Monday, February 27, 2012

Five misconceptions about the fast

Lately I've been in discussion with some people about the purpose of Lent. It can be a sort of springtime New Years Resolutions Revisited. Probably that's part of the reason I get anxious during the several-weeks run-up to the fast that we have in the Orthodox Church: Experience has shown me how unresolved and weak I am, and I can only imagine certain failure.

But so many homilies and Scriptures and hymns have comforted me in the last few days, I really do feel that joy they speak of as we set out on our journey. And yes, blog posts and e-mail greetings on the subject have been greatly encouraging. It seems that lenten grace is like all grace, in that you can't get it ahead of time; it's God with us in the moment. Even a balanced perspective on the meaning of Lent is only an intellectual understanding until I implement it and participate in it.

Prayer and almsgiving are just as important during Lent, but in this post I'm sticking to the fasting aspect. And as an example of helpful reading, I offer a truncated outline of a few points from a longer article, "The True Nature of Fasting," by Bishop Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary. The passage is part of the Lenten Triodion in the section "The Meaning of the Great Fast." I commend the whole to your reading; it seems to me the most thorough and well-articulated statement on the subject, and I've found it worthwhile reading every year. (Italics are in the original.)

1) The Lenten fast is not intended only for monks and nuns, but is enjoined on the whole Christian people....By virtue of their Baptism, all Christians - whether married or under monastic vows - are Cross-bearers, following the same spiritual path.

2) It should not be misconstrued in a Pelagian sense.Whatever we achieve in the Lenten fast is to be regarded as a free gift of grace from God.

3) Our fasting should not be self-willed but obedient. When we fast, we should not try to invent special rules for ourselves, but we should follow as faithfully as possible the accepted pattern set before us by Holy Tradition.

4) Lent is a time not of gloom but of joyfulness....It is true that fasting brings us to repentance and to grief for sin, but this penitent grief, in the vivid phrase of St. John Climacus, is a 'joy-creating sorrow.'....Lent signifies not winter but spring, not darkness but light, not death but renewed vitality

5) Our Lenten abstinence does not imply a rejection of God's creation....When we fast, this is not because we regard the act of eating as shameful, but in order to make an our eating spiritual, sacramental and eucharistic - no longer a concession to greed but a means of communion with God the giver.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Springtime in the Soul

Dogwood In Yosemite Park

If you are stopping by here during Lent, you probably won't find anything new. I put some links in the sidebar to things I've written before and that bear re-reading, so I humbly declare. I will be reading other blogs and thinking about your comments, so I hope that you will feel free to send along a note, even on the oldest posts, which are often about timeless subjects after all. Or an e-mail -- my address is on my profile page.

About those security words that Blogger wants us commenters to decipher: I squint and guess at them, and half the time get them wrong once or twice while I am trying to comment on someone's blog -- so just in case any of my readers feels the same deterring effect here, I have removed that part of the commenting process on my blog. I always put comments through the filter of my visual approval anyway, so unless something terrible happens I'll continue to use only that means to keep ugly things off these pages.

In Latin and other Romance languages the word for lent has something to do with 40 days, but Wikipedia tells us that "in the late Middle Ages, as sermons began to be given in the vernacular instead of Latin, the English word lent was adopted. This word initially simply meant spring (as in the German language Lenz and Dutch lente) and derives from the Germanic root for long because in the spring the days visibly lengthen."

Of course, on the southern half of our globe, it's Autumn during Lent, but even there, the repentance that is the central theme of Lent can be, as Metropolitan Kallistos says, "an opening flower." Springtime in our souls!

The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, 
lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, 
patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own errors
 and not to judge my brother;
For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

Friday, February 24, 2012

What was I thinking...

In Ephesians 5 we are told to redeem the time: "See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is."

That admonition comes to mind as I read this poem, published just last year in the New Yorker. It's by W.S. Merwin, whom I mentioned previously here and here in regard to his book The Folding Cliffs, which captivated me and gave me for the first time an interest in visiting Hawaii. By the way, my husband and I will be doing just that next month to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, which is one reason I don't think I will be blogging much until after Easter/Pascha.

