On Living with Dying Liturgy of Life Reading Group: Reflections on Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich

This week in our reading group we began Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  It shouldn’t surprise us by the title that the book begins with the death of its main character.  We find Ivan Ilyich in his coffin and the funeral about to start.  Meanwhile Tolstoy introduces us to the people in Ivan’s life, his friend’s like Pytor Ivanovich, his wife and family.  Some are grief struck, others are wondering if the funeral will disrupt their game of cards or more importantly if Ivan’s death will affect them financially.
On Living with the dying: Liturgy of Life Reading Group: Reflections on Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich


“Apart from the speculations aroused in each of them by this death, concerning the transfers and possible changes that this death might bring about, the very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn’t.

‘There you have it. He’s dead, and I’m not’  was what everyone thought or felt.”


a few pages later . . .


“He had changed a good deal; he was even thinner than be had been when Pytor Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as with all dead bodies, his face had acquired greater beauty, or, more to the point, greater significance, than it had had in life. Its expression seemed to say that what needed to be done had been done, and done properly. More than that, the expression contained a reproach or at least a reminder to the living. The reminder seemed out of place to Pyotr Ivanovich, or at least he felt it didn’t apply to him personally. But an unpleasant feeling came over him, and he crossed himself again, hurriedly- too hurriedly, he thought, the haste was almost indecent- before turning and heading for the door.”


I admit I know the feeling of self preservation that Tolstoy describes, dashing through my mind, too quick to stop, every wave of sympathy is paired with pure selfishness, “at least the shooting wasn’t at my kid’s school,” “at least it wasn’t my husband who died in the car crash,” “at least I don’t have breast cancer.” It seems there is a deeply rooted human impulse to protect oneself from disaster before allowing oneself to share in the grief of another.  And I wonder if it is this very attitude which leaves so many feeling isolated and forgotten during times of sorrow.

In my other reading I’ve been working through a book on the history of Christian Hospitality.  In it the author develops the idea of “cultivating marginality” that is, intentionally developing in ourselves a solidarity and familiarity with those on the margins, whether they are there due to illness or violence or economics.  This idea has deep roots in our Christian heritage.  We have always been a people called to move away from comfortable places. We use  disciplines of fasting and prayer, alms giving and  service of the poor to accomplish it.   We are intentional to align ourselves with discomfort until it becomes a familiar place so that the suffering can find themselves comforted by one who understands grief and be aided in encountering the true Comforter.

Ivan Ilych knows more about this than any of us.  He has fought the final battle, he has crossed over from death to life and  faced  head on the reality that fills us with constant dread, that one day we too shall die.  Ultimately those of us living will not know the realities of death until it is our turn. But we have opportunity now to follow in the path of our Christian fathers and mothers and align ourselves with those who suffer, not to turning our faces away in fear or self protection and not to distracting ourselves with entertainment or worries of the world.   Ivan’s knowing face would probably make all of us who live a life trying to flee the realities of death feel uncomfortable because we are intended to live differently, to engage with the marginalized, to sit at the bedside of the dying, to consider the immigrant our friend and in this we will ease the pain of those who suffer and perhaps even prepare ourselves for our own end when it comes.

This post is part of our Reading Group series. Right now are reading Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. We would love for you to join us.


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Monks, Napkin Rings and
An Intentional Table

Visiting a monastery can be a bit disorienting. Everyone walks around staring at the ground, wearing Medieval garb,  and no one talks. Not exactly a place where the average American feels at home unless maybe you are my husband who is more of an introvert than anyone I know. Still, even to him, entering into a community that exists mostly in silence feels isolating until, he says,  you arrive at meal time and find a seat with a card marked with your name on it.  It is a simple thing but it lets you know that you were expected and that there is a place for you here.  With that little card which is laid out with a napkin and napkin ring the heart of monastic hospitality is conveyed.
At the monastery you get one napkin, it is switched out when laundry is done at the end of the week. You keep your napkin and name card tucked into its ring. And while some elements of this routine feel a bit stiff and formal it is exactly the formalities of it  that give you a sense of place, an understanding of how things work and clarify your role in it.

