Praying in a dark church is about the only time I believe that lack of electricity can be a good thing. As I stood in the chapel of the monastery on Saturday night, a chapel with no electric lights, the word “vigil” moved from being just the name of a service to the desire of my soul. A few candles flickered, the icons were just shapes and shadows, and the monotone of the monks’ chanting spread a warmth that started in my chest and flowed out to the tingling of my fingertips. In the darkness, it was easy to let the tears flow, those tears that are a gift. The tears that come when prayer stops being a rote exercise and begins at the beginning; at the Light that never knows darkness.
Our family had planned to make this pilgrimage together, but it was not to be. So, I made the trip alone. Alone with my thoughts in the car…what a rarity! Alone in the church with no eyes in the back of my head making sure my children are as they should be…what a change of focus! Alone in the darkness, even though I wasn’t alone. Open and vulnerable before God, yet at the same time supported by the prayers of the pilgrims and monks around me. This is what prayer looks like. This is what prayer feels like. Not my head, but my heart.
I made this pilgrimage to remember the man for whom this monastery is dedicated. On the second Sunday of Lent, we remember St. Gregory Palamas. St. Gregory Palamas was a monk and bishop in the 14th century. He never went looking for attention, but attention found him when he used his insight and eloquence to defend prayer. The true prayer of the heart. The first Sunday of Lent is called the Triumph of Orthodoxy, because it remembers the restoration of icons to the churches and the confirmation of the truth of Orthodox belief. St. Gregory established a triumph of his own, denouncing the claim that God cannot be met through contemplative prayer. Reaffirming that the still, small voice of God is heard when we make our minds get out of our own way and let our hearts pray like they are already burning to do.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, yes, I want You as Lord and Master of my life, Son of God, the true Son of the Father, the one who became man, so that we may become God, have mercy on me, come save me Lord, quickly, quickly for I perish, a sinner, the chief of sinners…the very first.
As I drove home in the darkness (note to self: perhaps going to vigil at a monastery a fair distance from home on the night the time changes and we lose an hour is probably not the best idea…even though it was totally worth it), I thought about what I could do with Hilary to explain the remembrance of this Sunday. How to explain the deepest depths to a child, when I have yet to begin to even fathom them? But maybe it’s not that hard. If there are any people who understand simplicity of heart, it’s children. They don’t have the baggage and the walls and the collective junk that adults pile up around their hearts. At times, we go out of our way to sever the connection between mind and heart. That pesky heart. Too raw, too vulnerable. Must shove it deep, deep down and rely on rationality. The mind, it’s so much safer, because it thrives in an illusion that we are in control.
Kids lay it all out there with their hearts. Heart and mind…one big joyful jumble. So, I taught Hilary about the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas with this illustration. First, I summarized St. Gregory’s life. Then, we talked about the story of Elijah and the still, small voice. And what does it mean to hear God in the stillness? The lesson went a little something like this:
O.K. We know we hear God in the stillness. Are we usually still and quiet? No. Life is loud. People talking. Places to go, go, go. Fruit Ninja on the Kindle. Yet another episode of Wild Kratts on t.v. Noisy, noisy. Now, your brother is going to say a number. Follow me and do what I do. Tell me when you hear the number. (We marched around the room clapping and talking and singing loudly, “La, la, la, la. Noise. Noise. Noise.) So, what was the number bubby said? What, you didn’t hear it? Yeah, it’s hard to hear God when we’re so busy and filling our heads with words and pictures and sounds. Let’s try again. Let’s act like we’re in church. We stand very still in church, right? We should be able to hear God then. (We stood still, but I again sang loudly, “La, la, la, la. Noise. Noise. Noise.) What, we still didn’t hear the number? But we were still, so what went wrong? Just standing still or standing in church doesn’t mean we’re really listening to God and being still in our hearts. We can have our heads full of thoughts about where we’re going after the service, what’s good to eat at coffee hour, and all kinds of other noise. Let’s try one more time. Let’s sit down and not move any part of our body. Take a couple breaths in and out. Now, let’s not talk. This time, let’s say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Say the Jesus Prayer out loud a couple times, and then stop, directing the child to keep saying the prayer silently).
The difference between the silence and the noise of the previous two times was profound. It was quieter than quiet. It was still. “Thirty-four”, my son’s voice seemed to boom, even though he was just speaking in the normal voice he had used the other two times. We heard him! Hilary’s face broke into a beaming smile. Mind and heart. Loud and still. On her level, it made sense. God, help her not to lose the sound of the stillness, and help me to find it again.
To finish up our lesson, we made a giant version of a prayer rope. I cut circles out of black paper and had Hilary write the words of the Jesus Prayer on contrasting blue rectangles, one word for each bead. Thus, the giant size. I knew that there was only so small that my six year old could write, so I sized the craft accordingly. This is a 12″ x 12″ piece of paper with 1 1/2″ diameter circles. I used my paper cutting machine, but that’s not necessary. Child-cut circles and cross would be lovely. Excessive use of rhinestones and glue is also not necessary or even recommended. That’s just Hilary. I think she’s biologically incapable of leaving anything unadorned.
The Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas is a day to remember what we often forget. The stillness. The heart. It’s all there. It’s just up to us to remember where we left it, buried it, and forgot it.
Pray for me, Father Gregory. Teach me to pray in the stillness of my heart. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like there even is any stillness to find. Pray for me as I pray. In the quiet, in the dark, in the smallest of voices, I cry out to God, and He hears me. He hears my prayer.