Tag Archives: memorials

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

In us the dead still belong.

Today, about a week before our Orthodox beginning of Lent, is Saturday of Souls, or Memorial Saturday. In Divine Liturgy we commemorate all those who have “fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection and life eternal.” Father Alexander Schmemann writes in Great Lent:

To understand the meaning of this connection between Lent and the prayer for the dead, one must remember that Christianity is the religion of love. Christ left with his disciples not a doctrine of individual salvation but a new commandment “that they love one another,” and he added: “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love is thus the foundation, the very life of the Church which is, in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the “unity of faith and love.”

I was able to attend Liturgy this morning, and many things contributed to my great joy in participating. Saturday morning is not an “easy” day to make it to church, and I probably could count on one hand the number of these memorial Saturdays that I have attended over the years. They are celebrated often during Lent, and other dates on the church calendar.

Today many of us had offered our contributions to the list of names of the departed that were read aloud as we all prayed. My dear godmother was present with me this morning, which made me feel more complete 🙂 and it happened to be the exact date that my uncle was killed in a plane crash long before I was born — the uncle I wrote about once here.

Today we were also praying especially for two men who more recently fell asleep in Christ, one just 40 days previous. George and Nikolai, memory eternal! Romanian women brought koliva, one made of barley instead of wheat, and other commemorative foods.

Just to stand in church, to stand in Christ, to stand with my departed loved ones — it was awfully sweet. Because of this reality that Metropolitan Anthony speaks of in Courage to Pray:

The life of each one of us does not end at death on this earth and birth into heaven. We place a seal on everyone we meet. This responsibility continues after death, and the living are related to the dead for whom they pray. In the dead we no longer belong completely to the world; in us the dead still belong to history. Prayer for the dead is vital; it expresses the totality of our common life.

A day for a funeral, and great beauty.

gl8 cloud IMG_3123This morning I had to wait around to take my walk, until the dawn lightened enough. When I went outside the first time to check the visibility, the feeling in the air was thrilling. The combination of the light and the humidity and everything was something you don’t get to experience if you are in the house smelling the coffee.

I’m not usually outdoors before 6:00, though there was one summer when for a few weeks at least Pippin and I would go to the high school track so that she could run, while I walked, in the dark — because it was the only time we had.

When I did start out a little later, the sky was filled with beautiful clouds. All the plants along the path were breathing into the space where my face was coming along with its nose. It was very intimate; I wanted to stand a while in the middle of the path and breathe with them.

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giant eucalyptus tree by the creek

I’ve been walking the same path almost every day, and getting to know some landmarks, or seeing how they have developed in the last 26 years. I feel that I didn’t notice them before…. or I forgot, is more likely. I am not the same person I was, and some of them are also more grown up, if they are still there.

gl8 IMG_3071 creek

When my tires were getting rotated the other day I took a walk in that neighborhood and it had its own scents and views. With fennel! I know I am always talking about the wild fennel, but it is everywhere, and giving off that sweet licorice smell as it makes its seeds and dries up. The banks of the creek are full of it — my summer is full of it — and this field is decorated, too.

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fennel in field with fog

gl8 koliva IMG_3102

 

Today I will go to the funeral and burial for the young man who fell asleep in the Lord last week. His casket was brought into the church this week and while we were commemorating the Beheading of John the Baptist yesterday morning it was in the middle of the nave. After the Liturgy we had more prayers for him, and koliva.

 

 

gl8 koliva IMG_3109 crp

 

 

 

We have sung these prayers as an adjunct to every service that has happened since he died, and this week there has been a service every day. I wasn’t present for every one.

 

 

 

A new icon of the Forerunner of Christ was recently commissioned for the church, showing several scenes from his life. It was finished just in time for this feast.

gl8 John the Baptist Forerunner new

Yesterday we heard words from St. Justin Popivic’s homily on this feast, about how St. John the Baptist had been the Forerunner of Christ not just on earth, but also into Hades:

The glorious Forerunner also entered into the kingdom of death as the Forerunner of all of the true Confessors of Christ in the world, all of the true Prophets in the world, to announce to all of the souls in the kingdom of death: Lo, death is defeated, the demons destroyed, the kingdom of death will be destroyed when, in a little while, the Lord appears here, and you will be led out of this horror and into heavenly joy, into the Kingdom On High.
….
Thus, for us Christians today is like unto Great Friday. Just as for the Savior, the Resurrection follows Great Friday, so the Forerunner joyously dies and enters into death, for he sees the victory over death, and knows that the Lord has prepared for him as well eternal life and resurrection from the dead on the day of the Great Judgment.

When the Lord was crucified, He descended into the nether regions, into Hades, into the kingdom of death, with His human Soul. His Body lay in the tomb, but His Soul, the fullness of his Divinity, descended into death’s kingdom. And how astonished must have been all of the human souls in Hades, on seeing God in a human soul, shining with ineffable light, light impossible for a human being to imagine. Who would not come to believe in Him? Who, when He appears in the kingdom of death so filled with Eternal Truth, Eternal Life, Eternal Justice?

