The Fresh Air and Sunshine of Resurrection

Friday, April 14, 2017 - 5:03 pm

The Fresh Air and Sunshine of Resurrection

“We are unutterably alone, essentially, especially in the things most intimate and most important to us.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Last year, after a protracted journey with breast cancer, the woman who had once been my abuser and had left me at a home for abandoned children died.

Thanks to a painstakingly slow spiritual awakening, I was able to be there for my mother in her final years, and co-heal that wounded relationship, with nourishing dollops of reciprocal forgiveness. It was unutterably humbling and sacred.

Shortly after she passed, around this time last year, Easter approached. And like a good lapsed-Greek Orthodox woman, I felt myself drawn to church to mourn my mother. It was in this spirit that, on the Saturday before Easter, perhaps the holiest day of the year on the Orthodox calendar, I walked into the local Greek church, near my home, in the desert east of Los Angeles.

In Greece, churches are generally open to parishioners, tourists, and everyone in between. They are open for those seeking a way to fan the flames of their faith, to cultivate a sense of rootedness, and retreat to a non-commercial space, or to pause for a moment of quiet reflection in a culture overwhelmed by the disease of being busy.

At this particular church, however, I was practically ushered out by the local priest. As if having failed to make reservations at a four-star Michelin restaurant, I was crisply informed that the house of worship was closed and that I would not be permitted to light a candle inside.

“Leave your money on the counter. I’ll take care of it later,” the diminutive, bearded cleric in black said sharply.

For a moment, in a state of deep grief, I was stunned. My body reflexively felt the deep sense of shame and unworthiness I had felt when I was five years old and had gone to school hungry without breakfast. What had happened when my kindergarten teacher called my sleeping mother at 3 o’clock in the afternoon to report that I told her I was hungry had stayed in my traumatized body and was triggered by the priest’s unwelcoming tone.

In my bones, I knew I was not wanted there, in what was supposedly my ancestral spiritual home.

An altar girl looks through a window of a Greek Orthodox church in Beirut as parishoners mark Holy Thurday according to Greek Orthodox calendar on April 27, 2016.

An altar girl looks through a window of a Greek Orthodox church in Beirut as parishoners mark Holy Thurday according to Greek Orthodox calendar on April 27, 2016. (Patrick Baz / Getty Images / © All Rights Reserved)

To a dispassionate observer, the priest appeared to be worn out. I made up that he was overwhelmed by too many demands, not enough resources or support. Perhaps he did not have enough of the opportunity to carry the good word to others and give them hope because he, like many others living in mainstream American culture, was too saddled with the mundane tasks required to operate in an increasingly unequal capitalist society. Maybe he, too, hadn’t had enough of a chance to connect to his own spirit and felt depressed by the broader socioeconomic culture. He probably had Facebook and Twitter feeds to post on while multi-tasking and trying to save souls. Admittedly not an easy task.

I get it. Really I do.

Upon seeing I wasn’t comfortable leaving cash on the countertop, the priest grudgingly unlocked the church door, allowing me to deposit the folded bill in the donation box. Not, however, to light a candle. I said a silent prayer for my mother and reflected on the spirit of Easter.

The resurrection of the Easter spirit in that moment would require truth, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek. Seeing the priest’s humanity, it was clear that it would be up to me to be gracious, even with the deep gnawing pain in my heart that made me want to lash out in anger and rage like a wounded animal. The tightening in my solar plexus (the self-grasping Buddha spoke of) was a reminder of the limits of my own practice of compassion and the reach of my empathy. Although wounded like him, I was no Christ, to be sure, nor a budding bodhisattva. I was furious and, under that, deeply hurt and ashamed.

After I made the donation and he locked the door behind me, he asked when my mother had passed and what her name was. He said he would say a prayer for her and light a candle in her honor later that evening. He asked my name, too, and why I didn’t come to church there.

With little rancor or bitterness in my heart, but with tears of grief, succor, and tenderness refused, I quietly but honestly told him I hadn’t felt welcomed there. A parishioner — an elderly woman — had walked in at that moment and saw the bizarre interaction. Here was a community in conflict at the most micro level, trying to make meaning in both the temporal and the non-temporal realms.  He was trying to get work done and me out of there; I was looking for something of the spirit. He wasn’t wrong and nor was I.

