Archive for September, 2008

Rush Hour Prayers

September 29, 2008

My morning drive to downtown takes me about thirty minutes door-to-door.   After the hectic rush of getting myself and the kids up, dressed, and lunches packed, this is actually a little quiet time for me.   It’s also actually the only time I get for morning prayers.  A little unconventional, I know,  but I’ve heard from other working moms who follow a similar routine.   A priest’s wife told me once she recorded her prayers on tape and played that as she drove.  I’d done something similar with a CD I purchased from an Orthodox bookstore.   Morning and evening prayers read by a monk.  I wasn’t too successful with that one.  Let’s just say it was the monastic speed version in a monotone that I found intolerable to listen to for more than two minutes.  Forgive me Father whoever you are. 

So my routine goes something like this.  Pull out of the garage, fumble in my purse for a prayer rope (which isn’t easy to do if you could see the rat’s nest I have in there).  Get started with the basic intro prayers to the Holy Spirit, the Trisagion (Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Us) and the Lord’s Prayer.  Now I’m about out of my subdivision and onto the main street heading for the highway.

By the time I merge into traffic, I’m starting into the Jesus Prayer, my prayer rope draped over the steering wheel so I can run the knots under my thumb while keeping a firm grip with both hands.  “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy…”  Change lanes, speed up.  “…on me a sinner.  Lord Jesus Christ…Hey, you freakin’ idiot”, I blurt out as a rude driver cuts directly in front of me, making the sign of the cross for both my profanity and certain rescue from accident and injury.  “Sorry, sorry Lord – have mercy on me a sinner.”  Twenty knots down and only eighty more to go.  At the large beads every ten knots or thirty-three knots, depending on which prayer rope I’m using (Greek versus Russian style), I’ll say the prayer Full of Grace, or the Orthodox version of the Hail Mary – “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with Thee.  Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, for thou art the savior of our souls”; and then the prayer “The door of compassion open unto us O blessed Theotokos…”   

The same routine all the way to work, my mind wandering every five beads or so, about phone calls to make, the beautiful sunrise, the kids’ baseball games tonight, or a billboard I’ve driven by dozens of times.   When you pray every distraction seems to be new and interesting, certainly more interesting than the work of prayer.  And let’s face it, prayer isn’t always focused, euphoric, communion with our Lord.  A lot of times it’s just plain work, and who doesn’t look for ways to slack off.  Think of distractions during prayer like that office solitaire game you play in your cell in the cube farm.

Praying without distraction is something that only comes from many years of intense practice.    St. John Climacus even advised the monks of his monastery that distraction was to be expected while performing their obediences (chores).  “God does not expect a pure and undistracted prayer.  Despair not, should inattention come over you!  Be of cheerful spirit and constantly compel your mind to return to itself.  For the angels alone are not subject to any distraction.”  St. John’s advice came with many years of experience in prayer and day-to-day guidance he offered other strugglers.   St. John wasn’t beating anyone over the head with their failings; he expected distractions, but he also accepted nothing less than best efforts.  I can’t say I’ve even come close to giving my all, but I keep trying.

If I have not been overly delayed by these random thoughts and concerns or unexpected traffic, I can usually finish my prayers with the Nicene Creed as I pull up to the parking garage.  It’s not as enlightened as St. John, but I do have one practical suggestion for anybody doing rush hour prayers.  Be careful and don’t let your prayer rope get tangled up in your steering column.  Not safe; not smart.   “I’m sorry I was driving erratically officer, but my chotki got tangled in the steering wheel when I was saying the Trisagion.”    He won’t understand, so don’t even try.  Take your ticket and just keep repeating the Jesus Prayer.

Simply Beautiful

September 25, 2008

No matter how many times I listen to this Russian men’s choral group it still has the power to move me almost to tears.  I can’t understand a word but there is no mistaking it as something profoundly beautiful and mystical.   They are singing Chesnokov’s “Gabirel Appeared”.  If anyone knows the English translation I’d love to hear from you.  Enjoy.

Why is Sarah Palin Evil?

September 24, 2008


Does this threaten democracy?

Does this threaten democracy?

What poses the greatest threat to global peace, the basic meaning of the U.S. Constitution, the national economy and the environment?  If your gut reaction was to say George W. Bush you were wrong (well, at least not for the sake of this poll).  The correct answer is Sarah Palin’s womb.  Yes, her womanly parts.  Her very fertility has become a source of mockery, and because she followed a God-given commandment to exercise that fertility, some folks would have you believe she must be fatally flawed as a modern woman and a potential leader.

