On Becoming a Reed Pipe of the Holy Spirit

(Written earlier this year, this essay is dedicated to the newly baptized handmaid of God, Nina Tauck.)

It’s New Year’s Day morning and human hope abounds. People everywhere are making resolutions or are reflecting on resolutions already made at the stroke of midnight. Some of these will be private—unexpressed intentions to be a better friend, start jogging a couple of days a week, or get a garden in by May. Others, perhaps made with more confidence for success, are being shared as public self-improvement announcements. Photos of freshly minted bullet journals are being shared all over social media today.

For someone who is entering this new year without a single resolution, I am strangely hopeful and lighthearted, something that has to do with a study I’ve been making of the life of St. Nina and with my visit to a monastery last Sunday. A visit that started with confession.

There are times when under the Christ-graced stole of a confessor all the specialness of your failings and weaknesses is lost and they look like what they are: plain, ordinary sin. On Sunday morning I had one of those moments, and far from the frightening experience it sounds, it was wonderful, amazing. I felt dazed when it was over, wobbled a little as I found my way back into the main church, where in my absence the deacon had been censing the congregation. I got myself together just in time to see him give a last flick of his wrist, a final swing of the censor before returning to the altar. He left us cloaked in a swirl of sweet-smelling clouds that soon headed for the dome and heaven. I inhaled deeply, eyes wet with thankful tears. Always in confession I state my intention to be less cavalier with time, more liberal with compassion and tenderness, ultra-conservative with criticisms, among other things. And always I have known God believes me. That day, for the briefest, flashing moment, as I bent my neck for absolution, I had believed myself.

Standing outside after the service, blinking in the stark daylight, I was still somewhat dazed, but also invigorated. Suddenly it seemed that hope was everywhere. It was just down the hill in the monastery cemetery, where bodies sown in the same earth from which they were made lay waiting for the Lord’s return. It was inside the chapel, where monks had just finished singing a moleben to a wonderworking icon. It was behind me in the dining hall, where children sat at tables devouring donuts, eager to be outside on this unusually mild winter’s day, to run and play where saints have walked. It was in the gentle range of mountains that keeps the monastery cradled in an eternal, motherly embrace. That morning the hills lay in dark silhouette, a wide scalloped ribbon on the hem of an overcast sky. Poised, it seemed to me, to move on command.

It has occurred to me to wonder, as the days pass and my elation fades like the scent of paradise from a growing baby’s skin, how St. Nina kept her hold on otherworldly hope, how it became the unfading, mountain-moving kind. The answer, it turns out, can be found in the details of her life, distilled in a few key illuminating words in her troparion:

“O handmaid of the Word of God, who in preaching equaled the first-called Apostle Andrew, and emulated the other Apostles, enlightener of Iberia and reed pipe of the Holy Spirit, holy Nina, pray to Christ our God to save our souls.”

Image result for st. nina of georgia

Handmaid of the Word of God. Preacher. Emulator of the Apostles. Enlightener of Iberia. These small apt titles carry in them some of the large, impressive things we know about St. Nina. But it’s the last title in the list, the one that calls St. Nina, poetically, a reed pipe of the Holy Spirit, that I found significant to my question. This description casts light on the other four, explaining how it is that someone who seems to have her share of self-doubt, referring to herself as a “worthless and ignorant woman”, topples a pagan temple, causing its idols to blast apart on command, and converts the hearts of an entire nation to Christ.

Organs are reed pipe instruments. In organ pipes, air under pressure (wind) is directed towards a brass reed, which vibrates at a specific pitch. But at the time of St. Nina there were no organs. In her day a reed pipe would have been simple, a single, hollow tube with a hand-carved reed. I have not heard the song such a reed pipe makes, but I can imagine it would have a haunting, holy sound, sweet and piercing. The kind of sound to wound the heart of a king and send him in search of the healing love of Christ.

In an essay on the distinguishing traits of saints, theologian Father Dimitru Staniloae says they are people who have reached our full potential. What we can be, they are. The chief difference between them and us is the alacrity with which they give themselves completely to God. Saints are not just willing to be hollowed out, they are eager. Cheerfully, joyfully so. In the oldest record of the life of St. Nina, in the church history by Rufino, it is the novelty of such a joyful poverty that first catches the notice of the pagan Iberians. Word began quickly to spread of the virtue of this humble young captive woman (noblewoman, in the later Georgian version) whose life was one of bright, cheerful sobriety and constant, unceasing prayer, who “nourished herself with fasting as if with food”. Is it any wonder that when we express a longing to go deeper and further in the life in Christ, we are encouraged to read and study the lives of the saints? In their strength is revealed our weakness. And our hope.

The unexpected gift in my brush with otherworldliness that day at the monastery is that it brought me to look closer at the life St. Nina, and to see that in her, as in all the saints, the true nature of hope is revealed. In the saints the hope of Christ shines in all its radiant glory. And seeing St. Nina’s life of unceasing prayer, humility, obedience, compassion, poverty—her eager holy hollowness—stand in stark, gritty contrast to a mountaintop dream, my own hope feels a little truer, stronger and readier to endure.

