Thursday, February 26, 2015

Giving Birth To Prayer

Now that we are well into Great Lent and have, I hope, pushed ourselves a little in fasting and prayer, it’s probably time to take stock of what is really happening.  I imagine most of us are failing miserably.  Even if we have managed to keep a strict diet, obeying to the best of our ability the outer guidelines of the fast and even if we have attended most of the extra services, still I’m pretty sure most of the people reading this are frustrated or disappointed with their actual performance on a spiritual level, that is, their actual ability to draw near to God in the Fast.  And so, what I am about to say may seem pretty depressing, but stay with me, it gets encouraging toward the end.

St. Isaac the Syrian, in his homily twenty-three, speaks of prayer, what prayer is, what pure prayer is and what is even beyond pure prayer. Most of what he says in this long homily has no application whatsoever to my life at this point, or to the life of anyone I know living in the world.  He speaks of pure prayer leading to a state of being swallowed up by the Spirit so that one no longer prays but merely dwells “with awestruck wonder” “in that gladdening glory.” Most of us never dwell anywhere near such a place. Most of us consider ourselves immensely blessed if we can experience just a brief moment of pure prayer now and then, that is, prayer without distraction. As to what holy Saints experience beyond pure prayer, I just have to take St. Isaac’s word for it. I have never experienced it. When I pray, I certainly do not dwell in a place of awestruck wonder in gladdening glory.

But despite the fact that most of what St. Isaac says in this homily is way out of my league, one thing he says does indeed comfort me quite a bit. It comforts me in that he tells me that I am not unusual in my struggle to pray. It comforts me in that he lets me know that my experience of distracting thoughts and wandering mind in prayer is indeed the beginning  of genuine prayer—in fact, it is itself genuine prayer. There are many ways to pray. We pray in Church, we pray at home. We pray chanting and reading, bowing and prostrating. We pray while reading spiritual books and with inarticulate sighs and cries. We pray with petitions and with praises and by reciting the mighty acts of God in history. All of these and more are ways of prayer.  And all of these ways of prayer, according to St. Isaac, are controlled by the authority of our free will. We decide if we will pray and, often, how we will pray (although here it seems we have less freedom: we don’t so much pray however we like, as we pray however we can, however we are able). We pray because we want to pray—or better yet, because something in us wants to pray.

And here’s the rub. Something in us wants to pray, but much in us doesn’t. But that’s not even it. It is more a matter that so much is running around in our mind unattached and uncontrolled, random and scattered. We don’t even know where it all comes from. When we want to pray, we must create a bit of quiet in ourselves and into this quiet floods all of the things I had forgotten to remember; random and petty thoughts, judgements, accusations; memories I hadn’t thought about for years; and a seeming limitless supply of filth, anger, resentment and envy. It all shows up when I start to pray.  

And so, St. Isaac says, prayer is a matter of the free will. It is something one has to choose, and having chosen to pray, one must continue to choose to pray all throughout the prayer. Prayer is a choice one makes and keeps making; and for this reason, St. Isaac says, “there is a struggle in prayer.” This struggle in prayer, or this struggle to pray when you’re saying prayers, is, according to St. Isaac, the norm. In fact, one of the elders that St. Isaac himself consulted on this matter told him (back in homily twenty-one), “Reckon every prayer, wherein the body does not toil and the heart is not afflicted, to be a miscarriage, for it has no soul.”  

This is, I know, sort of back-handed encouragement, but it does encourage me. By this elder’s standard, my prayer has lots of soul. My feet and back and sometimes my head often ache in prayer. My heart is often afflicted by its struggle with distracting and impure thoughts in prayer. In fact I sometimes wonder if I have wasted my time, if I have just done nothing for an hour while others were doing the actual praying. Or if my little prayer rule at home was just a joke because nothing seemed to happen—nothing more than me spending the whole time trying to pull my mind back into the prayers I am saying with my mouth. I wonder, “Is this really prayer?”  

