Pascha and Revelations

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

The Paschal season is always one of great joy.  It helps that Lent is so exhausting–physically and emotionally–and that the culmination is the Feast of Feasts–Christ’s resurrection.

This year was so much different than past ones have been.  I have had numerous flashbacks of previous years’ struggles and joys this Lent and Pascha.  Last year and this year are so very different from each other.  Last year, I attended absolutely every service I possibly could while hurriedly planning a DIY wedding that was to take place about four weeks into the Paschal season.  It was tiring, but everything was worth it.  This year I hardly went to church at all.  Partially because of the 40 days before my churching, partially because of my husband’s work schedule (and one car), and partially because sometimes I lacked desire to–especially if I were going without my husband.  This year is so much harder than any other year, and I have put in so much less effort than I ever have.  I suppose I’ve done all I could this year.  I have to be content that I made my best effort and that if God is gracious to me and gives me another year, then I can do the best I can next year, too.

I know it’s only by God’s grace I’ve gotten this far, and that I got through the past week.  Pascha was much more difficult than I imagined.

I’ve learned that I don’t handle exhaustion well right now.  I have little tolerance for anything, and being tired makes it worse.  At the midnight Paschal service, I was in a foul mood quickly because I was tired, then twisted my ankle on the way to church, then stood on my sore ankle for four hours, and was numbered among the “singles” who were assigned clean-up duties after the post-Liturgy snack.  Three small babies were cuddled in close proximity to me during the service.  I could feel the joy around me, but it was hard to let it creep inside of me.  It seems the only “thick skin” I have developed is the wrong kind–a wall to barricade happiness, peace, and joy outside of me.  Every time the troparion was sung, tears poured down my face: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”  That troparion is sung about a million times during the Paschal service.  So I spent a lot of time crying.

It is so hard and so beautiful, simultaneously, to not only hear the troparion but realise what it means.  Death is still a reality for us, so how do we understand Christ destroying death by His death?  We understand that when Christ died (and subsequently resurrected Himself), the gates of heaven were opened, and it’s possible for us to join Him there.  We don’t need to fear death because Christ sanctified it and made it a pathway to a better life.  But right now death is so real.  Its sting still feels so raw, like the skin has been stripped from my body and any contact or mention of it is painful.

I’ve had trouble reconciling with heaven since Seraphim died; I’ve had trouble thinking of my little one being there, praying for us and waiting for us.  Pascha brought me face to face with that.  I caught myself thinking, very genuinely, “How is Seraphim celebrating Pascha?”

And I smiled.

Seraphim’s first Pascha, and our first one without him.

The words from the homily of St. John Chrysostom echoed in my ears for hours and hours.  This has always been the essence of Pascha to me, and now it has gained profound significance to me.

If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a grateful servant, let them, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive recompense.

If anyone has laboured from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has laboured from the first.

He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious.
He both honours the work and praises the intention.

Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!

You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!

Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.

He that was taken by death has annihilated it!
He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!
He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: “Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions”.

It was embittered, for it was abolished!
It was embittered, for it was mocked!
It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled!
It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!

It took a body and came upon God!
It took earth and encountered Ηeaven!
It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!

For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that have slept.
To Him be glory and might unto the ages of ages.
Amen.

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Things we do to get through Lent…

This Lent, I am especially thankful for our slow cooker.

It sounds silly because now that I’m home all the time, I shouldn’t need it so much, right?

Wrong.  I think I’m using it more now than I did when I was working.  Maybe not.  But sometimes I think so.

It makes life so much less complicated.  Since a lot of the last four weeks have involved not standing or even sitting too much (yay stitches), doing too much intensive cooking was simply not going to happen.  I might have had the time to stand at the stove and cook for a couple of hours, but I didn’t have the energy or willpower.  But I could spend 15 minutes chopping vegetables and pushing a button on the slow cooker.  No problem.

So once I got back to cooking for us again (after a week and a half of others bringing us dishes–so I had a little time to rest and recover before I needed to start meal planning again), the slow cooker has been my main go-to for cooking.  I especially appreciate that once it finishes its timed cook time, it switches to “warm,” so I don’t have to be hovering over it at the end like an oven-baked dish.

