"For great is your reward in Heaven."

“The problem is that we have come to redefine humanity as something autonomous, independent and individual, where our own wills are paramount. But we were given free will so that we might choose love by choosing God, because love cannot be true if it is not free. God does not control us as puppets.”

I sit across from the parish priest thinking, Where was this when I was growing up? We talk of Revelations, the end of the world, when “God will unite Heaven and earth, and all of creation will join in eternal revelry.” The end of all ages. “We are in the seventh and last age of this world,” he tells me calmly, “And Christ will return at the end of this age.”

Where was this when I was growing up?

Where is this now?

I sit in the body of the Church, on a wooden chair opposite the Father who, with his white hair, resembles something of a sage, or at least this is the image I have come to associate with spiritual wisdom–white hair, bushy beard, warm yet quiet eyes, somehow alert yet distant.

I sit in awe of the alacrity with which he answers my questions, vain and complex as they are.

“I feel that, if I can’t be perfect in the eyes of God, there’s no point in trying.”

“No, no! Danger Will Robinson!” chuckles Father. “No one is perfect except Christ.”

Oh, right. I forgot.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ says “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?” Similarly, a a few verses later he says:

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 

A city on a hill, like, a Church?

Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.

And in case the crowd wasn’t too keen on metaphors, he continues:

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. If you were wondering what was the meaning of life, this is it.

All these thoughts ran through my head as I spoke with Father. My eyes wandered to the new icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov, who sits clothed in white robes feeding rabbits and bears amid tall pine trees. Snow White wasn’t the only one with an affinity for forest creatures.

“Sometimes I feel like I can’t do everything I want to do in life and be a Christian.”

I said this to a friend earlier. “I feel that every day,” she responded.

The truth is, I’ve failed, terribly. I judge people, and I judge the Church for hiding from the world, when really I should be judging myself, because sometimes all I want to do is run away, run away from the world, run away from its challenges, run away from the awkwardness of meeting someone and not knowing what to say, run away from the insecurity of thinking that I’m worthless in this person’s eyes, run away from the blatant reality that I am not perfect and no one else is either. I go out into the world, and I get knocked down every time, because it turns out that the world really is full of evil.

Sitting in the Church sanctuary, my soul is at peace and my burden eases off my shoulders, which makes so much sense when I remember the words “come all ye heavy laden and I will give you rest.” I hope this happens for all those who come, and I believe it does, which is why people return to Church every week. But then, sometimes we don’t go to Church. And while it seems to me that this absence makes our burdens weightier, what about all the millions of people who don’t even know this Church exists, or who can’t come because of physical ailments, or financial constraints, or hardened hearts, or stubborn wills?

Every day I feel like I live in two separate worlds. The first is my school world, the world of pseudo-academia, where I’m taught to deconstruct texts, avoid positivism, challenge the hegemonic worldview, and critique all authors. There is some truth to this; the American historical perspective suffers from severe positivism and from the little I’ve read it’s clear that the world is NOT progressing along a straight line. Not only is this theologically incorrect, but it’s historical fallacy.

But there are several modes of thinking that disturb me in this world. The first is the all-or-nothing dynamism that essentially strips away academia from its core, which (should be) the search for truth: “If anything is true, then nothing is true” and “If everything is correct, then nothing is correct” and so on. Or even worse, “truth is relative.” Or, to go back to quote Doestoevsky “Everything is permitted.”

Sometimes I really do think that if we all read the Brothers Karamazov, the world would solve all its own problems.

But that’s not the case. And how can truth be relative if Truth is Christ?

But not many people know Christ. I don’t. Not in the way that I should. And who am I to tell anyone else what he or she should know or believe? It’s not my place.  I’ll give a mostly unrelated example: I tutor a few freshman students, some of whom are reluctant to study, and one in particular doesn’t go to class. If this student continues to skip class, the student will fail. If the student fails, the student might not be allowed to continue in school. A leads to B leads to C. This is the direct consequence of an ill-conceived action. It is certainly not the desired outcome, but the outcome has potential all the same. Is it my place to tell this to my student? “If you don’t do your work, you could fail. And if you fail, you could lose your scholarship and have to drop out of school.” That’s not tough love–that’s reality.

