my list.  At any rate, suffering is there from the start. 

Now, if you subscribe to the Big Bully Deity, you would say, well God punished them for breaking his law in the Garden of Eden.  But, if you look a little deeper, this is really not the case.  God, in advance, told Adam and Eve that they could do whatever they wanted in the Garden.  They didn't have to work and could spend the day enjoying Paradise and the presence of God.  But God in his infinite Love did not create Adam and Eve to be robots and force them to love Him, he gave them a choice, he gave them free will.  There was a tree in the Garden that God specifically asked them not to eat from, for when they did, they would die.  That is how they could express their free will, by using it to either choosing to believe God or not.

I find this like parenting really.  I tell my eldest not to watch or read something because I love her and I know that at this moment of time she is not mature enough to handle the consequences associated with knowing this information.  For instance, the Harry Potter series.  As an 8 year old, she wanted to read and watch Harry Potter.  However, I know that this child, albeit quite intelligent, is really affected by images she sees or reads and that she would not be able to handle the scary stuff.  She was really mad, but now as a 12 year old who has now read the HP series, she tells her 6 year old sister that HP is too scary for the 6 year old and that she should wait until she's at least 10.  Gosh, Mom was right!  Somebody mark that down.

Okay, back to Adam and his wife.  Well, we know what happens because just look around you.  We ain't in Paradise are we?  Adam and Eve made the conscious decision not to choose to love God and found themselves outside the Garden for good.  I think I heard Fr. Tom suggest that the mistake wasn't even in the eating of the from the tree, the mistake was not taking accountability and asking God for forgiveness for disobeying  Him. Instead,  Eve blames the serpent and Adam blames God for giving him Eve in the first place.  Neither one asked for forgiveness and neither wanted to take accountability for their actions.  They forgot their place in the Garden, and thought they knew better than the One who had created them and the Garden to begin with.  So now, Adam and Eve had to reap the consequences of their actions.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are always consequences to actions, both bad and good. 

I'll stop here with the Adam and Eve story now and fast forward to modern times.  The following is a mediation on suffering by Fr. Seraphim Rose.  As I mentioned in an earlier post here, Fr. Seraphim is a controversial person, although he shouldn't be.  Some people have a problem with him because PRIOR to his conversion to Orthodox Christianity he had experimented in a certain lifestyle in his quest to find a higher revelation.  Big Bully Deity people don't like the fact that Fr. Seraphim lived an un-Christian life prior to becoming a conscious Christian.  I guess BBD people have never sinned or never known that deep drive to find the One True Love.  I feel bad for them.  Not that I'm suggesting that you need to go out and find sufferings, but to not have that hunger and thirst for Truth is a sad thing. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled!" says the Lord Jesus Christ and us in the Orthodox Church who sing these very words every Sunday in our worship service.

So here's a little bit from Fr. Seraphim on Suffering from his little book "God's Revelation to the Human Heart":

A year or so ago I had a long talk on a train ride with a young American.  He met me seemingly by chance (of course, there is no chance in life) and told me that he was learning Russian.  He was a religious seeker who had been to all kinds of so-called Christian groups, had found nothing but hypocrisy and fakery everywhere and had been ready to give up on religion altogether.  But then he heard that in Russia people were suffering for their faith.  Where there is suffering, he thought, there will probably be something real, and there will not be such fakery as we have in America.  And so he was studying Russian with the purpose of going to Russia and meeting people who were real Christians.  As a Russian Orthodox priest, I was astonished to hear this, for he had never before seen an Orthodox pastor nor attended any Orthodox service.  We had a long discussion about religion, and I saw that his idea was quite sound:  the idea that suffering might produce something genuine, while our indulgent life easily produces fakery.

