Monday, October 13, 2008

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The free bird leaps on the back of the wind
and floats downstream till the current ends
and dips his wings in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
can seldom see through his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with fearful trill
of the things unknown but longed for still
and is tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou

The other day, while I was taking a walk with my children, I saw a sight that broke my heart. Across the street from where we were walking, there was a bird in a cage on someone's front porch. In one respect, it was nice to see that the caretakers of this bird thought it would be good for the bird to get some fresh air. However, I just don't understand how anyone can find it to be alright to cage a bird.

Why did God give birds wings? The answer is so obvious that it makes the question seem ridiculous. Yet we tamper with God's creation and cage birds.

This also brought to mind the poem, above, by Maya Angelou, and the sad reality that in this fallen world we enslave both animals and people and find ways to either justify or disguise such cruelties. There is a wonderful book, The Dreaded Comparison, by Marjorie Spiegel, which addresses in-depth this very issue.
The first time I read it years ago, I was shocked by the incredible similarities between our treatment of human slavery and animal slavery. I just glanced through the pages for the first time in quite a while, and the pictures brought me to tears. The book opens up with a picture of a slave auction and a picture of a cattle auction. They may as well been held at the same place, for the images are identical.
St. John of Kronstadt said, "If you love your neighbor, then all heaven will love you; if you are united in spirit with your fellow creatures then you will be united with God and all the company of heaven." Oh how woefully far we are from this ideal. What is it within humanity that compells us to treat one another and the rest of God's creation with such contempt and disregard? How have we continued to be blinded to the hardening of our hearts? Lord, please help us to love....

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Real Toys

I am on a seemingly constant quest to rid our house of "junk" toys. I don't think I ever realized how utterly plastic our world has become until I had children. It seems everywhere you turn there's a game or toy that will supposedly help your child to grow and learn all these wonderful skills and attributes. My only question is, what did children do before all of these toys and gadgets? Gee, they must have been awfully deprived.

This whole toy issue thing is quite often on my mind, so as part of my exploration of it, I recently asked my grandfather what kind of toys his brothers and sisters played with when he was growing up. He said, "None. We didn't have any. We grew up in the Depression." Yet my grandfathter is a kind, loving, compassionate, intelligent man... certainly not deprived of any necessary skills for life.

I consider myself to be someone who strives to live a simple life, and I know quite well that marketing tools are aimed at creating a false sense of need in us in order to get us to buy more stuff. However, I must admit that there are times when I wonder if I am depriving my son by limiting his toys. Isn't it amazing how powerful these marketing moguls can be, that although I don't even have a television spewing out commercial advertisements at me, I'm still impacted by them? We are surrounded by such a culture of excess that it is difficult to escape its lures.

But one thing definitely sticks out the most in my own childhood memories. And, believe it or not, it's not the Cabbage Patch doll! To this day, I can remember my secret, special spot. Whenever I wanted to be alone or to find quiet time, I would go to an area of my parents' yard where no one could see me, and I would just sit and close my eyes and simply be. Or I would go outside at night and sit on the stoop by our garage and look up at the stars in the sky and be filled with peace and wonder. Another joy was crawling in a small space in the back of one of our coat closets where no one could see me.... Or creating a tent out of bedsheets and blankets, a house out of a cardboard box.... Sneaking books under my pillow at night so I could wake up and read by the moonlight. No toys, no plastic, no flashing lights.

So when thinking about what my little boys "need" in order to grow into the men God created them to be, I keep reminding myself that it is all pretty simple. Time to explore the natural world, time to to create, time to play, time to simply "be." Sometimes I think we make things more complicated than they have to be.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


So we recently went on a trip up to Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY. It is a wonderful organization that rescues abused farm animals and works to educate people about their plight. I have visited there on a few other occasions throughout the years. However, this year's visit was especially meaningful to me because it was the first time my husband and my children were there.

It was such a wonderful feeling to be in a place where animals are treated with love and respect. And to see my oldest son hugging and feeding the animals and leaping around them with squeals of happiness brought me the joy of all joys. It also gave even more confirmation that God intended for us to have communion with the animals. God calls us to be as the little children. If children are so naturally drawn to love animals, to feel joy in their presence, shouldn't we as well?

