Holy Week Journal: Holy Monday

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight.  And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching.  And again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.  Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.  But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy are You, O our God!  Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!

Troparion (Bridegroom Matins)

Bridegroom Matins is one of those services that just gets under your skin.  The melodies, the words, the Scripture…all of it lifts up that tough exterior layer and crawls in deep.

On Holy Monday, we went to Presanctified Liturgy in the morning and Bridegroom Matins at night.  The Matins service was for Holy Tuesday, so we remembered the parable of Christ that gives the service its name.

Ten virgins went to a wedding feast.  Five were wise and came prepared with enough oil for their lamps.  Five, however, were foolish, and their lamps went out.  The Bridegroom was delayed, and the foolish virgins scurried to buy more oil, but while they were away, the Bridegroom returned.  They were shut out of the wedding feast.

A continuation of the theme for Holy Monday, this parable reminds us that we cannot rest on our Christian laurels.  It is not enough to just bear the Christian name.  We must fill our lamps with the oil of virtue; the flame of good works.  More of that bearing fruit idea that we heard in the story of the withered fig tree.

It is so fitting that in Orthodoxy, we call the Christian life a struggle.  It isn’t easy.  When left to our own devices, humans will run home to what is comfortable; what is familiar.  It is sin that we drift toward if we are not vigilant.  Sometimes it rears its ugly head in dramatic fashion, but more often then not, sin is a quiet slither and a hushed word.  It dims and darkens the light with such sneakiness that before we know it, the lamp flickers and flutters and goes out.  We must always struggle against this tendency.  We must always meet sin head on.  For there is another, greater element of human nature…goodness.

Sin is not just an action, it is an event.  Sin separates us from God with a wall that climbs higher brick by brick.  Sometimes it’s a thin wall, one more of laziness than deliberate action.  But sometimes, the wall is thick, sealed and strengthened with years of hard work on our part.  It is I who draw back from God.  He never backs down from me.  If there is a wall, then I am the one who mixes the mortar and lays the brick.  Sin came into the world and caused a separation, but that barrier is no more.  Christ is risen from the dead!  Any separation between me and God now is of my own making.

But how can this be?  How can God want a relationship with me?  How can I, the chief of sinners, be one who He desires?  One, who as part of the Church, is the Bride for this Holy Bridegroom?

Your bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter.  O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.

Exapostelarion (Bridegroom Matins)

In Baptism, we are given our wedding garment.  It is a white and brilliant garment.  The purity of Christ.  No sin.  No darkness.  No death.  Just life.  Sometimes I look at myself and my wedding garment.  There’s the spot where I drug the hem in the mud.  There’s the corner that got caught and pulled and ripped.  There’s a gaping hole in one spot.  A general dinginess to the whole thing.  Hardly fit for a wedding feast.

The virtuous life is a struggle, but it is not a battle to fight alone.  As it says in the Psalms over and over and over…God is my helper.  He’s not going to make the struggle disappear and make life easy and calm and uneventful, but He’s also never going to stop being my helper.  The word “help” implies, though, that I have to do my part.  I struggle and God helps.  I go forward and never look back.

In the early days of Holy Week, we are warned of what can happen if we do not renounce our sin and seek God.  It is a well-deserved warning.  But also, we must remember that with the warning is an invitation.  We are invited to the wedding banquet.  We are invited to become one with God right here and now.  The Kingdom is coming.  The Kingdom is here.

Daily, I work out my salvation with fear and trembling.  I strive to be with God.  To live in Him.  Not to be good or good enough..but to be of God.  Speak words of God.  Think thoughts of God.  Grow and nurture and preserve a heart of God.  Wake up lazy soul!  The Bridegroom is coming!  Let us prepare for the Feast.

You are more beautiful than all men, O Bridegroom.  You have invited us to the spiritual banquet of Your bridal chamber.  Strip me of the ugly garment of my sins, as I participate in Your passion.  Adorn me in the glorious robe of Your beauty, that proclaims me a guest in Your Kingdom, O merciful Lord.

Aposticha (Bridegroom Matins for Holy Tuesday)

Holy Week Journal: Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday has a festive atmosphere.  A foretaste.  A mini-Pascha.  Hilary eagerly grabbed her palm branch and prepared for the service.  At my parish, we tie bells to all the palms and wave them throughout the entire service, especially whenever we sing, “Hosanna in the Highest!  Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!”.  The tiny bells tinkle, and some parishioners bring larger bells to add to the noise.  I made Hilary a necklace of a large bell, but she was shy to ring it.

