It is well known in the emerging field of epigenetics that conditions of stress, abuse, neglect and trauma in a person”s family of origin can seriously affect our physical and mental health as adults. But it also plays a significant role in our religious life.
I have known more than one person who has sought refuge in the Orthodox faith only to run into difficulties after trying to do too much too soon and then fallen away. Sometimes this arises from obsessively trying to follow every rule they read about in the enormous literature available in print of two-thousand years of tradition. Sometimes it results from the experience of failing to advance to the farthest reaches of spiritual illumination through ambitious zeal and merciless perfectionism driven by undiscerned pride and vainglory. In both cases, a great cloud of despondency can settle in the wake of failing to overcome the self-hatred and shame acquired in abusive and neglectful families now compounded by a sense of further failure.
The common denominator in these scenarios, and I suspect for a host of others as well, is self-judgment arising from the disappointment and confusion over why all these sought-after goals in the spiritual life don’t change our experience as immediately as we expected or in the ways that we wanted. This sword of judgment is sharp indeed and inflicts a mortal wound.
Whether naively or pridefully, many of these pilgrims proceeded without adequate spiritual guidance from someone familiar with the path who could have helped them “hasten slowly” with patience, gradually discovering a rhythm and rule that truly “fit” their personal temperament, history and life circumstances. They could have avoided spiritual indigestion. The Christian Way is one of slow humbling in life by the impossibility of ever measuring up to the Infinite One who pours Himself out in love for us. Who would want to try for such perfection anyway and for what purpose? Hmmm. Christianity, as Peter, Paul and all the other saints have painfully discovered, is not possible by human effort alone. Imagine what they first thought when Jesus instructed them to go forth and “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils.” 
Those who have experienced significant abuse or neglect in their early lives and proceed zealously without awareness of their own legitimate human needs, as well as their need for experienced guidance, are I believe at the greatest risk of falling prey to despondency and losing themselves in wandering about as in desert places, feeling uncared for and abandoned as they had as children. In the beginning, they were drawn to the joy of Christ with hope for a welcome and connection they had not received in their families, but had never given up on. They were in search of a belovedness from beyond this world, without recognizing that “the Only Lover of Humankind” was already helping them without their realizing it…or they wouldn’t even be searching for Him.
Some years after having found the Orthodox Church, overwhelmed by failure to live up to what we have expected of ourselves, we may begin to look at faith through “a glass darkly,” distorted by the shame and pain of our past histories once again. “What am I doing wrong?” “This is just too hard.” “Instead of feeling loved, I’m reading stories of saints who say we should never feel worthy.” “Jesus himself says, ‘Even when you have done all that you are supposed to do, say you are an unworthy servant’  “Is Orthodoxy just more suffering?”
These kinds of questions are not unfamiliar even to those without abusive pasts and who have matured in the faith. They are thoughts born out of the human struggle for authentic Communion that need to be revealed to a good spiritual father. This remains true our whole lives long. A generous and accomplished man who had survived early trauma, and who had a long and fervent life in the Orthodox faith complained, “I can’t find any tears. I keep trying to pray “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me the sinner’ but I just feel worse. Why should I keep repeating over and over, I’m a sinner, I’m a sinner! What I need is to know is that I am loved by God.”
Exasperated and confused, he did not give up, but continued to search for a sense of belovedness and tears that continued to escape him. Then on a trip to Mt Athos in his old age, he asked an experienced Athonite elder what he should do. The elder replied “Some of the time pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for your love.” “I can?” he responded with surprise and excitement. Not long after he found tears and a deep gratefulness within the embrace of a peaceful sense of belovedness and joyful surrender that emerged for him in the midst of cancer that was the final herald of his mortality.
Orthodox life is paradoxical because it is given to us from beyond this world and its understanding. The Lord has “hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them unto babes.” In the person of Christ are united the uncreated divine and the created natures “without confusion.” At the level of the being, divine and human natures do not touch or intermingle. They are separated by an abyss that cannot be crossed except in death and rebirth in the One who has conquered death by dying. In the person of the Jesus Christ, the Son of God, these two worlds are seamlessly joined as one. The divine nature is affected by created human nature all the way unto death and then human nature is affected by the divine resurrection, called bodily all the way out of death into eternal communion of love.
