Conferences


 

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I will be presenting at the second annual Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting conference (as you can see in the list of attendees in the graphic above. More information as it develops, but if you’re interested in writing or podcasting about the Orthodox faith, or if you’re interested in meeting other Orthodox writers and podcasters (and bloggers), please consider registering (link above).

 

Be careful what you pray for.


We’re always told to be careful what we pray for, because we will get it. I’m here to tell you that is so amazingly true that it’s terrifying.

For the last little while, I’d been running across comments and sayings from the Fathers about how we need to understand how God is not this cozy little person who is our best buddy, who is cuddly and comfortable and human sized. He’s big and he’s dangerous and we should fear him as much as we love him. And I get it, in my head: the being who can create the entire universe, who is bigger than infinity, to whom a hurricane is a slight breeze – who creates the hurricanes and the earthquakes is not a God you want to mess with. As Lewis put it: he’s not a tame lion.

But I didn’t feel it in my heart. God, for me had always been the shelter from the storm, not the storm itself. He cradled me through terrible times, reminded me of His love in the bad times, and healed me in the most amazing ways during the good times. He is patient with me, always gently leading me back to the way I should be going, pointing out where I need to focus my energies and my repentance. And I know for sure I didn’t actually, in so many words, ask to be shown the God who is bigger than the universe, but I do remember wondering how I could feel that awe and that wonder.

My writing life, for the last several years, has been a mess. Nothing I’ve written for over six years has been accepted for publication, and anything new I’ve started (other than an Akathist I’ve been struggling with for five or six years) has been blocked. For nonfiction, I can’t find the sources or a coherent voice, for fiction I just can’t put the words down, for poetry, if I haven’t got someone pushing me, it doesn’t get done. I’ve lost my focus, my sense of where I’m going with my writing, what I’m supposed to be doing with it, and even what I’m supposed to be writing. And who cared about what I wrote (other than me) anyway? My words were so trite, so banal and so shallow, was there any point to keeping on? Whatever I had to say, others had said it better, deeper, funnier and far more eloquently than I had, or could.

So when I heard about an Orthodox writer’s conference, I thought – yeah, I’ll go. Maybe I can jump start something. Or at least meet all these people I’ve known on line for years and years. But that was a lie I told myself. What I was really doing was saying goodbye. I think I’d pretty much decided to quit writing even before Mel emailed me about the conference, but I wasn’t ready to admit it to myself, so I packed the Akathist on the grounds that, hey, it was a writing conference. I could write when I wasn’t networking.

I caught a red-eye from Vancouver to Chicago, at least that’s what my ticket said, but it wasn’t long after I arrived at O’Hare that I realized I wasn’t in Ohio anymore. Or Wisconson or Kansas. Somewhere along the way, I entered the Orthodox twilight zone. First thing was meeting someone at the bus station who was also attending the conference. She had the knowledge to point me in directions that would allow me to go back to a stalled book on my name saint and her brothers, and was more than willing to share. Thank you Summer!

The first words I heard on arriving at the retreat centre in Kansasville Wisconsin were words I desperately needed to hear. And they were said by someone whose writing I have admired and learned from for a number of years. Molly Maddex Sabourin looked at me, said, “Are you Bev. Cooke?” And when I nodded, she told me how much my writing had meant to her. I heard that message a number of times through the two days we were meeting.

The retreat centre is on 137 acres of farmland. It’s got a tiny forest on one side of the property. The wooded area has trails dotted with shrines to various saints. There’s a handy map so you can plan your walk. I’m a sucker for maps, so I picked one up. I took along the Akathist I was working on. It’s to the Theotokos and it follows her life, including, of course, most of the major events of Jesus’s life as well.

Like I said, I love maps. I’m good at reading them, and I’m a good navigator. Until our GPS replaced me (for which I still haven’t forgiven it), I got us wherever we were going, efficiently and mostly trouble-free. I certainly never put us into farmer’s fields, which the GPS does on a fairly regular basis, at least according to the maps in its memory.

Yet, this time, even before I entered the trails, I got lost. I could see the beginning and ends of the trail marked on the map, but could I find them in reality? Good luck! When I finally stumbled on what I thought was the trail (but wasn’t), I was even more confused. I’m still not sure how I got lost in a soybean field in full view of the main retreat lodge, but I managed it.

