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.
It hasn’t stopped
Raining for days
My world is a flood
Slowly I become
One with the mud
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
Confession needs to be made
Recompense is my way to freedom now
I’ve got something to say
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.”
“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.
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.