Monday, June 24, 2013

The Paradox of Bright Week and the Paschal Season

As the Paschal season comes to a close and Pentacost begins, I realize that this season of brightness came as a sort of paradox to me. In this season, we celebrate the Light of Life, God's victory over death. We end our season of relinquishment and fasting, replacing it with a celebration.

In past years, I have experienced this transition as most people do. I would celebrate my more varied diet, eating hamburgers and ice cream. But this year, things were different.

The difference, I think, is that because my teaching job has failed to provide any courses for me to teach, I had plenty of free time on my hands. Therefore, throughout Lent, as much as I could, I attended services. The first week of Great Lent started out with a week full of services, and ended with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. The end was approaching.

Holy Week entailed an even greater number of services, at least two per day. And because of my limited work, I was able to attend almost all of those. Hours upon hours of worship.

It was simply wonderful.

Never before had I experienced Holy Week like this. Before, it was all I could do to get to Great and Holy Saturday, or the Lamentations at the Tomb on Friday, to say nothing about the services earlier in the week. This year I experienced a Holy Week more stunningly profound than I had yet known. It may never again be feasible for me to attend so many Holy Week services, but I will not forget how incredibly moving it was to return to my parish each day, a couple of times a day, to enter and navigate this spiritual architecture.

Pascha came. We celebrated in the morning, and again in the afternoon. Greta and I returned home exhausted after the big Paschal feast, where she ate to her heart's content and was attended to by several children. On Bright Monday, I awoke early and attended Divine Liturgy again, eating leftovers from the day before and enjoying the company of those who were able to come in that day.

On Bright Tuesday, however, there were no services, and that's when I started to feel a little bit of sadness. After all of this struggle, after full immersion into my spiritual path, I felt a real sense of loss to not go to my church every day, to not see my priest and deacons and parish members, to not hear the beautiful hymns each day.

So, Bright Week seemed a little ... well, less bright. Yes, I was back to eating hamburgers and enjoying a bowl of ice cream. But that in exchange for what? I missed the intimacy of commemorating with the members of my parish the life of Christ and His conquest over Death by His own Death. I found that attending church that much deepened my life.

As the Paschal season continued, I certainly felt my schedule open, and the mood was definitely festive. Coffee hour included previously-forbidden delicacies; when Fr James called out "Christ is Risen!" in many languages, we joyfully shouted our answers back to him. But I was missing something.

Today was Pentacost in the Eastern Church, and today, after 50 days of celebration after Pascha - a 50 day celebration begun by the Jews after Pesach, or Passover - we finally knelt again in worship. At the end of our Divine Liturgy, we all knelt as Fr James recited prayers to each member of the Holy Trinity.

I think I really missed the kneeling. My knees didn't miss it. But my soul did. Not that I don't enjoy celebrations, because I do. But as I've explained earlier, my ideal spiritual life involves challenge. It involves getting me out of my comfort zone so that I can grow in my faith, and grow as a person.

There was an element of spiritual challenge that returned today. Today we remembered, in our bodies, what this journey is really about. It's about forgiveness - forgiving others and asking for forgiveness. It's about devotion without agenda. It's about humility. It's about remembering that the last of us will be first one day, and that we must all be servants to others, in some way.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

How I (with a little help) Created an Internal Combustion Engine in the Kitchen on Christmas Day without Killing Anyone; Or, How I Learned to Relax and Love Physics

(I came across this story, which I'd written for a cookbook my sister was creating, while searching through some old files. It never made it into the cookbook, although the recipes did. I can't imagine why my sister wouldn't want this story to get out.)

It was 1996 (I think). I inexplicably decided to try being a vegetarian that year, although I ate fish as well (so I was technically a pescatarian). My reasoning may have had to do with being healthier or losing weight. Mostly, though, I lived on macaroni and cheese, so it was not the healthy choice I'd intended it to be, nor did my waistline shrink. But I digress.

At Christmas that year, in order to try to not miss having turkey, I decided to cook salmon for the big family meal.

Anyone who's ever been to a Keenan Christmas Feast understands the level of happy chaos that exists in the hour before dinner is served to the salivating guests. But very few people really get to see the true bustling excitement in the Inner Sanctum (the kitchen). There occurs a dance, almost a ballet, of bodies and food moving through space. Potatoes are being beaten into submission, turkey carved into manageable pieces, vegetables removed from cooking pans, bread warming. It's just a flurry of food!

