Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Desiring the Kingdom online book club

Over the course of the next few months I will be participating in a book club discussion hosted by Mystie at Simply Convivial. The book is called Desiring the Kingdom, by James K. A. Smith. I have really liked what I've read so far; it has given me a lot of food for thought and I am looking forward to sharing what has come to mind. I hope you will chime in with your thoughts and responses to what I will be sharing!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Wishing all my readers a blessed Christmas! 

Christ is Born!
Glorify Him! 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - The Sun of Righteousness

This chapter of The Winter Pascha is primarily about the coming of Christ as the bringer of Light to the world. Fr. Tom points out that God is called the "Sun" and "a light to those who sit in darkness" in the Old Testament. He also explains how the festival of the Lord's appearing celebrated the fact that Jesus is the Light of the world and offers to the pagans who kept the festival of the "Nativity of the Invincible Sun" the True Sun and thus the fulfillment of their festival.

He says,

It appears that the main hymn of the feast of Christ's Nativity in the Eastern Church was formulated as a conscious polemic against paganism, with a very pointed flaunting of the fact that those who formerly worshipped the stars, including the sun, were taught by a star to worship the True Sun... who gives, and is, the True Light. 

Here is the hymn itself:

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
Hast given rise to the light of knowledge in the world
For they who did worship the stars
Learned from them to worship Thee, O Sun of Justice,
And to know that Thou didst come from the east of the Highest
Glory to Thee, O Lord.

Every time we sing this hymn I am always awed by the words "For they who did worship the stars learned from them to worship Thee, O Sun of Justice". The magi, who spent their whole lives in the study of the stars and the movement of the planets were seekers of the Truth. They may not have realized that this Truth was a person but they relentlessly pursued it and sought answers. Their faith was rewarded, because the very heavenly bodies that they worshipped pointed to their own creator and showed these wise men the way beyond them to Him.

The Magi who had been led on their way by a divine star
Stood before You in wonder at Your marvelous birth;
And bearing gifts, they see the Sun
Who rose from the virgin cloud.

Let the people who sat in darkness 
See shining forth the Light that knows no evening,
Him whom the star once manifested
To the fire-worshipping Persian kings.*

There are people who believe that unless children are taught from specifically and purely Christian sources and texts that they will somehow be tempted to turn away from Christ and pursue "other gods". I believe that if we teach our children to love what is True, and to seek Truth, then we need not fear "non-religious" or "secular" books or sources. Those who pursue Truth and Wisdom and Virtue with their whole hearts will always find it.

Some people fault the Christian Church for establishing the feast of Christ's birth on the day of the "birth of the sun." Certain Christian sects even oppose the celebration. Orthodox Christians believe that it was an act inspired by the Holy Spirit. God has sent His Son into the world for its sanctification and salvation. 

Christ, by His coming, has renewed and sanctified all things. He brings fullness and fulfillment to those who came before and who had only a dim vision of the truth.

Our Savior, the Dayspring from the East,
Has visited us from on high;
And we who were in darkness and shadow
Have found the Truth
For the Lord is born of a Virgin!**

*A Matins hymn on the final day of the prefeast of the Nativity - Christmas Eve
**The hymn of light at Matins of the feast of the Nativity

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wednesdays with Words - More Tolkien*

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words.

From the Fellowship of the Ring when Gimli is greeted by the Lady Galadriel and she shows compassion for his sorrow:

And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly in the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer. 

From the same when Frodo stands upon the hill of Cerin Amroth in Lothlorien and can see the darkness of Mirkwood and Dol Guldur:

"In this high place you may see the two powers that are opposed one to another; and ever they strive now in thought, but whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret has not been discovered." 

Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them an made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain. 

*Maybe I should just quote the whole book and be done with it. Oh wait. I could get in trouble for that. ;-)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - Christ Comes to Restore the Image

I mentioned in my first post in this series the idea that "God became human so that we humans might become divine".* This chapter talks about that and about what it means to be made in the image of God.

To be made in the image and likeness of God is to be both a spiritual and material being. 

It is to be able to know and to do good, to be able to act and to care. 

It is, in a word,... to be able to be by God's grace and good will absolutely everything that God Himself is by nature. 

We were created to be like our Creator. When I stop to think about that, it is really mind-blowing. And it is very, very humbling because I can see how very much I am not like Him. My own self gets in the way and I often almost always fail to love as He loves; I put myself before others. Fr. Hopko says essentially the same thing:

The cause of all sadness and sorrow is that human beings have failed to be - and therefore endlessly to become - what God has made them to be. In the ultimate sense, they have failed to love. 

When I put my self first, I cannot really lay down my life for those around me. I allow the image of God in me to be distorted and twisted. If Christ had not come, I would have no choice but to continue moving further into darkness, away from the Light. I would have to pay the price of my failure to love.

But - Glory to God! He did come. And His coming makes it possible for the image to be restored.

This is the message of Christmas. There is a new Adam. There is a restored image of God. It is the restored image of the Image Himself, God's Son and Word, Jesus Christ. 

In Him all people can complete themselves as creatures made to be by God's grace all that God Himself is by nature. In Him all people can be human

You partook of human flesh, O Christ,
Offspring of the seed of Abraham.
You came to give grace upon grace,
Restoring Your image
And freeing us from corruption.
For the Father has sent You, the only-begotten Son,
As atonement for the world.**

*I have been informed that it was St. Athanasius who said this.

**From Compline of the third day of the prefeast of the Nativity, December 22.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - The Sunday of the Holy Forefathers and The Sunday Before Christmas

Two Sundays before Christmas is the commemoration of the Holy Forefathers - those righteous men and women who shone as examples through their faith in God even before the promised Messiah had come.

Let us offer praise to the fathers
Who shone forth before and during the Law;
With righteous minds they served the Lord and Master 
Who shone forth from the Virgin,
And now they delight in the unending Light. 

These were people who had faith in God and who firmly believed that He would fulfill His promise to send the Messiah. They lived their entire lives for Him. People like Moses, David, Noah, Hannah, Deborah, Esther, Daniel, Elijah; the list goes on and on.

God's holy people live for Him alone, for the living God and for His Word. Their reason for being is to praise God, not only in words but in deeds, and so to live. 

The holy forefathers and mothers, together with all their descendants, have chosen life. 

These men and women chose to believe and then they lived their choice. They lived their lives by acting on what they had understood in their hearts. They realized that to worship God was the only way to life and so they purposefully pursued God in everything. They faced hardship and sometimes persecution, but they persevered, even without having lived to see God's promise fulfilled.

For their faith was in the One who has acted in our time in fulfillment of the promises first made to them, and then through them to us, their spiritual children. Since this is so, we must imitate their faith, acquire their courage, and embody their power, so that we can in turn become the inheritors of their blessings. 

They made a choice and they faced all the consequences of that choice, both good and bad. The same choice lies before each one of us and God loves us so much that whether we choose Him or reject Him, He will not force us in the decision.

The consequence of Adam and Eve's disobedience to God was death. It was the result of their choice to turn away. But God is so loving that He was not content to leave it at that. He wants each of us to live. So He sent His Son.

