Pascha At Home

So, if you’ve been following much, you know that I am pretty badly injured, and driving is a problem right now. So let’s add to that the very rainy day, the very dark skies, my bad vision, bald tires, and engine “issues.” It’s just not safe or feasible for us to drive to church tonight. We were so sad. We absolutely live for Pascha. It’s our favorite. My son, who wants to be a priest when he grows up, can often be found knocking on doors, so that “the King of Glory may enter in!” (And all year, I must ask him “Who is this King of Glory?” from the other side of my bedroom door.)

At random points throughout the year, he asks for The Homily.  That only means one thing. He wants the Paschal Homily of Saint John Chrysostom. “Hell received a body and encountered God. It received earth and confronted heaven. Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh hell, where is thy victory?”

We live, basically from Pascha to Pascha, awaiting the Resurrection service.

But we can’t go. It’s just not safe this year.

Perhaps it will be safer for the Agape Vespers.

So I am digging through what I have, and finding the Reader Service for Pascha so we can celebrate at home.

In the meantime, here are some pictures from our Pascha Garden, and the text of The Homily! Pray for us, please.


If any be a devout lover of God,
  let him partake with gladness from this fair and radiant feast.
If any be a faithful servant,
  let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have wearied himself with fasting,
  let him now enjoy his reward.
If any have laboured from the first hour,
  let him receive today his rightful due.
If any have come after the third,
  let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness.
If any have come after the sixth,
  let him not be in doubt, for he will suffer no loss.
If any have delayed until the ninth,
  let him not hesitate but draw near.
If any have arrived only at the eleventh,
  let him not be afraid because he comes so late.

For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour
  in the same was as him who has laboured from the first.
He accepts the deed, and commends the intention.

Enter then, all of you, into the joy of our Lord.
First and last, receive alike your reward.
Rich and poor, dance together.
You who fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice together.
The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it.
The calf is fatted: let none go away hungry.

Let none lament his poverty;
  for the universal Kingdom is revealed.
Let none bewail his transgressions;
  for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb.
Let none fear death;
  for death of the Saviour has set us free.

He has destroyed death by undergoing death.
He has despoiled hell by descending into hell.
He vexed it even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he cried:
Hell was filled with bitterness when it met Thee face to face below;
  filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing;
  filled with bitterness, for it was mocked;
  filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown;
  filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains.
Hell received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven.
O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen! And you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is risen! And the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is risen! And the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen! And life is liberated!
Christ is risen! And the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power, now and forever, and from all ages to all ages.
Amen!

The Pascha Garden

600931_10200107875242184_353700498_nMy friends, I am overwhelmed by the emails I have gotten since my last post. So many words of encouragement and offers of prayer! It’s certainly been a difficult week. My boy finally started processing Kearney’s death on Tuesday night, so there have been many tears and much talking and praying. Necessity dictated lots of extra snuggles as well, which I will never turn down.

My arm is healing, but it feels so slow. I know it’s only been a week, and it can take up to sixteen weeks for this tendon to heal, but I feel so useless sometimes. I shouldn’t, I suppose, but it’s part of the process. My leg is infected, and my arm needed subcutaneous stitches at Monday’s appointment. At today’s appointment, it was no better, and I needed still more antibiotics. I go back again on Monday. Hopefully after THAT appointment, I will be cleared to take the shower I want so desperately. No amount of sponge-bathing leaves you feeling as clean as even a five-minute shower! Please continue to keep me in your prayers. I heal slowly to start with, and this is pretty major, I suppose.

We were able to go to church last night for Holy Unction. I love Holy Week so much! I am a bit sad that I am not able to be there much this year, but I live an hour from any Orthodox church (and, in fact, I live almost exactly an hour from no less than seven Orthodox churches!), and making the drive with my arm is not very wise if it can be avoided. So this year, we are doing something extra-special at home. In fact, I think this may be the start of a family tradition.

My poor young botanist’s flower bed has not been doing well. We have ONE sunflower and a few blue flax sprouting, but nothing else. I knew that was highly likely, since we didn’t have time to really prepare the ground, and we didn’t have a lot of soil to put down. But he was sad. He’s sad about his dog, and he’s sad about his injured mama, and he’s sad about his flowers. I can’t fix the first two, but I could do something about the third.

So, today, we went window shopping at the garden center, just to get an idea of what we might want to plant eventually. We ran into our neighbor and my son’s best friend there, and they offered to let him come over and play for a while. PERFECT OPPORTUNITY! I had been needing to find a time for someone else to watch my boy so I could sneak out and buy him presents for his basket! (just a note: He got a huge basket with candy, toys, and books at my parents’ Easter picnic a month ago, so I was planning on a small toy or two, maybe a Cadbury egg, and something we could do together. Lately, that means gardening, building, or painting.)