Shortly after the oven was vacated by the Great Bird, I slipped in the Fish, a large slab of salmon that had been marinating for 24 hours in a combination of Jack Daniels, teriyaki sauce, honey, and ginger. Back then, the ratio of JD to teriyaki was roughly 1:1, and the Fish was swimming in it. As it began to cook in its marinade, my eyes began to water with the burn of evaporating alcohol. We left the oven door slightly ajar, you see, so that the fumes could escape. This is what an exhaust fan is for.

Normally, this would not be a problem. Most of the Keenans know about The Marinade. My father, in his 36th year of sobriety, happily awaits the moment when the alcohol has evaporated completely, and we can feast upon the fish. But not this day. This day the Keenan household was full of the Unknowing, those guests who had not yet experienced the eye-stinging glory of how I prepare salmon.

So naturally, as one of them passed through the kitchen, he or she closed the oven door. You know, to be helpful.

The kind of alcohol present in spirits such as whiskey is ethanol. Ethanol is used also as a fuel in internal combustion engines. As I understand it, the way that works is that the fuel (alcohol) combines with an oxydizing agent like air, and the resultant high-pressure, high-temperature gasses expand throughout the combustion chamber to push up against part of the engine to move it.

So, when the ethanol in the whiskey mixed with the air in the oven (for kicks, let's call it a closed chamber), it released high-pressure, high-temperature gasses that pushed up against the only moveable part of that chamber.

The oven door.

Now, in internal combustion engines the gasses that are left over after the moveable part has been moved get shunted right out of the chamber through some sort of exhaust vent. In automobiles, this goes down a pipe which releases exhaust out of the back of the car. This allows the gasses to cool a little bit before meeting the outside air, so the gasses are released without too much drama.

In this case, however, the gasses expanded with great force (which is normal) and rapidly pushed the oven door all the way open. All this is pretty normal in an internal combustion engine. Where this deviated from most designs is that the open door was now also the exhaust port. When the super-heated exiting gasses mingled with the incoming air, the mixture of which made contact with the very hot oven element, we had just a little bit of an explosion.

The kind with fire. 

Leaping out of the oven door for a brief few seconds and then going out.

It is a testament to the angels which the Keenans keep exhaustively busy that no one was standing in front of the oven door when all this went down. A few of us were around to see the door explode open and the flames shoot out. What an exciting moment that was!

It was also one of the best salmon fillets I've ever made.

Who says physics isn't exciting?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Paragon of Animals

Yet again, we struggle with grief and pain. Yet again, we are suffering the consequences of someone else's overwhelming hatred. We reel in agony, and we grasp those we love with renewed fervor. Is this the best we can do? Is this the gutter into which humanity must continually fall?

In the last six months, we've seen things like this happen three times in the United States alone. That is not to mention the horrible news of gang rapes and suicides, of lives shattered beyond all comprehension, of veterans turned away from the help they need for their suffering because we are all tired of the war they've fought for us, of the elderly left bereft of care because of a frozen political system, of every reason for hope to crumble.

But in the midst of it all, there are other stories. Some of us look after our neighbors, or are grateful to have neighbors looking after us. We hear stories of support from unknown corners, stories of love from strangers, helping hands offered, embraces given, compassion abounding, solidarity offered even from across the globe.

Image found at Meghan Casey's Tumbler Feed

Eleven and a half years ago, when religious extremists crossed the line into madness, into sociopathology, an entire nation reeled and fought for balance. I was surfing a site called Beliefnet a few days later, and someone posed the question, "What inspiration or scripture is helping you get through this time?"

I was not Christian at the time, and I could not recall anything that had helped me that came from a religious context. What did help me then was a speech from a science fiction television show called Babylon 5 that aired in the late 1990s. The speech was written - in the context of the show - by a character who had been a freedom fighter and a political prisoner, someone who had endured torture and disfigurement, had been driven by rage through anguish, and come out on the side of compassion and love. G'Kar's story inspired me, and continues to inspire me today. And interestingly, I think his journey is pretty consistent with the values and struggles of the Orthodox faith that I now practice.

