Wednesday, December 31, 2008


For three nights in a row, we watched the children and ourselves age at the speed of light on our television screen. First birthdays, second birthdays, third then fourth, crawling then walking, squeaking then speaking, babies then toddlers, then small boys and girls – it was dizzying and a bit gut wrenching to witness such large chunks of time being whittled down into highlights and snippets, reduced to slivers. “Wouldn’t it be awesome,” asked Elijah, after our marathon viewing of old family videos, “to be able to see every part of our lives all over again?” And immediately I thought of my teenage years, my early twenties, how I reacted last week to a string of certainly aggravating but hardly earth-shattering disappointments and I shuddered at the idea of being forced to observe repeatedly my past foolishness and folly. Thank goodness for fresh starts and new beginnings.

We have mornings, Sundays, apologies and the 1st of January: all shiny, un-scuffed, perfectly promising opportunities to dust oneself off and begin anew. It is best, in my humble opinion, to go ahead and try your darndest to seize all of them. What could be wiser or more productive than grasping at these lifelines, these dependable and consistent breaks in our harried and hectic schedules fraught with potential? Why not revel in the mercifulness of free-will and forgiveness by choosing active, eager faith over immobility - over wallowing in self-pity or determined ignorance?

Now resolutions of any kind require forethought and a game plan; two things I, in general, have great difficulty conjuring up from out of a mind whose default setting is stuck on “ramble.” Perhaps by sharing publicly, officially with you all my 2009 aspirations, I’ll become more focused. So drum roll please, and hold onto your hats; what I’m proposing here is especially grand. For the next twelve months and (Lord-willing) beyond, I would like to fully dedicate myself to the process, the sacred, mental and emotional art, of absorption.

H-m-m? What’s that you say? You need more clarification? O.K. then, let me try here to explain. You see quite often when life gets challenging, as is its very nature to do so, I respond by tensing up, gritting my teeth, closing my ears and my eyes in protest to the injustice, the sheer terror of it all. When you’ve worked so hard and diligently at manipulating…I mean, maneuvering your every situation until they all line up neatly with possibly fine, probably decent, but nevertheless your own ideals, only to watch on dumbfounded as tragedy or inconvenience bowl them over, it is instinctive to stomp your feet and declare authoritatively that that is NOT FAIR! It is tempting at that point to see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing but the blackness, the silence, the painful sting of your grave disenchantment.

I know this because I do this, sometimes out of bitterness and sometimes out of straight-up fear. It is scary – let me say that again, SCARY, to uncurl your vulnerable soul from its hard as metal ball of self-protection. I don’t want to learn from this! I don’t want to be stretched any further! And yet…and yet (Lord have mercy!), I kind of do. It is that exact tension, that violent back and forth between a desire for eternal and then earthly and then eternal again treasures, that wears me thin and leaves me spiritually discombobulated. I can’t straddle this and that, here and there, now and later, and honestly expect to make any progress, to move ahead. It is all or nothing, backwards or forwards. It is totally up to me to either keep my eyes locked in on Jesus or to gape open-mouthed at the waves licking my shins and dousing my plans. I can either take God at His word or panic.

I am realizing as I get older and as my love spreads wider and thicker, grows deep as tree roots in individuals whose mortality lies outside of my control and jurisdiction, that the risks of staying engaged in the lives of those you absolutely and unequivocally adore, are breath-takingly great. I’ve found that jobs get lost, pregnancies miscarry, health is fragile and that death eludes no one. My face is becoming wrinkled from so much wincing. So rather than construct a paper castle for myself only to then spend my energy on dreading the rain, the wind, or the bullies who could so easily knock it down, I’d like to stop for awhile the ambitious scheming, the “I can almost taste it” day dreaming that keeps me distracted from my salvation and the gifts right in front of me. I’d like to quiet my thoughts and phobias, simply “Be” in the presence of my Savior, and replace my impermeableness with a responsive and porous spirit prepared to soak in all of the encounters, whether joyful or taxing, satisfying or sorrowful, divinely designed to rescue each one of us from the lulling effects, the numbing effects, of the tepidness inherent in comfort and material satiation.

When tested by some trial, wrote St. Mark the Ascetic in the Philokalia, you should try to find out not why or through whom it came, but only how to endure it gratefully, without distress or rancor. That right there, my friends, is enough of a challenge to keep me prayerfully occupied for a good long time. That right there is a New Year goal, an every morning goal, a minute-to-minute goal, far superior and far, far more fulfilling than objectives too thin and shallow for supporting the unrealistic expectations we tend to want to heap upon them in lieu of surrendering our most intimate of longings to Christ.

