‘I prostrate myself, Lord, at the throne of Your majesty, I who am dust and ashes and the dregs of humanity. A thousand upon thousands of angels and countless legions of seraphim offer You, the holy Nature hidden from the senses and knowledge of all created beings, spiritual worship in the hiddenness of their natures with their fiery praises and their holy impulses; for You are close at hand, Lord, with Your assistance to everyone at all times of need, and Your door is open in season and out of season for the entreaties of all. You do not abhor sinners nor does Your Majesty feel loathing for the souls which are stained with all kinds of sins; rather, You draw up everyone from endless evils, including me, Lord, who am utterly defiled, seeing that You have held me worthy to fall down before You on my face and make bold to pronounce Your holy name with my mouth, even though I am a vessel full of uncleanness and not worthy to be numbered among the children of Adam.
‘Grant me, Lord, that I may be made holy by praising You, and be made pure by the remembrance of You; renew my life with a transformation of mind and with beneficial thoughts which You, in Your grace, stir within me. Be a guide to my mind in my meditation on You, and make me forget my stumbling conduct through a renewal of mind which You instill in me. Stir up within me requests that are beneficial, with my will in accordance with Your will, for it is You who give prayer to those who pray. Imprint in me a single will, one which gazes towards You at all times, and a deliberation which is never weakened in its hope of You by continual deaths for Your sake. Grant, Lord, that I do not pray before You with unfeeling words (just uttered) with the lips, but may I spread prostrate on the ground in hidden humility of heart and repentance of mind.’
St. Isaac the Syrian, in The Second Part, ed. and trans. by Sebastian Brock (CSCO Vol. 555)
In the month- month and a half I guess- since I last posted, it’s all been coming at me hard and fast; I kept meaning to blog but never got around to it, feeling that other things had greater priority. Finally things are slowing up, and if I have anything interesting to say I will being posting pretty regularly through the summer.
Since my last post, a great deal has happened in my usually quiet and fairly uneventful life. I was received by chrismation into the Orthodox Church, just before Holy Week started. It had been a long, slow journey to that point; I never really had a climatic moment in which I just said to myself, I’m going to convert to Orthodoxy! I was raised Protestant, but I started feeling dis-ease towards Protestantism when I was thirteen or fourteen, and started immersing myself in Patristics and writers like Dostoevsky and O’Connor and Merton, all of whom led me degree by degree towards Orthodoxy, as it turned out, though I seriously contemplated the Roman Catholic Church. But that’s a discussion I’m not really interested in following. I’m sure I had very profound reasons along the way for leaving Protestantism and embracing Orthodoxy, and have heard some excellent arguments and all that. To be quite honest, as I prepared for chrismation and the Holy Eucharist, I was not concerned about any of those arguments. Rather, I realized somewhere along the way that if I was either going to become Orthodox or I wasn’t probably going to be anything; it was either here or nowhere, and that for some very pragmatic, not very theological or exalted reasons. I found that at a very basic level I need the Divine Liturgy; I need confession; I need the guidance of the Fathers, of the prayer-books, of the whole thing. I need icons, incense, all that. I’m not super-spiritual; probably I’ll never be. I read the great ascetic saints and I try to give their counsel a shot, sometimes, but I’m so far off it’s not even funny. I want- want to even when I’m close to giving up wanting- to worship and love God, and I couldn’t do it any longer where I was, outside of Orthodoxy. Entering into the liturgical space of the Eucharist, even entering the space of my daily prayers, I still find myself zoning out and thinking about something totally unrelated and unimportant- but I know that in those spaces, in the lived life of the Church- and not in her books and what not, as important as those are- I am encountering and worshiping the living God, and by His grace I hope to inhabit those spaces more and more.
Anyway, that’s my imperfect and no doubt entirely unsatisfactory apologia for my conversion to Orthodoxy. I would like to describe for you the awe and wonder I felt upon first receiving the Holy Mysteries; but I can’t, and I’ve always found that my ability to express myself breaks down utterly at the point of deepest emotion and experience. Some things can’t be spoken (or written) anyway, by anyone, not in this life, not in this capacity.
