Monthly Archives: January 2012

‘Till my eyes fall out or the school year ends

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As previously mentioned, I started a new job last week teaching twelfth grade history/civics. I’m coming in halfway through the school year and would prefer not to look *completely* ignorant in front of the kids, so I’m desperately trying to read all the material from their first trimester (and the first half of the second trimester). It turns out that the history of Boston is actually fascinating. Surprise! Seriously though, we don’t often talk about Boston after Revolutionary War, and it’s good stuff.

I have a giant reader compiled by the full time teacher, starting with a history of the Boston Brahmins (currently the wealthy philanthropist elite), followed by the arrival of the Irish. That takes us up to the 1900’s, when we get into race and ethnicity through the  1950’s (focusing on the West Indian immigration and changes in the Jewish community). This is followed by the busing crisis. Aaaand that’s Trimester 1. In Trimester 2, we’re discussing urban poverty, renewal, and “the ghetto”, which covers the 1960’s through late ’90s.. We’ll finish Trimester 2 with a unit on “Boston Today”, but I have no idea what that means yet, since I’ll be co-writing the material with the full time teacher (and I really really hope she doesn’t have the baby till we’re done). In Trimester 3, the kids will be writing their second major research paper and learning how to do a power point presentation. Whew!

So, what have I been reading? I finished a popular book by Sudhir Venkatesh called Gang Leader for a Day, a fascinating tale of a self-proclaimed rogue sociologist performing in-depth personal research on the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. We’re reading another book called Villa Victoria which is also fascinating, but was Mario Luis Small’s dissertation- very dry.

Once we’re done with that, I’ve got Streets of Hope, Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, and Don’t Shoot on the list. More to follow!

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On Absences

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So, I’ve been absent for a few days for a truly wonderful reason- I started a new job! I’m covering a maternity leave for  twelfth grade history and civics teacher at a small charter school. I’m completely thrilled to be working again. I’m slightly less thrilled at the amount of reading I have to do so the kiddies won’t realize I’m clueless. Hooray!

Being at a new job in a place I’ve worked before (plus the monumental breakup I went through a week and a half ago) has made me start thinking about where I really want to be in the next few years. I’ve toyed with the idea of becoming a high school teacher for real (and Teach for America would pay off my student loans…), but I just don’t see it happening. I’ve wanted to work for the church or in the theater for years, and those basic desires have never changed.

I’ve also been playing with the idea of moving somewhere else again. Possibly Australia, since they have an affordable twelve month work visa. Rumor has it their Orthodox community is amazing, and what would be better than beach and kangaroo country to mend a broken heart?

My friend Juliana and I had brunch last week at one of my favorite restaurants. She mentioned that she had been thinking about returning to Romania this summer, but thought it was ultimately better to stay at home and stick to one’s routine. Avid traveler that I am, this didn’t sit quite right, sparking a discussion. J. had been dissatisfied with her experience last summer, finding monastery hopping through the countryside shallow. I countered with the incredible experience I’d had at Solovki Monastery. Eventually we decided that religious tourism and pilgrimages differed according to the amount of preparation, knowledge, and reverence the traveler had for the site visited. Since J. knew nothing about the places she was visiting and stayed for a very short amount of time, it often felt like more of a sight-seeing expedition.  Since my group prepared by serving a moleben by the relics of a saint who had been imprisoned there **, learning the history of the place we were visiting, and realizing we all had a connection to the monastery in some way, our stay there was prayerful and transformative.

We also discussed regular tourism. Neither of us found short, impersonal sight seeing tours meaningful. However, when we traveled with friends or made friends during the trip, the experience took on far more significance. Taking  church experience out of the equation revealed that personal connections truly made travel special. (Keep in mind we’re both extroverts, but I’d argue this is true for everyone to a certain degree.)

Anyway, this whole conversation made me look more closely at my plan to take off again. Why did I hate living Hong Kong? Well, it was mostly because I was lonely. Even now I recall the friends I made at my church more fondly than any other aspect of my time there (followed by the scenery on my daily ferry ride to and from my island home- absolutely gorgeous). It follows that if I choose to move somewhere else, and want to be happy, I must do so carefully this time. I’ve never wanted to be a tourist- I guess have to learn to be pilgrim.

** Just to keep this in the realm of reading, I highly recommend Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father.  He has an amazing encounter with St. Hilarion Troitsky, who I just mentioned.

A few thoughts on Courage to Pray

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Just a few quick thoughts about the excerpt I posted from Courage to Pray. I like that passage so much that I really think it deserves to stand on its own, allowing you to have your own reaction separate from my muddled thoughts. But muddled or no, I decided to blog for a reason, so here goes.

Stillness is probably one of the hardest things in the world for me to achieve, both inside and out. A counselor I worked with taught me to take breaks to settle my thoughts and heart rate- breathe in for four seconds, out for six. Repeat for one minute. Then sit, quietly, clutching my hands, for one minute. The act of slowing down, breathing, focusing is horribly difficult when I’d much rather be puttering around my room, changing my clothes for the third time before work, allowing myself to be overwhelmed by the onslaught of daily tasks. I believe this is actually a temptation. When I become so flustered that I cannot keep silence, there is no space for trust, no space for faith, no space for God, only the surge of my egotism rising. I must fix everything. I must control everything. I am the only one who can do this.

Lies. Taking space, reflecting, breathing– these induce clarity. How much more clarity do we bring that silence into prayer? When we stop fighting, give into His love, allow Him to take control, even for two minutes?

I really should go home and make dinner. This may be a distraction too, but it is also true. I’ll leave you with one of my other favorite quotes from Courage to Pray:

When we know someone is there, keeping silence is listening.

Courage to Pray, Met. Anthony Bloom & Georges LeFabvre, pg.87

Excerpt from “Courage to Pray”

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The Search for Silence

We seek for silence in both a human and divine way. We must both seek it ourselves and hope for it as a gift. The human search is described for us in a remarkable in a remarkable manner in the medieval writings of Fr. Laurence on the Practice of the Presence of God. In a much humbler fashion, I should like to tell the story of an old woman who had prayed for many years without ever perceiving the presence of God but who finally found it in silence. Shortly after my ordination to the priesthood I was sent into an old people’s home to celebrate Christmas with them. A very old woman came to me. She told me that she had constantly recited the prayer of Jesus for many years but she had never been given the experience of the presence of God. Young as I was, I found a simple answer to her problem, ‘How can God get a word in edgewise if you never stop talking. Give him a chance. Keep quiet.’ ‘How can I do that?’ she said. I then gave her some advice which I have since given to others because it worked on that occasion. I advised her after breakfast to tidy her room and make it as pleasant as possible and sit down in a position where she could see the whole room, the window onto the garden, the icons with their little oil lamps. ‘When you have sat down, rest for a quarter of an hour in the presence of God, but take care not to pray. Be as quiet as you can and as you obviously can’t do nothing, knit before the Lord and tell me what happens.’ After a few days she came back happily. She had felt the presence of God. I asked her curiously what had happened. She said she had done exactly what I had suggested. She sat down and looked about her quietly and peacefully feeling she had the right to be inactive and not praying and for the first time in years, she said, she noticed that the room was pleasant and peaceful to be in. She looked at it and saw it for the first time. There was an encounter between her and the place she had lived in for many years without ever seeing. Then she became aware of the peace and silence round her, a peace and silence accentuated by the ticking of her clock and the clicking of her needles on the arms of her chair. Gradually this silence which had been outside her came within her and enveloped her. The silence took her out of herself into a richer silence which was not just the absence of noise but rich in itself and at its centre she found a presence. And when she felt this presence she was moved to pray but from the depths of this silence, not in floods of words and in a whirl of thoughts, but gently and quietly taking each word from the silence and offering it to God. Of its own accord her prayer had become the expression of her inner silence and part of the silence of God which she had felt. This is a method easy for everyone to try. It means of course contending with the whirl of thoughts, the heart’s hesitations, the body’s restlessness and the giddiness of the will., There are many exercises based on ascesis and psychology. But even without these, simply letting go of ourselves before God into the depth of silence we are capable of, will help us make great progress…

 

– Courage to Pray, Met. Anthony Bloom, pgs. 44-45

 

For real- Elder Anthony of Optina

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The Optina Elders have had a huge impact on Orthodox Christians in the 20th and 21st century. Strongly influenced by St. Paisius Velichkovsky,  Optina Monastery was responsible for a revival of hesychasm during the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Russia. It is probably most famous for its startzy, or divinely illumined spiritual fathers. These elders were beacons of light in pre-Revolutionary Russia, calling many to repentance before the disastrous ascendance of the Bolsheviks. Through the translation and publishing efforts of I.M. and Helen Kontzevich, Fr. Seraphim Rose, and the St. Herman of Alaska brotherhood, biographies of the elders written before the Revolution and compiled after brought the Optina tradition both to America and back to the Russian faithful. Since the Optina elders have such a special place in the hearts of American Orthodox, and the Russian Church Abroad has a particularly strong spiritual connection to them I knew I would read their biographies at some point. After recommendations from my brother and another friend, I decided now would be as good a time as any to start.

If you’re Orthodox and have developed affinity for any particular saint, you’ll know what I mean when I say I really like Elder Anthony Putilov. He is the younger brother and spiritual child of Elder Moses Putilov, founder of the Optina Skete. In the introduction to his biography, Fr. Herman tells us that he personifies the virtue of “wisdom derived from humility”. I had not planned to read Elder Anthony first (or did I have plans at all?). Fr Herman mentions in the introduction that he found himself bored by a book of Elder Anthony’s letters, finding them too well, meek. He was looking for action and found only a quiet voice. Where was St. Marina, hitting the devil with her hammer? When Fr. Herman later read Elder Anthony’s biography he realized that something had escaped him “simply because [he] had been ‘too loud’.” (Elder Anthony, p.17)

Not unlike Fr. Herman’s experience, I found the biography rather dull at first. The elder’s life was no adventure story, walking across glaciers to get to America. Rather, the book reflects the humble struggle of a true monastic.  Elder Anthony aspired to monasticism during his early life, eventually received permission from his family, endured many serious illnesses, carried the cross of abbotship, retired to Optina skete, cared for his spiritual children, and died a Christian death. Fr. Herman talks about his life as the “sound of silence”- true humility. Elder Anthony’s struggle was that of an “ordinary” Christian, a man who did not seek to exalt himself and from whom grace flowed (and still flows!) in abundance. Once I made it past the biography and into the letters/diary entries, I saw that flaw was in myself, rather than the work. The elder’s open admission of his shortcomings brought a few of my own to light in uncomfortable but necessary ways. Truly, who doesn’t feel comforted hearing that the saints also struggled daily? It reminds me that our faith is for us, people living here and now, and that salvation is possible even for we non-superhumans.

