Archive for prayer

On What It Smelled Like in 0 AD

Posted in Orthodox Christianity, religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2008 by blackincense

I am getting those letters .  The ones that ask for a “Christmas” incense and a “Biblical perfume”.  I know exactly what they want, these lovely people, and that’s exactly the problem.     I don’t want to say anything sarcastic or hurtful, but I also want (and try hard)  to educate them. What they want is something that really, we can’t have.  Not because I can’t manage to make a “Christmas” incense (complete with pumpkin pie smell) , but because Christmas incense already exists and I really can’t improve it much.  “Christmas incense” properly is plain, untreated, frankincense and myrrh, straight from the fields. God made the first “Christmas incense” and I really can’t come up with any better ideas. I’m not sure why people think I should try, although I do make a seasonal incense that ought to satisfy the “Christmas craving”.

But never mind that, we’re talking about God’s incense here:

Matthew 2: 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

It is generally thought that the frankincense and myrrh was probably from Ethiopia, although the Magi themselves were probably from Syria.  The “Silk Road” trading was active at that time, although it wasn’t called that then, and Ethiopian resins were considered the finest in the world.  (They still are –Omani frankincense is over-rated and very expensive.)  It is also speculated that one of the wise men might have come from Ethiopia.  It’s hard to say.  One thing we can be sure of:  the gifts of the Magi are listed separately, and therefore, they were untreated, unprocessed resins.  They were “pure”.  The account in Matthew does not say, “…and they offered him incense made from…”  It just says that they gave him these resins and it tells us what they were.

In thinking about what these raw resins actually smell like when they are burned, it’s hard to guess people’s reactions.  Some people love it.  Others don’t care for it, and prefer a more “cultivated” or “sophisticated” scent.  In other words, some people love “natural” smells and others love “sweet”. First of all, our sense (scents!) of smell (grin) is completely different in these modern times, that it would have been in 0 AD when our Lord was born.

Back then, the world smelled a lot different than it does today.  Our ideas about what smells “good” at Christmas, is largely about the success of commercial marketing.  I can almost guarantee that “pumpkin spice” would probably have smelled like rotten eggs to a 1st century Christian.  Their noses were trained in an entirely different world and were subject to an entirely different set of sensory perceptions. When Mary poured oil on Jesus’ feet, it was spikenard, which smells approximately like old leather.  Call it the “Old Spice” of the New Testament.

Don’t get me wrong:  I grew up on horses and I love the smell of leather.  Saddles that have just been cleaned, smell GREAT to me.  But this is not what most women who write to me want.  They are under the impression that the oil Mary used, was probably some kind of floral scent.  Christian women are under a lot of misunderstanding about “Biblical perfume”.  I cannot make a 1st century version of Giorgio or Red Door.  It doesn’t exist.

Here’s a concrete example of what I am talking about.  I actually possess the following oils in uncut form: Spikenard ,  Cassia,  Myrrh,  aloe

I don’t have mollusk shell (onycta) , ground up and powdered but I can get it, and  I do have styrax and the other stuff that Exodus calls for.

Here’s what it actually says in Exodus 30: For anointing oil (what we might consider a perfume): Moreover the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 23 “Also take for yourself quality spices—five hundred shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much sweet-smelling cinnamon (two hundred and fifty shekels), two hundred and fifty shekels of sweet-smelling cane, 24 five hundred shekels of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. 25 And you shall make from these a holy anointing oil, an ointment compounded according to the art of the perfumer. It shall be a holy anointing oil.

Quality spices in those days, in the lands of the Bible,  were things like mustard, balm of gilead, and saffron.  Steam distillation wasn’t invented in those days, so they would grind these up in a bowl, and soak them in oil.  The pure grains of these herbs would scent the oil, and it was more like a “paste” than anything else.  It was semi-solid, and not what you think of when you think of a “perfume”.

For incense in the Temple: “Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, and pure frankincense with these sweet spices; there shall be equal amounts of each. 35 You shall make of these an incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. 36 And you shall beat some of it very fine, and put some of it before the Testimony in the tabernacle of meeting where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. 37 But as for the incense which you shall make, you shall not make any for yourselves, according to its composition. It shall be to you holy for the LORD. 38 Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, he shall be cut off from his people.”

Now, for the purists out there, trust me, I can make this.  But my name isn’t Moses or Aaron, and I don’t have a “tabernacle” to put it in. Christ came to free us from ourselves, from death.  He came to free us from the “letter of the law” and He came that we might have “life and have it abundantly”.  We are free in Christ, to enjoy scent and to enjoy our lives now.  We do not live in the chains of the past, (even the beautiful past of the Old Testament).  The Kingdom is here and now.  We are called to higher things, than our past, even if it is our collective past as human beings.  On an individual level, each person is called by God to “taste and see”.