God is wondrous in his saints.

Holy Saint Nina pray to God for us!

 

 

Lights on the Mountain

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How to Mourn a Nun

(This essay was posted earlier this week on my author website http://www.cherylannetuggle.com, some thoughts I had on the recent loss of a dear nun, and the influence monastics have on our lives as Orthodox Christians living in the world. I’m sharing it here at the suggestion of a reader.)

A nun was buried yesterday, a woman beloved in her community, and one who was dear to our family’s heart. Today I woke up pondering how to consider her death, this human person who lived out her golden years striving to imitate the angels, and I wonder, is there a proper way to mourn a nun? That is, I wonder if nuns (and monks) should be mourned more purposefully than other people are, in a way specific to the monastic life they’ve led. In my twenty-something years of being Orthodox, I’ve learned a great deal about monasticism and nuns, but I don’t believe I’ve ever studied, or been instructed, on how to mourn one. A Google search of Orthodox Christian monastics and mourning was no help and only reminded me of something I already knew: that nuns themselves are in mourning always—not the loss of their former lives, but for their sins.

In all my mostly Pentecostal childhood, I was only around nuns once. That the experience stuck with me is proof, I believe, that there are no accidental tourists on the road to salvation. Our Savior God really does want all to come to the knowledge of the Truth. However far we may wander, or how much we may believe we’re finding our own path, He is always in some way positioning us to better see the way ahead, pointing our toes in the direction of the light.

My first peek at nuns came when I was still small, five or six, and a family friend who was married to a Catholic (a kind, quiet man who sometimes let me tag along with him to mass), took me to visit a convent. It was a busy day in a place devoted to some charitable work, and the impression I took away was a childish one. Because no one stopped to talk to me, I determined that nuns were not much interested in little girls. Nuns were quiet, they wore a neat, spotless, well-below-the-knee dress that was a lot like a nurse’s uniform, but dark instead of white—and with even odder-looking hat—and they stuck to their tasks. I would keep this impression for three decades, because following that visit to the convent my family moved across the country to another state. I didn’t know any Catholics in Oklahoma to take me visiting nuns, so when I did have a chance to observe them again, it would be with adult eyes (my child’s gaze had become that of a woman and a mother) and the nuns would be Orthodox Christians.

When I talk to other converts about their journeys into the Orthodox Church, I get the feeling mine was both similar and different. I had all the usual presuppositions of the faith in which I was brought up, but I seem to have been unusually willing to get loose of them. Though it would shock her to know it, I blame my mother for this. A school librarian, she kept our family bookshelves stocked with books by writers from all sorts of traditions, who therefore helped keep the door of my mind slightly ajar. It was my mother, too, who let me go on outings with people who didn’t watch me closely, who exposed me to the beauty of old liturgical churches and let me rub shoulders with nuns. That beauty, and those nuns, were like marks God left on the trunks of trees as I struggled in a dark wood to find my way home.

But the nuns I saw now, the ones who showed up at the Orthodox church I was attending, were far from the crisp image I had from the day at the convent. Frankly these nuns looked a bit rugged. Their black cotton robes were sun-faded, wilted and creased from driving on a hot day in a car with no air conditioning. As if we were redoing a photo from my childhood, my small daughter turned and watched as they took their place in the back of the church, observing them with dark eyes wide as they arranged themselves to pray.

Those nuns would come to change my life, change all our lives. The girls of our parish would grow up knowing of women so gritty and strong of heart as to spend the bulk of their daily lives in prayer. Which is, as all who have tried it agree, the hardest work there is. And all the while those women prayed, they did lesser work too, we found out. Work like carpentry and gardening and chicken-keeping and honey-harvesting, writing and translating, social work and nursing. In short, through those nuns we were introduced in a very personal, hands-on way to an aspect of the early church that isn’t always easy to grasp. Because most of us have grown up hearing about St. John the Baptist in his hair shirts, surviving in the desert on prayer and wild locusts, or St. Anna the Prophetess, praying continually day and night in the temple, the gospel passages can have the effect of story, distancing us from the reality of what they are: descriptions of monasticism.

Of course, it’s not the purpose of monasticism to teach lay people what humility looks like, but the real men and women who are living the monastic life do show it to us, simply by being in the process of becoming what they have set out to be: holy, women and men perfected in Christ. And when an elderly nun like the one I mentioned at the beginning, who has not only chosen to live the monastic life, but has chosen it again and again, over and over, year after year, day after day, until at last she is given no more days to make the choice and she departs this world, she does it with the same monastic humility. Having no earthly possessions, she leaves nothing. Only, without intending to, she has left us an inheritance: a measure of hope in a hope-parched land.

A friend who attended the burial of our dear nun-friend called me afterward to say that she had been able to “give mother a last kiss”. There was unexpected joy in my friend’s voice as she said this, I could hear it plainly as she spoke.

So, how should a nun be mourned? I still don’t know. There are people who will, but I haven’t yet asked them. I suspect the answer will have something to do with the above-mentioned humility. It may turn out that a nun’s own mourning has been enough. Perhaps all I will have to do is receive the joy.

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