Any despair ceases in You, Lord, because You protect the paths of any traveler. You are the Hope for all the hopeless. But how does one approach You if he does not yet know You?
This is a story that occurred in our days.
Anya, a very young girl, lived in St. Petersburg with her mother. It was the time when people preferred to believe in unidentified flying objects, failing to notice the churches. Truth be told, there were no churches in the vicinity. Besides, Anya’s mother—she was of Jewish descent—was against religion; she was especially aloof from Christianity, because as far as she was concerned it was the root of all the Jewish people’s troubles. If the name of Jesus Christ was ever mentioned it was in an exclusively negative context: “The trials of our people are His fault.”
That was a tough time; the era was breaking into pieces. In 1990, Anya’s mother made up her mind to leave for Israel with her daughter to try her luck there. She seemed to have all the rights for it due to her origin. She soon realized that luck and happiness are not connected to a place or even origin. True happiness can only be granted by the Giver of happiness, and it grows in a pure heart, or at least a heart that is being purified.
In Israel they managed to find a place to live, acquire Israeli citizenship, and get an undemanding job. The key, in fact, was simple—to say you are a Jew, or at least an atheist, and the doors of the Promised Land will open to you with the wave of a magic wand.
Anya admitted she never felt she was a Jew. But this is not crucial. For the Lord, there are neither better nor worse nations, and everyone born on the earth is called to immortal life. One thing is crucial—whether he who was born on earth turns to the only One Who hath immortality (1 Tim. 6:16).
The human soul always looks for something divine. The newcomers saw mostly synagogues in Israel. Anya decided to go to one and observe one day of fasting for some religious event. But her soul was empty; her heart remained indifferent towards the synagogue. Anya did not find God there.
Three years elapsed. A new reality revealed itself for the repatriates. As it turned out, they remained strangers and did not find any social stability. They had fled Russia hoping to escape the economic crisis, but in Israel, they had to face both an economic and spiritual crisis. They could hardly make ends meet and did not feel any support from anyone. They were strangers to everyone, and their souls were enshrouded in forsakenness and loneliness.
When Anya’s mother’s soul had no more strength to endure, she was inflicted with a mental disorder. The situation seemed critical. Her distressed emotions burst out in a fountain of despair and pain. Meanwhile the daughter, numb in horror, had to watch the collapse of her dearest person. The despair and helplessness caused cold sensations in her soul, pushing it to a precipice beyond which was an abyss, and emptiness.
Having no idea of what to do, feeling lost, Anya rushed out into the street. She thought she would not see the morning. That was the most difficult moment of her life; it seemed her heart had fallen into the abyss—it was so filled with despair.
When a situation seems extremely difficult and there is no one to help, even an unbelieving soul involuntarily turns its gaze to Heaven. The soul cries out to the One Who is above our world bogged down in disgrace. This call of a desperate heart is the manifestation of a search for the unknown God—the God for Whom the heart is longing and does not yet know.
At the peak of torments, a bleeding soul turns to Him, the Only One Who can heal our wounds. It is wailing, and while the lips often remain closed, a heartfelt cry sometimes penetrates through the lips and pours out in tears.
O Lord, You come to our aid at such moments.
Words can hardly express what happened to Anya then. We expect to hear about something supernatural, something that is palpable and easy for our solid flesh to understand. But God reveals Himself to our heart, our soul. This is always an intimately personal meeting, similar to a meeting of One Who loves with His beloved, similar to a mysterious resurrection of a soul. And this is why it is ineffable. We can’t confuse the shining sun with a street lamp and its artificial light. The same is true about God’s touch, which exceeds our imagination, thoughts and senses.
Anya’s soul awoke at that moment and could clearly see that there is God above us, and He is close to us—and the Lord Jesus Christ is our God. It seems astounding that the very name of Jesus Christ was revealed to her as the name of God. The name of Christ seemed to be written in the heavens, and Anya saw a wonderful, radiant star to the right, which was, we daresay, similar to the one that led the wise men to Christ. At that moment Anya knew that the Lord Jesus Christ is our Savior, that He is the support for all those who are hopeless and in need. Peace permeated her soul. God, our Lord Jesus Christ, is with us, and therefore our life is not meaningless; all suffering and troubles are only temporary troubles, like sea foam that quickly disappears. He Whom the sea of life and the winds of problems obey is with us. Through torments, loneliness and seeming despair, the Lord lifts our soul up, helping it arise.
In Israel shadows literally disappear at noon, and the spirit of unbelief abandons our lives at the moment of personal maturity. The shadows of unbelief are dispelled by the light of maturity. Maturity does not always depend on the number of years one has lived. Sometimes it is just the reverse, and standing on the threshold of eternity, the soul of an old atheist spouts utter nonsense, saying, “God doesn’t exist. There is nothing I should repent of, and I don’t need to.” This happens sometimes, but sometimes wisdom is not “numbered by years” (Wisdom 4:9). This wisdom grows in the searching of a heart that hungers for truth and thirsts for meaning. Happy is the youth who has a heart that seeks the truth. Suffering deepens the search, but God’s mercy is always the response to this search.
Anya’s mother escaped her crisis. Everything gradually stabilized. But now Anya knew that Jesus Christ is our God—God Who came for us sinful people, compassionate, and loving us. What was she to do next?
The wise men followed the star they could clearly behold in the sky and came to the baby Jesus. Where should a modern-day believer with faith newly born in his heart, go? What church should he choose? Where, in which Christian denomination does the true spirit of Christ abide?
So many neophytes have been satisfied by quickly joining the first congregation they found on hand. Coming to the faith does not mean finding the Church—but what Christ founded on earth was the Church, and its grace-filled gifts can only be perceived in the Church.
Meanwhile, Anya visited her father in Germany. All that time the thought never abandoned her—where does she find the true Church? That country, where the Western Christian world was once divided into the Catholics and Protestants, offered its assortment of denominations. Anya began by going to the Catholics. Catholicism seemed something fundamental, historically stable. However, amidst the monumental vaults of Roman Catholic churches, despite the pastors’ friendliness and magnificent services, her heart felt cold and empty.
Then Anya went to the Protestants. She met the Baptists—affectionate, communicative Christians. At the beginning, Anya warmed up to them and even learned the Lord’s Prayer by heart. She could not say a single bad word about them, but her soul still lacked something; it seemed their Christianity had a certain limit, it was a dead end, there stood a wall. Her soul was looking for something deeper.
Meanwhile, Anya’s mother began to consider embracing the faith. All religions had always seemed the same. Though a Jew by blood, she was never really fond of Judaism. Someone suggested that she follow Islam, but having arrived in St. Petersburg she was baptized in an Orthodox church for some inexplicable reason; or, to be precise, for the obvious reason—a call of the heart. Anya’s mother had visited both the Protestants and the Jehovah's Witnesses, but it was only in the Orthodox faith that her soul was filled with peace.
Anya’s grandmother was the first to be baptized. She lived in St. Petersburg and suffered from cancer. She embraced faith in Christ at once with her entire heart, and her baptism was followed by a miraculous healing. So the Lord calls everyone at the right time and grants each his own consolation.
Anya left Germany for Russia. She arrived in St. Petersburg, filled with its venerable saints and holy shrines. This time she noticed churches that seemed never to have existed before. She met with her mother (they were to leave for Israel together) and they headed for Tsarskoye Selo. There Anya entered a church for the first time—it was the Church of the Icon of Our Lady of the Sign. Her heart responded without anybody’s words or sermons, as if someone inside her said that this was the place where God abides. Anya confesses her soul felt that “This is the Truth. God lives here.” Anya was baptized that very day.
Baptism is in a sense just a beginning of the path. It is similar to our getting onboard at the moorings at the right time. Thereafter the ship must sail and pass through storms, finally to reach the haven of salvation. But no one on this ship can remain passive. Anya’s life in the Church began on a wave of new troubles—in 2006, when all earthly buildings were collapsing, falling down into nothing. Then her soul clearly understood that it must go only to God, that He is the only redemption, in Him is the only meaning of life, and He is the only source of our wellbeing. Perhaps this is why we must encounter earthly afflictions? So that we might realize what is most important.
In the morning, Anya arrived at the church of Sts. Peter and Paul and Righteous Tabitha in Tel Aviv. The lampadas were flickering tranquilly, prayers were rising up peacefully, and her heart was full of exhilaration, as if Heaven were on the earth, and she was breathing the grace of God in church. The church has been the center of her life since then.
The Lord granted Anya a good husband. A fifth child was recently born to the family. Anya and her husband still live in Israel and remain faithful to Orthodoxy. They are those to whom the Promised Land belongs by the right of a grace-filled calling. It is not the descendants of Abraham by blood who are the heirs of the Promise, but those who are faithful to the Promise in spirit, those who have embraced Christ with a sincere heart.
The Israeli school was rather difficult for the children. A cross around her oldest son’s neck was like a red flag, and the boy was mocked and insulted. His parents would be summoned to school under the pretext that the children did not speak Hebrew. Their parents openly manifested their faith in Christ and warned that their children would not be attending the Jewish festivals held by the school. As the school introduced yoga classes, they preferred to abstain from them. The sons’ classmates would later comment, “Here the goy is the only one who does not do yoga.” For them, Christians are not Jews, even if they are related by blood. But they all gradually understood that the Orthodox family was firm in its belief and gave up troubling the child.
Anya explains the Torah—the five books of Moses—taught at school, exclusively in the context of the New Testament; for the teaching of Moses was only the preparation for embracing the teaching of Christ.
What conclusion can we draw from this story?
The Lord Jesus Christ revealed himself to Anya as the true God. He revealed Himself through a clear revelation due to the sincerity of her heart’s search. She had never thought of encountering anything supernatural. The Lord granted her something she could never even dream of.
The key conclusion, however, is as follows, I believe. When you feel bad, even in the depth of your soul, when despair is gradually approaching you, and the heart is seeking the truth, longing for God, the Lord will imminently reveal Himself, for He is always near. He is much closer to us than we think. Just have an open, clear, seeking heart. Turn to Him with your entire heart.