Probably one of the most striking examples of choice in the Old Testament is that of Abraham.  God gave Abraham a son and then He asked Abraham to sacrifice him.Abraham went and prepared to do what God has asked, and when God saw that Abraham was willing to obey, even though it meant giving up the son he had waited so long for and who was so dear to him, God spared Isaac. Abraham chose Life - he chose God over his own beloved son - and God was pleased and honored that choice by allowing Isaac to live.

But when it came time for Jesus to fulfill His purpose here, there was no sparing of life: God loves us so much that He sacrificed His own Son for our sake that we might have life. Jesus chose to follow the will of the Father in order to bring us back to Him.

This is why we celebrate Christmas: we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ came to give us life through His death.

The celebration of the Winter Pascha is a celebration of Life in God's Word.

And now it is up to us to choose. We have seen God's promise fulfilled; therefore let us choose life with open hearts.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Wednesdays with Words - St. John Chrysostom

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words

He left us on earth in order that we should become like beacons of light and teachers unto others; that we might act like leaven, move among men like angels, be like men unto children and like spiritual men unto animal men, in order to win them over, and that we may be like seed and bear abundant fruits. There would be no need for sermons if our lives were shining; there would be no need for words if we bore witness with our deeds. There would be no pagan if we were true Christians. 

St. John Chrysostom

(I copied this quote for myself many years ago, and unfortunately I cannot tell you now which of his homilies or writings it came from. If anyone happens to know I'd love to find out!)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - The Faith of the Three Young Men

This chapter of The Winter Pascha is about the faith of the three young men who were thrown in the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. (If you aren't familiar with this story, found in chapter 3 of the book of Daniel, you can read a summary here).

When they are thrown into the fire, they are saved by God, who "turns the flame into a dewy breeze" and is present with them in the fire itself. This in itself is remarkable, to be sure, but Fr. Hopko's focus here is not so much the miracle that occurred, but the faith of the young men.

The three young men who were confronted by the wicked king of Babylon did not claim that the true God would save them from death in the flames. They surely believed that He could, but they did not insist that He would! 

They bore witness to the fact that their God does whatever He wants. It was none of their business what he would or would not do...

...no matter what God did, they still, under whatever circumstances, would not worship the idol that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 

This kind of faith is the kind of faith that I want to have. It is the kind of faith that says Thy will be done, in spite of what I might think is best. This is the kind of faith that is ready to endure suffering, horrific torture, and even death in order to remain true to the True God.

...real faith and genuine trust in God makes no deals and no claims. It is completely and totally ready, as was shown supremely in Jesus, to accept whatever the Father wills and provides, knowing that His faithful ones will never be put to shame. 

Sometimes, when I read the lives of the saints and I read about those martyrs who died horrible deaths for the sake of Christ, my pride whispers to me that I would be the same as they were; that I would not deny Christ for any reason; that I would be willing to die for Him. Then I wake up and look at myself and see the sorry truth: I don't even have faith enough to keep me from worrying about small things or to accept the little trials that I face. I certainly would not have the faith to stand and submit to torture and death!

But what if I could have faith like that? What would change if I could get rid of my own greatness and allow myself to accept with gladness anything that comes my way? What would life look like if I could be like the three youths and know with my whole being that what God wants is always, always better than anything I could ever dream up - even if it means pain and suffering for the time being? This kind of faith trusts Him always, no matter what He decides.

This is what Christ did when he came. With all His power and His might, He submitted to the Father's will and allowed Himself to die a horrible and shameful death. He came to us, in order to die for us, in spite of the pain and humiliation. And after submitting and passing through the awfulness He was raised up and glorified. He was not shamed any longer, but ascended to sit in glory at the right hand of the Father.

For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”  (Romans 10:11)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Meditations on The Winter Pascha - The Feast of Saint Nicholas

O holy father, 
The fruit of your good deeds has enlightened and delighted the hearts of the faithful.
Who cannot wonder at your measureless patience and humility?
At your graciousness to the poor?
At your compassion for the afflicted?
O Bishop Nicholas,
You have divinely taught all things well, 
And now wearing your unfading crown, you intercede for our souls.*

This hymn is heard at the vespers service for the Feast of St. Nicholas which is celebrated on December 6th. Fr. Tom talks in this chapter about who Saint Nicholas really was and why the memory of him has been so strong through the ages. He says that all that we know about Saint Nicholas and all the legends and stories that have sprung up around his name point to one thing: he was a good man.

The extraordinary thing about the image of Saint Nicholas in the Church is that he is not known for anything extraordinary. He was not a theologian and never wrote a word, yet he is famous in the memory of believers as a zealot for orthodoxy... He was not an ascetic and did no outstanding feats of fasting and vigils, yet he is praised for his possession of the "fruit of the Holy Spirit"...He was not a mystic in our present meaning of the term but he lived daily with the Lord and was godly in all of his words and deeds.

In a word, he was a good pastor, father, and bishop to his flock, known especially for his love and care for the poor. Most simply put, he was a divinely good person. 

The point being made here is that true goodness is possible with the help of Christ. Because He came to earth, He made it possible for us to go with Him to heaven.

The Messiah has come so that human beings can live lives which are, strictly speaking, humanly impossible. He has come so that people can really be good

Saint Nicholas shows us what it is to be transformed in this life; he shows us what it looks like to be a follower of Christ. He lived a life which could only be lived through and in the grace of God. May we look at his example and also strive to live as he did.

*from Vespers on the Feast of St. Nicholas

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: Tolkien Again

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words.

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen, 
of meadow-flowers and butterflies 
in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer 
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think 
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think 
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think 
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet 
and voices at the door.

A poem by Bilbo, said when Frodo is preparing to leave Rivendell with the Fellowship. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - Seeing They Do Not See

As we saw in the last chapter Saint Andrew chose to come and to see who Jesus was. This chapter explores the question of those who come, but who do not see and remain blind to the truth. Fr. Tom points out that Jesus has already told us, through the Prophet Isaiah, that seeing is a matter of a person's will.

The reason, [Jesus] says, is that they love darkness rather than light because their actions are wicked (see Jn 3:19). The light exposes the truth. It allows the reality of things to be seen. The wicked flee reality. They despise the light. They prefer their own blindness, and the delusions that they themselves create. 

I certainly can't speak for others, but I find myself guilty of this more often than I'd like to admit. I choose not to see my own sins and prefer to live in darkness, putting the blame on someone or something else and not on myself. It is easier and more comfortable to look at what is wrong with others than to acknowledge that there is something wrong with my own self.

[The wicked] want to see themselves not as they really are, but as they wish themselves to be. And, together with this, they want a version of others which confirms their own opinions of themselves. And, most especially, they want an image of God that they can handle and manipulate to serve their deluded and illusory purposes for their own profit and pleasure. The lovers of darkness, therefore, are fundamentally liars and idolaters. They are liars abut themselves and about God. They make their own gods, and then fashion themselves in the images and likenesses of the gods they have made. 

It is so uncomfortable to look at myself and really see what is there. In fact, it's much more than uncomfortable - it's truly painful. It is painful to admit my faults and my weaknesses. It hurts to see that I have hurt those that I love. It causes great sorrow to know that I sometimes bring sorrow to others.

