Thursday, December 30, 2010

Feasting in Time and Timelessness

Seeing as how I was determined to bask restfully in the light of Christmas for another week or so, attending the local monastery for a midweek communion service seemed the perfect sort of activity. The Body and Blood of the Savior is the best food, one of the limitless Holy Mysteries God has given for our life and salvation.

At the monastery they are on the Old Calendar, so the Nativity Feast is still more than a week in the future. But our parish church, to which they are attached, is New Calendar, and we are all used to the differing dates for these feasts and commemorations. The nuns are happy to greet us general parish folk with "Christ is born!" even though they are waiting a bit longer to say it among themselves. And we are happy to step back thirteen days and be with them in the Lord who is timeless.

My godmother sent me an online Advent calendar, which I opened on December 24th or so. She said the Nativity is timeless. And I got that feeling during my visit among the mixed calendarists. As Father Stephen says here, "He is the Feast of Feasts," and the substance of our faith, no matter what age we live in. I'm glad I happened to see Fr. Stephen's blog before publishing my little report on the monastery visit, because he says so many things clearly that I barely grasp with my mind, but am experiencing in the Church.

Like this:
To speak of ourselves as living “in-between” [the Resurrection and the Second Coming] is to place history in the primary position, relegating the Kingdom of God to a lower status. It is the essence of secularism. The Kingdom of God is not denied – it is simply placed beyond our reach (as we are placed beyond its reach). The Kingdom, like God Himself, is reduced to an idea.
Living “in-between” is part of the loneliness and alienation of the modern Christian. Things are merely things, time is inexorable and impenetrable. There is an anxiety that accompanies all of this that is marked by doubt, argument and opinion. Faith is directed towards things past or things that have not yet happened.
In earlier postings on faith, I have noted that faith is more than an intellectual or volitional exercise. It is an actual participation (koinonia) with the object (or subject) of faith.
In the Eucharist we all were partaking of Him Who is our Faith, and were experiencing in Him the Nativity, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Second Coming -- our whole salvation history -- even as we know that at the level of earthly time, the Second Coming is still ahead. That is definitely a Mystery.

After the service many of us pilgrims stayed for a lenten lunch. I remarked about some bright orange squash on the sideboard and the nuns told me how it volunteered itself in service to them last summer. Ordinarily they like to have a big garden, but not many young women live there and it is increasingly hard for the community to do the physical work; this year they didn't get much planted, though they have plenty of space.

Behold, a squash plant sprouted and spread its vines vast and wide, bearing several giant fruits, which we agreed look like a cross between a Hubbard and a Butternut. For the meal they cooked part of one, and then split another open to send pieces home with several of us. I started this blog post mostly to tell about the amazing squash, but I got carried away as is common.

Last week Baby made a wonderful Curried Butternut Squash Bisque the day after she flew in for the holidays. I might cook it again with this blessed squash -- it was very tasty served plain -- and if I do, I'll post the recipe.

Christ is born!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Clean Money

My grandmother had grown up on a farm where she was probably comfortable with animals and "good clean dirt." But when we knew her she had lived in the city for a long time (not The City of San Francisco, though) and was comfortable with us washing our hands quite frequently, especially if we had handled "dirty money," i.e., all money. She wore gloves quite a bit, for different purposes. It's very easy for me to pull up the image of her holding her soft leather driving gloves that she had just removed, which kept the fragrance of her warm and soft hands.

When my sisters and I visited her from our farm in the Central Valley she would take us across The Bay Bridge to The City. We dressed up in our finest and made a day of it, though I have no memory of just what we did there. Today I was made to wonder if she took us to the Saint Francis Hotel for lunch, because she would have liked the fact that they keep their money clean.

As a proper housewife I appreciate the use of soap and water and the impulse to keep things fresh and sanitary for the health of my family. Probably even the saint for whom the hotel is named wouldn't have turned down a gift of soap. Or money, whether clean or dirty.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More than a week left...

More than a week remains of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and am I glad!  The days leading up to and including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day flew by in such a flurry of church and family that I am fairly flattened. Today is the first of my restful days and I'm in happy R&R from wonderfully happy times.

Here is a hodgepodge of photos and memories from the last two weeks, probably not in precisely chronological order.

Of course, there were the doll clothes I sewed on for a couple of weeks, and did manage to mail to Littlest Granddaughter (working on a nickname for that one) on the 15th. An entire blog post will have to be dedicated to the small garments, later. I hear that the lucky dolly donned them immediately.