Whenever I get these letters I often wonder if it’s really the perfume they want, or if they are just expressing a desire for something “ancient” in their lives.  People are ever searching for meaning and our world is spiritual battleground.  People want things they cannot have, namely the desire to “go back” and “get it right”.  We cannot go back, we can only make amends and move forward.  The whim of possessing a “Biblical perfume” is really about the desire for holiness.  People want to respond to God’s call, and finding it difficult within, they look for an external way to achieve holiness, as if it were a garment you could just pick up at the dry cleaners.

This is what the purpose of the Jesus prayer really is:  to purify us from within.  The incense and the perfumes is all external.  It’s beautiful and it’s helpful in prayer, but it is not our prayer itself.  That only comes from the heart. And that’s why I don’t make “biblical perfume”  —- you wouldn’t like it anyway.

Instead, I’m working on a new batch for Christmas — I decided I wouldn’t make the blend I usually do, at this time of year.  I’m going to make a brand new one.  From scratch.  Because I know I cannot go back.  I can only start over, every day. I haven’t named it yet, but I am using the frankincense and myrrh as a base, of course.  But there wont’ be any pumpkin pie, or cinnamon, or cassia. No cloves sticking out of an orange.  I’m going to do something new.  Something REVOLUTIONARY for Christmas.  It probably won’t even smell like “Christmas” to anyone except me.   But it will be special and I will try to keep some back for the rest of the year, so that Christ will continue to be born in my heart, all year long.

Wanna know what it is?????

Huh???

Really?

Sure?

Frankincense and myrrh.  Blended together.  Nothing else.

Icon of the Adoration of the Magi

Icon of the Adoration of the Magi

On the Bitterness of Having What You Don’t Want.

Posted in Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Clergy and Information with tags , , , , , , on October 21, 2008 by blackincense

A long time ago, I had a conversation with a friend that I have never, ever forgotten.  Her name is delightfully, “Penny”.  Penny is rich, gloriously rich with money of her own, a fabulous home, a Mustang convertible, and a fleet of other cars.  She might as well have them all named for the days of the week. ‘Monday’, ‘Tuesday’, ‘Wednesday’…I love going to visit her because her house is like a museum: every thing in it has a history, a story behind it, and I love to hear her talk.  She talks a great deal, Penny does, about nothing, and yet about EVERYTHING that was ever important to humankind.  She is brilliant, and yet she doesn’t realize that she is so.  She’s intelligent, but she thinks she’s a “dumb blonde”.  She’s worldy, but she has this ‘otherworldy’ air about her, that speaks to the very heart of a person.  She is so fabulously rich, yet she makes chocolate chip cookies every afternoon, for her evening dessert.  She does it, she says, because she wishes to be “young again”, and to remember always the innocence of her youth.

And yet Penny is one of the most humble, simple hearted, most dedicated Christians I know.  She is not Orthodox, but is firmly “Church of Ireland” and whenever she talks,  the Gospel shines through.

On that long ago Sunday, we were sitting in her “garden”, an actual “botanical” garden if you know what I mean, complete with bronze statues, strategically placed benches, and sculptured hedges.  Even the bushes are trimmed into pieces of fine art.  Who knew that Michaelangelo’s “David” would end up re-done in a rhododendron?  Penny’s garden gives new meaning to the phrase “going green”.

Penny lives in Ireland.  Not just anywhere in Ireland, but in a real castle that is dated to the 13 th century.  She opens her home to visitors, because “times are difficult” and “all this is just window dressing, don’t you know?”

So there we were, in our formal dresses (because Penny enjoys “dressing for tea”) and having our tea and biscuits in the garden, a veritable paradise, and Penny was saying quite conversationally, as if people everywhere had such lofty and deep thoughts:

“…well, you know, then I thought myself:  If I had a nice husband, then I would really be happy...but then  I got a nice husband, but as time went on he wasn’t as nice to me as I got older,  and then I thought to myself, ‘well, okay, if i had perfect children, then i would really be happy.  But I wasn’t, even though I did have wonderful children.  They really are a comfort you know, when you think you haven’t done anything worthwhile, you can look at them, and say “well, it wasn’t all so bad!”

And so then I thought, ‘Well, if i just had a nice house, you know then i would really be happy...”