So here is what helped me then, and what continues to help me now. Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy on us all!

The text of the speech follows this clip from the episode "Paragon of Animals" from Season 5 of Babylon 5.

Declaration of Principles of the Interstellar Alliance

The Universe speaks in many languages
But only one voice.
The language is not Narn, or Human, or Centauri, or Gaim, or Minbari.

It speaks in the language of hope.
It speaks in the language of trust.
It speaks in the language of strength
And the language of compassion.
It is the language of the heart,
And the language of the soul.
But always it is the same voice.
It is the voice of our ancestors speaking through us,
And the voice of our inheritors waiting to be born.

It is the small, still voice that says, We are One.

No matter the blood
No matter the skin
No matter the world
No matter the star
We are One.

No matter the pain
No matter the darkness
No matter the loss
No matter the fear
We are One.

Here, gathered together in common cause, we agree to recognize this singular truth, and this singular rule: that we must be kind to one another.

Because each voice enriches us and ennobles us, and each voice lost diminishes us. We are the voice of the universe, the soul of creation, the fire that will light the way to a better future. We are One.

by J. Michael Straczynski

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Star Wars and the Call to Orthodoxy

Four and a half years ago, while my sister was in labor with my niece, during a lull in the conversation, my dad asked me, "How in the world did a free spirit like you end up in the Orthodox Church?" I told him that it was as big a mystery to me as to anyone else. When he asked that question, it had only been a year and a half since my Chrismation. I was living 350 miles away from the parish in which I was Chrismated, and was floundering around trying to find a new parish home. So much about Orthodoxy was mysterious to me.

And it still is. That's one of the things I love about it. Six and a half years after walking into an Orthodox church for the very first time, the mystery of the Church deepens even more. 

I have thought a lot about my journey to the Orthodox Church since my dad asked that question. For a while I used to think that my journey to the Church began with my departure from a non-denominational Protestant church when I was 18. 

But it struck me the other day that I was initially imprinted for the Orthodox Church when I was 10, and that imprint became stronger in my 13th year. 

Because those were the years that I saw my first Star Wars movies. 

Of course, I didn't know it at the time. Or rather, I didn't know that the impact I felt when viewing those films would lead me to the Ancient Church. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I first saw a trailer on television for Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, my first thought was that it looked a little stupid. I was ten years old, and all I remembered was the image of Luke Skywalker swinging over a chasm on a thin rope with Princess Leia in his arms. It seemed unrealistic to me. But after all my friends had gone to see it, I convinced my parents to drop me off at a movie theatre one afternoon, and I saw it in a packed theatre months after its initial release. I was riveted. It wasn't stupid at all! It was wonderful and exciting and it stirred something in me: a desire to find out who I really was, and to fulfill my destiny, which I thought surely was supposed to be heroic.

Three years later, I'd become a teenager, and Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back was released in theatres. I saw it. And then I saw it again. And again. And yet again. I saw it seven times in its original release in theatres. I cried every time Han Solo went into the carbon freezing chamber. I laughed when Han called Chewie a fuzzball, and I watched the bittersweet romance between an outlaw and a princess unfold. My best friend at the time developed a teenage crush on Harrison Ford. But my crush was different.

My crush was on Luke Skywalker. Not Mark Hamill, whom I knew was the very real actor who inhabited his character, who was married and seemed to be crazy in love with his wife. Rather, I was completely taken with Luke and his story. It is a story outlined in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the existence of which I knew nothing at the time. But his story, I knew in my heart, had something to do with me. It resonated in me in a way that I hadn't experienced before.

Some of my favorite scenes in that film took place on the planet Dagobah, where Luke underwent Jedi training. Ever since then, I looked for a spiritual path that would challenge me the way Luke's training challenged him, and would allow me to plumb spiritual depths in the way that Luke's Jedi training encouraged him to do.

My life in a non-denominational Protestant church began right around that time, and I began to attend youth camps. They were actually training camps for young evangelists, and I attended them with small hope in my heart that I would find something there as compelling and interesting as what Luke found on Dagobah.