.   .    .    .

We took up cloth napkins pretty quickly in our house mostly because it felt practical. I am not one to take up anything fancy. I don’t want ruffles or  anything that will break. I don’t even have more than three dishes that match. But give me something that is reusable and that saves me a few pennies and the earth a few trees and I’m all for it.

This week in the Liturgy of Life Reading group we read through Edith Schaeffer’s Hidden Art of Homemaking. In typical fashion she takes what seems like an exceptionally trivial topic, “flower arrangements,” and turns it upside down. In it she reminds us of the power of beauty to communicate and help foster communication between others. She challenges us to look for the little everyday things and turn them into something special, to seize exactly those mundane moments and use them as occasions for beauty that will inspire and delight our families and prepare us all to live in appreciation of the world around us.

[Read the rest…]

A Place at the Table:
An Introduction to
Eucharistic Hospitality

A Place at the Table Eucharistic Hospitality

“Which fork do I use again?” I nudge my husband and try to act like I know what I’m doing.  But as an Ohio Girl transplanted to The South and married to a Georgia Boy, I find my head spinning trying to keep up with the details involved  in Southern Hospitality. I often feel out of sync, wondering what is going on and how everyone else seems to already know. Even when I set the table to snap the picture for this post I did it wrong and my husband had to come behind me and correct it. To help myself get acclimated I ordered a subscription to  Southern Living and though I did learn  to bake a better biscuit, the art of hospitality remains elusive.

Then in our Liturgy of Life Reading group we are working through The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris. It is a poetic memoir about Norris’ time in Benedictine monasteries and in my last reading she says, “hospitality is at the center of the Christian faith.” Now I have heard a lot of things listed as central to the Christian faith, worship, tradition, prayer, but hospitality is a new one for me and they haven’t said anything about this in Southern Living either.  I’m pretty sure she is not talking about pleated napkins and polished silver but I’m not sure what Norris is trying to say.

She  goes on to describe Christian hospitality as incarnational.  This term requires me to breakout the old dictionary and I am reminded that incarnational means that a spirit or deity dwells inside of another living creature’s body. Taking this a step further I’m venturing to say that for Norris, and for me, that deity is Jesus and the living being is me or you. She is referring to the idea that as Christians, we believe that Jesus actually lives in us (it’s hard to really go into details here, there isn’t a science to explain it, it just is, and it actually gets weirder, keep reading).

Okay so now my question is. What does Jesus dwelling in me or in you, have to do with hospitality? All I know so far is that incarnating Him hasn’t helped me to master the skills of folding napkins or setting a table.

For this post I actually did a little research (pretty unusual for me, I know) and it brought me to two places.

The first stop is this painting:

A Place at the Table Eucharistic Hospitality, Rublev's Abraham and the Three visitors

Rublev’s, The Hospitality of Abraham.

So to  discuss this I’m going to try to condense all of Christian history into one line. A long time ago, way before Jesus, God make a promise to a Jewish man named Abraham that one day the Savior of the world would be born through his family and all the rest of the Bible is the telling of how all this came about (not a bad summary huh?).

This icon is a picture of when three visitors came to tell Abraham this news. The visitors came in the form of angels but they are understood to represent The Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Just a little background, historically icon’s are only painted to depict actual people, so for example the Holy Spirit isn’t usually in icon’s because no one knows what he looks like. But in this picture we can see him depicted as a character from an actual story so this is one of the few visuals we have to understand the relationships within the Trinity).

Okay so what does this have to do with hospitality? Right I’m getting there. So there are two points.

First God exists as three persons in perfect relationship with each other. They are perfect in ways that we can’t imagine coming from a fallen world ourselves. But they exist in a perfect community with each other.

