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Abase and Abound

May 23, 2009 Length: 19:15

How good are you at going with the flow? Can you "abase and abound," as St. Paul mentions in Philippians? Kh. Krista uses her experience making cassocks to consider this topic.

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Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. This past week found me overjoyed at finding a fabric for which I had been searching almost two years. When I began making cassocks and vestments fifteen years ago, I pictured myself sitting happily at a sewing machine, stitching away, maybe saying the Jesus Prayer. Quiet, peaceful, meditative. What I did not imagine was myself on the phone ten hours a week, asking questions like, “But are you sure they’re real bullion tassels, not thread tassels?” or “What do you mean you are no longer producing black crepe satin!?”. I never expected to buy 100 buttons at a time, much less learn that wholesale buttons were sold by the gross, which is 12 dozens. I never thought of the great amount of fabric that I was going to have to procure and that would eventually cross my cutting table. So much for the peaceful scene at the sewing machine.

You see, I’m a bit of a snob about fabric; in fact, my family refers to me as The Vestment Snob, and while they usually laugh when they say this, it’s true—I am absolutely a fabric and notions elitist. While I’m not that picky about food and I never know whether to click “aisle, center, or window” on an airline ticket, I’m fanatical about thread (Tex 27 grade, please, in custom color “Mellow Yellow”) and wool (tropical-weight, twisted gab preferred, but will accept plain finish) and buttons (half ball shank, mifin, not amber gold). I spend weeks considering new supply purchases and last week alone was on the phone three hours trying to locate a new tassel supplier. I have been known at least once to take out a home equity loan to purchase fabric (it was a really phenomenal wool and who knew if I could get it again in six months?!). Obsessive, I think not; I prefer to consider myself “committed”.

So when about two years ago, a client approached me with the challenge of finding a cassock fabric that would withstand the rigors of construction (he builds houses for a living), I was in! It seemed the longest he could make a cassock last while hammering and nail-gunning was six months, tops, and the denim of these garments was heavy and uncomfortable. He asked me to keep an eye out for a fabric that was light, yet tough enough for the construction trade. Well, I’m a girl who likes a challenge and so I devoted quite a bit of thought to this project. It really required me to go out of my comfort zone of mostly natural fibers and begin to explore the world of synthetic fibers, which for someone of my ilk was a little bit like going over to “The Dark Side”. For years, I’ve extolled the wonders of natural fibers like wool for cassocks-“Cool in summer, warm in winter” and I’ve been highly suspicious of anything with the words “polyester” in it. Every Greek supplier I’ve used over the last few years has at some point tried to sell me “maroken” a polyester that wears like iron, doesn’t wrinkle, but is a bit like wearing a custom-tailored Hefty Bag since it doesn’t breathe. After all, I was married to someone who had to wear these things in the heat of summer and I knew things on my home front weren’t going to be pleasant if I put my husband in a non-breathing synthetic cassock round about July.

One thing I had going for me in my search for super-tough cassock fabric was that I live in outdoor-clothing-extravaganza-land. With sportswear giants Nike and Columbia calling my neck of the woods home, you can’t throw the proverbial stick without hitting a piece of outdoor clothing. There’s so much Polarfleece and supplex nylon around here, it is often difficult to tell men from women and then add to this the vast quantity of snowboarders, well, it’s performance clothing wonderland. And, when Nike or Columbia is making all of these high-tech garments, there’s bound to be leftovers; in fact, LOTS of leftovers. So many leftovers that there is an entire business in my city that deals with end-of-production runs and overstocks. Their warehouse is almost the size of a football field with 20-foot-high ceilings and bolts of fabric literally floor to ceiling. They’ve got Polar fleece and supplex nylon and swimsuit fabric, and even everything you need to make a scubasuit. Once I began looking at synthetic fabrics, this was the logical place to go. On my first trip, I found a wonderful fabric that was everything I needed—it had a little stretch, was 100% nylon, which meant it would not fade, and it was “wicking”, which meant that it would draw perspiration to the surface of the fabric and keep the wearer cooler. Perfect, I thought, I’ll take black. Well, come to find out, I could buy it in day-glo orange, forest green, lake blue, pewter gray, but no black. I bought some in pewter gray and was told to call back in a few weeks for black. I made up the initial cassock and my client was thrilled—it was comfortable and tough. Really tough, as I later found out—he stapled it with a staple gun to a deck he was building and it came through with nary a scratch. Wow, I thought, this is perfect. A few months later I saw him at the monastery and he recounted accidentally running the cassock through a chainsaw and then I knew—this was it! Eureka!

