Tag Archives: suffering

A long caravan of evenings.

Two of my friends fell asleep in death last week. One was a monk who was buried at his monastery some distance from here, and the other, John, was a member of our parish. His funeral was today, and I was able to attend it.

I’ve written a lot about funerals and death since my husband died, and am at the point where, though I continue to experience grief, these days the loss and its pain primarily show themselves as elements of the same stuff that every single human experiences, we who live as part of this creation that we also live in. The creation that is waiting:

“For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.”  -Romans 8

John had been married to his wife for 64 years, since she was 18 years old. He had suffered great pain and disability for much of his life — his particular “stuff,” but while waiting for his full redemption, he was busy doing good works. Maybe his spirit was groaning for its deliverance from corruption, but he expressed his eagerness in generosity and encouraging words and cooking for people.

I was looking for a poem to post this evening, because I had no good story of my own to share. It turns out there was no poem at hand that would serve very well, but here is one from the archives that reminds us to keep on keeping on, through whatever losses we suffer. I’ll see you in the morning!

PASSAGE

And there was evening, humid
with lightning, when my father

fell to the earth like summer hail,
scattered. I gathered

my mother, we threw in
a handful of pebbles. And

there was morning, bitterly.
There was evening news

bluing walls, violet morning
on thunderheads, and the evening

when morning
would never again light our bodies in bed.

Morning caravans, headlights,
evening. A long caravan of evenings. Then

there was only me, morning. Awake in a room
in a building vast with rooms. Everyone

evening. Everyone morning. And God
had finished all the work he had been doing—

babies, honeybees, spreadsheets, winter
mornings. I said,

I will not stop here, evening. I’ll see you
in the morning.

–Thomas Dooley

If peas could talk.

In this era, I keep an eye on the coastal weather forecast more than the local, trying to plan well ahead so as to increase my chances of getting out there to the edge of the Pacific — aiming for several times a month.

Last week about this time I noticed that there was going to be rain nearly every day upcoming, except for one, so I penciled in my outing for Monday. I did notice that it was forecast to be windy, and I researched a little bit about just how 20-24 mph winds feel. I couldn’t remember the stats on what I’d experienced in the past. It didn’t sound too foreboding, so I dressed in layers with a windbreaker, and off I went.

Did I tell you I have been reading The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin? I have the audio as well as the print format. The possibility of sinking into that book makes me look forward to any longer drive to anywhere. I can’t concentrate on a book, lecture, etc. while doing anything else at home; even while driving, I can only attend well while following a familiar route. I make frequent use of the rewind button (Is there another word for that now that there is no actual winding involved?), including at times when I have to concentrate more, as at an intersection, and briefly lose the thread of the story.

The weather at the beach was a blast. The clumps of grass on the dunes were beautiful, the way they waved in the wind. But, “This is not fun,” was the phrase that popped into my mind about three minutes after I reached the water’s edge, where the sand at least was not flying; my head had began to pound, and my eyes were burning, but I pushed against that blast toward the tidepools that I knew would have been exposed.

The wind was helping the waves up the beach, where they were allowed to break, but not to recede. The wind whipped them to make them lie on the sand a few more seconds than was their natural will; I could tell they were not happy about it, because they weren’t lying there quietly. Gusts attacked them over and over,  yanking pieces of foam off their edges and blowing them off. The puffs scattered wildly, like sudden orphans. Their wails couldn’t be heard above those of their abuser. The sun shone brightly.

I had purposely chosen mid-afternoon for my visit, because there was going to be a minus tide, and I’ve noticed those seem to occur mostly in the middle of the night. This week there were three of them that would happen before dark.

But I was beginning to foresee that stumbling around the rocks looking for anemones, in my quickly cooling bare feet, would also not be that much fun. I turned around, and my time on the beach was shorter than usual, but I was glad I had tried the experiment.

