Close to Home:
There is a reason I don’t write much about homeschooling. It is the same reason I don’t write more about exercising or recycling: I believe in these things but as a bumbling, greenhorn of a disciple propelled in and out of zealousness by an amalgam of uncompromising convictions, idealistic intentions and what I like to refer to as, “spontaneity” but what might also, in some circles, be known as, “a lack of discipline.”
On our good days, I am sitting on the couch, under an afghan, sipping coffee while one of my children reads to me from our book of saints. I hear the bus drive by and breath a sigh of relief because this year, Elijah is not being manhandled in the back row of it by peers who are in his grade but are not necessarily his age with their already creaking voices tossing out language foul and crude, not to mention factually inaccurate and demeaning. We marvel together at the resourcefulness of homesteaders, the love and courage of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth surrendering her royal title for the sake of Christ and His Church, the ferociousness of a starving crocodile. On our good days, I am a geyser of warm, erupting satisfaction. I am a proud, fanatical, “never look back,” brand of homeschooler.
There are other days, however, many, many other days when if you asked me, would I recommend homeschooling, I would lean in real close like, grab you forcefully by the collar and whisper, Run away! Don’t even think about it! It’s a harebrained idea- teaching your own kids. And then I’d smooth down your shirt, pat you amiably on the shoulder and just smile as benignly as can be, like that whole dangerous exchange never happened.
Less than a week ago, Great Lent began. In preparation, I cleaned out the refrigerator, bought a freezer full of hummus, falafel, and veggie burgers from Costo, subscribed to an even wider variety of Orthodox Christian podcasts, printed out Lenten Sunday School lessons, wrote the service schedule on our calendar and then braced myself for the emotional soreness that follows an increase in spiritual activity. It’s true you know that distracted minds are hardly a threat to devilish schemes. A lukewarm anybody is much more likely to be left alone. But cease for just a second with self-absorbed musings or frivolous undertakings in order to turn even slightly more heavenward and WHAM the gloves come off; you’re beaten down.
What’s wrong? Asked my husband when he called from work – when I, who am usually all too willing to spew forth haphazard thoughts and anecdotes until he is forced to interrupt my captivating ramblings by reminding me that he does have a job to get back to, reacted to his inquiries with one word answers. Responses like, downtrodden, drowning, suffocating and tragically, woefully behind, seemed a tad heavy, a bit dramatic for a quick, mid-morning, “just checking in” type of chat. So I went with the generic “I’m really tired” excuse, which described as well any other despondent term I might have chosen the malaise strangling my joy and crippling my hopefulness.
Suddenly and inexplicably, I had no tolerance, whatsoever, for the bedlam - the same mayhem that for years has hovered around our household like a dense but relatively harmless fog I’d learned over time to pretty effectively grope my way through. The substantial burden of my responsibilities – to handle solely the education of my kids, to feed my family healthfully, to makes our house look a little less like a landfill, to be a loyal friend, a more consistent disciplinarian, etc., etc., (My gosh, the list goes on and on; it’s like I cannot catch a break!) was wearing away at my usual optimism like dripping water slowly but surely eroding a boulder. And now here it was Lent and I was adding to my already gargantuan load a desire for true repentance, for communicating to my children the importance of preparing for Pascha by way of increased prayer and almsgiving and fasting. I had turned off our television, simplified our diet, decreased our access to secular influences and yet my annoyance was steadily increasing. I growled at my loved ones like a cranky, hungry dog instead of speaking to them with kindness, calmness, respect.
Church was the last place I wanted to be and for the first twenty minutes or so of Saint Andrew’s Canon, I struggled hard to pay attention. I was a million miles away in “feel sorry for me land” where all you haven’t accomplished whines and complains with cruel persistence in your ears making you deaf to Christ’s invitation to cast all your cares upon Him and find rest. But I sang, I prostrated, heck, I showed up – it took all I had in me to silence the taunting for just a moment and listen, to actually swallow the penitential refrains that up until that point had just been sitting there in my mouth. I strained to stay focused and own the sentiments being offered to me by God through His servant, Andrew, as a means of breaking through a toughened and calloused exterior. Alongside my fellow parishioners I cried out with all the genuineness I could muster:
I have adorned the human shape of my flesh with the many-coloured coat of shameful
thoughts, and I am condemned.