But as painful as it is to truly see, I would rather see and know the truth than continue to live in darkness and chaos. I want to be willing to bear what I must if only I can come into the light and gaze upon Christ. The choice remains with each one of us; we are never forced into it. We must decide to either stay as we are, living in delusion, or to come and to see and be transformed by Truth.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - The Feast of St. Andrew

The feast of St. Andrew is celebrated on November 30th. St. Andrew was called by Christ Himself to "come and see". He came immediately and saw where Jesus was staying and stayed with Him. Because he came, he was able to see. He saw who Jesus was and he went and brought the news to his brother Peter saying, "We have found the Messiah"

What do we see if we also choose to come? We see who Jesus is. He is revealed to us, as He was revealed to His disciples.

To go the way of the Winter Pascha is, according to Saint Gregory the Theologian, to "travel without fault through every stage and faculty of the life of Christ." It is to enter into the mysteries of the Messiah,  "all of which have but one completion: my perfection and return to the first condition of Adam." It is to "see and be seen by the great God who in Trinity is worshiped and glorified, and whom we now set forth before you as clearly as the bonds of flesh permit, in Jesus Christ our Lord."

If we come we will see the Incarnation of Christ. We see His miracles and his hear His proclamation of good news. We see the signs that He is indeed the Messiah. We see,

...the Son of God Himself being lifted upon the Cross in order to give His broken body as food for His people, and His shed blood as their drink, that their hunger and thirst for peace and joy and righteousness, and indeed for life itself, might be forever satisfied. 

In one of the vespers hymns for the feast day we see what it was that Andrew saw and shared,

Rejoice, O Isaiah, and receive the Word of God.
Prophesy to Mary the Maiden.
She is the Burning Bush unconsumed by the fire of divinity.
Adorn yourself, O Bethlehem.
Open your gates, O Eden.
Enter, O Magi, and see salvation swaddled in a crib.
Behold the star shining above the cave;
It announces the life-giving Lord who saves the human race. 

If we come, and if we look we will "...see [our] salvation swaddled in a crib."

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: Don't Worry About Tomorrow

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words.

The Lord is the only One who bears our burdens and cares, all our infirmities and worries, both physical and of the spirit. He can bear everything, for He is Almighty. We must give over to Him all of our infirmities and those of our neighbors, through prayer. That is what prayer is for. We must be one with the Lord and we must not worry about tomorrow, for as He says, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matt. 6:34). This teaches us not to worry about tomorrow. But we do: we worry not only about tomorrow but even further than that, and this is very stressful for us. We are rational beings, created for one day of stress at a time. Yet we torment ourselves much more than that, and therefore we suffer. We are not obedient to the Lord when He tells us not to burden our hearts with food and drink and the cares of this world. We burden our bodies and our souls. Food and drink burden the body when we eat and drink more than we need. Our bodies must work hard to digest all that food, and so they are burdened. And if we also burden ourselves with thoughts, then the stress is doubled and so is our suffering. That is why we must always be praying. 

from Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: the Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - Christ is Born, Glorify Him!

In this chapter Fr. Hopko tells us that the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos in the Temple is the first time that the birth of Christ is announced during this season. He then explains that the canon of the Nativity of Christ was inspired by a famous homily given by St. Gregory the Theologian in the fourth century.

If you have a chance, read the homily linked above, because it is beautiful. It is so poetic and truly captures the joy of the feast. Here are a few excerpts:

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, because of Him who is of heaven and is now on earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, and with joy because of your hope. 

... for He who gives riches becomes poor, for He assumes the poverty of my flesh that I may assume the riches of His divinity. He that is full empties Himself, for He empties Himself of His glory for a short while that I may have a share in His fullness. 

... in creation He gave us a share of His own good nature. And now in the Nativity He takes on Himself our own sinful one. 

The homily is full of this comparison of opposites and the tension between them: trembling - joy, rich - poor, empties Himself that I may have a share in His fullness...

Christ is born; glorify Him!
Christ comes from heaven; go to meet Him! 
Christ is on earth; be exalted!
Sing to the Lord, all the earth!
And praise Him in gladness, O people,
For He has been glorified!

No wonder we have such great anticipation for this feast! 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - Temples of the Living God

I ended last time by mentioning Fr. Alexander Schmemman's words about Mary being the great example to us, rather than the great exception. When I turned to this chapter, I found those words looking back at me (I couldn't remember where I'd read them before, but now I know!).

This chapter then, is simply an expansion of that idea. Fr. Hopko points out how the Theotokos shows us what we can also become if we choose to allow the Holy Spirit to dwell within ourselves. For it is truly our choice. No one will force us to open our hearts to God; least of all God Himself. He created us with the knowledge that we might choose to turn our backs to Him, yet He made us anyway.

This is not mere symbolism... This is serious business. It is a matter of life and death. For we are either the living vessels of God... or we are, to use the apostle's language once more, "vessels of wrath" to be destroyed in our wickedness by God's righteous glory. 

There is no in between way, and it is clear that the choice is ours.

As we go the way of the Winter Pascha the choice placed before us is clear. We can follow the "narrow way" that leads to life, or we can go on the "broad way" that leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13-14). We can, like Mary, cleave to the Lord and become His dwelling place in the Spirit. Or we can through immorality and sin choose the death of the nothingness which we are unless the Lord Himself lives within us. 

There are only two options: life or death. May each of us choose the way of Life.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - The Prelude of God's Good Will

This chapter is titled The Prelude of God's Good Will. Fr. Hopko talks about the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos* into the Temple (which is today - November 21). For those of my readers who are not familiar with this feast I will briefly explain. Tradition teaches us that at the age of three the Virgin Mary was taken to the temple by her parents to be dedicated to the Lord. She was born to them after they had been barren for many years and so they wanted to give thanks to God for blessing them with a child. When they brought her, tradition tells us that the priest Zachariah (the father of John the Baptist) brought her into the Holy of Holies where only the high priest was allowed to go, and that only once a year. The Church teaches that he did this under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as a prophecy that this young girl was to become a living temple of God when she bore Jesus within herself. This feast is celebrated on November 21 each year, and while part of its purpose is to commemorate the historical happening of Mary's dedication to the temple, Fr. Hopko points out that,

Its purpose is not so much to commemorate an historical happening as to celebrate a dogmatic mystery of the Christian faith, namely, that every human being is made to be a living temple of God. 

The hymns of the feast proclaim this with great joy:

Today, let us the faithful dance for joy, 
Singing to the Lord with psalms and hymns,
Venerating His consecrated tabernacle,
The living Ark which contains the Word which cannot be contained.
For she, a young child, in the flesh
Is offered in wondrous fashion to the Lord,
And Zacharias the priest receives her with rejoicing 
As the dwelling place of God. 

This event is so powerful, because it gives us a glimpse of what good things are to come. We are all created to be temples of the Holy Spirit and Mary is the one who shows us the way. Fr. Alexander Schmemman liked to say that Mary is not the great exception, rather she is the great example.