I went through the garden center on my own, lingering at the sale tables, and I hatched a plan. Then I went to find soil. I came back with a gusto, grabbing flats and quarts like a woman on a mission.

Did you know? There is NO good way to hide a bunch of flowers in a tiny little house for three nights without killing them.

So “Peter the Pascha Rabbit” came early to visit my son. He asked him to plant a Pascha garden, and to pray as he plants.

He has Joseph’s Coat for the prophets, marigold for the Theotokos, white gardenias for Christ and His Resurrection, some beautiful red flowers (whose name escapes me) for Christ’s humanity and death on the Cross, and some purple and blue petunias for His divinity (and I believe I remember reading that the purple also represents His Passion).  Three of the plants creep and spread to show how we should spread the Gospel.  He’s got an angel garden statue already, and while I was browsing online looking for a garden cross, I got another neat idea:

I am going to decoupage an icon or two to go in the Pascha Garden! I have instructions on decoupaging for outdoor use, and I am ready to go (once I figure out what I am decoupaging onto….)

Which icon(s) should we use? Leave me your suggestions!

Pray for us! God willing, we are going to try to plant in the morning before the rain moves in. Then I imagine I will promptly be taking pain meds and a nap.

Biographical Updates

KAtie 9 6 12Hello, new friends! 

I appreciate the awesome feedback I have gotten from some ladies on facebook. It’s really encouraging. I am working on updating my profile and thinking of what sort of blog “articles” I want to write. I am very inspired by some of the amazing moms out there in the Orthodox Blogosphere. I avidly follow some of the humorous and satirical blogs. 

So I figured, since I am going to update my profile tonight (maybe, if I stay awake long enough) that I would tell you a little bit more about me. My biography a few posts back is just the story of my discovery of the Church, but it’s far from the story of me. And it does cut off almost three years ago! 

Let me start with an update of where I am since I wrote that bio. 

I LOVE the OCA parish I was in when that bio was written. I made deep and lasting friendships there. There are women in that parish whom I consider mentors and second-mothers. It is absolutely certain that my life would be in a much different place if I had not formed those relationships. I thank God every day for the love of, especially, the women I met at St. John The Wonderworker Orthodox Church. I do hope, ladies, that if you read this, you know who you are! 

I ended up moving in with my parents for a while to try to get back on my feet. I think that this is easier said than done, and for a woman like me, it is impossible to get back onto my feet when I am living at home in my childhood bedroom. I don’t know why that is. That’s something I am exploring. But I do much better when I am on my own. My family WORKS much better when my son and I are in our own home, and we finally are, for the first time since he was an infant! 

Living with my parents, I was very near to Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, but more than an hour from St. John’s, so Jack and I started attending the Greek parish regularly. We’ve moved yet another hour north, but Holy Transfiguration is STILL the closest parish, so that is where we attend, as regularly as possible. Jack adores Father Panayiotis, and I have made some friends at church. Two weeks ago, I met the first other single mom in my generation I have ever met in person! I was amazed. We exchanged numbers. I really must call her soon. 

The community there is wonderful. Jack is involved in Greek dancing, and he will be starting Greek school in two weeks! I worked at the Greek Festival painting faces, and we had a wonderful time. I’m starting to get to know some of the families there pretty well, and I think we’re home. 

Speaking of home, we moved into our own home this past February. It is delightfully old and tiny, but we love it. It has a delightful yard, and I am hoping to be able to start working on a winter box garden soon. Jack, as you know, is schooling at home, though the school he’s in is technically a public charter school. He’s THRIVING. He loves what he’s learning, and keeps asking for more even when I think our school day ought to end.

He’s reading on his own now. We had a day last week that started out with him whining that he didn’t know HOW to read and concluded with him whining that he didn’t want to stop reading. In one week, he has read through three-quarters of the years’ material! He’s unstoppable! 

I’m doing some odd jobs online and in town, and I am working on getting the start-up to do some home business ventures. The first I am doing is a soy candle business. After that, I am looking into the usual suspects: Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, etc. I am still knitting and crocheting and teaching both. My domain expired, but I was in the process of changing the name of the business anyhow. I will update you when I get the new website up for that. I have designed a beret with a cross pattern in the crown that I am hoping might sell as a head covering for some of the younger girls. 

I’ve just started using the FlyLady system again in an attempt to keep up with the housework in the midst of all of this. I’ve given her system a go in the past, but I never stuck it out. Right now, I am working on my morning and evening routines and just doing the daily missions. It’s going okay. Slow and steady wins the race, I suppose. It’s funny, though, because my friends and neighbors comment that my house is always fresh and clean, but I always feel like it could be BETTER. I wonder if that isn’t just the way of women though, always telling ourselves we should be doing more. 

I believe I may write about that in the morning, if I can put my thoughts about it together. 

