Ancient Faith Radio

Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. Beginning with this podcast, I would like to spend the next several podcasts on a topic that is close to my heart: the topic of Discipline. I had quite a few people respond to both my “Sin No. 5” podcast on gluttony as well as my “Work as Contentment” podcast and I was struck by their interest in this topic, since in our modern society, discipline seems to be a somewhat taboo subject.  So, I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of discipline when I recently had a conversation at coffee hour with a parishioner who is a branch manager of one of our local libraries where she often helps people at the reference desk. She remarked that books on discipline are frequently sought out at the reference desk. “Well”, I thought, “I guess I’m not the only one thinking about this.” So, for the next few podcasts, I am going to move away from the topic of vestments and the historicity of our liturgical garment tradition in order to explore discipline in more depth. For those of you who just can’t wait to hear more about “loros” and Roman senatorial dress, don’t worry—I’m doing more research on the history of deacon’s vestments, so please be patient with me!

Discipline is often considered a negative word in our modern society—a concept associated with deprivation and stress, with not “living our dreams”, but rather trudging through the vale of tears that life is. But in the Orthodox Church, we see Discipline as a path to salvation. As Orthodox Christians, are we always negative and always stressed? Are we all living like monastics with nary a bit of entertainment or excitement in our lives? Do live by rote schedules and empty prayers? Personally, I think not, (pause) as I have found the discipline of the Church to be a fountain that constantly waters my life, a true gift that provides grace and sustenance and real joy. So I thought I would begin today by sharing my story:

I have been blessed with two vocations in my life. First, of becoming an Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical tailor, a vocation based in almost 2000 years of history that requires a great amount of specialized knowledge and careful attention to detail, and secondly, a wife and mother. This series on discipline was born of these double vocations that initially seemed so at odds with one another; after all, how does one have the concentration to cut into an $800 piece of brocade when the baby is crying and the 3-year-old is asking questions about the solar system?

When my first daughter was born, I had completed three years of apprentice work in the field of ecclesiastical tailoring and was just beginning to accept my own clients. I thought my little sewing business would grow very slowly and be just the perfect amount of very part-time work for a busy new mother. But then a thing called the Internet happened and a friend of mine offered to design a website for me. It seemed like such a high-tech representation for someone who was essentially still utilizing early 20th-century technology like an industrial sewing machine that had only one stitch option, that I did not take it seriously. Little did I know the great tide of information that was going to be so widely accessible was going to change my life. My business began to grow very rapidly and within a few years, I had clientele in all of the major Orthodox Christian jurisdictions.

This realization of my vocation as an ecclesiastical tailor gave me so much joy and brought so many blessings, many of which were imparted by the sheer repetition required by my craft. Do a thing 10 times and you began to get good at it, do it 100 and you began to understand it, do it 1000 times and you begin to be one with it, to find prayer welling up through the work. I found my work inspiring me not just through the sheer delight that becoming good at something provides, but by compelling me ever farther on my spiritual journey as it gave me a way to truly “pray with my hands” and find a kind of solitude that was elusive to my high-energy nature. Since my first exposure to Christianity in my latter childhood years, I had dreamed wistfully of “being still and knowing God”, but I couldn’t even manage the sitting still, so the ability to find prayer and solitude through action was of great benefit to my spiritual life. It turned out that vestments were my salvation.

