Category Archives: quotes

The best fast is this.

The best fast is to patiently endure everything that God sends.

-St. Anatoly of Optina

St. Anatoly knew what it was to endure; he was arrested by the Bolsheviks and his monastery was closed in the 1920’s. I only today read about him after seeing the quote above in this calendar I’ve been using lately, at the top of the page for April 1. So many readings for Lent take on new significance this year.

If you want to learn more of his story it is here.

When suffering and death come.

I almost broke out of my “cage” last week to visit my husband’s grave. My priest would meet me there, and we would pray on the memorial of my beloved’s repose, five years ago. But we changed our plan and had a virtual gathering with him praying in the church and more of us praying along via Zoom than would ever have been able to come to the cemetery. Before we had conceived the graveside plan and given it up, we had planned for me to bring a koliva to church to serve after a service there. I know people everywhere have been accomplishing many and various quick-change feats lately.

The Zoom meeting/service was a little odd; I’m certain it was the first prayer service ever held that way in my parish, but under the circumstances it was the best, and I was really glad we did it. More than 21 people were able to be with me that way, and some of you were among them. I could see that 21 devices were tuned in, and some of them represented couples or families.

Most of us had our microphones turned off, but even having two or three people singing or praying together on Zoom confuses the audio stream. I was thankful to all of those who were willing to listen above the superficial distortion to the beauty of the memorial, for the sake of praying with me and for my husband. It was sweet to see their names and/or faces, and after the hymn “Memory Eternal” more people turned on their mics to say it individually.

That was a blessing of the current version of normal, and a good alternative to standing in the rain six feet away from my priest. But when I do eventually feel free to visit the cemetery, that real and physical resting place (I will choose a sunny day), I can see me with my face in the grass, smelling the earth, feeling the breeze blowing over me and over all those waiting for the Resurrection of the Dead. Until then I am sharing a few pictures of events featuring more concrete, material remembrances, the sorts of gatherings which we will be less likely to take for granted in the future — I hope!

Today as I write, it is Saturday, which is the Sabbath, as we were reminded in our (streamed) morning prayers from church. The day of rest. But most of us don’t rest ourselves on this day. Rather, the church remembers those who are resting in death, waiting for the Resurrection, Resurrection Day, which we both celebrate and look forward to on Sundays, as Sunday is the Eighth Day.

When I “came home,” which meant coming downstairs, I read the passage from I Corinthians appointed for the day, and it is on the on the same theme, a topic on the minds of many in these days of a world pandemic, a time when death statistics are in nearly every news article one comes across. I keep thinking about Ivan in Tolstoy’s story, and how it was only in suffering that he began to get understanding. I will quote from my own blog post, written only a month ago, so soon pertinent to our moment:

“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.'”

It is always a good thing to realize that one is dying. Those of us who will survive this recent threat and go on to live many more happy decades are no less under the sentence of death than those who will die from Covid-19. The realization can lead to repentance, and that in turn, to life.  Here is the epistle reading for today:

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O[Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?”

The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. -I Corinthians 15:50-57

Let’s not only pray that we and the people we love be delivered from physical suffering and death, but also that when suffering and death come, as they will, we all will be able to hear the voice of God in our hearts. As it was for Ivan, for some it will be the beginning of true life.

For Thou are the Resurrection, the Life, and the Repose of Thy servants who have fallen asleep, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever unto ages of ages. Amen.

-From Prayer for the Departed

A child who can learn from the bird.

Mags and I are reading The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air together, and so far it is delightful to be in this mini book club with her. Once her copy of the book arrived she dived in with alacrity and even put the perfect amount of pressure on me, in the form of a meek suggestion, to post our responses as close together as possible.

So here I am, just where I want to be, challenged, but not alone, being in alliance and camaraderie with a friend who welcomes the exercise. I do feel that my engagement is feeble… or perhaps the situation is that Kierkegaard has revealed the feebleness of my soul.

Søren Kierkegaard published the first edition of this work in 1849, but he continued to think about the subject and to write about it in his journals. The translator Bruce H. Krimmse tells us this in the introduction, and quotes from the journals, reflections that I rather wish I hadn’t read, because what’s in the first half of the book itself is quite adequate for stripping away any sentimentality I might have about birds and flowers. As Krimmse says, “[Kierkegaard] never permits the reader to ease up on the oars and drift in an intellectual, ethical, or spiritual sense.” Also, these further explanations were confusing to me, whereas most of the first discourse was more accessible. Maybe this was one of the introductions one should read after.

Kierkegaard begins the first of the three discourses in this little book by telling us what is wrong with “the poet’s” response to Christ’s sermon in Matthew 6. I will put that scripture passage right here so you can review it if you want, or you can skip past easily:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.34 Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

The poet, our guide tells us, hears this and despairs of learning anything from the bird, having a sort of romantic notion of the ease of the bird’s life, and “wishing” that he could be bird-like, but having excuses. He sounds humble and childlike, but he “lacks the earnestness of eternity.” However, “The gospel is so earnest that all the poet’s sadness fails to change it….”

We are exhorted to be childlike in a different way altogether, and here I find the image or ideal of the child as Kierkegaard describes him to be a striking contrast to what is expected by most people in the last several decades:

“…the child never says, ‘I cannot.’ The child does not dare to do so… precisely because the child does not dare say, ‘I cannot,’ it is not therefore true that it cannot….” There follows the same thought repeated in various ways, and I am grateful for this repetitive aspect of the author’s style, because I need these things drummed into my noggin.

Okay, so once we have got that essential point, that if God tells us to do something, it follows that we can do it — what is it we shall do? I use the word shall because Kierkegaard very clearly uses it as distinct from will, a distinction that I think has been all but lost since sometime in the last century. Now we might say, “I will learn from the bird, even though I don’t want to.” The child of Kierkegaard’s day would say, “I shall learn from the bird, even though I do not will to do so.” But wait – he wouldn’t dare to say that, or even think it!

Our assignment from Christ: to learn from the lily and the bird, and to seek the Kingdom of God first. I need to work harder to write a proper response to the remainder of this discourse, and publish it later, because that part is the meat of it, and the birdsong.

p.s. I used dived instead of dove above when referring to what Mags did because, although Americans use dove twice as much now, Mags is British, and they still prefer the older form. So do I.  🙂