She is a perfect example of what a Christian should be in all things. What stands out the most to me, as I have been thinking about all this, is that her love for God was so strong and so unwavering, that she accepted His will without question or complaint. When the angel Gabriel came to her and announced that she would bear and give birth to the Son of God, she didn't ask all kinds of questions about what it would mean, or how it might affect her or even why. She simply said yes:

Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

What if I were to say yes to God in everything? Am I willing to do it? Am I even capable, given my sinful passions, of loving God so much that I would say yes to His will no matter what? My love for God is weak, and often fails altogether. But I have the desire to love Him, and if I look to His Holy Mother as an example, then perhaps, through her prayers, and by His grace, I might begin to make some progress. I can, at the very least, try to act upon what I've heard and possibly make a small beginning by doing my best to say yes to God.

Today is the prelude of the good will of God,
Of the preaching of the salvation of mankind.
The Virgin appears in the temple of God,
In anticipation proclaiming Christ to all.
Let us rejoice and sing to her:
Rejoice, O Fulfillment of the Creator's dispensation. 

*Theotokos is a Greek word which literally means "the one who gives birth to God".

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: more from St. John of Kronstadt

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words.

Another great excerpt from this wonderful book.

You see very clearly that it is extremely difficult, and without God's grace and your own fervent prayer and abstinence, impossible, for you to change for the better. You feel within yourself the action of a multitude of passions: of pride, malice, envy, greediness, the love of money, despondency  slothfulness, fornication, impatience, and disobedience; and yet you remain in them, are often bound by them, whilst the long-suffering Lord bears with you, awaiting your return and amendment; and still bestows upon you all the gits of His mercy. 
Be then indulgent, patient, and loving to those who live with you, and who also suffer from many passions; conquer every evil by good, and, above all, pray to God for them, that He may correct them - that He may turn their hearts to Himself, the source of holiness. Do not help the Devil to spread his kingdom. Hallow the name of your Heavenly father by your actions; help Him to spread His Kingdom on earth. "For we are labourers together with God." Be zealous of the fulfillment of His will on earth, as it is in heaven. Forgive them that trespass against you with joy, as a good son rejoices when he has a chance of fulfilling the will of his beloved father.  

I have been noticing very much lately, that every time I want to point a finger, those other three fingers keep pointing directly back at me and there's just no way around it. May the Lord help me to be patient with others who struggle just as I do.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Meditations on The Winter Pascha - Come and See

In this second chapter of The Winter Pascha Father Hopko points out that the Advent season begins with the feast day of the Apostle Philip. Philip is one of the first called apostles and it is he who runs to his friend Nathaniel to invite him to "come and see" Jesus.

Philip has encountered the Messiah, the Son of God. He then runs to his friend Nathaniel to invite him to come, see and know for himself, not through words but through experience, what a great treasure he has found. He invites Nathaniel to come and see who Jesus really is. Nathaniel comes, full of doubt and not sure if he should believe what Philip is telling him. He then encounters Christ for himself and he too begins to understand.

Come and see. It is good to know about things with the mind, but it is not always the same as knowing things from the heart. There is a kind of knowledge that is based on experience and action that sometimes goes deeper than that knowledge that comes from being told, or reading. Words can sometimes be a beginning, but they are not always the whole story, so to speak. Dr. James Taylor, author of the book Poetic Knowledge, has this to say:

Poetic experience indicates an encounter with reality that is non analytical, something that is perceived as beautiful, awful (aweful), spontaneous, mysterious..... a spontaneous act of the external and internal senses with the intellect, integrated and whole, rather than an act associated with the powers of analytic reasoning.

He uses words like encounter and act, and combines words like internal and external. Again, I am amazed at how the Church has provided for us. We are given the opportunity to experience worship with our whole selves - body as well as mind and heart. When we come to church we are invited to be involved completely; we see the icons, candles, gold; we touch by venerating icons, the cross, making the sign of the cross; we smell sweet incense; we hear beautiful music; we taste the body and blood of Christ. We physically gather to become Christ's body - if no one comes, the Church is not there. We have to get up and come together. We have the opportunity to be involved with all of our senses and to experience and encounter Christ in the liturgy.

O taste and see, that the Lord is good. 

Taste. See. Touch. Smell. Hear. We can do all of these things when we come. But like Nathaniel we have to get up and act. Nathaniel had to act upon the information which Philip had given him. Likewise we also, when we learn about something with our minds, must act upon it in order to bring the knowledge to our hearts. We must come and see ourselves what centuries of Christians have proclaimed: Christ has come to us and now it is up to us to go and meet Him.

Come and see. For, as Fr. Hopko puts it,

... if we do not come, we will never see.

Technical Difficulties

Some of you may have noticed that I changed things up a bit - I tried connecting the blog to Google +, just wondering how it would work out. But, then I learned that the only people who can comment on posts are people with a Google + account. And I don't like that because I think reader comments are so much fun. So I tried to switch back, but I still can't figure out how to get the comment box back to normal. I hope I will have it sorted out soon. My apologies to anyone who wanted to comment and couldn't.

Edit: I fixed it! Hooray! :)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Meditations on The Winter Pascha

Many years ago I received a copy of a book by Father Thomas Hopko titled The Winter Pascha. It is a beautiful book of short meditations on the meaning of the Nativity (or birth) of Jesus Christ as revealed to us through the hymns and writings of the Orthodox Church. There are forty of these meditations and I like to (try to) read one for each of the forty days of the Advent fast, which begins on November 15.

I thought it might be nice to share a bit of what strikes me as I read (although I realize that my own thoughts are not even close to being as edifying as Fr. Hopko's). My original plan was to post one reflection a day, and even though I had a small head-start, reality has hit and I have become aware that I most likely won't be able to keep up. So I will post what I have so far and will try to continue to work through the book, but I'm not promising completion.  (Incidentally, I recently had the chance to hear Fr. Hopko speak, and in that talk he happened to warn against writing just for the sake of writing. I think that is what I was trying to do here so that's another reason that I've decided to step back and do my best to only write what I feel called to share, rather than just writing to finish a series for the sake of completion.)

The Winter Pascha chapter 1

Fr. Tom begins by pointing out that the services and the preparation for Christmas in the Orthodox Church mirror what takes place during the celebration of Pascha (a word which we Orthodox typically use to refer to Easter. The word pascha means passover). We have a forty day fast, there are special hymns, readings and services which take place and the celebration of the feast continues after the actual day of the Nativity, all of which happen during the Lent and Pascha seasons. This patterning of the Nativity hymns and services after the Paschal ones truly magnifies the effect of entering into the celebration of the feast. The meaning is deeper and richer thus.

Those observations are indeed important, but what always brings me to a standstill, no matter how many times I read this book are the following words:

"The Lord's birth and baptism are directly connected to His dying and rising. He was born in order to die."

"Jesus lay as an infant in the cavern in the reign of Caesar Augustus that He might lay in the tomb under Pontius Pilate. He was hounded by Herod that He might be caught by Caiaphas. He was buried in baptism that He might descend into death through the Cross. He was worshiped by wise men that the whole of creation might adore Him in His triumph over death." 

I know, in my head, that Jesus was born to save us from the consequences of our sins. I know that. and I sometimes take it for granted. But when I stop and think about that fact that "he was born in order to die", I am blown away by the magnitude of what He has done for us.

Mankind is born in order to live, to grown in the likeness of the image of God so that we may be with Him for eternity. We were created for life. The consequence of sin is that we must die. We were not created for that. It us unnatural and painful. The soul was not meant to be separated from the body in such a way, but after the fall there was no choice but to pay the price: death.

