moving onwards and upwards

St. Birgitta stitch, part 1: in which I still have sanity
St. Birgitta stitch, parts 2 & 3: in which I’ve totally lost it
Visiting family in Albuquerque and taking the Sandia Tramway for the first time

What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.

C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

This past year or so since I graduated with my BA in Classics has been very strange. Certainly covid contributed to its strangeness, but there were other things that compounded the strangeness.

I had been planning to go straight from my undergraduate to a masters degree in theology. All the classes would be online, and the community experience would of course be extraordinarily lacking. However, it was a conversation I had with someone about the future viability of my research interests that made me come screeching to a halt in this plan, causing me to withdraw my application a week before classes were to start.

Then I got a job working at a pharmacy, which was really nice, because I had some money for the first time since I graduated high school. I was working through treatment (I think a more accurate term might be management) for my mental health and starting to feel stable, more confident in myself, and a lot less anxious than I had in a very long time. But throughout this time, I kept questioning the decision I had made to not go to graduate school.

Of course I didn’t regret choosing to avoid online classes, but I missed the environment where I had felt so comfortable and where I had found my closest friends. At the same time, I didn’t want to go back just because I missed chapel and my friends. I didn’t have a viable research interest (the history and development of the typikon, while interesting to me, is not exactly the stuff of tenure).

Then the papers came.

The paper ideas started coming in droves. I would pick up the Iliad and suddenly feel that I needed to write a paper about vocation versus identity through action or inaction in the Iliad using Achilles as a case study (and maybe throwing in Euripides because let’s face it the guy was a genius). This paper started as a very specific idea frantically scribbled down before bed and turned into a complex, multilayered set of thoughts that I’m still figuring out. I also wanted to write a paper about the whole process of Patroklos’ death, which is quite possibly my favorite scene in the Iliad (followed or preceded by Hector and Andromache, I’m not sure).

Finally I got to the point where I found the thesis idea that I want to write about an pursue for my graduate work. I’m not going to name it specifically here, because unfortunately academic paranoia is usually justified, but it is very generally about Orthodoxy and mental health. I am so excited to write it, and to be honest, even if it doesn’t go anywhere it will be worth doing.

I suppose this is a really long-winded way of saying God willing I will be actually starting grad school in the fall. I’m still not quite sure exactly how I’ll manage all the details, but as my spiritual father once pointed out to me, God has not let me down yet. I am thankful for my “gap year,” and I am thankful that all my saints have found me a way to go. (I have a posse – St. Catherine of course, St. Xenia of Petersburg, St. Phanourios, St. Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and most recently St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain.) Without them I’d very much still be lost.

-Odds & Ends-
Video explaining the St. Birgitta stitch pictured above (also Morgan Donner is wonderful)
Video Recording of the Akathist to St. Porphyrios (in Greek)
Onesimus, the blog of Dr. Bill Black, an OCMC missionary serving in Nairobi who I had the great honor of meeting when he spoke at a retreat hosted by the missions committee at my college (please pray for him and his work, and if you are interested and/or able to, please go here to support him financially)
I just finished this book about St. Paisios (I know I’m a little late to the bandwagon on it, but it really did come into my life at the right time). A couple of my dearest friends have such a good relationship with him, and I am so glad that I started having my own relationship with him as well.
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger has completely disillusioned me of the notion I’ve had since high school that Salinger is terrible. He is not.

february blues and a catch up

I feel it is fairly appropriate to have a screen capture of Over the Garden Wall at the beginning of this post, since I have been feeling just as lost as Wirt and Greg are throughout the show. I identify with Wirt; I want to be more like Greg.

Many things have happened since I last wrote a post. I got a job as a pharmacy technician. I’m learning more about medications than I really ever wanted to know, and I honestly don’t find it terribly fulfilling work. However, I am helping people, so that is good.

I haven’t read very much (as evidenced by a lack of book reviews posted here). I keep intending to read, but for some reason I have some kind of mental block that keeps me from cracking open those beloved spines and allowing myself to be inspired. Earlier, in the fall, I lacked the mental and spiritual energy for it. Now I simply put it off, perhaps because I am afraid of opening myself to spiritual connections (even to fictional characters) or because I am afraid of thinking.

