Keeping the Season

Western Christians love to rush into Christmas. (Better called the Nativity, as the Orthodox do – every worship service can be called the Christ-mass.) As soon as the weather turns cold and the Halloween pumpkins have collapsed into dejected mush, out come the chubby Santas and the coloured lights, the tinsel and the ho-ho-ho.  St. Nicholas of Myra would not have said ho-ho-ho. He would have said “Repent and be saved!” And St. Nicholas of Myra would have been lean and strong from fasting, and didn’t need magic. He had miracles. He is, in his place before the throne of God, a great saint of healing. The Lord hears his prayers for us still. He is a solemn and wise saint, known for restoring life and health, as well as for his acts of charity.

We should be following his example beginning Monday. Advent – the days of preparation before the Feast of the Nativity (yes, Christmas) – are a season of fasting. That is why we sing “O Come Emmanuel.”

O Come, o come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.

We are a lost and lonely people, and until we turn our faces toward the Light of our Father in His Beloved Son, we cannot know the Spirit of joy. Why are we like this? We turn continually to the wrong things, to worldly things, to pleasure and trinkets and momentary sensations that ignite the nerves but not the soul. We please the sinful body and not the exalted body that we anticipate at His return. We are not prepared.

The great Alexander Schmemann (+1983) exile and theologian, wrote this in Great Lent:

“It is a characteristic of the Orthodox liturgical tradition that every major feast or season – Easter, Christmas, Lent, etc. – is announced and “prepared” in advance. Why? Because of the deep psychological insight by the Church into human nature. Knowing our lack of concentration and the frightening “worldliness” of our life, the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state into another.”

When we skip over the preparation of our hearts for the solemn festival of the Incarnation, we do not move from the world into God’s presence. The world, of course, here means that which is sinful and fallen, the God-created that we claim as just our own, failing to see that Satan followed Man out of the garden and continues to whisper lies. When we live in that fallen world, we do not live in the Kingdom, which the Prince of Peace proclaimed and for which He died, giving us the victory in this Christ.

Fasting in preparation for the festival is certainly not decorating the house, lawn, dog, car and ourselves while indulging in rich foods, lots of drink, and riotous behaviour. It’s the opposite. The expectation the Church had until about fifty years ago was that Advent would be a time of confession, restitution and restoration. It is the time of reconciliation for peace on Earth. This is not done easily or superficially.

The fast is the physical discipline. We are creatures of substance, not ephemeral spirits. The body informs the spirit, but the body needs to be reminded that it is not in charge. It is the Word of God that guides what we do, as well as what we believe. Faith that is not lived in the body is a dead faith, a false faith. Fasting is part of that. It reminds us that what we receive we receive from the Lord, not ourselves. Fasting is to make us truly grateful, and to conquer our whims and passions. This is totally opposite to what the world teaches us everyday, as we are encouraged to buy, indulge, luxuriate. We pamper ourselves and think we deserve it.

This attitude and indulgence leads to self-centeredness and waste. We know this. We know we throw away more than we use, that we sap the resources of others for our own wantonness. We take more than our fair share. And we continue to do it, despite knowing we shouldn’t, despite knowing that the consequences will be, in the end, fatal to ourselves. Truly the Apostle said, “I do the thing that I do not wish to do!”

Fasting is the turning of the will of our human nature to the perfect will of God. Fasting is turning away from waste and wantonness, and away from destruction through indulgence. It is a time for self-examination. It is a time for prayer and renewal of relationship with God, and with those we have injured.

Fasting can become legalistic. This is part of our human nature, to reduce the important work of our spirit to self-righteousness and routine. This is why we wash our faces, put on clean clothes, and go about cheerful, because it keeps us from falling into righteousness for our own sake, and not through God. Fasting is a solemn joy, but joy it is, as it takes us step by step closer to the Kingdom.

The Festal Day will come, and we can enjoy it all the more for the self-denial we have practiced, and for the spiritual strength we have gained. We can enjoy our feast more because we have given to others in our fast. The way of righteousness is fasting, prayer and alms-giving; the reward of righteousness is a seat at the Lord’s banquet. “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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Thanksgiving, sentiments and prayers

I know, I’m in Canada and we did Thanksgiving last month. See “Thoughts for Food” on that! But my American sisters are all excited about their (the original Thanksgiving) day. It does seem like so much hoopla and forced merriment at times, all nostalgia and over-the-river in a horsedrawn sleigh, which most people have never experienced or even seen! It does evoke an America that barely existed in one region for a very short period of time. But, hey, everyone loves a big meal.

Although I don’t, really. I make a big meal every night, almost, with working men to feed in the house. It’s just food. And Thanksgiving, like most holiday meals, is hours (sometimes days) of preparation, and about fifteen minutes of eating. Then there’s a lot of talk about which part of the turkey was best, how no one really likes the yams, why bread-and-sage stuffing is better than something else, etc. I wish there was some way to slow down the meal, so that we could savour it, enjoy it, talk a little more. I’ve usually spent lots of time in the kitchen, getting ready, and I am wounded when the meal is devoured and everyone is back in the living room, watching the game within minutes. (Note that this doesn’t happen anymore, but holiday meals here are simpler than they were in the past.) So the big get-together is often a bust.

Nicholas said recently that if we want a Thanksgiving meal, we just have to go to church on First Day. The Eucharist is the ultimate family get-together. It is the perfect Thanksgiving, when we receive everything through Our Lord, and we pray in humility and heartfelt thanks. It is the meal everyone can share, anywhere, when they have been received into the family of God. Our offerings there are the first-fruits, and they do the work of God in the world. Or they should. If the Church is not doing that, then questions need to be asked and answers demanded.  If we are holding back from God, we are coming to the dinner table with a grievance of some sort, an unconfessed sin, an unforgiven wrong. It’s like going home for the holidays and picking up the old feud with your brother. Not the most pleasant dinner topic, is it? So don’t come home to the Lord’s Supper with ill-will against God nor Man.

This year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas (better called the Nativity of Our Lord) lets try to include more of the family – those who are hungry, homeless, ill, desperate, dying. Have a look at the Advent Consipracy on the ‘net. It is time to do more, not less.

Moving in, moving on

We changed cities this month, a five hour drive sort of east. This puts on the other side of Toronto, which may or may not be an advantage, as long as it keeps us out of Toronto, which is beginning to resemble just another NYC. (Sorry, Toronto, it’s my opinion.) We are out of the echoey apartment and into a house with family, which is a great advantage. Our former apartment was so noisy with the neighbours’ sounds that it was as if it was haunted. I don’t mind haunted that much, but these “ghosts” were most active in the wee hours, and we lost a lot of sleep. The little suburban house, strategically near our niece’s college, is also near the harbour and the downtown area, which is fun and vibrant and operating at all kinds of cultural levels. And there’s no one upstairs.

Which brings me to the topic of cities, in general. Cities are all emulating the Big Apple – they never sleep. Everything is 24 hour, 7 days a week, no break. It is frenetic. It is constantly rats in a maze on speed, all the floodlights on. Even little cities, like the one where we worked in New Brunswick, are all-day, all-night, all-the-time rush, rush, traffic at three a.m., coffee shops open, fast food open, supermarkets open, box stores open – do you want to shop at four a.m. on Tuesday? No problem. We have somnabulant sales associates waiting to meet your need! I haven’t checked, but is NO-DOZ traded on the exchange? It might the only good investment right now.

The general feeling in our family is that country life is where we are headed. We are planning our backyard garden, and have composted the leaves and the kitchen waste. We talk about log houses, and stone houses, and animals. (We are an animal loving tribe.) The 19-year-old came in to help set up the new (secondhand) computer and reported he had seen a horse and buggy and a drafthorse plowing outside the city. He was impressed. Before the move, we easily discarded extra furniture, clothes and electronics, but we kept the spinnng wheels, the canning equipment and the axes.

I think the older members of the household see it as a holy vocation, living on the land and being productive in an authentic, charitable way. We want to take less of the limited resources for ourselves, and we want to provide beyond our own needs for others. Small scale farming does both. We have not only the interests, but the skills, and the younger members of the family are working to acquire a set of their own in carpentry and animal care. They may be drawn by the bright lights and shopping malls right now, but with some thought (and our prayers) they may well see the longlasting value of the old ways, the simple life, and the joy of following Christ.

All over again…

We just moved to another city, a smaller, older city with a great history, but a very upscale demographic. It also houses several prisons and detention facilities – so go figure! It is rather Dickensian in atmosphere, an intriguing combination of tasteful old money and improbable characters.

And I am again the only visible Plain person. I have to get used to the stares and whispers, and they have to get used to the long black dresses, prayer cap, bonnet and boots. As my husband puts it, “If they don’t look twice at someone with pink hair, why are they staring at you?”

