Holding a Mustard Seed

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My soul was expressed in my body. It could have been another way—people experience many physical situations, good and bad, which is not to say that one’s soul is “good” or is “bad” as though the body were a reflection of the goodness of the soul. All things work together for the good of those who love the Lord and are called according to His purposes. As Job realized: How can I accept good from the Lord and not also the bad? The soul is good and is eternal, and any bodily circumstance is temporary. However, I believe that what the body goes through on this earth is a direct way the Lord communicates with His creatures. Growing older is humbling, is the camel slowly, finally going to its knees before the eye of the needle, and entering at long last into the Kingdom of God. Or, it is pain only, as the knees do not submit to the weight of life but buckle under that which they eventually can no longer control. Growing can be without the natural humility that life works out in us; instead, getting older can be resisted, pains and suffering being to our detriment (body and soul) without the intended fruit that a life led in faith will inevitably foster. While the body will die, it will resurrect in transfigured life, and, with the soul, what was being worked out through these earthly days, by the humility of the soul turned to behold its Creator, Christ will accomplish. There are fore-tastes of this glory, moments in life when something extraordinarily good happens to the body, usually contrasted with physical and or emotional pain. It is this juxtaposition that allows for one such as me to stop, chills racing up and down my arms, and to marvel at the realness of God.

 

What my soul expressed in my body was life. I will die. I will suffer. There will be seasons of winter, perhaps more tiring than the drought experienced most recently in my life. Acceptance of the season, which is for now a great feast, is to honor the Theotokos and her Son, as I owe this miracle to her prayers and the Giver of Life. His presence is joy, hope, and light, which was simple to behold when the mother of God met me two days before I knew I was pregnant. She helped me to see the desire of my heart, to ask without fear, and to receive the forthcoming news with more than gladness, with faith. Had I not prayed with her on that night, beseeching her prayers to Christ that my womb bear holy fruit, joy would have been no less. I may have known that God had been changing me, preparing me to emotionally and spiritually comprehend the gift of conception, as a number of recent occasions led me to utter a budding desire for another child. However, the difference would be in the realization so clear to me now that the body and soul are one. The Holy Spirit in one’s life is not merely a thought. The effects of faith affect the body, according to God’s holy will. Rejoicing sings throughout my body, and I must render thanksgiving voice….

 

Even if the soul does not manifest itself by certain activities, it is nevertheless present as an embryo. In effect, the constitution of a human being which will develop, is already present, but in a hidden manner because it cannot manifest itself except by means of the necessary order of things. Thus, it is present, but invisible. It will only appear thanks to the exercise of its normal activity as the body develops; the activities of the soul develop along with the formation and perfection of the body that is its instrument. (Gregory of Nyssa qtd. in Jean-Claude Larchet 23)1

 

My sister had been awake when I called her at four. She hadn’t prayed to Mary the mother of God, hadn’t felt close to her before, she said as we talked. Recently she had read a devotion about the Theotokos being with the Christ Child and rushing happily to her cousin, Elizabeth. My sister expressed an understanding of the joy they shared in the holy conception of Christ, marveling at the miracle shared by these two women with deep love for one another and ever-increasing faith in God.

 

“I know that Mary loves you so much, Lea, and that she’s praying for you,” she said. She confirmed the soft joy ablaze in my heart and I swallowed hard.

 

It was five in the morning when I called my mom. It was an unseasonably warm pre-dawn in early January, 2012. The line on the second pregnancy test was clear and pink—it was not a “water-stain” mark, nor was the test’s efficacy expired, as a nurse had cautioned me the morning before when the urine test at the doctor’s office had been negative. Science proved what faith knew: I was with child.

 

There are a number of pivotal moments to which I might back-track in this story of conceiving my third child by faith. Seven years before, my husband and I had been told we’d have less than one percent chance of conception on our own. We had undergone fertility treatment and conceived our first son with a doctor-given seven-percent chance. Our second son followed two years later by the same means, and we counted ourselves among the most fertile of infertile people. Both conceptions had been journeys of faith, drawing us closer together, and as our boys grew, life challenged us to continue to choose love for one another, our growing family, and ourselves. My faith in God increased as life struggles were lived in the Orthodox Faith that teaches humility, acceptance, and love. The mother of God was close at hand in the silent refuge of my bedroom. I held her icon to my lips, tears mingling into the aging wood, and a passing of time was in moments palpably bitter-sweet. Faith was always there, and more so with loneliness and disappointment. I longed for our family, Dima, my parents, his parents, and especially our children, to share life in the Faith. For years, it seemed it was up to me to change people, but I now begin to realize that the only way to change anyone is to begin with myself, loving the unloveable, holding the squirming wailer, being still when rage tempts. While I’ve been able to do this, in better moments, the most remarkable healing has come in the next step that took longer to dawn on me. I must not let the demon of sadness, acedia, linger after events—to burrow into my heart and grow there, a child of depression and anxiety.