 Then K. and I went to San Francisco again with little T. who is now 5. We did the usual cable car, Chinatown, and riding the elevator to the 31st floor of the Saint Francis Hotel to look over the city broadly and straight down at Union Square and the ice rink (photo).

We rode up and down several times and there was never a doorman to tell us, as he told poor Babar, "This is not a toy, Mr. Elephant."

The gingerbread house in the lobby at the Fairmont Hotel was even more glorious this year, being two stories high. We were favored by meeting a baker who was doing maintenance on the candy that had already been nibbled by children.

Last year there were signs asking people not to eat the house, but not this year. So evidently some have felt more liberty to partake, at least of parts that were protruding a bit; I didn't notice any chunks missing from the gingerbread bricks. The baker repairman gave T. a chocolate Santa.

Not to be outdone, the Saint Francis Hotel had a giant sugar castle in the lobby there.

After the San Francisco trip I mostly cleaned and cleared rooms to make places for six soon-arriving family members to sleep. We didn't get our tree up until the day before Baby flew in, so she helped us decorate.

One of my favorite ornaments is this doll who came from the Czech Republic just as the gifter had: our friend Tylda had sneaked across the border to Austria about the time I was born, when Czech was still joined to Slovakia.

The little man is about 35 years old, the last remaining salt dough ornament of which B. and I painted and baked a whole set with which to decorate one of our first Christmas trees. He is looking a bit crumbly, as though his flesh is gradually vanishing into the atmosphere.

Pippin and her family left the snow to come and be with us. "My" deer looked like this when she snapped their photo before driving down.

Seventh Grandson Scout was way livelier than last year and entertained us all. We managed to keep him from falling down the stairs, and he was heard exhorting himself, "No, no..." not to bother the Christmas tree. His aunt gave him the perfect hat!

Newlyweds Soldier and Doll were with us, too, for several days. Oldest daughter Pearl sent them darling Mr. and Mrs. Snowman ornaments that she made.

And I got my own striking couple, crazy-eyed marionettes brought from India last year by Baby.

The married couples returned to their homes already, and as I write, we are nearing the departure of the last child and the return of Quieter Nest. But I plan to enjoy all the remaining days of Christmas, with meditations on the Nativity, and wait a while before I get out the After-Christmas to-do list I made a while back.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Within Our Reach

At Christmastime my thoughts keep turning to all my friends and family whom I will not be with for the feast, and I want to pick up the phone to talk to each one, to tell all that I miss them, tell them that if I were with them I'd hug them tight. The Father's gift of Love, of His only-begotten Son, is the quality of love that is expansive and overflowing in its essence. It -- He --fills the universe, and will fill us to the degree that we are empty of self. I guess just thinking of it makes me feel more like sharing.

Sometimes I cry because I miss these people whom I can't touch and look in the eye; mostly the tears are out of gratefulness for having so many people in my life to love. Following fast on the heels of that thought is the chance to soak up that Love myself in the moment of grace. I notice, though, that this kind of quietness is hard to hold on to as the busyness factor multiplies now, and there's definitely no time to be chatting on the phone with all my beloveds.

This poem that Maria posted to set December's mood on her excellent Poem a Day is what I would like to say to everyone, every creature made in God's image. And also, "God is with us!"

I salute you. There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give you, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today:
Take heaven.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present:
Take peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy:
Take joy.
And so at this Christmas time I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

~ Fra Giovanni Giocondo (1435?-1515), Italian Franciscan friar and scholar

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Trees Relate

The only thing I don't like about the modern Christmas tree custom is paying a lot of money for the tree. If it weren't for that, I'd want one in every room of the house. One time I did have two trees; I put a tiny one that my sister sent me in the kitchen and hung only bird and pine cone ornaments on it.

What follows about Christmas trees in Orthodox tradition comes from the St. Tikhon's Seminary bulletin, I understand, but I read it on Svetlana's blog. I added paragraphs to make it more readable online. The theology in this short article demonstrates how in Orthodox thinking and practice everything is related to everything else in God's creation. Thank you, God, for Christmas trees!

“I suspect that the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas time is not simply a custom which came to us from the West and which we should replace with other more Orthodox customs. To be sure, I have not gone into the history of the Christmas tree and where it originated, but I think that it is connected with the Christmas feast and its true meaning.

