On Reading Too Much

“And further, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12, KJV)

by John Clayton Pearlstein

During a recent talk with my spiritual father, we discussed books. Specifically, he asked which books I was currently reading. When I finished giving him the rather long list, he told me that during fast periods it’s best to focus on one book and explained that this is a good way to go about reading even outside of fasts. We can be so dense, he said, that God can usually only teach us one thing at a time. If we’re reading all sorts of books simultaneously then we’re probably not learning like we ought to. He went on to tell me a story about a monk whose spiritual father told him to read the 23rd Psalm. After a week, the father asked the monk how far he had gotten with the Psalm and the monk replied, “I got as far as ‘The Lord is.’” After another week, the father asked the same question and the monk replied, “I now have ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’” The story goes that it took the monk the rest of his life to know the 23rd Psalm.

As my spiritual father explained it to me, we think we know something simply because we speak the language. When we hear the word “Shepherd” we say to ourselves “yeah I’ve got that.” For instance, he said that when we come to the Eucharistic consecration of the bread and wine in the Divine Liturgy and hear the words “Thine Own of Thine Own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all” we think “I know the words ‘Thine’ and ‘Own’ etc. so, I’ve got it.’” But we don’t really know what those words mean. His advice to me was this: to slow down and focus on one book at a time; to read a book and really attempt to grasp what is going on and what is being said.

Realizing how deficient I am in knowledge, especially when it comes to the Orthodox Faith, I thought I needed to read as much as I could, and quickly. I see now that reading in that way will at best give me a head full of knowledge that will likely never reach my heart and, if I’m honest, will probably not even accomplish a head full of knowledge. It’s embarrassing to me how often I find myself saying “I’ve read that book but I’m not sure how much I could tell you about it.” And yet there are Saints like Saint Mary of Egypt who, although she had never read or even heard anyone else read the Scriptures, had them inscribed on her heart and quoted them to Saint Zosima, much to his amazement. Or like Saint Spyridon, who was also illiterate, yet was able to overcome the heresy of the much-learned heretic Arius and played a significant role in the formation of the Nicene Creed. I don’t hope to achieve anything close to what they did, but maybe if I slow down I can at least catch a few crumbs from the Table.

I hope to slow down. And by slowing down, I pray that through the Grace and Mercy of God something precious will actually find its way into my heart. Maybe the dullness that I’ve experienced in the multitude of words will be replaced by a few that become a flaming arrow that finds its mark and illumines the darkness of my heart.

Lord have Mercy on my pitiful efforts.

(I want to note that the guidance of my spiritual father was directed at me in private conversation, and that it was in specific reference to spiritual reading, though (for me) I think I could apply it to secular reading as well.)

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In Praise of Senseless Acts

By Cheryl Anne Tuggle

I find it interesting that whenever a violent crime is committed and reported to be a senseless act, the media will spend days, even weeks, trying to make sense of it. Senseless, in my dictionary, is defined as “unconscious, having no purpose or meaning”. It is also defined as something that is “lacking in common sense; wildly foolish”.

If the first definition makes irony of the media’s attempts to find meaning in what they themselves describe as senseless, the second definition strikes me as important for the Orthodox Christian. Our faith—from “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty” to “and the life of the world to come” can be called wildly foolish, completely lacking in common sense, and rightly so. Only people who are devoid of all common sense could believe in the self-abasement, the taking up of our cross, that we are called to in Christ.

“I looked upon your Beauty, how shall I speak of what is unspeakable,” said St. Symeon the Theologian to the Lord, Jesus Christ. And as Christ’s adoring followers, St. Maria of Paris insists we are to try to understand every person as an icon of that Beauty, to bow ourselves down in humility before each one, to kiss their feet as we would the Lord’s. Such humility is a call to senselessness, of course. It is absurd. Bow before people who, if not completely bad, are mostly not good? Just as sure as you do that, they’ll step on your neck.

