Category Archives: love

I map the topography of love.

Yarrow blooming in front garden.

March is the month that my husband fell asleep in the Lord, two years ago now. My experience of bereavement is all over the map, following the topography of the seasons and the holidays and whatever physical ailments fall on me.

Most of the time I am happily swamped by a myriad of plans and activities, and tasks I’m behind on. But sometimes the absence of my husband when I lie down and when I rise up, when I go from room to room or when I come home from a walk, is like a huge and strange presence.

March always features Lent, which is a mercy, because that is an opportunity to focus on prayer, which keeps me in the present, where my husband and I are both living in the Kingdom of God. I can put our marriage in historical perspective and in the context of eternity.

This year once again I cooked for 100 people, with the help of several dear friends, an agape meal after last Sunday’s Divine Liturgy, as a memorial for my husband. I made the same menu as last year. We had so much fun cooking on Saturday that I completely forgot to take pictures.

But the night before, I had been soaking 20# of Great Northern beans to make the Greek Beans , and I took pictures of them soaked and being dried off on a tablecloth. They have to be dried off a bit so you can sauté them in olive oil before stewing them. Neither of the photos shows the whole 20#.

I also borrowed some pictures from last year that are pretty much identical to the scene from last week.

garlic and bay leaves
Preparing tarragon for cabbage salad.

Partly because of Lent, March is always very busy. Not all Orthodox churches are able to celebrate a full calendar of services, partly because many parishes have only one priest, and he might also have another job. But God has arranged for me to be where I can be nourished and helped a great deal by praying in church and receiving Communion several times a week during Lent. We have so many services that no one can attend all of them.

Yellow freesias starting to bloom in the distance.

 

March is when the garden takes off. If I didn’t have my garden, what would my life be like? Would I keep a tidier house? Pray more? Probably neither. I am always happy in the garden – and it’s a good place to pray, without a doubt. Better to have a garden that is somewhat neglected than to have no garden.

I started thinning the lamb’s ears with the help of a kneeling bench
that my cousin Renée gave me.

I used to not like Euphorbia (above),
but now that it is falling over my own garden wall I find I am quite fond of it.

lovely lithodora

The native currant bushes (ribes) aren’t very bushy,
but they are three times as tall as last year.

Bay tree (Laurus nobilis) in a pot.

The first week of Lent I started out grumpy. But Lent is a good cure for that. I have since been given wonderful gifts of thankfulness. God has let me see how all through my life He has abundantly provided for me, and He continues to do this every day. When I think of the love that has been given me in my childhood, my marriage, my children and my friends – and now the Holy Orthodox Church that is “the fullness of Him that fills all in all,” my cup runs over.

No doubt I will lapse into grumbling and self-pity before long, and have to repent again (That’s what life is for!) but the view of my widow’s world from this mountain on which I stand at the moment is quite beautiful, and it’s a Happy Spring.

I began this post yesterday, and then went out to pull weeds and deadhead flowers. I was kneeling in the mulch by the yarrow when the florist delivery girl walked up with an elegant vase for “Gretchen.” Lilies, roses, carnations, blue flowers, sweet smells… Before I could get it into the house I started weeping, not being able to guess who would do this – it could be anyone, in God’s world that is full of miracles, and seemingly brimming with people who care about me. But it was my children and their spouses, with an early remembrance of their parents’ wedding anniversary:

“Mama, these are sent in celebration of you and Papa, and with love for you,
from your children.”  See what I mean about that landscape?

Mother Gavrilia had more than personality.

Mother Gavrilia was one of those people I have heard about who know what it is to die to oneself, to “cease to exist,” as she put it. St. Paul wrote about this in his letters, saying, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” You might think that someone for whom this is a reality would lack personality or presence, because if your self is truly swallowed up in Christ, who would you be?

I know this question has come up through the years, talking with various people. It’s been theoretical to those of us who talk, knowing as we have that we ourselves have not advanced very far on that road to “non-existence.” But of course, to be fully in Christ is to be most fully alive, and about the opposite condition Mother Gavrilia also said, “When we lack love, we become corpses, entirely dead.”

gl-gavrilia-mother-or-gerontissa-gabrielaShe was born in 1897, and was the second woman ever to enter a Greek university, but she said, “One thing is education: that we learn how to love God.” Later she trained in physiotherapy in England and returned to Athens to open her own practice when she was over 50 years old. Several years after (and older still) she traveled to India by herself. She treated lepers and helped the poor everywhere. Then Palestine, East Africa, France, America. She was friendly with Muslims and Hindus and Protestant Christians, but often withdrew from society altogether. As John Brady tells in one account of her life, “Mother Gavrilia’s life obliterated the inane distinctions that we so often make between prayer and service, contemplation and action….The difference was immaterial because the Source was the same.”

Lately I have encountered many  thought-provoking sayings from Mother Gavrilia. Reading them, and about her very active and miraculous life, I get the impression of a bright intellect, a radiantly energetic person, so full of life and light as to make the concept of mere “personality” seem tiresome.

Here is one story in her words that makes a good introduction:

Once… some foreign missionary came and said to me, “You may be a good woman, but you’re not a good Christian.”

I said, “Why?”

“Because you have been here so long and you only go about speaking English. What local languages have you learned?”

I said to him, “I haven’t managed to learn any of the local languages, because I travel a great deal from place to place. As soon as I learn one dialect, they start speaking another. I’ve only learned ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good evening.’ Nothing else.”

“Bah, you’re no Christian. How can you evangelize? All the Catholics and Protestants learn all the local dialects in order to . . .”

Then I said, “Lord, give me an answer for him.” I asked it with all my heart, and then I said, “Ah. I forgot to tell you. I know five languages.”

“Really? What are these five?”

“The first is the smile; the second is tears. The third is to touch. The fourth is prayer, and the fifth is love. With these five languages I go all around the world.”

Then he stopped and said, “Just a minute. Say that again so I can write it down.”

With these five languages you can travel the whole earth, and all the world is yours. Love everyone as your own — without concern for religion or race, without concern for anything.

Mother Gavrilia reposed in 1992. Her monastic daughter, with the contributions of others of her spiritual children, wrote the story of her life in the book Ascetic of Love.

Hear the cold splintering.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

-Robert Hayden

Hear the poet reading his poem.

The entire faith and love and hope.

My whole church is bereaved, because one of our strong young men, the only son of his parents, grown up for 35 years in the parish, suddenly sickened and died. It happened so fast, it seems unreal to us. This morning I attended a prayer service in advance of the funeral proper.

One of the lines that is repeated in song is, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord; teach me Thy statutes,” and I mused on what God might be teaching me right now. Certainly, we should all “number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” But I don’t want to forget something else that our rector reminded us of, at the end of the service, that even in our grief we have joy, knowing that Christ has overcome death — that’s why we could pray that our brother will be granted rest “with the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”

Every time there is another death or funeral, my own soul’s griefs are awakened, acknowledged and comforted. And our pastor also kindly included in our church bulletin today an encouraging passage (an excerpt from this article) from Father Alexander Schmemann. He starts out explaining why death must be understood as an evil enemy. But keep reading:

God created man with a body and soul, i.e. at once both spiritual and material, and it is precisely this union of spirit, soul and body that is called man in the Bible and in the Gospel. Man, as created by God, is an animate body and an incarnate spirit, and for that reason any separation of them, and not only the final separation, in death, but even before death, any violation of that union is evil. It is a spiritual catastrophe. From this we receive our belief in the salvation of the world through the incarnate God, i.e. again, above all, our belief in His acceptance of flesh and body, not “body-like,” but a body in the fullest sense of the word: a body that needs food, that tires and that suffers. Thus that which in the Scriptures is called life, that life, which above all consists of the human body animated by the spirit and of the spirit made flesh, comes to an end — at death — in the separation of soul and body. No, man does not disappear in death, for creation may not destroy that which God has called from nothingness into being. But man is plunged into death, into the darkness of lifelessness and debility. He, as the Apostle Paul says, is given over to destruction and ruin.

Here, I would once more like to repeat and emphasize that God did not create the world for this separation, dying, ruin and corruption. And for this reason the Christian Gospel proclaims that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” The Resurrection is the recreation of the world in its original beauty and totality. It is the complete spiritualization of matter and the complete incarnation of the spirit in God’s creation. The world has been given to man as his life, and for this reason, according to our Christian Orthodox teaching, God will not annihilate it but will transfigure it into “a new heaven and a new earth,” into man’s spiritual body, into the temple of God’s presence and God’s glory in creation.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death…” And that destruction, that extermination of death began when the Son of God Himself in His immortal love for us voluntarily descended into death and its darkness, filling its despair and horror with His light and love. And this is why we sing on Pascha not only “Christ is risen from the dead,” but also “trampling down death by death…”

He alone arose from the dead, but He has destroyed our death, destroying its dominion, its despair, its finality. Christ does not promise us Nirvana or some sort of misty life beyond the grave, but the resurrection of life, a new heaven and a new earth, the joy of the universal resurrection. “The dead shall arise, and those in the tombs will sing for joy…” Christ is risen, and life abides, life lives… That is the meaning; that is the unending joy of this truly central and fundamental confirmation of the Symbol of Faith: “And the third day, He rose again according to the Scriptures.” According to the Scriptures, i.e. in accordance with that knowledge of life, with that design for the world and humanity, for the soul and body, for the spirit and matter, for life and death, which has been revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. This is the entire faith, the entire love, and the entire hope of Christianity. And this is why the Apostle Paul says, “If Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain.”

–Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, 1980,
Translated from Russian by Robert A. Parent

harrowing of hell wide