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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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.)

Confessions from a Laundromat

IMG-0482by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forming the Soul

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

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

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

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

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

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

The Dollmaker by Harriet Simpson Arnow

Nickel Mountain by John Gardner

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein

Tales from a Greek Isle and The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamandis

Wonderful Fool by Shusako Endo

Bleak House and Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

The Sojourner by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Middlemarch and Silas Marner by George Eliot

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Promise by Chaim Potok

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Crime and Punishment and The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

Laurus by Eugene Vodalazkin

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.

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.

 

My Conversion Story

Sarah Wright over at theorthodoxmama.com runs an amazing blog! She writes  about faith, family and frugal  living. How wonderful it is to find fellow travelers on the spiritual path who encourage and uplift us!  She was gracious enough to include a post I wrote about my conversion story!

Vladimirskaya

http://www.theorthodoxmama.com/how-orthodoxy-found-me/

 

Turns Out…It is the Destination that Matters

by Michele Latham

 

Social media is full of inspirational tidbits. One that I have always liked was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Life is a journey, not a destination”. Another take, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” is a good one, too. Bwhich_wayut when it comes to my journey to the Orthodox church, it was all about the destination. Not to say that the journey was unnecessary. Sometimes I mentally trace the steps I’ve taken to arrive at the Church.

I was raised by loving parents in a Southern Baptist Church. I was baptized as a youngster, attended Sunday school class and revivals and learned about Jesus and the Bible. I left home to start my adult life, having not asked many questions. During the next several years, I attended some Protestant churches and met many lovely people. My husband and I loved God and yearned for a spiritual life, but to us, there was something missing at the churches we were visiting. God was definitely present, but it seemed there should be something more to support the reading of scriptures. While I visited different churches observing the services, my husband started researching Christianity. Where was the original, pure form?

Roughly 18 months and numerous books later (this was pre-internet time) we found what we were looking for. The Orthodox Christian Church. Christ’s church. Teachings based on Holy Scripture, complete with ancient traditions, saints and wisdom of the church fathers passed down unchanged for 2000 years. We had found the ancient Church and it was alive in our hometown!

I am so grateful for my particular journey. If I had skipped ahead at some point, I might have missed some important lessons. My parents, and the Baptist church, the pastors whose words inspired me, the youth directors and old folks whose lights shone so brightly: all of these people fed me along the way and kept me safe on my path.

But God could have used any path to direct me to the Church.

I am always interested to meet other converts and hear about their experiences. There are many and varied paths that lead us to Orthodoxy.

And now that I have found my home, I know that the destination, the true Church is the most important part of the journey.

 

 

*Want to write a post about your journey? Email a draft to sophiacardcompany@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you!

 

The Farm

by Mary Michal Rogers

fence_split_rail_farm

My journey from Protestantism to a sort of nameless faith to Orthodox Christianity began really without my knowledge.

 My parents’ disillusionment with the church they’d always known started and culminated before I was old enough to know much about what was going on.  What I do remember is the search and the fight to keep faith alive even when we didn’t know what to call ourselves.  That fight led us to the truth – the True Light.

It also led us to an inherited, non-working dairy farm in a town called Spokane, Missouri.  It isn’t what you’d call a particularly progressive part of the state; Branson sits 30 miles to the south and the Bible Belt influence thrives.  The farm and my ancestors were well-known in the community, but we ourselves were still outsiders.  My sisters and brother and I all had been homeschooled for most of our lives, we knew nothing about farming, and we had no plans to attend any of the local churches.  Instead, we drove an hour each way most Sundays to Ash Grove, where Father Moses Berry served Liturgy in a gardening shed in the middle of an historic cemetery.

We didn’t exactly blend.

And then in the fall of 1996, we removed all doubt from the minds of the locals.  My parents hosted an Orthodox gathering on the farm (which sat, quite literally, right on a main thoroughfare); Father Alexii (then Father Paisius), Father Moses, Mother Pachomia, Mother Bridget, even Father Herman and a host of other monks, nuns, priests and Orthodox faithful journeyed to our 80 acres and camped out for a weekend.  We held services in the hayloft of the old barn, prayed and sang and talked around big bonfires, and were only vaguely aware of the Baptists and Lutherans and Pentecostals slowing down when they saw men and women in black robes and caps sitting around a fire in our front yard.  From the perspective of our ancient faith, nothing could have been more normal.

There’s some humor in this account, but the truth of it is that the holiness of that one weekend never went out of that farm.  Until the day we left it, it was as if you could hear the Akathist and Typicon still being sung in that hayloft.  Just like I see Christ when I look into the eyes of the monastics, the Fathers, the Elders, the holy icons…I knew in my soul that I’d been part of something otherwordly (even where just a few are gathered in My name…). My own rocky, meandering path towards the True Faith began.