Yet while admitting it does not make good sense, there is something appealing to me, something almost romantic, in the idea of at least attempting to see the face of Christ in the downtrodden, the outcast, the mistreated, the homeless poor. But there is something decidedly less appealing about looking for Jesus in the control freak, the whiner and complainer, the money-grubber, the vain, the proud, the arrogant and the lazy. And the notion that there is in the gang lord, the drug dealer, the tyrant dictator, the woman abuser, the child pornographer, the mass shooter, a look about the eyes that should remind me of Christ’s is nigh to impossible to consider. (Yes, of course, Lord, these are yours. But surely not them.)

A couple of days ago, I opened an empty shoe box and removed the wadded tissue that comes inserted in any pair of new shoes. When I unrolled the first sheet, I found printed on the inside the image of a rose, complete with vine and leaves. It’s possible, I suppose, that the tissue was rolled and inserted by a machine, but it doesn’t matter. At the time, it was personal. Someone had done this thing, hidden this rose on purpose, knowing it made no sense to do so. I took a photo and posted it on social media, calling it an act of senseless beauty. In the days since, the tissue rose has become a personal metaphor, the illustration for that concept I mentioned, the one I find near to impossible to grasp. There is something my spiritual father has been saying to me for years. I’m paraphrasing to suit my purpose, but according to him the only way to overcome common sense—the primal instinct toward self-preservation that keeps you and me from responding to every person without exception as if they were Christ himself—is to commit senseless acts of beauty. To be wildly foolish for Christ’s sake is to open the hand and let go when everything is telling you to keep your fist tight. Senselessness, in this meaning, isn’t the foolishness of masochism, it doesn’t shelter evil and pretend that it’s good. No, this foolishness has only to do with turning against the evil in our own hearts, to begin to actively swim against the swiftly-moving current of self-will and make our way toward the headwaters of holiness. This foolishness is to love and bless when the whole world, and our own being, is saying to us, “curse”.

Very likely all we will ever manage of such acts will not amount to a printed tissue rose in the toe of a shoe, but you and I know from Tradition that even the faintest image of Christ’s sweet face has the power to heal. And if we grow tired of struggling upstream when it would be so much easier to swim down, we have only to think of the Mother of God, to see her gazing up at that face from the foot of the cross, at the beloved features of her son drawn with the pain and loneliness of the whole sin-sick world, and to remember that seeing the foolishness, the Divine senseless Beauty in His condescension, she bowed her head in humility and kissed His feet.

*The icon “Holy Napkin”; image credit: Uncut Mountain Supply.com

IMG-0482by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

It’s been a long time since I needed a laundromat. And I wouldn’t need one now if I hadn’t realized yesterday that the comforter in the upstairs guest bedroom hasn’t been cleaned in a while. I took it to the dry cleaner’s but quickly left again, dazed and still holding my comforter, when the clerk quoted the price—far too high for a service I could easily handle myself with a triple-load washer. But where, in a town (a part of the country, really) where everyone owns a washing machine, and if not a dryer, at least a clothesline, do you find a laundromat with a triple-load washer? It was a burning question, so I called my priest. He’s a wise man. Also, he lives in Ash Grove, where on drives to church I recalled seeing a laundromat. (Our church sits on land our priest and his wife gifted to the parish, part of a farm passed down to Father Moses through his father’s family, who were the descendants of slaves.)

The Ash Grove laundromat, Father Moses said, is now a lawnmower shop (a business more generally needed these days, I suppose, along with washing machine repair) and gave me directions to a different one that turned out to be only a short drive from where I live.

So here I am in a Springfield laundromat, watching the comforter do a sudsy twirl, and the place is empty. I am alone and free to observe. To ponder. The smell of powdered laundry soap, old metal and old tile, the sight of the wheel-around baskets and the years-old magazines scattered across a counter—it all has a kind of strange poignancy to it, and gives me a feeling much stronger and less plain than nostalgia. Although I am old enough to remember places like this when they were in full daily use, this is more a sense of having entered a different, and important, dimension, a feeling so odd and sharp it is almost eerie, in a time-travel, sci-fi way.

For the first time while pondering all this from my bench, I happen to glance up and read one of the signs that are posted around the interior, there are at least two on every wall. Some are threats, and some are blessings. The contrast is jarring. On one wall is a chalkboard on which is scrawled, in hopeful, looping cursive handwriting, a scripture from Jeremiah about trusting in the Lord. Above it, a camera points directly at the bench where I am sitting. Next to the camera, a less hopefully-written sign reminds me that I am being filmed, and that if I should take a notion to carve my name into a bench or jam something that is not coin into a machine, I will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Another of the signs is reminder to the homeless people who frequent this part of town that the building is open only to paying customers. There is no attendant on duty to enforce this block-lettered policy, however. There is only that camera.

Here in this strange place of past and present, of blessings and curses, where I am alone with my thoughts in a way not often experienced, I get a most sudden and unique glimmer of understanding, the quickest flash of an idea. Having experienced less mystical flashes, those that have to do with the stories I write, I know how quickly they can evaporate and hunt for pen and paper, hoping to record it before it dissipates. Instead I discover that I’m in a rare state, that of being without a writer’s essentials. There is not a single scrap of clean paper in this place (even the bathroom is out of tissue), nothing to write on at all, except the wall or this bench, and I am not about to be arrested for vandalism. This empty-handedness, I decide, is fitting. Because the glimmer I’m trying to record has to do with a vacancy in my soul. I think I can see, almost, the length and measurement of the space that I, who have only limited flexibility, am attempting to straddle, the one Saint Sophrony and others speak about, the chasm that keeps my mind and my heart from being one. It is from this wide, great divide that I, too, utter blessings that are for others curses. It is from this place that I tend to turn backward and crane my neck into the past, hoping what I see there will somehow light my way in the present. It is also from this place that I revel in my aloneness, becoming colder and more indifferent to the homelessness in the heart of my neighbor.

If this seems a bleak glimmer, a morbid sort of insight, I assure you it is not. Indeed, it is such a happy thought that I almost leap from my bench in the joy of it. I feel like spinning and twirling the way my clean comforter is doing, now, in the dryer. Hope is a feathered thing, I remember, and believe that what has just hatched in my chest beats with wings eternal.

Because, you see, I don’t expect that by understanding that my soul is sick, void of the humility and love that would fill and heal the wounded, vacant space, I’ve become instantly well. No, that’s not where the joy comes from. The joy springs from the certainty that I am receiving the right care and medication. I have the best treatment available in all the world for my condition.

That phone call I made to my priest that led me to this laundromat? Well, he’s a good doctor, and as it happened, that call also led to my partaking of the Sacrament of Confession. Or, as I like to think of it, a triple-load washer for the soul.

*Thank you for reading! Soon I’ll be posting at my new author website: cherylannetuggle.com. I’d love to have you visit me there. (If you’d like to share this post, please scroll past the ads.)

Confessions from a Laundromat

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

When my children were young I received from a friend a copy of an essay written by a nun titled “Forming the Soul”. The essay explained the importance of good quality fiction in the spiritual education of a child. I’ve lost it, unfortunately. Or, I can’t find it temporarily. I do, however, remember the nut of the essay:

As parents we find it important to feed children good food to ensure their bones and brains are forming well and growing strong. We should find it just as important, if not more so, to feed their minds in a way that considers their taste buds and interests their pallets, and yet ensures they are forming strong, healthy souls. We laugh to think of children choosing their own diet. It’s not hard to imagine the empty calories that would be eagerly consumed at every meal. The analogy is clear, I won’t press the point further because this post is about the forming of an adult soul: mine.

In an email discussion the other day, I mentioned to a writer friend that fiction had played (and continues to play) an important role in my spiritual journey. That friend asked if I would share a few titles. Below is the list of books that emerged from our conversation.

