If you have not already put away every thing pertaining to Christmas, perhaps you are like me in some way… I have various reasons, year by year, to leave up the lights around my kitchen window, or to be slow about putting away my basket of music CD’s about the Christ Child and the glorious message of God With Us. I just mailed the last of my Christmas cards this week.
My Orthodox parish celebrates the Nativity of Christ on the “new calendar,” December 25th, like most of you, but many of my friends only began on January 7th their feast both liturgical and dietary, and this year in particular I am grateful to continue my heart’s celebrations with them.
These monks in Ukraine gave a concert some years ago, and a full 15 minutes of their carol-singing is in this video, which I’ve been listening to over and over. Their joy infuses me, and I weep for being comforted. “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people…”
Comfort ye! Comfort ye, my people! Saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplish’d, that her iniquity is pardon’d. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain. -Isaiah 40
I don’t need to know a word of their language to hear the message: Christ is born!!!
If this is a little too much exultation for you at this time, because you celebrated plenty already, it might be you could benefit from reading Auntie Leila‘s encouraging words about how to wind down from the overstimulation of the Christmas season. I was greatly helped by her simple and homey ideas, with easy “action points,” in this article, “An Epiphany Thought.” She writes:
“We didn’t used to call it overstimulation back when I was young, but when I recently saw something about this idea for moms, I reflected on how, as a young woman definitely fighting through to a quieter situation, I developed some strategies to address just that issue, of needing to be calmer so that I could think!”
In many ways it was easier to keep a quiet sort of focus and household when I was a young mother maintaining a certain atmosphere in the home, for the sake of a large family who lived together. Now that I have only myself to keep in order, I don’t do such a good job, and I am grateful for reminders like this, of how to “mother” myself.
One factor in the overall mood of a home certainly is the weather outside, and many of you have asked me how we are faring in my area of northern California, with the storms, high winds and flooding. They haven’t been a big problem for anyone I have talked to, and though I’ve been out and about the last few days, I haven’t come across any flooded areas. We have had these wet winters before, and to me this one doesn’t seem unusual. But I am just one person.
In spite of unfortunate damages, I can’t help being very glad that we are getting so wet. It’s a perpetually arid land, and I’m afraid people will always be fighting water wars. When extra water is falling from the skies, it feels like showers of blessing from Heaven, and cause for at least a temporary cease-fire in those battles. I will go on ignoring the weather news and will try to pay closer attention to what’s happening in my garden — and in my heart and home.
The monsoon season officially ended in Arizona on September 30, but at least one rainstorm was not keeping to that calendar. The evening that we arrived at the high-desert monastery we enjoyed a loud thunderstorm and showers that continued through the morning.
When I got caught in a shower while taking a walk I discovered this gazebo near at hand, where I waited a few minutes until the rain lessened.
Now that I have returned to northern California (where we are still waiting for our own wet season to begin in force) I feel that the spiritual watering I received is liable to evaporate to nothing if I don’t take more time than I have so far, to process what seems like a deluge of impressions and experiences.
A monk lives in a monastery. He rises early in the morning and prays. He concentrates his mind in his heart and dwells in the presence of God. He will offer prayers for those who have requested it. He will eat and tend to the work assigned for him to do. And so he lives his day. He works. He prays.
And someone will say, “But what does he know about the real world?” But what can they possibly mean? He walks on the earth. He breathes the same air as we do. He eats as we do and sleeps as we do. How is his world any less real than that of anyone else on the planet?
A man lives in a city. He wakes in the morning, turns on the TV as he gets ready for the day. He dashes out the door (he’s running late). He gets to his car, listens to the news on the radio, takes a couple of calls on his cell phone. He gets to work and for every minute he does something that he thinks of as “work,” he spends at least another checking his email, looking quickly at Facebook, and maybe checking the news. He gets into an argument at lunch about what should be done somewhere else in the world and who should do it. Angry and distracted, he is frustrated with himself because he swore he was not going to have that same argument today. He goes back to work with the same routine. After work he drops by a bar, has a couple of drinks and decides to stay and watch some of the game. He gets home late and heads to bed.
Who is living in the real world? The man-in-the-city’s life is “real,” it actually happens. But he is distracted all day from everything at hand. He never notices himself breathing unless he’s out of breath. He swallows his food as quickly as possible. Even the beers he has at the bar are as much for the buzz as for the taste.
If the man refrained from these things his friends might taunt him, “What are you? Some kind of monk?”
What is the “real” that we should live in?
The sisters at the monastery demonstrate a quality of life that is closely grounded in the earthly, incarnated existence that God has given us, with all its limitations and glories. Their orderly life, hard work and continual prayer create an oasis of beauty and holiness.
