For the Sunday of New Year’s Eve I woke up in the emotional equivalent of being stuck in a vat of molasses. It took forever to fight through it and get out the door. But whatever spiritual state this was, I was determined to carry it to a roof containing an Orthodox Liturgy. One toehold at a time, I got through the bus trip and arrived a full 90 minutes late for the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. At that moment of stepping through the sanctuary door, Father appeared on the altar for Communion, with sacramental gifts raised in hand, proclaiming
Μετα φοβου Θεου, πιστεως και αγαπης προσελθετε!
With the fear of God, faith, and love, draw near.
After the service I marched up for the blessing, then made a beeline for the bookstore. There I bought a beautiful little wooden plaque engraved in Church Slavonic with the words of the Jesus Prayer. It can go right up over my desk at work.
The three lovely women who staff the bookstore have only seen me once before, weeks ago. But they gave me a joyful greeting and expressed their happiness at seeing me return. “Did you have a happy Christmas?” they asked.
During weeks of gaiety at the workplace, in the stores, in advertisements, after dozens of well-meaning questions about my fun plans for the holiday and who I would spend them with, I’d kept up a good front. But the safety of being inside the Church was a completely different gravitational field. Before I knew it, the word just slipped out. “No,” I confided to them.
Well, they did not see that coming.
The sweetness and radiance in their faces flashed to gentle sorrowful shock.
I might as well have picked up one of the sale icons and clocked them with it.
“And it’s such a failure of faith,” I apologized. “To be a Christian, and to be so sad even on the very feast day of the birth of Christ. It’s from being alone; year after year I try with all my might to have a meaningful day, but have not learned how to keep the feast the way it ought to feel.”
After a thoughtful silence, one of them said “We have one friend who lives many states away. We spoke to her on Christmas. Oh was it hard, to hear how she felt. ‘I am only waiting for this day to end,’ she said. She actually said that! Imagine having such a feeling. About Christmas!”
“There are many who feel this way,” I said. “And I try to be sensitive to that. And, for many millions of Christians, it is a day of tremendous happiness, for spending close time with family and loved ones, and forming beautiful new memories to treasure for a lifetime. It is my job to be sensitive to that as well, and to affirm it in any way possible. Thank you for asking. I hope that you all had a wonderful holiday.”
They beamed at me.
“Well, now it’s a whole new year,” one of them reminded me. “It is the start of a whole new tradition of holidays, and new life!”
I thanked them for their heartfelt good wishes, and we all waved goodbye.
Walking in the woods by the church, watching the couples and families out strolling past, I felt real repentance about the dear cordial greetings of the ladies at the bookstore. Why couldn’t I just give the right answer, and say “Just fine, thank you!”? It is so rare that I ever say anything emotionally honest about thoughts or feelings. And now, in a single unguarded moment, one word of honesty had hurt these kind women. Is that really the ripple in the sea that I want to create with my existence in the world?
Even for a person who has never grasped how to build a family and community, God must have some sort of plan. Something better than socially inappropriate revelations that cause wholesale dismay.
The best answer I can give for both honesty and kindness is Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 5:16-18.
Pray without ceasing,
In all things give thanks;
for such is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
I trekked home again, and forced myself to pick up the phone and call several elders with greetings for the day. Then I invited myself over to call on my Buddhist neighbor, and brought her a DVD. She and I watched “God is the Bigger Elvis,” about Mother Abbess Dolores Hart and the Benedictine Sisters of Regina Laudis Monastery.
Now off to scrub the bathroom and the kitchen floor, and get to bed early. Tomorrow, New Year’s Day, there’s another Liturgy back at the church. This time, I want to be there and present for it all.