When my older brother, Bobby, was fifteen-years-old, he wore a retainer. Upon receiving it, there were lectures from my parents about crooked teeth and the value of a dollar which he heeded for the most part, accept on one occasion; that day the rather expensive little appliance that should have been put back safely in his mouth was discarded along with his lunch bag and forgotten. When my mother picked us up from school that afternoon, she questioned him about it and then, oh no, he remembered. So they walked back to the cafeteria and were told that the trash had already been emptied to which my mother replied, “Where?” and they were led to the large gray dumpster in the school parking lot.
“Well,” mom said to Bobby matter-of- factly, “let’s get started.” My brother’s face then contorted into an expression of horror, realizing all of a sudden her ingenious plan. “I have to get in there!?” he whined, pointing ahead to the sour smelling pile of refuse containing sights and textures he didn’t want to look at, much less wade through. “It was pretty gross,” mom remembers, when asked to tell me the story again from her perspective, “but there was no way we were going to pay for a brand new retainer when I knew that a perfectly good one was hiding somewhere within all that garbage.” Fully understanding he had no leverage with which to bargain, Bobby took a deep breath and joined our mother in foraging through food scraps and brown paper bags for a napkin containing the dental apparatus they’d hoped would be discovered sooner, much sooner, rather than later.
Figuring this was Bobby’s lesson to learn, I’d laid low up until this point on a bench pretending to do my homework. I’d been happily forgotten about until my brother opened a sack inside which was my entire lunch (packed lovingly that morning by my considerate mother) completely uneaten - most likely because I’d scrounged up enough change to buy soda and some French fries instead. It was my turn, then, to feel the frustration of an over worked and under appreciated parent standing knee deep in filth and gazing disappointedly upon her irresponsible son and wasteful daughter. Eventually, believe it or not, they would find that lost retainer and Bobby would manage to hang on to it for another seven years. I, meanwhile, would be schooled on the concept of a “budget” and how purchasing items at a grocery store only to throw them away unconsumed is generally considered “poor stewardship”. For kids growing up within a culture infamous around the globe for its flippancy and excess, developing a sense of gratitude for the necessities that nourish and sustain us can be difficult.
Twenty-years later, I am contemplating on my mother’s plight. Our children are at that age where when they ask you for a bomb pop from the ice cream truck and your response is, “I don’t have money for that right now,” they look at you suspiciously because of course you have money – you’re an adult! I can’t blame them, really; it sure does appear like everything is accessible, at least if you want it badly enough. Credit cards, adjustable rate mortgages, and divorce lawyers are great for plowing through all kinds of pesky barriers between the happiness we deserve and our state of discontent; nothing’s out of reach in this day and age. This is why, perhaps, the Orthodox Faith, to many Americans, seems especially austere, and dare I say it, even somewhat superstitious what with all those sacramental hoops one must jump through to get to God.
Throughout the early stages of my conversion, during conversations with friends who questioned the appropriateness of a theology endorsing formal confession, fasting before Eucharist, overly scripted services and a whole host of other hocus- pocusy looking practices such as chanting, incense burning, candle lighting and icon kissing, I fumbled through attempted explanations on the balance between wanting to earn God’s approval and presumptuously assuming that no efforts are required. I was still in analytical mode, trying to win over my well- intentioned skeptics with the perfect combination of Scriptural and historical facts, but a deep-seated appreciation for the resurgence of holiness within our spiritually lackadaisical society is best understood by way of first-hand experience. Until your own soul has transcended the innate limitations of time, casualness, and rationality, it is hard to comprehend how respect for Christ in the form of an adherence to ancient traditions and asceticism can actually magnify God’s grace and goodness.
This past week, my son, Benjamin, unearthed a bright red egg from within the ominous recesses of our refrigerator.
“Cool, mom,” he said, “Look at this! Can I eat it?”
“That’s probably not a good idea,” I answered, before going on to explain how dairy products are susceptible to spoilage if not consumed in a timely manner. The question that we then had to ask ourselves was what to do with something that had been part of a basket full of treats, all blessed by our priest after the Paschal Divine Liturgy. I’ll tell you, it was a privilege – an honor to pass on to my family our Orthodox conviction that there certainly remains in this world plenty of things to take very seriously. “We believe,” I told them, “as Orthodox Christians, that because this egg was set aside and sprinkled with holy water for the purpose of celebrating Jesus’ Resurrection, it would be better to bury or burn it than to let it sit and mingle with old and stinky trash in a garbage dump. This made perfect sense to my children, whose hearts have not yet become tainted by more “mature” tendencies toward the embracing of cynicism - toward a lack of admiration for ceremonious displays of reverence.
The kids and I grabbed a shovel from the garage and loosened a patch of soil next to our strawberry plants. Priscilla carefully laid the egg in the space we had created for it; it’s brilliant shade of crimson contrasting dramatically with those subdued tones in the surrounding rocks and grass. I’d been impatient that morning, more flustered than usual by the bickering, and accumulating chores hindering substantially my ability to rejoice in God’s provisions. Having to pause in the middle of my busyness in order to dispose deferentially of a Paschal leftover, a symbol of our victory over death, was like a calming yet firm hand being placed upon my shoulder directing my attention away from the draining weariness of motherhood and onto the goal of Salvation. Rather than deflecting from His redemptive work on the cross, I promise you that the richness I see, smell, hear, taste, and touch within the Orthodox Church, throughout this journey toward the Kingdom of Heaven, makes me all the more aware of my dependence upon Christ’s compassion - makes me that much more grateful for these tangible and sacred opportunities to be reminded of His mercy.
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