Ivan was not ready.

This month our women’s book club at church read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Sunday afternoon we met at my house to discuss it. That day on the liturgical calendar happened to be the Sunday of the Last Judgment, with the Gospel reading from Matthew 25.

In that passage, before we come to the day’s reading, Christ has been speaking privately to His disciples about the end times, and telling parables. One is about virgins getting enough oil for their lamps, and the other about servants making good use of the gifts they were given. Both parables end with someone arriving and some people not being prepared.

Ivan Ilyich was most certainly not ready for the arrival of his death. He and his friends were like many people in that they avoided thinking about that inevitability. The story opens with the fact of it, and his funeral, which doesn’t affect his friends very much, because thank goodness, it wasn’t their death, so they can go on as they were before. Then the author takes us back to see Ivan’s life over the years, and close to the end when he could no longer avoid suffering, and had to face a reality that didn’t fit into his life’s theme of doing what was pleasant.

The Gospel for the day is sobering, and our pastor reminded us of what his late father, also our priest, used to say, that the task of the preacher is always to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This passage continues in the thread of being about Someone’s return. Christ, the Son of Man, begins to talk to His friends more directly, if metaphorically:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” And by what criteria exactly does He sort them? If you haven’t read that account recently you might want to look at it; the whole process is laid out with much detail in Matthew 25. Our preacher said it is like getting the answers before the final exam.

I was teaching my usual church school class afterward, and read in preparation a sermon by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that I liked very well; I shared it with the students, too. A quote:

“We are told that when the Day of Judgment comes, those who will stand before God – and those are all of us – will not be asked about their creed, about their theological knowledge, about their theoretical convictions. They will be asked direct and concrete questions, that can be summed up in one: have you been human, or not?”

Steve Robinson wrote similarly: “The separation is this: Who was paying attention to life itself, our Life in a constant icon before us, and fulfilling the Image in which we are created? Who is, in love and sometimes even in ignorance of the Name of the Image, paying attention to what is ultimately our Salvation now, and ever, and unto the ages, even though we do not know it.”

It is the disruption of Ivan Ilyich’s pleasant life, the pain of his illness, and the growing realization that he is dying, that make him pay attention, and even pray. His prayer is along the lines of, “What did I do to deserve this?” but nevertheless: “Then he was still, ceased weeping, held his breath, and was all attention; he listened, as it were, not to a voice uttering sounds, but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts that rose up within him.” 

He begins to consider that perhaps “he had spent his life not as he ought….” Eventually, Ivan “saw distinctly that it was all not the right thing; it was a horrible, vast deception that concealed both life and death.”

This idea of the right thing ties in to what we heard in the homily at church, that God’s judgment is not of the sort we exercise and endure by the same name in the world. His judgment is essentially what happens when the One Who understands everything and is perfect Love sets things right. It would appear that as soon as Ivan prayed the feeblest prayer, his Father began this process.

The end, when it came for Ivan, leads us to believe that he passed from death to life. It did not come without agonizing struggles. He had missed life while appearing to be alive, all the while not preparing for death, which turns out to be the beginning of his true life.

Until they were separated, the sheep and goats had been in the flock together, being cared for by the Shepherd. Steve Robinson points out that sheep and goats alike were clueless about how their fate had been decided; it wasn’t fear of judgment that made the sheep love their fellows and act like sheep — or leaving the metaphor, as the humans God created them to be. Neither did they see Christ in the needy person whom they clothed or fed or took into their homes, but they loved that person anyway.

Metropolitan Anthony ends his sermon with this exhortation: “One day we will stand before Him. He will meet us with His infinite love, but looking at Him we will see that He has been our victim throughout life in the person of every one whom He loved and whom we have neglected, humiliated, rejected, allowed or caused to suffer. And how terrible it will be at that moment to look at Him and know that there is no anger, no hatred in Him, but deep, deep pain. Let us think of that, and remember… if you want to be divine, first be truly human.”

Pull your feet out of the muck.