The student could, however, and I predict, will refute my seemingly logical argument, by saying that grades are relative (which seems not too far from the truth anymore) or that she can charm her way into getting to keep her scholarship.

Has the student, then, lived with integrity? No. Has she gotten what she wanted? Yes, for now. Could I have saved her from this potentially humiliating feat if I had forced her to do her work? Possibly. Would she have learned how to do the work? Most likely not. What, then, was the point? Was I of any help at all? It doesn’t feel like it, since I am a horrifically result-oriented person. If I can’t see the positive outcome of something I did, I feel like a failure.

Imagine how Christ’s disciples felt. Do you think they were feeling like they were changing the world when they watched their beloved Teacher being hoisted onto a wooden plank and stabbed with nails for all the world to mock?

Hardly.

This leads me to my second world, the world of modern Orthodox Christianity, which sometimes seems as terribly backwards as deconstructionism seems awkwardly futuristic.

I thought that Faith was about me–about my journey towards Heaven. Like Pilgrim, I painstakingly record in my brain all my faults, defeats, cedes to temptation, and failure to follow doctrinal rules; I fall off the ladder, cry, and struggle to get back on. Life is a journey, so people say. And what actually is the point if I know I’m not perfect and will continue to fail and sin?

I’m not a theologian. I’m not a Divinity student. I don’t even have my bachelor’s degree yet.

But I am a Christian, however terrible I am at that, and I want to continue to live a Christian life. But that’s the thing–I have to continue to live. 

I can’t sit in a dark corner waiting for Christ to return. And I don’t need to. I’m not hiding from the Romans, and I know my Lord is Alive. Frankly, when the world reaches its end, it will end. I think the sheer fact that the world still turns this very moment means that there is work to do in God’s creation.

The world is the result of God’s love, and mankind is that manifestation. Frankly, the Gospel’s couldn’t be any clearer if they tried. Well, obviously..they’re the word of GOD.

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. 

Here’s the conflict: Do I hide in a false church of pretend perfectionism and chastise the world for evil, or do I fall away from false dynamism–in the secular and canonical worlds alike–and try my hardest to live according to the Gospels’ teachings?

It sounds a bit renegade, I know. But then, so were the Apostles. Not that I want to evangelize–an Orthodox priest told me once that we should evangelize not with words or doctrines but by living exemplary lives. That’s a lot of pressure. But that is the point.

Searching for Truth

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time in my head. I used to think that my problems were unique, my depression was my own cross to bear. I was like a sponge; whatever I heard, whatever I felt or experienced was absorbed into my blood and tacked on to me, weighing me down. I was drawn to books with characters that shared my what seemed eternal insecurity, seeming insignificance and restlessness. I used the circumstances of these characters to justify my perpetual misguidance, a way of saying “see, self, I knew I wasn’t the only one who doesn’t understand the world.”

I felt close to these characters because we seemed to share common experience.

Now that I know a little more about the world, whether I like it or not, I can’t help but chuckle at the insular lens with which I viewed my life, which of course, was the center of the world. (As a side note, I think I’m realizing that a person who makes you believe that you are the center of the world is not a true friend, but rather a flatterer.) I still have a long way to go. I still sink down into the kitchen floor in a heap of self-pity, complaining about my cushy life.

But something else is happening to me, and I’m not entirely sure if I like it. But I may not have a choice. This might actually be life.

The more I read, particularly the more I read about things that I already understand, the more I find commonalities in experience–between me and strangers, like I had once before, only this time, the experience, because it involved myself but had nothing to do with the essence of myself, is much greater than myself. For example, I reached a part in the memoir I’m reading about a Palestinian being required to strip before being granted entry into the new state of Israel. I was never asked to strip (completely), but I was patted and prodded and robbed and accused of horrible things. But reading about it from someone else’s point of view makes this even more real, because it is now concrete.