Well according to St. Isaac, it is really prayer. In fact, according to one of St. Isaac’s spiritual fathers, this very struggle means that the prayer is alive, that it has a soul. That very struggle is the pain of childbirth—of prayer-birth.  We give birth to prayer.  

There is, St. Isaac tells us, prayer beyond struggle. He calls this pure prayer, prayer that does not wander, where no foreign thought enters. But St. Isaac also tells us that this pure prayer is the regular experience of only one in thousands (not one in a thousand, but one in thousands).  The point he seems to make is that only through regular and disciplined struggle to pray as an act of the free will is one able eventually to train one’s thoughts in obedience and as a gift of Grace (for all progress in the spiritual life is a gift of Grace) one is able to be at one with his or her prayers.  That is, one is able to attain pure prayer. But this is not the common experience of prayer. Far from it. Most of us experience prayer as struggle, as something we must choose and continue to choose.

That only one in thousands attain this state of pure prayer, according to St. Isaac, is to me quite an encouragement. I have never been a one in thousands kind of guy. I don’t win contests (unless it is a free weekend in Las Vegas—I keep seeming to win those without even entering the contest).  No, I’m no headliner. I’m always striving just to work my way up to the middle of the pack. And so for me to know that struggle in prayer is normal, that it is indeed prayer itself as I will mostly experience it, that for me is encouraging. Something isn’t wrong with me. It’s not “supposed to be” different. It’s supposed to be labour, like giving birth. My will is fighting to pray, my will is fighting to pray and this very fight according to St. Isaac is prayer.  Yes! Man, I sure pray a lot, because prayer is never easy for me.

But having said this, I want to be quick to add that even though prayer is mostly struggle, it is not and should not always a terrible struggle. In fact, if prayer is always a terrible struggle for you, you probably need to talk to your spiritual father or mother or someone whom you think might help you because you might just need to try some different ways to pray. There are means of prayer, what St. Isaac calls “modes” of prayer that work better for some people than they do for others. My wife is an iconographer.  She paints as prayer. I paint as torment. What works amazingly well for one person, can be nothing but torment for another. Some people find Life by chanting alone in the middle of the night, others pray better in a choir at church. Some pray akathists hymns, others find it works better just to say the Jesus Prayer. And then there are physical prayers such as prostrations and manual labour for the needy (including, by the way, vacuuming, washing dishes and fixing the plumbing at the Church). Some find Life in reading spiritual books, others journal as prayer. We each probably need to try lots of different modes of prayer until we find ways of praying that actually help us pray.  The Church is a storehouse full of various modes of prayer.  Don’t give up on prayer just because you can’t stay awake during the all-night vigil. There are lots of ways to pray. 

And one more thing. There is such a thing as sweetness in prayer, which is not the same as pure prayer, for the experience of sweetness in prayer occurs in the midst of our struggle to pray. Sweetness in prayer, according to St. Isaac, is that experience when a particular verse or phrase or idea stays with you and evokes a small amount of joy or wonder that captivates you for a moment in prayer. You repeat the phrase, you stay on the thought, you read or repeat the line over and over again as though you were sucking the juice out of it. As though suddenly you have come across a sweet, plump raisin in a bowl of really dry granola.  And when we have these experiences of sweetness in prayer, St. Isaac tells us that we should stop praying, or stop our outer activity of prayer and dwell for as long as we can on that sweet word or thought that has been given us, for here we have been given a gift from the One we are petitioning in prayer. Now is the time merely to receive the gift, asking is no longer necessary, the words of our prayer can, for a moment, be set aside.  

However, soon the thoughts start to wander again.  Soon my hyperactive mind is in analysis mode, trying to figure out how I can apply or interpret or explain to someone else the little treasure that was given me. And so the sweetness slips away, and I must return to the work of my prayer, my reading or whatever it was I was doing. I return to the discipline, to the exercise of my will to focus my thoughts, to pay attention, to turn away from all of the thoughts that suddenly seem so very important. I return to birth giving, to the labour of giving birth to prayer.

