by Mother Raphaela Wilkinson
photo: Mother Katherine of the Holy Myrrhbearers’ Monastery with her team of oxen used in plowing the fields. Photo by Joshua Coolman
It is possible to be a member of the Orthodox Church, graduate from a seminary, perhaps even be a member of the clergy or other full-time Church professional, and not believe in God or in His providence. I would like to tackle this reality.
I suggest that there is a God; that He is everything He is cracked up to be by all the theology that is taught in our seminaries and preached in our churches; that whether or not we see Him working in history in the same way that the Biblical writers have seen Him work, He is the living, active and personal Source of all that has being. And that being includes us at this very moment as we sit and read, listen or dream or have a cell phone pressed to our ear.
If this is true, then it follows that a vital relationship with Him is probably a good idea.
I know that there are all sorts of approaches to liturgy, to worship and to prayer. What I have learned, sadly, over the years however, is that many people use liturgy, prayers, prayer books, prayer ropes, all sorts of paraphernalia that have come to be associated with various forms of religious expression, for many reasons other than forming a relationship with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have learned that I can take nothing for granted in this department.
Now I add a side note, quoting a conversation I have had with priests multiple times over during the thirty-plus years that I have been an Orthodox nun.
“Mother, why are the American monasteries, why is your monastery, so small?”
“Father, who in your parish is being prepared for this life?”
It is not that I want the Church to hire someone to design posters advertising monastic vocations to place on parish bulletin boards, though I wouldn’t object to adding a line or two to one of the litanies praying not only for our “brotherhood in Christ” but for male and female monastic communities around the world.
But I suggest rather that healthy monastic life is a result of the “bene esse” the well-being of the Church. When monastic life is flourishing, it is because the Church is healthy. Small and beleaguered monasteries; monastics struggling with the wrong things, are a sign that something is wrong with our Church environment as surely as frogs showing bizarre mutations, strange diseases and simple disappearance from our landscape show that the world’s environment is poisoned.
There have been and are cultures where as young people seek to discern God’s will for their lives, monasticism is considered one healthy choice among others. But we have a culture, even a “Church” culture, where the phrase “as God wills” signifies a negative, fatalistic approach to life, and who in their right mind would try to find that for any future?
I have learned to use this phrase from my Arab Palestinian friends, most of whom are Christian. Nevertheless, influenced by the Moslem culture around them, some seem unaware of St. Paul’s words: “Work out your own salvation, knowing that God is working within you.”
Two persons are operative here: God Who is creating reality, allowing universes, galaxies, solar systems, black holes, and our planet to exist, allowing us our brief time on this strange planet Earth � and I whom God is allowing to be writing these words � and allowing you to be reading them at this present moment: allowing us simply to be.� In the place beyond space and the time beyond time where God exists, you and I each have an eternity to stand face to face with Him and in a personal relationship, grow eternally with Him into our personal reality.
It has been the teaching of our Church down the millennia that how we use this small portion of created time and space we call our life matters incredibly. Perhaps if we are angels, principalities, powers, it is different, for already they traverse the created universe in ways that we cannot imagine. We are human beings, and precisely because we are human beings, we are made in the image and likeness of God in the way no other creatures have been.
For this reason that you and I have been created as human beings we are persons. And if in some way each of us identifies with the definition of an Orthodox Christian person, we cannot see our God simply as the New Age “Force” behind creation, but as the three Persons in Whose Image we are formed. Moreover, since Jesus walked this earth, we see the second Person of the Trinity as a very human Person, both God and Man.
One of St. John’s Epistles tells us that if we are Christians, we will walk as He walked. Many of us Orthodox Christians cringe at the idea of wearing bracelets with the letters: WWJD (“What Would Jesus Do”) now being worn by many Protestants. But why do we cringe at this? A very Orthodox writer of Scripture said, “Walk as He walked.” Yet perhaps there is something to cringe at: Whether we like it or not, we are in the hands of the Living God and that is a fearful thing. However much we need to get to know God through the Man Jesus Christ, Jesus is not our pal. He is our true Friend, and that is a very different matter.
As Orthodox Christians, we are to learn to find our heart, the center of our being, if you will, our nous. We are to explore our relationship with our God more seriously than we could or might explore any other relationship in our lives, whether that be as lover, friend or co-worker. We do not dismiss the inclusion by the old rabbis of The Song of Songs in the Bible. Each of us sees God as our Lover or Spouse otherwise our relationships with any other lover or spouse will be idolatry.
What does this mean? It does not mean neglecting our spouse, our sisters and brothers, our children, our friends and co-workers or the rest of our lives so that we may think about God or say prayers all the time. It certainly does not mean having a warm fuzzy feeling or even a theological understanding that God is here all the time. None of these are at the basis of prayer without ceasing, a healthy monastic vocation, nor the vocation of any Christian, lay or clergy, all called to be the holy priesthood of our God in this world.
We all know that lovers seek physical closeness and awareness, “quality time” in appropriate places, private exploration and discovery. But we also know that something is wrong with a relationship if one cannot let one’s lover out of one’s sight. I am rather to allow those times and places of physical closeness and awareness to change me.
