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.

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The Calling Hours

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

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When my husband and I moved to Southwest Missouri from Texas nearly three decades ago, I had to get used to Ozark speech. Many of the words and phrases I found strange then are gone now, but it’s still possible to hear someone say “I don’t care to” as an expression of agreeableness, and an elderly library patron will still occasionally ask if they should return their books at the desk or “put them yonder” in the book drop. In Ohio, my new home since last month, I’m again getting used to familiar words being used in an unfamiliar way. People don’t mow their lawns here, they cut them. The thing on wheels that holds your groceries as you shop the supermarket aisles is a buggy, not a cart. And when a person has passed away, the obituaries do not list the time of visitation before the funeral, instead they give the hours as 5:30-7:30 (for instance) and say that is the time that friends may call. These are the “calling hours”.

Reading it in the newspapers, I find this expression interesting, and evocative. It causes me to think of loved ones long gone and those oddly warm reunions, those moments of coming-together, that take place in time of death, sometimes over meals, when friends are fonder and family closer, more willing to set aside their hurts and differences of opinion. But there is more than nostalgia to what interests me, what moves me, in the phrase. There is in it, I think, a spiritual lesson to be learned. A slight change of heart in the making.

Friends may call.

Reading the gospels, we see that our Lord had friends. And that he called on them. He sat talking in the shade of a tree with them in the heat of an afternoon, walked along dusty roads in their company and took meals with them in their homes. I’m awed to think of these conversations, how when the God-man sat back in his chair after a particularly good meal his hosts—his friends—must have felt bold enough to reveal their deepest thoughts, to ask the questions that had been burning like hidden fires in their souls. This, incidentally, is by dictionary definition, communion. If intimate thoughts and feelings are being exchanged, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level, then communion is taking place. It is not a far journey from that definition to Holy Communion, in which the most intimate exchange of all takes place, the spiritual meal in which Christ, the all-gracious Host, comes to give himself as food to the faithful.

Friends may call.

Again, I can’t help feeling the importance of these words, especially when on Sunday mornings I watch people linger longer and longer at coffee hour or trapeza, hesitant to end the fellowship.

Friends may call.

There’s no arguing the fact that while our offline relationship circles are shrinking, on social media they are growing ever wider. But just as there is no app for communing with Christ in the Eucharist—we must be physically present to receive, there is also no technological substitute for face to face communion with our fellow humans. We were created for intimate exchange. It is not just good and pleasant for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity, it is crucial to our health, both physical and spiritual. If you have ever visited a monastery you have likely been briefly greeted and then offered a little something to eat and drink. This is because monastics know that what you have come hoping to receive: strength, healing, refreshment, begins when you are received in this way. As lay people, hosting one another is just as important. We may “like” the photos of lovely meals prepared and enjoyed in people’s homes that are shared on social media of course, but how much better to be in that home, tasting and seeing for ourselves, breaking bread together, eating and talking, and even laughing, our way into the intimacy that leads to trust, to the place where we can begin to unburden, work out our differences with forgiveness and understanding and, ultimately, to grow like-minded. In other words, the place where what begins with friends coming to call ends in authentic human communion.

In an old Greek cookbook of mine, there’s a recipe for koliva, the cake made of boiled wheat that is served in many Orthodox traditions to commemorate the dead. The recipe is introduced by the author with an anecdote about her husband, who loved the cake and often asked her to make it for him. “I want my koliva while I’m alive,” he said. I think this man was on to something. It’s time to call on our friends while we have them, while we’re both alive to enjoy the visit. And if at times this takes great effort, because there is also no arguing the fact that we are all busier than ever and often legitimately weary, I believe the effort will be rewarded, perhaps with renewed energy and greater strength. Almost always when I’ve roused my introverted self to attend a book discussion or had friends over for dinner—I’ve felt refreshed afterward and wondered why I don’t do it more often.

Friends may call.

Today is the day. Let’s seize it. This moment, and no other, is given for gathering to eat and drink together, to study, to share thoughts, ideas, joys and worries face to face. Now is the time for intimate exchanges to take place on a spiritual level. These are the calling hours.

*Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

 

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.)

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

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.

 

Love: 10 Uses You May Not Know

Love you! Love you, too!

These words are heard everywhere. Between friends at the shopping mall or school parking lot as they take leave of one another, spoken into cell phones (loud enough for all to hear) or typed in the comment section of a million facebook posts. When this “Love you!” trend first started, I was disgusted and vowed not to partake of the casual, insincere tossing about of the word “love”. It seemed to trivialize the meaning.

However, I have lately changed my mind. Maybe the addition of the word “love” to our everyday vocabulary isn’t a bad thing.  Maybe we need all the love tossed about in this world we can get. Because love is a thing. A real thing. It’s powerful and mighty and is one of the last defenses we have against despair. Why not pass it around to as many people as we can?

