Nearly all of my friends are or have been in long distance relationships, especially my Orthodox friends. But even besides romance, my generation knows well the pain of seeing friends move across the country or even abroad. We have all sorts of technology to keep us connected, but it can still be hard to keep our relationships as strong as they were before.
We might look back at the days when we could just spend hours together: talking, hanging out, going through the routine of life together. But now, we’re so far apart that we have to schedule small windows of time to even catch up. And once we get time together, we wish we never had to part again.
Isn’t this how we feel with God, too? When we go through a period where we aren’t as prayerful as we’d like, we feel relief and comfort when we return to regular prayer. After all, our relationship with Christ isn’t completely different from these other relationships in our lives.
Scripture and the Tradition of the Church compare our relationship with God to a marriage. The Old Testament book Song of Songs is a love story about King Solomon and his Shulamite bride, but the Church lifts it up as a symbol of Jesus Christ and the Church (or even our own soul). When the Israelites would rebel against God and turn to other gods, He would compare it to adultery because they turned to another love. Even the word the Church Fathers use to discuss our love for God is the same word used for romantic love: eros. This shows us that our relationship with Christ is one which requires us to give of ourselves, and one which also takes sacrifice and intimacy. We can’t let our love for Christ stay a long distance relationship.
So let’s look at some reasons many long distance relationships fail, and see how we can apply the same logic to our relationship with Christ.
Without the regularity of seeing one another on a daily basis, communication between two people often has to be scheduled out. Though a schedule isn’t a bad thing, it has the temptation of eventually making communication a chore or a ritual that turns a relationship into a burden.
If we aren’t spending time with Christ in church on a regular basis, eventually church will feel like a chore when we actually do go. If we aren’t praying daily, prayer will begin to feel like a burden. Saint Porphyrios reminds us of the real aim of the Christian life even when prayer begins to feel like this. “The point is not to observe all the outward forms. The essence of the matter is for us to be with Christ; for our soul to wake up and love Christ and become holy. To abandon herself to divine eros.” (Wounded by Love, p.96) Sometimes we get stuck on the outward form of prayer, simply scheduling in time for a required conversation, and we forget that our aim is to spend time with a Person, Jesus Christ.
So how do we keep any relationship from becoming a burden? We need to seek out as many opportunities to spend time with one another face-to-face. When we are together, we need to be fully present with the other and see it as an opportunity to grow deeper in our relationship. So when we go to church, we shouldn’t see it as a thing to check off of our to do list. Church is an opportunity to experience the love of Christ. And our relationship with Christ can’t be contained only to a few hours scheduled out once a week. We need to call upon Him and thank Him throughout the day in little ways so that we can always be near to Him.
Every relationship requires mutual sacrifice. This might mean a sacrifice of time or comfort in order to spend time with each other. Or, we sacrifice our “right” to always be right and to admit that we’re (even if only sometimes) wrong. And it’s the same with our relationship with Christ.
The beauty of the Gospel is that God has always been sacrificing Himself to be closer to us. He was never content with a long distance relationship with you or with me. He took on humanity and died on the cross and rose from the dead just so He could be with us, forever. He doesn’t need an equal sacrifice from us – this is the gift of grace – but there are things we can do to offer ourselves back to Him.
Sleep on Sunday morning might be a sacrifice. We all need sleep, and most of us don’t get enough of it. Sunday might be your only day to sleep in, so maybe your sacrifice in this relationship is waking up early to go to Liturgy. When we make sacrifices for the One we love, however small, we aren’t just giving up something, we are gaining the gift of the Other, we are sharing our life with the Other.
The longer I’m apart from people, the more I can’t quite remember what they look like. I mean sure, I would know them if I saw them, but I can’t say I could actually describe them. And then there’s the problem where we either remember only the good times or only the bad times. We begin to paint the other as either an ideal human being, or we turn them into a person we can justify stepping away from.
If I’m not spending time with God in prayer, if I’m not spending time with Christ in the Liturgy, I’m going to come up with my own ideas of Him. If I’m not getting to know God as He is, I’m going to create Him after my own ego, after my own image. So I’ll either paint a god who condemns my enemies and justifies my sins, or I’ll make a god whose image I can justify defacing in favor of the knowledge of the world.
The problem with turning a person into an idea is that it’s just not reality. I cannot be known in hypotheticals or by someone remembering me as I was in the past. I have to be encountered as I am today. So if I want to know and encounter God, I have to meet Him where He is; I have to meet Him in the chalice.
No one is saying a long distance relationship cannot work. We just know it will take determination and the confidence that the relationship at hand actually matters. And it’s the same with our relationship with God. Either we put the time into the relationship, or we don’t. Either we spend time with God in prayer and in the Liturgy, or we don’t. May we be watchful that prayer does not become a burden, aware of the need to offer ourselves to God, and mindful of the temptation to turn God into just another idea. So reach out to Christ! Don’t let your relationship with Him stay long distance.
Have you found yourself being distant from God recently? How can you grow closer to Christ today?
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
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