Back in my Bible college days it wasn’t unusual to, while grabbing a third helping of Apple Jacks from the student cafeteria cereal bar, be confronted out of nowhere by classmates and professors with invasive inquiries such as, “So, how is your walk?” Meaning my Christian walk. How was I doing in terms of growing and maturing spiritually? One hundred percent of the time my answer was, “Fine.” Never mind that I’d all but stopped attending church and had taken to sleeping in on Saturday mornings instead of participating in the women’s Bible study being held in the common area of our dorm floor.
With but a grin and a nod and maybe a, “Praise the Lord,” thrown in for good measure, I could avoid the discomfort of being prayed over right there on the spot and keep my lack of joy, and disillusionment, to my own burnt-out self. I was having what you might call a “crisis of faith” – a condition not all that uncommon among twenty-something, life-long believers. I was annoyed by the cliché-ness – the “Got Jesus?” t-shirts, the “What would Jesus do?” bracelets, key chains, breath mints, white-faced mimes reenacting Christ’s Passion (silently, of course) on the streets of Chicago.
Secretly, I’d already begun the literally scary as hell process of inwardly distancing myself from not necessarily my childhood convictions but rather an expression of those convictions I was becoming increasingly less and less devoted to. And yet that evangelical sub-culture was all I’d ever known, the only language I spoke, my only means, I assumed, for gaining access to God. I couldn’t bear to reveal publicly the gnawing misgivings I felt for sure would be read as a sign of my capriciousness, as dangerous, and worst of all as a betrayal of those I cared for and respected. “Hey, I’m struggling here!” I thought near constantly beginning in the spring of 1996. But you wouldn’t have known it by looking at me or conversing with me because I (and I hardly think I’m alone in this) would bend over backwards for the approval and admiration of my peers, which in that particular context was easily garnered with a few strategically placed references to God’s omnipotence, grace and awesomeness.
Fast-forward thirteen years, through thirteen years of significant transitions. I am married now and wearing a tri-bar cross around my neck (representative of my commitment to the Orthodox Christian Faith I have converted to). I drive a mini-van. That’s right, I’m a mom. I am Orthodox. I am immensely grateful for these developments in my life, but still get so utterly flustered sometimes when it comes to those inevitable periods of despondency and insecurity within motherhood and faith that seem always to precede both humility and enlightenment. With each new stage and trial I tend to panic, failing to pace myself one inch by prayerful inch at a time (Learning curve, schmearning curve - I can and will overcome and master all of it instantaneously!). Instead of factoring in my uniqueness – unique temperament, vulnerabilities, circumstances and background, when working out with fear and trembling my salvation, I chase vigorously after a one-size fits-all ideal, pieced together by yours truly from a smorgasbord of characteristics I’ve observed in others, representing to me what defines a “good” mother, a “good” Orthodox Christian.
It can be lonely, I tell you, and embarrassing to struggle. Behind closed doors, I agonize over a rebellious son or daughter, my doubts increase in strength and number and overtake me, I give in, once again, to the same old tired temptations. Being imperfect, having children who are imperfect, makes me (I hate to admit it) feel ashamed. And then there is the added burden of trying to maintain a reputation I have fostered with such care and diligence. I forget too easily that all of those moments in which I find myself way in over my head are imperative for becoming more and more dependent on Christ’s direction and mercy.
But what will my neighbors, my co-workers, my fellow parishioners think if word gets out that I screw up, like all the time? Even worse, how do I go on if the intensely personal cross I am asked to carry is misinterpreted, generating negative assumptions about my degree of piety, my mothering know–how or my intentions? Could it be, I’ve been asking myself lately, that the forfeiting of my pride – the pride that flares up like a flame burning my insides every time I say something stupid, every time I fail to control one of my children’s outbursts, every time my beliefs, as an Orthodox Christian, are scorned – is the key to my freedom? How much more of a blessing I could be to those around me if, instead of being so tethered to my self-esteem, I just put myself out there, as is (un-glossified, un-airbrushed) – as a walking, talking, breathing manifestation of God’s continuous compassion. Because those most acutely aware of how many, many times they’ve been forgiven, are far more apt to forgive and really love, themselves, without judgment or stipulations.
The opinions of others about us, wrote Father Alexander Elchaninov, - this is the mirror before which we all, almost without exception, pose. A man moulds himself in order to be such as he wishes to appear to others. But the real man, as he is actually is, remains unknown to all, often himself included, while what acts and lives is a figure invented and dressed up by his own imagination. This tendency to deceive is so great that, distorting his very nature, a man will sacrifice his own self – the unique and inimitable element present in every human personality.
But how great is the attraction we feel whenever we meet a person free of this cancer, and how much we love the complete simplicity and directness of children, who have not yet entered into the realm of self-consciousness! Yet we have the alternative of struggling consciously to return from this evil complexity to simplicity. In any case, when we become aware of the presence of this evil in us, the task is already half accomplished.
Complexity versus simplicity. Self-protection, self-promoting, self-assurance, self-loathing, self-justification, blah, blah, blah (whew! How exhausting!) versus fruit- bearing, peace-rendering, soul-healing self-denial. If there is one thing we all share, it is our longing to be understood. That woman in your parish with the crying baby on her hip receiving annoyed glances from those who prefer it quiet while worshiping, may very well be seconds away from tears and your warm smile and, “Boy have I been there too,” could make the difference between her staying and feeling welcome or leaving in despair. Your priest, who may be working a full-time job and raising a family, could surely benefit from, and become energized by, a little more appreciation and support from his flock. Think of how liberating it would be if instead of getting our feathers all ruffled by those who disagree with our positions, those who flaunt their accomplishments, those who belittle us, we prayed for Christ to correct our thoughts immediately, in the moment. Imagine if envy held no sway over our words or actions.
I am sorry, my brothers and sisters, if I ever been anything but forthright with you, if I have ever presumptuously summarized you, if I have ever purposefully painted an overly rosy, inauthentic picture of myself or my skills or my family and you experienced even a twinge of discouragement because of it. There is already too much heartache in this world, too much hatred, too much fighting against us in our quest to become more Christ-like. Distrusting the power of Jesus’ Resurrection by declaring our true selves, or anyone else, un-redeemable is tragically and unnecessarily crippling. We are all in this together, friends. Let us uplift one another, always.