 

Our children were born and remained healthy. In the haze of my husband’s parents move from Russia to America, my continued studies in graduate school, my husband’s commute to work and long hours, a thinness developed. When hockey was introduced and my husband the coach to boot, things were even more stretched. Money, time, patience, it seemed all was on the brink of empty. Low spells hit me: depression, anxiety, and a general sadness. My emotions could clear, however, when my husband’s dipped down. With him there increased anger and a fearsome disregard for the softest things in his life: the Church and me. Though his love was there for both, his expression was voided by no time, no attention to, and doubt. Sensitive to the slippery pains of our life, he wondered if I would be happier with another, and then, for a time, accused me of affairs. This passed. Another bout of exhaustion hit him, however, and at our gravest low, he threatened divorce. The future does not look happy, is how he put it.

 

We see things from a limited vantage point, and when our eyes do not behold the saints, windows to heaven and examples of lived faith; when the fragrant aroma of incense and the deep song of the Church is traded for the business of other lesser things, it is harder and harder for the heart to sense God’s peace, or to believe in it. The mind spins out its own rationale, often void of wisdom praying softly within. The line between what is profitable for the soul and that which is not begins to fade, and everything seems permissible. A little meat on Friday, a lot of drink, a little adult entertainment, a lot of resistance to going to church, to being still and facing who we are. Though always He waits, offering His very body and blood every single time, tragically caught up in one’s self, the gift of self-emptying can be missed. Pain suffocates pain, and resistance to God steals vision of the consequences to each action, each thought. Instead, pride increases, hardens the heart. Blessedly, pains in life often jostle us to, often break the facade of self-sufficiency, and we peek over our shoulder to see if by some small chance He might be watching us. True to His nature, Love is, and as many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ, hallelujah.

 

When my husband’s embrace was weak, a strength burned inside of me. I held him with confidence, with amazing joy. Joy that sometimes wept but was refined and so true that it surprised me. It was a feeling, but then it was an action: a refusal to leave our cuddle on the couch, a rooted body beside the side-door, waiting for his return from work with fried potatoes on the stove. Something inside of me snapped to, had been snapping to, it was joy that is known by fearless love, willing to endure pain and suffering for the beloved, and not with sorrow but instead a spiritual joy that may be without cause from life’s situations.

 

Certainly, my trials have never been much, but, nonetheless, pain is pain, and to struggle in marriage to seek and nurture love in difficult circumstances has refined my ability to love. I recently read of the holy martyr Sussanah, Queen of Georgia, around 480 A.D. The queen was beautiful and a strong Orthodox Christian. She was married to Duke Varskan, and he went to the Persians and enticed them to make him governor and conquer the whole country. They agreed once the duke turned away from God and worshipped their fire demon. Duke Varskan insisted that his wife obey his new religion and renounce Christ. When she refused, he had her imprisoned in a tiny hut where for seven years she lived in the castle yard, subjected to the summer heat and flies as well as the severe winter. She was chained by her ankles and neck, and despite the cuts these made into her flesh, she joyfully rejoiced, praying ceaselessly to God. She never complained. People came to her for healing, and many blind and sick children were made well. Additionally, her husband’s own men returned to the Faith and some of the Persians were likewise moved to beseech the God of Love, whom Sussanah worshipped daily.

 

I marvel at such faith, but believe that anything that comes in life can be experienced in the balm of God’s joy, which makes one ever-conscious of the increasing faith filling the soul and spreading warm as blood through the body. In deep dark patches, a light was powerfully visible to me, and it was strong and overwhelmingly good when I gave myself to it. That was the key, and the key I sometimes misplaced as I scurried about reading, writing, and attending classes at the university. While my husband worked twelve-hour days, coached hockey with our boys, and tried to help his parents adjust to life in the States, I did school, some cleaning, laundering, taking the children to school, bathing and snuggling. Similar to other young families, we were busy, and often too busy to lay still together at the end of the night. Separated by unsettling thoughts, fears, and life demands, breaks from school and work renewed us. Love was a choice, and with the decision to stay through the good and the bad, loving and faithfulness grew in me. There were times when unmistakably holy joy inspired me, such as when I was walking back to our mini-van from class at the university. It was dark and drizzle was cold on my arms. A sudden urge to run to my husband, to the boy I’d made my life one with, welled up in me. I ran down a hill, slipping and sliding in mud, and returned home to his calm embrace. Little things like this have saved us, and these details of life that have had saving grace have come from willing for Love, fighting through the despair (sometimes in simply enduring it), and then, out of the dark, a ray comes.

