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.”

Image result for st. nina of georgia

Handmaid of the Word of God. Preacher. Emulator of the Apostles. Enlightener of Iberia. These small apt titles carry in them some of the large, impressive things we know about St. Nina. But it’s the last title in the list, the one that calls St. Nina, poetically, a reed pipe of the Holy Spirit, that I found significant to my question. This description casts light on the other four, explaining how it is that someone who seems to have her share of self-doubt, referring to herself as a “worthless and ignorant woman”, topples a pagan temple, causing its idols to blast apart on command, and converts the hearts of an entire nation to Christ.

Organs are reed pipe instruments. In organ pipes, air under pressure (wind) is directed towards a brass reed, which vibrates at a specific pitch. But at the time of St. Nina there were no organs. In her day a reed pipe would have been simple, a single, hollow tube with a hand-carved reed. I have not heard the song such a reed pipe makes, but I can imagine it would have a haunting, holy sound, sweet and piercing. The kind of sound to wound the heart of a king and send him in search of the healing love of Christ.

In an essay on the distinguishing traits of saints, theologian Father Dimitru Staniloae says they are people who have reached our full potential. What we can be, they are. The chief difference between them and us is the alacrity with which they give themselves completely to God. Saints are not just willing to be hollowed out, they are eager. Cheerfully, joyfully so. In the oldest record of the life of St. Nina, in the church history by Rufino, it is the novelty of such a joyful poverty that first catches the notice of the pagan Iberians. Word began quickly to spread of the virtue of this humble young captive woman (noblewoman, in the later Georgian version) whose life was one of bright, cheerful sobriety and constant, unceasing prayer, who “nourished herself with fasting as if with food”. Is it any wonder that when we express a longing to go deeper and further in the life in Christ, we are encouraged to read and study the lives of the saints? In their strength is revealed our weakness. And our hope.

The unexpected gift in my brush with otherworldliness that day at the monastery is that it brought me to look closer at the life St. Nina, and to see that in her, as in all the saints, the true nature of hope is revealed. In the saints the hope of Christ shines in all its radiant glory. And seeing St. Nina’s life of unceasing prayer, humility, obedience, compassion, poverty—her eager holy hollowness—stand in stark, gritty contrast to a mountaintop dream, my own hope feels a little truer, stronger and readier to endure.

God is wondrous in his saints.

Holy Saint Nina pray to God for us!

 

 

Lights on the Mountain

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God is Not in Books (Or is He?)

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By Cheryl Anne Tuggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured photo by hannah grace

Recommended Reading:

Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios

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

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

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

Exploring the Inner Universe by Archimandrite Roman Braga

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

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.)