My whole rant started this weekend when I watched a few minutes of Bill Maher on HBO and he referred to Sarah Palin’s family as “that polygamous compound”.  What an ass.  Then I turned on Saturday Night Live and got really pissed off when their idea of humor was to link Todd Palin and incest, as if their daughter’s problems were this nation’s warped remake of the movie Knocked Up.  Totally, over-the-line asses. 
I’ll be honest; I’m a conflicted Democrat with Crunchy Con leanings.  I don’t think she’s even as qualified as Obama (which isn’t saying much) and I do believe she’d gladly follow McCain into a second Cold War or a Third World War with the whole Middle East.  If someone could only find me a pro-life Democrat for president, I’d be happy.  Given my feelings though, I actually like Sarah Palin as a wife and mother, and as a truer image of what a “feminist” should be than anything out there right now.  She has ridden a populist tsunami precisely because she reflects who the real American feminists are.  They aren’t NOW and NARAL supporters.  They don’t need graduate degrees in women’s studies to know the real meaning of feminity.  They are hard-working, average women who buy their designer clothes at Target, and they believe the true meaning of choice is how you choose to respect life at all its stages:  pre-born, adult, elderly and dying.  Feminism is not the right to be the same as a man, but to be valued for your gender uniqueness – and that includes your role as a mother.  Unless you’re called to a religious or celibate life, God didn’t give you special parts for ornamentation or to fund your OB-GYN’s 401(k) with annual exams of aging, unused equipment.
So how did we get to the point where large families are ridiculed or marketed as freak shows for cable TV?  There are a lot of factors – better health care, legalized abortion, market economics, the development of reliable birth control, yata, yata, yata and just the plain old self-centerdness of a culture that wants it all and has forgotten that the only enduring thing you leave behind is your descendents.  The national fertility rate steadily declined for decades until reaching a 1.7 child per family low point in the 70’s and 80’s according to National Institute of Health Statistics and the U.S. Census.  That had increased to 2.1 by 2006, but that is only a fraction over the replacement value for total births.   Thank goodness for the countless godly families, both Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical and others, who traditionally put into effect the phrase “be fruitful and multiply”.  (If you want an instruction on the blessings and importance of children to a marriage, read the Orthodox Church’s marriage Service, where no less than seven prayers and intercessions are made for the bearing of children.)  In these faith groups, family sizes of five or more were common just a generation ago.  And, anectdotally, there seems to be an increasing trend across America, towards familes of three or more as reminders to the rest of us that large is not weird, no matter what Bill Maher says.    

Grant them of the fruit of their bodies, fair children, concord of soul and body. Exalt them like the cedars of Lebanon, like a luxuriant vine. Give them offspring in number like unto full ears of grain; so that, having enough of all things, they may abound in every work that is good and acceptable unto Thee. Let them see their children’s children, like olive shoots around their table; so that, finding favor in Thy sight, they may shine like the stars of heaven, in Thee our God. For unto Thee are due all glory, honor, and worship: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.   

                              From the Orthodox Marriage Service



September 23rd, The Conception of St. John the Baptist

September 23, 2008

Today, the Orthdox Church (New Calender) celebrates the Feast of the Conception of St. John the Baptist as described throughout Luke 1.   It is more than a story about a miraculous marital act – it is a contrast between steadfast faith and doubt, trust and disbelief, but in the end always about thanksgiving to God for unexpected blessings. 

So many of the events of the Old and New Testament deal with marital relations (or the lack of marital relations) and childlessness.   There’s a lot of vaguely worded or implied stuff going on that, frankly, can be a bit hard to explain to young children and which inevitably raises questions that parents cringe over – it’s usually along the line of “where do babies come from”.    No matter how you stumble through the mechanics though, children are always open to the miraculous and get right to the most important part – God’s working through the life of others, even the most intimate and private parts. 

You’ll see this below in the award winning, animated short from the 60’s that used children’s storytelling  to explain the events around St. John’s conception and birth as told from the point of view of the Mother of God.   Which is exactly the point of view of all the events surrounding the miraculous conception of St. John the Baptist.  These are stories that are not so much about the baby John, but are the stories about Christ and his revelation to the world even at the time of his conception, and the conception of him who was his greatest messenger – he who prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah.    Holy Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John, pray for us.

