There is an excellent interview of Sister Gavrilia, the biographer of Mother Gavrilia. The biography itself is called The Ascetic of Love and I highly recommend it. Some of my understanding of my own obedience to Christ came from reading this book and the desire that welled up in me to follow Mother Gavrilia’s example. Whether or not this is a good point of recommendation, however, remains to be seen.
In telling the story of her own coming to repentance, Sister Gabrilia tells of an early encounter with a priest that so puts her off that in spite of a profound spiritual encounter with Christ, she slips back into the world for a few years.
Ah, those pesky priests.
It really is a difficult conundrum. Any time someone is set aside or recognized as a religious person (priest, nun, bishop, whatever), he or she is bound to do or say something that offends someone. I admit from the start that there are outwardly religious people–perhaps especially among the clergy–who are really wolves in sheep’s clothing. Jesus himself and the Apostle Paul told us that this would be the case and to be on our guard against such. That there are wicked priests or bishops or nuns shouldn’t surprise us. And actually, I don’t think there is much that one can do about it. We pray, and we avoid as much as possible the offending ones. Certainly we speak the truth in appropriate contexts, but we don’t make a stink. That is, God has called none (I repeat, none!) of us to be wolf hunters in the Church. God Himself must defend the Church for she is His Bride. There is no spiritual gift of inquisitor.
Nevertheless, it is not the blatant wolves, in my experience, who are the greatest problem for most believers. The greatest stumbling block for many is the local priest or nun or bishop who is just not good enough. God calls fallen and weak men and women to follow Him, often in positions of leadership in the Church. Weak men are often lured into talking about things they know nothing about (such as peace in Buddhism); or respond with annoyance in their voice to someone who needs compassion; or forget important names, dates, or appointments; or let slip in public that they have some secret indulgence such as football or scotch–indulgences no truly holy person would countenance. There are a thousand ways to give offence and another ten thousand ways to take offence.
This is why we have to do our best to love one another and strive not to put expectations on one another. God must be our only Saviour. God will use people, but people will disappoint. Someone recently told me that she had said to someone else who wanted to speak to her about spiritual things (based on some articles she had written), that she would only agree to speak to her if she promised to have very low expectations. And do you know what this other woman said? She said, “Only God can help me.” So my friend said, “I’d love to talk to you.”
Wouldn’t our life together be so much easier if we all truly believed that only God could help us? Wouldn’t we experience much less disappointment if we kept our expectations low toward one another and high toward God? Mother Gavrilia provides a wonderful example of a woman who had no expectations except that God would help her. And God did help her–and this is important–through people! God speaks to us, encourages us, helps us, and cares for us most often through the people He has put in our life. When we are looking to God for help, it is easy to see God’s help in the people in our lives, rather than seeing how the people themselves do or don’t live up to our expectations.
When Sister Gavrilia had her disappointing experience with a priest, she was very young in her spiritual journey. Certainly we all must be as careful as possible not to offend “the least of these.” The Gospels make it clear that God’s judgement on those who offend the little ones is severe. However, even when we try hard not to offend, offences inevitably come. When they do, please don’t run back into the world. Run instead to God your Father; run to the Theotokos your Mother; and keep on looking for a slightly holy man or woman who can help you along the way.