A subliminal impulse is to try to blend in a bit better – wear a colorful scarf over the cap, dress up a bit more. I’ve tried that before, and felt like a brown hen in borrowed peacock feathers. It just doesn’t work for me. It makes me feel awkward and self-conscious, even clumsy. I can’t appear to be what I am not.

I’ve had the opportunity to advise someone who is convicted to become Plain, and she’s not sure how to do this. She thinks she’ll feel conspicuous in a cap, long dress and shawl. She doesn’t know how she’ll explain it to her family. Here is my advice on making the transition.

Begin quietly. Pin up your hair, take off the earrings, switch to plain shoes. Pack up the fashionable clothes and give them to Goodwill or the Sally Ann, or at least put them in the attic. (I say give them away, so you’re not tempted to go back too quickly.)

After a couple of weeks, start wearing a bandanna or kerchief in a dark colour. People may make jokes about it, but you can just say, “I like the way it looks,” and go on with your day. That’s one of the key points to being Plain – don’t care what people think and say; you know it’s right for you, so do it.

Then comes the big day, and you go out in the prayer cap. I began by going to church with my first handmade cap. It was rather old-fashioned, with little lappets and a narrow band, and the ties were mere decoration. One friend instantly called it “becoming,” which was just what I wanted. It became me. Another said it was “fetching and sweet.” Another positive reaction. The Lord spared me the harsh and nasty words at first, although they came a few months later, when I was stronger in my conviction. By then I had learned “to give the bonnet,” as Quaker Jane calls it, and turn my head away slowly and deliberately, as if to say, “That comment/stare/smirk is not worthy of a person’s attention.”

My Plain dress is now so much a part of me that I cannot envision myself in worldly clothes. I dream of myself Plain, it has become so ingrained. It is me, deep down and always. One casual observation made to us is that we were “hardcore Christians.” And that’s a good way to put it. Plain is riskier, more obvious, and more humble than the visible witness of the clergy collar or nun’s habit, because it is so often a subject of derision and contempt. (Stupid Amish seems to be a theme in Hollywood.) And it’s not that the visible clergy and ordered aren’t sometimes subjected to that humiliation. I experienced it in the dog collar and black suit, too, but someone would come to my defense then, perhaps uneasy with the sacrilegious. But no one defends the Plain publicly, at least not in my experience. We have to take it on the chin and roll with it.

Anyone entering Plain life needs to realize that they will be noticed, will occasionally hear and experience negativity, and there is no fighting back. But that is one of the indications that God ordained it for us, that in our Christian witness, we disturb the world.

Sustainable, Traditional

I belong to a web community called “Sustainable Traditions.” It is just getting off the ground, like a hand-built log house. It may be slow going, but the results should be beautiful and longlasting.

Which is a good analogy, if I may so so, for the model of sustainable traditions. We’ve been searching and pondering a good definition of “Sustainable Traditions.” “Sustainable” could mean that it can be self-supporting, self-regenerating, closed-loop. It can mean low-impact and no-impact effects on the ecology. It could mean that anyone could do it without a lot of education beforehand. It probably means all of the above.

“Tradition” means what we have received from our antecedents. It is the tried and true, the proven way. It is accepting that the wheel has, indeed, been invented. This is not to say that we don’t have to, sometimes, argue from first principles; it means that although we know those first principles, we know how others have argued them.

“Sustainable Traditions” are the self-supporting, self-regenerating methods and ways that our antecedents bequeathed us, whether those were from agriculture, religion, politics, architecture or philosophy. It isn’t necessarily the big stuff. It is often the littlest stuff – how to build an efficient fire, how to can food safely, how to deliver a breech lamb, how to compost. Doing the little things well will lead to doing the big things well, as our Lord tells us: If we can be trusted with the small, we can be trusted with the great.

There are things that are sustainable that are impossible for the average smallholder to build, practice or fulfill: power generating windmills, maybe, or tidal energy. And just how sustainable are they if they require huge investments of engineering design, high-tech materials, and computer-assisted management?

There are traditions that are not sustainable – slash and burn agriculture, monoculture forests, inbreeding of animals. Lack of proper sewage disposal – as traditional as dumping the chamberpot into the nearest stream, but not what you’d call a good ecological practice. Or burning bituminous coal scratched out of a surface seam; harmful but very traditional in many places.

“Sustainable Traditions” is a concept that requires thought, and research, and for it to be entirely successful, involving the Creator as well as Creation, prayer and more prayer. Are we ready? Can we wait any longer? Is it already too late?

