If there’s one thing that can be said for the demons, it’s that they are persistent. They never rest from their attempts to get us sidetracked from the Way, and they’re relentless in bombarding us with distractions of every type, anything to keep us from focusing on Christ in our hearts. If we’ve been decently formed by the Church and are earnest in our pursuit of Christ, we’re often quick to notice the big temptations they hurl at us, even if sometimes in our weakness we still fall prey to them. So, of course, the demons get all the more tricky (have you read The Screwtape Letters?), and find ways to worm their way into our hearts and minds disguising their nonsense as “normal” thoughts or even “godly” thoughts.
One of these demons I noticed running around at College Conference this year was what I like to call the “What-If” demon. This annoying beast spends his time making us ask ourselves, “What if this thing I want to have happen never happens in my life?” “What if I had done this one thing differently?” “What am I going to do if some-thing-in-the-future-that-hasn’t-happened-but-could happens to me?” It seems he especially likes to pester young Orthodox Christians with all sorts of what-if’s about dating, relationships, marriage, and monasticism. Illustrative to this point are some of the questions we received from students in our question box:
What if we do not come to the realization to be married or enter the monastic life?
What if I don’t know by the time I’m 25 if I should get married or be a monastic? Does that mean I should automatically become a monastic if there is no one I can marry by 25?
Likewise, many young people who do feel called to marriage wonder, “What if I don’t meet the right person? What if I never get married?” Now, this is not to say that it’s not important to answer questions of how one should go about discerning one’s vocation. But the nasty What-If demon twists this necessary and spiritual undertaking into an anxiety-ridden, paralyzing question filling us with guilt, worry, and fear.
The What-If demon does his best to keep us looking anxiously to the future or mulling over the past, and this murky cloud of what-has-been and what-might-be is his greatest weapon. It swirls around us, becoming so encompassing, dark, and ominous that we can’t see clearly–we can’t see the present moment. And it is only in the present moment that we can meet Christ, hear His calling, and answer obediently.
In fact, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (really, you should read it) says it perfectly. Coaching his nephew on the ways of temptation, the demon Screwtape writes:
The humans live in time, but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone, freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him), or with the Present–either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.
The present moment is the place where time and eternity meet and where God enters into our lives. In an important way, the present moment is the only moment for the Christian. Do you say “yes” to Christ in this moment with this breath? Are you listening for His call in your heart right now? Can you see Him in the person or situation that’s right in front of you?
We must do battle with the What-If demon as we do with all temptations. First, we have to recognize him for what he is. We can’t confuse his what-if’s with repentance for the past or discernment about the future. Don’t let him convince you that his imaginary situations where he replays your past with anguishing regret are the same as contrition or the images he throws before you with terrorizing anxiety of futures that haven’t happened need to be addressed to find God’s will.
His cloud is just that: a cloud. A cloud that is blown away by the Holy Spirit when we call upon the name of Jesus Christ. And once we have recognized the What-If demon for who he is and called upon Christ to banish him away, we can be free to see clearly the present moment in which Christ dwells.
If the What-If demon becomes too strong in our lives, he can wreak all sorts of havoc on our hearts, giving rise to anxiety, fear, and depression. If he is pulling too strongly, it’s important that we bring to light this struggle in the sacrament of confession. Confession is a time to be open and honest about the demons that pester us, especially when we feel convinced by their nonsense.
And watch out because just as you start to name the What-If demon and try to escape from his distractions, he’ll send in his cousin the Don’t-Repent demon who will try to convince you that you should feel shame for your anxiety, you are helpless, and you don’t deserve God’s love and forgiveness. Don’t listen. He’s lying.
The best thing we can do when we are tempted by the What-If demon is to remember that he is actually powerless as long as we refuse to give him any of our time and energy. When he comes to distract us, instead of letting him drag us away from Christ in the now, we can answer with the Prophet,
Behold, God is my Savior and Lord. I will trust in Him and be saved by Him. I will not be afraid, for the Lord is my glory and my praise. He has become my salvation. –Isaiah 12:2, OSB
No matter our cultural or ethnic background, us Orthodox are huge family people. Our communities tend to be tight-knit and full of love. We raise our children up to love and respect everyone…and then we send them off to college to a different tight-knit parish where suddenly the same things that made a parish feel like home–everyone knowing each other, local traditions for certain feast days, certain people being involved in parish ministries–can make that new parish seem like a closed-off clique into which college students are simply unimportant, transient members in whom the parish need not invest much time.
Of course, most parishes don’t intend to come off this way, and we all want our college students to be accepted and cared for wherever they go. Here are five ways you can ensure that your parish is including its college students and creating a home-away-from home for them.
- Make sure they have a place at every event. Having an after church luncheon? Reserve a table for your OCFers. Big cultural festival coming up? Make sure they have tickets. If your parish and/or individual parishioners are able, making sure that the local college students are able to be a part of the parish’s activities is a great way to make them feel included. And to be honest, it takes more than just an invitation. Setting aside tickets or a table for them conveys the message that they are valued and wanted at your event as family, especially since many of them may not be able to afford attending otherwise.
- Support their participation in OCF programs and events. All year long, there are various OCF programs in which college students can participate, the biggest ones being College Conference and Real Break. In whatever way possible, make an effort as a community to support their participation in these and other OCF events. Whether that means offering travel scholarships or allowing them to fund raise at coffee hour, opening up space at the parish for an event or providing a meal when other chapters come to town for a regional retreat, you can support the good things that our OCF students are planning and participating in with your time, talent, and treasure.
OCFers from the Lexington to Columbus District gather for a retreat and are fed by Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Dayton, OH
- Feed them. This is a college student no-brainer. Anything you can do to get them good food that they didn’t have to pay for or prepare themselves is a huge blessing. There are so many ways you can do this! You could provide monthly care packages of “study snacks” to hand out at their meetings, sponsor a pizza night, or offer them a home-cooked meal (see #4). A big part of family and community is eating, and there’s no surer way to have someone feel cared for when they are away from home than to feed them.
- Invite them into your home. I once heard that most international students never see the inside of an American home. By extension, I wonder how often out-of-town students are ever invited into a family home in their college town. It’s a great way to make a young person who is out of their comfort zone feel loved and cared for by receiving them with hospitality into your own home. There are parishes that do monthly dinners with all the college students in a different parishioner’s home each time so that they really get a chance to get to know the people of the parish and feel at home.
University of Georgia OCF helping out in the kitchen of St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church in Athens, GA
- Allow them to be a part of your parish ministries. Whether it’s guest teaching a Sunday School class, coaching a youth basketball team, volunteering in your social outreach, serving in the altar, or singing in the choir make sure that you give college students opportunities to be involved. It’s likely that they were involved as teenagers at their home parishes and may even have some great experience to share with your parish, and they’ll certainly learn a lot about what it means to be a good steward of their gifts if they are mentored by those in your parish who are living lives of service to the Church. While a parish should probably not expect college student to take on any huge time commitments, they can invite these young people to be a part of the bigger picture of the parish.
These few things will not only ensure that college students from out of town feel welcomed during their time as temporary parishioners at your parish, it will continue to instill in them a sense that they are necessary and wanted members of the Body of Christ. It will remind them that they have a calling to love as they have been loved, and what more could we want for our young people than for them to strive to live lives of love?
I don’t normally open with such an extensive quote, but today’s reflection really rests on the words of Fr. Seraphim below. So bear with me, and if you read nothing that follows, read this entire quote:
The Holy Fathers teach us that the one who forgives always wins. Whatever the occasion may be, if you forgive, you immediately cleanse your soul and become fit for paradise. If you have forgiven those who plotted to murder you, you have become equal to the martyrs. If you have forgiven an insult, you have gained peace and won the Kingdom of Heaven. If you have generously overlooked the rumors and slanders against you, you have dulled the sting of your foe. If you have returned a good for evil, you have shamed your enemy. If you have swallowed a sarcastic insult to your honor, you have become worthy of heavenly honors. If, being of higher rank in life, you have asked the pardon of a lesser man, you have not only NOT disgraced yourself, but you have furthered your spiritual maturity. If you are not to blame but ask the offender to forgive you, you have thus helped his soul to be delivered from the hell of hatred and have covered many of your own sins, too. If you have abased your pride, you have exalted your humility. –Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev, The Meaning of Suffering and Strife and Reconciliation
What an impossible task! To forgive all our offenders for everything. To overlook wounds that cut us to the core. To ask for forgiveness when we have done no wrong.
Simply contemplating this sort of radical forgiveness is painful. Our inner pride resists with every fiber of its being. It rebels crying out with pain, “I don’t want to forgive. I have been wronged. I am justified. I can endure no more. It is impossible. Is there nothing to be done? Is there no recourse for those who seek to be righteous, to do what is good?” One’s heart breaks under the crucifying pain of being asked to forgive such wounds and insults.
