Tag Archives: icons

Happy as flowers and peeps.

There is not one word for the way so many of us Orthodox feel when we have come to the end of Lent and Holy Week, and are finally standing in church on Pascha night, exhausted, brain dead, dizzy from sleepiness, feeling a little (or a lot) out of whack from keeping strange hours and eating little. Parents of young children have been dealing with toddlers crying from fatigue and their older siblings longing to go to the day’s special service at church.

We wouldn’t have it any other way. We know we need Lent to prepare us to receive the fullness of Resurrection joy, and Holy Week passes so quickly, each of the many services unique in the entire church year. You don’t want to miss one. But – you must; your body is still earthy and not transformed. The whole process seems to be divinely designed to make us feel our utter dependence on Christ Himself to bring us to Pascha, and we are made aware of the bits of extra grace that are as good as blood transfusions for the dying.

I think the sensations are like being on a river, a river of Life. You know you aren’t a good sailor or swimmer, but you also know that God and His Church are the vessel in which you travel, and they will carry you.

In the end, Pascha comes to us, and comes for us, as the hymn exultantly proclaims, “A new and holy Pascha has come for us!” And we hear the homily of St. John Chrysostom once again:

O death, where is thy sting?

O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!

We have just about the best choir ever, in my parish, but they are only a few of the voices singing the great song of God’s love and Christ’s victory. This song doesn’t ever stop playing, but it’s at this season of the year we are given the gift of its wake-the-dead resounding in our hearts.

Today at our Bright Monday agape meal, I could tell that even the silly peeps wanted to hop out of their basket, so I brought them home to be a visual kind of bunny song on the windowsill. My garden has been putting on its spring show and until now I haven’t had time to collect all those images here; today I offer a profusion. Still, not nearly as many as our greetings of:

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

Spring Zoë

When the sun was just rising above the groves I drove away from my sister’s house and about an hour north to visit the Monastery of the Theotokos the Life-Giving Spring, which is nestled in the foothills at about 2,000 ft. elevation. It was Sunday morning and I wanted to attend Divine Liturgy there; the service was starting at 8:30.

Christ’s mother Mary is called the Life-Giving Spring because of course Christ is Himself the Water of Life. Just as the name of our first mother Eve means life in Hebrew, Zoë means life in Greek. There is an icon associated with this name of the Theotokos, and a feast day on the Friday following Pascha.

It was a beautiful drive, especially as the road climbed very gradually into green hills scattered with large patches of lupines and poppies. This year California’s Central Valley received more rain than usual, and the landscape is still gentle and lush everywhere. Many of the plants that will eventually be stickers and thorns are still pretty wildflowers.

I had reserved a room for the night at St. Nicholas Ranch retreat center just next to the monastery, and I parked my car there and walked through the gates and up the hill to the monastery itself. I had never visited here before, and didn’t know that this little hike would right away give me the opportunity to take pictures of wildflowers. 🙂

Then I entered the courtyard of the church, through a hall lined with mural icons of saints, in process of being painted; once I saw two of the sisters painting when I passed through. The courtyard has four planters with walls on which one can sit. They are filled with many ornamentals, but especially palms and bugleweed, a species of ajuga, which right now is in full bloom, its blue spikes standing boldly up from the mat of green leaves.

On my drive to the monastery I am sorry to say I had wasted time in my too-frequent mental lament over the unsightly palm trees that dot the landscape in the warmer areas of the state. Of course in their essence they are not ugly, but the way they have been used makes them appear that way. I think sometimes it is because they aren’t incorporated into any symmetry; or they stick up in an ungainly way out of context of their setting (for example, in Northern California where I live, and where conifers naturally and more healthily grow), often as a solitary botanical oddity. The majority are also not maintained and many have more dead fronds than living ones.

Here at the monastery I was given a huge gift, in encountering palm trees in all their glory. Many species of palms have been incorporated into the landscaping, and someone obviously gave thought to how to arrange them in the most beautiful way. Gardeners care for them and trim the dead fronds. My feeling about them has forever been altered, now that I’ve seen palm trees as they certainly were meant to be.

On one side of the courtyard is the church, where I spent the next couple of hours settling my spirit that had been jangled by all the activity of getting there. What a magnificent temple! The nuns’ singing transported me to heaven, by way of Greece. The whole service was in Greek, though the Gospel was read in English also. At least 50 other visitors were there with me, including several families with young children; I heard that they come from all over the world, and I personally met people from British Columbia, and from various points in California that are several hours away. I had words with a monk who I think  was from Greece, judging from what he said to a question, “I don’t know, I don’t speak English,” and from how another person translated for him so he could answer me.

After the service we walked across the courtyard to the dining room where dozens of visitors ate lunch provided by the sisters. It was the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, and the story of her life was read to us from a perch high on the wall above, as we ate in silence in the trapeza style of Orthodox monasteries. We filed back into church to complete our meal with prayers, and then thick and sweet Greek coffee was served in the courtyard.

After a little coffee and cookies and socializing, we were invited to another room to hear a talk from (Korean) Father Gregory on St. Mary of Egypt, in English. It was very encouraging! Her life and example of repentance illustrate spiritual truths that I have been hearing from every direction in the last couple of weeks, and which I hope to consider altogether and write about later.

I shopped in the bookstore and bought a little icon of St. Porphyrios, who has blessed me so much this Lent through the book I’ve mentioned here, Wounded by Love. And then I returned to my room for a rest before Vespers which was to be at 3:00. The next string of pictures starts with a view of the monastery from just outside the window of my room, and includes scenes from a stroll around the property that evening.