What drove the stake of rejection even deeper into my tender flesh was that I had also gone there with the intention of volunteering. I wanted to offer mindfulness and meditation classes to the local Greek Orthodox community.

The symbolism of Easter has always attracted me. As a Greek-American child growing up on the East and West coasts, the rituals intrigued me the most. The brightly lit candles. The red eggs shining from the olive oil rubbed on them with clean white cloths. The men roasting the sacrificial lamb over the spit for hours in the sunshine, while the women prepared the tsoureki and tzatziki. The children playing. And the deeply resonant Christos Anesti chanted as rich, evocative incense wafted through the air.

Even when my hair was burned at church from candled parishioners huddled too close together and an overabundance of teenage hairspray (a surprisingly all-too-common experience), I loved everything about Easter. It was, and remains in some deeply inexpressible ways, one of the best parts about being Greek.

A Greek Orthodox woman carries dyed eggs during an Easter rite at St. George Church in Fener Patriarchate, Istanbul, on April 24, 2011.

A Greek Orthodox woman carries dyed eggs during an Easter rite at St. George Church in Fener Patriarchate, Istanbul, on April 24, 2011. (Mustafa Ozer / Getty Images / © All Rights Reserved)

My relationship with the Orthodox Church has always been a complicated one, much like that of many modern Greeks, both on the mainland and in the diaspora.

On the one hand, the sense of tradition, history, and cultural identity that came from one of the world’s oldest churches is rich and profound. For a group of people trying to make sense of the modern world throughout space and time on at least five continents, the Church is a beacon of sorts. I personally have family members everywhere from Australia and Canada to Switzerland and Zaire who sought solace at Greek Orthodox churches, often at the beginning of the immigrant experience, but not only. As anyone who has seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding can attest, to be Greek, for many, means to be somehow connected to the Church.

On the other hand, I felt repelled by the parochialism, misogyny, intolerance, materialism, and greed that often stuck to the underbelly of the church like an unsightly layer of thick barnacles strangling a beautiful sea-faring vessel.

Buddhist meditation, by contrast, had entered my life as a source of refuge when I lived in Athens years ago, both running from and running toward my family of origin. It seemed karmically appropriate to give back by offering to teach meditation classes this way to honor my mother’s passing. Karma — the law of cause and effect — had helped me to make sense of the profoundly convoluted relationship I had with her and helped me to unbundle the deep sense of shame that I, like other abandoned children, had always felt. The law of karma told me I could do something to change the wheel of my own destiny and heal some of the intergenerational trauma I had been born into. At the same time, teaching was a way to fill my own need for connection and meaning while mourning, something I desperately needed.

It troubled me to think of this place that had once provided the promise of solace for so many refusing to welcome and embrace a grieving person in need. Spontaneous compassion arose in me for all those that are refused safe harbor and refuge around the world: the abandoned children, the addicted mothers forced to leave them, the poor, the refugees, the homeless in my community in Palm Springs, the most vulnerable of our fellow human beings —  all the human tragedies that fill the headlines and cause our hearts to feel tight.

In Greece, and elsewhere around the world, conversations at the dinner table over freshly made spanakopita are filled with exhortations that the Church stay relevant and engage with young people, that it reach out to those in need. Like many ancient religions around the world, this one, too, is riddled with serious attraction and retention issues in its own ethnic community, both contributed to and caused by its own very real wounds as a living, breathing entity.

Locals grill lambs by their house in the town of Livadia near Athens to celebrate the Orthodox Easter on April 4, 2010. The Greek orthodox holy week culminates on Sunday with the traditional lamb grilling. (Louisa Gouliamaki / Getty Images / © All Rights Reserved)

When there is pain, grief, death, loss, and mourning, it is deeply human to turn to the institutions of childhood for succor. In many ways, we are all like the Syrian and other refugees crossing the Mediterranean and shuffled around the world. Looking for a place to rest. A place to find hope. A place where the spirit is nourished even as the flesh is wounded. A place where, even if for a moment, we can find the fresh air and sunshine of resurrection.