The meaning of this paradoxical revelation of the single person and two natures of Christ is what helps us realize we should not confuse the psychological sense of shame and unworthiness we acquire from abuse and neglect as children and from the humiliation of continuing to sin with the ontological sense unworthiness that is response to divine Grace. Humility arises as we become even more acutely aware of our incompleteness apart from God in the presence of the holiness and love of Christ. The Lord’s love and humility are so great that one encounter with Him, lasting no more than seconds in time, changed St. Silouan’s life forever, bringing copious tears and love for the whole of humanity in his prayers for the rest of his life. 
In a similar way, the belovedness and joy we encounter in small doses over a lifetime gradually dissolves the power of the dread from our psychological past which compels us to find “clothing” to cover the shame of our experience of neglect and abuse and of our sins. Gradually we learn that we do not need to be other than we are in a given moment, but only to trust the love of Christ in and through all things. No pretense or pretending is needed. We can even be grateful for the suffering that helped begin our search for meaning beyond it.
We are each invited to the Divine Wedding because Christ is the Bridegroom who has proposed to all of humanity and is waiting for a response. The enormity of this miracle can be confusing as well, for while we are called to come as we are, unadorned, as the words of the familiar old Gospel song declare, “Just as I am without one plea” it is also true as we pray before Communion, that if we are found in the wedding hall without a wedding garment “we shall be bound up and caste out by the angels.” The paradox forces us to move beyond our logical brains to a deeper understanding of the mystery of Christ’s person that has been revealed to us. Our entrance into the wedding hall is not based on our created nature’s self-sufficient achievements. It is a gift, just like life itself. Marriage with Christ who gives us a “Garment of Grace” to cover the garments of skin that are mortal, means returning to Him what He offers us in Communion out of humility and love: “Thine own of Thine own we offer Thee in all and for all” in an endless call and response.
Yes, we are unworthy and yes, we are beloved. Both at the same time! We are nothing and we are filled with the life of Christ. We are dead in our created nature and alive in Christ through baptism. We are incorporated into his Body the Church through the divine Eucharist. So, we do not ever trust in any of our own efforts, or in our own judgments of our value, or in the judgments of those who have abused and neglected us or even those who praise us. Rather, we rejoice in the intention of the words of the prayer “It is good for me to cling to God and place in Him the hope of my salvation.” This is a recipe for peace and joy.
Apart from this paradoxical joining of two natures in Christ, which we begin to taste in the struggle to live as eschatological beings while yet still mortal, to be children of “our [uncreated] Father who is in Heaven” and not defined by our fathers and mothers on earth, or their behaviors toward us, it is all too easy to find oneself again trusting one’s own efforts. Again and again we fall back into the ultimately hopeless efforts to overcome the psychological shame that follows us like a shadow which increases to the degree that the light of the immortal divine sun shines upon us. The closer we are to God, the more trials we experience and the greater is our awareness of the gap between what is mortal and what is divine.
The result of traveling this road alone, without spiritual companionship and guidance, can be that we spring up quickly like the seeds sown on the rock as in Jesus’ parable  and then wither in the heat of life’s mid-day sun, because we have not developed sufficient roots. Or our initial zeal is quickly choked by the tangle of sins and passions that provided our covering and hiding places before our conversion.
Deep roots keep trees stable, letting them grow tall and feeding them with water and minerals in order to create leaves that capture and transform sunlight into their own growth as well as contributing a life-giving offering of oxygen to all breathing creatures. Our roots in faith grow slowly as well. The deeper they are, the more nourishment can be extracted from the depths of joys and pathos of ordinary life which are transformed in the light of divine grace that sanctifies the person while bearing the fruits of the Spirit invisibly like oxygen to nourish all who come into contact with them.