However, one thing I did make that does not involve my beloved slow cooker has been getting us through Lent pretty well.  At the beginning of Lent, I had just enough energy to throw a bunch of ingredients into my stand mixer, mix it up, and bake.  It didn’t take much time, and the stand mixer did all the mixing for me.  The result was a batch of pretty healthy but pretty good-tasting cookies for snacks.  Since they’re loaded with protein, it’s something my husband especially needs (he melts away during Lent if he doesn’t eat enough protein).

I took this recipe http://vegangela.com/2010/11/22/healthy-peanut-butter-oatmeal-cookie/ and made a few adjustments, just because I wanted to.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot because I want to make them again.  I made a triple batch and we’ll be out within the week.

The best thing I found about these cookies was that, unlike other cookies, I’m completely satisfied eating one or two.  Ever since Seraphim was born, I have had hunger episodes that almost resemble panic attacks.  This is shocking since I was almost never hungry during my whole pregnancy.  Eating a little snack that’s still pretty healthy helps keep the “hunger attacks” at bay, which keeps my husband and me both sane, I think.

So this is what I came up with (after tripling the original recipe):

  • 6 very ripe bananas
  • 2 cups applesauce
  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3 Tbsp. honey
  • 6 Tbsp. protein powder
  • 1 Tbsp. vanilla
  • 1 Tbsp. cinnamon
  • 1 Tbsp. chia seeds
  • 1 Tbsp. flax seeds
  • 4 1/2 cups quick cooking or rolled oats
  • 3/4 cup walnuts
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup chocolate chips

I just mixed everything together and used a tablespoon measuring spoon to shape and put onto cookie sheets (they don’t expand or grow at all, so the shape and size you form them is the shape and size you get) and put in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes.

I think my recipe made about 50 but I didn’t bother to count.  I keep about 15 out at a time in a container in the refrigerator, and the rest are in the freezer until needed.

Next time I think I’ll put some coconut in, too, just because we have some and my husband and I both like the flavour.  I saw another recipe that was rather similar to this one that called for pumpkin puree.  I might figure out a way to put that in as well.

Another thing I am thankful for: easy, healthy lenten recipes for things I can freeze to have on hand for weeks.  It definitely helps me power through the days when I’m a little too down to do any cooking, and helps keep things positive between K and me (since he’s now the one working more than I am, at least for a little while).

Bright Sadness

Great Lent starts tomorrow, a time we refer to as “bright sadness.”  “Bright sadness” has a profound meaning to us this year.  I am looking forward to Pascha deeply.  I will be back to church about three weeks before Pascha, and I have a feeling it will be an especially emotional one for me this year.

Pascha: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

We have that hope and faith for our departed child, and I think Lent and Pascha will have a significance to me this year that they have never had in the past.  Seraphim’s birth and passing came in close proximity to so many things that seemed fitting, and not just coincidental: he was born and reposed a few days before the first Saturday of Souls, before the Sunday of the Last Judgement, and of course before Lent.  I will be churched and his 40-day memorial will be on the 4th Saturday of Lent–the last Saturday of Souls.

Why do babies die?  I have had a lot of answers for this over the years.  The most simple is that sin affects us all, even the sinless.  That’s a very Orthodox answer–a very Brothers Karamazov truth.  I realised in the past three months that for whatever reason, we needed a saint praying us to heaven throughout our lives, and that little saint would be our son.  I have never felt anger at God for the death of infants; it is not God’s cruelty that causes infants to die.

In Fr. Steven’s article, he explains: “Disease and physical deformities are a part of this world, caused by humankind’s initial alienation from God—and providentially allowed by God. Thus a child is never too young to die. And hence the tragic nature of life, nowhere more clearly revealed than in the death of an innocent infant.”

