When he walked through our Church’s entrance, I gripped my kids a little tighter. Glen did not hang back like the others, waiting for the liturgy’s conclusion to ask for a dollar, a bus pass, or the canned food and bottled water kept next door for distributing to those in need. “Again?” I thought, cringing, as he made a beeline toward the front and center of the sanctuary, hoarsely whispering random greetings along the way.
Not intimidated by the length or sobriety of the service, Glen cannon balled into an unknown experience while the rest of us stared on dumbfounded, waiting for somebody, anybody, to blow the whistle. Wandering into the choir, he sang boldly his own renditions of “Holy God” and the “Cherubic Hymn”. From there he would make the rounds, kissing saints like long lost companions before moving back to his front row vantage point where he would plant his feet and raise his eyes toward heaven.
It was right in the middle of Lent, those weeks with Glen, right when I needed to be concentrating most on my penitence. The pre-sanctified Liturgies on Friday evenings have always been a particular favorite of mine. “Let my prayer arise,” we sing on bended knee, “in Thy sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” Of the handful of people in attendance, Glen would inevitably be one, always disheveled with the lingering odor of stale alcohol following close behind. We gasped as he fumbled up the stairs to venerate Christ and the Theotokos, whose icon stared down at us austerely from altar doors.
My heart raced with the inappropriateness of everything Glen said, did, and did not do. When the rest of us knelt, he sprawled out flat, face down, like a bear skin rug. It didn’t seem fair that he could waltz in and ruin this for me, who had followed the Church’s guidelines with dedication. His tears and undecipherable mumblings were distracting me from mourning my sins and from reveling in the pleasantness of God’s soothing grace.
It took awhile for me to actually notice he was gone. After four consecutive weeks of Glenn-free Sundays, however, we began to theorize on his absence. But having no address or phone number to work with, we were stuck with those theories instead of answers. It did seem puzzling, why he would come so regularly and so passionately, and then just disappear. I prayed for Glen and let it go. He became legendary to us who remembered him, and fodder for many an amusing anecdote.
Truth be told, I was thankful for Glen’s absence. I could breath again in Church, not having to fret over his unpredictable responses to the hymns, litanies, and Scripture readings. I felt relief at getting back to our uninterrupted and orderly worship - much like Simon the Pharisee must have felt when that filthy harlot finally packed up her empty perfume bottle, peeled her grimy fingers off his houseguest, and meandered out his door and into the street.
“So how do you go about teaching your children to be compassionate?” asked an attendee of a lecture I was giving on being Orthodox in a non-Orthodox society.
At the time I answered, “Just by talking about it, consistently, by stressing that in our home, guests are to be treated with respect.”
But now I’m wondering if maybe I’m not doing enough. I’ve been concerned since then that my kids might be hearing more from me about our commitment to practicing nondiscriminatory benevolence than they are witnessing firsthand by way of example. We’ve made room in our lives for friends, for the Church, for our relatives. We’ve felt the warmth of our efforts being appreciated and reciprocated. It’s been awhile, however, since I’ve extended myself to someone outside of my familiar bubble.
It’s still a challenge for me to accept that sacrificial love must include an element of discomfort for it to be genuine and, most importantly, Christ like. I used to feel it was my obligation, as a Christian, to temper my good will with moral judgments on what I considered to be appropriate and inappropriate behavior. I justified, in the back of my mind, withholding empathy, companionship and financial resources from those whose life choices I deemed questionable, offensive or destructive lest my acts of service be misconstrued as “acceptance” of certain unrighteous vices or habits. There was this line separating “Christian” from clearly “non-Christian” I dared not cross. Getting my hands messy in the mire of others’ complicated burdens seemed awfully dangerous.
My conversion to Orthodoxy, however, has introduced me to a whole new level of discipleship through the lives of the saints who play a prominent role in the Church’s history and teachings. Their “all or nothing” approach to faith and self-denial has slowly simplified for me what once seemed riddled with complexities. What exact percentage of my total time and patience should I offer (no questions asked – think, Good Samaritan) to a struggling neighbor – an acquaintance crippled by sin, just as I have been crippled by sin and am in need of mercy?
Well, let’s see… have I yet laid aside royalty for poverty? Has my unconditional love landed me in prison, in a concentration camp? Have I faced death for the sake another? Have I gone without anything I’ve wanted, have I been rejected, have I smiled and made eye contact inviting a conversation to take place or a relationship to form that might possibly delay my dinner plans or infringe upon my revered coziness? H—m-m, it appears as if I am certainly in no danger of “over doing” it and, in fact, I’ve been lax in stretching myself for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven . How do I raise compassionate children? I must first begin by praying for the strength to demolish my own protective boundaries that keep me “safe” from what is troublesome and demanding.
He who gives alms in imitation of God does not discriminate between the wicked and the virtuous, the just and the unjust, when providing for men’s bodily need, wrote St. Maximos the Confessor (First Century on Love no. 24). There is your brother naked and crying! said St. Gregory of Nyssa, and you stand confused over your choice of floor covering.”
I don’t doubt that God will provide for me opportunities to feed the hungry, to nourish the physically, emotionally and spiritually famished. It’s not a question of where or when but rather, how will I overcome these damning prejudices and assumptions in order to embrace with all my heart and soul Christ’s commandment to love my neighbor as myself? Oh boy, I am trembling in anticipation of the answer I know is coming (“Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them,” Mark 11:24). Just by voicing and acknowledging these faulty thought patterns, this stubborn mindset that is holding me back, I’ve already begun down a path, a salvific and arduous and joyous path fraught with wisdom-garnering trials and surprises.
If God so loves the world, every single person in it, than I must also. If the Scriptures tell us, Judge not, that you be not judged (Matthew 7:1), I’d best make entreating the Lord for self-control and humility a top priority. If Christ cares so deeply for the broken hearted than by all means I should be weeping with those who weep and seizing hope, irrational hope, in even the direst of circumstances.
Haven’t I, too, experienced the despair of being enslaved to my egotistical whims and lust for pleasure? Am I not just as pathetic, if not more so, for having deemed myself, me a fumbling, forgetful, fair weather follower of Christ, an adjudicator qualified to summarize the motives and intentions of my peers? Would it be better at the Great and Final Judgment to have my lifetime’s worth of choices reveal that I was overly cautious or fearlessly bold when it came to tending to the wounds of those I pass who have been beaten, who are bruised and lying helpless by the side of the road? Letting go of restraint is, in this case, better.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” promised Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are they who have lived through the horrors of their own bad decisions and carry the consequences of their transgressions like a ball and chain. Blessed are they who throw off all inhibitions, forging bloodstained through the crowd, for the unbiased hem of Christ’s garment. Blessed are we reeking of liquor, ravaged of purity, and steeped in the shame of spiritual arrogance, but who weep bitter tears of regret. For we shall indeed be comforted by Him in whose image every one of us was created.
This essay was featured in the Summer, 2009 issue of The Handmaiden.