I did pick up a copy of Mary Oliver’s Devotions in the airport on the way to my best friend’s wedding in January, and the poem “For Tom Shaw S.S.J.E.” made me break down in tears on the flight. It was on page 8. I have re-read it many times since that first time, and every time I am struck by Mary Oliver’s ability to touch the heart of the matter with a few simple words. Her writing is helping me see the beauty in the world again.

This might should have come earlier given its importance, but I finished my degree and graduated. As one might expect, it was terribly anticlimactic. It was also heart rending in a way I think many others did not experience, since this was the second graduation ceremony I did not have (homeschooling and graduating early and moving to a monastery do not typically allow for such things). I think the loss of another major marker traditionally associated with growing up, as well as the lack of finality to all the work I put in, has really impacted me, although I do try not to dwell on it. I have to trust that this is God’s intention for me and for the world, and to be honest, not getting graduations is (in the modern parlance) a “first world problem.”

It takes a great deal of courage to see the world in all its tainted glory and still to love it.

Oscar Wilde

I wrote this quote from Oscar Wilde at the beginning of the journal I started in October. I have been trying to live by it, trying first to see the glory in the taint and second to love both. Making things, like the Dalai Llama and two and a half pairs of socks, has been helping. Remembering that I have people who love me has been helping. Trying to add to the beauty of the world, even though I fail so miserably most of the time, has been helping.

The only other things going on in my life right now are trying to figure out which foods I am allergic/sensitive to, which means a lot of non-egg and non-dairy foods, lots of music, and stealing momentary snuggles with my (11 year old) kitten.

I hope you all are doing well, and that God will give us all the grace and strength to make it through the pandemic. (And through February. God knows Februaries are already hard enough here in this northern hemisphere. I will make it through with tea and cupcakes, and I will gladly share should anyone need them.)

-Odds & Ends-
My favorite chanting
An album I can’t stop listening to
Vegan cupcakes cookbook (which will be perfect for Lent, just sayin’)
Yarn I can’t get enough of (that I think is perfect for socks)

Mere Christianity

C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity came at a timely point in my life. Lent started; church was hard. COVID-19 happened; church was banned. Then, I decided to pick up this book, because not going to church was easy, and staying away from church felt normal.

So I was faced with what is part apology for Christianity and part challenge to become a Christian. The part of me that really likes where I’m at right now resisted this challenge, but the quiet part of me that used to really love going to church started to raise its head. It reminded me that at one point I wanted change in my life, and that the good things I have right now are gifts that even several months ago I was begging to have. All that is to say, this book had an impact on me.

Mere Christianity consists of three parts. The first is about the challenge which the existence of morality essentially poses, the second is about Christian morality particularly, and the third is a sort of explanation of basic Christian doctrines.

In the first part, I found Lewis’ critique of Dualism insightful, as I had not thought about the fact that by labeling one power “good” and the other “evil” we are essentially passing judgment on them. His ideas about the source of the idea of good being an Entity (Person) above all of us which guides us rather than forces us to do things made a lot of sense to me.

The second part I found easiest to read of all three, as I have grown up Christian and much of what he wrote was already familiar to me. Here he introduced the idea that in order to practice love (the most essential of all Christian virtues), you really need to do exactly that: practice. One does not start out by being able to love perfectly, but by practising love of neighbor and by practising love of God one can get better at it.

This sort of theme of you don’t start out perfect was continued in the third part. We are commanded to be perfect, yet we are not perfect; the reconciliation of this occurs when we give ourselves fully to Christ and allow Him to make us perfect through the “good infection” of His presence. One point Lewis kept making here is that we do not become Christians to become nice people but to become good men.

Once there was a time a couple years ago when I started reading this book. I did not get very far that time. Reading it now, it has moved me and caused me to think in a way that would not have been possible when I originally tried to read it. It is so nice to read a book about theology that was written in my native language and not in a translation of the Greek; the Fathers of the Church can teach us so much, but often the language is not as natural as what I found in Mere Christianity.