From their chickens, ducks and guinea fowl they collect eggs. From a little herd of goats they get plenty of milk for their own use and to sell to soap-makers. Pomegranate and apple orchards and vineyards supply more fruit; and they take the fruit of 850 olive trees to press into oil and cure into olives for eating. Over the years they’ve learned to drive tractors and do construction of their buildings, among dozens of other skills.
I took many pictures of plants and butterflies! Lantana is interspersed with prickly pear cactus in the landscape, and we saw several species of swallowtail butterflies, skippers, this Cloudless Sulphur, and Queen Butterflies feasting on those flowers.
While at the monastery our group of women woke in time for Matins at 5:30. Vespers was at 3:50 and Compline after dinner. One morning of our visit Divine Liturgy was served soon after Matins. (The sisters have more services in the night, just for them.) Standing and praying in church (and sitting when we couldn’t stand any longer) was a huge shower of blessing, of course.
One of the sisters walks around the property beating the hand-held talanton (semantron) to announce both services and meals. This picture of the talanton is from Mt. Athos; St. Paisius Monastery tries to keep the monastic rule and tradition of Athonite monasteries.
When we arrived they were coming to the end of the Feast of the Cross, with the accompanying red altar cloths. Soon the cloths had been changed to blue, which is the default color, in honor of Christ’s mother, the Theotokos.
One image that comes to mind regarding the idea of pilgrimage is from the novel Kristin Lavransdatter, set in medieval Norway. Kristin sets off on foot with only her infant child for company, and walks to a holy site far enough away that she has to sleep outdoors on the way, I don’t remember how many nights. Her food is whatever she has brought in her bag.
Such a pilgrimage that takes serious commitment and protracted journeying would no doubt lend a different flavor to the experience, compared to our group’s monastery visit that was so easy and comfortable, and quick. Do I even qualify to be called a pilgrim?
One afternoon I sat on a bench next to this quiet moth, about an inch across, and I felt some camaraderie with his dull color. (He was much more “boring” in his actual size.) Maybe I, too, could just cling to the monastery for a time, blending in as much as possible with its unique color, the way the moth clung to the bench, and soak up the grace by clinging.
My friend Lorica comes into my story at this point. She was in our group, and had compiled a booklet of songs for us, titled “Spiritual Songs for a Pilgrim Journey.” We sang from it in the van on our drive from the Tucson airport.
Whither goest thou, oh pilgrim, with thy staff in hand? Though the wondrous mercy of the Lord go I to a better land.
The lines above remind me that my whole life’s journey might be called a pilgrimage, and this too-brief trip was a reminder of what my Real Life consists of. I want one day to return to St. Paisius or to visit another monastery to help me further on my way — if I do I hope it is for a much longer visit! — but in any case, it is through God’s wondrous mercy that I travel in the right direction moment by moment, wherever I find myself.
Lorica helped me in another way, on our first full day of our visit. As we were having a tour around the property, she said, “Something that we are walking on is very aromatic.” I hadn’t noticed, but I looked down and saw these little yellow daisies growing like weeds along and in the path. I broke off a stem and we knew that that was the aromatic plant. It was delicious to my own senses, and new.
I learned that it is the Southwestern native pectis papposa, or chinchweed, and they say it can sometimes be found in Mexican markets sold as limoncillo.
On the day of our departure, I was standing by the van waiting for the others and watching the butterflies again, when I noticed a big clump of chinchweed right there. A stem of it just fit into a pocket of my backpack, so I brought it home as a memento of the visit. It is sitting near me now on the sideboard, dried up and having lost not quite all of its spiciness.
The intangible things that I brought home from the monastery — I pray those stay with me longer, whatever they are. Because the aroma is sweet, and powerful. I think it’s the scent of holiness.
This week I am one of several women from my parish who are flying together to Arizona, on pilgrimage to The Holy Monastery of Saint Paisius. I don’t expect to be posting to my blog for a few days, but I thought I would share this quote from their patron St. Paisius Velichkovsky that the sisters have on their website; he offers plenty to meditate on while I am away:
I IMPLORE and exhort you, my beloved fathers, brethren, and children, in the following: Love the Lord with all thy soul and all thy heart. Be righteous and just, submissive, with bowed head and your mind turned towards heaven. Have contrition towards God and men. Be a consoler of the sorrowful, patient in trials, and not given to irritation, bountiful, merciful, a feeder of the poor, receiver of strangers, sorrowful for the sake of sins, joyful in God, hungry and thirsty, meek, patient, not a lover of glory, not a lover of gold, a lover of your neighbor, not hypocritical, not proud, a lover of labor for the sake of God, silent, pleasant in replies, fervent in fasting, in frequent prayers, vigils, and psalm-singing, sensible. Do not judge any man, but condemn yourself. And for this you will be the child of the Gospel, the son of the Resurrection, the inheritor of life in Christ Jesus our Lord. To Him may there be honor and power and worship, with the Father and the Most Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Today was Goldfinch Day in the garden. It could be they were celebrating the rain; I know I am, for several reasons, not least that it’s warmer when it’s raining, and right now I have so many open spaces in my ceiling upstairs, it’s quite drafty when the wind blows through the attic. We had a very cold night and two or three suddenly wintry days.
