My soul was expressed in my body. It could have been another way—people experience many physical situations, good and bad, which is not to say that one’s soul is “good” or is “bad” as though the body were a reflection of the goodness of the soul. All things work together for the good of those who love the Lord and are called according to His purposes. As Job realized: How can I accept good from the Lord and not also the bad? The soul is good and is eternal, and any bodily circumstance is temporary. However, I believe that what the body goes through on this earth is a direct way the Lord communicates with His creatures. Growing older is humbling, is the camel slowly, finally going to its knees before the eye of the needle, and entering at long last into the Kingdom of God. Or, it is pain only, as the knees do not submit to the weight of life but buckle under that which they eventually can no longer control. Growing can be without the natural humility that life works out in us; instead, getting older can be resisted, pains and suffering being to our detriment (body and soul) without the intended fruit that a life led in faith will inevitably foster. While the body will die, it will resurrect in transfigured life, and, with the soul, what was being worked out through these earthly days, by the humility of the soul turned to behold its Creator, Christ will accomplish. There are fore-tastes of this glory, moments in life when something extraordinarily good happens to the body, usually contrasted with physical and or emotional pain. It is this juxtaposition that allows for one such as me to stop, chills racing up and down my arms, and to marvel at the realness of God.
What my soul expressed in my body was life. I will die. I will suffer. There will be seasons of winter, perhaps more tiring than the drought experienced most recently in my life. Acceptance of the season, which is for now a great feast, is to honor the Theotokos and her Son, as I owe this miracle to her prayers and the Giver of Life. His presence is joy, hope, and light, which was simple to behold when the mother of God met me two days before I knew I was pregnant. She helped me to see the desire of my heart, to ask without fear, and to receive the forthcoming news with more than gladness, with faith. Had I not prayed with her on that night, beseeching her prayers to Christ that my womb bear holy fruit, joy would have been no less. I may have known that God had been changing me, preparing me to emotionally and spiritually comprehend the gift of conception, as a number of recent occasions led me to utter a budding desire for another child. However, the difference would be in the realization so clear to me now that the body and soul are one. The Holy Spirit in one’s life is not merely a thought. The effects of faith affect the body, according to God’s holy will. Rejoicing sings throughout my body, and I must render thanksgiving voice….
Even if the soul does not manifest itself by certain activities, it is nevertheless present as an embryo. In effect, the constitution of a human being which will develop, is already present, but in a hidden manner because it cannot manifest itself except by means of the necessary order of things. Thus, it is present, but invisible. It will only appear thanks to the exercise of its normal activity as the body develops; the activities of the soul develop along with the formation and perfection of the body that is its instrument. (Gregory of Nyssa qtd. in Jean-Claude Larchet 23)1
My sister had been awake when I called her at four. She hadn’t prayed to Mary the mother of God, hadn’t felt close to her before, she said as we talked. Recently she had read a devotion about the Theotokos being with the Christ Child and rushing happily to her cousin, Elizabeth. My sister expressed an understanding of the joy they shared in the holy conception of Christ, marveling at the miracle shared by these two women with deep love for one another and ever-increasing faith in God.
“I know that Mary loves you so much, Lea, and that she’s praying for you,” she said. She confirmed the soft joy ablaze in my heart and I swallowed hard.
It was five in the morning when I called my mom. It was an unseasonably warm pre-dawn in early January, 2012. The line on the second pregnancy test was clear and pink—it was not a “water-stain” mark, nor was the test’s efficacy expired, as a nurse had cautioned me the morning before when the urine test at the doctor’s office had been negative. Science proved what faith knew: I was with child.
There are a number of pivotal moments to which I might back-track in this story of conceiving my third child by faith. Seven years before, my husband and I had been told we’d have less than one percent chance of conception on our own. We had undergone fertility treatment and conceived our first son with a doctor-given seven-percent chance. Our second son followed two years later by the same means, and we counted ourselves among the most fertile of infertile people. Both conceptions had been journeys of faith, drawing us closer together, and as our boys grew, life challenged us to continue to choose love for one another, our growing family, and ourselves. My faith in God increased as life struggles were lived in the Orthodox Faith that teaches humility, acceptance, and love. The mother of God was close at hand in the silent refuge of my bedroom. I held her icon to my lips, tears mingling into the aging wood, and a passing of time was in moments palpably bitter-sweet. Faith was always there, and more so with loneliness and disappointment. I longed for our family, Dima, my parents, his parents, and especially our children, to share life in the Faith. For years, it seemed it was up to me to change people, but I now begin to realize that the only way to change anyone is to begin with myself, loving the unloveable, holding the squirming wailer, being still when rage tempts. While I’ve been able to do this, in better moments, the most remarkable healing has come in the next step that took longer to dawn on me. I must not let the demon of sadness, acedia, linger after events—to burrow into my heart and grow there, a child of depression and anxiety.
