Almost two weeks ago, I attended the Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting Conference, a two-day gathering that builds up the Church by strengthening the people helping to teach in it. In its short history, this conference has become the preeminent conference for Orthodox Christian creatives, or in internet terms, “content creators.” But we’re not really those things. We’re not abstractions. The lovely thing about the conference is seeing the faces of people like the people they speak to, whose disciplined lives are laid out in cruciform pattern, whose words are shaped around the Cross, and whose hands smell of being in the fire.
This was my first year as a speaker —Read and listen HERE –, and it was the first year anyone has sought me out to speak with me (such a joy to meet you). I had one solid plan for how I would spend my time: give the best talk I could, and then talk with my friends old and new. Everything else had to be optional, though I made it to some of the other talks. I knew that I would need a couple of hours of quiet and alone time in between meeting people and talking with friends, so I made sure to go to my room, turn on my chant playlist, and lie down with my scarf over my eyes and the air conditioner cranked full blast for a little while each day. I also asked a couple of friends ahead of time to help me navigate if the crowds and noise caused me to have sensory integration blips. I didn’t go into rooms until they were full so that the movement of so many people didn’t confuse me. I asked lots of questions when I wasn’t sure of things. Taking those measures to adapt my schedule so that I could manage being autistic in a large group of people made a huge difference. I was able to spend time with dear friends and have deep conversations with new ones.
One of the recurring themes was the idea of whether creative Christians have or should have thick skins. When Fr. Stephen Freeman spoke about shame, he brought up God clothing us in garments of skin and switching the conversation away from shame that says someone is a bad person and back to relationship, where guilt can be forgiven and relationship restored. I had that image in mind when the Friday evening social hour rolled around.
I had the privilege of talking with several talented young twenty-something creative types, either on the side of the room or in the back of the shuttle bus, and they seemed to understand the potency of that question better than most. As young adults who have grown up in the internet age, they know how vicious and fickle the online public can be. I told them about how we oldtimers grew up in the Cold War when having a Russian troll or three would have been seen as a sign that you were a true American. I laughed off some painful experiences I’ve had online by posing as Captain Mom-merica, and we joked about how we would put our feelings into memes. We laughed, and then I said, “But seriously I forgive them. They didn’t have to be my enemy if they wanted me to pray for them. They could have just asked.” “You must have a thick skin.” But I don’t. I’m autistic and probably what most people would consider hyper-sensitive. What I have is one-way skin.
I am not here talking to people because I am better than anyone else. I was born poor and dead and naked, and Christ brought me to life and clothed me in Himself and opened to me the treasury of heaven. I didn’t do those things. God did. I bear witness because it’s what people do when they encounter the fire of God.
Moses took off his shoes and breathed the air around that fire, and even with his speech impediment, he said what needed to be said for the freedom of God’s people. The three in the fiery furnace sang as the Lord made the fire like dew on a cool breeze. The Song of Songs is a song from within the flame of the Lord – love that is a flashing fire. Our God is a consuming fire. When you draw near or step into that flame, you begin to smell of incense or of myrrh or of water. Each of us, whether we speak online or publicly or not, will find that somewhere in our lives there is a sweetness like incense, a warmth like fire, a persistence like water, and that is what flows out from us.
But what approaches us is tested by the fiery clothes we are covered in when we come up out of the font as members of Christ’s Body. What comes at us, be it good or evil, has to pass through Cross and flame to get to us. The fiery furnace was so hot that the ones who stoked it in order to torment the three youths were consumed by it themselves. So it is with all evil intentions. They will be rebuked by God and consumed in the flame, and they will be transformed into good, even if I can’t see it.
Being clothed in the fire of Christ is like a one-way skin: the myrrh and incense and water stream out, but incoming praise and hatred become themselves an offering unto God.
That is my goal when I write: a one-way skin armored in the fire of God, and a myrrh-streaming heart filled with love for God. I am only little and a little (or maybe all) broken, and love is still breaking through. The logs in my eyes are still in the fire. But I won’t develop a thick skin. I won’t become a skeptic or a cynic or side-eye the efforts of people sincerely seeking. When I get hurt or make mistakes, I walk a little further into the fire instead.
When the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, I will see Him not because I am holding an oil lamp, but because I am a lamp. I want to become all flame. I want to follow Christ into the flame where my heart lives and strive to make my heart a fitting home for the Holy Spirit.
When I began to reflect on the weekend, I started out thinking about how we are houses in our dreams, and how the innermost part of the house is a room with a stone lintel marked with blood, into which stone is carved, “Come,” my heart says, “Seek His face.” (Thy face, Lord, will I seek.) I had set it aside to focus on pressing needs, but that image sprang forward again when I heard these beautiful words on Saturday from His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, “Ready is my heart, O God, ready is my heart.”
To make hearts ready to receive the mercy of God is our work. It starts with laying out the patterns for our clothes, for God’s clothes, so we can recognize what is good. The world and humans are made by God, and He has made them good and is restoring it and us to good. Like fractals, like leaves and seashells and pleasing symmetries and music in rhythm and standing waves and cycles and growing things, goodness repeats and can be recognized everywhere. Evil, on the other hand, is nonsense. It’s pollution of clear water and the mixture of poison into good food and the twisting of sacred things into nasty shapes by means of words or other forms of abuse. We combat evil by teaching the patterns. Good is contagious, and it is cumulative, and it repeats. When you build and build layers of meaning, pulling the thread over and over through a pattern, you start to see the fabric. You start to see the clothes. You start to understand yourself in fire.
The first night of the conference, as I stood in Vespers alongside saints and icons, I had an experience of knowing myself outside of myself. I felt as though my hands, hanging quietly at my sides, were streaming myrrh like the image in the Song of Songs. Myrrh is for healing and for burial. It is the sweetness of life in the midst of death, the sign of love that sometimes is seen or smelled or touched, sometimes experienced from within. I have given up trying to understand such experiences. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. There is no part of the universe that is not ready to burst with the joy of the Lord in due time. Instead, I stood there and let myself pray and let my heart stream until I felt my hands and heart were ready to go further into the flame.
When I returned home, I thought about the hidden myrrh in daily life. We fashion our homes into larnacas – decorated reliquary coffins – for holy hearts. Everything we do is ultimately small but not ultimately unimportant or unbeautiful. We plant trees and seeds, and God gives the increase. We step into the flame of Christ, and God makes us shine. We die to everything but the love of God, and the graves and our hearts become life-giving. Cooking in a pan, over a flame, tells us about the flame of God, tugs the cords of memory near. Lighting the evening candle tells us about the flame of God, showing the holy faces that reflect Christ’s light. And every breath is a fire, too, and the tiny fires of thousands of cells burning for the joy of the Lord. (Don’t we parents know this!, when we listen for soft breaths at night before we close our eyes.)
Being a creative type who is clothed in Christ means that we must cling to God in love. Every penstroke and brush stroke and fingerprint on clay and susurrus of page and bright darkness of music comes from that fire of love.