But back to the poem -- it seems to me it speaks of how we can only make up for lost time by being attentive to the gifts that are coming to us right now, attentive to the presence of God. He is giving Himself in the present moment, and He has given us the lenten season to help us tune into that Reality, to come back to it and to Him.

The New Song

For some time I thought there was time
and that there would always be time
for what I had a mind to do
and what I could imagine
going back to and finding it
as I had found it the first time
but by this time I do not know
what I thought when I thought back then

there is no time yet it grows less
there is the sound of rain at night
arriving unknown in the leaves
once without before or after
then I hear the thrush waking
at daybreak singing the new song

--W.S. Merwin

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tears poem

I want to say something to go along with this poem, because I love it so much, though it probably stands better alone. I suspect that most of my crying is for selfish reasons, but the thoughts here make me hope that once in a great while my tears might be an expression of true humanity, or at least have a humanizing effect. We can make our tears a gift to God, when we come before Him with them; He already knows all about the chaos in our souls, if that's their origin. 

Some church fathers say that tears for whatever reason cleanse the heart. One pastor said it's because when you are crying it's impossible to be double-minded. I'll be mulling over that idea for a long time. But troubling and puzzling as they are, I will thank God for the gift of tears.


Tears leave no mark on the soil
or pavement; certainly not in sand
or in any known rain forest;
never a mark on stone.
One would think that no one in Persepolis
or Ur ever wept.

You would assume that, like Alice,
we would all be swimming, buffeted
in a tide of tears.
But they disappear. Their heat goes.
Yet the globe is salt
with that savor.

The animals want no part in this.
The hare both screams and weeps
at her death, one poet says.
The stag, at death, rolls round drops
down his muzzle; but he is in
Shakespeare’s forest.

These cases are mythically rare.
No, it is the human being who persistently
weeps; in some countries openly, in others, not.
Children who, even when frightened, weep most hopefully;
women, licensed weepers.
Men, in secret, or childishly; or nobly.

Could tears not make a sea of their mass?
It could be salt and wild enough;
it could rouse storms and sink ships,
erode, erode its shores:
tears of rage, of love, of torture,
of loss. Of loss.

Must we see the future
in order to weep? Or the past?
Is that why the animals
refuse to shed tears?
But what of the present, the tears of the present?
The awful relief, like breath

after strangling? The generosity
of the verb “to shed”?
They are a classless possession
yet are not found in the museum
of even our greatest city.
Sometimes what was human, turns
into an animal, dry-eyed.

              ~ Josephine Jacobsen

(thanks to Maria)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tears and Salt

The Pacific Ocean at Mendocino CA

“The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea.” --Isak Dinesen

Monday, February 20, 2012

Tears in Psalms

As we approach Lent, the beautiful hymn "By the Waters of Babylon" is sung at Orthodox services and starts to set the tone for the season in which we cultivate "joy-creating sorrow."

Psalm 137

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down, 
yea, we wept, 
when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps
upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive 
required of us a song; 
and they that wasted us
required of us mirth, saying,
 Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

 Psalm 58:8

Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: 
are they not in thy book?

Psalm 116:6-8 

The LORD preserveth the simple: 
I was brought low, and he helped me. 
Return unto thy rest, O my soul; 
for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee. 
For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, 
and my feet from falling. 

Psalm 126:5 

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

At the Heart of Prayer - quote

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, the Lord did not tell them to use their imaginations and express their feelings.  He did not tell them that it really did not matter how they prayed, as long as they were sincere.  And he certainly did not tell them to talk to God in their own words. . .the Lord's Prayer is at the heart of Christian prayer.  All other prayers of the Church exist in relation to this prayer given by the Master Himself.  They are either abbreviations or elaborations of it.  They are in harmony with it, and cannot contradict it in any way.