In the 4th century, a great Orthodox [Christian] theologian, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (also called "the Theologian") described our religion as "suffering Orthodoxy" - and so it has been from the beginning, throughout the whole history of the Church.  The followers of the crucified God have suffered persecution and tortures.  Almost all the apostles died as martyrs, Peter being crucified upside-down, and Andrew being crucified on an x-shaped cross.  During the first three centuries of Christianity, believers fled to the catacombs and endured tremendous sufferings.  It was in the catacombs that the Church's Divine Services - which we celebrate today in a form little changed since that time- were worked out in a constant expectation of death.  After the age of the catacombs there was the struggle to retain the purity of the Faith, when many teachers tried to substitute personal opinions for the divinely revealed teachings given by our Lord Jesus Christ.  In later centuries, there were invasions of Orthodox countries by Arabs, Turks and other non-Christian peoples, and finally - in our own days-by Communists.  Communism, which has persecuted religion as it has never been persecuted before, has attacked first of all precisely the Orthodox lands of Eastern Europe.  As can be seen, therefore, our Faith actually is a suffering Faith; and in this suffering, something goes on which helps the heart to receive God's revelation.
Here's one more thing that I have to say about Fr. Seraphim's writings. If you decide to read some of his other stuff, you must keep this in mind.  Fr. Seraphim was very strict with himself as an Orthodox Christian monk, and many people try to emulate this same strictness with themselves without the guidance of a spiritually mature pastor.  Fr. Seraphim was keenly aware of what separated him from God and it was his almost pathological strictness with himself that kept him in God's presence and kept him from falling away back into his old life that had left him empty and tormented.  Spiritual guidance by someone other than yourself is of the utmost importance!  Fr. Seraphim had many spiritual guides, one being St. John of San Francisco and Shanghai.  We can't be our own spiritual guides, it just doesn't work.  I have found this to be personally true and so did Adam and Eve.

I have to stop here for today.  I've got piles and piles of laundry that seem to be multiplying like bunnies and
I have to figure out where to go from here.  Maybe on how to handle suffering? And how not to perpetuate suffering in the world?  We'll see....

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Suffering - Part One - An Introduction of Sorts

I feel like I need to have a disclaimer at the beginning of each post on this topic.  I am not a doctor, I am not a "trained" theologian, I am not the wife of a priest/pastor, nor am I a professional journalist/writer.  I am a regular lay person.  As for educational credentials, I have a B.S. in Marketing from Penn State University. 

I started this blog because most Orthodox Christian blogs are written by those aforementioned people.  I'm just the lady standing in the pew on Sunday trying to focus on God but usually focusing on my mischievous 5 year old son who likes to poke his sisters in the butt while they are trying to focus on God.  Each Sunday is an adventure for sure.

For those of you not familiar with an Orthodox Christian worship service, it goes for about an hour and half and we are standing most of the time.  We love God in our Church and find worshipping Him to be a delight and not a forced obligation, hence the long service.  We stand because we believe that we are in the presence of God and do so out of respect.  What happens when the President of the United States enters a room?  Everyone stands up.  It's about respect.  Once you lose respect, it's all over with. 

Can you tell that I'm procrastinating? I should get an honorary degree in procrastination, I'm that good. It's just that suffering is such a deep and complex issue that I am terrified that I will end up making light of something very serious.  So, here I go.

I know suffering.  And if you are a human being with a heart and are completely honest with yourself, you know suffering too.  Some people suffer more acutely than others.  Some are born with debilitating diseases, some are born into truly destructive family situations, and some just acquire their sufferings measure by measure until the accumulation of those sufferings is so tremendous, so unbearable that it is physically and emotionally crippling. 

People want to know why they suffer.  They demand answers.  They are tormented in the still of the night when their thoughts won't leave them alone. Unanswered questions arise such as:

Why do I have this disease? 
Why did I lose my job and the bozo without a clue who sat next to me got to stay AND got a promotion?
Why did my mother/father neglect or abandon me?
Why is my child suffering?
Why did I grow up in a home with alcoholics?
Why did someone who told me they loved me ultimately betray me?
Why am I alone?
Why am I still reaping the negative effects of a bad decision I made 21 years ago?
Why did God, if He's so damn good, let this happen to me?

