May 26, 2012

"Our only loveliness is Orthodoxy itself"

I recently re-read Frederica Mathewes-Green's book Facing East, a warm and well-organized account of her conversion to the Eastern Orthodox church. The book is a collection of vignettes, moving through a liturgical year in the life of their small Maryland church. The sub-chapters range from a few pages to just a few paragraphs long -- this makes Facing East a very good pick-up-put-down book, as each chunk may be separately digested. And digested is the right word; Mathewes-Green's writing naturally invites one to pause for reflection. This was perhaps my third or fourth time reading it straight through, and the thoughtful intimacy of this portrait of Orthodox life will no doubt recommend itself to me again.

Plus, she's funny:
My favorite experience with the Trisagion prayers occurred when I was invited to speak at a pro-life rally in a large Southern city. I had suggested the organizers invite the local Orthodox priest to give the benediction, but by the end of the evening when he came to the podium, he had figured out that the crowd was 90 percent charismatic. So he prayed the Trisagion prayers, just as any Orthodox would do, but in a heartfelt way with pauses, as if the phrases were just coming to him:
"Holy God," he said. 
 "Holy! Holy! Our God is holy!" all the charismatics around me murmered.
"Holy! Mighty!" the priest went on.
"Mighty! He is a mighty God!" the charismatics echoed. 
"Holy! Immortal!" said the priest. 
"Immortal God! Yes, Lord!" 
"Have mercy on us," the priest concluded in a deep rumble. 
"Mercy, Lord! Mercy! Yes, Lord!" 
I don't know when I've enjoyed anything so much. I sat in the front row with my arms in the air, just rejoicing in the mercy of the Lord, buoyed on the bosom of all those good, good people. (p 39) 
Having spent a lot of time with charismatics, I found that pretty amusing.

Not only is Mathewes-Green funny, though, but she has a gift for explaining the basics of her faith. My only previous encounters with Orthodoxy were of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding variety, and so I originally came to this book with no idea of what to expect. I found that Facing East is accessible, entertaining, and intelligently-written. As an example, to my mind Facing East contains one of the best explanations I've ever encountered regarding the idea of praying to saints (which doesn't naturally sit well with my Baptist-raised, low-Anglican self):
Upon chrismation, each new Orthodox claims a saint from the church's rich history as his or her own. Often the person will assume that saint's name and lay aside the birth name, entereing new life in Christ with a new identity. This saint becomes that person's patron, a special intercessor and friend in high places.  
Because the role of these saints is so often misunderstood, it's good to take a look at what saints are not. First, and most important, they are not dead. Life in Christ is eternal life, and they are merely on the other side of the veil, continuing that everlasting life that they began, as we do, on this side. This is why the interior of Orthodox churches are covered with icons; it makes visible the unseen reality that our worship is lifting us into heavenly realms, where we stand with the faithful of the centuries.  
Lest this confidence in the saints' heavenly reality be pushed to an unhealthy extreme, it's important to note something else they are not: they are not deputy Gods. We don't ask them to perform supernatural feats under their own power, like superheroes with individual areas of expertise (this one finds lost keys, that one makes houses sell). We ask their prayers, just as we might ask the prayers of our friends here on earth, though we assume that standing in the unclouded presence of God gives special power to their intercessions. Unlike our friends on earth, the saints do not chat with us in return. Two-way conversation is not the goal.  
Finally, the saints are not God's receptionists. We don't submit petitions to our favorite saints instead of praying to God; they don't stand between us and the Almighty, transcribing our requests and turning them in at an end-of-day meeting. We still bring our intercessions directly to the throne of the Father. But there is a place for uniting with fellow Christians in our prayers, and no reason to exclude from that the brothers and sisters who have gone on to stand before the throne. (pp 213-14)
That seems to me a much more nuanced, and more biblical, approach to the saints than I have seen demonstrated in Roman Catholicism. One of Stan's coworkers actually explained to him the other day that the best way to get your house to sell was to take a statue of St Somebody-or-Other and bury it upside-down in the garden. And voila! Your house will sell. This strikes me as, well, superstitious nonsense, so I was happy to read Mathewes-Green's more thoughful explanation of the role of the saints in our lives today.

Facing East is a lovely little portrait of Orthodox life, well worth reading and re-reading. Is it a bit happy-go-lucky, at times? Perhaps. But if that's so, it's the happy-go-lucky of a woman falling in love with her community, her liturgy, and her God:
Just when you think life is going to be cozy, something like this happens--a blue electric jolt, the black jagged trees dancing, a red pit in the earth. God isn't our pet and he isn't our pal, and when our lives are swept up into his, anything can happen. He never promises us safety. He only promises himself. 
As I reread Facing East I worry that I've projected a happy-little-family image of our church, and although that's not false, neither is it best. We are extraordinarily blessed at Holy Cross; I've never been in a more joyous and vibrant church, and I give all the earthly credit to my husband's God-directed leadership. But even in a less functional church, in an inharmonious community or unhappy family, God is still fully present and still supplying all things needful to each person who seeks his face. It's not a comfortable earthly life that we are looking for but a transformed life in him, one that extends beyond the grave. 
At the graveside I hold Hannah's little hand tightly. It's cold, and I can feel the bones of her fingers, so small and smooth, in my own. My fingers get more knobby and bent every year. I once had a tiny, pretty hand like Hannah's, but now the thing, wrinkled skin can't conceal the orderly bones lined up beneath. Bones are the signature we leave behind when we dive under the blanket of earth and strip down to nothing. Nobody has a choice about this dive into nothing. We can only choose who we're going with. (p 244)