Monday, February 23, 2015

None Of Us Can Do Everything

In chapter 21 of the homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, the Saint gives some useful, but what may seem at first to be controversial, advice.  St. Isaac presents this advice in the context of a conversation between a younger hermit and an older, more experienced one.  The younger hermit asks the older one what he should do: 

“Many times I obtain a thing I have need of because of illness, or because of my work, or for some other reason, and without this I cannot remain in my discipline of stillness, but when I see that someone has need of this object, I am overcome by mercy and I give it to him.  Often it also occurs that being asked by someone, I give away that which I need, for I am constrained by love and by the commandment to do so.  Afterward, however, my need of the object causes me to fall into cares and turbulent thoughts, and thus my mind is distracted from solicitude for stillness.  Often I am obliged to depart from my solitude and to go in search of that thing.  But if I preserve and do not go out, I suffer much affliction and turmoil in my thoughts.  I do not know which of the two alternatives I should choose: to interrupt and disperse my stillness for my brother’s sake, or to disregard his request and continue in stillness.”

The problem that this young hermit presents is a common problem.  Although very few of us are called to the life of a hermit, all of us are called to live faithfully whatever way of life God has given us for our salvation.  That is, each of us has a way of following Christ that is appropriate to his or her own calling, gifts, and situation in life.  Obviously, for example, a father of children is not called to a life of stillness, for he has to work to support his family (although, that doesn’t mean that he can’t learn to practice inner stillness to some small extent within the parameters of his lived reality.  It’s just that he can’t give himself to it undividedly, for his calling as husband and father places other responsibilities on him).  The calling of a father and a hermit are very different, but the problem that the young hermit describes is still the same problem that a father or any faithful follower of Christ encounters.  That is, how does one faithfully follow all of the commands of Christ?  

Here’s the problem: When I strive faithfully to fulfill one of Christ’s commands, I often find that in fulfilling that one command, I of necessity cannot fulfill other of Christ’s commands.  In the case of the hermit, his calling is to fulfil the command “to abide in Christ” and “ to pray without ceasing.”  But by giving away what he needs to continue in stillness to anyone who asks of him (which is also a command of the Gospel), he finds that he cannot preserve in the inner stillness necessary to abide only in Christ and pray without ceasing.  

The older monk’s reply may seem shocking to us, but if you think about it, it makes sense.  Here is the older monk’s reply: (italics are mine for the sake of clarity and emphasis)

“May that righteousness perish, and every form of mercy, love, compassion or whatever is thought to be for God’s sake, which hinders you from the practice of stillness; which fixes your eye upon the world; draws you into cares; shakes you from the memory of God; arrests your prayers; brings your thoughts to a state of turbulence and unrest; stops you from study of the divine readings (which is a weapon that rescues a man from wandering thoughts); disperses your watchfulness; causes you to walk about freely, though formerly you were bound, and to associate with men, though formerly you lived in solitude; awakens in you the mortified passions; abolishes the abstinence of your senses; resurrects your corpse which was dead to the world; causes you to fall from the angelic husbandry, whose labour has but one concern; and places you in the portion of men who live in the world.”

You see what the older hermit is saying to the younger hermit is that in order for him to fulfill his calling in Christ, he has to limit or be very careful which commands of Christ he attempts to fulfill and how he tries to do so.  If the hermit ceases to be what God has called him to be, then the commandment that he thought he was fulfilling, he was not.  Or to put it another way, we cannot all do everything.  Let me repeat: we cannot all do everything. The older hermit goes on to explain later that people who live and work in the world have a responsibility to care for others in the world: He says, “For the fulfilling of the duty of love with respect to providing for physical well-being is the work of men in the world.”  We each have our place, we each have our calling in this life, we each have our bit to do, but none us can do everything.

