The Seat of the Soul

18 Mar

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We all have the same purpose: to love and be loved, to be the light that casts out darkness, wherever we are in whatever way we can -Marianne Williamson

Clar and I rise in the pre-dawn light; coffee is to be had before the drive that will take us north to West Virginia.  He yawns, stretches and looks up at me with those large soulful eyes of his. My constant companion these days, I cannot bear to leave him at home anymore. So he rides wherever I go. To the Fresh Market, to workout, even to school where I trudge out to the car three times daily to walk him. I make sure he is comfortable snuggled into my pink 1970’s Hollie Hobbie sleeping bag lying scrunched in the back seat of my car.  He’s lived a lot of his life in that car, as have I.

 Skirt, tights, scarf to cover my head, I tick off my mental dressing list in a drowsy state of numbness,  moving about my mother’s darkened hallway considering the day ahead.  This Lent I have decided to visit as many churches, from as many different faiths systems as I can because now, something in me I need to listen to is growing. Maybe, just maybe, these places will help me to hear it.  In the fall, I knew the “spiritual” part of this journey, if one can call it that, was starting. In finding a class on spirituality and launching back into another program of study, so many doors opened. I learned so much.  Mysticism, Spiritualism, Esotericism, Divine Ecstasy, Prophesy, Shamanism, Energy Work, Fields of Consciousness, I read, wrote and thought but from an external vantage. And to be honest, I knew relationships back then would be a huge part of this spiritual learning . But I didn’t know until now that the lesson wasn’t about finding a practice, nor anything practical or external. It was about what was within me, what keeps me from growing as a more enlightened person. And now the moments have come which show me how asleep I’ve been for almost five months. Looking back now to my previous post about relationships being like shoes, I wince.  How insensitive and unconscious I was.  My actions have led me to recognize elements of self which need the light. It’s time to deal with this dragon called “on my own”.

 As an esoteric person, and one most comfortable with these elements, I chose an orthodox service to attend first. Last fall, a Saturday vespers at an orthodox church here in town only yielded a slight exposure to these rituals. Something was missing, honestly perhaps a real readiness for the experience. Nonetheless, I go today to St. Mary’s Orthodox Christian Church in Bluefield, West Virginia. It is the only place I can think of to  pilgrimage right now, connecting me to memories that I struggle to put to rest. To be there may bring me the voice I’m learning to try to hear.

 In the car, winding our way up Rte. 460 through Blacksburg, the radio plays. An unidentified inspirational speaker shares the story of  an 84 year old widow who has lost her health and family. Living now in assisted care, instead of choosing to look at her situation negatively, she chooses to be grateful, to be positive.  And this attitude has helped others so much that they visit her and connect with her, sharing compassion and love. To seek joy, to let it live through the soul no matter the situation seems so difficult, but being mindful of its importance is needed now. Trusting the Universe to give me what I need is a leap of faith. Maybe that is the essence of what it’s trying to teach me.

 Clar and I pull into the parking lot of St Mary’s 20 minutes before the service, and I get him set up in his pink Holly Hobbie cocoon in the back seat. The temperature is dropping, and the skies grey over with the last lingering embrace of winter. I walk into the vestibule. Immediately, two older ladies look at me and smile. They walk over; they touch my arm and hug me.

 “Oh, welcome!” one lady says. “You are new here?” Her blue eyes extend motherly concern over silver steel rims.

The other lady in a soft white sweater fingers my hair curling out from under my white silk head covering. She says, “Oh how pretty you are.” She turns to her companion, “Look how tiny she is.”

Both ladies laugh like small tinkling bells and press me for my story; I talk with them for a few moments. Their warmth is overwhelming and their care and gentle enthusiasm as effortless as breathing. I am in the right place, I think.

 Warm golden light reflects from jewel-toned icons on the rood screen which separates the altar from the sanctuary. Large eyed eastern saints, their hands curved into mudra, stare back at me in their ancientness. I watch the parishioners kiss them and bow, lighting small beeswax candles for their intentions. The air is so heavily laced with frankincense and myrrh, it almost hurts to breathe. But I am surrounded by a pouring forth which holds the first memories of holiness for me, of the mystical nature of the Divine. I sit on a red cushioned pew alone and rest. It feels like I am breathing for the first time in many days.

 The tones of the hour blend with the intertwined voices of two gentlemen beginning to sing the Kyrie. Instantly, I tear up. To cry this longing out into this safe space of holy presence, I need to let go. Dreams and expectations. Anger and loss. Self judgment.

 “Let it all go”, an inner voice says and a tightness in my chest begins to loosen.

              Looking to my left, a dark haired young lady has risen and slides over to me. She touches my arm and smiles. Her name is Alina and she is originally from Romania. She welcomes me too, pulling a black prayer book from the rack and tracing her finger over the program to show me how to follow along.  As the liturgy progresses, I let the singing wash over me like the clouds from the brass censer. I cross myself too many times to count, breathing out the notes of  the song.  When I lose my words, I hum. I harmonize with voices and spirits. The singing never stops even when we are silent.

All who pass by me on their way to the altar smile; some touch my arm or my shoulder. A small boy of seven sitting two pews ahead turns from his mother to smile up at me. One lady touches my head wrap, “It’s so nice to see someone with this”, she says. For I am the only one in the congregation with a covered head.  I don’t mind. It’s covering my ego, something that needs to have been released for a long while now.

 When I meet Father Mark, though, I begin to struggle. I tell him I have come because another orthodox church I contacted told me I couldn’t. “They don’t take visitors”, I say. “And I am not Greek.”

  “Nonsense!” he says. “That’s ridiculous. I’ve never heard of that EVER!” He frowns at me, but welcomes me anyway. But I feel as if I have just been accused of lying.

 In the midst of the two hour mass, he gives his short homily. And that is when the lesson presents itself. Instead of speaking about love and compassion, or forgiveness and contemplation, he speaks in judgment, not only of Christians but of other faiths as well.  They do not know “The Truth”, he angrily intones.  His instructions focus on what Orthodox Christians need to be doing in their spiritual lives during Lent, but it seems to rest on the “doing” of the faith rather than the “being” of it. His angry, stressed, contemptuous tone highlights resistance and closed mind rather than allowing all lessons to come as they are intended.  I look to the Christ figure in the stained glass behind him, his hand in the Vitarka Mudra, the sign of teaching. For I am certainly being given a lesson at this moment. How many times in my life have I judged others,  those with which I have been in relationship? How many times have I selfishly thought life should be lived “one way” rather than devoting my introspection to my own journey and the lessons conscious presence with others teaches me? How many times have I seen difference without compassion and delivered impatience to those who needed understanding the most? Love, howsoever it is given, one should always be grateful for. It is love offered freely and that is the gift of the Universe.

            After the service, many members of the congregation greet me, eager to know where I am from and my story. They are gathering for lunch, where everyone has brought a hot dish. Casserole after casserole, potatoes and ham, macaroni and cheese. Coffee, in a silver percolator.  I am invited to stay more than once. . . to share, more than just food.

 It’s hard to see oneself clearly. To understand that right and wrong paths on the journey have blurred lines attached to more than just perception. And perhaps self forgiveness for shortcomings is the hardest compassion we can muster. But we must. For out of self compassion, we see others more clearly and we are able to love them as they are, even in their imperfection. Perhaps that’s what makes them most beautiful, and reveals the gift of their connection to us.  . .the realities of their own soul’s journey toward the light.

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