A Constant Journey: A Review of Led By His Love

“Often people who don’t have to struggle for something take it for granted.” Those words, spoken by Fr. Gordon Thomas Walker of blessed memory, are core to the stories, experiences and testimonials found in Led by His Love: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey to the Orthodox Faith. Published after Fr. Gordon’s repose in 2015, this book is a memoir that tells many stories: Fr. Gordon’s upbringing in rural, Baptist-dominated Alabama; his journey into evangelical preaching and campus mission work; his discovery of Orthodoxy that would guide he and others towards forming the Evangelical Orthodox Church; the transition from the EOC to full welcoming into the Orthodox Church; and a long period of service as the priest of St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tennessee.
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Complemented by testimonies from parishioners, fellow clergy and his late wife, Mary Sue, Led By His Love is not just a personal story, but also serves as a space to tell the story of those who were a part of Fr. Gordon’s world. While it is not the first account of the transition from the Evangelical Orthodox Church into the Antiochian Archdiocese, it has a unique role in examining how one’s former upbringing can play an important role in Orthodox life. Fr. Gordon speaks of his Baptist upbringing as an organic part of his childhood, rather than as something to denigrate or shun, and the stories of preaching as a Baptist minister are connected to his life and work as an Orthodox priest. It is not only a story of personal faith and work, but also a narrative of the joys and struggles of preaching. From the book, the reader is able to understand that the journey to Orthodoxy does not conclude upon one’s entering the Church.
The account of Fr. Gordon’s journey is honest, with struggles equally matching successes, yet never fully overtaking the blessings that are revealed to the reader. The transiency of his work as a Baptist minister is perpetual, and the chapter in which he and other members of the EOC find themselves disappointed while on their journey to Istanbul reminds the reader that the road to Orthodoxy, no matter how close one may be to being a part of it, is often rocky and filled with struggle. Many people who were touched by the lives of Fr. Gordon share their stories towards the end of the book, demonstrating the positive impact that he made upon their lives through his ministry work, both in parishes and in Grace Ministries, which he founded to serve youth. It is very clear throughout the book that, in spite of his many great deeds, such work was only possible through his wide-ranging and benevolent supporters, many of whom receive detailed descriptions about their own journeys to Orthodoxy. Many of these supporters have been instrumental in bringing many non-Orthodox into the Church, and their impact on Fr. Gordon’s work does not go by unnoticed.
All in all, Led By His Love is an accessible, personal and deeply moving read, one that can be enjoyed as a positive, faithful account of a life in Christ, yet one that also serves to show to both Orthodox and non-Orthodox that the journey is constantly taking place.
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New Book Review: Two Become One

I just wrote the latest book review for Ancient Faith Publishing, for the book Two Become One: An Orthodox Christian Guide to Engagement & Marriage

Very few Orthodox books start with a riddle such as “One becomes two. Two become one. One becomes two. From two, one comes. And we begin again. One becomes two…”

However, when talking about engagement and holy matrimony, a riddle is not only appropriate, but a framework for helping people to understand the meaning of marriage in an Orthodox life. Fr. Antonios Kaldas, a Coptic priest based in Sydney, Australia, and Ireni Attia, a Christian counselor, worked together to create Two Become One: An Orthodox Christian Guide to Engagement & Marriage. Inspired by a variety of sources, including pre-existing Coptic curriculum for young adults on relationships and marriage, this book shares many qualities with textbooks in that it is clearly organized, filled with discussion questions, and designed for reflection and contemplation.

Starting from the “marriageability” phase to the married life of a couple, Two Become One guides its readers in a way that provokes a lot of thought about how they can grow, and be genuinely transformed, through engagement and marriage. Focusing on how to find a properly compatible spouse, the text not only talks about compatibility as an important part of a relationship, but dives further into the different layers and types of compatibility necessary for a couple. Part of it is to help the reader in their quest to find the right person, but also, in their words, to avoid experiencing deep disappointment: “…if marriage is about practicing Christlike love, then it involves loving someone in precisely those moments when he is least lovable, sticking by someone when you get nothing out of it, and finding and embracing the beauty in someone when she is at her ugliest.” Difficulty and disappointment are interpreted as organic, realistic parts of a marriage, and that is a major strength of Two Become One.

Reflection questions abound in this book, and are designed for couples to discuss together in order to learn more about (and from) one another. Questions such as “What does agape love mean?” or “In what ways is your home like the Church?” serve as thought-provoking prompts on the meaning of marriage, and can serve as a constant source of conversation for couples new and experienced. This book’s focus on having authentic relationships that do not shy away from struggle is clearly stated, and the book clearly lays out what couples can expect in a marriage in terms of emotional and physical struggle. What makes the book unique is that important parts of both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox wedding rites are incorporated into the discussion, highlighting the differences between Greek and Coptic traditions. It also features scripts for couples to read through in order to understand how to work through complicated situations within a marriage.