Our children were born and remained healthy. In the haze of my husband’s parents move from Russia to America, my continued studies in graduate school, my husband’s commute to work and long hours, a thinness developed. When hockey was introduced and my husband the coach to boot, things were even more stretched. Money, time, patience, it seemed all was on the brink of empty. Low spells hit me: depression, anxiety, and a general sadness. My emotions could clear, however, when my husband’s dipped down. With him there increased anger and a fearsome disregard for the softest things in his life: the Church and me. Though his love was there for both, his expression was voided by no time, no attention to, and doubt. Sensitive to the slippery pains of our life, he wondered if I would be happier with another, and then, for a time, accused me of affairs. This passed. Another bout of exhaustion hit him, however, and at our gravest low, he threatened divorce. The future does not look happy, is how he put it.
We see things from a limited vantage point, and when our eyes do not behold the saints, windows to heaven and examples of lived faith; when the fragrant aroma of incense and the deep song of the Church is traded for the business of other lesser things, it is harder and harder for the heart to sense God’s peace, or to believe in it. The mind spins out its own rationale, often void of wisdom praying softly within. The line between what is profitable for the soul and that which is not begins to fade, and everything seems permissible. A little meat on Friday, a lot of drink, a little adult entertainment, a lot of resistance to going to church, to being still and facing who we are. Though always He waits, offering His very body and blood every single time, tragically caught up in one’s self, the gift of self-emptying can be missed. Pain suffocates pain, and resistance to God steals vision of the consequences to each action, each thought. Instead, pride increases, hardens the heart. Blessedly, pains in life often jostle us to, often break the facade of self-sufficiency, and we peek over our shoulder to see if by some small chance He might be watching us. True to His nature, Love is, and as many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ, hallelujah.
When my husband’s embrace was weak, a strength burned inside of me. I held him with confidence, with amazing joy. Joy that sometimes wept but was refined and so true that it surprised me. It was a feeling, but then it was an action: a refusal to leave our cuddle on the couch, a rooted body beside the side-door, waiting for his return from work with fried potatoes on the stove. Something inside of me snapped to, had been snapping to, it was joy that is known by fearless love, willing to endure pain and suffering for the beloved, and not with sorrow but instead a spiritual joy that may be without cause from life’s situations.
Certainly, my trials have never been much, but, nonetheless, pain is pain, and to struggle in marriage to seek and nurture love in difficult circumstances has refined my ability to love. I recently read of the holy martyr Sussanah, Queen of Georgia, around 480 A.D. The queen was beautiful and a strong Orthodox Christian. She was married to Duke Varskan, and he went to the Persians and enticed them to make him governor and conquer the whole country. They agreed once the duke turned away from God and worshipped their fire demon. Duke Varskan insisted that his wife obey his new religion and renounce Christ. When she refused, he had her imprisoned in a tiny hut where for seven years she lived in the castle yard, subjected to the summer heat and flies as well as the severe winter. She was chained by her ankles and neck, and despite the cuts these made into her flesh, she joyfully rejoiced, praying ceaselessly to God. She never complained. People came to her for healing, and many blind and sick children were made well. Additionally, her husband’s own men returned to the Faith and some of the Persians were likewise moved to beseech the God of Love, whom Sussanah worshipped daily.
I marvel at such faith, but believe that anything that comes in life can be experienced in the balm of God’s joy, which makes one ever-conscious of the increasing faith filling the soul and spreading warm as blood through the body. In deep dark patches, a light was powerfully visible to me, and it was strong and overwhelmingly good when I gave myself to it. That was the key, and the key I sometimes misplaced as I scurried about reading, writing, and attending classes at the university. While my husband worked twelve-hour days, coached hockey with our boys, and tried to help his parents adjust to life in the States, I did school, some cleaning, laundering, taking the children to school, bathing and snuggling. Similar to other young families, we were busy, and often too busy to lay still together at the end of the night. Separated by unsettling thoughts, fears, and life demands, breaks from school and work renewed us. Love was a choice, and with the decision to stay through the good and the bad, loving and faithfulness grew in me. There were times when unmistakably holy joy inspired me, such as when I was walking back to our mini-van from class at the university. It was dark and drizzle was cold on my arms. A sudden urge to run to my husband, to the boy I’d made my life one with, welled up in me. I ran down a hill, slipping and sliding in mud, and returned home to his calm embrace. Little things like this have saved us, and these details of life that have had saving grace have come from willing for Love, fighting through the despair (sometimes in simply enduring it), and then, out of the dark, a ray comes.
A change began happening in my body and soul at once, and it’s really remarkable to look back at just these past six months. I had an infection in my finger that lingered for three months. The orthopedic surgeon determined a rare yeast, and I began to change my diet from high carbohydrates, veggies and fruits to an increase in meat and dairy. I had had an increasingly sensitive digestive system and imbalanced hormones for years, and with the dietary change, my body began to feel better. There was much less stomach gurgling after meals and my hormones cycled through in “normal” monthly patterns. I was astonished at this physical change and counted it a small miracle. I thought of the many times I’d crossed myself in Liturgy and prayed for healing of soul and body, and felt that somehow this was a beginning to wellness within me. At the same time, I began to have continued and subtle desire for another baby. I had completed the first year of a doctoral program and was anticipating more focus and less confusion in what was to come. The next semester was difficult. I conducted a study and endured another trying fifteen weeks at the university. During this time, school was perhaps its most intense and there was a trial of temptation warring within me. I fought against giving myself over to what was less than my family, to ambitions that were important but not as important as demonstrating love for my boys. There was a clear line that I eventually drew. I would give my husband myself, and what he willed, I would do. Earning a PhD was nothing if I lost my family in the course of it. I knew the truth of this decision, but struggled to persuade my husband of its reality. He wanted me to complete my studies, but I wanted to prove my love. We were somehow coming together in seeing past ourselves.