Be anxious for nothing, wrote Saint Paul to the Philippians, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Yes, it is incomprehensible and harder than anything to stomach much less believe unwaveringly, that it is suffering and trials which bring about illogical peace, peace immune to whatever crazy circumstances life may throw at us. I am trusting here that dogged vigilance will be the key to achieving temperance and an outlook viewing adversity as a tool rather than a hindrance. I am trusting that this year, this day, this minute, there will be plenty of chances for strengthening my resolve to bristle less and comply more -to shift my knee-jerk response to irritation from one of, Come on! You have got to be kidding me! to: Thy Will – Thy Perfect Will Be Done.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Mary and Joseph were outfitted first, in head coverings and bed sheets altered to look like robes worn in Biblical times – pretty standard fare for a Nativity reenactment, starring children. The smaller kids then gathered to claim their costumes from a pile of random sheep tails, camel ears, wire halos and sparkling wings. “Here you are, sweetheart,” said a preoccupied volunteer to my four-year-old daughter, Priscilla, who recoiled at the armful of matted brown fur being thrust in her general direction. And though she would never protest openly, the tears in her eyes spoke volumes about her longing to be anything, and I mean anything at all, but a stinky old donkey and so I quickly intervened. I grabbed everything white I could find from the diminishing mound of remnants. Three minutes later, she was beaming, smiling, not crying - relieved as all get out to be an angel.

Priscilla had been anxious the entire week prior to participate in the annual Christmas Pageant being held at Holy Trinity Cathedral. She’d wanted all of her friends and family to watch her perform upon a stage; we made sure before we left there was film in our camera. She was excited when she woke up, excited after liturgy, excited in the church basement getting ready with her fellow miniature thespians. She was excited, excited, excited until the director began with the shushing and the lining up of actors, in order of their appearance, in the hallway. All at once, then, her face contorted into a frozen expression of fear and she couldn’t, simply wouldn’t, get in place. “You can do it,” we coaxed, “It will be fine,” we promised, until it was clear that verbal encouragement was, in this case, not going to cut it. “Come with me daddy,” she begged, after everyone else had already taken their places by the manger and baby Jesus. Photos from that day depict a silent night, holy night, crammed with pint-sized wise men, bleating animals, heavenly hosts, and a 32-year-old man, my man, in a button-up dress shirt holding protectively in his arms a timid cherub.

I am sitting at my computer, fingers poised above the keyboard waiting impatiently for my molten thoughts to cool-off - become touchable, examinable, solid. As a child, I’d wake from a nightmare, grab paper and a pen and try to chase away the demons using misspelled words I’d impulsively string together to form something like an appeal, or perhaps more like a mantra describing evil being conquered by light and kindness. I wrote to name, to try and define that which was frightening, ambiguous, unfamiliar. The stack of journals in my basement, I am often tempted to burn, reveal my three-decades-old dependence on run-on sentences that smother doubt, low self-esteem with their stifling and dramatic weightiness. My attention span was short when it came to math, science, sports, music lessons, but consistently I penned my stories, my made-up songs, my angst-ridden poetry. This, this writing, was all I was ever kind of good at, or at least the only hobby that for a lifetime retained my interest.

I tried in my early twenties to imagine possible scenarios involving me pumping out brilliance O’Connor, Welty, L’Engle style, but I was so far out of their league and that distance between my own feeble skills and their timeless, breath taking capabilities, shut me down – muted me. Compared to others’ contributions mine felt flimsy and amateurish. Why create at all if I could never keep up with the best? I honestly wasn’t pouting, just merely leaving it up to the “experts” to challenge the status quo with their wit and poignancy. It wasn’t until I had nothing, nothing at all to prove, that I was drawn again to write for the therapeutic effects of it. After carrying and birthing four children, after eight years of marriage, after converting from Protestantism to Orthodoxy, I had two tons worth of emotions that needed desperately to be sorted through. I used my God-given survival tactic to find clarity and resolve within the mayhem that is motherhood. I began to pray daily via Microsoft Word.

Now, behold, here I tremble, like Priscilla, at the thought of playing a role in spreading the news of my Savior’s incarnation. News with the potential to be a balm for the broken hearted while inciting the raging fury of those opposed to Truth and its boundaries standing firm against an “anything goes” philosophy. We’re asked to offer whatever we have, guaranteeing a wide and colorful array of gifts and unique treasures to lay before the feet of Christ and His most pure Mother. By presenting my foremost passion as a sacrifice to God, I risk the disapproval of those who find my message irrelevant, redundant, predictable, offensive. I wrestle endlessly with my motives, my insecurities. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said before by individuals far more versed in the theology of the Church? I am easily discouraged from sharing the peace and redemption I’ve encountered within the Mysteries of the Faith by remembrances of my frailty, naiveté, self-centeredness.