As is so often the case, this book entered my life exactly when it needed to, and I am very grateful for that. Lewis reminded me of faith and challenged what little I have, and I hope that this book will continue to make me think more deeply about the nature and challenge of Christianity.

(This book is 1/50 for my 50 Classics in 5 Years Challenge.)

the end of an era

As I am writing this, I am approximately two weeks away from being done with all of my classes of the second semester of my senior year. In other words, I’m almost done.

This, as you can imagine, brings up all kinds of feelings, especially because I have to finish my degree in quarantine (or whatever we are calling this situation right now). I am nostalgic for my campus, stressed about finishing all my work, at a point where I am apathetic towards my work, and basically terrified about what comes next.

The great big future is before me after this, and there are no right or wrong answers about what to do. I have done what is socially acceptable, and now (young) adulthood is here on the very visible horizon.

Of course, I have been working towards going to grad school, but at this point it is not in my immediate future, and I have a year to fill. A year of reflection and solitude, a refresher year after this degree I just finished. (If you can’t tell, I’m a big believer in gap years.)

I’m excited to read a lot. I’m also excited I found a platform which supports local bookstores (bookshop.org). I’m also excited to announce that I registered for an affiliate link on bookshop.org. You can find my shop here if you feel like supporting it in any way. I made some shelves with books I like and a few books I want, but go ahead and explore the whole website. Support those indie bookstores! (…and maybe support me too, if you want…)

I suppose I should mention that I was (and still am) really opposed to registering for an affiliate program with Amazon, because of the monopoly they hold on Internet shopping. Basically, the fact that this exists makes me happy, and I am glad to support them (and I probably would link to them now anyway, so there’s that).

I might do a book review and updated TBR comparing what I have read with what I want to read. That will definitely happen after May. I also have some project updates and some other things in the works that should be coming along soon after I get some abundant quantities of free time.

Until then, God bless, and I will see you tomorrow on Pascha!

-Catherine

displacement

In the upcoming couple days, I will become one of the displaced college students who have had to leave their colleges or universities and go home to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus (aka COVID-19).

There is not much I can say about this except that a lot of the fears and anxieties about one’s physical and emotional safety are made a lot worse when one is forced to leave one’s home (however temporary) and drive across the country in a world that does not want to be close to anyone at the moment.

I’ve been very much trying to focus on the positives, like the fact that I have somewhere to go, and the fact that I have money for food, and the fact that my college gave me more time than most to pack up and leave.

But sometimes, the negatives and specifically all the uncertainties associated with my particular situation feel more overwhelming than the strong presence of the good things.

This makes it hard to pray in a time when prayer is most vital.

I think I am finally starting to understand what the Fathers mean when they stress the importance of the practice of the virtues and the practice of prayer when times are easy. We can’t face hard times correctly if we do not face easy times the right way.

May St. Nikephoros the Leper intercede for us, and may God have mercy and save us all, in all the ways we need.

march downfalls, and some thoughts on prayer

Some brothers asked Agathon which good work required the most effort. He replied, “No labor is more difficult than prayer. Demons understand that prayer is a path to God. They will do everything possible to hinder this journey. Prayer is like fighting a war.

By Way of the Desert, entry for March 4

This month literally brings with it the beginning of Lent for us Orthodox folk, which is a beautiful as well as a stressful time. It always feels as if there is more to be concerned with, when really this time is about focusing on the one thing needful.

I have been doing a lot of reading for school, mostly Pindar with a side of St. John Chrysostom and a bit of Herodotus thrown in for good measure. My favorite is the Philokalia, which I am working through in a non-linear fashion because apparently that is how one is supposed to do it. If anyone wants to know this order, please let me know through email or whatever, because this way definitely beats cracking open Volume 1 and starting with, “There is among the passions an anger of the intellect, and this anger is in accordance with nature.” Oof. Start in the middle of Volume 4, my friends. It is much easier.