-Thomas Hopko

Friday, February 17, 2012

Venetian Painters

The covered buttons on Ottaviano Grimani's shirt jumped out at me when I came around a corner and looked up at the huge painting. Of course I couldn't find a copy online that conveyed the stunning quality of the buttons, but the search was instructive.

This portrait by Bernardino Licinio was in the Masters of Venice show of 50 paintings that came from a collection that the Habsburgs assembled in Vienna, works of Venetian artists of the High Renaissance, mostly the 16th century.

Since I haven't paid any attention lately to what is going on in San Francisco, I would have missed this opportunity altogether if my friend "Lorica" hadn't invited me to go just before the show closed.

I loved that it was small and focused -- we didn't visit any of the permanent collection -- so that my easily-overwhelmed brain could stay calm and receptive as we slowly moved from one room to another of the De Young Museum. The time flew, as Lorica elaborated and added to the information posted near the paintings. I am woefully ignorant, and she was the perfect guide for someone like me, who can't chew very big auditory bites.

Giorgione's Three Philosophers
It seems somehow shameful, but I am doing it anyway: posting some of my favorites here in truly pathetic versions of themselves. As soon as I came home I looked for them on the Internet so I could show my husband, and as it had been only a couple of hours since I'd seen the masterpieces in their glory, I was terribly saddened to see that aspects of the originals that had given me so much pleasure were flattened to the point of extinction.

St. Jerome by Tintoretto
That was an Aha! moment, as I contemplated the truly 3-D nature of paintings. And I realized why one would want to visit a show like this several times -- because looking at the little postcards one can bring home is a sorry substitute for Being There.

The first thing I noticed about St. Jerome, who translated The Vulgate, was his smiling eyes. He must have been so happy to be reading God's Word. (Lorica told me that he was known to be grouchy.) And the face of the lion was lovely, Aslan-like. Neither of those endearing features comes through in this little copy.

At left is The Sacrifice of Isaac by Mantegna, which I loved. The whiteness and statue-like quality of the painting was new to me, and the whole composition so complete in its portrayal of the event, and with beautifully "carved" figures. The little ram presenting itself, God's hand presenting it....

One painting of which I could not find a decent representative online was Titian's Entombment of Christ. My guide pointed out to me that it seems to be all about Mary, as she and her richly blue cape are the focal point of the composition.

But this other Biblical scene, Adoration of the Magi, by Bassano the Younger, I will show. I think it's charming in the way it depicts the bustling arrival of the worshipers and how the man in green wastes no time in getting as close as possible to the Christ Child.

Some of the other artists whose paintings we saw were Veronese and Bordone, and Pordenone, whose Christ With the Cross (below) admittedly a very Italian version of our Lord, is still quite arresting, and keeps my thoughts on the Love of God.

Looking at the little pictures here, remembering the great works that I had so recently wondered at -- it all made me think I hadn't been paying enough attention while we were in the museum. After all, it was the chance of a lifetime, and I had been so casual, strolling around dully as though I could just hop over to Vienna anytime I wanted and see the paintings again.

One can see that I need to get to the art museums more often, and that my education in art appreciation has barely begun.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

On today's theme, about spending time

In honor of the day, a favorite love poem by Richard Wilbur. All our loves flow from the Holy Trinity -- Happy Valentine's Day! 


A Late Aubade

You could be sitting now in a carrel
Turning some liver-spotted page,
Or rising in an elevator-cage
Toward Ladies’ Apparel.

You could be planting a raucous bed
Of salvia, in rubber gloves,
Or lunching through a screed of someone’s loves
With pitying head,

Or making some unhappy setter
Heel, or listening to bleak
Lecture on Schoenberg’s serial technique.
Isn’t this better?

Think of all the time you are not
Wasting, and would not care to waste,
Such things, thank God, not being to your taste.
Think what a lot

Of time, by woman’s reckoning,
You’ve saved, and so may spend on this,
You who had rather lie in bed and kiss
Than anything.