But that didn’t work out so well, because then I had to clean the thing, you know…so then i thought, ‘Well, if i only had a good maid, and a staff of servants, then i would really be happy...”

So then, I decided to hire all these people and now I never get a moment’s peace, and now I think, “Well, if I could just get rid of all this stuff, then I would really be happy!”

Wisdom!  Let us attend!

How well, I understand, now, after all this time, what she was trying to tell me.  But it only really just hit me today.  And so I post it here, so that I don’t forget it.

Penny gave her life to others.  She eventually sold all her possessions and gave it all to the poor, as our Lord commanded.  She is “judged” by many to be an “eccentric”.  But to me, she was the Irish version of a fool-for-Christ.  She lived well; she gave even more.  She enjoyed life; she made sure others less fortunate were able to enjoy it too.  When the economy went into “over drive” in Ireland and everyone was busy making money, she opened her “home” to orphans and to abused women.  She created an entire “shelter” for those same abused women on her estate, who later spit on her grave.  All for the love of Christ.

Dear and glorious Penny…you are a true sister and guardian.  No one else wanted to tell me the truth about myself, all those years ago, but you found a way to explain it.  Although I did not understand until today, I give thanks to you for what you said so faithfully.  I give thanks that I had the privilege of knowing you.

Memory Eternal.

Lismore "house".  Penny's home...my home whenever I want to "run" there.

Penny's home...my own "home" whenever I had the courage to run there. Truly, it was fortress fortified from "within".

“Hold Fast to the Truth You Have Been Given…”

Posted in Orthodox Clergy and Information, religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2008 by blackincense

In Renaissance times, it was not unusual for sailors, and especially pirates,  to have that exact phrase, “Hold Fast” tattooed on their hands.  Surprise!  I have no idea what the word(s) for it in the “original Greek” are, (don’t you love people who can say that and know what they are talking about?  I really do admire such people!)  Never mind asking me what it is in Russian or Serbian.  But here it is in olde Englysh:  (smile!)

Hebrews 10:

23Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)

What does it mean to “hold fast”?  In plain, every day English  I think it is safe to say that it means, to “batten down the hatches”, “lash down everything that’s not nailed down”, to secure ourselves and our loved ones, firmly in the Church, by hand-cuffing ourselves to the icon stands if necessary, when times of trouble arise.  (Don’t think I won’t do it! )

Those times have come for me. They have finally come.  I won’t bore anyone with the petty details but suffice to say:  My faith is weak, imperfect and thoroughly objectionable on it’s own.  If I died tonight (“Now I lay me down to sleep…”)  I doubt I would be able to sputter an answer to the Lord’s questioning.  My “faith” such as it is, would never survive His scrutiny.

And so I pray, “O, Lord, HELP MY UNBELIEF!”

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!

Without him, there is no hope of escaping death.  There is no hope of escaping my condemnation of myself.  There is no hope of escaping my accuser who is far more powerful, and far more intelligent, than I am.  (He probably speaks in the “original Greek.”)

But how exactly do we “hold fast”?  When we come to baptism, no one gives you a manual (except for the elegantly wrapped Orthodox Study Bible which we are told, we cannot understand without an interpreter, which is why we are getting baptized in the first place.)  No one ever really “teaches” anyone how to “hold fast” and no one can really learn it from a book.  It is done by doing.  Even when we don’t feel like it.  When we don’t think we have it in us.  When we think “All is lost!” and we turn to our prayer books, frantically searching for the “right” prayer.

In the end, the final analysis, I can never hope to make it to heaven, if Orthodoxy is all about the cannons of the Church laws, and the sayings of St. So-And-So who has never been translated into English, but is only available in the “original Greek”.

Thank you Lord, for your mercy!  Thank you Lord, for your salvation!  We, the unwashed, hold fast to your Promise!

O, Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner!  Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom!!!

Here are three crosses.  Which one is yours?  Which one is mine?  I don’t know.

He will have to choose for me.

Catch the Fire….

Posted in Orthodox Clergy and Information, religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2008 by blackincense

I spend a lot time with the desert fathers and mothers, because I see so much in them that I want to be, to acheive, to harness.  I try very hard not to pretend to myself or others, that anything I say either in person, or on the internet, could possibly have any merit on its own.  I am very much aware that in fact, nothing I say has any merit on its own.  I am not a brilliant theologian or even a student of theology and so most of what I say probably has no meaning for anyone but myself anyway.

