Wednesday, March 26, 2008


It takes approximately two hours to get home from my in-laws, and of course we left late wanting to squeeze in as much visiting as possible. After a last minute search for random socks, action figures, and princess themed underwear (items which should have made it into the hastily repacked suitcase but most likely didn’t) we buckled ourselves into the van and waved goodbye.

It took approximately two weeks into Lent for me to hit with blunt force an unforeseen brick wall, the likes of which was bigger, stronger, taller than my current character could scale using ordinary amounts of perseverance, meditation, and dairy-free garbanzo beans. Take my money? Fine. Eat up my time? Well, alright then. Close the door on opportunities I had hoped would come to fruition? Actually, I expect that sort of thing when the seasonal Prayer of St. Ephraim is echoing in my head like a warning bell alerting me to dangers I might otherwise stumble into unawares. But please, c’mon now, I’ve got active sons and daughters, a mountain of tasks to be managed, a household to run and a personality that thrives on order (ironic, isn’t it?) – I cannot afford, I mean I really can’t afford to surrender to You my health and productivity.

In hindsight, I know shouldn’t have pushed it. I shoved all of us into plans that nobody wanted to miss out on and because of that rash decision, I am feeling the unpalatable side effects of a sickness disregarded. Days earlier I was feverish and cotton mouthed from several unpleasant episodes of retching and cramping and reassuring two-year-old Mary that mommy was fine despite the fact that she lay all hunched over and grimacing on the bathroom rug. I thought surely it was over when my stomach ceased convulsing but the exhaustion, migraine headaches and lingering queasiness that stubbornly stuck with me throughout the weekend, proved otherwise. And now, as we pull onto the highway, my mind begins to wander into dangerous and forbidden territory, into chasms every mother should most certainly avoid exploring. I begin to play a numbers game I know at the outset will be unsolvable.

What is one of me – well, two thirds of me if you factor in my illness, divided by:

Four kids at home on spring break,

Three floors of a dusty old house that were torn apart to get ready for a trip I couldn’t fully enjoy,

One spouse working extra long hours,

Twelve unanswered e-mails and/or phone calls,

A few unfinished projects I am falling way behind on,

And a head full of important dates and details as of yet unrecorded on a calendar?

Let’s see here…no matter which way you look at it, that certainly seems to leave me with a whole lot of negative.

It is silent, save for the thump, thu-thump, thu-thump sound of our tires turning 70 mph on the open road. The under thirty crowd is sleeping while us mature folks sit reflectively up front, arms linked in a makeshift gesture of something between romance and camaraderie. “I miss you,” I think to myself, but I don’t say it, opting rather to daydream about a car ride with my husband that goes on and on indefinitely past flu bugs, appointments, stress, responsibility. “Poor old mom,” I sigh inwardly, with the lack of free time, the lack of me time, the demands that never pause for a woman to catch her breath. Down I go, slow and low, to the recesses of self-pity where I am the focus, I am the victim, where I have forgotten why, exactly, we are munching on almonds instead of string cheese. Presently, a radio program has been added to the background noise offering weather reports, commercial breaks, and news stories. “Iranian Christians,” says the man with the mellow voice, “are being tortured and killed with regularity.” Thump, thu-thump, thu-thump. To my right I see a billboard with a bald and fragile sweetheart of a girl smiling bravely atop a single convicting sentiment: “Be thankful,” it reminds us, “for all of the healthy children in your life.”

Sometimes, like Saint John of Chicago, I am aflame with love for God. But other times, like Jonah, I sit grumbling under the shade of His provision. I wish that it were possible to tattoo authentic piety on my spirit, on my soul, on my heart, but it slips and slithers away from me like a bar of soap at bath time and too often, the sweat, grime, and filth remain uncleansed. It takes work to remember – never ending, all consuming effort. One mindless detour has within itself the potential to burst a swelling faith and send me groveling on my knees before the Savior who never budges, who stays as radiant and bright as the sunshine while I bask in His warmth and then hide from it, while I revel in His love and then resent it if it burns, if it sears, if it blisters my craved for comfort.

At 9:30 pm, we back into the garage. I am desperate to collapse immediately but there are a few things yet to get done. “Let’s go guys,” I nudge, “grab your backpacks and jackets.” Like a spent row of ducks we waddle groggily in formation toward the screen door. Clothes are scattered, teeth go unbrushed; there are kisses, covers, then lights out. I, too, lie down, with yearnings for peace, with prayers that the Lord will sustain me until tomorrow when I’ll rise to greet the day and do my best to grasp the Truths that lead away from my own ideas of happiness and onward, upward, forward to salvation.

