Saturday, January 24, 2009

For the arms of the wicked shall be broken

Psalm 37:17

As I mentioned in the last post, I told the Parish Council at my church an abbreviated story of how I returned to the church after a prolonged absence. I mentioned that I had written about this on my blog, and I was asked for a link to the story, but when I looked I realized that while I had talked a lot about my stay in the hospital in a previous post, I had not gone into details about what got me to that place in my life, or how it has impacted me since then, so I will try to go into more detail here now.

I've been Orthodox since infancy, and while most of that time I have attempted to be pious and good, I never really realized that I needed the medicine that the Church provides during most of the first three decades of my life. Piety and goodness seemed like enough. So I served as an altar boy, I sang with the chanters, I went to Sunday School, I crossed myself when I was supposed to, I learned to paint icons, and in all honesty, I enjoyed the Church, I just didn't feel like I needed it. And in reality, I have not been as good or pious as I appeared to other people, but I was good at hiding behind a facade that I created, and I didn't feel deceitful because I did like Church.

Because the Church was just a hobby for me, it was easy to drift away for a time, and to come back when I felt like it. In 2003, I worked on a very big commission that had to be done in a very short amount of time, and I found myself with a lot of money all at once. I took some of that money and I got myself a house about 35 minutes from where I had been going to Church. The house was a fixer-upper that I got for a good price. Since my neighbor was a friend of mine and a contractor, he did a lot of work on the house. He could only work on weekends because of his schedule, and so I didn't go to Church so that I could stay and supervise and help out. It was not something that I felt particularly guilty about because it seemed like it was an honorable and temporary reason to miss Church.

This went on for maybe a couple months. When the work stopped on the house, I had a new reason not to go to Church. I've always been a night owl, and the thought of getting up early in the morning to go to Church was in no way appealing to me, and now that I lived even farther away from Church it was much easier to just stay in bed and sleep in. Sure there was another Church five minutes away that I could have gone to, but I didn't really know those people, and I'd still have to get up early. So I gave in to my laziness and stayed home.

I stopped praying. After all, what is the point of praying when you aren't a churchgoer? Fasting seemed pointless as well. Even taking a minute to think about God would just make me feel guilty, so it was best to just shut that out of my mind. Truth be told, the one thing I didn't stop doing, which I should have, is painting icons. It was my sole source of income, and so I set about the technical act of painting while my soul was far removed from it. I have heard it said that the act of painting an icon is in itself a prayer, but if this is true, I tried very hard to not hear my own prayer. I am ashamed at what I replaced God and His Church with in order to fill my free time.

It is no wonder to me now that God's blessings seemed so far removed from my life during this time as I had run as far away as I could from Him. I ran out of commissions and had to struggle to find new ones, I ran out of money, and accumulated debt, when my car died I had no way to fix it or replace it, so I only left the house to walk to the store or when someone could pick me up. I felt depressed and alone, but I still didn't want to return to God because I thought I could still fix my situation if I could just think of how...

Then one day, I broke my arm. It was a particularly nasty break, and it required three days in the hospital. I spent most of that first night in tears reflecting on my life. A few years earlier I had felt like I had everything, and suddenly I realized that I had nothing. I had squandered everything. I never felt more alone than I did that night. I had not been to Church in years, I hadn't been to confession, and I was worried about going into surgery with my soul in the condition it was in. I felt like the Prodigal Son eating the food meant for pigs, covered in filth, alone, worried that I couldn't even go back home. I made up my mind that, like the Prodigal, I would return to my Father and say "I am no longer worthy to be called your son, but make me as one of your hired servants."

It took me several months before I got back to Church. I wish I could say that I was a transformed person that night on the spot. But this was the beginning. I was headed back along the road to my Father. During my journey back, I was checking the statistics for my website, and I saw that someone had linked an image from my website to a message board called Christian Forums. I followed the link and found that there was an Orthodox section on that forum. I spent a great deal of time reading things there, and learning things about my own faith I did not know. It helped to pull me along the road back to the Church even when I was tired and didn't want to keep walking. At Pascha of that year, I sat and watched a video of the Paschal Divine Liturgy that someone had linked, and cried that I could not be there.

It was not much later that I finally got a car again. The first opportunity I had I went back to Church, and I have been there as often as I could ever since. As if to welcome me back, I finally found my baptismal cross that had been missing for months if not more than a year the very day that I returned to Church for the first time.

Not long after returning to Church I was asked to start singing with the chanters again. I happily agreed because it is such a joy to me to sing in Church. A little while later I was asked to teach Sunday School. I was much more apprehensive about this since I didn't feel like I related well to 9th graders when I was in 9th grade, but they told me someone else would help me, and so I agreed, remembering my promise to be a servant. Last year I was asked to serve on Parish Council. This really frightened me because I had heard horror stories from my Dad over the years, but it was important to me to do what I was asked to do. I was nominated this year for Parish Council Chairman, and wanted so badly not to do the job that was set in front of me, but I know too well the many blessings God has given me, and so I accepted.

I am not a very good servant, and I don't know that I ever will be. But God accepted me back after I denied Him and sought to live my life without Him, and how can I ever repay Him for that? And He continues to bless me far more than I could ever deserve in this life. For every half-hearted attempt to serve Him and to serve others I have received more in return than I could have imagined.


Anonymous said...

Dear brother in Christ Matthew,

Your story is very profound and deep and there is no ocean that could hold it. God bless you for sharing your life with me, in this small part, and with so many others. You are a blessing in yourself, my friend.

Love always In Christ,

Chocolatesa said...

Thanks for sharing this :)

Br. Tom Forde OFMCap said...

Dear Brother, as a Catholic Priest whenever anyone tells me in Confession that they have been away from the Church and have come back I say 'Welcome home'. Your honest sharing is a grace of God and a reminder to us that our only home, our only place of rest is Christ. May your blog bring many home!
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Tome Forde OFM Cap

Don said...

You and I have traveled a similar path, and appear to be arriving at similar destinations (yep, Parish Council!).

You're in my prayers, Matthew. I know exactly how you feel. I had no idea how similar our journeys have been.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful story of redemption! God's mercies are limitless!