The Challenge of Staying Orthodox in an Anti-Christian Environment, and Some Additional Advice From a ‘Non-Wolf’ Professor

Today we share two companion articles of advice for college students. The first is a Facebook post written by the Very. Rev. Abbot Tryphon, Igumen of All-Merciful Saviour Monastery on Vashon Island, Washington. The second offers commentary in response to the post from Fr. Theodore Pulcini. Fr. Theodore recently retired after serving 30 years as as college professor, most recently Assistant Professor of Religion at Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, and as the pastor of St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Chambersburg, PA. Both articles offer much wisdom and guidance to Orthodox Christian students.

Some Additional Advice to Orthodox College Students from a ‘Non-Wolf’ Professor

This afternoon, in opening my email, I read with great interest the piece written by Abbot Tryphon entitled “The Challenge of Staying Orthodox in an Anti-Christian Environment.” There is much sage advice in his admonishment, and Orthodox students on their way to college would do well to digest that advice. I must admit, however, that I was a bit taken aback by several characterizations presented by this much-respected monastic author and will now presume to comment on them (pace Father Abbot).

In the interest of full disclosure, let me state at the outset that I write this response as a Christian (I have served as an Orthodox priest for over thirty-seven years in the Antiochian Archdiocese) and as an academic (yes, as a college professor at several secular institutions of higher learning for some thirty years). So you will understand why I took some exception to the way college professors are characterized in the article. Without a doubt, there are some college professors that lump Christians together and depict them unfairly and simplistically, but then again there are some Christian commentators who tend to do likewise to college professors. The one mischaracterization does not justify the other—and I dare say that I have been the target of both.

Indeed I have to admit that some of my professorial colleagues over the years could be arrogant, insulting, and power-obsessed. But the vast majority were absolutely not! Yes, professors will sometimes go to considerable lengths to challenge their students to think, to question, and to analyze critically and systematically. For this they should not be faulted. That is, after all, their job. No one should go to college assuming (as many students unfortunately do) that nothing presented to you should make you feel challenged or uncomfortable or obliged to exert effort. In college, as in the larger society, you will not, without fail, have every one of your stances affirmed by everyone else. You must apply yourselves to learn how to argue your opinions with persuasiveness—and yes, with civility, too—in the dialogues you will undoubtedly have with others. This is essential to the development of intellectual and emotional maturity. To avoid such maturation, many around you will take false comfort in aggressive ideology of the sort that seems to be metastasizing at every turn in our society. Good college professors will guide you toward healthy maturation and will embody it in their own interactions with others, including their students. Bad ones will bludgeon others with their ideologies and not tolerate any dissent. Gravitate toward the former and not the latter. And believe me, at any reputable college or university, the good professors far outnumber—and far outshine–the bad. They are not your adversaries, even if they sometimes push you to consider perspectives you may not have had to face before. In short, to depict professors as universally adversarial is simply unfair—and untrue.

In fact, to do so duplicates an error of bad professors, who tend to depict groups they oppose as monoliths, all of whose constituent parts are uniform. For example, the aggressive anti-Christian professors of the sort to which Abbot Tryphon refers, tend to caricature Christianity as a monolith, implying all Christians are the same. Then they single out those Christians who (to use Abbot Tryphon’s words) are blatantly “closed-minded and backward-looking” (and let’s face it, many are!) and then attribute such undesirable traits to all Christians. They attack the “straw-man” Christian they create and then, through him, defame all Christians. This is simply dishonest and intellectually faulty argumentation.

