Thursday, March 29, 2007

Death and Resurrection

My son, Elijah, is in a funk. “Leave me alone!” he yelled at his siblings, whose every movement he views as a ploy to annoy him. Separated now in his room, he lies on the bed sulking and pouting, grumbling under his breath about the unfairness of being eight years old. Normally, I would scold him. “Snap out of it!” I’d say. But today, I too am funky and on edge, and I lie down next to him fighting back tears of frustration. There are days I feel discouraged, there are moments I feel ambivalent, and then there are times when I almost feel lifeless. Like my spiritual pulse is scarcely discernable amidst the tragic disease of my stubborn defiance. I am beyond aware of the depths of the depravity in my soul.

I coasted some. I let down my guard, seeing the finish line in clear view up ahead. I foolishly reasoned I could take it from here and ran on my own toward Pascha. A morning, however, not guarded by prayer leaves a heart more vulnerable to assaults. Over time that unprotected heart, riddled with wounds from the arrows of sin and despair, can barely beat out its sheepish plea for a divine intervention. It is frightening, this taste of an existence without Christ. It is terrifying outside the will of God.

So here I am, crawling into Holy Week head bowed and eyes lowered. I have mourned my lack of life like Mary and Martha mourned Lazarus days buried, and now throw myself, stinking of decay, at the feet of the Church and its sacraments. The weeks of Lent stretch long enough to push us past our limits, to force us into the reality of an instinctive desire to make ourselves a priority. The days of fasting bring us quite appropriately and authentically to our knees. I have nothing to pour upon Christ’s holy shroud but a broken spirit, and a mustard seed worth of faith that this offering will not be despised.

When I think of those present, waving palm branches and shouting praises, I am struck by the difficulties they must have endured. How certain they were that triumphant relief was theirs through this future king passing by on a donkey. How enormously disappointing to watch that Hope suffer, naked and bloodstained on a cross. They, too, tasted of bereavement through their preconceived notions of salvation being crushed before rising again. Just as I forget that violence and grace coexist until my time here is over, until through physical death I attain, by God’s mercy, the victory of life everlasting.

I am anxious for the opportunity to bury myself with Christ - my weak self, my old self, and my resistant self so sickened with discontent. I am anxious to enter the sepulcher of my Savior, where all of us are equally dead; the strong and the weak both equally in need of a miracle to pull us out of this mess. During Holy Week, I will have no doubts that my fasting, my prayer, or my lack thereof, did not earn or deny me a chance to be resurrected. Because this silver lined burial can’t be bought or lost with appropriate behavior. Only those aware of their hopeless state, and who see no other way for deliverance outside the crucifixion will experience the triumphant relief in a stone rolled away from the tomb.

Already, my ears are aching for St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily:

And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,

Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.

For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour,

Will accept the last even as the first.

He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,

Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.

And He showeth mercy upon the last,

And careth for the first;

And to the one He giveth,

And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.

And He both accepteth the deeds,

And welcometh the intention,

And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.

Oh, me, of little faith “snap out of it” and rejoice!

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Friday, March 23, 2007

St. Mary of Egypt

I cannot say I was drawn to her that first time we met. It has been several years now since the image of Saint Mary, skeletal and wild with repentance, was placed in the center of the sanctuary, years since I introduced myself by venerating her hands while inwardly recoiling from their lack of matronly comfort or delicate beauty. Her story, briefly retold in a homily mid-service, did not sit well with my 21st century faith tempered by rational limits and moderation, where extremes are viewed as threatening and morose. “Is this what makes you happy?” I bitterly asked of Christ, “drifting through a desert for 47 years to pay for sins long past?” And I left that afternoon, unmoved and downhearted about my prospects for acceptance in God’s good graces.

St. Mary of Egypt was once a lustful figure, her femininity marred and distorted by an obsession with fleshly pleasure. She was a cracked and fragile vessel who had emptied her convictions to make room for the base desire, infiltrating, filling, and consuming her soul. Paying with her body, she boarded a ship, following out of curiosity the crowd journeying to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross. When unseen forces barred her entrance into the temple she stepped to the side, exhausted and disappointed. Suddenly, she was acutely aware of the depths of her impurity and she wept beneath the icon of the Theotokos, beating at her breast with violent regret.

I tried in vain to distance myself from the snow-white hair and sun baked skin, pulled taut over fleshless bone. I was not a prostitute or a reckless tramp, exchanging morality for selfish indulgence. Surely, I hadn’t taken delight in that which is contrary to righteousness. I’m pretty certain it wasn’t my habit to appease an insatiable appetite for instant gratification by whatever means were currently at my disposal. I was not effectively selling myself this faulty and dishonest justification, because there is no distancing oneself in the body of Christ, where all are united and saved arm in arm. Where the transgressions of one trickle down to another, and the penitent prayers of those overwhelmed by the depths of their own impurity, wipe clean the errant stains of their neighbor. “At all times you are either hurting the Church or advancing Her efforts,” my priest recently reminded his parishioners, “there is no idle lingering, no neutral ground.”

What I missed by focusing on the peripherals, by narrowing in on the brushwork of a masterpiece and pouting over my own lack of skill, was the overarching beauty of a life transformed by forgiveness, and the implications of that for all of us who wrestle with sin. What I couldn’t see from behind my self-protecting viewpoint was a loving response – a release instead of punishment. St. Mary of Egypt was finally unchained from the prison of her addictions. She found nourishment in the wilderness even as her body withered. St. Mary became a vessel of atonement, filled now with the warmth of God. What I had taken was a picture out of context, twisting its meaning to reflect my own agenda, the agenda where I coast my way to heaven.

The moment has made its way round again, when I kiss emaciated fingers belonging to hands reaching always for holiness and submission. One last reminder on the cusp of Lent’s finale that repentance is not a one shot deal, but a lifelong dedication to following God’s will, wherever it may lead us. One last confirmation, that Christianity is neither rational nor moderate. St. Mary of Egypt who wandered the desert, enlightening generations behind her, appears to us when we need her most with a message of hope for the oppressed. Liberation is but a heartbeat away in the tears of remorse for falling short of our potential, of turning our backs on the cross. St. Mary, please teach us to waste not a moment before running toward Christ for relief and redemption. Encourage us with your example to continually advance God’s Kingdom by responding wholeheartedly to His love.

Listen to this reflection on my new podcast site by clicking HERE. This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


Last Saturday, I slipped out from under my heavy down comforter without shivering, and neglected to grab my stretched-out wool cardigan before heading down the stairs for breakfast. With a steaming cup of coffee in hand, I opened our front door for the paper and there met face-to-face the long-time absent sun, distributing its unseasonable warmth, willy-nilly, all over the neighborhood. I paused for a moment, reveling in my freedom to stand on the porch without hunching over and chattering my teeth. Still in my “winter lasts forever” mode, this sneak peak at spring had been quite unexpected, and like all unexpected gifts was appreciated even more for its ability to surprise me, me whose life revolves around habitual repetition. It isn’t often that I lift up my gaze from the work at hand and say, “Hey, now there’s something new!”

I kept the door open, wide open, bathing our dark, dusty, living room in light. My children, itching like crazy for the possibility of a coat-free Saturday riding bikes not seen since October, gathered the necessary supplies for playing all day long outside the confines of our ancient, paint chipped, Victorian. I tried to go on with my to-do list, absent-mindedly washing a dish here, folding a towel there, all the while straining my neck for a glimpse of Elijah reading a book in his favorite climbing tree, Priscilla practicing her two-wheeler, and Benjamin swinging a baseball bat. Finally, when I could stand it no longer, the to-do list was tossed out completely. Averting my eyes from a half-cleaned kitchen, I swooped little Mary up into my arms and headed for the swing set with youthful giddiness.

Everything felt fresh and promising. Even the scabs on Priscilla’s knees still wet with dirt and blood (badges of courage from a half dozen wipeouts), induced nostalgic memories of my own stubbed toes and fearless summer escapades. Her pasty white skin blossomed with flushes of pink, like our now sleeping rose bush will awaken and bloom in the brightness of a June morning. After so much death, so much coldness, I was reminded that life returns with vigor regardless of our homicidal and suicidal tendencies toward destroying each other and ourselves. I felt smiled upon despite my great offenses.

Sometimes my faith feels inaccessible, like the mirage of a watery oasis in a dry and thirsty desert. Eagerly, I reach out with my cup for refreshment only to choke on mouthfuls of sand. But other times, unanticipated times, when I am steadfastly moving forward- loving, repenting, and persevering the best I can, my faith becomes more tangible than anything else around me. Christ’s resurrection becomes all I can see, hear, taste, and touch: in the buds of green on naked branches; silence disrupted by a cheerful song chirping just outside my kitchen window; once empty sidewalks now littered with pastel chalk, jump ropes, and scooters; elderly grandparents cuddling newborn babies; freshly picked strawberries staining my eager lips; the cycling of winter into spring.

Even now as I prepare my umpteenth lunch of hummus and pita, as I prostrate in recitation of St. Ephraim’s Lenten prayer, in the back of my mind I am humming the triumphal hymn of death being trampled by death. I am more cognizant of the reality that Lent, like winter, will not last forever. Now is the time to renew my commitment toward readying myself for the bridegroom. Now is the moment to light my lamp in preparation for His glorious return. This weekend it snowed again. Once more, I am wrapped in hat and mittens. I continue on with the scraping of windshields and the wiping of boots on our doormat. But all the while I am joyfully aware of the warmth and life that is just around the corner. I am gathering the necessary supplies for living outside the confines of this broken down, sin chipped, existence. I will welcome with open arms and yearning soul, my Spring, my Hope, my Resurrection.

Visit my new podcast site by clicking HERE. This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


When I had finally got all of our coats hung up and plopped down the diaper bag next to my husband, I raised my eyes just in time to see four-year-old Benjamin lighting a candle while flames danced in a circle around his chest. For a half second I was entranced by the image of my son on fire. “Hmm,” I thought, “I should do something about that.” And impulsively I leaped, without a plan, enveloping Benjamin between my arms and torso. Amazingly, his snowflake sweater had not been singed and Benjamin, himself, seemed somewhat confused by all the lunging and enveloping of his hyper mother. “Had my vision deceived me?” I pondered with embarrassment. But then the smell, the overwhelming odor of charcoal emanating from the very pores of Benjamin’s unscathed skin, confirmed that he had indeed been engulfed by a fire that had burned, like Moses’s bush, without consuming.

Even now, weeks later, I find myself fixated on that memory like a song lyric stuck stubbornly in the recesses of my mind. Surprisingly, it is not with horror that I replay that haunting scene but with spiritual enthrallment, drenched in revelation. I have long since abandoned my propensity to force supernaturalism through a common sense filter until only flecks of symbolism remain, to be translated and picked apart under a theological microscope. The oily tears running down a sober faced Theotokos on a weeping icon, the body and blood of my Savior poured generously into trembling lips, a divine wake-up call in my son as a living candle, all seem easier for me to grasp than the formation of a baby, let’s say, from a single cell, a planet perfectly positioned to neither freeze nor incinerate, or unlimited forgiveness.

I do not see in that reoccurring vision, Benjamin reaching over six lit wicks in order to place his candle at the very back of the stand, closest to Christ as an infant. I see the trusting faith of a child clothing itself in the flames of God’s mercy, flames that seem terrifying to those of us outside the inner tranquility of complete dependence. I see the burning of sins, insecurities, and hopelessness by means of a raging fire that miraculously leaves the soul purified and in tact. I see no worries about the future, no agonizing dwellings on the past, just a boy enraptured by that present moment, and whose entire existence (body, mind, and spirit) is offered up in a state of continual prayer. I see my own longings to be set ablaze with that all consuming Love, and at the same time my own resistance to lying on the altar and dousing myself in the unknown.

Understanding salvation as a process and a journey, makes moving forward the only real possibility. It always seems that just when I am catching my breath from a particularly rough patch in the road and feel tempted to set up camp on the plateau, I am urged forward once again into unmapped territory. Every time I panic. Every time I stall and procrastinate as long as possible until the stagnancy becomes unbearable. And then a gift, in the form of encouragement from a friend, wisdom from a Church father, a vision of my glowing son, reminds me that to lose earth is to gain heaven, that to lose my own will is to find solace in community. Because it is cold and lonely in a heart where the spark of God’s love has been snuffed out by worldly cares, where the fire that devours what would destroy us for eternity has not warmed with peace the frigidness of disappointment.

