30 July 2007

the next step

So I have read and done a lot of thinking about a woman's role and the obedience of covering my head in church. But I have this lingering question...what about when I am not literally in the church building? I read Paul in 1 Cor. very literally, and while I'm at it I should note, to myself, that it is also very clear that a woman is meant to cover her head all of the time: I am always in the presence of God, His angels and the saints; and I should be developing a life of constant prayer (not praying just in church).

With this conviction I began covering my head while at home all day. Then I realized that like with any spiritual practice/discipline, you cannot just jump in with both feet and think that you're good to go. Immediately I noticed what a powerful effect action (covering) added to intention (humble submission to God and husband) has.

I would stand at prayer in the mornings with my head covered but wearing an old ill-fitting, revealing tank top and pajama pants. (I always have been the type to stay in my PJs all day unless I have to go somewhere.) What's wrong with this picture? In his little book How to Live a Holy Life, Metropolitan Gregory Postnikov writes:

"Having risen from bed, wash immediately, and having washed, dress immediately in a way that befits a respectable person. It is necessary to get dressed like this in the morning, although there may be no one with us, because:
First, we never are completely alone; always and everywhere our Guardian Angel and the Lord God are with us...Second, after having woken and washed, we should immediately stand before the Lord God with our morning prayers. And we would never dare to appear before even any of our lower-ranking earthly bosses without having dressed properly."

Also I began to feel a little uncomfortable with wearing the cover and dressing as usual in my pants and t-shirts. Shouldn't I be dressed a bit more feminine? Isn't that half the point?

I'm telling you, try to start a discipline and you will see anew all sorts of things about yourself and the way you live your life! This process reminds me of fasting. The first things encountered are related to the physical and the next are deeper, more spiritual. In this case, the bandanna on my head symbolizing my place of submission provided a stark contrast to the reality of my pride and lack of submission...painfully so. I felt like a big hypocrite. Not wanting to put on a show for my husband, the angels and God, I stopped wearing the head-covering at home for now, except during my prayer time. It is too easy for this sort of thing to become a vehicle for my pride. That's why, in this case in particular, I have decided to first ask my spiritual father for his blessing and get his advice on how to proceed so that I am being obedient to Scriptures as well as staying within my limits--I do not feel confident in my discernment at this point. As St John Cassian said: "We should try our best to acquire that gift of discernment that is able to keep us from excess in any direction. For, as the fathers have said, all extremes are equally harmful. It is as dangerous to fast too much as it is to overfill the stomach. I myself have known monks who were not defeated by gluttony, but were undermined by immoderate fasting." So we will see what Batushka recommends.

I will give an update once I have spoken with him...or you'll see me and it will be obvious :) Pray for me, that God will have mercy on me and my meager attempts at humility and obedience.

13 July 2007

"the bones that be humbled, they shall rejoice"

We have just come out of the Peter and Paul fast. The length of this fast fluctuates from year to year (don't ask me why--I don't yet know these things), and this year it was especially long at 7 weeks. Almost as long as Great Lent! But the length isn't, in itself, what made it hard.

For those of you wondering, when I say "fast" I'm talking about a vegan diet with a few days each week on which you can have wine and oil with your meals. More than that, it is a time to focus spiritually by praying, reading edifying material, confessing and attending Liturgy more regularly, and to be extra diligent in the battle against my sins/passions. The beauty of the Church's fasts is that they remind us that our existence is far more than physical. For me, it takes a week or two of being focused on the diet before I can move past it and start looking inward. My body finally begins to submit so my soul can do its work more freely. The change in focus usually happens without me realizing it. I suddenly find myself picking up my prayer book more often. I also begin recognizing my pride, anger and impatience more often. It is very humbling.

This particular fast I had a harder time than usual with the diet, craving cheese and ice cream and so forth (if you know me, this will not surprise you!). And spiritually I started off on the wrong foot the very first day. Don't ask me how. But our all-compassionate God turned my stumbling into a useful tool: the rest of the fast I was more aware of my failings than perhaps I've ever been. Some might read this and be concerned that this is a very negative consequence indeed, but please keep reading.