For personal reading, yesterday I (re)read from start to finish C. S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I would say it was a delight, which it was, but it was also very challenging, because I’ve been in a bit of a rough patch recently spiritually. It’s all good and probably means I’m growing, but you know when an allegorical children’s book is challenging, things are rough.

On the same spiritual front, I’m about halfway through a book called The Divine Flame, which is a book about a divine flame that St. Porphyrios lit in one man’s heart, which inspired him to become a monk. I’m obsessed with St. Porphyrios; he’s absolutely wonderful and has been very active in my life, so this book is very dear to me. I actually got the copy as a gift when I was visiting his monastery (the Hesychasterion of the Holy Transfiguration), which is near my monastery in Greece.

I’ve also been reading Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea for my book club. It’s a literary ode to the story, which despite its relative lack of a plot I don’t mind overmuch, but one does have to acclimate to her writing style. Alongside that, I’m (still) reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I really should finish it, but school and spiritual reading has been taking priority recently.

After writing all that it occurs to me that I’m reading a lot of things simultaneously. I’ve always done this, it keeps me entertained. Since the whole going on brain meds thing has happened, I’m at least a lot better at finishing them, which is nice.

As far as crafting projects go, I’m working on the same sweater and the same embroidery and many of the other same projects as recent posts will mention. I’ve also started a Honey Study Hat (pattern by Andrea Mowry, because apparently I’m addicted to her patterns) in a lovely gray wooly wool that didn’t have a label. I will say, brioche stitch is much easier than I thought.

Whether it is at night or during the day that God grants you the gift of praying with a pure intellect, undistractedly, put aside your own rule, and reach towards God with all your strength, cleaving to Him. And He will illumine your heart about the spiritual work which you should undertake.

A Discourse on Abba Philimon, from the Philokalia

P.S. I’m sorry about the lack of pictures, but my room is a mess and I really couldn’t be bothered to take any. So writing it is.

(linking with Ginny’s Yarn Along)

on doing fine things well

I am the kind of person who is prone to small, fiddly projects, like knitting a sweater in fingering weight yarn or translating Ovid because I don’t trust other people’s translation of the Metamorphoses. Because of this, I frequently get stuck in the middle of doing fine fiddly things that require concentration and more time than I feel these projects should rightly demand of me.

Because of this, I am often left with the question – is it actually worth doing these fine things, and especially is it worth doing these fine things well?

But more fundamentally, is it worth doing fine things at all? And is it worth doing things that take so much time?

Then yesterday, as I was journaling, I began to think about the slowness of things. The slowness of translations, the slowness of healing, and the slowness of struggle.

Fine things, hard things, are often slow, like working on a translation. In a translation, half an hour can yield this:

And she represents the earth struck by her spear
Bringing forth a blossom of olive white with fruit

Metamorphoses 6.80-81, translation mine

Is all this debate about the interpretation of a participle or whether or not this should be taken as a dependent clause or a prepositional phrase worth it? Perhaps.

Fine things like healing are often slow. I have been out of the hospital for not even two months, and I expect myself to be better and to do better, especially since my injuries are not visible on my body. Yet today, the feast of the Forerunner, was the first day in months I was able to make it through an entire Liturgy without leaving.

Is this, the process of putting myself back together with more exterior supports than I thought possible, worth it? Of course it is.

Fine things, difficult things, are often so slow they go at the pace of a snail, like the Christian struggle. Here, I hope I remember to say my prayers, and there, I hate that I forget. But slowly, the days that do build up, and they are the ones that change me.

Is this struggle for Christ worth it? Without any question at all.

These fiddly fine projects are slow, and moreover, they are not strictly necessary to my personhood. So why do I have questions about their value?

So this is the value of doing fine things well: each stitch, each word, gives me an opportunity to take one measured step at a time, to not rush the process, and to glorify Christ with every breath. This is what I need above all, and maybe by writing it down, I won’t forget.

I have a mental illness

Wherefore go I with downcast face whilst mine enemy afflicteth me?

Psalm 42/43:2, HTM

I am an Orthodox Christian, and I have a mental illness.

