Thursday, June 30, 2005

AC&AA part 3

It would be useless for me to recount what everybody at the Ancient Chrisitianity and African American conference said. There was so much information, that I absorbed it like a sponge, and I'm still processing it.

It's a lot easier for me to tell things that went on in my heart. I met my father at the conference.

No, I didn't have some Jerry Spinger show episode involving dark secrets between my mother and a priest. I sat in the presence of a very special soul, Fr. Moses Berry, and he captured my heart and there was something inside of me that yielded to him, and I became his daughter.

I love the way he tells stories. They come from a deep storehouse within him. I can tell he guards them carefully. Stories can be trusted with a man like Fr. Moses. He is the founder of the Oarks African American Heritage Museum in Ash Grove, Missouri, and the way he holds our collective stories in his heart makes me want to make a pilgrimage to the museum. He's the Pastor of the Theotokos "Unexpected Joy" Orthodox Christian Mission, and he's not just a Pastor. He is a priest. There's a big difference between the two. It's a mystery.

I wrote a book a few years ago that featured a mystical character that I called Ghetto Black Magic Man. Fr. Moses is the closest thing to Ghetto Black Magic Man that I've ever met. He has an other-worldly quality about him. He seems to be able to tap into what my soul needs most, and handle it with expert hands. Sometimes tender, sometimes, sharp, always in love.

Fr. Moses did some pretty incredible things during his presentation. He linked us to our past in some very tangible ways. He had an underground railroad quilt sewn by his grandmother, which he handled reverently. He told us how it was used to send messages to runaway slaves. The stitches were tiny and intricate. He raised a question. Why would a slave woman take so much care with those stitches? But Fr. Moses is a seer of course. His answer: she did it as unto the Lord. I could see her, and the countless women like her, invisible in this world, but seen by God. Loved by God, and honored where there was little honor to be had in this world. He showed us a neck shackles that bound his own grandfather. He put it on. I had a physical reaction to seeing such a horrid thing. After the presentation, I held it. It was heavy, and full of whispers. Lord, have mercy--the whispers and the stories in that shackle. Lord, have mercy, Lord have mercy.

I didn't grow up with my father. Until I was ten I was raised by my great uncle who was a father to me. His death left a great void in my life. I still find myself father hungry in this world, and listening to Fr. Moses was like listening to the voice of the father that I have missed and longed for all these years.

On the last day of the conference, Fr. Moses was my father confessor. I was unsure about the process. I'd only done one confession before, and I had a list of questions to guide me. But he was gentle, and kind, and he told me stories even then, putting me at ease. I wish I could put into words what I felt with this man. I can't do it. I feel, but words fly away with big black wings back home to a sacred place that one can only visit by way of mystery.

But I can tell you this. I felt understood and cherished. I felt he could see the best of me. It felt like what it must be like when a man loves you unconditionally and teaches you before you discover boys, and petting, and sex, that you are precious, of great worth, a jewel. That's how a good father makes you feel. He is the mirror that shows you the best image of yourself. He has no hidden agendas. I want to cry when I think of it, because I can't believe how very blessed I am to have experienced this.

He gave me books, and a t-shirt that says, "Am I not a woman and a sister?" The image on the shirt is of a woman in chain's looking to God. How many times have I asked that question internally. "Am I not a woman, and a sister?" I wore that shirt for two days. I even slept in it.

There's so much more I can tell. I can write a whole book about that conference.

More tomorrow.
Mair

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

AC&AA Conf. part 2

The first session is an evening session, and by the time it rolls around, I'm about as lively as a cadaver on CSI. I'm jetlagged and fatigued, and I've lost two hours in the sky, now confused about what time it really is.

This is the state I arrive to the auditorium in. An attractive women, with salt and pepper hair and caramel kissed skin sits down next to me. I don't know her, but she congratulates me on my journey into the Orthodox Church. She tells me her own story in a matter of moments, and then tells me she wants to support me. She pulls out a checkbook. She writes a very supportive check.

Father Paisius comes to the stage. He is what my grandmother would call a "tall drink of water", only in his case, the water he offers would be the Living kind. I hear his voice for the first time, and it is comforting in the way that honey is comforting. It has a rich texture about it, and it's yummy!