 

A change began happening in my body and soul at once, and it’s really remarkable to look back at just these past six months. I had an infection in my finger that lingered for three months. The orthopedic surgeon determined a rare yeast, and I began to change my diet from high carbohydrates, veggies and fruits to an increase in meat and dairy. I had had an increasingly sensitive digestive system and imbalanced hormones for years, and with the dietary change, my body began to feel better. There was much less stomach gurgling after meals and my hormones cycled through in “normal” monthly patterns. I was astonished at this physical change and counted it a small miracle. I thought of the many times I’d crossed myself in Liturgy and prayed for healing of soul and body, and felt that somehow this was a beginning to wellness within me. At the same time, I began to have continued and subtle desire for another baby. I had completed the first year of a doctoral program and was anticipating more focus and less confusion in what was to come. The next semester was difficult. I conducted a study and endured another trying fifteen weeks at the university. During this time, school was perhaps its most intense and there was a trial of temptation warring within me. I fought against giving myself over to what was less than my family, to ambitions that were important but not as important as demonstrating love for my boys. There was a clear line that I eventually drew. I would give my husband myself, and what he willed, I would do. Earning a PhD was nothing if I lost my family in the course of it. I knew the truth of this decision, but struggled to persuade my husband of its reality. He wanted me to complete my studies, but I wanted to prove my love. We were somehow coming together in seeing past ourselves.

 

It was Christmastime. I asked the Theotokos to pray to her Son and our God that my womb be opened, but each time I always began with: if this would be for good. I hadn’t been able to say the prayer with full confidence. A shard of doubt cracked at the fullness of my heart, and the spill of will muddied my mind. Our small home was bright, a wreath strewn with multi-colored lights facing the outside world, and my oldest son as he walked home from those last few days of school before break. It was a glorious time of Nativity, and a settling joy replenished us. My husband took time to be still, and in the course of things was working towards healing. I laughed with the children and savored wrapping small gifts from Village Discount. Once, at Wal-Mart, my older son and I passed a billboard with a baby girl. “I want a baby,” I told him. He was surprised and told me he didn’t think I would want another kid to make me crazy. In sadness, I apologized for my impatience, noting that my distractions had been felt. We bought a small night-light with an image of a girl and the inscription: “Pray the Lord, my soul to keep.”

 

During the day on the Eve of Theophany, I met with my mother and sister at Cracker Barrel for a light meal. I looked my sister in the eyes and told her that I would not be surprised if I had another baby. She said that she would, that it had taken fertility help. Her son and mine swapped stories of toughness: my nephew was a fish, a big one, and my son bragged that about his favorite toy “I have a DS.” It was a crisp day with light winter, and my mother, sister, the boys and I walked down a metro-park path after lunch. We laughed easily and gave piggy-back rides to the boys. That evening, I took the boys to church with me and felt a glorious resurrection of joy burn within. Getting our coats on with Matushka (our priest’s wife), I confided that there was a change about to be. I would get a job teaching at a local college or university, complete the dissertation with stillness and slowness that hadn’t been known the past seven years, or: “I will have a baby.” She lovingly smiled at me as I told her that in truth I was completely willing for whatever God willed for my life. I felt the truth of these words as never before. When next I prayed to the Mother of God, she met with me.

 

It was a few days later, and I was in the quiet of our bedroom with my prayers for the evening. When I beseeched the Theotokos, there was a confidence that hadn’t been before. I felt a certainty of desire and a clear will for a child. I prayed and it seemed as though she were holding me softly as all fears of this world abated by her perfect protection. It seemed I would conceive, that she had met me, that the cooperation of my heart and hers was with the Lord’s own. It’s too much to say, and yet it had seemed so and continues to be true.

 

The next day was Sunday and after Liturgy the children participated in a play with the church school, which they had only attended on the rare occasions that hockey had allowed. I was grateful that they were there and that those working with the children had enough love and care to include my children. My husband was at hockey, but I was not defeated. Faith abounded and a confidence burned in my cheeks. My mother-in-law (husband’s American host mom) met me for the children’s play. We talked about church and family, hockey and impossible schedules. I told her that sometimes it seemed hard to make things work, but only when I thought I had to make them work. It was easy, actually, to simply believe in God and rejoice in the small breaks that came when our family was one and radiant in His love. She said that my husband would not stop hockey, and I told her that I didn’t need or expect that, but that no push for church would never be acceptable. I had hope as he had allowed the boys to be here for the play instead of the hockey game. If one did not fight for spiritual life, there would be no attention given to God and the way of life He intends for us. Each of the smallest breaks that bring us back to His Church is a glorious celebration, and enough to keep me hoping. The spiritual path would wind variously, which is why we mustn’t judge one another but wait with open arms, willing to give our flesh and blood, hoping and loving all the way through.