The bells rang and the palms gently swished.  It sounded like a sandy beach in the tropics somewhere.  We needed the thought of warmth!  I had been hoping all month that Pascha coming late this year, would give us a better chance of a warm Holy Week.  I guess it is true that we did have a chance…we also had a chance that it would be low 40’s and windy, which is what we got!

At the end of the service, we processed around the church, the cross of Christ leading the way.  Such a striking image.  Christ, coming as the suffering servant on a foal, at one moment a King being welcomed, and at the same moment the crucified Lord.

Palm Sunday leaves us uplifted and encouraged for the week ahead.  We went home, and I replaced last year’s palms in the icon corners with new ones.  I am always so struck by the beauty of Orthodoxy in these moments.  The Traditions of the Church and the smaller traditions of the cultures who have preserved the Faith for two thousand years are so meaningful.  We are not outsiders to these events.  We are not remembering some historical occurance a long, long time ago.  We are living the celebration in Jerusalem right now at this moment.  We are letting go of our sad little perceptions of human time and opening our hearts to yesterday, today and forever.

On Palm Sunday, the fast is modified, so we enjoyed a fish dinner.  Then, it was time for Bridegroom Matins.  Oh, Bridegroom Matins!  This service that is only served four times a year is one of those that never leaves you.  I’ll still be humming the hymns in November.

This week, we’re also required to lose our perceptions of time even more.  The liturgical day begins at Vespers the night before.  Night to night.  Not morning to morning.  So, on Sunday night, the service is for Monday, not Sunday.

So, on Palm Sunday night, we switch gears with Bridegroom Matins…a service for Holy Monday.  On Holy Monday, we remember the cursing of the fig tree.  It isn’t all about celebrating.  Our relationship with God can’t be one emotional high to another.  We have to show in how we live our lives that it is no longer us, but God.  We have to bear fruit.

As my priest said, we must always remember the difference between leaves and fruit.  Attending services, saying our prayers, fasting…those are leaves.  Leaves are important.  You gotta have leaves.  But these are not the goal of the Christian life.  They are the means to the end, and the end is a drawing near to God.  If attending a thousand services and reciting a million prayers still leaves me cold, bitter, and self-absorbed, it was all just a waste of time.  The fruit of the Spirit, that is what has to come after the leaves have budded.  Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and love…always love…must be present in our lives as Christians.

If we want to celebrate with Christ at the Triumphal Entry, we have to be willing to follow Him through this week.  The tide is turning.  He will no longer be welcomed.  He will be reviled and persecuted and finally killed.  It is a long walk we still have to go.  This is only the beginning.

Holy Week Journal: Lazarus Saturday

Lent ends with Lazarus Saturday and Holy Week begins.  I so identify with Lazarus.  I have definitely felt four days dead on many occasion!  I have also felt a bit like he looks in the icon.  There he comes out of the tomb, waddling in his grave clothes, looking a little unsure whether this rising from the dead thing is actually a good idea.  Sometimes it’s easier to just stay dead.

On this day, it is a Greek tradition to bake a sweet bread in the shape of Lazarus in his grave clothes called Lazarakia.  I have tried to make the tradtional Lazarakia twice.  Both years, the results were far from spectacular.  I think I know what I did wrong both times, but I think my main problem is that I don’t have a strong Greek Yiayia to show me how its done!

So, this year, I took the inspiration of Lazarakia and did my own non-ethnic version.  An ode to Lazarakia…in sugar cookie.

Definitely not traditional, but these guys were a hit after Liturgy this morning.  Granted, they were slightly creepy looking, but that was part of their charm!

After Liturgy, we decorated the church with palms.  The last few years, we have had several palm disasters.  There was the year they looked so lush and perfect on Saturday, and then when we came in Sunday morning, they had shriveled up into nothing.  We had to take them down, because they were a fire hazard.  Last year, there was a palm shortage, and what we could get from the florist was far less than what we needed.  It almost got a little ugly when there weren’t enough to go around!

This year, the palms were abundant.  Such a wonderful thing.  We strung bells on ribbon and tied them around groups of the palm branches.  Tomorrow, everyone in the parish will get a palm to wave throughout the service.  The tinkling of the bells and the swoosh of the palms will fill the air.  We also folded individual pieces of the palms into crosses for the parishioners to take home and add to their icon corners.