I never did find it at those camps. I found indoctrination, but never a real sense of who I was in that milieu. I got a very good look at who they wanted me to be, though. And I usually felt like an outlier. Eventually, the evangelical Protestant environment proved to be too rigid, judgmental, and contradictory for me to stay with it.

But I continued my love for Star Wars. And when Return of the Jedi came out, I was once again fascinated. I was older now, and wasn't taken in by the Ewoks so much as the internal struggle Luke faced when the Emperor goaded him into lashing out at his own father, Darth Vader, who was also supposed to be his enemy. And although I smiled warmly when Leia went after Han to rescue him, nothing moved me in that film more than seeing Luke Skywalker realize that he was making a big mistake in fighting his father, turn off his lightsaber, and face the Emperor, his real enemy.

Tossing aside his weapon, Luke says, "I am a Jedi, like my father before me."

I got chills. Every time I saw that movie and watched that scene, I got chills. This was what I wanted. I wanted my lineage. I wanted that kind of spiritual depth. I wanted that level of challenge. I wanted to face my own adversary with that kind of confidence and defeat him by not fighting, defeat him with the strength of love and forgiveness.

For twenty-four years after the release of The Return of the Jedi, I looked for those qualities. I identified them as being religious and spiritual, and that the fighting skill was an expression of the desire to defend oneself and those we love against all kinds of adversaries, internal as well as external. I looked all over the place, seeking spiritual training that would be as challenging and meaningful as Jedi training.

Most often, I found people who were willing to train me, but who also were so very human and flawed. I met some really amazing people, who were walking their own difficult paths, who were really doing some intense spiritual work, and helping me along as well. But I also met people who were only interested in training me how to be their follower, which was disappointing. The path that was my imprint, the Jedi path of Luke Skywalker, was not a path of personalities, but a path of deep spiritual tradition, of introspection, of defending the weak and helping those in need, of compassion and forgiveness. This was the path I truly sought.

When I first walked into an Orthodox church, in Isla Vista, California, I felt something that I knew was powerful. I had been imprinted for twenty something years that I'd recognize real spiritual power when I saw it. And I did recognize it. I felt something very old and very deep in that Orthodox Church. The building itself was fairly new; this parish had used the building that had housed a different kind of church. But it wasn't the building that gave me that sense. It was the architecture of the service itself. It was a short Vespers service, but it spoke of something quite old. One could almost say that I felt in this place a real sense of The Force.

I knew I liked it, and it captured me from that very first service. But I had no idea just how deep this path would take me. The spiritual life of the Orthodox is not legalistic, but it is rigorous. It is a path that requires that we give our all, that we push ourselves to the very limits of our capacity - for forgiveness, for temperance, for love. And then it asks us to push just a little more, to extend the envelope. Because beyond that comfortable envelope of fear lies God, in all His mercy and grace. And if we keep pushing the envelope, then one day it will burst, and we'll be bathed in all of that.

It's hard. It's harder than anything I've ever done. But this is the path.

Being Orthodox every day is like being Luke Skywalker on Hoth. You know you feel something and your intuition tells you a lot. Maybe some days you can even make your lightsaber wiggle around from 3 feet away, when you're trapped in a Wampa's cave.

But Great Lent is like being dropped off on Dagobah, with only a snarky Artoo unit, a half submerged X-Wing snub fighter, and survival rations. It begins with a giant lesson in humility, just like Luke finding out that he was about to be schooled in a major way by a diminutive green non-human Jedi Master. We have to relearn how to live, how to eat, and how to navigate around this alien world. We do have the Holy Fathers to guide us, but we don't always understand what they're saying. And they perform wondrous, miraculous acts that we simply can't wrap our minds around.

And just as Yoda says, we have to unlearn what we have learned. We have to unlearn the world, and its worship of wealth and power. We have to unlearn the limitations of our capacity for kindness and mercy. It is these limitations, and our limitations in faith and love, that keep us from our own miracles. Who among us has faith enough to move a mountain...or an X-Wing?

During Great Lent, we are sometimes faced with the darkest parts of ourselves. We have to face our own Dark Sides. And when we leave Great Lent, we may not be completely finished with the journey. That's why we return year after Dagobah, for more training.