A male goldfinch announced their event to me when I was standing near the sliding glass door: he flew right up to the glass and hovered, went away, came back two times looking at me. You say he was seeing his reflection? Well, whatever he thought he was doing, he did draw my attention to the dozens of goldfinches feasting, at the feeders and on the ground. I guess when they heard I was catering their convention, everyone wanted to come. I also stayed around so long I was almost late for church. I was trying to be the photographer, but they make it difficult by being so shy. And the rain that made their yellow brighter to my eyes only dulled the scene as a whole, and they look gray against the wisteria leaves.
It took me ages to get dressed for church; I was trying to find the boots I bought last winter, which were stored away “somewhere,” many moons ago when I was so certain that the remodeling project would be complete before another winter came along. I finally found them, and then other parts of my outfit. I am temporarily between dressing tables and have been just wearing the same earrings every day.
Granny Marigold asked how it’s going, the remodeling. A huge thing is that the floors are scheduled to go in a week from tomorrow. That means an incredible number of tasks need to be wrapped up in the next five days, if it’s all to be in the right sequence. My plumber doesn’t see how it can happen. He told me that gently when he was here this evening planning his part of the job; I was really glad he stopped by when he happened to be in the neighborhood. It seems he doesn’t use email anymore, and I’ve been writing him urgent emails. I’ve known him for almost 30 years, since he was in high school; we talked about his parents and his children before he left. He lives with his father and his son, and all three are named James.
Here is the floor plan of the changes in my upstairs. Three new rooms are being created from one very large room that had never had much done with it. Maybe because the original builders saw that they didn’t have enough support to bear any more walls; one unfortunate time drain has been the addition of great beams to floor and ceiling of the room, what the contractor kindly calls “deferred maintenance.”
My master bedroom, bath and closet are at the bottom of the drawing. The new walls are shaded dark. The door has been cut that will open my bedroom to the sewing room, and all the framing is done. A few pictures from the last year, in chronological order:
First, after removing the “popcorn” ceiling, and when they began to add support in the ceiling for the new walls:
The first of my two new windows framed:
How it used to look between my closet and bathroom (although not quite that crooked):
How it looks now:
They have put up plastic film in that new doorway temporarily, but it doesn’t keep out the cold. I’m so glad I thought to hang the sheet on a spring rod, because it’s always warmer on this side when it’s pulled closed.
Below, an example of the extra support that has been added to that end of the room, where the weight of the roof was not resting on enough beams that went straight to the foundation. When the team was looking at the situation and brainstorming what to do, one contractor who works for my contractor said to me, “You’re learning how not to build a house.”
No one worked all these four days of the Thanksgiving weekend. On Thanksgiving I did two things I’d never done before on that day: First I went to Liturgy, which was quite lovely, and I took my new friend Kay who I’ll tell you more about sometime. Afterward, we went shopping at my favorite market that has a vast deli section, to buy a few things to take to the feast we were attending, at the little monastery in town 🙂 I’d never had Thanksgiving at a monastery before, either.
Maybe twenty-five people were there. They are on the old calendar, so they had just begun their fast. Unlike many Orthodox, they do not bend the rules, so we had no turkey, and I didn’t miss it. We had various sorts of fish, and so many many different dishes that people had brought, or the nuns had made. One of my favorite things was the beautiful salad I had bought at the market. It was crunchy and pretty and everyone loved it: Mango and Jicama salad, those two ingredients cut in long matchsticks, with Chinese cabbage and cilantro and strips of sweet red pepper. It was lightly dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.
Before we came home the nuns gave us boxes and bags of pineapple guavas from their hedge and trees; as we went to our car we saw just how prodigious a crop they have. Theirs are certainly situated better than mine, none of which ripened this year.
I didn’t go to the Christmas bazaar that was at my church on Saturday, but there were a few things left that we could buy today during the agape meal, like this origami garland that I hung as soon as I got home.
After selling items at a discount for a while, they eventually were giving stuff away, at which point I accepted edible goodies, which I have put away for Christmas. Who knows if I’ll find time and concentration to make my own cookies this year.
I had many things to carry to my car, and it was raining, so I dug the napkin bag out of the trash to carry stuff in.
How was that for a hodgepodge post? I guess it’s only fitting that I publish at least one that reflects the scattered and nearly chaotic style of my life right now. As soon as those floors go in I will be sharing that bright news immediately!