Don stopped by Thoughts the other day and left a comment. That gave me a chance to look at his blog and I was immediately struck by how much we have in common. He is a single, Orthodox dad who adopted an 11 year son with RAD (the same diagnosis as our JT and Ruth). That son is several years older now and his dad has been blogging their journey together through adoption and orthodoxy. I hope you enjoy his blog as much as I have been! He is brutally honest and refreshingly transparent. Thanks for sharing Don!
The very first thing I learned in graduate school was that I knew nothing. I arrived at Brown University's theater department at age 20, feeling pretty good about my resume as a theater generalist up that point and pretty smart for being so young and landing in such a prestigious place. That all ended after about 2 hours into my graduate school career. I had one professor whose primary focus was American popular entertainment. This man knew more about circus performers than I even knew existed to know about circus performers. Another professor was an expert on Javanese shadow puppetry and another had cornered the knowledge market on the American Broadway Musical. After sitting in on about 1o minutes of class time with each of these guys I realized the depth of knowledge just in theater history and theory alone was vast enough to drown in, let alone that level of knowledge of the endless other topics upon which my fellow students were taxing their brains across the humanities. There is just a lot of knowledge to be had in the world and I suddenly felt like a flitting, brainless flea on the Great Dane of history.
I've since comforted myself with the idea that much of that knowledge has very little impact nor import on my life as a mom, a wife or even as a Christian. God didn't call me to collect that knowledge (how I ended up as a graduate student at Brown is fodder for another post with the working title of My Big Prideful Mistake), he called me to be a mom, a wife and a Worshiper. In fact, I must confess that I seem to have some sort of severe memory problem. I can't remember anything - and it isn't just "Mommy Brain" or "Getting Older" - I've always had this problem. I can't remember people's names, gifts people have given me, movies I've seen, books I've read or knowledge I've amassed. About the only thing I can recollect is personal conversations and my husband will chide me for even getting those wrong (although he likes to give me the benefit of the doubt by ending every disagreement over the issue with "You have your memory of that conversation and I have mine"). It's so bad that I finally had to make a deal with God - If it's important enough for Him to want me to remember it then He'll need to remind me of it. This has worked out nicely so far, or so I'd like to think...
Over the past 20 or 30 years I've collected, then, what I hoped was enough understanding of God and His Ways to at least develop some sense of a personal faith life. I understood the differences between Protestants and Catholics. I knew the ins and outs of Evangelicals and Charismatics. I could pray in tongues, prophecy and recite my creeds - both the so-called Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. I knew Liturgy - as a personal form of worship and as a theological construct. So imagine my surprise when we became Orthodox. Suddenly I know Nothing again. I am back to that flitting flea, this time on the Newfoundland of Theology. Where once I was a prophet sought out for advice and "the Word of the Lord" I now have nothing to offer by way of novel spiritual insight. As the hubris of the charismatic crushed under its own weight I found myself crawling from the rubble with not much left of my Christian identity.
Recently I've been slogging through Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros' essay The River of Fire which somehow found its way to the back of Archbishop Puhalo's book on the The Ikon As Scripture. Tad insists that all that he's saying in this essay are the ideas he's tried to teach and preach about for years now but I don't remember - or I was just plain too simple to get it. All this stuff about Augustine and the True nature of God is just plain blowing my mind - and my spirit. It takes me several readings of a sentence just to "get" his drift. Then I move on to the next paragraph and forget what I just learned the page before and have to start all over again. It is all so new, so different, so radically not what I thought I knew and understood and yet it makes so much sense.
So here I am back at square one - back at the beginning of finding my identity in Jesus Christ. I am thankful to Anastasia and her series on Why Did Jesus Die?. I am thankful for a priest who hands me books I need to read, I am thankful for the Church Fathers who, even in all of their knowledge can boil down faith to a simple "Jesus have mercy on me" and I am thankful for God who has yet to give up on me even when I find myself forgetting and beginning again. I have never asked for God's mercy as much as I have as an Orthodox believer and I believe that God, in His mercy, is reducing me to the knowledge and faith of a child.
Archbishop Lazar writes in his book The Ikon As Scripture, "Notice that on the north side of the royal gates, we see the ikon depicting the Theotokos with Christ, while on the south side is the ikon of Christ alone, usually shown with the Gospel book. We are not looking at pictures of "a virgin and child" and "Jesus," for these are theological ikons of the First and Second coming of Christ. Let us look at the significance of this for a moment. We know that the sanctuary is a type of paradise, and the royal gates thus "open into paradise." In the Divine Liturgy, the Gospel is taught, read and preached from the royal gates; all the liturgical revelation about the path and means of salvation is given in, or in front of, the royal gates. Thus, the ikon of the First and of the Second Coming of Christ are placed on either side of these gates, because the time of salvation, the "age of redemption," takes place between the First and Second Coming of Jesus Christ. There, the arrangement of these ikons on either side of the royal gates preaches to us the scriptural message that, "behold, now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor 6:2). (emphasis his, not mine)
I've been pondering this truth for quite some time now and it has had a profound impact on how I see the royal gates of the Orthodox church. I have wavered between finding them just plain an annoyance when trying to see the action on the altar and finding them a wonderful picture of the incompleteness of what we can see of the heavenly mysteries from our earthly perspective. Not until I read this, did I consider a third perspective - that of the royal doors as the sanctifying now. The doors then become the working out of our salvation at this very moment - the place in which the business of theosis occurs during our earthly sojourn.