Those of you who are happily married know that your relationship gives you the support you need to go out into the world each day and do your very best at whatever you are doing. You cannot be thinking about your spouse every moment. You must be putting your thoughts and efforts into your studies, your job, your children, your clients, or whatever else. Your relationship stabilizes you it does not define you. Rather you and your spouse support one another in growing into whomever and whatever God in His infinite wisdom calls you to be.
Our relationship with God alone defines us. If we are Orthodox Christians, we acknowledge our God as the most important Person in our lives.
This is where I think many Orthodox Christians are functionally atheists, or at best New-Agers. Do we treat God with a rudeness that allows us to wake up, hear the radio music, smell the coffee and check our e-mails before, if we happen to be in a pious mood, we nod in His direction? Far too often we act as if God is not there, or is not there as a Person, the One Who is everywhere and fills all things. When we can go whole days not speaking to Him, to someone we know is in the same house with us, we know that relationship is in trouble.
We are called to be changed by God’s reality. We are called to use liturgy and personal prayer in all their forms as lovers do with their beloved, to deepen and form a relationship that allows us to be our true selves even, or especially, when we are not in the felt, physical presence of the beloved.
This is as God wills. This is who we are when we face the terrifying reality of God who says to us: “I have called you friends.” To be a friend is to have infinite responsibility placed on one’s shoulders. To be a friend is to become a co-worker, treating each person including oneself with the infinite respect one gives the children of valued friends and co-workers.
To be a friend is to acknowledge our Friend, our co-worker, even when we may feel He has abandoned us, as Jesus was abandoned on the Cross. This should not surprise us. “If anyone would be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta walked where many friends of Christ have walked, allowing her life to be formed by the reality she had experienced as a young lover of God, even when it seemed He had abandoned her.
We are made in the image and likeness of a God Who is the great story-teller. How we each will live out our lives, our existence as created beings, will depend upon the stories we tell ourselves and others. If we think we are not telling stories, we tell a story about ourselves.
There are the basic negative stories we tell ourselves: “I can’t do it.” “I don’t feel well.” “I’m sick.” “It’s too hard for me.” “It’s their fault.” “I can’t help it.” If we tell ourselves these little stories over and over, day after day, they will indeed become our story. And there are other stories: “I can do anything I want to do.” “I can have anything I want.” “I can use anyone I want to use.”
All these stories have one thing in common: they are based in our human reality apart from God. To begin to live as God wills, we must place ourselves within God’s reality. We must repeat to ourselves until we literally get by heart the Gospel story, the story of good news for the poor, healing for the sick, eyes for the blind, life for the lifeless, hope for the hopeless and we must place ourselves within that story. We must play out daily the actions and words before us, again and again bringing ourselves and those around us back before the possibility of God, whose will is true, alive and active. Placing ourselves within His will does not limit us; rather by opening the door to humility, it allows us to accept our true God-given limitations and thus to grow into our honest God-given potential.
Much of our responsibility as adults, as parents or teachers, parish priests, healers and care-givers, office-workers and professionals, builders, artists, lies in our God-given ability to tell and interpret the story of those around us.
If one day follows another with boring regularity and increasing vulnerability to economic downturns, do we understand how each day He sustains us? Gives us our daily bread? Do we accept His blessing for the poor in spirit and, with St. Paul, learn to rejoice in the story of our poverty as well as we did in our wealth?
Has our parish church burned down? How we interpret that disaster to our people, to our bishop, will create the future, or the demise, of our congregation. Has a friend won the lottery? Can we help him or her stay grounded with a story that has a future with family and friends? Has a family been visited with a disastrous death or long-term illness? How do we help that family with their story? Will we feed them platitudes? Will we know rather when to stand back and support them as they live their own story through such times.
I share here what I find personally useful so that I can live in the present moment, remembering the past and looking towards the future.
Our own predisposition colors how we view past, present or future. When I find myself looking at people and past or present situations, seeing everyone and everything in a cold clear light, my voice laying bare the evil, the limitations, the sin, the ugliness, the falsity, the wrongness around me with mocking accuracy, then I am seeing with demonic eyes and telling the story that the devil has told since before the beginning of the world a devastating vision of condemnation. (Then of course there is another variation: to see myself and my present friends with great love and deep understanding. Here we are the wave of the future and I see that all the past individuals and institutions who created the mess we are in were poor helpless idiots whose ideas and designs must be overturned and thwarted if we are to get God’s will done on earth.)
The Book of Job is our guide here. It is the devil’s role to be the accuser of our brethren. Every one of us, whatever our position in or relationship to the Church, needs to be very careful not to be the ones who do his work for him. We are called to see Christ within one another; we are called to create Paradise for ourselves and others even when we find ourselves in the midst of the worst hell of a concentration camp, a gulag, a parish, our family, work, school, any situation.
As our stories are true, we will come to see that they come together as His story. May we want, may we love both the story of our own lives and of His reality. May we find ourselves and one another, every one of us, rejoicing as it is written, seated together in eternity as the spouse, the Bride of Christ, at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
This is indeed as God wills.
Mother Raphaela Wilkinson is abbess of the Holy Myrrhbearers’ Monastery in Otego, NY. She is the author of Living in Christ and Growing in Christ: Shaped in His Image, both from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. She is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Her text is a shortened version of the commencement address she gave in May at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York.
Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53