 

We nibbled cabbage rolls and sipped coffee—rather, I devoured the scrumptious beef and cabbage. Between bites I confided with a whisper, I want another baby. How is that possible, she wondered. I told her I didn’t know, but that I knew it was, that I believed I would. We continued on, bits on how I still planned to finish my degree, to teach, and then we hushed and watched the children as wise-men bear holy gifts.

 

It wasn’t a test that told me I was pregnant as much as a course of faith that had been speaking from my heart. Still, when I called the doctor’s office to get the hormone count in my blood that proved that I was with child, my heart raced. Similar to the other two times that I had longed to shout from the rooftops of the miraculous conception of my first, then second sons, a bursting joy and faith needed voiced. The voice this time, though, is quieter. When I called my Godmother and close friend to tell her the news, she said that it was strange because she had been praying for those with unborn children and felt very sure that another would be with child. The mother of God offers us closeness with her and her Son through an intuitive love that abounds by faith the size of a mustard seed.

 

1Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing: Teachings from the Early Christian East, trans. Rama Coomaraswamy and John Champoux, Angelico Press, 2005.

 

Blogging Thoughts in Process…

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A blog is a good and strange thing.  A place for thoughts to work out into a form, a written expression, a stab at communication…  But, to whom and for what purpose?  A self-publishing of notions, take ‘em or leave ‘em, but, as a wise friend recently said, be careful of what you say-write that it is edifying…

So.  I’m writing this in response to response I’ve received from my last post “Sober and Seeing the Sun.”  My point in that writing was to explore the Christian struggle, to consider the relationship between life and death and the body and the soul.  What I’ve since begun is a small inquiry into the afterlife, according to the Orthodox Church.  And what I’m realizing is that there are some very different approaches.

My last post was written after reading Fr. Seraphim Rose’s The Soul After Death.  I was gifted with another book, begun today, The Soul, the Body, and Death, by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo.  The relationship between the body and the soul in the latter text is described as cooperative.  The body does not imprison the soul.  The body and soul are together created good but in the fallen world death has come as a result of sin.  A man is neither “body” nor “soul” alone, but both, and death is the “unnatural” tearing apart of the soul from the body.

There’s more.  I’m reading.  Thinking and praying.  Worrying that I’ve written in such a way as to confuse.  Yet, I feel that those seeking Truth, despite delusions from the evil one, are led from temptation and towards the actual Truth…  The problem, maybe more often than not, is in the linguistic expression.  Truly, words get in the way.

I guess it’s good to keep it simple.  The body is a pain in the butt in this world–who can deny?  But the body is sensual and experiences good, too, even here and now, and, one might concede, in the Resurrection will experience a fullness of everlasting life that is unimaginably awesome!  Death is a result of sin.  What happens to the the soul, preserved by God until the bodily Resurrection?  The Patristic teachings warn against too much speculation or even consideration.  We run the real risk of getting it wrong.  Nonetheless, I think of my mother dying, of her beautiful body, her amazing heart, and I believe that when this awful day arrives I will need to think about what’s going on with her–just as she wondered with her own mother and had a dream.  In the dream, her mother was again gathered together with the family and taking a walk.  She was lagging behind when my mother asked, “Are you okay?”

“It’s just so beautiful there, so beautiful,” and she wanted to return.  This dream, my mother’s personal experience, edified her, edified us these years later.  The particulars of tollhouses, etc., maybe they matter, and maybe they do not.  I do not know.

For now, it’s dinnertime, the children are setting the table, my husband’s frying chicken fajitas, and the baby in utero and I are ready for food :)

Sober and Seeing the Sun: Reflections on Life and the Afterlife

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Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

The earthly life of the Christian should be a place of spiritual growth, progress, the ascent of the soul towards heaven. […] There is more joy in heaven over one who repents, than over others who need no repentance. How insistently the Church teaches us (in its litanies) to spend ‘the rest of our life in peace and repentance,’ and to die thus! It teaches us to call to remembrance our Most Holy, Most Pure, Most Blessed Lady Theotokos and all the saints, and then to commit ourselves and one another unto Christ our God. (Protopresbyter Michael Pomanzanksy 1; 4)

My husband told me I was a buzz kill with a smirk of understanding softening his insult. We were on vacation in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, our annual trek to a cabin on the lake around the bend from a lavish house with ski-dos, kayaks, and a bright, open living room filled with the aroma of fresh salmon and corn-on-the-cob, links of extended family and friends gathered for dinner, fishing, and late-nights of cards. My husband’s host family (not biological or adoptive but a family that had taken him in since he came to the States at thirteen from Russia) owned a home there. Since before marriage in 2000, we had come together to share in the swell of activity for a week of summer. In more recent years, a Fourth of July pig-roast with an ice-luge for an assortment of berry vodkas and rich liquors had been added to the festivities. For nearly three generations, there had been a water balloon fight on the beach by Hills Point where family and friends stayed around the bend from the house in cabins lining a beach. Children, and now our two boys (five and seven) joined in with the adults, relishing the bright sunshine and soft sand, cat-tails in the lake, pines and birch swaying with the coolish breeze that comforted us from too-sweltering summer heat. Laughter merged with birdsong and it could seem that we were more apart of the natural world in such moments, less separately going about business, cares pushed aside for the shear joy of vacationing in the U.P.