Click HERE to listen to this post (beginning 3/28). This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I know exactly which floorboards creak and how to avoid them. I can get dressed in complete darkness. I tiptoe and hold my breath when sneaking past the children’s bedrooms but just when I think I’ve made it safely to the haven of my quiet kitchen, I hear two-year-old Mary yelling, “Mama, I hungry!” and I cringe. Whereas some might long for wealth or fame, I daydream obsessively about privacy. Throughout the last decade I’ve been touched, pushed, and pulled at least as much, if not more, than a turnstile at the entrance of Walt Disney World. All day long I go about my business while toting a toddler, grasping squirmy fingers belonging to bodies that want to cross the street all on their own, kissing scrapes, wiping noses, being yanked on and inundated with questions and outlandish observations. Locked doors are no deterrent for my determined bunch, “Where are the markers?” “Can I have a snack?” “Benji is bothering is me!” they yell every two minutes into the wood that separates us.

“Find your dad!” I shout back from the bubble bath I crawled into for relief from the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion of being needed twenty hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year.

It’s amazing that I still fall for it, the delusion that during Lent I will spend plenty of time reflecting and reading scripture on my own. I am always half hoping that the intrinsic stillness of a Lenten fast will permeate my household like a mood altering narcotic- instantly taming tempers, quieting outbursts, changing sleep patterns too light and anticipatory of a brand new morning to allow for the indulgences of a mother seeking spiritual enlightenment on her own terms. “If only I could hole up in isolation with a Bible and an icon,” I mumble to myself after scolding one of my kids for sneaking out of quiet time, again, and interrupting my attempts at noonday prayers, “then I could prepare myself appropriately for the death and Resurrection of Christ.”

I am always on guard this time of year for big and blatant temptations that if succumbed to, would absolutely put a cramp in my Lenten style. Let’s see, there’s envy, greed, gossip, gluttony, despondency …no wonder I’m frustrated! How am I supposed to find the wherewithal to overcome these ungodly vices if I continually have to make meals, clear the dishes, wash dirty clothes, and settle arguments? When on earth am I supposed to get out there and feed the poor, visit those in prison, and give aid to widows and orphans? I don’t want to be a goat, separated and cast out on the Day of Judgment for not tending to those in need. What a sneaky and devilish sucker punch: keeping me overly fixated on the letter and not the spirit of the law.

"And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to me (Matthew 25:40).” While searching “out there” for ways to purify my soul, to make a positive difference in the life of another, I somehow lost sight of the salvific responsibilities right here in my lap, draped affectionately around my shoulders, filling my time, testing my forbearance with their enormity. I got sucked into the idea that a mother of young children must retain her own identity, to separate herself, at least intellectually, from the subservience of her role as both a helpmate and a nurturer. “But where are my accolades? Where is the fulfillment that comes only from being recognized for my skills and artistic achievements?” If I’m honest, I’ll admit that that is exactly what I ponder when the weight of domesticity threatens to suffocate my individuality, when repetition starts to heighten my desire for some kind, any kind, of a distraction.

“Oh Lord and Master of my life take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.”
For procrastinating and avoiding the tediousness of housework at the expense of my husband and children, for the aching to be admired and my displeasure with anonymity, for the shameful habit of trying to dominate my kids instead of lead them by example, please forgive me.

“But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love."
Oh how could I be so foolish, looking everywhere else for my purpose, for an offering that would please You and, let’s face it, myself simultaneously? Where outside of my own home could so many opportunities exist for being stretched and for serving God by serving others? For the moments I feel ready to snap and have no choice but to beg for Your mercy, for the hundredth spilled cup of juice that I am able to wipe up without feeling tense and angry because the annoyance has finally been drained out of me, for the sickening sensation in my gut that comes from talking too long on the telephone or typing too often on the computer when I know I should be cuddling, reading to, or more consistently reprimanding my children, I thank You. For the reassuring peace that comes from unselfish acts of submission, I am eternally grateful.

“Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brothers and sisters. For blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Lent I am a mother to four little ones and a wife to a man working long and hard for our benefit. This Lent my prayers will be active and sticky with jam, syrup, and kisses. This Lent I will be held accountable for how effective I was at helping each member of my family to feel loved, honored and supported. This Lent I have my mercifully specific, Christ assigned work cut out for me. I beg of you most Holy Theotokos, our most perfect prototype of obedience, whose response to the Angel Gabriel was “Be it unto me according to thy word,” who emptied herself to be filled quite literally with Jesus, her son and savior, please assist me in staying true to my calling and in taking full advantage of the chances at my disposal to be faithful.

