I remember discovering the word epiphany in high school. I remember being stretched out on my lower bunk, in a room I shared with two of my six siblings. I don't remember what I was reading, but that it was in a book. I had eclectic tastes back then. I picked up The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam because it was the scandalous text in "The Music Man" and I read an abridged 1001 Arabian Nights alongside tales of missionary murder, and lots of bad Christian books, like Frank Peretti's pieces on spiritual warfare and the Thoene's revisionist-evangelical-fundamentalist-philozionist historical fiction of about the founding of Israel. Where epiphany emerged in that jumble, I have no idea.
Having grown up in a charismatic, evangelical church, I came to link it to prayer. When prayer is good, it is full of epiphany, or so went my self-designed doctrine. In my later readings, I would stumble across a theologian who objected to my passionate embrace of epiphany as a means of God's revelation. For this writer, epiphany turned one's own perceptions into God's acts.
There is some hubris and some truth is that. It's not so simple for me to delineate. I'm no Augustinian believer, who sees every created things as so bent that an infinitely perfect God refuses baptize His creation. There are those who believe that human intellect or intuition is too sinful to know or recognize God. Nor am I one to believe that all that feels like revelation comes from God. I'm all too skeptical thanks to the kool-aid drinkers who burn their shoes and gas subways in the name of God.
I still like epiphany because the theologians of my youth never embraced it. There's no baggage; no forceful palms shoving my forehead back; no arms waiting to catch my slain-in-the-spirit body; no tongues without their interpreters. There is a recognition that I am created good, inherently, in God's image. His imprint is upon me, and not just me or just "saved" people, but upon all people; each person is capable, with or without salvation of responding to Him.
There is also the awareness that epiphany can be deceptive, a tomfoolery of my seratonin levels, a spiritual interruption from the powers of this dark world. I'm caught in system of checks and balances. Of human laws and hierarchies, of peer relationships, of social acceptance and rejection, that also embody the Charism of God at work in this world.
So when I pray, and I've recently learned to embrace "canned" prayers- as some of my buddies would call them- I've learned that epiphany is not about the words, but the openness. It is about meditation.
For this reason, I'm posting about prayer in this Lent. Okay, my Lenten season began over two weeks ago, long before Ash Wednesday kicks it off in Western Christendom. So I'm belated. Forgive me.
I am doing this because friends, two who do not know one another, asked about my Lenten traditions. When they asked, I had an epiphany. One, a mother, asked what traditions do Orthodox Christians practice? She feels that her evangelical worship is bereft of sacred traditions. Was there something she could employ with her children to help them more than know, but live, what they believe? My other pen-pal wrote of her struggle with fasting, a key Lenten practice, because she was so busy and it was hard to do.
And my epiphany struck: These cannot be employed alone with much success, unless we have monastic temperments. We need to practice them together. My whole parish fasts; my whole Church fasts. They have for 20 centuries. They give more of what they have; they pray more than usual. They strive for silence, more attendance in church, more repentance, more confession, more meditation. They seek to know themselves as God knows them. And it forces a change. The change may be an epiphany, that subtle realization in this mundane- at best- and frustrating- at worst- set of practices, or it may be unconscious and undetected for some time.
I feel bad. When I write back to my friends, I will tell them the truth. These aren't neat Seder recreations. There isn't neat history or wonderful bonding in them. These practices are tiring. Often we are gassy from the dietary changes or lack of food. Our confessions still feel forced at times. We sneak chocolate, second helpings and olive oil. We forget our promise to pray the hours. We abstain from Eucharist for our failures then feel "left out." We go to services and do all the prostrations, even though our minds are exhausted and bored. We buy expensive vegan replacements, rather than eating less, buying less, spending less in order to give more.
I believe that paradoxically, this truth was an answer to prayer. I prayed and asked God, in one short breath, how I was to convey the wonderful glorious Orthodox Lent. And this tarnished reality was my epiphany. Dare I compare it to the ignominy of the Cross?
The truth is, God is still marked upon us. He still works his Goodness in subtle shavings that shape us. He uses the painful banalities more often the epic tragedies to make this season one of "Joyful Sorrow." When the priest uses the heel of the Cross to bang on the parish doors at 12:30 am on April 8th, and answers the question "Who is the King of Glory?" with "The Lord Strong and Mighty." I will know Him better. Perhaps one day, with all this prayer, I shall be ready to meet Him face-to-face.
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian