Guiding Self-Discovery of the Sacraments: A Review of A Child’s Guide to Confession

Sometimes a sequel is just as solid, if not better, than the original.

In the case of A Child’s Guide to the Divine Liturgy, its sequel- A Child’s Guide to Confession– is a good example of that. The “gold book,” as it is often called by my youngest daughter, has been a big hit with her and her sister, who’ve been able to take the book and use it during Divine Liturgy to make connections. Taking the simple text, vivid and relevant illustrations, and pocket-sized portability of the original, A Child’s Guide to Confession builds upon it, with simple but meaningful additions such as a guide for parents.

When I told my oldest daughter (who is almost 8), about the book, she was excited, and when it arrived in the mail, she immediately started to look through it, saying she liked the illustrations and the questions that children can use to prepare for confessions. Many of the questions are similar to the simple “red prayer book” that is often sold in Orthodox circles; my daughter, who loves and frequently uses her red book to pray, had no problem making the connections between the two.

For parents who are working to guide their children through the sacrament of penance, this is also a good resource to learn how to best approach it: through more prayer and thought than reading. The process of thinking and preparing highlights the experiential nature of confession in a way that kids and parents can easily understand. There is also space for children to write their own prayers, as well as a glossary to help define unfamiliar terminology. The section for adults, “A Short Guide for Parents,” is both encouraging and realistic, reminding parents to not helicopter their children into coerced confessions, but to instead serve as a model of repentance for our kids. Given that parents are encouraged to serve as models, A Child’s Guide to Confession is accessible enough for older children to use and model the sacramental process for younger children. It is not only a well-designed resource, but one that should be a vital part of an Orthodox family’s bookshelf and icon corner.

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Nature, Like White Paper

The Live Script

notbusy5

We aren’t really playground material.  Unless, that is, if no one else is using it.  Then it can become an obstacle course for an intense game of tag or a jungle gym for my children who find no joy nor challenge in the “correct usage” of the equipment.  They go up the slides, climb on top of the swing bars, and try to spin themselves into white-knuckled, near-projectiles on the merry-go-round.

My four year old climbed a five foot fake boulder at a playground while I watched from about ten feet away.  Another mother was soon spotting him from below, asking anxiously, “OH HONEY!  Where is your mommy?”

“I’m here,” I said, giving a little wave, “He’s fine.”

Her eyes told me that he was indeed not fine, but she moved on.  I appreciate her care, I do.  If he’d been wandering toward a busy road or had been being…

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Lenten Retreat

As the Lenten season begins, I have chosen to take a break from blogging during Lent in order to focus on private reflection, diving further into the Lenten season, and regrouping as we transition into spring. I unintentionally did this for most of the last Lenten season, and I found that it was quite helpful, so I will be on an intentional hiatus this time around.

I’ll be back after Pascha with more writings, thoughts and reviews. Forgive me, a sinner, and pray for my family and I during this Lenten time.

in Christ,
Nic

Prosfora freeform

A gray Saturday outside of a yellow house,
where soon it will smell
of that which gives us life.
A dusty phone wallet,covered in flour,filled with messages and directions.
The flour is in a Target bag on the living room floor. There’s plenty of it.
The prayer is on this Safari link. Do that first.
Soapy water. Not spray. Make sure it is the cleanest that it can be.
Salt. Yeast. Holy Water.Flour sack towels.Toothpicks.
Our seal, in a bowl filled with flower.
Go slow. No higher than Level 2.
Make the sign.
Knead. and pray. and knead. and pray.
again.
And again.
Flatten the dough so the seal will fit.
You will see the prints of the hands who made this,
the hands of those who celebrate
the joyous sacrament
which is coming tomorrow.
Every prayer- every Lord, have mercy on me-
is a prayer for that boy,
whom you love very much.
So hold the seal down,
towel over the top,
and say the Lord’s prayer
over the loaves on top of the stove.
The seal atop the bread,
and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Seal.
Seal.
Seal!
Tomorrow will be that day.
So pray for him,
and those that love him,
as this is your role,
as it was for those days in the bubble,as it is today in this well-floured kitchen,
as it will always be.
As the pans rise in the other room,
may the prayers rise higher,
higher than we could ever go,
and show mercy on us all.

