The Haven of Liturgy

Feast of St Sisoes the Great

Herman_Square.jpegWHAT could be better, higher, more worthy of love and more splendid than Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself...Who is Himself love. Should we not love God above all things, and wish for and seek Him?” [The crowd replied], “Why, that’s obvious, how can we not love God?” And Father Herman responded “I, a poor sinner, have been trying to learn how to love God for more than 40 years, and I cannot say that I yet love Him properly.” ~The Life of St. Herman of Alaska

A few months ago, my wife had her first pregnancy end in her first miscarriage. It was a profoundly painful experience for us both that manifested itself into an especially lonely kind of grief. Our culture has taught us how to console others with many different kinds of loss, but this, the death of a child known only to its parents, comes without any kind of protocol. We simply do not know what to say, which is why I was surprised to find out how common our experience is. Statistically, one of every four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. We had countless friends tell us about their own miscarriages, friends we’d never seen as less than happy.

I wrestled with that statistic for a long time, making my way toward the typical questions of theodicy—how a good God could allow so much tragedy to continue. Usually, I could rationalize my way out of these questions, but this time was different. When I would try to will myself into conversation with God, nothing happened. The feeling I kept coming back to, again and again, was as if God and I were sitting across from each other on a cold, cement floor, saying nothing. That was it. A friend reassured me that it was understandable to be angry at God at a time like this, but I told him that wasn’t it at all. I wasn’t angry at God; it would’ve been easier if I had been. God wasn’t distant, God wasn’t cruel. We were together, but I was tired of the cement floor. I was tired of the silence.

Finally, I returned to the prayer habit I used to have, saying the same written prayers out of the same book at the same time every morning. I went to church each Sunday, bowed when I was supposed to, crossed myself along with the others. At night, I read the Psalms out loud to my wife while she fell asleep. And after two months’ time, do you know what happened?

Basically, nothing. It felt like nothing had changed. But that was just it—felt. By giving myself over to some of the Church’s liturgical practices, I was able to get beyond my feelings. Though I did start to heal, whether or not I felt better started to matter less and less. Instead, these practices gave me a much needed sense of grounding. I didn’t know if I could trust God, but I knew I could read, I knew I could bow.

In the tradition of our holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church, we have been given a haven of liturgy, things to do and say when we are too weak to think, or feel, anything on our own. Without their centuries-old prayers, I would not have prayed. The Church and Her practices are a home for us. We can come to Her as we are and be made well again, through the wisdom of those who have gone before us. I find an immense amount of encouragement from the story of St. Herman of Alaska, quoted above. He gathered a great crowd of people to explain how God was love, only to confess how little he felt he had learned to love God back. Loving Love should be the easiest thing to do, yet even saints feel their lack. But, no matter our feelings, St. Herman and all the saints have given us things to say and do in the meantime. May we follow their example; may we learn to love God together.

Luke Taylor Gilstrap is based out of Wichita, KS. He graduated with a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Friends University and is currently an MFA candidate through Seattle Pacific University. He is also a book peddler at Eighth Day Books. When not writing, he enjoys playing jazz saxophone, running with his dog, Mozart, and adoring his beautiful wife, Megan.

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