Perspective, Choices, and What a Picture From 1904 Taught Me
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. – Frederick Buechner1
When I lived in Ottawa, I went through a time when I was unemployed, spent my carefully tended savings to survive and then ran out of money completely. For a few months I did not know how I was going to pay rent or buy food. Scary. Twice in my life I went through testing to see if I had cancer; each time, no cancer. Everyday now it seems that apocalyptic fearful things happen; the news tells us only of some. Anxiety has weighed me down deep in it’s ocean, submerging me under in its waves. It was there I learned you need to fight and deal with fear and anxiety while you are in the midst of it.
When overwhelmed, I pray small quick prayers: when I am afraid, I trust in Thee2; I repeat this prayer many times. I can breathe again. I do small prayers, cross myself, say the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me)3, these all help. I am learning to tune out a lot of news and worry. That you can choose to have a peaceful day or an anxious day. It’s all where and what you focus on and put your energy towards . . .With Christ one can develop a well of interior peace, an inward fortress. I am not there yet. But Mother Gavrilia4 shows that the way towards this peace is to accept everything in my life, to live in my ‘today’ with God and trust that God’s will is unfolding, even if my life and well being are in peril5.
I started learning this in Ottawa when I was unemployed; at the time, I had to move to a smaller, less expensive apartment. Most apartments are not listed more than two months in advance. My lease required me to give two months notice, which meant I had two months to find and move into a new apartment, in the middle of winter. At the same time two things were going on. First, my spiritual father6 was praying for me (as were many). Second, a miracle working icon came from Ukraine: the Pochaev Icon of the Mother of God.7 At the time, a prayerful Orthodox Nun was living nearby and she told me “Ask the Mother of God for what you need, go up to her and ask many times.” So I did.
And so, I found an apartment that I could afford, relief! But, two weeks before I had to move, the owners of the apartment refused me, reneging the lease. I was in such a panic, even with the experience of the Holy Icon of the Mother of God. I told my spiritual father what happened and could not understand why he was not upset. (I was thinking along the lines of: I have been lied to! Cheated! I have no where to live! Two weeks and I am on the streets with all my stuff and my cat! What in the word is God doing?! I am scared, my life is spiraling out of control!). Why was my spiritual father so peaceful when he heard about my situation? It really struck me.
In the midst of this great panic, I saw that the apartment I really wanted resurfaced on Craigslist (someone refused that lease). I saw the place ASAP, a friend came with, we measured, realized my furniture would fit and I took it. This small apartment was painted a beautiful blue; blue is the liturgical colour for the Mother of God8. God provided while I was exhausted by worrying that He was not going to provide. A few months later a friend from church, V., came up to me and asked ‘was the apartment that reneged on you at the last minute at “this and this” address?’ I said “yes, why?” He answered: “It burnt down in the middle of the night, saw it on the news yesterday.” I did not realize how well I was being taken care of. My spiritual father, he already knew.
Being taken care of by God does not preclude suffering or even death. It does mean having a relationship with God that can create the interior fortress of peace that all of us desire but most do not believe is possible. This is where a picture that a dear friend gave us leads the way; it taught me so much! It is the picture you see above this essay, a picture that I see everyday in our library/chapel. It is of Tsar Nicholas, his family and Elizabeth, the Granddaughter of Queen Victoria and her husband9. This picture is from Pascha (Easter) night, 1904. It’s so beautiful. In year 1904, they were all celebrating Pascha in their most beautiful and stately clothes. They did not know the future, that soon a war (with Japan) would be going on, or that they would be martyred in less than 20 years.
We don’t know what our future is. But we can choose to have Pascha today. We can choose to live in the present, whatever that is. We can be with God in our today, no matter what today is or what it brings. We can learn not be crushed by tomorrow’s worry. We can do everything today with God. This is the way out from the anxiety that crushes us. Again and again, a pious older Catholic woman (she was one of my biggest mentors in Ottawa), told me: be with God today, look at how God saw you through that hard time, and that was a miracle of God, that ‘this and this’ happened. This mentor was at my wedding, 3 years later . . .
I have lived in New Jersey with my husband for almost 4 years now. If I focus on what I lost by leaving Ottawa or what I find yet incomplete in my new life, I can lose my inner peace and daily happiness. If I focus on how God’s will is unfolding for my life, I can have peace. Peace comes when I appreciate the day I have. That Cleo my cat is next to me as a type, that I have more provisions than my daily bread, that I can pray to God for help for myself and the world. I can choose what this day will be. I can have self-pity, discontentment and anxiety or I can practice thankfulness, prayer and seeking God’s will. I can be with God today. With time and God’s mercy, I can learn to be present to Christ’s Eternal Pascha, the hope given to all the world10.
(1) Frederick Buechner. New York, New York: HarperOne, 1993. http://www.frederickbuechner.com/hope-through-grace/
(2) This being taken from Psalm 56:3 http://biblehub.com/psalms/56-3.htm
(3) If you have not heard of the Jesus Prayer, these books are great: The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green and Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer: Experiencing the Presence of God and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of an Ancient Spirituality by Norris Chumley.
(4) Mother Gavrilia: The Ascetic of Love. Athens, Greece: Eptalofos SA, 3rd edition 2006.
(5) This does not mean to avoid seeking ways to help oneself but that in the day itself, we can be with God today and thus still have peace as we work out our lives and salvation.
(6) Having a spiritual father is common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Often a parish priest or monastic is chosen by the spiritual daughter or spiritual son.
(7) I wrote this visit here: https://eroosje.blogspot.com/2009/10/icon-of-holy-mother-of-god-of-pochaiv.html and here: https://eroosje.blogspot.com/2009/10/grace-filled-two-days.html. It was a very special experience, I stayed in Church, near this icon for the days it was with us. It was such a mercy of God. More about this icon is found here: https://oca.org/saints/lives/2012/09/08/102543-icon-of-the-mother-of-god-of-pochaev and https://oca.org/news/archived/the-pochaev-icon-of-the-mother-of-god-historical-notes
(8) Three years later, my husband proposed to me in that blue apartment; this is all a miracle of God’s mercy.
(9) Elizabeth is a Saint, canonized by the Orthodox Christians, she is called “St. Elizabeth the New Martyr”; in this picture she is with her husband, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, who is later assassinated; Tsar Nicholas and his family are also Saints of the Orthodox Church and are referred to as Royal Martyrs.
(10) Originally published on Monday, July 13, 2015 at https://eroosje.blogspot.com/2015/07/perspective-choices-and-what-picture.html. Revised August 18, 2016.