This Lenten Therapy is For the Whole Family, So Grab the Kids!: A Review of Tending the Garden of Our Hearts

“Indeed, Orthodoxy is therapeutic in nature: our Faith heals us, bringing us back to a wholesomeness in Christ so that we are physically, mentally and spiritually well. Great Lent is an important part of this therapy, giving us an annual opportunity to prune back our passions and to refocus our energies on the spiritual life.” Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger

The new book from Ancient Faith Publishing, Tending the Garden of Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families, is the latest resource for families who are working to engage their whole family in the Lenten ritual, while also recognizing that each family has a unique rhythm and flow. Taking the readings-questions & answers format of Kristina Wenger’s well-known youth podcast, Let Us Attend, and combining it with the meditations and family examinations of Elissa Bjeletich’s Raising Saints podcast and blog, the book takes the flow of the Tending the Garden podcast and transforms it into a way to foster more everyday engagement with the many days of the Lenten season. The format is simple: daily readings and daily questions for everyone in the family.

In our family, both the Let us Attend and Tending the Garden podcasts have been staples of our drive to and from Sunday liturgy, and when I told my daughters that there was a book based on the podcast, they were quite excited because they have learned so much from both series. As the daily readings feature Bible stories, saints’ stories, and Lenten lessons, they are a great combination of what my kids love about the podcast: new things to learn, easy questions to ponder, and a style that everyone in the family can appreciate. Furthermore, the additional activities, such as doing crafts or other family projects to match each week’s theme, are great suggestions for families who want to dive further beyond the readings, or for families who need more tactile than textual or aural examples.

In a world where so many daily meditation books focus on completion of a 30- or 40-day nonstop challenge, the Tending the Garden book encourages families to acknowledge their rhythm and their limitations, saying this:

“These are daily meditations, but sometimes that can get us into trouble. Family life can be hectic, and while some days a meditation fits in nicely, on other days…it does not. The Orthodox life is a struggle, and its rhythm is something like fall down–get up–fall down–get up. […] It’s okay to miss a few. Show yourself Christ’s love and mercy!”

By encouraging people to fit the book into their lives as they are, rather than fit their lives into the book as it is, Tending the Garden will be a more effective book for families looking to dive further into Lent. Over the Lenten season, I hope to review this book further, and post about some of the experiences that my family has with its readings and activities. Given its rootedness in very solid and effective podcasts and texts for families, Tending the Garden will be a great addition to any family’s Lenten life.

Vulnerability, the Polar Vortex, and the Desert

Since the early part of the year, there has been so much chaos. First, the government shutdown put a lot of people- especially contract workers and hourly federal employees- in a great state of vulnerability and risk for financial ruin. Many people will be recovering from this shutdown for a long time.

And then there is winter.

At one point this winter, we had a wind chill of -61F.

-61 degrees Fahrenheit.

-52 degrees Celsius. Past the point where Celsius is a higher number than Fahrenheit.

93 degrees below the freezing temperature of water.

The coldest wind chill recorded in area history.

In around five weeks, we have had around 40 inches of snow, and our kids have missed part or all of a school day at least 10 times. There have been many kids in the school system who, as a result, haven’t been able to get their usual breakfasts and lunches (and sometimes even dinners), leading to a greater state of food insecurity. People without vehicles, trying to get to the bus for their jobs or appointments, have had to endure this cold weather- which was at one point described as “life-threatening”- on their feet.

Down the road at one of our state universities, a freshman died of hypothermia, trying to leave the hall where he’d been working. He was only 19 years old.

We’ve basically been told, at several times, to just not leave our house. While the worst has subsided for at least a week or so, it’s still snowing hard every few days, and it doesn’t seem over. It has been difficult to write about, because every time I’ve sat down to do so, it’s started over again.

