When my mind isn’t completely absorbed with menial tasks or secular creative pursuits, when I stop, not often enough, to think about spiritual things, when I find the courage to be alone with my thoughts, to be honest about my doubts and fears, this nagging voice from somewhere deep inside often whispers and sometimes shouts: do you really love God?
Which pre-supposes that I really believe in God, as I say that I do. But does my life reflect this belief? It certainly doesn’t affirm a love for God, and only rarely a fear. St. Anthony the Great said, “I no longer fear God; I love Him.” I’m no saint. But I knew someone who loved God, and today she is on my heart.
This morning I was reading the Psalms with my morning prayers, nearing the end of the 40 days of prayer following the death of Esther Elliott Longa. Reading the Psalms always helps me with my doubts about God. In the back of my copy of The Psalter According to the Seventy, I have written the names and dates of loved ones who have died, and I often read back over those names and remember each of them when I’m reading the Psalter and praying for a newly departed friend. I also have a few copies of memorial brochures from funerals, including one for my dear friend and “unofficial yia-yia, Urania Alissandratos, I remember writing the text for that brochure, and including the following quote:
“He who loves God both believes truly and performs the works of faith reverently. But he who only believes and does not love lacks even the faith he thinks he has; for he believes merely with a certain superficiality of intellect and is not energized by the full force of love’s glory. The chief part of virtue, then, is faith, energized by love.”—Saint Diadochos of Photiki
And then I wrote the words, “Urania loved God.”
How do we know she loved God? Everyone who knew her saw His love in her life, in her vitality, even as she lived with cancer into her 80s. And not only in her faithfulness to the Church and its services, to the Orthodox aesthetic traditions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but also in her everyday actions. She would say the Jesus Prayer as she went in for a medical procedure. She spoke of God as though He were right there with her at all times, which He was, which He is.
This reminded me of Father John Troy’s homily on May 8, the patronal feast day of our parish, and his name saint, John the Theologian and Evangelist. Father John talked about a trip he took to Russia a number of years ago, and especially to the monastery where Saint Seraphim of Sarov had lived. He said the nuns there spoke of “Father Seraphim” in the present tense—as though he was still there with them—and he was. He is. Shortage of food? Just ask Father Seraphim. Personal problems? Just talk with Father Seraphim.
And then Father John made the comparison to our own patron, the Holy Apostle John, and what our relationship with him should be like. Do we live our lives as though he were here with us? In times of suffering, of need, of crises, do we turn—as naturally as the nuns at Diveyevo Convent did with Saint Seraphim—to Saint John for help? To the one who leaned on Jesus’ breast? The one known as “the beloved”? The one whose best advice was always, “Little children, love one another”?
If we believe the truths of the Church about eternal life (and really, why are we going through the motions if we don’t?) and the communion of the saints, why don’t we have a vibrant relationship with the saints for whom we name our churches, our children, ourselves. How often during the day, the week, the year, our entire life, do we actually talk with our patron saints? Our guardian angels? Oh, there are set prayers to each of these that pious Christians might pray with their daily prayers (and I do this very haphazardly, I confess) but in the midst of a battle with depression, a temptation to eat or drink too much, a sadness over a friend or family member’s misfortune, physical pain or illness, how often do I say, “Holy Mother Mary (of Egypt, my patron), help me” or “help my friend” or “help my marriage” or “Holy Saint John help our Church” or “give wisdom to our pastor, your spiritual son and namesake”? And in times of relative peace and happiness, how often do we say, “thank you for being with us, for this beautiful day, for my safe travels (which I actually thought to say yesterday, returning from a road trip), for my children’s good health, for the repair of the broken computer, for the recovery of the lost item”?
All this to say that if we are going to take our religion seriously (and if not, why bother?) it seems we must pursue these relationships with the most important people in our spiritual world—the saints. And of course the natural “next step” would be to have that ongoing conversation and relationship with the Mother of God. And with God, Himself.
As I enter into the writing of a novel—and one which includes much about the life of my patron saint—I hope I will not attempt this work without continually asking for her help. And I hope that in the process I will get to know her better, so that some day, when I meet her in Heaven, she will not seem like a stranger to me, but a friend and companion from my everyday life on earth. And also so that my writing will be true, and possibly even beautiful.
Holy Mother Mary, help me to love God as you do. Help me in my work, in my writing, in my marriage, in my family relationships, in my friendships, in my struggle with food and drink and all things earthly that weigh me down. You know I do not have faith. I do not love God. Sometimes I don’t even believe in Him. Help my unbelief, and beseech God to give me faith, energized by love.