Love and Worship in Time of Quarantine

A friend called to ask what I thought about the government telling us to close the church to most people and have minimalist services broadcast.
I told him I don’t like it, but what is the intent?


The intent is not to shut down religion or to keep us from each other.
The intent is to keep us alive, to keep us from hurting each other, and while “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is not the first commandment, it’s on the list.
This is a different illness. It’s more like chicken pox, which all of my kids have had and one kid had three times, which is supposed to be impossible, in that you are contagious days before you show symptoms.
So no matter how good we feel, we could be spreading this to people we love.


These bans are to keep us from doing that.


These frustrating measures are to keep us from harming each other, and harming each other gravely, by accident.


Excommunication, when imposed by the Church, is the gravest punishment and is saved for the gravest of sins, and it feels like we’ve been excommunicated when we cannot congregate together and celebrate the Eucharist, together.


But the Church uses it for our salvation, and this separation is for our good and the good of the people we love.


And it’s temporary.

At Jordanville in my husband’s time and later, seminarians were assigned, in rotation, to barn duty instead of church on Sundays so the barn workers could be at the Sunday Liturgy and commune. The cows had to be milked and fed at the same time every day, and sometimes you have to miss church so the cows can eat and so that your brother can be at the services. One seminarian balked, and went to church instead, He said he came there to get an education, not to milk cows, and there was fallout. An elderly monk remarked to a friend, “You know, if you’re supposed to work in the cow barns, and you went to Liturgy instead, did you really go to Liturgy?” I thought of this often when my children were young and I had to stay home with whoever was sick.

This isolation is working in the cow barns so your brother can live and go to church another day, and so you can, too, only now we can also see the services on the internet, and receive Holy Communion one on one from our priests, who need prayers for protection, support, and strength during this difficult, difficult time.

Sometimes the best way to serve is to cease from complaining and to be where we are told to be for the duration, thinking always of how beautiful it will be when we are all together again.

This is the Sunday of the Cross. How few of the Apostles were there at the actual Crucifixion. How many millions now stand at the foot of the Cross, looking up for hope and help. Another thing — the myrrh bearing women and the noble Joseph who buried Christ were considered unclean and would not have been able to participate in the Passover, for having touched a dead body. But we sing of them now. And that one sacrifice lead to so many more services, churches, congregations, and chances for believers to pray together.

This is hard. This is miserable. This is temporary. And in that it is what God has either sent or allowed, it is for our salvation.

This is the loving thing that we can do, right now, for each other, and that we can do graciously, to support our bishops and priests, who want us to have life, and to have it abundantly.

Let us pray for our bishops, for our clergy, for each other, for our civil leaders, for all those who have to make hard decisions and for all of us who have to live with them. And in that way, this disastrous crisis can bring us closer together, by bringing us closer to Christ.

Another Birthday, a New Request

I have a recent birthday.

And while Facebook encouraged me to do a fundraiser for the occasion, I don’t like that idea.

But. twenty years ago I turned the age my mother was when she died and ten years ago, I turned the age my brother was when he died.

This year I reach the age Dad was when he died, and realize afresh just how young that really was. It’s a milestone, but it’s the kind that forces one to think.
So here’s what I want:

Forgive someone.

I mean, I shouldn’t have candy, flowers are expensive because of Valentine’s Day, and have you seen my house? As much as I would like more books, it would be hoarding to ask for more.


But life is short, we are not promised each other’s company indefinitely, and you want to be at peace with the people near you and those with whom you share history, space, and blood.

The simmering resentments that poison everyday life suck away energy you could be spending joyfully, cherishing the good things that God sent you in the people and places around you.

Pray for strength, courage, and just do it.

Stop being angry at someone who has hurt you or with whom you disagree. Have compassion on someone who has disappointed you and try to be as strong as you wish he or she had been in your moment of need.

Forgive.

You don’t have to TELL the person that you forgive them and truly in most cases it’s better if you don’t.

Just, for me, do it.

Do it for you.

And do it for the person whom you miss.


And then I will be a very happy, if unspeakably old, birthday person.


Thank you.

Not this year. The author with cake.

God Bless Your New Beginnings

A friend is leaving a job that she loves, to do more things she loves, and because I had been helped through this, years back, I knew what to say.

Back in the day, I was miserable.

It was near the end of my senior year at Commonwealth School in Boston and all around, people were planning the next year, without me. Spring air wafted in through open windows while people discussed the new classes being offered and the classes I loved that were being cut because the teachers who created them were moving on to colleges also. Old books were being discarded, new books arriving in large boxes. As I worked one of my last few sessions in the school kitchen with Ila Moore, the chorus in the next room was singing, with vigor but without seniors, Mozart’s Laudate Pueri Dominum, which we had sung when I was in ninth grade. It’s a rousing piece, but in my cocoon of misery I sang along softly as I chopped carrots and mourned. The bell rang, and I went upstairs, but nothing was quite familiar. The building had already been painted in anticipation of changes. The carpeting was new, the beloved couch in the lobby replaced. The lockers had been emptied, bulletin boards stripped. The founding headmaster, Charles Merrill, was retiring, and had largely dismantled his glorious office, putting trinkets from all over the world outside for students and faculty to take as a memento. “It’s like a free yard sale!” a friend exclaimed. But it felt more like a selective eviction, with some people staying.

As part of daily life Commonwealth had us students work for the school on teams in rotation, two weeks of a meal job, two weeks of a non-meal job, and two weeks off. The building becomes yours when you don’t just use it, but also maintain it. I had swept these floors and dusted these stairs and bookcases. The artwork, freshly rehung, was a mixture of reprints of classics and original works by faculty and students. I had seen some of these painted, and had helped to hang others. How could I think of leaving this place? How could they think of carrying on without us 41 seniors, the largest class in the school’s history at the time? How could Mr. Merrill leave? How could we let him? What, if anything, were any of us thinking?

Walking around what felt like the detritus of my education, I remembered that I hadn’t asked my “little sister” to sign my yearbook. Azania’s mother was one of the first alumnae or alumni to have a child attend the school, and like me, she had come from the Boston Public Schools, which made the rigor of Commonwealth something of a shock. But she was hard working, kind, and had common sense and a cheerful nature which made it a joy to be around her. She was firmly a part of the weave and weft of the school now. I found her on the third floor, just outside my advisor’s classroom. Mr. Hughes called me in for a quick chat while Azania and her friends signed my yearbook.

Mr. Hughes had the corner room, overlooking both Commonwealth and Dartmouth. He had a four-sided spinning bookcase from which he often pulled books to read from to us. He had taught me how to write clearly but in my own voice. He had comforted me in times of crisis and had explained exactly what I was doing wrong when I’d run aground. Today, he was almost playful. He lowered his glasses on his nose to see me better and with his huge smile that suggested delightful surprises ahead, asked, “So, what classes do you anticipate taking at Wellesley?”

The question startled me. I had been busy with preparation for AP tests and finals, and then I was blindsided by the changes around me. I frankly had not given the matter much thought yet.

I chose the College because it had a good English department and offered Russian, so part of my schedule was a foregone conclusion.  I needed to take a science, so I chose Chemistry. I wanted to teach, so I would have to take Psychology. But there were gaps which I could fill in by choosing almost anything once I arrived on campus in the Fall. I had forgotten — there would be so many more classes than even Commonwealth could offer. Wellesley had a sprawling campus full of  buildings devoted to and equipped for subject matters — science, music, academics — so many faculty, so many subjects, and almost all open to eighteen year-old me!

Paradigm shift had begun. My mind had left its dark place and drifted up Route Nine to the college that awaited me. Proverbs 15:23 came to mind; “[…] a word in due season, how good is it.”

But there was more.

When I stepped into the hallway, Azania handed me my yearbook and ran off to her next class. I opened it and read what she had written.

“God bless your new beginnings.”

More things I had forgotten.

Wellesley’s two mottos had inspired me. One, “Non ministrari, sed ministrare” (which the volley ball team proudly translated on their tee shirts as “Not to be served unto, but to serve,”) was in complete accord with everything my father had taught me about our purpose in life, to love God and love each other and to show that love through service.

The second motto, “Incipit nova vita,” now came to mind.

A new life begins.

I took in a deep breath of Spring, books, the familiar, and a hint of the unknown, and smiled.

How exciting.

I had been calling the ceremony we were preparing for “graduation,” but it had another name: commencement. We were commencing.

And life in the old place would go on without us, not in spite of us but building upon what we did.

When something ends, it is so something else can begin.

And so to my friends facing retirement or relocation, upheaval or a new place and way to serve, let me share the good words which change everything.

God bless your new beginnings.

Photo by MerelyRachel on Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Photo by MerelyRachel on Foter.com / CC BY-ND

When They’re Ready

This was a summer unlike any other. We have moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and sold our house in Connecticut with the huge yard and garden. We are living in a townhouse apartment so new that the GPS cannot find it. It was under construction when we visited to sign the lease. We are getting used to being able to make toast and use the microwave at the same time and not having to mow the lawn or shovel the snow. Ironically, now that we have a patio instead of a back yard, I have done more gardening than I had in three years. It started out as a way to get to know my new State.

