Tag Archives: suffering

A Week of Palms and wildflowers.

This is the week in which I finally got out walking. I guess I had before been doing too much of a more sedentary kind of work — God knows in what realm of my being — that made me too weary for walking, other than around the garden. Evidently I’m in a new stage of dealing with the pandemic and its ramifications.

Herb-Robert

For the first walk, I went on the lower unpaved path next to the creek, and didn’t meet anyone. Pretty quickly I remembered the Seek app on my phone and started pointing it at weeds and other plants, many of which I was already pretty sure I knew… just checking. There was lots of Sow Thistle, Bull Thistle, Bristly Oxtongue and Burr Clover. Those are the less pleasing explosions of springtime, which I won’t show you. Tiny white willow puffs drifted down on to my head, and the sun was shining. I discovered a bay tree on the bank above.

For us Orthodox, it is the last week of Lent; Holy Week is not considered part of Lent proper and our Holy Week and Pascha are a week later than Western Easter this year.

So… one period is ending and the intensity of Holy Week hasn’t begun. It reminds me, this year, of the week before finals in college: a week of transition between the end of classes and the beginning of exams. It was called Dead Week. You were supposed to use the time to study hard, but some friends of mine always had a giant jigsaw puzzle going at their apartment, and anyone was welcome to come over and work on it when they needed a break from studying.

Poison hemlock

It’s not dead by any means in Lent, unless you are talking about Lazarus, who died this week and spent most of it in the tomb. For me, it has been more life-filled than ever. My feeling of renewal began with the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, whose story I’ve never paid enough attention to before. Technology failed me, the evening that we were going to have a parish reading of her life on Zoom, so I took an hour to read it aloud to myself (with my brothers and sisters not virtually, but in the Holy Spirit). She helped me to get my bearings.

Now our focus shifts, from our journey of repentance to Christ’s journey, having “set His face like a flint,” to Bethany and on to Golgotha. Soon it will be the resurrectional Lazarus Saturday, and Palm Sunday. This whole week is called the Week of Palms, or Week of Branches. I don’t think I knew that before.

aeonium

This year, because we aren’t able to celebrate Pascha in church, with our glorious middle-of-the night Liturgy and festal hymns and countless shouts of “Christ is risen!” in a dozen languages — it also seems that we are having to set our hearts determinedly to receive what God has given us with thanksgiving. The wife of our priest explains our sadness:

“Sundays, which are a dim picture of how we will spend eternity, are meant for us to be praising and worshiping God together for ages of ages.  Every Sunday is a mini Pascha, and we are being kept from celebrating together in completeness.

“The good news is that these feelings tell us that this isn’t right. This isn’t how things are supposed to be. We shouldn’t be content with just doing our own thing. I literally weep every time I think about missing Holy Week and Pascha with you in our spiritual home. But I cling to the hope of the Resurrection. I look forward to the day when we can come together again in person in the church, to partake of holy communion, and to be refreshed.”

Cut-leaved Crane’s-bill

On another level, I especially appreciated the refreshment of some exercise and fresh air yesterday and today. I was happy to see a striped bumblebee in my neighborhood — until this morning I’d only seen black ones around here. My app told me that the buds on this bush below belong to the Eastern Redbud. I thought that strange; why would someone plant an Eastern when we are here in the West? So I looked at pictures of both species in bud, and I can’t see much difference. So I’m just calling this one “redbud.”

redbud

This week was “enlivened” also because Alejandro came to work in the garden, and we had two sunny days and got a lot done. That made it feel more normal.

But as to the abnormal — Father John Parsells, in “The Pascha Nobody Wants,” encourages us that in our present obedience and isolation we have the opportunity to participate in a way that we ourselves would never choose, in the sufferings of Christ.

“His ‘social distancing’ was so complete that He even experienced divine ‘abandonment,’ crying out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken Me?’ The sinless One became sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:20) and the One who said, ‘I and My Father are One’ (John 10:30) experienced ‘separation’ from His Father.”

“What we go through now can feel very isolating for faithful Christians, yet we are resolutely encouraged, remembering that the Cross of Christ reveals isolation as the door to communion. In obedience even unto death, we find the life that can never be put to death. Amidst our distress and anguish, we find the ‘man of sorrows, acquainted with grief’ (Isaiah 53:3), Christ Himself who says to us what He promised His disciples in their own time of tribulation: ‘I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy!’ (John 16:22).”

The caged bird learns from the silent lily.

“Let us now look more closely at the lily and the bird from whom we are to learn. The bird keeps silent and waits: it knows, or rather it fully and firmly believes, that everything takes place at its appointed time. Therefore the bird waits, but it knows that it is not granted to it to know the hour or the day; therefore it keeps silent. ‘It will surely take place at the appointed time,’ the bird says. Oh no, the bird does not say this, but keeps silent. But its silence speaks, and its silence says that it believes it, and because it believes it, it keeps silent and waits.” -Søren Kierkegaard

I worked very hard last week to compose a second post on Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, which I am reading along with Mags. No good fruit seemed to come from my effort, though I wrote many words in a draft and searched for appropriately themed photos. When earlier this week I heard from Simone Weil through her anthologist Laurie Gagne, who was interviewed on Mars Hill Audio, that a writer must often wait patiently for the right word, it made me think more hopefully about the outcome.

I had begun at least two weeks ago, writing about the new bird community just on the other side of my fence, a few feet away from me when I garden. They are tropical birds in several large cages, temporary residents while their owners are between houses, and they are noisily chirping and even screeching from dawn to dusk. That long time ago, as it seems now, I was focused on their being jungle birds, surely not the sort that inspired Kierkegaard’s contemplations. I cleverly speculated that if Kierkegaard had lived in the jungle he wouldn’t have been likely to write the book he did.

But more pertinent to my present situation, only days later, is the fact that they are caged birds. And right now, many of us the world over feel like caged birds, in our efforts to slow the spread of a quickly spreading virus. Some are less restricted than others because they are in a type of helping role, but they also are at more risk. I, who am healthy and feeling in some ways younger than ever, have been grouped with The Elderly; I am trying to submit meekly, in my mind as well as my body, to my classification and assigned task: to stay home. In this regard, what Kierkegaard writes about seeking God’s kingdom first is something to take to heart:

“But then, in a certain sense is there in fact nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense there is nothing. You shall in the deepest sense make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to keep silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is first to seek God’s kingdom.”

He does talk about how humans often enter into this silence when they are praying: “…as he became more and more fervent in prayer, he had less and less to say, and finally he became entirely silent…. indeed, he became what is, if possible, even more the opposite of talking than silence: he became a listener.”

Currently, the whole world is waiting. The necessity of waiting is a gift given to us, an opportunity, but if I only wait on the decisions of authorities and on the latest statistics, my waiting is of little value.

“This is also how it is with the lily, it keeps silence and waits. It does not ask impatiently, ‘When is the spring coming?’ [see Pippin’s daffodils at right] because it knows that it will come at the appointed time; it knows that it would not benefit in any way whatever if it were permitted to determine the seasons of the year. It does not say, ‘When will we get rain?’ or ‘When will we have sunshine?’ or ‘Now we have had too much rain,’ or ‘Now it is too hot.’ …. Then the moment comes, and when the moment comes, the silent lily understands that now is the moment, and makes use of it.”

Obviously I myself know little of this subject experientially, but Søren Kierkegaard and the birds and flowers and all of nature have a lot to share, which I love to pass on! Glory to God, that He somehow arranged for me to find this particular book, chosen for its brevity. Ha! Every paragraph seems to have a world of meaning that one could meditate on for a year. The author must have known how to wait for the right word, as Simone Weil talks about.

Suffering. Are we not all suffering right now? Suffering at the most superficial level by our own movements being curtailed, or because we can’t find our favorite food in the stores, all the way to those who are suffering in a holy and productive way, deeply in their souls, expressing coinherence with the healthcare workers of Italy or with the helplessly panic-stricken of any place. When I think of all the monastics and even my priest, who are accustomed to self-containment and waiting on God, who are praying for all the rest of us who pray little, I feel both grateful and ashamed. When I pray with them at all, via their live-streamed services, it strengthens my ability to wait.

