I just came across this review of Living in Christ by Mother Raphaela of Holy Myrrbearer’s Monastery in New York. I am very thankful for the instruction given in this foretaste, and I’ll go ahead and put the book on my wish list, but I’m not sure I should abandon other books yet, which I tend to neglect, by ordering it now. I really want to work on being more diligent in my reading.
Reviewed by Deborah Malacky Belonick
It’s a reality check. This collection of essays stuns the reader at every flip of the page and issues an invitation to a world of perseverance without excuses for bad behavior. The author offers both a tempting image of abundant life in Jesus Christ and a warning of the personal sacrifice and labor necessary to acquire it.
Ironically, she compels her audience to desire to live honestly and in joyous communion with God while cautioning them that such spiritual growth comes neither by magic, nor feigned piety, nor by laziness. It comes by “…proven ability to be responsible and willing to work, plus the inner resources to function even when there is not a great deal of external excitement or stimulation….” plus, oh yes, the acceptance to be humiliated.
The author, Mother Raphaela, is a North American monastic and abbess of Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery in Otego, New York. Formerly a nun in the Episcopal church where she served as a novice mistress for her province, she entered the Orthodox Church in 1977. Drawing on her experience within and without the monastic life, she offers these practical reflections as tools to live with integrity. Her practical wisdom crosses the boundaries of the monastery fences and is applicable to anyone trying to walk a Christian path.
If you’re looking to gather warm, fuzzy kudos for a rainy day, don’t look here. These essays are for people who are serious about giving up excuses, complaints, ingrained bad habits and blaming others for all their problems. They are not chicken soup for the soul. They are strong medicine for intransigent sin. They are the cold showers for hot passions that have led us into anxiety, depression, power trips, and problems with relationships. But if you are looking for sound, solid advice to aerate a parched soul, by all means peruse these gems.
The essays, with titles like “Maturity,” “Challenged by Freedom,” “Work and Obedience,” and “Human Love: a Trilogy,” are brimming with remedies that seem paradoxical to the modern humanist mind. Mother Raphaela encourages readers to put aside our own ideas and opinions to grow into greater freedom; to give up gods of our own making, even religious ones we have enshrined, to let the real God act; to cultivate gratitude and count one’s blessings before attempting ascetical efforts; and to learn the discipline of silence in a world bent on entertainment.
Mother Raphaela disdains false selves, false gods, and false piety. She challenges those beginning spiritual warfare to “…practice giving up their attachment to resentments, bitterness, the taking of offense at any questioning of their words or behavior….” Only then, she claims, can a person begin to think of the harder disciplines of prayer, fasting, silence, solitude and self-denial which are medicines for the sick soul. In regard to those seeking to enter the monastic life, she warns of the massive battle involved in remaining celibate. But she equally warns the married to grapple with sexual expression, fidelity and temptations.
As far as discerning a monastic vocation, Mother Raphaela scorns a martyrdom of one’s own making: “If a woman sees the monastic life as a ‘terrible sacrifice,’ that is normally a sign that God is not calling her to it.” She also concludes that wounded, fragile people generally are unfit for the rigors of monastic life and would be better healed in alternative settings.
Despite their no-nonsense emphasis, these essays are irresistible. They supply truthful criticism that may lead to healing in an overly tolerant world. Instead of offering the apple of Paradise, the fruit of wayward will, they offer the cross, the way to living in Christ.
Because the author paints the cross with incredible desire and love, she makes us willing to step out in faith, to acknowledge our sins, to fight hard battles, to endure pain, and to do it with joy. In so doing, she leads us from the circular paths in which we spin onto the narrow road to glory.
Recent posts by Aaron Taylor, The Rivers & Seas of the North Were Honoured to Bear Thee, Oh Anskar, and Deacon Monk Felix Culpa, Egoism’s Immense Vigor, also emphasize the need to get serious about Christianity. Lord have mercy.