Another re-post, and a week late reflection on Ash Wednesday. It’s the best I can do, I swear I’ll get my head together at some point this month but that point is not today.
“From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” The priest looked at me gravely and smudged my head with ashes. It was reminiscent of my own funeral, as it is intended to be. The meditation for Ash Wednesday is that I will die and so will everyone I love, we will be turned back into the earth that we were made from.
“From dust you came and to dust you shall return. ”
Honestly I had a miserable day. It was one of those days where I was always in a hurry, constantly playing catch up. I burned the rice and spilled the beans. There was dog pee on the floor and toddler pee on the bed. My daughter caught cold and every time her nose began to drip she would shriek “Wipe my nose! Wipe my nose!” on another day it would have been endearing but today my heart was stone.
While I sat through the service tonight hearing the chorus over and over “from dust you came and from dust you shall return,” I longed to feel repentant. Even as we read the confessions “Lord forgive me for what I have done and what I have left undone, I have not loved you with my whole heart, I have not loved my neighbor as myself.” I mumbled along with empty words. I was grumpy and self-absorbed.
And that is just it. That is who I am. Sure I have good days too, but today I was cold-hearted and selfish and I couldn’t even bring myself to feel bad about it.
The Jesus Prayer that Bloom mentions is one that I learned as as child. When I feel like I did today I cling to it. “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Bloom goes on to say, “You can express to God your sorrow, your misery, your disgust with yourself, and you come back with the determined will to tell God what is true and that your will is united with His will. “
And that is what I did. I prayed for mercy and I thanked God that He asks me to be more than I am and that He is at work in me to do it.
I’m still selfish but every time I remember to cling to Jesus a tiny battle has been won. It is one more step towards God and away from a bitter heart. Honestly, I’m not over it. But I will go to bed with these two lines going through my head.
“From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Hoping that tomorrow I will be more than I was today.
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This little quote is attributed to St. Augustine and I came across it today as I read along with The Liturgy of Life Reading Group in Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. Norris and I are opposites when it comes to our experiences with music. Her father was a professional musician and she grew up singing in the choir.
I grew up in a non-musical family. Recently my mother, aunt and Yiayia were all visiting and I mentioned that there would be hymns at the church service we were about to attend. Each looked up at me in horror shaking their heads, then uniformly announced that they could not and would not sing in church.
Early in my education I found that participating in music was outside of my capabilities as well. I was in fifth grade and we were given the option between choir and study hall for our last period class once a week. Of course all of us preferred to be in choir, but instead of making it open to everyone, ( I mean really, this is 5th grade in a small, urban school, not some sort of arts academy) auditions were required.
I still remember it, walking alone down the stairs to the gym where the stage was located. Sitting alone with my teacher, she pounding away at the piano notes and me trying to match them but really having no idea what matching even was. I didn’t make it and instead I shared a shameful study hall hour with Kevin who was known for eating boogers, Lisa who gave the class lice and Carley who was known for wetting the bed at sleepovers. We were quite a misfit crew hanging back in our seats while we watched the rest of the class head off for choir rehearsal. Any hopes I had for music in my life were dead. It would be years before I would dare even try to sing again.
Yet our church services growing up in the Greek Orthodox church were almost entirely musical. The music was a mysterious sort, filled with ancient hymns and chanting. I wouldn’t have known then to describe this as worship music. It didn’t feel like what I even now think of as worship either, but it did feel holy and it did serve a great purpose. Sitting there surrounded by the rich tones I was transported to a new place, a place where I became more willing to meet God.
When I married Michael he was still spending most of his time as a singer songwriter. Quickly music became part of my life. And through his influence and recognizing that over and over again Scripture commands us to sing (in fact Norris points out, this is the most common command given to Israel throughout the whole Bible). I slowly got up the nerve to sing and though I am very often out of tune (I’ve finally at least learned to recognize in tune and out of tune some of the time) I’ve begun to enjoy music and to realize it still has that same power I experienced in my years at the Orthodox church. Through music I find I can stay engaged in the present moment, in fact I can even feel more fully connected to what is going on around me but at the same time it lifts my spirit to another place.
