A reader e-mailed the response below to the “Story Of Your Life” post. If you didn’t read that one, the thing you need to know is that it talks about people who construe bad or otherwise unwelcome events in their lives as part of a redemption story, and those who construe them as a contamination story. Sit down for this one:
This post of yours touched a nerve with me. It is interesting how these “contamination stories” and “redemption stories” will often tend to cycle back and forth over the course of a lifetime, depending upon our spiritual state. I have found in my own life that the redemption narrative, if not planted firmly in a dependency on God’s grace, often leads one into a false sense of prideful security and personal control–ripe pastures for the snares of the evil one. I considered posting this to your site anonymously, but it’s a bit long and perhaps veers a bit off topic. If you find it interesting, feel free to use it as you see fit. I think it illustrates how, depending on the narrative we choose to accept, what might look “good” on some level can cause things to turn “sour”, and things that are objectively “bad” (or at least, caused by our own sinfulness) might be the very catalyst which allow us to recognize God’s redemptive grace whereby we again participate in the redemption story. To illustrate my point:
My story begins more than 10 years ago in college. It was a few weeks before the commencement of my sophomore year when my younger brother passed away unexpectedly (long story short, he was born with a heart defect, but his end was very abrupt and unexpected both by his doctors). It’s always hard to lose a sibling, as you well know, but to lose one who is only 14 was devastating to myself personally, to my family, and to our church. My family was very devout and I was raised in a very active Southern Baptist Church. While I now have a deep and abiding respect for many aspects of that faith tradition, I had already begun to drift away due to the (at least perceived) paucity of that denomination’s intellectual tradition. I had a lot of questions and was generally told to just have faith in scripture and all my questions would go away. As you can imagine, my brother’s death intensified my need for answers. The two years after his death marked a period of deep spiritual longing and experimentation with various modes of the Christian tradition, but was also something of a spiritual wilderness and dislocation. I didn’t reject my faith at the time, though in retrospect I would describe this time period as falling within a “contamination narrative” in that I had burrowed so far into my own head so as to avoid my emotions and grief that it was hard to experience anything save a sense of longing and my own hardening cynicism.
This is the period in which I first became acquainted with the Orthodox Church. A dear college friend was in the process of converting and asked if I would like to attend a liturgy one Christmas Eve. It was beautiful, and I was intrigued, but I wasn’t really that interested at the time. Still, I was engaged enough that when it came time for a fall Orthodox college retreat I agreed to go, if for no other reason than that they needed drivers and I had a car. It was there that I got to know (not meet, we’d known each other casually for some time) the young woman who in short order would become my wife. She was from a similarly evangelical background and was a deeply committed Christian, but she was very smart and sophisticated and (like me) uneasy with the answers presented her by her faith tradition. On top of that, she had recently lost a sibling to cancer. We formed an immediate bond, and I think that we both felt as though we were finally able to grieve and to make sense of what had happened to us. Thus what had been a “contamination narrative” I came to see as a “redemption narrative”; God drawing two souls together who desperately needed someone who they could trust enough to work through the pain together.
We also began attending the local Orthodox Church. Very soon (too soon) thereafter I had asked her to marry me. We both agreed that we wanted our faith to play a central role in our lives. It was the end of my senior year and not wanting to be away from her (nor, believing as we did, wanting to cohabit unmarried) we married that summer and soon thereafter began the process of joining the Orthodox Church and were then Chrismated. Talk about a redemption narrative, I found myself on something of a spiritual plateau, and had nothing but optimism for the future! But all was not well.
I have thought long over the course of these 8 years since I separated from and later divorced my first wife what happened. Certainly my own sinfulness and naivete played a role. My continued struggle with pride and intellectualism at the expense of the heart also contributed. We had jumped into marriage before we knew enough about one another, and I neglected to take seriously the mental and emotional scars left on her by her own sad life, nor with my own capacity to handle their effects. In my pride, I thought that I was so much stronger than I was. Within six months of joining the Orthodox Church, a conversion to which she was integral, she decided not only that she no longer wished to be an Orthodox Christian, but also that she no longer believed in God. You can imagine how crushed and confused this left me, who just being at the beginning of my journey into the church was bereft of my partner. We struggled on for another year and a half. Perhaps if we had stayed put, surrounded by our church and familiar surroundings things would have been alright, but we made the decision to go back to school, and the marriage did not survive the first year.
