Tuesday, June 24, 2008


When my older brother, Bobby, was fifteen-years-old, he wore a retainer. Upon receiving it, there were lectures from my parents about crooked teeth and the value of a dollar which he heeded for the most part, accept on one occasion; that day the rather expensive little appliance that should have been put back safely in his mouth was discarded along with his lunch bag and forgotten. When my mother picked us up from school that afternoon, she questioned him about it and then, oh no, he remembered. So they walked back to the cafeteria and were told that the trash had already been emptied to which my mother replied, “Where?” and they were lead to the large gray dumpster in the school parking lot.

“Well,” mom said to Bobby matter-of- factly, “let’s get started.” My brother’s face then contorted into an expression of horror, realizing all of a sudden her ingenious plan. “I have to get in there!?” he whined, pointing ahead to the sour smelling pile of refuse containing sights and textures he didn't want to look at, much less wade through. “It was pretty gross,” mom remembers, when asked to tell me the story again from her perspective, “but there was no way we were going to pay for a brand new retainer when I knew that a perfectly good one was hiding somewhere within all that garbage.” Fully understanding he had no leverage with which to bargain, Bobby took a deep breath and joined our mother in foraging through food scraps and brown paper bags for a napkin containing the dental apparatus they’d hoped would be discovered sooner, much sooner, rather than later.

Figuring this was Bobby’s lesson to learn, I’d laid low up until this point on a bench pretending to do my homework. I’d been happily forgotten about until my brother opened a sack inside which was my entire lunch (packed lovingly that morning by my considerate mother) completely uneaten - most likely because I’d scrounged up enough change to buy soda and some French fries instead. It was my turn, then, to feel the frustration of an over worked and under appreciated parent standing knee deep in filth and gazing disappointedly upon her irresponsible son and wasteful daughter. Eventually, believe it or not, they would find that lost retainer and Bobby would manage to hang on to it for another seven years. I, meanwhile, would be schooled on the concept of a "budget” and how purchasing items at a grocery store only to throw them away unconsumed is generally considered "poor stewardship". For kids growing up within a culture infamous around the globe for its flippancy and excess, developing a sense of gratitude for the necessities that nourish and sustain us can be difficult.

Twenty-years later, I am contemplating on my mother’s plight. Our children are at that age where when they ask you for a bomb pop from the ice cream truck and your response is, “I don’t have money for that right now,” they look at you suspiciously because of course you have money – you’re an adult! I can’t blame them, really; it sure does appear like everything is accessible, at least if you want it badly enough. Credit cards, adjustable rate mortgages, and divorce lawyers are great for plowing through all kinds of pesky barriers between the happiness we deserve and our state of discontent; nothing's out of reach in this day and age. This is why, perhaps, the Orthodox Faith, to many Americans, seems especially austere, and dare I say it, even somewhat superstitious what with all those sacramental hoops one must jump through to get to God.

Throughout the early stages of my conversion, during conversations with friends who questioned the appropriateness of a theology endorsing formal confession, fasting before Eucharist, overly scripted services and a whole host of other hocus- pocusy looking practices such as chanting, incense burning, candle lighting and icon kissing, I fumbled through attempted explanations on the balance between wanting to earn God’s approval and presumptuously assuming that no efforts are required. I was still in analytical mode, trying to win over my well- intentioned skeptics with the perfect combination of Scriptural and historical facts, but a deep-seated appreciation for the resurgence of holiness within our spiritually lackadaisical society is best understood by way of first-hand experience. Until your own soul has transcended the innate limitations of time, casualness, and rationality, it is hard to comprehend how respect for Christ in the form of an adherence to ancient traditions and asceticism can actually magnify God’s grace and goodness.

This past week, my son, Benjamin, unearthed a bright red egg from within the ominous recesses of our refrigerator.

“Cool, mom,” he said, “Look at this! Can I eat it?”

“That’s probably not a good idea,” I answered, before going on to explain how dairy products are susceptible to spoilage if not consumed in a timely manner. The question that we then had to ask ourselves was what to do with something that had been part of a basket full of treats, all blessed by our priest after the Paschal Divine Liturgy. I’ll tell you, it was a privilege – an honor to pass on to my family our Orthodox conviction that there certainly remains in this world plenty of things to take very seriously. “We believe,” I told them, “as Orthodox Christians, that because this egg was set aside and sprinkled with holy water for the purpose of celebrating Jesus’ Resurrection, it would be better to bury or burn it than to let it sit and mingle with old and stinky trash in a garbage dump. This made perfect sense to my children, whose hearts have not yet become tainted by more "mature" tendencies toward the embracing of cynicism - toward a lack of admiration for ceremonious displays of reverence.