It’s almost noon, you say? If so,
Time flies, and I need not rehearse
The rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse.
If you must go,

Wait for a while, then slip downstairs
And bring us up some chilled white wine,
And some blue cheese, and crackers, and some fine
Ruddy-skinned pears.

--Richard Wilbur

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Love and Language

Over my car's radio yesterday morning I caught the end of an interview with an author talking about her husband's aphasia and recovery from it. As I drove into the Target parking lot the women were still talking, and I hadn't heard any names of books or people yet, so I sat in the car a little longer, digging around in my purse to find a tiny black notebook to write in.

Eventually the host mentioned that we were listening to Diane Ackerman talking about her book 100 Names for Love, which tells the story of her husband Paul West's recovery from a stroke, and the ways in which she was able to help him in the process, though their relationship was challenged and changed. The 100 names were the new pet names he came up with for his wife, when he could not recover the old ones. One of them that she mentioned was My Bucket of Hair. (She has a good head of it.) Many of the nicknames were as unusual and poetic, like My Remains of the Day, and My Residue of the Night.

I have tried reading Ackerman before, and there is too much about her prose and perspective that makes her tedious, but the things she said on the radio about love and care-giving and language recovery made me think I really wanted to read this particular book. I came home and put it on my Amazon list, but then I went on to read about Paul West, and found an excerpt online from the book he himself wrote, The Shadow Factory.

In the interview Ackerman had shared that, when he was depressed about not being able to write -- and writing had been his profession -- she suggested that he write a book about his experience, and he agreed to dictate to her as he labored to find each word and phrase in the rubble that was his brain. The following day he would rework the text, and the whole project became a huge part of his rehabilitation both emotionally and mentally.

I heard Ackerman describe her husband's book as a "free associative dream version" of how it felt to have a stroke and to heal from it. Those words gave me the impression of it as the type of writing that I find hard to endure. But now that I've read this small part, I'm not sure I agree with her description. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the article I link to:

There was a bewildering assortment of false starts and incomplete sentences for the mind only. I no sooner thought of something to say to myself than I forgot it, and I was lucky to get beyond the second or third imagined word. Of course no one in his right mind overheard any of this, the dumb speaking to the silent in a reverse image, so no one was upset. But if this happens 50 or 60 times, one wants a little revenge of some sort. Of course, one was in all probability speaking no kind of written English, so this meant that whatever you said was relevant and you could not say anything irrelevant.
Reading, at which I used to be no slouch, now gave me the most incredible, disheveled experiences of my print-bound life. Now print jigged toward me, then it hung back. The one part of it that was readable swam backward or forward to render the reading experience at best incomplete, or subject to the vilest, maddest vagaries of a proofreader’s nightmare.
So far I am thoroughly enjoying West's post-stroke prose, and find it much more focused and readable than Ackerman's, so perhaps I'll be content with having heard her radio voice, which seems to absorb better, and in my Amazon shopping cart I'll trade her book for The Shadow Factory.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bird's Open Heart

I am taking a tutorial from Bird on aging gracefully; she is graceful and gracious both. The two of us were talking about how we both are forgetful hostesses, never remembering to offer our guests so much as a glass of water, much less tea and cookies. But my friend never locks her door, and usually doesn’t even shut it all the way, because she wants visitors to come in without knocking; she doesn’t always hear a knock or the doorbell.

She is always so glad for company, and resists talking about herself, preferring to ask about her younger friends and their families, and hear other people’s stories. Her own stories are only told when they pertain to some matter that concerns her guest, or after emphatic prompting. Bird is almost 95 years old; is she ever going to become what I find to be the more typical elderly person, living in the past, and impatient with recent people and their doings?

When I had her for tea last week she was the guest of honor. I picked her up and drove her to my house, and on the way here in the car I showed her a list of topics we wouldn’t mind her talking about. She started laughing — I don’t know at which question — and said teasingly, “I am not going to come to any more of your tea parties!” But when the guests had all arrived she was willing to share of her past and her tales with them, and entertain us all with her humor.

There is the story about her novel, written in high school, about the Spanish dancer Juanita. It was a love story, but Bird knew nothing about “the kind of love you have when you are married.” At the end of the romance, when Juanita and her suitor have progressed in their relationship to the point where the ardor is intense, the novel closes with the line, “Juanita leaned.”

The photo here was taken when her 11th child was a toddler and Bird was about 35 years old. She looks happy enough to burst—serene at the same time. I think she must have been the best wife for her husband; she was apparently not contrary, but neither was she wimpy. She had to be strong and steady when he was depressed and couldn’t work for — was it three years? The kind of person who would keep doing her own job of running the household, waiting and praying for things to change.

She told us over tea that decades ago, when some of us used to see the couple walking “together,” Bird ten yards behind, that Mr. Bird had needed long walks to help with his “emotional problems.” He would be in shirtsleeves, and she was wearing a sweater, and he told her he was embarrassed by her wearing the sweater, and asked her not to. She replied that she needed the sweater because she was cold, and suggested that he walk by himself if he was embarrassed. And he said, “But I need you to talk to!” This was funny because he was way too far ahead for them to be able to carry on a conversation. When one of their adult children later died, the priest told her husband, “Now today, you walk beside your wife.”

Bird seems to have walked as close to her husband as he allowed, as long as he lived. She has been a dear and encouraging companion to me, as we both try to walk with God. My prayer is that He would give me a measure of her spirit.

(I wrote the piece above several years ago; more recent posts in which Bird appears are here and here. Now she has reached 100 years, and is as young as ever. She still keeps her door unlocked and her smile bright.)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Of that I must be shriven

I love the way Richard Wilbur gets to the heart of things. 
A Reckoning
At my age, one begins
To chalk up all his sins,
Hoping to wipe the slate
Before it is too late.

Therefore I call to mind
All memories of the kind
That make me wince and sweat
And tremble with regret.

What do these prove to be?
In every one, I see
Shocked faces that, alas,
Now know me for an ass.

Fatuities that I
Have uttered, drunk or dry,
Return now in a rush
And make my old cheek blush.

But how can I repent
From mere embarrassment?
Damn-foolishness can’t well
Entitle me to Hell.

Well, I shall put the blame
On the pride that’s in my shame.
Of that I must be shriven
If I’m to be forgiven.

--Richard Wilbur

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Glory of Thy People Israel

This morning I'm putting up my post of two years ago today, 
essentially unchanged but maybe slightly improved. 
A blessed feast to all!


My Favorite Neglected Feast

Today is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox calendar, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple; therefore I think it excusable if I postpone tackling many pressing mundane tasks and meditate a little longer on one of my favorite celebrations.

As long as I can remember, the story of Christ being presented in the temple as an infant has brought tears to my eyes, because of the constancy and joy of Simeon, a "just and devout man" who had throughout a long life been waiting and praying for the Messiah. His words express a single-minded heart -- his purpose in faithfully waiting had been fulfilled. What a sweet reward, to be the one to receive and hold the Christ!

When Jesus was brought to the temple at 40 days old, according to the law, Simeon (Luke Chapter 2) "... took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, 'Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word: For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.' "

Thanks to Deb, I found this series of very informative postings that Matt wrote, linking all the events of this day through history, including Groundhog Day, which I will now always remember, in the background. (I did love that movie, whose lesson of humility is applicable throughout the secular or church year.) It is a neglected feast, our priest noted this morning, though our numbers weren't too small this morning for Divine Liturgy.

The festivities spill over to February 3rd when we give a whole day to commemorating Simeon and the Prophetess Anna. It's been a happy thing to find that Orthodoxy takes plenty of time for rejoicing in an event that has long been a resting place to me along the path that we call our salvation history.

Candlemas is another name for the holy day, and the church East and West has traditionally blessed candles on this day. I love candles as much as anyone, and I left the church with a handful to burn at home and in that way to stretch out the joy for a good while, brightening and lightening up these winter days.