Shepherds, lowly shepherds – unlearned, un-obvious, unable to fall back on fancy pedigrees and solid, sterling reputations to bring legitimacy to their claim that Immanuel had indeed come down to earth as an infant, were chosen, specifically, to hear first the amazing announcement and then to worship for themselves the King of Kings. Had it been scholars, Pharisees, pillars of the community whom were visited that evening by an angelic choir singing triumphantly of a God-man come to save us, I might be justified in stifling my urges to imperfectly express my thankfulness for freedom from the oppression of sin and death. But as it stands, excuses for keeping quiet, for doing nothing, centered on my ignorance and unworthiness, are pretty groundless.

Am I less than fit to represent the love of Christ in a fallen world? Oh mercy, yes – believe me! Am I exempt from trying anyway because of the probability that I’ll be ridiculed, disrespected and ultimately exposed as the fumbling, rambling novice that I am? Were the forgiven prostitutes, the tax collectors, beggars and lepers who spoke openly of their healing to anyone who would listen, more qualified than you or me to be living, dynamic witnesses of the Gospel? Maybe so, if the criteria is hope, and the acceptance that we are nothing, powerless at producing anything entirely noble, outside of God’s grace and salvific intervention. I’ve been going about this backwards, trying to fortify within myself that which should ultimately be leveled and keeping contained that which should flash, boil and spontaneously overflow with gratitude and expectation. There is much to be learned this season about humility, priorities and righteous fervor. Much to contemplate when at last we can declare:

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


My brother was getting married in less than a week and I had nothing to wear. Mom watched on patiently as I covered a fitting room floor with pants and blouses and long, short, floral, black, rayon, and linen dresses. I was twenty-years-old, a junior in college, and uncomfortable in my own skin. Within a year, I had cut my hair short - super short - tattooed my shoulder, and began favoring dark nails, dark lips, and dark eyeliner. The clothing I chose and how it hung on my 5’3 frame was crucial – I mean, so very indicative of the identity I was trying to craft like an interior designer using color, patterns, and textures to define a living space.

On that particular day, it was my thighs and their stubborn refusal to elongate and smoothen under the light and airy fabrics revealing cellulite and bulk that were causing me great angst and frustration. My reality and ideals were colliding in a suburban shopping mall and I was resentful of the limitations an inherited figure had placed upon me. I was cursing under my breath a perfectly healthy body until, that is, my mother, holding armloads of hangers and forty some years worth of life experience, had had enough. “I had no idea,” she told me - firmly, calmly, honestly, “that you were so vain.”

When three-year-old Mary gets angry, she’s like an automobile without breaks. Her temper picks up speed if just the slightest amount of pressure is applied to set ideas about how she’ll pass the time or what will go into her mouth as a snack before dinner. “No,” I say, “Not now” or “ Put that away, please,” and off she goes, down a road too twisted and slick for a preschooler to rationally navigate without crashing. Although she twists and turns away from me, I hold her forcibly until she melts into my shoulder with relief. You see she wants to regain control but feels powerless to do so thus, ultimately, she is grateful for an intervention.

On that fateful afternoon, fourteen years ago, in front of a cruel and unforgiving three-way-mirror, I, too, underneath it all, was thankful for being confronted on a self-deprecating obsession which had warped my view of beauty and fulfillment. I admire my mom for risking a daughter’s wrath by not catering to an emotionally, physically, and spiritually destructive tendency to judge my worth in terms of inches, pounds, and good or horrid hair days. Reassuring me that I was perfect (cute, thin, attractive) might have temporarily softened the sting of being flawed, but in the long run would have validated a debilitating assumption that losing sleep over one’s appearance is just par for the course, if you’re a girl.

During the next five years, I would struggle to strike a balance between succumbing to my vanity and denying categorically an inherent desire to be feminine. Due to Scripture verses such as Proverbs 31:30 (Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.) and a faction of pious Christian women refreshingly at ease in their simple wardrobes and unmade-up faces, I’d learned to embrace the notion that there should certainly be a disconnect between myself and the materialistic fetishes of our current culture. What I assumed that meant, however, was an immediate and total annihilation of any residual cravings I might be storing in my subconscious to look “pretty.”

