They’d be arriving in fifteen minutes. I was sweating, literally perspiring from sprinting into rooms and out of rooms shoving clothes into closets and wiping down counter tops. I was desperately hoping the kids would have been settled by then, in their beds, reading quietly but, no, no, they were doing nothing of the sort. Five minutes. It was only five minutes now until my new neighbor friends came over for dessert and coffee. I had five minutes to construct an environment reflecting harmony and order where there was none. “Do NOT get out of your rooms!” I ordered the children.
“Your home,” they said, “it’s lovely.”
“Oh, thank you,” I answered casually, handing out pie pieces on porcelain plates. “We love it here,” I added, gathering from the looks on their faces that I was succeeding in presenting our family as respectable, delightful, God-fearing people worth getting to know. The evening went well, exactly as I’d hoped it would. Why, then, did I feel just a teensy bit guilty, like I had pulled something over on my guests? It wasn’t the first time or the last that I’d question my motives, my genuineness - my identity.
For the past twelve years I’ve been chasing around a shadow, attempting to fuse myself to that which comes and goes with a change in whatever social climate I’m currently trying to adapt to. The vision I have for what I could and probably should be can broaden, shrink, or disappear completely depending on where I stand and what or who is positioned next to me. I used to know what to say, how to act, how to carry myself in such a way that would communicate clearly my commitment to the Christian faith - you know, the updated version of it where you totally believe but also totally relate and try to look like and sound like those who don’t.
I was autonomous back then (no spouse, no kids, no needs to meet besides my own) and thus in a better position to craft a persona and stick with it. But you’ve heard what they say about familiarity breeding contempt; knowing thoroughly all of the rules, the proper etiquette and what was expected of me, I felt justified critiquing a system on which I was, obviously, an expert. After arrogantly picking it apart, I was ready to move on to something else, anything else, with the capacity to challenge or even surprise me.
Ask me now what I know or how confident I am that my next decision, step, or word spoken will be the right one; ask me how comfortable I feel as an Orthodox Christian, even a decade after converting; ask me today the best way to identify a real follower of Christ. My indefinite answers might make many (myself included) a little uneasy. I’ve tried, for the longest darn time, to find some sort of formula, to figure out this Eastern Orthodoxy and fall into a spiritual rhythm I could memorize and depend on to feel authentic. At first this seemed challenging, yes, but doable. Fasting? Check. Saturday night Vigil? Check. Pre-Communion prayers? Evening Prayers? Morning Prayers? Check. Prayer Rope? Icons? Censer? Check. Check. Check. I went from 0 to 60 mph in one month flat, ascetically speaking, and was pretty sure I was proving myself to be a serious, “in this for the long haul,” type of convert.
I knew better than to think that my zealousness was guaranteeing me God’s approval, but…well, I kind of thought it anyway. In fact, I worried, or more like agonized, when I wasn’t disciplined enough to cut out dairy on a Friday or attend a weekday service, that I was failing to represent a sort of “one size fits all” ideal I’d managed to piece together from observing my fellow parishioners. I couldn’t shake that old habit of measuring my success as a Christian up against the status quo. The natural ebb and flow of faith and doubt, warmth and coldness, restraint and indulgence, I interpreted as signs of ineptness. I reasoned in terms of “good” and “bad”; I reasoned instead of listened. I’ve been attempting to keep up with that mom, so friendly and patient, and that couple over there with the beautiful, sweet, charming children and that fellow with a passion for serving the poor, but it isn’t working.
God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. Every year, as Great Lent approaches, Orthodox Christians around the world are reminded that a Pharisaic confidence in ourselves and our pious efforts can bar our path towards enlightenment by blinding our eyes and blocking our ears to the wisdom granted only to those whose humility and dependence upon the compassion of the Holy Trinity keep them close enough to the Spirit to hear God’s will for any given situation delivered in whispers. God be merciful to me, a sinner, prayed the cheating, lying tax collector, having no leverage whatsoever with which to “earn” such a reward. It is this publican, Jesus tells us, who left forgiven.
Of all the astute things my priest has shared with us, the most helpful as of late has been about mystery - the Mystery of the Church and its inherent ambiguity when it comes to salvation. There is a necessary vagueness in the miracle of the sacraments lest we focus too much on the gifts ( how exactly they work and who most deserves them) and not the giver. When I act, using the tools provided by the Church, out of love and a longing for more and more of Christ, they effectively strip me of the biases and assumptions interfering with Divine Illumination and the Peace transcending all understanding. When I view them as a mandatory checklist for attaining the grace of God, however, those exact same tools break me down and remind me that I am nothing, capable of nothing pure or selfless on my own. I can’t, I am realizing, assess the Faith, define it, or try and crack it like a code if I want to tap into its soul transforming, life changing capabilities. No, it’s only through living it, clinging to it on a daily, moment-to-moment basis that I find any relief from the treadmill effect of feeling full of pride one minute and in despair over my sinfulness the next.
Just last week, my wonderful Matushka, our priest’s wife, stopped by the house. It was a wreck; the kids were loud and disruptive. I was exposed as the frazzled and fallible gal I am and it was humbling, very humbling, to say the least. Without batting an eye at the chaos, she kept on making small talk and then proceeded to help me clean the kitchen, sweeping floors and washing dishes while I dried them. I had nothing of value to give in return for her kindness and generosity – no flowers, no zucchini bread, no bottle of wine, only a flimsy but heartfelt thank you which I offered again and again. She left and I teared up because it’s healing but also painful to have to accept for yourself and reveal to others your weaknesses. I was pondering this fact when I walked down to the basement to get my laundry and found a basket full of clean but rumpled clothing belonging to my sister-in-law whose been borrowing our dryer till theirs gets repaired. Having been blessed so undeservedly, I wanted to show my appreciation and pass on a mere portion of the thoughtfulness I’d experienced and so I folded those clothes, Paige’s clothes, because that’s what was right in front of me.
And so it goes, I inch my way from one lesson and revelation to the next, never peering too far ahead and praying continually for the fortitude and the confidence to not look back. From this day, from this hour, from this minute, said St. Herman of Alaska, let us strive to love GOD above all. There is clarity for those who seek it out of a yearning for true communion with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It’s crazy illogical and totally maddening, intellectually, that God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong (I Cor. 1:27), but there it is, plain as day, as hard as anything to accept but so freeing and fulfilling for those brave enough to get over themselves, let go of their misguided preconceptions and follow willingly the Truth of Christ as revealed through His Holy Church, wherever it leads them.