When we do leave, we come out to fight our spiritual battles, armed with the weapons of the spiritual life: prayer, fasting, love, humility. We fight our battles and we are wounded. We heal, maybe get a new robotic limb, train some more, and return to the battle. We help our friends and loved ones. We battle spiritual slavery and the hostile takeover of the galaxy by greed and hatred. And if we're very, very lucky, and if we have adhered to our training, we can look past our enemies' masks, and see them for the wounded human beings they are.

So thank you, George Lucas, for the spiritual life I have today, for opening a door to a world full of anguish, justice, love, mercy, discipline, and humility. Thank you for inspiring a sense of longing that brought me to the Orthodox Church, where I've worked harder than I ever have in my life, where I've undergone difficult and rigorous training, and where I feel the Force - the force of Divine Love and Mercy - all the time.

May the Force be with you.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Orthodoxy and the Single Girl

Image courtesy of

Lately, I've really been pondering my status as a single girl in the midst of several countercultural movements.

One counterculture in which I'm delightfully involved is geek/gamer culture. Granted, our outcast status has diminished with the advent of nerd chic and the popularity of video games and The Big Bang Theory, but I still think that tabletop RPGers (you know, those of us who play with polyhedrals, pencil and paper, and imagination) remain the outliers of this culture; that is to say, the people who play popular first-person shooters are a little embarrassed about us. Nevertheless, I fly the geek flag proudly, feeling a little flutter of giddiness during discussions of how Star Trek has helped shape our current and future technology (life imitating art), or at hearing references to saving throws or rolling for damage. And as a single girl in this culture, I feel rather daring and heroic, like a Paladin looking for my holy grail.

In another counterculture, I frequent late night gatherings, most of which are clean and sober, dancing myself into a euphoric frenzy to the rhythms and sounds of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Indigo Swing. In this counterculture, perhaps more than the others, it seems less unusual that I am single and able to share physical contact with another human being for three minutes, each of us moving in response to the other in this ecstatic language of sound and motion. Here there is no jealousy, only freedom to have that brief embodied conversation, a conversation that is playful, but not overly sexualized. This is a counterculture of heartbeats and nostalgia and joy set in motion.

And finally, I am in a religious counterculture, at least in terms of the American religious landscape. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I am part of a tiny minority among American Christians. And even within Eastern Orthodoxy, I feel like I'm in a tiny strange grey area because I'm a woman in her mid-40s who's never been married, even though I've always wanted to be. I felt strange when I first entered this particular counterculture six years ago, watching so many young people meet, fall in love, and marry, or seeing so many established couples who  had successfully withstood the difficulties of marriage, children, and time. My prayers had often centered around the desperate question of why I'd been denied these things. They still do, as a matter of fact.

Of these countercultural portions of my identity, I feel that being Orthodox is most important. It seems important that I not skimp on this one element. It's important because I've always, always wanted to be able to worship with my romantic partner, no matter what religion I was involved with at the time. Especially now, being involved with my Church and with religious activities usually is when I feel most at peace. It's exactly these times that I'd like to be able to share with a boyfriend (and later, a spouse). At the same time, that tiny percentage works against me. Of those already-small numbers of Orthodox in America, how many are single and in their 40s (without, of course, being a monastic)?

Among my options is missionary dating: dating someone in the hope they they'd become Orthodox. But that doesn't work either, does it? It's based on the fact that there's something very important missing from the relationship. It's based on the idea that someone is awesome except for this one very important thing, that they need to change in a very fundamental way in order to marry me. That doesn't quite seem right, either. I don't want to have a deeply involved relationship predicated on the idea that they'd have to change to see the relationship to the next level. Before I became Christian (and even for a while after my Chrismation), I didn't really get this part. I didn't really understand the importance until I experienced the conflict between myself, my faith, and my partner.

Of course, there's always monasticism, which is often viewed (in the Orthodox Church) as the other choice, the choice for someone who may not want to get married. But I'm not sure I'm well-suited to the monastic life (although it does have its attraction). I think at this time in my life, I like dogs and dancing and gaming and writing blogs too much. And I don't feel called to it like I feel called to marriage. Am I just being stubborn?