I have read this article at least a half dozen time in the past couple of months.  It has been a comfort to me, in the months leading up to Seraphim’s birth and in the interim between his death and his funeral.  I read it again today.

https://oca.org/reflections/misc-authors/an-infants-burial

I feel like I was so numb through Seraphim’s funeral (mostly I was trying to experience and not become out of control with weeping so I only halfway listened to the prayers and felt enough peace) that I don’t remember many of the prayers.  I have been rereading the service to remember and to help with the emotional and spiritual healing.  I am taking time for my healing; it’s going to be a long process and the pain of losing our baby will never go away completely.  If I am honest with myself with that, maybe I can keep moving forward.

Ninth Day

O Lord who watches over children in the present life and in the world to come because of their simplicity and innocence of mind, abundantly satisfying them with a place in Abraham’s bosom, bringing them to live in radiantly shining places where the spirits of the righteous dwell: receive in peace the soul of Your little servant Seraphim, for You Yourself have said, “Let the little children come to Me, for such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Amen. 

Christ and the Children

 

3 months

Three months ago today, we had our first consultation with the specialists at the university.

I can’t believe so much time has passed already.

On the 6th, I had my 20-week ultrasound.  My mum came with me because my husband had to work and I hadn’t been doing so well at my doctor appointments by myself.  I experience a lot of stress and panic around medical personnel, and I would always get left alone in the exam room for 1-2 hours, not being allowed to eat or drink anything, waiting for the doctor to come talk to me for 5 minutes before moving on to the next patient.  This doesn’t work well for a claustrophobic pregnant woman.  I knew if I had company to distract me, I would do much better.  

The ultrasound was, honestly, frustrating and boring.  I couldn’t see much of anything and couldn’t figure out how the tech knew what she was looking at.  It all just looked like grey mush.  I was upset almost to the point of tears that my friends who were a couple of weeks ahead of me had clear, beautiful ultrasound pictures of their babies–even with facial features–and I could only tell where the head was because it was the only distinctive thing there was.  I thought that maybe in our somewhat rural city, we couldn’t afford better ultrasound equipment so my friends in big cities were just getting the top notch technology and I was getting some archaic device’s bad pictures.

Of course, as it turns out, the images were bad because of me, not because of their technology.  I had just 6cm of fluid at 20 weeks, which greatly diminished the imaging capability.

I sat in the exam room with my mum for two hours waiting for the doctor (as usual).  By the time she came in, it was 5:30.  The office was actually closed and I was literally the last person there.  She had been talking to the tech to understand the ultrasound and what it would mean for me and the baby.  When she told me my fluid was low, I had no idea what that meant.  It didn’t sound like a big deal–medicine is pretty advanced, so how hard is it to just put some more in there if it’s low?  I definitely didn’t understand the implications at that point.  The doctor looked really distressed, I looked confused (I was), and my mum started crying.  That made me start crying, which made me a little angry.  She said, “I’m just so upset because she’s always saying how she doesn’t like going to doctors because they always give her bad news.”  It’s true; it seems to be the only reason I go to doctors: to receive bad news.  That’s part of the reason I can’t stand being around them.

I went to my parents’ house to use Internet while I was waiting for my husband to pick me up after work.  I did a lot of research on why fluid might be low.  I realised very quickly there were no good options.  Honestly, the best options sounded like my membranes breaking prematurely or the placenta not functioning correctly–and those are both terrible, too.  As it stood, I knew my membranes were intact because the doctor had checked, and they said my placenta looked great and the haemorrhage was even gone at last.  Some sort of kidney defect had to be the cause.

I had a second ultrasound at the specialists’ office the next day, on the 7th, because they had better equipment.  To me, it looked the same.  I couldn’t figure out how they could possibly tell what they were looking at.  After the ultrasound, I felt terrible though (mostly emotionally), and called in sick to work for the first time in the year I’d worked there.

The next morning, we were going to meet with the specialist to discuss what was going on.  November 8th, St. Michael’s day.  My husband and I planned on going to Liturgy that morning, but I had been up all night crying.  I knew the doctors couldn’t possibly tell us anything good and I was scared.  When 5:30AM rolled around, I told him I was too tired to get up to go to church.  We probably should have, especially as distraught as I was, but we didn’t go.

