The End of the Forty Days

To everything there is a season, and the 40 days of daily memorial prayers for my father has come to an end. We will continue to remember Dad in our daily prayers, as we commemorate the departed by name, but the prayers reserved to accompany the departed from this life into the next will now become less frequent. We will pray them again in a little over four and a half months, and then annually. We will commemorate Dad on the memorial Saturdays which occur periodically throughout the year. But this special period of forty days has come to an end.

As much as these prayers are a comfort to the bereaved, it is nonetheless a good thing for us to rest from these labors. And make no mistake, dying, and grieving too I am learning, is labor.

When I got the call from my sisters that Dad had coded, I was preparing to go to a meeting at work. After speaking to them, I went to the brief noon meeting, my mind racing, numb, shocked. Only a few minutes later I was on my way to the hospital, a three hour drive. The entire drive I have very little memory of, aside from an overarching anxiety. I’m sure it was filled with desperate prayers.

I arrived, embraced my sisters, and went with them to see Dad. One of the doctors talked with us before I entered the room. She explained what she could. And then I saw Dad, as he lay there unmoving and unconscious.

And so, we prayed a little that first night. We held Dad’s hands. We embraced him. We assured him of our love, of our pride to be his children, and our respect for the great strength he had shown us all his life. I slept that night on the hard floor of the family’s quiet room, my messenger bag for a pillow. I forget who offered it, but at some point, I was given a blanket.

We awoke the next morning, listened to the doctors, and accepted the reality that Dad was dying. We made our medical decisions as family, and prepared our hearts.

So we began the important work of serving the dying, the ministry to Dad to support and strengthen him during his final hours. This is the ministry we, the living, give to those we love. After his collapse, Dad never regained bodily consciousness. But as Christians we know the soul inhabits, intertwines and transcends the body. There was no physical or bodily evidence that Dad was conscious of our presence, but it is a Christian certainty that his soul was present and aware. And until that moment when the body relinquishes the life it has been given, the soul labors in its own way for the transition to that temporary state when it will be separate from the body, awaiting the reunion with that very same transfigured body in the Resurrection.

I am the firstborn, and Dad’s son. It was clear that I needed to place his arm around my shoulders, as it were, to bear him up through prayer and my love and embraces, to help him as he walked that final path to which God had called him. I held his hand. I hugged him. I told him of my love for him. I prayed. But mostly I sat with him, in silence and prayer. It was for all of us to bear him up as his strength left him. He lay still and motionless, save for his body breathing.

I did not, could not, then know what a labor it is to die, nor the intensity of the labor we, the living offer to the dying. As his family, it is damnably hard work. And necessary. Our heart-deep and final gift to our beloved.

We continued struggling together with Dad, as his final hours, then final minutes, drew to a close. Earlier in the day, the chaplain (an Orthodox layman, and such a wonderful comfort to me) read the first chapter of John’s Gospel, and the Beatitudes, among several other Scriptures. He read from the Orthodox Trisagion prayers, as well as other such prayers. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer together over Dad. We each prayed our own prayers in our hearts. Later I prayed the psalter seated next to Dad, my hand on his arm. I could not finish the entire psalter, as I did not have the emotional wherewithal. But I prayed what I could.

And then the end came. I held Dad’s right hand. I brushed my hand against his cheek, and smoothed his hair, as his body continued to struggle to hold on to that life God had given, and now was being returned to God. We all touched him, a hand, a foot, a shoulder. We encouraged Dad, assuring him of our love, stroking his arm, caressing his head. We expressed our love again and again. We gave him our blessings of peace, and prayed for him that final repose from God. Then, his soul was at last separated from his body. And our grief, which had already begun, became sharp and hard and fiery.

For the next forty days, my grief and continued labor for Dad’s departure conjoined. For myself it has meant insomnia, sorrow, and an existence I’d never before contemplated. I was now living life without my father, the man who indelibly marked my identity, who bestowed on me that virile manhood that fathers grant to their sons. I still can’t grasp this. I still can’t face the next couple of months. I still sometimes can’t hear his name in the prayers during Liturgy without that spear point of pain. My priest has told me that the intensity of the grief is often an indication of the depth of love.