The kids and I grabbed a shovel from the garage and loosened a patch of soil next to our strawberry plants. Priscilla carefully laid the egg in the space we had created for it; it’s brilliant shade of crimson contrasting dramatically with those subdued tones in the surrounding rocks and grass. I’d been impatient that morning, more flustered than usual by the bickering, and accumulating chores hindering substantially my ability to rejoice in God’s provisions. Having to pause in the middle of my busyness in order to dispose deferentially of a Paschal leftover, a symbol of our victory over death, was like a calming yet firm hand being placed upon my shoulder directing my attention away from the draining weariness of motherhood and onto the goal of Salvation. Rather than deflecting from His redemptive work on the cross, I promise you that the richness I see, smell, hear, taste, and touch within the Orthodox Church, throughout this journey toward the Kingdom of Heaven, makes me all the more aware of my dependence upon Christ's compassion - makes me that much more grateful for these tangible and sacred opportunities to be reminded of His mercy.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Priscilla, singing with her grandfather in our Church choir.

I knew when I was pregnant for the very first time that in all likelihood, I would be horrible at remembering to update a baby book. Considering my track record of forgetfulness, and general lack of follow-through, I resigned myself to the reality that by child number two, I'd become hazy on the dates of first steps, emerging teeth, and newly formed sentences. So I decided upfront not to mess with any of it and while this pre-emptive act of rescuing myself from the guilt of blank pages and unorganized photos was somewhat freeing, it also presented the challenge of finding an alternative way for making each of my future children feel precious, unique, and wanted. Which of my many, endearing solely to those who bore me, quirks could I draw from to communicate my undying appreciation for the sons and daughters who would eventually fill our home with happiness, laughter, and unfathomable amounts of clutter? After vetoing several inane possibilities having to do with my propensity for impulsiveness, for example (I’ve got it! I’ll tattoo their names on my back alongside my other …uh, never mind), I zeroed in on a lifelong obsession with words and lyrics. A song, a musical ode composed by me, would be my gift - would be my un-tarnishable, un-breakable, un-losable offering to Elijah first, then Priscilla, followed shortly thereafter by Benjamin and Mary.

Though fairly untraditional, for me the song choice was a perfect one. I’ve sung each of them over and over and over again into sleepy ears, cheerful ears, and sad ones. They are still requested often with the specific command that they all be sung together and in order of when they were written. Every one of them reveal something a little different about my emotional state of being at various times throughout a six-year-period of adjustment and metamorphosis. Elijah’s is a lullaby that captures accurately my awe of motherhood and desire to bond with the infant I would rock for hours at a time while he cried and I cried from tiredness and hunger:

Dear baby boy, Elijah, you mean the world to me.
You are my star, my pride and joy,
now through eternity.
My cares get lost in your sweet, sweet smile,
when your sad my heart breaks too.
Who am I, Elijah, to be given a gift so great as you?

Now close your eyes, Elijah;
now rest your sleepy head.
Jesus is watching over you;
angels surround your bed.
Sweet dreams, my star, my pride and joy;
sleep tight, your day is through.
I’ll never be far from where you are,
I’ll always forever love you.

Priscilla arrived a month before her due date. Her birth was my quickest and least complicated. I was beyond thrilled that she was a girl, a whimsical looking creature with a mess of brown curls too thick and voluminous for a newborn. Her song is a silly and fanciful little ditty that would foretell of an adventurous and independent spirit that she would develop, and I would marvel at, over time:

Princess Priscilla went up to the moon.
She took Elijah in her hot air balloon.
Princess Priscilla, please come back to me
and we’ll have some donuts and raspberry tea.

I think I heard her laughing swinging from a star,
my precious little angel singing from afar.

Princess Priscilla, the morning has come.
Slide down to me on the rays of the sun.
Princess Priscilla, wherever you roam,
I’ll always be waiting to welcome you home.

Six months after becoming a mother of two, I would be shocked to discover that I once again was pregnant. It was a challenging time for my husband and I, fraught with overwhelming uncertainty. Troy was starting a graduate school program; I was already exhausted from caring for a two-year-old and an infant. Benjamin’s birth would be more of a spiritual experience, creating within myself a fierce dependence upon God for energy, patience, and courage. Oddly enough, Benjamin’s song turned out to be a country ballad, a twangy love letter to my 9lb, 6 oz bombshell:

Who knew my arms were simply aching for a little boy they could hold?
Who knew a new unwritten chapter of my life would soon unfold?
Who knew the heavens were smiling on me, that an angel they would send?
Who knew the joy that was awaiting in you, my gentle Ben?

