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From Darkness to Light in the Church

by Fr. Joseph Huneycutt, from the January-February 2017 Issue of The Word:

Iconographers progress from dark to light, superimposing lighter colors over darker ones, and finishing with increasingly light-toned touches. I'm no iconographer, yet I hope the letter below will be viewed as a starting point towards the light. It was sent in reply to a frustrated orthodox christian woman who had written me with thoughts of leaving the church. I publish it here for the sake of others who may find themselves in a spiritual funk. Forgive me.

Dear ––––,

First off, please forgive the delay in my reply. I have no excuse, save fear of failing you in my answer.

I was once in a similar state as you now find yourself. Though I found comfort in praying the services and serving as pastor, I got to the point at which I hated everything "Orthodox." A magazine would arrive with a picture of a priest in his vestments – a service, baptism, or some such – and I would look at the picture with loathing and cast it aside in anger.

I hated all things that looked and smacked of "Orthodoxy" – all the while trying to lead a small community. It was awful. I won't go into the details of how I got to that point, but (forgive me here, please) I remember walking into the church early one morning and cursing myself before all the saints portrayed on the icons. It was a horrible two years.

That said, it was years ago, and here I am ... still.

Back in 2006, I was hearing confessions at St. George, Houston, during one of the Presanctified Liturgies. The church was dark and full, lots of confessions, the choir was singing beautifully. I wept. It occurred to me that that very moment, when I felt close to God and heaven, would not have been possible if I had not held on during those terrible years. You might not be able to hear this in your current state but, really, it's all – all of it – worth it.

During those years of struggle I tried everything – confession, counseling, crying, cussing, prostrations, Jesus Prayer, gossip – everything! What can I say? I'm a poor priest and a great sinner. Like you, however, I truly believe that the Orthodox Church is the fullness of Christ in the world. Honestly, in hindsight, I thank God that I was ordained; otherwise, in my weakness, I might surely have left the Church.

Now, years later, things are drastically different. Oh, I'm still worthless, if you scratch me hard enough. Yet I look back on those bad years in awe. My life, ministry and outlook are so much – so vastly – different now, through no feat of my own, save "hanging in there."

Oh sure, there was God's mercy, yada, yada, yada, but, spoiled as I am, I expected that. Besides, some things sound trite when you're in a funk. God is, after all, God; of that I had no doubt. Though unconscious of it, I had plenty of doubts about me.

What is remarkable is that I stayed. That has made all the difference. The problem wasn't the Church, Orthodoxy, or mercy, you see: it was me. I needed the Church.

With love in Christ,
Fr. Joseph

That letter was written many years after my serving small missions, but once a mission priest, always a mission priest. Like dark to light, that period was not a bad thing. After all, all things are redeemable in Christ.

And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

Mission work is hard; for some, it's unbearable. For most, it is hidden from view. Honestly, much of the above pertains only to those who have "read their way into the Church" (that is, adult converts). I suspect that those who've worked in missions – clergy and laity – view these examples from a lighter place than those uninitiated in the struggles of the American mission field. 

Oftentimes, especially pastors in missions, we tend to place our hopes on every warm body that darkens the door of our church. Time has proven that doing so can lead to continual discouragement. Yet we must stay the course! Sow seed. Be faithful. God will provide the increase. Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes:

Our continual mistake is that we do not concentrate upon the present day, the actual hour, of our life; we live in the past or in the future; we are continually expecting the coming of some special moment when our life will unfold itself in its full signicance. And we do not notice that life is owing like water through our fingers, sifting like precious grain from a loosely fastened bag.

Constantly, each day, each hour, God is sending us people, circumstances, tasks, which should mark the beginning of our renewal; yet we pay them no attention, and thus continually we resist God's will for us. Indeed, how can God help us? Only by sending us in our daily life certain people, and certain coincidences of circumstance. If we accepted every hour of our life as the hour of God's will for us, as the decisive, most important, unique hour of our life – what sources of joy, love, strength, as yet hidden from us, would spring from the depths of our soul!

Let us then be serious in our attitude towards each person we meet in our life, towards every opportunity of performing a good deed; be sure that you will then fulll God's will for you in these very circumstances, on that very day, in that very hour.1

Otherwise, it all makes for good ction. Yet our salvation is based in Reality. We all fall short. We all miss the mark. is does not mean that we are defeated. We are however, handicapped. We need each other in Christ. It is the very reason for the Church, the Ark of our Salvation. One has to live the Orthodox Christian faith. It is not found in books, gurus, or exotic places. Like the Kingdom of God, it is found within the heart. We have to make room! For dragons and slithery passions are also found therein, whose goal it is to smother the light with their darkness. It is their goal to blind us. This is spiritual warfare. It begins with you, directed toward God, working out your salvation with your neighbor.

I once had a well-loved parishioner who suddenly quit the parish. There were a few who thought, "Father ran him off!" Such talk usually dies down as the grieving process proceeds, but this went on for some time. Mature Christians know better. Oftentimes they know better than the priest and help to remind him that "God prunes His Church."

After a while, the priest gets used to it. He never likes it. He suffers for it. Still, he reaches an understanding with himself that, for the sake of his sanity and that of his family and his flock, he's just going to keep struggling toward the Kingdom as best as he's able.

At a candid clergy gathering where the topic was Antagonists in the Church, an experienced priest told of an early trial in his ministry. Someone in his parish had started a rumor about his wife. It became a scandal. Like all such devilry, it snowballed. At one point the wife asked her husband: "Why? Why keep on? Why not leave and go to another parish? Why not give up the nonsense and get a 'real job'?" The priest, with tears in his eyes, told the rest of us what he had told his wife: "Honey, you don't understand. I get to stand at the altar of the Most High and touch the precious Body of our Lord at every Liturgy." We all understood.

Ask any priest: Standing before the altar, celebrating the Mysteries of the Church, is an experience incomparable to any this side of the grave. No man should ever take it lightly. Few are they who remain unchanged by this awesome and sacred duty. For lack of better wording, it makes it all worth it.

Our imperfect world, outside Paradise, ruled by the Enemy, has taught us to question all authority, and has denigrated fatherhood. But as Christians, we know that all fatherhood ows from the Father. It is His Fatherhood that should be the model, the ideal, for earthly fathers. We should not judge fatherhood according to the ways of the world. Rather, the changeless Fatherhood of God is known through the Church. St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote: "No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother." And somewhere along the line, God willing, we children all fit in.

Most of the time your priest is just a man struggling toward salvation, bowed a little lower each year with the weight of his sins, the burden of fatherhood, and the glory of the Cross. Standing at the altar, it's all worth it. All of it.2

Pray for your priest. Especially, dear brothers and sisters, pray for your co-laborers in our mission parishes and the seekers who darken their doors so desperately in need of the Light of Christ and the Ark of Salvation.

Fr. Joseph Huneycutt
Vice-Chairman, Department of Missions and Evangelism

1. Alexander Elchaninov, The Diary of a Russian Priest (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1982), p. 157.

2. Excerpted from One Flew Over the Onion Dome – Orthodox Converts, Retreads, and Reverts (Regina Orthodox Press, 2006), pp.