But! Because we were created by the God of Love, or rather the God who is Love, He did not leave us to suffer. He came to give back to us the life which He so much wanted us to have. He came on purpose to die so that we might live. He became human so that we humans might become divine.*

I end (as Fr. Hopko also does) with words from the verses** sung during Matins on Christmas Eve:

Today He who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a virgin.
He whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a mortal man.
God who in the beginning fashioned the heavens lies in a manger.
He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk from His mother's breast.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men.
The Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
We worship Thy Nativity, O Christ!
We worship Thy Nativity, O Christ!
We worship Thy Nativity, O Christ!
Show us also Thy glorious Theophany! 

 *This sentence is not an original thought from me, but unfortunately I can't remember who said it, so I'm afraid I can't give credit where it's due.

**This hymn is another point in which the Nativity Feast mirrors the celebration of Pascha. You can find the words which are sung on Great and Holy Friday here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: George MacDonald

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words. 

The following sentence really ought to be read aloud in order to appreciate it fully. It comes from The Wise Woman by George MacDonald (which story ought to be read by everyone several times). 

In strict accordance with the peculiar nature of this country of uncertainties, it came to pass one day that, in the midst of a shower of rain that might well be called golden, seeing the sun, shining as it fell, turned all its drops into molten topazes, and every drop was good for a grain of golden corn, or a yellow cowslip, or a buttercup, or a dandelion at least,—while this splendid rain was falling, I say, with a musical patter upon the great leaves of the horse-chestnuts, which hung like Vandyke collars about the necks of the creamy, red-spotted blossoms, and on the leaves of the sycamores, looking as if they had blood in their veins, and on a multitude of flowers, of which some stood up and boldly held out their cups to catch their share, while others cowered down laughing under the soft patting blows of the heavy warm drops;—while this lovely rain was washing all the air clean from the motes, and the bad odours, and the poisonseeds that had escaped from their prisons during the long drought-while it fell, splashing, and sparkling, with a hum, and a rush, and a soft clashing—but stop—I am stealing, I find, and not that only, but with clumsy hands spoiling what I steal:—

“O Rain, with your dull two-fold sound,
The clash hard-by, and the murmur all round;”

—there! take it, Mr. Coleridge;—while, as I was saying, the lovely little rivers whose fountains are the clouds, and which cut their own channels through the air, and make sweet noises rubbing against their banks as they hurry down and down, until at length they are pulled up on a sudden, with a musical plash, in the very heart of an odorous flower, that first gasps and then sighs up a blissful scent, or on the bald head of a stone that never says thank you;—while the very sheep felt it blessing them, though it could never reach their skins through the depth of their long wool, and the veriest hedgehog—I mean the one with the longest spikes—came and spiked himself out to impale as many of the drops as he could,—while the rain was thus falling, and the leaves, and the flowers, and the sheep, and the cattle, and the hedgehog, were all busily receiving the golden rain, something happened. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

More thoughts on Charlotte Mason, ideas, habits and becoming what we behold

(I really need to learn how to come up with better titles for my posts, don't I?)

Several years ago I read a book called Ideas Have Consequences. The title says it all: ideas (good or bad) do affect our lives, for better or for worse. We act based on what we believe to be true. Our beliefs come about through the ideas that we allow to enter and grow in our minds.

If this is true, then it is also true that we must carefully consider what ideas help to shape our own lives and even more importantly we must also give careful thought to the ideas that we allow to enter our children's minds. Charlotte Mason says,

[We must]...attempt to set a noble child's heart beating with the thought that he is required to be perfect even as his Father which is in Heaven is perfect.
It is time we set ourselves seriously to this work of moral education which is to be done, most of all by presenting the children with high ideals. "Lives of great men all remind us that we can make our lives sublime," and the study of the lives of great men and of the great moments in the lives of smaller men is most wonderfully inspiring to children...
Vol. 3 p. 133

This concept of sowing ideas in the minds of children so that they will be inspired to be like the great men and women that they hear about is very striking. I wonder how much of what we ourselves have become (or are becoming) has been inspired by great ideas we've picked up through the years...

We entertain the idea which gives birth to the act and the act repeated again and again becomes the habit. "Sow an act," we are told, "reap a habit." "Sow a habit, reap a character." But we must go a step further back, we must sow the idea or notion which makes the act worth while.

[A child's] nurse or his mother knows how often and how ingeniously the tale must be brought to his mind...she knows too how the idea must be made at home in the boy's mind until it becomes a chivalric impulse which he cannot resist.
Vol 6 p. 102

This shows us why it is so important to expose children to, and feed them on, the good, the true and the beautiful - so that they can become like these things and these people they are breathing in, so to speak. I can think of many examples of people (both from books and from real life) who have inspired me to change my behavior and have resulted in habits that were either new or different from my old habits. I am reminded of A Little Princess - how Sarah behaved like a princess throughout all her trials because she knew how a princess ought to behave and the idea inspired the habits that she formed.

This means I need to pay close attention to the ideas that inform my habits. Why do I do what I do? What can I change to conform to the high ideals that I look up to?

I find myself becoming more and more like my own mother as the years go by and in turn I see more clearly how very much like my grandma my mom is. I also see my dad becoming more like his mother. Once again I am reminded of what Andrew Kern likes to say: "you become what you behold". Really, our children "behold" us daily at our best and at our worst during the most formative years of their lives. They can hardly help becoming like us. So if I believe all this to be true, then it is absolutely essential that I behave like the kind of person that I want them to become. I must be attentive myself (i.e. put down my kindle!), and speak kindly myself (so often I catch myself telling one child or the other to speak nicely to his siblings in a very mean tone of voice). If I want them to develop the habit of daily Bible reading then they must see me reading my own Bible, etc.

It's a little bit  very scary to think that my children will become like me when I know how very far I am from being Christ-like. But I have to remind myself that there is time and that God is merciful and is able to daily give me and my children grace, even when I mess up. There is time and there is grace. Thank God. And maybe the best habit to show by example is perseverance - when I fail and fall, I pick myself back up and try again because I believe in a God who forgives and I surely want my children to know that as long as they repent, they never need to despair of God's mercy and His love.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: Saint John of Kronstadt

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words.

The following comes from My Life in Christ by St. John of Kronstadt:

You are a being who has fallen of your own free will, corrupted by sins; this ought to be the most powerful incentive for you to prayer. You daily receive the greatest mercies from God; this ought to be a powerful incentive to thank God. You daily contemplate the works of the omnipotence, wisdom and goodness of God; this ought also to be an incentive to daily praise. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Task Takes as Long as it Takes

In my previous post on repetition and memory I explored the concept of returning again and again to the things that are important to us; things such as prayer and how the church year is already perfectly set up so as to help us as we grow in our spiritual lives and come again to each cycle of prayer with fresh eyes and a new heart. Today I came across an Amish proverb, which I used as the title of this post:

A task takes as long as it takes,

and it got me thinking some more on this subject. When we memorize things and repeat them over and over, we allow what we are memorizing to become part of us. This applies to actions as well as words. I recently listened to a great talk by Jenny Rallens  about incorporating liturgy in the classroom. She talked about the traditions and rituals that she purposely makes part of her classes which help to begin to form students' affections, and she mentioned how the things that we do become the catalyst that determines what we will love. It makes sense that if we repeat a prayer or Bible verse so many times that it becomes part of us, then we begin to love what is said and the words have more power for us personally because they are part of what makes us who we are.

