Monday, March 31, 2008

Memory Eternal

I need to interrupt this series to share family news....

It’s been a tough day for our family;  we had to say good-bye to a friend of 16 years.  Our cat, Irish, came to Will & I on our 1st wedding anniversary back in 1993.  She had been rescued as a small kitten by a kind man who noticed the abandoned litter outside his workplace in a deep snow.   Months later he had to relocate and needed to place his cats in other homes.  We were lucky enough to welcome little Irish into our snug apartment.

She has been such a joy through the years, watching her play with ribbons and bows at Christmastime, climbing into boxes and batting twisty ties around for hours on the slick kitchen floor.  She loved watching birds from the windows and sleeping on the top cushions of our living room furniture.  In our current home, we could always find her in that favorite spot behind the Lazy-Boy chair enjoying the warmth of the radiator.  I’ll probably still look for her there.

More than anything though, Irish was a constant, quiet companion.  She had a knack for coming round just when I needed a pick-me-up, leaping onto my lap and looking into my eyes when I felt blue and friendless.  And all I had to do was touch her head and the engine would start - that wonderful, comforting purr.    With my husband, she preferred not his lap, but his chest as he was lying down watching football or golf.  I have old photos in our albums of Will relaxing on the couch,  with visible snow falling outside and young Irish nestled into a ball sleeping soundly on his chest.

She reluctantly tolerated our new puppy, Jasper,  in 1995 and seemed genuinely distressed when he whimpered as we left for work in the mornings.  She also welcomed several other dogs over the years and two children who loved to carry her about the house and doctor her with their  play stethoscope and xray machines.  She took most everything in stride...even the day I came home to find our basement flooded and Irish adrift on the pond in our laundry room!

We have been blessed to share in the life of this little cat and God has blessed me in ways over the past few weeks that I could not have imagined.  I will not forget my son and daughter’s prayers over our son anointed her with holy water and helped her walk.  I won’t forget the drawings Josie has made of her favorite cat or the hand-made card Ben put together that says: “Irish you are the best cat ever!!!  I love you 1000%!!!”  It still sits in the laundry room near her bed.   I will not forget the tenderness and care my husband took to build her casket and dig the grave carefully beside Lady, his beloved dog in youth.    I will remember his gentleness in teaching our children about death and his ideas for the funeral we had today.  

I believe these are the moments that make families stronger.  Who ever knew that such lessons could come in a 12 pound, furry package with eyes of emerald?

Thanks be to God, who holds in His hands the breath of every living thing! Job 12:10

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Carmina Gadelica

In the latter part of the 19th century, a brilliant piece of Gaelic literature was published  which has become a well-worn tome on my bookshelf:  Carmina Gadelica.   It is a large collection of hymns, prayers, charms, poetry and rituals of the people in the Highlands of Scotland and surrounding Islands from the 19th century.  This colorful volume was collected by Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912) during his many travels with the Civil Service of the UK.  Originally produced in Gaelic, I’m thankful it was translated into English to reach a wider audience. 

What is fascinating to me about this reservoir of Gaelic imagination and ritual is that it was, in large part, handed down through oral tradition and so tightly woven into daily life as to become a living tapestry.   I discovered prayers for rising from bed, milking the cow,  blessings for the cloth the women were weaving, prayers for peat fire and water at the well among others.  Prayers and thankfulness to the Holy Trinity permeated their lives which dissolved a distinction between secular and sacred, between the holy and the mundane.  All was a gift from God, all of life was seen in that pure paradigm;  I had found kindred minds.

Now, if you are a Christian reader, you may have winced at that word charms earlier.  If it brought spells and magic to mind, you wouldn’t be far off.  And here is another reason why the Carmina Gadelica is such a vital resource:  it provides context for understanding the conversion of a pagan people to christianity.    It is said that the Picts, the Celts in the northern regions of Scotland,  embraced christianity rather easily when compared to other nomadic tribal people in ancient Europe.  Their love of the number three, their awe and reverence of the natural world and the mystery of the skies was their genesis for understanding God, the Creator and Christ the Redeemer.  Many of those converted by Bishop Palladius, St. Patrick and St. Columba would see Christ as a fulfillment of their law, of their understanding of creation.

Reading these prayers was the surface of a deep blue sea containing authors whose writings would further my curiosity of learning about the faith of these simple people.  Chief among those authors is Esther de Waal, an Anglican lay woman living in the Welsh borders.  Ms. de Waal provided for me not only a scholarly look into celtic spirituality (she is a scholar of the Cistercian, Benedictine and celtic traditions), but the catalyst for researching monasticism, christian symbology, and the idea of rhythm in our walk with Christ.

For anyone looking into celtic spirituality, beware the multitude of false works on this theme.  By that, I mean you can find an abundance of books labeled ‘celtic spirituality’ that have nothing to do with Christ and His Church.  These books typically include poetry and blessings from a new-age intellect.  They may be long on beauty, but shallow in Truth.  In this regard, Esther de Waal has set the bar in defining genuine celtic traditions from new-age nonsense.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sacred Paths

“The fragrant path of Orthodoxy...” is an oft-repeated phrase I use when talking about my conversion from Protestantism to Orthodoxy.  In fact, there are several pathways that ushered me to the door of the church:

*The path of history; the ancient Celts

*The path of John Calvin & St. Augustine

*The path of circumstance and healing

And, I might be tempted to add another one here, “The path of J.R.R. Tolkien”, but that wouldn’t exactly be correct.  In truth, it was as I was making discoveries along these pathways that The Lord of the Rings  came into my life.  It was an exhilarating time; sort of like stumbling along an overgrown trail in the woods and then, by chance, to meet up with a friendly local.  Someone who not only gives you directions, but is most glad to show you the way.  I am indebted to Professor Tolkien for seeing spiritual truths with new eyes.  

The first and still the most traveled path in my religious reading is the path of history and of the Celtic peoples in particular.  Maybe it’s because my mom is Irish that I have a fondness for all things related to the British Isles.  Growing up listening to her records of pipes and drums, Irish jigs and the like, maybe there is a sentimental value linked to reading about this culture.   I began reading romance novels about knights and damsels in distress in high school, but by college was keen to learn about the real men who wore armour and swore allegiance to a king centuries ago.  What made them so loyal?  How did this system really work?  What were their religious beliefs?

Soon I discovered the story of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester (1208-1265) and the romance that I had found so entertaining in earlier novels was replaced by an infatuation with war, siege engines, codes of chivalry and that one element I most wondered about: loyalty.  War tactics evolve, but loyalty is an immortal lion.

It is said that a Bishop spoke these words to Simon’s eldest son, Henry: "My beloved child, both you and your father will meet your deaths on one day, and by one kind of death, but it will be in the name of justice and truth."

Somewhere in here, in this wonder upon the Medieval period and the faith of men came a song of the sparrow which said:  whatever was true then is true now.  God is unchanging.  

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”  Hebrews 13:8

We are the ones who change, who fall and get back up again.  We are the ones who fail to learn from history because we will not own it.   Of the Middle Ages, some might say men were consumed with the power inherent in the Roman Catholic Church, but I wondered about the farmers, the serfs who had no thought of power and manipulation.  What kind of faith did they have?

*Painting is by Alan Ayers

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bells and Whistles ?

We celebrated Orthodoxy Sunday at church this week and what a joy to see the children’s procession around the sanctuary with their icons brought from home.  I’ll bet we had 50 to 60 kids participating!  Images of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. George and the dragon, Guardian Angels, among others were being carried by small hands. Most often the children had a sheepish grin on their joyful faces as they diverted their eyes from the onlooking congregation.

Orthodoxy Sunday is the day we celebrate the triumph over the iconoclasts and icons were restored to their proper place in our worship.  Orthodox teaching about icons was established at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, but controversy stewed for over a hundred years regarding their place and use in worship.

