Tag Archives: Fr. Alexis Trader

Tears in my paint box.

As I walked this morning, I took pictures of beautiful things, and mused.

As I thought about Christmas season heartache, I couldn’t  remember any teary sessions last Christmas over missing my husband. I was too busy navigating airports, interacting with family, dealing with extreme temperatures low and then high, ending the season in India of all places.

But it’s true what they say, that the holidays are the hardest. And now I’m back at it, though even what is hardest gets a little easier all the time. I suppose it helps that my life has been awfully busy again this December, though with an entirely different set of challenges that consume my attention and distract me from dwelling on things I can’t have. The challenges are much less than most people I know have to deal with! They can be grouped under two categories: 1) Being a single homeowner and 2) Getting older.

It’s also true, that I am creating my new life. At first, when I read that phrase in Fr. Alexis Trader‘s series on grief, which had providentially been written in time for my initial bereavement, I questioned it from my philosophical viewpoint. We can view our existence primarily as a given, as in, each breath that we breathe is a gift from God; our DNA is what it is, the home that nurtured us was not a result of our efforts. Or we can go with the modern idea that life is what we make it, we create our own reality.

But now we’re not  talking about a philosophical stance; rather, it is each person standing with their heart before God in humility and thanksgiving. Every decision I make, at every fork in the road every moment of the day, is like choosing to dip my paintbrush in one color or another, to apply the paint in a unique way to the canvas that is my life. This imperative to choose is also a gift from God, an aspect of our humanity that can’t be avoided. The first choice to be made is whether to accept our life from God and thank Him for it.

As to the opportunities, limitations, paints allotted, it appears that some of us have only a few colors to choose from, while others seem to have thousands. And the palette changes daily. This was always true; I don’t know if something about the process changed when I became a widow, or if I have only needed to keep reminding myself of it to be assured that something creative is still going on.

Do I have legs? A home and a bank account? An idea, an urge, health, or pain? Did I sleep well, or am I suffering from foggy brain because of sleep deprivation? I can “paint” a prayer with everything, and that is the most divine creation; most days I make some kind of outward “picture” as well that is more or less satisfying. It’s not profitable to spend much time looking at the painting, but rather to keep the given tools in hand and keep working.

Walking in the fog this  morning, I was trying to get through the Lord’s Prayer without my thoughts flying off in a hundred directions. I must have started over five times and was as far as “Give us this day our daily bread,” when I was brought up sharp by a sensation, and all my thoughts vanished. I stopped and looked around, to see where the scent was coming from, and there was the juniper hedge along the sidewalk, pouring out its essence via every drop of drizzle.

Daily bread. If the sky is bread for the eyes, this intense juniper aroma, rich with memories of walks with my grandma, is certainly bread for my nose, and it goes right to my soul. I closed my eyes and stood next to the juniper long enough to take several deep breaths, and then continued on my way, and the fog continued to turn into something thicker and wetter. My flannel shirt was all fuzzy-misty, and water trickled down my face.

As I walked I kept thinking about my grandma, whose husband died when she was over 80 years old. She immediately sold the house that they had shared for 40 years, which everyone thought was hasty. The apartment she moved to was not smaller, and she still had three floors of stairs to climb, until she was over 100. But she could call the landlord about problems instead of calling the handyman directly. I’m not sure that was an improvement.

But wait — Didn’t that juniper smell get painted directly by God on to my life’s canvas? It was given as a completely whole and splendid thing; I contributed nothing.

And while I began this preachy ramble in the morning, by evening I could not understand the metaphor that seemed clear at noon, because I was feeling so achingly the absence of my husband. It was as though my tears spilled all over my paintbox and my vision was muddied. But I had planned to go to church, and I went. My spiritual father said that if I weren’t emotional during this season, he would worry that my heart had hardened to a stone. At times, my grief is the only color available.

When I came out of church, the full (solstice) moon was still rising. I drove down the road toward home and away from other lights, and the moon straight ahead of me became huge and clear and bright. It took my breath away, and as Christmas carols automatically started playing over my Bluetooth, I felt that the moon was also singing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Before I reached my house the Kingston Trio were singing, “All Through the Night,” which they had made into a Christmas carol by tweaking a couple of lines. If you’d like to hear the music, sung in the original Welsh, this is a nice rendition. One version I found online has a verse that expressed how I was feeling this evening:

Love, to thee my thoughts are turning
All through the night
All for thee my heart is yearning,
All through the night.
Though sad fate our lives may sever
Parting will not last forever,
There’s a hope that leaves me never,
All through the night.