At tonight’s Vespers service, we sang of Lazarus and the Triumphal Entry.  Holy Week has a pair of resurrection bookends.  We begin with today’s resurrection of Lazarus.  We’ll end the week with the Resurrection of Christ.  So much will come in between.  The same people who cried, “Hosanna in the Highest!” also shouted “Crucify Him!’ just days apart.  It is amazing how quickly the human heart drifts, wavers, changes, and transforms.  Amazing that it’s possible, and so convicting to me.  Back and forth.  Extreme to extreme.  I can see this in my own life.  Lips filled with prayer one moment are dripping with angry words the next.  A heart brimming with warm, fuzzy love on one day is a dark, brooding cauldron of selfishness the next.  Like I said…sometimes it’s easier to just stay dead.

But in Christ, we are not dead.  We are a new creation.  The darkness.  The tomb.  The grave clothes.  They’re gone.  We are alive in Christ.  If we choose to stay dead, then it’s just that…our choice.  Christ calls to us to come forth from the tomb.  To take off the binding entrapment of this life that keeps us wrapped up in the path that leads only to death.  Even if we’re really, really dead…four days dead…stinking up the place and beyond the help of anyone anywhere, Christ can make us live again.  He promises us that indeed He is the Resurrection and the Life.

So, we begin this week that is outside of normal time and space.  We enter into the last days of the life of Christ.  The Church provides a carefully and artfully crafted series of services that lay out the truths of the Faith.  Layer upon layer, each day adds to the story, creating a beautiful portrait of the love of God.

I am so blessed and grateful that God willing, I will be able to take advantage of the nineteen services offered at my parish from Lazarus Saturday to Pascha.  Nineteen chances to stand in church.  Nineteen chances to hear and smell and feel the layers.  School and work commitments will only allow Lonna and my husband to attend certain services.  Homeschooling enables Jared, Hilary, and I to attend all of them.  In years past, Hilary didn’t really complain much about church.  She’s used to going to Sunday Liturgy, Saturday Vespers, and Wednesday Liturgy.  A few more didn’t seem to rock her boat too much.  This Lent, though, when the two additional services on Fridays started, she began to show some strain.  I think her developing mind is realizing just how much time is involved with these extra services.  She’s constantly asking, “How many times do we have to go to church today?”  “How many times tomorrow?”  Dear child, this is not the week to get fed up with church!  I want to do everything I can to help her enjoy this time and not see it as a burden.  First off, I’m playing around with an idea to help her have a tangible way to grasp the number of the services.

I took our Resurrection icon and laid it on a wire floral frame.  I am in the process of crocheting nineteen flowers and a whole bunch of leaves.  Every time we go to a service, Hilary can add a flower to the frame.  On Pascha, we’ll have a fully decorated floral icon to display throughout the Paschal season.  I’m still working out the logistics and will probably make adjustments, but I let her add two flowers today.

I have no idea of knowing if we’ll actually be able to go to all the services.  Anything could happen, and besides…it’s not a contest.  But the opportunity is there, so it our goal to take advantage of the opportunity if we’re able.  Regardless, I try to make all the children realize that this is a week to slow down and pray.  This is not just any other time.  We will acknowledge that in the way we live our lives.  This week will be different.  We’ll pray in church as much as we’re able.  We’ll pray at home and in every moment everywhere.  We’ll focus our fasting and limit distractions.  Shaking off the grave clothes, we’ll wiggle our way one day at a time out of the darkness and with the freshness of spring birth, we’ll step boldly into the Light.

Upcoming Holy Week Journal

How can Lent be ending?  It has flashed by at record speed.  I have that tugging feeling that I didn’t “do” enough, while knowing that it isn’t about “doing” at all.  I didn’t be still enough.  I didn’t breathe enough.  I lived through Lent.  I didn’t let Lent live in me.

So, this week I’ve been treasuring the last moments and soaking up every bit of peace that  I can.  But here we are at the end.  Hilary took Friday’s door off our Lenten Calendar today, so next is #8…Lazarus Saturday.  Holy Week stretches before us.  Now, more than ever, it’s time to enter in and just BE.  Live the last week of Christ.  Wait by the tomb.  Welcome the Resurrection.  It is time.

