Monday, April 28, 2003

St. Paul and Familiar Smells:

Because my mind works in strange tangential ways, I found myself rapidly cycling through thoughts on my way to Church a few days ago. I smelled what seemed to be melting rubber, which got me to thinking about other strange smells, which got me to….well you get the picture. But somehow I finally arrived at this strange smell I notice from time to time, that always reminds me of a pink house I lived in in Cerritos, CA. To this day, I still don’t know what that smell is, but I have smelled it in many places all over the country. It’s such a strange, mellow scent, I can never get anyone to understand what I’m talking about and tell me what it is, and so the search goes on. Maybe I’ll never figure it out, but I hope someday I’ll encounter it in force, and instantly recognize it.

This process is how best I know to explain how I came to take the name Paul on Lazarus Saturday, April 19, 2003. (More on my Chrismation into The Church to come in future blogs) It was as if I came face to face with that I have been looking for, and had a “EUREKA!!!! I FOUND IT!!!” sort of moment. You see, like that smell, I didn’t really know what exactly what I was looking for, only that whatever it was, I hoped to find it. But I’ve jumped ahead of myself, given you the tie-in without explaining the tie-to.

In the Orthodox Church, there is this tradition of having Patron Saints. In some traditions it is done by family, in others by individuals, and in all traditions by Churches. We believe that these Heroes of the Faith are looking after us and interceding on our behalf before and to Almighty God. If the “prayer of a righteous man avails much”, how much more so the prayers of the Saints of the Church, who are intimate “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). But I’ve again moved away from the point.

So at some point during my catechism, I realized I would have to take the name of my Patron Saint (and I just now realized that it’s bad syntax to start a sentence, much less a paragraph with “so”). One small obstacle kept me struggling for a number of months thereafter; I didn’t know who my Patron was. I had read and heard so many times that “we don’t pick them, they pick us”, that I was honestly ready to vomit from mere proximity to the constant regurgitation of that sentiment. It wasn’t as if I felt the fire of heaven blinding me on my own road to Damascus. And so I took it upon myself to choose.

At first, my thoughts went like this. “Why not just go with Paul? After all, that would be simplest, it is my middle name and all.” But then the whole "who do I identify with" thing came into play. He was just so monumental in the Church; I was intimidated. It felt like it would be akin to saying “Yeah, my guardian angel is the Archangel Michael…who’s yours?” Besides, how many people have probably taken Paul…(this is where the previously blogged about sickness comes into play)….I wanted someone like me, with my interests, someone who I felt like would get me (and someone with a cool name!!!). It’s funny looking back, but basically I wanted a “buddy” who would basically just check up on me from time to time, but would for the most part just let me be me. I don’t know that I ever acknowledged it that way, but with my hindsight glasses on…….

So I then went on to look at a few other saints. St Raphael of Brooklyn, St. Herman of Alaska, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco (hmmm…I hadn’t realized until just now that they were all more modern American saints….interesting…..), and then I read Father Arseny, and man did I want him to get recognized as a Saint before my Chrismation, but as these things take time, I kept looking. Then I came upon Theophan the Recluse (do names get any cooler than Theophan????). He was a more modern Saint, and just the way he wrote was so simple and yet so profound. A spiritual psychologist, who could boggle the most learned mind, yet he understood “of all holy works, the education of children is the most holy”. Here was someone I felt comfortable with; I even went and got a small icon of him (which I still treasure). But I still didn’t really feel like he was “picking me”, whatever that meant. But I also thought to myself, maybe I’m waiting for something that will never come. So I decided on Theophan….until about a week before my Chrismation.

I had been reading about a couple of other peoples’ struggles to discover their Patron, though at the time I wasn’t looking for anyone else myself. I just identified with their struggles. They talked about how they didn’t realize for themselves that in fact their given names were the ones in the end that spoke to them the most, that the mere fact they were given those names started them towards that realization. So I went outside to get some fresh air and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Paul had been picking me all along, I was just to bull-headed to get it. I’ll explain.

I was named (my middle name) after my Grandmother’s brother Paul. I’ve always loved my Uncle Paul, a very intelligent, articulate man, yet very approachable and often wonderfully sentimental. A “real” man in my book. And then there was my high-school youth pastor Paul Stoecklein. He challenged me in a lot of ways, pushed me in ways that perhaps I didn’t want to be, but needed to be. And then there was Fr. Paul Howden…..and he deserves his own paragraph.

Fr. Paul, the rector at St. Luke’s REC, is a priest par excellence. He is a priest who inspires, a father who loves his children (both paternal and spiritual children), a teacher who guides, and a humble man who knows his position before Almighty God. So far as I know, you won’t find a better quality man to imitate as he imitates Christ. He was my friend and mentor, a man to whom I owe a great deal, a man who had a hand in everything good in my life. And above all this, he is a man of fierce integrity; he’s the REAL deal, with not a hint of false pretense. What you see is with him is what you get. While he may not be Orthodox (which is the ONLY reason I am not still under his care), he has been nonetheless a major catalyst to my coming to Orthodoxy, and I only mean that to his credit. He is a loving shepherd if ever there is one. The aforementioned fragrance flowed abundantly in him, and what a beautiful incense it is.

Then there is the fact that in so many ways I identified with St. Paul. I won’t now go into all of the specifics, but suffice it to say, I have sought God, then persecuted the Church, was then struck down and resuscitated, and am fascinated by Paul’s missionary zeal. There are so many things about this man I am either fascinated and inspired by, or can identify with. Like I said, a ton of bricks. Our all holy St. Paul had been choosing me all along. That beautiful scent was revealed to me. It was only my own impurity that kept me from seeing it. And so at my Chrismation on Lazarus Saturday 2003, I was given the name Paul again, this time in a new and more meaningful way. May I be accounted worthy to bear it.

Through the prayers of our Holy Father Saint Paul, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me and save me.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

My First Doctor's Appointment

On Monday, I gave my life confession, part of the process leading up to my Chrismation on Saturday. The Church has many times been referred to as the hospital of the soul. Continuing in that analogy, I went and paid my first visit to the doctor and had a general physical. This is the place where healing begins.

Standing before the icons of Christ and the Theotokos, I began to give an account of my sickness. It was a strange experience, because I was trying so hard not to place any expectations on it, yet at the same time not kidding myself that I had desires for how I wanted it to go. Luckily, in the end, it was nothing like I expected nor desired.

The whole week leading up to it, when it was finally a reality that the time was coming to confess, I had this image in my mind, part of the aforementioned desire, that I was going to be this weepy watery mess as I confessed. I don't really know why, I guess I just wanted to make sure I was REALLY sorry for my sins. But then, as I began to realize how much pressure I was putting on myself, and the potential for disappointment from unrealized expectation, I tried to convince myself that it didn't really matter if I cried or not. But deep down, I know it still did.

I have a tendency to do this sort of thing, and I'm getting better as time goes on at just letting things be, and not placing an expectation on an experience. I find that every time I place these kinds of expectations on it, not only am I usually disappointed, but I most often end up missing what God intended it to be for me. I'm so wrapped up in what I think it should be, that I often fail to see what it can be.

So how was my confession? Well, in the midst of the extremes of experience I was either telling myself I wanted or didn't want (depending on which second it was) it was exactly in the middle, and honestly, just what I needed. Funny how that works sometimes. God knows what I need, even when I tell Him I want something else.

My prognosis? Well my doctor was merciful enough to refrain from telling me how bad I was. But he did say there was hope, that I can be healed. That's the best news I've heard in my whole life. Now I guess I have to start taking my medicine.

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