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.”

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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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God is Not in Books (Or is He?)

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By Cheryl Anne Tuggle

There’s a video sporadically shared around the internet that has an attention-getting tagline: “God is not in the books.” It’s a statement made by Father Roman Braga of blessed memory, a survivor of the Romanian communist prison camps, during a talk he gave years ago. “God bless the communists,” he says in the video, crossing himself, “because they put the priest in prison”.  The intellectual class (which included priests) was being systematically destroyed, he explains, and so prisoners were given nothing to read for solace or inspiration, no paper or pencil to express themselves. Confined in a solitary cell for three years, Father Roman had nothing but blank walls to look at. “You have to go somewhere. And,” he says, curving his fingers to point to his heart, “you go inside.”

I can see how, taken on its own, this statement could delight the non-reader. It’s a little less fun for the person like me, a lover of books and reading.  I’m so fond, in fact, that I have sometimes been guilty of acting as though I can read my way to salvation, as if mentally assenting to the truths in Unseen Warfare is the same thing as praying, forgiving, loving and repenting. So I admit that Father Roman’s statement holds the sting of hard truth. And yet, only a day or two after the video has appeared again on my Facebook feed, I’ve run across (admittedly, in a book) what seems to be the opposite counsel, given by the holy Elder Porphyrios:

“Read a lot,” he says, “so that God might enlighten your mind.”

The elder’s stamp of approval on books doesn’t stop there, either. Not only does he tell us to read, and read a lot, he nearly blesses us to sneak off and do it in solitude, using himself as an example. “I would read a lot,” he says. “In fact, I would climb a tree with a ladder I had fashioned and would pull it up with me as I ascended, so that people wouldn’t see me and bother me. I spent hours there in study. ” Hours, he says. Hours of reading alone and studying. These, I might point out, are the words of a man who had only two years of formal schooling.

The thing that stands out to me most, though, about Elder Porphyrios’s advice is that he doesn’t tell his spiritual children to read a lot so that their minds may become enlightened, he tells them to read so that God may enlighten their minds.

This, he seems to be saying, is the benefit for us of books and reading. The hours, if we are blessed to have them, of study. Not that we can know things, but that we can know things God wants us to know. He is, after all, the one who gave us our minds in the first place. Having discovered God without books, Fr. Roman went back to reading them and writing after prison, as if he also believed, if not in their necessity, at least in their ability to open the windows of our minds to the light of truth.

God is not in books. But climb a tree to read in solitude, pulling the ladder of your soul up behind you, and you just might find Him.

My own book: https://paracletepress.com/products/lights-on-the-mountain

Featured photo by hannah grace

Recommended Reading:

Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios

https://www.amazon.com/Wounded-Love-Elder-Porphyrios/dp/9607201191

Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives and Counsels of the Contemporary Elders of Greece

https://www.amazon.com/Precious-Vessels-Holy-Spirit-Contemporary/dp/1466214074

Exploring the Inner Universe by Archimandrite Roman Braga

https://www.amazon.com/Exploring-Inner-Universe-Archimandrite-Roman/dp/0964347822/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1544540476&sr=1-1&keywords=exploring+the+inner+universe

Forgotten Gifts

by John Pearlstein

A couple of weeks ago I stopped into the bakery that was once my place of employment. I went there because I wanted to bless my children with their favorite bread- Challah. I used to bring home a loaf every once in a while when I was their delivery guy, but it had been a long while since my kids had enjoyed the special bread.

Friday is Challah day at the bakery and I was running late after a long day of work. So, I called and made sure that they had the Challah and secondly that someone would be there when I arrived. I stopped by on the way home. I was very excited to bring the loaf home as a surprise to the kids. They would be able to enjoy some of it that night and then make french toast with it for Saturday morning breakfast which is a special time that I have with them every week.

So, I arrived home and everyone was playing outside while mom was watching from the porch. I told the kids I had a surprise for them out in the car. They went and got it out and brought it up to the porch. They were very excited! They passed it from kid to kid to see what it. When the initial excitement was over and everyone knew what the surprise was they got back to playing. However, in the midst of the bustle of outside play time, they forgot that gift on the porch.

The next morning I went looking for the gift and could not find it. I then went to the porch and found that the gift had been enjoyed by something other than the intended recipients. Some critter had enjoyed a good quarter of the bread after tearing through the brown bag and plastic wrap. As the giver of the gift, I felt some sadness that my kids had left it on the porch to be eaten by neighborhood wildlife. The gift I was so excited to give had been forgotten, left for critters, and had to be tossed into the trash.

I was tempted to get sad and upset, but as is often the case, I saw in that moment my own failure. I was immediately made aware of the fact that I am neglectful of God’s gifts to me. When I felt that surge of disappointment of my gift going to waste because of the kids’ forgetfulness I then saw how often the Grace of God and His gifts to me are wasted because of my forgetfulness. How often am I distracted by the cares and pleasures of this world that I forget the gifts that God has so graciously given me.

As I thought about this it caused me to reflect on some of the many gifts that God has given to me- my wife and children (including the one which we will not meet til May), His bringing us into the Church as a family, His bountiful mercy that brought us through nursing school, my job and the wonderful work hours I have (which is rare in my field), our brothers and sisters at Holy Theotokos of Unexpected Joy, our spiritual father, the ability to call on Him (God) at any time and at any place (He is everywhere present and fillest all things), etc. The list is endless and there are so many gifts that I am blind to now but will realize later on in life. So many gifts and so often they are neglected and thanksgiving is left off. Not to mention the gift of His Flesh and Blood given continually for the remission of sins and for life everlasting. How often is this greatest Gift received and then forgotten. I am doing well if I have not forgotten it by coffee hour.

My gift of bread was wasted by being left on the porch to be eaten by critters, but God’s gift of the Eucharist is received and ashamedly forgotten about just as quickly. If I am excited to give a gift of earthly bread bought at such a small price how much more is He excited to give the gift of His own Body and Blood bought with His priceless Sacrificial Love? If I was so disappointed that my children left my gift on the porch then how much more so must He be grieved to see His Love forgotten about and His Gifts neglected.

I pray that my remembrance of God’s presence and His Grace may lead me to be more grateful for the same and that in turn the gratitude for the Gifts may instill in me a deeper and more constant remembrance of the Giver.

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.

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.