Normally, I keep computer use to a bare minimum during Holy Week, and I definitely plan on avoiding the frivolous use of electronics.  However, I am going to be doing a blogging journal of Holy Week.  Each day, I’m going to post pictures and thoughts about the services, our family’s traditions, and the journey of the heart to Pascha.  If you’re online starting tomorrow, please stop by.  If you know any non-Orthodox who are interested in what we do, please tell them!  I pray I will accurately share what it means to live the Orthodox Faith in this central time of the year.

Wishing you a blessed remainder of the Lenten season!

To the Heights

On Saturday, we got up early and drove south.  It was only a bit over an hour, but it’s interesting how quickly the landscape changes around here.  The urban sprawl soon gave way to open fields waiting for spring planting, gentle rolls of hills, and horses pulling buggies.  I sure do love the convenience of city life, but I really am still a country girl at heart.  I was glad to get away.

The second Sunday in Lent is a day to commemorate St. Gregory Palamas.  So, we went on pilgrimage to a monastery that bears his name.  Last week, we remembered the triumph of the icons.  This weekend, we remember a triumph of another kind.

St. Gregory was a monk and Bishop of Thessalonica in the 14th century.  He devoted his life to simple, constant prayer…specifically the Jesus Prayer.  There was controversy at this time between the East and the West over the Orthodox practice of prayer.  St. Gregory defended the Orthodox position and clearly defined our dogmatic teaching on the subject.  He is remembered at this time during Lent as a call to prayer.  A call to holiness.

I eagerly anticipated this pilgrimage.  Life has been insanely chaotic of late, and the peace…I crave the peace.  Stepping into a monastery chapel is an instant ticket to another world.  A taste of possibilities.

The devotion of the monks; the gentleness; the quiet.  No extra, unnecessary words.  No extra, unnecessary entanglements.  Prayer.  Peace.  Pursuit of God.  The icons on the walls are images of those who lived the godly life.  These men in front of me are living icons of the Faith.  This is what holiness looks like.  This is what peace and love feel like.  And it’s not just for them…it’s available to all of us.

I treasure all of the saints, but sometimes, you just connect with one particular saint.  They seem to show up when you need them in ways you weren’t expecting.  I met St. Gregory Palamas in that unexpected way yesterday, and I was so touched to make his acquaintance.

On the eve of St. Gregory’s repose, St. John Chrysostom appeared to him and encouraged him with the words, “To the Heights!  To the Heights!”  When I look at these monastics and the life of St. Gregory, I am moved to compunction.  My prayer life recently has hardly been to the heights.  I seem to be hearing more of the mantra, “To the plateau!  To the plateau!”

Unceasing prayer.  Not a mental exercise.  Prayer of the heart.  At times it seems impossible for me.  At times I am tempted to despair in my failed attempts.  So, I get into a satisfactory prayer groove, where I pray just enough to not feel too guilty, but nowhere near enough to move forward.  I look around and realize that I’m just treading water.  I’m staying in one place.

Lent is a challenge to step things up.  Blow up the plateau.  Reach for the heights.  You might fall when you reach, but you’ll come back even stronger just for the attempt.

Orthodox prayer is not canned words with no depth.  It is not a quota to be filled or a box to be checked.  There is no such thing as praying enough.  Every moment, every breath is calling on the name of Jesus.  The prayer never ends.

Being on the plateau seems like a safe place.  The surroundings are familiar.  Not necessarily attractive or inspiring…but familiar.  In reality, the plateau is a dangerous precipice.  Treading water is an illusion.  If you aren’t going forward, you just drift backward.

Inner prayer.  The joy that never ceases.  The petition that never wavers.  The name of Jesus.  So many words in one name.

St. Gregory, pray for me.  Show me through your example how to pray.  Let my “amen” not be a transition from one moment with God to a string of a thousand moments in my own passions.  My own words.  My own illusions.  Rather, let my “amen” be not the end of prayer, but only the beginning.  To the heights!  To the heights!  There’s nowhere else to go but up.

A Cloud of Witnesses

The first Sunday in Lent is the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  I feel so blessed to live in a true melting pot of Orthodoxy.  We have so many parishes and monasteries in easy driving distance.  So much variety.  So much unity.  It is something I try never to take for granted.

This year, the service to celebrate this day was held at the Ukranian Cathedral.  So lovely…

 

The Sunday of Orthodoxy remembers the restoration of icons to the churches.  The fight over images of Christ and the Saints was a long and bloody battle.  That battle still rages today for many people.