When I considered fiction that in some way changed or helped to form my soul, certain books leapt to mind. These are the titles I decided to include, with no other criteria. There aren’t any political or dystopian novels—no Ralph Ellison or Elizabeth Atwood. You might also notice the lack of titles usually found on lists of spiritual novels: no beautifully written sermons by Wendell Berry or Marilynn Robinson or C.S. Lewis, no Walker Percy or Flanner O’Connor or Toni Morrison prodding the darkness to expose the light. This is not because I don’t admire or respect the work of these authors, but when I thought about them I had to admit that they simply had not pierced the tough skin of my soul, however much they challenged my mind and pricked my conscience. So this, again, is a personal list, a sampling not of books that should have, but of books that did. Most are classics. A few are more recent (growth, hopefully, continues). All are novels that have what I call “the gospel spark”, stories (mostly told in traditional style) with characters who through their fictional struggles and triumphs illustrated for me the Resurrection—the joy unspeakable and full of glory that comes only, incomprehensibly, from accepting to shoulder my cross and follow Christ.

I’d love to hear from you. What titles would be on your list? Which stories or authors have helped form your soul?

The Dollmaker by Harriet Simpson Arnow

Nickel Mountain by John Gardner

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein

Tales from a Greek Isle and The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamandis

Wonderful Fool by Shusako Endo

Bleak House and Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

The Sojourner by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Middlemarch and Silas Marner by George Eliot

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Promise by Chaim Potok

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Crime and Punishment and The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

Laurus by Eugene Vodalazkin

Forming the Soul

Art, Technology and the Shape of Life

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Because I can’t manage time with much of anything to distract me, I’ve sometimes had to remove myself from technology to write. Two months ago I signed back into social media after one of these breaks, having done it enough times to know that it’s a little like hopping a merry-go-round as a child. You stand still for a moment, letting the wheel go around a few times as you get up your nerve, then take a deep, bracing breath and jump on. Even the shouts of your friends welcoming you back is the same, and the feeling that they are only just now realizing you were gone.

A bonus of the break, after taking it, is having a different perspective, the distant point of view compared with the close. Up close technology-based life looks like regular life. From farther away, it looks to be making of life what art does, an imitation.

There is a difference, though, it seems to me, and an important one, between the imitation of life that goes on in the tech-social world and that of art. Such “sharing” often has a charitable motive, dish up a slice of your life, offer a taste of friendship. The sense of being part of a community is one of the many fine things about social media and the main reason I miss it when away. But I am uneasy to see that in my absence there’s been an increase in staging, to use a real estate term, a clearing away of the clutter and mess of ordinary living so life looks more attractive, more Pinterest-worthy to Facebook friends and Instagram followers. There’s no harm, of course, in setting up a photo so the sink of dirty dishes doesn’t show. The danger is subtler than that, I think. It lurks in the careful consideration of how our private selves, or in other words how we, will appear to others in a public post. Psychologists are studying the phenomenon, offering theories that explain why technology has us unconsciously posing, but spiritually speaking, the danger is not lessened because the posing is unconscious. The need to connect, be seen, be cherished, is natural to us, God-given and strong. But let any need become passion-feuled obsession and we are all, even the most honest of us, capable of resorting flim-flam and fakery to satisfy it.

Not so with art, and here is the difference in the imitation. True art, whether it be a sculpture, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a hand-carved iconostasis, inspires. It moves the soul toward God. It generates growth. To grow in the presence of art a soul needs only disposition—a heart that lists in the direction of the divine, and discipline—a willingness to do the work that brings about change. In other words, we are challenged by art to live in a way that changes us because art purposely forms within us the ideal of our humanity, makes us long to have faces that resemble God’s. Technology does not do this for me. The internet is a brightly colored feeder and I am the hummingbird, lazily sipping at sugar water. No work needed, I merely fly in for a nip anytime I like. And if the syrup is a little too quickly gotten, substitute sweet, who cares? I’ve almost forgotten by now what a real flower looks like anyhow, let alone remember the taste of its nectar.

There is a nub of conflict, E.B. White says, between, “The careful form of art, and the careless shape of life itself.” In the conflict, so he claims, lies our destiny.

photo of plants on the table

Photo by Designecologist on Pexels.com

Tech-social society has its place, the sincere cheers of welcome from both old friends and new remind me of that, lifting and encouraging my heart. But it will be good to remember, I think, as I snap an Instagram photo, post a meme on Facebook, that if the thing is not art, it is also not quite careless enough in shape to be life.