May 25, 2012

Unrequited toddler love

Goober and Goobrette, being almost two years old, are now starting to be quite free with their affections. Sometimes I'll be noodling around in the kitchen and Goobrette will run up and hug my legs. Goober will give his sister un c├ólin when she's upset, without prompting. It's nice to see them being emotionally demonstrative in a way that doesn't involve shoving.

These bursts of affection aren't limited to humans. They both adore la chatte Nikita and Goober will happily, squealingly, tackle her to the ground for a full-body hug. The cat is remarkably gentle with the twins and will simply look at me beseechingly as she attempts to crawl her way out from under him.

Actually, these bursts of affection aren't even limited to living creatures. Goobrette has a baby doll -- named Baby -- that she adores. Baby gets fed, wheeled around in a little stroller, and smothered with hugs. When Goobrette can't find Baby she wanders the house calling for her. It's not a bad life for a doll.

Goober has a hard plastic doggie pull-toy, the kind with wheels instead of feet. When you pull it around on its string, the ears and tail wag.

Yesterday I walked in on him french kissing it.

May 21, 2012

It's really the obvious solution

Those who know me in real life would not hesitate to tell you that I write with far greater skill than I speak. On paper or screen I comport myself with a fair amount of ease. When I speak out loud, however, my mouth tends to sever its connection to my brain and carry on at its own pleasure. When I am tired, excited, or both, I will come out with phrases ranging from the simply nonsensical to the genuinely alarming.

Some of my family was up for a visit this weekend. My parents and my brother, Beardacles, were staying in our apartment building's guest suite. Apparently Beardacles's pull-out bed was not up to snuff.

"My mattress was this thin," he explained, "and it rested across three metal bars."

"Well," I solicitously replied, "there are lots of extra blankets and comforters in the bedroom closet. You should just take some of them and make a bread palace."

May 18, 2012

We have a problem, and that problem is violence

One thing I don't think anybody talked to me about before I got married was the adjustment to sleeping with someone else in your bed. I've shared a bed before, with friends or cousins, but that was generally only on a short-term sleepover arrangement. Now I share a double bed with Stan, and Stan is there every night, and I am there every night, and this occasionally lends itself to some difficulties.

The problem is violent sleeping. We figured out the basic mechanics of sharing a bed (cuddle? no cuddle? back-to-back? back-to-belly?) fairly quickly -- but we're both rollers and thrashers. In my sleep, I've punched Stan in the mouth, elbowed him in the face, and sacked him in the, uh, sack. Last night he kneed me in the butt.

Apparently I'm not supposed to complain because I'm already up 3-1.

May 16, 2012

In absence of deities, nannies will do

For my day job, I take care of toddler twins, Goober and Goobrette. That means primary care -- everything from meals to naps to potty time -- for about thirty hours a week. People always exclaim in amazement when they find out that I take care of twins, but it's not so hard. When I started they were four months old and it was pretty labour intensive; these days they're independent and quite capable of amusing themselves (and each other), and so taking care of twins is not much different than taking care of any two siblings.

It does produce some odd moments, though.

Right now the weather is fine enough that we can spend great swaths of the afternoon in the back yard. Since Goober and Goobrette are old enough not to eat rocks, mostly I sit and read on the steps while they do their thing. Heck, sometimes I leave them out there and go make dinner (don't worry -- I can still see and hear them fine out the kitchen door). (Maybe don't tell their folks, though.)

Favourite outdoor activities: putting rocks in buckets, taking rocks out of buckets, putting rocks back in buckets, pulling up grass, putting rocks in the water, taking rocks out of the water, putting rocks back in the water, pulling up flowers... and piling lawn debris at my feet.

They'll run up, singly or as a pair, and bring rocks, sticks, leaves, grass clippings, dandelion heads -- whatever's lying around. They make little piles around my feet and throw greenery into my lap.

This must be how temple idols feel.

All of which is to say nothing much at all

First posts are about getting words on the page, not about saying anything particular, amiright? They're about overcoming paralysis.

This is why all of my university essays started with two paragraphs of lorem ipsum. I would otherwise sit for hours, staring at the blank page of the word processor, too hesitant to start. A post-less blog template creates much the same feeling.

My first blog post ever (way back in 2003) said this:

Hey look, a blog! 
Had to sign up with Xanga to add a comment to Ruth's page. 
Well, we shall see where this goes. Maybe this time I'll actually stick to a blog after making it. 
Maybe.

Xanga! Does anyone use Xanga anymore? (Does anyone use blogger anymore?)