I’ve been listening to The Second Liturgy podcast with Timm and Thaniel Wenger, and also reading books from the St. John the Compassionate Mission in Toronto. Hearing the stories of people at the Mission, and also reading about what they teach the world about Christlike love, I’ve often ended my listening or reading time with a sense of regret. There were times where people needed help with tasks to help the most vulnerable, such as filling food bags and making hot beverages at the local Neighborhood Association. There were times where I could have brought things. There were times where I’d been at work, wishing I was out on the ground helping people. And that was peppered with bigger structural thoughts. Why are there people who don’t have proper heat? Or enough food? Or enough clothing? And why aren’t we all stopping what we’re doing to take care of them? As important as all of the jobs of the world are, it felt like nothing was as important as making sure that everyone was warm, fed and safe during those times. And when it seemed like we all could be doing better, fighting the urge to wish everyone could do better is not an easy task.

Part of it is a structural issue. When a city floods- as ours has several times- people stop what they’re doing to sandbag, move things out of businesses, and make sure that people have what they need. But when there are snow days, we often think more about the free day we get, and the vulnerable often get overshadowed. For many children, that means no safe space to go during the day, no hot food, and no chance to be nurtured. For hourly school employees, such as paraprofessionals, daycare workers and substitute teachers, that’s a loss of income. We will help during a big catastrophe, but the little moments of struggle yield so much less attention. The dynamics of today’s society, with a focus on production, productivity and speed, don’t allow for us to stop what we’re doing and help in those small times.

Part of it is that the world of vulnerability is like a desert, and while a big crisis like a flood would be represented by a giant sandstorm, the little moments of crisis are more like the typical heat or cold of a desert. People often forget that, even though the sandstorm may be over, the desert is still a place of struggle and vulnerability. It’s either very hot or very cold, and resources are not always there. In one of the Mission’s books, Walking Humbly: The Holiness of the Poor, the desert is discussed as a place of mission, saying that “Orthodox mission is a calling to live a reality that most resembles the desert, the place where the prophets cried out, where Jesus was tempted, and where the desert fathers went to search to live. Healing, hope, poison, demons and snakes are all there, all the time, accompanying the Word, confirming the Word or trying to undo the Word. To be faithful to Christ is all that we are asked.”

In a space of vulnerability, we have one job: putting on Christ. The desert, in the text, is also described as a place of powerlessness and “as a place where one is vulnerable, and without consequence to anyone. In this sense, for us to be an Orthodox mission, is to try to live the same reality of the poor, who also are without power, and are marginalized, and don’t matter to anyone. Such is the place of the desert.” However, there is always growth somewhere in the desert. There are oases, shelters, and places of respite, albeit ones that might be far away from each other. And those who steward the resources can either deplete them to make them barren, or foster them in a way so that they continue to grow. According to the Mission, “Like poverty, this place can be transformed by Love and the Gospel, to a place of great spiritual freedom and joy.”

However, the only way to engage in such transformation is to focus on transforming ourselves. The Gospel lesson of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, in which the despised tax collector is the one to beat his chest and ask for mercy out of a desire for change, makes that quite clear. Change starts within us, and each of us has a different role. Vulnerability is also individualized; one person’s level of vulnerability varies greatly from that of their neighbor. What one person is capable of doing to help vulnerable people, may be completely out of reach for another person. Each is given a specific talent to work with, and to use for the glory of God.

So as the winter continues to be difficult, I have to remind myself not to say “Lord, find some to help them.”

Instead, I have to say “Lord, if I can help them, have mercy on me; if someone else is better equipped for it, Thy will be done.”

