A Firsthand Encounter | CC West Reflection

A Firsthand Encounter | CC West Reflection

Secondhand faith doesn’t get you anywhere.  –Fr. Apostolos Hill, College Conference West 2015

If there was one thing Fr. Apostolos drove home in his keynote addresses at this year’s College Conference West, it was that to witness to Christ, we have to have experienced His presence through the Holy Spirit in our own lives. We can’t merely be witnesses to something we’ve heard about but, like Thomas, must see for ourselves and believe of our own accord. There are no substitutes for knowing Christ ourselves. We will remain mute or, worse, be false witnesses without first encountering the Word to Whom we witness.

CCWest15 Participants with the beloved Abbot Tryphon

CCWest15 participants with the beloved Abbot Tryphon

But this is what amazes me and inspires me about College Conference West every year. While yes, the students come to learn more about the Orthodox Church, to visit the monastery, and to make new friends while reconnecting with old friends, it seems to me the real reason young people come to College Conference West is to meet Christ. In spite of the challenges the world presents–the denunciations of Christ, the pressure to conform, the temptations of the flesh–every year, a beautiful group of young men and women leave behind this empty and dissatisfying existence to encounter firsthand the One Who Is, the one who is Life Himself.

You can see this in the way the student leaders plan and lead the conference and attend with love and care to the needs of each participant–they are seeking Christ who washes the feet of His disciples.

You can see it in the way students eagerly line up for confession and counsel–they are seeking Christ the Healer of our infirmities.

You can see it in the way they pour out their souls in song in the Nativity Hymn at every meal, the Akathist Glory to God for All Things, and Paraklesis–they are seeking Christ who alone is worthy of our praise.

CCWest15 Paraklesis Service in the new chapel at St. Nicholas Ranch

CCWest15 Paraklesis Service in the new chapel at St. Nicholas Ranch

You can see it in the way they get to know each other, building friendships upon a common foundation, the Church–they are seeking Christ who calls us into His fellowship.

You can see it as they listen attentively to the speakers and ask brilliant questions–they are seeking Christ who is the Wisdom of God.

You can see it as they spontaneously decide to hold a service of forgiveness amongst the whole conference–they are seeking Christ who forgives us all our iniquities.

And most of all, you can see it in the way they strive to love one another even as we reveal our brokenness to one another–they are seeking Christ who is found in our neighbor, the wounded Samaritan.

And they may not know it, but as they seek to encounter Christ in all these beautiful ways, they witness to Him as well. The striving achieves the goal. I thank God every year, and this year perhaps more than others, that I am blessed to be a part of College Conference West. The witness to Christ’s love borne by the students there deeply inspires and humbles me, and for that, proclaim,

Glory to Thee for the unforgettable moments of life…Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age.  -Akathist “Glory to God for All Things”

The What-If Demon

The What-If Demon

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

Time for Your Physical

Time for Your Physical

Well… it is cough and cold season again in America and the steady hacking of the afflicted provides a staccato soundtrack to daily life in schools, offices, and public places. I wouldn’t have imagined it possible to become so easily brought low by the so-called “common cold” in this place (Arizona) of palm trees and citrus groves but the cold virus is no respecter of persons or places.

I made the classic mistake this autumn of waiting too long to visit my doctor since I didn’t want to be a big baby about something as ordinary as a cold and thought it would surely abate in a few days. Weeks later and chronically ill, I belatedly exited the doctor’s office with a fistful of prescriptions to combat my ailments which if treated sooner would have required less stringent remedies!

King David's Repentance. Image from  Wikimedia

King David’s Repentance. Image from Wikimedia

Kinda like confession… Physical ailments cannot be ignored for long without escalating into more serious conditions, and spiritual ones seem to linger and linger if we don’t exercise the same care for our souls as for our bodies. “Routine” physicals are scheduled to assess the overall well-being of the patient as the vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, temperature, weight, etc.) are checked for potential issues and abnormal readings often prompt further rounds of testing.

And we accept this as necessary to promote and maintain health and vitality. But how eagerly do we embrace spiritual assessments of our souls through the ministrations of Holy Confession? How often should we go and how specific should we be in describing our spiritual maladies to the Physician of our souls? The answer to this depends on admitting to ourselves how healthy or unhealthy we want to be in our spiritual lives.

Health and Well-being expenditures in America run into the billions of dollars. A broken fingernail can be the ruination of an otherwise calm and peaceful day. Diets are tightly monitored to avoid sugar, HFCS, gluten, wheat, antibiotics, hormones, etc., and all for good reason. Yet we ingest numerous spiritual, emotional, and psychological substances which are as lethal to our souls as the above listed are to our body.

Holy Confession enables the penitent (that’s us!) to be cleansed from within of our sins and to be made well. The impurities to which we have been exposed, spiritual viruses like lust, envy, pride, anger, bitterness, etc. are flushed out through the grace of the Holy Spirit and our souls are detoxified of these lethal influences which, if left unchecked, can bring about spiritual death.