How can I say this? I did not realize how much I loved my father. Dad and I were never ones to share our emotions, our inner lives with one another. When I was younger, we would work side by side on the farm, or cutting wood, or loading the moving van. Our phone calls were about the weather, Dad’s latest projects, and occasional plans for travel and seeing one another. I would never have questioned my love for Dad. Every phone call ended with, “I love you, son” and “I love you, too, Dad.” But I just did not realize how deeply those roots had grown, unnoticed. And when they were yanked out by his sudden death, the pain was deep as well.

These forty days of laboring with Dad in his departure are now complete. The prayers continue, of course. But now, we are called to a new way of living. For forty days I have intentionally excluded many things from my life. I’ve delinked from some relationships, even blocked others; still others I have let founder from inattention. Not from anger or pique. I’ve had to. I’ve only just had enough resources to continue my day to day obligations, with very little left over. I’ve had to find ways to grieve without overburdening my daughters, and yet at the same time to receive from them their own ways of comforting me. I am the father, the provider, the protector. I don’t know how many times I’ve apologized to them for my tears, not wanting to upset them. They hug me. In their own child ways they offer comforting words. They grab tissues for me. And they have shed their own tears.

So, too have my sisters, my stepmom, and others of our family, nieces and nephews, grandchildren. Our grief is so private and individual, so awfully lonely. And yet, too, shared in some way. It walls us off from those who are not grieving and even from each other. Yet, somehow it connects us, too, in that love we share with that strong and vital man we have known as father, husband, grandfather, brother, uncle.

This new way of living is a way of living that no longer includes the beloved. It hurts. My heart has been broken. This is uncharted territory for me. There is no map, the path is dark. Others tell me this grief will not end in this life, though it becomes less present than it is now. I don’t know what to make of that. I question my sanity. I stand at the grocery store staring at pork chops and am overcome. The once invigorating post-Liturgy coffee hour chatter I can no longer abide. I’m overcome by an anxiousness in the frozen foods aisle, but can’t stand the solitary hours at home. I somehow make it through each day. But I cannot plan for the coming couple of months. It is overwhelming, everything is altered, transformed by the hole that has come into my life. I pray God in his mercy will make all this transfiguring.

I understand on some level that life will indeed go on. Many things will remain unchanged, although now tinged with this new reality, infused with this new grief. And many things will change, too, because one essential thing has changed. Some of them will change because I have no power to control what happens, and consequence rolls from event and choice. Some of them will change because I see it is necessary that they do. Former dreams and hopes may be cast off, because they too died on that September evening. Or perhaps they have now been solidified, pressed into a crystalline clarity by loss. My future has irrevocably changed. It may require that I alter my own imaginings about that future. May God bless it all.

And may God cause the memory of my father to be eternal.

This coming June will mark ten years since I wrote a series of blogposts looking at Christianity as a philosophia, a way of living, generally similar to the various ways of living as the various ancient “schools” of philosophy (Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and so on). I first had to deal with the modernist notions of philosophy as some academic subject limited to the classroom and dusty books no one reads. Rather, in the ancient world, philosophy was a way of understanding the world, and of living in light of that understanding. Stoics didn’t just believe certain propositional claims, but, rather, lived their daily lives in way that was unique to their belief-system. Indeed, in the ancient world, Sophists were generally despised because the were considered disingenuous, making certain claims for money, but not from conviction or from a way of life.

At the time, I had read, and clearly was strongly influenced by, Pierre Hadot’s work (his collection of essays Philosophia as a Way of Life and What is Ancient Philosophy?). Although, in contradistinction to Hadot, I don’t see Christianity (that is to say, ancient Christianity) as the catalyst for the demise of the connection between philosophical inquiry and a way of living.

Lately, I have been returning in my thoughts to the content of these essays and considering re-envisioning them, though on a somewhat larger scale. I would like to re-write them in a more wholistic project. I don’t know if that will happen, but I thought I would at least collect all the blogpost links in one convenient place for later reference. I would also like to revise certain comments and lines of thoughts. At the time, I was anticipating the birth of my younger daughter (and in fact, she was born prior to the completion of the last couple of blogposts (on marriage and fatherhood, and the concluding post), so these are grounded in that reality. My life has changed somewhat since then, so it may well be that I have other things to say ten years later.