But even in caring for the needs of those in the world, we all have limitations: limitations in our abilities and limitations caused by our weaknesses.  When I was a young married man, I was very zealous to be an evangelist.  I was constantly, and I’m afraid often annoyingly, on the look out for anyone who would listen to me present to them the Gospel (or at least the Gospel as I was taught to understand it at that point in my life).  However, I soon realized that in sharing the Gospel with certain attractive young women, I often found my mind wandering down paths of unfaithfulness, paths I didn’t want to go down (either in my mind or in any other way).  This problem became so disturbing for me, that it developed into a crisis for my inner life: “what if they never hear the Gospel”, the thought would occur to me.  “Will they go to hell because I cannot control my libido?”   At that time, my theology was not clear enough to challenge such a thought, so in my own mind I was stuck—like the young hermit—in choosing between, on the one hand, sharing the Gospel  with attractive young women while I struggled with inappropriate thoughts, or, on the other hand, keeping relative peace in my mind by not sharing the Gospel with women whom I found attractive and trusting God that He was able to bring someone else along (probably another women) to share the Gospel with that person whom, I, in my weakness,  could not.  I was beginning to realize that, sometimes, attempting to obey one command of Christ opened the door to disobeying others.

And still now, even though I am at a different place in life and have different struggles and different conundrums, still there is so much that I just can’t do.  There are so many commands of Christ that I cannot try too hard to fulfill without at the same time ceasing to fulfill others.  I am weak.  I am limited. I thank God that there are holy fathers and mothers who preserve in stillness and prayer, even if in doing so they are not able to care for the temporal needs of the poor and sick and suffering of the world.  The Church is a body.  We each provide for what is lacking in the other. The hermits preserve in stillness and pray in ways I cannot, yet I benefit from their prayer.  In a very real sense, their prayers are my prayers.  Similarly, acts of love and mercy that I may be able to perform in my station, in my calling in life, these acts of love and mercy belong not to me, but to the whole Church, the whole body of Christ.  Your works and words of love and encouragement, your prayer and fasting, your gifts and sacrifices, these are not yours alone, they are ours, all of ours, for we each give and serve and love as we are able and where we are as parts of the one Body, which is Christ’s Body, the Church.

You know, what got me to thinking about this today is a conversation I had earlier with a friend about what is important to emphasize in Great Lent.  It is easy, I find, to put a lot of emphasis on the external works and particularly Orthodox aspects of keeping Great Lent.  It is easy to develop the misguided thought that what God rewards is how strictly we keep Great Lent, how Orthodox we are (that is, how well we follow the particularly Orthodox injunctions and prescriptions of Lent).  However, when we think this way, we have fallen into the trap of mistaking the means for the end, of mistaking the road for the destination.  The goal of Great Lent is not to fast well, but to become more like Jesus.  The goal of Great Lent is not to attend more services, but to become more like Jesus.  The fasting and the prayer services will help, they are part of the means, of the way; but they are not the goal.  Furthermore, how helpful each person will find the particular practices the Church enjoins on us and the particular opportunities to pray that the Church offers us during the Great Fast will differ according to the strength of each, the calling of each and the circumstances of life of each of us.

And just as the young hermit learned, so we too must learn: No one of us can do everything.  How each of us becomes more like Christ will be slightly different.  Some of us will excel in prayers, some of us in fasting.  Some of us will excel in chanting and public prayer, some of will excel in the prayer of stillness.  Some of us will excel in love expressed in concrete actions, some of us will excel in words of encouragement.  But all of us will do whatever it is we do within the Church, within the One Body of Christ.  Or to use St. Paul’s metaphor, one of us will look more like Christ as he or she looks more like a foot, while another will look more like Christ as he or she looks more like a hand.  But whether hand or foot, or mouth or ear, it is only together that we make the Body of Christ.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Where's The Love?