He starts a movie he's done for school. It's called, "Is Chrisitianity A White Man's Religion?" I think this is a very bold move, seeing as Fr. Paisius is a white man. The question he asks shakes something off of a dusty shelf inside of me that's been stored there for too many years. Several things fall off that shelf. I feel them clatter to the floor of my soul, making all kinds of noise, and hurting me when they slam on the ground.

Is Christianity A White Man's Religion? How many times have I asked myself that question? Malcolm X's voice rumbles in my head. Gabriel's voice--the man who taught me most about Africa, while abusing me more than I thought could be possible. Stories whispered in me. Stories my grandparents told us about white people. These stories were stern warnings, serving to protect us from people my foreparents believed--no, they knew, could do us great harm. Their voices still chill me, while my mind tells me that we are no longer strange fruit hanging on southern trees. And maybe, it's true. But the stories stay. They are a part of my history, and irrevocable.

So I bring my sad legacy to this lecture, and wonder if I can trust what I hear. I am a child of the sixties. The Black Panthers served breakfast where I lived, and they taught us crafts at the Malcolm X Cultural Center, where they had cartoon drawings of pigs in police uniforms on the walls. I have had white boys careen by in their cars throwing bottles at me shouting, "Nigger." I ask myself when I move to a town, "Will white people accept me here?" People follow me in convenience stores, and sometimes ask me to empty my pockets, and I don't even get "I'm sorry, ma'am," when they see I wasn't stealing at all. I know that publishers have asked if they can sell a book I write because I am black, and some people are still wondering if black people even read, and if white people will buy a book with a black woman on a cover. These are questions that still have to be asked. I don't say this to condemn. It's just the truth, and we all know the truth often hurts.

So here I am, with my stories and voices, and the golden mouthed priest with the controversial movie stands in front of me. He begins to pick up those secret things that were hidden on my inner shelves. He dusts them off. He validates them, and then he tells me of the contributions of saints of African descent for centuries. I feel a balm of healing as I sit, taking it all in. I feel fear flee in the presence of a truth that cost many black martyrs their lives (and white one's, too): our history did not begin with slavery. We have roots that go deep into the heart of God. White men don't own this great faith. It belongs to God.

We, African, have always believed.

I am indebted to Fr. Paisius for his scholarship and fearlessness. I am grateful that he examined his own heart and history, and finding it wanting, bent his knee to the God who loves us all and he told the truth--a truth of amazing significance to me, and to all Americans. Fr. Paisius didn't just dust off and affirm the hidden things in me, he shined a clear light on them. I saw that they were the truths that my parents held on to. They are the truths their parents held on to. They are the truths of the martyrs, and passion bearers, and slave confessors, and conductors on the underground railroad. They are the hard and gorgeous truths that compelled safehouse proprietors to risk all for righteousness sake.

Those truths, in it's myriad forms, is simply this: we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and in Christ, we are all slave to God, and all free from the things of this temporary kingdom of the world.

Yes.

May we live that way, and if necessary, be willing to die for that same way.

God wants to heal this ugly schism of racisms that still divides us. Let's let Him.

Forgive me, my brothers and sisters, a sinner, for the sin of racism, bigotry, and division among the brethren, both inherited, and my own.

In unity in Christ, and great sorrow,
Mair

For more information on Fr. Paisius's writing and the work of St. Mary of Egypt Othodox Church, visit www.stmaryofegypt.net, and tell them Mair Claudia sent you.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Ancient Christianity and African Americans Conference 05

Okay, so I get to the airport and Subdeacon Robert is not there. He's also not on the plane. Subdeacon Robert is nowhere to be found.

I have to subdue the urge to stuff my fist in my mouth to stifle a scream. I'm sitting on a plane going to Denver, and I've made the big, huge, gigantic mistake of playing follow the leader, in this case, Robert, and he has all our travel arrangements.

I don't know where we are going. And I don't know who I will be going with, except that she will be a nun.

I have only seen a handful of Orthodox nuns, and this was at Dormition Monastery. It occurs to me that all habits may not be created equally, but instead of continuing my descent into panic, I pray. God will have to show me Mother. Once again, I'm left to trust Him.

I get to Denver, and try to make my way to the passenger pick up area, hoping someone is holding a sign that indicates they are from the conference. I don't see anything like that, so I wander around, praying, and looking for a nun. And then I see her.

An African American woman, with soft features made softer by the severity of her attire. She's wearing a black habit, but on her head she's wearing a gray--I have no idea what you call that. It looks different than what the nuns at Dormition wear, and for a moment, I wonder if she is not an Orthodox Muslim woman. I get brave, step up to her and tentatively ask, "Are you an Orthodox nun?"

"Claudia?" she asks in her gentle voice. It is Mother Pachomia, and I am home. She pulls me into a warm embrace and it feels as if I have always knowns this kind, black woman. Maybe I have. She is the strong arms of black women who rocked babies, black and white. Who hummed hymns and spirituals in little ears, and who cried out in their own suffering when none but Jesus heard. In her arms I would find keys that would unlock my past and future.

She leaves me for a moment, and returns with another nun, this one shorter, and white. Mother Nicole has a name that sounds like it should belong to my best-girlfriend, and she has a mischievous twinkle in her eyes that I notice right away. She smiles easily. I would see this smile so much during this journey. It would inform and inspire me as much as the teaching. And she would make me laugh, constantly. I would find in her, a home for my soul in a way I didn't anticipate.

We go to retrieve the rental car, and I realize that I'm walking around with two nuns. There are few things that will make you feel as if you are dressed like a two dollar whore than hangin' with two nuns. My white and pink sundress suddenly seems tawdry and a little bit stank. I re-evaluated my wardrobe choices for the next few days, and for the remainder of the trip, I could have shared most of my outfits with Darth Vader.

We stopped by the check in desk at Denver University, and the Mother's had not been registered yet. We took their gear into my room, and went to breakfast. They treated.
I was going to refuse at first, but I only had 30 bucks, which I wanted to buy a few books and some prayer beads with. Mother Nicole said they'd rather I buy prayer beads than breakfast. In fact, they were hoping people would buy prayer beads and books, so I was glad to save a few bucks. I would watch that 30 dollars multiply live loaves and fishes, and I came home with so many books, icons, crosses, prayer beads and magazines, that I had to buy a new bag, because the backpack that I came with wouldn't fit it all. Mother Nicole said that she got chills when she saw all that I had been given. And I was given these things. God poured out grace like wine from water at the wedding feast, and I drank freely, as unworthy as I am.

At breakfast, I get to share stories, and get to hear stories. I ask questions, and feel connected to these women in a way that I would not have if Robert had been on that plane. I wonder at the strange providence of God, who knew that I needed woman to share the journey with. Thank you, God.

I get to my dorm room after breakfast, and I can't make my key work. The door flies open, and I'm greeted warmly by a woman in a bra and slip. She's inviting me in as if she were not in her drawers, and I was taken aback, and then I found it terribly funny. Of course God would give me a nun that is an icon of my mothers, and a nun that has a sense of humor. You've got to love a nun that has a sense of humor, especially when it so closely resembles your own. And of course, God would give me a roomate, completely at ease entertaining and serving me while she is naked.

I could tell it was gonna be good.
Tune in tomorrow. :)

Mair

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Keeping Time

Last Sunday: Pentecost.
Two days ago: Summer Solstice.

When I saw on my calender that June 21 would be the Summer Solstice, I wanted to write to Rachelle Chapman Mee www.thursdaypm.org. She is the Abbess of the really cool Monkfish Abbey in Seattle, Washington. I hope to be her friend.

I met Rachelle at the emergent conference. She was teaching a workshop that appealed immensely to me. It was a celebration of sorts-- a crafty, prayerful, holy thing involving markers, collage paper, glue scissors and old magazines, and a new way to lectio. She keeps time artfully.

I sat at the table with Rachelle, and watched her set up a travel altar, marking the space where she dwelled and experienced God as holy. I did not have a travel altar, though I meant to bring one. I forgot to. My altar stayed at home, lonely, acumulating small stacks of nothing important, stuff that doesn't belong on anyone's altar. It still looks like that. My icons seem forlorn, and maybe a little irritated at me.

I'm fat. I was walking down the street today, coming home from my doctor's appointment with eight, count 'em, eight prescriptions in my purse. I forgot to eat breakfast, but if I had, it would have been something pathetic like ice-cream, or a Pepsi, or potato chips with Franks hotsauce.
I would have had this poor excuse for meal quickly, without remembering to pray until I'd taken several bites (or sips) and was nearly through. I would have fumbled through some semblance of saying "grace", and then felt guilty.