While our visit there was short, I left feeling refreshed and renewed knowing that there are others who feel the same way about God's creatures. Farm Sanctuary is not only a sanctuary for animals, but for people too.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

One Dollar Diet Project

But many that are first shall be last; and the last first.
- Mark 10:31

We are called to give to the poor, and to not store up treasures on earth. However, the way of life of many of us in the United States is a far cry from this. Modern commercialism has led us to have a distorted perception of our needs and our wants. Electronic gadgets, televisions, cars, and toys overflow the closets and rooms of many. When we open our refrigerators, we have so many options for meals that it's common for food to actually go to waste. Meanwhile, more than 1 BILLION people live on just one dollar or less per day.

Two social justice teachers have started the One Dollar Diet Project during which they will each eat on a food budget of $1 per day. I'm very interested in following their project and how the experience goes for them. While my family lives simply in comparison to modern standards, we manage to make a mortgage payment, and we're certainly not starving. I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to struggle to get by on just $1 a day.

It is making me think again about how I could simplify more, and give more. But perhaps it also goes deeper than simply giving money to the poor. Perhaps it is rooted more in our worldview that we all have a right to have more, more, more. It is a sad world we live in... the disparities between the "haves" and the "have-nots" seem to be growing and growing. And in this world it is not uncommon for there to be one person living on billions of dollars while billions of people are living on one dollar? I thank God that we have hope for a world transfigured... where there will be no more sorrow... and where, finally, the last shall be first.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Voice of the Voiceless

I am the voice of the voiceless:
Through me, the dumb shall speak;
Till the deaf world’s ear be made to hear
The cry of the wordless weak.

From street, from cage, and from kennel,
From jungle, and stall, the wail
Of my tortured kin proclaims the sin
Of the mighty against the frail.

For love is the true religion,
And love is the law sublime;
And all is wrought, where love is not
Will die at the touch of time.

Oh shame on the mothers of mortals
Who have not stopped to teach
Of the sorrow that lies in dear, dumb eyes,
The sorrow that has no speech.

The same Power formed the sparrow
That fashioned man-the King;
The God of the whole gave a living soul
To furred and to feathered thing.

And I am my brother’s keeper,
And I will fight his fight;
And speak the word for beast and bird
Till the world shall set things right.

- Ella Wheeler Wilcox

I live in the midst of an area that some might dub "Pennsylvania Dutch Country." And within a short drive from my house are "processing" plants in which pigs, cows, chickens, and turkeys are transformed from innocent, sentient beings into neatly-wrapped packages of meat.

More often than I would like, I am faced with the eyes of animals on their way to slaughter. And the feeling of helplessness wrenching at my heart and soul is nothing compared to theirs. I am free to drive on. They, on the other hand, have no escape from their fate. And, sadly, if I were to try to free them, I could potentially be arrested.

Saint Basil said, "O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our little brothers to whom Thou hast given this earth as their home in common with us. May we realize that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee, and that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve Thee better in their place than we in ours." They love the sweetness of life, he said... Yet we rip this away from them. We imprison them in unnatural, cruel conditions and then kill them. Is this the kind of fellowship God intended when he created the animals to be Adam's first friends?

They cannot speak in our words, but look into the eyes of one of these beautiful creatures in an animal-transport truck, on their way to slaughter, and you will see their sorrow. God has given us free will, so we have a choice to make. God allows the eating of meat (animals), but He does not demand it. Have we really become so hardened and desensitized that we can turn a blind eye to their suffering? We can choose to be a part of their suffering and death, or we can choose to say "yes" to their lives, and to pray for an end to this madness.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A Blade of Grass

"I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that wherever you go, the least plant may bring you the clear remembrance of the Creator. A single plant, a blade of grass or one speck of dust is sufficient to occupy all your intelligence in beholding the art with which it has been made."
- St. Basil the Great

I haven't posted much recently, because I have been focusing on preparing for our parish's vacation church school. Next week I am blessed to have an opportunity to be one of its teachers. Our focus is going to be "The Earth is the Lord's: Caring for God's Creation." My heart's deepest prayer and longing is that the children in my class will come away from the week seeing the deep beauty and significance of a blade of grass... of any of the seemingly small parts of God's creation.

Nothing is without significance. Everything God created has it's own unique and mysterious place in His creation. How easy it can be to forget this in a world where material posessions are prized more than the precious spiritual gems we find on our way toward communion with God. What a wonderful thing it is to stop the whirlwind of life and take time to simply "be" in the natural world... to contemplate this vast, brilliant creation which God has gifted to us to care for.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Friends of Adam

I started this blog with the intention of giving people hope. I intended to give all sorts of practical tips on things we could do in our everyday lives to help manifest a more compassionate world. Recently, however, it seems as though I've allowed to get myself bogged down in my sadness about animal suffering. I guess there's just an ebb and flow. But even when I'm struggling more with the grief and despair, I have still not given up hope.

