Better Things Ahead

(Note: This post is published on this date intentionally. It was on this day in 1963 that C.S. Lewis departed this life in the hope of life eternal. May his memory be eternal.) 

It’s no secret to those who know me well that I love words. I have a Favorite Quotes board on Pinterest that is full of quotations and thoughts that I love. As I was looking over it recently, I realized that I have pinned one quote from C.S. Lewis several times. “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

Now, I love C.S. Lewis. That’s a known fact. I have many quotes from him on that Pinterest board. But clearly this quotation speaks to me at a deeper level. The quote is from Letters to an American Lady, and it is not meant to be optimistic about the future or a platitude for a graduation speech. Rather, it looks at and towards eternal life.

When I first realized that I had pinned this quotation at least three times, I was surprised. Yes, the quote is prettily formatted each time, but why did it keep popping up in my life? Why did I keep being encouraged and inspired by the same quotation? Yes, it’s from one of my favorite authors. Yes, the formatting is lovely. But why did the idea of better things ahead (in heaven) speak so strongly to me?

Some of it has to do with certain things that I’ve faced over the past few years. On difficult days, it is encouraging to look at this quote and remember that when we’ve shrugged off these mortal coils we will be in a place that is infinitely better. It’s also just a refreshing thought. When I’m slogging through a hard day, it’s nice to look at that quotation and realize that life won’t always be like this. Better days will come, and one day, a better place will come.

It’s also encouraging because it’s a very Biblical idea. This idea of better things ahead is something that the Lord has promised us.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.

-Revelations 21: 2-7

Let me repeat my favorite piece of that. Behold, I am making all things new. When we get to the other side, all things will be made new. No more death, no more mourning or crying or pain-we can’t escape those things in this life. They’re part of life in this world. But when we enter eternal life, the former things will have passed away. In the new Jerusalem, we will have far better things than we could have ever imagined. And it will be so good.

But until that day, we live in hope. We live with our eyes fixed on what is to come.

Finding Focus

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to choose a focus for liturgical seasons such as the Fast of Philip (also known as Advent) and Great and Holy Lent. I usually start thinking and praying about a theme a week or two in advance, and if I’m lucky, I’ll stumble upon The Right One the day before the season begins.

This year, I knew that I wanted to work on incorporating Eastern Christian spirituality into my life more and more. To that end, this will be my first Fast of Philip incorporating Fr. Thomas Hopko’s The Winter Pascha into my morning prayer time. The book has forty short meditations-one for each day of the Fast. I purchased an icon of The Root of Jesse to give me a visible reminder of those who have come before me (and before the earthly life of Christ) in faith. (To be fair, I’m working on acquiring icons for all of the major feasts/seasons of the Church. It’s slow going.) All of this prep was done at least two weeks in advance of the impending fast.

But I also knew that I wanted a quotation or a verse from Scripture to pray through during the Fast. I ended up finding two things that really resonated with me.

The first is the chorus from a song that my parish sings on the Sundays of the Fast of Philip:

He shall be born unto us,

And God will be with us.

And we will find him in the cave at Bethlehem.

He shall be born unto us. This (Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth) isn’t just something that happened a long time ago. This is something that can happen here and now. If we open our hearts and allow ourselves to be taken to the cave at Bethlehem, God will be born into our hearts, into our lives. That’s an area where I want to grow during this season. I want to grow closer to God, and looking at his humility is a way for me to work on that.

The second quote is from Lady Julian of Norwich, and I think that it nicely continues the theme of the previous quote.

God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me.

This is something that I’ve been praying through lately. I’m struggling through the idea that I fixate on “needing” things that I don’t need. I just need Jesus. I don’t need money or success or more yarn or a husband or all of the coffee in the world. I just need Jesus.

Scratch that. I need Jesus and more yarn. Shut up.

Okay, I don’t need more yarn. I want more yarn. All that I need is Jesus. He can meet all of my needs and wants. If it is his will, he will provide the rest. He is enough for me. That’s a fact that I know in my head, and I want to spend this season leading up to Christmas focusing on my only true need being a need for Jesus. My hope is that doing this will help me to grow closer to him and bring him into my heart more fully come Christmas and throughout the rest of my life.

(Dear Jesus, all that I want for Christmas is more yarn, all of the coffee in the world, and for you to be born in my heart. A pony would be nice, but all that I really need is you. Please complete me. And send coffee.)

But really, what do I really need to work on during this season of preparation for the Winter Pascha? I need more Jesus. I need to allow him into my heart and my life in a further and deeper way. I need to allow him to be born not only in the cave of Bethlehem but also in my heart. I need to depend only on him for my sustenance. He will provide all that I need.

Love.

I was unhappy when I awoke this morning. I probably would have been unhappy with either presidential candidate’s election, but the fact remains that I was unhappy. I went on Facebook prepared to post the following status: “Anybody know any good Byzantine Catholic men in Canada who’d like to marry a nice but stubborn American Byzantine Catholic lady? I like Canada.”

Then I looked at my “On This Day” feed. Apparently, on this day six years ago, I had posted one of my favorite quotes from St. John of the Cross. “In the evening of our lives, we will be judged on our love.”

I felt convicted by my twenty-two year old self. I’ll be judged on my love. I will be judged on how well I love others. In fact, realistically speaking, I’m always being judged by others (and by God) on how I treat other people. I need to treat others with love, with respect, and with kindness in all that I do. If I agree with them or disagree with them, I need to respect them. I need to love them.

There’s too much anger, too much fear in our world today. My nation is very divided, and that concerns me. But I insist on believing that people are worth loving. I may not always like them or understand them. But people are still inherently good even if they’re not always well-behaved. They deserve to be loved and to be respected. I don’t have to like everyone or agree with everyone. But I do need to love them.

Ultimately, my life isn’t judged by how other people treat me. God won’t say to me “Well, it’s okay that you were mean to those people because they were mean to your first.” He’s going to remind me that he called me to love others as he loved me, to treat others the way that I want to be treated. That’s true for all of us. We need to love always because ultimately that’s where the true measure of our lives is found.

Let’s live well. Let’s be respectful of others. Let’s love one another and show ourselves to be the best possible version of ourselves.

But if you know any good Byzantine Catholic men in Canada who are in search of a nice Byzantine Catholic woman, send them my way. You can tell them that I like Canada, but please just warn them that I’m really stubborn.

He asked me my name

In the Eastern Catholic Church, the Eucharist is distributed with both species together. The priest or deacon places the Lord’s Body and Blood in the recipient’s mouth saying “The servant/handmaid of God, [Name], receives the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting, Amen.”

I’ve grown up with this. At my home parish, I’ve always heard my own name. When I’m a guest, I usually just get “The handmaid of God receives…” because most priests that I’ve encountered don’t ask guests their names. My deacon dad always asks guests at our parish their names, and I always thought this a bit odd because no one else seems to do it. As someone who was used to being an anonymous guest, I didn’t see the point in asking the name. I had gotten used to anonymity.

Then I recently was a guest at a parish where there were many guests and several guest priests, and the priests were asking the name of each recipient. You went up to the priest, whispered your name, and he included that in the prayer of distribution. It didn’t take but an extra few seconds, and it touched me. I attended two liturgies at this parish, and two different priests each did this. I walked up, I whispered “Cecilia” softly, and they said “The handmaid of God, Cecilia, receives…” I was deeply touched by this.

Initially, I couldn’t figure out why I was so struck by this. Why did it mean so much to me that two priests I’d never known and I’ll probably never meet again in this life asked me my name? The answer is simple: It gave me a sense of belonging. I felt welcome and wanted. I wasn’t an anonymous guest. I was a wanted and welcomed guest. Those priests will probably never remember that they gave the Eucharist to a dark-haired young woman named Cecilia, but I will remember that they asked me my name. I will remember that they made me a named guest rather than an anonymous guest at the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord calls us to welcome the stranger. He asks us to receive all guests in His name. That’s what this gesture was. That was a simple gesture, but it was a welcoming one. It was a gentle voice saying, “You are wanted here.”

It is easy to find and stay in our comfort zones. It’s easy to overlook the guests or strangers in our churches. It’s easy to assume that someone else will welcome the guests. But that’s not what Christ asks of us. Christ asks us to step out of our safe boat and engage the world around us.

I’ve slid in and out of countless churches unnoticed over the years. I may not be planning to join a parish that I visit while on vacation, but it’s always nice to have someone come up to me and welcome me, to help me find pew books and such. When I studied in Spain, I attended the same church almost every Sunday for three months. No one from the parish ever spoke to me. I nodded and smiled at an older gentlemen who sat near where I always sat. But no one ever engaged me in conversation. No one ever even learned my name.

I’ve been struck by a desire to change that for people who visit my church. I’m only one person, but the world is made up of many people who are “only one person.” I think that we all need to work in our own way to stop letting people slide out of our churches unnoticed. Let’s learn names. Let’s offer hospitality. Let’s offer friendship. Let’s strive to offer a home and a welcome to all those who enter our churches. Let’s offer the loving hand of Christ to all those we meet.

Let’s welcome every person who walks into our churches in the same way that we’d welcome Jesus if he was a guest in our churches.

Heaven on Earth

There’s a famous story among Eastern Christians that says that Prince Vladimir/Volodimir of Kievan Rus sent emissaries to Constantinople who visited the Hagia Sophia. When they returned they told the Prince that during the Liturgy they knew not whether they were in Heaven or on earth. The story says that this helped to bring Christianity to Kievan Rus; it also in part explains why the Eastern Churches at times call our Liturgy “Heaven on Earth.”