For tonight, thanks for reading, thanks for the encouragement, and thank you so very much for taking the time to care.

Biography

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On April 20, 2006, a young woman goes into the doctor’s office for a post-operative check-up. She needs one more test to make sure that a life-changing reconstruction of her dysfunctional uterus was successful. The doctor assures her that she is healing well, and sets up a sonohysterogram at the hospital a couple of blocks away. Before they can sedate her and start the invasive test, she must first wait for the results of some preliminary blood work. The lab tells her that, among other things, they are testing for infection and pregnancy. Without much thought about that, she waits impatiently for the results so she can undergo the procedure and move on. Then the lab technician finally comes into the waiting room, calls the woman back into the lab, and gives her the news: “Congratulations, Ms. Stephens. You are pregnant.”

That was the moment that changed my life completely. On April 19th I was a twenty-five year old girl still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, major uterine surgery, and a very damaging and emotionally-abusive relationship. On April 20th, I became Mom. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do. There was, at the time no one for me to talk to. I was, I realized, utterly alone, terrified, overwhelmed, and completely lost.

That evening, I went to work where I was alone in my office overnight. I typically spent most of my time on the computer, chatting and emailing with friends to get through a mind-numbing night shift. That night, I did not feel up to chatting. I just felt numb. It happened, however, that I checked my email at the most opportune moment. A very dear Russian friend had sent me an email. I will never forget the text of that email. “My beloved Katya,” it read, “I feel compelled to write to you today, though I am not sure why. I just feel that you need some sort of reassurance, and I thought this icon of the Mother of God could help you.” She had attached an image of what I later found out is the Wonder-Working Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign, commonly known as the Kursk Root Icon. An overwhelming feeling came over me in that moment. It is, to this day, a feeling I cannot find words to express. What I did know, and I knew it with an overpowering clarity, is that I needed to be in the church whence this icon came.

April 23, 2006 was my first Paschal service at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Biloxi, MS. In fact, it was the first time I had been into ANY Orthodox church anywhere. I had been considering Orthodoxy off and on for seven or eight years, but I had never worked up the nerve to actually go to church. Yet here I was, pregnant, alone, and terrified, walking into Holy Trinity at 11:30 PM on Holy Saturday. I was overcome by the feeling of holiness in that place. I was awed by the icons, the candles, the chants, and the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom: 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. Perhaps most important on that night, I was amazed by how warm and welcoming the parishioners were. I felt that night like I believed I should feel walking into my own home. It was that, I believe, which drew me back the next day.

I was there on Sunday afternoon for the vesper service and the picnic after. Not only was I there, I was asked to read the Gospel in French. I still joke with the man who asked me that this had to be some sort of hazing ritual for new people. “Hello. Welcome to Holy Trinity. Christ is Risen! (Truly, He is Risen!) Would you be willing to read the Gospel in a language you haven’t spoken in ten years?” I did it happily, albeit with atrocious pronunciation, because I knew in the deepest parts of my soul that I had found the home I would never leave.

That afternoon, I met the man who I decided would be the first person I would tell about the pregnancy. His name was Father Jim, and he was the parish priest. Father Jim congratulated me, and when I told him that I was unmarried and that I knew the father would prefer that I have an abortion, he gave me a big bear hug and congratulated me again. He assured me that I had already chosen life for my child and that this fact, together with the miracle occurring inside me, was to be congratulated.

That day, Pascha 2006, was the day that I knew I would never be the same. In my terror, I opened my heart, and I was shown love and compassion where I knew that others would pass judgment. It was that day when I realized the things about my life which have shaped every decision, every emotion, and every action of my life even to this day: I was a mother. I was worthy of love and compassion. I was home, and soon I would be Orthodox. In the coming months, this church would become a home to me, and its parishioners would become my family and my closest friends. I have never felt the need or desire to look back on that day with anything but joy, and I will never be the same. My terror was replaced with hope, my pain with great joy, and my loneliness with love.

It was in the arms of my newfound family and friends that I made it through the next months. This small parish became, in a very profound way, my life support. My thirst for the Orthodox Church became only stronger, and I found that I spent my weeks longing for Sunday Liturgy and the weekly catechetical classes. The women at this church became like sisters and mothers to me, supporting me fully through some of the most agonizing experiences of my life. With their support and Father Jim’s, I managed to start building a life for my son and myself, and it was always with a sense of wonder I still feel today: Why would God bless me so much, when I have done nothing in my life to deserve it? The Lord used every obstacle in my life to show me great and tender mercy.