At the same time I was learning the lessons of my craft, I was learning to be a mother. I don’t believe it edifying for unfortunate childhoods to be dwelt on and I also trust that our loving God gives us just the childhood we need, so suffice it to say, that my own childhood was not one I wanted to replicate with my children. My journey of motherhood was one of continual searching and continual questioning.  I didn’t have a mother to emulate and go to for advice so I needed to create the mother I wanted to be to my children. I took nothing for granted, but approached even the simplest parenting questions or predicaments with much thought and analysis. When it came time to decide upon the all-important question of how we were going to educate our children, my husband and I chose homeschooling. While I had done well in a combination of public and private school, I regretted the sheer amount of time wasted throughout my education. I rued the time spent in study halls and poorly-delivered lectures and wished I could have used the time for reading and further developing my sewing and handcraft skills. And, there were so many things about homeschooling that worked for our family: given my husband’s ever-changing schedule as an Orthodox priest, homeschooling allowed him to spend time with our girls during the day if he was going to be away in the evening; it allowed my children to work at their own pace in the learning style best suited to their needs, something that was becoming very necessary with our oldest daughter who began reading at age 4 and in two short years had reached college-level reading ability; and finally, in the older years, it offered the possibility of a great deal of flexibility and time for my daughters to allot to a chosen vocation or occupation, be it music or math or organic gardening.

So, I found myself at age 33 with a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, a thriving business, and a 12-year program of homeschooling to implement. Daunting, to say the least, this life of two vocations put me in an unusual postion: I wasn’t completely a stay-at-home mother since most days saw me working a minimum of 4-5 hours, either early in the morning or late at night and I wasn’t a “career” woman because I was with my children every day, raising them first-person. It was an uncommon world to inhabit and my life began to feel somewhat isolated and compartmentalized. When I was with other mothers, I talked baby equipment or math curricula, but a few short hours later found me on the phone with a client in New Zealand or a supplier in New York. I didn’t know any other mothers who were trying to both work and homeschool and everyday I felt I was in uncharted territory.

This juggling of the vocation of motherhood and the vocation of my craft was not what I had envisioned for my life. I had pictured mornings spent on math lessons and afternoons baking cookies. Educating my daughters at home was one of the cornerstones of my life and I often remarked that I would give up my vestment work if I had to make the choice. But when it really came down to it, I did not want to give up my vestment work. I loved it and it fed me on so many levels.

During the preschool years when many mothers feel that every day goes by with work undone, I might be wiped out from getting up at 5am to sew, but I could be standing in my basement workshop looking at a completed garment every week. And in my heart, I knew I was supposed to be doing this work, that I was somehow particularly suited for this task and the thought of abandoning it quickly became a matter of conscience, not choice. To leave aside my vestment work would be returning the gift that God had temporarily loaned to me. Every time I felt overwhelmed by the demands of my dual vocations and was tempted to quit my vestment work, an unbidden image of myself arose standing before the Judgment throne of God, trying vainly to give an answer for throwing away something so precious and dear.

So, I labored on, working early mornings, during naps, and then a few years later, switching to working afternoons along with one 15-hour day per week. I juggled homeschooling curriculum requirements with the hours I needed to spend at my work, constantly refining my approach to this somewhat crazy life I had created. When my children’s friends visited, they had to understand the rules of the workroom: no touching scissors, no touching brocades, basically, no touching anything in the workroom (of course they could take home tiny scraps of brocades and this became the incentive for many a playdate at our home).

I had to turn down dates with friends for coffee with the ever-present deadline excuse. I saw other mothers go to the park in the afternoons and had to admit to a bit of resentment since each afternoon saw me cutting canvas or ordering buttons or sending faxes to Greece. Summers found me in my basement workroom 30 plus hours a week, making up during the one time of the year I wasn’t actively homeschooling. Old traditions were laid by the wayside—my week-long Christmas baking extravaganza, something I had done since I was a newly-married 18-year-old, suddenly became one batch of cranberry bread that I squeezed in between the Christmas vestment deadlines.

I struggled constantly with guilt and fear—had I short-changed my children and my family in order to serve my own selfish creative needs? At one particularly low point, I was strongly considering giving up my vestment work in order to focus more on my children when my husband made an insightful comment that has stayed with me since: I was bemoaning the time my vestment work took and he remarked that if I wasn’t making Orthodox vestments, I would be doing something even more arcane like reproducing the garments of the 17th-century nobility. He made the point that despite what I thought I wanted, be it afternoons in the park or lots of fresh-baked Christmas cookies, I was somehow going to find my way to the workshop every day to make something.

