Time in the desert

Well, I can’t avoid talking about this Covid19 outbreak, especially since it has replaced the weather as the number one topic of choice. So here are a few thoughts.

As a confirmed introvert, I rejoice in the option of self-isolation. I no longer have to search for excuses to avoid social gatherings, now I can just humbly say, “For the good of the community and especially those with compromised immune systems, I will stay home,” and I am viewed as a community minded person and no longer as anti-social. I can now engage in my personal projects without having to worry about stopping because ‘now its time to go somewhere’. There’s no where to go, no people to see and lots of things to do at home! Finally, a government decreed world of introverts.

That’s the upside, the downside… I don’t get to go out when I want to. Even as an introvert, I like to occasionally eat out, go to a movie, see friends and, most importantly, attend Church.

And that for me is the biggest downside.

As a Christian, being part of the body of Christ means being a part of community. At our church, we have a potluck after every Sunday liturgy where everyone can sit and talk and share and enjoy each other’s company. During this season of Lent, we have mid-week services where we are refreshed for the battle of self-denial. We have book studies where seekers can learn about the faith and the faithful can share thoughts with one another. But because we’ve chosen to comply with the health guidelines, these extra services have been cancelled. Sunday liturgy has been curtailed until April and may be longer.

Normal no longer exists, at least for now. But that’s okay. I now have time to reassess what’s important in my life. Being in the relaxing presence of family and friends, talking, teasing laughing, these are things I enjoy. I can, to a certain extent, maintain those relationships with the use of technology but technology is limited. On the other hand, community festivals, sports activities, concerts had little impact on my life, so I won’t notice their absence.

But I regret not participating in the life of the Church especially during Lent, the journey to Pascha. I haven’t missed Holy Week or a Paschal service in 20 years of becoming Orthodox, in fact this Palm Sunday will be the 20th anniversary of my family becoming members of the Orthodox Church.

So what does this mean, is my journey through life, to achieving full humanity as Christ did, dependent upon my weekly attendance at church? The simple answer is ‘No’, though regular attendance at services with other members of the body certainly helps me on that journey.

It’s the difference between exercising by myself and exercising with like-minded people. When I set a goal, others can encourage, support and even work with me to achieve that goal. When I’m by myself, its so easy to fall back into bed or not to practise because there is no one checking up on me. If I am to succeed by myself, I have to have the intestinal fortitude to be disciplined in my daily exercise program.

Throughout history, Christians have experienced times when regular church attendance was impossible and yet they didn’t lose faith. In fact, many emerged with their faith stronger than ever. They did so because they had a personal active, vital prayer life, something I need now I can no longer attend services.

During Lent, the Orthodox Church honours St. Mary of Egypt. She was a woman who wasted her early life through self-gratification. When she finally repented, she spent the next 40 years, in the desert, by herself, praying to God for mercy. In all that time, she saw a priest twice and had the Eucharist once before she died. Yet she is considered a great saint for the discipline she imposed upon herself as she journeyed towards holiness.

St Mary is my example of self-discipline and my prayer book contains my exercise program. I will begin with Psalm 91.

Holy Mother Mary pray for us and may the Lord guide and strengthen us all during our time in the desert.

Christ Crucified

 I’ve often heard the phrase, ‘when life gets back to normal’. I’ve said it myself over the years. After a move, or some major change, I always had my eye on the time when everything would settle down and we could get back to normal. The thing is, nothing ever went back to ‘normal’. Instead we settled into a new normal, a new normal requiring a new direction and new goals.

Like most people, I was taught to set goals; short term goals and long term goals for every aspect of life including education, financial, and relationships. Once I had a goal, I created a plans to achieve it. But the plan had to be fluid to accommodate the unexpected like an accident or illness, things that could even change the goals. But no matter the circumstances, there was always a goal, a destination to aim for.

I was taught to stay focused, to keep ‘my head in the game’, ‘my eye on the ball’ and ‘nose to the grindstone’. In the world’s eyes, my value as a member of society was apparently determined by my income and, since money could help me achieve many goals, the ultimate goal was, and is, to make money.

The problem is, pursuing money is frequently depressive, its realization is often illusive, and its success is never certain. Despite all my plans and goals, I can only be certain about one thing in this life; I’m gonna die.

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Cor 2:2

Paul (aka Saul) spent his life studying the Jewish scriptures. He probably knew them inside out and backwards but, despite his great learning, was unable to see their truth. Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets and yet, Paul with his intimate knowledge of the scriptures, was not able to recognize the one of whom the scriptures spoke.

Paul had to have a close encounter of the Christ kind on the road to Damascus before his eyes were opened, both physically and spiritually. After a few years off to re-evaluate his understanding of everything he had been taught, his paradigm shifted and nothing was ‘normal’ again.

Only in the light of the passion of Jesus Christ was the truth of the scriptures revealed to Paul. He realized everything, all the stories and the law and the prophets spoke of of Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Paul’s life turned upside-down. The scales fell from his eyes, the veil was lifted and the scriptures were opened. Paul had eyes to see and ears to hear and he saw all of life by the light of the crucified Christ. Everything Paul wrote to the early Christians, and to us, contains this theme.

In the light of this revelation, like Paul, my world is also turned upside-down. The foolish weakness of a man dying on a cross conquers death and reveals the wisdom of the ages. The more I admit my inadequacies, the more I can accomplish because God’s strength is made perfect in my weakness. My life leads to death and my death leads to life.

My goal is no longer to be successful by worldly or material standards. (In fact, I would suggest there are many popular elements of worldly success which are the very antithesis of Godly success.) My goal now is to follow the path of Christ, the path of sacrificial love, to have the scales fall from my eyes, and to see the Kingdom of Heaven all around me.

To this end, I abandon the frenetic pursuit of worldly financial success and stop asking God to bless my ‘wise’ decisions. I want to always see His way straight before me and to view all of life in the light of the Crucified Christ.

This is my new normal, ‘letting go and letting God.’ I try to live as though all that comes to me throughout the day is part of God’s plan for me to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. I may never achieve the goal of worldly success, but then, in the veiled eyes of the world, neither did Christ.