When we first realized a few months ago that my husband’s job was going to be ending unexpectedly and that in addition to being unemployed we would have to leave a place and people that we loved, this song, a favorite from back in college, by a group called Over the Rhine got stuck in my head. I would find myself singing it as I packed and unpacked boxes. My heart was aching and I didn’t have the words to express it except these.
What a beautiful piece of heartache this has all turned out to be. Lord knows we’ve learned the hard way all about healthy apathy. And I use these words pretty loosely. There’s so much more to life than words. There is a me you would not recognize, dear. Call it the shadow of myself. And if the music starts before I get there dance without me. You dance so gracefully. I really think I’ll be o.k. They’ve taken their toll these latter days. Nothin’ like sleepin’ on a bed of nails. Nothin’ much here but our broken dreams. Ah, but baby if all else fails, nothin’ is ever quite what it seems.
In the months to follow it felt like nothing was working out and things were just not coming together. I was down and dark, it felt like a shadow hung over my every breath, weighing me down. Somewhere in my soul I found this old hymn which we hadn’t sung in years and I clung to it, grateful for the writer’s words that reminded me that despite my feelings I do have Hope.
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
All I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still my own.
Now six months have gone by since our move. I still find my head spinning and my soul grieving. I wonder what we are doing with our lives. I agonize over why there is so much suffering in the world. I get into low places and question whether our lives really matter. And in all my unanswerable questions this old Benedictine hymn is there to meet me. We sing it often. It is a song and a prayer and as we sing it we meet God. He doesn’t give us the answers to our questions but as we continue to sing I am reminded again that no matter the question, He is the answer.
Lord God and Maker of all things,
Creation is upheld by you.
While all must change and know decay,
You are unchanging, always new.
You are our solace and our shield,
Our rock secure on which we build,
You are the spirit’s tranquil home,
In you alone is hope fulfilled.
To God the Father and the Son
And Holy Spirit render praise,
Blest Trinity, from age to age
The strength of all our living days.
Probably nothing is as controversial as the role and status of Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus, in the church. I will not even attempt it. Maybe we can read a book about it together next year and then I will have more to say.
But I will say that Bloom’s meditation on the image of the Virgin Mary has been formative in my life.
From childhood my deepest desire was to be a mom and have a family of my own. Even as I began medical school this was true. I was pursing my career because I felt called to it, but really, my heart was to be a mother and all the joy and struggle that I imagined it would entail.
When God brought Michael into my life and we were married I was delighted, finally, a family of my own. I was only in my second year of medical school, and though I didn’t love the idea of putting off having children, we decided it was best. After about a year and a half and witnessing the 60th wedding anniversary of Michael’s grandparents we decided it was time, at least, to be open to the possibility of children.
We had no idea how we would survive it if we did have a child, me finishing medical school still with residency ahead, Michael starting a new ministry. So when we didn’t get pregnant right away it was on one hand a relief, but on the other it planted a seed of fear inside of me, the fear that is so common among women, the fear of being childless.
I finished medical school and started residency and our longing for a child continued to grow. It became a place of deep sorrow and fear and for those who are in this place now I know it is terribly hard and my heart aches for you.
After about three years God did give us a child. I went through my pregnancy alternating between terror and joy which is probably not all that uncommon. And one day she was born. I had not allowed myself the pleasure of imaging I would ever actually hold a child of my own. When they handed her to me, pink and already smiling with darling little dimples I was elated.
I loved my daughter with a deep and jealous love. I knew I would be returning to work soon and so every moment with her felt even more precious and fleeting. Friends would ask if they could hold her and I’d give them a look, “okay fine but just for a second.” She was mine, all mine, I cherished her.
In my longing and loving over my daughter God gave me a gentle nudge. “She isn’t actually yours, nothing is really yours. She is a gift and she is for the whole world, not just for you. See how faces light up when they see her, see how she brings such joy. She isn’t all for you.”
I was reminded that life is a gift. I knew plenty of children who didn’t have their mothers and even more mothers who had lost their children. Life was fragile and no matter how much I loved my daughter I was never going to be enough for her. I couldn’t really project her from anything. If God, who gave us life, decided to take it away again there was nothing I could do. I began to think about how to love my daughter well and in a way that would prepare her for the world she would face. I began thinking of Mary. Bloom explains, if you look attentively at the ikon you will see that the Mother of God holding the Child never looks at the Child. She always looks neither at you nor into the distance but her open eyes look deep insider her. She is in contemplation. She is not looking at things. And her tenderness is expressed by the shyness of her hands. She holds the Child without hugging Him. She holds the Child as one would hold something sacred that one is bringing as an offering. . .
I pray for the courage to hold my daughter in such a way. To squeeze her and love her yes of course. But to love her in a way that chooses God over her, that chooses God’s will for her over my desires for her.
For Mary to love her son it meant that she must love the world that He came to save. She must be willing to hold Him with an open hand, not cling to him jealously but let Him become who he must become, a sacrifice and The Savior of the world.
My daughter is doing well and just turned three. To be honest honest my heart aches to have another child. But my prayer is that I will have the faith in every circumstance to say along with Mary “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said“(Luke 1: 38).
Like Bloom, I grew up in the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy is a rich, historic faith anchored in beautiful liturgical prayer, and it was the tradition of my family for generations. Yet, as much as I appreciated it, as a young person, I walked away from it.
I reached a place where it no longer mattered to me whether or not this faith was true or beautiful or a tradition. I left with an overwhelming sense of, “What does this have to do with me?” Repeating prayers that someone else had written almost 2,000 years ago felt empty.
In Blooms words,
There is no prayer as long as there is a cautious, distant and chilly relationship, as long as there is ceremonial between us and God, as long as we cannot speak to Him but must go through a long and complex series of words and actions.
By God’s grace I found myself among friends who were passionate about their faith in Christ, but who expressed it in a more contemporary and personal way. (You can read more about my experience here.) I began to see my faith not as set of rituals or as an intellectual assent but as a relationship with a God who knew me and loved me.
My new found impassioned faith was initially incredibly invigorating. I could sit and pray and read and feel close to God, as if He was my best friend. Yet after a time it too began to feel stale. I began to wonder, “Am I just making all of this up? Is God just who I imagine Him to be? How do I know what is true about God?”
These questions began to drive me back toward my roots, towards a faith that could trace its belief and practice to the time of Christ.
. . . prayer is obviously a relationship, an encounter, a way in which we have a relationship with the living God.
It is helpful to remember that Bloom is Orthodox and writing to a primarily Orthodox audience. He is writing to me back when I first left the Orthodox Church, feeling cold and distant. He assumes that his readers know the liturgies and have resources to recite beautiful and ancient prayers.
So he focuses on the other end of things. He stresses that we must find a way to address God that is personal. He talks about calling God by name. It isn’t that we need to find the right name, but we need to find a name that stirs our hearts and that reflects how much we love, desire or fear God, that we know where we stand in comparison to His Greatness.
“Prayer is a way in which we have a relationship,” and just as in my marriage I need to speak in truth and from my heart. If I want to approach Michael about something I have to do it with a realization of the truth of who he is. I can’t imagine him to be like my dad or my girl friend. Likewise I need to be sincere. I don’t speak to him and say “Oh my dear husband, you are so wonderful.” It is true but empty. What he needs to hear is that I love him for who he is. This is what we all want isn’t it, to be truly known and loved for who we are? It should be no surprise that God our Creator shares this.
As a Christian today I walk a line. I need liturgy, and historic prayer. I need something that is based on scripture and on a tradition that is consistent with who God has revealed himself to be. This is what allows me to pray in truth. It protects me from deciding that God is who I imagine him to be and then praying to this God of my own creation.
But I also need to, like Bloom says, find a name for God, to know myself and know Him and pray to Him sincerely.
When you begin to hear a chain rattling on the door, when you have a feeling that it will open, then come out with the words which are your own and call God by the name which He has won in your own life.