Faithless Fiction: Imagine

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

A few weeks ago I discovered an essay, published in 2012 in the New York Times by resident writer Paul Elie. The title asked, ‘Has Fiction Lost its Faith?

It’s a good question, and sparked another for me: What if? I tried to imagine a world in which literature never had any element of religious faith. Not the world of Fahrenheit 451, mind you,  in which books are illegal. No, this world has plenty of literature, just none with the slightest element of religious faith, no God-seeking. It’s a world without Jane Eyre, Monseigneur Myriel and Uncle Tom. There has never been a Binxs Bolling or a Reuven Malter, a Calpurnia, or an Atticus Finch. A world, I argue, less interesting than ours.

In modernist fiction there seems to be an idea that to be serious a novel must be devoid of any element or reference to faith in God, especially in the Judeo-Christian sense, unless the element is pejorative or comical. In other words, serious fiction must be atheistic in all its aspects. With some bright and shining exceptions, such as Eugene Vodalazkin’s ‘Laurus’, or Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Abide With Me’, a new canon of literature is developing out of this assumption, literature that is not only paler and flatter for the most part than its vibrant, multi-faceted predecessor, it has become conscious of itself in a way some readers find frankly juvenile.  As one novel-loving friend expressed it to me: modernist fiction is largely dark and depressing, its characters are sullen and sex-obsessed. Hearing this description, I couldn’t help smiling, thinking of the moment in the movie ‘Harvey’, when Veta, Elwood’s sister, feels similarly about her world, and asks, “Why don’t they get out? Take walks!”

Literature, fiction as art, has always been born of the desire to discover, to find out the how and why, to learn by creative means what evil exists in the human heart, and what good. The novelist is a spelunker, an explorer of caves, moving through the labyrinths of the human experience, seeing what can be seen by the light of a headlamp’s beam. I can’t help but see fiction without faith as dishonest discovery, which in my mind is no discovery at all. For the novelist who refuses to acknowledge the crucial role of serious faith, noble faith, in the human experience, is one who trains their gaze on a small corner of the cave and keeps it there. That novelist will never know, or be able to show us, what lies out of reach of the headlamp’s beam. It might be a vein of pure gold. Meanwhile, the reader is left to stare at a wall of stalagmites and wonder, however vaguely, what lies just out of the light. And this is where my writer’s heart begins to hope. For as long as the wondering continues, I believe there will be faith in fiction.

*Thank you to David Haigh and Marianthe Karanikas, fellow members of the Good Seed Literary Society, who so generously and thoughtfully considered this subject and shared their ideas with me.

Dancing Through Holy Week

Jessby Michele Latham

“This is the sad part.”

These were the words spoken by a cherub-faced toddler in a second hand pink tutu; a happy, spoiled child who hadn’t known a day of sadness in her three years on this earth. And yet…as the minor chords of a Vivaldi concerto flowed from our CD player, she swayed and danced in the saddest way. Her eyes were downcast, shoulders slumped and each step and movement seemed heavy and labored. She may not have personally known a deep sadness, but I feel sure Antonio Vivaldi did, and it translated from the instruments to her tiny soul. She was feeling it.

Then, two things happened. The movement ended and I could hear a new, more upbeat melody forming. At the same moment, my daughter looked at me with a sparkle in her eye. She didn’t have to say the words, I could read it in her face and movements. The happy part was coming! As the strings sang out a light, joyful melody, I saw her jump and twirl, smiling from ear to ear.

I’m always reminded of my daughter’s words when Holy Week arrives. There are some really tough services ahead. You might even say, “This is the sad part”. We, as modern day Orthodox Christians weren’t actually present when our Lord suffered and was nailed to the cross, but we experience it through the words and melodies of our divine services. We hear the events of Christ’s last days as a man on earth. We attend His funeral and lament along with his beloved followers. The sadness almost seems unbearable…

But then, we hear hints of what is to come and we know the sadness won’t last. Christ will trample death. He will rise from the tomb on the third day.

And that’s when we remember the joy. We will feel it in our bones and in our spirits. And at midnight on Holy Saturday, we finally get to the happy part! We may even jump and twirl because we know for certain that Jesus Christ Conquers and He is Risen!