September 21 Leavetaking of the Exaltation of the Cross

September 21, 2008

In Orthodox tradition, feasts that celebrate the Holy and Lifegiving Cross always contain the singing of the hymn “Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship…” while making full on-the-floor prostrations.  In my pre-Orthodox life, I had never bowed down before anything – literally and figuratively.   Now, the feasts of the Cross are one of my favorite worship experiences.  There is something so profound about the act of dropping to your knees and bowing your head to the ground.  It is an act that leaves you with a feeling of total submission and love for Christ through the Holy and Lifegiving Cross.  And why not venerate the instrument of God’s love?  It is his instrument of love and eternal life, not pain and death.

The Cross, is wood which lifts us up and makes us great … The Cross uprooted us from the depths of evil and elevated us to the summit of virtue”.  St John Chrysostom

Slap me upside the head – I’m feeling vainglorious

September 19, 2008

This is my very first blog post -ever.  Which is why it might seem odd for me to say, maybe it should be my last. 

I’ve been a compulsive blog reader for years and an on-again-off-again writer and poet with just enough self-confidence (or delusion) about my literary abilities to continue the practice, and go so far as to register a blog for the world to read.   In my opinion, the best bloggers seem to have an ability to make observations without sounding pompous and ill-informed.  Their personal anecdotes are relevant.  They write in a straightforward style as opposed to others that write with such tooth achingly sweet self-indlugence you wish their DH, DD, DBF or WTHC would kick them in the emoticon just to get them riled up.   This would not be one of those blogs.  I don’t do cute.

But it is self-indulgent to think I have anything more relevant or insightful to add to the trillions of electronic words that do not even have the permanence of a bargain bin paperbook at the dollar store.  I will feed this blog with relevant words and in turn, I am hopefully to be fed with a few self-affirming comments.  That is the nature of an interactive art form like writing – it requires the symbiotic act of reading.    A musician can play for the sheer joy of music, but you’d be hard pressed to find a writer who actually enjoys reading their own words.  The pleasure and reward of writing is in the audience and their favorable response to your work.   This is the addiction that has its roots in vainglory.

Vainglory is an odd word that today seems to be almost exclusively thought of in religious terms, although it had a perfectly secular usage until fairly recently.   The straight up definition of vainglory is a boastful, unwarranted pride in one’s accomplishments or qualities.  

The Holy Fathers and the saints have had a lot to say about vainglory.  St. John Climacus (ca. 579-649), Orthodox monk, ascetic and abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, wrote a book that to this day remains one of the most widely read works on the spiritual life and the taming of the passions.  The Ladder of Divine Ascent was originally written for monastics, but has become hugely popular with the laity – those in the world who are trying to live a fully realized, God-pleasing faith.   St. John uses the image of climbing the rungs or steps of a ladder as an upward – heavenward- movement in one’s spiritual life.

St. John has this to say about rung 22:  Vainglory:

A man who takes pride in natural abilities – I mean cleverness, the ability to learn, skill in reading, good diction, quick grasp, and all such skills as we possess without having to work for them – this man, I say, will never receive the blessings of heaven, since the man who is unfaithful in little is unfaithful and vainglorious in much.

Sounds like writing a blog would fall within St. John’s parameters.  Am I consciously walking down the path of sin by undertaking this blog?  Trying to write well; trying to impress.  The writer in me says ‘you can’t post anything that sucks’; the vainglorious sinner says ‘if you just have humility when you receive your praise, it’s ok’.   False humility can be as deadly to the soul as boasting.   So what is one to do?

St. John puts forward three sure fire solutions to the seeking of glory and the pleasure that comes from praise.  First, the remembrance of God during prayer – the contemplation of “blessed fear”.   Failing that, the remembrance of death (the cold bucket of water approach).   And if you’re really stuck in the vainglory trap, St. John warns you of a holy gotcha – “the shame that always comes after honor…for he who exalts himself will be humbled…”   Squashing the sin of vainglory is essential if one wants to prevent the development of an even greater sin – pride.   While the dictionary definition of vainglory makes it seem analagous with pride, St. John distinguishes vainglory from pride.  He pictured vainglory as a little worm, maturing, sprouting wings and flying higher and higher in the sky.  “Pride begins where vainglory leaves off”   Pride is an even rougher road – so nip vainglory in the bud right quick.

So there you have it.  My dilemma.  I hope with prayer to stop this blog from turning into a source of vainglory and to prevent my entering the realm of pride.  To make some edifying contribution or at least not lead anyone into sin.  And I would certainly appreciate it if anyone would take it upon themselves to knock some true humility back into me if I seem to be getting too big for my britches.  St. John would expect no less.