Friday, April 24, 2015

What's in a Name Day?

We Orthodox are pretty big on naming our children for saints, and celebrating the child's feast day every year.  Yesterday was St. George Day, the feast day of my late husband, his father and both his brothers, as well as my dearly loved cousin.  I prayed for them in particular yesterday, though I pray for all of them every day, and I prayed that St. George the Great Martyr would have mercy on them and intercede on their behalf to our Lord.

When we first married, we didn't do a lot with name days, mostly because I didn't make it happen.  I knew my middle name was Marie and that my mother had named me for the Virgin Mary, but I really didn't know when her feast day was.  As I began to grow in faith and cycled through several church years, I found that there were multiple days dedicated to the Mother of God, and all I had to do was to choose one.  So I did.  I chose the Annunciation which had great personal resonance and meaning for me.  Jerry already knew about his patron, Saint George, and all that was left was to figure out how to celebrate our saint days.

When it was just the two of us, we mostly ate a festive meal chosen by the honoree and wished each other a happy Name Day, but when my parents came to stay for lengthy periods, it seemed more fun to make them feel more special on their special day.  I bought a fire engine red dinner plate and painted, "You Are Special" around the rim. We used this plate to honor name days, birthdays, anniversaries, as well as good doctor visits, no cavities, and anything else that deserved celebration. The honoree still got to choose the dinner, and that is how I ended up making poutine rapee for my Dad one year. He didn't think I could make it, but I did, and they were delicious. (For those who are not Acadian French, poutine rapee are basically snowball sized dumplings made of rasped potatoes with a bacon and salt pork center.  They are boiled, served hot, and eaten with sugar, molasses or maple syrup.  Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it!)  My Dad loved them and ate them often as a child in Canada, so I made them. Somewhere, I have photo of his happily surprised face when I brought out a platter piled high! Moment's like that are priceless.

I tried to learn about the saints, to get to know them better. As an iconographer, I find the lives of saints endlessly fascinating and inspiring, so this was not a chore.  When our baby came into our lives, we wanted to raise her with a sense of the various cycles of the church year, and so we spent a lot of time teaching her about saints and name days and a lot of what we tend to call traditions with a little "t".  This built up a sense of anticipation in her, and honestly, her childlike wonder and excitement was infectious!  We celebrated everyone's name day: Jerry's patron is St. George, mine is the Theotokos and the Annunciation, Elizabeth's is St. Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, my mother's is St. Helen the Equal to the Apostles and my father's is St. Joseph the Betrothed. My child grew up praying to her patron saint to protect her and intercede to Christ on her behalf. She prayed to St. Elizabeth and St. Helen, both.  As time went on, it became apparent that St. John of San Francisco had a special relationship with her, that he chose her, really, so we celebrated his day as well.

I think that St. John of San Francisco is responsible for many miracles, big and small, in our family, and in the life of my daughter, in particular.  Just last summer, she and I were discussing whether we should acknowledge him as the patron of our family.  This is a Serbian custom - the family Slava. In Serbia, many people are not named after a saint and do not have an individual patron saint, but the entire family has a patron saint which is celebrated from generation to generation. The saint is usually the saint of the day on which the family became Orthodox Christians. Christianity came to Serbia in the first century, and Orthodox Christianity became the official religion in the 800s.  That's a lot of celebrating!

My Serbian friend, Ariane posts pictures of her Slava on Facebook every year. Her brother comes to visit, her husband stays home from work, her kids and her mother are there.  They cook fabulous, traditional Serbian food for days, and invite the Serbian priest to celebrate the traditional liturgical service, which includes the rotating and breaking of the slava bread in the presence of the icon of the patron saint. She has little kids and they are growing up with a richness of faith and a rootedness in tradition and culture that will serve them well when they grow up and question everything. Those memories will be in their bones, and that's what will bring them back, as it brought my daughter back.  Those memories -- and the prayers of their beloved and close friends, their heavenly patron saints.

Parents of young ones, celebrate your child's name day! Make a big deal of it! Make sure your child learns all about his or her patron saint. Hold that saint up as a model of holiness to be emulated. Take your child to church on his name day.  Have the priest and people sing Many Years for your child on his name day. Plan ahead - think about the traditions you want to build and then be consistent from year to year.

As the parent of a child who went through years of questioning, but who found that the call of the church to her could not be denied, and she returned, I can tell you that what you do in your home while your children are little affects them as adults and informs many of their choices later in life.  It's hard to fit in another family celebration in between all the meetings and soccer games and dance lessons, I know, but trust me when I say that you will not be sorry in the long run.

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6

What's in a Name Day, indeed!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

More about Time, Habits and Procrastination.

This is Saturday, my day off. I have no work to do, but I do have lots of housework that needs doing, as well as knitting and iconography. Instead of doing anything useful, I'm on my computer, playing on Facebook. Facebook, all social media, really, has become a time sucking habit for me, another way of procrastinating.

I know that procrastinating is a sign of a deeper issue - psychologically speaking, I procrastinate for several possible, rather passive-aggressive, reasons: I don't want, or fear, to do something, so I do something else instead.  I value my short term pleasure more than my long term goal achievement. I fear failure, so I don't even begin.  When procrastination becomes a habit, a veritable way of life, then there must be a deeper reason why I have to drag myself kicking and screaming to do some very basic chores, or to get ready for work.  As I turn this over in my mind, I wonder if this is the scenario: I procrastinate on doing chores because a well kept house would clear my mind.  Part of the clutter in my house resides in my brain as clutter. If my brain was free, then I'd have to consider why I procrastinate about doing the more soul satisfying things, like painting icons, reading, and praying.

That's it!  That is the underlying issue - iconography.

My teacher, Marek, has a student who made tee shirts which says, "Iconography is Hard Work!" and it's true.  It is actually physically difficult and at the end of a long day of painting, there are knotted neck and shoulder muscles, and physical exhaustion. It is also mentally and emotionally hard work, with the intense focus needed. That focus cannot be maintained when there are many undone tasks nagging at your consciousness.

But it is the spiritual work of iconography that is hardest of all.  When painting, or writing, if you will, an icon, the iconographer meets that saint in a very intimate way.  You are confronted with holiness which inspires and also convicts. A completed icon is often called a window to heaven, a way of piercing that veil between the seen and unseen, between this world and the next.  To this iconographer, though, an icon in progress is more of a mirror, forcing me to confront my own sinfulness and inadequacies.  My interior life, the lies I tell myself, are reflected back to me on the board, and I have no choice but to deal with them.  It is so much more than a method of painting. It forces me to look upon that which is the eternal good, and I'm convicted. In the board and the slow reveal of the saint, I am also revealed.  It is a mirror and I look upon myself, my true self, with every wart that I usually convince myself is not really there.

Iconography is, indeed, hard work, and I've put it off for too long.  Forget the housework.  I'm spending this afternoon letting an icon in progress teach me something about myself, even if it hurts.

Friday, April 10, 2015

When Time Stands Still

Today is Holy Friday in the Orthodox Church. Christ's passion has begun, and he is hanging on the cross, or tree, as we sing. At 3pm, we will begin the solemn vespers where he will be taken from the cross and entombed.  Tonight, we will sing lamentations at his tomb.  The curtain of temple is rent in two, the earth quakes.  We sing all these things in the present tense.  We do not not think of our worship as a cultural memory, or something we do as a remembrance, we participate with Christ in his voluntary passion.  We suffer with him, we are the wise thief on his right hand, we enter the tomb with him, all in the hope that we will enter the Resurrection with him.  The Orthodox idea of time is not linear.  It's more like dropping a pebble into a pond - all the circles at once, never ending circles, but still. Time stands still, and at the same time, it rushes all around - all of it, at the same time.  It's a mystery.

Another Great Lent has ended.  Another Holy Week - my 17th as choir director here. I look back on other Great Lents - how many has it been? 39, I think.... since 1976 when I began this Orthodox journey. Last Sunday was my 39th Palm Sunday and tomorrow night will be my 39th Pascha.  Has this journey changed me at all?  39 years is a long time - enough time to have rubbed some of my rough places smooth, enough time to have grown a tiny bit in wisdom, in love, in charity.  Enough time to have let go of one or two ugly things and grasped a firm hold of the beautiful.  Not enough time to have become who I was created to be. Not enough time to reach that point where I can see God in every person.  Not enough time run joyfully forward towards my creator.  Not enough time to understand the inner workings and belchings of my heart. Not enough time to learn self discipline in my prayer life. Not enough time to move from judging others and judging only myself.

I will be 60 on my next birthday. I guess I'm a grown up now. I've buried both my parents and my husband. I live far from my daughter and we have developed a healthy separation as well as a healthy need for each other.  It is not a dysfunctional relationship any longer and I'm grateful. I live far from all my family, and although I miss them, and miss my parents most of all. I am on a high trapeze without a net, without anyone else to rely on, other than myself.  And that is the crux of the problem.

Time has stood still and I take stock. I find myself curiously dispassionate about myself and my greatest sin - that of holding fast to myself.  If both of my hands are full of me, how can I grasp that hand that is outstretched toward me?  How can I grasp that hand outstretched on the Cross?  I don't know how to let go of myself.

That's what I'll pray for today, as we sing the mesmerizing Noble Joseph.