Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday morning shut-in

The beauty of living next to church is that you get to experiment with how to wrangle your toddler and manage to make it to all the services with comparative ease-- a luxury that most of my mum-friends don't have.

But with that comes the temptation to feel that you can and SHOULD make it to every service. After all, it only takes me two minutes to walk to church. And that's made it rather difficult for me to accept the idea of taking my 40-day break from church after the baby arrives.

For those of you who don't know, the Orthodox church prescribes a 40-day fast from church, as it were, for women who have just given birth. This is not because, as some might think, that the church thinks of childbirth as an unclean thing. It is not a banishment, but rather a sort of recommended holiday or permitted absence from church to allow new mothers time to bond with their babies.

I know I am not alone, however, in feeling resentful about this particular requirement. It's hard not to feel banished and I know a lot of women simply choose to ignore this rule, however common-sense it might be. Parenting is incredibly isolating at times so it can be a hard rule to accept.

And because my baby is due the week before Pascha this year, I have been determined to go to every service I possibly could regardless of whether it conflicted with Theo's bed time or I had the energy to go. My mother told me to just admit defeat and stay home and I guess she was right because after Presanctified Liturgy on Friday poor Theo started throwing up and hasn't stopped. It's all been too much for him. So this Sunday I sit at home watching Wallace and Gromit for the millionth time while the service is going on 50 feet from my door.

It's difficult for me to remember or accept perhaps that sometimes taking it easy is the least selfish thing I can do and I think that applies to a lot of modern women. We don't like to admit that kids just mean less freedom for us--even if we want to use that freedom for something like going to church.

So perhaps that's what God wants me to learn this Lent: to accept that parenting is the way God wants me to serve Him--even if it means I have less freedom to go to church or opportunities for fellowship with other parishioners. I need to learn that mothering is it's own form of Christian fellowship.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Journey of Obedience

So I've been thinking a lot about fasting as you know, and my husband said something that really made me think about it from a different perspective-- one which I think makes a lot of sense. He said that he wouldn't be giving up anything for Lent that wasn't required-- that he was just going to do his best to be obedient to the existing rules, and that to try to be better was setting himself up for frustration and disappointment.

Now, it has occurred to me recently that as Orthodox we are very blessed to have these rules, rather than to have the burden of choosing our own discipline, like our Protestant brothers do. That's because, as a pregnant woman, I simply can't follow the traditional rules, and have felt that I must choose something else instead. But while discussing the dilemma with some of my Protestant friends, I have come to realise that fasting, the way it was meant to be, is not really an exercise in self-discipline so much as an obedience. And I think that is because we are less likely to feel proud of our success in giving up meat if everyone at church did too. We are all on the same journey, united in Christ and walking together to joy of His Pascha.

Since I have come to understand this, I've realised why it has been so difficult for me to choose something to fast from: my part in this obedience, as a pregnant woman, is NOT to give up meat and dairy. And while this may seem like a freebee to my fellow Orthodox travellers, the reality is that it is much harder in some ways. First, my husband is fasting, so we are not making this journey the same way. (Also, I have to cook for both of us.) And second, it is much harder to experience the joy of the feast if one has not fasted at all-- it can be very isolating.

A good analogy is that we are all on the road to Pascha and must travel in the simplest manner possible, allowing more time for prayer, reflection, and fellowship. We have to use our bodies to search for God. In others words, we have to walk. I, on the other hand, am already allowing God to use my body for the creation of life. I have to take a cab. And while that might seem like the more desirable way to travel for those whose feet are already sore after one week, the reality is that I don't get to walk with the rest of you. I have to watch you as I drive past alone in the cab--no one but me and the baby. God is driving (I think) but I'm not good at conversation.

Luckily for me, the cab stops and lets me out at all the pubs and rest stops along the road where I can meet the rest of you for communion and fellowship (ie church). But in the mean time the journey can be rather lonely, which is why I kept trying to come up with things to fast from so that I feel included.

But I think I've been looking at it all wrong really. Realistically I'm still on the same road as the rest of my fellow Orthodox, so there should be no reason to feel left out on the day we arrive at the feast--IF I am following the spirit of the fast. It is not about the things we give up, but the spirit in which we choose to avoid them that matters. We are not avoiding certain foods to punish our bodies anymore than we choose to walk in order to develop blisters. We avoid certain foods because they take time and energy to prepare and digest that is better spent in fellowship at church or in our prayer corners. We walk in order to go there together. In other words, "feasting" means fussing in the kitchen, separated from each other and distracted by the cares of the world, like Martha. Fasting is sitting at God's feet like Mary and the rest of the faithful. And I can sit at God's feet (or walk at His side, or ride in His cab), cheese or no cheese.

I have said in other posts that what I want to do, and think all of us should try to do, is fast from stress during Lent. So what I have chosen to do is keep the non-fasting items I must eat as simple as possible--adding cheese to my plate of Lenten pasta or something--the aim of my meal plans being to spend as little time in the kitchen as possible.

Of course, for most of us in the western world, we're so blessed with abundance that for us SIMPLE meals are almost always non-Lenten ones. We're not used to eating things without meat and cheese, so the fast presents us with quite a challenge sometimes. But the path is wide. Some people walk right in the middle on the hardest part of the road (I think these people follow the "no oil" rule), some people walk on the turf next to it, and a few of us give up and catch the bus.

The point is that we all go the same direction on the path that God has laid for us. And if we catch the bus occasionally and meet up with everyone else at the pub along the way, then we won't be able to stray too far.