Well I’ve seen heartache, I've seen sorrow,
I’ve seen a world that’s cold and numb.
But in your eyes, I see salvation -
a promise of the light to come.

O gentle Ben, my sweet surprise,
I hope you one day realize,
The gift you are, the hope you bring,
the song you’ve made my heart to sing.

Nearly three years later, came Mary Catherine. Her siblings, by then, were old enough to dote lavishly upon their diminutive, button-faced sister with the beady eyes and pointed chin. Her song, I clearly understood, would have to be from all of us. It can best be described as a head-swaying, finger-snapping, toe-tapping jingle, one that sticks in my brain stubbornly like the “Show me that smile again” theme song from the sitcom, Growing Pains, only much more meaningful:

Just when I thought I’d seen it all; just when I thought my heart was full;
just when I thought my arms had held as much as they could carry,
I felt stronger than I knew I’d ever been; I had room in my heart to love again;
I found joy that could never end, because along came Mary.

Oh Mary you’re a dream come true.
Oh Mary we’ve been waiting for you.
If you ever start to feel a little blue,
Just stop…and think of Mary.

I’ve got a smile from ear to ear;I’m gonna shout it loud and clear,
“A sweet little angel named Mary is here, and she’s ours forever!”
I feel stronger than I know I’ve ever been;I have room in my heart to love again;
I’ve found joy that will never end, because along came Mary.

I take great delight in finding scrap paper containing six-year-old Priscilla’s phonetical attempts at composing her own original odes to God or friends or ballet dancing. I listen attentively and with fascination as nine-year-old Elijah performs for me his first crack at a rock-n-roll single he aptly titled, “Shark Attack.” Daily, I am mystified by Benjamin’s unusual proficiency at whistling and tacking on an impressive tenor vibrato to the end of any song line he is currently belting out with "Pavarotti style" gusto. Just recently, I was touched to hear my daughter, Mary, following along in our recitation of the Paschal Troparian, asserting monumental Truths she will grow to understand through the grace of the Holy Spirit and sheer absorption. Nothing calms my soul like the Psalms.

A song can, in an instant, take you ten years back in time or resurrect tears you’d thought permanently dried out and evaporated. Songs can help one memorize what might otherwise elude us; they can break our hearts or mend the jagged pieces back together again. Music is a gift, a proof of a Good and Divine Creator who reveals Himself not so much through intelligence, as beauty. We are blessed, in the Orthodox Church, to be sustained by such rich and abundant hymnography. Every Great Lent, I am nothing short of blown away and overcome with a desire to repent upon listening to the Canon of St. Andrew. Each Divine Liturgy, I’m guided back to the path towards the Kingdom of Heaven (after a week of inevitable drifting) via congregational singing of the Antiphons, the Cherubic Hymn, the Nicene Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. I chant my morning intercessions, borrowing words from ancient forefathers of our faith:

Arising from sleep I thank thee, 0 holy Trinity, because of the abundance of thy goodness and long-suffering thou wast not wroth with me, slothful and sinful as I am; neither hast thou destroyed me in my transgressions: but in thy compassion raised me up, as I lay in despair; that at dawn I might sing the glories of thy Majesty. Do thou now enlighten the eyes of my understanding, open my mouth to receive thy words, teach me thy commandments. help me to do thy will, and confessing Thee from my heart, singing and praising thine All-holy Name: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

and I am thankful for the rightness of the content, and how the inspired supplications of our righteous ancestors take root in my life and then blossom, not with transparent emotion but an opaque and seizable understanding that produces fruit. My son, Elijah, serves behind the altar and I so enjoy watching him mouth the words to a service that I, over the years, have put to memory and cherish deeply. Now that my daughter, Priscilla, is able to read she spends a good deal of time, under the guidance of patient choir members, on a stool in front of a music stand soaking in unwavering doctrines that spell out clearly and aesthetically the story of our deliverance from sin and death. Benjamin and Mary stay with Troy and I. Even at two and five-years-old they are beginning to comprehend the structure of our Church calendar based upon the seasonal and festal songs that we repeat as a family, both at St. Elizabeth’s and at home. We are learning together, maturing together, and forgiving one another, always, through the raising of our collective voice to Christ Jesus, to the God whose compassionate consideration of our humanity is made evident by the timeless expressions of his saints, now ours for the singing and clinging on to.

Click HERE to listen to this post (and to hear the melodies of the songs written for my children) starting sometime on 6/16. This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.