But for the first time ever I heard the traditional two verses of the lullaby not as something to sing to my child, but as God singing to me, and though the moon had gone behind a cloud, I knew that it, too, had been painted on my canvas.

Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.

While the moon her watch is keeping
All through the night
While the weary world is sleeping
All through the night
O’er thy spirit gently stealing
Visions of delight revealing
Breathes a pure and holy feeling
All through the night.

Love is real and it maintains.

mrg&G 5-11 yellow Butte lgFather Alexis Trader in another article on grief, excerpted and linked below, discusses not just the memories we hold of those who are departed, but the love that binds us to them even after our former connection is gone forever. Notice that it is not the loved one who is gone forever, but the nature of the relationship.

That the relationship one has with those who have died can continue to change is something I haven’t given much thought to in my own case, though I have heard of a person asking or offering forgiveness at the gravesite of someone with whom they didn’t have “closure.” Not knowing back then that it would pertain so closely or so soon to my experience, a few months ago I printed out an article from the Internet on the subject of “Dostoevsky and Memory Eternal” but didn’t read it until after my husband died.

I always love the hymn “Memory Eternal” that is sung at the end of every Orthodox funeral service, and I was eager to read what conjunction the writer Donald Sheehan found between it and The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that I also find very meaningful. About half of his article discusses the theology of Fr. Pavel Florensky and conditions of personhood, but it was the second half that most affected me so far, where Sheehan describes the events of his life and how they led to him becoming Orthodox. His father had been the cause of chaos and suffering for his family, but after he died, seemingly in response to his son’s own efforts at reconciliation, the father gives him a great gift.

Thanks be to God, I could not relate to the kind of pain that Sheehan lived with, between me and anyone I’ve known. It was the love he had for his father, of a kind that would not give up even after death, that resonated with me in the first days after my husband died. In his article on Grief and Human Bonds Fr. Alexis quotes two church fathers on this topic:

As Saint John Chrysostom once wrote to a widow, “For such is the power of love, it embraces, and unites, and fastens together not only those who are present, and near, and visible but also those who are far distant; and neither length of time, nor separation in space, nor anything else of that kind can break up and sunder in pieces the affection of the soul” (Letter to a Young Widow). That love was real, is real, and leaving it free to maintain a bond with the beloved is a healthy, real response to grief. When Saint Ambrose of Milan’s brother died, he wrote “My relationship with you is not lost, but changed; before we were inseparable in the body, now we are undivided in affection; for you remain with me, and will always be with me” (Book 1 on the Decease of his Brother Satyrus). In the same spirit, Saint John Chrysostom once consoled a parent who had lost his son, “I beg you, do not say ‘I am no longer called father,’ for why would you not be so called while your son remains? For you surely have not parted with your child or lost your son, but rather obtained him and have him safe.”

At the cemetery this week Fr. Michael exhorted us about the ways we can continue to love those who are no longer present in body. His words, “Do good deeds in their name,” reminded me of the broader concept of living the kind of life that honors the one who has died, and that will keep me on the road that leads to the great rendezvous at the end time. (The thought of that meeting causes me to wonder: Do you suppose we will hug with our new bodies?)

In the words of St. John Chrysostom, I may have my husband safe, but does he have me safe? I am still on my journey, and my love for him will help me to stay on track.

“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8)

 

(Photo credit: Pippin)

the Bright side

GL rose geranium 4-18-16
rose geranium

Son Pathfinder drove down from Oregon for his job, so he stopped also to see me at the beginning of this Bright Week, and helped quite a bit by mowing the lawn that hasn’t quite died, doing a pool maintenance task with me, and listening/talking for a while about his father and how our lives have changed. My children are my favorite people to talk to these days.

He brought some mail, including a card from Granddaughter Annie with a gift tucked inside, this bit of seeded paper Iris paper 2she had “made at Bible study to represent spreading God’s love.” She also wrote to invite me to drive north to their house next month to see the exhibit that includes some photography from a class she is taking. I am not making firm commitments that far ahead, but I feel the love pulling me.

The snowball bush is hanging over the pool, the wisteria over the patio arbor. It was all warm and welcoming when our old friend Ken came by this week – also in town for work – and we sat out there for a visit. He said he hadn’t been in our back yard since he was baptized in our pool….we didn’t tryGL snowballs crp 4-18-15 to figure out how long ago that was! I told him about how I am planning to have the pool removed, and he looked over the equipment and discussed the job I need to get bids for. He owns a pool himself so he is a good person to talk to.

In addition to family and friends who are ready with long hugs and all kinds of practical assistance, I’ve appreciated the writings of Father Alexis Trader, who recently posted a series on grief. His descriptions of the feelings of grief are true to my own experience, as he empathizes with those who suddenly find ourselves in “this disorienting new universe that no longer feels like home.”

GL aloe saponaria close 4-18-16
aloe saponaria

Here is an example of how that is playing out here: I don’t feel like gardening. In my whole life I have only gardened as a partner with my husband, and it’s as though I don’t yet know how to do it as the person I am now. I haven’t planted a seed or a tomato start, and I’m just not thrilled about any of that. It’s a good thing that so much of the garden will keep going on its own and feed me with its beauty. All these photos are from this afternoon – I guess I still know how to take pictures on my own!

GL bells wisteria crp 4-18-15

 

 

About the process of grief Fr. Alexis says, “…one thing is consistent: grief is a journey that if it is successful is resolved in acceptance. The fathers also use the metaphor of a journey referring to a longer, spiritual journey in which the briefer journey of grief can be situated.”

GL aloe sap w red valerian & snowball 4-18-15

 

 

 

 

This image of a journey helps me to keep going. I know I am not at the end of my life’s journey, and I may be on the road for many more years. This short trail called Grief which I am facing now, though, is the steepest hike I’ve ever encountered. I wish I didn’t have to go this way, but it’s on the route my Father has laid out for me, so “best get on with it.” No doubt the trick will be the same old strategy: One foot in front of the other. More from Father Alexis:

Grief indeed is a journey but the holy fathers demonstrate that if we can learn to open our spiritual eyes, we will see that it need not be a solitary journey filled solely with darkness and pain, but it can also be a passage of transformation from death to life. After all, for the fathers, “death is not death, but only a kind of emigration and translation from the worse to the better, from earth to heaven, from men to angels, archangels, and the One who is the Lord of angels and archangels” (Saint John Chrysostom, Letter to a Widow).

Somehow the stages of grief, whatever they may be or in whatever order they may occur, need to be situated within the greater journey from earth to heaven, the journey that the departed in Christ have already completed. We are all “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). The experience of grief brings this truth home. When we accept it fully, we can look to “a better country, that is heavenly” (Hebrews 11:16), to “a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10), to that Jerusalem on high that has “no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof” (Revelations 21:23). That is the place where stages and phases are past, where acceptance is complete, and where we are truly at home with those who are departed, there where “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

bells 2+ wisteria 4-18-15This morning I attended Bright Saturday Liturgy and was freshly struck by some of the prayers that I have prayed every week for almost a decade now. Like the prayer that we might “complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.” Yes, that is the journey I am on. One thing is needful.

As I went out the door afterward, Ambrose, who is a drummer as well as a bell-ringer, began to ring the Paschal bells with gusto, and their brilliance filled the air of the quiet neighborhood to remind all the humans and animals that it’s not just another humdrum day, because Christ is risen!

It’s not about feeling balanced.


From another site:No frail human morality can ever hope to contain the overflowing fullness of life with which Christ desires to rejuvenate the faithful.

…The world will not be saved by optimistic humanism that believes human progress and morality will eventually save the world. For Dostoevsky and the church fathers, man’s deepest problems are not moral, nor even psychological, but ultimately existential and ontological. It’s not about following the rules or feeling balanced. It is a matter of choice and it is a matter of human nature being touched by the hand of God Himself.

Only by daring to leap towards God in spite of the good and evil that exist in the heart can the believer hope to get beyond the contradiction of the human condition. In order to avoid descending into nihilism, Dostoevsky offers his readers another path: the acceptance of suffering and affliction in the context of a relationship with God. It is only in this context that man is able to recognize a path out of his fallen condition. It is only this Love that is able to transform suffering into salvific joy.

Read more here: Ancient Christian Wisdom blog