Overall, Two Become One is an accessible, thought-provoking, and powerful resource for anyone who wants to dive further into a stronger understanding of love and marriage in the Orthodox tradition. Whether someone is looking for a spouse, or found their 50 years ago, there is something to offer for all its potential readers.

“Just Between You and Me, My World Is a Flood.”

A lot of my favorite songs from my tweenage/teenage years are turning 20 (or even 25) years old. 25 years ago, I was almost 9; 20 years ago, I was turning 14.
After writing my post on my faith background, I’ve had more and more memories of what my faith life was like as a kid. As I mentioned before, I grew up in the United Methodist Church, starting when I was 8, and ending at 18 (I was also part of UMC campus movements on a scattered basis until I was 24). In our small rural parish west of my hometown, everyone had multiple roles to play. Growing up, I lit candles as an acolyte, helped usher and collect offering, bussed tables and sold sodas for the annual Chicken Supper, led younger kids around during Vacation Bible School, and just spent a lot of time at the church as my mom was co-leading a lot of the youth ministry work, among many other things.
Part of that involved spending many trips at Family Christian, or our local shop, The Vineyard, where my mom was often searching for curriculum, VBS kits, or a variety of Bible study materials. During this time, I was responsible for entertaining myself in the store, which sometimes resulted in playing the so-bad-they’re-good Wisdom Tree NES games, reading the books in the children’s section, or perusing the comparative religion section (a likely factor in my conversion to another faith). I never lacked for things to look at or do, which was good because we were sometimes there for a long time.
Part of the experience was always getting a chance to park yourself in the music section, and it was a time when you could find Christian punk, ska and hip-hop (it was the mid-to-late-’90s) among groups like Newsboys, Point of Grace and the mainstream favorites dc Talk and Jars of Clay. Some of the music held up very well, but some of it simply faded out because it focused more on copying and Christianizing current popular genres, rather than creating music that was simultaneously meaningful and well-crafted.
In switching to a faith that doesn’t incorporate much in terms of contemporary music (at least not in a liturgical setting), I’ve had a different lens on a lot of the music I once listened to at the stores. What I found was that the music that found a mainstream audience actually had the most staying power, because the ideas and the stories that came from them could relate to a lot of people, regardless of their church’s worship style. Having themes that a lot of people can relate to, rather than very simplistic and escapist lyrics, seems to bring these songs staying power.
When I was in fifth grade, Jars of Clay had a hit song with “Flood.” Part of a debut album for their senior project at Greenville College, Jars of Clay managed to strike a chord with lyrics such as
Rain rain on my face
It hasn’t stopped
Raining for days
My world is a flood
Slowly I become
One with the mud
But if I can’t swim after 40 days
And my mind is crushed
By the crashing waves
Lift me up so high
That I cannot fall
Lift me up
Lift me up when I’m falling
Lift me up I’m weak and I’m dying
Lift me up I need you to hold me
Lift me up and keep me from drowning again
A song about deep struggle seemed to fit well into the music scene of the 1990s, which featured broody, reflective and confessional songs backed up by acoustic guitars. A year or so later, dc Talk, who started out as a hip-hop group at Liberty University (the alma mater of several of my Orthodox friends), managed to have a top 40 hit in the United State with the song “Between You and Me”- a song about confession and reconciliation:
Just between you and me
Confession needs to be made
Recompense is my way to freedom now
Just between you and me
I’ve got something to say
Later on, the song has a verse that goes: “If confession is the road to healing/Forgiveness is the promised land.” These songs, while not intentionally written from an Orthodox perspective, focus on struggle and reconciliation through confession. They touch on topics that have been present in discussion for thousands of years, even if the genre of the time wasn’t part of 1st-century musical life. Frederica Mathews-Green, in her book At the Corner of East and Now, discusses how some things transcend time, and others fall prey to bending to current-day consumer tastes:
More up-to-date attempts to make faith relevant can make the mistake of adopting the ever-present vernacular of consumerism, and offering Jesus as a product that will solve all your problems and make you happy. This justifiably provokes a “What kind of a fool do you take me for?” response. But strangely enough, in a way it’s actually true; not the fixing-all-your-problems part, but the way in which his presence takes root and spreads, producing peace and joy no matter what life’s circumstances.
