The National Catholic Review
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I glanced at the clock on the small table between the bed and the rocking chair: 6:45 a.m. It was Saturday of Labor Day weekend, but every day felt drowned in the monotony of motherhood. The baby would need to be nursed soon. I rolled onto my back to say my morning rule of prayer, at least the parts I could recall without the Christian Orthodox prayer book, but felt completely unmoved. I sighed, asked the Lord to help me pray, and blessed myself, then turned to bless my husband. His eyes peeped open, my right hand in midair. I smiled at him.

“Read your essay about me,” he mumbled. My smile melted. I had written countless essays about him that expressed my love. Recently, however, I wanted to write down my feelings about family things in general. I wondered what it meant to lose the magic of romance, the thrill of love, the energy of marriage; it was easier in the beginning, only seven years ago.

I knew it wasn’t circumstance that tested my emotions, though having money and time to share with him might have seemed a balm. Love was layered. It seemed the deeper we trod through the strata of our life, the more our feelings could turn cool. Yet besides my husband, there was the smooth cheek of our newborn, the bell-like giggles of our toddler, the afternoon breeze floating through our kitchen with a hint of garlic. He was the only man who felt the silence of my breath against his bare shoulder. Faith was loving him.

The air this day was crisp, the tips of trees beginning to darken with the end of summer. An American flag flapped from our chipped white doorpost, honoring Labor Day and the war in Iraq—five years and still rolling on. My husband and toddler went fishing on Lake Erie in my father’s small aluminum boat. I sat cross-legged on the carpet in the living room beside our four-month-old, intently slobbering over his fists, kicking tiny toes in the air. Then I began reading an account of the Orthodox saint, Mother Mary of Egypt.

A Desert Experience

As the story went, a monk had lived at a monastery since childhood and thought he had attained spiritual perfection. He went on a pilgrimage into the desert and discovered a woman, naked and dark with white, wool-like hair. The vision brought him unspeakable joy. He knew she would illumine truth that would somehow strengthen his faith in God.

The woman shared with the monk the story of her life. She said she had wandered the desert for 47 years, after living in Egypt as a prostitute. When she had been in the world, she had satisfied great lusts for wine and men, food and every pleasure that consumed the flesh. One day she saw a group of Egyptians hurrying to the sea on a journey to Jerusalem for the feast of the Elevation of the Honorable Cross. She followed, hoping to sleep with young men on the pilgrimage, and was successful in her pursuit. She followed the people to church once the hour came for the Elevation of the Cross, but a power kept her from entering the sanctuary. At once she realized her sinfulness. She tried to enter four times before praying that the Mother of God allow her to repent and enter. Once inside the church, she vowed to live her life completely in honor of God. In that very moment when she chose to believe, her faith became alive.

While alone in the desert she had longed for the pleasures of the world. Though faith burned within her, so did doubt and temptations to return to the world. Yet the woman continued on and fed on incorruptible food—the hope of salvation, as she told the monk. When the monk asked how she knew the Psalms, as she had no Bible and had never been taught from Scripture, she said that the Word of God, living and active, itself imparts knowledge (Heb 4:12).

Her humility allowed belief in God; she chose to love God more than herself. She gave her life loving God. As the story went, she levitated when she prayed, in tongues that the monk could not understand. She walked across the Jordan. She prophesied. The monk had not obtained such spiritual gifts. Through the Egyptian woman, the monk, who thought he had reached spiritual perfection, learned the cost of choosing faith and acting in love.

In the World, What Is Faith?

My body was stiff when I rose from the floor and drifted into the kitchen for a plate of ginger cookies and a glass of milk. I couldn’t imagine a life without tasty treats, hot showers, sex—worldly distractions taking attention off my soul; that inner voice that craved something beyond me, something more silent than silence, more warm and comforting than wine.

I wondered, though: In the world, what was faith? What did it look like?

My mother and I had walked around Silver Lake on an overcast afternoon a few days earlier. We had talked of marriage, how the magical feelings fade. Geese squawked as my laughing toddler closed in on them. It seemed love for each other, like faith in God, was a choice. At first, the choice was soft, the other person eliciting excitement within one’s self. The pressure was light; everything was new and possible. But life branched out, stretching beyond one’s self, and became weightier, as though burdened with snow.

As we walked on, the colorless day seeped into me; everything seeming dull and monotonous. We spoke of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her life “in the world.” She had known much pain, yet always chose faith—even when she felt empty. She acted on her faith in God, serving the poor and needy through her old age. She loved people as the way to loving God.

I stared out the window as the baby cooed and reached for his toes. My husband and I were married on a brilliant summer day. As the sun spread orange and pink over shimmering Lake Erie, we had held each other and slowly moved to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” I had closed my eyes to my sister and mother, huddled close, my father looking off into the distance, to friends and long, winding links of family. My young husband’s heart had beat against me, his warmth wrapped me in a deep and rich quiet, despite the party. It had been easy to feel love, to choose to stay together. Faith had spread as naturally as the setting sun, and love burned radiantly.

The flag billowed with the summer breeze. I wondered if my husband and I could find the energy and interest in a slow dinner talking patiently with each other, getting beyond life’s everyday worries.

Perhaps feelings encourage one to choose faith in God and in each other, but these can fade in time. Enduring faith is acting in love even when the feelings are flat, or, as with Mother Teresa, the soul’s darkness is so painful that we are tempted to deny God. I have come to realize how fear and doubt can easily cloud faith and I could fail to love.

Still, there is always the humbling choice to weather the season, which in my case no longer made me feel good, and hope the young, green leaves will come again.

Lea Povozhaev is a writing instructor at the University of Akron, in Ohio. Her nonfiction has appeared in Fringe magazine.

Comments

ROBERT STEELE | 2/18/2008 - 1:53pm
I was deeply moved by 'The Ebb and Flow of Faith' written by Lea Povozhaev (America, February 19, 2008). It was so beautifully written that the difficult question of facing up to the challenges of faith and love can almost be sidestepped. There was no theological discussion, just the reflection of a young woman on what it means and requires to love and what those decisions will cost.

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