Since September, God has returned me to my beloved state of Virginia for a new job, to the town where I spent my graduate school years at UVA. The autumn season in this area has always been my favorite one, with the crisp blue skies, changing colors of the trees, and a sense of anticipation. Interesting how there is so much beauty amidst so much death...these leaves are dying. But they die for a higher cause--to conserve the trees' energy during the winter in anticipation for new life to bloom in the coming spring. God speaks wisdom to us through the beauty and elegance of His Creation....
During the autumn season, I had the blessing to go on a hike at Crabtree Falls with a group of lovely young women, good friends of mine from the Orthodox Christian Fellowship from the Mid-Atlantic Region. The schedule included the hike upwards to the top of the waterfalls, followed by lunch and chanting an Akathist Hymn entitled "Glory to God for All Things". This beautiful service of glory, thanksgiving and praise to God was composed by a priest just before his death in a prison camp in Russia in 1940. In it, you sense the priest's courage and total hope in God during his darkest hour of imminent death, and you cannot help but be inspired. Before our hike, our group was to meet at the campgrounds at 11 am. Arriving promptly at our destination, my car's group learned that our friends coming from both the North and the Southwest were going to be late. But, we didn't realize just how late they would come. Thankfully, they managed to arrive even after some potentially life-threatening obstacles in their way--one group nearly missing a head-on collision on one of the mountain roads. During the waiting period, my heart was pounding in worry because our cell phones had lost signal and there was no way to contact our friends. We decided to simply pray until they arrived. They finally made it, thanks be to God, and we went on a most wonderful, fun-filled, and spiritually nourishing outdoor adventure. It was yet another experience for me where I learned that upon embarking on an endeavor that is sure to benefit one's soul, there will be obstacles and even attacks from the evil one at an attempt to thwart growth in Christ. But resisting these attacks and achieving victory is quite possible by hoping in Him.
This phenomenon is cited repeatedly in the Scriptures: "My son, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in time of adversity. Cling to him, forsake him not; thus will your future be great. Accept whatever befalls you, in crushing misfortune be patient; For in fire is gold tested, and worthy men in the crucible of humiliation. Trust God and he will help you; make straight your ways and hope in him." ~Wisdom of Sirach 2 This passage instructs us on HOW to act in the face of challenging situations in life. In the midst of suffering, we are to cling to God, to always hope that He will take care of us and that later, we will experience something better, just like the trees enduring the winter to experience the new life coming in the spring. As there is beauty of the autumn leaves, there is beauty in gold that has been purified by fire, and likewise, beauty in the faces and bodies of the Saints who suffered for Christ (see the beauty in the icons of Saint Marina and Saint George). Our modern culture tells us that misfortunes and difficult situations are to be avoided and that there is no benefit in them. Even Christians are tempted to walk away from situations that pose a challenge to them, rationalizing that "it is not the will of God for me to do this, it is too hard and too scary."
Below is a motivating quote from a very beloved and great prophet, Isaiah:
"Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." ~Isaiah 40
This past year has presented me with the blessed opportunity to experience some difficult and painful trials that have allowed me to come just a bit closer to our Lord. The emotional upsets gave me much sadness, and I have definitely felt like a tired and weary youth, as Isaiah says. But, at the same time, by experiencing a bit of suffering, we are getting a taste of Christ's suffering, and that of His Saints. After all, if we dare to go by the name of "Christian", how can we not expect to experience what Christ Himself experienced? This way of life is a sacred one and we cannot take it lightly. The challenges and sufferings are permitted so that we may use them in making wise decisions for courses of action that will lead us closer to God. In my own recent trials, I felt like I was asked to choose between Christ's way or another way. Christ's way is clearly harder, but the only one that will help our souls. And as Isaiah says at the end of the quote, if we hope in the Lord, our strength will be renewed and we will soar like the eagles and run without growing faint! What a great coach this prophet is!
I also came across the following appropriate and encouraging saying by Saint Theodora of Alexandria (January 12, 5th Century): "Just as trees require winter and snow in order to bear fruit, so trials and temptations are needed for our life."
As winter is still among us now, with snow still on the ground, let us remember that spring is around the corner. In anticipation of the renewal of nature in the season of spring, let us continue to maintain patience, peace, and strong hope during our trials until we experience the sweet joy of the soon-to-come Feast of feasts, the Resurrection, in both this life and in eternity!