Looking back, the deeper themes of these songs drew me in, and were a subtle part of my path towards Orthodoxy. These songs continue to resonate with listeners, going beyond the trends that made them popular. They focused on the personal will to embrace Christ in the midst of struggle, and not expect a handout, but to push ourselves to realize our hunger and thirst for God, and to become closer to Him through confessing our struggles (and eventually reconciling with those who may have hurt, or been hurt, by us).
One wonders what dc Talk and Jars of Clay would do if they became Orthodox. Would they follow the pattern of the members of Luxury, and become Orthodox priests? Or would they become passionate promoters of the beauty of the Church’s artistic practices?
Either way, the fact that they continue to keep listeners thinking for longer than a blip of a trend, is saying something in itself.
When you find your thing, do it. See how you feel. See how it changes the picture over time. See how it sorts the body—with time and patience, with consistency and care, as Liturgy sorts the spirit, as seasons sort the garden. -Angela Doll Carlson, Garden in the East
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Almost everywhere we have lived, we have tried to plant a garden.
In our small apartment in St. John’s, I created a container garden. In our backyard in Bowling Green, I created two small raised beds to raise tomatoes and zucchini. And in Cedar Rapids, I created raised beds, as well as worked with Jen and the girls to create a flower and tomato garden.
In St. John’s, I literally had one yield: a carrot that was one-inch long.
In Bowling Green: two large tomatoes and a zucchini the size of my forearm. The zucchini plant died out within a week of harvesting. The tomato plant withered away during a major heatwave.
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In Cedar Rapids, none of our transplants grew due to too much shade.
We were not necessarily 1 for 3, but more like 0.5 for 3. Things grew a bit. But nothing grew in abundance.
Until this year.
All of the previous gardens, for the most part, have been my pet project. However, this year was different in that all four of us were involved in the process. Over a weekend, we potted flowers, got a tomato plant ready to go, pulled weeds and put up things to make our front porch and yard more home-like. The girls help Jen water all of the flowers. I tend to mow and help pull all of the weeds from the front garden, and the girls will throw all of the weeds in our yard waste bin. The process became a family project.
porch flowers
Green wall of tomatoes
On our back deck, we have one cherry tomato plant that we’ve wrapped around the rails to create a sort of “green corner wall” effect. And it’s growing dozens and dozens of what the kids refer to as “squirty tomatoes” (a reference from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood). Every two or three days, the girls pick new tomatoes from the plant, and we eat them as a family. They have been so well-received that, when Mari’s friend ate one, and then ate a grape tomato from Aldi afterwards, she couldn’t eat the latter, and promptly spat it out.
It’s had me wonder: why didn’t the previous gardens work out? One by one, I was able to remember why. The first did not have enough space to grow roots. The second didn’t have enough of what it needed to keep growing beyond one zucchini or two tomatoes. The third had too much shadow from the trees, and wasn’t well thought out.
In some ways, the gardens we have attempted to plant reflected our failed attempts to put down roots as a family. We either did not have resources, or we did not plan for other possibilities. But in our third year of being in one place- a first for our family of four- we thought small. Flowers to bring beauty and joy, and one tomato plant that we could focus on cultivating. We didn’t think about large-scale plans to grow a massive backyard garden. We were neither ready nor interested in doing so.
geraniums
In Garden of the East, Angela Doll Carlson talks about how hope does not come from what grows in the future, but the processes that come from the present-time acts of cultivation:
The hope is for the harvest, but that hope is not deferred until it comes to fruition. It is no longer dependent on a future version of the garden but on the beauty of this moment, this leaf, this twig. It is present in the now of what I am doing, how I am moving, eating, or resting.
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Stepping big ideas back, and focusing on what can be done at the present moment, rather than on what is missing, helped to bring growth and beauty. The joy has been longer-lasting, and we have found togetherness as a family in keeping our garden beautiful. Jen, who had never been very interested in gardening before, has been very committed to making sure our flowers are watered, properly maintained, and given what they need to survive and thrive. Rosi loves the feel of dirt and grass on her feet, and being with us as we tend to the garden. Mari has managed to earn a Girl Scout Journey from her working alongside us.
We are together as a family, which is important given that we have experienced many things in the last year that, in some cases, divide people and tear them apart.
Every single marigold bloom, and each green tomato that grows red, is another remainder that we, in an era of transience and rootlessness, have remained in place.
Tomato success

Garden in the East/Midwest

“Well…Are You Coming Back?” Folklife and a Journey to Orthodoxy

I was recently asked by one of our area priests if I had even written my “journey story” about becoming Orthodox, especially because I had become introduced to Orthodoxy because of my graduate studies in folklore. It was said that my story might be of benefit to younger people, so I have decided to share it on the blog.
November 2009. It is right before Thanksgiving break. Comprehensive exams are over, but finals are approaching. It is my third of four semesters at Western Kentucky University, where I have been pursuing a master’s degree in public folklore.
It was an eventful semester; not only had I passed my MA exams and portfolio defense, and started applying to doctoral programs, but I had also  decided to stop attending the local Unitarian Universalist church, where I had been a member for most of my master’s.
 It was a major decision that had a lot of rooting in a sense of spiritual disaffect and instability. Growing up as a baptized Catholic, yet being raised in the United Methodist Church, I never felt completely at home in either community, even though there were many parts of each that proved to be influential and important in my life. After spending most of my freshman year at Indiana University as part of a Lutheran community, I eventually found a home in an ecumenical Protestant campus movement, which was focused on nonviolence, peace work, and alternative forms of worship, such as Taize services and Iona Community prayers. That center shut down in the middle of my sophomore year, leaving me to feel spiritually homeless. In my first anthropology class, the way that religion was discussed led me to feel backwards, or even delusional, led to questions of whether or not what I believed was completely real. Combined with the frustrations I experienced in my frequent arguments with reactionary fundamentalist preachers on campus, I felt a strong sense of disillusionment, even to the point where I wasn’t identifying as Christian for at least a year of my life. 
In trying to find a new home, I eventually found the Unitarian Universalist (UU) movement, where I spent most of the next four years, occasionally attending services elsewhere and even going to other faith groups. This included Tibetan Buddhist teaching sessions, Catholic mass, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group meetings. Additionally, I had become part of the permaculture movement, taking a summer course and looking deeply into the theories of deep ecology and ecosophy. This cut-and-paste method of religious/spiritual adherence was considered integral to the DIY-style faith work of the UU movement. Part of the UU worldview is to build one’s own theology, rather than necessarily rely on a solitary theological viewpoint, and I used that freedom to read a lot of material on asceticism and monasticism. Some of it drew from Buddhism, but most of it came from studying ancient Christianity and contemporary monastic movements.
During my senior year at IU, I studied abroad in Estonia, where I saw Orthodox churches for the first time, but never made efforts to understand their meaning. They were aesthetically intriguing, but theologically, I did not see a need to come closer. Once I left for graduate school at Western Kentucky, I attended another UU church, but also joined a local chapter of the Wesley Foundation, which was the Methodist campus ministry. They were very accepting of me being part of a UU community, and the campus minister, Sami, helped bring a common connection between Wesley and the UU: a love for Thomas Merton, who had been part of a Trappist community two hours north of where I lived. I read his book The Wisdom of the Desert while in graduate school, and I found myself captivated and drawn to the way in which the stories of the Desert Fathers are like folk narratives. They are short, personal, and story-like in nature. They have a function of teaching people worldview, and they bring people together. I had always been drawn to personal experience narratives, and this emerged in my folklore studies; for my Folk Belief course, I had researched the personal narratives of people who came to Buddhism via being involved in the punk subculture, and personal accounts of faith life, as people lived it, always grabbed my attention.
For an independent study, I was conducting an ethnographic survey of why people became members of UU communities. I was curious as to how people found their way to UU communities. However, as I did my research, I discovered that I personally did not share this journey, and decided to leave the church. The stories I had hoped for- joy, hope, etc.- were ones of resentment, bitterness, and anger. I did not want those feelings to become part of my story, or at least to define my story.
While this break could have been more visceral in nature, something about it felt like a clean break. I had been told by a UU minister that I might only be there temporarily, and when I moved on, I did not experience any difficulty. To have somewhere to go on Sundays, I began attending Sami’s church, a large-scale Methodist church with extensive outreach work. I was at peace there, and felt like I was building up a relationship with people at the church. It was becoming more like home.
And then, one day, I got an unexpected invite.
To attend a group talk on a Tuesday night.
I had no idea what to expect.
Yet I did not hesitate to say yes.
A few days later, I’m sitting on an unfinished floor of a new mission community, Holy Apostles Orthodox Church. There are no carpets, the walls are rudimentary, and the space- a side part of a strip that featured apartments, an industrial parts store, and a tattoo parlor- is largely unfinished.  (Only a few months before, I had received my one and only tattoo at that shop, a painful experience that I do not wish to relive.)
The only people I know are two classmates and friends: Tim and Janine. Both of them were classmates in the Folk Studies program, and we had all taken a course together on Folk Belief.  Tim, a native of California who grew up Southern Baptist, listened to stories of people who converted from the Church of Christ to Orthodoxy. Janine, who came from Memphis, had been working on a project on iconography for our Folk Arts & Technology course.
Both of them talked to me about my spiritual life. One day, Tim was brave enough to tell me that he was deeply concerned about my spiritual and personal health. Though I am very grateful for his challenge and concern, I was livid at the time, and did not want people telling me how I should and should not believe. I had gotten so consumed by a desire to create my own path, and do my own thing, that I had isolated myself in the process.
Janine, through her class project, guided me in a different way. She shared her books about iconography and the Church, as I’d always been interested in sacred art. I was always intrigued by the art of the liturgical churches, which seemed to be completely absent in the life of our UMC community. It sometimes felt subversive to be drawn to mosaics of saints, holy cards and commanding church architecture, but more than anything, it was an underlying desire to connect more closely to the liturgical life in which I was baptized, yet not raised.
The priest was Fr. Alexander Atty (+2014), who was the priest at St. Michael’s, and who oversaw our parish. Fr. Atty was well-known for reviving the parish in which he served, and later went on to become the dean of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He was direct, calm, and firmly devoted to the faith. I had to sit next to him, on the floor, because there were no chairs. Every once in a while, during his talk, he would look down at me and say, “How are you doing down there?” I smiled and responded, “Good.” I hardly remember anything that Fr. Atty said the first time that I met him, but I do remember one strong moment where he looked at all of us and said, “This faith is here, it has lasted this long, and it is going to be here for you always. Even if you’re not always a part of it.” And then he looked down at me and said, “Well…are you coming back?” I can’t remember what I said, but I think it was something along the lines of “I think so.”
What was unusual was that I didn’t have a moment in which I said “I am going to start going to this church.” It was more of a process in which I kept going, like I had found home, and I started transitioning towards Orthodox prayers, Orthodox life, and being part of an Orthodox community. I visited the now-deeply-missed Alektor Cafe in Nashville, where I met Fr. Parthenios and his wife, Presvytera Marion. There, I bought my first prayer book, as well as my first prayer rope, and some of my first icons. I started reading books such as Clark Carlton’s The Faith, Met. Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Church, and the Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim. 
For two months or so, I started to immerse myself in the life of the Church. I read, learned new prayers, began to spend time with the other members of the church, and even started helping with the construction of parts of the Church’s interior during my off-time from class or work.
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However, when I started the process of fasting, I had an unusual experience, and one that I will not forget. One day, after eating a fasting meal of fried rice with shrimp, I began to feel incredibly ill, and became more sick than I had been in years. I ran an extremely high fever, was vomiting regularly, and was unable to eat. I could not do much other than sleep.
In this sickness, I had a dream that I was at the church again. However, I was not standing with everyone, but was instead lying on the floor, and dying in front of my new friends. All of them were circled around me, and they were praying. They were praying for my health, and my salvation, and they were surrounding me as if I was one of them.
I woke up as if I had never been sick. I had no further symptoms, and when I told the story to my friends, they could not believe it.
I don’t think it was more than a week later that I made the decision to join the Church, and in February 2009, I was made a catechumen by Fr. Atty. Five months later, I was chrismated Padraic, taking St. Patrick of Ireland as my saint as a reminder of how to cope with the past as a place of hope, rather than fear.
I was very fortunate that the majority of my friends, family and colleagues have been very accepting of my conversion, even if they themselves don’t wish to be a part of it. For some of my friends, it has resulted in family estrangement, or the loss of friends. 
While some people have changed vocations upon converting to another faith, I kept going in my studies. If anything, I was instead able to do my work with a stronger sense of purpose. Fr. Atty was very supportive of the three of us studying folklore, and now that I have been a part of the Orthodox Church for ten years this year, I have found that studying the everyday, and the way in which culture is lived and embraced on a daily basis, has only strengthened my faith life. In Folk Belief, as well as a later course, Ethnography of Belief, I learned about Leonard Primiano’s concept of “vernacular religion,” described as “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand and interpret it.”
Vernacular religion can mean the ways in which people work around the boundaries and regulations of their faith communities; example studies have included things like Catholic and LDS humor, legends about overly strict priests, and adaptations of high sacred art. However, this is not always the case, and many studies seek to highlight how vernacular religious culture works to uplift and affirm a religious worldview. Over the years, I found myself very inspired by the way in which LDS folklorists- many of whom came through the Utah State and BYU programs- studied their faith culture as a way to understand it, and used that experience to not only educate people about their faith, but also help others to become better at practicing and living that faith. They study their world in a critical and reflective manner, without being disparaging or denigrating to said world.
One of the ways that Orthodox theology connects to vernacular religion is that there is space for a large variety of voices and interpretations of a certain belief process. Fr. John Behr, in his foreword to the book The Ways of Orthodox Theology in the West, notes that “the tradition, theology, and lived reality of the Orthodox Church is perhaps best compared to a symphony, diachronically and synchronically polyphonous, comprised of different voices, each lending its own particular tonality and timbre, in a composition not composed by any particular voice but by God who, as St Irenaeus of Lyons put it, “harmonizes us to the symphony of salvation.” In our differences, and in our variety of understandings, we are successfully able to exist, rather than being divided. In one voice, there are many voices that help to contribute to the greater whole.
After my chrismation in 2009, I continued to study- sometimes academically, but mostly personally- a lot of personal experience narratives of Orthodox believers from various worlds. The narratives are diverse. They can include people’s encounters with well-known figures of the Church, such as the famous Russian priest Father Arseny, or the recently canonized Greek saints, St. Paisios and St. Porphyrios. Many personal narratives are self-published through blogs that express the struggles of being young and Orthodox, or an Orthodox parent of children with disabilities. Even digital folklife, such as Instagram posts about Orthodox life, Facebook shared quotes of the Holy Fathers, or memes featuring Ryan Gosling as an Orthodox boyfriend, have stories to tell.
Of course, the processes of our faith fit extremely well into the folklife world, not only in our processions and celebrations, but also in the everyday processes of keeping things going within a parish community. Iconographers, vestment makers, prosphora bakers, choir members, and camp counselors all form folk groups within the larger Orthodox folk group. Priests, clergy wives, and priests’ kids, are groups to themselves, each with their own unique folklife (the term “PK” is folk speech in itself). Traditions such as cabbage roll making, folk dancing and SOYO/GOYA basketball also add additional layers of folk culture to our faith; while not officially part of the liturgical world, they play a complementary role in community-building among Orthodox believers.
To put in simply, for every official practice, such as the sacraments and the Divine Liturgy, there are many small, subtle things that, while more vernacular and everyday, are important in the building of a faith life in the Orthodox world. By focusing only on the official, rather than a combined sense of official and unofficial, we are at great risk for focusing more on Orthodox theology as theory, rather than what it truly is: a theology based on daily, lived practice.
That sense of daily, lived practice is how I, as a folklorist, have been able to find a home in the Orthodox Church. In folklife, you look at how the small things make the biggest differences. You listen to multiple voices and understand how they exist in relationship to one another. There is no single interpretation of a Gospel verse, or of the stories surrounding saints. But there are frameworks for those interpretations that serve as a guide for living out this theology. And within those frameworks, a lot of creative beauty forms from everyday life.  Many monastics spend most of their days doing that manual labor as an obedience, yet also as a channel for their devotion to prayer. Their work, whether in cleaning the trapeza, making prayer ropes, or baking prosphora, becomes prayer; it is rarer for a person to come to Christ solely through reading Scripture, or studying theology. Those simple tasks show how a person can grow in their faith through simple tasks, such as baking, cleaning and taking care of others.
This is a simultaneous combination of folklife, prayer, and theology. And beyond the monastery, our everyday lives are a space for theological practice. It’s not an easy practice, by any means. But it is very rich in meaning, and that meaning is found in the ways people understand the faith and live it. Even when I have struggled, that faith, as Fr. Atty has said, is still there.

“Do Not Make an Idol of This Place”: When Love and Loss of Place Collide

What do you do when a place is incredibly beautiful to you, and deeply meaningful, but in order to grow as a person, you must leave and settle elsewhere?

That question is one I think about a lot, especially as I have been working on settling into our current home. I have lived in a lot of places with significant meaning. My home town and county, with its rich history, river-carved landscape and Midwest/Southern influence. An Estonian city known for its deep intellectual life and long history. The oldest city in North America, and the easternmost point of the continent. A desert city surrounded by mountains. And two college towns, both near home and both extremely influential in how I live my life.

Recently, I watched a beautiful short film called Journey to Pascha, which was created by a catechumen/photojournalism student who attends my former parish in Kentucky. Although I am a proud Hoosier, I will not deny that I also love the state right across the river. I spent many summers and car trips through the state, visiting family, seeing different historic sites, and eventually attending graduate school there for two years.

I came to Kentucky less than two months after returning home from a semester in Estonia. The transition was initially difficult, but the more I dove into the life of the place, the more I loved it. When I began attending the Orthodox mission near my university, it only solidified the love. In my last semester of graduate school, I found myself surrounded by a group of people who had either made a lifelong effort to be a part of the faith (sometimes driving up to 2 hours each Sunday for Divine Liturgy), or who had found it, and wanted to spend their life in the Church. Even after graduating, and moving back home until I moved to Canada, I spent my weekends in Kentucky with people from the parish. It was, simply put, where I felt most at home.

I wanted to return as soon as possible, and when I had the opportunity to return to Kentucky for work, I did. However, as I was transitioning back to life in the US, my new spiritual father, Fr. Michael Nasser, gave me very short, but very important advice:

“Do not make an idol of this place.”