I suppose in this day and age that doesn’t seem that uncommon–people are patted down and accused of horrible things every day. But that doesn’t make it right even if it is “normal” and it shouldn’t be normal. I don’t care how many times this happens, but I refuse to accept wrong deeds as rightful norms.

Yet sometimes this makes me feel really alone. Just like I felt alone as a child because I refused to flirt or flatter or throw money in someone’s face to make her or him like me. I just didn’t care that much.

I guess some things never change. But I’m beginning to feel ashamed of this world, particularly of the people “in charge,” the ones who wield power, who should fundamentally be in place to take care of those who are meek or helpless. That’s how the world should work. And I know it doesn’t, but again, it doesn’t make it right, nor should it even be acceptable.

But there will always be people who wield money and power and therefore influence and can flirt and flatter and make “friends,” or make flatterers of unassuming people, to their own detriment. No matter how much I read, how much I travel, how many times I get mistaken for a terrorist, this will always be the case, I suppose, in some form or another. If it’s not happening to me, it’s happening to someone else.

This is why there exist people and professions and religions that search for truth, that promote and advocate peace, respect. This is the counterweight to the heaviness of selfishness that runs rampant all over the world. And like magnets, one repels while the other attracts; there will and must always be opposites, counterweights: good to the evil, hope to the despair, love to the hatred. This is why we read, travel, try, go to church, practice peace. We must always be the counterweight. We must always seek Truth.

Thoughts on a Friday

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about women; not simply women in relation to men, but women as women with agency, uniqueness and life. The gender studies department at my (very liberal) tiny college would be proud..

I watched an incredible movie the other day that sparked this new obsession, called Adoption, and filmed in Hungary. It centers on one forty-three year old worker’s desire for a child: a beautiful outpouring of our human capacity for love and nurturing affection. I was touched and inspired by her strength, her perseverance  her ability to always maintain her composure and never shy away from her own deep desires. Yet the counterbalance of this woman’s sophisticated character is Anna, a seventeen year old foster child who is difficult, moody, and obviously hurt…she is abandoned.  In my own freakish dreams about motherhood, I can’t help but to blur the lines between infants and adolescents. In other words, I think about children only as babies and not as beings who grow up and become independent. Disclaimer: I know I’m much too young to be thinking about this, but if you think about it, the first time most girls play with the idea of motherhood is in their own childhoods. I was driving home this afternoon and saw a mother, holding a toddler, holding a baby doll. Three generations in one fell swoop. I half expected the doll to have a smaller doll to hold. 

I remember having a great talk with my mom, quite recently, about all the wonderful things she did to ensure healthy, smart, active babies, while pregnant and while we were young. Things like home births, homeopathy, Waldorf-style education, blueberry picking, et cetera et cetera. 🙂 I’m very grateful for that! Truly, I think my parents did a top notch job of developing my little self. I just think somewhere along the line things went askew. I think LIFE happened, and they weren’t prepared for it because there’s only so much you can read and prep for before you throw yourself into the water and pray to God you can swim. 

How much can you ever prepare for life? Isn’t that part of the adventure? Is it selfish to throw caution to the wind? Or is it liberating? 

I think both. But slowly growing, I am beginning to see the value in responsibility. Granted, I have virtually NO responsibilities right now, so it’s very easy to say that, but even things as simple as making sure I get home in enough time to sleep and eat so that I don’t CRASH and feel miserable for the next five days is a very underrated yet very important accomplishment! It’s easy to overlook that; especially when you’re in a foreign country, or you are having fun with someone and don’t want to come down. But we all eventually do and have to practice landing with even footing. 

I’m still working on that.

I found this quote on a wonderful blog that I follow (from the book Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore–not the Irish one–apparently there are two poets named Moore):

If we were to observe the soul in the family by honoring its stories and by not running away from its shadow, then we might not feel so inescapably determined by family influences…. 