At the appointment, the doctor wanted to scan me yet again to confirm what she was thinking was wrong with the baby.  After that, we all met up and she told us it looked like the baby had no kidneys, no bladder, and the renal arteries were not operating.  The reading she’d taken of my fluid was less than 6cm, which is devastating at 20 weeks for lung development.

“We don’t save these babies.  We don’t hook them up to oxygen or ventilators, we don’t put them in the NICU for assistance.  Not having kidneys isn’t compatible with life, so we don’t do anything for them.”

It was all so horrible to hear and horrible to remember.

I wasn’t as shocked as my husband was, since I had been doing a lot of reading online, but I was still crying uncontrollably.  

“These babies don’t usually die of renal failure,” she continued.  “Without amniotic fluid, the lungs can’t develop, and they die of lung failure after birth.  Intrauterine death is also common because there is no fluid to cushion the umbilical cord.”

She said we could carry as long as possible (until birth) and let it die on its own of lung failure, or we could have an abortion and kill it now.  Obviously we were not interested in killing our child that we loved so much just because it had a fatal diagnosis.  We both felt, and feel, like if a doctor can’t guarantee to any woman with a healthy or unhealthy child exactly how long it will live, then why should we pick when it will die?  Plenty of women take home their perfectly healthy babies who end up dying of SIDs.  Our baby could’ve been in wonderful condition after birth, but then died in a car accident on the way there–or any other tragic accident at any point in the child’s life from there on out.  If the doctor can’t look at an ultrasound and say, “I can promise you your child will live to 75,” then I see no point in ending a child’s life prematurely because it will die.  We will all die, and we don’t know when.  K and I just wanted–and want–to spend every week, day, moment with this baby that we are given until it dies.  We didn’t ever doubt the doctor’s prognosis that it would die the day it would be born (if not before).  We didn’t want that, of course, and it was devastating, but we didn’t choose to persist in the pregnancy because we thought she was wrong.  We’ve picked this long, hard road of backwards grieving so that we can share as much love with our precious child for as long as we are given.  We might have a few months of pregnancy and a few minutes after birth, or we might have years and years.  They are both equal in our eyes.

So we told her we weren’t interested in abortion, and thankfully, no doctor has mentioned it since.  They put a note in our file and they have not pressured us to have an abortion nor even suggested it to us.  I feared having to hear, “You just need to terminate this pregnancy,” at every appointment from there on out, as some women have experienced, but we have been fortunate and thankful to have not heard that since.

Our option, then, was to keep going as long as possible.  We were aware that death could occur at any point–and that’s something we have feared quite a bit.  We want our baby born alive, but we also want to give it the best chance at living if further life is at all possible for it.  

The doctor explained to us that the growth was behind.  “Right now you are almost 21 weeks, but the baby’s lungs are measuring 18 weeks.  In four weeks, we will have another ultrasound and what we will likely see is that the heart is taking up the entire chest cavity since the lungs will not grow any further with such little fluid.”

(Of course, while that was logical and is what she had often seen, that isn’t actually what happened.  At 24 weeks, I had 0cm of fluid and the baby’s lungs had kept growing.  At 29 weeks and 32 weeks, I still had 0cm of fluid and the baby’s lungs, while still a week or two behind, had been growing.  They hadn’t become stagnant at 18 weeks.  This doesn’t mean the lungs with be sufficient when the baby is born–it will at the very least need a lot of assistance–but seeing progress is encouraging nonetheless.)

After the appointment, we were both in pretty bad shape.  I was crying hard, and K had an expression of hopelessness that I can’t even describe.  It’s painful to even think about.  He made a wry comment about how first we were losing our car (we had just gotten into an accident the week before and the car was totalled) and now our baby.  I didn’t think it was an inappropriate comment, though it might sound heartless.  He wasn’t trying to make the two tragedies equal in weight; I think what he meant was that everything seemed to be falling apart and we didn’t know how so many really bad things could happen at once.  Trying to deal with the accident and find–and afford–a new car had been really taxing on us personally, and on our relationship to some extent.  Now we had to add the stress and anxiety of dealing with the inevitable: our baby was going to die and we couldn’t fix it.  No one–even the best doctors in the state–could do anything for it.  The car definitely paled in comparison to that.