Christians: Grammarians or Philosophers?
The Way: Christianity as Philosophia
Philosophia and the Modernist Myth of Objectivity
On the Earliest Christian Understanding of the Faith as Philosophia
The Transmission of Christian Philosophia
The Life That is Philosophia
True Philosophia: Christian Way of Life in Opposition to the Schools of Antiquity
Christianity as Philosophia versus Christianity as Grammatike
True Philosophia and the Offense of Christianity
Christianity as Philosophia and Modern Society
Christianity as Philosophia and Evangelization
Christianity as Philosophia and Thoughts on Marriage and Fatherhood
Christianity as Philosophia: Some Concluding Thoughts

It has officially been more than a year since I posted to my blog here. I suppose in the blogging world, that is pretty much a dead blog. But, zombie-like, here I am again one more time, thinking out loud on my keyboard.

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For an evangelical Christian (and many other Protestants), and even perhaps a Roman Catholic to some degree, coming to the Orthodox Church, it can be somewhat jarring to encounter the emphasis on the bodily dimension of an Orthodox way of life. The worship involves the bodily senses in major ways: the bright colors of the icons, the gold on the vestments and the instruments of worship (cup, paten, censer, candelabra); the strange tonic system of the Byzantine chant which fills the hearing; the rich smells of the incense and interwoven with honeyed nuances of the beeswax candles; the taste of Holy Communion and of the antidoron; the feel of the one’s body, bowing, prostrating, making the sign of the cross, embracing fellow worshippers and one’s family, even how one’s body feels while others are moving around during the service and while one stands. An evangelical is used to much more sitting and listening, perhaps standing and joining in during the praise music part of the service. There may well be bright colors and images in visual presentations and posting of hymn lyrics, perhaps some candles. Roman Catholics (and Anglicans) will be used to some kneeling, and occasional use of incense as well as the images of crucifixes and statues and paintings of saints, perhaps a few icons. But among all these, the Orthodox experience is, if I may dare to say it this way, very sensual.

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Waiting and Hope

In this season, we are both in the beginning of the Advent season for “western” Christians, and in the middle of the “eastern” Advent, the Christmas Fast, for Orthodox Christians. In this time of year, when we can tune out the noise of the commercial mercantile season, we hear notes of hope and waiting. This season is the time where we enter mystically, spiritually the experience of ancient Israel, as well as the entire cosmos, hopefully anticipating, waiting for, the appearance of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Although merchants focus us on the joy of the season, so that we’ll purchase their things, the Christmas joy is not yet. We’re in the time of hope and waiting.

It’s important to make sure we keep this distinction. Oh, yes, I know, even the Orthodox hymns of this time are already starting to “turn the corner” with their joyful hints and glimpses of what’s to come. And even though Orthodox traditions in the United States still try to keep a spare and penitential theme during the Nativity Fast, we’ll still celebrate St Nicholas’ day with gold-foil chocolate coins in the shoes of the children on December 6th, St Nicholas’ Day, and it’s not unheard of that Christmas stockings with candy, nuts, fruit and little icons will be passed out to the children near St. Nicholas’ Day. Yet, even so, Orthodox keep this season in fasting and almsgiving. We will feast. For twelve days beginning Christmas Day. But now we wait and hope.

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The Saint Maximos Factor

About eight years ago, I determined that I would no longer spend energies and time reading what I will call “academic” theology. By that I mean books and articles on theological topics written for intellectual, rational examination and evaluation, as well as dialogue and debate. There is definitely a need and a place for such things–we are called to test and examine the spirits to discern whether they are of God–but I discerned a need, for my spiritual well-being, to cease such activities indefinitely. Instead I focused on learning the ancient prayers of the Church, and praying them, practicing the asketical disciplines of the faith, and reading the lives of the saints (which is another way of reading theology). This week, partly through providence, partly through prayer, I determined that I would begin again wisely and with discernment to allow myself to return to reading “academic” theology. What changed my mind? This is the providential part: I was given a copy of Joseph Farrell’s Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor.

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On Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Today is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, or Mary’s death and translation to heaven. I wanted to offer some general thoughts on Mary, Jesus’ mother.

In the Orthodox Church, our hymns are incredibly rich with two thousand years of Christian theology and devotion. The writings of the Church Fathers are full of traditional and historical doctrines, of Christian belief about Mary. But my own initial thoughts and experience regarding Mary were far less doctrinal, and much more personal. To be sure, as a Protestant, non-denominational evangelical, I had to address certain questions I had when I became Orthodox. But these never seemed all that problematic. No, my first experiences were, if you will, much more relational.

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