As a college student, this is precisely the sort of counter-argument that you have to train yourself to be able to make. Every challenge you face in your courses, if used correctly, can make you stronger. I agree wholeheartedly with Abbot Tryphon when he says that “know from the moment you enter that classroom that the professor is a better debater than you, so don’t place yourself in his scope. If you do, expect to be blown out of the water.” He is right. As the old Shakespearean proverb goes, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” But do not let your discretion simply be an act of surrender and cowardice. If you feel your conviction as an Orthodox Christian is being unfairly depicted and attacked, learn how to disarm your opponents in a situation where you can speak freely and without intimidation (for example, privately, during office hours). Use the unpleasant challenge you have had to face in class as an impetus to accrue the knowledge and develop the rhetorical skills needed to defend your faith convincingly in the face of future attacks. Learn the skills of critical thinking to challenge the flaws in your opponents’ arguments. Build the knowledge that will enable you to show that what your opponent assumes is true of all Christians is not at all true of Orthodox Christians. Show them how Orthodoxy is not just part of some “Christian monolith” but stands apart as unique in so many ways. Use your college career to build your spirit and your mind to grow far beyond where you are on the day of matriculation. If you use your years in college well, at the end of your studies you will advance “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Shake off complacency and inertia! Rise to that challenge.

Abbot Tryphon begins his reflection by referring to one of my favorite New Testament commands of Christ: ““Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In his advice, Father Abbot, to good effect, tends to emphasize the first part of this passage, urging you to be wary of the wolves who may be your professors. But as a “non-wolf” professor—alongside many other non-wolf (and, yes, even Christian!) professors—I want to join to his admonishments my own bit of advice: While in college maintain your faith in dove-like innocence, but use your college experiences (even those with wolf-like professors) to become as “wise as serpents.” Your wisdom will help your personal faith to mature, and it will benefit the Church at large by virtue of your ability to express and defend that faith in a world full of counter-arguments.

My thoughts converge very well with Father Tryphon’s words in his last paragraph. With him, I encourage you to “build a support system for yourself by gathering together with other college students to form a chapter of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship. Meet on a weekly basis for worship, study, and networking.” No better advice than this can be given to you as you head off to college. May God prosper all your efforts!

–Fr. Theodore Pulcini

A Christian Ending To Our Lives – St. Nikolai Velimirovich

A Christian Ending To Our Lives – St. Nikolai Velimirovich

We have a lot of saints in our spiritual arsenal to help us combat the trials and tribulations of modern life, and many have lived right at our doorsteps! Saint Nikolai Velimirovich is a Saint of North America, one of Serbian descent and a model for Christ’s Love throughout his life.

Let’s take a few minutes to learn about his life and how we can learn from it as college students. The parts of his life I quote are from here.

Saint Nikolai of Zhicha, “the Serbian Chrysostom,” was born in Lelich in western Serbia on January 4, 1881 (December 23, 1880 O.S.). His parents were Dragomir and Katherine Velimirovich, who lived on a farm where they raised a large family. His pious mother was a major influence on his spiritual development, teaching him by word and especially by example. As a small child, Nikolai often walked three miles to the Chelije Monastery with his mother to attend services there.

Many of the saints were inspired and influenced by faithful parents, adults, and role models. We see that St. Nikolai’s spirituality was cultivated at a young age. Let this be an example for us who may have younger siblings, cousins, or godchildren in that the formative years of a child’s life can be taught about Christ and His mercy. Also, we see that St. Nikolai is a relatively new saint, and his experiences are similar to those of us who lived not so long ago.

Sickly as a child, Nikolai was not physically strong as an adult. He failed his physical requirements when he applied to the military academy, but his excellent academic qualifications allowed him to enter the Saint Sava Seminary in Belgrade, even before he finished preparatory school.

Wow. It really seems like God was guiding his life throughout his adolescent years. Luckily for us, hindsight is 20/20. St. Nikolai had the wisdom as a young adult to learn from his failures and to transform them to make him a better person. A lot of times God isn’t going to straight out tell us exactly where we are meant to go and in what way our lives will develop. That would take out all the fun in life! St. Nikolai had faith and that guided him in his path towards sanctity; we should model his great faith and trust in God in our lives!

Saint Nikolai was renowned for his sermons, which never lasted more than twenty minutes, and focused on just three main points. He taught people the theology of the Church in a language they could understand, and inspired them to repentance.