K spent the rest of the morning dealing with his grief by composing, and I went to work to finish a project for the director that had to be finished that day.  From one perspective, it was the most useless, pointless thing I could’ve possibly be doing in light of the overwhelming grief I was feeling and compared to the importance of my baby compared to the public defenders’ office’s 2013 budget, but from another perspective, the immutability and predictability of looking at reports filled with numbers was actually fairly calming.  I didn’t have to answer phones, deal with customers, or make decisions.  I only had to input numbers and analyse outcomes.  Numbers are emotionless, and I really needed them right then.

For my husband, going to work that afternoon was helpful because he could focus on other things than the diagnosis and feel useful, providing for our family.  It is exceptionally hard on him when he isn’t working (he has been unemployed or underemployed most of the time we have been married, and he feels a lot of guilt that I work full-time and he hasn’t been able to secure a similar job), so he was thankful that he was on the schedule.

That night, we said evening prayers together, but he couldn’t say any of them.  I looked at him and he was crying–hard.  In the 2 1/2 years we’d been together, I’d never seen him cry.  It just isn’t something he does.  I asked him if he were angry at God, and he said he wasn’t (I wasn’t either–being angry at God seems so pointless since it isn’t God’s fault that these things happen, and it definitely not God’s desire that they happen either), he was just so disappointed and upset.  He said, “I wanted to have this baby with you.  I don’t want to be told that our baby is going to die and no one is going to do anything, that nothing can be done.  I want to be able to bring this baby home and raise it.  I don’t want to hear that it’s going to die and we’ll just have another one later.”  I reassured him we were going to have this baby, for as long as we could, but I knew what he meant.  We had planned out the whole next year–we had moved to a new apartment in part for a safer environment for my pregnancy and our baby (our first apartment was a nightmare, to say the least), we had planned out how to set up our room for the baby and what essentials we would get for it (and we were planning on going shopping in about two or three weeks for the things we had chosen to have them ready to go), how we would move across the country with a baby and where we might live that would be a good place to raise a child while K was in school.  Now all of our plans were falling apart, and it was hard to think of the next year as anything different from what we had discussed for so long.

It was a really hard day, and a really hard weekend for us.  I was thankful that Monday was a holiday so I wouldn’t have to work–just spend some alone time to process my emotions.  K was thankful he had to work every day that weekend since that’s what helped him process his thoughts and feelings.

The last three months have been a time of tremendous growth for us as individuals and as a couple.  As much as I would never have wished this situation to happen to us, looking back on how much closer we are because of our mutual grief, I am thankful for it.

Looking back on it, I am also thankful that this transpired on St. Michael’s day.  It seems fitting, now that I think about it, to have such a concrete reminder of the greatest sadness we have ever felt in this life so far juxtaposed to a feast of an archangel with the significance he has to our spiritual lives as well as the afterlife.

“Supreme Commander of the Hosts of the Heavens, we, the unworthy, importune and beseech thee that by thy supplications thou encircle us in the shelter of the wings of thine immaterial glory, guarding us who now fall down and cry to thee with fervour, ‘Deliver us from dangers of all kinds, as the great marshall of the heavenly hosts on high.'” Troparion for St. Michael the Archangel

Marriage Is Martyrdom… and everything that comes with it

Even before we got married, I’d been contemplating this idea of “martyrdom” that comes with the Christian life.  I didn’t have to be married to be aware that, especially to those of us who are Orthodox Christians, “martyrdom” is a daily goal.