But this year I was seven-plus months pregnant. Unable to run. Unwilling to laugh with abandon. Heavy on my feet and heavy in my mind. The morning of the water balloon fight this year, I had crossed myself, praying for protection from accident, evil, and harm. With a buzz of excitement caught from others’ joy, I budged out of my buzz-killing mood with a cold splash of water and charged into “battle”. I instantly realized my equilibrium was off, body like a chicken’s, awkward against the quick and strong strides recalled from months before. As I lunged for a patch of grass behind the sand, I saw the ground coming up to my face. Thankfully, God heard my prayer. I slammed against my thigh and palms, somehow my middle missed the impact. With shaking legs, I walked over to my husband, the only one who’d seen me fall. “I was horrified,” he told me as I assured him that I really was fine.

I was fine, physically, but, increasingly, as the vacation continued through ten days, I was less all right emotionally. Life was about Christian struggle, something that seemed swallowed within the whirlwinds of life on a daily basis, whether on vacation, at home, or at work. I often felt the void of a post-Christian culture where it seemed others around me wouldn’t even pause to consider the words of St. Basil the Great: “Occupy yourself therefore with reflection on the last day… Imagine to yourself the confusion, the shortness of breath, and the hour of death, the sentence of God drawing near, the angels hastening towards you, the dreadful confusion of the soul tormented by its conscience with its pitiful gaze upon what is happening, and finally, the unavoidable translation into a distant place” (Bishop Sylvester qtd. in Pomazansky 3). My heart longed for spiritual truth, in part because enjoyment of bodily things was less being pregnant. I was concentrated on life, and death, as a child grew within me. It was such an unbelievable mystery that from flesh and blood God weaved another’s soul. I felt the power of His giving and feared the finality of His taking. It was a miracle, and to more fully appreciate this miracle I sought soul-joy independent from physical happiness that often made me giddy, fast, and moving towards a lesser satisfaction (food, drink, sex). It didn’t feel good to have the body stretch and layer in the hottest of summers, but with proper appreciation of the blessing within, it was a joyful experience, one grounded in hope of the future and faith in the past that had led to the creation of life.

The process of pregnancy began to seem an example of what life was: a Christian struggle. Beautiful in perspective of Christ, but difficult endured in coarse human flesh. Tension between the soul and body resulted in the Christian struggle where being aware of and responsible for faith in God naturally birthed a struggle in a world where it could seem we didn’t see, hear, smell, taste, and touch God directly (though the counter argument was that all of creation was concretely infused with His essence as Life). In fact, all the symbols of the Orthodox Church: bells, incense, icons, colors, holy bread and wine, all these sensory-stimulating things were to channel the spiritual experience through the bodily condition. Spiritual perspective was not literal understanding. To engage the divine, one needed the simplest faith. Such simple faith could be wonderment of the soul, the heart open to anything by which God would reveal Himself. Ironically, the body that got in the way was also the body by which He could be experienced.

This was a miracle: the heart’s knowing that by God something happened such as having a baby, meeting a person, reading truth, being made well, a mood lifted, and much more. I was in my early thirties now, married twelve years, used to trips Up North that were quite different from my childhood vacations to hot lakes and oceans, always boating, skiing, watching movies after early dinners and getting up with my cousins no later than nine, the parents having been up for hours cooking bacon and drinking coffee, reading the Bible and talking. I recalled lying against the hot leather of the boat, imagining what I’d wear the first day of school, the hot sun baking my dark skin darker. We’d lather in baby oil and shave our legs in the lake. Now, I was a mother, sunscreen was aerosol, and the weather was typically cooler Up North (though not this summer, as we melted in ninety-degree temperatures, thankful not to be at home in Ohio’s almost-ten-degrees-higher humid haze). My thoughts had turned more inward, though still as always there was the initial excitement of meeting back with others and sharing the year’s highlights in extraverted glee. My husband and I had emerged from a patch of life that had strained and strengthened us. His parents were in the States five years now, our children were growing healthy and happy, and my husband had settled into his job with a sense of purpose. I was through coursework and looking forward to passing exams for a Ph.D. in Writing Studies at the end of the summer, just before the birth of the culminating sign of Love: our Elizabeth. There was a quiet joy within us.

Quiet joy wasn’t felt happiness, necessarily, and remembrance of death sobered me. I wondered how to be joyful while sober, how to see the sun and smile. “Death, therefore, is precisely the reality that awakens one to the difference between this world and the next and inspires one to undertake the life of repentance and cleansing while this precious time is given to us” (170). To be inspired towards repentance the heart had to be moved to love and care for the times when it failed to love. It was possible to care with the realization that it mattered when I was grouchy and even rude to a soft-spoken uncle with tan legs and a white-haired mustache. “You were grouchy last night,” he truthfully jested. There’d been a dinner on the beach where everyone had gathered and shared laughs through sunset. I’d withdrawn into the cabin to read. Exhaustion dampened me and it continued difficult to sustain the energy for our vacation. The next afternoon, when the uncle added, “I see that grouchy look coming back,” I’d shot back that his comment was making me grouchy, and with sweating hands and forehead plunged away from the gathering of people and onto the road for another walk.

On this vacation I walked through my thoughts, the boys big enough to play without me always near, my husband enjoying the big toys and adult beverages I couldn’t indulge. As I walked, pink straw hat casting shade over my sweating body, I pondered how life was about the Christian struggle. I recalled that my priest had said that the mark of a Christian was true joy. What was true joy? It wasn’t the gruff dismissal of others who were enjoying pulled pork and beer on the beach. It wasn’t walking under a bright sun and failing to see the good earth about me. It wasn’t being alone any more than it was being among others on a wide deck overlooking smooth-as-glass water, upon which my son water skied for the first time. Joy was had or dismissed on the level of the heart, and it wasn’t circumstantial—though situations could arouse feelings of joy or sadness. True joy was acceptance of my circumstances, enduring both the good and bad, and hoping by the truth of the Lord. Assuredly, the body would become full, the mind would burn out, and the activities would end. Ultimately, the buzz would fizzle out, for sobriety was the natural way of life.

It was a pattern, to fight life’s circumstances or to accept them, to wiggle with the heat and wish for cooler paths. I failed when anger boiled in my heart. I succeeded with the choice not to mind, not to encourage hurtful feelings, and to understand my feelings contrasted others’ excitement, which was okay—these were just feelings that came and went. It was a lesson in learning to be quiet instead of acting on my feelings—something difficult for me to do. In Fr. Seraphim Rose’s God’s Revelation to the Human Heart, he wrote about conversion of the heart as possible only with the burning contact of God-revealed truth. He said that suffering was a part of wanting more of this sense of God. People in the affluent Western world have a difficult time feeling the need for God and this burning-heart desire for His truth because it is blocked from the consciousness by preoccupation with comfort and stimulation.

This burning-heart feeling is not a mere emotion. It is not another human feeling that should be endured without acting by its power. Rather, as Fr. Rose explains, it is what is behind the miracle of any positive change in the heart by and for God. Miracles are miracles not merely because of the supernatural reality they allow, such as having a baby with a one percent chance (our Elizabeth). A miracle is something the heart realizes as from God, a gift. For this reason, when put to words, miracles do not always seem as miracles to others. I have heard, “that always happens,” after telling people that we weren’t supposed to be able to have children. Yet, with each of our three children there has been a spiritual reality revealed to the heart, a strengthening of faith, and an increase in fear of the Lord who is truly the Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life.

He is also the One Who allows our last breath and the transition into the afterlife. Our first son was born purple. I had been in labor for two days and though there had been no severe complications, I have recently thought that his beginning was fragile. Five weeks after his birth, my husband tripped in his slippers and the baby fell down some stairs. Our son had a skull fracture. I had rocked him in the night, tight against my chest, and accepted that he may or may not come home with us from the hospital. I was prepared to accept what would be with a fire of faith burning inside my heart. Our son was completely healed, completely normal. A miracle.

In order to reconcile the paradox of the human condition, one had to believe in the soul, listen to the teachings of the Church, and choose a way of life that led to revelations realized on the level of the heart and soul. It wasn’t a choice made once but continually considered and re-considered by confession and repentance. By these means engaging with the Christian struggle, the soul encased in the body during these earthly days could try to triumph. While the body longed to do what it pleased, “[p]assivity and carelessness are unnatural to the soul; by being passive and careless we demean ourselves. However, to rise up requires constant vigilance of the soul and, more than this, warfare. With whom is this warfare? With oneself only? ‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against the spirits of wickedness under the heaven (Eph. 6:12)” (Pomazansky 2). Life’s “yin and yang” tested us and allowed us unique opportunities by which to continue with a sense of balance between the spiritual and physical reality. The experiences of life and death, joy and sorrow, comfort and suffering cycled us through constant change, and in and through it all, the Church allowed for communion and interactivity with Christ, as well as with saints in the Kingdom of God. By prayer, confession, praise and worship, by fasting and feasting and remembrance of the lives of the saints, the soul increased in power, and it did so not despite the body but by the very means of the body, which, though often challenging to the inner life of the soul, could be in communion with the soul and affect powerful activity for the glory of God. It was the whole person who was called to salvation, and the body would be resurrected in the End.