My first Holy Week was magnificent, if long- Pascha fell almost in sync with the end of the semester this year for me, which meant long services combined with long sessions of study and writing, but I made it through. The moment of Pascha, the lighting of the candles and the gradual illumination of the church, and then the outside, and the glorious troparion of the Resurrection- again, these things are so hard to speak.
My semester ended well, everything got turned in, and I really enjoyed doing this semester’s work. I had a brief period in which my short-term financial future was up in the air somewhat, but that’s now resolved, and I’m gearing up for my second year of graduate school. My first year of grad school had its ups and downs; I’ve wanted to quit a few times, write off academia and scholarship and all that and find something else to do, but it looks like I’m staying, at least for the time being. I love doing history, and I love the university, even if I find plenty of points that make me want to loathe it. But, mutatis mutandis, where is that not true?
I finished my classes on the last day of April, a Thursday; Friday afternoon I got a call from my mom back home in Mississippi, telling me that my grandmother- her mom- was dying. I knew she was in the hospital- she had been hospitalized a few days before, but my mom had told me then that while it was fairly serious, I could wait a couple days before coming home, it wasn’t that serious. But she took a turn for the worse Thursday night. I was already exhausted, but quickly packed up and drove back to Mississippi that Friday evening; I saw my grandmother Saturday, got to talk to her a little. We drove back home- she was in a hospital in Meridian, which is abou an hour from both my grandparents’ county and my parents’- and I went to bed, expecting to go back in the morning.
But I didn’t. She passed away early Sunday morning, peacefully, we were told. The hospital called and my grandfather and parents raced up there but not quickly enough to see her before she died. It was colon cancer- undetected, it had spread and its effects combined with some other problems- pneumonia, a slight heart attack- were just too much.
We drove back to Winston County, where many of my relatives live, to stay with my grandfather before and after the funeral. It was rough. My grandmaw had been sick, we knew, for a while, but we had no idea she had cancer. She had not had tests run; I imagine she suspected at some point but didn’t really want to know, it being too late by then. It was hardest on my mom, and my grandpaw of course; as much as you mentally tell yourself that people will die, that your family is getting older and death is part of the course, still, you don’t really expect it, you don’t really adequately prepare. The suddeness was the most difficult thing- as selfish as it no doubt is, we would like to the person to linger a little, please, just long enough to say goodbye adequately and gear oneself up for it.
The funeral was the Wednesday after; the morning of was stormy and violent, with tornadoes in parts of the county. We woke to darkness, no electricity, and had to take detours to avoid fallen trees. The service- in a little Baptist church in Noxapater, MS, one of a thousand rural Southern towns that I’ve seen in my short lifetime slowly diminish and fade, only the cemetery growing larger- started in the dark, no electricity, the rain beating down outside. I got up to speak; I wrote out a short address, using the story of Lazarus- still fresh in my ears- as a guide. I had rehearsed it, and was praying I wouldn’t break down. As I was speaking the lights came back on, courtest of Mississippi Power out there somewhere, but I also thought, an encouraging sign, a small grace. I made it through, in tears granted. The final words and prayers were held inside, as it was pouring rain outside. At the end we lifted the coffin and marched across the road up to the cemetery, the rain beating down, and said our goodbyes.
All the time I was trying to summon up the events of just a couple Sundays before, Pascha; I kept saying the troparian- Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, bestowing life upon those in the tomb!- in my head. I believe in the resurrection, I believe in the life of Christ; but still, still, when you come to these encounters with death, it’s still so hard. I broke down when we came back to my grandparents’ house; she wasn’t there, and while I kept expecting to hear her I didn’t. This enormous severing is the hardest part, even as you believe in the hope of the Resurrection. The hope remains a hope, unseen, waiting for the lights to come on, and the world and all things to light up and the fury and violence to cease.