So I began calling the wholesaler every few weeks, looking for black. While gray cassocks are perfectly appropriate for Orthodox clergy, they just aren’t as versatile—you can’t wear gray to a funeral, most clergy prefer black for Sunday usage, and in some areas of the world, gray is an indicator of marital or monastic status. Well, I’ve been calling the wholesaler every few weeks or months for the last eighteen months with no luck. Two weeks ago I had to turn down yet another client who called to order a performance cassock in black. That’s it, I thought, I’m going down there and combing through every bolt in that warehouse if necessary until I find something in black that will work.

I walked through the doors with a determined smile and was just about to inform them that I was going to be there all day looking for black fabric, when I was greeted with, “Hey, look what we got in this morning—your black fabric!” There were four fabulous rolls of my black performance fabric in all of their deep, inky wonderfulness. I came home with a carload of fabric, happy as a clam. This silly happiness lasted for days. Something normally irritating would happen, say, my broken sink handle falling off yet again, and instead of scowling, I’d just smile to myself and say, “I’ve got black performance fabric!” It was a panacea for my every ill and I just couldn’t wait to get my scissors out.

In my euphoria, I sent out a general email to my clients, just to let them know that black performance fabric was available the next time they were thinking about purchasing a cassock. I hit the “Send” button, went to get a cup of tea, and by the time I returned, had 3 orders in my Inbox. Glory be to God, I thought, new orders. By the end of the day, it was up to 7 orders and within 24 hours I had taken orders for almost double that amount. My voice mail was full, my email was full. I had inadvertently started a black performance cassock rush! By the end of the second day, I was feeling a little overwhelmed—“Ummm, glory be to God?!” How was I going to get all of these garments out in a reasonable amount of time? I wrote up invoices, put everything on my schedule and prayed.

The day after this, I was out in the workshop for one of my cutting days. On these days, I have a strict routine—in at 8am, light incense (smells great and helps keep the moths away), sweep the floor, and put on one of on my “Johnny Cash Reads the New Testament” CDs. Now, I know you’re laughing right about now, but a dear friend gave me this recording, which is the entire NT, unabridged, and Johnny Cash is a really good reader. He has a pleasant, soothing, and neutral voice. He doesn’t over-emote and the words of the NT come through loud and clear. I took up this discipline of reading through the NT every time I begin a cutting day when I realized that my unchurched childhood had left many gaps in my understanding of Scripture. I knew I didn’t have time to sit down and read the Bible every day, what with kids and parish duties and sewing, so this recording seemed like a godsend. And it has been.  I now end up listening to the NT several times a year, and because of this repetition, whole sections are starting to become familiar to me. Hearing the Gospels frequently keeps them fresh in my mind and I never tire of hearing of St. Paul’s trials and tribulations as a Roman citizen, which read to me almost like an adventure story.  The letters and exhortations to the infant Church are spiritually cleansing and refreshing. And, each time, it seems that a different portion jumps out at me, catching me by surprise.

So, there I was this week, scissors in hand, listening to Philippians, which is a sweet and endearing letter. St. Paul seems quite close to this community and provides them with very loving direction. Philippians 4:8 is one of my favorite verses in the Bible and so I was really paying attention to it:

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It was this verse that kept me from leaving Christianity behind when as a teenager my creative nature began to assert itself. At this point in my life, I felt instinctively, albeit immaturely, that God was beautiful and that beauty emanated from God, despite my Protestant church leaders who tried to convince me that beauty was somehow idolatrous. “Phooey”, I thought, “it’s right there in Philippians”. I held onto this verse for dear life and it’s owing to it that I remained a Christian, eventually finding my way to Orthodox Christianity.

But I know this verse well and when it came around again this week, I was curious to hear the remainder of the chapter. It goes like this:

“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.
I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me; you were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am in, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”

It was the later part that really spoke to me:

” I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”

Now I would be lying if I told you that being a wife, mother, khouria, and ecclesiastical tailor is easy or smooth.  Long ago, I realized that the plate of my life was so full with the choices I had made, that something was always going to be falling off. And, I am a person who hates a messy plate. I like organization and order. I actually enjoy scanning the calendar aisle of the stationery store and I’m always interested in some new way to color-code, organize, or plan.  I like having plenty of time to do everything I need to do and reaching the end of the day feeling successful and productive, with my To Do list items neatly checked off.

