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by Archpriest Lawrence Margitich
Today there are many excellent “introduction to Orthodoxy” books available for the inquirer and the catechumen—books on the Faith, and those which narrate the long journey to the Faith. Such writings have proven to be very helpful to those seeking the “pearl of great price.” There are also many books and essays, both ancient and recent, that teach the newly-illumined how to live, worship, pray, read the Holy Scriptures, and love God above all things. However, there are few modern books, and this thankfully is one of them, that tell of the potential struggles, misunderstandings, temptations, and fears which a person might encounter in his or her first five years of being in the Church.
Of course, the Holy Fathers were not silent on these pitfalls, even if too many modern authors have been. A book about the pitfalls is essentially about repentance: repentance as the beginning, the middle, and the repentance as a way of life: repentance not limited to those dramatic and soul-stirring moments when someone meets Jesus Christ for the first time. While a new Christian turns aside from “all malice and all guile, and hypocrisy and envy and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, [to] desire the sincere milk of the Word…” (1 Peter 2:1) no Christian desirous of maturity can stop there.
Meeting Christ at first enlightens the darkness, and reveals that which is hidden in the heart, the soul, the conscience and the mind of a person; this can bring the sinner to his knees in sorrow at the wounds that have been inflicted on others and on himself. But that initial meeting and change of life is again only the initial stage of repentance. Metropolitan Kallistos, in describing repentance in his essay The Orthodox Experience of Repentance, quotes St. Theophan the Recluse: “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.”
How very useful, then, is Veronica Hughes’s book which describes how she learned what is truly involved in repentance, a purifying path where one will frequently encounter at least three hurdles: uncertainty, sorrow and even suffering. First uncertainty inevitably arises from the struggle to place one’s trust fully in Jesus Christ. Veronica’s book recounts many significant hurdles faced by the modern man and woman coming to an unalloyed faith.
Secondly, one learns about how the sorrow from sin—arising from a shattered false image of oneself—can be transformed into joy by the grace of God. St. John of the Ladder famously describes repentance as having a ‘joy-producing sorrow.’ Veronica likewise recounts how painful it was to see that she had embraced a false self-image, but how joyful and life-changing it was to know that God’s infinite love was yet embracing her.
Thirdly, suffering in repentance may be, and often is, sent by God; it can, in the end, be offered to the Lord. Even self-inflicted suffering (which is not infrequent in any Christian life), can become a field unexpectedly rich with blessings. When suffering is spiritually perceived as a gift from God and offered back to God—and this is very hard at first, as Veronica so eloquently describes it—it has the power to bring one to purity of heart. One then amplifies what St. Paul writes: “my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Veronica also details her struggle with her own illnesses and that of caring for her parents as the very “narrow path” to trust in God. These were crosses sent by the Lord. Most of us run from our crosses and infirmities rather briskly, until we find what it means that God’s grace is sufficient for us; our Lord waits for us to learn how to rejoice even in our “infirmities, reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Only then are we able to make the beautiful and challenging (perhaps frightening?) affirmation: “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Veronica’s story recounts how her physical disabilities and suffering brought her out of her deep initial involvement with new age spirituality. The attentive reader will see how easily one can be caught up by the spirit of the age and be deluded about who God is, and this delusion leads one to a false and fatal understanding about human nature and destiny. Yet the ancient, holy, diagnosis applies: we are invited to put off the “old nature which belongs to [our] former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts” (Eph. 4:22) and be “renewed in the spirit of [our] minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). The Holy Spirit renews our identity and prepares it for Paradise, beyond anything we can imagine.
Learning to trust in Jesus Christ rather than in one’s own understanding, comes from knowing Him, loving Him, and keeping His commandments. He leads us little by little to accept what we affirm in the Holy Creed, to: “…believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church…” as Christ’s body, in which we find the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Sometimes, a person must endure much pain and confusion to be free of this world.
In addition to these fundamental aspects of how God guides our repentance, Veronica also describes another aspect of Church life that challenges the no-longer-neophyte Orthodox man or woman today. Orthodox worship can be so beautiful and heavenly, but to the modern person who desires to know what is happening and what it means, it can be initially very confusing. Learning how to be in the presence of God—without having to figure it all out—is not easy. Veronica’s remarks are wise and helpful in this area.
All the while, the author’s spiritual journey was guided and aided by her pastor and the congregation of her parish, as well as the good advice of her husband. Not all people are so blessed to find such wholesome and loving guidance. Veronica had her own particular struggles—others will have a different path; that path may be no less thorny, but may it be filled with wonder and gratitude for the presence of God—Who sends His grace so abundantly to those who love Him. “In patience possess ye your souls.” (Luke 21:19)
Archpriest Lawrence Margitich
December 7, 2016
Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan