“We are unutterably alone, essentially, especially in the things most intimate and most important to us.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Last year, after a protracted journey with breast cancer, the woman who had once been my abuser and had left me at a home for abandoned children died.
Thanks to a painstakingly slow spiritual awakening, I was able to be there for my mother in her final years, and co-heal that wounded relationship, with nourishing dollops of reciprocal forgiveness. It was unutterably humbling and sacred.
Shortly after she passed, around this time last year, Easter approached. And like a good lapsed-Greek Orthodox woman, I felt myself drawn to church to mourn my mother. It was in this spirit that, on the Saturday before Easter, perhaps the holiest day of the year on the Orthodox calendar, I walked into the local Greek church, near my home, in the desert east of Los Angeles.
In Greece, churches are generally open to parishioners, tourists, and everyone in between. They are open for those seeking a way to fan the flames of their faith, to cultivate a sense of rootedness, and retreat to a non-commercial space, or to pause for a moment of quiet reflection in a culture overwhelmed by the disease of being busy.
At this particular church, however, I was practically ushered out by the local priest. As if having failed to make reservations at a four-star Michelin restaurant, I was crisply informed that the house of worship was closed and that I would not be permitted to light a candle inside.
“Leave your money on the counter. I’ll take care of it later,” the diminutive, bearded cleric in black said sharply.
For a moment, in a state of deep grief, I was stunned. My body reflexively felt the deep sense of shame and unworthiness I had felt when I was five years old and had gone to school hungry without breakfast. What had happened when my kindergarten teacher called my sleeping mother at 3 o’clock in the afternoon to report that I told her I was hungry had stayed in my traumatized body and was triggered by the priest’s unwelcoming tone.
In my bones, I knew I was not wanted there, in what was supposedly my ancestral spiritual home.
To a dispassionate observer, the priest appeared to be worn out. I made up that he was overwhelmed by too many demands, not enough resources or support. Perhaps he did not have enough of the opportunity to carry the good word to others and give them hope because he, like many others living in mainstream American culture, was too saddled with the mundane tasks required to operate in an increasingly unequal capitalist society. Maybe he, too, hadn’t had enough of a chance to connect to his own spirit and felt depressed by the broader socioeconomic culture. He probably had Facebook and Twitter feeds to post on while multi-tasking and trying to save souls. Admittedly not an easy task.
I get it. Really I do.
Upon seeing I wasn’t comfortable leaving cash on the countertop, the priest grudgingly unlocked the church door, allowing me to deposit the folded bill in the donation box. Not, however, to light a candle. I said a silent prayer for my mother and reflected on the spirit of Easter.
The resurrection of the Easter spirit in that moment would require truth, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek. Seeing the priest’s humanity, it was clear that it would be up to me to be gracious, even with the deep gnawing pain in my heart that made me want to lash out in anger and rage like a wounded animal. The tightening in my solar plexus (the self-grasping Buddha spoke of) was a reminder of the limits of my own practice of compassion and the reach of my empathy. Although wounded like him, I was no Christ, to be sure, nor a budding bodhisattva. I was furious and, under that, deeply hurt and ashamed.
After I made the donation and he locked the door behind me, he asked when my mother had passed and what her name was. He said he would say a prayer for her and light a candle in her honor later that evening. He asked my name, too, and why I didn’t come to church there.
With little rancor or bitterness in my heart, but with tears of grief, succor, and tenderness refused, I quietly but honestly told him I hadn’t felt welcomed there. A parishioner — an elderly woman — had walked in at that moment and saw the bizarre interaction. Here was a community in conflict at the most micro level, trying to make meaning in both the temporal and the non-temporal realms. He was trying to get work done and me out of there; I was looking for something of the spirit. He wasn’t wrong and nor was I.
What drove the stake of rejection even deeper into my tender flesh was that I had also gone there with the intention of volunteering. I wanted to offer mindfulness and meditation classes to the local Greek Orthodox community.
The symbolism of Easter has always attracted me. As a Greek-American child growing up on the East and West coasts, the rituals intrigued me the most. The brightly lit candles. The red eggs shining from the olive oil rubbed on them with clean white cloths. The men roasting the sacrificial lamb over the spit for hours in the sunshine, while the women prepared the tsoureki and tzatziki. The children playing. And the deeply resonant Christos Anesti chanted as rich, evocative incense wafted through the air.
Even when my hair was burned at church from candled parishioners huddled too close together and an overabundance of teenage hairspray (a surprisingly all-too-common experience), I loved everything about Easter. It was, and remains in some deeply inexpressible ways, one of the best parts about being Greek.
My relationship with the Orthodox Church has always been a complicated one, much like that of many modern Greeks, both on the mainland and in the diaspora.
On the one hand, the sense of tradition, history, and cultural identity that came from one of the world’s oldest churches is rich and profound. For a group of people trying to make sense of the modern world throughout space and time on at least five continents, the Church is a beacon of sorts. I personally have family members everywhere from Australia and Canada to Switzerland and Zaire who sought solace at Greek Orthodox churches, often at the beginning of the immigrant experience, but not only. As anyone who has seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding can attest, to be Greek, for many, means to be somehow connected to the Church.
On the other hand, I felt repelled by the parochialism, misogyny, intolerance, materialism, and greed that often stuck to the underbelly of the church like an unsightly layer of thick barnacles strangling a beautiful sea-faring vessel.
Buddhist meditation, by contrast, had entered my life as a source of refuge when I lived in Athens years ago, both running from and running toward my family of origin. It seemed karmically appropriate to give back by offering to teach meditation classes this way to honor my mother’s passing. Karma — the law of cause and effect — had helped me to make sense of the profoundly convoluted relationship I had with her and helped me to unbundle the deep sense of shame that I, like other abandoned children, had always felt. The law of karma told me I could do something to change the wheel of my own destiny and heal some of the intergenerational trauma I had been born into. At the same time, teaching was a way to fill my own need for connection and meaning while mourning, something I desperately needed.
It troubled me to think of this place that had once provided the promise of solace for so many refusing to welcome and embrace a grieving person in need. Spontaneous compassion arose in me for all those that are refused safe harbor and refuge around the world: the abandoned children, the addicted mothers forced to leave them, the poor, the refugees, the homeless in my community in Palm Springs, the most vulnerable of our fellow human beings — all the human tragedies that fill the headlines and cause our hearts to feel tight.
In Greece, and elsewhere around the world, conversations at the dinner table over freshly made spanakopita are filled with exhortations that the Church stay relevant and engage with young people, that it reach out to those in need. Like many ancient religions around the world, this one, too, is riddled with serious attraction and retention issues in its own ethnic community, both contributed to and caused by its own very real wounds as a living, breathing entity.
When there is pain, grief, death, loss, and mourning, it is deeply human to turn to the institutions of childhood for succor. In many ways, we are all like the Syrian and other refugees crossing the Mediterranean and shuffled around the world. Looking for a place to rest. A place to find hope. A place where the spirit is nourished even as the flesh is wounded. A place where, even if for a moment, we can find the fresh air and sunshine of resurrection.
We want community and tradition, compassion and tenderness, and when we go to ordinary human beings to find it — even those called to the cloth — we sometimes find ourselves deeply disappointed. This is the stuff that, unattended to, devolves into spiritual abuse.
Even though my mother had told me stories from the patrida (homeland) in the 1950s and 1960s of clergy indulging in greed and sexual impropriety, she nonetheless wanted me to know the Church as part of my heritage. As a poor, abandoned, deeply traumatized and uneducated young girl, she had little choice but to make up in her mind that she was somehow the flawed sinner and to act that pain out in her life, not that the very real humans in the black robes were racked by the same demons as she was and had actually failed her.
No one had ever told her otherwise. No one told her that she, too, had goodness, love, light and purity in her. And that it was her fundamental nature: her Buddha mind. Not until her final years when her family’s karma changed and she heard it from the child she had once abandoned.
Herein lies the crux of the dilemma facing so many today: wanting to share our heritage and cultural roots with our children, and struggling with how to talk about the ugly parts, too. Most people from that part of the world have at least a few stories of impropriety from the clergy — sex, money, graft, greed, hypocrisy, and a lack of humility are commonly featured.
I don’t have children of my own but when my godsons (who were baptized in the Church) ask me someday down the road when we are swimming together on summer vacation in Kefalonia or the Peloponnese, I hope I will have the courage to give the nuanced, ineffable truth of the nature of all human beings. That we are both inherently divine, and deeply human, just as the stories about Christ teach.
The end of the story is not the crucifixion, whether in the form of addiction, trauma, divorce, poverty, war, or loneliness. The end of the story of Easter is eternal life and rebirth. That light comes after dark. That life follows death, as spring follows winter. That forgiveness and acceptance bring peace. That there is love and fear in each of us.
And that the best we can do as humble humans created in the image and likeness of a loving Creator is to offer our own personal best each day back to the Tree of Life from whence we came.
I left the Church wistful that I had not found the spiritual home I longed for, and still cobble together daily, moment by moment.