I’m not talking about getting stabbed or beaten or ridiculed for my faith like the great martyrs we revere were.  That is, of course, a possibility, but the martyrdoms we are supposed to take on are usually a lot smaller, and there are a lot of them.  They also, it seems to me at least, are easier to rationalise bowing out of.  If someone told me, “I’m going to kill you because you’re a Christian!” I would probably say or do something that would sound something along the lines of St. Paul’s “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  It’s just so clearly the Christian thing to do.  (Note: I have never been in this situation, so I can only hope that that is actually what I would do and that it would actually be as easy as I’ve envisioned it.)  However, when I’m faced with things like doing something I don’t want to do that is also the right thing to do, it’s so easy to say, “Oh it won’t matter if I just don’t do this…” and embrace selfishness.

The Christian life demands that we “take up our cross” like Christ and deny ourselves.  Easier said than done, right?  Most frequently, the only denial I actively take part in is denying myself meat and cheese on Wednesday and Friday.  It’s a good first step to teach us control over our bodies and minds, but it isn’t the only denial we’re called to.  We have to deny our temptations, our impure thoughts, our wants.  “I would rather do this” is supposed to become “I will do this for the best of the other person (or my soul, or both).”

It’s easy to forget self-denial when you are already living for yourself.  That is why Orthodox Christians generally are supposed to choose between monasticism and marriage (there are a few unmarried lay people floating around out there, but that is because Orthodoxy is handled on a person-by-person basis with the individual and his spiritual father).  Both monasticism and marriage are similar in what they require of us spiritually and how they shape us even though they look completely different.  Both can be used inappropriately and be of no spiritual value whatsoever, though.  (Thus it’s outright wrong to say that monastics live “better” spiritual lives by default because the temptations still exist to not be holy, though I will certainly allow that they tend to be in an environment that sharply highlights the holy and unholy in the human being and eliminates, or minimises, worldly distractions.  Marriage and monasticism are very different things, after all, but one is not better than the other–only better for the individuals involved.)

I personally contemplated monasticism for quite some time.  My last semester of college, I saw the path as inevitable and made arrangements to pursue it.  An abbess I loved like a mother was fully supportive and wanted me to spend an extended stay at her monastery.  I didn’t stay as long as either of us would have preferred, but it didn’t take long for her tune to shift from, “You might be a good candidate for this life!  Try it out!” to “Why don’t you go back out in the world and see about getting married?”  It was rather crushing since at the time, I had absolutely no potential suitors.  I knew every eligible bachelor in every church near me (both in the area of California I lived, and on the rural side of my home state where I grew up and moved back to after college) and all had quickly friend-zoned me for whatever reason (which is why I roll my eyes at young men who complain that young women are always doing the “friend-zoning.”  They just don’t realise they’re also doing it.).  I left the monastery dejected, heart-broken, and a little hopeless.  I needed some kind of pilgrimage to help me at that point, I figured.

But guess what?  Just about a month after my spiritually difficult trip to the monastery, I ran into the man who would become my husband.  He didn’t “look” the way I thought he would so I tried to ignore him (I don’t actually mean physical looks–I mean he wasn’t what I had envisioned and I didn’t want to think that my personal blueprints could be deviated from).  I couldn’t, so I finally called a priest I was close to, knowing that if he could just reason with me and tell me to stop seeing this young man, I would have the resolve to actually do it!

He didn’t.  He told me to give him a chance, with some very specific and careful guidelines.

So I did.

Before long, this topic of “marriage as martyrdom” became very important because marriage was the next step for us.  (Neither of us would have continued pursuing one another after our summer of letter-writing as he was across the country from me if we hadn’t seen a potential future together, which was appropriate.  We took the courtship seriously.)  The thing is, though, that it seems I’ve heard this phrase so often, it starts to lose its meaning.  So marriage is hard work?  Of course it is.  I’m surrounded by others’ marriages every day and I see that.  But what purpose does something that is difficult have?  It shapes and strengthens us if accepted appropriately.  It can weaken and destroy us if we let it.  The latter is definitely easier because it seems to be the natural way things happen.  A situation is difficult, so I will give up, or pout about it.

