Thursday, November 30, 2006


It was 9:00 pm when I tiptoed into my five-year-old daughter’s room to put away the sweater she had left in the kitchen. “What are you doing mommy?” she whispered. Startled, I turned to find her in the dark. “Priscilla,” I asked, “why are you still awake? You have to get to sleep sweetheart, you have school tomorrow.”

“Scratch my back mommy. Please?”

Those eyes, so hopeful, stripped me of all excuses. My second-born, whose infancy was overlapped by her younger brother’s, had all of six months to be the baby before being bumped up by the brand new sibling forming with great speed in my barely recovered womb.

“Scoot over,” I said. And I snuggled in beside her, burying my nose in her hair, and softly brushing my fingers over her frail, bony spine.

“Sing me a song…a Christmas song,” she begged.

“How about a Christmas story?” I suggested. It occurred to me that she might not have heard before, in any kind of detail, the story of Jesus’ birth.

“O.K,” she agreed. “Then a Christmas song.”

I started with Mary being visited by the Angel Gabriel, emphasizing her youth and her incredible faith in the midst of such a bizarre arrangement.

“And God sent His son, who was also God, down to earth to be born from Mary’s tummy.”

“So God has two names,” she verified. “God and Jesus.”

“Yes. That’s right.”

She listened intently, furrowing her eyebrows at the part of my narrative where a very pregnant Mary is turned away from inn after inn, until finally, they are given shelter in a barn with the animals.

“And Jesus, the creator of all the universe,” I went on, “was born that night without a crib, or diapers, or even a mattress for Mary to rest on.”

“Jesus did have a baby blanket,” Priscilla corrected me. “I saw Him wrapped in one in a picture.”

Nodding, I continued, describing next how the shepherds’ fear turned to excitement at the angels’ announcement. I told her about the bravery of the Wise men as they defied Herod by journeying in secret to worship the baby king. I was searching for ways, for words, to capture for us both the miracle so easily lost in the repetition of this account.

“It is easy to forget why Christmas is so special.” I lectured her. “We get excited by Santa Claus, the presents, and the treats ….”

“Not me!” she interrupted. “Even when I am opening presents, I always think of Jesus.”

This exclamation, spoken so quickly and on cue, was said for my benefit. Priscilla, out of love for me, and hoping perhaps for a few extra minutes of cuddling, fed me the words I was hungry for. Although touched by her efforts to please me, I still couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. Whether for her or for me, I didn’t know. How does a mother conjure up in her child, or even in herself, a passion for the incarnation that goes beyond lip service and correct answers? I don’t want Priscilla to simply inherit a hand-me-down belief. I would rather my children wrestle like Jacob with the soul-assaulting commandments of Christ, emerging from the battle bruised and transformed; wearing with zeal their tested faith like a badge of honor.

Every week, I endure the exasperated sighs from my kids at having to stand during liturgy, pray before meals, and listen respectfully to readings from the Gospel. “Don’t you get it? “ I want to scream, “this is God, that we are approaching!” But it is not my job to try and force feed an appreciation for the Church down the throats and the hearts of my family. I was blessed with the privilege of raising these sons and daughters, but they are not mine to control or possess. I can create a home environment that is honoring to Christ. I can live my life in such a way that legitimizes the eternal benefits of the Gospel message. I can pray with them and for them, before school, before bed, in times of joy, and in times of sadness. I can lovingly insist upon appropriate behavior without shaming them into resentment. From there, I can do nothing more but implore God for the faith of Abraham, trusting Him enough to offer up their souls as a sacrifice.

I sang that night every Christmas carol I could think of. Priscilla was lulled to sleep by my off-tune renditions of “What Child Is This?” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I hoped, as I slipped out of her bed, that she would forever equate Nativity with the intimate whispers passed to her from mother to daughter, our shared memory guiding her like a star towards Bethlehem.

Listen to this reflection by clicking HERE. This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


"You are not the best!" Benjamin, wailing on his bed, is trying his hardest to think of the meanest insult he can muster using his limited three-year-old vocabulary. His anger started brewing when I suggested he pick up the train tracks circling my coffee table, an idea he viewed as cruel and unusual punishment. "It’s too hard!" he had whined, "You help." I actually had other things on my to-do list besides picking up Benjamin’s mess, so I politely declined as it was really as simple as shoving the tracks off the side into the big plastic tub below. When the whining had pushed one too many of my buttons, I set the timer and told him he had seven minutes to finish the task or he would go straight to nap with no books. The timer dinged, the mess remained, and Ben was carried to his room.

I inherited a very low tolerance for back talk and general displays of unpleasantness. That’s not to say such behavior does not occur in our household, it just means that I am particularly stern when it does. Watching Benji, however, writhe and snort with emotions too large for his small body, I knew that my harsh words would be equivalent to pouring gasoline on a fire. I waited it out, listening for the heavy breathing, a signal that the anger had taken its course and a little boy now lay exhausted in its wake. He was ready to talk, to obey, and to apologize for his disrespect.

My children are not the only victims of rage in our family. Just this week I was humbled again by own lack of self-control. Every Tuesday morning I bolt up, anxious and antsy. This is the day it all goes down. Elijah catches the bus at 7:30am. Priscilla does her school assignment and then she, Ben, baby Mary, and I run to library for the preschool program. After class, we rush back to the house, feed Priscilla and wait for the kindergarten bus to arrive at 11:15am. Then its naps, after-school homework, make dinner, eat dinner, and load up the van to take Elijah to Boy Scouts by 5:30 pm.

This particular Tuesday, all of us woke up late. I dragged Elijah out of bed, got him some breakfast, and asked him for the hundredth time to put his homework folder in his backpack and put on his coat. My seven year old stared at me blankly. "Well?" I persisted "where is your backpack?"
"I don’t know."
"What to you mean you don’t know?" We now had four minutes to get him to the bus, and my insides were starting to warm and simmer.
"I don’t know mom, I put it in the office yesterday. Maybe Ben took it."
With two minutes to go, I started spewing generalizations containing words like "never" and "always", beating with excess vigor an already dead horse. I continued my tirade while opening a cabinet and taking out a plastic shopping bag. "Here, just take this!" Two hazel eyes, narrow with contempt, met my gaze, and grabbing the bag my son ran out the door. Immediately his departure left me cold with regret.

"Can I have some more cereal mom?" From the kitchen, Priscilla, dressed head to toe in purple for "favorite color day" at school, was unscrewing the top off the milk carton.
"That’s fine, just be sure not to spill on your shirt."
"Okay," she assured me.
I could hear bickering from the table but I let it go, hoping it would resolve itself without my interference. Priscilla was looking at a book that Ben felt was rightly his. Suddenly, there was a scream, a splash, and the sound of sobbing. Rather than count to ten, I stormed into the kitchen to see Priscilla drenched in milk and cheerios. My unbridled anger boiled over. I was no more capable of controlling my outburst than of pushing molten lava back into an erupted volcano. "GO TO YOUR ROOMS!" I roared. And two frightened kids rushed to the safety of upstairs, as far as possible from their crazy, psychotic mother.

I was still not ready to let it go. Like Ben, the anger was bigger than myself. Too little sleep, too many plans, and too high of expectations created a noose I was bound to stick my neck in. In the aftermath I sat, head in my hands, agonizing over the path of my destruction. I thought of Elijah, heading out on his own without the support of my affection. I could hear the tiny whimpers of Benjamin and Priscilla, listening with fear for the sound of my feet on the stairs. I was disgusted by the emotional release I let fly at my children’s expense. The damage was done. My words of fury had been hurled impulsively, lodging with permanence in their delicate memories.

There is but one salve to soothe the wounds of an offended heart. With my tail between my legs I tiptoed up the stairs and sat on the bed, next to Priscilla. "Please look at me sweetheart," I requested. Brushing the hair from her face, I swallowed my pride and began the work of owning up to my injustice. "I am very sorry for getting so mad. You did not deserve to be treated like that. I knew the spilled milk was an accident but I overreacted anyway. Will you forgive me?" Priscilla, relishing in my vulnerability, opened her arms and accepted the apology. At just five-years-old, she is beginning to absorb an awareness of her personhood, and with it the power she possesses to either inflict pain or show mercy.

I repeated this exercise in penitence two more times with identical results. Full forgiveness, no questions asked. Children are as resilient as rubber bands, but still capable of snapping if stretched too far. Why is it so much easier to control my annoyance for strangers than to show restraint with those I hold most dear? An apology offered with sincerity builds trust, but an overused apologetic afterthought fosters resentment. To harness a temper is an act of respect communicating more with its silence than a lifetime worth of empty promises being yelled into bullhorn. It will take all my concentration and a ceaseless flow of prayer to keep my lips locked tight on a turbulent Tuesday morning. A frustrated mom is par for the course, kids are extremely competent at pushing our limits. But like it or not, we are the living examples God has chosen for communicating the value of self-discipline to these growing, ever watching creatures, formed with purpose in His image.

I hold my breath and enter the kitchen where my path of salvation sits bickering at the table in the guise of ponytails, spider-man shirts, and sticky faces, red with juice. Sometimes this cross can be so heavy, nearly immovable from the weight of responsibility. Other times it is light with joy and laughter. But every day it is mine to carry, mine to submit to, and mine, with thankfulness, to treasure.

Friday, November 17, 2006


Benjamin, my four year old, is trying to slip on his jacket without unclenching his fist. This morning he found five, crisp one-dollar bills in a card tucked away in my desk, leftover money from his birthday two weeks ago. I get the feeling that his expectations aren’t lining up with reality, so I am packing us up for a trip to the one place I know where five dollars can be stretched to twice it’s worth in value and excitement: our local, neighborhood resale shop.

Still clutching his loot, Benji jumps from the van and dances with impatience beside me. “C’mon Mommy!” he whines. Finally, I have the stroller unfolded and his baby sister buckled in. The three of us pull open the door to our own little version of paradise. The shelves, stacked tightly with toys, games, books, and stuffed animals will likely keep my son occupied for quite some time, so I take advantage of his distraction to meander through some aisles myself. The Christmas decorations are in full effect. A hodge-podge of bells, wreathes, angels, and tinsel send waves of melancholy mixed with anxiety coursing through my overtaxed mind. The amount of details I am already trying to stay on top of occupy every available brain cell, sometimes overflowing out my ears and on to the kitchen floor. I am definitely not ready for this.

Hanging by a nail between picture frames and scrapbook supplies, is a square, felt Advent Calendar in muted red, cream, and forest green. In its middle is a large pocket filled with a Christmas tree three inches high, and attached to the top by a long piece of yarn. Surrounding the bigger pocket, marked by the number “24”, are twenty-three smaller pockets in numeric order. The Christmas tree is to be moved each day, starting December 1st, from pocket to pocket culminating in the final move to its place in the center, signaling the onset of Christmas. My fingers brush lightly over the soft fabric. “My kids would love this!” I think. But even with a $3.00 price tag, the calendar will not work for our family.

Before December 1st, before even Thanksgiving, Orthodox Christians enter into their own Advent with the onset of the Nativity Fast. This kicks off on November 15th, following by one day, the Feast of St. Philip. Philip was one of the first to be called as an apostle. Having met with excitement this Jesus of Nazareth, he went to his friend Nathaniel and invited him to join them. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” asks Nathaniel. “Come and See!” is Philip’s reply.

I admit, in the past I have looked at this Fast as kind of a drag. Just as everyone else is gearing up for office parties, secret santas, and shopping sprees, we as Orthodox are expected to wind things down, and show some restraint in a time of year famous for its excess. Currently, however, I do not feel very celebratory. I have been particularly troubled by current events shaping a global outlook that, to me, looks disastrous. Nuclear testing, school violence, cut-throat elections, terrorist attacks, and the gradual acceptance of immorality once shunned not only by Christians but secular culture as well, have more than once caused me to question, “Can anything good come out of this seemingly godless world?”

Sometimes my kids get so wound up they are incapable of hearing my voice. This can be dangerous because without my guidance they are susceptible to making poor choices. With my hands, I must physically stop their movement, coming down to their level to secure their attention. “No touch!” I say firmly, pointing to the fire under the burner on my stove. I understand their inability to focus. I too, can get out of control, trying to wrap my mind around the constant barrage of stimuli being blasted in my face. Like the fascination luring gapers to a car crash, the destruction caused by nihilism, materialism and hatred is entrancing. “Come and See!” redirects the Church. Physically, through a prescription of fasting and prayer, She offers the ultimate cure; belief in the undefeatable good that destroyed death by birth, bringing hope to all who would listen.

It is ironic that the frantic pace of preparing for a Christian holiday leaves so little time for reflection on Christ. As much as I would like to believe I have it in me to block out the noise and narrow in on the “one thing needful”, I know in reality I am not that disciplined. The Church has mercifully stopped my movement, coming down to my all too human level. As a community, stronger in numbers, we enter with spiritual camaraderie into this time of preparation. By fasting, we acknowledge our dependence, and become more in tune with the sustaining power of our faith. Some days throughout this journey we’ll feel spiritually nourished, and others disappointingly dry. The determination to keep at it, however, to the best of our ability under the guidance of our Spiritual Fathers, is our physical act of knocking at the door Christ has promised to open.

I know firsthand that labor is a natural pre-cursor to birth. The two have been inexorably linked since the beginning of time. To suffer without any hope of future joy is damnation. Joy without struggle is incomplete. This theme is woven throughout the Christmas story beginning with Mary, who locked up the secret of God in her womb for nine long months, despite being tarnished as promiscuous and impure. Jesus was not to be born in Joseph’s hometown of Nazareth. This godly couple bundled up for a difficult voyage to Bethlehem before they could meet their Savior. St. Simeon waited a lifetime to finally hold the promised Christ in his arms, and the wise men traveled day and night to at last worship, with reverence, the incarnate King.

It might not seem festive to start preparing now by purging my soul of sinful tendencies. But how much more glorious is a feast when I come hungry, than when I am already full upon arriving? Our observance of Nativity does not wrap itself up the day after the birth of Christ. His arrival is just the beginning of our celebration! The post-Christmas malaise commonly associated with December 26th is incompatible with a heart filled to overflowing with the knowledge that light has invaded the darkness, and hope for the human race restored through the miracle of the Incarnation. “Christ is Born!” we’ll shout for the next 40 days, “Glorify Him!”

Benjamin’s arms can scarcely contain the bounty he has bought for himself. “I don’t need a bag!” he announces, precariously carrying his stuffed Mickey Mouse, plastic Robin action figure, and Buzz Light-Year book, while laying his now crumpled dollars on the counter. Oblivious to the peril, he bounds out the exit and into the busy parking lot. “Benjamin, wait!” I call out. “You have to stay with mommy.” The urgency of my voice brings him back to his senses and for moment he is paralyzed by his position. “Over here!” I shout, and with relief in his eyes he runs back to find me, wrapping his small sticky fingers in the folds of my sweater. “O.K. mom, I ‘m ready!” he announces, and together we head for the safety of home.

Listen to this reflection by clicking HERE. This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Licking the last of the dessert off my spoon, I look up to see my mother wiping down the underside of her microwave with Windex. I stopped by her house this morning for a visit after the kids got on the bus. When I arrived, she poured me a cup of coffee and offered something to eat. “Let’s see what I have here,” she said, opening her freezer to reveal dozens of plastic storage bags, neatly labeled and dated, filled with leftovers and baked goods. “Oh, never mind that, I’ll just make something.” Within fifteen minutes the sweet smell of blueberries, simmering in sugar, wafted through the kitchen. “There you are,” she announced, handing me a steaming bowl of cobbler, floating in cream.