The Best a Man Could Be: What a Razor Ad Can Teach Orthodox Men About Metanoia

This is my first collaborative piece on Thoughts of a Metanoia Bum, written in tandem with Jason Streit. A native of Florida who converted to Orthodoxy from Judaism, Jason and I attend the same parish, where we both serve in various roles; Jason is in the restaurant business, and I have the joy to be the godfather to his infant son. Both of us have an interest in the intersection of Orthodoxy and social justice. Combining Jason’s interest in ascetic practices as an antidote to social injustice, with my research background in the impact of masculinities in family and work life, we felt compelled to write the below essay as a starting point for larger discourse on masculinities and manhood within the Orthodox world.

Sts. Paula and Anthony

In January 2019, a new ad campaign for Gillette razors was unveiled to the public. Known for its trademark phrase “The Best a Man Can Get,” the ad featured a group of men and boys engaging in behavior that, while destructive, has been frequently depicted as “men being men,” or “boys being boys.” Fighting. Bullying and picking on others (while being watched by a group of men behind a line of grills). Sexual harassment (both verbal and physical). Speaking (often incorrectly) for the perspectives of women, rather than providing women the opportunity to speak for themselves (known to many as “mansplaining”). The ad shifts to clips of television interviews discussing the #MeToo campaign, with the intention of presenting the pervasive problem of sexual harassment in everyday life. This part of the ad ends with one former professional athlete saying that men need to hold other men responsible, before shifting to another important segment of men who are stopping these problems from taking place. Men pushing harassing men away from their female targets. Fathers pulling fighting kids off of their hapless victim. Men stopping people in the street from trying to go after another man. All of this goes on while children watch- not just boys, but also girls- their fathers/father figures doing what is purported to be the right thing. 

It ends with the phrase “It’s only challenging ourselves that we get to our best.”

Rather than being universally accepted, however, the ad has been eviscerated by many people, with nearly 1.2 million YouTube dislikes (versus nearly 700,000 likes at the time of writing). The video is currently one of the most disliked videos on YouTube, and has sparked a storm of anger from many men, vowing to never buy a Gillette product again. It has also sparked a large discussion about the concept of “toxic masculinity,” a term that has long existed in the field of gender studies, but is only now being more heavily discussed among the general public. Toxic masculinity includes a variety of manifestations, including the suppression of emotions and feelings, a propensity for maintaining an attitude of toughness, and behavior that is driven by violent actions, whether physical or social. Toxic masculinity’s core is control, power-seeking, and domination, and bearing that definition in mind, the behaviors presented in the ad- bullying, fighting, harassment and mansplaining- all demonstrate how toxic masculinity is manifested in everyday life. 

Toxic masculinity is a sub-segment of what is referred to as “hegemonic masculinity”- behavior that justifies the domination of men in society, and that reinforces certain behaviors as masculine, and behaviors outside of those parameters to be feminine. Toxic masculine behaviors such as bullying and mansplaining are considered part of the socially destructive forms of hegemonic masculinity; whereas behaviors such as providing for one’s family and building a sense of solidarity for fellow men are considered socially constructive and a part of building community; toxic masculine behaviors instead promote division, separation, and “othering” of those who do not fit into a specific category of manhood. A simple example could be the bullying that takes place when a boy chooses music lessons over a sport like wrestling. This type of masculinity has proven to be psychologically damaging to males, especially for young boys; in recent studies, the American Psychological Association went so far as to condemn toxic masculine behaviors for their sometimes irreparable harm to men. 

Discussions about toxic masculinity, especially between men, are difficult. Some claim that there is “toxic femininity,” turning the tables and placing the blame on victims. This is a similar rhetorical strategy to discussions of “reverse racism,” or claims of anti-elitism: when challenged, accuse the opposite group of doing likewise. The problem with that discussion is that there is the capability among all of us to express toxic behaviors. Women can bully men. People of color can commit racially-charged acts. The poor can commit acts against the rich. However, when you look at statistics, those are far less likely to occur. Yes, anyone can commit a sin. But some people commit sins more often than others, and when it’s destructive to a group of other people on a wide scale, the fact that women can harass men (yet don’t as frequently) is a distraction technique from the subject at hand. 