I have recently revisited a wonderful book, "Animals and Man: A State of Blessedness," by Joanne Stefanatos, an Orthodox Christian and holistic veterinarian. The description of the books notes that it is, "A book that reveals the mysteries of God concerning man, animals and salvation." It is a wonderful book that speaks of God's original intent for His creation... that all would live in harmony, and that Man would lead creation in love. In the book, there are countless stories of Orthodox men and women living in peaceful coexistence with animals throughout the ages. A few weeks ago, I also purchased a copy of her second book, "Animals Sanctified: A Spiritual Journey." As noted in the description of the book, "This book is a revelation of Orthodox spirituality from the days of Jesus to the present, addressing the question, "How can we save ourselves and God's creation: the animals and the earth?"

I cannot tell you how much I treasure both of these books! To finally find something written by someone of my faith who addresses these issues is like a dream come true for me. I have often felt alone in circles of people who have compassion for animals, because they most often do not share a Christian faith. Then, in my own parish, I often feel alone because of my compassion for animals.... I think I may have been the only person in my parish who celebrated Pascha with an all-vegan feast. But to hear of another voice in the wilderness who so eloquently speaks of the sacred beauty of animals, and our God-given duty to be loving stewards to them, is music to my ears. I wish that all could read her words... perhaps more hearts would be softened toward the animals... the first friends of Adam.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Silent Tears

After Liturgy every week, I feel as though I am surrounded by a lack of care and concern for the animals who provided the foods upon which people dine.

And I can't say a word about it. Sure, I could talk about the horrific conditions in which these animals suffered in order to become food. But I have learned that the world does not want to hear. I can vividly remember when, as a child not so inhibited by the "right" way to act, I was greeted by a slightly raised hand, and the words, "I don't want to know."

Why don't we want to know? Perhaps because knowledge without action would lead to feelings of guilt? Has the long Lenten fasting period not shown us that it is possible to live without eating animal products? Are we so driven by our passions that we cannot choose kindness over killing? Is there no hope for humanity to become more humane?

So, I steel my face and cry my silent tears. Silent tears for the animals who are not shown God's mercy by the people He entrusted to care for them. Silent tears for the people who have become so blinded and desensitized to the truth that they are able to participate in such madness.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Humane Myth

"The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God."
- St. John of Damascus
I was so excited to hear of the launching of the Humane Myth website the other day. Its goal is to dispell the humane myth, which they define as "an idea being propagated by the animal-using industry and some animal protection organizations that it is possible to use and kill animals in a manner that can be fairly described as respectful or compassionate or humane."

I seem to encounter an increasing number of people who feel that purchasing animal products which were derived from animals raised in "free-range," "organic," or "cageless" conditions is somehow better or more humane. In reality, the conditions underlying such labels are often just as poor as in a regular factory farm. Besides that, all roads lead to the slaughterhouse. And I would be surprised to find anyone who could see beauty and kindness behind its walls.

If, as St. John of Damascus stated, "The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God," how should we live? How should we treat the gift of life which God has entrusted in our care? Do we exercise the dominion He intended when we treat animals as a mere commodity and hide their suffering behind closed doors? Would we make different choices if we were the ones who had to do the killing? I believe it was Tolstoy who once said, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all be vegetarian." I couldn't agree with him more.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Simple Gifts

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.

I have long been drawn to this Shaker song and to the simple way of life. But, in some ways, it was much easier to live a life of simplicity before marriage and children. Now I must balance the needs of my family, striving for a practical, family-focused simplicity. It's been on my heart for some time now that I've strayed from my values of simplicity. I've allowed more unnecessary clutter to creep into our life, and I've chosen convenience over mindful consumption far too many times.

Recently, I started hanging my clothing out to dry on a clothesline again. It took a bit more effort than just throwing everything into the dryer. However, not only did I use less electricity to run that dryer, but I also received blessings in return. The slow cadence of clipping clothespins on the clothesline, reminding me that there is no need to hurry, this world moves too fast. The communion with my son as he helped me to take the clothes off of the line while a thunderstorm rolled in. The feel and smell of the cool breeze wafting by, drawing me into its beauty in a way that I don't slow down to appreciate often enough. Even the simple beauty of the laundry swaying on the line.