He appears as conqueror over death. And as death’s kingdom could not hold God Who was in Jesus’ soul, as it could not hold God in its hands, it fell apart because of Christ’s Divinity, because of His Most-holy Soul, in which was the fullness of God. And the Lord led out of death’s kingdom all those who had earlier come to believe the Forerunner, and those who had come to believe in Him, the Lord Jesus Christ, to believe that in truth, He was True God in Heaven and on earth.

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It’s my love language, too.

remembering the departed in Orthodox Chrisitian Church - offering bread, boiled wheat and red wine that are blessed by the priest

I want to share an article that is a kind of conversion testimony; it was published earlier this year with the title For the Love, on the blog Persona. The author well conveys the gratitude I also feel for the Church that encourages us above all to love people, and gives us tools for doing that. Tools? What am I saying? The Church gives us The Holy Spirit, a Person of the Holy Trinity Who live in Love, who are the source of any love.

Soon we will be remembering my goddaughter in prayer and song, on the one-year anniversary of her repose in the Lord. These days it is natural for me to think often about the dead, and not only my husband. For that reason I also appreciate what what Fr. Stephen Freeman has to say about our relationship to the departed, and  how, “With the radical individualism of the modern world, the mystery of communion and true participation (koinonia) have been forgotten….” 

The witness that follows is of someone who is discovering koinonia. I join with the writer of Persona in thankfulness for the ways the Church helps me to continue loving my dear Kathleen.

FOR THE LOVE

I attended my first service in an Orthodox Church in December of 2010. In April of 2012 I was chrismated (confirmed) in the church. What I don’t know about the Church could still fill several books, and I’m not very good at being Orthodox.

It’s a tradition that appears confusing and Byzantine to outsiders, with all of its incense and strange pictures, its standing and prostrating and crossing oneself. It seems legalistic, with all of the fasting and written prayers and candle-lighting. Praying to saints and the Virgin Mary? To Protestants, these things are often red flags, warnings of impending Catholicism.

I was frightened when I was first exposed to Orthodoxy. I was educated in a Protestant seminary, where I took classes on the theology of Martin Luther and the spiritual development of women as my electives (I have layers). I found it much easier to read about spirituality than to actually pray. I calmed my doubts with well-reasoned arguments, and I weighed and measured every sermon I heard to assess the soundness of its doctrine. I loved God with my mind.

Yet what drew me to Orthodoxy was not, ultimately the soundness of its doctrine or the reasonableness of its apologetics. From my earliest exposure to the tradition I acknowledged that it was quite likely the oldest expression of Christianity. But what ultimately brought me into the church was not a well-reasoned argument on the merits of prayer to the saints or an articulate defense of the use of icons and veneration of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary). What ultimately brought me to the church was, quite simply, love.

As I participated in the life of the church, I was moved again and again by the love of the people. Yes, I was attracted by the love shown to me by the priest in my parish, and the new friends I made there. But what changed me, what won me over was realizing that at the root of all the practices that I didn’t understand, that seemed superfluous or legalistic, was love.

The Orthodox do not pray to saints because they feel that they cannot go directly to God. They don’t venerate the Theotokos because they feel that Christ alone is not enough. They don’t prostrate or light candles or fast because they feel they must earn their salvation. The Orthodox Church does what it does because they love – the Trinity, each other, the departed, saints – the Church loves them all. More than that, the church understands that we all love, and it gives us concrete ways to express ourselves.

For me, this all became very real a few months before I became a catechumen and began my (formal) journey towards Orthodoxy. When I was a teenager, someone very close to me passed away. The anniversary of her death approached, and I was sad. When I told my priest, he told me that the Church gives us a prayer service that we can pray on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. I went to the church and we lit a candle and prayed for her, and those of us who loved her.

koliva with roses 4-15

The Orthodox Church understands that we love people. It encourages us to love deeply. And then, when they’re gone, to be comforted by the love the Church has for them, and for us. At the death of a member of the church, listen to how they are spoken of – in glowing terms, seeing only the best, most beautiful parts of the brother or sister in the faith.

The Church invites us to look upon the saints with a similar love. They are not only examples to follow, but as beloved family members. Prayer, lighting candles, keeping their feast days are the ways that we express our love across time, across the chasm of death.

I told my mother recently that Orthodoxy speaks my love language. In Orthodoxy, faith moved from an intellectual proposition that I accepted to a radical love that changed me. I want to love in the way that the Church loves its people. I want to look at others and see the beautiful image of God and love them with fire and determination. I want to feel the genuine affection that I see for bishops and priests and monks. I want that love to move me outward, to serve and pray and be a better version of myself. I want others to know that they are loved.

I fail all the time. I’m not very good at being Orthodox. But I’d rather try and fail at this than succeed at almost anything else.

–from the blog Persona