As I mentioned on Friday, I'm writing today about the Winter Retreat I went to this weekend at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Birmingham, Alabama for their Winter Retreat featuring Father Thomas Hopko Father Hopko spoke on “Vices and Virtues.” It was a distillation of a twelve-week course he taught at St. Vladimir’s Seminary (where he taught for 35 years) and we got three one-hour lectures. (Father Hopko has many podcasts available at Ancient Faith Radio on various subjects.)
We were told at the retreat that Fr. Hopko’s lectures would be available on the cathedral’s web site soon, but I don’t see a link to them up there today (Monday). Please bookmark the site and check back—these are some of the best lectures I’ve ever heard on healing the brokenness of man. (And for further reading, Father Hopko has written a short piece on "How Can I Know God?" This is a little different version than the one he handed out to us at the retreat, but much of the same wisdom is included here.)
I feel very inadequate to write about this weekend. It was transforming for me in many ways, but I’m still processing the treasures that Fr. Hopko shared with us. Some if it wasn’t new to me, as an Orthodox Christian:
“Our vocation is to be by grace everything that God is by nature.”
“We’re created royal from the beginning (St. Gregory the Thoelogian) and called to take care of everything in the world.”
I already knew what our calling was, but I fall so short of that calling, unable to overcome my depression, my pride, my brokenness from the abuse I have suffered, my anger at those who have hurt me (both within and without the Church). What Father Hopko said that’s “new” for me is that our tendencies to gluttony, alcoholism, sexual sins, etc., are INHERITED—they are predispositions. He spoke eloquently about our sin, which is primordial, generational and personal, and then he explained that it is essential that we understand who we are, why we are, where we are, and how our history affects our behavior:
“We have to deal with what we’ve been dealt. If you don’t vent the anger and grief over what you’ve suffered from your parents and grandparents (etc.) you’ll go crazy. You’ll become paralyzed, depressed, and isolated if you don’t get this healed. This illness especially attacks monks, priests and other spiritual people who sometimes use Church and spiritual things as a substitute for facing their stuff.”
He talked about the necessity of finding one to two people we can tell everything to, or we’ll never be at peace. He spoke about counseling, about psychological therapy, and about medication, saying that over 80% of Americans are taking some sort of medication to heal this issue in their lives, and sometimes that’s necessary.
However we find this healing, he said it’s essential to FACE YOUR TRUTH, FORGIVE YOUR PARENTS, and HEAL YOURSELF.
For those in the grips of addictions and victims of abuse, he said to GET HELP: go to a recovery program.
Speaking to the spiritual side of these issues, he emphasized that HUMILITY is essential to our healing. What is humility? TRUTH—when you live in reality as it is, you don’t make it up, you see things clearly as they really are, and then you act appropriately in the light of the truth you see.
I won’t speak to the specifics of the Eight Vices & Virtues that Fr. Hopko went into much detail about. You can read about those in John Cassian’s “On the Eight Deadly Sins.” It’s not that these aren’t important—they just weren’t the main “take away” for me, from the retreat. I was blessed to be at the retreat with the two friends to whom I can tell everything and receive wisdom, love, forgiveness, and steps towards healing. Together with them, and the professional help I am now investigating, I have hope for healing that has evaded me for most of my life.
And then what? Father Hopko says:
Every adult who gives birth or adopts and leaves behind another generation should be leaving behind a healthier, happier, more whole humanity—we should CLEAN UP THE MESS and SANCTIFY HUMANITY.
All I know is that for me, cleaning up the mess in my own broken humanity is all I can deal with for now. And the next generation is helping me. The love of my children and Godchildren is sometimes the only thing that keeps me from going into the depths of despair. When I’m in the grip of depression, I don’t want to even get out of bed, much less go to church. So, yesterday morning, my motivation for going to church was my Goddaughter, Sophie. My husband and I had planned to take her out after church to celebrate her 8th birthday. She was counting on me, and so I showed up. I was late, and I didn’t take communion, but I showed up for Sophie.
And then she brought me the first laughter and smiles I’ve felt in a long while, as we danced to the music of Memphis music legend Joyce Cobb at the jazz brunch at Bosco’s Squared in midtown.
I watched with joy as Joyce let Sophie play percussion with the band, and then as the band sang the Beatles’ song, “You Say It’s Your Birthday,” and then “Happy Birthday to You” to Sophie and the whole restaurant clapped for Sophie and she beamed.
She ordered ribeye steak and Caesar salad and ate every bite. She opened her gifts from us and hugged us and thanked us over and over. She told us, word-for-word, the story of the Bremen Town Musicians, and then the folk story that she wrote. After we took her home and were driving back to our house, I thought about how much more she is saving me than I am saving her. And yet I’m called to “clean up the mess” for Sophie and for my own children and grandchildren. And to "sanctify humanity" for the next generation. May God have mercy and help me.