Patriarch Bartholomew, in his remarks at an Environmental Symposium in 1997, noted that, "Asceticism requires from us a voluntary restraint in order for us to live in harmony with our environment." And that, "Asceticism... will lead us... to a world in which we will give as well as take from creation." I think people often believe that making choices which are kinder to the environment will involve a lot of drudgery and hardship. Often, I find quite the opposite to be true. Yes, sometimes it does take a little more effort to step out of our ordinary mode of ease and convenience. But the blessings often far outweigh the costs. A small choice to hang my clothes to dry on a clothesline brought me such a number of simple joys that I look forward to doing it again and again.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Liturgy of Life

A friend of mine once equated the daily chores and responsibilities of motherhood as a liturgy of sorts. The Orthodox Liturgy has the same basic framework each week. But every week we commemorate a different saint, and sometimes we celebrate a feast day. Every day we also go through essentially the same routine... cooking, cleaning, caring for our children, etc. But some days have a different twist to them, perhaps a trip to the park or a visit from friends or family.

We participate in the Liturgy of the Church to worship God and to be joined to God through our partaking of the Holy Eucharist. In the same way, we can worship God and draw nearer to Him through our daily lives. But if our minds and hearts wander during the Liturgy, we may not receive the fullness of God's blessings. In the same way, we cannot expect to see the manifestation of a more compassionate world if we are not attentive in the liturgy of our life at home.

Compassion and communion with God and His Creation starts at home. And it is in this area where I must admit I fail the most. When I am impatient and unloving towards my children and my husband, how can I expect the world to look any different? Every thought or action has a ripple effect into the world. I am reminded of a children's book called "Because Brian Hugged His Mother." It's about how a series of positive events that spiraled from a little boy simply hugging his mother. I've never actually read the book, but I remember reading the description some years ago and thinking about how our actions have unseen results.

By sowing negativity into my family, I send forth a ripple of negativity into the world. If I, instead, sow gentleness and patience, this is what will flow forth from my family. If we wish to see a more compassionate world, we need to start at home. It is a daily struggle, with many ups and downs along the way. So, even on the most difficult days, when I fail in ways I'm ashamed to admit, I find solace in the words of a monk on Mt. Athos who, when asked what he does all day at the monastery, said, "We fall down, we get up." May God grant me the strength to continue to rise up again after every fall. So that I might sow seeds of compassion into my family that may bloom and shine their light upon the ailing world.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


“A merciful heart is one that burns with love for all creation – for men, for the birds and animals, for the demons, for every created being. And by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears, from the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation.”
- St. Isaac the Syrian

Every year at Pascha (Orthodox Christians' "Easter"), I feel a mixture of joy and sorrow. With the first singing of "Christ is Risen!" I am filled with joy. But shortly after, my heart grieves as I am offered a brightly colored chicken egg as the Paschal feast begins.

There seems to be a misconception that eggs are a benign product… that chickens are not harmed in order to provide us with eggs. However, this is not the case. In factory farms, up to ten laying hens share a cage, leaving each bird with a living space about the size of a sheet of paper. Often, between seventy and one hundred thousand chickens are housed in one large, commercial shed. They are deprived of natural sunlight. They do not get to lie down, to spread their wings, forage for food, nest, or bathe in the dust as they would in their natural environment. Instead of dust bathing, they can only beat their wings against the wire in their cages. Their sensitive beaks are removed with hot knives (without any pain relief) so that they will not resort to pecking each other to death as a result of their unnatural, stressful environment. Birds on lower tiers endure having excrement fall onto their heads from birds in tiers above them. Ammonia, dust and feathers fill the air, making breathing conditions difficult. And when their bodies are too diseased or unable to produce any more eggs, they are sent to slaughter, destined to have their bodies ground up into soups, or low-grade chicken products which camouflage the bruises of their flesh. Male chickens, since they cannot produce eggs, are disposed of by suffocation, grinding them alive, or by merely throwing them into a dumpster to suffocate or starve to death. These conditions are not rare, for about 99% of egg laying hens in the United States (about 300 million of them) live in such conditions.

Recently “free range” eggs have come to be thought of as a more humane alternative. However, the treatment of “free range” hens is not much better. In fact, in most cases, “free range" really only means cageless, because there are no standards in place to govern using the term “free range” on egg cartons. Male chickens are still killed because they are of no use. Each chicken has only about 1 to 2 feet of living space. Chickens are still housed in a shed with no access to the outdoors. If there is an exit for the chickens to venture outdoors, the cramped conditions in the shed make it possible for only those chickens closest to the exit to actually go outdoors. The outdoor environment itself may consist of merely a gravel area for exercise, but no way for the animals to forage.