In a recent post on the struggles of Abbess Thaisia I wrote of a young nun's struggle to find peace in her calling when there seemed to be no love in those around her.  The following comment was left on that post, and I would like to respond to it now.  Here's the comment:

I am struggling with much of the same issue in your excerpt posted from Thaisia in regards to discouragement with those in church leadership and a lack of love by those in the church. My thoughts often drift to the same place as her's... If no sincere love is seen and experienced, then there must not be any salvation. Perhaps in the future you might speak to this point, as I know many of the younger generation feel similarly.

Well Dear Anonymous, I think this is a pretty common experience.  Anyone who has spent more than a little time in the Orthodox Church (or, for this matter, in any group calling itself church) quickly notices that the saints are in the minority, a very small minority, and that those who seem to be desiring to live a Christ-like life—while they may be found here and there—seem to keep themselves well hidden. In fact, sometimes it seems as though the nonreligious people in our life are more compassionate, more like Christ, than many of the religious people we know.  This is a common experience.

To understand what's going on, I think we have to keep several things in mind.  First, we have to keep in mind that this is very much how Jesus experienced the religious world into which he was born and raised.  The religious leaders of Jesus' day were largely corrupted, selfish and lacking in basic compassion.  Jesus constantly refers to them as vipers and hypocrites.  But not all of religious leaders of His day were that way.  There is the Lawyer to whom Jesus says, "You are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven" (Mark 12:34).  Jesus also meets secretly with Nicodemos, "a ruler of the Jews" and explains His mission to him ("Light has come into the world, but men prefer darkness rather than Light... John 3).  This same Nicodemos tries to defend Jesus before the other Pharisees (John 7:50) and in the end joins Joseph of Arimathea (a rich and "prominent council member," Mark 15: 43 and John 19: 38-42) in enabling and burying Jesus' Body.  It says of Joseph that he is a secret follower of Christ "for fear of the Jews," yet he nonetheless boldly asks Pontius Pilate for Jesus's body.

Furthermore, that same religious world that, on the one hand, seems so corrupted, was the same religious world that produced Jesus' Mother, Mary, the holiest of women, and her parents Sts. Joacim and Anna.  That apparently broken religious world also produced John the Baptist, his holy parents, Sts. Zachariah and Elizabeth.  It was the religious world that also produced the twelve Apostles (one of whom was a traitor) and the seventy lesser Apostles.  Clearly, despite the abundance of (both truly and apparently) unloving, corrupt leaders in Jesus' day, God was still able to produce from that religious world a lot of very holy people.  And this is, by the way, exactly what Abbess Thaisia found out.  In fact, it may indeed be that part of our growth in Christ must take place in such a context of seeming abandonment: abandonment by every human authority who should love and help and encourage us, abandonment that forces us to find strength in God alone, abandonment that teaches to love and forgive even those who seem to have no love and no forgiveness.

Some other things to keep in mind when we are confused and despondent about the lack of love in the Church are the parables Jesus told about what the Kingdom of Heaven would actually be like. For example, Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who sows good seed in his field, but at night an enemy comes and sows tares (weeds that look somewhat like wheat, but have no edible grain.  Matt. 13:24 ff).  This is what Jesus said the Church would look like: the real and the false growing side by side. 

And of course we are all so like the servants in the parable.  We want to rush out and separate.  We want to determine who the real Christians are and who the impostors are.  We want to make the determination.  But the master in the parable says no.  Ours is not to determine, to separate.  Ours is to just let it be.  God, we are told, will send His reapers, the angels, who will gather the wheat into barns and the tares into destruction.  Whenever we try to separate, whenever we try ourselves to determine who the false Christians are, we end up making a huge mess of it and uprooting and trampling on the very precious wheat.  Ours is not to determine the genuineness of the faith of others, ours is to discern the genuineness of our own faith.  Am I being saved?  Am I loving even those who are hard to love?  Am I forgiving others as I want God to forgive me?

