“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith…” Hebrews 12:1-2
Recently, I shared some thoughts on what it means to live in community with one another and how that “communion” helps us express the truth of being made in the image and likeness of God. Regardless of our vocation or where we are in life, we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. We cannot love if we do not have some level of relationship with others, providing us necessary opportunities to grow more like Christ through our interactions.
I cannot emphasize enough, the value of Christian witness. In heaven, we have the saints and their lives to draw inspiration from, their intercession to rely on but we also need contemporaries we know on some personal level, to walk with us on our journey.
The blessing of the community of believers I belong to has become immensely apparent to me as I better understand my own struggles. Because I worship with monks, I have an example of Christians who have given up many personal freedoms and who have committed their lives to strive after theosis (to be …partakers of the Divine Nature…2 Peter 1:4).
The usual monastic practices that they cultivate have been examples for me to follow. The spiritual life that I have is why I have been able to get through my darkest times. In the past year, as I have learned from secular sources how to handle anxiety attacks and process and heal from my trauma, I learned I had already been doing much of the best practices. The wisdom of the Church is very much alive and can help many of us who struggle.
An ancient and modern day ailment we all suffer from at one point in our lives, if not throughout, is despondency. Think of it as the spiritual struggle in depression, sometimes manifesting itself in our lives through feelings of hopelessness, lukewarmness, or even over-zealousness in our faith which leads to burn-out. I have found time and time again that community has been the answer for my despondency.
The witness of the Christians in my life has been an endless source of help to me, most especially at crucial times. The spiritual struggles that are bound to come along for all of us are made easier by the mutual bearing of one another’s burdens. When we share our lives with others we can be a blessing to them, often in ways we don’t even realize.
In the last few years, I have, at times, experienced overwhelming difficulty. This past year has been my hardest on many levels. Ironically, this has also been a time of self-knowledge and growth. I have come to understand that depression and anxiety have been companions along my journey since I was a kid. I have had periods of freedom from both, but they have never been too far away. Some of my hardest times are during pregnancy. I have had ten kids in the last twenty years and spent nearly half of the time battling severe depression regularly.
I have never discussed my issues at any real length with anyone but have found comfort and healing among my family and friends just the same. It is the friendly faces, familiar voices at prayer, a shared meal on a Sunday or feast day, laughing together–those are the little sources of light in the dark.
The times when it was evident something was wrong, light came from a kind word of assured prayers and a candle lit by someone who didn’t push or pry but simply made the gesture. It came as a reminder from my confessor that he is “here if you need to talk.” I find tremendous comfort in knowing such caring people that I can reach out to if needed.
Often it is the witness of others that helps me break through my despondency. About a year ago, Brother Isaac started a project involving the monastery’s patroness the Searcher for the Lost. He asked my husband and me to help him. During our working time together I saw Brother Isaac’s child-like excitement and love for the Theotokos. Add that to his infectious smile and laughter, and it was just the medicine I needed.
Another witness who was a lighthouse in a storm also came from the community. As I mentioned, the past year has been my darkest which left me questioning everything about my life and faith. I was often without hope. The most difficult situation of my life reached a turning point when I found hope in someone else’s dark time. Because I know the difficult trials this person has endured, I have been able to reflect on his experience which has helped me understand my own. Seeing this person whom I have a great love, respect, and admiration for, struggle and prevail, and seeing the monastic community endure and grow through his trials helped me move forward in my serious battles—Hope was encountered just when I needed it the most.
The important part of going through life together is in the little things that bring rays of hope and break through the darkness. The everyday grace that stems from commitment, mutual respect, genuine love, shared laughter and even tears now and then–these are the real graces of the shared journey.
Every last one of us needs the gift of witness from others struggling along the same journey of salvation as we are. Camaraderie is hard to come by these days, even for those of us who regularly attend church services–A symptom of the breakdown of family life. St. Pope John Paul II said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” If we want to take seriously the calling to be icons of the Trinity, to be the one body of Christ, then we must understand the real work set before us.
A community-centered faith will not be a cure-all. We need to be careful in this discussion to not romanticize things or to make the task seem harder than it is. Moving across the country to be next to a monastery is not necessary for people to do. My family did this, but it was an organic move on our part. The monastery we are monastic associates (oblates) of had to move from California to Wisconsin. A year after they moved, my family also needed to make a move for financial reasons. We knew how important our community was and wanted to be in a more stable, committed one. For us, the move made perfect sense; we had already been a part of the monastery’s extended community for years.
However, we can each commit (as best we can) to the people we are already among at church. We can reach out and build friendships, start books studies, fast together, have meals together on Sundays and Feasts. The important thing is to intentionally strive to live out one’s faith, and that needs to include building relationships with fellow worshippers. These things take time and need to be organic, not forced or premature. If we want deep roots to grow, we must be patient.
In my journey, I have been blessed to know many wonderful people from so many different walks of life–Real people who struggle and fall but get up again. People whose love for God and others shines through their simple everyday actions. Christians who believe in the need to do the hard work of building community even when it feels like it doesn’t pay off. Each of them sharing a different perspective and witness of the Christian faith.
We need to be witnesses of the Good News we have received in every aspect of our lives: in our families, amongst our friends, at work, school, on social media, in our neighborhoods, and in our churches. We must remember what our Lord told us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” We must be witnesses of this love, and we will do that in community.
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