It was many years ago when my husband and I were in the midst of parenting our young children. Back then, it seemed that as a society, we tried to shelter children from too much adult information or ideas which would confuse them during the tender stages of becoming people. I held to thisbutterfly_flower_02_hd_pictures belief and still think that parents should be the filter through which young children learn important life lessons. That being said, communication is tricky, even with one’s own children. During this fledgling stage of our family, we were friends with several couples who were in the same boat. We always shared the happy news of expected babies and celebrated recent births with our children. Things got a little complicated when an unmarried friend got pregnant, the kids were curious how this worked since she wasn’t married like the other parents in our lives. It was too early for “the birds and the bees” or any other weighty  discussions, so I told them that she and her boyfriend loved each other…therefore, a baby. My youngest son apparently latched onto this theory, because he applied it later when trying to understand another new situation. We had a friend who miscarried when she was 6 months along in her pregnancy. My son knew she had been pregnant and when we told him the grievous news, he immediately questioned, “why would the baby die?”. As my mind worked to choose the right words, I saw the look of sad realization dawn in his eyes. He thought he had the answer. “The mommy and daddy stopped loving each other?”

 

 In his mind, it was love between the parents that created that new baby and without the love, the baby couldn’t live.

 

It was actually sound logic. After all, I told him that babies were brought into the world as a result of the parents’ love. So it would only follow that without the love…the baby couldn’t survive. I assured him that the parents did indeed still love one another and that there were reasons couples sometimes lost beloved children, but I’ve thought about his theory often throughout the years. How many other things have trouble surviving without love? Families? Relationships? Peace? Compassion? It is evident all around us. Love is so powerful, that the lack of it is making a mess of our world. What makes love so powerful? Simply put:

Love is God. And God is All Powerful

Anything is possible with Love. So I say, let’s hear more voices proclaiming love! Love everywhere, love in all things. Let’s rack our brains to come up with new uses for love…

as a lifeboat,

as a shield,

as a cocoon,

as a butterfly net,

as a remedy,

as a beacon,

as an answer.

Let’s hold one another up with love and send it shooting through throngs of strangers!

Let’s remind our children that they were created by love and that love from God will never, ever stop.

God is Love.

Love is real.

Part Two: Interlude from “A Road to Laurel”

by Donna Mills

The followiDonnang is part two of an interlude in the book, “A Road to Laurel,” which tells the story of a black man’s trial for alleged rape of a white woman.  Although the story is about my father’s defense of the man, I included interludes that spoke of my own experience with race and prejudice. This one includes my experience in the Orthodox Church, with Fr. Moses as my priest.  His oversight of my striving to shed any of my own prejudices was mostly silent and non-judgmental, which gave me the room in which to grow and a perfect model to follow.

 

Interlude III – cont’d

 

In the book “Black Boy,” written in 1943 by a native Mississippian, Richard Wright, about his life as an African American raised in the South, he bemoans the fact that the white culture experiences such different day to day life from the black. He wrote that the white culture has no idea how the black man has to adjust his nature to fit in. From his perspective, while he had “All my life…done nothing but feel and cultivate my feelings,” the white youth had “all their lives done nothing but strive for petty goals, the trivial material prizes of American life. We shared a common tongue, but my language was a different language from theirs.” It was true that he had suffered in certain ways, while it appeared that they no suffering at all. In fact, it may have been true that the shallowness he saw in their souls, which he described as “…like the syllables of popular songs,” was an accurate comparison of their experience compared to his – a life filled with hunger and disappointments, a life of fear and unwarranted reproach. As a young adult, Wright joined the Communist Party and felt that it had the answers for living in peace in this nation. Even there, however, he found himself to be misunderstood and finally, an outcast. After finding himself utterly alone, watching a Communist march he had been thrown out of, he wrote:
“My thoughts seemed to be coming from somewhere within me, as by a power of their own: It’s going to take a long and bloody time, a lot of stumbling and a lot of falling, before they find the right road. They will have to grope about blindly in the sunshine, butting their heads against every mistake, bruising their bodies against every illusion, making a million futile errors and suffering for them, bleeding for them, until they learn how to live.”
Wright spoke of a spiritual blindness, and hoped that his words would “…create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”
Fr. Moses, whose great-grandfather was a slave, taught our congregation that the fathers of our Church spoke of suffering as the way to follow Christ, to win the freedom, peace and joy our souls hope for. He also told us that the old gospel tunes that the slaves sang held a deep spirituality that came from their suffering. He displays in his African American Heritage Museum in Ash Grove, Missouri an iron neck clamp that had been passed down in his family, as well as slave dogtags for remembrance of the cruelty that took place.
Yet, the Socialistic or Communist approach, which seemed to promise suffering for none and appeared to champion the minorities, in the end yields only empty surfeiting and enslavement to its system. I puzzled, as my Dad must have, to determine how to find the “True North,” until I found the saving Grace of faith.
Attempting to convey the substance of this lesson to my children, I read to them from “Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry,” by Mildred Taylor. They cuddled beside me to hear a nightly chapter of the tale of a black family in Jackson, Mississippi whose children walked to a school just down the way from my elementary school, both named “Jefferson Davis Elementary,” but one was for black children and one for white, who were privileged to ride the bus. My three children found it hard to understand why, and wondered at the family’s plight. The words of wisdom from the family’s mother gave perspective:
“Baby, we have no choice of what color we’re born
or who our parents are, or whether we’re rich or poor.
What we do have is some choice over
what we make of our lives once we’re here.