This conversation became a turning point for me, because it brought focus to my life: I was a person who needed to make things and I was best served while serving the Church. And when I was best served, spiritually and emotionally, then my family would be best served—you all remember the old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”. I began to think of more historical models of motherhood, in which the peasant mother tended a large garden as well as many children or the pioneer mother who made her own soap (boy, I bet that took some time!).

I began the long struggle to lay aside the guilt and fear and to recognize that my children were reaping benefits from my work as well. Our family had a very strong sense of community, because we all had to pull together. If I worked late to finish some order, my husband would start dinner. My daughters learned to unload the dishwasher and cook their own breakfast, which eventually led to both of them loving to cook. I was witnessing the fruit of our family labors and I began to feel comfortable with my dual vocations and started to focus on how I was going to not only exist, but thrive, in the next twelve years.

And here is where Discipline enters the picture. Most of you who have listened to my podcasts know that I am by nature a rather organized, orderly person. While I was managing my dual vocations, this ability to organize and schedule definitely stood me in good stead. But talk to the most organized person you know and you will probably find that they have a horror of procrastination or that clutter makes their skin crawl (both are true for me). There came a point in which no matter how much I scheduled and planned, there was just going to be more work than I thought I could get through, more brocade to be cut or more math lessons to be taught. Reaching this point of being overwhelmed, despite the best organizing, was where I met the discipline of the Church.

The discipline of the Orthodox Church is quite simple and paradoxically the most challenging thing you’ll ever undertake. At its barest understanding, it is comprised of three simple ascesis, or labours: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. Before we begin examining these specificially, however, we need to take some time to look at ascesis in general. 

Ascesis: I love this word. Ascesis is not the idea of self-flagellating, despair-producing work; rather, it is the opposite. The whole point of ascesis is to draw us closer to God, what many Orthodox Christians refer to as “theosis” or union with God. You see, as Orthodox Christians, if we truly believe in the Holy Trinity, then we want to be with the Holy Trinity, experiencing true communion with the Creator of All—this is what we long for and have a foretaste of in each Divine Liturgy. But, our souls are laden down with sin and we find it difficult to start our journey to God. So, God, in His ever-present mercy, gives us the gift of ascesis.

As humans, living in a fallen world, work is inevitable. We must till the soil or at least bring home the bacon and our lives are encompassed by work from the day we’re born until we die. We just cannot escape it, so God gives us ascesis as its opposite, a kind of resurrected work, a work of redemption that puts us on the path of salvation and keeps us walking towards greater and greater union with God. It’s very important to establish this difference between what I’ll call worldly work and ascesis, or spiritual work, because it’s more a point of view than an actual task. Shovelling barkdust or cooking a meal can be either drudgery or prayer—it’s completely up to the person performing the task. But performing work with a worldly mindset, with its drudgery and despair, leads to nothing but more sin and despondency, while executing tasks in a spiritual mindset leads to the Kingdom of Heaven. When I began to scratch the surface of ascesis, I realized there was a Big Picture here and having that set before me helped motivate me to approach my days with focus and joy.

So the first and most important thing I learned about Discipline was the attention I needed to pay to my outlook. My busy days filled with history lessons and baptismal robes that kept me working through the evening? I could view these as either a chance to grumble and complain about my lot or as an opportunity to move just a little farther along the path of salvation. Not that I’m an expert, because believe me, I can grumble with the best of them; but it set the standard of what my days needed to be.

I began to understand that discipline and ascesis were gifts, great treasures given us by God to help us on our journey back to Him. They were weapons to fight the passions and bring calm and focus into our lives. They were good and in being good, were from God. I started to think of discipline as a tool.