When I get frustrated with the sinfulness in myself and the world I can peer into the face of Jesus on the icon to the right and I can almost hear him say to me, "It's because this is the Not Yet. But my Kindgom Comes and My Will will be done. " And if I look to the left I see the infant Jesus - the Incarnation at His Birth into this world and I see God's mercy in the midst of the sinfulness of this world. Then I bring my focus back to the Royal Gates - back to the altar where I can receive the Eucharist, back to the icons of the saints surrounding us where I can remember those who came before, back to the podium in the corner where I can exercise the Rite of Confession, back to the people standing all around me who are in the same boat as me.
It seems there's been death about me lately and thus I've had lots of various thoughts running through my mind and my soul. We've been to two funerals in the past couple of weeks - one in a Baptist church to celebrate the life of Gwen, Tad's sister's mother-in-law and one in a Nazarene church to celebrate the life of Cathy, the daughter and sister of good friends. I also have a friend who lost a foster baby to SIDS. Her daughters are especially grieving that little life. I can only begin to imagine the pain...
The funerals themselves were interesting. Neither one being Orthodox, they left us with some amount of incompleteness on several levels and yet there were traditions that were warm and wonderful, like the reading of the cards and condolences at Gwen's funeral. Never before had I seen that done but it added a tenderness to the funeral to hear the roll call of saints who offered up their own grief as a gift to the family. In the absence of liturgy and vestments, the ushers at that church donned matching white gloves and dresses. They wandered up and down the aisles directing people, handing out fans, service programs and tissues in synchronized movements and seeing to the every need of the people in the pews. These people were repeatedly referred to as "The Church" - "while we are waiting for the church to be seated", "and the church say amen" - that seemed right. If only the rest of "the church" had been written onto the walls of the building in the forms of the saints and angels...
At the Nazarene church we were treated to hymns sung by the presider - a minister with a beautiful baritone voice. It reminded me of the times in my childhood when my sister and her boyfriend would sing "special music" at his Baptist services. (On those Sundays we would take leave of our Lutheran services and travel up the road to see the "inspirational performance". On one Sunday there we witnessed a series of believer baptisms in the bathtub installed in the front of the church. One woman lost her wig when she was dunked under the water. I'm sure Beth and Chip sang some special music that day as well.) There was a lot of sitting at that service. We participated only in the singing of one hymn - even the Lord's prayer was "performed" for us by the Baritone minister. Here "the church" seemed to have been either forgotten or solely a target for ministry. So much for the priesthood of the believers.
Both services, but particularly the one in the Baptist church focused on the deceased's personal relationship with Jesus - and our relationship with Jesus. Jesus was so much in the fore that we began to wonder where the rest of the Trinity had gone...Which made it funny to me when a friend I saw at the viewing began to question me about Orthodoxy and asked "You do believe in the Trinity don't you?" I was stunned into silence for a moment as I remembered that once I didn't understand anything about Orthodoxy either. But it was like asking me as a mother "you don't let your children play in the highway do you?" Our Holy Orthodox church having its Trinitarian beliefs questioned! The very church that was established in the sweat of our Church Fathers fighting against the heresies of those early days of Christianity! How could one think we aren't Trinitarian? But then this friend had never been to a Divine Liturgy, had never prayed the Trisagion prayers, had never crossed himself a hundred times in one Liturgy in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit unto ages of ages amen! In the midst of Evangelicals who seem to have lost sight of the Holy Trinity, the question seemed absurd, insulting even....
I wanted to comfort the grieving with Liturgy. I wanted to hear Holy God! Holy Mighty! Holy Immortal! I wanted my friends to hear it in their souls that God is holy, might, immortal. Over and over in my mind went Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life! I wanted to press the icon of the Resurrection against their hearts and imprint the Victory of it in their minds. It wasn't enough. The funerals weren't enough. I think I will send Cathy's parents a little note at the times when we would normally be saying a Pannikhida for their daughter. The thing about that tradition is the respect for the grieving process of the family. The grief does not begin and end at the funeral. It is a different experience in 3 days, in 9 days, in 40 days, in one year....The Orthodox prayer life acknowledges that. That's why I'd like to go to an Orthodox funeral - would like the ones I love to have the benefit of the prayers, the Liturgy. I suspect it would feel more complete, more inclusive of the Trinity, the deceased, the grieving friends and family - something solid upon which to stand in the midst of sadness.
I'm a homeschooling mom to many and wife to Tad, my very best friend. We have 8 homemade blessings, and 5 chosen and adopted children from five different countries. Welcome to our crazy loud family! We hope you enjoy it as much as we do!