For longer than I can remember, I reach the end of every day, with things undone. My work, be it cooking or laundry or making cassocks, certainly abounds and there are days I wish I could be abased for a change. More than once, I’ve had the fleeting desire for a good head cold, just so I can lay on the couch for a day or two. But with my extra full plate this week, which included more cassock orders in three days than I usually take in a month, I was practically hyper-ventilating. How was I going to do it all? What was going to have to fall off my plate to make room for this? Messy plate alert!

Yet here was St. Paul, who had been in chains, in shipwrecks, hungry, and tortured, and he’s calmly announcing that he’s got the secret. “in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”

Most of us can identify with “facing hunger” or “facing want”. But what really jumped out at me in these verses was that St. Paul spoke of “facing plenty” and “facing abundance”. “Facing” something implies an inherent challenge, a discipline, something for which we have to stand and hold our ground. That these situations of abundance and plenty bring with them unique challenges just like hunger and want seemed deeply insightful. I feel incredibly blessed to be doing the work I do—it suits me down to my toes and I’m humbly grateful. However, I’m also physically exhausted after spending fifteen hours cutting yards and yards of fabric and I worry about my kids on the days when I’m still at my desk when bedtime rolls around. I have my doubts about trying to work and raise a family every time I forget to do the laundry or go grocery shopping because I’m so absorbed in my work. I have an abundance of work and blessings, but it does require a certain “stand and face it” attitude.

Awhile ago, my husband was visiting one of our shut-ins, a woman in her 80s. They were chatting and she was inquiring about our family. My husband noticed that her eyes lit up whenever he spoke of our daughters and their antics, and the general craziness of life with young children. She began recounting stories of her own children and he told me there was an amazing change that came over her. It was as if that was the time of her life she felt most alive, most needed, and the memories were very dear to her. My husband realized that she envied the stage of life we were currently in and when he recounted this poignant interchange, it made both of us stop and think.  I’ve tried to keep this perspective when the dishes aren’t done or we ran out of eggs, again. The perspective that I am “facing abundance” and it’s a really good thing.

Because, truly, we all are facing abundance and plenty. We face an abundance of blessings and miracles every day, a God of plenty who showers us with mercy and love. These things that make us feel overwhelmed, these duties that seem to sap our bodily energy, are really our path to salvation. Because the “secret” is right there: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”

When my burdens and blessings seem like too much, then that’s when I’m forgetting the secret. I’m thinking that somehow these things are “mine” and I’m clutching them to my soul in a greedy and selfish fashion. In the case of plenty and abundance, this can take the form of the passion of self-martyrdom, which is really a form of pride as we become increasingly wrapped up in our own little world of duties and responsibilities. The secret is that there really is no difference between the two poles—plenty and hunger, want and abundance—they are God’s to begin with, loaned for a time to bless us and teach us. “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” We have utterly no strength of our own—I couldn’t breathe on my own, much less lift a pair of scissors, without the grace and mercy of God.

One of the most incredibly blessings I have been given is my daughters. Raising children is one of the most intense and creative experiences I’ve yet encountered in my life, but it certainly has its ups and downs. There are days it just seems endless—is anyone around here ever going to learn to wash a dish of their own volition? But, when I begin to feel overwhelmed, I try to remember that the whole reason that I have the work and the worries and the chores is that I have children. That I am blessed, miraculously blessed with two wonderful daughters and that together as a family, we can do all things in him who strengthens us. So, we keep on keeping on as the old saying goes and every once in awhile, something beautiful happens to remind us of He who provides all our blessings.

This Saturday morning was a lovely morning. After a very rainy spring, we were expecting a bright, sunny day with the temperature in the 80s. I sat at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of tea before beginning my morning duties, looking out the window at the lovely day. I began to hear a faint, ethereal sound and for a few moments, I couldn’t place it. Suddenly, I realized it was my daughters singing together in their bedroom. My girls have been steeped in everything from Baptist hymns to Byzantine chant since infants and they love to sing. They recently learned an old hymn from some friends and my youngest daughter was singing the melody while my oldest sang harmony. For a mother’s heart, it was a beautiful moment, a wondrous manifestation of my daughters harmony, both spiritual and physical. Despite the undone dishes and the sibling spats, here they were on a sunny day, singing.

And it was with sweet moment that the entire passage from Philippians finally clicked into place in my mind.

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

For when we know the secret of facing hunger and plenty, want and abundance, that “I can do all things in him who strengthens me”, beautiful things occur. Things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious. When we learn to be abased and to abound, miracles happen. And we will be surrounded with these things to think on, showered with an abundance of blessings and mercies from our loving God.


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