There are strict rules now for Ben. No running ahead of us, for instance, while we are hanging up coats and gathering bags in the narthex of the Sanctuary. He’s a live wire, that Benjamin, anxious for adventure and uninhibited by an awareness of his own mortality. It saddens me to think of him struggling, of getting older and bearing the weight of adult anxieties on his shoulders. He will one day be in my same position, faced with a choice to either conquer the fear with faith or to give in and be stuck for life with the gnawing dissatisfaction. My prayer, my great desire, is to always look up and find him burning without consumption, to see the flames of God’s mercy spurring him on toward heaven.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007


My son, Elijah, has a heart as big as the moon, and he wears it on his sleeve for anyone to delight in or to carelessly crack in two. In Chicago we had neighbor boys who made sport of his innocence, luring Elijah out to play a game of hide and seek only to leave him counting and searching for the playmates that had snickered and scattered away with no intention of returning. Needless to say, their cruelty was infuriating and I warned Elijah not to go out when they called him. “But why, mom? I don’t care if they only play for a little bit.” And his pleading eyes, lonely eyes, begged me to give the boys another chance.

Elijah and Priscilla were out riding bikes on the sidewalk one afternoon, while I nursed the baby and kept my eagle eye on their every move from the front steps. I immediately tensed up when I heard laughter, adolescent boy laughter, as ominous as dark clouds before a storm. My son’s trusting face lit up with the possibility of playing with anyone besides his own sister. As the boys neared our house Elijah ran to meet them, talking incessantly, I assumed, about Star Wars, his current obsession. From my post I glared at them, daring these kids to cross me by teasing my son. As they all came closer, I heard the actual one-way conversation, differing vastly from six-year-old musings on Darth Vadar. “Do you guys know Jesus?” Elijah was asking. “You should know Him! He loves you. Jesus is your Savior.” I couldn’t take it, them rolling their eyes and exchanging knowing glances. “That’s enough Elijah,” I called out “Come on inside.”

It is said that the Emperor Nero tied Christians to a stake and burned them like torches for the amusement of his party guests. I wish I could say that such accounts brought me courage, but they actually make me nauseous and sad. What is worse is that the tears welling up as I read about Saints enduring brutality and torture for the sake of their faith are, quite honestly, tears of despair. They are tears for myself, tears of fear, tears of weakness and shame. I try to picture it: me in front of a ruthless ruler who is demanding an answer to the simple question, “To whom do you pledge your allegiance?” And I look around me, honestly, at all of the accumulated things and plans competing for that prestigious honor. With so much at stake, with so much to lose, no wonder I am very afraid.

My full belly, warm bed, and opportunities for success are jewels I wear guiltily, feeling garish in front of those so unadorned. I assume of course, with pity, that these gaudy gems are everyone’s desire - like a child relishing a lollipop might feel sorry for his poor parents who must dine on only wine and roasted lamb. But those who have lost everything have nothing left to lose, so they run, sprint, and race for the finish line unencumbered by fear or the weights of this world, pulling and luring and dividing allegiances between earth and heaven. I, on the other hand, must move slowly and cautiously so as not to misplace or have stolen even one of my precious gems, so heavily and precariously fastened around my neck. Here, in my utopia of an existence, it is my intellect, my possessions, and my reputation on the line rather than my flesh, so pale and tender. What I haven’t lost, as of yet, keeps me paralyzed with trepidation.

I am scared to put my dollars in the candle box at Church because I might want them later for coffee. I am scared to approach my lonely neighbor because she may need more from me than I feel up to giving. I am scared to abandon our efforts toward attaining a comfortable lifestyle because I really, really like to be comfortable. I am scared to love boldly, or to support with zeal the tenets of my faith that have become irrelevant and unenlightened in a culture where the word “no” is synonymous with stupidity. I am scared of the rolling eyes and exchanging glances. But I am mostly afraid of standing side-by-side with faithful martyrs in front of God and His heavenly hosts, stuttering my way through a lame explanation while weeping and groaning with regret.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Blessed are they who untangle themselves from time-wasting, self-protecting, soul-crushing fear and run and run with freedom. Blessed are they who could never be confused for anything or anyone but a follower of Jesus Christ. Blessed are those who impress upon their children the importance of being uncompromising witnesses to the Gospel. Blessed am I for not being denied despite hiding my offering money, ignoring my lonely neighbor, and chastising my evangelizing son. May I be so fortunate for the opportunity to express my gratitude through sacrifice, to carry my cross with conviction.

Photo by Josh Parrish