I have been reading so many books lately that include elements of great hardship and suffering, it would not feel right if I did not push myself at least a little, and endure some amount of discomfort. Not only do I have my literary characters as examples in this, but I have fellow blogger Mags who is snow-swimming this month, in the seas of Northern Ireland! This kind of effort, when you do it voluntarily, with the knowledge that you can be home and cozy soon afterward, can be exhilarating. The experience of a Soviet labor camp, on the other hand, one doesn’t volunteer for. Just today I read more of The Aviator‘s protagonist Innokenty’s musings on it, years later:

“Well, what kind of description can convey round-the-clock coldness? Or hunger? Any story implies a completed event but there is a dreadful eternity here. You cannot warm up for an hour, or two or three or ten. It is impossible, after all, to accustom oneself to either hunger or cold.”

My garden suffered what may be the worst cold it will have to endure this winter, just two days ago. I know it was several degrees of frost — and this area has had a winter or two in the last decades without even one freeze; it rarely gets down to 20 degrees. By the time that morning’s weather test occurred, I had been doing my own trials of the new greenhouse equipment, necessitating a few emergency visits in my nightgown at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., to adjust the thermostat. So everything was okay in there. And you know, collards get sweeter by suffering frost.

But the next day, it was the wind that hit here, and this morning I found that it had grabbed the 4-foot snow pea vines off their trellises and thrown them to the ground, to be pelted by rain. I won’t expose their humiliation in pictures. The collapsed garden umbrella was torn off its vanes, too, the wind getting hold at the top where the sun had weakened the canvas in the last five years, to make a big hole there for starters.

It looks like we will have a few more days of rain, but no high winds are in the forecast. I am almost always comfortable, having warm clothes and fire and a gas furnace. My life is easy, for sure. If peas could talk, their story would doubtless be different.

Even though the world has upended itself.

Ever since the King of Glory was born into this world of death, His people have suffered under and among the kingdoms of this world. We talk a lot about how He was weak and helpless, being a baby. But any of us mothers might remember the vulnerability of women in pregnancy, in the very season when one wants to be most in control, so as to nurture and protect.

I think a lot about my children and grandchildren, who are likely to live on after I am gone, and what they might have to endure in this earthly world, where it seems that the rich and powerful, and often the evildoers, are getting stronger; in any case, the relative impotence of the majority is being revealed. I was very glad to see my friend Anna Mussman write about these concerns last spring, in “Why I’m Grateful to be Pregnant During This Pandemic.” It may be that I linked you to her article back then. She safely gave birth to her fourth child after publishing this article, in which she reminds us of reasons for confidence, even in the face of vulnerability:

We can’t say for sure what will happen to our children, our children’s children, or their children, but we can remember that our God’s promises are just as true for them as for us. 

We need not mourn past seasons of prosperity “as those who have no hope” mourn. We know that sometimes suffering is exactly what we humans need to recognize our sin, repent, and receive forgiveness. Besides, suffering does not last forever. Eternity, the answer and fulfillment of all seasons, is yet to come. 

Babies are cute and adorable and fill us with love, but they also remind us that we are vulnerable. Strangely enough that is actually the most comforting thing about them. Their very perfection forces us to realize we will not be able to save and protect them in the way we wish. We mothers cannot guarantee that our babies will be safe and happy in this world. 

That’s how babies drive us to God. Through our babies and the difficult seasons they may bring, we are reminded over and over that our hope is found in the Father who has promised never to leave us, to never forsake us or our children. God’s love is not seasonal. 

That is why even though the world has upended itself and the media is declaring this year a bad one to have a baby, the world and the media do not get the last say. God does.

In his Advent collection Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite offers a sonnet of his own for December 22. With its reference to the facts of Christ being despised, cast off, “never on the throne,” under imminent threat of murder even as an infant, it reminded me of Anna’s exhortation. We who are followers of Christ can expect no less than the treatment He got; kingdoms rise and fall, and there haven’t been very many truly good kings in all those millennia.

It doesn’t matter. Christ’s Kingdom is real, and the only lasting one, and it is where “we ourselves are found.” It is even right and proper, given the presence of this Kingdom, that we be cheerful, because He told us to be: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

O REX GENTIUM

O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,

You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.

We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,

O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

Therefore thus says the Lord God, See, I am laying in Zion for a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’ (Isaiah 28:16)

-Malcolm Guite, in Waiting on the Word

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).”