Those who know me know I’m known to fall apart on the eve of a family vacation, and this year’s spring break trip was no different. Under normal circumstances, I get flustered by the logistics of suitcase stuffing, planning, and anticipating the possible pitfalls of an all day car ride; let’s see there’s motion sickness, boredom, sudden raging thirstiness and bickering to prepare for. Too many traveling supplies can be just as troublesome as not enough. Always, always, I’m tweaking and reconsidering that perfect packing balance.
So on top of the usual scurrying and mental check listing, I had moving on my mind. This is crunch time as far as relocating to our new residence is concerned. There was a part of me wishing we could reschedule our big Smoky Mountain adventure – just postpone it a little until after we were all settled into this next phase of our lives. Now wouldn’t that be pleasantly convenient? I mean if there were such a thing as being “all settled in” to a certain chapter or stage of our existence, that is. How quickly I forget that transition is my constant reality.
Last Saturday morning, I was still distracted by a head-full of “if-onlys” even as we locked up the house and headed south. We still need bedding, a shower curtain and a plan for the downstairs homework area off the kitchen, I was busy nagging myself for the thousandth time. And what color should we paint the bathroom and hallway? I pondered ad-nauseum all the way to Louisville, where we were stopping for the night to stay with dear friends. And despite my utter happiness at reuniting with those said friends, sharing wonderful meals and fellowshipping with them, I still couldn’t completely release the internal agitation keeping me focused on tomorrow. Despite deciding in advance to attend Liturgy at their parish for the Feast of Annunciation, I was struggling with a desire to forgo Church just this once and get our show back on the road already. Despite… despite… is the name of the game. There’s always something, it seems, standing between me and a contentment free of strings or stipulations.
Now, I don’t know about you, but this far into Lent is when I’ve usually become stripped enough of pride and will power to finally come face-to-face with my wholly unattractive limitations. Gone were my spiritual reserves that had carried me expectantly, gladly, through those first moments of the Fast. I was running on fumes – dangerously close to empty. Why put yourself through that? I’ve been asked in not so many words by others correct in their assertion that God’s love can not be earned via sacrificial works. Why set yourself up to fail by pursuing such lofty ascetical standards?
Initially, I’ll admit, I was driven by infatuation – an intense attraction to all that was unfamiliarly mystical about my new faith. I fasted just as much to distance myself from a non-liturgical past as to cement myself in the ancient, mysterious and sacramental Tradition of Orthodoxy, of which I longed to belong to completely. Over the next fourteen years, I’d learn eventually by doing that the lows born of committing for a season to the snuffing out of passions enslaving my soul to earthly cares are just as profound as the highs. Of course, I stumble. Of course, I fail repeatedly to pray, hold my tongue, eat simply, give freely. Of course, I fall short and have to repent over and over again of my addiction to serving myself before Christ or my neighbor.
Never before had I’d been so painfully aware of my unworthiness and thus my desperate dependence on Christ’s mercy, however, as when I started participating in Great Lent. And never before had His Resurrection flooded me so with such pure and lasting joy, hope and gratitude. How do I describe to someone, unless they’ve experienced it themselves, the illogical rightness and goodness found in a life-long striving for salvation, from self-centeredness and fear, as a community bolstered by the Eucharist, the unconditional Love of Christ Himself? Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it hurts, like exercise hurts even as it strengthens and tones and heals you. Yes, there is meaning and growth and freedom and, above all else, humility to be found in continuously wrestling with your own vices that Christ’s light might shine forth through you just a little brighter and less hindered every day.
So there I was at the gorgeous St Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church, preoccupied and tired, half-heartedly trying to reign in my thoughts that I might worship with my friends and family. Litanies were prayed, the Feast Day Troparian sung, the Gospel read, then Father Alexis stepped forward to deliver his homily. And you know what He talked about? Awareness. Staying aware of the presence of God. Close your eyes, he told us. Think about where you are. Breath in, breath out. Let go of your worries and distractions. We pursued silence as a congregation. Together, with faith and love, we drew near.
What a gift that was! What a gratuitous act of mercy to guide me, in spite of me, into stillness when I couldn’t manage it on my own. It is hardly a new concept to me, chasing after inner quiet, but one I need, need, need, to be reminded about practically every other second. It was a gift, in fact, that kept on giving throughout the next four days we spent in the Smokies, just being amidst breathtaking scenery. Think about where you are, BE where you are, was my mantra, while hiking, playing Taboo, catching up with cousins, uncles and aunts, sipping coffee on the porch. And now I’m home, where my schedule, like your schedule, is fast and furious – the scenery not nearly so picturesque. Now, I’m imploring God for the stamina to maintain my tunnel vision throughout vespers tonight, then Divine Liturgy tomorrow, and on through these last days of Lent.
Can you feel it? Those first tremors of Paschal excitement? Death will be trampled! Life bestowed! Christ will Rise! Christ has Risen!