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.
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.
My blog just reminded me that it has been one whole year since I started this project. Thank you to all who have come along on this journey so far, and I hope there are many more adventures to go!
Also, tonight is the opening of the Triodion. Tomorrow is the remembrance of the Publican and the Pharisee (which is crazy, right?), along with the Leavetaking of the Presentation of our Lord as well as normal Sunday celebrations. It is a gloriously mixed up festally repentant mess.
In any case, Lent is just around the corner. I’m excited, although I’m dreading additional ascetic exercises (services, fasting, etc) on top of my schoolwork, but with the grace of God all things are possible.
Kalo Triodion! May we all have a blessed Triodion!
Recently I have been trying to finish many of the projects that I started a while ago, such as my sweater now formerly known as the Christmas sweater (I am stuck on that infamous place, sleeve island, on this one). Thus, armed with high hopes and great intentions, I instead cast on for another project.
Now, you could say that this is the continuation of a project I have been working on for some time, since I bought the pattern almost a year and a half ago, and have started it at least two different times, but now I think it is the time for finishing my very own Find Your Fade. I am starting with a skein of a white speckle I picked up at one of the yarn shops here in Boston, then I will be using a few skeins of La Bien Aimee, and a skein of Farmer’s Daughter Fibers. I think it will turn out very well.
Currently, I am reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (for fun) as well as J. N. D. Kelly’s Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom (for school). In Achebe’s novel, I am really loving the exploration of the spiritual aspects of the traditional African tribal culture he depicts. I think that kind of really immediate connection to the spiritual or divine is something the West has really lost, so seeing it be very present in another culture is wonderful.
Golden Mouth is a thorough biography of St. John Chrysostom which uses his main biographers as sources but supplements with other historical information. So far I have read about St. John’s early childhood and the general conditions of Antioch in the 4th century AD, as well as his conversion to Christianity and his dedication to the ascetic life.
As a mental health side note, the February (and pre-Lenten) blues are upon us. So, here’s a quote from Mother Gavrilia:
Never ask: “Why has this happened to me?” When you see someone struggling from gangrene or cancer or blindness, never say, “Why has this happened to him?” Instead, pray to God to grant you the vision of the other shore… Then, like the Angels, you will be able to see things as they really are: everything in God’s plan. Everything.
…through this spiritual work [of the constant remembrance of the name of Jesus] you will establish the whole of your inner self to be a temple and a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, while your heart especially will be a holy altar, a sacred sanctuary. Your mind, moreover, will be a priest; your will and disposition will be a sacrifice; your prayer of the heart to God will be an offering of spiritual fragrance, as St. Basil used to say.
St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, from A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel
I read this yesterday in the assigned reading for the class I am taking on the Philokalia, and it stood out to me. Our hearts are also altars for God, and St. Nikodemos himself in an earlier part says that our hearts are our true home, where our minds rejoice to return.
How beloved are Thy dwellings, O Lord … even Thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God.
Yesterday I finished reading Amor Towles’ marvelous novel entitled A Gentleman in Moscow. It is the sort of book one reads languidly over several cups of tea and a scone, but which then prompts one to jump up and be polite, punctual, and engagingly philosophical in all meetings one might have that day.
In many ways, I would characterize this novel as the grown-up’s A Little Princess. There, one is kind and cheerful despite one’s circumstances; here, one masters one’s circumstances with cheerfulness and civility. Both take place in a limited geographical location, yet our gentleman has traveled more and is generally more cosmopolitan, so the world is naturally larger and more interesting.
Towles’ mastery of characterization is so thorough that even the clocks in the hotel become a vibrant part of Rostov’s interaction with the world. The hotel is, of course, a major character, and one which grows, changes, and gets older just as Rostov does. The areas in the hotel become characters, from the Boyarsky (my favorite) to the attic (my other favorite). Somehow the Hotel Metropol becomes the universe, just as much as it remains the still small point from which the entirety of the world is experienced.