Click HERE to listen to this post. This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


The term I would prefer is “accommodating” but my husband would most likely use “pushover” when describing my parenting style. I always mean to be consistent, a “what I say goes!” type of mother but then come the tears, the excuses, the dramatics in response to the word “no” in which my kid’s faces contort into a desperate, most distressing sort of expression, similar to that of the ghost-like figure in Edvard Munch’s Scream painting. Next thing you know I am compromising, extending deadlines, way over explaining a “final” decision. It is a “come back to bite you in the end” sort of habit where short-term appeasement becomes a long-term headache, where getting what one wants becomes frantically addictive.

When they were younger, it was easier (though I never would have thought so at the time). Reactions to disappointment were fiery and immediate, yet distractible – tempers oft forsaken with a change of scenery. Now days it’s a lot more complicated, a lot less black and white. There’s little running into the street or sucking on Lego blocks but plenty of sibling rivalry, longings for: stuff, a later bedtime, independence, and suspicions that my husband, Troy, and I bred our four lovely sons and daughters for the sole purpose of having them help with the housework. There’s an awful lot of scowling, under the breath mumbling, and eye rolling around here. I try not to let it hurt my feelings, to stay stoic in my calling to be a parent first and a friend second, but sometimes I forget that being unconditionally devoted means I occasionally have put my foot down, that the lessons I most need to teach them like patience, frugality, self-control will inevitably be resented because, “dogonit!” we're so darn used to making a fuss when our plans or our agendas get derailed. I am speaking from experience, here, as a creature that’s no stranger to complaining.

What must this look like to the world - our Lent, so demanding, so unspontaneous? Unnecessary, maybe? A tad too formal for a caring and compassionate Christ? “What’s the deal?” I’ve heard asked by those unfamiliar with all the “tricks and trappings” of liturgy and Tradition. “Why all the prostrating, and begging for mercy from a good and approachable God?” I used to see their point, before I dove in myself and got a first-hand taste of the Orthodox view of repentance. Once upon a time, I too, would have dismissed the disciplines required for Great Lent on the basis that believing was enough. But here I am, on the outset of a 40 day Fast, grateful as all get out for a chance to get over my foolish self and closer still to the glory, the peace, the hope, the kindness, the power and perfection of Jesus.

You see I’m not just accommodating to my children; I have a natural and stubborn inclination to please myself. If there is something I get my heart set on, be it as big as a house or as small as a cookie, as important as health or as inconsequential as a pair of summer sandals, be it praiseworthy or vain, I’ll stop at little to make it a reality. Presuming I know what is best for myself, I focus all my thoughts and actions on the close-minded process of transforming my desires into necessities. By listening to my assumptions, I cease to hear the whispering of the Holy Spirit offering continual opportunities to lay aside my will, the same will that barricades my soul from total access to the treasures of Heaven, and accept an unknown future by embracing His holy wisdom, in faith.

“Fasting is wonderful,” said St. John Chrysostom, “because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.” Great Lent is neither penance nor a punishment but a gift born of Love unfathomable. By dying to our passions, those self-protective impulses that so easily stop up our ears and blind our eyes, we have a chance to be resurrected with the living Christ. “No,” says the Father to our obsession with intemperance. “Not now,” says the Son to our affection for food, drink and merriment. “Use this sacred period to exchange short-term pleasures for rewards eternal,” says the Church with incredible insight, understanding all too well our fallen nature. I am stuck, held fast by a culture quite conniving, and it smarts a bit to be pried from that grip with such force. But I’d do it for my own kids, endure their tears to procure their freedom, I would provide them with the tools necessary for getting back on the right course.

There is a slumber party I’m not sure about but my growing son is anxious to attend. It kills me to do it, to watch his countenance turn gloomy, thinking me cruel and harsh and strict when I offer to drop him off and pick him up later but, no, he can't sleep over for the night. It is appropriate and merciful to set limits, to curb cravings for that which fill him only with sugary sweetness, which will ultimately leave him empty and unsatisfied. He may not understand this or appreciate my line of reasoning but I must learn to persist, nonetheless, trusting one day he and I both will recognize the foils and frustrations as a saving grace. May each of us through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving - asceticism appropriate for every follower of Christ, develop an undercurrent of tranquility unflustered by let downs and earthly cares.

“The end is drawing near, my soul,” we cry aloud with Saint Andrew in the Great Canon, “ is drawing near! But you neither care nor prepare. The time is growing short. Rise! The Judge is near at the very doors. Like a dream, like a flower, the time of this life passes. Why do we bustle about in vain? (Matthew 24:33; Psalm 38:7)” Thank you, most Holy Trinity, for loving us enough to bring to light that which is easily clouded by our fascination with all things superfluous. Please strengthen me with the resolve to stay attentive.