It was a deep and quiet sleep I fell into that night after spending the last Sunday of Lent at this special place. I skipped the morning service that was to be at 3:00, and walked up the hill again for for a lovely breakfast, which I shared with only two other women, as most of the visitors had departed the day before.

I want to tell you about the hearty breakfast menu: On the table waiting for us was a bowl of cut-up grapefruit; a dish of rice and white beans lightly flavored with tomato and other good tastes; oatmeal cooked with cashew milk and fruit – we thought dates and blueberries and maybe figs; cookies with molasses; good bread; peanut butter; and a bowl of walnuts in their shells.

Down the hill again, and I packed my car for the drive home, full to the brim of blessings from my oh so brief, introductory sort of pilgrimage to this holy place, and already imagining my return. But before I descended to the valley again I had one more stop to make, about which I will tell you in my next post.

His pure soul.

Today — or yesterday if you want to be strict about liturgical time — is the commemoration of the repose of St. Seraphim of Sarov, a beloved holy father in the Orthodox Church and beyond. And while I was in church remembering him with hymns and prayers, this icon was waiting in a package on my front porch, painted and sent by my goddaughter Rosemary. It says right on the package: “Expected delivery date: January 4.” But it would be rude to make him sit in a truck or depot on his memorial day. Perhaps it was an angel who sped him along to my house two days early; it fulfilled my joy to have his icon with me and to be able to see through this particular “window into heaven,” on his very feast day.

“On January 2 [1883], Father Paul, the saint’s cell-attendant, left his own cell at six in the morning to attend the early Liturgy. He noticed the smell of smoke coming from the Elder’s cell. Saint Seraphim would often leave candles burning in his cell, and Father Paul was concerned that they could start a fire.

“’While I am alive,’ he once said, ‘there will be no fire, but when I die, my death shall be revealed by a fire.’ When they opened the door, it appeared that books and other things were smoldering. Saint Seraphim was found kneeling before an icon of the Mother of God with his arms crossed on his chest. His pure soul was taken by the angels at the time of prayer, and had flown off to the Throne of the Almighty God, Whose faithful servant Saint Seraphim had been all his life.”

-From oca.org

Matters of heart and flesh.


Today we celebrate the second of three days considered the “Winter Pascha.”
We are still singing these hymns of Nativity:

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom!
For by it, those who worshiped the stars
Were taught by a Star to worship Thee
The Sun of Righteousness,
And to know Thee, the Dayspring from on High.
O Lord, glory to Thee!

and

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One!
Angels with shepherds glorify Him!
The wise men journey with a star!
Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a Little Child!

On Christmas Eve, the sky dark with clouds at midday, we celebrated a Vesperal Liturgy, and the church glowed in a special way with the combination of candlelight and muted daylight.

Then Christmas Eve proper, when it became the next day liturgically, the Festal Matins of Nativity. How joyous! In the cathedral was the darkness of winter night, but with more candles and more festivity, because Christmas Day had begun! Our hearts were soaring. The children were drooping….

When I woke on Christmas Day I also was bushed. I had baked a few cookies between the previous day’s services, which meant I’d been on my feet most of that day. I chose different shoes Christmas morning, and before the service even began I had retrieved my joy. I was introduced to a woman who was visiting out of curiosity, had been raised Christian Scientist, and considered herself “more of a Buddhist.” But her friend of Ukrainian descent, who also had not been to our parish before, had invited and brought her.

As I began to explain why the icons, the incense and candles…  to tell her about the materiality of our worship, how this very feast was a celebration of God Who has no flesh taking on human flesh for our sakes… well, it was thrilling to be able to give a little background to what was so vividly being expressed in fullness right there.

I pointed to the pillar with a fresco of St. John of Damascus painted on the side, and part of this quote on the scroll he is holding: I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked.

On the home front, concerning the matter that is our earthly food, I feel that I am way behind in my cookie-baking.  I have made four kinds now… and no chocolate yet! I guess I never do have much chocolate in the Christmas cookies. But so far my collection leans heavily toward the nut-brown tones, partly because Trader Joe’s was out of their cranberry-orange relish that I use to make my jellies. I am out of energy to create an alternative recipe from scratch. I did one of those already last week.

The cookies above are the Apricot-Coconut Macaroons, which ended up low on the apricot element this time; I don’t know how that happened. I hope to make cookies for several more days, and during the next couple of weeks to invite friends to eat them with me!

Today after church I visited two friends on opposite sides of town. I have no family with me this year, meaning more options than usual; I’m almost forgetting that I need to go to bed early and provide for some down time. At first I thought I could make four stops on Christmas afternoon, but that doesn’t sound very likely, does it? As it turned out, I got home in time for a bowl of Greek Wedding Soup that my housemate had made, and which tasted perfectly delicious and also seemed the perfect delicious holiday food to balance out cookies. She also had a fire burning in the stove, and Christmas movies playing on the TV.

I have plans for today, too, so I had to draft this post last night. I’m still trying to write every day in December — but maybe that was intended to be only till Christmas? I’ll check with Pom Pom. I think it’s been good for me to have this gentle pressure to write every day, because it’s a kind of work that satisfies something in me and helps keep me on an even keel in the midst of such a busy season. And it’s given me more chances to warm up to this:

Christ is born! Glorify Him!