At Dormition Monastery, at lunch, while everyone is gathered, at the appropriate time, a bell is rung, and every stands and faces east. We praise. We ask God to bless our food. We thank God. We say the Lord's prayer. We say, "Lord, have mercy" at least three times before we sit and eat. Some monasteries, not particularly Eastern Orthodox, require eating in silence. In silence you can pay attention. You can quite the chatter of your monkey brain long enough to contemplate what you are putting into your body. Time passes, but it is also kept. At the monastery, in the cafeteria, amid the ebb and flow of convesation. A bell rings again. We stand to pray because it is time to stop eating to pray. The bell informs us.

Those people keep time with a bell and a prayer.

Rachelle keeps time. She follows the Church calendar. She brings in Spring Solstice with such mamaearth loving rituals like having a pedicure party honoring the days when we will wear flip-flops again. I don't know what Rachelle did to say, "Hello Summer, welcome!" this year, but I know it was big.

I meant to write to her, but I forgot.

The thing is, I have trouble with time. It slips away from me like it's got grease on it's slick tail. I don't remember until two days later to say "Hello Summer." This irritates me, and for a moment, I wonder if I haven't kept time awaiting Summer because I was so pissed off with her for taking so long to get here.

I told you I am fat. I am fat because I don't keep time. I don't mark the days with the feasts and fasts that have helped my spiritual predecessors to survive and live. I don't eat food in season. I often eat too fast, or too much, both. I rush through meals without sitting down. I pretend I don't miss being together at the table as a family for dinner. I pretend that most of the chairs aren't broken leaving only two surving ones, and one of those is outside in the back yard getting rained on. I tell myself we will eat together soon. My spirit feels fat and slovenly. I feel like the devil can beat me up because I'm so out of shape within.

But I can change. I can go from the Feast of Pentecost welcoming the Holy Spirit, to Solstice and celebrating my own neomonastic rituals. I can take my shoes off and eat with the babies--my two youngest girls, and the two grandaughters here. We can sit outside and eat green apples, and leave our shoes off, and spread or toes on the hot pavement and welcome Summer as the gift that it is, bringing with it watermelon, and cherries, and fields of lavender almost ready to retire until next Spring. I know, with God's help, I can change.

I didn't attack copious amounts of chicken today, even though it is Wednesday. I managed to make it all day, though I admit, it didn't feel like a super spiritual fast. I missed meat, but I didn't let it make me trip out. I walked a few miles, and had fruit. I thought about my new life as Mair, and I wanted to live by those unforced rhythms of grace that ground you in faith; the keeping of the hours. The praying of the psalms. Thinking about the food that goes into my mouth. Thinking about taking care of home better. Walking in Christ, day by day, and knowing what those days are, and who or what we honor or venerate for that day and why.

It's a start.

Jacob met God and kept the moment by building an altar to mark the spot. I think about this, and want to put plastic rosary beads on the landscapes of my own spiritual geography. I want to embrace this church year, even thought it's hard for me. I think God is wanting me to live more alive and aware. More thankful. More rhythmically, not drugging myself with food or busyness, but in moment by moment practise of God in my life. In time.

Happy Summer Solstice, Rachelle.

Better late than never I want to say.

I hear a voice inside my heart respond in turn: But better still to never be late.

Amen.

Enjoy the sun today.

Mair (off to spend the weekend in Denver at the Ancient Christianity and African Americans conference.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Pentecost 2005

Today, the faithful will celebrate Pentecost. I just finished Lauren Winner's book, Girl Meets God, which I loved, loved, loved. Among other things, she helped me see the connections between Pentecost and the Jewish observance of Shavout. I would love to tell you about those connections, but I am currently operating on a very low level of brain power, not to mention that I am sick, self-pitying, and self-absorbed. It doesn't leave much room for that kind of discourse.

It's almost 2:30 in the morning, and as is normal when I am unwell, I don't sleep. My mind plays tricks on me, and I am morose and excessive. I eat more than my share until I feel bloated and even more sick. I want to fill an empty feeling. I don't think it is a true emptiness, because I am aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit within, but it feels empty.