A soul dear to me recently shared some wisdom that is proving helpful to her. What she writes about is a simple, but all too often neglected, mind-body intentionality in the moment, which, combined with gratefulness to God and repeated many times, becomes transformative. She points to what we might call an “intentional Mary moment” of embodied stillness. It is an intentional re-membering of oneself in the moment which opens the way to a doxology of gratefulness and wonder rather than a string of more “Martha moments” of neglecting communion with the Lord which leave us unnourished.
Mary sitting before the Lord is an icon of the receptive Sabbath presence and pure love of what the neptic fathers of the Philokalia call hesychia. Hesychia is the deep stillness that arises out of the total interest of love and self-offering of all one’s faculties to Christ “with all one’s mind, with all one’s strength, with all one’s soul” which paradoxically becomes the greatest receptivity to the One who offers Himself to us in the same way. A few may seek this in extended ways alone in the desert as hermits, but all of us can and should seek these small “intentional Mary moments” of hesychia in everyday life as often as we can.
She writes, “I recently read that when something good or beautiful happens, if you really take a moment to feel that in your body and acknowledge the goodness rather than just going right on to the next “thing on the to-do list,” that over time this will become embedded in your nervous system and help shape the more powerful, subconscious part of your mind to notice and expect the good and the beautiful more often, rather than only seeing and expecting negative things. When I read what you said I felt so happy, and I realized that I needed to just sit with that and really receive it. I don’t know why this has been such a struggle for me before. I think I spend so much time looking for what’s wrong, what needs to be improved, and this really opened up a new space for me, one in which I can feel the possibility that I’m actually okay, maybe even more than okay, maybe even….loved! When your words touched my heart, I was able to breathe and let warmth in my chest just be there. The kindness and love of Christ that I have experienced through you more than once is a true gift that I will never forget. It touches the place of joy and tears, and that’s a really miraculous thing.”
Of course, this simple intentional receptive presence to Christ that she speaks of applies not just to moments of joy and blessing, but to suffering also. When we turn to God and voluntarily bear suffering that arises in life, it can be transformed by forgiveness, faith and love into gratefulness to God for all things. Allowing persons around us to be Christ-bearers means first of all forgiving them for being human, for having flaws, and for lacking perfection. Otherwise we have an excuse not to show up, not to be hurt again, not to be disappointed… Forgiveness means looking only for what Christ wishes to give us and being available and willing to receive it through each person and through every aspect of the created world as it unfolds. It means showing up for real without excuses. “Lord, let me be loved by You through the world and the people around me daily.”
If we are going to show up in this way, we must settle all accounts before we approach the chalice in the Divine Liturgy as well as before the altar of the heart of our brothers and sisters. To the degree that we are enabled to do this by the Holy Spirit advancing our intentions, instead of more disappointment, in ourselves or in others, there is the joy of Christ “Who is in all places and fills all things, the Treasury of blessing and Giver of Life,” which infinitely surpasses the small satisfactions achieved by the passions and the judgments we rely on as excuses not to really be there.
It seems contemporary culture is more and more under the lash of increasing corporate pressure for profits and fascinated by the technological drive to achieve super powers in one way or another, like Simon Magus and Faust. We send out texts and tweets and likes in virtual reality, becoming less and less capable of real intimacy. As such, we are ever in danger of further depersonalizing one another and becoming isolated human-doings dissatisfied with anything less than perfection and efficiency, instead of human beings-in-communion, grateful beyond words for the miracle of each and every moment shared.
Martha could have received joy and known gratefulness in the midst of her cooking and hospitality if only she had been free of judgments and re-membered herself in Christ at the moment as she worked. Instead, beguiled by a certain subtle voice hidden within egoistic psychological passions in the garden of her heart, she did its bidding. She tried to get Jesus to deprive her sister Mary of hesychia, in order to join her in becoming another human-doing dissatisfied with herself and everyone else, capable of even telling the Lord what He ought to be doing.  These two ‘sisters’ struggle within each of us our whole lives long as we journey toward a Kingdom that is both here now, yet still to come.
 Matthew 10:8
 Luke 17:10
 Matthew 11:25
 cf. St. Silouan the Athonite, Archimandrite Sophrony
 Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15
 Luke 10:40