I became both disabled and unemployed at the end of my first trimester of pregnancy. I lost my car when its engine seized. Our weekly catechetical classes were all but impossible to schedule because of work schedules, my lack of transportation, and pressing parish needs that strained our chronically ill priest. Yet, all of these obstacles became unimaginable blessings for me. I was offered the job of personal assistant to Father Jim. With the help of some parishioners, I was able to find a vehicle that was better suited both to my mobility problems and to the gear I needed for an infant. Even the pain of my shattered pelvis seemed manageable. With my new job as parish secretary, I discovered with great joy that the once-weekly catechetical classes to which I so looked forward became daily discussions and “hands-on” experience. Our “catechetical talks,” as Father Jim refers to them now, took place at the church, in my home, at local restaurants, and even in the hospital when my son was born. Father Jim gave me free reign of his personal library, and I read as many books as I could over the next two years. Four years later, I look back on this time as the most enjoyable time of my life.

Such a joyous time was this for me, that I was caught almost off-guard when Father Jim began discussing the schedule of Holy Week and included my chrismation in the schedule. Had it been that long? Had I learned what I was supposed to learn? Was this real? This was what I had longed for since I first attended liturgy a year prior. Now, here I was, my beloved son in my arms, a home of my own, a job that I truly loved, with friends and family by my side and tears in my eyes: Orthodox. Maria. My amazing godmother had named me for the Mother of God, telling me that I was tasked with raising a great man who would follow in the footsteps of Christ. A month later, with even more tears of even greater joy, my son was baptized.

It is now three years later, and our lives have changed once again. In the last three years, my son and I have experienced great pain and great healing. In 2008, I left the security of Holy Trinity to move to Mobile, AL where a new job as an apartment community manager was waiting for me, and where my fiancé was currently living and working. During the move, my son was sent for a two-week visit with his father. At the end of those two weeks, I drove to Atlanta to pick him up from his father’s house and found to my absolute horror that the house was empty, listed for sale, and that his father and grandparents were nowhere to be found. It took an act of God, and I mean that literally, for the local sheriff’s department to even file a report, and it took, I know, more strength than I possess myself to get through the coming months.

While I was in Atlanta trying to find my two-year-old son, I lost my job and the apartment that went with it. My then-fiancé abandoned me in favor of “hanging out with the guys.” My attorney was unable to obtain an emergency hearing so that my son could come home with me. My parents were so “overspent” emotionally and financially that they would not even allow me to bring up the subject, much less discuss my fragile and broken emotional state. I felt I had lost everything, and I now know that it was only by the grace of God that I even managed to get out of bed. Even in retrospect, it is still unimaginable to me that I was able to file the court paperwork, find a new job, move into a new house, purchase furniture, decorate my son’s new bedroom, and continue moving forward having no idea when I might see or even speak to my son again. In my desperation and isolation, it was in the Church I found counsel and in Christ I found hope. When my son finally came home with me, four months later, he came home to great celebration from the parish at Holy Trinity and the priests at Holy Trinity in Biloxi, MS; Holy Transfiguration in Marietta, GA; and Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Mobile, AL – all of whom had cried with me, prayed for me, and helped me rebuild my life and my home.

Over the course of the next several months Father Jim retired, I left the fiancé who abandoned me so utterly in my need, and my son and I relocated to Atlanta to be closer both to my parents and his father. I struggled for months with depression, illness, poverty, and “functional homelessness,” moving from one friend’s couch to the next until I finally found an apartment that I could afford. It has proven to be worth it though, as I have now started, again with the help of my local parish, to forge ahead and make a life for my little family. My son is happily attending preschool, taught by my mother, and we spend our days playing, learning, and praying together as mother and child. We even have a dog – a black lab in “foster” care in our home.

Recently, I have started attending St. John the Wonderworker (OCA) in Grant Park, Atlanta, GA. Here I have experienced the same openness and love that I experienced at Holy Trinity among the small group of women within the parish. Their loving outreach to my son and myself has shown me again something which I started from the day of that first Agape Vespers four years ago: The love of Christ, the message of the Gospel, is universal. It becomes fairly apparent to me that the compassion of the faithful is, when exercised as I have seen in the Orthodox Church, close to universal as well. It should be, in any event, a love shown to all people, no matter the scenario.

It is this love and compassion which has helped to carry me through life, showing me that, even as a single mother with few resources, I can always know the mercy of God and the love of His people. To some people, I know it seems hard to relate to me. I am, however, merely human. Perhaps I am more in touch with my very real mortality and my very great and grievous errors than other women my age. I know my lawlessness, and my sin is always before me (Psalm 50:5, SAAS). I have told many people that we all have our baggage; mine just chases me around and calls me Mommy. My son is also my greatest blessing, and a profound miracle in my life. His mere existence brought me to the Church, and our lives will continue to be shaped by our faith forever. I am still physically disabled from the pregnancy, and I likely always will be. Yet God has used these constant reminders of my sin and my mortality to show me again and again his endless and unfathomable mercy – mercy which I know I did nothing to earn.