In the marriage ceremony in the Orthodox Church, we are given crowns.  Now the crowns represent plenty of things, but the most apparent thing they represent is “crowns of martyrdom” like we see in the icons.  On taking on those crowns (at which point in the ceremony, the couple is actually considered married–not at the end, not at any special announcement, but in the middle of the ceremony when the crowns are on the couple’s heads, uniting them and challenging them), the couple is voluntarily taking on special tasks of self-denial.  They recognise that this life is no longer about them as individuals and that everything from this point forward will be a joint effort and have joint effects.  This is wonderful sometimes (a shoulder to lean on, for instance), and horrible other times (a companion who constantly brings to light what is wrong with you and challenges you to fix your attitudes).  Our first steps as newlyweds were taken around the table that represents the altar (the Kingdom of God) on which is the Scripture, the chalice (which represents the Eucharist and Christ Himself), and the Cross (the ultimate representation of self-denial).

Everyone calls this ceremony beautiful.  If you really think about the symbolism, though, it is one of the hardest things a person could really choose to take on.  Why voluntarily say, “Bring on the hardship and the struggles!”?  So, yes, it is beautiful–it is beautiful in the same way that blessings don’t always take the form of pleasant things.

In light of all this, with marriage comes children, in most instances.  In modern society, this is the part of the ceremony that is most uncomfortable to so many people: just how many times God is beseeched to bless the couple with children!

Ah children.  Now if that isn’t an opportunity for martyrdom, I don’t know what is!  You can either gain heaven or lose your soul raising children, which must be the reason many people want to avoid it.  There is no middle ground.

I read a fantastic blog article on this topic this morning, when I was, fittingly, contemplating writing something about marriage as martyrdom.  He entitles it: Your Life is Over When You Have Kids (http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/01/10/your-life-is-over-when-you-have-kids/).  A couple of quotes sum up marriage and parenthood particularly:

My life is over now that I have kids.

My life is over.

That thing that I called MY life. That portion of existence — that long, lonely chapter — when I lived for me, and me alone. That delusion known as my life, where I exerted, or thought I exerted, ownership over my whole self. Where I separated my life from all other lives, and lived to satisfy my whims and desires… I’m not living for me anymore. I never should have lived just for me, but now I can’t. Either I become less selfish, or I fail in my duty as a parent. There is no middle ground.

Taking care of another human being–especially one that is as absolutely helpless as a child–is a huge act of self-denial.  It is, quite honestly, martyrdom to our wants and preferences, and can very easily bring out the worst in us.  When the passions that corrupt us are brought to light, we then get two options: 1) Act on them! (Hint, this is the easy one), 2) Swallow, deny them, and do the opposite of what we necessarily want to do and how we want to react.

The phrase in the marriage ceremony that has most stuck with me over the months of marriage my husband and I have enjoyed (and struggled through!) already is the deacon’s petition that God: “That there may be given unto them soberness of life, and fruit of the womb as is expedient for them.”

As is expedient for them.

We got pregnant right away.  That was a shock to me, even though I knew I was fertile at the time (which happens about twice a year for me).  I figured we would struggle with fertility for at least a year or three, especially given what I’d been told by multiple doctors.  When I realised I was pregnant, my immediate response was anger.  I cried about it.  We wanted children, but this was a little ridiculous, right?  Then just as quickly as I figured out I was pregnant, we lost it.  I was devastated and felt like it was my fault for railing against God about getting pregnant.  Truth be told, if my cycles weren’t   I prayed long and hard that if He gave me another opportunity to have a baby, I would take it gladly and without complaint.  11 days later, I ovulated again (much to my surprise–I’d never had two fertile months in a row), and I got pregnant.  Again.

So I can only guess that this is an answer to the prayer that we be blessed with children as is necessary (expedient: practical, useful) for our salvation.  Which is why this baby, our baby that might not live more than a few minutes or a few hours or a few days or a few years, is so obviously a great blessing to us.  Every baby is a blessing, but a blessing that brings so many struggles, difficult decisions, selflessness, uncertainty (and with it the surrendering of our wills and preferences), along with the joy is the best blessing we could possibly receive.  We have to learn to see life in God’s control instead of in our own.  We have to give up so many things for the welfare of our baby and with it, our own souls.

