How to Love Like Mary,
Meditations on an Icon

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).

Praying in Truth and
Finding a Name for God

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.

In the last chapter of Beginning to Pray, Bloom writes

. . . 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.

The Liturgy of Life Five Minute a Day Silence Challenge

If you have been reading along with us in Beginning to Pray then you have probably gotten the sense that silence is important when it comes to prayer.

This idea stands in contradiction to our often noisy lives. For most of us it is easy to go days  without a moment of silence.

We wake up to an alarm and then flip on the TV.  We rush to get everyone up and dressed and then make a quick call as we walk out the door with the phone to our ear.  The radio is on while driving to work and then we arrive to a workplace filled with people. Even when it is quiet around us our thoughts are racing, computers are buzzing and the phone is ringing. On the way home it is the same thing, maybe now we have kids in the car arguing or singing. If we manage to shut off the TV before dinner it is usually back on by bed time and we are lulled to sleep by the evening news.

Only to start the whole thing over again the next day.

Even with an intentionally quiet lifestyle, let’s say no TV and working from a quiet home office, silence is still elusive.  There may be less noise, but that isn’t all that Bloom is describing.

The silence that we are talking about is a shutting off of the noises around us, and more importantly, the noises within us.

I’ve only been inside of my own head, so yours may be different. But my mind is constantly in motion. It circles from what I have to do today, to the argument I had last night, the discussion I need to have tomorrow, my hopes for our next house, my fears, my doubts, it does not stop.

We are all creatures of habit and our minds love a pattern. We typically do the same thing every day. In my morning I wake up, lay in bed for a while, then get up, make tea, and sit on the couch and have some reading time. Your routine is probably different but you have one and when it is thrown off you notice.  And though we can choose to change our patterns, each day that we continue them further sets the routine in our minds. So when we decide to start the day off with a jog instead of a cup of coffee it is initially really difficult, but if we can get ourselves to stick with it for a few weeks it begins to feel second nature as a new pattern is established.

Our thoughts are no different. There are patterns of thoughts, some of them negative, others positive, some of them a waste of time and others absolutely essential. Our thoughts remind us of our place and purpose in the world. But our thoughts are mainly focused on. . . you guessed it . . . ourselves, on us, on me.  So that to pry our minds out of this cycle, to learn to sit and listen to God, something we were in fact created to do, becomes a strain.  I find it incredibly exhausting.

Bloom, along with many of the church fathers, is clear that practicing silence is important. Shutting off our thoughts and being intentionally quiet  is the first step in listening to God.

Now I have just dabbled with this before, I am no expert. If you want someone who really knows what they are talking about you can go to structured silent retreat.  These are often offered at monasteries and different Christian retreat centers. I would love to do this and I suggest you do it. too But if you can’t get to something more instructive I  am going to share an exercise that I think is consistent with the Bloom’s suggestions and is something I have practiced before and am doing again, as of last night.

The Liturgy of Life Five Minute per Day Silence Challenge

Set a timer to go off at the same time every day, mine is 9 pm, by then I am usually home and Zenie is settled down. Set another timer for five minutes later so for me 9:05 pm.

Select a short reading. I am doing the 23rd psalm because I have it mostly memorized and I think it is beautiful.   The Lord’s prayer would be another good passage.  You may want to write your passage down on a note card or something you can keep with you (a non-digital version is best).  Select a reasonably comfortable and quiet spot (not so comfy that you fall asleep, no TV or music that will distract you).

When the alarm goes off stop what you are doing. Right then, just stop and leave it.  Read your reading, preferably out loud. Read carefully and intentionally. Don’t let your mind wander during the reading. Think only about what you are saying. This should take 1-2 minutes.

Then in the last few minutes just sit quietly. You can look around, notice the things around you, breathe slowly and calmly. You may notice the sounds around you or the draft in the room.   But don’t let yourself start day-dreaming or planning or analyzing or anything, just notice your space and yourself and be present.

If you are like me within about 2 seconds (really probably half a second) you are in the midst of a mental and spiritual battle. Be prepared. Use a simple prayer, either a phrase from your reading or the Jesus prayer to bring you back. I usually say to myself “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy of me,” or something simple like “I am here and God is here with me,” or “Thank you Jesus.” Don’t let yourself go on and on in prayer. Use the prayer to bring you back into focus and then resume sitting quietly.  Remember this is time to listen not to speak.

My timer actually went off while I was typing this. The minutes felt very long. I found myself battling thoughts like “when is this going to be over?” and “I need to make sure to include this in my post.” Every second is a battle. But it is a worthwhile fight to gain control over my thoughts so that I can truly submit them to God. And so that I actually can be quiet and hear God if He decides to speak to me in a whisper.

This is a discipline and like all disciplines it takes time.  So don’t be discouraged and don’t get exhausted. Please  hold me accountable in this and feel free to share your experiences, We would love to hear them.

 

Coming to Terms with my Inner Two Year Old

I have a hard time believing that God is real. If God is really in charge and he is really good then why am I suffering and why is there so much misery in the world? These are questions I ask myself everyday (seriously, several times per day).

But if the fullness of light and good is to exist it only makes sense in the context of the fullness of darkness and evil. If things were always good and everyone always got what they wanted then we would all walk around self absorbed and greedy. It takes the potential for loss and grief to keep us grounded and to know what we value and why. Likewise if everything was miserable all the time then we wouldn’t know the difference, we would suffer and hurt but not have reason to hope for more.

The truth is it isn’t necessarily suffering that makes me doubt. My bigger problem is my I think I know more than God.

I want to have a second baby as much as anyone wants anything. We are good parents, healthy and have a great family, it doesn’t make sense, why would God keep this blessing from us?  There are wonderful families that I pray for daily whose children have fatal diseases, why would God let this happen?

But as much as I think I know, I don’t really. I can’t see the past or the future. Perhaps the heartache of infertility will make me the exact sort of mom that my daughter needs. Perhaps another pregnancy would lead to health complications and not allow me to raise the daughter that I have?

Yet I stand before God and stamp my feet and say “Please let me have what I want, why won’t you let me?”

I pray like Bloom says, with passion and eagerness not because my heart is stirred for God himself, but because I desire to get my way in the world.

Taking a step back, this scenario feels familiar. I remember Zenie this morning wailing, crying, stomping because she wanted milk in a pink cup not a purple one.

I’m not so different when I come before God with my demands and pleas.

“I am the door,” Jesus says. Bloom adds “. . .-before you knock at the door, you must realize that you are outside.”   I am realizing that to pray isn’t to list off the things that God already knows that I want, but to recognize that I need God.