“You gain much for tomorrow by being spiritually down-to-earth today!  Don’t expect to have wings and fly, but get your feet pulled out of the muck, being mindful of eternal joy, and thus you will develop healthy wings that will keep you soaring aloft.  Let us be truly faithful and understand the importance and beauty of difficult days, and how precious today’s offenses and spitting will be one day!  At least now I choose the best method:  to keep silent and endure; I meditate seriously and conscientiously on the day of my life’s judgment.”

Eternity in the Moment: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Arsenie Papacioc

See the colors till the end.

It’s been a big week for me so far, because I took down and put away all of my Christmas decorations all by myself, including the faux tree. I feel incredibly lightened up by having that task out of the way. For several weeks the tree and its lights burning all day and night cheered me up as I was recovering from sickness and deep winter, but one day the top third was not lit anymore. I unplugged it, and after that, it became a chore needing to be done, which is possibly the opposite of cheery, until one gets into it, at which point it might become energizing and satisfying.

When the family was together at Christmas, evidently someone added a most natural ornament without asking me, because I was surprised to find among the branches a dried pansy, and it was a welcome late gift, bringing as it did memories of that rich couple of weeks.

I paid a man to level my fountain and clean it, and I watched as he lifted off the top and emptied the pipes of so much green stuff! I realize now that every time over the last four years that I have let the algae get away from me, by not putting the drops in every week, all the cleaning out I have done trying to remedy the situation has been woefully superficial, even if it did take a long time. I must become more diligent. When he finished he asked me how fast I wanted the flow to be. I said “low” and he set it so, but it seems fuller and faster than ever.

This year when I renew my driver’s license I have to take the written test. I started on that too late to get an appointment at the DMV, so I need to pick a day and wait in line. I’ve decided this will be the week for that as well. I got the handbook and have been taking practice tests online, and I’ll be ready. But I’m very annoyed by all the questions about the penalties for breaking laws. It doesn’t say anything about my driving skills if I can’t remember how many months or years I might be jailed for evading the police or for drunk driving, first or second offense, etc.

A few days ago when I was musing about my lack of yellow clothing, I did remember a scarf that I inherited that has some yellow in it. Have you ever seen anything like this?

It shows a hundred years of American soldiers and sub-groups of armies, starting with George Washington at top left. I can’t think of a proper occasion to which I might wear it, even if I were a militaristic woman.

 

 

 

Maybe Glad ancestors were among the American fighting men in that century, I don’t know. But I do know that one branch of my late husband’s people came from Ryegate, Vermont, and are mentioned in this book, first published in 1913. This morning my eldest, Pearl, asked me if I had a copy, and what do you know, I had two on a high shelf. I packed them up and sent them to Wisconsin so she can explore further what are her people, too.

This is turning out to be a gathering of historic tidbits; here is an article about the word till. Did you think maybe it should be ’til? Not at all. ’til is a modern invention. I was oddly happy to know this fact. You can learn about the history of till here at Daily Writing Tips.

THE COLOR BLUE has always been my favorite, so when Leila shared this link about its history on her blog Like Mother, Like Daughter I went straight there and drank in all the blues – and I feel so rich, not being colorblind. How could there be new blues being invented? Of course, there are infinite blues, but whether we can find a dye or an ink that paints them must be the question. Here is just one recent blue, from the article, named International Klein Blue:As much as I love blue, I’ll leave you with a picture of one of my otherwise tinted Iceland poppies in the front garden. They have been waving to the neighbors who walk past, and to me when I come home from my errands. And most of them are the color that I love in my garden especially: orange.

Oh, but thinking about the garden reminds me that I have learned enough Spanish that I was able to text to my gardener this week: “Puede trabajar aquí este fin de semana?” (Can you work here this weekend?) And he came even sooner. 🙂

 

All seemed to drift.

THE ROAD

He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware,
And someone else was walking next to him,
First friends, then lovers, now children and a wife.
They were good company—generous, kind,
But equally bewildered to be there.

He noticed then that no one chose the way—
All seemed to drift by some collective will.
The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?

—Dana Gioia