Real School

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

gardener_gardening_gardenAt times, while thinning out an iris bed or hanging my granddad’s work shirts on the line, my grandma used to get a certain far away look. It put a fence between us, that look, and I wanted a gate. I didn’t know the phrase “penny for your thoughts” or I would have used it, would have taken a hammer to my piggy bank and paid whatever toll it took to follow her into that country behind her blue, blue eyes.

I’ve got my own country, these days, and travel there often. Perhaps too often. Just last week I caught myself driving down a road I couldn’t see because I was on a different one, in a different car at a different time, having a conversation with my son. A high school senior, he had enough credits for early out. His own car was in the shop, so I had picked him up and was driving him to work. After answering with his usual brevity my questions about his own day, he asked how things had gone with his sister, who was on her second week in a new school—a school that was not just new to her, but new to everyone involved. Held in a century-old house belonging to a couple of teacher friends of ours who had been schooling their children at home for years, it was a homeschool cooperative-slash-one room schoolhouse experiment. In answer to my son’s question, I said, “Well, she was pretty excited this morning when I dropped her off. Apparently, yesterday each of the kids got to dig their own bed in the garden. She had a bag of tulip bulbs she couldn’t wait to plant.” For a moment after my reply there was silence, not unexpected. He was a quiet boy (now a quiet man) who rarely spoke without first pondering.  At last, when he was good and ready, he said, “Sounds like a real school.”

So, there I was, driving down a road in the present, thinking about that day in the past, remembering those four words, and it struck me that there was a deeper wisdom in them than I’d grasped at the time That day, I’d only been gratified, felt bad for folks who were still languishing, educationally speaking. Because, honestly, that school was a beautiful thing. A sort of greenhouse, if you will, for rooting children in a style of education which makes them curious to know things, turns them into independent learners. Even just two weeks in, I had reason to feel our choice to send her had been the right one.

Real school. Those words, I saw now, weren’t about school at all. Not about a garden bed, soft, dug dirt, waiting to be planted by small, eager hands in tulips. Not about a large old rambling frame house with private corners for curling up to read, big wide rooms for acting out Shakespeare or plays from stories you’ve written yourself. They were about life itself. God-given. Divinely sustained.

If there are times when it seems you’ve been enrolled against your will in an institution of hard knocks, curriculum designed to teach you to take it all on the chin, all the heartbreak, disappointment and loss, you’re not alone. Some of us are the type to endure, complaining only when things seem especially difficult. Others of us find it so unbearable we plot to run away, like children escaping some terrible Dickensian boarding school. Because, as the songwriter says, “it’s better than sittin’ here waitin’ around to die”

This ain’t heaven. There’s no escaping the hard. It will find us, even on the run. But the Lord Jesus Christ, who has suffered all we have and more, is with us, ready to teach us the ways of love. His is not the school of blind endurance. Not the school of escape. His way brings peace. And joy so sweet…well, there aren’t words.

We just can’t drop out.

 

The Way I See It

By Cheryl Anne Tuggle

mosaic tile

I have these odd times when what seem to be unrelated experiences will suddenly arrange themselves, like the tiles of a mosaic, into a pattern I can see. And with a flash of insight I am certain there is a Big Picture and all that puzzles my mind to weariness can somehow be fitted into it.

Such moments pass swiftly. At the speed of light, you might say. From where I tend to stand most days (myopically close), I have no such clarity. Ordinarily a moment that has brought me sorrow has a singular jagged edge, so sharp it pains my eyes to look at it. Joy, too, is a broken thing and not to be trusted. However bright it may appear, however much it glints like a ruby in the light, it is still a shard of glass and liable to leave a wound.

But, the mosaic.

I believe it is possible, by simply stepping back a few feet, to see all the fragments of shared experience being worked into the scene by the Artist’s patient hand. My eyesight is not good, though, and I soon grow tired of working to see from such a distance. A glimpse of the emerging pattern is about all I ever get before I’m standing with my nose to the wall again, peering intently at slivers.

I believe, Lord. Help Thou my unbelief.