I have been an Orthodox Christian for four weeks today. I have celebrated the Eucharist three times. Twice at home at St. Raphael's, and once at Dormition Monastery. I have gone to the Divine Supper without fail. If one thing has drawn me to Orthodoxy it is the Eucharist. If one thing will keep me, it will be the Eucharist. I believe this with all my heart.

But today, I feel lonely for the first time. This loneliness was familiar to me before, as a card carrying member of the church of the drop outs, the failures, and the fools, but I wasn't expecting to feel it at Home so soon. The truth is, I don't know what I'm doing. Orthodoxy is so big, and I feel so small. I tried to fast yesterday, and ended up attacking a piece of chicken or five, just before midnight. It was like chicken would save my life. I had to have it. Then I felt foolish and failed.

I wanted to call Laike, my sponsor, and tell him that I am a very bad Orthodox Christian, and that I can't fast, and my prayer rule has gone straight to hell, but I don't have the courage to. I don't call anybody that loves me, and were present at my Chrismation and know what I am going through, or are at least are willing to act like they know, and reassure me. I choose well-worn path of isolation. Then, I feel ashamed and afraid that I will fail completely at being Orthodox, and be alone forever.

So, I sleep too long, and still wake up sick and in pain. I stuff myself, eating an ungodly amount of ice cream, Greek feta cheese, and sweetened condensed milk with a spoon, right out of the can. I hope that I don't become suddenly, inexplicably lactose intolerant as punishment.

Lauren wrote of a Pentecost/Shavout in her life, "The tikku broke up before sunrise, but Randi and I were determined to stay up all night. We found a diner near the university and split a giant ice cream sunday, our version of the traditional Shavout meal, which is always heavy with dairy products. Randi raised a spoonful of Butter Brickle in a sort of toast." May the Torah be as mother's milk to you."

I can't stop thinking about her words.

The Torah, as mothers milk. The Word, my Jesus, as mothers milk. God giving Moses the Law. God giving us Himself as living Word. Two complex histories merging to tell one long, old story, a story I've enterd, with parts I don't understand, and some of it in a language I've never learned.

I did not stay up all night studying as Lauren and her friends did before Pentecost, but here I am, not having slept, full of of dairy. What do I do? In my mind, I lie my head on Jesus' chest as John, the discple Jesus loved, did. In my soul, I feel the steady thump of his heartbeat. I feel the warmth of his body, even through the garment He wears, and I hope He can feel some warmth from me, too. I hope I can give Him something.

I say, "I suck as an Orthodox Christian," and He says, "I know."

I say, "I want You to be like mother's milk to me, because I don't understand all this high church stuff, and I don't want to leave or run away, because I belong here."

And Jesus says, "I know."

I start crying and He rocks me, and tells me that He will never leave me or forsake me, and that I don't have to figure out thousands of years of doing church in a month.

We stay like that for a while.

Later, I lie down, my mind still a tornado, my heart still sore and wide open, but comforted by the descended "Comforter" Jesus sent, just as He promised.

"Thanks for being here, Holy Spirit," I say.

The Holy Spirit doesn't speak, but in that moment I crave more than ever the sweet Mother's milk that the Father sent, and that the Holy Spirit delivers right to my heart. I remember my favorite Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit:

"O heavenly King,
O Comforter,
the Spirit of Truth,
who are in all places
and fill all things,
the treasury of good things
and giver of life: Come
and abide in us,
cleanse us from every stain,
and save our souls,
O Good One."

This is my prayer for Pentcost, and every day.

I am overcome with gratefulness that He did come. This Heavenly King, this elusive Third Person of the Trinity did come and abide in us, cleansing us from wondering if a life with a bipolar brain is worth living, and cleansing us from eating too much ice-cream, feta cheese and lamb, and cleansing us from faltering prayer rules, and every stain, every single stain, even the stains the blood of our suffering leaves behind.

"Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy," I pray, sounding like a good Orthodox Christian, but only because He's here, and gives me this grace to pray--this blessing of Pentecost in my own bed, even though pain shoots through my body, and my sad, sad heart.

I feel anxious to get to sleep, so I can wake up and attend the celebration. I've got the rest of my life to learn the right days of the church calender. I'll show up for what I need most: that space in time where I lay aside all earthly cares. That place where I pray, and repent, sing the Cherubim Hymn and feel sorry, truly sorry for my sins, longing for the sweetness of wine and bread placed in my mouth by holy hands.