Essentially, I was recently diagnosed with a type of mental illness called Bipolar II, a mood disorder on the bipolar spectrum which is no less severe than Bipolar I but only differs in its reality. The easiest way to explain it is that in Bipolar II the highs aren’t as high (hypomania rather than mania) but the lows are lower (and perhaps last longer). (For more thorough explanations as well as one of my primary sources in explaining Bipolar II, please visit Dr. Jim Phelps’ website, https://psycheducation.org/, where he talks about symptoms, treatment processes, and the like.)

(Note: this post might sound a little detached compared to my usual writing style, but it is difficult for me to write about what happened without sounding detached. It is still new, so it still feels a little like a dream. In any case, please bear with me.)

I had been struggling with the possibility of my having a mental illness for a long time. Originally my spiritual father thought I had some kind of clinical depression, but then I was not seeking treatment for it because some days (sometimes for consecutive days) I would feel great and even on top of the world. Of course, this was actually another symptom of my mental illness, but the cycles messed with me, and so when I was depressed I was too lonely or too scared to seek treatment, and on days I felt on top of the world I felt I didn’t need to seek treatment.

During this time I felt like an emotional yo-yo, at the whim of feelings and thoughts I didn’t understand and didn’t want to experience; one of my dear friends said that in interacting with me I felt like a roller coaster on fire headed for a brick wall. Eventually this finally resulted with me being in what psychiatrists call a bipolar mixed state, where I was experiencing both symptoms of hypomania (extra energy, irritability, racing thoughts, inability to concentrate, not sleeping enough) alongside symptoms of depression (listlessness, lack of interest in my life, things I normally love not bringing me joy, general apathy, and sadness).

As you can imagine, this state was terrible. It finally got to a point where the emotions were all too much, and I had a day where I had three rounds of crying and not calming down because I simply could not handle basic stresses in my life. At this point, my spiritual father was of course deeply concerned about me, and he thought I needed go to the hospital so they could start treatment, since I was unable to calm down in the moment and I had also not been seeking treatment.

So, I went to the ER, and then was transferred to a psychiatric hospital. I spent a week and a half there, and it was so necessary and so lovely to be able to rest my mind, begin treatment, and start to heal.

Now I am back in my regular life, and I have been for about half a week. I am no longer a roller coaster on fire headed for a brick wall; instead, I am balanced and centered. I have been moving more slowly, prioritizing peace and calmness, and taking a little more time to notice the sunshine on my plants. Life is not going back to normal, but a new normal is here, and it is better than ever before.

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why dost thou disquiet me? Hope in God, for I will give thanks unto Him; He is the salvation of my countenance, and my God.

Psalm 42/43:5, HTM

in stillness and silence

This week I started having scheduled work again after having two weeks off. This was not particularly difficult in terms of the type of work I have to do (I work in a small bookstore), but simultaneously it was spectacularly difficult because I lost a large degree of creative control over my time during the day.

As irritating as this was, I suppose it’s a nice reintroduction into the world of prioritization and scheduling. In my last Sunday post, I wrote about how many obligations I’m going to have, and realistically the only way I am at all going to get through is prioritization, scheduling, and most of all the grace of God.

I think the biggest thing I’m going to have to remember is to slow down and remember God. In his book Becoming a Healing Presence, Dr. Albert Rossi talks about stillness and silence being a form of prayer. He is, of course, harkening back to Elijah’s finding of God not in the thunder, earthquake, or wind, but in the still quiet breeze. Interestingly, we Orthodox actually just read this 5 days ago as the third Old Testament reading for the Vespers of Transfiguration.

I suppose, then, that the only way I can transfigure my time into something positive and God-serving is to find the stillness and the silence and allow it to permeate throughout my day. More accurately, find God in the stillness and the silence and allow Him to permeate my life.

I suppose that’s what Dr. Rossi was really saying and it just took me a while to understand, but then, this is a life-long process, and I am just a beginner.

A peek into the altar area of the church of an abandoned monastery in Albania. Populated monasteries have living stillness, but abandoned monasteries have an entirely different kind of divine angelic stillness, like the place is completely outside of time and is somehow still occupied through prayer.