Have mercy on me O God, have mercy on me.
I have cared only for the outward adornment, and have neglected what is within - a body
bearing the divine likeness.
Have mercy on me O God, have mercy on me.
Like the harlot I cry to you: “I have sinned, I alone have sinned against you.” Accept my
tears also as sweet ointment, O Saviour.
And then, to my surprise, the tears did come. I’d been pried open and exposed as a wretch and as a betrayer, as a hearer but not a doer of the Word. My regret at having become numb to the sacrifices of God, the Son, became more palpable than my stress. For once His holiness felt less like a soft and fuzzy blanket and more like a scalding, searing, flame engulfing my trite and lackadaisical approach to the Faith - reducing my vanity and perceived competence to ashes. In this state of remorse and pliability, I went to confession. Weeds embedded deeply within my heart had been painfully uprooted and with my priest as a witness I handed them over with every intention of beginning anew by praying incessantly for both the strength and the alertness to nip their efforts to re-implant themselves in the bud. Having been humbled by the realization of my nakedness and then purified, fortified, vitalized by forgiveness, I left for home.
Recently, I got a fascinating letter from a friend of mine who lives in Australia in which she relayed to me many details regarding the everyday goings on in her far away country. She wrote about what they eat (lots of Vegemite), what they fear (poisonous spiders) and gave the following description of the Australian Bush, one I found to be rich in symbolism:
The Australian bush – except for in the very North of Australia - is very dry and flowers are hard to come by. Australian forests grow very old and don’t really generate new trees until a bushfire destroys it – because only a bushfire is hot enough to crack open the seed pods. So bushfires are an interesting paradox for Australians. Often the National Parks do controlled burning to generate the bushland.
Like an unrestrained blaze can become quickly, wildly, unmanageable producing destructive and lethal effects which far outweigh the positive aspects of its life-regenerating potential, so can igniting one’s soul with asceticism cause more damage than good when unsupervised by the Church and Her holy wisdom. To fast on one’s own, without the sacraments, without attending the prescribed services, without the guidance of a spiritual father, is to set oneself up for certain pride or despair. But to participate fully in Great Lent, to cooperate with this Holy Spirit controlled burning, to bear as a community the uncomfortableness of having our own stubborn wills crushed and leveled, is to unearth the fragrant fruit too often encapsulated by worldly cares.
Had I not gone that night, had I attempted to self-medicate my infirmities with reason, another organizational plan or an anesthetizing diversion, I would have stalled the healing process only mid-way through and gone on for who knows how long taking random and frantic stabs at trying to pinpoint the origin of my disgruntlement. I have learned that when I am anxious to avoid services, Scripture reading, confession, morning prayers, it is a sure sign that I am in need of them more than ever. The Church has laid out before me the cure to my empty and wholly unfulfilling selfishness and yet so often I respond with a big old “no thanks” by putting my schedule, my priorities, my lust for what is most convenient ahead of everything else, including God. And then I scratch my head and wonder why my life feels so chaotic and disappointing.
I’ll tell you what I don’t have and that is any confidence in my ability to make it all the way through Lent without grumbling or forgetting what the point of it is or heeding the nagging and ruthless voices in my head suggesting I’m not pious enough to complete the Fast. What I do have, however, is this one day right here in front of me to offer up as a sacrifice. I have the tools at my disposal to help me stay attentive and vigilant throughout it. I have the awareness that we are all in this together and I have plenty of first-hand experience confirming a half-hearted approach to following Christ is as effective as training for a marathon by simply buying new fancy tennis shoes and a sports bottle – it’s one thing to look like a runner and another to put in the necessary, sweat inducing, muscle stretching, endurance building labor to become one.
My soul, my soul, arise! Why are you sleeping? The end is drawing near, and you will be confounded. Awake, then, and, be watchful, that Christ our God may spare you, Who is everywhere present and fills all things. – Kontakion from the Canon of Saint Andrew.