Archimandrite Tikhon in Everyday Saints and Other Stories, toward the end of the book, tells several stories about his friend Fr. Raphael. Fr. Raphael was a fearless country priest who drove “his little black Zaporozhets car” like a mad man, played tricks on the KGB, and spent most of his day-time hours drinking tea with whomever came his way. Fr. Raphael spent so much time having tea with whomever that he garnered the reputation, among some, of being an idler. However, Fr. Tikhon points out that Fr. Raphael had a spiritual gift, a charisma for having tea (you might even say) because there was not one person known to have tea with Fr. Raphael– “from passionate atheist and the intellectual most disillusioned with ecclesiastical corruption to the most desperado criminals devoid of all morals–who after meeting Father Raphael did not afterwards decisively change and turn back to the spiritual life.”
Fr. Raphael was not gifted as a public speaker. Fr. Tikhon even jokes about how terrible his homilies were. “But if you chanced to drink tea with him on his little table in his country parish house, he became completely transformed, especially when people exhausted with suffering and heartache from their lost lives in this world came and sought him out.” Isn’t that the way with the gifts and Grace of God? We must humbly find them and walk in them. God’s Grace is at no one’s beck and call. No one chooses how, when or even if God will transform them so that through them someone might be touched by God. The graced homilist may be exactly the wrong person to share a long bus ride with. The wise physician of souls in confession may be quite dull at meal time. And the most boring homilist and off-key liturgist might, through his midnight prayers, be the open door through which the Grace of God is working in me or you that we might at all experience some longing for God. Lives are changed when people encounter God: tea is not enough.
“Let’s be honest,” Fr. Tikhon says, “merely conversing with people who have gotten themselves hopelessly lost in this cold world, and what’s worse, in their own selves, is not enough to transform them.” One has to actually encounter God; and most usually, people encounter God in other people. Like the Theotokos, we too must learn to be God-beares.
It is not that God has not come to us. His Spirit is in us at Chrismation. Christ Himself is in us through Holy Communion. God is with us and in us. That’s not the issue. The problem, to quote St. Paul, is that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” We are clay pots of broken humanity housing the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh of God inside ourselves. Learning to let God heal our own broken humanity and in turn learning to let some of that Grace out onto those around us is basically what our whole lives as Christians is about. There is no program for this–each person is unique–we learn by doing, by living our lives “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom you shine as lights in the world.”
And of course we don’t generally know when or if or how light shines from us. We just live, and care, and try. We offer ourselves to God. I’m sure Fr. Raphael never thought of himself as one graced to have tea. I think in his heart he continually begged God’s mercy, and wondered why God could not have provided a better homilist for his people. And when he sat down for tea, I bet he sometimes felt a tinge of guilt because he liked it so much. And when he listened to the pain and tears and broken lives of those who came to him, I’m sure he felt every pain and tear and bit of brokenness in his own heart.
And the Light of Christ shone through Fr. Raphael at tea.