Charles Dickens

I got very fed up with reading theology and churchy stuff. I don’t read popular literature much, and the “Plain” theme novels available at the library were, to my mind, rather poorly written and not very accurate. I absolutely cannot bring myself to read anything that is salacious in some way (i.e. most modern fiction). Which makes me sound like a prude, but really, I just find other people’s love lives way too boring, I mean, there is only so much you can do with falling in love, experiencing lust and the act itself. It is monotonous.

I wanted something to read that wasn’t boring and poorly written, and might have some redeeming social value. So I pulled down some Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House. These are not the big names in Dickens literature, but they are complex books with a good deal of commentary on poverty, government and law. Of course, there are the huge numbers of overlapping and interwoven coincidences and collisions of fate, which keeps the book moving while being somewhat implausible. It is just that sort of plot device that modern fiction fights so hard against, but once I get over the “so obvious” thoughts and suspend disbelief, I really enjoy the action.

I had forgotten the subplot in Bleak House about the obsessed mother who diligently tries to raise a scheme for growing coffee in Africa to benefit the natives of some fictional territory, while her own household goes to ruin and her husband is declared bankrupt. It was just too evocative of some of the nonprofit schemes we have seen over the years, and of the people who are motivated to run them. And the descriptions of the household itself, and the attempt of cleaning it before the wedding of the eldest daughter, were a little too realistic, if one has ever helped in such circumstances! It motivated me to clean out my refrigerator and cupboards.

Dickens was more than a little cynical about charity and greed. This is the most human side of him, even when the characters are a bit tedious, or too good, too beautiful, too sweet to be true. (His rough-hewn and villainous characters are more believable than the good-hearted, naturally refined ones, but maybe I’m a little cynical myself.)

 The horrors of poverty and ignorance he portrays have not gone away, despite the legislation and goodwill of nations and churches. We hide our slums and ghettoes better, our poor are less likely to beg on the streets, we blame the poor themselves (just as in Dickens’ day) but the suffering is still there. Our own schemes of “live simply so that others may simply live” don’t seem to be working. Maybe, like the reformers of Charles Dickens’ novels, we are just giving this lip service, while sitting down to a good dinner every night.

More Boots

I bought a new pair of boots, that is, new to me, since I got them (CAN$10) at a thrift shop. They were obviously worn outside by someone, since there was mud clinging to the soles, but otherwise, they looked new. I needed winter boots this year, with more walking ahead.

These fit a little better than the last pair, too. They are narrower in the foot and not so funky-soled. The toe box is narrower, and this is a bit of a disadvantage since the last pair was square-toed and the feet got used to it. While they lace up the front, they also have a side zip and are lined with furry fabric. This means I don’t have to wear two pairs of socks all the time. The older boots were too wide, which meant I was always trying to keep my balance inside the boots, and this tired my feet quickly.

They are also Canadian-made, which I consider an advantage in quality, and I hope they last longer than the disappointing just-two-years-old-and-wearing-out last pair. (And they were thrift store, but almost new.) I can be very hard on footgear, since it has to see me through daily use that includes a lot of walking and off road trekking. And I don’t own more than one pair at a time, unless it is a pair totally different (sandals for summer, for instance). The former boots were losing stitching and leather integrity fast, and the sole was pulling away from the top, but they were obviously meant to be fashion accessories, not hard-wearing farmers’ boots. We recycled the boots by removing the shoelaces and putting them in my husband’s running shoes (his usual daily footwear) and cutting away the reusable parts of the leather. This left only a bit of worn leather and the composition soles to dispose of. I don’t know if the soles are recyclable, and right now, without a farm, I couldn’t find a viable use for rubber wedges cut from them. I’m not one to stockpile stuff I can’t use.

The leftover leather will go with fabric scraps in my big sewing box. Leather scraps have many uses, and are sometimes hard to come by when you need them. I use them for patches, extensions, and gate hinges or latches, as well as shims in spinning wheels or any low-tech device that needs a cushion somewhere. Since the leather doesn’t take up much room – not nearly as much as a pair of old shoes – I’m willing to keep it.

I have found on-line the boots of my dreams. They are made for Civil War re-enactors (of course) and come in at a good price of US$80, more or less. Maybe someday…and they will be the hundred-year boots to meet my frustrated longing for footwear that doesn’t wear out, separate, or stretch after a mere few thousand miles on my feet!