On Being a Consolation

by John Pealrstein

“If you give something to one in need, let the cheerfulness of your face precede your gift, and comfort his sorrow with kind words. When you do this, by your gift the gladness of his mind surpasses even the needs of his body”

— St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian

I have been wanting to write about how to console and comfort for some time now. I feel that it is an important idea to talk about as it is not something that comes naturally to all people. Though some have a natural gift of empathizing with others which gives them the ability to comfort and console without as much effort, this is not the case for everyone. Some have to put more effort into honing this skill. No matter which group you are a part of, we are all called to be a consolation to others. We know this because we are created in the image of the God who is The Great Consolation of mankind. There are suffering people all around us.

We live in a world of broken hearts. People around you are suffering whether you recognize it or not. These people need a kind word or even just a silent listener. To put it more poetically, in the words of my spiritual father, some people just need someone to “gently stroke their brow.”

Before I talked about how to console the broken-hearted, I want to discuss how not to do this. Both in my own life and the shared experiences of others I have seen/heard of some very poor attempts of speaking to those in need of comfort. I do not want to spend too much time on the negative, so I will tell you a story the illustrates a more grievous failure to comfort and then discuss a very common failure which has the appearance of piety, but in actuality is also likely to wound the recipient.

My wife just recently told me about an incident that occurred to someone she had seen on youtube. She follows a couple with several kids. The mother had just given birth to a set of twins which had to be placed in the NICU. The mother had been traveling back and forth between home and the NICU. Lord only knows the amount of stress and the range of emotions she had been experiencing through all of this. In one of her videos, when she was getting to hold both babies for the first time she broke down and cried. In the comments, someone told her that “she shouldn’t be crying- she should be thankful that her babies are alive.”

This comment is tragic on many levels. First, this assumes that his suffering mother is ungrateful. Secondly, since the comment is based on this false assumption it becomes an attack on the already broken heart. Lastly, this comment takes a truth- that you need to be thankful for what God has given you- and uses it as a weapon. Not everything true needs to be said at any given time. My spiritual father said that the term for that is “truthing people to death.” This comment, far from being a comfort, had the potential to wound the already suffering woman. Please don’t do this.

The story above is a pretty evident failure and one that I have thankfully not experienced personally. However, this next form of failed consolation is something that I see all the time and I believe it is because it has the sound of Christian piety. Here is an illustration of what I mean.

You may have found yourself calling a friend and sharing that you have had a bout with some kind of sickness that has run amok in your home. You are exhausted and the kids are really struggling because you have had to force them to rest. Everything feels like it is falling apart. After you have finished your monologue the person on the other end of the line says “God is in control and this is all for good.”

You can take the paragraph above and insert any kind of hurt or struggle and apply the same “pious response.” It fails in each case. Sometimes those “pious” responses are even used in more tragic situations such as someone who has shared the terminal diagnosis of a loved one. In these situations, I give these people the benefit of the doubt. I think that most of the time these folks are just trying to comfort and don’t know-how. I really believe that the times I have heard this in my own life it has come out of the lips of those who do love and pray for me. This is not malicious. I am writing this not to judge those who have said such things, but rather to give a better way for you to be a brother or sister to those that open up to you.

Now, moving on from the negative, let us look at some of the tools that are needed to properly console others. There are three that I think are the basics- Discernment, honesty, and empathy.

Discernment. To properly comfort others you must have some level of discernment. There are a variety of levels of hurt ranging from financial difficulties to tragic losses and everything in between. There are also an endless variety of personalities that you will encounter that will require different forms of communication. You cannot approach every situation with the same type of communication

Honesty. When I speak of honesty here, I am thinking of being truly human. The poor response of “pious truths” is what I would consider being less than honest and less than human. When someone has a bad day sometimes the best response would be to say “wow, that is rough.” There is nothing wrong with, and I would add, everything right with an honest and human appreciation of the hurt that someone has experienced. The time to give guidance may come later, but at the moment, be honest, be human.

Empathy. This is vital and, in reality, it is possibly the foundation on which to build discernment and honesty. I would say, that if you can empathize, then you will more easily be able to discern and be honest. Empathy is a skill that we must hone. Empathy is important because we do not all go through the same things and yet we must be able to comfort someone in a situation that we may have never faced ourselves. They say that one of the benefits of reading, fiction, in particular, is that it helps you develop the ability to empathize by placing you in the mind of the “sufferer” in the story. Whether or not your read fiction you must find ways to learn to empathize. You must be able to put yourself in their place to the best of your ability. Sometimes this is easier than others such as in the most tragic of situations. In those cases, you may not be able to imagine how they feel, but that in itself is a good place to be because, by saying that, you have just realized that they are in the depths of heartbreak and that will help shut your mouth from foolish utterances and instead lead you to be the silent listener whose only words are in the form of empathetic tears.

However, sometimes we must empathize in a place where we feel like the situation is trivial. Maybe a flat tire doesn’t bother you at all, but for others, that may wreck their day. Or, maybe you are dealing with a child who lost their favorite toy or had a friend stop playing with them. These appear to be nothing compared to the sufferings of your adult self, but they can break the heart of a little one. In either circumstance, you are still required to empathize. Or, further, you may be dealing with a drug addict whose problems are apparently self-inflicted. In this case, we are still called on to be empathetic. My spiritual father has said over and over again that you have no idea what people have experienced that lead them to their current condition nor do you have a clue as to how hard they may be trying even though they outwardly appear to be doing nothing. Empathy requires you to leave the Judgment in God’s hands. God doesn’t see any of our hurts as unimportant. He condescends to us all.

