Unexpected Lent

Iliana polishing church vessels

I had been looking so forward to Lent this year. That may seem a bit odd: people often speak about looking forward to the Paschal season, but Lent, with the fasting & looking inward, maybe not so much. But this year I really was: I planned to travel over to New Skete more frequently, and I couldn't wait for my first Pre-sanctified service of the season!

I still remember how strange and new the customs of the church seemed and felt when I first began to attend services at New Skete, years and years ago. It was at a Lenten service, with all those full prostrations, my cheek against cool marble and my busy mind trying to understand what exactly was going on, when a quiet but extraordinary thing happened: a lesson was offered from my own bones, not a product of my bright, curious young mind, but a gift which appeared, paradoxically, from deep within  myself: my body taught me the beauty of a heart broken and crushed, a humble loving heart. In retrospect it was, I think, my first experience of grace, or maybe: the first experience of grace that I happened to notice. 

Still, THIS was not the lent I'd been expecting! COVID-19 alit in our midst and has changed everything. Although it is tempting to catastrophize, I can already see in small and large ways that COVID-19 will shepherd a range of experiences, not just terrible ones. Already I can see people being kind and loving to one another, offering support & compassion. I reckon that we will need lots of compassion, because there is also bad behavior: understandable but not-so-neighborly behavior. 

One of my own challenges is to remember that each one of us can be a child with a child's lack of perspective and understanding at times. I hope when I behave badly that I will be responded to as by a loving parent, firmly but not unkindly. And I hope that I will respond lovingly and firmly when I see injustice or unkindness.

I am full of wondering about this Lent: what will be the result of all of the ways in which we relinquish things that we never expected to let go of? The church asks us to give up meat, and there are other Lenten practices: some people stop smoking as their Lenten fast, some people take on new responsibilities as their Lenten practice. 

Now, some of us are being asked to give up our weekend visits with our grandchildren, the support and quiet joy we receive when we sing liturgy and see our fellow parishioners, the pleasure and camaraderie we feel when we go to a square dance or perform a favorite piece with our neighborhood band. Now, some of us are experiencing increased loneliness, fear for ourselves, our children, our parents and our neighbors. Now there are onerous new procedures simply in order to grocery shop. And so many unknowns. Not the Lent that we expected!

Here is one small idea that might bring some peace and comfort to you as it has to me: shortly before COVID-19 arrived on the scene, I have decided that I wanted to start listening to music again. My old iTunes wasn't really working like it used to, so I decided to try Spotify. I have a free account, but I listen to it through my VPN, which I have set to Italy. This means that although I do have to listen to ads, the ads are in Italian, and that's just fun! When it turned out that I could not head to the monastery as I had hoped, I decided to try and find some nice, familiar, Lenten music to listen to via Spotify. Seriously: smartest thing I've done all month. The Orthodox Lent station that I created gets turned on when I get up to make my coffee, and it stays on till around noon, or sometimes later. It is truly a comfort as I putter around, getting stuff done here in the house. If you have questions about how to implement this, contact me!

New Skete burial shroud, foot
Italian Coffee Pot on a Stove Eye

Speaking of coffee, here's a picture and a little poem that I wrote last week or so:

caffé & preghiera

Nearly every morning
I make a cup of coffee 
in my battered old moka pot.

While the coffee sputters and fizzes 
toward completion
I carefully place a dusty crumb of incense 
on the burner, next to the pot.

I watch as a thin curl of smoke rises,
as the fragrant molecules of resin ignite:
myyrh, frankincense, rose, spiknard, jasmine, and the mysterious opercula of the wing-shell mollusk.

Uncounted mornings, evenings, and high holy days have calibrated and fixed 
a specific set of connections between embodiment and sacred
through the everyday science of breathing,
so that simply sitting here by the stove
and waiting for coffee 
becomes church.

Iliana Filby farms in Hartland, VT and is a member of the parish & community at New Skete.

Iliana Filby