Recently, I was in a four month relationship; and it just ended. There were a few reasons for the breakup, but one big reason was his absolute refusal to even try to experience Orthodoxy. He fasted with me, although it was not for spiritual reasons. He would patiently listen to me talk about my day at Church; he even asked for a prayer rope. But he just wasn't willing to share the experience with me on a deeper level. The one thing I always wanted in a relationship, he just couldn't bring himself to do. It didn't seem like I was asking too much. It still doesn't.

As a result, I didn't go to Church as often (if at all) during the middle of the week. The peace that Church brings to me decreased in my life, and I became really grumpy. I felt like I was always divided between quality time with him, and quality time with the people and doing the activities that I loved. It became unbalanced. I became unbalanced. I began to realize, too, that Church helps me contain some of the demons that plague me the most: despair, anxiety, even loneliness. How can I feel lonely, surrounded by icons of the saints, knowing that there's a whole community in Heaven and on this earth who share my journey with me, and who pray for me? But when I was dating someone who didn't share my faith, and didn't even seem interested in it, the loneliness got even more pronounced. I'd look around at all the people I love in my parish, at all the icons of the saints whose lives inspire me, smell the incense and listen to the Divine Liturgy, and I'd wish more than anything that I'd be able to share this with the man I was dating.

I don't resent my former significant other's own spiritual leanings, and his own pursuit of spiritual peace. Far from it. What troubled me most was his insistence that the Christianity he'd known most of his life (and that had caused him so much distress) was the same as the Christianity that made me feel so peaceful. And it isn't. The Christianity in which he was raised, and which was the source of so much pain in his life, is far removed from the Christianity of the East, from the Ancient Church. It's debatable whether they can be called the same religion, the differences are so huge - not just in practice, but in theological basis. But he wouldn't know that unless he came to see for himself. Information is very different from experiential knowledge.

I realize, too, that he was contending with a convert's fervor. When I read about Orthodoxy, or experience a new layer of my faith (and there are endless layers!), I get a feeling like I've stumbled across a big secret that everyone should know about. It's the thrill of discovery, of finding a beautiful gem hidden away in a hole in the desert. I want to send up a flare to let everyone know where to find it. So, it hurt to have my significant other tell me that this gem is just another rock in the landscape, and that he has no interest in experiencing it. My treasure was seen as a flimsy piece of dust.

I know that my enthusiasm is better utilized in making my life a good example of Christian faith, and love for humanity, rather than sending up flares. My enthusiasm is better used in showing others by example why this gem is different. And although I tried that, I didn't seem to do a very good job, especially if I ended up relinquishing time with that gem.

And so I'm back to being single, as well as Orthodox, a geek, and a dancer in my 40s. I live in paradise, renting a room on five acres of beautiful land, in the company of good people and wonderful dogs. I live in a city that hosts both a major swing dance event and a major celebration of science fiction and fantasy popular culture. I have an amazing life, so amazing that I think I shouldn't have to work that hard to find someone who wants to be a part of it. This kind of sets me up as a quirkyalone, a term used to describe someone who wants partnership, who wants marriage, but who won't settle for something they won't be able to live with for long. In other words, I'd rather be single and wait for the right person - a person who will treasure all these different parts of me and want to experience them with me - than get married to meet social expectations, or out of loneliness.

So I wait - on God's timing, on me to grow a bit more, on everything to be right so that this little dream can come true. God hasn't let me down so far. He's the One Who brought me here, to this place, to this parish, so filled with love. I can wait a little while longer.

Image from

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Trying to Wrap My Brain Around Humility

I recently read a blog post (dated March 13, 2012) by Abbot Tryphon of All-Merciful Saviour Orthodox Christian Monastery on Vashon Island, Washington. In this post, Abbot Tryphon talked about self-esteem, and how, in our culture, this term has really just become another word for self-importance. It also appears to have become the antithesis of humility.

I agree with Abbot Tryphon that there are times when self-esteem becomes confused with self-importance and pride. But I think that this is indicative of our culture's complete inability to comprehend the spiritual dimensions of concepts like humility and pride. It's tough to make the distinction when people simply don't think beyond immediate satisfaction, when people think that "feel good about yourself" just means "feel good right now". 

The problem with that is that feeling good about oneself - that is, feeling like we've done the right thing, like we can look ourselves in the mirror without loathing, without hiding - can take time. It takes dedication, courage, strength and sacrifice. It takes hard decisions, and difficult paths. I think it also takes spiritual grounding. True self-esteem is not the easy way out, and I think that's where we miss the boat, as a culture. 