I finally run across the trail, and find myself at a small square building dedicated to St. Nectarios. Aha! Here I am! So the next shrine should be St. Haralumbos. I walk toward it and run straight into the Dormition of the Theotokos, which, according to the map is on the entire other side of the forest from where I think I am. Well, okay. I’ll write a kontakion here, since the Akathist is to the Theotokos and it seems fitting. Then, at every female saint I encounter I’ll write another section. Now where am I and where am I going? Oh, Saint’s Pantelemon and Parksevi are next. Except they aren’t. It’s St Nectarios again, but it isn’t a small building, it’s a covered icon, just like the other shrines I’ve seen. Which means I’m suddenly back on the side of the woods I thought I had originally been, except that I hadn’t, I’m over there. And now I’m over here, and I didn’t see the field along the path I was supposed to be walking along, so maybe I’m over there, instead? But wait. Where’s the little lake, that’s supposed to be here? and I have no idea where I really am, except I have some suspicion that it still isn’t Wisconsin.

I give up. I will wander, ending up wherever I end up. Eventually, I’ll come out. It might or might not be on the retreat property. It might or might not be in Wisconsin. And if it is, this is rural Wisconsin, not the wild interior of British Columbia. There are, as far as I know, no bears in farmland Wisconsin. What’s the worst that can happen?

God likes metaphors, I conclude as I realize that I am as lost in these woods as I am in the forest of my writing. So I hand it all over to Him: this walk in these woods, and my ramblings in the thickets of my work. I walk and write and walk some more. I visit Saint Catherine and St. Barbara. Write under the eye of both women. The words flow as they haven’t for over six years. I walk some more and scare up a doe, which is pure joy and my heart leaps with her. I visit St. George and he and I pray for my godson, and I decide it’s time to head back to the lodge, and check the map, where I notice the shrine to St. Emelia. I can’t miss her – she is the mother of my name saint and when I enter her shrine, I feel welcomed and honoured. She’s been waiting for me, and enfolds me in a spiritual embrace. I pray to her and write a bit with her.

But now I have to head back. I’m hot and tired. The sweat is rolling into my eyes and it stings and it rolls down my arms and onto my fingers and makes the pen slippery. I’m full up with this experience and want to put the Akathist away for a while and think about what has happened here.

Next along the path, I run across a shrine to Sts. Constantine and Helen. She is a woman – but he’s not. Should I write? Or not? I look at my outline. This kontakia is about the entry to Jerusalem, when Christ was greeted as a king. Do I have a choice? I write. The next shrine is the twelve apostles. The ikos is the Last Supper. I pray, I write and I’m not sure if the drops hitting the page are sweat or tears. I am being led, and if the metaphor holds, then in my writing life, I am being led as well. I need to trust.

Enough, God, I’ve had all I can take. I want to go back to reality and talk with my friends. I follow the path, check the map, turn down the arm of the trail that leads back to the lodge. Without, as far as I can see on the map, any more shrines. I don’t want any more. I’m shaking and raw and I’m perilously close to tears.

A few more steps and I see, off the path, a painting: white lamb on a set of shoulders. No. I can’t deal with you this way. I can’t take so direct an encounter. But I have no choice, do I? I handed the control over to you, so I have to stop here. The icon is the Good Shepherd.

But it’s not the Good Shepherd I meet. It’s a storm of love – a hurricane, a tsunami of love, that envelopes me and holds me fast. I sense behind this storm even more love, more powerful than what I am already experiencing. This is a love that can create universes, and I’m only sensing the very tip and tiniest portion of how big and powerful it is, and I start to cry. There’s so much love here that if I let myself cry as I need to, I will cry myself out of myself. I’ll be stripped to my essence – opened up right to the innermost core of who I am and laid bare for all the universe to see. And I can’t. It doesn’t matter that God knows this part of me already. I can’t let myself cry like that, I’m not ready to be laid that bare. I back away after a few moments and head back to the lodge and to a reality I can deal with.

But I know that even as I run from the power and the immensity of the love that is God, I’m still running to him – he’s the good shepherd and I’m his ewe and he will be waiting, back to a size that he knows I can deal with. But my view of him is forever changed – it’s tinged with awe at the majesty he allowed me to see and sense. I know that one day, I will be able to face that love, and allow him to open me to the very core of myself, and I know too that it will be in tiny steps that won’t destroy me, and I’ll revel in every step of it. And I will not, I cannot stop writing.