Now look at this painting again. It is a square table. The fourth side is open and with this open seat there is an invitation, first to Abraham, now to us. We are asked to join in. We in our weakness and failures are being invited by these visitors, The Holy Trinity, to come and sit at the table and to be part of this perfect community.

A Place at the Table Eucharistic Hospitality, Rublev's Abraham and the Three visitors

Thomas Merton Says,

The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we come to realize that it is painted not as a lovely decoration for a convent or church, nor as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place to enter and stay within.

As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table.  The movement from the Father toward the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit toward the Father become a movement in which the one who prays is lifted up and held secure…

We come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle… the house of perfect love (Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons).

So, Hospitality is an invitation to be part of a divine relationship.

The second place my research took me was to the Eucharist or what you may refer to as Holy Communion. This term is a bit harder to define and has a lot of variety in how it is understood.  I’m going to go with my Orthodox roots here and quote Alexander Schmemann.

“The Purpose of the Eucharist lies not in the change of the bread and wine, but in the partaking of Christ, who has become our food, our life, the manifestation of the Church as the body of Christ. This is why the gifts themselves never became in the Orthodox East an object of special reverence, contemplation, and adoration, and likewise an object of special theological ‘problematics’: how, when, in what manner their change is accomplished.” (The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom)

The Eucharist can be understood as  divine feast. And yes you read it right, we feast on the body of Christ. We receive Him into our bodies and we are changed to be more like Him.  Sound’s hard to believe right, also tricky to explain in science class, but as Christians we believe a lot of crazy stuff, life after death, a virgin giving birth, so we add The Eucharist to the list.  This is the way that Christians have understood the Eucharist since the beginning, as it was passed down from the apostles (the people who worked side by side with Jesus) and it is how Jesus himself explained it.

I’ll just  mention a few ideas that have helped me to get my head around The Eucharist (as much as that is even possible). My first big breakthrough came as I was nursing my daughter. For the first 6 months of her life all of her food came from me, from my blood. As I watched her grow the idea of a person feeding off of another person started to feel a bit less strange. Then I started noticing  some common phrases  like, he is consumed by his work, or she was just eaten up by all of this grief, he chewed her up and spit her out, he just devoured her. There are all sorts of phrases where ideas about eating help us understand a spiritual or relational reality. Have you ever seen a cute baby and said, “You are so cute, I just want to eat you up.” What! Why do we want to eat up a cute baby?  Maybe deep inside of us something resonates and we realize, we want to consume the good.

So getting back on track  as we receive Christ in the Eucharist, we incarnate Him physically. Now with Christ in us we join with The Trinity as we  offer that divine invitation to others, asking them to take up that empty seat at the table.

To quote Schmemann again,

The Church, gathered in The Eucharist, even when limited to “two or three,” is the image and realization of the body of Christ, and by those who are gathered will be able to partake, i.e. be communicants of the body and blood of Christ, because they manifest him by their very assembly. No one could ever partake, no one could ever be of proper and “sufficient” holiness for this. . .

Before communion in our church we recite this prayer,

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Through The Eucharist our sinful bodies are made clean by His Body.

Extending hospitality may be giving a friend a ride, or a place to stay. It may mean putting down the  phone and listening to the person in front of us or it may mean picking up the phone and calling our mothers. And I don’t think Southern Living is completely  off the mark. They know there is something about a well designed floral arrangement and place setting that makes someone feel special and loved.  But for us hospitality isn’t about having  the most coordinated house or the finest foods (though I don’t think it is wrong to have those things either).

The point it seems is that as we extend Christian Hospitality, through the Eucharist, we are able to extend Christ.  We have the divine privilege to offer Living Hope. With Christ in us, we can say along with  Him “we have been preparing a place for you, come and join us.” 

We would love for you to read and ponder along with us. If you are interested in learning more about the ideas we are discussing here please contact us or join our reading group.

Eight tips on Inviting Friends to a Party
Even if you are Feeling Shy.