Now I use tools every day—everything from knitting needles to seam rippers to an industrial sewing machine. I like tools and feel quite confident using them; after all, I’ve been sewing for nigh on 30 years and knitting for twenty. It’s been a long time since I was a newbie with a tool until last year when I learned to work a chopsaw in order to install some picture rail moldings in our new house. For those of you who don’t know what picture rail is, it’s a piece of molding about 1-1/2” tall and has a rounded top edge. It’s attached about 1/2” down from the ceiling of a room and there are small brass S-hooks that fit over the rounded top edge. You attach cording to any pictures or artwork you want to hang and then slip the cord over the brass hook, thereby keeping your walls free of nail holes and making it easy to move artwork around if you so choose. It’s one of those things that was commonly installed in old houses because nail holes in lath-and-plaster walls are a definite nightmare and is one of those just-plain-brilliantly-practical old house finishes. So I decided to add it to the rooms of my new house. But first, I had to learn to work the chopsaw my dad was going to loan to me.

Now I’m great with knitting needles and seam rippers, but I don’t have such a good track record with mechanization (there was a particularly bad incident that involved a paint sprayer, my kitchen, and three separate visits from the paint store employee), so I was quite hesitant to use it. My dad brought it over and we set it up in the garage. I put on my safety glasses and then to my husband’s great amusement, I put my icon of the Theotokos next to the saw. I really felt the need for some protection since I could potentially take off a limb or at least a finger with this loud, scary-looking saw. But, I wanted that picture rail molding and the chopsaw was the only way I was going to get it. So I plugged it in and began figuring out the angles on some scrap pieces of wood. Soon, I decided that even though my dad made using the chopsaw look as easy as peeling a potato, flipping the saw this way and that depending on what he wanted to cut, the best way for me to operate it was to leave it just where it was, set at a 45 deg angle and move the pieces of molding accordingly. It was an awkward beginners move, but it accomplished the task. Over the course of a couple of days, I managed to install my picture rail molding, and even though my corners weren’t perfect, I was pretty pleased with myself.

That was last year and this past week saw me installing more picture rail molding, this time in my daughters playroom. I was amazed that when I began to work the chopsaw again, I had more comfort and familarity. I certainly wasn’t going to be appearing on “This Old House” any time soon, but I knew what to expect. And, I had learned a great tip from a fellow parishioner who also likes to do home improvement—get everything as “true” as you can and then smooth out all of the gaps with caulk. Houses settle over the years and there is no way you can get a perfect angle on moldings, so when you’re all done, you carefully fill in all of the imperfections with caulk. Once the caulk is painted over, it looks smooth and beautiful. I used this trick on my recent moldings and was just amazed at the difference—what had looked so-so on my first attempt now looked fantastic and professional.

So why am I telling you this long and dreary tale of chopsaws and picture rail moldings? Because it illustrates a lot about using discipline as a tool. When you first began to introduce more discipline into your life, you need to be aware that you are using a very powerful tool. You need to proceed carefully and be safe—the spiritual equivalent of putting on safety goggles. Whenever I use the chopsaw, I make sure I’m not alone, that someone is in the house and can hear me if, God forbid, I take off a finger and need to be rushed to the emergency room. I “chopsaw in community” and so should we all when we practice discipline. We need to be living in community be it family, parish, or monastery, in order to live a disciplined life. We need to surround ourselves with people who can help us, who can rush us off to the spiritual emergency room if we get in over our heads.

When using any powerful tool, there is always the heady vision of its potential. I look at the samples of multi-layer crown molding at my local hardware store and I am in awe. I dream of one day learning to chopsaw that well. But I realize that, at least for now, my ability to chopsaw is quite limited and I need to proceed slowly, carefully and with order. I always set my T-square to the back of the saw so I don’t accidentally push it off the table and break a toe; I always keep the cord to the right of the saw so I don’t trip over it. I have order and method to assure success and safety and the same is true of discipline. You don’t begin to live a disciplined life by attempting to say the Jesus Prayer for 3 hours every day just as I don’t attempt layered crown moldings right now. You take small steps and keep your eyes fixed on the prize. There were times during my project I was tempted to despair—would I ever get a correct 45 deg angle installed properly? But, slowly and surely I kept at it. I dreamt of lavish crown moldings, but I looked at my little picture rail moldings with pride and a sense of accomplishment—sure, they weren’t lavish, not by a long shot, but they were Step 1 on my way to crown moldings. There might be Steps 2-20 to get through, but I had learned Step 1 and I was moving forward. I had momentum.

Sharpening one’s skills, both physical and spiritual skills, takes time and it’s important to remember that some ascesis’ take more time than others. Learning to say, “Bless, O Lord” before every task is somewhat simple and straightforward, learning to pray with unceasing prayer is, of course, a much longer process.  There needs to be humility and grace in approaching the task of living with discipline and we need to avoid the spiritual pitfall of biting off more than we can chew. I could have attempted multi-layered crown moldings as my first project, but I most likely would have ended up with a garage full of unfinished moldings and possible bodily injury. By starting small, I was fairly confident of making progress, however slight.

And this is where I learned the final picture rail molding lesson—the lesson of caulk, as I like to think of it. Being rather perfectionist, I was a bit unhappy with my initial molding installation—the corners weren’t perfect and it drew my attention when I entered the room. But once I filled in the corners with caulk and painted over it, it was a magical transformation—they suddenly looked just like the moldings at my previous 1940s house. In the world of discipline, love and mercy are the caulk—the things that fill out the corners and transform a humble beginner’s efforts into the work of a professional. This is why it is so vitally important, so spiritually necessary, to keep love and mercy at the forefront of our attempts to live more disciplined lives. Without them, our attempts look unsightly and unfinished. Our labours are in vain. We need lots of love and mercy, both towards ourselves and towards others, in our spiritual journey. I tend to be rather hard on myself and one of the many lessons I learned about discipline was to show love and mercy towards myself. Days where my schedule went off the rails or we missed a history lesson, days that always threatened to put me over the edge and leave me wallowing in despair, just needed a little caulk of love and mercy. I began to realize that I would never speak to my daughters in the way I often spoke to myself, berating myself and putting myself down for not accomplishing something and so I turned it around and began to talk to myself as if I was one of my daughters. It felt really silly at first, but it was an excellent exercise in learning to caulk all the corners of my life with love and mercy.

This was the beginning of the fruits of ascesis for me and where I really came to embrace discipline as not just a tool, but as a gift and a treasure, one that had a seemingly endless store of lessons to teach me, each lesson bearing fruit upon fruit, in rather unexpected ways, like learning humility through a chopsaw!

Because as time went on, I began to realize that ascesis, while it brings many spiritual fruits like peace, self-control, and love, also brings joy and contentment. For when you’re working on something, no matter how mundane, and you’re approaching the task with a good spirit of ascesis, then the work mystically becomes joyful. To borrow a phrase from Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green, I’m not trying to go all “woo-hoo mystic” on you, but I don’t know a better way to explain it. It’s certainly not an every-day occurrence (at least, not yet for me), but there is an experience of joy. I’m pretty tired, both physically and mentally, by the end of a 12-hour day on my feet doing measurements and cutting brocades, but I frequently have the sensation of being physically very tired, but very joyful. I look over the work I’ve done, and the work yet undone, and everything seems to fall into place. I’m content with what this day brought and what the next will bring. This sensation also has the effect of displacing guilt or fear or other passions of thought, with the knowledge that God has given the strength you needed for today and will supply for all of your needs in the future.

So be it chopsawing or the Jesus Prayer, let us approach our lives with discipline and ascesis, with the knowledge that in discipline and ascesis, our man-loving God has given us the gift, the tool, the treasure that will assist us to draw ever closer to Him.

In Part 2 of this series, I will cover the Traditional Disciplies of the Orthodox Church: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. Please join me.