Click HERE to listen to this post (beginning 3/13). This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Forgiveness Vespers

After twenty or so prostrations, I begin panting. “God forgives,” I whisper into the ear of my fellow parishioners, whose lips brush my right cheek and then my left. The nave is completely dark, lit only by flames of candles casting shadows on expressions sweetly somber. My breathless petitions for forgiveness join the steady hum of voices murmuring softly in the twilight of this very last Sunday before Lent. We are men, women, and children, bowing, and embracing, and experiencing first hand the mercy and restoration of Christian fellowship.

In 1999, I was eight months pregnant and a very new Orthodox Christian. That winter, I attended my first Forgiveness Vespers having no idea what to expect or how moved I would be by the experience. Earlier in the day, I had braced myself for a marathon of litanies, hymns and Gospel readings, assuming by that point anything remotely related to Lent would quite naturally require an extra 45 minutes of standing time, but to my surprise the vespers service lasted only for half an hour. Rather than grabbing coats after its conclusion, however, everyone remained respectfully quiet and in place while our priest explained the significance and order of what was to follow. Before embarking on an intense period of repentance and preparation, we would be given the incredible opportunity to rid our souls of bitterness, arrogance, and envy by looking each of our spiritual brothers and sisters in the eye and asking for forgiveness for any hurt we may have caused them.

With curiosity, I watched a line begin to form, hanging back apprehensively as the deacon in front of it stood face-to-face before our priest. Both men bowed, knees bent and heads touching the floor. Upon rising they clasped hands and kissed each other. “Forgive me,” they said in turn. “God forgives,” was the mutual reply. The deacon then stood beside our priest while the next person approached him, following the same protocol. One after another, those in attendance bowed, kissed, and asked for forgiveness from the person across from them, forming a circle as each cycle was completed. Visually, it was stunning; the synchronization of bended knees, bobbing heads, and shuffling feet, seemed gracefully choreographed in that incense-scented ambiance of holy grandeur.

Much of the spiritual impact was buried, initially, by my fear of bowing when I should stand or of asking for forgiveness when I should be assuring that God forgives. I waddled nervously, lowering my neck, unable to maneuver my gigantic belly into any semblance of a prostration, and looked warmly at members of my parish I had never previously thought about or remembered noticing. Drops of sweat were beginning to bead on foreheads, and I could feel the breath of virtual strangers hot upon my neck. I did not yet understand how apologizing to those I had never had personal contact with could be so healing and meaningful, but I was moved to tears regardless by the intimacy of our shared contrition.

Every year since then, I have been adamant about attending this service. Entering Lent without participating in Forgiveness Vespers, is like to trying to run a race without warming up limbs, cold, taut and stiff from inactivity. The process of gathering as a body in humility, lightening the burden of guilt and resentment through a communal offering of leniency, prepares us for the Fast ahead. It reminds us that we are not alone in our efforts to tune out this world and tune in to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is both with anxiousness and anticipation that I ponder upon the Lenten season of restraint that is, literally, just around the corner. Clinging to the authority of the Church, I will trust Her to lead me through the highs and lows of grieving my human depravity and rejoicing in the sustenance of God’s compassion. It is tricky, difficult, to navigate through the dangerous waters of self-examination. Only through the guidance of my spiritual father, the attendance of Lenten services, and the support of my Church family, will I successfully walk that thin line between pride and despair or find the courage to stand back up and try again after falling.

In 2007, I attended my first Forgiveness Vespers at our current parish, St. Elizabeth’s. Having not yet established roots within our community, I looked forward to weaving my family into their established tapestry of faith, rich in the colors and textures of all the personalities that are threaded throughout. Some faces I kissed having little familiarity with the hidden joys and sorrows veiled discreetly behind courteous smiles. To them I apologized for wasting the gifts and blessings generously bestowed upon me, for letting others in the body of Christ carry more than their share of earthly burdens while I sat by in idleness, for falling short of my potential over and over and over again. I gazed upon God’s creation and prostrated before His handiwork, acknowledging with a heavy heart that I had failed Him.

I kissed others, however, like my husband, my children, and my parents, - faces as familiar to me as my own, with a profound awareness of the wrongs I had inflicted out of selfishness, pride and impatience. To them I apologized for being a less than a stellar example and for making my needs and wants a priority above their own. The intentional reminder that “God forgives,” reiterated profusely the evening before, was ingrained in my heart the next morning when I took my first steps toward extracting the vices barricading my will from total obedience. That assurance was the light at the end of the tunnel, always burning with the promise of Christ’s ultimate victory, and illuminating my darkened spirit with the grace-covered confidence that even I can be saved.

So now, my friends, I ask for your forgiveness, not because I deserve it, not because I won’t mess up again but because Christ is good – gracious and forbearing. I pray that every one of us will find the bravery to believe in (and to emulate) a Love that knows no limits, a life not bound by egotism, and the miracle of resurrection after death. May we all have a sacred, a productive, a very blessed Lent.