And this world is experienced through the eyes of His Excellency, Count Alexander Rostov, Former Person and erstwhile resident of Idlehour. If he had a business card, it would say, “circumstances met & challenges faced with excellency and good humor.” He is a lovely man who would be a delightful acquaintance in real life.
Now, I’m not going to talk about the thing that happens at the end of Book 1, or the thing that happens at The End, so you’re just going to have to read it and find out.
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.
As the turn of the decade approaches and the light of a new year begins to dawn, it is again time to set ambitious goals for all areas of my life, most importantly reading. (But also knitting. We can never forget knitting.) Thus, without further ado and in no particular order whatsoever, here is my 2020 To Be Read list.
1. Ovid’s Metamorphoses translated by Charles Martin. My thesis is on Book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, so I think it might behoove me to read the whole thing. I read part of Book 6 from this translation in Barnes & Noble, and it reflected my translation choices and style, so it has become the necessary volume to acquire. Category: none, or a complete book of poetry by one author.
2. Euripides’ Alcestis. The story of Alcestis has always bothered me, and I have taken to writing poems about it, yet I have not officially read the text. This is, of course, a problem with a very easy remedy. Category: ancient Greek drama.
3. Any novel by Virginia Woolf. Category: an intimidating book, a classic book by a female author. I’m still torn between books, because all of hers are considered classics, and as much as I originally wrote Mrs. Dalloway on my TBR, I also really want to read To the Lighthouse because Ursula Le Guin spoke so highly of it.
5. Eden’s Outcasts – John Matteson. A biography of one of my favorite writers of all time, the incomparable Louisa May Alcott. I went to the Orchard House in Salem, MA, last year, and I picked up a copy there. Also it won the 2008 Pulitzer for Biography. Category: biography or memoir.
6. Homer: Understanding Classics – Jonathan Burgess. A book by one of my favorite classicists of all time (after Dr. Nagy of course) and a gift from my academic advisor. This book apparently has a chapter on applying literary critical theories to the classics, which I desperately need to read. Category: a book of essays, a “guilty pleasure” book.
7. The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern. This one came out this past November, and I had pre-ordered a copy since I loved Morgenstern’s first novel so very much.. Hopefully I will read this with a small group of literarily-minded friends, but I will read it either way. Category: a contemporary novel.
8. Interior Castle by St. Theresa of Avila, or The Little Way by St. Therese of Lisieux. Most likely I will read Interior Castle because I own a copy, but I believe the school library has The Little Way, so it could be the same difference. Category: a devotional work.
9. The Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. A retelling of the Arthurian legends in the most idyllic rather epic poetry of the only semi-Romantic I can actually stand, Tennyson. Category: a complete volume of poetry by a single author, reread a book you read in high school.
10. Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Apparently this is one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote, making it the Shakespearean equivalent of Euripides’ Bacchae. Clearly, anything vaguely Euripidean is worth reading. Category: a Shakespeare play.
11. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie. Category: a classic detective novel, a classic book by a female author.
12. A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles. Quite a famous book, recommended by a good friend whose recommendations never fail me. I will admit, I am about halfway through it even though it is just barely January 1, but I am loving it. Category: a historical fiction novel.
13. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater – Kurt Vonnegut. Category: an “out of your comfort zone” book, a satire.
14. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. Recommended in one of John Green’s videos. Category: a collection of short stories.
15. Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi. Category: a foreign (non-Western) book, a memoir or biography, a book about books.
16. The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Category: a classic children’s book.
17. The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Trenton. A modern mystery, apparently inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It will be fun to compare them. Category: a contemporary novel.
18. Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout. I have been seeing this on the bookstagram, and it also won a 2008 Pulitzer, this one for Fiction. I have been attempting to read more Pulitzer-prize-winning novels, so this one fits the bill most excellently.
19. Rumpole of the Bailey – John Mortimer. This one was recommended by my academic advisor, and since her taste tends towards the excellent, here we are.