And that is where the light enters.
It is precisely in a broken and contrite heart that Christ can dwell. It is only under the crushing pressure of our own resistance to goodness that we can be released from the bonds of our own sins. It is only when we realize that it is, in fact, impossible for us to forgive our enemies simply by the power of our own will that we can cry out earnestly, “Thy will be done.” It is only with a spirit of repentance and forgiveness that we are freed from the chains which bind us to our own ego and instead find ourselves clinging to the hem of Christ’s garment.
To forgive those who criticize and insult us is a form of crucifying our passions. It becomes very apparent how much we cling to our own reputation and our own power and not to God when we try to forgive and find such extreme resistance in our hearts, when we hear a voice that tries to convince us that we do not need to forgive because we are right, we deserve an apology, and if we yield, it will only make us look worse.
Of course, here we see the real problem. The real problem is not that we have been insulted but that we have become self-righteous, have succumbed to vanity, or have idolized ourselves and forgotten God altogether. Of these things, we must repent. We must lay down our resistance at the foot of the Cross, contemplating that our God willingly ascended the Cross though He did not deserve it. He was spat upon, mocked, stripped naked, and reviled, and yet not once did He retaliate, but instead forgave and prayed for those who scorned Him. It may feel like a crucifixion for us to turn towards radical forgiveness, but in doing so, we will join ourselves to the crucifixion–and ultimately resurrection–of our Lord.
For that, we can be thankful.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich realized that it was our enemies, our detractors and critics, whom we have to thank for revealing to us our ego and forcing us to flee to God. He has left us an incredible prayer of thanksgiving for our enemies (you can read the full text here) which reminds us that the ultimate goal of life is to rid ourselves of our own sins and cleave unto God.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.
They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.
Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of Thy garment.
By God’s grace, may it be so for each of us.
With #GivingTuesday just around the corner, we thought we’d help you learn more about some of the great Orthodox ministries that need our support as a Church to keep doing the great things they’re doing! Consider making a donation to one or more of them this year! Click on the logos to go directly to their online giving sites.
Ancient Faith Ministries
Ancient Faith Ministries started as an online radio program streaming Orthodox music and has grown to include a plethora of audio and video podcasts, blogs, a publishing house, a store, and a film production division. Ancient Faith provides a constantly growing and updated library of Orthodox resources on topics ranging from dogmatic theology, spiritual growth, marriage and family life, philosophy, ecumenical dialogue, fasting, saints lives, daily readings, and more. OCF is proud to host our own campus ministry podcast through AFR, and we are so appreciative of the support and guidance they have provided us in our own media outreach.
Many of you, I’m sure, are very familiar with Antiochian Village and its camping ministries. OCF houses our College Conference East there every year! We’re also proud to say that many of our OCF leaders give back to AV as counselors every year. Donations to AV help maintain its facilities as well as provide scholarships to campers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend.
This ten-day academic institute is designed to help high school juniors and seniors connect Orthodox theology and spirituality to the big decisions they are preparing to face–like going off to college! We’re so proud to say that over the years, many, many of our OCF chapter presidents and Student Leadership Board members have been alumni of CrossRoad. We know they’re doing it right when it comes to preparing young people for the challenges of college and beyond!
FOCUS North America
FOCUS North America is a US-based charity that provides food, occupation, clothing, understanding, and shelter through a number of community-based FOCUS centers as well as programs like Operation: Lace Up which provides shoes to school-age children in need in various cities across the country. They also run a youth program (YES) to help youth and young adults better understand poverty and get involved in serving their communities. OCF partners with FOCUS North America to run Real Break Cleveland where we volunteer at their center there, St. Herman’s House (a men’s homeless shelter).
Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society
Philoptochos is the largest Christian women’s philanthropic organization in the US, providing services to local communities as well as through national initiatives to those in need. Their focus is charity to the poor, preservation of the family, and perpetuating and promoting Orthodoxy, and they support programs as broad as aid to Greece and Cyprus, Hellenic College/Holy Cross, health related organizations, IOCC, and a variety of local social service organizations. OCF has been blessed to receive Philoptochos support, especially in regards to the First Forty Days Initiative and the Summer Leadership Institute.
Hogar Rafael Ayau
Hogar Rafael Ayau (San Miguel del Lago) is an Orthodox orphanage outside of Guatemala City, Guatemala run by the nuns of the Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Trinity. The children are educated and cared for all within the context of the Orthodox life. OCF partners with the Hogar to run Real Break Guatemala where our students play with the children and work on repairs and other projects needed by the monastery.
International Orthodox Christian Charities
IOCC is perhaps the most well-known and respected Orthodox charity, providing communities around the world with immediate disaster relief as well as long-term sustainable, community-oriented solutions to poverty, housing, education, and health. IOCC provides assistance without discrimination in places as diverse as Syria, Greece, USA, Haiti, Camaroon, and Bosnia. OCF partners with IOCC to run Real Break New Orleans where we work with them and with Habitat for Humanity to help build homes.
Ionian Village offers young people an opportunity to not only attend a great summer camp, but to go on a spiritual pilgrimage to encounter the saints, deepen their faith, and experience the life of the Church in a way that is unique among camping programs. We’re so proud to say that many of our OCF leaders are IV alumni and often go back as staff to minister to the next generation of Orthodox young people.
Orthodox Christian Fellowship
Yep, that’s right. Did you know our own ministry is entirely supported by donations and grants? We’re blessed to be able to able to provide you with things like free retreats, the Summer Leadership Institute, all sorts of chapter resources, and College Conference scholarships thanks to the generosity of our supporters. And we’re always trying to come up with new ways to help your chapters grow, connect more college students to the Church, and give back to the student leaders who make OCF the amazing ministry that it is.
Orthodox Christian Mission Center
OCMC is an agency of the Assembly of Bishops that helps send missionaries around the world to share the message of the Gospel to those who have not heard it. They currently have long-term missionaries in Albania, Guatemala, Kenya, Mongolia, Romania, and the United States.
Orthodox Christian Network
OCN provides news, radio, blogs, and other resources for Orthodox Christians of all ages. They even have a live-stream Bible study on Wednesday evenings!
Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry
A newer agency of the Assembly of Bishops, OCPM ministers to men and women, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike who are in prison or have been recently released. They provide spiritual guidance and catechism to those who are interested as well as train clergy and lay people on prison ministry. OCPM currently ministers to over 1,000 people in prison including five who have become monks and over 300 catechumens.
Project Mexico & St. Innocent Orphanage
Located in Tijuana Mexico, Project Mexico helps build homes for families in need while St. Innocent Orphanage cares for and educates orphaned boys in a loving, spiritually-rich environment. OCF has partnered with Project Mexico in the past to run Real Break trips where students worked on home builds and served at the orphanage. In addition to giving, you can always sign up for a summer team with your family, friends, or parish to volunteer.
St. Basil’s Academy
Located in upstate New York, St. Basil’s Academy takes in orphaned and at-risk Orthodox children where they can live and be educated in a safe and nurturing environment that addresses all of their needs. In existence since 1944, they take in children from all Orthodox backgrounds and care for them with Christ’s healing love.
St. John the Compassionate Mission
St. John the Compassionate Mission offers a variety of social services to the needed of Toronto, Canada. Their work includes weekly community dinners, kids programs, a thrift store, a community house for those in need of subsidized housing, an organic bakery staffed by those who would otherwise find it difficult to find work, counselling services for individuals and families, an Orthodox mission parish, and a lived theology school. OCF has partnered with St. John the Compassionate in the past to run Real Break Toronto, and we encourage our students to check out the lived theology school.
ZOE for Life!
ZOE for Life! is a pan-Orthodox outreach ministry that provides services such as counseling, housing assistance, medical assistance, prenatal care, adoption assistance, and a variety of other services to women in crisis pregnancies.
The Way of the Pilgrim
Length: 264 pages
What you can expect: An unnamed Russian pilgrim hears in church one day that he should, “pray without ceasing,” so he travels around on foot seeking wisdom on how to pray, specifically the Jesus Prayer
Why you should read it: The Way of the Pilgrim is a great introduction to the Jesus Prayer. It teaches you how to begin to pray not only in a monastic setting, but in many manners of living. Plus, it’s all told in an easy-to-read narrative style that feels like you’re reading a novel.
The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It
Author: St. Theophan the Recluse
Length: 320 pages
What you can expect: Short letters from St. Theophan to a young woman about how to cultivate her inner life and live virtuously amidst the worldliness and debauchery of the society around her
Why you should read it: St. Theophan is basically writing to a college student, and his advice is practical while challenging you to really take stock of who you are and why you do the things you do. It’s also great because the letters are super short–you could read one or two during a meeting, and even if you didn’t make it through the whole book, it would be worth it!
Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives
Author: Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica
Length: 212 pages
What you can expect: The biography and teachings of Elder Thaddeus, a 20th century elder from Serbia who emphasizes how important our thoughts are to our entire spiritual life and outlook on others
Why you should read it: Elder Thaddeus has a great way of focusing our attention on how the demons misdirect us by influencing our thoughts and how we can reorient ourselves toward Christ through prayer. It’s great for a chapter book study because his teachings are organized by topic, so you could choose a particular one to focus on for a few weeks like “On Thoughts” or “On Love.”
Wounded by Love
Author: St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalivia
Length: 253 pages
What you can expect: The biography and teachings of one of the most recently canonized saints with tons of practical advice on prayer and dealing with difficult situations as well as lots of amazing miracle stories
Why you should read it: St. Porphyrios died in 1991, so the people he counsels throughout the book are not too different from you and me! His message of gentleness encompasses both our treatment of others and also our own spiritual lives. Like Elder Thaddeus, he covers a variety of topics in short sections so you can pick and choose what to read if you can’t cover the whole book in a semester.
Fr. Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father
Author: Alexander (last name not given)
Length: 277 pages
What you can expect: An incredible biography of a priest living in a Soviet prison camp
Why you should read it: Few other books can describe the life of a saint perfected through suffering like this one. This book is packed with the miraculous and transformative work of an incredible spiritual father. His love and devotion to God and to others, no matter their station, personality, or sins all in the midst of his own great suffering will inspire you to follow in his footsteps.
Today I’d like to address this excellent student question we received:
How can I defend my faith in the face of opposition?
I’m sure it’s not all that uncommon that you are faced with situations on campus where your faith is not only challenged but vehemently opposed, times when Scripture and history are thrown at you in an attempt to convince you that faith is pointless, contradictory, or exclusive of intellectual, rational, and scientific thought.
It can be unnerving to feel like you’ve been put on the spot to defend all of Christianity and every Christian, especially if the challenger is someone in authority like a professor. It can be even more disconcerting when they ask questions that make you ask questions.
So what can we do?
Image from Vic on Flickr
Be a Blessing
When someone opposes you for believing in Christ, the very best thing you can do is not get in a fight with that person. The best witness to Christ’s light in you will be the love with which you treat other people, including those who berate you. Christ tells us, “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6:28). How can you be a blessing to those who curse you? By venerating them as the icon of Christ that you know they are, even if they do not believe it. By treating them with respect, honor, and love as if they are Christ standing before you.
Now, it’s not going to be easy, and you probably won’t be perfect at it right away, but by remaining faithful in our belief that all people are children of God and are loved by Him, it will be a lot easier to avoid the temptation to punch somebody in the face when they make fun of you or speak blasphemously.
Speak the Truth in Love
Avoiding a fist fight, real or metaphorical, doesn’t mean not standing up for Christ. Don’t be afraid to confess Christ, to tell someone why you believe in Him and follow His way of living. But at the same time, keep in mind that many people who reject Christ have actually rejected a false idea about Him or about God the Father or have rejected Him because they have only experienced judgment, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy from those who claim to be His followers.
And certainly, we as Christians do our fair share of sinning, of not living up to the high standard of Christ’s commandment to love God and neighbor with His perfect love. Of course, we know that’s why we desperately need Christ and His salvific Church–to overcome sin within us and let grace work instead. Nonetheless, people still reject Christ because of our imperfections.
All the more should we confess Christ with love, not wavering in what we know to be true while at the same time not violating that which we hold most dear by wounding another person with our words or actions.
Part of speaking the truth is also coming to terms with what we don’t know and being honest about it. If someone raises a question we don’t know, it’s 100% ok to question with them. Christian faith is not based on a set of propositions anyway–we don’t believe stuff. Christian faith is trusting in a person, Christ as the Creator and Redeemer; faith is opening up to the work of the Spirit so that you can be transformed by grace. Therefore, doubt does not preclude faith, but rather, it presents us with an opportunity to come to know God more deeply. Faith is more like trust than like knowledge, something like this passage from Isaiah:
Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
Hope in Christ
Which brings me to my last point. When you come under attack for your faith, when you face opposition, remember first that Christ told us this would happen. He told us that if we followed Him, we would be rejected by the world. We shouldn’t really be surprised. In fact, we can even take opposition as a further sign that Christ’s word is true.
And most importantly, then, remember that no matter what “the world” says about Christ, He remains the same. No matter what someone accuses us or the Church or the Bible of saying, doing, or believing, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). No matter if someone mocks, beats, accuses, or even crucifies Christ, we have the assurance that Christ is risen, and that He has left us with the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, assuring us,
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (Jn 14:27)
Whenever I read the lives of the great ascetic saints, two things always happen in me. First, I feel really inspired to pray more, repent better, and grow in faith. And then I usually feel like there’s no way I’ll ever be able to come close to having the kind of spiritual life that they have. How will I ever keep vigil for hours with the angels when I can barely make time for morning and evening prayers and pay attention through the whole Liturgy? How is it that they can work miracles through their love, and I can barely forgive my best friend?
Over the years, I’ve gotten some pretty good advice on how to make a little bit of progress. Here are a few things I have found most helpful:
1. Accept Where You Are
One great definition of humility I’ve heard is just being ok with where you are. It’s resisting the temptation to think you’re further along the spiritual path than you really are and at the same time not despairing when you see a saint who you know is much further along than you.
2. Take Tiny Steps
It’s tempting to want to try to do everything there is to do in the spiritual life all at once, especially when we begin to be filled with the zeal that comes from really making our faith our own–a process that often happens to us when we go off to college or when we convert to Orthodoxy. And while our zeal to commit more of our time and energy to God is definitely a good thing, there can be so many problems with an I-can-do-anything attitude. For one, it blocks you from seeing where you really are. It can set you up for disappointment and disillusionment when you find that simply making more prostrations doesn’t automatically allow you to walk on water, raise the dead, or even be much nicer to your cranky roommate. It can also be difficult to actually maintain over time and know what is really benefiting you spiritually.
I recently heard Fr. Michael Gillis say on a podcast, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Take little steps in the spiritual life that you can actually commit to doing consistently. Over time, one little thing becomes so ingrained in your life that it doesn’t even feel like you’re doing anything so difficult anymore. Then it’s time to take a few more tiny steps. You’re going to need good advice and spiritual counsel from someone who’s taken more steps than you have down the path to help you along the way (we say all the time, you need a spiritual father).
3. Pray Through the Day
One tiny step you can take to begin to remember God more often throughout your day is to connect prayer to other habits you already have. For example, you might start by making the sign of the cross before you eat or when you get in the car. You might start by remembering to pray, “O Lord, bless,” before the start of an exam. You might commit to praying for someone you love or for an enemy every time you wash your hands. You’re going to do these things anyway, and the physical action of sitting down to the table, getting in the car, entering the classroom, or turning on the faucet can be a tangible reminder to take a few seconds to connect to God.
You can also connect the Jesus Prayer or other little prayers to bad habits. What I mean is you should respond to temptations with little bits of prayer. When you have a bad thought, you respond, “Lord have mercy.” In fact, this is at the heart of the practice of the Jesus Prayer: that we call upon the name of Jesus when we are assaulted by the temptations of the passions and of the demons like Peter crying out for help when he began to sink.
Prayer can redirect your mind and energy and give you the space between a thought that passes through your mind and your acting on that thought. Before you respond to the impulse to pull out your phone and check Twitter, commit to praying one Jesus Prayer for yourself or for another person. You’ll find quickly two things: how often you’re being tempted and how even just a little bit of connection with Christ suddenly puts things back into the right perspective.
These kinds of succinct little prayers throughout the day not only make living a life of prayer seem a lot less daunting, but most importantly, sincerely invite Christ to be present in the everyday. It makes it harder to compartmentalize our lives and relegate our relationship with God only to Sunday mornings or morning and evening prayers when we call upon His name in the most mundane activities like washing our hands.
4. Remember the End Goal
Always keep in mind that the purpose of the spiritual life is not to do more things, but to see more clearly. We need to see ourselves first so that we can repent of the ways we fall short of God’s commandments. Then we can seek to see God more clearly and unite ourselves to His Divine Life by allowing His Spirit to make present His Son within us.
This means that we don’t say more prayers simply to be able to count up at the end of the day how many minutes we spent in prayer; we pray more to invite Christ into our lives more often and to soften our own hard hearts to His transforming grace. We don’t fast simply to make bacon taste better on Pascha or to prove that we can endure forty days of a low iron diet; we fast to give ourselves a chance to refocus our energy away from earthly cares and commit more time and energy to spiritual growth. We don’t give alms so we can get credit for how much we’ve given away, but to encounter Christ in our neighbor and prove our love for Him by loving the person in front of us.