This paragraph reminded me of the apostles when they traveled across the world. The Gospel is meant to be spread from people to people. Sometimes you have to translate the message in a way that others would understand. This particular skill I believe many of the North American saints possessed and made them excellent teachers and spreaders of the faith. St. Nikolai was nicknamed the “Serbian Chrysostom,” and many of his books, teaching and prayers are available for reading to learn more!

When Germany invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, Bishop Nikolai, a fearless critic of the Nazis, was arrested and confined in Ljubostir Vojlovici Monastery. In 1944, he and Patriarch Gavrilo were sent to the death camp at Dachau. There he witnessed many atrocities and was tortured himself. When American troops liberated the prisoners in May 1945, the patriarch returned to Yugoslavia, but Bishop Nikolai went to England.

Wow. St. Nikolai endured. I encourage you to reread this paragraph and really think about the power St. Nikolai was blessed with to endure such treacherous treatment.

On March 18, 1956 Saint Nikolai fell asleep in the Lord Whom he had served throughout his life. He was found in his room kneeling in an attitude of prayer. Though he was buried at Saint Sava’s Monastery in Libertyville, IL, he had always expressed a desire to be buried in his homeland. In April of 1991 his relics were transferred to the Chetinje Monastery in Lelich. There he was buried next to his friend and disciple Father Justin Popovich (+ 1979).

St. Nikolai remained faithful to our Lord until his last breath. When we pray for “a Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, peaceful, and a good defense before the Judgment Seat of the Lord” the life of St. Nikolai is echoed. If you would like to learn more about his life, I encourage you to discuss it at your next OCF meeting.

Our chapter discussion resource, There’s a Saint for That, can be found here!

 

Feast of Saint Herman | Relating to the Saints

Feast of Saint Herman | Relating to the Saints

A blessed feast of Saint Herman to you all!

One of my favorite things about December is the feasts of the saints. In my OCA church populated by Russians, Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th is a cups hand to microphone big deal. One week later, on December 13th, we have the feast of Saint Herman–and we’re blessed to have his relics in my parish.

It’s such a great blessing to have these feast days in the month of December–not only because they give me a few extra liturgies in my familiar home parish, but because they help us prepare us for the Nativity of our Lord.

But standing in church, specifically today, on the feast of Saint Herman, reminds me how important it is to cultivate a relationship with the saints…

By Ted (St. Herman of Alaska) via Wikimedia Commons

aaand how much I struggle with that.

Developing that conversation with the saints has always been such a great struggle of mine–if you haven’t experienced that, that’s a blessing in and of itself. I think it requires good humility to develop that relationship with the saints, and humility is something with which I certainly struggle.

A relationship with the saints immediately implies a need for help–a need that I undeniably have, but continuously endeavor to deny. Often, my approach to the saints reminds me of my father trying to fix the plumbing when I was kid: he didn’t really have any idea what he was doing, but he was going to figure it out on his own. Forget actually calling a plumber–even YouTube was too great of a crutch. He was smarter than the pipes.

Saints have figured it out. Saints know what’s up. Saints have the blueprint.

But a prideful mind insists that taking someone else’s blueprint is cheating; is a falsehood. It pokes holes in each saint story: take Saint Herman, who was a young, promising monk whose ideal life ended up leading him to a remote island in Alaska–that doesn’t feel very analogous to my life at all. Or Saint Nicholas, who was out punching heretics and sneaking bags of gold into people’s boots. Don’t get me wrong, I’m down to punch a heretic, I just think I might get arrested afterward, and my mom would be so mad…

But this is where we get fooled by the blueprint metaphor. The saints’ lives aren’t put before us so that we can do what they did, like robots learning a code; mimicking their every action like a step-by-step instruction set for Heaven entry and eternal rejoicing. The saints’ lives don’t show us the “what”–they don’t even show us the “how,” really. They show us what happens when you firmly, unflinchingly, devotedly believe in the “why.”