Let the Holy Spirit come.

Come.

mair
and hey, read Lauren's book.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

You Can Call It Roses

Do you believe that if you don't name a thing, it loses power? I used to believe that. I guess I don't this morning.

In 1998 I sat in a therapist's office. I was in seminary at the time. Me, with the brand new lotus flower tattoo peeking out from what passes for cleaveage. Me, with the pierced nose, pierced eyebrow, and what was invisible, the pierced heart. I told her I felt the wildest, most expansive feeling of joy and abandon, but I was irritable all the time--like I was constantly hovering over a precipice, and the effort to stay out of it was really, really annoying. And I hurt, with a hurt that never seems to go away. She asked about my past, and I told her truthfully. She told me I was bipolar.

I didn't like that name. I prefer benign labels like "eccentric" or "passionate". Bipolar sounds sick. It sounds scary. So I didn't name what I had--what I was, and I went on about my business, even though I was an open wound.

In 2001 I went to the psychiatric emergency room at a nearby hospital. I was having trouble driving. I was constantly about to rear end my fellow drivers. I talked too fast, and too much. I laughed like a loon because everything was funny. I was inappropriate and brash. And then the sorrow would come wrapping me in a black cloak of despair. The ER psychiatrist used the same name the other therapist did, but I didn't want to. That name was too big, and I was too small to bear it.

I started writing about how I felt not long after that, and it was really the first time I tasted success as a writer. Like here, I found a supportive online community. I wrote my heart out, until I felt like I was becoming the bipolar poster child, and then I retreated as quickly as I arrived there. I didn't want to have anything to do with bipolar disorder anymore. I wanted a life without the stigma. With the shame and mystery of it.

And it is a mystery. Not mystery in the sacred God way, but mystery in the 'what the hell is wrong with me' way. So, for three years I didn't name it. I named depression. I named the dark night of the soul. I named insomnia. I even named bipolar disorder's peculiar cousin, new to me, Fibromyalgia, but the biting horror that is bipolar disorder, the seductive disease that afficts the artists and poets, bringing dizzying heights and devastating plunges, I would not name, and hoped to God it would disappear. I hoped they were wrong about me. I hoped I made it up, and that really, I was lazy, or tired, or high strung, or anything but that.

A few weeks ago, I told Jane that I knew when I was sick. I said it with the cocky assurance that I rewarded myself with for surviving the winter. But now I sit here partially clothed in the garments I put on two days ago, having not slept because I listened to a snatch of a song I loved in the seventies--The Real Thing, by Sergio Mendes and Brazil 77. I listened to this fragment of music for hours because it was the one thing I could hold on to and beat back the urge to break into a million pieces for no apparent reason. I would love to tell you that all night I cried out to God, but I didn't. Some people think I'm so spiritual, but I'm just a sinner. Some days God is closer than the sweet husband lying beside me sleeping while I write this. Other times, I can't find God at all, and sometimes, I don't bother to look for Him. May He have mercy on me on days like this.

A few weeks ago, it was possible that I could lie to myself and say that all that bipolar stuff was a distant, very vague memory, and I may have believed it. It was spring. The sky was immeasurably wide and full of sun, and I had survived the winter. I didn't expect the bell jar to descend again. Not this soon. Not until August when I am sun drunk and hungover, careening toward the fall. Literally, the F
A
L
L.

It's not supposed to happen in June. It never happens in June.

Damn.

But inspite of the suffocating ache that I feel, I still belong to this God that I've avoided all night listening the jazz-funk, and wanting to write. I think I was afraid that if I wrote about this, you would all run away from the crazy lady. That you wouldn't trust me anymore. That you'd think I'd be drowning my kids like Andrea Yates, or that you would say, "How could God be with her, and not heal her of this terrible affliction?"

Or maybe that question is the one I'm asking.

But I don't ask questions like this for too long. I've lived with both bipolar disorder and God long enough to realize that God may not answer this one for me. It doesn't change our relationship. Like my marriage, I love the Bridegroom in sickness and in health. Jesus still has big strong arms to hold me. He gives me these roses--my sweet affliction--this suffering that He shares with me. He gives me the heady scent of His presence in the flowering of my suffering, even though the thorns I hold so tightly make my blood fall like petals to the ground.