A final thing I encourage people to keep in mind when they are confused and discouraged by the apparent lack of love and lack of Christ-like virtue they seem to see in those who lead the Church is that what we see with our eyes is generally only a very small part of what is actually happening.  This is particularly true when it comes to leaders in any institutional setting (and the Church is an institution—a God bearing institution, but an institution nonetheless).  Those who lead both see much more than we see and at the same time see much less.  What I mean is that even when we assume the best intentions, leaders are forced to look at the bigger picture and make decisions based on what seems to them to be best for the whole.  And at the same time, because they are looking at the big picture, often leaders do not see or appreciate the pain of specific people and specific situations.  The leaders themselves often do not realize the pain they are causing in specific situations in their desire to do what is best for the corporate good.  It's a matter of basic human weakness.  None of us sees everything.  None of us knows everything.  Even assuming the best intentions, none of us sees or knows clearly enough to encourage any good without at the same time unintentionally causing pain or misunderstanding somewhere.  That's just the nature things in our fallen world.

I was at a seminar for priests recently.  And as is usual, in the evenings we would gather in small groups in one another's rooms, drink a little (or a little too much) wine and talk about what's troubling us in our churches.  One young and zealous priest was complaining about the apathy and lack of piety among his parishioners when an older priest told him the following story.  There was an older woman in his parish who never seemed to keep the Church's fasts.  She would bring food with "only a little bit of beacon" in it to coffee hour during lent.  Her breath often smelled of coffee when she was receiving communion on Sunday mornings.  This bothered the father greatly until one day he determined that it was his duty to teach this woman the importance of fasting.  Then one Sunday, he seized the opportunity and drew the woman aside and said to her, Nellie (I think that was her name), we need to talk about the importance of fasting.  Nellie's response shocked him.

Nellie said, "Father, I have always been confused by the Church's rules on fasting.  I never knew what was allowed on which days.  It was all so very confusing to me.  So, as a young woman I made a determination:  Since I didn't know which days to fast on or what to fast from on those days, I decided to fast completely, drinking nothing but water, for the first three days of every month.  And so that is what I have been doing for the past thirty years.  What was it, Father, that you wanted to tell me about fasting?"

The Father could say nothing.  He, in his ignorance, had judged a pious woman harshly.

You see, we never know enough about a person or about a situation to judge fairly.  Often what seems to us to be unloving, harsh or unChrist-like behaviour may indeed be the most loving, kind, and Christ-like behaviour possible, if we knew the whole story.  Of course life is never just all one thing or all another.  We are seldom completely Christ-like in anything we do.  When I have a headache, my wife often asked me if I am mad at her.  Trying my best to be loving, in my weakness my best attempts at kindness sometimes sound to her like anger.  And then there is just plain carelessness. How many times have I been offended, not by what someone has said to me, but by the way he or she has said it to me or by the timing or by the context?  Sure, they could have said it in a better way, or at a better time or in a better place, but then again, who is perfect except God?

But this then brings us back to Abbess Thaisia and how God uses broken people in this broken system in this broken world to save our souls.  Jesus came to show us the way to heaven, the way of salvation.  And the way that Jesus showed us was the way of Resurrection through the Cross.  We must all die with Christ so that we can be raised with Him.  And what does this death look like? Abbess Thaisia tells us that the death is a death of our will, a death of our expectation of how things should be, a death of our plan, our agenda, our way.  It is often a death like the death of Jesus, a death that comes through the failures and weaknesses of religious leaders, that comes to us through the intentional and unintentional blows of those who should have loved and protected us.  It's a miserable death, a painful death; it is a real death.  It is a real death followed by a even more real resurrection.  

This is the Christian way, the way of the ascetics, the way of the saints, the way of everyone who would take up their cross and follow Christ.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Pray For Us, Annie

I went to a celebration of a life a couple of days ago.  It was at a Protestant church.  It was nothing like a funeral, and that’s too bad because I think Annie would have liked a funeral too. But as far as celebrations of a life go, this one was pretty good.  The hymns were prayerful and the speeches respectful.  But what was most amazing to me was Annie herself and what her children and grandchildren chose to remember about her.

