Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hugging the Theotokos

This may make you squeamish. Or not, depending on how you feel about connecting with dead people.  I don't mean to make light of Orthodox Christians' relationship to the Saints-Gone-Before, but one could say, with all our veneration of icons, that we 'see dead people.'

If I was curled around my husband's heaving body one morning this week, and curled in a scared ball the next morning, then curling up like one of those potato bugs is about to become the metaphor of my mind. I think in metaphors. I feel in them. I find theology in stories, mostly of the lives of saints and the redeemable wrecks I find in memoir and fiction.  I wrap my consciousness around them. I think of LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea where the true name of something is hidden. It's shroud is lifted only for the right purpose because to name something is to identify truth.

And the truth sets us free.

In the past four years, I've tried to wait for the true name of something to come out, rather than rushing to label it myself. If we were paying two house payments, sinking into debt at eight and nine hundred dollars some months, or if, in a freak storm, my van spun out of control on the interstate, I waited. I think I startled a few people with my calm. I didn't rage or cry or despair. I may have buried my head a bit, but thought that the reckoning was something I could face. Eventually. Whenever asked, "How are you doing?" or "Do you need anything?" I couldn't name how I was doing, or what was needed. I waited to see how my husband was doing, how my children were doing, how my job review was glowing, and if my friends were interested in returning to vulnerable authenticity around me.

I felt little and reasoned my circumstances via the metaphor of the image of the Pilgrim who wandered over twenty miles daily, pinching salt with plain bread and repeating the Jesus Prayer. Stasis is the word that I keep using. I was weary with the emotional metaphor of my youth. In that I was a dirty, suffocated soul. I saw myself, splayed face down in muck, choking on the dirt, waiting to be lifted by God, to be found worthy. In spite of a lifetime of shame and repentance, I never felt clean, never freed by Grace. Oh, I had some swooping highs when I burst forth with joy for feeling of God's presence after a Psalm 51 moment of penitence. Yet I was nagged by the suspicion this is just an emotional high. Turns out, it probably was.

I'm working on teaching my children that "I'm sorry" is a mere opening. Even if they say, "I'm sorry" with the grudging tone of voice that intimates "I'm only saying this 'cause Mom said I must"-- it should be accompanied by "What can I do to make it better?" A plan to fix the error must be implemented.

On the way home from Dayton yesterday, my husband whipped out Met. Anthony Bloom's Living Prayer. To paraphrase what he read, true repentance merely  begins with apology. If we walk away with a cozy feeling of tears shed and forgiveness offered, we've only broached emotions. We feel pretty dang good about our penitence, but the work of change is incomplete.

Aaack. This accuses me. During this week of hospitalization, of slowing down and being in the present with my husband, my support network and God, I felt pretty good. It felt like an impetus; I was inspired to get real.-- No Doctor Phil intended! I had been de-humanizing each moment of my life, even phone calls to my beloved friends and family. No more. This sickness showed me something. Just before we got of our car in Dayton, restless and board, I was thumbing through a copy of Bread, Water, Wine & Oil by Fr. Meletios Weber. I read his chapter on sickness. I was struck at his comment that it reminds us we cannot do this alone, on our own power. Within twenty-four hours, I was reduced to total dependence because of my husband's illness. Cannot drive myself to the hospital with him. Cannot make a decision about taking him to the ER. Cannot pay the bills that will come. Cannot care for my son while caring for my husband. Cannot call all the people who need to know.  Cannot name or process my emotions.

Thanks to the ministrations of one friend, a new metaphor was written for me. A form of curling. The form of the Theotokos. The image of a friend whose own experiences gave her credence to name my state of being. It was named in a metaphor and a story. She wrote, as icon writers do. She spoke of truth in curling around the icon of the Mother of God in her weakest moments. She wrote of falling asleep with the icon against her chest. The Mother of God, who stored all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Two dozen years ago, I loved that line in Luke- "She stored these things up and pondered them in her heart." Seven years ago, when I became Orthodox, the Theotokos hung to the left on the iconostasis and I thought it strange to venerate her. It was a put off and I could no longer understand this woman who pondered. Why did the Orthodox Church like her so much? What was so great about her? Mother, indeed. I had so much to learn. I chose as my name's saint, Mary of Egypt, who was affronted by the Theotokos in her holiness and didn't understand, but became a Christian anyway. I chose Mary of Egypt for the echo of the response to the Theotokos, and for her years seeking in the desert. I thought she was waiting on grace too. I've spent the past few years, waiting for rest, wandering for grace, seeking a plan for true repentance. I've found the other side of the Jordan. It's dry here. It's hot. Unlike my patron, I'm not severed from weekly Eucharistic sustanance, but I've felt like I was fleeing towards grace.

Surprisingly then, my Father Confessor, Bishop Michael, asked me to consider the grace that Mary of Egypt has. I hadn't thought of that. I hadn't thought of her finding the grace and being in the desert for the purpose of living out that grace. Whoa. Not flat-faced in the mud at all. She was aloft, desert sand floating in her face, praying.

Then he tells me to turn to the Theotokos, Mother of God, to consider her prayers for her children. For a momma always measuring my identity against my children's emotions and growth, against my husband, against those to whom I'm called, I need a momma too. I have a very literal one. I haven't talked to her this week, but if there is anyone I know is my steel, my rock, and has a heart full of heavy love for me, it's my Mom. So too I have the Mother of God, the icon of motherhood and love.  I have someone to call at all times. When I'm alone, in the dark, curled up, I can curl around her icon, pray and the grace of God will be with me.

I am so blessed.

Thanks, Lorraine.

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