They were both on my lap, each elbowing the other. I wanted my coffee but it was too far out of reach and lukewarm now. “Can you stop that, please?” I asked, scarcely masking my growing impatience by speaking slower and a tad more loudly than I normally would, if I hadn’t been trying my hardest to keep from snapping. Last year I decided I wouldn’t send our children back to their public school when August rolled around. I ordered my own curriculum, rather, and joined a homeschool group in my neighborhood, and now I am shooing away those nagging insecurities with their unproductive assumptions. As if I wasn’t certain enough that I have patience issues and some serious organizational deficiencies.
We have breakfast first, followed by readings from Scriptures and then a story, an Orthodox story involving saints or important feast days. There is so very much to learn about our Faith, and they are old enough, I believe, to start moving past the “hows” and onto the “whys.” For it’s the reasons behind the actions that fill empty gestures with meaning. It’s Her past, Her heroes, Her Tradition and theology that make the Church such a strong and sturdy refuge from the wily entrapments of sin and distorted “truths.”
Ideally, before I embarked each morning on this monumental task of ingraining within my children a love for the teachings of Christ, the house would be in order; I’d sit in our living room rocking chair with the four of them at my feet, listening attentively and interrupting only every so often to ask a clarifying and completely applicable question. We’d end in prayer, of course. I’d have no need to bite my lip in order to keep from speaking harshly. And the kids would be enthralled, so utterly moved by the sacrifices and bravery of the martyrs who spilled their blood for the sake of the cross. But ideals, it turns out, can be the bane of my existence as a mom.
There is something about bored expressions, a screaming preschooler, and piles of unwashed dishes in the kitchen sink that can dampen a mother’s mood and negate the significance of a family devotional. As hard as I try to muffle all of the paralyzing and negative self-conjecturing, suggesting I’m not spiritually mature or disciplined enough to make these concepts penetrate through our thick and impermeable obsession with ourselves, I can’t help but think repeatedly, “Why, why, why, why bother?”
We had moved into the living room, where I cleared a spot on the love seat and grumbled at the kids about the mess, their bickering, and their antsy-ness, before opening to Chapter 6 in the book, Grandmother’s Spiritual Stories: An Orthodox Treasury of Stories for Young and Old, written by Georgia Hronas. “The Miraculous Light of the Tomb of Christ,” I began. “Benjamin, are you listening? Keep your hands away from your sister, please!” And I went on, with a downcast and tired demeanor, to share with my sons and daughters about the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem where every Holy Saturday a miracle occurs drawing thousands of pilgrims annually who wish to witness for themselves, “The Sacred Light.”
Also known as the Holy Sepulchre, The Church of the Resurrection has a courtyard, the Golgotha, which is the area where the Holy Cross and tomb of Christ were found by Saint Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. The Patriarch arrives at the tomb at 11:00 am, I read. He performs a Litany around the Tomb chanting special prayers and Psalms. And then he pauses before the entrance of the Holy Tomb. There, in the presence of the pilgrims, the Patriarch is searched to insure that he has nothing with which to start a fire.
I had heard of this event. I know someone who traveled many, many miles to take part in that holiest of celebrations. But on this day, just an ordinary Tuesday with a long and tedious week ahead of me, this detailed account describing how at midnight, while the Patriarch prays with earnestness in pitch blackness, a bluish colored light appears suddenly, turning white, then into a red flame before igniting the Patriarch’s candles and the vigil lamp on the Holy Tomb, gave me chills and even piqued my children’s interest. It’s shocking, isn’t it? Especially if what you’re used to is complete and total access to a domesticated version of God, whom this nation has no qualms about mocking or defining or limiting the role of to but a mild mannered wish granter who is ours for the reconfiguring when the changing tastes of society demand it. A true display of sacredness, in all of its terrifying glory, rarely leaves one feeling comfortable or unchallenged.
What I personally experienced was an overwhelming sense of unworthiness. I imagined the fasting, the waiting for hours upon hours, all the sacrificing of time, convenience and personal space made by the Christ-hungry parishioners packed shoulder to shoulder in nervous anticipation of something bigger and so much brighter than their day-to-day disappointments and frustrations. I saw my own distracted soul, so easily put out by the mundane-ness of my chores, by children being children, and by the intensity of the life I was created to live but so often water down because it’s hard, good gracious is it hard, to deny yourself.
I looked over at Elijah, Priscilla, Ben and Mary; I took in the sight of my cluttered and un-swept home; I remembered how often I forget to put salvation at the forefront of my goals, thoughts, and decisions; I questioned my capabilities as an Orthodox Christian parent called to pass on my convictions and exemplify a Trinitarian inspired love of God and my neighbors. It became obvious that I was failing, that I was flailing and drowning because I’d ceased depending on Christ and was now swimming upstream on my own. “We’re almost finished,” I assured them, “after this page we’ll take a break. I promise.” When they were quiet again, I continued, picking up near the end of the chapter with a testimony from a middle-aged man who had journeyed from Greece to Jerusalem to take part in the Paschal Divine Liturgy and receive for himself a small portion of the extraordinary and Spirit-filled fire spread from candle to candle among the faithful.
I went to church early, he explained, so I could get a good seat close to the tomb of Christ. As people began to arrive, the church was filled with thousands of people and I couldn’t breathe. I had to leave and went to the courtyard where I sat on a bench. When the light came and everybody was rejoicing, I cried, praying and saying, ‘O Lord, I traveled so far to see your Holy Light, and because of my sins and weakness I was unable to see it.’ Oh how I felt for that man! It was as if I were seated next to him, also looking back from a distance on the obedience and steadfastness of my spiritual brothers and sisters whom I’d unsuccessfully tried to emulate only to be left feeling isolated by and quite ashamed of my limitations. We were together there, on the bench outside the church, asking God for mercy and coming to terms with our own inadequacies. As I was praying, he continued (and I continued, vicariously through him), I held my thirty-three candles with both hands on my knees. Suddenly, out of nowhere, came a flicker of light like a small lightening bolt and lit my candles. My eyes were filled with tears, and my heart with great joy. My joy was so great that I stood up and shouted as loud as I could with the others, ‘I have seen your Holy Light, O Lord, Glory be to You!!!”
Although nothing changed outwardly; although my life was no less stressful; although we had not one more penny in the bank or one less bill to pay; although my kids were still feisty and my house still a wreck, I took comfort, an enormous amount of comfort in being treasured undeservedly by a God who is bigger and so much brighter than my own day-to-day trials and let downs. “I can’t do this!” I cried, and He blessed my newfound wisdom not with material prosperity or by releasing me from my obligations and the weight of my uncertainties, but rather by revealing to me that He is more than enough. I carry this hope like a divinely lit candle and the closer I remain to the Source of that illumination, the less I stumble around in confusion, tripping over the same old hindrances to my peace of mind.
What good are my words if my heart isn’t in them? How can I speak to my family about serenity and meekness and forgiveness, about the completeness of a life lived for Christ, while still enslaved to my fears and aggravations? What greater gift can I give to my children and husband, to you, or to myself than moving nearer, and nearer still, towards God through prayer, almsgiving, and the sacraments of His Church? What else, I daresay, even matters?
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