This is evident in all the years that I've spent playing piano. I play a piece time after time and my fingers begin to know it without conscious thought on my part. The piece gradually becomes part of the makeup of my being and I love it because I know it and because it has begun a work in my soul that shapes who I am.

This kind of practice is something that takes place without a thought for how long it will take. The intent is mastery, not completion. The end result is the driving factor, but the process is what brings the result about. The task may take days, or it may take years. Technical mastery can come about quickly, notes or words can be learned easily, but the shaping and changing of the heart only comes after living with a piece of music or poetry or prayer for a long time. Not a predetermined amount of time. There is no formula to be applied. Mastery takes as long as it takes and there is no need to rush it or to be agitated because it's not "done" yet.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: You become what you behold

When I read the following quote by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos (which I came across here) I was reminded of Andrew Kern's words: "we become what we behold."

I firmly believe, however, that what a child receives in the course of his upbringing is not the knowledge that his parents happen to have or the advice they give, however wise it may be, but above all what his parents themselves are. We do not offer children what we know; rather, we offer them what we ourselves are.

Powerful words.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Importance of Repetition and Memory

I have been doing a lot of thinking about repetition and memory recently. In learning more about education and in beginning to teach my own children I have come to see clearly how valuable it is. Repetition and review are essential components of learning and they both help to strengthen one's ability to remember or memorize things.

I am astounded by the quantity of information my kids can retain. We memorize scripture and poetry by reading it aloud daily and they have learned more than I would ever have believed possible before becoming a mom and seeing for myself what young children are capable of. I have even noticed my own memory being improved simply because of working on these things with them.

What has really struck me lately is how all of this is tied up with prayer and with the liturgical tradition which has been handed down by the Orthodox Church through the centuries. Jesus Christ established the church here on earth in such a way as to provide us with all that we need in order to seek and come closer to Him. As our creator, He knows how our minds and our hearts are connected and how (as Andrew Kern says) "we become what we behold".

I came across the following as I was reading The Seven Laws of Teaching, by John Milton Gregory:

Not the scamper of a passing child but the repeated tread of coming and going feet beats for us the paths of our daily life. If we would have any great truth sustain and control us, we must return to it so often that it will at last rise up in mind as a dictate of conscience, and pour its steady light upon every act and purpose with which it is concerned. 

"We must return to it so often...." How often we must bring our attention back when we pray! How difficult to pay attention, to behold, when one is standing at prayer. But fortunately God, in His goodness, knows that we find it difficult; and so He has provided us with an answer to the problem. He has so ordained the structure of church life and the liturgical year to repeat, over and over, so that we have the chance, renewed day by day, to come again and attend.

If we look at the cycles that repeat over and over, it becomes clear that this is so.

Yearly we celebrate the twelve major feasts, following the life of Christ, from beginning to end and beyond.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
When Thou O Lord wast baptized in the Jordan...
Today He is suspended on a tree...
Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen! 

Season by season we participate in the fasts that have been prescribed for us, to prepare for the coming of Christ and for His Passion and Resurrection.

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power and idle talk.... 

Week by week we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, coming together to form the Body of Christ as we all partake of His body and blood.

Receive me today, O Son of God, as a partaker of Thy Mystical Supper...

Day by day we pray in our homes, wrapping our days in prayer.

Our Father, who art in Heaven; hallowed be Thy Name.

Hour by hour we remember Christ's passion on the cross.

O Lord, who at the third hour didst send down Thine All-Holy Spirit upon Thine apostles...
O Christ our God, who on the sixth day and hour didst nail to cross the sin which Adam committed in paradise...
O Lord, who at the ninth hour didst taste of death in the flesh....

Minute by minute we cry out,

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

What a great gift we have been given! What a joy to be able to come again and again to these prayers, each time with new sight and new hope. As we continue to pray these prayers, day after day, year after year, we slowly become transformed. Little by little we can begin to hear what is being said. Slowly, we can begin to memorize these words. We repeat them again and again and a great wonder begins to take place: bit by bit we become transformed. The words sink into our minds and from our minds into our hearts and they become part of us. We hold them in the very core of our beings and the prayers are no longer external, but have become internal. They have penetrated the depths of our souls and we stand in awe at the wisdom of God who has ordered it to be so.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wednesdays with Words

The following prayer captured my heart from the moment I first read it and has stayed with me ever since.

You have taken me captive with longing for You, O Christ,
And have transformed me with Your divine love.
Burn up my sins with the fire of Your Spirit,
And count me worthy to take my fill of delight in You;
That dancing with joy, I may magnify Your two Comings. 

Pre-Communion prayer by St. John of Damascus

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Music and Worship

There are many types of music used by Christians throughout the world in their worship of God. There are many beautiful hymns which have been written by pious men and women in the two thousand years since Jesus walked the earth and there were hymns written by people like King David even before Christ came. Music is a fundamental part of the worship of God and this is especially apparent in the musical tradition of the Orthodox Church.

If you have never been to an Orthodox Church you might not be aware that during our services there is very little which is spoken. Almost every single word, from beginning to end is sung. Now, there can sometimes be variations from parish to parish (for example in my parish we say the Lord's Prayer rather than sing it, although there are plenty of parishes who do sing it), but on the whole this is the case everywhere.

Metropolitan Iakovos of Chicago (from the Greek Archdiocese) says,

The Church was born singing, and it has never ceased to sing!
If the focus of the Church's music is in the form of song, this is because, for the Orthodox, liturgical music is "performed" only on the most perfect instrument of God's creation: the human voice. While instruments are mentioned in the Bible (as in the Psalms), nowhere in the New Testament is human worship described as anything but sung. 

As a singer myself, I naturally am drawn to all music. But what I love about the music of Orthodoxy is not only its beauty of melody, but more importantly the words which are sung. And in fact, the words themselves determine how they will be set to melody. The melody is always subject to the text and the melodies used are proscribed according to the message being communicated in a given hymn. There are melodies (or tones) which are triumphant and celebratory as well as tones which are repentant and sorrowful. The way the words and melody are woven together allows the people present to transcend "all earthly cares" and to be for a time in the heavenly kingdom,

Archbishop Demetrios (also of the Greek Archdiocese) has this to say:

The music of the Church opens hearts and minds to the revelation of God's love and will. ..[O]ur sacred music helps us to recognize and teach to others the differences and influences of the holy and the profane... of what leads us to life and what leads to destruction.  

In the hymns of our liturgical services one encounters the lives of the Saints, understanding of the Incarnation of Christ, the importance of true and sincere repentance, the mystery and great joy of Holy Week and Pascha (Easter). There are countless hymns that have moved my own spirit and spurred me to desire to draw nearer to Christ. These hymns are able to speak to the heart and  help one on the narrow way. In fact, if you pay close attention to what is sung throughout the cycle of the liturgical year, you will find that all the theology of the Church is contained in her hymns and prayers. 