It was not even nine months later that I found out that my job would not be renewed for a second year. It was not a decision that I could control, and one that I was deeply disappointed by. I had tried extremely hard to settle in a place that I loved, and would have to either find alternate work in the city, or leave again. I did nearly everything I could to stay, even applying for things that really didn’t fit with my skills or experience, just to be able to remain. However, it was to no avail, and with few other options related to my field, I began to look elsewhere, eventually finding an opportunity in Tucson.

Ultimately, it was the right decision. In Tucson, I had the support I needed to finish my doctorate, and the strength to eventually find work that could properly support my family.   Meanwhile, in Kentucky, I saw the university I studied, and worked for, gradually strip away the office in which I worked, leaving it in such a state that it did not even resemble itself. Even now, people are continuing to get laid off, or their positions are being eliminated after they retire. It is very likely that even if I had remained working there, I would not have a job.

However, the feelings of missing the place still exist. They come and go in waves, and the feelings are simply that. They can exist, but they ultimately cannot take care of a family.

However, in losing a place (even temporarily), there can be much to gain. One of the most striking stories about loss of place comes from the life story of St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalyvia. St. Porphyrios ran away from home at the age of 14 or 15 to escape to the Holy Mountain, eventually becoming tonsured as a monk with the name Nikitas. However, his stay was relatively short-lived:

While he was on Mount Athos he suffered a bout of pleurisy at about the age of eighteen and his elders sent him to a monastery outside Athos for treatment. At this monastery on Euboea he met the Archbishop of Sinai, Porphyrios, who, after observing that the young monk had been visited by God’s Grace, ordained him as a priest at the age of twenty. A little later the local metropolitan bishop made him a spiritual confessor and so the gift of clairvoyance with which God had endowed Porphyrios was placed at the service of the faithful. With this gift the young hieromonk and spiritual confessor Porphyrios helped people to escape from various snares of the Devil, to understand what was going on in their souls, to reject the deceitful claims of witches who drained them of all their money under the pretext that they could break the spells that afflicted them, to discern and heal their bodily ailments and their causes, and generally to see and understand things that would help them in their lives.

Eventually, not long before his repose in 1991, then-Elder Porphyrios returned to the Holy Mountain, settling in the same cell that he had to leave some seven decades before. He returned when the time was right, and the impact that he made as a result of leaving is not without notice.

While a person grows from leaving a place, it can be a great challenge. One of the best literary examples I can think of is that of Alexei/Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha, a novice monk, is sent by his elder, Elder Zosima, to leave the monastery, which causes Alyosha great sorrow and inner conflict:

“Let me stay here,” Alyosha entreated.

“You are more needed there. There is no peace there. You will wait, and be of service. If evil spirits rise up, repeat a prayer. And remember, my son”—the elder liked to call him that—“this is not the place for you in the future. When it is God’s will to call me, leave the monastery. Go away for good.”

Alyosha started.

“What is it? This is not your place for the time. I bless you for great service in the world. Yours will be a long pilgrimage. And you will have to take a wife, too. You will have to bear all before you come back. There will be much to do. But I don’t doubt of you, and so I send you forth. Christ is with you. Do not abandon Him and He will not abandon you. You will see great sorrow, and in that sorrow you will be happy. This is my last message to you: in sorrow seek happiness. Work, work unceasingly. Remember my words, for although I shall talk with you again, not only my days but my hours are numbered.”

[…]

Father Zossima raised his hand to bless him. Alyosha could make no protest, though he had a great longing to remain. ”

I have written before about how we shift between worlds of vulnerability and worlds of familiarity in our lives. Worlds of vulnerability bring new experiences, new wisdom and new outlooks, but those come through struggle. Worlds of familiarity exist for the same purpose, but they are often a place of re-centering, rather than de-centering.

Sometimes the same place is, for better or worse, a bit of both. As Alyosha returns to the monastery upon the repose of Elder Zosima, a series of events occurs that unravels all that he previously thought to be true. He struggles, because the world he loved is not, in fact, the world he saw before his eyes. The romance and the naive longing for a place wears off, like we often see in travel literature about places like Paris, which are quite beautiful in some places but dreary in others.

The challenge of struggling where we are, rather than thinking of someplace where we might struggle less, is a great one. But, as St. Porphyrios demonstrates, leaving that place of familiarity, even in a process of sorrow, brings us closer to home, and brings us towards our ultimate goal.

Small Things, Great Joy

When there is a respect for small things, there will be an even greater respect towards the bigger things. When there is no respect for small things, then neither will their be for the bigger ones. This is how the Fathers maintained tradition.