Waiting and Being


It’s Holy Week and Minou is dying. She is old, older than we had thought, and her kidneys are diseased. Other than alleviating her symptoms there is nothing we can do. There is no cure for this. So we hydrate her, feed her, pet her, cuddle her, love her, but under all the doing we’re waiting until the time is filled and she is no more.

Waiting and being.

The last time I felt this helpless was during the birth of my twin godchildren. Their mother had asked me to be at the birth, and I was glad to go. Yet I’ve never felt as useless, as helpless as I watched my friend slip into preeclampsia and hallucinate through the middle of her labour. The nurses and doctors did the things they did, and it turned out well, but all I could do was sit in a corner, frightened and angry at my inability to help, to act, to DO something to alleviate my friend’s pain. All I could do was be there. Be present, witness her suffering and wait until the babies were born.

Being and waiting.

All I can do is be there while she labours to give birth. All I can do is hold the small furry body while it dies. All I can do is ache while the hurt heals. All I can do is wait: for life, for healing, for death, for the end, for the beginning, for the other shoe to drop, for the disaster. All I can do is wait: for the wound to heal, the breach to close, the child within to grow, the seed to germinate, the season to change.

It’s Holy Week and it’s filled with doing, with action. We clean, we bake, we prepare the baskets, we attend church and try to cram in as much good Lenten behaviour as we can before it all ends and we’ve fallen flat on our faces again, but under all that busyness, all that acting and doing, we’re waiting.

Waiting and being.

We want to do, we need to act. Action is right and good and necessary. We do things, we act, we make, we unmake, we change something, anything, whatever needs changing, making or unmaking. But, as the wise man said, to everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven (Ecc. 3:3). There is a time to act and a time to simply be and let what happens happen. But simply being is anathema to us. There must be something we can do! We endure it, we barely tolerate simply waiting, simply being while things happen that we can do nothing about: while the baby is being born, while the grandfather dies, when the child’s heart is broken, while the breach between friends or spouse heals. We twitch and fuss, wanting to get in and DO something.

In these long, tiring and out of time services we wait. We stand while around us doing happens: the prayers are offered, the hymns are sung, scripture is chanted and we in our wounded, broken selves are open receptacles for God’s love and mercy. The priest works, the deacon and subdeacons work, the readers and the choir work. Our work is to be open and receptive to God and the services, to witness the doing and the acting, perhaps even to join the singing and the prayers, but primarily our work is just to be. Even in the presanctified communion we do nothing as Christ enters us and sanctifies us.

This isn’t passive. Even though we are being done to, being acted upon, it is not part of our fallen nature to just stand and be, to open ourselves to God and the saints and the angels. It requires great courage, our full attention and an amazing persistence. We are, in the services, active in being who we are: broken, weak and prodigal children of our Father.

It’s during this busy, grief filled week of waiting and being that I’m learning that it is in waiting, in simply having to BE that I can draw closer to God. Perhaps it is one of the ways to theosis – to being one with God, to, as Athanasius pointed out, become God. He is the great I AM. That’s what he told Moses to say, when He met him in the burning bush. “This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Ex. 3:14) It’s said at the end of our services, “Christ our God, the great I AM”. He is. He doesn’t act, he doesn’t change, he simply is and the universe exists. The bush burned without being consumed, but we, in our need to do and act and make burn up our leaves, our stems and roots until nothing is left but dead branches and ash.

I need to burn less and I AM more. I need in these moments to be still and know that He is God.

WORDS AND THEIR USE


I knew a woman whose husband died of cancer. It took him a long time, and he was very sick while the cancer consumed him. She nursed him through all of it – from the very first, scary moments of the symptoms, through the tests, the diagnosis, the treatments, the long, slow and agonizingly painful decline and death. She relied on us – her electronic women’s group, to vent to and wail with when things got to be too much. But once her husband had died and she’d buried him, she left her parish, brushing the dirt from her feet when she did.