Fittingly, our marriage crowns are displayed on our icon table in our bedroom where we pray most often.  We can’t forget that we took on this particular task when we took on marriage–even though at the time we certainly didn’t know that this would be in the future!  But we also know we don’t do this alone.  We took the crowns of “martyrdom” along with the Scriptures, the Cross, the chalice, and the Kingdom of Heaven (they are all part of that end goal) so we know that God is with us every step, and that the saints who have gone before us and completed their martyrdoms are cheering for us, supporting us, and loving us through each challenge.

It definitely makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger.

Continue reading

Learning to Deal with Others’ Grief

I found a short but good article on how to comfort those who have lost a child (miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of an infant primarily).  It gave guidelines on what is appropriate to say and do to help them.  I can say for myself that I have personally learned so much since we found ourselves confronted with grief two months ago when we were told that our baby has a very significant, life-threatening condition and would likely not live after birth.  

The comments others have made have (mostly) been well-meaning but often can sting as much as actual harmful words.  There are the obvious bad ones (I shouldn’t have to explain why these are just so bad):

  • My mother-in-law hassled us about why we weren’t getting an abortion if “the fetus is just going to die anyway.”
  • My supervisor at one of my jobs said, nonplussed, when I told her there was a problem with my pregnancy, “Well, better luck next time.”

And then there are the ones that seem logical:

  • I have already heard a couple of times (and dread all the times I will hear this): “Well, you’re young; you’ll have other kids.”  Yes, that’s true.  I might have other kids.  But first of all, that makes it sound as if this child lacks worth, importance, or value to me.  That a child can just replace another child, kind of like buying a new car to replace a broken down heap.  People are irreplaceable, no matter how young or small.  Second, most people don’t know that I’ve been told by a couple of doctors that having children will be difficult/impossible for me–that I have been struggling to raise my hormone levels so that my body stops attempting to emulate menopause.  I may be “just 25,” but fertility already starts declining around this point, even without the help of a body trying to already shut down its reproductive phase.  I may have a dozen children and years and years of fertility or I may never have another child or period again.  That doesn’t make the value of this baby more or less.  They are all the same.
  • Patronising statements like: “God knows best,” or the like.  Most of the time, the person knows and has faith that God does know best and that He is in control.  It is often the only thing holding that person together–knowing that there is a bigger picture!  But when you trivialise that pain by flippantly saying things like that, you discredit the person’s personal faith and ignore that a person is allowed to hurt even when they are fully aware of God’s omnipotence.  If Jesus wept upon seeing the full effects of sin–death–then certainly we can grieve over death as well.
  • Ignorant statements such as: “Hope it all works out.”  What does a person mean by, “work out”?  It will “work out” the way it’s meant to.  Does that mean if the expected outcome occurs, that it hasn’t somehow “worked,” that it has fallen outside of God’s plan and God’s view?  Like the patronising statements, this also belittles the grief and pain a person feels.

So what do you say to a grieving person?  Less is generally more.  Helping out physically is much better than saying thoughtless statements that do little more than sting.  Dennise Krause explains a few things in her article “Comfroting Those Who Have Lost a Baby During Pregnancy or Shortly Thereafter.”  It’s short, but hopefully others can read this and see what is actually helpful for dealing with another’s loss (or impending/potential loss like in our case).

http://jacwell.org/Summer_2002/comforting_those_who_have_lost_a_baby.htm

The OCA website has a summary of this article, along with a little more, by the same author in its section on October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month in the Orthodox church.  There are some books listed as resources at the bottom.  I hope to get a hold of at least a couple of them to see how much useful material is out there on this subject.

http://oca.org/resource-handbook/familylife/october-pregnancy-and-infant-loss-awareness-month

The main thing is to support, encourage, love, and pray for a person (and the baby) before, during, and after a loss.  Understand that it doesn’t just “go away.”  Babies have souls like the rest of us, and our souls meeting have a profound effect on us.