Again, action without intention is animatronic. There is no value in doing exactly what the saints did because you want the results they achieved. That’s not to say we can’t employ the strategies of the saints, learn lessons from their examples–but to assume the saints drew a map to the Kingdom is a mistake.

The saints lived lives fueled by their love for Christ. And because each saint followed different paths (St. Herman from the monastery, St. Elizabeth from royalty, St. Moses the Black from crime, St. Mary of Egypt from prostitution), we know it isn’t about the exact minutiae of their lives. It’s about that one thing that was common between them all: the love for Christ.

As such, if we struggle to relate with one unique saint, maybe that’s okay. But if we struggle relating to at least one of the vast numbers of saints–a demographic defined by their common love for Christ–then it is certainly time to look inward.

Thank God for the lives of the saints, given to us by the Church as examples of faith in all of its forms. Thank God that we have the opportunity to investigate, participate in that depth of faith. No matter how we may struggle to form that relationship with the saints, we must recognize that they are the men and women who loved Christ harder than anyone else. If that is truly our goal, then these are our allies, our mentors, and our guides. We do not wish to become them; we wish to become like them.

 

Preparing for Finals

Preparing for Finals

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the end of the road. The boss level. The final countdown.

Final exams.

Before you spiral into a pit of self-loathing, as you lament the classes you skipped and readings you skimmed in weeks long passed, we’re here to help.

Finals are an unbelievably stressful time, and it’s quite easy–almost encouraged, even–to throw everything out of wack. Schedules, sleep patterns, priorities, diet–in the mad dash that is studying for finals, the college culture often demands from us more than we can reasonably give. That disparity upsets our natural balance and our perspective.

As such, let’s take a deep breath and break down the best ways to stay sane in finals season.

1) Pray

As is rightfully so, prayer is a good first step in everything. Of course, prayer in situations like these can be quite difficult. We don’t want to step in front of our icons (a location that we, perhaps, have attended only infrequently in recent months) and suddenly approach God, the wish-granter and gift-giver, and submit our requests in a moment of need. Prayer is a relationship and a conversation, not an order given to a waiter.

For what, then do we pray?

Well, we still should not be afraid of asking for what we need–but we must recognize that we do not need to pass these exams. No matter how crucial they may be to our degree/occupation.

What we need is help–and that’s in everything, not just finals. In our fallen world with our fallen nature and our fallen habits, we need God’s help if we are ever to grow closer to Him, to live a life full of faith and worship.

As such, we have to be sure that we’re taking our finals, and hoping to do very well in our finals, in an effort to live a Christian life. If we wish for success on our finals for the sake of our pride–to get better grades than our neighbor–or for our greed–to get a high-paying job and make tons of money to hoard and treasure–then really it would be quite better for us to pray to God that He help us struggle and fail our finals, that we may fall away from this sin, this temptation.

That brings us nicely to our second point.

2) Contextualize

A final exam is, plainly, words on a piece of paper. So is a final paper.

This piece of paper will have more significant ramifications than most pieces of paper, assuredly. It will help define your grade, which will help define your GPA, which will help define your prospects to future employers/grad schools/internships/etc.

I do not say this to frighten you. Rather the opposite.

You will take one set of final exams per semester/quarter. That’s four or five exams across an 11-15 week stretch. This will happen perhaps 8 to 12 times in your life, on average.

Every Sunday, once a week, for the history of your life time and the millennia that preceded it, the Body and Blood of Christ is sacrificed for the sins of the world and all mankind. Your participation in this sacrament will help define you. It will help define your salvation.

Taking these final exams is, simply, not the most important thing you will do this month–it’s not the most important thing you will do this weekAnd when you consider your prayer life, your opportunities to love your neighbor, well…it’s likely not the most important thing you’ll do on the very day.

Now of course, this does not mean we dedicate no time to the exam–we still can and rightfully should. Unless your vocation is a monastic one, then significant chunks of your day will be devoted to staying afloat in this secular world. That’s okay.