This is most important: whatever you do as you cultivate a life in Christ, remember that our good work is really Christ working in us and for that, we can say, “Glory to God for all things.”
1. Meeting amazing young Orthodox Christians from all over the country
2. Finishing your first workshop just in time for Elevenses
3. Getting your fix of beatboxing, Broadway music, dancing, slam poetry, and incredible original music at Open Mic Night
4. Listening to Abbot Tryphon’s stories–and figuring out how they’re all connected to each other in the end
5. Breaking the rule about letting Gatouli the cat into the cafeteria because he’s so darn cute
6. Chanting the Akathist Glory to God for All Things at the foot of the cross
7. Man chat….’nuff said
8. Star gazing at the rock
9. So. Much. Good. Food…..and bacon
10. Seeing old friends and building new relationships
So get excited. Register today!
We have been asked about how chapters can engage in interfaith and inter-Christian events and dialogue, and in honor of Orthodox Awareness Month and #TakeTheChallenge, we’d like to offer some suggestions.
Disclaimer: These cannot and should not serve as the only point of reference in planning events with other religious organizations. First and foremost, you should consult with your chapter’s Spiritual Advisor for guidance and discernment. Additionally, you can reference the document published by the Assembly of Bishops, Guidelines for Orthodox Christians in Ecumenical Relations.
Fellowship events are a great way to get to know another religious group on campus. Hospitality is a great way to show love, and learning about other people is a great way to start a relationship! Here are a few tips!
If you are hosting:
- Choose a “neutral” location like a coffee shop, a bowling alley, or an on-campus hangout.
- If possible, show hospitality by providing food or a fun activity that your guests don’t have to pay for.
- Listen more than you talk! Try to get to know the people you are hosting without letting your assumptions or preconceptions get in the way.
- Remember you are trying to make friends not converts. Don’t tell another group you’d like to have dinner when you really intend to give them an exposition of why Orthodox Christianity is the one, true faith. While, of course, you’ll probably talk religion if you invite another religious group out to dinner, steer clear of debates, disparaging comments, and triumphalism.
If you are invited by another group:
- Accept the invitation! Why not spend some time getting to know other people?
- Rally a good showing. Do your best to have all or at least most of your group attend if you have all been invited.
- Remember you are trying to make friends, not converts….see above. Be nice.
Service projects are also a great way to work with other religious groups on campus, especially other Christian groups. We all share a common goal to serve others with love and to give without receiving in return. Here are a few pointers:
If you are hosting:
- Invite the input of other leaders to figure out the best way to join forces on projects.
- If possible, work through and with existing professional organizations (soup kitchens, nursing homes, shelters, etc.). These organizations and institutions know the best practices for their particular areas of service and can guide you in carrying out your work with compassion and love.
- Invite your Spiritual Advisor or someone from the organization to debrief with your group at the end. It’s good to integrate your experiences into your everyday life, especially if you are working in an unfamiliar context.
If you are invited by another group:
- Make sure that the service project doesn’t have any strings attached. Avoid situations where the services offered come with proselytizing.
- Look into any organizations or institutions with which you are unfamiliar, and involve your Spiritual Advisor in the decision-making process.
- Remember service is not about gaining recognition for your group. Again, avoid using service opportunities as a platform for debate.
Taking time to learn about other faith groups and share the beauty of Orthodoxy can be a really exciting and fulfilling experience if done properly. The means for learning and sharing traditions can run the gamut, so here are a few ways to engage in dialogue productively and lovingly.
If you are hosting:
- Remember that “come and see” is much more effective than “sit and listen to my lecture.” Think of ways to allow people to experience first-hand the spiritual beauty of Orthodoxy. For example, lead a tour of the local parish pointing out the various stories told in the icons, host Breaking Bread so that you can teach people about the Eucharist, or put on a chanting concert open to the public.
- Find common ground as a starting place for discussion. Talk about the lives of the saints with Catholics, the centrality of the Scriptures with Protestants, the sacredness of God’s commandments with Jews, the need for self-denial with Buddhists…you get the idea. This means you’ll actually have to learn about your guests and their traditions if you want to have a meaningful discussion.
- If you are setting up a discussion or a formal debate, make sure that there are ground rules set beforehand–first within your own chapter and then with the other group(s) participating–about speaking respectfully, what subjects/language is off-limits, how to make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard, etc. And then, follow the rules and guidelines you set up with the utmost care.
- Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” If a question is raised to which you don’t know the answer, say so, and do your best to follow up. It’s much better to go and find out than to make something up or give a half-baked answer to save face.
- Strive to love and understand, not to win or prove someone wrong. How you say or do something is just as important as what you say. Speak the truth in love, not with judgement, condemnation, or haughtiness. Remaining calm and speaking with love will provide a stronger witness of Christ’s grace working in you than reciting the canons of the Ecumenical Councils vociferously (I think St. Paul agrees).
If you are invited:
- Accept invitations that allow simply for a better understanding of another faith group such as tours, concerts, and cultural fairs.
- If you are invited to participate in a discussion, debate, or panel, make sure you know all the details: What is the end goal? Who else is invited? Who is funding or backing the forum? Will it be open to the public? Who is the moderator? What are the topics? Any of these things could be deciding factors as to whether or not you should participate. You’re going to need your Spiritual Advisor’s involvement on this one for sure.
- Remember that if you choose to participate in a debate where you are the only Orthodox Christian, both your words and actions will, whether you like it or not, reflect on the Church and Christ. Tread carefully in these situations, and try to avoid putting yourself in a position where you do not feel prepared to speak on a particular topic.
Worship is the trickiest category when working with other religious groups. You should always involve your Spiritual Advisor when it comes to making decisions about inter-Christian or interfaith prayer and worship. This is when that guide from the Assembly of Bishops really comes in handy, too.
If you are hosting:
- You can always invite people to visit Orthodox worship services. I suggest Vespers or Paraklesis as a good starting place if people are interested. If you host a Day of Light, you get a built in opportunity to pray for others and invite them to visit an Orthodox service.
- Be prepared with books or printouts for people to follow the service, and make sure that you are available to guide people along if they look lost.
- Make time to discuss the services before or after so that people have an opportunity to ask questions.
- If you bring groups to Liturgy, respectfully let them know beforehand that only baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians may receive Holy Communion.
If you are invited:
- Generally speaking, Orthodox Christians can participate in non-liturgical prayer with other Christians and can observe the worship of others without participating, but get the blessing of your Spiritual Advisor to go.
- Be kind and curious. Ask questions respectfully and do not use another’s hospitality as an opportunity to insult them.
- If you feel uncomfortable, leave. And along the same lines, if someone in your group doesn’t feel comfortable attending at all, don’t pressure or force them to go.
- Avoid participating in any sacramental or spiritual rituals including, but not limited to, receiving communion in a non-Orthodox church, altar calls, offerings to idols, or meditation.
Above all, seek the guidance of your Spiritual Advisor, be faithful to the Jesus Christ and His Church, and do your best to love others by giving them your respect and attention.
It’s often tempting to think that we are all so busy that we don’t have time to really engage in spiritual things. Well, thanks to the amazing work of Ancient Faith Ministries, Y2AM, and many others, there are now hundreds of blogs, podcasts, videos, and other media out there to help us grow. Here are seven podcasts and video series that run under 20 minutes that we think you should start following. Did we mention that many of these speakers will be at College Conference this year? Click on the images to start listening and watching today!
The Morning Offering
Average Length: 4 minutes
What you can expect: A short, daily reflection on the spiritual life, culture, and other bits of wisdom from the booming voice of Abbot Tryphon
Why you should listen: In four minutes, Abbot Tryphon can give you food for thought for a whole day, whether he is talking about loving our neighbor, humility, or current events.
Be the Bee
Average Length: 5 minutes
What you can expect: Orthodox theology, tradition, and practice in small, manageable bites always with the goal of searching out and acting on the good in God’s creation featuring the infamous Steve Christoforou
Why you should watch: Ever wonder why we do what we do in Orthodox worship and practice? Need a spiritual pick-me-up? Sometimes feel like there’s a lot of negativity in the world? Steve’s your guy. With humor, wisdom, and a real love for people, Steve shares how we can, like St. Basil and St. Paisios, “be the bee.”
Average Length: 5 minutes
What you can expect: Relationships–why they matter, what they look like, how they form us, and how they save us with Christian Gonzalez, husband, father, and Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for the GOA
Why you should watch: This is Y2AM’s newest video series, but from what we can tell, it’s gonna be good. Whether you’re thinking about family, friends, dating, work, or school, your life is filled with relationships, and Christian wants to help you see whoever you encounter as an opportunity to meet Christ and to engage in the spiritual life. Plus, this guy is just downright hilarious.
