Close to Home:
What’s fun for Mary, is abhorrent to her siblings. Several times a day I call out like the Little Red Hen, Who will help me sweep the floors, fold the clothes, stir the batter?
Not I, says Elijah.
Not I, says Priscilla
Not I, says Benjamin, I’m much too busy.
But my youngest, Miss “I will” Mary, still oddly fascinated by mops, bed making and lint traps, answers back almost every time in the affirmative. Soon enough, however, judging by my family’s track record, she will also bend over backwards to avoid anything chore related. Familiarity can all too efficiently suck the marrow out of intrigue, leaving what once was full of novelty as flat and dull as a week old birthday balloon drained of helium.
Admittedly, I’ve been active myself lately, evading work that when ignored gnaws steadily, tortuously, at my thoughts and emotions. The fact that I have the luxury to withdrawal at will from the gravity of life and death contemplations reveals a lot about the odds stacked deep and wide against me, against anyone pursuing belief alongside freedom and material prosperity.
Ten years ago, I was enamored with faith, The Faith - with access, through the sacraments, to Christ and His Kingdom previously unknown to me. A decade ago, I viewed asceticism, in the form of prayer, confession, Eucharist and fasting, as a luminous privilege. I felt what I should have at that early stage of my conversion, a pleasant buzz confirming the nearness of God and His saints. Who will deny himself, pick up his cross and follow me? asked Jesus.
I will! I answered eagerly, and I meant it.
I meant it also when, at the age of twenty-two, I told my future husband, Troy, that, Yes! Of course! I’d like nothing more in this world than to grow old with him! I meant it two years later when, while cradling my suckling newborn, I declared emphatically that I was thrilled beyond words about becoming a mother. Infatuation, warmth electrified, is the sugary candy coating disguising, initially, the necessary bitterness within our soul healing medicine. Easy is pleasurable but also shallow, static and stupefying. Untested love is whitewashed lust demanding, Please me! Fulfill me! Make me Happy!
I’ve grown accustomed to the smell of incense and the lilting sound of prayers, Scripture, and hymns being chanted. What was exotic, impossibly foreign, now seems like home. I’ve settled reflexively into the rhythm of fasts and feasts, Vespers and Liturgy, inspired to keep at it out of a fervent desire for Christ one minute and plain old habit the next. True conviction needs neither euphoria nor pangs of tingling adoration to be authentic.
What it does require, however, is my consistent participation in tangible rituals intended by a most merciful God to override our fluctuating passion for the Gospel message. By becoming integrated, through communal worship and a shared partaking of the Holy Mysteries, into the larger Body of Christ, I am often times called upon to carry on my shoulders those who are struggling, and just as often to accept my need to be carried, when I, myself, am dry as bone and have nothing to give.
In her captivating biography of Princess Ileana of Romania (later to be known as Mother Alexandra) entitled, Royal Monastic, the author, Bev Cooke, describes a moment when Ileana, exhausted from a lifetime of enduring one excruciating tragedy after the next, comes to terms with her powerlessness to evoke within her heart any tenderness at all for the faith of her youth. I’d like to share with you below that extraordinary passage:
Ileana stands in her icon corner, eyes fixed on the mother of God, who holds the somber faced infant on her knee. She begins the prayers. “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages, amen. O Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. O Lord, have mercy on me…”
The words continue, but they’re just words. They come from her mind, out of her mouth, empty of the love, the dedication, the joy she’d always felt when praying before. Once the formal prayers are said, she stands, unable to open her heart as she has in the past and pour out her feelings and thoughts. There are no words to express what she feels, for most of the time she feels nothing at all. All is dead inside.
She considers the emptiness and tests it again. What if her children were taken from her? She shrugs. It would be awful, and she would miss them, their voices, their hugs, their laughter and tears, but she can summon none of the sorrow, the panic, and the devastation such thoughts caused even as little as two years ago.
She should finish and leave – there’s so much to be done, but something holds her in place, and she shifts her gaze to the icon of the Lord Himself – His eyes as compassionate and sorrowful as always.
As she stands, she feels a pressure around here – not physical, exactly, but what it is she cannot say. It holds her gently in place, saying the things she cannot say for herself.
As she gazes at the icon of the Lord, she realizes that this is the Church – the prayers of the faithful, of the monastics who stand for hours and days before their icons. They are saying for her the words she cannot think, expressing the feelings she cannot feel, keeping her standing, her heart open, empty and waiting. She nods, not content, exactly, and not feeling anything more than she has since the night her family left Romania, but not yet ready to leave the corner and God’s and the Church’s embrace. If she cannot pray, then she will let the Church pray for her, until the words come back.
When I am discouraged, or restless, or excited, or…let’s just face it, it is always very tempting to disengage myself from that arduous struggle to choose salvation over self-appeasement or self-pity. The longer I hem and haw, weigh the pros and cons of pausing today to exert myself by attending a Church service (or cracking open my prayer book, or checking in on the acquaintance I know is hurting), versus tomorrow, when its more convenient, the more in danger I become of albeit unintentionally still ostracizing myself from the only Source on earth able to rescue me from death, disillusionment, and despair.
God’s grace cannot be earned but it can, and certainly should, be extolled and never squandered. Out of love, tested love, unconditional love immune to whims and changing moods, I imperfectly offer my labor as a sacrifice of praise. I must work to become like Christ, which sounds so daunting and sometimes more than I think I can bear, but through that work, we are bound together for eternity.
Who will help me develop patience, serve my neighbor and desire meekness over honor and recognition?
My friends, my brothers and sisters, by striving for such things yourselves, you already have.