I have not spent much time memorizing scripture in my life, yet I find that I know a great deal, simply from being in church every week. The Psalms especially are present in our worship. Vespers and Matins are full of Psalms and when I read through the Psalms in the my Bible at home I often come across verses which are the inspiration for many of the prayers that the priest prays during the Divine Liturgy.

Saint Gregory of Sinai said: 

Psalmody has been given to us that  we may rise from the sensory to the intelligible and true.

and Saint  Athanasius said that

"...he who sings well puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm

"...a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred word forgets its own afflictions and  contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone."

For this reason I feel that if we parents would simply bring our children to church, there would be no need for Sunday School classes. They can learn all that they need to know by listening to the music of the Church and being present at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. We should talk about what is being sung with our children and point out what it means. God has established His Church in such a way as to provide us with all that we need and we cannot go wrong if we stay within what has been given to us.

Friday, October 18, 2013

J. S. Bach: mind and heart

As a musician I am obviously a lover of music. I am extremely picky however, and in fact more often than not I prefer silence to sound. Part of the reason for this preference is simply because too much sound can be overwhelming at times. Part of it is that when I listen to music, I want to really listen and give my attention to what is playing so that I can understand what is being communicated.

Music is a language; there is always something that is being communicated with sound. Sometimes it is an atmosphere, sometimes a story, sometimes a simple thought or emotion. Music is never neutral. It is composed with intent and purpose even if the listener is not aware of it.

I am aware that not everyone will agree with my view. There are those who would argue that as long as the lyrics are clean, then the melody, rhythm and overall style or genre of the music are irrelevant. Clean words are certainly a good thing for those of us who wish to protect our minds and hearts, but what about the rest of it? There is plenty of instrumental music around that can create a particular atmosphere or draw out certain emotions without a single word. There is music that makes people want to dance and there is music that touches our hearts so deeply that we are moved to tears. Should we not discriminate between different types of music, even if there are no lyrics? I would argue that we should. And so I do.

I am very careful about what kind of music I expose my children to. Not all music is created equal. Typically I find that the older the music is, the better. Now that is not always the case. Certainly there are many great composers today who write music that is well worth listening to, but in general older is usually better. I do my best to choose a wide variety of composers and musical genres to share with my children as a part of their education and I don't expect them to always agree with my own preferences, but I think that careful selection and consideration are important. I want their minds and hearts to be nourished by what they hear. I want them to come away from listening to a recording or a concert knowing how to appreciate the true, the good and the beautiful in what has just been communicated to them. I want my children to be able to hear what the music is saying clearly, in order that they might be able to accept what is good and reject what is bad.

Perhaps this is why, when I go to turn on classical music, or when I sit down to play the piano, more often than not, I find myself reaching for something by Bach. The more I listen, the more I come to appreciate what a beautiful gift has been given by God through him. He wrote his music first and foremost for the glory of God and it shows. The music of Bach is food for the mind and for the soul. The complexity and genius which can be heard in his finely woven counterpoint, the use of harmony which stirs the heart and brings forth a longing for that which we cannot see, but we know to be True; these things give glory to God in such a beautiful way that words fall short of a proper description. What is more astounding is that Bach was able to compose in such a way, and to bring forth such beauty without ever breaking the rules of composition which were solidly in place during his time. With all his originality and genius, he never "broke the mold" and went his own way. His creativity took place within the established framework and he was able to create freely precisely because of his mastery of the rules.

There are other composers who have written music that touches souls deeply (Mozart and Beethoven immediately come to mind), but no matter how much I appreciate these other composers and acknowledge their great contributions to western classical music, my first love will always be J. S. Bach.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: Tolkien

Truly Tolkien was a master of poetry and prose, and indeed very often his prose is poetry.

From the Return of the King, after the Ring has been destroyed:

"A great Shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed. "I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!" 

And here another selection from the same, when Frodo and Sam are presented to Aragorn for the first time after the Ring has been destroyed and a minstrel sings to those present about the great things which had been done:

And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Humility and Motherhood

I am currently reading about the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov  and a few days ago I came across the following quote:

A mother has to humble herself even with her own children, so as not to be irritated, and not spare a punishment when it is necessary. And what patience, what sufferings are required throughout the education of her children, in their illnesses and the correction of their faults!

As a mother of four young children I am daily confronted with lessons in patience and suffering. So when I first read this I immediately latched on to those words. But when I went back to re-read it, I was struck by the phrase "A mother has to humble herself". He did not say that a mother will become humble simply by having children; rather he says that she must humble herself.

What does it mean, to humble oneself? Why should I be humble as a mother? I have been pondering these questions over the past week or so and I am slowly beginning to realize how profound the answers are.

I have often thought that being a mother is like having a mirror in front of me at all times. I am continually confronted with my own faults, mirrored in the actions of my children. I suffer great grief knowing that because of my inability to set a perfect example my own sins will inevitably be passed on to my children, and I weep when I think of the suffering that it will mean for them. (I sometimes wonder if this is what it means when it says in Exodus 34:7 that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children.) Perhaps this is part of what St. Seraphim refers to when he says that the mother must not be irritated. How can I be irritated when my children are only behaving as they have been taught to behave by my example? Certainly knowing my own sins is a great beginning when it comes to humility, but it is only a beginning. There is more to it.

The word humble is derived from the Latin humilis which means low, lowly, on the ground. It is also related to the word humus which is essentially fertile ground. The ground is a thing taken for granted; always there, never remembered, trodden upon; a place to dump refuse, silent, always accepting of whatever comes.

If I desire to be humble I must be ready to be taken for granted and trodden upon. I must accept what comes to me without complaint, in silence. As a mother I must be prepared to always be there for my children and be willing to drop my own agenda in order to seek God's will for them.

What this does not mean, however, is that I must allow my children to abuse me as a person or as an authority. If I allow them to disobey or to speak to or treat me disrespectfully in the name of "turning the other cheek" I am not being humble. I am instead allowing my own way to take the place of God's way. Sometimes I don't want to discipline because I feel sorry for my children, or because I see that they had a "valid reason" for doing what they did. Many times I choose not to punish or enforce rules because it involves too much effort on my part at a given moment. It takes a lot of energy to keep four kids in order and sometimes I am just tired. I don't want to stop what I am doing to teach them to behave. I want to be able to just finish what I am doing, because I am number one. My duty to my children can come later, after I've finished what I have to do just now.

My role as a mother is to teach my children to behave as Christians behave. I am to train them to obey and to be respectful of others and to forget self in order to serve others. The best way of course is by example.  But as I mentioned above, more often than not my example falls short of what it should be. I model sinfulness rather than godliness. And of course my children have their own temperaments and certain actions come easier to them than others. So I must train them. Part of that training involves discipline and sometimes even punishment. If I forgo punishing them for their disobedient or disrespectful behavior I am actually allowing them to build the habits of disobedience and disrespect. I am essentially saying that my way is better than the way that God has established. As St. Seraphim put it, I must be humble enough to "...not spare a punishment when it is necessary." I must have the humility it takes to put down my own project, to stop what I am doing right now and go and take care of another. Charlotte Mason puts it well when she says,
There are two services open to us all, the service of God (including that of man) and the service of self.