"First, it is not unrelated to the prophecy of the Prophet Isaiah:
 ‘There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots’ (Is. 11:1). St. Cosmas the poet had this prophecy in mind when he wrote of Christ as the blossom which rose up out of the Virgin stem from the stump of Jesse. The root is Jesse, David’s father, the rod is King David, the flower which came from the root and the rod is Theotokos. And the fruit which came forth from the flower of the Panagia is Christ. Holy Scripture presents this wonderfully.

"Thus the Christmas tree can remind us of the genealogical tree of Christ as Man, the love of God, but also the successive purifications of the Forefathers of Christ. At the top is the star which is the God-Man (Theanthropos) Christ.

Then, the Christmas tree reminds us of the tree of knowledge as well as the tree of life, but especially the latter. It underlines clearly the truth that Christ is the tree of life and that we cannot live or fulfill the purpose of our existence unless we taste of this tree, ‘the producer of life’.

"Christmas cannot be conceived without Holy Communion. And of course as for Holy Communion it is not possible to partake of deification in Christ without having conquered the devil when we found ourselves faced with temptation relative to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, where our freedom is tried. 

We rejoice and celebrate, because ‘the tree of life blossomed from the Virgin in the cave’.


Excerpt from: “The Feasts of the Lord: An Introduction to the 12 Feasts and Orthodox Christology” by Metropolitan of Nafpatkos Hierotheos Vlachos – November 1993

Monday, December 13, 2010

St. Herman of Alaska

"O blessed Father Herman of Alaska, North star of Christ's holy Church, the light of your holy life and great deeds guides those who follow the Orthodox way. Together we lift high the Holy Cross you planted firmly in America. Let all behold and glorify Jesus Christ, singing his holy Resurrection." 
-Troparion for the feast

Today we celebrated Divine Liturgy (Holy Communion) in honor of St. Herman of Alaska, a monk missionary sent from Russia in the late 18th century. He was known to feed animals such as ermine and bears, as in this icon.

The saint lived many years on Spruce Island, near Kodiak Island in the Aleutian group. Just hearing and thinking about the setting for his life and labors makes me shiver. I am such a lover of comfort! While I like to warm a rice bag in the microwave to put under piles of blankets at the foot of my bed, when the temperature outdoors is well above freezing, Father Herman would warm a board on the stove and use it for his only covering. Not cozy. But then, monks are known for seeking warmth not for their bodies, but in their souls, and they use their beds as reminders of the grave.

Father Herman was beloved of the people of Alaska for his intercessions before the civil authorities on behalf of the Aleuts who were often mistreated and enslaved. He prayed to God and he served those thankful people for over 40 years.

The icon is by L. Kintsurahvili of the Republic of Georgia.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Homey December Images

The most frequent vision before my eyes in the last days has been this little doll coat on which I am sewing a length of braid. Notice the word length. How can a little coat have such a long braid? I did not sew it by machine for very good reasons, too complicated to write about right now. The deadline for mailing the doll's wardrobe is fast approaching so there is no time for philosophizing either.

I have been seeing the cats come by more frequently with the rainy and sunless weather.  New Cat pictured here is friendlier than Jim, the black cat who's still eating at my step, going on a year now.

 This morning I built a fire in the stove just so I could take a picture of my new semi-antique and only partly worn out Persian rug (yes, it's from Iran!) to advantage. From now on the image of our family/dining room will be brighter even without a log fire.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Advent Retreat in San Francisco

The skies were gray above, the asphalt and sidewalks dark and wet below, but colors jumped out at me as we were leaving Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco this afternoon.

 Two of us had traveled to attend lectures by Father Alexander Golitzin on "The Advent of the Christ." Father Alexander is Professor of Patristics at Marquette University, and the lectures were rich with references to ancient Judaic texts, little-known Persian Christians in the 4th Century, the Dead Sea Scrolls, New Testament scriptures and the beloved liturgical hymns that tie our salvation history together into a whole.

My heart and mind didn't want Fr. Alexander to stop, even though I had the feeling as of a voice saying, "Whoa -- that is a bit much to feed me all at once." I left the cathedral worn out and happy, holding my notebook full of scrawls that I hope to meditate on further.

The flowers, though....they must be part of the large family of metaphors that tell about God taking on human flesh, entering our world as an infant at a particular point in history. Something about beauty and color and brightness breaking into the winter.

Friday, December 3, 2010

How Fasting Works

The fasting periods that the Church gives us are hard to write about on a personal level, so I appreciate it greatly when someone does a good job of it, like Svetlana on her blog My Sears Catalog Life. A blog name like that always makes me want to know more about the host, which is how I came upon her site.

What do I have to say about fasting? God, help!