If you have been reading here for a while you know that I love hosting  parties. In our family hosting, cooking and feeding people is our way of saying we love you and we want you to be part of our lives.   I also sell a line of fair trade jewelry called Noonday Collection which involves hosting home trunk shows on a weekly basis.  Plus I am on the hospitality team from my mom’s group.  All of this makes for a lot of inviting.

Now some folks are just naturals and will think it is silly to have a tutorial on this. They are warm and welcoming and they are able to, with confidence, extend an invitation in a way that makes the invited feel excited and welcomed.

I love people, but this is a challenge for me. I tend to have a lot of doubts as I approach someone. Maybe they will think my event is stupid, or maybe they really don’t want to hang out with me.  So my invitation tends to sound something like “um, hey, I’m having a few people over on Friday, if want to come, I mean if you aren’t doing anything, you know, I don’t know if it is going to be that great, but if you are free it would be great if. . .” my voice trails off, I’ve been staring at my shoes the whole time.

When I planned Zenie’s birthday party recently I was not sure what to expect, most of our friends are new and we don’t have a huge network in town.  But I wanted to have a  fun event so I muscled down and decided I was going to do this well.  Here are some pointers that I learned along the way.

1. Plan a great event. Your event doesn’t have to be anything more than a play date at the park. But give some thought to the time the date and the location.  I knew that most mom’s with young kids liked to go out in the morning and have nap time in the afternoon. So I held Zenie’s party at 11. It worked out great even though it was an unusual time of day. The kids played and then all went home to nap.

Often times Saturday afternoons, which initially seem pretty appealing, are the worst.  People are out of town for weddings or at baseball games for their kids so it is hard to get together.

Also, if you are planning a social sales party make sure you really believe in the product. As much as your best friend would like you to host a party for her, if you can’t get behind her product you aren’t doing her any favors and it is going to hard for you to promote the event.

2. Make a great invite.– Always make a paper invite (I know there are lots of exceptions to this, but think about it as a standard and deviate from it as it makes sense). I usually make post cards, you can drop them in the mail with a less expensive stamp and just carry them around in your bag and hand them out. Make your own  at Canva and Redstamp and either print them yourself (seriously I don’t know how I survived before I bought a paper cutter) or have them printed at Office Max.  If you have time add a personal note to each card.

If you are on Facebook make a Facebook event and post updates and pictures to get people excited.  I did this for Zenie’s party and posted pics of the decorations and party favors as I made them which was great. But don’t rely on a Facebook invite alone to do the inviting unless you are in a social network that does this often. For most people there is too much going on with Facebook and invitations will get missed. For anyone that does not get a written or face to face invite, send them a personal Facebook message and/or email invite on Paperlesspost or Evite.

And don’t forget you can still make calls on your telephone. It isn’t just for texting. You will be surprised at how often people are excited to get a phone call. Visit and be pleasant and then make sure to pass along the important details. Use text to follow up another form of invitation but not as a primary form of invitation unless it is a very casual event with good friends.

In whatever invitation you design make sure the event, time and date are clear, put these in bold. This let’s someone glance at your invite and get the essentials. They can always look again to read the details.

3. Tell people you are going to invite them before you do. Talk to friends who you intend to invite as you make your plans. This lets you get their input on how the event should be done and then they will be expecting your invitation when it comes. If you are doing a sales party talk about how much you love the product and are excited about hosting a show well before you send the actual invite. This let’s people feel like you are sharing something your really love with them.

4. Consider how much notice to give.  For a more formal event at least 2-4 weeks notice  is necessary. For a dinner party or a social selling event ten days may be enough. If you want to make sure people get the information they need, send out an email “save the date” a few weeks before you plan on sending out the invite.  But don’t make too much fuss until you send out your official invitation. Once your invite is out try and keep it in the front of everyone’s mind. With this approach sometimes 10 days or less is better because it doesn’t give folks time to forget about it.

5. Consider who you are inviting. This may seem obvious. Of course give thought to how many people you want and how broadly you want to invite. If it is a sales party you may think of people that you share an interest with that you have never invited over before, it can be a great way to build new connections.

Do invitations in way that you don’t have to keep your event a secret.  This may sound a bit silly but there are often hurt feelings over not getting invited to something.  If your neighbor has been wanting to have dinner but you would rather not include them, just let them know that you are planning something but it is only your co-workers. This way you can be open and don’t feel like you need to sneak around. This will help you avoid hurt feelings in the future.

Second, consider people’s circumstances. If you plan to do a small dinner party and four of the couples have newborn babies and the fifth couple just miscarried this may be difficult for them.  Instead of not inviting them, see if you can broaden your invite list, include a few friends who are single or don’t have kids yet, this will keep the conversation a bit broader when otherwise it would likely end up all talking about new babies all night.

4. Ask face to face. Talking to someone in person is the best way to make sure they know about your event and feel welcomed. Take a paper invite in your hand, give it to them. Look them in the eye and say sincerely “I would love it if you could join us.” You want the people that you are inviting to feel special (after all they are special, that is why you are inviting them). Let them know that you care about them being there.

At the same time don’t ask in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Avoid phrases like “You have just got to be there.” or “You won’t miss it will you?”

Be vulnerable, let them know that you really do want them there.  This is true even if you don’t know someone well.  Let’s say you are hosting a party to sell kitchen utensils. There is an acquaintance at church who you know loves to cook, though you aren’t good friends.  Walk up with confidence. Look them in the eye and say “I’m hosting this party and I would love for you to join. I love these products and  I know you are an amazing cook and I think you may loves them too. Plus I have been wanting to figure out a time when we could hang out so we could get to know each other better, after all, our kids are the same age and we both really like cooking.” You will be surprised at how many people will be touched by your invitation.

5. Delegate tasks. Letting others share responsibility with you takes some of the pressure off of you and is one of the best ways to make sure that your guests remembers to come. If someone is responsible for bringing food, drinks, serving pieces or decorations it keeps the event in their mind and makes it more of a priority.

6. Follow-up, Follow-up, Follow-up. I mentioned already that you can post info on Facebook and most email invitation systems provide updates as well. These are helpful but secondary. Your main form of follow-up needs to be more personal, either face to face or a personal email or message.

Don’t nag them. Just ask something like “Hey I was working on dinner plans for Friday, do you think I should stick with red wine or get white too?” or “Do you know if I can buy guacamole at the grocery store, I was thinking about serving it at lunch next week?”

A text the day of never hurts. Sometimes people really do get so busy and just forget. But stick to something positive and personal. Avoid a mass text. Rather ask each person, “Hey friend, I’m just making the last grocery run for dinner on Friday and trying to decide what to do for desert, any requests?”

7. Make accommodations. It is more work but goes a long way to ask about dietary preferences. At Zenie’s party we made sure to have gluten free options and also asked about allergies, and other dietary sensitivities.  I had several people thank me for doing this. Or unrelated to food, maybe your friend has a small baby, you could offer to get a sitter at your house so mom could still nurse the baby but still come, or set up a pack and play in your spare room to save someone from having to get  a sitter at all. Even if you don’t end up making any accommodations asking about this and making the effort lets your guest know that you care about them and that this event is more about meeting their needs than your own.

8. Be vulnerable. It can be intimidating to make an event and invite friends, especially when you don’t have a large already established friend network. Sometimes it may feel easier to play down what you are doing and make it sound like no big deal.  But if you are really excited about the event and really do want people to come let your guests see your excitement. Sure it will be disappointing and even a little embarrassing if the night is a flop or if no one shows up.  But it is worth it to take the risk and you will get a better turn out and create a better atmosphere if you are positive and genuine going into it.  So put your heart into it and see what kind of amazing gatherings you have.

I’d love to hear what kind of events you are hosting. Feel free to comment!