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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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). 

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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.”

 

The Art of Singing in a Foreign Land

The journey toward Great Lent is well plotted, with lots of markers along the way to tell us how far we’ve come and how much further we have yet to go. There’s one I always sigh over, noting its appearance at Vigil for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, and that is ‘By the Waters of Babylon’, the 136th Psalm. In her maternal wisdom, the Church offers this psalm to us as a gentle remonstration. She encourages us to mourn like Israel’s children, weeping in the knowledge that it’s only because of our own forgetfulness, our carelessness, that we find ourselves slaves to an unkind master: the passions. Sorrowful regret stirs in our hearts as we recall and mourn our soul’s true home.

It is the muteness described in the psalm, though, that strikes me this year as especially poignant. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

There’s no doubt this is a strange, strange land we are living in. A skin of veneer is being stripped away, bit by bit, revealing the true nature of a soul-hungry god whose feet are clay. But as followers of Christ, we should know ourselves always to be residing in a foreign land. It’s a new, dark captivity to its lord we should be seeking to escape.

We are strangers in a strange land that is getting ever stranger. Our hearts are heavy, grieved at what the citizens of this land in which we find ourselves do, lawful things our weeping eyes cannot bear to see.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song?

It strikes me to look to America’s African slaves as mentors. Their captivity was not voluntary, like ours, but they were a people for whom the Lord’s song was salvation, who knew the art of singing in a foreign land.

In Slave Songs of the United States, an anthology printed in 1867, a single word, the second in the final verse, of the song ‘Down in the Valley to Pray’ speaks very eloquently of what wisdom is contained in their songs:

“O Mourner, let’s go down, down in the valley to pray.”

You require of us mirth, the slaves said, we will give you joyful sorrow. The song you demand we will sing in a key known only to our true master, the God of heaven and earth, using words you will hear and will not understand.

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O Lord, and Master of our lives, help us always to be homesick foreigners in this land that is not heaven. Take from us all faintheartedness, give us a spirit that is both humble and courageous, help us to see evil clearly, both in the world and in our hearts, and stand against it as we wait on You to make of it good. Our tongues shall not cleave to our mouths, for we shall remember You with longing and sing your song.

 

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 Being an Orthodox Novelist

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Russian novelist Eugene Vodolazkin, author of Laurus and The Aviator and an Orthodox Christian, was asked in an interview if he considers himself an Orthodox writer. “A writer should just be a writer,” he said. “There are no Orthodox writers, just as there are no Orthodox hairdressers. Faith is an intimate thing.”

Faith is an intimate thing. And if your occupation is cosmetology, I imagine it’s possible, maybe even advisable, to keep your faith close to you, to cut and style with skill and unique flair without your clients ever knowing that you are an Orthodox Christian. But the same is not true of the novelist. In fact, it is precisely because faith is such an intimate thing that Vodolazkin is not just a writer, he is an Orthodox writer. As Flannery O’Connor states in Mystery and Manners, “We write with the whole personality, and any attempt to circumvent it, whether this be an effort to rise above belief or above background, is going to result in a reduced approach to reality.” There is nothing inferior, nothing reduced about Vodolazkin’s approach to reality. As a novelist, his approach is fully Orthodox.

So many agenda-driven novels (mostly secular, but sometimes religious) are published each year it’s tempting, even for the writer of novels, to think of novelists as apostles, but they are not. And this may be all Vodolazkin meant by saying there is no such thing as an Orthodox writer. If we are called to be fiction writers, then that is all we must be. The fiction writer who is deeply, honestly, religious will not write novels in order to sell his faith. He will also not change the way he writes or alter the crafting of his novels in order to “reach” a wider audience. To those who look to fiction for “profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused…improved, or encouraged, or frightened or shocked or charmed…” Joseph Conrad said, no. Novelists must “first write from a clear conscience”, or in other words, be free of all these reasons for writing. And if we succeed in our task, he promised, “you shall find all you demand—and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”

I’m sure it’s this seriousness toward the art of writing, the belief that in its best form fiction can and should offer a glimpse of eternal truth, that makes Vodolazkin deny the term “Orthodox writer”. We live in a time of quick and narrow organizing, of dropping people into designated slots, and readers of literary fiction today are not believers, for the most part. Encountering faith in a novel today is like encountering a Komodo dragon. It needs a very good reason for being there. The danger for a Christian novelist today who openly admits to having faith (unless you also admit to having lost it in large portion along the way), or writes about characters who have it, is that you are likely to find your book pigeonholed on a bookstore or library shelf as Christian Fiction, which means having your work forever associated with that genre’s evangelical, sinner-to-salvation formula. (Unless, of course, you are Marilynne Robinson, and then people won’t notice, won’t care, that your beautiful novel is laced through and through with your Calvinist theology.) And this alone is reason enough for me to join Vodolazkin in denying the term “Orthodox writer”.

But I can’t help feeling that since I am Orthodox, and a writer of fiction, a crafter of words that deal with the nature and experience of religious faith in America, particularly as I have observed it in Orthodox Christian people, I may be protesting into the wind. Also, I’m aware of something in myself that is not as strong as it should be by now. I’m just a little bit afraid that below all my conscientious objecting, my insistence that faith is personal and not an adjective to be fixed to an occupation and publicly declared, I’ll hear just the faintest, triple crowing of a rooster wafting back to me on the breeze. 

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How to Mourn a Nun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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