There is still grace here, even though my mind is a storm and I don't understand anything. Not one thing.

I still believe.

It'll do for today.

Mair

Monday, June 13, 2005

A Rash Grace

Things got busy at work.

The work itself isn't hard, and for the most part, I've considering it a work of mercy, even though I get a pay check for it. I show up, and I care for three people who are unable to care for themselves. I try to think of them as our Jesus would. I try to think of them as if they were our Jesus wearing his "the least of these" face.

Some of the people we work with were doing some pretty shady things, and they ended up getting fired--three at one time. I took over a morning shift, and worked my own with it. This left me with some very long days. I would drag myself home, spent, and promptly go to sleep.

At some point I began to feel as if I were neglecting my own home, in order to create a home for other people. I cooked their meals, but not my family's. I cleaned their kitchen while my own was about to be shut down by the health department. I showered and washed the women's hair, while my own little girls wore the same ponytails three days in a row, and needed mama's tender loving care badly.

So where was I supposed to be? At this job, providing for my family, or at home, doing the same, but without a paycheck? My husband is disabled. We barely make it month to month. Me working gives us so much, but then, it takes so much away.

All this was beginning to get to me, and all the while I'm trying to find my feet in this new path my faith has taken. Beloved, Orthodoxy is a narrow way. It demands constantly, it challenges my laziness, and has turned my life upside down and inside out. In a good way, but it is change just the same, and change can be very difficult.

I should have suspected the pain would return. It starts with those blinding headaches, and progresses to these throbbing, searing places all over my body, and I get tired. Two naps a day tired. I can't even stand to say my prayers tired. I don't have anything left tired. The doctors call it Fibromyalgia. I wonder if I shouldn't call it, "the message".

Then came the grace. Grace is a funny thing. It comes in surprising packages. I noticed with my other symptoms these little itchy bumps on my arm. Then there were a lot of them. I'd gone to the monastery with Dan and Jane, both doctors, and sheepishly asked, "Could you tell me what this is on my arm." Jane winced when she saw it, and like a true disciple of Christ, she didn't say, go and be blessed, I will pray for you. No, she went into Miejer's, the megastore she hates to go in, and got me some hydrocortisone cream.

It got worse, and apparently contagious, because the kids were breaking out with it too. I told my job I had this awful thing, and they gave me time off to get better (with a doctors excuse, of course). But it's not better. I'm still itching and oozing, and the fibromyalgia pain is back in all it's miserable fullness.

But God doesn't despise the misery. He meets me here. Having this strange rash has planted me back home, and I have cared for my own little children--my own "the least of these" with the tender loving hands that are a mama's primary tools. My children have been blessed with the anointing of hydrocortisone cream, and christened with calamine lotion.

Here in our affliction, I have found the tenderness of Jesus. He reminds me of His love for me, even as I slather healing treatments on my children's bodies, murmuring my concern, laying hands on them, and clucking at the terribleness of their temporary wounds. He reminds me of His mothering, and His own gentle, nail scarred hands upon me.

Sometimes grace is a stunning, unexpected kindness. Sometimes it is rash, literally. However we are dealt it, we must have hearts tender and surrendered, eyes open to see, ears swift to hear. We don't know what God is doing, but we know He loves us, and will use in His divine economy, all things for His glory, and for our good.

"Blessed are the contagious, for they shall get time off."

Itching to feel His touch,
Mair

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Trouble With Walking On Water

I'd like to know what God is doing.

Of course, this is not really true.

In my most spiritual fantasies, God sits me down with a big calender, and goes over the itinerary with me, saying things like, "I'm going to send you over here, and hey, careful there, there's gonna be a cross for you--a big one." In this scenario, I get to argue with Him about the details. "Oh, no, Lord. That cross is too heavy, and look, surely I'd get thorns that could cause infection. We'll have to strike that journey." Or maybe those are my least spiritual fantasies. I mean, what need is there to walk by faith, when you've got God's Day Timer?

The truth is, I have no idea where I'm going. Things are popping up that will no doubt affect my job, my family life, and my illustrious writing career! I don't really know who Claudia Mair is yet. I've only been her for a week. I went to the Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery Sunday, and people called me by my Orthodox names. It was a bit disorienting, and strangely comforting.