Effective change also comes from within systems, rather than from the outside. Through targeting men in their ad, Gillette is asking men to be responsible for themselves. Due to the dynamics of both hegemonic masculinity and toxic masculinity, the backlash towards this campaign, personally, is not surprising. As the United States’ legacy regarding racial and women’s rights can attest, change of any sort is difficult for the dominant population. It is a lot like the old political cartoon I saw of Mikhail Gorbachev asking a giant bear (which symbolized the Soviet Union) to jump through a tiny hoop (which symbolized perestroika and its sweeping changes). It is painful to admit that you have been contributing, whether directly or indirectly, to a larger injustice. Societies debate this long after the injustice occurs, as can be seen in nations like post-World War II Germany, post-apartheid South Africa, or- more recently- Canada’s turbulent history of residential schooling for indigenous peoples. 

If we bring it down to a personal frame, however, we have to ask the question: how hard is it to admit our faults, to take our sins to a spiritual elder, and work towards changing our behavior to avoid repeating our mistakes? Metanoia- either meaning “change of heart” or “repentance”- is constant, and is not a one-and-done deal. Once someone admits their sexism, that’s only the beginning, just as an alcoholic starts the process of changing by admitting that there is a problem in the first place. After all, a symptom of addiction is denial of the problem in the first place, and passionate resistance towards those who might challenge it. 

Understanding what toxic masculinity is, and the traits associated with it, not only help us understand why it is anathema to Orthodox Christianity, but also promotes thought about how Orthodoxy can counter it.
The first thing to realize is that many of the destructive practices that make up toxic masculinity are essentially sins. Practices such as greed, lust, and anger are the kind of sins that are referred to as passions, and St. Paul reminds us that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:24)” Orthodox ascetic practices, such as prayer, fasting and study of the Gospels and Church Fathers, help us overcome the passions and reap the fruit of virtues such as humility, charity and chastity. This change of heart from a passion to a virtue- metanoia- is at the core of Orthodox morality; by extension, it is also a core part of Orthodox masculinity (Note: while this is not exclusive, and is also a part of Orthodox femininity, we have elected to focus on masculinity for this article).

 Through these concepts of passions and ascetic labors, we can see how toxic masculinity is the antithesis of Orthodoxy. It encourages men to celebrate in fulfilling their base passions, such as lust and anger, which are clearly illustrated by the Gillette commercial. While these desires are natural, St. Anthony reminds us that “things that are done according to nature aren’t sins, but those done by choice” such as eating without gratitude, and living beyond the needs to live. Toxic masculinity encourages this excess; in contrast, Orthodoxy teaches that one must fast and pray continuously to overcome the passions, because while these urges will always be there, we must not give into them.

Also, while hegemonic masculinity focuses on domination, Orthodoxy teaches men to empty themselves and to remember what St. Paul said: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20).” In Ephesians 5, St. Paul exhorts men to equally submit to their spouses, and to love their wives as Christ so loved the Church.  Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that love for God is love for one another (1 John 4:16), meaning that toxic masculinity is devoid of love for anything other than self. Through prayer, examining the Scriptures, and engaging in the ascetic practices of the church, we can learn to overcome our passions and embrace a true and healthy masculinity built on love and humility. 

So while many men including in our own Orthodox world, are upset by the claim of toxic masculinity being prevalent in our societies, it may perhaps hurt because it is a reality that has been allowed to fester to the point of being difficult to heal. That is where we must individually ask ourselves- just like the men in the Gilette ad- where does this toxic, un-Orthodox masculinity exist in our individual churches?  Does it exist in parish life, in our conversations with other Orthodox (be it in-person or virtual), and is it obvious (or under the radar)?

As we think about specific examples in our worlds, we must also ask this question: what role can men play in fostering a more detoxified and Christlike way of being male? This role will be different for everyone, but the goal must be the same: to be the best we can be, even if it hurts to admit that we have been gravely wrong in our behaviors, thoughts and word.