And so, what I had perceived as a “redemption narrative” became to my hurting soul yet another even deeper and bleaker “contamination narrative” to which I slowly, but eventually succumbed. It’s amazing how relatively small decisions, made with the best of intentions, seal our fate within our own sinful narrative. While I remained attached to the church for some time after we separated, my eventual decision to divorce her and not to seek absolution (because, I poorly reasoned, if I don’t confess it, in some sense I haven’t lost her) sealed my fate. Intentionally cutting myself off from the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church, while I yet remained on the outskirts of her orbit, I became more spiritually dead (with the resulting symptoms of increased anxiety, depression, and despondency) as the years wore on.
Obviously, I have no idea where this story is going to end, but I am pleased to report that I am very much living in the midst of what I perceive as a “redemption narrative”, and one that, had I chosen to perceive it with different eyes, could just as easily have resulted in a “contamination narrative” propelled as it is by my own sinfulness. After years spent keeping my head down in my own self-pity, drifting ever further away from God, my family, and most of my true friends, I began to engage in, shall we say, a sinful social relationship with a member of the opposite sex. What had begun as a physical affair blossomed into affection and even love. I didn’t quite know what to do with this, committed as I had been to staying as far away from anyone as I possibly could (at this point less for reasons of morality than because of a desire to retain control of my life). How could I marry again? Our affair produced a pregnancy, and I faced a decision: live up to the full consequences of my actions, stop feeling sorry for myself, and seek redemption, or give in to logic of the despair that I had let myself fall into.
By the grace of God, I could not conceive of any other action than to see this chastisement as the gift that it was. I had been given the chance I had desperately prayed for. That’s when the amazing “redemption narrative” within which I now find myself began. I took this good woman, who being raised in an only nominally Christian household knew little of God but had a hunger in her heart far stronger than any that I have ever known, as my wife. We both wished (for somewhat different reasons) to find a church where we could be involved as a family. After visiting many churches and rejecting them for a variety of reasons, we attended one of the local Orthodox Churches and both discovered (again for different reasons) that we had found our church home. After 8 years, I am once again in full communion with the Orthodox Church and through regular prayer, confession, and partaking in the liturgy and the Eucharist have found the burden of the sins of these years slipping away.
Obviously we have many challenges ahead as a family, and I am not so naive now as to not believe that the fruits of my past sinfulness may continue to sprout bitter fruit which will require watchfulness. I know, more than ever, that prayer and vigilance is ever needed lest we sink into spiritual complacency. But for now, I am pleased to report that our son is to be Baptized and Chrismated in the Antiochian Orthodox Church this Sunday. [And you may be interested to know that his baptismal name is to be Benedict; while I am a fan of Alasdair MacIntyre and have been reading you for awhile, this is primarily a result of the time I spent working at a Benedictine Monastery and College a few years ago.]
I know your post was more about the stories we tell ourselves in general, and this email has taken a distinctively religious angle–pondering on the interaction between the story we tell ourselves about what is happening and the grace that we receive which seems (to my mind at any rate) to frame the edges of the narrative in which we may choose to participate either negatively or positively. As I said, if you think any of it is relevant, feel free to use it with any edits that seem appropriate. All Blessings of the upcoming Feast of the Nativity!
“Benedict” means blessing. After that, there is really nothing more to say but: Gloria in excelsis Deo!
I keep saying that for Christians, hope is not optimism, but the assurance that suffering is not in vain, that there is ultimate meaning, and redemption for all those who unite their suffering to faith in God. The story this reader tells is about hope.