-St. Paisios the Athonite

Like a lot of people, the time after Pascha has been difficult. After putting so much energy into the Lenten season, the challenge of avoiding a crash is a big one, and I’ve certainly fallen into the pattern (again). It comes at a time where a lot of things happened around the time of Pascha (e.g., an exhibit opening, a dance competition, etc.), and since then, I’ve been in a sort of survival mode to keep going until the next wave rises.

Additionally, my daughter’s had a resurgence of some of her pre-medication symptoms, which has made things really, really difficult at times. Granted, I was fully aware that this could happen from time to time, but when it did, I don’t believe I was fully prepared for it, and as a result, I started to become despondent. In those moments- where you’ve had a wave of joy and it starts to fade again- you fear that you will lose it, and lose it forever. It’s difficult not to say “Why? We just got things going again, and now it’s setting back before our eyes.”

In that process, however, I have realized that things are always going. Life never stops going. Rather, it tends to go high, or it tends to go low, with the intention being the same: to help us realize our connection to God, and His intention for our lives.

Recently, I was listening and watching to the recent series, “The Comforter,” a homily series by Fr. Nicholas Louh that is featured on his podcast Healthy Souls. Focusing on the sending of the Holy Spirit, Fr. Nick spoke of the Holy Spirit as a comforter, and comfort comes in the form of focusing on things that are praiseworthy, rather than following more earthly matters that don’t tend to glorify God. One of the most powerful quotes that came from the homily series was very simple:

“You will never have peace following the other voices in your life.”

More often than not, the person who puts those voices in my head, is me. In public, if one of my children is struggling in front of other people, my thoughts tend to wander to the voices of the other people around me, and forget about the cry for help coming from the struggles of my kids. When I hear people talk about things they recently bought, or journeys that might be going on, I sometimes fall into the trap that, in order to be worthy of personhood, I have to incorporate those things into my life as well. It is very, very hard, especially growing up in a generation that is struggling more economically than those before them.

Even those though things are of this earth, what I eventually realized is that they have no roots in something bigger. Fr. Nick’s series had a well-stated fact about our connectivity: “You’ll never grow fruit if you’re not connected to the root.” Things on the surface often lack those roots; that’s why they are on the surface in the first place. At the same time, the process of establishing and building those roots is not something that can be done in the course of a few weeks, or a year. Roots grow for a lifetime, and they grow if we are feeding them, and keeping them connected to the soil in which they grow and take hold. Building those roots is how peace is acquired, and according to Fr. Nick, “We need to be able to tune in, follow and be comforted by [the Holy Spirit]…when you wake up in the morning, God is knocking at the door of your heart…”

In times of struggle, it’s hard not to speak up, and be transparent, and up front. It’s hard to not want to shout from the world, “I am a human, and I am having a horrible wave of frustration, anger and despondency, and I want your respect and attention.” Admittedly, I’ve been on the side of over-sharing, and not processing those emotions before projecting them out into the world. This can lead to trouble, and bring people into situations that they may not be able to properly understand or respond to.

In one of his Comforter homilies, Fr. Nick noted that has a profound effect on our actions, and it’s not just rooted in feeling, but in thought: “the way we think determines how we feel; how we feel manifests in the way in which we act…Negativity will never grow in a giving heart.” In times of trouble, giving, and working together, has been the way to overcome the waves of struggle. And in these times, waiting for a giant, sweeping deus ex machina to come through and smooth things out will only disappoint. Instead, as St. Paisios stated, the small things will make all of the difference.

The way that we have responded at home is to undertake smaller, but more meaningful actions. I confess that, for all of my Orthodox life, I did not have a firm prayer rule until this spring. And, when i finally received one from my spiritual father, it was smaller than the one I had forced upon myself. As a result, it’s easier to adhere to, and my prayer life has been more consistent and regular.

In our home, being renters means that we cannot engage in large-scale renovation or restoration, but are instead limited to small but helpful changes around the house and garden. In the last few weeks, we have turned our weed-laden yard into a tidy, colorful garden space, and the processes- the little ones- have brought our family together in a new way. My kids adore watering, weeding, and having the chance to cultivate and grow their first flowers, herbs and tomato plant. My wife and I are working together to create small decorative pieces that add a sense of optimism and beauty to the space.

I recently reviewed the new Ancient Faith Publishing book by L. Joseph Letendre, When You Pray,  and it featured the advice of turning very small moments into prayerful moments. I thought of some of the prayerful moments that I have lost from small tasks at home and work: transferring laundry to the dryer, taking trash and recyclables to our backyard bins, and even cutting construction paper for our many school tours. I haven’t made a full list, but it’s not a bad idea. In those moments, a small and tedious task suddenly becomes a moment of prayer, and thus a moment of joy.

Eventually, all small things could become moments of prayer.