Average Length: 7 minutes
What you can expect: The daily Scripture readings according to the New Calendar with a brief reflection from Fr. Tom Soroka
Why you should listen: It’s hard to make up excuses for not reading Scripture daily when you can listen to Fr. Tom read it to you on your way to class!
Coffee with Sister Vassa
Average Length: 10 minutes
What you can expect: Reflections on Scripture, saints, and liturgy presented with the hilarious and dry humor of Sister Vassa Larin
Why you should watch: Sister Vassa is a professor of liturgy in Vienna, Austria, so her reflections on the liturgical life of the Church, feast days, saints, and Scripture come with a professor’s authority and knowledge, and she also shares practical ways we can imitate the saints and follow the Word of God. Plus, you don’t want to miss her entertaining captions, sound effects, and photos of the “zillions” drinking coffee with her.
Praying in the Rain
Average Length: 15 minutes
What you can expect: Excellent and personable reflections from Fr. Michael Gillis on prayer, suffering, temptation, bad thoughts, and the whole of the inner life often drawing on the writings of contemporary saints like St. Porphyrios and classic works like the Philokalia
Why you should listen: Listening to Fr. Michael is like having a spiritual elder on your smartphone. As you are learning to pray, facing the inevitable temptations that arise, falling, and getting back up again to follow Christ, Fr. Michael can give you great, simple advice along the way.
Becoming a Healing Presence
Average Length: 15-20 minutes
What you can expect: Dr. Albert Rossi from St. Vladimir’s speaks on a variety of topics that cover contemporary moral issues, Scripture, psychology, and relationships all in the context of Christ healing us so that we, too, can be a healing presence
Why you should listen: If you’ve never met or listened to Dr. Rossi, you’ll learn that no topic is off limits for him. You can browse or search the archives of his podcast and find episodes on things as diverse as pornography, schizophrenia, vocation, marriage, suicide, forgiveness, and time management.
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. –Mark 8:35
What clearer call to martyrdom could there be than to hear Jesus say, “If you willingly give up your life for my sake, then you will be saved”? But it’s not only a commandment for the martyrs–you, too, are asked to lose your life for the sake of True Life by denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Christ.
There’s a bit of a paradox in the command, “Deny yourself,” because the self you are asked to deny isn’t really your true self. Who you really are rests in God. The divine spark of the Holy Spirit is already in each of us and has been fueled and fanned by our baptism and chrismation. And this is who you really are–your true self is Christ in you.
Christ asks, then, that we deny ourselves in the sense that we deny the false self–the selfish ego and the passionate desires that seem to be who we are but which are merely distortions that mask our deeper, truer being. Christ asks that we deny ourselves so that we can find ourselves. He tells us, “The ego must go, your passions and selfish desires cannot reign in you if I am to reign in your heart.”
Take Up Your Cross
The way of self-denial is the way of the Cross. To strip the passions of their power is neither easy nor painless. And it’s not a one-time deal, but a constant, life-long struggle. As our true self is being uncovered, the false, egotistical self constantly struggles to win out, and the heart is the battleground where we fight this war.
There are two kinds of crosses we will be asked to bear in this battle. The first are the crosses of circumstance. These are the difficulties, the temptations, and the situations which are out of our control. We do not ask for illness and death to enter our lives, we do not control the propensities towards certain sins that we have inherited or acquired through our upbringing, we do not plan to have a boss that’s unkind or a friend that betrays us. Nonetheless, these things all confront us and require our response.
The crosses of circumstance, though initially thrust upon us, can still be voluntarily taken up. It is an act of self-denial to bear illness with faith and hope. It is an act of self-denial to live a life of purity when faced with strong propensity toward sexual sin. It is an act of self-denial not to exact revenge on a person who has hurt you. These crosses will grieve us, yes, and they may even seem senseless and unfair when we try to fight them. But if we accept them, if we pray, “God, enter into this suffering, be with me, may this cross lead me to a resurrection,” then the suffering and sorrow of the crosses of circumstance will be transformed with hope and light and will allow us to thank God for all things as we begin to see Him act in our lives.
The second kind of crosses we will be asked to bear are the crosses of asceticism. These are the voluntary acts of self-denial we pursue to crucify our passions. This is our response to the usurping, selfish, ego that desires to reign on the throne of our hearts. The false self tells us, “Be angry, you are justified,” and we respond, “I shall not murder my brother, but will let peace reign among us.” The false self tells us, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die,” and we respond, “For my brother’s sake, for the sake of love, I shall take less than my share so that he might have more.” The false self tell us, “You are a good person, you are certainly better than the great sinners,” and we respond, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
The Church gives us many small crosses of asceticism that we can voluntarily take up so that our will can be formed to the will of the Father. We don’t have to make up an ascetical practice ourselves but simply allow our lives to be shaped by the life of the Church. We fast when and how the Church tells us to fast. We pray with the words of the Church. We give alms though it deprives us of material wealth. We submit in obedience and love to our parents, our spiritual father, our spouse, our bishop. These small acts of self-denial help us face and battle the thoughts and promptings of our ego and of the Evil One.
Together, the crosses of circumstance and the crosses of asceticism slowly uncover Christ in us and strip away the false self. We should expect that crucifixion will be painful and difficult. As the character of C. S. Lewis says in The Shadowlands:
You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt so much, are what makes us perfect.
The last and perhaps most essential part of Christ’s command for us to live everyday as martyrs is this: Follow Me. We are asked not only to deny our selfish desires and bear the suffering that denial will bring, but to move towards Christ. It is the completion of the denial of the false self to allow Christ in us to shine through, for the Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Follow Me also means that the way of the Cross that we are to walk is the way that Christ has already walked. He does not ask us to bear anything that He Himself has not already borne. He assures us that any difficulty we face, He will face with us. He asks only that we unite ourselves to Him with faith and love.
Christ says to us, “Follow Me, do as I have done, love as I have loved, and most of all, trust that I will love you and walk with you on the path.”
It is striking that the Lord does not force us to follow this path, to bear the cross, to live a life of everyday martyrdom, but says, “If anyone is willing, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” May we have the strength and faith to become everyday martyrs, dying to sin so that we can be alive in Christ.
There are all sorts of circumstances under which Christians have faced persecution and martyrdom. And while we often think first of the martyrs who were slaughtered by the Roman pagans, there are many more martyrs, especially since the time of the fall of the Christian Byzantine Empire, who have suffered because they refused to denounce Christ. Those martyred in the post-Byzantine era are often referred to as the “New Martyrs” since, in Orthodox terms, anything less than a thousand years ago is recent history for us.
One such saint is the New Martyr Zlata (October 13). Here is her story and what she has to share with us.
In the area that is now Bulgaria in the late 18th century, there was a young girl named Zlata (Chryse in Greek). Zlata had been raised in a Christian home and was known for her strong character, chastity, and beauty. So when a young Turk became infatuated with her and wanted to marry her, Zlata firmly refused to capitulate either to his marriage proposal or to his insistence that she convert to Islam. The Turk and his friends then spent months harassing and threatening Zlata, trying in vain to make her give in. They even tried to force her parents and siblings to get her to convert. And here’s where the really beautiful lesson from St. Zlata comes in.
Her family told her to give in “just for the sake of appearances.” Surely, they told her, God would forgive her if she didn’t really mean it but converted only to save her life. The saint remained steadfast, however, and insisted that even if it was just for the sake of appearances, to deny Christ would be unthinkable. After many more tortures, ultimately, the young woman was killed.
Now, maybe we don’t have someone threatening our life if we don’t change who we are, but I know there are lots of times that we, as Orthodox Christians, are asked to, “for the sake of appearances,” not wear our faith too externally. We get the message, “It’s ok if your a Christian–just as long as it doesn’t upset the materialistic, hedonistic order of things. It’s ok if you’re a Christian–just as long as the world doesn’t have to be bothered by it. And couldn’t you, just for the sake of appearances, maybe act a little less Christian so you don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable?”
What we can take from the life of St. Zlata is that denying Christ to save face, just to get by unharassed–for the sake of a job, a class, a social connection, whatever it may be–is not just a surface-level matter of convenience. We can’t just pretend not to be Christians when our Christianity is inconvenient or unpopular. To cover up our Christianity in the small things is to set ourselves up for bigger denials. Likewise, to say yes to Christ in the small things is to prepare ourselves for bigger (often more difficult) leaps of faith. Even when those around us discourage us from living a life of faith, may we, like the young Zlata, remain firm in our resolve to follow Christ in all things.
Holy St. Zlata, intercede for us.
In striving to be Modern Martyrs, there’s a lot to learn from the saints who have gone before us. What is it we can take from the lives of the martyrs and confessors that we can apply to our everyday life on campus? Well, a good place to start is at the beginning. St. Stephen the Protomartyr (it means he was the first one) who is commemorated on December 27th has a few lessons to share with us. You can read his entire story in Acts 6-7.