The easy way out is to see self-esteem as being wrapped up in our image to others, which is really pride. So let's call it that. Our culture teaches us pride, not true self-esteem. And it does this by marketing products that will make us pretty/handsome and ageless, chemicals to make us smell good (i.e., not like a human, but rather like a flower or a spice mill or a chemical dump), drugs that will make us slim by 3:00 tomorrow, and endless amounts of stuff that will make us the envy of all those around us who don't have all that incredible, unnecessary stuff. 

Then, when we inevitably age and our bodies change and we smell like a human first thing in the morning, this image gets shattered and we want to repair everything, make it like new again. But that's okay. Just turn on all those electronic things and you'll get bombarded with more advertisements for products that will keep you from feeling like you're actually living. And if you act now, we'll throw in this other thing that will break in  3 days at no extra cost.

Part of the cycle is that the generations that follow us are learning these lessons, and they're learning that you are only okay if, between the ages of 14 and 40, you perpetually look like you're 20 years old. They learn that they are only okay if they are always winning, and do not know defeat. They learn that they are only okay if they are doing everything right. I think that our culture knows this on an unconscious level, so we try to promote self-esteem by ensuring that no one ever loses, no one ever knows painful defeat, and no one ever really has to struggle to win. It's the easy way out, and it just doesn't last.

Now, in some circles, people are actually talking about self-esteem in the sense of being able to wake up in the morning and still feel good about yourself, despite smelling like a human and having bedhead and being shaped differently than the model who looks like she hasn't yet hit puberty (or, for men, shaped differently than, say, Hercules). Some people are still touting self-esteem, though, by encouraging the purchase of stuff - the right yoga mat, the right exercise video, the right meditation CD, the right book to read. "This is the one! This is the one thing you've been missing that will give you self-esteem! BUY IT!!!"


And of course, if you're not getting all that you want and more, it means that you are not doing it right. It means that you aren't enlightened enough; it means that you haven't grasped the magic formula and said the right thing so that *poof* it will appear before you, as if summoned from beyond.

But wait, that's still more pride, isn't it? I have the right yoga mat, so I'm awesome. I bought that CD and I'm so much more enlightened now. I got the stuff, and the stuff makes me better than I was. So why are people still sad?

What people do miss is humility. We've been taught that humility is self-loathing, and that it will ruin us, and cause us to be abused. In our grab for power, recognition, and love, we cannot possibly risk losing it by appearing humble, by self-deprecation and loathing. Right?

If humility is not self-loathing, then what is it?

The day after seeing Abbot Tryphon's post, I also saw this video.

This, I thought, this holds one of the keys to understanding humility. At least, I think it might. I think one of the keys to grasping this elusive idea is to understand our place in the Universe. And to realize that we are all connected.

The Buddhists use a Sanskrit term - PratÄ«tyasamutpāda - that means, in a literal sense, Dependent Co-origination. That's a really amazingly fancy way of saying interconnectness. We are all connected to one another.

Similarly, in the Orthodox Church, we cultivate humility by remembering that we are all connected to each other. Within the Church, we are connected by being in communion with one another. But even in the larger scheme of things, we are all connected by our humanity, and its need for Grace.

Who among us has not desired forgiveness from those we love? Who among us has not fallen short of expectations? Who among us has not fallen into despair, or soared in joyous abandon? Who among us has not felt the most basic emotions - fear, longing, rage, joy, and of course, love? We are bound by our common experiences of being human as we are by blood and erect bipedal locomotion.

And so I am connected to the homeless man, to the wealthy CEO, to the beautiful girl who fears she is ugly, to the man who resents his brother for being smart and funny, to all those who are struggling with fear, longing, rage, joy and love because I, too, struggle with these. I have made mistakes, and fallen short of Grace. I have run away from God and from the love He offered me in so many forms. How is it possible to try to be superior when I know that I have experienced all of this? Pride is the belief that we are separate from everyone else, and that we should be held above others because we are different from them. Humility (which comes from the term humilis (Latin) and is related to another Latin term, humus, which means "earth") is the recognition that every breathing, hoping, running, praying, playing, imagining, trembling, dancing, singing, innovating, crying, prostrating, laughing human is made of the same stardust as everyone else.