But I lost vision. Felt alone. Life seemed rather to be about fun: games, drinks, and cards. Church was a variously divided experience of Sunday-morning-religion. Many took a vacation from going, though there were many in the church I visited on the Sunday of our vacation week—so many the children and I had to sneak through the back and squeeze into the full sanctuary. In the small corner of my world, there seemed a general hiatus from the ebb and flow of work and rest. However, pregnant and acutely sober, it was fair to say that my perspective was more serious than it could otherwise be. St. Mark of Ephesus discussed God’s nature: Love, and His particular love of mankind, though He also punished those who chose not to enter into Love, choosing instead sin that separated one from God. After a person confessed his sin, however, God was merciful and immediately forgave. By forgiveness, St. Mark explained, God delivered that soul from punishment. “And this is natural. For if the offense to God leads to punishment, then when the guilt is forgiven and reconciliation has occurred, the very consequence of guilt—the punishment—of necessity comes to an end” (qtd. in Rose The Soul After Death 213). It was essential to realize that God was Love and His ways were loving. Fear of the Lord was the sobering realization that came from my own failure to participate in His love and thereby to fall outside the realm of truth that saved one from evil. Evil tempted people to sin by deception. For example, one didn’t need God. Church was a personal choice. Life was about having a good time in the body. If there was God, He wouldn’t make hell. But hell was the direct consequence of one’s own turning away from His all-encompassing love. When the soul separated from the body, in the presence of such Love, “fire” would burn only that which was countering it and not those who desired His love, which transfigured the entirety of His creations, including one’s mind, body, and soul.

Life and death could both be seen as miraculous, and especially so when taken together. Our baby Elizabeth was named after the New Martyr and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna of Russia (1864-1918). She was a strong, beautiful woman who became a nun and started a monastery after her husband was assassinated. The monastery, Martha and Mary Convent, was dedicated to the poor. She and the nuns there cared for wounded soldiers. During WWI, men from the Communist Regime overthrew the Bolsheviks and she was thrown down a mine shaft to die. Elizabeth was heard singing hymns to God as she and those with her died. Her body was later buried and when the casket was re-opened some time later, her remains were incorrupt, smelling of the sweetness of heaven. To see life and death as miracles was to understand both as intricately bound to the heart—to the burning desire for Love vs. the earthly preoccupation with many lesser things. In accounts of afterlife experiences, many have spoken of feelings of peace and comfort, of seeing bright lights and sensing God. Many have mourned their return to earth to rejoin the body.

Life after death, however, is union with God—something which is beyond the body-soul divide that some accounts of the afterlife discuss. The soul’s union with God depends on the life one chose to live while in the body, on earth, and this should remind us of the importance of what the body does to develop continued adherence to the choice for God, which continues in eternity. The body is the temple of the soul, which is why sexual immorality, drugs, suicide, even over-eating can negatively affect the soul. At the least, such things deaden sensitivity to the soul, but bodily sins also nurture a hunger for more and more physical escape from spiritual reality. No one is exempt from the struggle between the flesh and soul, and God is merciful and forgives us our sins when we realize them and turn from them.

It is a choice to engage with the Christian struggle, and the decision to do so affects the human soul. What happens after life is a mystery, but the Church has revelations in the Lives of the Saints and by St. Basil the New’s dream of the righteous Theodora (in an experience of the afterlife). However, any symbol used to express what happens after death is only a representation of that which, in life, cannot be taken literally. “It is perfectly clear to anyone that purely earthly images are applied to a spiritual subject so that the image, being impressed in the memory, might awaken a man’s soul” (Pomazansky 3). The Bride and Bridegroom (the Church and Christ) is a beautiful image sung during holy week of Great Lent when Christians enter into repentance and prepare for the love of God. Some Orthodox Christians argue that another image, the tollhouses, is ineffective in showing the Love of God. In this image, the soul ascends from the body and passes through the air from earth to heaven where demons and angels are said to “war” for the soul. Tax-collectors are demons collecting debts as sins on the soul. Most important is the truth that all such suggestions are not to be taken literally and to consider the spiritual benefit of the image. That sin has cost to the soul seems profitable to me and emphasizes how merciful God is to forgive, heal, and deliver us when we choose Him. This choice is everything and it is constant and continual. In yet another example, Christ’s coming like a thief in the night alerts us to the urgency to repent and to be ready for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Again, while such mental illustrations can be helpful truths, these are not to be understood on a literal level and in a fundamental way. Rather, with spiritual understanding, these metaphorical expressions allude to meanings by their suggestions.

The children and I ate dinner with my parents shortly after we returned from vacation, and we talked about the afterlife. The air was soft and the shade pleasant, a welcome balm from the heat. Images of the afterlife evoked a sense of awe in me. St. John Chrysostom accounts that once children die they are separated from their bodies by angels and peacefully glide past harm from the powers of the air (Pomazansky 3). An Orthodox friend and convert who had lost a young daughter when she was hit by a truck (before the family was Orthodox) said that he was comforted when he heard that a child who dies is baptized in her own blood. Demons seek out shame in the soul, but they only find a child’s immaculate soul, tongue undefiled. With this image, it is easy to feel the love of God and the reality of His protection. In the parable of Lazarus, he is brought after death directly to the bosom of Abraham. The saints of God, all men and women who lived with love for Him, are promised salvation. Prayers to God in life prepare the soul for the afterlife and unite those who love God both on earth and in the Kingdom of God. It is said that the Mother of God was met by Christ upon the separation of her body and soul and taken into heaven, her soul undefiled and without fear in passing through the evil spirits of the air.

It is important to embark upon the Christian struggle found in the Church, which holds services with prayers that reveal profound understanding of the spiritual experience of the afterlife. Furthermore, the sacraments of baptism, confession and divine liturgy, and especially holy communion, reveal the interaction between this world and the next, all centered on prayer and partaking in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. While life after death is ultimately a mystery and cannot be understood or explained in its fullness, considering the spiritual reality of life after death and the importance of the state of my soul, renews a newfound care for repentance and communion. Confession is an opportunity to clean my soul, to receive Christ’s forgiveness, which banishes my sins and remembers them no more. Holy Communion is being His Body with all of the saints—those everywhere in the world and from all times, including the future and my children’s children! There was a dawning of understanding in my heart, a miracle wrought in part by a small bit of struggle on vacation.

Being in Christ naturally related life and death and called one to repentance and Christian struggle. It wasn’t something to grasp in the head and ponder until understood. Considering the afterlife helped me understand that the sacraments protected the soul from deception and inspired the heart to love. The Church was not merely a place to worship but a deep and everliving wellspring of truth. The lives of the saints, cycle of prayers, fasting, and holy sacraments helped the soul engage the Christian struggle, and not alone but within the Body of Christ. I mourned with great fear missing the miracle of a burning heart that had to it much more than a feeling—an inspiration of activity that became a Christian way of life, one that struggled to be, despite vacation, and despite the trials and temptations of the ever-constant desire to serve the body rather than the soul. Whether the body was rejoicing with drink and food, or struggling with pregnancy, illness, or depression, the body and soul cooperated towards love of God. The soul was to endure the struggles of the body by not losing faith and hope when the body felt hard, and the body was to struggle for the edification of the soul—not by an unchanging rule but by rightly enduring the many different seasons of life that came, some physically enjoyable and others less so. Unfortunately, attention to the soul could be escaped, often was, resulting in the pursuit of the body at the expense of the soul. Fortunately, as the saints reveal, attention to the soul, lived out by the body, resulted in unfathomable joy—both in this life and the next.

Works Cited

Pomazansky, Protopresbyter Michael. “On the Question of ‘Toll-Houses’: Our War is not Against Flesh and Blood.” Orthodox Christian Information Center. 20 July 2012. <www.orthodoxinfo.com/death/tollhouse_pomaz.aspx>

Rose, Fr. Seraphim. The Soul After Death: Contemporary “After-Death” Experiences in the Light of Orthodox Teaching on the Afterlife. Platina: St. Herman Press, 1998.

—-. God’s Revelation to the Human Heart. Platina: St. Herman Press, 1987.

Hello world!

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This blog is to provide information on who I am and what I do, for those who may have interest in having me speak, teach, or write.

Forgive the many “I” sentences to follow…

I am an Orthodox Christian and a wife, mother of three, author, and scholar.
I have recently published a memoir with Orthodox Research Institute on my marriage to a man from Russia and our baptism into the Orthodox Church.  The story, When Russia Came to Stay, is an easily accessible narrative of a young family coming together in and by the love of Christ.  It is a living account of the saving grace that continues to work in the hearts of those open to God.  A link to the book follows:  When Russia Came to Stay, Orthodox Research Institute
I am a public speaker with the Orthodox Speakers Bureau, discussing such topics as:

  • conversion
  • intercultural marriage
  • family life
  • academia and being Christian
  • writing–especially life stories
  • infertility
  • miracles
  • physical / spiritual health

Please go to the Orthodox Speakers Bureau to view my profile and contact information for speaking engagements.

I am currently studying for a Ph.D. in Literacy, Rhetoric, and Social Practice at Kent State University, and my research focus is on addiction.  More specifically, I am investigating communication between those dealing with addictions and those aiming to help them.  I am available to speak on this.

To view contact information, teaching experience, and publications, please click on resume.

Thank you, and I hope we may be in contact.