We must fight for the icons, for if we deny the image of Christ, we deny the Incarnation.  We do not make images of God in His essence.  That is impossible.  But God became man, and it is that flesh and blood that we show.

It is a well known fact that I cry like a baby at every Sunday of Orthodoxy.  Seeing the priests and children carrying their icons overwhelms me.

All Christians are icons.  We all have Christ in us.  And in that picture…what is it that we see?  It is not appropriate to say that an icon is painted.  We say that it is written.  It is more than a pretty work of art.  It is God.  My icon…how is it written?

I see the Saints.  I am overwhelmed by the portraits of men and women who gave their lives for Christ under horrendous, unspeakable persecution.  They were undeniable.  How often do I deny Christ in my words?  In my actions?

I see the Saints.  I am awed by the renderings of men and women who lived simple, unassuming lives of peace and prayer.  No outward battles, but inspiring ones of the spiritual war.  They were steadfast.  How often do I waver in my commitment to prayer?  In my wandering, fickle heart?

I see the Mother of God.  I am humbled by the sight of this woman who followed God when it didn’t make sense…when it seemed impossible.  She was faithful.   How often do I question God’s ways?  How often do I choose my own path?  In my choices?  In my decisions?

I see Christ.  I am brought to my knees, face down before this image.  This is God….this is God.  How can I ever be like this image?

If an icon is written, what story does the icon of me tell?  Is it a tale of my accomplishments, failures, dreams and disappointments?   Or is my icon instead the story of Christ?  The Word who became flesh.  The suffering servant who gave Himself up willingly to be crucified.  The triumphant One who rose again.  Love.  So much love.  Is that my story?  Giving and receiving love?

As I stand in this church, I look around me, and I am surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  They witness to the strength and power and truth and unshakable love.  They witness to the pain and the sorrow and the wisdom of the struggle.  They witness to Christ.  What is my witness?  What is my truth?  Is it my own icon I’m writing, or instead, am I allowing myself to be written?

I fight for my icons.  I fight for the witness.  This day, I pray that I will never forget my own icon.  The picture of Christ in me.  The picture of Christ in everyone I see this day.  So many faces everywhere I look.  So many pictures.  From the first buds of spring shooting up from the ground still chilled from snow.  From the newborn breath.  From the dying breath.  From the ups and the downs and the struggles and the triumphs.  This world is an icon.  I am an icon.  Lord, may I look less and like me each day and more and more like You.  A picture of faith.  A portrait of love.  Christ…an image written on my heart.

A Spoonful of Ice Cream Helps the Humility Go Down

It begins like any Vespers service.  The peace and stillness of the darkness.  The close of the day.  But in Orthodoxy, the evening of the calendar day is the beginning of the next liturgical day.  Evening to evening.  So, as we sing, there comes the moment when it is no longer Sunday.  It’s Monday, and not just any Monday…

The reader slowly chants: “…Blessed are You, O Lord.  Teach me Your statutes.  Blessed are You, O Master.  Make me to understand Your commandments.  Blessed are You, O Holy One.  Enlighten me with Your precepts.”  Girls approach the icon stands, remove the gold cloths beneath them, revealing a different color cloth underneath.  The altar boys make a gentle swishing sound behind the iconstasis as they quickly change from one robe to another.  Even the lampadas have their golden, glowing glass removed and replaced with a different kind of brilliance.  Everything has gone from gold to purple.  There’s been a change of season.  A change of time.  Lent is here.

The service goes on, but the mood in the room has visibly shifted.  The signs are clear on the outside.  In the colors, the melodies, the prayers.  The Great Fast, the time of repentance is here.  Has something changed inside me?

At the end of the service, a unique and profound thing happens.  One of the things I read about as a non-Orthodox and just could not believe actually happened.  This is Forgiveness Vespers.  This is our journey to the death and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior.  A time, more than ever, to look deep within, find what shouldn’t be there, and let it go.  A time to repent and ask for forgiveness.  But how can I expect God to forgive me, if I can’t forgive someone else?

The priest faces the congregation, asks for our forgiveness for anything he did to us this year, knowingly or unknowingly.  Then, he drops to the floor on all fours and bows his head to the ground in a prostration of repentance.  Rising, he starts a line, and one by one, snaking around the room, we all join in the line.  The next person goes up to the priest, they both prostrate (or bow as physically able), ask for forgiveness, and exchange the kiss of peace.  Then, that person goes in line, and the next person follows the same pattern.  Eventually, everyone has joined in, and we ask for forgiveness from each and every person in the room.