Fast forward twelve-hundred years to rural Appalachia and I will tell you a controversy still exits over icons.  Thankfully though, not in the Orthodox Church.   I still find myself on guard when a friend or acquaintance asks me why I’m Orthodox now.   I find it a difficult question to answer in the few words I know they’re seeking.   They want to know if I pray to statues or worship pictures.  They want to know why I’ve fallen for “bells and whistles”.  And so, because it’s been several years since attending the Orthodox Church and over a year since my chrismation, I think I'm due to spend some time writing my answer(s), ...succinctly. 

We are in the season of Great Lent, the 40 days prior to Pascha (Easter) when we fast and spend time in prayer, meditation and take personal inventory of our innermost self - you know, that self that likes to think it doesn’t exist, the self that hides from truth.  To aid my walk through Great Lent, I am reading Frederica Mathewes-Green’s First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew.  It’s a modern day journey through an ancient hymn that will feed your soul.  Like incense, it’s a book to be enjoyed slowly, thoughtfully in order to absorb each pearl of wisdom.  With every page I am reminded of how glad I am to be “home” in the Orthodox Church.

With that, I will post more in the days to come about why this Baptist raised gal fell for the “bells and whistles” of Orthodoxy.  

*pictured above is one of the beautiful crosses on top of my home church, St. George Orthodox Cathedral

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Precious is the death of His saints

Pastor Wurmbrand (Vurm'  brahnd) was a Lutheran minister of Romania who suffered many tortures during his years in communist prisons in the last century.   After his release, he authored several books, including Tortured for Christ, to give testimony and a voice to persecuted Christians around the world.  He and his wife, Sabina, started the organization Voice of the Martyrs, which continues to educate free Christians and help those who are persecuted on hostile nations.

Without doubt, reading Tortured for Christ last year left an indelible mark on my heart and mind.  It painfully awakened me to a depth of love and strength in Christ that I have never experienced in my decades of walking with Him.    Pastor Wurmbrand's story has stripped my comfortable views of sanctification, or theosis, as we call it in the Orthodox Church, and laid bare the weakness of my heart.   I cannot thank him enough for that.
Now, today, imagine my surprise to find a recording of Pastor Wurmbrand on the podcast of Frederica Mathewes-Green from Ancient Faith Radio.  What a joy! When he was in prison, he said that he was confined with people of various origins, Germans, Hungarians, Russians, etc. and he noted that Ave Maria was sung in every language except Hebrew.  He thought this was odd since Mary was a Jew and Hebrew would have been her native language.

And so, in due time, Pastor Wurmbrand translated this precious hymn to Mary in Hebrew.  It is his own voice, singing so beautifully to the Theotokos on Frederica's podcast, Here and Now.

Hearing this man, who so loved God and Blessed Mary, has been a treasured discovery today. Listening to the podcast has created an atmosphere of humilty and awe in my heart; a very suitable beginning as I look toward Great Lent.

Thank you Frederica!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Where the Wild Things Are

I saw some amazing photographs while searching for images of the lunar eclipse we experienced a few weeks ago.  Much to my disappointment, our area was too cloudy to see the night sky, much less attempt a photograph of that glowing moon in the heavens. That didn't keep my husband and I from going outside every 15 min. or so to see what the clouds might unveil.

Even so, our night was not without mysterious wonder.

It happened when I took Shiloh, our young dog, out for her evening routine.  The sky was blotted with intermittent shadows by the restless clouds and the moon kept fading from sight.  As is her custom, nose to air and eyes toward the forest, she sniffed the dense night air. For an unusually long time she stood still as a statue.   Waiting, listening...and then we heard it.  What started as a low call from the depths of the forest, crescendoed into a howl that made my hair stand on end.  At once, Shiloh lowered her head, tucked her tail and beckoned to me with her eyes “let’s go inside now”.

As we came into the kitchen, I stayed at the half-opened back door for a bit, peering into the darkness at the hill behind our house, hoping for a glimpse of long gray fur to reveal our guest.   The soft wail came again, a lament it seemed...much softer the second time around.    How fitting that she chose such a night to sing her song.

Ah well, we'll see a lunar eclipse again in a few more years.  I am glad to  finally have a voice to put to the small furry face of the coyote we saw last month.  What beauty, what wildness is waiting to be discovered just outside my door.


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