“I breathe in and out,” Mom says, and until that moment I didn’t realize how I’m still holding my breath. A trusted friend told me in some years how seasons come and go, and you make it through by keeping time through the life and liturgical seasons of the Church. Other years will have their own challenges, but this year, this year...
I forget that Matthew is gone then the reality comes roaring back like waves in open water. They keep coming and I keep holding my breath. Some moments are quiet. They don’t overwhelm but still cause my eyes to blink hard and pray the tears don’t come in the middle of a meeting or a customer yelling over the phone for a manager. When the tidal wave appears, I can feel it swelling and it’s all I can do to get ready... Get home as fast as possible, get off the bus a stop early, walk quickly and pull up my hood. When it hits me, I’m tossed asunder, my head aching and my mouth full of salt, full of tears. I keep holding my breath.
When I was a teenager, my mom gave me a well worn copy of Hinds Feet on High Places (1955) by Hannah Hurnard. The book is an allegory for the Christian life, a journey out of fear and consistently becoming a new person through much joy and pain. Much Afraid (for she is very much afraid) is a young shepherdess. She lives in the valley of Humiliation and is threatened by her cousin, Craven Fear, a bully who intends to marry her and keep her close to home in the clutches of her family, the Fearings. They hate that she tends sheep, but they hate the culture of the sheep herders even more. The Shepherd, as he is called, is kind and treats every person and creature with dignity. He asks Much Afraid if she is willing to leave her cruel family and go with him to the “High Places”, to jump from rock to rock with him as they climb the mountainside. He promises that her clubbed feet and gnarled hands will change into “hinds feet” (the feet of a deer) and though the journey there will be painful and hard, she will be a new person. Much Afraid goes home doubting that she could even leave the house because she is so afraid of what her cousin will do to her if he finds out.
Late that night in a moment of courage and shrouded in fog, she steals away from the house she was kept in and meets the Shepherd by a pool of water. She waits, still shaking, still traumatized by all that could go wrong. Water is life, and the presence of water in Holy Scripture reflects life coming to the surface and being born. Christ begins his ministry baptized by John in the Jordan river; the Red Sea splits in two by the staff of Moses for the Hebrews escaping Egypt; the womb of a woman brings forth the incarnation, the woman God calls the mother of His Son, whom the Orthodox Church calls the “Theotokos” (literally “God-bearer” in Greek. Then there is the water of Baptism that begins the new life for every Christian. Still trembling, Much Afraid stays by the pool expecting, in her paranoia, to be led along by the Shepherd only to be stood up at the very last. Her fears are unfounded when he appears. He holds out a seed in his hand, a thorn really. This is the seed of love, He says, and it hurts going into your chest but without this seed, Love won’t grow in your heart. He asks her if she’s still ready to go with him, and Much Afraid says yes. The sharp thorn is plunged into into her heart, and she cry out in pain. It goes in so quickly that the entry wound closes and heals at once. This is the beginning of perfect love growing. A seed has to die.
Like Much Afraid who trusted her Shepherd, there is a thorn in my heart. It is a seed for something good and something holy. I wish I could see into the future and be comforted by what beauty flourishes there. Thankfully I’m not blessed with a ball of Golden thread, a curse for the impatient boy who tugged at it. The story of “Peter and the Golden Thread” is found in William J. Bennet’s The Book of Virtues. Little by little, Peter pulled until he was past school. A pull and he’s with his sweetheart; a pull and his career is in full swing; a pull and he’s a middle aged man. Another pull and his crying children are grown and no longer as needy, more and more quick pulls, even faster, leave him old and alone on his death bed. I can’t speed up time, but I can grow in love and give thanks for this present moment.
My husband and I went to a marriage conference in a cold weekend in January. We were in Sonoma enjoying the green after the winter rain, a quiet testimony to the life after the fires which had taken lives, homes, and businesses only a few months before. We learned the word: Philotomo — Greek for responsive gratefulness or a grateful indebtedness. If I hold the other person in my own heart, a deep seated sense of gratitude unites us, causing us to demand less and give more. I didn’t know that this much needed time for the two of us also were the last moments my family had with Matthew in the hospital. He died that Friday on Candlemas.
I keep holding onto the thought that something better is coming. If I can only remember that the something better is already here - and Matt is experiencing the reality of that better thing.
On Holy Saturday, the full morning before Pascha night, the Choir sings an exchange that could have happened between Jesus and his mother, Mary. She is mourning his death and He (as God) speaks to her from the other side of eternity.
(Canon of Holy Saturday, Ode 9, Znamenny chant.)
(Christ) Do not lament me, O Mother, seeing me in the tomb, the Son conceived in the womb without seed, for I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God. I shall exalt all who magnify you in faith and love.
(Choir) Glory to thee, our God, glory to Thee.
(Theotokos) I escaped sufferings and was blessed beyond nature at Thy strange birth, O Son, who art without beginning. But now, beholding thee, my God, dead and without breath, I am sorely pierced by the sword of sorrow. But arise that I may be magnified.
(Choir) Glory to thee, our God, glory to Thee.
(Christ) By mine own will, the earth covers me, O Mother, but the gatekeepers of hell tremble at seeing me clothed in the blood-stained garments of vengeance; for when I have vanquished mine enemies on the cross, I shall arise as God and magnify you.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.(1 John 4:18)