Forgiveness.  What does it mean?  Does it mean avoiding or ignoring an issue just to keep the peace?  Does it mean playing nice while harboring a resentment that clutches deep inside?  Sometimes we just say we’re sorry.  But this night, we have to show it.  If I can’t let go of the little things…even the big things…and just love like Christ, if I can’t look at these people and just see Christ…how will I ever recognize Him?  He’s here in all these people.  He’s right here.  And I’m so sorry for all I’ve done to offend Him.

As the line progresses, what started in silence and whispers moves on to a hum of smiles and laughter.  We all fill a bit silly…and sweaty.  It’s a big workout for the body; it’s a joyous exercise for the soul.  I remember the first year I came to this parish.  I barely knew anyone.  I had nothing against these people.  This act didn’t seem to make much sense.  Later, I began to see how many times we really do wrong others just in the course of daily life.  Whether we meant to or not.  This past year, we’ve had quite a bit of unfortunate drama at our parish.  We’ve been rocked to the core.  I did feel wronged by some of my fellow parishioners, and I know that some of them felt wronged by me.  We needed this Forgiveness Vespers.

The line went on, and I began to come to my own family members.  My eyes watered as I embraced my children.  From the time they can talk, we train them well.  “Now, say you’re sorry!”  But how often do we say it back?  As we’ve transitioned into the teen years, I’ve tried especially to do that.  To admit when I’m wrong, but sometimes, I just don’t say it, even when I know it’s true.  Please forgive me…  Please forgive me…

Those of us in the choir had been some of the first in line so we could finish and return to our stands.  As the rest of the parish continued, we began the music that instantly took us to another night…one still to come.  “Let God arise!  Let his enemies be scattered!  Let those who hate Him flee from before His face!”  The music of Pascha.  Still weeks away, but we sing it now to remind everyone where we’re headed.  The beacon, the goal.  Because of Pascha, we forgive.  Because of Pascha, we’re forgiven.

Again the tears come to my eyes as we build up through the song and eventually reach a shouting crescendo…”Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”  Forgiveness…it is death transformed to life.

Lastly, everyone goes into the parish hall for a sweet reward to our efforts.  Bowls of ice cream are piled high with sprinkles and colorful sauces.  There’s fellowship and community and sugar highs everywhere.  This Sunday was also Cheesefare.  The last day before the fast from dairy products begins.  Meat has already been left behind for a week now, as the Church eases everyone into the rigors of fasting.  Now, for those who are able, it is no meat, no dairy, no oil, and no fish with a backbone for the next seven weeks.

It seems only fitting to have ice cream.  Not just because of the dairy, but because of the sweetness.  Being forgiven is sweet, especially when you don’t deserve it.  Asking for forgiveness is humbling, but there is a sweetness to it, as well.

Forgiveness.  Something I seem to always assume and expect from others, but pridefully don’t always give.  Forgiveness.  Something I seem to frequently assume will come from God, but pridefully won’t admit that I need.  To ask for forgiveness means admitting I did something wrong to begin with, and that can be a bitter pill to swallow.  Lord, help me to see inside myself.  To really see all those sins that happen daily.  I want to see.  I want to confess.  I want to be forgiven.  I want to forgive.

Wasting My Life in Laziness

“Open to me, the doors of repentance O Lifegiver, for my soul rises early to pray towards Your holy temple…”

Sunday night, as I finished up some things before bed, I was startled by the sound of thunder.  A thunderstorm? On the next to last day in February?  The light and sound show intensified outside the window, as I watched the rain pour down hard and fast.  As I crawled into bed, I was actually looking forward to a rainy night.  The sweet lull of the water on the roof hadn’t been heard in months.  It did pass through my mind, though, as I drifted off to sleep, that surely all that rain couldn’t be good on top of nine inches of snow.

Monday morning, my husband texted me, saying that he had brought a box of work materials from the garage to the office.  For some reason, the papers were awfully damp.  I walked over to the door from the house to the garage.  As I opened it, I was instantly hit by what my husband didn’t notice in his hurry-to-work-at-dawn routine…the smell.  It smelled like the lake on a breezy day.  It smelled wet.

I stepped out into the garage, and my bare feet squished on the sopping wet mat by the door.  It took a minute for everything to register, because there was no water on the floor at the time.  But my eyes began to focus and scan the distinctive line running all around the room.  The flood line.

The drain in the middle of the garage had backed up.  About two inches of water had filled virtually every corner of the garage.  Apparently, it went down as fast as it came up, but just a few inches of water can do a lot.

For many people, water in the garage would be no big deal.  Their garages are just homes for garden tools and kids’ riding toys.  But not our garage.  Definitely not our garage.  Our rental house is on the small side…I hate to even use the term “small”.  It’s small by American standards, but our standards are often skewed.  We have no basement and limited storage, so we store everything in the garage.

Last year, I began a simplicity journey.  I went through each and every corner of my house, decluttering and conducting a massive overhaul of our space.  Life was getting too complicated, and it’s hard to pray in chaos.  So, as I went through the rooms, we boxed up items we didn’t need anymore and put them in the garage.  We were going to have a yard sale.  The pile grew and grew, until one corner of the room was filled to bursting.  Then, we started the shop.  More things got added.  Extra inventory, packing supplies, etc.  What didn’t fit on the shelving unit we put up stayed in boxes on the floor, waiting to find a permanent home.  The other side of the garage was lined with plastic containers of camping supplies, out of season clothes, and old homeschool materials.  Not that you knew what was actually in any of the containers.  They weren’t labeled, so whenever someone went out to the garage to look for something, they just shoved everything out of the way and created more disarray.

By the time I finished decluttering the inside of the house, the garage had become a seething pit of despair.  My teeny little compact station wagon barely fit in the mess.  I was always cautioning the kids not to open the doors too quickly.  The leaning towers of excess might topple at any moment.  Every time I pulled in the driveway and opened the garage door, I sighed.  What a mess!  And then I ran in the house and shut the door.

You see, that yard sale never came.  I was sick all summer and then was in the hospital.  It turned cold, and nobody wanted to stand out in the garage to do anything.  My husband’s insane seven day a week, three job work schedule made for little free time as we just tried to keep our heads above water.  Oh, the water…

I called my husband and told him to take the rest of the day off work and come home.  As we stood in the garage, we looked at the situation.  Sure, only the bottom of every stack was wet.  But to get to the wet, we had to go through the rest of it.  No more putting it off.  We were going to have to use this opportunity to clean it all up once and for all.

“…and have wasted my life in laziness.”

About twenty minutes into the clean up, I turned to my husband and asked, “What is wrong with us that we let our lives get this way?”  We are not a rich family, so we don’t have a lot of toys.  No electronic wonders.  No newest and best and brightest.  We are surrounded by mismatched hand-me-downs and thrift store make-do’s.  We are not a rich family, so it’s far too easy to convince ourselves that we’re not attached to material things.  Actually, it’s quite the opposite.  The less you have, the more you keep.  You don’t know if you’ll have the money to buy a new such and such, so by golly, you better hold on to this worn down no good such and such just in case!  We cannot afford many things, but we sure as heck have a lot of stuff.

There are a lot of excuses why I found myself going through boxes of curtains from four houses ago, books no one ever read or ever will, and craft supplies that seemingly reproduced of their own accord when you shut the lid of the box.  Some of those excuses are pretty valid ones.  But life just gets so exhausting, when all you do is make excuses…

I have a candle lit in my icon corner right now for all the families who truly suffered this week.  People are living through severe damage to homes and businesses.  People are trying just to live.  It’s raining outside again, and just when we thought it was over, there will be more flooding somewhere today.

We had our own mess this week, but it was no disaster.  It was a gift.

All week long, I’ve been singing…Open to me the doors of repentance, O Lifegiver.  A song we hear this time each year, announcing that Lent is coming.  Lent begins on Monday, and I needed a good flood to motivate me.  I’ve spent years shoving out of sight those unpleasant memories, those pesky little sins that can just be dealt with later.  Or really aren’t so bad.  Or are inconvenient to face.  I’ve treasured and held onto so much baggage, crushed by the weight, yet comforted by the familiarity.  I’ve moved those precious sins with me from place to place, squirreling them away in that special corner I reserve for the darkness.  I’ve filled and packed my soul with boxes and boxes and boxes.  I’ve run inside myself and shut the door to avoid looking at the mess.  And I’ve made excuses…oh so many excuses.

Open to me the doors of repentance, Lord.  Let this Lent be one of purging and renewal.  Help me throw away all this garbage.  It’s all just garbage…  And it’s not that I really even want all this stuff, I’ve just been too lazy to deal with it.  I’ve wasted my life in laziness, Lord.  Help me not to waste another moment.

“Like David I cry to Thee…Have mercy on me, O God.  Have mercy on me, O God.  Have mercy on me, O God.  According to Thy great mercy.”

By the Waters of Babylon

Jared is studying a mix of meteorology, ornithology, and botany this year in science.  Our local park system did a program last year where they hiked the same trail once a month for twelve months.  That is just an excellent idea, and I thought it would be a great way for Jared to apply all three of his science disciplines in one project.  So, I decided back in August that we would do our own version as a 2011 event.

And then January came…  It snowed, and snowed, and snowed.  Not that I haven’t gotten used to snow in the time we’ve lived here.  But the snow piled upon snow and ice and cold just did not inspire us to nature walk.  Before I knew it, January had slipped away.  I thought about the plan a couple times in early February and decided we had plenty of time.  Then, last week happened.  We hadn’t seen grass in months for the snow pack, but it all reappeared in just a few short days of warm weather.  The creeks and rivers swelled and flooded and the lovely whiteness turned to wet, muddy yuckiness seemingly overnight.  I lamented our project plan.  I already missed January and now we have to start out with ugly, dead snow melt?

No worries…spring isn’t here quite yet!  The snow returned, introduced by an ice storm.  The whole world seemed to glitter in crystal glass, the sun shining through the multi-faceted jewel of tree branches.  We put on our layers and headed out to our chosen trail for the first monthly visit.

I picked this trail, because it has both woods and water.  They call it a lake, but I would probably use pond as the term.  In the fall and winter, the water level dwindles to near nothingness, but that snow melt and refreeze really helped create a lovely frozen wonderland.

The light was so glaringly bright and the ice so dazzling, that I felt like we had been transported inside a prism.  Made me wish I’d gotten out more this winter.  No matter how many layers it took.

Lent is coming.  Even though it is starting late this year, it seems like it snuck up on us.  We Orthodox never celebrate without preparing, and Lent is such a glorious preparation that we even prepare for it.  So we prepare to prepare with the weeks leading up to Lent.  The stories tell us where we’re going…Zacchaeus…the Publican and the Pharisee…the Prodigal Son.  That’s where we are this week, with just two Sunday’s to go.  This week it really starts to sound like Lent, as we sing the mournful song of Psalm 136(137).

By the waters of Babylon,

there we sat down, we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion.  Alleluia.

The Israelites were carried off to captivity in Babylon, and the pain of that move ripped the soul.  Their captors expected life to just go on in a different place, but the Israelites knew it wasn’t about the body…it was about the soul.  “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  As I looked at the depths of winter around me, surrounded by ice and barrenness, I said those words out loud…How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

Babylon is not just a Biblical place from long ago.  Babylon is the world right here and now.  It is a symbol of all sin.  Extreme separation from God.  Extreme rejection of God.  The winter of the soul.

Lent is coming.  The chance to rip out of the bonds of iciness.  The opportunity to breathe the warm breeze of spring.  But we have to start here.  We have to acknowledge the freeze, or we’ll never recognize the thaw.

The Psalm and the song end with a battle cry.

Blessed is He who takes your little ones and

dashes them against the stones.

The evils of Babylon.  The offspring of darkness that sets up in our lives and entangles itself in our souls.  Little ones who destroy in a catastrophic way.  Sin…it is everywhere in me.

There is a victory, though.  There is One…the One…who takes the death, and sin, and frozen darkness and crushes it.  Who tramples down death by His death.  Who grants life to all those in the tombs.  Dashing evil against the stones.

Everything and everyone seems asleep around me in this world so cold.  Yet it shines and glimmers and quickens with days like this, when God shows Himself in full color…using only shades of white.

Lent is coming.  The Resurrection is coming.  Blessed is Christ who destroys the power of sin in explosive triumph.  The world is in icy slumber, but soon we will wake up.  Spring is coming.  Pascha is coming.  We’ll sing again in Zion.  We’ll celebrate again in the purity of a different kind of whiteness.  Blessed is He who battles.  Blessed is He who conquers.  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!