It’s been astounding over the past few days to watch the fundraising campaign for Fr. Matthew Baker’s widow Presbytera Katherine and their six children raise so much in such a short time. (And if you are able to give, please do. That may look like a lot, but the Bakers will be dealing with a loss of income that will affect them for many years. What’s been raised so far is really only a beginning.) I’ve never seen anything like it—more than a half million raised in just four days for a family in need, given by thousands of donors.
Aside from this being a testament to what is possible when people feel a connection and have a genuine sense of the story behind a need, this experience has underlined for me one of the things that Fr. Matthew always witnessed to: the Church is love.
This might seem an obvious thing to say, but the sad reality is that life in church is often very much not about love for many people. There were times during our seminary years together when it was very difficult to sense love from the people who were supposed to be tending to us during our formative years in training for the priesthood. Indeed, sometimes what we experienced went beyond mere indifference to outright betrayal. (I won’t go into details, and those involved are no longer there, anyway.)
And parish life is often not about love, either. There are too many Orthodox parishes where the face of a stranger is the face of an invader, where everyone is a threat and not an opportunity.
Fr. Matthew often would tell me as he pursued his studies that a lot of his experience in the academy was not about love. No one expects the academy to be the Church, of course, but generosity and charity of spirit are part of what makes the actual pursuit of knowledge possible. Reason and learning without love are just cold calculation and prevent growth.
Yet somehow in the midst of all that was antithetical to love, Fr. Matthew was able to love. And now we have seen a powerful demonstration of love for him and for his wife and children.
Love truly is what holds the Church together, because it is the love of God Who sent His Son to become one of us, to die for us and to raise us with Him which is what constitutes the Church. God Himself is love—Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a communion of eternal love. This is the Gospel, that God so loved the world.
One of the gifts that Fr. Matthew gave was his ability to challenge other people to be more than they were, but not doing it in a threatening or critical way. I have been thinking these past few days especially of how he was able to pursue knowledge, marriage, fatherhood and priesthood all with a nearly inexhaustible self-giving. It took him a while to find a balance in all of these things, but he seemed to find it. And I have especially been thinking of how I can do all those things better myself. In most ways, I’m still not entirely sure.
This past week has seen me thinking a lot about the kind of person I am. I didn’t really expect that.
I was going through some of my old email archives of exchanges with Fr. Matthew and found some messages where he really was challenging me quite deeply and directly. He said that I should be charitable to someone who actually had a struggle similar to one of my own, someone whom I had been judging and and on whom I was laying unrealistic expectations. Instead of seeing this person’s weakness as a threat, I should see the weakness as something we had in common.
Perhaps that is part of his gift, that he was able to love others when he saw their weaknesses because he had come to know his own.