And not only that, but we are also connected to those stars out there. We are connected to the Universe in its entirety, to all of Creation, as we exchange atomic material with them each day.

I cannot say if this makes me feel small or big. It's neither. And it's both. Humility isn't about feeling superior or inferior. It's about knowing my place in the scheme of things. It's about understanding that someone else's crazy behavior is no more crazy than the environment that created it. It's about looking at ourselves and seeing not only the divine image of God, but also seeing the image of the lowliest among us.

What the Church has taught me is that the result of our humility, the natural outcome of realizing our interconnectedness, is Love. We can't truly love without it. And we cannot be in the presence of Divine Love without humility, without realizing that it extends out to all of us. Grace touches each of us, just as we are each made of the dust of distant stars. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Depth of Tradition

Any member of my family will tell you that I am not one to follow the crowd. I've always got to do something to challenge the status quo. Sometimes I'm subtle about it, but not always. Sometimes I'm a little over the top, like the time I showed up to a Christmas Eve service at my parents' evangelical Protestant church dressed in a beautiful silk sari (an Indian garment). This was the bridesmaid's outfit from a friend's wedding (she was an America Hindu), and I wore it on this occasion complete with silver headdress. My poor parents. They acted like they were happy to have me there anyway.

There's just something about me that wants to wake people up. It's so easy to be complacent in this world, which makes us miss out on so much (and I fully recognize that I am not exempt from this). People make decisions without too much thought, or they do things because they should, not because they're called to. Also, being a sociologist, I want to look at cultural expectations and see what happens when we defy these expectations, or step outside of them.

Sunday ended the second week of Great Lent. 

In so many ways, Lent challenges us to break with societal norms, to defy the expectations of our culture. We are expected to enter this debt economy, to pursue wealth (or at least the acquisition of stuff), to work ourselves to death. We are expected to find pleasure where we can, to win all our battles, and to get what we want as fast as we can.

It's so easy to be swept away in that tide. 

The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian is a wonderful reminder of how we should defy cultural norms during this time. It is also a reminder of the rewards of this defiance.

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.

During this prayer, we make three prostrations, one after each line, embodying the humility that allows us to challenge how we walk through the world.

As I reflect on this simple prayer, I realize it isn't so simple. The depth of its challenge is immense. Our challenges are laid out before us, and we prostrate in an effort to humble ourselves, to receive help to meet them.

O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

Emotional laziness and apathy (sloth), hopelessness (despair), a desire for control, an unwillingness to relent or to yield to another (lust of power), and our ever-present influx of sensory distraction (idle talk) surround us in our daily lives. Every one of them inhibits spiritual growth and communion with God, and every one of us has to deal with them.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

These are the gifts that I seek. I want to cherish my own body, sharing it only with the person who will commit himself to me fully. I want to stop fighting for power, and to recognize that I am just a small speck of dust in this universe, and while I carry the spark of God's divine image, I have to try to conduct myself in a way that lives up to that. I want to calmly face stillness and solitude, to rest in that place, so that I can hear God when He talks to me.

And I want to love.

As I mentioned last week, I do love - so deeply it threatens to overwhelm me at times - but I have a hard time receiving it. I know I put my guard up, and I can't imagine how that must hurt others sometimes. I want to knock those walls down. I've been working on it, but it's harder than I thought it would be. Fear is a tough habit to break. Sometimes those prostrations feel like my head banging against a brick wall.

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.

This is real psychological gold, because it addresses projection. We are so accustomed to projecting our worst onto other people, where we can revile it in relative safety. Being able to see our own transgressions, and by seeing them, truly see their consequences and origins, can help us to have compassion for others. If I have hurt others because I was lashing out in my own pain, then how much pain have those who have hurt me experienced? Do I have the courage to face my own projections? And do I have the courage to forgive?

As I prostrate after each of those lines, as I have every day for the last two weeks, I try to let the mystery of the prayer take over, not to overthink, but to simply let the power of word and movement work its magic in my soul. I can feel it happening; little by little, I can feel this simple prayer open me up in ways I no longer thought possible.