My oldest daughter has entered the mystifying world of high school and her younger sister is fascinated by her new schedule and routines, outfits and toiletries. Mary studies Priscilla as she primps in the morning and plows through her homework in the evening, and as she Facetimes her friends and practices her Oral Interpretation piece in front of our full length mirror. To Mary, Priscilla is the archetype of “teenage girl,” the very embodiment of what teenagedom looks like and feels like. Because of her limited perspective Mary might very well assume that skinny jeans, Tom’s shoes, and infinity scarves are the required uniform for authentic teenageness, and Broadway show tunes the required sound track.
Sooner than I’m ready for, Mary too will evolve from “tween” into “teen” and find out for herself that while sporting a casual chic look and listening over and over and over again to “Wicked” co-stars Kristin Chenowith and Idina Menzel belt out “Defying Gravity” is certainly one way to be a teenage girl, it most definitely is not the only way. “Teenage girl” can mean shy or exuberant, artsy or sporty, serious or silly, preppy or emo, long hair, shaved head, bubble gum pop, vintage rock… the possibilities are wonderfully endless.
It’s natural when approaching unfamiliar territory to try and make sense of it by observing the natives. I did this when I was first pregnant and living in the city. The circles I ran in happened to be more alternative than traditional, medically speaking, and the new mothers I saw regularly at my parish and La Leche League meetings were pro-homebirth, breastfeeding, babywearing and kelp eating. These devoted hippie mamas became my tribe. I adopted their philosophies, birthplans, and bohemian style. To me, they were the quinesstential definition of “maternal” and because of that limited perspective I assumed flowy skirts, baby slings and Birkenstocks were the required uniform for new-momness, and vegan lentil stew, kale salad, and honey sweetended carob brownies the required menu.
Eventually, I emerged from the infant stage and moved from an urban environment to a small town in Indiana where I met and befriended different kinds of moms – moms who wore chinos and button up shirts, yoga pants, dress suits. I met mothers who worked, mothers who stayed home, single moms, married moms, mothers who private-schooled, mothers who volunteered at their kids’ public school. I grew to respect their varying journeys, talents, and circumstances, and appreciate our shared deep, deep, longing to do right by our kids despite our frailties.
When my husband and I converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1998, once again I observed the locals, this time to figure out what it meant to be a genuine “Orthodox Christian” . Some of my fellow parishioners were extremely well read and intelligent, some very artistic, some stern and austere, still others boisterous and welcoming. The range was diverse and a little intimidating, quite frankly. I struggled at first to find my place, there being no one specific prototype I could emulate with any consistency. See, I couldn’t exactly hold my own in deep theological conversations; I had never excelled at domestic arts of any kind; I wasn’t as crafty or organized as the Orthodox moms I admired who homeschooled their precious broods of compliant children; I couldn’t grow a beard…
I didn’t see myself in anybody and at first that was disconcerting.
It took a few years, several rounds of confession, and wise insights from others more mature and experienced than myself to correct my thinking on the matter. “Becoming Orthodox” is not a transformation that takes place from the outside in by me altering my appearance or mimicking someone else’s temperament and talents but rather from the inside out by me utilizing the tools of the church to help quell my selfishness, serve my neighbor and acquire peace day-to-day, minute-to-minute.
Self-denial does not mean abandoning the quirky traits and unique gifts that make me “me.” It’s about chipping away the ugly vices disfiguring my true, fruit-bearing, “one of a kind” self. Though we are eternally all bound up in one another, salvation is not a one size fits all process. It’s not an accident I am here in this specific time, in this specific place, or that I have these specific strengths and vulnerabilities. I was fearfully and wonderfully made and so were you! We each have something important and distinct to contribute to Christ’s beautifully diverse Body:
Not only does the Holy Spirit make us all one, but he makes us each different… For me to be a Spiritbearer is to realize all the distinctive characteristics in my personality; it is to become truly free, truly myself in my uniqueness. Life in the Spirit possesses an inexhaustible variety; it is wrong-doing, not sanctity, that is boring and repetitive. As a friend of mine, a priest who spent many hours each day hearing confessions, used to remark wearily: ‘What a pity there are no new sins!’ But there are always new forms of holiness.” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, pg. 126)
Hospitality is holiness, so is yard work and floor sweeping, so is poetry and singing, so is patient endurance and guarding one’s tongue. Holiness can take the form of grief, contagious cheerfulness, placid peacefulness, sedate self-control. Decisive action can be holiness, so can restraint, and soothing babies, and praying earnestly for your teenager, and running a business with integrity. Sometimes holiness is visible, as in aid workers providing basic necessities to victims of tragedy or soldiers sacrificing their lives for their comrades. More often than not, however, holiness is quiet and small and humble – it’s the woman who cleans up after coffee hour every Sunday, the man who greets everyone with warm eye contact and a smile, those who forgive, those who don’t pass judgment on their neighbor, those who give their all to the task before them, those who choose gratitude over envy and discontentment.
Having loving respect for each other does not equate to morphing into clones of one another. Without trying to become you, I can still appreciate and learn from you! I can marvel at our differences and through them praise God for His creativity and generous mercy – for making it possible for even flighty, forgetful, often goofy old me to spread His Light!