We want community and tradition, compassion and tenderness, and when we go to ordinary human beings to find it — even those called to the cloth — we sometimes find ourselves deeply disappointed. This is the stuff that, unattended to, devolves into spiritual abuse.

Even though my mother had told me stories from the patrida (homeland) in the 1950s and 1960s of clergy indulging in greed and sexual impropriety, she nonetheless wanted me to know the Church as part of my heritage. As a poor, abandoned, deeply traumatized and uneducated young girl, she had little choice but to make up in her mind that she was somehow the flawed sinner and to act that pain out in her life, not that the very real humans in the black robes were racked by the same demons as she was and had actually failed her.

No one had ever told her otherwise. No one told her that she, too, had goodness, love, light and purity in her. And that it was her fundamental nature: her Buddha mind. Not until her final years when her family’s karma changed and she heard it from the child she had once abandoned.

Herein lies the crux of the dilemma facing so many today: wanting to share our heritage and cultural roots with our children, and struggling with how to talk about the ugly parts, too. Most people from that part of the world have at least a few stories of impropriety from the clergy — sex, money, graft, greed, hypocrisy, and a lack of humility are commonly featured.

I don’t have children of my own but when my godsons (who were baptized in the Church) ask me someday down the road when we are swimming together on summer vacation in Kefalonia or the Peloponnese, I hope I will have the courage to give the nuanced, ineffable truth of the nature of all human beings. That we are both inherently divine, and deeply human, just as the stories about Christ teach.

The end of the story is not the crucifixion, whether in the form of addiction, trauma, divorce, poverty, war, or loneliness. The end of the story of Easter is eternal life and rebirth. That light comes after dark. That life follows death, as spring follows winter. That forgiveness and acceptance bring peace. That there is love and fear in each of us.

And that the best we can do as humble humans created in the image and likeness of a loving Creator is to offer our own personal best each day back to the Tree of Life from whence we came.

I left the Church wistful that I had not found the spiritual home I longed for, and still cobble together daily, moment by moment.

The author, Felina Danalis, with her mother.

The author, Felina Danalis, with her mother. (Felina Danalis / © All Rights Reserved)

Share Post

Contributor

is a philosopher, meditation teacher, mindfulness coach, workshop leader, speaker, and writer. She has worked with organizations ranging from the World Bank to the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, the European Union to the Two Bunch Palms Resort, and holds degrees from Georgetown and Johns Hopkins. After living in Europe for more than a decade, she currently lives in Palm Springs, California. She loves to hike, cook sustainable Greek food, listen to Baroque music, and dive into the juicy questions of meaning and purpose, preferably while sitting outdoors under a tree. She is currently working on a book about mindfulness, which she hopes to complete someday. Read more about her work at www.felinadanalis.com.

Share Your Reflection

Reflections

  • TheBacaJourney

    What a magnificent testament to the human heart and spirit that remains present no matter one’s history. You carry that with you, shining the light, Felina. Thank you!

    • Felina Danalis

      There is nothing quite as resilient as the human spirit. And that’s why this time of year for many faith traditions is so powerful: we are so much more than this “mortal coil”. Learning to lean into the painful parts of our personal history is often where we can find the most light of transformation. I’ve heard is said that forgiveness is the fast-track to serenity and peace. And sometimes that fast track can take a long, long time – it certainly has for me. I’m always awed by places and people – like South Africa and Nelson Mandela – that model some ways that forgiveness (however imperfect) can lead to lasting change. It’s always both-and: what we do to heal personally, heals us and the world, too.

  • Felina Danalis

    So delighted it comforted you, Rachael.

  • Felina Danalis

    Thank you so much for your kind and generous reflection, Helen. I was blessed to have so much incredible support to help my mother and I come to peace before she passed. I know not everyone has that sacred opportunity and feel so grateful for it. That was one of the biggest reasons I launched my mindfulness coaching practice: to witness the beautiful personal and professional journeys to wholeness of my brothers and sisters. I hope to continue to share the journey and trust that, as one part of the body is healed, it sheds light on others, too. Blessing and light to you.

  • Felina Danalis

    And to you, too, Roberto!

  • Felina Danalis

    Thank you for your lovely words, Megan. I’m so glad it hit home!

  • Felina Danalis

    Oh Marilyn thanks so much of chiming in. Indeed, all it takes is a small crack where we can enter. Longing for a spiritual home and community is one of the things that makes us human. Some people have an easy, simple path to that. For many of us, though, it is far more complicated and convoluted than that. That is why the impact of one person – like the priest you just mentioned or anyone else for that matter – can have such a big domino effect. We are healed in community and cracking the door of our hearts open for others – however flawed they may be to get in – makes us richer and more human. I am so delighted you will take him up on his offer to learn more and hope it brings you peace and solace, too.

  • Sally

    As someone who is Greek Orthodox and the relative of an Orthodox priest, I just want to add a couple of comments. If you arrived at the church on Holy Saturday, you would have caught this priest at probably the hardest time of the entire year! He would have just completed the lenten fast, where he wouldn’t have eaten meat or fish or dairy products for over 40 days and had been eating very little, period. He also would have been doing many services during lent and especially during Holy Week, some of them very long and very late at night, probably getting very little sleep, and also hearing confessions. He may have just finished getting the church ready for the midnight Resurrection service. In short, priests at this point are exhausted! Churches in Greece may be open all of the time, but in the US, that isn’t the case as there isn’t always someone who can be there to take care of the building. In short – it’s always a good idea to call first if you want to come when services aren’t scheduled. I don’t mean to defend the priest if he was truly rude to you – but priests are human beings, and sometimes they are expected to be on call and available 24/7, and it’s not an easy life. Being mindful of their time and calling ahead is usually greatly appreciated. Also – there are good priests and bad priests, as there are welcoming congregations and not so welcoming ones – it can take time to find the right “home”.

    • Felina Danalis

      Sally thank you so much for your insightful comments. There is so much need for compassion for ALL of us humans, especially, as you indicated, when we have already been under tremendous physical and emotional stress, like fasting. Thank you for bringing in this perspective. It was such a great opportunity to remember that, as we are incarnate, we are all both human and more. And you are so right about welcoming places and those that aren’t, not through any fault or malice or faulty intention, I might add. I think so many of us want to be welcome in a spiritual home when we need it, and it’s important to have compassion for the humans that do the business of keeping institutions running. I am so grateful for those that keep the lights on, sweep the floors, light the candles and that this dialogue has been generated by my essay because that was precisely the intention. Not to point out how other people are, frankly, human, but really to explore the need for an expanded reach of empathy even beyond what feels fair or right in any given moment. I was wounded and hurting and wanted compassion. And I got to practice generating it in my own heart and mind. A great gift, indeed.

  • trang nguyen

    I am touched by your story. Your thoughts echo so many of my own struggles and concerns, and I admire the honesty with which you share your feelings of hurt and anger. I would only add:
    The source of our (Christian) solace is not in a place or an institution, but in a person. And he calls to us still. He bears the scars of man’s brokenness and knows the pain of abandonment, for he is “the stone that the builders rejected,” yet his heart remained unstained. Above the landscape of flawed humanity hangs the cross, the symbol of divine mercy poured out to the world in the hour of darkness. In this lies our hope.

    He continues to suffer, for mankind has changed but little, and his rebuke of his friends apply to us today: You do not understand the spirit that you share. Whether we are a religious or a lay person, the challenge is for us to move forward on our spiritual journey, one that has its seed in the knowledge and traditions passed down through the generations but that needs to grow toward a deeper understanding of the spirit and the love that is offered to us. Only then can the rituals and the symbolism, rich and beautiful though they may be, have real meaning.

    • Felina Danalis

      Thank you so much for this touching reflection, Trang. I’m so moved the piece resonated with your own experience. Your words inspire hope and healing: “the challenge is for us to move forward on our spiritual journey, one that has its seed in the knowledge and traditions passed down through the generations but that needs to grow toward a deeper understanding of the spirit and the love that is offered to us.” Beautiful.

apples