I knew a woman whose husband died of cancer. It took him a long time, and he was very sick while the cancer consumed him. She nursed him through all of it – from the very first, scary moments of the symptoms, through the tests, the diagnosis, the treatments, the long, slow and agonizingly painful decline and death. She relied on us – her electronic women’s group, to vent to and wail with when things got to be too much. But once her husband had died and she’d buried him, she left her parish, brushing the dirt from her feet when she did.
She posted in our group, asking us to pray for her to find forgiveness and healing from the feelings she carried with her when she left her parish. During the four years of her husband’s illness and death, her church family had ignored her. They had done nothing, she said – they hadn’t asked how he was, why he was no longer in church, why her attendance was so sporadic, checked in on her during the week. They hadn’t offered to do anything to help, not even to pray for him or her. Nothing, nada, zero, zilch and zip. She was furious with them, and realized she needed to let the anger go and forgive them for their neglect and selfishness.
AND DID SHE ASK?
One of our members asked gently if, other than the priest, she had told anyone in the parish about the long and painful journey through her husband’s illness and death. “Well, I put him on the intervention list!” she replied. Other than his name appearing on the list, she hadn’t mentioned her struggles to the members of the parish. “I didn’t want to sound like I was complaining,” she said. “Or that I was weak and couldn’t handle it.” So, when they asked how things were, she would put the brave face on and say things were just fine, he was not doing well, but it was okay. She could handle it. And after it all, wondered why she had been so alone.
Strength. Courage. Resolve. Standing tall and unbowed against the winds of adversity. Our culture teaches us that we need to be those things. Our faith teaches us to be selfless – think about others, put others’ needs and issues before your own, take your troubles to God and He will minister to your every need.
It’s all good advice. We do need strength, courage and resolve to live our lives. To face the terminal cancer diagnosis and live through the hell of chemotherapy and radiation, to watch someone we love die. We need to think about others, to remember that submitting to God’s will is dying to self, and that we learn that lesson by living our lives and finding selflessness in our actions.
WORDS, WORDS, WORDS, I’M SO SICK OF WORDS
And we all know about the power of words – we read about them in the Bible, hear about them from the ambo, fill our minds with them constantly, they bombard our ears, both inner and outer, all day and all night long. We hear about how we shouldn’t use them as often as we do, to be sure our selflessness extends to our words, so that we don’t talk about ourselves interminably, don’t complain, keep our words behind the lips, don’t say anything hurtful, think twice and speak once – or better yet, don’t speak at all.
Except those ideals – be strong in adversity, and keeping the words behind our lips – can destroy us, our community and our faith if we misuse them, either by saying too much, or in my e-friend’s case, by saying far too little.
Silence, and letting God speak, keeping your complaints to yourself is good. None of us like the people who can’t seem to do anything but complain about how horrible things are. But like everything else in our Orthodox life, strength and silence need to be in balance with weakness and words. There are times to speak out, to ask for help, to allow yourself to show your “weakness” and not just because you need it. Because by doing so, you are actually being more selfless than by keeping the upper lip so stiff you starve to death.
AREN’T WE MISSING SOMETHING HERE?
If Jesus and the apostles and the saints say selflessness is the goal for which to strive, to minister to others, to put others’ needs before my wants, they aren’t just speaking to me personally. They’re telling all of us. We are all to do the same thing – we are all supposed to be thinking about each other instead of ourselves, to be putting our brothers and sisters ahead of our own selfishness. But if we’re all keeping the stiff upper lip and pretending things are just fine so that we can take care of each other – who is there to take care of? We’re all so busy running around looking for people to be selfless for that nobody admits to needing care!
When I’m hurting, when things get too much for me, asking someone for help, whether it’s a cup of coffee, a hug, a meal, or some help with an overwhelming task, it makes sense – secular, common and Christian, to ask for help. I get the help I need, so that I can keep going, but I also am giving someone else the opportunity to put their selfishness aside and act in accordance with God’s will by putting my needs first instead of themselves. If that person happens to be a member of my parish, then I’m doing even more than that. I’m building – we are building – community. By sharing our needs and gifts, by letting my strength bolster your weakness and by asking George to use his strength to help me, with my puny muscles, move those two flats of garden bricks, we’re building bonds and connections that make us more than a social club that breathes lovely scented air and takes a spoonful of bread & wine from a guy in shiny robes every week. We are becoming what God wants us to be: a family, a community and the Body of Christ.
This is part of a synchoblog that a number of Orthodox bloggers are posting on the subject of words and their uses. Check out some of the other bloggers:
- Cristina Perdomo (Orthodox Christian — Orthodox Church in America (OCA)) ofReachingfromadistance on Cement
- Dn Stephen Hayes (Orthodox Christian) of Khanya on What’s that you were saying?
- Susan Cushman (Orthodox Christian) of Pen & Palette on How We Use Our Words: “Christian” is Not an Adjective
- Katherine Bolger Hyde (Orthodox Christian) of God Haunted Fiction on Eat your Words
- Annalisa Boyd (Orthodox Christian) of The Asetic Lives of Mothers on The Words of my Mouth
- Jane Myer (Orthodox Christian) of The Sounding on Dear Critical Self
- Matushka Elizabeth Perdomo of Living a Liturgical Life on What about Words?
- Fr John D’Alton (Orthodox) of Fr John D’Alton on How we use our words- jihad or struggle?
- Donna Farley at the Rafters Scriptorium on Few and True
- Claire Brandenburg of Holy Watchfulness on The Word
- Fr. Lawrence Farley of Straight from the Heart on The Limits of Verbal Communication:Part of a Conversation