I went to a plant sale at the local high school at the beginning of the summer and purchased some plants, thinking that this would give me the typical local vegetables. However, it turns out that people who want normal plants go to the normal places like plant nurseries and box stores; the school plant sale was for exotic varieties. And so instead of grape and Roma tomatoes, I had yellow baby tomatoes shaped like a butternut squash, and yellow Roma tomatoes.

Yellow tomatoes were just the beginning. I had never successfully grown okra before — in Texas I was too busy and in Connecticut it was too cold. So I bought three okra plants. The flowers were gorgeous — rather like hibiscus flowers. But the okra pods were not green; they were red. A tag on the plant, which I found only after I picked the first three okra pods, said it was Red Velvet okra. We don’t have a garden hose or a water source on the patio, so we have been hauling water from the kitchen to the patio almost daily.

However, it’s been a troubling summer. I keep index cards next to the computer to write down prayer requests from friends. I had to get bigger index cards. Most of it is what Aslan would call “someone else’s story,” but friends with sick children and grandchildren, friends with sick parents, friends whose friends have died suddenly or are gravely ill. In the middle of all that, we haul the water out to the patio daily and pick the beans, the squash, the cucumber (only one made it), the yellow tomatoes, the red okra, the new fruits of a new place. Different but good; we are learning. The routine gives shape to the day and makes me follow the weather.

My husband sometimes waters the plants for me and takes an interest in the daily haul. When I brought in a handful of strange produce, my husband asked about how I know they are ripe. “If the tomatoes never turn red, how do you know when they’re ready to be picked?”

I said, “Oh, that’s easy. I hold my hand beneath the fruit and wiggle my fingers. If the tomatoes fall into my hand, they’re ready. If they cling to the vine, they aren’t.” I opened my hand and we ate the sweet, strange tomatoes.

And I thought of one of my favorite icons. This is a fresco in a church I’ve never been to, but I have it in my “Comforting Images” file to look at when I am stressed. It is an illustration of a verse from the Wisdom of Solomon, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” The souls, depicted as people used to be prepared for burial, in winding linen cloth, rest in God’s palm while Angels approach bearing yet more souls. These souls are not alone or unsupported.

I love this icon and love that I thought of it. The people about whom I had been worrying, and for whom we had been praying, seemed safer. God’s hand is beneath them, waiting. Sometimes, God wiggles His fingers. They don’t bruise, they don’t force; they test and invite. After all, these hands know us; they have made and fashioned us.We don’t fall into His palm until we are ready.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; such a safe and beautiful place to be at rest.

Where else could we want them to be?

Who Goes There? A Pascha Story

How do you welcome strangers when you aren’t home?

Photo credit: foter.com

I have been away, visiting my brother and his amazing family, and so I haven’t posted in a while. However, I have a short little remembrance from when my children were little. We lived in Texas in the 1990’s, and often had only one car. We had made new friends, a husband and wife, who were Orthodox, and they were coming to the house. But an emergency arose, and my husband needed to be someplace. I drove him, so I could have the car. But, the children would be home alone when our friends arrived. I wasn’t sure how the children would recognize them. They couldn’t really reach the peep hole in the door.

I made my cross, prayed, and smiled.

I called the children into a huddle, gave them instructions, took off my apron, put on some shoes, and drove.

My friend told the story to my brother, who reminded me of it. My children were about nine, eight, and four. Our friends arrived and saw no car, but they rang the bell, and heard a muffled sound, in response.

“I can’t hear you!” the husband said.

There was a murmured consultation, and then the same response, a little louder, but not clear.

“I’m sorry, I still can’t hear you,” the husband said.

There was a longer consultation, and the deadbolt was turned. The door opened, but the chain stayed on. Three mouths appeared at the door. In unison, the children called out, “Christ is Risen!”

It was in the Paschal season. In the Orthodox Church, we prepare for great feasts by abstaining from meat and dairy, and then we celebrate the feast for a long time after. And so we greet each other for the forty days of Pascha (Easter) with “Christ is Risen!” to which one replies “Truly He is Risen,” or “Indeed He is Risen,” depending on your parish’s preferred translation.

And so our friends called out, also in unison, “Indeed He is Risen!” The children consulted again, and closed the door, unchained it, opened it, and welcomed the guests into the house, into our lives, and practically speaking, into the family. That happens, especially in Texas. “If you don’t have family in Texas when you arrive,” my brother-in-law had explained when we moved, “you create family.”

Christ is Risen!” It is a greeting to bring joy, to proclaim victory over death, and to draw like minded people closer together.

Christ is Risen!