His purity was striking. Right before Stephen gives his account before the high priest and his council, we are told, “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” And just a little before that, Stephen is described as “full of grace and power.” Stephen’s first and primary witness to the world was his inner peace and his pure heart. Even as the council is looking for ways to destroy him, they can’t help but notice God’s grace radiating through him. This should be our first and primary goal in bearing witness to Christ: that we, too, shine from within with Christ’s love, grace, and power.
His authority was scriptural and ecclesial. When Stephen proceeds to speak on behalf of Christ, he doesn’t do so on his own authority, but instead, places his own experience and the gospel message into the context of the entire history of salvation, starting from God calling Abraham out of Ur. On the one hand, his authority relies on the evidence of Scripture, on the many stories he must have known from childhood that told of God’s work among the people of Israel. On the other hand, the way in which he frames that history is ecclesial, or community-oriented, in the sense that he places himself and his contemporaries and the events of their own day into that same scriptural history. He sees a unity in God’s works that stretches from the past and into the present. Likewise, when we are called upon to speak for Christ, we should know and rely on Scripture to give context to our own experience, and we should speak from the perspective not of ourselves, but of the Church, the community of saints beginning with Abraham and coming down to our own time. This is an inheritance we can claim as Orthodox that gives our witness a full authority–our own experience is confirmed and supported by the witness of Scripture and the great cloud of witnesses of the whole Body of Christ throughout history.
His response to abuse was forgiveness. As the stones started flying toward him, Stephen did more than just bear suffering with strength and fortitude. He kept his eyes on heaven and asked Christ for mercy upon his persecutors. Like Christ on the cross who asked the Father to forgive the ignorance of those who crucified Him, Stephen allowed himself to suffer innocently and did not hold the sin of his murderers against them. When we face rejection for our faith, abuse for our attempts at purity, or suffering when we bear witness to Christ, St. Stephen again is our model. We bear all things for the sake of Christ and do not hold sin against others. We do not pick up a stone and throw it back, either with real violence or with our words. Instead, we humbly ask God for His mercy upon those who defame Him (Him, not us) and assume the best of intentions of those who dismiss and reject us.
Holy Protomartyr and Saint Stephen, pray to God for us.
We’re so excited to reveal the 2015-2016 OCF theme, chosen by the Student Leadership Board just for you!
So why this theme?
Usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think about martyrs are the Christians today and throughout the history of the Church who have been killed because of their allegiance to Christ. Under the authority of some regime that found the message of the Gospel abhorrent–whether it was the Jews, the Romans, the Turks, the Soviets, or ISIS–certain Christians have found themselves faced with the decision: deny Christ or lose your life. And time and time again, the martyrs have shown us an example of bold faith in saying yes to Christ and proclaiming their faith in him even in the face of certain execution.
But the truth is that being killed isn’t what makes the martyrs, well, martyrs.
The word μαρτυρέω (mar-tee-REH-oh) in Greek does not itself denote death for a cause but rather means to bear witness, to give evidence, to testify. This is what makes a martyr a martyr–that he or she was willing to bear witness to Christ, give evidence of His salvific love toward mankind, and testify on His behalf before the world. Certainly, those who have been willing to and have faced death for the sake of this witness have left an immeasurable impact on the Church and on the world, often bringing many others to Christ because of their unwavering hope and trust in Him. Tertullian went as far as to say,
The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
But the calling to martyrdom is a calling for all of us. Each Christian is the representative of Christ to those around Him. We, too, should bear witness to Christ by following His commandments. We, too, should give evidence of His salvific love toward mankind by loving our neighbor and defending the oppressed. We, too, should testify on His behalf by boldly challenging the worldly authorities and the principalities and powers of darkness which find the message of the Gospel abhorrent. And we, too, should not be afraid of the consequences of radically devoting ourselves to Christ, for the reward is a crown of incorruption and life eternal.
That is why we chose this theme. So that we can honor the martyrs who are dying even today for their faith in Jesus Christ. So that we can talk about the worldly and spiritual authorities that challenge us everyday. So that we can accept the calling to martyrdom with faith and endurance. So that together this year, we can learn from the martyrs, both modern and ancient, who gave their lives for Christ how to become witnesses of the Word, giving our whole lives to Christ our God.
As we’ve mentioned before, the first forty days of your freshmen year of college are going to be foundational for the rest of your college experience. We’ve spent a lot of time encouraging your parents, your priest, your catechetical school teachers, and your camp counselors to help us connect you to an OCF chapter in the first forty days of school this fall. But what will you be doing in those first forty days to stay connected to Christ and His Church? After all, you are the one who will decide if all the efforts of those who love you will come to fruition. You will choose your friends, and you will choose how to spend your time. You alone will decide where your path will take you. Will you listen to Christ calling you to repentance and transformation? Will you continue to dedicate your life to Christ as your parents and godparents have done for you?
A lot will be decided–whether you are conscious of it or not–in the first forty days of classes this fall. The habits you build then will likely stick with you throughout your college career. So here’s my advice for those first forty days:
- Go to Liturgy. Sounds simple enough, right? But after an intense first week of getting oriented to your classes coupled with no sleep as you make new friends, when Sunday rolls around, it will be so easy to tell yourself, “I’ll go next week.” But next week often rolls around and hears the same song. And trust me, the longer you are away, the harder it will be to take the leap to go back for the first time. Being in Liturgy, in the presence of God and surrounded by the Christian community, and receiving Christ’s very Body and Blood are absolutely essential to the life of a Christian. You can’t go long without them without starting to lose a sense of who you are. Don’t know where the nearest church is? Here ya go.
- Go to Class. There’s a reason that freshmen year courses are often considered “weed out” classes: they can be really overwhelming. Actually making sure you make it to that 8 AM bio class will be worth it in the long run. So will doing your homework. You do, after all, want to get that degree at the end of this whole thing.
- Pray on Your Own. Take five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night to be silent, be thankful, and offer up a prayer to God. Like going to Liturgy, having a prayer life will keep you centered on who you really are and will give you a chance to reflect on the challenges and choices that you are facing as a young person.
- Read Scripture. If reading Scripture isn’t already a part of your daily routine, now is the time to add it in. The words of Scripture stabilize, sustain, and strengthen us. As you meet challenges to your faith and your morals, having the words of Scripture to turn to, especially the words of our Lord in the Gospels, will help you make sense of the world around you and will help you navigate difficult times. Not sure where to start? Download the OCF Connect App to get the daily readings right on your phone (along with lots of other pretty cool stuff).
Just remember, a little bit goes a long way. Forty days is not a long period of time, but it’s long enough to build a strong foundation for what you lies ahead. Do what you can without making excuses, and keep the work of salvation at the forefront of your mind.
Nowadays, you hear a lot of talk that the value of a college degree is its earning value in the job marketplace. Take, for example, this inspiring message from The College Board (you know, the people who make the SAT and AP exams):
Thanks to all the knowledge, skills and experience you’ll gain in college, you’ll be able to adapt to a greater variety of jobs and careers. Statistics show that a college diploma can help you:
- Get a job
- Keep a job
- Make more money
OK, it may be true that statistically speaking, you are more likely to get and keep a job as well as earn more over your lifetime if you have a college degree than if you don’t have one, but if this is the primary reason for getting an education, I find it rather depressing from a Christian standpoint. This point of view woefully diminishes the greater power and purpose of being an educated person–of the opportunity the college environment provides for self-discovery, the sharing of ideas, discourse and dialogue, deepening knowledge, and experience of the world. In short, the formation of the person.
I’m certain at this point you’re probably calling to mind all the negative things that people have warned you about college life, and yes, they are certainly there–we’ll address them later in this series–but if college were just about getting a degree so you can get a job while trying to survive an onslaught of negative social experiences, I don’t think we’d all be so eager to sign up. At minimum, the sheer amount of freedom that college allows you demands that you take seriously the important questions about who you are and who you will become.
Whether it’s in philosophy class considering the writings of Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Derrida or during rush with your sorority, whether it happens in Biology 101 or in the lounge of your dorm, whether it occurs when you change your major, you end a relationship, you finish an internship, or you fail a class, college will demand that you ask yourself,
Who am I at my core?
This is not a trivial question by any means, and it is certainly not a question only for liberal arts majors. This is the paramount question we will be asked not only by the world, but by Christ on the day of judgement. Who have we become? Are we icons of Christ in our love for God and neighbor, or have we become so distorted that Christ says to us, “I never knew you, depart from me, you evildoers.” (Mt 7:23) It’s a question we will answer not only with our intellect but with the fruits our lives have borne.
It’s kind of a big deal.