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I had a heaven on earth moment about a week ago. I had the opportunity to attend the consecration of the new temple of St. Elias the Prophet Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Brampton, Ontario. Twenty-one years ago, I attended the consecration of the first temple at the age of seven, and I don’t remember much of it. Sadly, that building burned down two and a half years ago. So when the opportunity arose to attend the consecration of the new temple, I leaped at it.

It wasn’t really convenient for me. I was tired, and I wouldn’t get much time to rest/sleep in during the weekend. I was stressed, and I wouldn’t get much introvert time during the trip. It was a several hour drive each way. I’d been out of town the weekend before, and I didn’t particularly fancy packing up my suitcase for another weekend trip. There were many reasons to not want to go. But I knew that in spite of all that I would regret it if I didn’t go. I knew that I needed to be there. As someone recently told me, we need to be where God is, and I knew that God was going to be there.

The weekend didn’t disappoint. The church is beautiful, and the Church is beautiful. I’ve heard it said before that the Church is not the buildings but the people. This weekend was a hope-filled reminder of that truth. The building is beautiful, and it will be made more beautiful as more icons are added to the space. (Icons are awesome; I love icons.) But the people of God are more beautiful because in us dwells the Holy Spirit. In his homily, Patriarch Sviatoslav said, “When the church was not yet consecrated, only YOU were living temples of the Holy Spirit. It was like I was facing God, one in the Holy Trinity, who lives in your hearts, in your souls. And because of you, because you are a living temple of the Holy Spirit, of our invisible and powerful God, this visible temple was today reconsecrated.”

It was so true. God was there. He was present in His people. His Holy Spirit was present. He was present through the Eucharist. He was there, and he acted. The church was packed to the gills. I couldn’t see much of what was happening. But it didn’t matter because I was able to hear and to experience it. I heard the beautiful singing. I heard the Rite of Consecration. I heard the Lord being praised by his people. (And I participated as best as I could.) And I did not know if I was in heaven or on earth.

Throughout the weekend, I heard reminders of God’s love for his people. I was reminded of the beautiful gift that the Lord gives us in the Ever Virgin Mary. He has given us His mother as our protector. I was reminded of the hope that our Lord offers us. The church building itself is a reminder of that. It is a reminder of how God provides for His people, how He hears their prayers and answers them. He does not abandon us. He mourns when we mourn, and he rejoices with us in our joy. He wants to draw us to Himself; he wants to bring us to a deeper experience of His love for us.

I was particularly struck by a comment that the parish priest made during Vespers on Saturday evening. He said that “God wants to celebrate with us. In moments like this, he dances with us.”  God wants to share in our joy. It was a reminder of the personal nature of God’s love. For me, that was the theme of the weekend. It was an experience of God’s embrace, of God’s love for us. God offers us hope and joy. He wants to know us and love us in deeper ways. We need to be open to His love. We need to allow Him to know us and to strive to know Him.

The weekend was an experience of heaven on earth. It was a reminder of how God loves His people, how He provides for us. I’m not a member of the parish, but I was still welcomed into their joy. I was able to partake of their joy, to share in it. I felt like I was able to take some of that joy and that hope with me when I came home. Now I want to bring that joy and that hope to my own life and to my own parish.

Book Review: For the Life of the World

The man above died five years before I was born, and until recently his primary influence on my life came in the form of books that my dad owned but I never touched and in the voice of his son-in-law, the soundtrack to any long car ride with my dad.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann was an Orthodox priest, a writer, and a professor. He is probably best known for serving as Dean of St. Vladimir Orthodox Theological Seminary-best known as St. Vlad’s. Additionally, he is known for his 1963 work, For the Life of the World. (SVS Link) It is that book that brings me to write this post.

This post isn’t a true book review. Rather, this is me telling commanding you to read this book. For the Life of the World discusses approaching living in the world through the Liturgy of the Eastern Church. He draws out the flaws that the Eastern viewpoint finds in both the Western Christian approach and the secular approach to the world. He then answers these flaws and offers the Eastern response to these flaws. The East views the world through the Sacraments. He explains in detail how the Eastern Churches approach life, living, and dying.

Reading this was an incredibly moving experience for me. As I read, I took extensive notes in my prayer journal and began attempting to better incorporate the philosophy presented into my daily life, into my prayer life, and especially into my liturgical experience. Time and again, I was struck by the relevance of a 53-year-old book to my life in 2016.

In an odd way, I find that the “Ancient Faith” speaks well to the 21st century. The Ancient Faith has not changed much in the past 2,000 years, but in that it has a great deal to offer to the 21st century. Fr. Schmemann may not be able to give me point-by-point directions for how to live in the modern epoch, but he does offer me a change in viewpoint. The Eastern viewpoint may be ancient. It may not have changed much in 2,000 years. But then, human nature hasn’t really changed much in that time either. Fr. Schmemann looks at that idea and reminds us that the Sacraments are given to us to transform us, to bring us into heaven, into the Presence of and the life of the Life of the World.

If I had to summarize the themes of this book in two words they would be transformation and joy.

As I said, it is completely worthwhile. So read it. Now.

“A Christian is the one who, wherever s/he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And this joy transforms all his/her human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his/her mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the Life of the world.”

Amazon

St. Vlad’s Press

Ecumenism is Uncomfortable.

A few months ago, I wrote about ecumenism as a hard call. I talked about a few of the difficulties of living with the reality of Christ’s broken Body.

Recently, I’ve found myself confronting a very specific aspect of the lack of Christian unity. It might sound petty. It might sound odd. But for me it is something that I run up against on a near daily basis.

Ecumenism is uncomfortable. 

I really started confronting this in myself a few months ago. One of my dearest friends was getting married, and I was to stand up in her wedding. She and her now-husband are Roman Catholic; I’m Byzantine Catholic. They are devout Catholics who I know to have strong prayer lives, strong relationships with Jesus. I was happy that they were marrying.

But as the wedding drew closer, I had to confront something about the wedding liturgy and (more so) about myself. A few people had tried to condole with me about the difficulties of being a happy bridesmaid while feeling hopelessly single. But the reality was that I wasn’t jealous of my friend’s big day. Now, much of that is due to my love of her, but a bit of it also has to do with the fact that I do not want the wedding that she had. I want a traditional Byzantine wedding, and that isn’t what my friend had. Her wedding came and went; it was a beautiful celebration of the couple’s love for the Lord and for one another. But it was also a wedding that made me uncomfortable.

The wedding was very Western as is meet and just. They are Roman Catholics. It made sense that their wedding would reflect their faith tradition. And that meant that it didn’t look like my tradition. They took vows. They knelt. Guys, I had to kneel during the wedding liturgy. I was uncomfortable. As an Eastern Christian, I don’t kneel during liturgies. I love that my faith tradition allows me to make a profound bow during the consecration. Kneeling is a sign of humility, and I don’t object to it. But it is not my tradition.

I wasn’t in my tradition. I wasn’t in my “home space,” but rather I was a guest in my friends’ tradition. And we all know that the old saying says, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So I chose love. I did something that made me uncomfortable. I don’t love kneeling during a liturgy, but that is Roman tradition. Our liturgies are different, and some of those differences can make me a little uncomfortable. I’m sure that my friends feel the same way in my church. It’s okay to be uncomfortable or to not understand a friend’s tradition.

Ecumenism calls us to love and respect our Christian brothers regardless of their traditions. This doesn’t meant that we live our shared lives boiled down to the common denominator(s). It means that we love one another actively. It means that we embrace what we share. We have a common Eucharist? Great, let’s celebrate that. We have a common Easter? Let’s find a way to celebrate together. We both really love St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians? Let’s talk about that.

Ecumenism also means that we need to learn about our differences and accept them. We can’t just shove them under the rug and pretend that they aren’t there. We need to work through them. Every now and again, I have very selfish moments in which I think that it would be better if I never married because none of my (maybe-possibly-someday) bridesmaids will be Eastern Christians and thereby will have no clue how to participate in my wedding liturgy. If I don’t marry, none of us will have to deal with awkward details like proper reception of the Eucharist or why there are no vows or whether to bow or genuflect. If I don’t get married, everyone will be spared a whole host of uncomfortable moments arising from ecumenical differences.

But at the same time, isn’t it important for us to see our differences? If we see them, then we can discuss them. We can talk about why there aren’t vows in the Byzantine wedding service and why they exist in the Roman service. We can talk about the differences between kneeling and standing during the consecration, the differences between bowing and genuflecting. These discussions can provide deeper understanding both of one’s own faith tradition and of those of friends. We can learn from one another and grow closer to unity through those moments.

The Lord calls us to unity. He does not call us to be a batch of perfect cookie-cutter Christians. On the eve of his Sacrifice, he did not pray that we would all be exactly the same. He prayed, rather, that we would be one as the Trinity is one. Each member of the Trinity is unique, and so we are called not to a unity of sameness but to a unity of diversity. This is hard. This requires being uncomfortable. But if we do this, then we can be a Church in whom the Father can rest well pleased.

So let’s embrace the uncomfortable, and let’s do it for love.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity!

It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Running down on the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
Running down on the edge of his garments.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the Lord commanded the blessing—
Life forevermore.

-Psalm 133