But we cannot let the relatively sporadic nature of final exams fool us into believing they are more important than the more consistent occurrence of our sacramental life. The two events are simply on different planes.

“It’s not the end of the world” feels like a cliche. It really is one. But, in this case, it bears a significant weight: when the end of the world does indeed come (ah!), how you did on your final exams won’t matter much at all.

3) Choose

Knowing that we have asked God for help, and knowing that our undertaking, while rightful, is not the end-all, be-all of our well-being, let’s make a decision.

Remember, we were given free will by the Lord. He wants us to choose what we do, as conscious beings and not robots.

It is easy to forget we have free will. Often we feel like we don’t have free will because the pressures of our environment constrain us and form us. This is not the case.

While we do respond to our environment (e.g., when a class has an exam, we prepare and show up for it), we may make our own choices. Every action bears consequences, and we must fearlessly say that we accept those consequences from every choice we make. Pretending that we lost our free will is often an effort to absolve ourselves from those consequences: “I missed church on Sunday, but I had to study for an exam…”

The encouragement is this: study for your exams and work very hard on them, but do so with intention, not out of default. Don’t do it because other students are doing it, because you’ve been told it’s what you’re supposed to do. Do it because these exams are important to your ideal life; a life that is aimed not on worldly success, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19). Do it because these exams, in some way, contribute to your path to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Liturgy Is for You

The Liturgy Is for You

You know how some churches have a sign out front that says, “Come as you are”? I think it’s usually sort of code for, “Don’t worry, you don’t need to dress up.” But really, “come as you are” should mean just this. Come as you are–not only in your external appearance but in the core of your being. How beautiful it is that the Church truly means this when she says it! The Divine Liturgy does not require you to be in a good mood or to be happy with God or for you to completely understand every teaching of the Church or for you to be a “good” person.

But I know how it works. We listen to all sorts of excuses that pass through our minds of why we can’t or won’t or shouldn’t go. Well, to counter those temptations, I’d like to give you some reasons to come, of why the liturgy is for you.

Did something wonderful just happen in your life? Come, rejoice! The liturgy is for you.

Are you having a horrible week? Come, and like the psalmist, ask God, “How long will you forget me, Lord?” The liturgy is for you.

Are you struggling to concentrate during prayer? Come, breath in the incense even if the words rush pass you. The liturgy is for you.

Have you overcome temptation even once this week? Come, give thanks to God for giving you strength. The liturgy is for you.

Are you bearing a heavy cross or a deep fissure in your heart? Come, let your weight be lightened by Christ’s love. The liturgy is for you.

Have you been at church every week? Come, let your heart beat in sync with the rhythm of prayer. The liturgy is for you.

Has it been a long time since you’ve come to worship? Come, let your heart be reformed by the patterns of praise. The liturgy is for you.

Do you feel like you can never be or do enough? Come, to Christ you are precious and beloved, and He desires to make you whole. The liturgy is for you.

Is your life hectic and busy? Come, set aside all earthly cares and just for a moment, enter into the eternity of the Kingdom. The liturgy is for you.

Have you experienced loss and are grieving? Come, Christ joins you in your sorrow and weeps with you at the tomb. The liturgy is for you.

Are you lonely? Come, surround yourself with the great cloud of witnesses, both those who stand before the throne and those who stand beside you. The liturgy is for you.

Are you sick? Come, our Lord comforts and heals the weak in body and spirit. The liturgy is for you.

Don’t really understand what’s going on during the service? Come, for Christ desires all of you, not just your understanding, and in time, He will reveal to you His fullness. The liturgy is for you.

Have you sinned? Come, be reoriented towards the Orient from on High. The liturgy is for you.

I feel as though I could go on forever–there is not one emotional state or level of holiness or amount of intellectual understanding that is required for you to enter into the liturgy. The only requirement is that you are willing to actually face yourself, to let your heart be vulnerable and let Christ’s light reveal the dark corners–that you are willing to walk the journey of repentance and are open to being joined to Christ in love. So come as you are. The liturgy is for you.