Preparing for college is more than just picking out a roommate, lining up your first semester of classes, and getting used to the bus routes on campus; it’s preparing yourself to be challenged, to question your intentions and assumptions, to seek a deeper understanding of life. I encourage you, start now. Ask yourself now, before you are asked by the world: Who are you? Why are you an Orthodox Christian? Do you know Jesus Christ? Do you know yourself–your talents and your sins? Have you sought God’s love and mercy? Do you want to be His child? In the process of self-discovery, you will have to come to terms with your own life’s story–the good and the bad. You don’t have to make the journey alone, but you will have to decide for yourself what path your life will take.
College will be a time of formation, whether you actively engage in the process or not, the question is: will you be conformed to this world or transformed in Christ?
Photo from Matt Westgate on Flickr
In the midst of everything that is going on in college, I know that many of you are probably also thinking about getting married or pursing romantic relationships. Dating can be a tough scene for us Orthodox Christians–let’s be honest: there are not that many of us, and there can be a lot of pressure from family to make something work or to choose a particular kind of person. Not to mention the crazy way the world often treats relationships as means simply to fulfill our own selfish desires. A little advice:
Take your time to find the right person. No matter how many times yiayia asks you when you’re getting married and making babies, hold out for the right person–the person who makes it easy to love, forgive, and live a life of faith.
Trust your parents, your priest, and your peers. Within reason. If there is a resounding “please-don’t-marry-this-person” coming from all directions, chances are, something’s not right.
Keep marriage in mind, but don’t overdo it. Yes, we date with the question, “Am I going to marry this person?” present in our minds and prayerfully in our hearts, but, especially when you are first getting to know someone, you don’t need to rush to that conclusion. Protecting yourself from giving away too much of who you are (and I’m not just talking sex) too quickly can help you strengthen a relationship over time if it is the right one.
Look for someone better than you. If you feel like you are dragging a person behind you in any way, but especially spiritually, this is not the person for you. Not only are you setting yourself up for a giant lack of humility, if that person really isn’t your equal, you could be setting yourself up for a difficult marriage. Your spouse should humble you with their faith and devotion, they should have spiritual gifts you admire, especially ones which you feel like you lack. Along the same lines, avoid dating someone you see as “a fixer-upper.” It’s not good if you think you need to save your significant other or be a missionary via dating.
Pray. Pray for guidance in finding the right person and help to navigate your relationships when you get into them. Pray for your future spouse, even if you haven’t met them yet. And with that, here are a few saints who can help you along the way:
St. Xenia (Ksenia) of St. Petersburg
St. Xenia (January 24) is known for helping people with the things she herself lost or gave up in her own lifetime: a spouse, a house, and a job. She was a young married woman, living somewhat carefree and never really thinking about her soul when her young husband died suddenly after he’d been out drinking with his friends. Shocked, Xenia ran from St. Petersburg, returning eight years later as a homeless wanderer. Many of the people derided her as an insane homeless person, but she bore their insults while praying unceasingly for the people of St. Petersburg. In her own life, she was granted the gifts of prophecy and great prayer. When it comes to looking for the right person, St. Xenia is known not only for bringing together godly people but also for saving young people from bad marriages. Pray to her as you are considering who to date and whether or not he or she is the right person for you. Know this, once St. Xenia has entered into your life, she’ll likely be around for the rest of it, and she is known for often answering prayers very quickly–be prepared (I know this not only from many stories I have heard from others, but from my own experience–my first daughter is named for this amazing saint because of her constant intercessions for us).
Sts. Joachim and Anna
I once heard of a young couple who had just started dating and were asking a married woman they considered a spiritual mentor, “To whom should we pray for our relationship?” They wanted to know who might help them discern whether this was the right relationship and who would help them remain pure in their intentions and their actions as they got to know each other. The woman brilliantly suggested Sts. Joachim and Anna (September 9). Sts. Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Mother of God, were both from important Jewish lineages, St. Joachim being the descendant of King David and St. Anna being of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of the priesthood. What’s most notable, of course, is that they put their trust in God in their relationship, having faith in Him that He would bless them with a child even in their old age. They prayed to God for each other and for a miracle to be worked in their lives. The icon of them embracing each other depicts a pure and devoted love that we can hope to imitate in our own (eventual) marriages.
From the years of my youth, many passions combat me, but you who are my Savior, assist me and save me. –from the First Antiphon of the Anavathmoi of the Fourth Mode
As the hymn declares, many temptations arise in the soul in one’s youth. There is a certain awakening of passion that was unknown in childhood that comes to life as we approach adulthood. In this vulnerable time, the demons seek to ensnare us by allowing the body to snatch control from the soul so that the natural order intended by God is turned topsy-turvy: instead of the body being led by the soul, the soul becomes a captive to the desires of the body. Another time I’ll write more about this. Today, in continuing with our patron saint theme, I’d like to introduce you to a few saints (among many) who in particular intercede on our behalf when we are attacked by an onslaught of lustful desires.
Before I get started, I’d like to make two little notes on this particular temptation: beware of its pervasiveness on the one hand–plenty of research has shown how pornography, for example, changes the chemical make up of your brain in a similar manner to a drug addiction; and do not despair if it is a difficult struggle for you: you are not alone–many fathers of the church (here’s just one example) attest to the difficulty of overcoming lust, its ability to creep up on you even when you think you have it under control, and the ease with which we are able to fall prey to this temptation even if we have acquired other virtues.
So here are some fellow warriors to help with the battle. All of these saints struggled with lust, especially in their youth, and all of them in turning to Christ, overcame that passion. I’ve included their own prayers for help that I hope you can integrate into your own prayer life as you prayerfully struggle with sexual desire and ask for the intercessions of these saints.
St. Mary of Egypt
St. Mary of Egypt (April 1) is perhaps one of the most revered and beloved models of repentance in the Orthodox Church. By the end of her life, she was perhaps the greatest spiritual pillar of her time. But her story begins with a young girl interested primarily in parties, socializing, and seducing–a young girl who lost her virginity at twelve and spent the next 17 years pursuing sexual partners to satisfy her lust. When she is eventually drawn to repentance by the Theotokos, she prayed,
O Lady Virgin, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word! I know that I am unworthy to look upon your icon. I rightly inspire hatred and disgust before your purity, but I know also that God became Man in order to call sinners to repentance. Help me, O All-Pure One. Let me enter the church. Allow me to behold the Wood upon which the Lord was crucified in the flesh, shedding His Blood for the redemption of sinners, and also for me. Be my witness before Your Son that I will never defile my body again with the impurity of fornication. As soon as I have seen the Cross of your Son, I will renounce the world, and go wherever you lead me.
St. Moses the Ethiopian
Many people know and love the story of the bandit who became an Abba of the desert. St. Moses (August 28) was the leader of a band of murderers and robbers who rampaged through Egypt in the early fifth century. When he was turned to repentance by St. Isidore, he struggled for many years with the lingering passions from his former life, especially lustful and violent thoughts. In his struggle, he became incredibly humble, never deigning to judge a brother for his struggle knowing the pervasiveness of his own sinful desires and the destructive consequences they had in his past. There is no particular prayer of St. Moses that I could find, but take courage in this story from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
On one occasion Abba Moses of Patara was engaged in a war against fornication, and he could not endure being in his cell, and he went and informed Abba Isidore of it; and the old man entreated him to return to his cell, but he would not agree. And having said, “Father I cannot bear it,” the old man took him up to the roof of his cell and said unto him, “Look to the west,” and when he looked he saw multitudes of devils with troubled and terrified aspects and they showed themselves in the forms of phantoms with fighting attitudes. Abba Isidore said to him, “Look to the east,” and when he looked he saw innumerable holy angels standing there, and they were in a state of great glory.
Then Abba Isidore said unto him, “Behold those who are in the west are those who are fighting with the holy ones; and those whom you have seen in the east are those who are sent by God to the help of the saints, for those who are with us are many.” And having seen these, Abba Moses took courage and returned to his cell without fear.
St. Justina (October 2) was an amazing woman of fortitude. She was a convert to Christianity as a teenager and brought her parents to belief in Christ as well. She dedicated herself to Christ, refusing a marriage proposal from a suitor. When, through the power of the sorcerer Cyprian, Justina was tempted by multiple demons (during her prayers, nonetheless) to lustfully desire the suitor she had just rejected, she offered up this prayer,
O Lord Jesus Christ, my God, lo, mine enemies have risen up against me and have prepared a snare for my feet! My soul is brought low, but I have remembered Thy name in the night and am made glad. When they compassed me round about, I have fled unto Thee, hoping that mine adversary might not rejoice over me, for Thou knowest, O Lord my God, that I am Thy handmaiden. For Thee have I kept the purity of my body, and to Thee have I entrusted my soul; wherefore, preserve Thou Thy lamb, O good Shepherd. Do not permit the beast which seeketh to devour me to consume me, and grant me to prevail over the evil desires of my flesh.