Honoring its stories…what a grand idea! Every family is a microcosm of joy and pain and indelibly unique experiences, so how can we not celebrate them? Even the memories we hate are part of us. Just like bruises and scars, we wear them on our hearts, in our eyes, on the tips of our fingers, on the breaths from our noses and lips. We wear our families, for better and for worse. I suppose escapism then can only take a person so far, because we cannot ever escape our own skins!!

We assume we are ineluctably who we are because of the family in which we grew up. What if we thought of the family less as the determining influence by which we are formed and more the raw material from which we can make a life.

Raw material. Eyes, nose mouth, lips, tongue, teeth, throat, heart, guts, lungs, body and bones and brain and speech and ears to hear and eyes to see and hands to hold. Hands to hold. Babies to make, books to carry, bread to bake. Shall the clay pot deny the hands that fashioned it and say “you did not make me?”

How can we fashion ourselves without first molding to the warm touch of the Potter who made us?

Two extraordinary women. (From St. Silouhan’s Chapel at the Toronto Mission in Canada)


Christmas in Bethlehem

My laundry is still in the washing machine, so I can’t take a shower, and even if I did, I would have no clean, dry clothes with which to dress so that I could leave the house and go work on a paper…

SO, I will blog! It’s been a while since I’ve done this. I just moved out of the dorms yesterday (woooohoooo! They were not nice.) and am staying at a friend’s apartment in a different neighborhood close to campus (she’s away in Turkey. Cool, huh?!) For the FIRST time since I’ve been in Israel, I woke up this morning with the very real sensation that I am living in another country. I look out of the bedroom window and I see uniform concrete buildings in the background; smaller, flat roofed concrete houses are in the foreground along with some blue construction tarps, a few small cars, garbage dumps in the parking lot, a few palm trees and one giant tree, whose variety escapes me. There’s also a few electrical towers, TONS of sand, and a big, big, blue sky enveloping everything.  This, my friends, is Be’er Sheva in a nutshell. And it’s been my home for almost half a year now.

There’s no way I can write a blog post about “my time in Israel”; it’s way too dense for that. Instead, I want to share my Christmas experience, which I believe was the best Christmas I’ve had. And it’s strange, because this is the first Christmas I spent away from my family. You would think it would be extremely difficult. But being in the Holy Land helped, as did sharing my Christmas with my friends. I’ll recap:

I decided to go to Jerusalem. This wasn’t as hyped up as it sounds. I think Jerusalem gets really crowded on Easter (obviously) but it was pretty empty on Monday afternoon, December 24, when I arrived via bus. First thing I did was go to the Old City with my friend Kurt, to see if we could get tickets to a Christmas service that night at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. Did I mention that the service was in German?

This was the first interesting thing I did. I had originally planned to attend a “unitarian” service of sorts at some big church somewhere near the Old City, because it had the subtitle “multilingual,” which to me equaled English! No Orthodox services were held on the 25th, because every Orthodox church in Israel is Old Calendar, so there would be no “Thy Nativity, Oh Christ our God…” for me. BUT wait until I tell you the rest.

Kurt and I weren’t sure if we would be let into Church of the Redeemer. They had stopped giving tickets and we were told that if we came back in a few hours we might be able to find some standing room in the back. Okay, no harm done. We both wanted to be at  service. Kurt told me that in Germany he sometimes goes to four services on Christmas day, just to hear the carols. Cool, huh?

So, we had a few hours to spare in Jerusalem. What does one do in the Old City for a few hours? Pray and shop and go up on the roofs of old buildings. Seriously. We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (erected by Sts. Constantine and Helen in the 300s) and–it was so quiet! The last time I had been to the Church, it was Saturday, in the middle of the day, and it was miserably crowded. But because it was the evening, and on a Monday, there was scarcely anyone inside. So what did I do? I walked quickly toward the tomb to go inside and venerate the stone. I made it, but not before an angry monk started shouting at me to keep moving. Needless to say it was not the spiritual experience one expects when venerating such sacred objects, but I knew that, because last time at the Church I felt similarly…like a stuffed sardine waiting to be healed! But then when I feel like this I always think of Zachaeus and how he climbed a tree just to see Jesus above the crowds. Where’s a good, sturdy tree when you need one?

