As I enter Lent, there are many things I have been thinking about. One of the main ones is how to grow in my relationship with God and Our Lord.When I was growing up in the Orthodox Church, a relationship with Our Lord was never fully emphasized. It was part of the theology, but there were things in Orthodox theology that were never explicitly explained. It was something that you learned through experience. For the most part, the relationship centers on self-mastery and repentance. In many ways, the God of my childhood and youth was like a parent that could never be pleased. You could everything in the world to please Him, but if He didn’t like what you had done… Of course, I’m simplifying the facts a bit, but this was true for me. I saw that the only way that I could reach God was through the gates of repentance and confession.
In college, I had my first experiences with evangelical Protestants. The college that I attended for my bachelor’s degree was a state run school, where religion could not be emphasized due to the separation of church and state. There were people who got around that rule. Every Tuesday and Thursday, a preacher would come on campus with his Bible and placards. He would preach to the students that passed through the quad that the only way that we could come to God was by accepting Him as our personal Savior. He quoted the Bible extensively and spoke about the condemnation that God would give to various sinners. He used all kinds of incendiary language to get his message across to the students.
I distinctly remember thinking that this message about God’s love was wrongheaded. Moses and St. Peter preached, but they did not use incendiary language to convert people. They did not use epithet or coarse language either. Their preaching came from the zeal that God had given. For Moses that zeal came from his experience on Mount Sinai and his distinctive mission, while St. Peter and the other apostles had learned from the example of Our Lord and outpouring of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost.
The preacher was only the tip of the iceberg, though. When I went to the Student Activities Club and asked for a list of clubs on campus, I was flabbergasted to find that most of them catered to various Christian denominations. There was a campus Lutheran society, a Christian Athletes Fellowship, and numerous others.
The largest by far and the most aggressive was Campus Crusade for Christ. During my orientation day, I was a bag that contained a Bible, a book by Luis Palau, and other devotional items by a pretty girl. I was also asked for my name and phone number. I knew that this was also a tactic on their end. If they could put a pretty face to their theology, then someone would be lured into going into the meetings. I wonder who, if anybody, would join such a club for a pretty face? Although I liked the girl, I was not attracted by what she and her friends represented.
Around this time, I read the Luis Palau book that I had been given. The book said rather simply that Our Lord was the answer to every single question that mankind has ever had. At the end of the book, the reader was asked to give his life to Our Lord and be saved. I did what I was told to see if anything would change in my life and whether the assurance of heaven would do anything for me. It didn’t. I still felt a nagging need to work out my salvation rather than have it handed to me on a silver platter. I didn’t want my relationship with God to be exemplified in songs like “Jesus Loves Me.” I wanted it to be something deeper and much fuller. I also knew that I could never be a member of a Christian denominations in which Mary and the saints were consigned to oblivion and where the Bible was the only source of Truth. Having grown up in the Orthodox Church, I knew implicitly that there was much more to a relationship with God than merely being saved.
For most of my undergraduate years, I would meet various people who would be nice to me and accepting of who I was. At the time, I was naïve enough not to wonder about their ulterior motive. Yet the question would always come at some point between our first and third conversations, “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior? DO you want to come to Campus Crusade for Christ meetings?” My answer was always the same. Since I live off campus, I gave the excuse that I would go if they had their meetings in town or that I had already been saved. Every time, I would say something like this I would lose that person. Why? I suppose it was because I wasn’t convert material.
When I converted to Catholicism years later, I was still living with the image of a vindictive God. The traditionalist parish that I attended during the early months following my reception into the Church did almost nothing to alleviate that image. The parish priest was a man who was ardent and devout, but he was also capable of guilt tripping his parishioners. While his sermons would always start out with the most wonderful intentions, they would always degenerate into what we had not done for Our Lord, what we had done against Him, etc. Week after week, I would go, listen to him, and wonder why I kept going back. After a few months, I decided to leave his parish and never to return.
It seems to me that my relationship with God got regularized when I began to pray the Divine Office and to read spiritual books regularly. Once I began to pray daily, I was able to see God’s work in my own life as well as His love for me. Even when I was depressed or lonely, I would always convince myself with every fiber of my being that God was in charge and that it was His will that would prevail.
In daily prayer, I also learned how important it is for me to trust God. For someone that is independent and likes his own way, this was one of the most difficult things that I have ever had to do. Yet I made an act of confidence in Him. I told Our Lord that I would accept whatever trials He would send me as coming from Him. As the saying goes, I should have been very careful with what I had asked for my faith was tested in ways that I didn’t know existed.
In trusting God, I learned to view Him as a loving Father. God knows and understands my needs better than I do. Sometimes, I will ask Him in prayer for something and wonder why the petition wasn’t answered. I know now that God answers prayers in His own time and when He wills. If God does not grant my petition, I do not view it necessarily as something negative. I understand that it may not have been the best thing for my salvation at this particular moment in my life or that it would have been something that would have taken me down the wrong path. Whatever the answer, I have learned that God loves me and that He is there for me.
Even more than this, I have realized how great Our Lord’s sacrifice was and how the only way that we can really repay Him is with a contrite heart. I have learned that Our Lord is just and merciful at the same time. His mercy allows me to live from day to day, but His justice demands certain things of me. One cannot believe in a God who is only merciful or a God who is only just. To do so would be to have a very one-sided view of God and His plans for us.
In His justice, God demands that we repent of our sins and that we ask His forgiveness. There many times during my day, when I ask God to forgive me for something that I have done. I may not say the Act of Contrition, but I do always beg God for His mercy and love. When I go to Holy Communion, I do so with tears in my eyes because I know that I am not worthy to receive Him. When I make my thanksgiving, I am always sobbing because He has deigned out of the goodness of His mercy to come and abide in me.
Growth in holiness is something that I have been doing my entire life. There are still many things about God that I do not know. Yet I am always trying to live virtuously and to please Him. I do not want to please Him out of fear, but because I love Him and I know that every sin that I commit hurts Him as deeply as it does me. I serve Him joyfully in the belief that when He calls me to Himself, I will see Him as He is.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!