If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?

by Donna MillsDonna

The following is part one of an interlude in the book, “A Road to Laurel,” which tells the story of a black man’s trial for alleged rape of a white woman.  Although the story is about my father’s defense of the man, I included interludes that spoke of my own experience with race and prejudice. This one includes my experience in the Orthodox Church, with Fr. Moses as my priest.  His oversight of my striving to shed any of my own prejudices was mostly silent and non-judgmental, which gave me the room in which to grow and a perfect model to follow.

 

 

Interlude III

I surprised the family in my young adulthood by making a 180 degree turn and committing my life to spiritual discipline. It looked as though the seeds of influence planted by my grandmother had somehow survived and taken root, saving me from the road to perdition I had earlier started on. I converted to Orthodox Christianity and joined myself to a church whose African-American Priest, Fr. Moses, I greatly admired. I prided myself on the lessons learned from my Mom and Dad, and I believed myself to be non-prejudiced. Ironically, the small congregation was mostly white, as was Fr. Moses’ wife. The differences in our color of skin made no difference to me, but I ran into troubles with one of the few black ladies in the church.

Shelia had a propensity for getting under my skin, as she seemed to have a chip on her shoulder, and would engage me in conversations with what I considered a cynical and opinionated view.  I wondered if her attending an all-white women’s college in Mississippi precluded her cynicism, or it had been inbred through a family who desperately wanted to infuse self-esteem into their intelligent girl, who would otherwise have been vulnerable to the lack of opportunities she would find for herself in the society of the South. Whatever the case, I must have symbolized to her the privileged Southern white girl, and it may have been hard for her to see me as anything different.

I went to Fr. Moses to confess my irritation and lack of ability to love for my sister in the church. He kindly suggested that we go out together and have some fun – just get to know each other.  Easy enough, I thought. However, Sheila was not delighted at the prospect to get to know me. Either she didn’t think I was really worth the time or money for a frivolous outing – she was a single mother with tight funds – or she was as timid about what the intimacy might bring to light as I was. Then there was the deciding of what we should actually do. Watching a movie together sounded non-threatening. She suggested Spike Lee’s new movie – “Do The Right Thing.” Thinking I would be caught up in a heated racial discussion, I hedged.  I offered to see “Dead Poet’s Society,” only because of my admiration of the comedian, Robin Williams. Her equally oppositional reaction to seeing a movie about a rich white boys’ private school took me by surprise. Both offended, we decided to put the outing on hold.  After some time she called back, possibly after talking to Fr.  Moses herself, and we agreed to go to a local Indian concert she had seen in the paper.

On the way, we chuckled as we realized that we didn’t know if we were going to a concert of Native American people or folks from India. The issue was cleared when we saw the women in their beautiful saris and the sitars carried under their arms, I felt somewhat awkward and out of place as those dressed properly for this event paused at our jeans. Sheila was used to being a minority, however, and returned my nervous glance with a stoic one of her own. We eventually found our way to the auditorium and took our seats. After a brief welcome and introduction of the musicians, the room darkened. The first performer, a young woman, walked on stage and seated herself on a pillow.  With sitar in lap, she began to play to a hushed audience – one string at a time. The reverberation of the music seemed to stun the crowd and as we heard deeply felt utterances from the people around us, we glanced sideways at each other to catch some understanding of what everyone seemed to be so in awe of.  Sheila shrugged at my questioning eyes, and we turned our attention back to the performance. Although we were used to listening to flowing music with a little action and melody, we attempted to open our senses to the mystical sounds of this strange instrument. Truly, there was beauty in the sounds, but when the crowd once again began to ooh and ahh in amazement at the twang of a single string, Sheila and I again looked at each other for a clue of what we should be amazed of. She was the first one to let a laugh slip, and I, too, failed when attempting to conceal mine.  We were instantly corrected by the frowns of those seated in front of us, who turned to see who could be so impudent.  We silently mouthed an agreement after a few more compulsive chuckles to leave after the performer had finished a set.

The laughter and conversation that followed brought Sheila and I closer together than we had ever been, though we never really acknowledged that this bond came about by our mutual lack of understanding of yet another culture in our midst.  At least we had learned an unspoken lesson together of what it is like not being able to relate to another race outside the mere black/white split.  We understood that being a part of our cultures alone had a great impact on our inability to communicate another culture’s “language,” no matter if our words were the same, or if we both bought our groceries at the same corner store.  There were generations behind each of us whose cultural nuances were unconsciously carried in the makeup of our thoughts as well as our genetics.  There were values and goals that had their own familial roots, traditions and foods which might seem strange to others.  How would we learn to be truly unprejudiced?