St. John the Long-Suffering
From the time of his youth, St. John (September 28) was tormented by sexual desires. No ascetical feat seemed to be a match for the passion that raged in him. Even when he became a recluse, still he struggled greatly with lust, and the devil did his best to shake St. John’s determination to overcome this passion–so much so that he sent a serpent to terrify him and frighten him into forsaking his seclusion. On Pascha night, in the midst of these torments and his own temptations, St. John cried out to Christ,
O Lord my God and my Savior! Why have You forsaken me? Have mercy upon me, only Lover of Mankind; deliver me from my foul iniquity, so that I am not trapped in the snares of the Evil one. Deliver me from the mouth of my enemy: send down a flash of lightning and drive it away.
One thing is education, that you learn to love God. – Mother Gavrilia
As promised, today I’d love to introduce you some of the saints most beloved by students, saints whose prayers have been requested before countless exams and before many a presentation. I’d like to encourage you to not only read their stories, but invite them into your life. I’ve included a troparion for each saint that you could pray as you sit down to your books, when you start off a study group, before you go into class, and before those nasty final exams. Print out their icons with the words to the hymn, and use them as bookmarks in your textbooks so that you are reminded to sanctify your schoolwork with prayer. Create opportunities to converse with the saints, ask their advice, and plead for their prayers!
So here goes, the patron saints of education:
We LOVE St. Katherine (November 24). She’s the patron saint of OCF, and we’ve written about her example for us before. St. Katherine is loved for so many reasons and is known to intercede on our behalf for many things. For students, she is an example of Mother Gavrilia’s words: she used her first-rate education, eloquence, and wisdom to come to know God and share His Gospel with those around her. She was also young, zealous, and fearless (like many of you, I’m sure)! She wasn’t afraid to stand up to the (male) authorities of her day who not only renounced the Christian message but who sacrificed Christians to their pagan gods. In an age when students are often explicitly asked to keep Christ out of the classroom, St. Katherine’s prayers are even more needed.
Troparion in the Fourth Mode
By your virtues as by rays of the sun you enlightened the unbelieving philosophers, and like the most bright moon you drove away the darkness of disbelief from those walking in the night; you convinced the queen, and also chastised the tyrant, God-summoned bride, blessed Catherine. You hastened with desire to the heavenly bridal chamber of the fairest Bride-groom Christ, and you were crowned by Him with a royal crown; standing before Him with the angels, pray for us who keep your most sacred memory.
St. Justin Martyr
St. Justin Martyr (June 1) is another saint we’ve written about before. Like St. Katherine, he received a great education and used his education to share the gospel with others. What’s special about St. Justin is his unwavering certainty of Christ’s truth combined with his ability to see that truth scattered throughout the world in every person, no matter their beliefs or religion. He saw the seeds of the Word even in the pagan philosophy of his day and used what was known to the unbelievers to draw them to belief in Christ. May St. Justin pray for us as we strive to share Christ with fidelity to His truth and real understanding for those who do not yet know Him.
Troparion in the Fourth Mode
O Justin, teacher of divine knowledge, you shone with the radiance of true philosophy. You were wisely armed against the enemy. Confessing the truth you contended alongside the martyrs, with them, ever entreat Christ our God to save our souls!
The Three Hierarchs
The Three Hierarchs (January 30), St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory the Theologian are seen as the greatest of the Church Fathers whose teachings shaped the Orthodox expression of theology as perhaps no others had before them and no others have since. As teachers of the whole Church, we can ask that they become our personal instructors, teaching us through their writings the content of our faith and offering us by their prayers a chance to encounter Christ in our hearts.
Troparion in the First Mode
Let us who love their words gather together and honor with hymns the three great torch-bearers of the triune Godhead: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. These men have enlightened the world with the rays of their divine doctrines. They are sweetly-flowing rivers of wisdom filling all creation with springs of heavenly knowledge. Ceaselessly they intercede for us before the Holy Trinity!
St. John of Kronstadt
One of the most beloved saints of the modern era, St. John of Kronstadt (December 20) has blessed so many people both in his lifetime and today, especially through his memoir, My Life in Christ. And even though he is now a well-known teacher, pastor, and writer, when he started out, St. John struggled to just get through his studies. You have to read his own words about his anxiety over his studies, his inability to commit his lectures to memory, and his desperate cry to God for help. It’s an amazing confirmation that God listens to our prayers, even prayers for small things like studying and test taking. Ask for St. John’s help especially when you are working on memorization, be it biology terms, history dates, or poetry lines.
Troparion in the First Mode
As a zealous advocate of the Orthodox faith, as a caring Solicitor for the land of Russia, faithful to the rules and image of a pastor, preaching repentance and life in Christ, an awesome servant and administer of God’s sacraments, a daring intercessor for people’s sake, O good and righteous Father John, healer and wonderful miracle-worker, the praise of the town of Kronstadt and decoration of our Church, beseech the All-Merciful God to reconcile the world and to save our souls!
St. Sergius of Radonezh
St. Sergius of Radonezh (September 25) provides another incredible example of God’s grace in our studies. Though offered an excellent education as a boy, St. Sergius was unable even to learn to read, despite his best efforts. Desiring desperately to be educated, most especially in the words of Scripture, St. Sergius asked the intercessions of a visiting monk to help him learn to read the Scriptures. By trusting God earnestly and asking for illumination with humility, St. Sergius was granted the ability to read perfectly. St. Sergius went on to live a life of extreme asceticism and was granted the grace to work miracles for the sake and salvation of many. Invite St. Sergius to be near you especially when you are struggling in a course or when you feel like you’re falling behind.
Troparion in the Fourth Mode
A zealot of good deeds and a true warrior of Christ warrior of Christ our God, you struggled greatly against the passions in this passing life; in songs and vigils and fasting you were an image and example to your disciples, thus the most Holy Spirit lived within you, and you were made beautiful by His working. Since you have great boldness before the Holy Trinity, remember the flock which you have wisely gathered, and do not forget to visit your children as you promised, venerable Sergius our father!
(All troparia are from www.oca.org)
I recently attended an amazing choral concert at a local Presbyterian church. The church was massive–vaulted ceilings, cross-shaped layout, glittering chandeliers, and a golden cross suspended from the ceiling that was probably twice my size–but most striking to me as an Orthodox visitor were the white, white, white walls on all sides. I just kept thinking, “Where is the cloud of witnesses? Where are my friends?” In a room packed to the brim with people, the church still felt empty without the saints.
There are some excellent explanations on the intercession of the saints out there (two from Abbot Tryphon here and here and another more in-depth one from Fr. Stephen Freeman here), so here’s the gist of it:
The saints are people. Real people who lived real lives with real temptations. They came from all different backgrounds and had different talents and callings in life. Some of them had a soft spot for children, others for the poor, others for the unchurched. Some of them were academics who wrote and taught beautifully, some of them opened hospitals and shelters, some were simple cooks, soldiers, and even reformed profligates. Some were royalty, others were peasants. Some were clergy, some were monastics, some were married, some had children. Many were martyred for their faith, some were exiled, and many lived to a peaceful old age. Some were raised in pious Christian families, others became Christians on their own. Some were even a little bit crazy by the world’s standards.
In short, the saints are those who, like us, worked out their salvation with fear and trembling. Like us, they struggled with the passions, but perhaps unlike us (yet), they were able to allow God’s grace to transform them completely, banishing their passions through repentance, opening their hearts through prayer, and striving to love all of creation as God loves it. By doing so, they were granted the ability–often in their own lifetimes–to manifest their synergy with God’s grace through miracles, prophecy, and healing. In coming to love God truly, they were able to have a share in God’s power and compassion, and in imitation of and cooperation with the Divine, they continue to share that power and compassion with us who are still in the midst of our own spiritual battles. The saints love us like God loves us, and they do it without losing their own particular personalities and stories.
Asking for the intercessions of the saints, then, is in a sense like calling on a pro football quarterback to coach you on passing or an Olympic gymnast to help you land a back handspring. The saints are the “pros” of prayer, repentance, charity, virtue, and love–not of their own accord, but by the grace they have been granted in their relationships with Christ. And it is often the case that particular saints become known for helping us in their particular “areas of expertise,” one could say. So St. Christopher who was a ferryman is the patron saint of travelers, St. Paraskevi who worked a miracle on the eyes of her persecutor is the patron saint of eyes, and St. Arsenios of Cappadocia who helped Christian and Muslim women alike conceive is often asked for help by childless families.
For us, living a life in the Church is like growing up in a family with someone who is a pro on, well, just about everything. In any time of need, we have a spiritual relative–in the saints–to call upon to set an example for us, give us advice, and most of all pray for us to the Christ, the Lover of Mankind.
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to help you to get to know some of the saints who I think may have a soft spot for you and your struggles as college students. Stay tuned for introductions.