I must put my children before my self, and in so doing serve Christ, whom I claim to love better than anything.

May God help me to humble myself, and to put Him first in all things.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thoughts on Relationship

I have slowly been working my way through Charlotte Mason's Home Education series and have had a great deal to think about. I will probably end up with quite a lot of posts relating to her and her writings because I find them so inspiring. Consider this:

"Have we considered that in the Divine estimate the child's estate is higher than ours; that it is ours to "become as little children," rather than theirs to become as grown men and women..."

 and then this from Volume 3, chapter 9:
"the culmination of all education (which may at the same time be reached by a little child) is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with God in which our being finds its fullest perfection."

and finally this from a different book I read called Conversations with Children by Sister Magdalen: "Holiness is not a question of duty or virtue as much as an opportunity to relate to God and other humans in joyfully-given and humble love."

"Our respect for [the child's] personhood means we cannot be reluctant as teachers" but "[e]very teacher is well advised to ask himself sometimes as he thinks about his role: 'Who am I to teach these precious souls?'".

All these readings together have been enlightening for me. Children are still so close to that innocent state in which they love others unconditionally and totally. This love is an image, if you will, of the love of the Holy Trinity which Jesus manifested to us through His death on the Cross. It is our duty as parents and educators to set up our children's education so that it establishes and fosters that relationship between self and God and then self and others in order for them (and us) to become closer to God throughout their lives. This should be the true purpose of education.

If we respect the child's personhood then we must recognize that we are not to get in the way of their relationship with God. It falls in line with Miss Mason's concept of offering children a "feast of ideas" (and here she's speaking of ideas that are True, Good and Beautiful presented in a careful, deliberate way, not just any random ideas that are encountered accidentally) but not being able to choose which ideas they will interact with and which they will reject. We must do our best to help them establish those relationships for their own sakes and so we must be careful that we do not put ourselves in the way of that. All children have the capacity for these relationships, but all to often we adults get in the way precisely because we have not taken the time to carefully consider these things.

 Really we ought to be focusing on helping our children to develop fully the ability to do what we were created to do - which is to worship our Creator. And what does it mean to worship other than to be in relation with God? [Fr. Thomas Hopko has an excellent podcast series on worship at Ancient Faith Radio.]

Charlotte Mason also says,
“…a liberal education is, like justice, religion, liberty, fresh air, the natural birthright of every child.” Vol 6, p 235

 I would go so far as to say that not only is it our birthright, but that we were created for a liberal education in the sense that we can glorify God in all that we do. Our whole lives can become a prayer if we allow ourselves to worship as we were made to do. That is clear in this quote about the Holy Spirit being present everywhere where she says:

“Many Christian people rise a little higher; they conceive that even grammar and arithmetic may in some not very clear way be used for God; but the great recognition, that God the Holy Spirit is Himself, personally, the Imparter of knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius, is a conception so far lost to us that we should think it distinctly irreverent to conceive of the divine teaching as co-operating with ours in a child's arithmetic lesson, for example. But the Florentine mind of the Middle Ages went further than this: it believed, not only that the seven Liberal Arts were fully under the direct outpouring of the Holy Ghost, but that every fruitful idea, every original conception, whether in Euclid, or grammar, or music, was a direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, without any thought at all as to whether the person so inspired named himself by the name of God, or recognised whence his inspiration came. All of these seven figures are those of persons whom we should roughly class as pagans, and whom we might be lightly inclined to consider as outside the pale of the divine inspiration.” Vol 2, pp 270-1

We have a beautiful prayer in the Orthodox church that speaks to this:

"O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth;

Who art everywhere present and fillest all things;
Treasury of good things and giver of life;
Come and dwell in us, and cleanse us from every impurity,
And save our souls, O Gracious Lord."

If we truly believe that God is "everywhere present and fillest all things" then we don't have to (and ought not) compartmentalize religion/faith and separate it from "regular" school subjects, but allow faith to breathe into every thing that we do. If we do that, and wish to do our best to bring glory to God in all areas of our lives then it seems to me that it naturally follows that we will have a wide and varied curriculum because we will be inspired to love all the things that are true, good and beautiful, because they point to the True, Good and Beautiful Person of Jesus Christ. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Wednesdays with Words

I want to link the post up to Wednesdays with Words at Ordo Amoris, but I've not quite figured it out yet.  Either way, here are the words that I love for this Wednesday: 

Homily: On how only the foolish deny God

The mind is the rudder of man's entire being. It counsels, persuades and guides. Both the soul and the body act according to the mind. If the mind is upright before God, then the whole man is upright. If the mind is iniquitous before God, the whole man is iniquitous. Even if someone merely thinks, ``There is no God,'' the thought immediately manifests itself in his deeds. Evil thoughts come first and evil deeds inevitably follow. Do you see how well the inspired prophet knows the nature of man? First, he underlines the cause, then he cites the consequences. Evil deeds necessarily proceed from evil thoughts. That is why, brethren, you should not believe those who say: ``I do not believe in God, but I do good deeds.'' First of all, he who does not believe in God does not know what good is, nor can he differentiate good from evil. By his disbelief, a man cuts himself off from the greatest Good and the Source of every good! Furthermore, let us carefully study this: you will see that all the deeds of the ungodly are corrupt and hateful. They are corrupt because they are evil, worthless and transitory; they are hateful, because they are contrary to the will of the Living God. The godless cannot distinguish good from evil, for only in the light of God's law can one determine precisely what is good and what is evil. However, it can also be that those who merely say they believe in God do corrupt and hateful deeds, acknowledging God with their lips but denying Him in deeds. It is good to confess God with your lips, but that is a long way from being enough! One must also acknowledge Him with the heart, and confirm one's faith by good deeds. Even so, it does happen that a man believes in his heart, and confesses with his lips, and still sins. This happens either from the weakness of the will or from the devil's arrows. Let such a one repent, and he will be forgiven immediately. Repentance is salvific even for the godless; how much more so for a believer? As long as a man is on earth, he has a chance for repentance. But who can be certain that his time will extend beyond this night? Hence, delaying repentance is utter foolishness.
O most gracious Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; help us to repent as Thou dost help us to breathe.

From The Prologue of Ohrid, by Saint Nikolai Velimirovic. October 9

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Little Bit About This Blog

I tend to be an abstract, big picture thinker. I spend lots of time pondering ideas in my head with my attention not on what I am physically doing at the moment. I like to see the grand scheme of things and leave the practical details for others to figure out (fortunately, I am married to a man who is very good at bringing me back down from the clouds to the practical, every day things that I need to focus on more!).

Because I do so much reading and have such a hunger for knowledge, I find myself continually devouring books, searching for Truth. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life and so I endeavor to see if the books that I read align with the Truth that can be found in Christ. Hence the title of this blog: Through the Mind to the Heart.  Because what I am finding more and more is that, as I seek Wisdom, my heart is changing and I am beginning to see myself more clearly.

I am also deeply interested in education, especially the idea of classical education, which is intended to be a shaping and forming of one's soul.  My plan then, is to use this blog to share the insights and ideas that come to me as I read, more as a record for myself than anything, but I also want to share with others because I have found that occasionally there are other people who happen to be interested in the same things I am, and it's nice to know that sometimes.