Simone Weil

Charles Williams coined that word coinherence that I used above, but I don’t think he invented the truth that each of us is mysteriously and mystically united to the other. Simone Weil knew about this, too, and not in a theoretical way, but in the compassion and solidarity that emanated from her heart. When she was only five, she heard that soldiers (in the first World War) had no ration of sugar, so she refused to eat sugar. And much later, when she was at the Sorbonne, we learn more from fellow student Simone de Beauvoir’s writings. When Weil heard about a famine in China, she burst into tears; de Beauvoir envied her for having a “heart that could beat across the world.”

Christ suffered on the Cross in taking on Himself all the death and suffering of mankind, and He calls us to do it for each other, to be little Christs, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s a mystery to me, for sure, but I hope that praying with my fellow creatures everywhere will help me to acquire more of this grace.

Regarding our own personal pain and death, Kierkegaard says that when we are silent, it makes our suffering less. This runs counter to modern culture in which we all want to talk in an effort to relieve suffering.

“The bird keeps silent and suffers. However much heartache it has, it keeps silent. Even the melancholic mourning dove of the desert or of solitude keeps silent. It sighs three times and then keeps silent, sighs again three times, but is essentially silent. For what it is it does not say; it does not complain; it accuses no one; it sighs only to fall silent again. Indeed, it is as if the silence would cause it to burst; therefore it must sigh in order to keep silent.”

And by that silence under suffering, Kierkegaard lists several ways suffering is eased; the bird – and potentially us humans! – are freed (I put these points into list form):

“1) From what makes the suffering more burdensome: from the misunderstood sympathy of others;
2) From what makes the suffering last longer: from all the talk of suffering;
3) From what makes the suffering into something worse than suffering: from the sin of impatience and sadness.”

Oh my, I’m afraid I have tempted you to the sin of impatience by my long post, so I am going to stop for now, though I still haven’t come to the end of my meditations on Kierkegaard’s First Discourse. Let me say, in closing, that I am praying with and for people everywhere who are distressed, joining my sighings with yours. I pray that our afflictions may be turned into the sighings of the mourning dove, who after all may be understandably melancholic about the true and sorry state of mankind. Her heartache and sighings become silence, and that is her prayer.

The chimes of neverwhere.

THE CHIMES OF NEVERWHERE

How many times did the Church prevent war?
Who knows? Those wars did not occur.

The neither state of Neverwhere
is hard to place as near or far
since all things that didn’t take place are there
and things that have lost the place they took:

Herr Hitler’s buildings, King James’ cigar,
the happiness of Armenia,
the Abelard children, the Manchus’ return
are there with the Pictish Grammar Book.

The girl who returned your dazzled look
and the mornings you might have woke to her
are your waterbed in Neverwhere.
There shine the dukes of Australia

and all the great poems that never were
quite written, and every balked invention.
There too are the Third AIF and its war
in which I and boys my age were killed

more pointlessly with each passing year,
but there too half the works of sainthood are,
the enslavements, tortures, rapes, despair
deflected by them from the actual

to rain on the human-sacrifice drum
which millions never have to hear
beating for them in Neverwhere.

-Les Murray

I discovered an earlier version of the poem online which speaks overtly of the Devil and of Christ’s love, but this is the one the poet chose to include in Selected Poems.

He takes our face in His hands…

“The theme of the Orthodox account of Christ’s suffering and death is that of bearing shame and mockery. You can search the texts of Holy Week for the word ‘pain,’ and come up with almost nothing. The mocking and the shame, however, color everything.

“The same is largely true of the New Testament as well. When St. Paul describes Christ’s self-emptying (kenosis) on the Cross, he says that Christ ‘became obedient to death,’ and adds, ‘even death on a Cross.’ The point of the ‘even’ is not that the Cross is painful above all pain, but that the Cross is shameful above all shame.”

In an article titled An Atonement of Shame Father Stephen discusses how our own shame and vulnerability before God are the key to our understanding what has been done for us on the Cross, and he points us to the parable of the Prodigal Son, whose father ran to embrace him while he was yet in shame.

“The first instinct of shame is to look down, to turn the face away and hide. Blood rushes to the face (it ‘burns with shame’). Shame is the very sacrament of broken communion, the most proper and natural expression of sin. When Christ enters our shame (and bears it), it is as though God Himself stands before us, takes our face in His hands, and turns our eyes back to Him.”