As a rule, I believe it is helpful to come to confession whenever the Church is fasting, e.g., Great Lent, the Apostles’ fast, the Dormition fast, and the Advent fast. However, inasmuch as Holy Confession is about wellness and not judgment, there may be periods in our lives when more frequent confession is needed. God’s grace flows into the hearts of the humble along with clarity and wisdom. There really is no downside here!

Likewise, the degree of specificity of what we confess correlates to how well we want to become. We ought to be at least as honest in confession as we are in the doctor’s office. Hence, one who has embezzled vast sums would be ill-advised to mutter a word or two about greed! And because God is a righteous and merciful Judge, He stands ready to forgive and to heal and (this is important) strengthen us to wage war against those temptations that threaten to wreck our spiritual health!

So as we approach the Lenten Spring together, may we all take advantage of the spiritual wellness “program” offered to us in our parishes through the Holy Mystery of Confession!

Love and blessings,

Fr. Apostolos Hill

About the Author


This is a guest post from Fr. Apostolos Hill at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, AZ. Fr. Apostolos has been active in OCF in a variety of areas; hosting regional retreats, leading OCF Real Break trips to Greece, Guatemala, and Skid Row, and in the College Conference West.

5 Great Ways to Lead a Prayerful, Sincere Life as a College Student

5 Great Ways to Lead a Prayerful, Sincere Life as a College Student

Disclaimer: Orthodoxy is not a minimalist faith (“God has a checklist of stuff for me to do. What is the minimum I can do to be saved?”) but a maximalist faith (“God and the experience of God is inexhaustible. There is always more I can do to love more purely, repent more earnestly, pray more fervently.”). This means that no list of five things can encompass the spiritual life. These five things are intended simply to cultivate the beginnings of the right kind of attitude to live a life of prayer.

1. Find a Spiritual Guide

Christianity is not a religion meant for the individual–we’re meant to be in communion with Christ, and that includes His Body. It’s so important to having an authentically Christian life to live within the community of believers (and yes, that includes the ones you don’t like or don’t get along with, too). But all relationships within the Church are not equal: having Christ-centered peers is imperative, but having a spiritual guide, someone who is further along the path than you, who sees you in a different light than you see yourself, who can understand your struggles and show you the right direction, is essential to a healthy spiritual life. You really can’t do this for yourself. It’s just not possible. It’s like trying to be married to yourself–it doesn’t make any sense, doesn’t allow for love of another, and it’s a bit delusional.

Image from

Image from Wikimedia

This passage from the Wisdom of Sirach (which I highly recommend for college students–it’s between the Wisdom of Solomon and Hosea in your OSB) says it all:

Stand in an assembly of the elders,

And who is wise? Attach yourself to him.

Desire to listen to every divine narrative,

And do not let proverbs of understanding escape you.

If you see a man who has understanding,

Rise early in the morning

And let your foot wear out the threshold of his door. 6:34-36

Having a spiritual guide is way more than having someone to go to when you mess up. It’s about seeking after someone who lives a godly life in a manner you can strive to imitate. One my dearest spiritual guides is a mother who exemplifies Christian love and prayer in the way she wipes up boogers, does her dishes, and greets her guests. She’s someone whose threshold I cross as often as is possible, whose narratives and proverbs I cling to.

2. Try Not to Make Excuses

It can be so easy and so tempting in the midst of life’s goings-on to start to make little excuses on not-so-little things. We tell ourselves, “It’s been such a busy week, and I have so much going on right now, there’s just no way I could make it to church/wake up and pray/go to OCF/etc.,” or we tell ourselves, “We’re all human. Everybody makes mistakes. That little one I made was really no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It could’ve been way worse.” The latter excuse sounds a lot like some guy we’re gonna hear about this Sunday in church, and let’s just say, that he’s not the guy we want to imitate. The problem with the former excuse is that, over time, a one-time thing becomes a habit. If we’re willing to make the excuse occasionally, we’re likely to slip into habitual laziness and forgetfulness.

Now, this isn’t saying there aren’t legitimate reasons that one might miss church, but our priorities have to be in order, and we have to be truly honest as to what our motivations are. Being honest with where we are and not making excuses for ourselves and our mistakes requires a constant process of reevaluating ourselves and our intentions (see #1 for assistance in this area).

3. Focus on Yourself

Every person is on their own journey, even those of us in the Church who are trying to follow the one True Way. It is completely fruitless, then, to compare yourself to other people or spend time mulling over what everyone else is or isn’t doing or try to “fix” other people. Just don’t do it. It’s the beginning of judgement of others, despair, and spiritual delusion. We only have complete dominion over own thoughts, words, and actions, and it is there that we should focus our time and energy. I always remind myself that I have enough problems and passions hiding in the corners of my heart to last me a lifetime; there’s no time for me to wonder why someone else is eating meat on a Friday.