In the meantime, my job is to rest in the car, let God control my body, let Him bring life from it, and learn to love communion with my baby and with God.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

There goes the bandwagon--and my butt hurts!!

Oh I am soooo pathetic. I give up TWO things for Lent: Facebook (so far a BIG relief) and coffee (except church coffee which, come on guys, really doesn't count). Today is day four of Lent and I couldn't handle it anymore. Tea just wasn't cuttin' it. My mother takes Theo on Thursday mornings for music class and I get the morning off and the only way I was going to avoid the housework itch was if I went out and the easiest place was Starbucks. And I'm just not going to have TEA.

But on the plus side my husband works from home and since his day's work involved mostly searching for client contact details online, he could come with me and bring the lap top. We had a lovely time. He worked while I scribbled in my journal. We had a REAL conversation for a change instead of the kind you have at the end of the day when you're too tired to be articulate or else you end up arguing over nothing.

So I figured if I get quality time with my husband out of my coffee obsession then it really doesn't count as falling off the bandwagon right?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Fasting from stress.

There are two ways we can anticipate something as big and beautiful as having a baby. One is to watch the clock, count the minutes, run around frantically trying to ready the nest, pack the bags a week before the due date, go the hospital at the very first tweak of abdominal cramping-- basically be as stressed out and over-excited as possible. Or we can wait quietly, continue to enjoy life at a moderate pace, make no big plans, set no specific goals and let the baby come when it comes.

When I was pregnant with Theo I was smart enough (or lucky enough) to try the latter approach in preparation for the birth. My mom was two weeks overdue with both my sister and me and her labour took two days nearly so I considered myself as likely to be on baby death-row for at least that amount of time. (Baby death-row being perhaps not the best way of describing the feeling a pregnant woman has when she is overdue and waiting for her sentence to be carried out already.)

So when I started having contractions only a week after my due date I really wasn't sure that I was in labour at all. So I went about my business, did grocery shopping, stopped at the employment office to do my papers, had a bath, had a nap, watched a movie. It wasn't till my water broke that I figured I actually was in labour after all. And even then I expected I would be be busy with it for hours and hours so I tried to take a nap. In the end my labour lasted only five hours and I can't help thinking that my relaxed attitude contributed to the ease and briefness of my labour and delivery. (I acknowledge that I am also just genetically lucky to have had so little pain.) The result was a beautiful birth experience that left me feeling completely invigorated and overwhelmed with the kind of joy I've only ever known at Pascha.

Now that it is Lent I'm faced with the challenge of fasting and all the stress we Orthodox tend to associate with it. A friend of mine remarked that it wasn't the change in diet that was so hard for her, but having to drastically reduce the AMOUNT of food she ate. She said there was no point in trading steak and potatoes for lentil soup if you ate 4 helpings of it just to feel full. And she had a good point. What's the point of changing your diet so you can feast on perogies? The point is that we aren't feasting. However, in her mind, I think she felt that the opposite of feasting is starving-- fasting was meant to be difficult after all.

But that got me thinking about how easy it is for us as Orthodox to approach the fast as being either a different kind of feast (of the ethnic vegan food variety) or as a sort of self-punishing famine. I tend towards the latter habit and I think most convert Orthodox do too-- especially when they come from Protestant backgrounds where they had the burden of choosing their own discipline instead of simply being obedient to tradition. It is easy to think that giving up feasting means giving up things we like and thereby feeling guilty if we continue to eat something we enjoy or do something we think of as a luxury--even if they aren't a part of the traditionally restricted food items.

But I do not believe for a moment that the traditional fasting rules were designed as self- punishment, nor do I believe that God wants us all to walk around half-starved, feeling light-headed and ill. After all, our bodies are His temple and we are not meant to abuse them by walking around hungry and incapable of concentrating. (Think how dangerous it would be for truck drivers or surgeons to be Orthodox if that were the case).

So I wonder if perhaps the real purpose behind the traditional fasting rules is to require us to slow our pace of life and reduce our stress so we have more energy for church and prayer. A friend commented to me that she was planning to rest more during Lent--even though it didn't sound like a good Lenten discipline. But I think as a matter of fact she is doing what we should ALL be doing during Lent. That the traditional fasting rules make no sense at all if we aren't actively trying to rest and relax as well. Our lives are ridiculously full and overwhelmingly busy most of the time that we have no time and energy for God. We're all buzzing about like Martha, readying the feast that we are missing the better part.

Of course I'm a stay-at-home mom and I make my own hours-- mostly. But I do tend to set unrealistic goals for myself and add to my list of daily challenges by planning complicated meals that take a lot of organising. I invite people round and try to play hostess even when I'm too tired.

So for my son's second birthday I felt terribly guilty that I hadn't planned anything or made any kind of effort to host a party or a dinner because I was far too tired. But in the end we had the best kind of Orthodox party there is-- the spontaneous shin dig. We invited whoever was free to stop by and hang out for ice cream cake after church on Sunday. I didn't cook, I didn't clean, I just enjoyed the fellowship and so did Theo. He opened his presents and blew out his two candles and enjoyed the attention of all his parents' familiar church friends.

I think this is the sort of approach we should all have to fasting. To avoid not simply the feasting but all the stresses that come with preparing a feast. Cook simple meals, avoid too many extra social engagements and make more time for rest and for church, so that our minds as well as our hearts and bodies are prepared for the Great Feast.