Having recently been reminded of how disposable I am, through loss of employment, I have found my spirit restless and troubled by thoughts of inferiority, self-abasement, and shame. So it was with a troubled spirit, that  I turned to the Desert Fathers once again, this morning.  This is what I read:

“Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man, Abba Joseph,  stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you like, you can become all aflame.’ ”

I am reminded, that this life is not about employment, production of wealth, goods, or personal acclaim.  It’s not about attracting for oneself, the honors that go with a brilliant education or patting yourself on the back for being from the “school of hard knocks.”

My aim in this life, must be above all else, to become “all aflame”.  There is no other purpose in living, but to unite with God and to become a person with no enemies.  And as in all things, this too is given as a gift of choice.  Abba Joseph did not say “You must…” .  He said, “If you like…”

The God we worship is truly the author of grace.

An Ethiopian Monk rests outside his cell.

An Ethiopian Monk rests outside his cell.

Adventures in Orthodox Fashions

Posted in Orthodox Clergy and Information, religion with tags , , , on October 8, 2008 by blackincense

I have been anxiously awaiting a new prayer rope from a wonderful Skete up north.  I ordered it two weeks ago and it finally came today.  It is  the most glorious thing I have ever seen.  When they said, “fancy”, they weren’t kidding.  I am at once over-joyed and ashamed of myself.

It is so very pretty and yet some part of me says that it shouldn’t be.  My old one fell apart, after 6 years and so I needed a new one.  I did not know what they meant by “fancy”.  Now I know.  I know for a fact that none of those nuns makes or wears any such thing for herself.  And I am ashamed of myself for wearing something more than what they allow themselves.

I intend to keep it and to write them a letter telling them how beautiful it is, and how this glorious work of their hands has blessed me.  But I am completely unworthy to wear it.  So along with my letter, I will place an order for all my friends.  Including an order for a very plain one, like they wear, for myself.  I will save this one, in my prayer box,  to remind me of these beautiful nuns and their glorious witness to the beauty of Christ and His mercy.

Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Prayers by the Lake

Prayers by the Lake

The Daring Soul….

Posted in Orthodox Clergy and Information, religion with tags , , , , on September 10, 2008 by blackincense

“If a man wishes to attain to love of God, he must have fear of God. Fear gives birth to mourning, and mourning to courage. When all this has ripened in the soul, it begins to bear fruit in all things. And, seeing these beautiful fruits in the soul, God draws it to Himself, like choice incense, takes joy in it with His Angels for all time, fills it with rejoicing, and protects it in all its ways, to let it reach its place of rest without harm.

Then, seeing the Most High Guardian encompassing it, the devil no longer attacks it; indeed he fears to come near it owing to this great power. Obtain this power that the demons may fear you, your labors be light and Divine things a sweet joy. This sweetness of Divine love is far sweeter than honey. Many monks and virgins, living in communities, having had no taste of this Divine sweetness nor received Divine power, have thought that they had it already. But, since they had made no effort to gain it, God did not give it to them. He who strives to obtain it will surely gain it through God’s mercy; for God is no respecter of persons. When a man wishes to have in himself the light of God and His power, and so disregards both the abuse and the honors of this world, hates all things of the world and ease of the body, and purifies his heart of all bad thoughts, when he unceasingly brings to God fasting and tears day and night, as well as pure prayers, then God enriches him with that power. Strive to obtain this power – and you will do all your works with calm and ease, will receive a great daring towards God and He will grant all that you ask.”

St Anthony the Great

from the Philokalia

I wonder what she is thinking about.

I wonder if she is praying...or thinking....or both.

Famous Last Words….

Posted in Orthodox Clergy and Information, religion with tags , , , on September 6, 2008 by blackincense

PT Barnum:”How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?”

Napoleon:  “Josephine…”

And this one shocked me to the core of my being:

“Damn it . . . Don’t you dare ask God to help me.”
To her housekeeper, who had begun to pray aloud.
~~ Joan Crawford, actress, d. May 10, 1977

How sad.  How final.

By contrast, I was instantly in mind of this holy martyr of Russia:

Hieromonk Nektary (Ivanov), an instructor in the Voronezh Seminary who had graduated from the Moscow Theological Academy, was killed in 1918 by means of various tortures of the cruelest sort: he was dragged by the feet, his arms and legs broken, wooden nails were driven into him, he was “given communion” with molten pewter. The martyr prayed: “Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, 0 Master, according to Thy Word; for my eyes have seen the glory of Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to enlighten the gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel”  Luke 2: 29-32

Let these be my last words.  God grant that I may be mindful to remember them when the time comes.

Martyrs of Russia circa 1918.  One of these men survived.

Martyrs of Russia circa 1918. One of these men survived.