Winner of the 2011 Oratorical Contest: Madeleine Lengyel-Leahu
“For all of us who doubt the strength of our faith; for all of us who are not called to be eaten by lions, or thrown into a fiery furnace; for all of us who are not called to die for our faith; those holy apostles, those twelve men, they knew the one thing we would need most, our life-preserver in a sea of trouble, our sanctuary from those who tempt us, our teacher to help guide our course: those amazing, gifted men of the priestly ranks.”
I am so grateful that I was born into the Orthodox faith. There are so many people who wander about in this world with no sense of purpose or belonging, but never an Orthodox Christian. Every Orthodox Christian knows exactly why they are here. In God’s plan, He made all of us, male and female, in His image. And the purpose of our life is to see the image of God in ourselves and in everyone around us. In my most recent understanding, I am not merely an Orthodox Christian because my parents thought I should be baptized. I am not merely an Orthodox Christian because my family goes to church on Sunday mornings and other holidays. I am an Orthodox Christian because of the choices I make every single day. I didn’t get here by accident and I didn’t get here simply because I was born into a certain ethnicity. But I got here, at this point in my life, because of the people in my life. And while I will forever be grateful for my grandparents, and parents, and aunts, and uncles, and even my cousins, I am personally humbled by the relationships I have had with the men who have dared to wear that distinctive collar, who drop to their knees, and fight for me, like a man after God’s own heart.
After reading different books on the lives of the saints and martyrs, I have discovered that “sainthood,” which we are called to achieve, is an extremely high standard. I don’t know if I could muster enough strength, if someone were holding a gun to my sister’s head and asked me to deny my faith, if I could defend Orthodoxy until the end. In fact, looking back on all of the times I have personally drifted and fallen away from the straight and narrow path, I have realized that I am no different than that Roman soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross or pierced His side. But for all of us who doubt the strength of our faith; for all of us who are not called to be eaten by lions, or thrown into a fiery furnace; for all of us who are not called to die for our faith; those holy apostles, those twelve men, they knew the one thing we would need most, our life-preserver in a sea of trouble, our sanctuary from those who tempt us, our teacher to help guide our course: those amazing, gifted men of the priestly ranks.
There are many distinguished men in this room that most of us would consider to be saintly and who live, according to us, a saintly life. But these men would be the first ones to say that they don’t. In their humility, they lead by example as they instruct us to discover the better angels of our nature.
Very recently, I became aware of a situation at school, where my friend was going to make a very stupid decision. I was stuck in a dilemma, as the unspoken rule is never to “rat out” a friend. And as my priest put his arm around my shoulders, as I was staring into the eyes of Jesus Christ on the icon before me, he whispered into my ear, “Your friend is drowning in the deep end. And you have a choice, either get wet or walk away.” My priest saved a life that day because I dove into the deep end.
Christ Himself was referred to as the High Priest according to Melchizedek. But even his closest female companion, Mary Magdalene, referred to him as Rabboni, Teacher. From His most perfect example, the men in the black robes, whose hands we kiss, have assumed the mantle of shepherd. Surely they embody Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel of Matthew, “But whoever does and teaches them [the commandments of God] he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” And if I could be indulged a personal note, I would say to each and every one of you, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. And you should never be afraid of using either one when I need it.
It is my priest’s role as teacher that has a more physical and real influence on my life than all the stories of all the saints. In other words, the saints can be viewed as your favorite sports heroes, heroes that you may or may not ever be able to match in talent or ability. Your priest, however, is like your coach. He is someone who is teaching you the ways of the game, someone to whom you can talk. He is a man with a wife and children and sometimes even a secular job. He is a living, breathing, normal, human being. The only difference is that he has some incredible insight.
We adorn our precious churches with images of gold and saintly people whom we hold in high esteem, and who exude an inner light. Theirs are lives that we revere. But the man that opens the gate of the sanctuary and descends the steps, who graciously walks amongst us, humbles me when he crosses his arms and bows his head, and asks me to forgive him, a sinner.
And what is my role in this relationship? Well, no less a figure than St. John Chrysostom offers some guidance. “I speak not to those who have been members of the Church only a year, but to those who from their earliest age have been attending the services. Do you think that to be religious is to be constant in Church-going? This is nothing, unless we reap some fruit for ourselves; if (from the gathering together in Church) we do not gather something for ourselves, it were better to remain at home. For our forefathers built the Churches for us not to just bring us together from our private houses and show us one to another, but to bring together learners and teachers, and make the one better by means of the other.” We are not called to merely show up and listen; we are not an audience. It is our duty to participate, and in doing so, we build our priest up. We do not merely recite a Mass by rote, but we must live the Liturgy.
God’s plan for me, in the circumstance of my birth, in the irrefutable wisdom of our Holy Fathers, means that I must accept the fact that I will never be ordained. However, if it is His will, I may one day give birth to a man who is so rare and so blessed, that he might be called to wear the cloth.
Judges’ Choice Winner
Diocese of Los Angeles
St. Luke, Garden Grove, California