In the cool darkness of a Moscow night I stood, my face bathed in the warm light of the long, thin candle in my hand.
Gazing about me, I took in the details of the people surrounding me in the courtyard of a Russian Orthodox church: elderly women, young children, college students, and middle-aged professionals. All were waiting, watching, in silent expectation of the mystery of Christ’s redemption. As a Roman Catholic who was attending this Russian Orthodox Easter Vigil service with friends, I watched and waited, too.
At midnight, a solitary voice rang out the triumphant proclamation: “Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!” In an instant, the somber, silent tone of the courtyard changed to the jubilation of the Resurrection. Standing among these rejoicing Christians, I mused that nearly seventy-five years of socialist rule had not completely succeeded in quelling the faith of the people. In fact, there were so many people attending the Easter Vigil that night in 1991 that they overflowed into the courtyard of the church.
Truly, Christ is risen! 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. How could I have known on that night that within a few years I would be searching, too?
The Fires of Faith. I was raised Catholic in Bay City, Michigan, a medium-sized Midwestern town with a good number of Polish Catholic parishes. God, in his merciful love, placed a few people in my life who gave me a deep love of Jesus, Mary, and the church: my grandmother, my pastor, and a religious sister who prepared me for my First Holy Communion. Their love, fidelity, and devotion fed the fire of love for God in my heart. Its blaze would never be extinguished completely, despite the temptations and diversions that lay ahead.
Probably because of my Polish ancestry, I became fascinated with Slavic culture, literature, and politics. In college, I felt compelled to study Russian; then I went on to graduate studies in international politics at the University of Denver. In 1991, when I received the opportunity to study at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, I quickly seized it.
My excitement at being in Russia did not preserve me from the normal challenges of adapting to a foreign culture. Never having been abroad before, I sometimes felt anxious and lonely. My lifeline was my Catholic faith. In a world where most everything was new and different, the Mass was a haven of peace.
The parish I attended, St. Louis, was the only operating Roman Catholic church in Moscow; its affiliation with the French Embassy had kept it alive through the Communist era, although the clergy and faithful were persecuted terribly. Each week I made my way to Mass up Malaya Lyubyanka Street, past the infamous KGB prison where political prisoners were held. (Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J., who wrote With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, spent some six years there in the 1940s.) It was a stark juxtaposition of atheism against the beauty of faith.
Despite the more open political atmosphere of the early nineties, I was careful not to say anything that could endanger my Russian friends’ future careers. However, on long walks outdoors where there was no threat of being bugged or overheard, I had long talks with close friends about faith and the similarities between the Orthodox and Latin Churches. We expressed our desire to see all believers united under one shepherd in one fold, a prayer intention which remains foremost in my heart to this day.
Love Grows Cold. When I returned to the United States, I became involved in my parish, both in lay ministry and the choir. I also landed a terrific position as the international relations manager of a Denver-based company engaged in business in the former Soviet Union. I loved my job because it gave me the opportunity to do something positive for the people of Russia.
Little by little, however, my focus shifted. I gave myself over to my career, working long hours and traveling extensively. Mass attendance and spiritual life took a back seat to my job. I justified this by maintaining that I was still a good person doing good things. If my spiritual life slipped a little, I reasoned, God would understand.
But eventually, my busyness caused me to ignore that part of my heart that longed for union with God. My life was like my Franklin Planner—jammed full of responsibilities, commitments, volunteer activities, and friends. While these were all good things, I was treating them as ends in themselves and not as the means by which God intended me to draw closer to him. In pursuing the work of the Lord, I had almost forgotten the Lord of the work. The dissonance in my heart increased and became a constant state of restlessness.
"You Are Mine.” When I finally recognized how much my spiritual life was suffering, I returned to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. And there I was, sincerely trying to make God a higher priority in my life, when the company I worked for suddenly went bankrupt.
Losing my job made me feel as though I had lost my identity. That summer, I took some time to visit my family in Michigan. While there, I received a call from Denver, asking me to return for a job interview—a great professional opportunity. Excited at the prospect, I jumped into my car and headed back to Colorado.
But somewhere along the way, I began to talk to God, and the talking became a prayer of repentance. I poured my heart out to him in tears and expressed my sorrow for having become too caught up with my busy life to remember him. How I regretted my failure to give him the first fruits of my time in worship and prayer! How could I have been so insensitive to his presence and his fingerprints in each moment and circumstance of my life?
My prayer went on for hours. Then, toward dusk, I pulled into a rest stop and was blessed with a glorious sunset and a deep, abiding peace. As I gazed, awestruck, at the magnificent display on the horizon, it was as if God whispered to me the words from Isaiah: “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.
Listening to God. I didn’t get the job. God had other plans for me. I went on to work with a resettlement program for Russian refugees, helping them to begin their new lives in the U.S. This position was challenging and fulfilling, but I was determined not to make the same mistake twice. I attended Mass every day and spent my lunch hours praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
Once I put Jesus back into the center of my life, everything began to fall into place. I became aware of a small voice in my heart, nudging me to embrace the plan for which God had created me: to give myself completely to him as his bride, a consecrated religious sister. Finally, in the Jubilee Year of 2000, I entered the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
I placed myself completely in God’s hands last August 6, when I made my first profession of the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. I pray that with Our Lady’s help I may keep my hands in his all the days of my life.
Sr. Maria Gemma Martek, O.P., is a Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, a religious teaching community in Ann Arbor, Michigan.