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.