Every late December routinely brings us all to a point of reevaluation and reassessment. We may ask ourselves a series of questions: how is my life different than it was last year? What went well/poorly for me this year? It may also bring with it a sense of awe at how quickly another year has passed without us even realizing. No one would argue that this past year has been a rollercoaster, and even that may an understatement. If you think back to March-June, you may not be able to distinguish between any of the days in that four-month period. With churches opening and closing, loved ones battling illness, and the uncertain financial situation that many people found themselves in, this year has brought plenty of its own unique challenges.
By April, Zoom Sunday School and youth meetings quickly emerged and church streaming put a band-aid on the gaping wound that was life without the Eucharist. In the thick of the pandemic, social media was flooded with all different kinds of rhetoric about how you should be growing as a person, should be reacting to hardship, or should be fighting in your spiritual life. Many documented their quarantine weight loss journey and new projects while others said, “don’t worry if you’re not functioning at your best, no one is.” A viral video featured a priest confidently asserting that if you couldn’t spiritually grow from this pandemic, you never would. Each person in their own home mourned, prayed, and reminisced on the warm bosom of the Church as they participated in the journey of Pascha week from behind a monitor.
I found myself continually asking, what am I doing wrong and how can I be better? Even now that life has returned to a warped version of our previous normal and busyness, I still struggle to hold myself accountable for the amount of free time that I have. I tell myself It’s time that I could spend studying the bible, reading more books, or praying more hours of the agpeya. This is time that I always wished that I had, and now that I have it, I fail to put it to good use. I realized that a big part of my relationship with God was rooted in my presence in the church building and not in my inner room, and spirituality was lacking in the quiet places of my heart where its presence was most vital.
One person who I always resonate with deeply is St. Peter. As a part of our Lord Jesus Christ’s inner circle, he witnessed so much more than the other disciples. He watched Christ raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead, he witnessed His glorious transfiguration on Mount Tabor, and he even walked on water. It seemed like he was so heavily equipped and yet at the time when it mattered most, he failed. Peter deliberately denied our Lord in His hour of pain and loneliness. We all shudder and think, after all the things he saw and the promises he made, how could he blatantly fail? The most beautiful part of that story to me is what happened right after that. It says:
“Immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord…” (Luke 22:60-61)
That was all it took. Just one look and the familiar crowing of the rooster, and Peter came to his senses and realized how far he had fallen. Christ didn’t shout at him to repent; He didn’t pause his path to the cross to condemn Peter and say, “I told you so”. He just met his gaze. After that, it didn’t matter how far Peter had fallen as long as he came back, and he did. The morning of the Resurrection, the Lord embraced Peter with special care as the angel relayed the message:
“But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.” (Mark 16:7)
Peter could have dwelt on his failures and perished in hopelessness. Instead, he turned his failure into fuel for repentance and growth, and a little over 50 days later, the same person who denied three times converted 3,000 souls. It’s sometimes easy to think about how much time and potential we’ve wasted when the circumstances try us. It’s easier to think about how badly we’ve failed rather than where we can go from here. But maybe God is not found in the aggressive shout to repent (although He can be) or in the mirror that reveals day by day how badly we are failing. Maybe He’s found in our quiet inner room when no one is awake. He is found in the loving gaze and gentle whisper that says “I’m here, and all I want is for you to look at Me.”
If we follow the example of St. Anthony the Great, we will find that the spiritual life is a journey meant to be taken day by day, each day with its own small failures. As the year comes to a close, we must reevaluate what we’ve acquired from the past 9 months. If we’ve acquired virtue and good habits, let’s nurture them. If we’ve failed to make good use of our time, let’s change that starting with this very moment and ask, where can I go from here? Most importantly, at the end of every day and every year, let’s remember to always return to our Bethany, the place of quiet and rest in our inner room, the bosom of our Lord. In doing this, we can say with St. Anthony at every new beginning: “Every day I say to myself, today I will begin.”