In the cool darkness of a Moscow night I stood, my face bathed in the warm light of a long, thin candle in my hand. I glanced around me at the many people, young and old, in the courtyard of a Russian Orthodox Church; all waiting and watching in silent expectation of the mystery of Christ’s redemption.
In the cool darkness of a Moscow night I stood, my face bathed in the warm light of a long, thin candle in my hand. I glanced around me at the many people, young and old, in the courtyard of a Russian Orthodox Church; all waiting and watching in silent expectation of the mystery of Christ’s redemption. As a Roman Catholic invited to attend this Russian Orthodox Easter Vigil service with friends, I also watched and waited.
At midnight, a solitary voice rang out in triumph: “Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!” In an instant, the silent, somber atmosphere of the courtyard changed to jubilation in celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. Standing among these rejoicing Christians, I mused that decades of socialism had not completely quelled the faith of the people. In fact, there were so many people at the Easter Vigil that night in 1991 that they overflowed into the courtyard of the church.
That night I felt completely in God’s hands and whispered a little prayer for the Russian people—for those who retained their faith in God, but especially for those who were searching for him. I would eventually embark on a journey searching for him in a deeper way, although on that night I did not know it.
The Fires of Faith
I was raised Catholic in a medium-sized Michigan town. God, in his merciful love, placed a few people in my life who nurtured a deep love of Jesus, Mary, and the Church in my soul: my grandmother, my pastor, and a Felician sister who prepared me for my First Holy Communion. Their love, fidelity, and devotion enkindled the fire of love for God in my heart. Its blaze would never be extinguished completely, despite later temptations and diversions of the world.
In college, I elected to study Russian language, being attracted by my Slavic heritage; in 1991 I quickly seized an opportunity to study in Moscow on a graduate research exchange in my field of international politics. Never having been abroad, I experienced feelings of anxiety and loneliness provoked by adapting to a foreign culture. My lifeline in Moscow was my Catholic faith – in a world where everything was new and different, the Mass was for me a haven of peace. The parish I attended, St. Louis, was the only Roman Catholic Church in Moscow at that time. Each week to get to Mass I had to pass the infamous Lyubyanka prison, where many were incarcerated during the Soviet era, including the Servants of God Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J., and Mother Catherine Abrikosova, OP. The stark contrast of atheism against the rich beauty of the Catholic faith was not lost on me.
As most of my fellow Soviet and Eastern European students had been raised as atheists, they were curious about my faith in God. Despite the more “open” atmosphere of the early nineties, I was careful not to speak about my faith for fear of endangering my friends’ future diplomatic careers. However, on long walks outdoors where there was no threat of being bugged or overheard, I was able to share my faith with a few trustworthy close friends.
Love Grows Cold
Returning to the U.S., I was grateful to be home where one could freely practice faith without fear of reprisal. I landed a terrific position as the international relations manager of a Denver-based company engaged in business projects in the former Soviet Union. I loved my job because it gave me the opportunity to do something positive for the people of Russia.
Gradually, I allowed my spiritual life to diminish as I pursued my career, working long hours and traveling extensively. I justified this by maintaining that I was still a good person doing good things. If my spiritual life slipped, I reasoned, God would understand. My busyness allowed me to ignore the still, small voice in my heart that longed for deeper union with God. My life was full of responsibilities, commitments, volunteering, and friends—all good things, yet I was treating them as ends and not as the means by which God intended to draw me closer to him. The dissonance in my heart increased and became a constant state of restlessness.
The Flame is Rekindled
Fortunately it didn’t take too long for me to recognize that my angst was caused by my distance from the Lord. I took steps to set things right, ensuring that I frequented the sacraments.
When I lost my position due to company bankruptcy in 1995, I felt as though I had lost my identity. In retrospect I realized that God’s merciful will permitted me to suffer in order to turn more fully to him. It was as if he whispered to me: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). My life was in God’s hands. All would be well.
I went on to work for a non-profit organization, resettling Russian refugees in Denver and helping them to become economically and socially self-sufficient. These new Americans were primarily of Jewish descent, although many of them were not practicing any faith, having been raised in the atheistic Soviet Union. Many of them were openly curious about my Catholic faith; although I couldn’t openly share with them, I did not hide my faith from them.
It was during these years that I began to attend daily Mass and make regular Eucharistic holy hours at my parish’s perpetual adoration chapel. Often, I experienced an irresistible desire to spend my free time with the Lord in adoration. I presumed that my vocation was to marriage. I prayed that God would mold my heart and give me all of the virtues I would need to be a good wife and mother, never dreaming that he was molding my heart to give it completely to him as his bride and a spiritual mother to many. My life was still full of good things—fulfilling work assisting Russian refugees, parish involvement, volunteer commitments, friends—but in the depths of my heart I somehow knew that the Lord had created my heart to be stretched even further than I had allowed it to be.
A Restless Hearts Finds Respite in God Alone
I turned to prayer and entrusted myself to Our Blessed Mother, asking her to help me know and understand God’s design for me. I asked the Lord to send me a tangible, concrete sign, preferably big and neon; such never appeared. Through the sacraments and adoration, the Lord gently led me to realize that I had never asked him what his will was for my life; when I did, he flooded my heart with his love and peace. Through prayer and discernment with the assistance of a wonderful priest, I began to discover that God had possibly created me to be all his as a religious sister. I discovered fairly quickly that I was called to a vocation in the Dominican order, and upon visiting my community in October 1999, I knew in the depths of my heart that I had found home—the place where my restless heart could rest in God alone.
In August, 2000 I entered my community as a postulant, eager to entrust myself to God’s will. In many ways, with this first step across the threshold, a new journey of discernment and adventure began that I do not have space to share here; the adventure continues daily. By the grace of God I made my perpetual vows in July 2008, placing myself in his hands as his bride for all of my life.
The Lord continues to draw me closer to himself and emboldens me with the graces necessary to generously and joyously give the gift of myself totally to him, to my sisters and community, and to each soul whom he sends. After years of restlessness and searching, in his will I have found greater peace, joy and excitement than I ever would have by doing my own good things, no matter how good they may have been in themselves. I now see that I have always been in God’s loving and merciful hands as he has guided me along paths rocky and smooth.
Sr. Maria Gemma Martek, OP, is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She presently serves as the prioress of the Motherhouse and as Director of Education. In her free time she is working with a laywoman to translate and publish a book about the Servant of God Mother Catherine Abrikosova, OP, and the Moscow Dominican Sisters. These Sisters made an explicit vow of sacrifice for Russia; they were persecuted, arrested numerous times and incarcerated in prisons and GULag camps and sent to various places of internal exile from the 1920s to the 1950s.