Anyway, after a bit of shopping (that’s another perk of not being home for Christmas–you have so much more time to buy presents!) we ended up at a bar with some friends, toasting on Christmas Eve. This was also strange for me. I’m used to fasting and (trying to) nap on Christmas Eve…but we gathered at a table around an outdoor heater, I drank hot mulled wine (!!!) and somehow, it felt good.

After this, Kurt and I went back to the Church to see about getting into the service. Did I mention that Kurt is German? He totally played the “we’re both from the same country” card and got us inside, but there were plenty of open pews even after the service started.

Creche Scene in the Lutheran Church of The Redeemer, Jerusalem

About the service: the program was in German, English, Hebrew, and Arabic. This was singularly incredible. From the entrance to the building, we descended a set of stairs, passed an open courtyard, and crossed through a doorway into a massive white chapel with high vaulted ceilings, dimly lit and incredibly beautiful. Candles lined the rows of pews, a Christmas tree was set up on stage, and a beautiful creche scene was off to the side, pictured at left (it’s blurry, I apologize..)

Then the service began with an angelic choir singing very familiar Christmas carols! The choir and congregation sang in German, but I happily joined in in English. At one point during one carol, we ALL sang the same thing: Glooooooooooooria! In Excelcius Deo.
See, not only did I learn Hebrew, but I speak German now too 🙂

It was a beautiful service; the shortest Christmas service I had ever been to, and there was a lot of sitting, but it was lovely and restful. In retrospect, I’m glad we sat for so long, because here’s what we did next:

Stopping to sing a (German) Christmas carol en route to Bethlehem

Ever wondered how long it takes one to walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? No? That’s okay, I’ll tell you anyway: two and a half hours, plus stops for singing.

Yep! Me, Kurt, Krystoff, and Paul joined a group of about 100 from the service on a midnight walk to the place of His birth…I really can’t believe this. I will try to describe the experience without sounding like a Hallmark card or the 700 club, but please forgive me if I cheese out a bit….

It was cold and the walk was long. I felt neither of these sensations. I was warm and giddy. Really giddy. It was CHRISTMAS! I had never felt so excited in my whole life. Everything about this day felt special, unlike all the rest of the days, which it is.

Stuck in the security pass crossing Jerusalem into Bethlehem.

The walk itself is not a beautiful one, and we were honked at several times by onlookers thinking all sorts of crazy things (I was surprised how used to this I felt…I remembered the Boston days of traipsing through the street at 2 am with giant candles…thanks Mama and Papa for raising me crazy, it came in handy.)

Our  walk continued into Manger Square, where everything was warm and fuzzy.
 Manger Square, Bethlehem.


 Manger Square, Bethlehem
Venerating the place where Christ was born.

The best is till yet to come, though I apologize that this post is turning out to be so long. We went into the Church of the Nativity, mostly to get warm, but ended up staying there for quiet some time (it was about 3 am at this point…). I walked down into the Grotto where the star is placed over the spot of his birth. It looks like this, pictured at left.

When I climbed down into the grotto, I was astonished (though thinking back on it, it makes sense) to see SO many people down there, even at 3 am! There was a Catholic service being conducted, and people were gathered around this humble little star, kneeling and praying. I was in awe. I couldn’t really move and just stared at this star, picturing a tiny little baby curled up and sleeping inside. What Kings and Shepherds felt that day, here I was  standing in their footprints.

It was surreal. Remembering it now, I feel very funny inside…that’s all I can say. I probably shouldn’t try and describe it because I can’t.

But needless to say, this was the best Christmas of my life. No family, no presents, no warm Christmas morning, but WHAT a day I had!

Wishing you all a peaceful and blessed 2013.

With love,
Melanie 🙂