She posted in our group, asking us to pray for her to find forgiveness and healing from the feelings she carried with her when she left her parish. During the four years of her husband’s illness and death, her church family had ignored her. They had done nothing, she said – they hadn’t asked how he was, why he was no longer in church, why her attendance was so sporadic, checked in on her during the week. They hadn’t offered to do anything to help, not even to pray for him or her. Nothing, nada, zero, zilch and zip. She was furious with them, and realized she needed to let the anger go and forgive them for their neglect and selfishness.

AND DID SHE ASK?

One of our members asked gently if, other than the priest, she had told anyone in the parish about the long and painful journey through her husband’s illness and death. “Well, I put him on the intervention list!” she replied. Other than his name appearing on the list, she hadn’t mentioned her struggles to the members of the parish. “I didn’t want to sound like I was complaining,” she said. “Or that I was weak and couldn’t handle it.” So, when they asked how things were, she would put the brave face on and say things were just fine, he was not doing well, but it was okay. She could handle it. And after it all, wondered why she had been so alone.

Strength. Courage. Resolve. Standing tall and unbowed against the winds of adversity. Our culture teaches us that we need to be those things. Our faith teaches us to be selfless – think about others, put others’ needs and issues before your own, take your troubles to God and He will minister to your every need.

It’s all good advice. We do need strength, courage and resolve to live our lives. To face the terminal cancer diagnosis and live through the hell of chemotherapy and radiation, to watch someone we love die. We need to think about others, to remember that submitting to God’s will is dying to self, and that we learn that lesson by living our lives and finding selflessness in our actions.

WORDS, WORDS, WORDS, I’M SO SICK OF WORDS

And we all know about the power of words – we read about them in the Bible, hear about them from the ambo, fill our minds with them constantly, they bombard our ears, both inner and outer, all day and all night long. We hear about how we shouldn’t use them as often as we do, to be sure our selflessness extends to our words, so that we don’t talk about ourselves interminably, don’t complain, keep our words behind the lips, don’t say anything hurtful, think twice and speak once – or better yet, don’t speak at all.

Except those ideals – be strong in adversity, and keeping the words behind our lips – can destroy us, our community and our faith if we misuse them, either by saying too much, or in my e-friend’s case, by saying far too little.

Silence, and letting God speak, keeping your complaints to yourself is good. None of us like the people who can’t seem to do anything but complain about how horrible things are. But like everything else in our Orthodox life, strength and silence need to be in balance with weakness and words. There are times to speak out, to ask for help, to allow yourself to show your “weakness” and not just because you need it. Because by doing so, you are actually being more selfless than by keeping the upper lip so stiff you starve to death.

AREN’T WE MISSING SOMETHING HERE?

If Jesus and the apostles and the saints say selflessness is the goal for which to strive, to minister to others, to put others’ needs before my wants, they aren’t just speaking to me personally. They’re telling all of us. We are all to do the same thing – we are all supposed to be thinking about each other instead of ourselves, to be putting our brothers and sisters ahead of our own selfishness. But if we’re all keeping the stiff upper lip and pretending things are just fine so that we can take care of each other – who is there to take care of? We’re all so busy running around looking for people to be selfless for that nobody admits to needing care!

When I’m hurting, when things get too much for me, asking someone for help, whether it’s a cup of coffee, a hug, a meal, or some help with an overwhelming task, it makes sense – secular, common and Christian, to ask for help. I get the help I need, so that I can keep going, but I also am giving someone else the opportunity to put their selfishness aside and act in accordance with God’s will by putting my needs first instead of themselves. If that person happens to be a member of my parish, then I’m doing even more than that. I’m building – we are building – community. By sharing our needs and gifts, by letting my strength bolster your weakness and by asking George to use his strength to help me, with my puny muscles, move those two flats of garden bricks, we’re building bonds and connections that make us more than a social club that breathes lovely scented air and takes a spoonful of bread & wine from a guy in shiny robes every week. We are becoming what God wants us to be: a family, a community and the Body of Christ.

                                           

This is part of a synchoblog that a number of Orthodox bloggers are posting on the subject of words and their uses. Check out some of the other bloggers:

Not just self-promotion!


Although yes, I do have an article up on the Pemptousia webzine. I ask if maybe Jefferson Bethke had a point in his video “Why I hate Religion but Love Jesus”. But more to the point, there’s another article on the site about suicide and assisted suicide, which is a topic I’m interested in – so if you are as well, take a look at it here.