These can be soul crushing and painful questions.  Many people glibly respond by saying, "Your sufferings are God's perfect will, so just smile and carry on like nothing is wrong!"  Or this too: "You are being punished you filthy sinner that's why!"  I believe some of these people must be the same ones who worship the Big Bully Deity mentioned in an earlier post.  Whoever they are, those are not answers that a suffering person wants to hear.  It's mostly untrue, and completely insensitive.

So, what is at least the beginning of wisdom to answer these questions? Well, what I finally came to realize is that it actually does have to with God's will but not like I mentioned above. It also has to do with my free will, the neighbor's free will and the free will of the careless woman in her car with the name of her church plastered across the back who still does not know the pick up and drop off rules at school.

It is the Orthodox Christian teaching that God is Love. Jonah says it quite beautifully here  in the Old Testament, and the beloved disciple John says it here in his first epistle in the New Testament. God gives us the free will to love Him, love His Creation and love each other. There has to be free will in a true loving relationship, we are not robots.  God can't force us to do anything, nor does he want us to feel forced. He respects our free will and will not interfere (unless you allow for His interference of course). **addendum** Perhaps interference is a poor choice of words.  God is always with us, whether we ask Him to be or not.  He sees, He knows, He watches, He waits.  He allows us to make choices and allows us to make mistakes. 

Sadly, not everyone chooses this path of love and that's when crappy things happen. And since we live in this world with those who choose not to love me or you or the environment, we innocently bear the consequences of that decision by others.  "Other people" are not always to blame though.  We must take responsibility for our own actions, however our level of culpability  does vary greatly from person to person.

Again I really want you to hear this from a "professional" and I recommend the CD lectures by Fr. Tom Hopko that I mentioned in the prior posts.  He also has many lectures for free on Ancient Faith Radio.  His podcast is called "Speaking The Truth In Love".  They don't disappoint.  The direct link to his series of talks is found on AFR here.  

That's all I can muster for today friends.  I'm taking a few days off away from blogging. It has drained me a bit, plus my kids are on break and I need to spend time with them.  I'll be back next week for sure with more.  I don't know what exactly, only that I know that there is more.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An Urgent Post

It has come to my attention via a comment left with the last post that maybe I am making light of sickness and death.

I am not.

What's ironic is that my very first post had originally listed three people who I know who are fighting outrageous odds against cancer.  One is 6 year old child, another is a 40 year old mother of two and third is my godfather/uncle who is 69.  I decided not to post the details of this for two reasons.
  1. Some people like to handle their illness in private and I had no right posting the details of their battle
  2. I don't want people to "feel sorry" for me.  I am not the suffering person, just the bystander.
I can promise you that I do not think that sickness or suffering or death is funny.

It is not.

As one who has suffered with illness myself, I know first hand that there is nothing funny about it.  Pain be it physical or emotional is not funny.  However, those who suffer with it can deal with it with humour.  I will let them be the funny ones.

Finally, I have this to say about Fr. Tom. 

Fr. Tom is the child of an alcoholic.  He used to watch his father beat his mother every Easter morning.  This bit of information can be found on another very helpful CD called The Word of the Cross found here. The word of the cross is one of suffering. For what it's worth, Jesus suffered on the way to the cross.  He was not whistling Dixie with a crown of thorns on His head.  His mother was not cheering at the base of the cross, but  instead "yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also" Luke 2:35.   As a mother, I cannot imagine watching a child of mine die such a horrific death.  I cringe at the thought of her suffering.

Maybe this is my next topic.  Suffering.  Honestly I am not comfortable with writing about such a thing.  I NEVER EVER EVER want to mislead anyone or give them the wrong impression about such a serious topic. 

Give me a day or two to think about it.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bad Health = Punishment from God?

I have to admit that I think I may have bitten more off than I can chew with this topic on health.  Quite frankly, I don't even know where to begin, so I'm plugging my nose and jumping right into the topic with this cannonball of a equation.  Does poor health = punishment from God?

The short answer, no.  The longer answer is, well, longer.

