Because of Forgiveness and Joy
Ms. Catie Golitzin
I started my sophomore year of college walking away from Church. I had grown up in an Orthodox home and had had what might be called a “solid Orthodox formation”: but at this point in my life, something—read: my own pride—had kept me from knowing, and remembering, who Christ was and is. A year of college classes had encouraged me to question the ideas of God I had grown up with, which was problematic because in my mind at that time, Christ was only a subject of icons and hymnography. I didn’t really know what our faith had to offer.
With self-satisfaction, I asked myself why such “stifling” rules were needed: prayer from a fixed rule morning and night, fasting at certain times, awkward Confessions… However, I see now that I wasn’t pushing away the real Christ and His Church—I was wrestling with false representations of them that had taken root within me and blocked me from understanding Christ’s true command, to love God and neighbor, and the Church’s true mission, to become transformed in Christ’s love and to make God known in the world. I had somehow lost the God-centered joy of the true Orthodox Christian way of life, which Father Alexander Schmemann described as seeing the world “shot through with the presence of God” (For the Life of the World, 16).
Thank God, this hellish period did not last too long and I began to rediscover the beauty of “the faith of our fathers” and the truth about human life and reality it holds. Through participating in the life of the Church, I have been able to come to know Christ more fully and grow to be part of His Body, the Church He established on earth. Most significantly for me, I have been able to experience compassion, forgiveness, and joy—and that is what keeps me coming back.
Something I had not been able to understand in my state of rebellion is that Christ said, “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). In other words, Christ seeks out the sinner—that is, the one most in need of His saving power—out of compassion, instead of simply desiring that we follow “His” rules. All the “rules” that had been a stumbling block to me before, I realized, are really tools (or perhaps not just tools, but signs and instances of God’s presence on earth) that have been sanctified and passed down for our benefit, so that we can come to know and love God more fully and live a life pleasing to Him. In this perspective, God’s compassion and love for us are evident, as the joy that is the natural product of a life pleasing to Him flows into our lives and our relationships.
What keeps me coming back is, to use somewhat ill-fitting terms, both the “objective” knowledge of Christ’s presence and the “subjective” knowledge of His love. Once, not too long ago, I was awaiting Confession, hoping in forgiveness and healing in Christ but without a clear idea of what that would actually be like. Yet through the revelation of my sinful thoughts and actions and the priest’s counsel, I experienced a sense of true clarity which convinced me that the vast majority of concerns—personal, philosophical, political, even religious—that had been occupying my mind were of absolutely no importance. They all drifted away in the greatness of a tiny glimpse of God’s presence and peace. Similarly, the fact that I can go to my icon corner every evening and morning and speak to our Lord is a huge source of strength and comfort to me. (Something I wish I had realized before: the fact that these holy prayers are passed down from men and women who have come before us, and are not my own words, only strengthens the power of prayer.) Unlike any merely human friend, mentor or relative, Christ never turns away from us—like the icons in church—and is always ready to welcome us back, if only we will return to Him.
This constancy is also reflected in God’s eternal moral law, which is desperately needed in our times in which we can be all too easily persuaded, as I was, that there is no God and that Christianity is for the naïve. It is so easy to lose Christ’s essential teaching to love one another and revert to the pagan (in the literal, historical sense) ethos of self-preservation, or concern only for oneself and not for others. Christ teaches us how we must live our lives: to be mindful of Him, to be mindful of the other—our neighbor and our enemy alike—and to live holy and pure lives so that we do not fall into delusion or sickness of any kind. “The Order of the Divine mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful” (C.S. Lewis, Meditations on the Psalms, 59), and I am attracted to this constancy and reality in the tumultuous and confusing world we live in. In the same way, regularly going to Confession and receiving Communion are a way for me to commune with God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and gain supernatural strength and joy. This practice also allows me to know myself better, reorder my priorities, and partake of the source of life—which is what makes life truly worth living.
Yet the “subjective” knowledge of Christ’s love and tender compassion for us is beautiful and joyful beyond words. The knowledge of my own sinfulness and imperfection which it implies only reinforces this knowledge. Knowledge of Christ’s love releases me from the pride of perfectionism—and every other form pride takes—and puts things in perspective. It feels like a cold glass of water to my weary soul. This is what keeps me coming back: illuminating, invincible joy. This joy is reflective of the natural joy of human friendships and love, but magnified because in Church, joy is seen at its source! The world needs joy, more than anything, and Christian joy “has a transforming power, the only really transforming power in this world” (For the Life of the World, 55). As ambassadors of Christ, we are to cultivate this light within ourselves and carry it into darkness. We are to be witnesses to His Resurrection and transformative love.
Compassion, joy, forgiveness, grace: this is what our Church offers to anyone who will repent, or in other words, admit that they don’t know everything and are in need of healing. What else in life is worthwhile?