20. Stories of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang. Also recommended in a video by John Green. This collection of short stories is sci-fi, and it has been a while since I read any sci-fi, and it’s about time to remedy that. Category: a collection of short stories.
And because I am really quite daring, I decided to include five alternates, because if 20 isn’t already unrealistic for this final-semester-soon-to-start-real-life-college-senior, then 25 certainly is. (And let’s not forget all the reading I will have to do for school….) It is totally doable. I think.
1. Philology – James Turner. A Christmas present from my parents, this book is a monograph about the impact of philology on the modern humanist academic sciences. I am very excited to read it, however dense it may be (and however long it may take me).
2. Words of the Heart – Gerondissa Makrina Vassopolou. This has her life and 64 (!) of her homilies. I have read sections of this, and it is so helpful and her words are so direct and sweet, and I really need to read more spiritual books.
3. Idiot Psalms by Scott Cairn. Another Christmas present, and one I am very much looking forward to.
4. Life of the Virgin – St. Maximos the Confessor. I want to keep working through this one, since it is a bit dense, but so beautiful.
5. Virgil’s Aeneid. Because if I graduate as a classics major and have not read the entirety of this book in translation, something will have gone horribly, horribly wrong.
If you have gotten this far and read through all of that, bless you and your angelic patience with my ramblings.
What book are you most looking forward to reading in 2020?
It’s finally snowing here in Boston, and I am so happy for it! We are coming off of two consecutive snow days after a week off, so I have been luxuriating in the hygge (and, sadly, the procrastination…)
In that vein, I had a lot of goals for the month of November that got fairly well interrupted by a week and a half hospital stay. Fortunately now that’s starting to be sorted out, and now that I finally have more energy and I have the ability to focus focus (two great things that go great together, when one isn’t distracted by a snow day)! The healing is a process of patience and self-forgiveness, and learning how to read the rhythms of my body better.
This means my projects for this month have taken on more special dimensions because they have seen me through the before and after of the hospital visit.
My knitting project for the last month has been what I have dubbed “the Christmas sweater,” since my goal is to have it to wear on Christmas Day. It is the pattern Whitehorse by Caitlin Hunter, knitted in Tanis Fiber Arts’ Metropolis colorway in DK. I started it thinking I could participate in and finish it for TFA’s Metropolis knit-a-long on Ravelry, but because of my stay in the hospital, this didn’t happen. I’m a bit sad about not being eligible for prizes, but it is my special speckly squishy bobbly beauty of a sweater (yoke), and it saw me through the psych ward, so it’s ok. It still means a lot.
While the psych ward was not great for my knitting, it was good for my reading! So I kept the momentum up and started St. Maximos the Confessor’s Life of the Virgin (translated by Stephen Shoemaker) for the Advent Fast. Apparently it used to be read in monastic communities year round, so I read the section appointed for the Entrance to the Theotokos into the Temple. It is very beautiful but also drips Byzantine rhetoric, which I am quite enjoying.
I am also reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Craft of Writing, which, although about fiction writing, is proving useful to my thesis as well. Good writing is good writing, after all.
Finally, I caved and bought myself a copy of the classics textile material culture-ist’s bible, Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. It is truly the most marvelous book I have ever read, and I have been learning a great deal about the possibilities of tapestry weave being used in Rome or the surrounding areas from 43 BC-17 AD (in other words, Ovid’s lifespan). Of course, I’m saving my ideas and conclusions for my thesis, but I am terribly excited, and I cannot wait to read my own writing.
Joy is such a wonderful thing, and these monthly check-ins really remind me of what a joy it is to have things that I love that I can share with others. If you want, but only if you want, write something in the comments that brings joy to your life, so we can all see and share in each others’ joy!
(As usual on the first Wednesday of the month, I’m linking up with Ginny’s Yarn Along. Head on over to her page to find other beautiful people who blog about wonderful things!)