A part of me wants to stamp my feet and bellow at God, "Why can't you tell me where I'm going?" None of this is familiar. In a way, I feel blind. My spiritual hands thrust out in front of me, and I want them to light on something solid that I can understand--that I can read like the blind read what they sense without sight, and in a way, that is exactly what I'm doing as I touch the startling new, but it destroys my illusions of control. I'm not in charge. I never have been. My steps have been ordered by the Lord.

There is something magificent in this. I have a Guide. A Comforter. The Holy Spirit is within, urging me toward all truth. The Spirit of God pilots my journey, and gives me a certain peace, even though my mind rages. He doesn't say, "I'm going to take you here or there." He brings the words of Jesus to me, which are simply, "Follow me." He brings to memory the stories that inform my journey: Peter walking on water. The trouble with walking on water though, is that it only seemed to work when he wasn't thinking about it. He went because Jesus bid him to come, and that one word from Jesus was enough. But then he thought about it, and that's what I'm doing now.

Jesus says, "Come," and I wonder if I should bring water proof shoes--Walmart has those little clogs, the kind that gardeners wear. Hey, is okay to shop at Walmart? I ponder if stepping about on those wet waves will give me my death of pnuemonia. "Should I bring my inhaler? Lord, you know too much humidity will give me an asthma attack."

Yesterday, I read that becoming Orthodox is a violent process. It sure has been for me. It has been powerful, fast, and uprooted everything I thought I knew about God, leaving me with a wrecked spiritual house (but a clean one). It's a little more than rearranging the furniture. I got an extreme home makeover. And I can't see to put things just so and arrange it like the old house. I'm tripping all over the new furniture and bumping into walls that weren't there before.

It occurs to me that I should be praying through this. Nothing like that old standby, "Thy will be done." Right?

Last night, I read a prayer by Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow. It's a prayer for acceptance of God's will, and boy did I need that prayer. It goes:

O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You.
You alone know my true needs.
You love me more than I myself know how to love.
Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me.
I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation.
I can only wait on You. My heart is open to You.
Visit me and help me, for the sake of Your mercy.
Strike me, and heal me; cast me down and raise me up.
I worship in silence Your holy will, and Your unsearchable ways.
I offer myself as a sacrifice to You.
I have no desire than to fulfill Your will.
Teach me to pray. Pray, You Yourself in me.
Amen.

And I add to that, and teach me to walk on water, without thinking about it.

Mair

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Taste and SEE that the Lord is Good

Claudiachrismationcommunion
Claudiachrismationcommunion,
originally uploaded by ragamuffin diva.
Chrismation and First Communion

The ceremony went beautifully. I can sum up my experience in two words: I cried. I cried at confession. I cried when I stood at the door of the church and said the Nicene Creed. I cried, and cried, and cried.

We call this the Baptism of Tears. It is when the Holy Spirit moves on you, and uses your tears of repentence to cleanse you.

I cried after I was anointed with oil on my eyes and nose and mouth, and my ears and heart and hands and feet. I cried when the voices of my spiritual Father and the men of God who'd nurtured me in my journey to Orthodoxy boomed inside of me in perfect harmony as they sang a prayer that God would grant me many years. Lord, have mercy. I cried and cried.

When it was time to take communion, I was invited first. And yes, I cried. It got started around the time in the Divine Liturgy when we "lay aside all earthly things." It is a Holy Space. I watch with wonder as Fr. Leo consecrates the gifts to the Lord. It is a joyful, sorrowful time. We sing softly. We repent. We look to God for mercy. We expect grace, and we receive it.

He gives me two names. My old name becomes my new name, when I am told of Saint Claudia, and that the day when we honor all the martyrs named Claudia is in May, the month I was Chrismated in. And of course, the name Mary (Mair). I am now God's Claudia Mair.

I think this picture says more than I can ever say about the Eucharist. Father Leo, who holds the Holy Gifts, is ablaze with the Light of God, but not consumed. I love that fact that the spoon is reaching to me, and it too is full of light. It's as if God is saying, I want you to taste and SEE that I am Good. And I am here. And I am yours.

You are in Me. And I am in You.

And to that I say, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord, the Light of Light.

Claudia Mair,
unworthy partaker of the Divine.