Watching and watchfulness.

 

The birds are happy today and so am I. While I’ve been sitting in my garden corner both a wren and a chickadee came by to say hello. You can hear what the Bewick’s Wren told me here. A while later, out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the collard patch.

The plants are tall, and with half a dozen house finches hopping from stem to stem and pecking among the flowers, they reminded me of their mustard cousins mentioned in the Bible, in the parable of the mustard seed.

A pair of bluebirds have been flitting about the garden for a week at least. They do appear to be playing, randomly flying from tree to tree to arbor to birdbath, swooping across each other’s paths. Weeks ago we saw them checking out the birdhouse, and now I find that there are at least the beginnings of a mossy nest in there, though I haven’t seen them working on it. They don’t sit still for long, but I got this shot that at least shows the male’s bright blueness.

I’ve selectively removed a couple of established ornamentals from the back garden so that I could carve out spaces for all the young plants that have just this week been liberated from the greenhouse. Last night was their first to stay out all night. Normally I wait to plant until May 1st, but that is Holy Saturday, and I won’t have time. No frost is forecast for the next ten days, so this year I will join the many people in my area who commonly plant in April.

Yesterday I invited neighbors over to see my back garden for the first time; I only met them in Covid-time and we have chatted on the sidewalk and texted a lot about our gardens, we have shared seeds and plants and produce. They brought their 2-year old and we had a good visit strolling about and drinking iced rooibos tea. The little boy insisted that both of his parents come into the playhouse with him. I told them that is the first time I’ve had a whole family in there together.

While we were looking at the pea vines, I asked them if they had seen any honeybees yet this season. They said they’d seen one. Suddenly the carpenter bees we’d been watching were joined by excited honeybees and bumblebees! I think they had just got the news about the borage.

I sent my neighbors home with a dozen plants, most of which I’d grown from seed this spring, but a few propagated from cuttings, or volunteers removed from the garden and potted up. In the last category were Yellow Bush Lupine and Showy Milkweed.

I have a lot of calendula seedlings from seeds that a friend at church gave me from her garden, the Indian Prince mix (picture from seed packet at right). Calendulas are blooming now here; they often overwinter and reseed themselves, but I only have two currently, so I’ll fill in with several new plants. This is one of the established ones:

It is the 5th Sunday of Lent for Orthodox Christians. After this last week of Lent proper, we enter Holy Week; Pascha is May 2nd this year. In this last week the tone changes a bit; it shifts from repentance to watchfulness, our rector told us, and we begin to look forward to the raising of Lazarus, which is a sort of pre-feast of the Resurrection of Christ Himself.

I arrived early today, so I could stop by the hall to drop off a bag of onion skins, which are being collected for dyeing eggs for Pascha. I couldn’t help taking pictures of the wisteria and other beautiful flowers there.

Today we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt, who in our hymnography is often called “Mother Mary,” which can be confusing to those who think of Christ’s mother by that name. We usually call that Mary the Theotokos (“God-bearer”) or the Mother of God, to affirm Christ’s divinity.

This hymn got my attention this morning:

The image of God was truly preserved in thee, O Mother,
for thou didst take up the Cross and follow Christ.
By so doing, thou taughtest us
to disregard the flesh for it passes away;
but to care instead for the soul,
for it is immortal.
Therefore thy spirit, O holy Mother Mary,
rejoices with the angels.

St. Mary of Egypt by her life exhorts us not to slacken our effort in this last week, not to think that we can coast the rest of the way to Pascha. She was repentant and watchful for decades in the desert, and the fruit of her life and testimony has nourished the Church ever since.

As Abba Zosimas said of her, “Truly God did not lie when he promised that those who purify themselves will be like Him. Glory to You, O Christ our God, for showing me through your holy servant, how far I am from perfection.” 

A monk learns a lesson.

A story I found in my files:

The Importance of Reading
the Gospels Every Day

A Monk’s Story

During my initial monastic service at the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow, there was a period when I stopped reading the Gospel. At that time I had a lot of work, and there was not enough time to concentrate, open the Holy Scriptures, plunge into the meaning of words. I did not attach much importance to this, but simply continued to perform obediences, working from four in the morning until late at night. There were no external changes, but I gradually began to notice that I was more and more burdened by a feeling of strong spiritual and bodily fatigue, which I could not “throw off” neither with sleep, nor food, nor rest. I fell asleep and woke up, went to services, worked, but the feeling that someone seemed to be digging into my neck and sucking all the strength out of me did not leave. I walk – my legs buckle, I sit behind the wheel – my hands are shaking. Body and soul were exhausted every day, and I still could not understand the reason.

Once, in this state, I came to the office of the abbot, father Agaphodor, to discuss some labor issues. He, as an insightful person, as soon as I started a conversation, asks me: “What is happening to you?” In an almost exhausted voice, I quietly answer: “I don’t know … Something is wrong with me, it’s hard.” He fixed his gaze on me, as if in a couple of seconds he could see my soul and find the source of the disease, and suddenly asked the question: “Have you been reading the Gospel?” I began to think: indeed, I had stopped reading the Gospel. How could this have happened? How long have I been living without the main spiritual food? I began to remember and with horror discovered that I did not remember the last time I took the Bible in my hands.

With the strongest inner excitement, I ran to my cell, grabbed the Gospel and began to read. I opened it and, like a man dying of thirst, I read and read, read and read… An amazing impression: the more I read, the more acutely I felt that I was getting better. The teeth, which dug into my neck and sucked my strength, gradually unclenched, I breathed more freely. With each new chapter (and I read about ten at once) it became easier and easier. I turned page after page until I realized that I was completely free of the disease. The feeling of depression is gone. The enslavement that I was in all that time was a great lesson for me, which does not need to be repeated twice. Since then, I read 365 chapters a year – that is, I read one chapter every morning.

Man consists of two parts – soul and body. We saturate our flesh, but the soul remains hungry. The main food for the soul is the Gospel. We do not forget to charge our cell phone in the evening, but we forget about the soul. When we read the Gospel, we receive grace. In the morning we read the chapter – grace for the whole day. And the day will go in a completely different way – with grace. We will also reflect on what we have read, and some of this will come true, although the Gospel is not a fortune-telling book. This is the book of life that every Christian should live by.

We sometimes do not even think about what great power is hidden in this book. If we ever saw how the devil shies away, like from fire, when we take the Gospel in our hands, we would hug it and never let it go. For my confessor, Father Kirill (Pavlov), the Gospel has always been in the first place: he found it in the ruins of Stalingrad during the Great Patriotic War and went through the whole war with it. So I too, but much later, had to visit my battlefield to understand: without the Gospel you cannot win.

Natan’s Psalter

A podcast I listened to at the beginning of Lent encouraged me in my desire to spend more time reading the Psalms. It was Fr. Patrick Reardon’s homily in which he exhorted his own parishioners on three points, one of which was the need to pray more during Lent. He suggested the Psalms, because the use of them is a tradition that was without doubt handed down to us by the Apostles.

Fr. Patrick told the moving story about the book of Psalms that Natan Sharansky‘s wife gave him the night before he was put in a Soviet prison, and how much it meant to him during the many years he spent there. Sharansky’s story of it is on the site of the National Library of Israel, where I found this photo.

If you would like to listen to Fr. Patrick’s homily yourself it can be found here: “As Though it Were Our Last.”

The old child at the heart of him.

Morning light was filtering through fog as I read this passage from Luke Chapter 11:

No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light. The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness. If thy whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light.

Soon enough there began to play in my mind a hymn that I haven’t sung since childhood in the Presbyterian Church, “Open My Eyes, That I May See.” I looked up the hymn in one of the several hymnals our household has collected from previous generations of my late husband’s family, and the lyrics contain the essence of a humble prayer.