I want to share one last example which comes from my wife’s experience. She was 30 weeks pregnant and had to find a new midwife. She was in a rough spot and didn’t know where to look. It was an emotional situation all the way around. She called up two separate friends to share with. The first friend, after hearing the situation, said “it will all work out.” I want to be clear that this friend meant well, but my wife went away feeling worse than before making the phone call. She then shared her grief with another friend who, after hearing, expressed empathy and affirmed the difficulty of the situation, and told her she would be praying. My wife felt heard and as a result felt comforted.

Final thoughts. Next time someone opens up to you, whether it be about how hard their day at work was or about their husband’s recent diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer, be that gentle stroke on the brow that they need. If you don’t know what to say then just listen. And no matter what, refrain from harmful “truths.” Do not tell them that it’s all going to work out. That is not the time for that. Just listen and place yourself in their shoes the best you can. When you effectively comfort and console another person you become closer to that person and it deepens your relationship. And, as Christ has said, “ Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Suggestions to help hone your skills.

  • think about how you like to be comforted.
  • read the Scriptures and pay close attention to how God comforts His people
  • find someone who you know be good at comforting others and ask for advice from them
  • read the lives of the Saints

Guest Post: Enjoy Every Moment

Today’s post is an essay on a timely theme, with Clean Monday around the corner.  Guest writer, Michelle Rinehart, mother of four young children and a sister of ours in Christ from St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Warren, Ohio, considers the deeper spiritual implication in a well-meant but perhaps overused phrase. To visually illustrate the theme, we’ve chosen the icon of the Nativity of Christ, in which we see both the sober joy of childbirth and motherhood and the foreshadowing of death (the manger tomb). 

Related image

It is nearly impossible to be on the journey of motherhood and not be offered unsolicited advice, often in the form of platitudes. Every mom likely has her own “words of wisdom” that drive her particularly crazy, but for me, nothing elicits that nails-on-the-chalkboard sentiment more than:

“Enjoy every moment; it goes so fast.”

I worked part time as a receptionist in a mental health office when I was pregnant with my oldest two sons. During that time, one of the counselors gave me a book called The Language of Letting Go. For all of the advice contained in that book, the title has spoken to me more than anything over the years.

If true loss might be characterized by deep and profound pain, suffering and grief, I think of “letting go” as being more characteristic of accepting what I am leaving behind as life changes.

“Letting go” is not so much calling-hours worthy events as much as it is watching fall melt into winter or my oldest child waving to me from the window of a school bus for the first time.

As a mother, “letting go” means witnessing time and seasons passing in a form that is most concrete and intimate: through the lens of the precious flesh and blood of my children.

Somehow, at least for me, the wrinkles, grey hairs and other aches and pains that come with aging are not nearly as gripping as, say, hearing the “moo” of a cowbell in a grocery store dairy aisle and realizing that one of my children has just become too old to ring that now.

It is baby clothes that are now too small. It is a book that is now too short and simple to read before bed. It is a crib that someone doesn’t need anymore. It is my children’s lives going from lost teeth to lost innocence in what seems like the blink of an eye.

It is the mystery that in the victory of seeing a child grow up, there are more than 1000 moments of “letting go” that have gone along with it.

My husband recently told me about a practice in some monasteries where one of the monks is tasked with giving a daily reminder to the others: “Brother, we are going to die.”

The remembrance of death may seem morbid, but it has the paradoxical effect of inspiring living life fully and striving to do the things that matter. For the monastics (and really, not ONLY for them), this means a life of repentance and prayer.

I don’t live in a monastery. But, nevertheless, I have no shortage of women who pop into my life seemingly tasked with offering me a remembrance of death.

“Enjoy every moment; it goes so fast” often sounds to me like, “sister, we are going to die” as life races through its seasons toward its final destination.

“But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; / And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity…” wrote 17th century poet Andrew Marvell in his poem, “To His Coy Mistress.”

In my mind, Marvell’s winged chariot of time is often followed by a companion refrain from 19th century poet Emily Dickinson:

“Because I could not stop for Death – / He kindly stopped for me –  / The Carriage held but just Ourselves –  / And Immortality.”

The carriage of death will come to pick me up when time’s winged chariot brings me to its last stop.

But before I reach that last stop of letting go of this life, I am offered practice at letting go in a thousand little ways, especially as I raise my children. I am letting go of something at each mile marker as I strive to fulfill the task of teaching them how to be without me.

“It goes so fast” might be a trite platitude, but perhaps it is a palatable way of reflecting on the profound mystery of mortality and life’s transiency. When I remember that, I can let go of my frustration over hearing it so often.

Sister, we are going to die.

So don’t forget to say your prayers and hug your children.

Sister, don’t forget to stop for death…

Or, if that’s too much, maybe I will just say, “Enjoy every moment; it goes so fast.”

 

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.

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.)

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.