4. Have Hope

Image courtesy of  pol sifter  on Flickr

Image courtesy of pol sifter on Flickr

I think a particular struggle of college students today is the feeling that the world has become overwhelmingly bad and that we are helpless to do anything about it. People can seem so divided against one another over the smallest of things, and yet we are constantly told to use our own virtue and skill (yikes) to help heal humanity. But the truth is God is always present, and it is He who cares for all things–from our tiniest personal struggles to the wars and rumors of wars that plague our world. Offer up earnest prayer on behalf of all, and take solace in the words of the psalmist:

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob;

His hope is in the Lord his God,

Who made heaven and earth,

The sea and everything in them,

Who keeps truth forever,

Who executes justice for the wronged,

Who provides food for the hungry.

The Lord frees those bound.

The Lord restores those broken down.

The Lord gives wisdom to the blind.

The Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord keeps watch over resident aliens.

He shall adopt the orphan and the widow.

But He shall destroy the way of sinners. 145:5-9

5. Keep Doing a Little

Becoming a saint doesn’t happen overnight, and there are no shortcuts. Now, this can cause us to throw up our hands and give up or it can be an invitation to patience, with God, with ourselves, and with others. In the meantime, keep doing a little. Go to church. Make your cross before you eat. Say your morning and evening prayers. Read a little Scripture. Get to know the saints. Find little ways to pray through your day, one little thing at a time.

I know someone who told me that a few years ago, when she was having a lot of bad dreams, she started making the sign of the cross and reciting “Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered,” right before she fell asleep, and now, it’s become such a habit that she doesn’t fall asleep without saying that little prayer. Another person shared with me that whenever he hears a siren of a police car, ambulance, or firetruck he crosses himself and says, “Lord have mercy on those in harm’s way.”

Perhaps in such a simple manner–and with hope, humility, earnestness, and guidance–our lives can become unceasing prayer.

Facing Moral Challenges

Facing Moral Challenges

College is a challenge. A challenge to your mind, a challenge to your body (who needs sleep??),  and often a challenge to your faith, your morals, your standards of right and wrong.

So how do you respond to these challenges? Do you hide under a rock for four years and hope nothing sneaks up on you? Do you throw yourself into the college culture with abandon and hope you can sort the tough stuff out later? How will you decide when to engage and when to take a pass?

Photo from Geograph

Photo from Geograph

I think some times when we face a difficult moral decision, we’d all like it to be as simple as sending in a permission slip to God, “Check ‘yes’ if this is allowed; check ‘no’ if this is a sin.” Sorry, not gonna happen. But if you’re doubting your moral compass, here are some ways to check yourself:

  1. Everything matters. First off, let’s get one thing clear: everything we think, say, and do affects who we are and how we relate to God and others. Now, you can look at this as an onerous cloud hanging over you or you can think of it as a blessing that every single breath you take is an opportunity to love, ask forgiveness, show mercy, spread joy, offer prayer, be patient, give thanks, promote peace, stand up for the oppressed, and dedicate yourself more fully to God.
  2. Some things are pretty clear-cut. We may struggle with the idea, but some things are simply forbidden by God because, like a good Father, he really does know what’s best for us. The limits placed on our actions are laid out for us in Scripture and throughout the Tradition of our Church and are there to lead us on a path that allows us to be freed from the bonds of sin and able to love truly. I find the opening list from the Didache (a first century Church document) helpful for learning to integrate God’s commandments into my own heart and actions.
  3. Accountability to others helps. Whether it’s through confession and counsel with a priest, which we can’t encourage enough, or through your OCF peers who know you and your Orthodox standards well, accountability for your actions helps you make decisions more clearly. If you’re not sure if going to some party is a good idea or being in a particular situation will be healthy, having someone who loves you and whom you trust to call upon can be invaluable.
  4. Prayer is always the key. Having a regular and rich prayer life which includes both communal and personal prayer time and the reading of Scripture is the sure way to develop a discerning heart. Letting Christ dwell within you will let you see with His eyes and desire with the will of His Father. A nun once suggested to us in a College Conference workshop that we make a commitment to pray, “Lord bless this,” before everything we did. Her advice was that if we couldn’t ask for a blessing on our actions, then it probably wasn’t the right decision.

You’ll be faced with all kinds of challenges and moral decisions in college and throughout your life–sometimes you’ll make the right decision, sometimes the wrong one. When you go the wrong way, come to your senses quickly, run to God, and sincerely repent. Sin is missing the mark which means when you mess up that you’re in need of more target practice (prayer) and a good coach (a spiritual guide). Always remember that as you learn and grow, fall and get back up, God is with you, He loves you, He desires your salvation, and His Church always opens Her arms to you.