But though spiritual sight must be part of what Christ is talking about, twice He uses the words, “whole body full of light.” Pause and think on that! What can it even mean? We can theorize about it, but Christ, Who called Himself “The light of the world,” is not an idea or a theory or a spiritual practice. He will have to teach us what this means by experience. Our yearly Lenten effort is our effort to return again and again to that lifelong process. And He has many ways of opening our eyes and bringing us to Himself, customized to each person’s unique situation.

In The Princess and Curdie, we meet Curdie again not long after the exciting events of The Princess and the Goblin, during which he learns a lesson on humility. But already Curdie, in his young teens, is losing some of his youthful goodness. If our lives are like mirrors that are meant to reflect the glory of our Creator, his mirror is not doing that very well; it has gotten dirty by slow degrees and not even his parents understand why their son does not bring them joy as he used to.

One reason for his not being “in a good way,” our narrator describes like this: “As Curdie grew, he grew at this time faster in body than in mind – with the usual consequence, that he was getting rather stupid – one of the chief signs of which was that he believed less and less in things he had never seen.”

MacDonald sermonizes more in this book than in The Princess and the Goblin. But his little sermons are wise and kind, so I don’t mind them. I do wonder if children would make much use of them, however. He contrasts what is happening to Curdie with the ideal:

“The boy should enclose and keep, as his life, the old child at the heart of him, and never let it go. He must still, to be a right man, be his mother’s darling, and more, his father’s pride, and more. The child is not meant to die, but to be forever fresh born.”

Looking at Curdie, I am reminded of why we are on our Lenten journey: so that we can by some small effort cooperate with God as He does whatever work is necessary to bring us back home, as the Prodigal Son came home, to the “old child” of our heart.

For Curdie, the means involved a white pigeon:

“Curdie had made himself a bow and some arrows, and was teaching himself to shoot with them. One evening in the early summer, as he was walking home from the mine with them in his hand, a light flashed across his eyes. He looked, and there was a snow-white pigeon settling on a rock in front of him, in the red light of the level sun.

“It was indeed a lovely being, and Curdie thought how happy it must be flitting through the air with a flash – a live bolt of light. For a moment he became so one with the bird that he seemed to feel both its bill and its feathers, as the one adjusted the other to fly again, and his heart swelled with the pleasure of its involuntary sympathy. Another moment and it would have been aloft in the waves of rosy light – it was just bending its little legs to spring:  that moment it fell on the path broken-winged and bleeding from Curdie’s cruel arrow.

“With a gush of pride at his skill, and pleasure at his success, he ran to pick up his prey. I must say for him he picked it up gently — perhaps it was the beginning of his repentance….”

As the pigeon lay bleeding and limp in his hand, and looked long and wondering at him, Curdie’s heart began to grow very large in his bosom. What could it mean? It was nothing but a pigeon, and why should he not kill a pigeon? But the fact was that not till this very moment had he ever known what a pigeon was.”

The drama of the next moments captures the storminess of a human heart when it strives against the pain of self-knowledge, and the temptation to despair. In the Curdie stories the white pigeons figure as messengers and angels of the divine Love, and after an indefinable time out of time, which may be less than a minute, our boy comes through the storm with clarity, and proceeds with his repentance.

With clarity… under the influence of that Light that wants to fill all the dark corners of us, to make us radiant with Himself. It does seem an impossible image, until we remember that our personal task is to respond to the light we are given, respond to the Light Who is Christ, in this moment, and do the next thing that we are able, to “clean the dirt from our mirrors.”

During Lent, the Orthodox Church gives us many tools for this holy work, and one of them is the Holy Unction service. In addition to the one I described here, another General Unction service is often held during Lent in which anyone prepared may participate, whether or not they are gravely ill, and I am looking forward to being the recipient of its healing grace this evening.

May we all make good use of our sins,
and of the lights that come to us,
and Dear Lord, fill us with Your Light.