There is a common misconception in this world that God loves to punish people. The theory goes something like this:  God just sits around day and night waiting for us to screw up so he can zap us with some sort illness, bad turn of events or even just a crummy day.  He is wrathful tyrant with a massive chip on His holy shoulder who cannot wait to condemn all unbelievers, drinkers, smokers, homosexuals, adulterers and those of us who wear white after Labor Day. One way to appease this "God" is to feed Him with 10% of your gross income, and then He will dispense His good "favor" to you.  However, should you fall short, you had better watch the hell out because tragedy is on the way.  At 9.9%, it may only be a flat tire, however the closer you get to 0%, the closer you get to some debilitating disease or sudden tragic death (plane crash, wild boar attack, falling anvil from the sky).

This may sound funny, but turn on one of those "religious" goofballs on TV and this is pretty much the description you are going to get.  God will bless you with good health/good job/good sex if only you please Him, the Wrathful and Angry God. Those who propagate this sort of idea not only distort the image of the real God found in the Holy Scriptures, but also do one more thing.  They instill fear. When surveyed, 9 out of 10 historical despots will agree with me.  Want to control the people? Control them with fear.  Yes, the Scriptures say "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:9-11), but this fear that the Scriptures speak of has nothing to do with God wanting to hurt us, but everything to do with drawing our attention to Him.  It is HE that is in ultimate control and not I.  I am not the center of the universe, God is.  Once I figure that out, then it is the beginning of wisdom.

Now, if you subscribe wholeheartedly to above Wrathful God business then maybe my blog isn't for you.  I understand.  It's a hard thought process to break, especially if you have been raised in the US.  Our so-called puritanical "Judeo-Christian" roots, complete with witch hunts, slavery and prohibition, still choke us today.  The notion of a loving and merciful God in this country has never existed at the popular level, just the Big Bully Deity.  If you don't want to agree with me, then perhaps the Prophet Jonah's testimony can sway you (see my post on Jonah here) as to how loving and merciful God truly is. 

I am not saying that sin is non-existent, and that there are no health/emotional consequences to sin.  There are negative effects for sure, but these are not punishments, but sometimes natural consequences to the unnatural, non-organic uses of our body. Example:  If you smoke a lot, you may have an increased risk of getting lung cancer.  The warning is right there on the box for crying out loud.  I realize this is quite simplistic and doesn't answer other deeper questions like "Why do innocent children suffer?".  For those answers, I need to bring in a professional.
So my dear readers without further ado, I present to you this:

Sin:  Primordial, Generational, Personal by Fr. Thomas Hopko, $16
Cover art of CD is Romanian folk art of St. George slaying the dragon (dragon = sin/evil/Satan).
Now, don't let the name scare you.  This lecture is not scary, too theological, or dry.  It is quite funny, easy to understand but most importantly, very enlightening and relevant to life in the 21st century.  Trust me people, I have listened to this over and over again.  I have to because it gives so much food for thought that I will think about something Fr. Tom has said and then not hear the next 5 minutes of his talk.  Fr. Tom's lecture gives the Orthodox Christian understanding of what sin is, where it comes from, who is to blame and what we can do about it.  If you hate love, then this ain't for you.  If you love light and truth (which are the verses right beyond John 3:16 which people seem to ignore John 3:16-21) then I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this for your listening pleasure.

Times are tough, I know.  This may not fit into your budget, so if you live locally and would like to listen, give me a ring and I will lend you my copy.  Or if you wish to purchase your own copy go here.  I just looked at it and for some reason the font in the description is all screwy.  No worries, I'm sure your order will be processed.  And by the way, I profit nothing from this.  I don't attend St. Vladimir's Seminary nor have any connection to them other than I purchase items from them and used to visit there when I was a child.

Okay, I've said a lot of stuff, maybe even stuff that makes you a little uncomfortable.  But before you start throwing other Scripture at me and cursing me out, give me the balance of the month to explain myself further.  There is no way I can say everything I want to say right now, so throw me a bone and await future posts.  Thanks guys!

p.s. - Sorry for the messed up formatting in the paragraphs above.  I'm still trying to figure this blogging stuff out.