And so I devoted myself, throughout the end of my twenties, to not caring (or at least acting like I wasn’t concerned) about something so banal as split ends, dark under-eye circles, or the cut of my skirts. I wore no cosmetics whatsoever and denied myself the luxuriousness of high-heeled shoes or perfume, and then internally I waged a war against jealousy and condemnation of those girls, those Christians, who went right on looking exquisite and put together while I, meanwhile, was near constantly swatting away impulses to follow suit. “This is what You want from me, right?” I prayed earnestly, “Than why am I more focused on my looks (and the looks of others) than ever?”

In 2002, I became a mother for the third time in a matter of four years and my body, which I’d spent the previous decade shaping, ogling, comparing, and then ignoring altogether, broke down from the stress of breastfeeding, sleepless nights, and a lack of solid nutrition. I was feverish, exhausted, and in a good deal of pain from a throat infection I couldn’t shake using Tylenol and lozenges. My doctor lectured me on the merits of taking better care of myself and then wrote me out a prescription for some hefty antibiotics. Seven days later, I was weak but incredibly relieved to be out of bed and able to swallow without grimacing. “Never again,” I promised myself, ”would I let things get this dire.” Vitamins, exercise, and better food choices, I realized, made a marked difference in the quality of my everyday life.

I slowly but surely began processing that separating so starkly my “flesh” from my “spirit” might not be as beneficial as I’d imagined. By first condemning the shape of my legs, my hips, and my ankles, and then alternatively reproaching myself for such pettiness I had, essentially, exchanged one form of blinding negativity for another, losing sight altogether of true meekness. … Inner and real humility, wrote Elder Joseph the Hesychast, is for one to feel, that whatever he has, life, health, wealth, wisdom all are foreign, are gifts of God.

These blessings of blood vessels, organs, and bones housing my soul were to be honored with joy and thanksgiving for their potential to help me represent Christ’s love to a fallen world. Good stewardship of my health and hygiene were just as important as Scripture reading and Church attendance when it came to physically ministering to others. The energy I felt from taking time to nurture my brain, my heart, and my muscles with activity, supplements and whole grains, fresh produce, and lean proteins, not only increased my stamina for playing with the children or listening attentively to my husband at the end of a busy day, but also regulated my emotions which were often out of whack due to fluctuating hormones and exhaustion. After wasting countless hours and much mental duress on attempting to standout, as either an exceptional beauty or a virtuous saint, I was more than ready to fill my thoughts with something, anything, other than myself.

These days, I keep my hair trimmed, my eyebrows plucked, and my weight in check. I found a resale shop in my neighborhood selling gently used clothing in styles and colors I feel great in, for next to nothing. I am thirty-four years old now and satisfied with the likeness of myself reflecting back at me in the mirrored closet door. This body of mine has birthed four infants, has held the hands of hurting friends, has rubbed my spouse’s feet and braided pigtails for my daughter.

This nose inhales the incense in our Church on Sunday mornings; this mouth sings hymns of praise and receives the Eucharist. I respect the expert craftsmanship that went into my creation and do my best to treat this miracle of a unique “ME” as a temple of the living God. I’ve noticed, as I’ve aged, that the women I admire glow even brighter the more you get to know their personalities, and that emulating the godly traits that make them so lovely and striking is a far superior way to grow more Christ-like than trying to become them. God created every one of us for a specific purpose, with distinctive features and distinguishing characteristics. This nation, however, is breeding generations of little girls who disdain their inimitability, wishing only to become clones of one another.

I want for my daughters, Priscilla and Mary, to delight in being female – to make modest choices based on personal preference rather than societal trends. Toys, now, commercials, backpacks, t-shirts, and lunchboxes advertising “role models” I think many parents are uncomfortable with, compete against us for a higher percentage of influence over our families. We are careful in our home to regulate as much as possible the amount of aggressive marketing techniques our kids are exposed to, knowing full well (unless we shut ourselves off completely from the world at large) that, eventually, they’ll have to maneuver around the tricks of the trade themselves and combat what I imagine will be an even more intensive campaign for both their loyalty and money.

It will take prayer, much prayer, and discretion to instill within my daughters a healthy, productive, and Christ-centered sense of confidence that can transcend both conceit and insecurity in order to break through the barriers that “keeping-up” with others can place upon one’s time, witness, and contentment. I must not minimize the pressures placed upon them to fit in, nor compromise our standards centered on being “in this world but not of it.” I will look for signs of struggle, watch for cues to intervene. I will seek out as many opportunities as possible for discussion. Let us offer up to God all of our children, granddaughters, nieces, sisters, and even ourselves that He might save and protect us from faulty thinking and then together, as women precious in His sight, let us praise Him for the love and generosity he bestows upon each of us who were sculpted, with forethought and precision, in His image.

This article is featured in the Fall 2008 issue of The Handmaiden. Click HERE to order a subscription!