I had only met Annie a couple of times. She is the grandmother of one of my parishioners. I really didn’t know Annie at all, but by the time her celebration of life was over, I knew her well enough. Here are some of the things that her children and grandchildren remembered about her.  
Annie read her Bible and knew a lot of it by heart.  When she was eight years old, she memorized 500 verses in order to go to summer camp.  Annie loved God and always loved whomever she was around.  Her children used to bring friends and even strangers home and Annie would care for them, talk to them, feed them and help them as she was able.  One of the children remembered the time on a rainy Christmas Eve, coming home from Church that they stopped to pick up a hitch hiker.  And that hitch hiker became their guest at their family Christmas celebration over the next few days.  

But the one story that seemed to me to draw the most striking picture of who this woman is took place the last few months of her life. At about ninety, Annie was getting very frail and forgetful and so had to be placed in a residential care hospital. What bothered Annie most about this was that she could no longer help anyone. She couldn’t cook. She couldn't clean. There was nothing helpful that she could do. Until one day she figured it out. She figured out what she could do to help people. You see despite her weakness, Annie was still pretty flexible and she could bend over and pick up things off the floor. Many of the patients in the facility where she lived were in wheel chairs or used walkers and could not pick things up off the floor. Annie had found her ministry.  Every day, Annie would wander around her facility, looking for people who needed help picking something off the floor. And this Annie did every day until she herself could no longer get out of bed.

Annie was not an Orthodox Christian—she was some sort of Mennonite, I guess. Nonetheless, when I told this story over the phone to my spiritual father—an old Orthodox hermit living in the mountains—do you know what he said? He said, “May the servant of God, Annie, pray for us.”

In Matthew Chapter 19, at the end of the chapter, Jesus tells his disciples that in the Regeneration, on the Last Day, that they will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. From the context of the passage, it seems to me that what Jesus is saying is that they will not judge by making decisions about others, nor by determining anything. Rather, they will judge just by existing. How is that?  In verse 21 Jesus invites the rich young ruler to leave all and follow Jesus. He does not, but Peter points out that they (the 12) had. They had done it. They had left all and followed Jesus, and thus Jesus said they were the judges, they are the criterion, the standard. On the Day of Judgement, no one will be able to say that it was impossible to follow Christ completely for there will be twelve judges—all merely human, human beings who cooperated with the Grace of God that had been given them, human beings who did leave all and follow.

Now we know that numbers in the Bible are generally symbolic, that twelve represents fullness, that the twelve disciples represents the fullness of the disciples or all of the true disciples of Christ. The twelve judges represents all of the judges, all of those who followed Christ completely and are thus the criteria by which all of us will be compared.  And the twelve tribes of Israel (those of us to be judged) represent all of those who will be judged.  

And I think about Annie. A woman who did not have the full Light of the Orthodox teaching, who did not have access to the abundant spiritual and liturgical and theological Tradition of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I think about Annie and her Bible and her hymns and her rather bare Mennonite tradition. She didn’t have much. But she gave herself completely to God through what she did have, what she did know, and she let God change her. She let herself be molded and shaped into a Christ-like lover of mankind by the God whom she loved with all of her heart, with all of her soul, with all of her mind and with all of her strength.  

I wonder if on the Day of Judgement how many like Annie will be sitting on thrones with the Apostles. How many Annies are there who just did it, who just left all to follow God wherever they were, in whatever context they found themselves and with whatever shreds of the True Faith they had, how many Annies gave everything to God and were transformed by Him?  

And what about us? We who have the True Faith, who worship the Undivided Trinity, who swim in the wealth of the Holy Orthodox Faith. Where will we stand on the Last Day?  How will we compare next to Annie? Maybe it is a good idea that we too, along with the holy monk in the mountains, ask Annie to pray to God for us.

Now that Great Lent has come, let’s not revel in the greatness of our struggle nor the wealth of our spiritual, liturgical and theological Tradition. Rather, let’s remember Annie: A women with very little of the Church’s wealth who devoted herself completely to what she did know of the Truth and was made like Christ as a result.