On the evening of the feast day of Peter and Paul (ie. the end of the fast), I had a serious revelation about who I am as a fallen creature. I felt utterly broken and taken aback by the truth. In my brokenness, I saw how sugar-coated everything has become; and as we all know, as good as sugar tastes it is very bad for you. How many layers of lies, I asked myself, do I have to peel away from my beliefs, thoughts, even feelings before I can see and partake of the true essence God? "Raise me up above this world's confusion" is all I could pray.

I also realized how much I need the Theotokos, our Mother, our Champion Leader. I desperately need a guide and intercessor, as I can hardly see past my own nose. I am more lost than I realized. "O bearer of the Unwaning Light, enlighten my blinded soul...Guide me to the path of repentance, for I am tossed in the storm of life...Let me not be exposed to the rejoicing of demons, guilty as I am of many sins...Accept my service of supplication and offer it to compassionate God. O thou who art above the angels, raise me above this world's confusion...Deliver me from soul-corrupting evils, and fervently intercede with Christ, to Whom is due honour and worship, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen."

Then I found a real desire to know God and to be holy as He is holy. I learned (and will continue learning) the beauty of desiring the things of God and asking for that which pleases Him to give. By this I mean to desire humility and honestly ask Him to send me opportunities to learn it; to desire an obedient spirit and ask Him to grant me the strength to practice it. The Lord will certainly answer these prayers; and I am finding that once I get past my dingy, worldly shell, my desire for these things is deep. This gives me great hope because it means that He has truly given me His Spirit along with everything I need to work out my salvation.

By being broken, by being shown how far I have fallen, by knowing real humility if only briefly, I was granted the great gift of a moment of honesty before God. In this moment He opened my eyes a little wider so I could see the next couple of steps that will lead me closer to Him. I am so grateful.

Fasts are always difficult. They are also always so good. If you are Orthodox you'll know what I mean when I say that usually once a fast is over, I take a deep breath of relief, eat some cheese and have some wine...and the next thing I know, I am eagerly awaiting the next fast. It is sort of like natural childbirth...but that is the subject of a whole new post!


06 July 2007

Why I Cover My Head (in church)

My first time visiting All Saints of Russia Orthodox Church was memorable for many reasons, covering my head for the first time was one of them. I knew that the women there did it and thought that I wouldn't mind until it was time to actually don the scarf and go to church. Suddenly I felt extremely self-conscious. I remembered all those times we kids teased mom about the days she wore a "doily" on her head (Plymouth Brethren). It wasn't long, though, before I forgot about my scarf as I experienced the rest of the Liturgy.

There is actually quite a bit of discussion in the Orthodox circle about head-covering in church, particularly amongst converts here in the west. Those on the fence about it and those who choose not to cover have a variety of reasons. In my opinion, none of them adequately address the issue of St Paul's command.

Growing up in the Protestant church where women (for the most part) don't cover their heads, I was never quite sure what to make of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. Seeing that no one had any interest in head-covering, I figured there must be some alternative interpretation for this passage that I simply was not getting. I couldn't just forget about it, though, especially since the part about women not speaking out was still held dear. I always whole-heartedly agreed that women have no place in the pastoral role (clergy) since St Paul was quite clear on the matter. But then again, he also seemed quite clear on charging women to cover their heads. Eventually I was finally given the answer as to why this rule of dress was no longer followed: it is culturally out-dated.

For me, once I got over my self-consciousness I embraced the "new" custom and never looked back. I no longer had to do a mental dance, accepting the one command and loosely rationalizing away the other. I honestly believe that if there were a concern about modesty regarding hygiene or some special cultural issue, he would have mentioned it specifically as he did in 1 Cor. 8 concerning food sacrificed to animals. Paul is often recognized for his direct approach and clarity. In this case the reasons for a woman to cover her head and for a man not to are clearly spiritual and not cultural.

Overall I believe with the Fathers that such practices of humility and obedience have great spiritual benefit...although I still find myself a slave to pride (Lord, have mercy).

I know many will disagree with me about this issue. That is okay. It is never my intention to point an invisible finger at anyone. After all, judging those who do not practice this will most certainly defeat the whole purpose.

As a conclusion, please consider St Paul's words once more. I recently reread this passage for the first time in a long while. It struck me powerfully.

"I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you. Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head--it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.

"In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice--nor do the churches of God."