It was Christmastime. I asked the Theotokos to pray to her Son and our God that my womb be opened, but each time I always began with: if this would be for good. I hadn’t been able to say the prayer with full confidence. A shard of doubt cracked at the fullness of my heart, and the spill of will muddied my mind. Our small home was bright, a wreath strewn with multi-colored lights facing the outside world, and my oldest son as he walked home from those last few days of school before break. It was a glorious time of Nativity, and a settling joy replenished us. My husband took time to be still, and in the course of things was working towards healing. I laughed with the children and savored wrapping small gifts from Village Discount. Once, at Wal-Mart, my older son and I passed a billboard with a baby girl. “I want a baby,” I told him. He was surprised and told me he didn’t think I would want another kid to make me crazy. In sadness, I apologized for my impatience, noting that my distractions had been felt. We bought a small night-light with an image of a girl and the inscription: “Pray the Lord, my soul to keep.”
During the day on the Eve of Theophany, I met with my mother and sister at Cracker Barrel for a light meal. I looked my sister in the eyes and told her that I would not be surprised if I had another baby. She said that she would, that it had taken fertility help. Her son and mine swapped stories of toughness: my nephew was a fish, a big one, and my son bragged that about his favorite toy “I have a DS.” It was a crisp day with light winter, and my mother, sister, the boys and I walked down a metro-park path after lunch. We laughed easily and gave piggy-back rides to the boys. That evening, I took the boys to church with me and felt a glorious resurrection of joy burn within. Getting our coats on with Matushka (our priest’s wife), I confided that there was a change about to be. I would get a job teaching at a local college or university, complete the dissertation with stillness and slowness that hadn’t been known the past seven years, or: “I will have a baby.” She lovingly smiled at me as I told her that in truth I was completely willing for whatever God willed for my life. I felt the truth of these words as never before. When next I prayed to the Mother of God, she met with me.
It was a few days later, and I was in the quiet of our bedroom with my prayers for the evening. When I beseeched the Theotokos, there was a confidence that hadn’t been before. I felt a certainty of desire and a clear will for a child. I prayed and it seemed as though she were holding me softly as all fears of this world abated by her perfect protection. It seemed I would conceive, that she had met me, that the cooperation of my heart and hers was with the Lord’s own. It’s too much to say, and yet it had seemed so and continues to be true.
The next day was Sunday and after Liturgy the children participated in a play with the church school, which they had only attended on the rare occasions that hockey had allowed. I was grateful that they were there and that those working with the children had enough love and care to include my children. My husband was at hockey, but I was not defeated. Faith abounded and a confidence burned in my cheeks. My mother-in-law (husband’s American host mom) met me for the children’s play. We talked about church and family, hockey and impossible schedules. I told her that sometimes it seemed hard to make things work, but only when I thought I had to make them work. It was easy, actually, to simply believe in God and rejoice in the small breaks that came when our family was one and radiant in His love. She said that my husband would not stop hockey, and I told her that I didn’t need or expect that, but that no push for church would never be acceptable. I had hope as he had allowed the boys to be here for the play instead of the hockey game. If one did not fight for spiritual life, there would be no attention given to God and the way of life He intends for us. Each of the smallest breaks that bring us back to His Church is a glorious celebration, and enough to keep me hoping. The spiritual path would wind variously, which is why we mustn’t judge one another but wait with open arms, willing to give our flesh and blood, hoping and loving all the way through.
We nibbled cabbage rolls and sipped coffee—rather, I devoured the scrumptious beef and cabbage. Between bites I confided with a whisper, I want another baby. How is that possible, she wondered. I told her I didn’t know, but that I knew it was, that I believed I would. We continued on, bits on how I still planned to finish my degree, to teach, and then we hushed and watched the children as wise-men bear holy gifts.
It wasn’t a test that told me I was pregnant as much as a course of faith that had been speaking from my heart. Still, when I called the doctor’s office to get the hormone count in my blood that proved that I was with child, my heart raced. Similar to the other two times that I had longed to shout from the rooftops of the miraculous conception of my first, then second sons, a bursting joy and faith needed voiced. The voice this time, though, is quieter. When I called my Godmother and close friend to tell her the news, she said that it was strange because she had been praying for those with unborn children and felt very sure that another would be with child. The mother of God offers us closeness with her and her Son through an intuitive love that abounds by faith the size of a mustard seed.
1Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing: Teachings from the Early Christian East, trans. Rama Coomaraswamy and John Champoux, Angelico Press, 2005.