Read our New Year’s post on some habits to consider installing your life–it’s never too late to start!
I should make something super clear–in no way, shape, or form do I presume to know anything about what’s going on. Ever. My life is easiest when I sit down with something tasty and someone else makes decisions for me.
However, if I was to write a post about reading during the New Year (oh, wow, what’s that over there? Hmm…) then I would be awfully remiss if I didn’t participate myself. How could I expect something from you that I myself was unwilling to do?
Furthermore, our community naturally creates support and accountability. A tough choice becomes easier when we all make it together.
As such, I wanted to share with you my reading of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, a book recommended to me by my sister. You may have heard of her. She’s kind of a big deal.
My copy of Mere Christianity is covered in red ink and riddled with dog ears. Lewis could turn a phrase so well, I swear, I underlined every fifth line. Let me just throw a couple of my favorite down right here:
“The Son of God became man to enable men to become sons of God.” (Tweet this!)
(When you pray)…”The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to ‘inject’ His kind of life and thought, His Zoe, into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.” (Or this!)
“…He uses material things like bread and wine to put new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.” (Or this!)
“We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way–centered on money or pleasure or ambition–and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.” (Or this!)
“…it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” (Or this!)
Mere Christianity is a long walk, through which Lewis holds your hand the entire time. It isn’t so much long in size (my copy is 191 pages) as it is in attention to detail. Lewis begins with human nature, the law, the ability to discern between right and wrong, and step-by-step, slowly but surely, comes to understand Christianity and God manifested all the way down to, by the end of the book, our daily lives and our every moments.
As I said, Lewis walks with you through his logical progressions. As a convert himself, self-admittedly one who was outspoken against Christianity, he is intimately familiar with the natural objections that Christians often face at different points in their spiritual lives, whether from internal doubts or external questions. Anticipatory and consistent, Lewis gives comprehensible context and support for many tenants of the faith that, which while they are inherently held to be true, are often difficult to back up. This makes Mere Christianity an especially good read for the college student, I would argue–I find verbally explaining my faith, and the certainty thereof, much easier now.
Lewis does more than just “prove” Christianity, if you will. In establishing the Christian God as the only reasonable solution to, you know, everything going on in the universe ever, Lewis provides and expounds upon a context through which things like forgiveness, sexual morality, charity, hope, and faith can all be understood more fully in their role in the church. Those examples up there? They’re all chapters in the book. Faith even has two chapters (and they’re both called “Faith” ’cause Lewis is just that hysterically plain.)
By the time you arrive at that quote I put about (“When you pray…the real Son of God is at your side”), Lewis has irrefutably taken you from, “So, there’s a moral law all humans naturally follow,” to, “Christ literally stands directly next you when you pray and tries to help you out.” The experience shook me. I couldn’t believe that we had started somewhere so simple–“Yeah, okay, duh, there’s a moral law”–and ended up here, with Christ actively trying to infuse life in the “tin soldier” (Lewis’ construction) that my fallen self was trying to so hard to remain. I always had the vision of myself, working hard to get to Christ. I never thought about how hard He must–and does–work to get to me.
I’d really recommend Mere Christianity as a read. The chapters are bite-sized (some are five, six pages), Lewis uses familiar language, and cracks at least one joke every ten pages. It was impactful but not onerous; firm but not demanding. Here are some ideas on how to read Mere Christianity with your OCF chapter:
- Choose a chapter or section to read. If you want to focus on why Christianity is true, go with Book I. If you want a review of the basics like you’ve never had before, go with Book II (but keep in mind that he was Anglican, not Orthodox). If you want to talk spiritual life, go with something from Books III and IV.
- Make photocopies of a chapter and take turns reading out loud at a meeting. It’s probably better to read it altogether than to give everyone another homework assignment to add to their list.
- To get the conversation going, ask people what points or illustrations stood out to them the most. It should be pretty easy since Lewis has such a way with words.
- Talk about how you can apply what Lewis says to your daily life in and out of the classroom.
- Encourage people to mark things they like, write them down in a journal, heck, even put them up on social media as a way to have their highlights stick with them.
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
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
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, I 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”
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.
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.