Embracing Faith, Facing Death

Dear Father Joseph,

I’m writing because you had a question asked [at a recent speaking engagement] … that I heard on an Orthodixie podcast, that I can answer and answer well. It was something like, “what do you do if you are Orthodox, but your family is absolutely apathetic, lost, anti-church, etc.”
Well, you pray, regularly receive the Eucharist, go to confession a few times a year, and experience joy in your Orthodox faith. Concentrate on yourself and get out of God’s way. He’s doing all He can to reach your relatives. Just stay out of His way.
How do we do that? STOP SINNING!
Okay, nobody has successfully stopped sinning, but you can lower the occurrence significantly. That’s where the sacraments come in. If you have a problem with swearing, overeating, not exercising enough, poor time management, short temper, or the like, you can begin to work out these sins with a father confessor and your family will see a better you begin to shine through.
Let me tell you what happened to me. Now, I’m one of those people who just looks like a sinner. I’m obese, so I obviously struggle with sloth and gluttony. About a year ago, after years of confessing the same things over and over, my father confessor said that his expertise is not sufficient to help me kick these bad habits and that I should consult a nutritionist. I avoided confession after that.
I don’t think of myself as much of an example of a good Christian life, but there have been major changes since I was chrismated into Orthodoxy in the mid 90s. I’m more patient, I don’t hold grudges or get furious like I used to. I can see other people’s side of things more. I’ve learned to apologize and really mean it. And I drastically changed my taste in men. Now, I judge men by the yardstick of Christ. Had this not happened, I would never have recognized my husband as the wonderful man that he is. His whole life, women have seen him as the “brother type”, not dangerous or mysterious enough to be a romantic interest. Well, their myopia is my blessing because, at the age of 39, we found each other and married.
My mother was a woman who would make Archie Bunker look liberal. When I announced my engagement to her, she hung up on me and I assumed that I was disowned. You see, my husband is not from my ethnic group. My brother had been estranged for something in the 80s and, over 20 years later, he was still estranged. I knew that this was forever. I was heartbroken but knew that my best chance for true happiness was to follow Jesus, forgive my parents, and just live my life without them in it.
Well, stage 3 cancer and a very good friend made my mother reassess her reaction to me. Only two weeks after my announcement, my parents agreed to meet my fiance. He is truly a man after Christ’s own heart and I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t instantly like and trust him. They fell in love with him and instantly welcomed him into their family! They even helped significantly with the funds for the wedding.
My brother was at the wedding and my mother and brother spoke for the first time in 25 years on my wedding day. It was just small talk, but it was something. Later, when our little daughter Susanna was born, my brother and mother went to the baptism (remember what I said about the sacraments). There they had a substantive conversation and really began to reconcile. The beauty of the wedding and the joy of all occasions associated with church really struck my mother. She noticed that I was more patient and kind. She certainly noticed that I now had awesome taste in men and could judge character well. She saw me being joyful.
This past January she could not tolerate any more chemotherapy and she knew that death was imminent. She kept telling me that she wanted an Orthodox funeral, but I told her that being an Atheist, that would probably not happen. I called my spiritual father for help. He said, “she could become Orthodox.” I was skeptical. He urged me to offer the possibility to her. “Just offer to make a call for her. Let her tell the priest what she wants when he visits.”
Of course I knew that she could convert. Deathbed conversions are very common in the lives of the saints. I told her that, if she wanted me to, I could call the Orthodox church near her and have a priest stop by. If she wanted to convert, I could be her godmother. She said that she’d like that. “I’ve given lip service long enough. I want to do this, she said.” Of course, I didn’t believe her, but made the call.
I told Father Gregory that “she’s an old woman who has never had a loving and tender moment with a priest. Don’t expect anything. If nothing else, you can sit with her a while and give her a positive experience before she dies.” He said he would be happy to do that.
Father Gregory’s wife, Presvytera Anastasia, emailed me to tell me that my mother had been chrismated that day and that she was the godmother. She said, “I know that you both wanted you to sponsor her, but time was of the essence and you live far away.” I was not disappointed at all, I was shocked! I called Presvytera, “Didn’t she have to say the creed?” I was incredulous. Presvytera’s reply, “Yes, she did. Happily.”
I cannot begin to tell you the surprise and the true joy I feel still, just thinking about it. I never really knew her. The night she died, 20 days after her chrismation, our priest came to the house to offer prayer for the departure of soul from the body.
My mother died just before Great Lent. When Pascha came, it gave me great joy to know that her first Pascha would be celebrated by Christ Himself with the homily delivered by Saint John Chrysostom. Can you imagine that?!
Now I’m not naive. I know how people have a tendency to throw joy away with both hands so that they can indulge their pride. I know that estrangements and cruelty and sinful pride are part of most families. I know the pain. I also know that Jesus is real. He actually did die on that cross and He actually came back. He calls each and every one of us to Him.
When I concentrated on my life and cleaning up my own soul, my mother was moved. When I got out of His way, Jesus came to my mother and claimed her as His own. If He can shine through a person like me, why not you? Forget about what your family believes and just love them and get closer to Christ. He is calling them, know that. You never know the heart of another person. All you can do is give them part of your heart in love. Sometimes they take the gift and treasure it. Sometimes they see Christ through you.
I’m not so naive as to think that living a good Christian life is enough to draw everyone to Christ. If that were the case, Christ Himself would not have been crucified. But the only way it EVER happens is by drawing near with faith and with love. It’s the only way that has ever worked.

After mom died, I called a nutritionist. That father confessor was pretty bright, I took his advice. I’m just a few pounds from my first goal. I’m sleeping better and have more energy. It’s slow going, but I’m learning to enjoy the process. I miss my mother and pray for the repose of her soul regularly. I thank God for her conversion and I know that it wasn’t anything that I did that drew mom to Christ. I just got out of His way and had a bit of joy.
I hope this email finds you well, Padre.
Much love to you and your family and parish.
Mariam

An email sent from an AFR listener; names changed for privacy.

Image of St Dismas – source.

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