Patriarch Bartholomew stated, “God is love and has created us in His image to love like God. Therefore, our relationship with creation should be based on respect and justice.” How we can celebrate Pascha, the Passover from death to life, with the eating of chicken eggs, the product of suffering and death? How can we reconcile the suffering of these animals with a Christian ethic of mercy? Isn’t our hope as Christians that God will restore a universal peace, a world in which there is no longer any violence, cruelty, or suffering? Jesus said “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”(Luke 6:36) Would God condone the suffering these chickens endure simply to satisfy our palates?

There are many alternatives to eating eggs. A number of egg-free recipes can be found online, and a multitude of vegan cookbooks are available. (I’d be happy to give you the names of some of my favorites.) And if you want to remove eggs from recipes you already have, there are a number of ways to substitute for the eggs. Below are some examples.
Crumbled and seasoned tofu can be used in place of scrambled eggs or egg salad sandwiches. Fantastic Foods even makes a Tofu Scrambler mix for seasoning these types of dishes. There are egg-free mayonnaises on the market, such as Veganaise (my husband’s personal favorite) and Nayonaise.

Instead of using an egg to bind together a loaf or burger, you can use mashed potato, avocado, bread crumbs, rolled or quick oats, tomato paste, tahini, peanut butter, nut butters, or a little more vegetable oil.

For baking, you can try one of the following substitutions:
3 T silken tofu blended with the liquid in the recipe
2 T cornstarch, potato starch, or arrowroot powder mixed with 2 T of water
½ of a mashed banana
1 T ground flax seeds & ½ cup of water blended for 1 to 2 minutes until the mixture has a thick consistency similar to beaten egg whites
2 T to ¼ cup applesauce or apple butter
Commercial powdered egg replacer like ENER-G egg replacer. Use 1 to 1 ½ tsp. mixed with 2 T water
For lightness in baking, use some extra yeast or baking soda. You can also use fruit juice or tomato juice to replace some or all of the liquid in a recipe.
Photo Credit: Farm Sanctuary

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Everyday Synergy

There is nothing we can do without God. Yet, one glance at our daily newspaper demonstrates how often we try to live without God guiding our lives. We are inundated with stories of war, poverty, cruelty, and injustice. Some stories become a source of common entertainment and casual conversation. Television news shows consistently highlight violent crimes as the major stories of the day.

Many students are welcomed to school in the morning by metal detectors or police officers. Children and adults in distant countries suffer the cruel working conditions of sweatshops to provide us with fashionable garments and decorations. Billions of animals endure suffering and ultimately death in factory farms and slaughterhouses to provide people with foods that are pleasing to our palates. Environmental destruction and resource depletion are escalating.

The "American way" has become a model of conspicuous consumption and a seemingly insatiable desire for more, more, more. Corporations have such a vested interest in ensuring that children become a new generation of consumers that they have infiltrated classrooms with marketing materials thinly disguised as educational supplements.

These are some of the themes common to the world today. The enormity of the issues we face can seem overwhelming. But there is hope for a way out of this darkness. We do not have to sit by idly, resigning ourselves that the way things are is simply the way things will continue to be. We can challenge the cultural assumptions and live our lives in a more Christlike manner. By working with God, instead of against God, we have the potential to help usher in a more beautiful world.

Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope John Paul II, in their Declaration on the Environment, noted that "The problem is not simply economic and technological; it is moral and spirutual." The world has been corrupted by the sins of humankind. But as Christians, we should be standing against injustice, and making conscious choices that take into account the suffering of people and the rest of God's creation. It is incompatible with a love of God to turn a blind eye to the suffering we are inflicting upon God's creation. Joanne Stefanatos, in her book Animals and Man: A State of Blessedness, stated this beautifully when she wrote that "We are called by God to reflect divinity, to become icons of Jesus Christ.... By our lives we must demonstrate the Gospels and the presence of Jesus Christ."

But where do we start... what can we do... how do we do it? In a world plagued by so many problems, it can be overwhelming to know what to do. And in our fast-paced society, most of us have so many responsibilties with our jobs, our families, and other obligations, that we don't feel we have much time to do anything about the world's problems. In this blog, I hope to bring some of these issues to light. I also hope to show some simple choices we can make in our everyday lives to help manifest a more compassionate world. If we open our hearts and our minds, we will see that God has given us the wisdom and the gifts to discover creative solutions to the violence and injustice in this world.