It has taken me seven years and four living, breathing reminders, to accept my fate as a mother of young children. With acceptance, came adjusted expectations and a longer fuse. Today, however, as I sit in this cool, serenely sterile prototype of a life without kids, I feel in my gut the resurgence of a gnawing appetite for an existence other than my own. It is usually my practice, to douse sparks of resentment with a big splash of reality. Tending to the needs of family leaves little time for mental ponderings on “what if?” But here, the quietness releases the running to do list from my head and opens the floodgates for spontaneous reflection. Windows without smudges, the absent smell of pee and damp towels coming from the bathroom, a gleaming linoleum floor; everywhere I turn I am reminded of the contrasting chaos and clutter waiting for me at home.

“If my children were grown…” and with that, I throw out the first log. The spark is now lit, filling my insides with the warmth of possibilities. I imagine my own freezer, layered with lasagna, stew, and homemade muffins, ready to thaw and serve at a moments notice. “I could decorate however I wanted”, I muse, remembering with frustration the broken vase currently lying in pieces on my dining room table. I’d be a better hostess, a better wife, and a better friend if only I weren’t so distracted by trying to keep up with the mess! This line of reasoning spreads like the wildfire it is, engulfing my resolve with flames of dissatisfaction.

When traveling down the path laid out for us, we are often held up by debris. Pulling up to these roadblocks, the natural inclination is to change direction. “A different job, a different town, a different spouse, would make this life so much easier.” And we avoid the tedious work of reconstruction by driving around in circles in search of a street that is clear. We run to escape our frustrations only to find out that the root of our fear, insecurity and procrastination was not deeply imbedded in that person, place, or thing left behind, but in the very center of our soul.

Two years ago, I was newly pregnant with my fourth child when I found a lump in my left breast. My doctor was concerned and referred me to a specialist. I had to wait three weeks for an appointment, and the not knowing was almost more than I could bear. I slept all the time and let the house chores and laundry pile up around me. Any little thing would set me off, resulting in either yelling or tears. I am a person with a strong belief in the will of God but I allowed myself to become a victim of my circumstances. If only I didn’t have morning sickness… If only I wasn’t so tired … If only this apartment wasn’t so small… then I would be brave.

Two months later, I am naked from the waist up, lying on a medical table listening, with relief, to the ultra-sound technician confirm she had seen absolutely nothing unusual. Whatever growth had invaded my breast was now gone. On the drive home, I felt elation accompanied by a twinge of shame over my lack of stoicism. About two weeks into my depression, my mother had come to check on me and was appalled by the scene behind our front door. I was weepy, unkempt, and still wearing my pajamas at eleven-o-clock in the morning. The kids were running around me in circles, Sesame Street blaring in the background. She stepped over the toys and dirty underwear to sit me up, look me in the eye, and compassionately kick me in the butt. “I am so sorry you are scared and fatigued,” she started “but these are your children and they need you to get off that couch and be their mother!”

No matter how legitimate our gripes and difficulties may be, wallowing in self-pity will always feel worse than picking ourselves up by the bootstraps and doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Dissatisfaction gives us permission to sit idle while we complain about all the great things we could do if only we had the right materials to work with. Contentment assesses honestly the materials in our possession, and realizing their potential, transforms them into art. Wisdom and patience aren’t handed out for free. It takes the right combination of joy, pain, fear, love, and disappointment to find our hidden strengths beneath the many layers of unfulfilled expectations.

This is not the season for me to be organized. This is not the time for gourmet meals. For now, I have the temporary honor of being the most influential person in the lives of four small children. To take this responsibility for granted would be catastrophic for my own development. It is within my power to create an environment of peace and well being, not by the color I paint my walls, but by listening, laughing and a limitless offering of unconditional forgiveness. In the blink of an eye, I will be melancholy for the scuffmarks and ink-stains: proof of a house filled with life. But for now, I will pre-heat the oven for another round of fish sticks, and quiet the longings for anything, but this once-in-lifetime opportunity to feed my family

Saturday, November 04, 2006


I am sitting on a wooden bench waiting my turn for absolution. I have been dreading this all day, and now with only two people in front of me and a heart heavy with baggage, I wish the whole thing over before it’s even begun. Nervously, I pull out from my pocket, a folded, half-sheet of paper and look it over for the hundredth time. My own handwriting, barely legible, spells out the true state of my pathetic position.

I am a self-proclaimed expert in hypocrisy. I know what to say, how to tilt my head sympathetically, when to smile, and where to stand, neck bowed, in reverence. Each time I unleash my tongue with gossip, let jealousy quiet due praise, exasperate my child by assuming fault without understanding the circumstances; when I spend money we don’t have to assuage my own stress, avert my eyes to evade conversation, avoid work that is dull and monotonous or listen distractedly in order to assert my own opinions, I stuff these acts of selfishness out of sight, but not out of mind, until I am ready to burst from the weight of them.

I am relatively new to this. Ten years ago I was quite content to repent before God on my own time, and in the environment of my choosing. The idea of formally listing my faults in front of a witness seemed dry and altogether unnecessary, like reciting out loud this week’s grocery list to my husband. My lifestyle was relatively innocuous and I couldn’t fathom what kind of sins would be worth mentioning at such a ceremonious event. How many ways could I possibly spin laziness?

Never before had the occasion arisen to sit down, beatitudes in hand, in order to take spiritual inventory of my soul. “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit”, the Sermon on the Mount begins. Blessed are they who acknowledge their complete dependence on Christ, and trust not in their own strength or capabilities. How authentically was I praying the words “Thy will be done?” Did I insist on trudging through with my own plans, looking only to God for verification? In what ways that day, that week, or even that month had I denied myself of anything? Each question asked, unearthed deeply rooted habits barricading my will from submission and hindering my spiritual growth.

The gentleman next to me rises from our shared pew and walks softly toward a small alcove with a table carrying a cross and the Gospel. Above these are icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and the Saints. Their stern faces, intolerant of evil and the havoc it wreaks on the hearts of men, draw out from confessors meditations on eternity usually smothered by earthly distractions. Our priest smiles warmly, wraps an arm around the shoulder of my fellow parishioner and together, heads drawn in collaboration, they begin the work of purification. Grace had instilled the desire to seek out holiness, and this young man’s loving response was his effort put forth to purge his soul of transgressions.

I bounce my knee and go over in my head the laundry list of reasons why I sit here, in the dark, on a Saturday night. I am embarrassed to reveal my same petty, manipulative, bratty tendencies and wish, just once, I had an epic sin of passion to offer, like murder for love or theft due to hunger. It is these quiet, unassuming, self-centered behaviors, however, that stick, like glue, to my persona and ingeniously distract me from the path of salvation. It isn’t until I am chin deep in the mire of my own inconsistencies and miserably annoyed by my weakness that I am able to surrender, out of desperation, to my true purpose as a servant, poor in spirit but rich in mercy.

My turn has come. It is now me walking on tiptoe, carrying my sins to the table. I am still thinking of ways to be honest about my shortcomings while allowing for just a touch of validity to sweeten the presentation. My own shoulder feels the warm embrace of my spiritual father, and my eyes meeting the piercing gaze of Christ and His saints, moisten with wonder at this sacred crowd gathered in loving concern over one wayward lamb. Standing here, my agenda changes sharply. No longer am I concerned about my status or reputation. In front of God, His priestly witness, and His church I want to turn myself inside out, revealing every last speck of dirt muddying my soul. This official handing over of a burden is a gift beyond explanation. The Church, acknowledging how parching a journey down the “road less traveled” can be, put in place an oasis of refreshment available to us all, if we just show up and drink.

I kneel, with my head under the stole and firm hand of my Priest, while he recites the anticipated prayer of absolution. As I rise, he offers his blessing and this final benediction:

“Now, having no further care for the sins you have confessed, you may go in peace.”

With my thirst quenched and strength renewed, I depart.

Listen to this reflection by clicking HERE. This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.