Enough of my pontificating. Here’s a passage on forgiveness from the 1823 diary Elder Anthony that particularly struck me.

December 13th

St. John Chrysostom said: “As fire is to gold, so is affliction for the soul, washing away defilement, making one pure, clear and radiant, this leads to the Kingdom.” For this reason too, Christ said In the world ye shall have tribulation (John 16:33) as something that brings one great good.

A thought came to me: the Saviour commanded us to forgive our brother his sins seventy times seven in a day; but you, wretched one, don’t even want to forgive him once.

Having confessed my grief at a brother to Batiushka, I was told: “We must bear nobly others’ infirmities of soul without grievance. Therefore if someone is ill in body, we not only do not become distressed at him, but moreover we serve him in every way. In such a manner one must address maladies of the soul.”

Elder Anthony of Optina, p.210

 

Elder Anthony, pray for us!

 

Sederholm, Fr. Clement. Elder Anthony of Optina. St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, CA, 1994

Spiritual reading and Elder Anthony of Optina

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Back in 2006, my atheist friend Mitch challenged my understanding of active spiritual life in a very simple way- he was appalled to hear that I’d never read the entire Bible. Fine. I claim to be a Christian, I probably should have some knowledge of our most important text. I read through the New Testament and found to my delight that I’d heard most of it aloud in church. Going back to the Old Testament, I found to my dismay that I was completely lost. So I continued reading the Bible sporadically in large chunks.

Fast-forward to sometime in 2009 or ’10, I realize that hey, I should probably be reading the Bible daily. Fine. I start reading a chapter of the New and Old Testaments daily. I up that to a chapter from an epistle, a chapter from the Gospel, an Old Testament chapter, and a couple of psalms each day. Obviously, this is completely unsustainable. It’s also tough to read all these chapters when they’re completely unrelated to each other. So you know what’s a lot easier than that? Doing the spiritual readings the church actually gives you for each day of the year. *Facepalm*

Well, she may be slow, but she learns eventually. I’ve tried doing my spiritual readings in the morning, at night, twice daily, with a journal, just NT, just OT, with commentary, without commentary etc. etc. etc. It was also important to me that I read works that would contribute to my understanding and leading a Christian life on a daily basis (Holy Fathers, contemporary Elders, lives of saints, etc.).

I think I’ve finally settled on something that works for me. I read the daily readings from my church calendar after morning prayers, so I can (hopefully) reflect on them during the day. After evening prayers I read one page (and ONLY one page) from whatever spiritual book I’m currently working on. Yes, this is slow going, but you have a much harder time blowing off your spiritual reading if it’s only one page. There’s also the tremendous benefit of being able to actually process what you’ve read, since Orthodox spiritual reading can be pretty hefty. If I feel like the thought’s not complete and I’m not too tired, then I’ll complete the chapter/letter/set of sayings I’m reading. For the most part though, I feel like my page-a-day method has been beneficial. This worked particularly well for St. Theophan’s The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It. It is also working pretty decently for the two books I’m currently working on, Courage to Pray and Elder Anthony of Optina.
Since this is already kind of a long post, I’m going to create a separate one for my quote from Elder Anthony of Optina.

Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims

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If you’re an Orthodox Christian living in America, you’ve probably heard of Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims. I just stumbled across them again on http://ohtasteandsee.blogspot.com/ and wanted to repost them here. My challenge to myself is to work on one or two at a time, throughout this year. Hopefully a few of them will stick…

55 Maxims
(2007)

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything
  2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day
  5. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray
  7. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days
  8. Practice silence, inner and outer
  9. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret
  11. Go to liturgical services regularly
  12. Go to confession and holy communion regularly
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person regularly
  15. Read the scriptures regularly
  16. Read good books, a little at a time
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints
  18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race
  19. Be polite with everyone, first of all family members
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby
  22. Exercise regularly
  23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time
  24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself
  25. Be faithful in little things
  26. Do your work, then forget it
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first
  28. Face reality
  29. Be grateful
  30. Be cheerful
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small
  32. Never bring attention to yourself
  33. Listen when people talk to you
  34. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary
  36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly
  37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance
  39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine
  40. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise
  41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself
  45. Be defined and bound by God, not people
  46. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully
  47. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty
  48. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for themselves
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice
  50. Be merciful with yourself and others
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy
  54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame