At this point, it’s been two weeks since we came back from Jerusalem, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Everyone asks me what we saw and where we went. This is hard to answer, it’s a little like saying you went to Disney; while Disney is one place, it also has an incredible amount of rides and attractions, and each person has his favorites. Like Disney, Jerusalem is special because each person is seeking a different adventure, a different sight to behold. We saw awe-inspiring things–Jacob’s Well where the Lord met St. Photini, St. Peter’s house, the Sea of Galilee, St. Savas’s monastery, and even celebrated the Liturgy at the Tomb of Christ–but it was the people that we met that changed my life. They provided context.
Overlooking Jerusalem from Gethsemane. The domes of the Russian monastery of St. Mary Magdalene is seen in the bottom-right corner.
How to Pilgrim
When I went, I only knew a few things about the Holy Land, mostly that it was originally Canaanite, populated by the Israelites, the Lord lived there, the Jews were expelled, the state of Israel was founded in the 1960s, and that areas of the region are now divided between Palestinians and Israelis. When asked about my expectations for visiting the Holy Land, I responded that I was excited to visit the Holy Sepulchre and the Jordan. What those places really entailed was beyond me; I was just excited to go.
But when I got there, I realized that I didn’t really know what was going on. I mean, I knew the biblical stories, but it was a little hard to figure out what was going on. It’s a little like when you visit your friend’s parish, and it’s definitely the same liturgy, but it’s also clearly not yours. They might do the entrances a little differently, sing “Lord have mercy” in a different tone, or maybe they just venerate their icons differently. You definitely know how to cross yourself and how to say the creed, but you’re a little disoriented.
That’s kind of how it was for me. We would walk along the street, and were suddenly in a holy place. I’d cross myself, venerate the site, and kind of just look at it for a few minutes. When we went to the Holy Sepulchre, it was pretty impressive, because I knew I was supposed to be impressed. I mean, few things are more foundational and important than where Christ died and then rose. We went into the first chamber, venerated the stone which the angel rolled away, and then four college students crammed into the Tomb itself. Then, we slowly backed out of the Tomb, and moved on to other sites.
It wasn’t until we went back to the Holy Sepulchre, two nights later, to celebrate the Vigil that I got it. When we walked in, the stone which the angel rolled away was now an altar table, and the place where the Lord lay was the table of proskomide. It wasn’t just that the Lord sanctified this place, but we were now sanctifying it. There was a participation in these holy places. We offered up the gifts, and He gave them back to us. Just as Pascha is sometimes too sublime for words, holiness transformed the place.
Divine liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre
Meeting the Saints
In the Coptic Church, on Pascha before the Resurrection Reenactment, we sing a hymn called “Kata Ni Khoros,” and it begins with, “What is this I hear? It is a harmonious symphony, coming to my ear.”
I once heard someone say that “A saint is someone who keeps trying.” It’s a comforting thought, and a powerful reminder that the saints are just like us (James 5:17). And yet, I also met saints, who were not just like me.
We met people who, like St. Paul, knowingly walk into danger, for the sake of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:22-29). We met all sorts of saints–priests, monks, nuns, a principal, and even just gatekeepers. Every single one of them was impacted in some way by the holiness of the places surrounding them. Where the Lord met St. Photini, there was a man who told me the things I did; at Bethany, I met a woman who was filled with the Lord’s activity; at the Russian monastery of St. Mary Magdalene, I met a woman who left all to follow Him; and at the Monastery where the Lord fasted and prayed, I met a man who spent his life in unceasing prayer for the world. They greeted us with smiles, told us of the miracles surrounding their environment, and grace just flowed from them.
What surprised me most though, was the diversity of people that we met. The priests, monks, nuns, a principal, and gatekeepers weren’t competing with each other to be the holiest in the Holy Land. They were simply themselves. One monk we met built an entire church and wrote all the icons, and another nun just prayed in her monastery. One nun went on field trips with her students and taught at her orphanage, and one priest just stayed at Bethlehem, in order to anoint pilgrims and hand out icon cards. Instead of clashing, each person did their own job, with humility. They were a harmonious symphony, who offered their service to God, who then gave me the blessings of their labor.
A nun praying at St. Alexander Nevsky in Jerusalem
The trip was surreal. I saw amazing sites and met incredible people, including the other students and trip leaders who accompanied me. As a brief aside, there is an amazing depth to those surrounding us, and one benefit of the trip was how humbling it was.
We adjusted to the time difference very quickly, and we liked to joke that we were so exhausted that any time difference was just negligible. Nevertheless, halfway through the trip, we all realized that the trip would end. This was the scariest moment of the trip. Once we arrived back in the states, we would no longer be in the process of being a pilgrim. And that’s exactly what happened. When we got home, immediately people began asking me what I saw, what I learned, and where I went. And I could see that my answers weren’t always sufficient. St. Paul tells St. Timothy that now that he is a bishop, to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). I’m not a bishop, but now I have to put into words what I saw. It is now time to begin processing this life-changing exercise.
At first, I was a little scared. Would church still feel powerful? What would it be like without having caves or holy sites or the bodies of incorrupt monastics everywhere I go? But then I got my answer pretty quickly. When we returned, I visited my friend’s home parish before we returned to Pitt. I have celebrated the liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre, seen the light atop Mt. Tabor, been immersed in the Jordan River, and drank from spring where the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Theotokos the incarnation of the Savior of all creation. And yet, when I went to Holy Trinity in Stroudsburg, I stepped into a river of fire and was lifted up to the heavens. It was one of the most sublime liturgies I have ever attended. The people there, none of whom had ever been to the Holy Land, beheld the Lord with their own eyes upon the altar table, and reverently bent to meet Him who lifts us all up.
The beginning of the liturgy is not “Blessed is the Kingdom,” but is the line that precedes it: “Now it is time for the Lord to act.” As St. Photini says, “[the Messiah] will tell us all things” (John 4:25). In the meantime, I can only speak of what I saw, and be assured that not only is holiness still alive, but that now it is time for the Lord to act.
The monastery of St. George the Hozovite is built into the mountainside. In the center, a monk can be seen traveling from one facility to the monastery.
A junior at the University of Pittsburgh, Daniel is studying psychology, history, religious studies, and Arabic, and serves as the Secretary for the Pitt/CMU OCF chapter. In addition to taking way too many classes, he loves church humor, and has the beautiful talent of being able to fall asleep anywhere, anytime.
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”
Okay, so if you didn’t come to College Conference East, that’s really a shame. There were daily services with full choirs and beautiful chanting—all the way into the night. There were scheduled icebreakers with both your region and random groups where you could meet new friends, and free periods, where you could greet old ones. There was the lively steadfastness of Fr. Tim Hojnicki as he taught us the best answers to common questions about the faith; the carefully considered and fluidly presented recommendations of Steven Christoforou (the Be the Bee guy!) in regards to being Orthodox on and through social media; and there was the solemn sincerity and almost-accidental wit of Sister Vassa, the keynote speaker, as she meekly gave us great insight on what it means to be a martyr, and other various speakers.
I could probably spend the rest of this space talking about everything that went down at College Conference East—the big, life-changing ‘Aha!’ moments of divine inspiration, and the little, fleeting moments of friendship or joy that you couldn’t forget if you tried. I could write and write and write about all the things that happened at College Conference—instead, I want to write about the things that didn’t.
I want to write about the things that didn’t happen at College Conference, because the words ‘safe space’ get thrown around the college environment a lot, and that can get tricky. A safe space is often a place wherein you can be honest without embarrassment, and that’s pretty cool, because it can be really tough to be Christian—especially, I would guess, Orthodox Christian—in college. Sometimes, it’s dragging your butt to an unfamiliar parish that’s forty minutes away when you didn’t do evening prayers last night cause you knocked out at 3 AM; sometimes, it’s the one person in your hall/floor/house/dorm that looks you straight in the eye and says, “So you think all gay people are evil.”
A safe place is also a place wherein an opinion is protected—often an opinion that is new, unusual, and championed by a minority. This is where safe spaces get tricky. You and I both know that being a Christian isn’t exactly all the rage in college. Sometimes, safe spaces can become a megaphone for things with which the Church fundamentally disagrees. Sometimes, safe spaces become an opportunity for those who, having felt oppressed and discriminated against and silenced, would like to lash out.
The first thing we should do, I think, is probably have mercy and forgive and love those people, because that sounds like, super Orthodox-y, so I’m just gonna roll with it. The second thing we should do, though, is recognize that a ‘safe space’ isn’t always a ‘safe space’ for everyone. We Orthodox aren’t hip and happening—we’ve been around a long time, and we haven’t changed too much. That’s not to say we can’t be hip and happening: if we were to demonstrate, wholly, the love and forgiveness and mercy and compassion that we’re taught to live through Christ, then I think Orthodoxy would fly off the charts.
That’s why I want to talk about what wasn’t at College Conference East. When you sat down for a meal, the two gentlemen sitting at the table next to you weren’t discussing their weekend’s ‘ravages and spoils’—words I just heard, as I type this in the dining hall. When you crossed yourself and took a second to thank God before your meal, the young lady sitting across from you didn’t scoff—an encounter I had two days ago at dinner. At College Conference East, when you did evening prayers, it wasn’t to the sound of your next-door neighbor and his girlfriend…recreating, it was to the sound of ten, twenty, thirty voices chanting in the chapel for hours—literally, hours—on end.
His Grace joins the biology students during “sit with your major” lunch.
Being Orthodox requires some bravery. The theme for College Conference East this year was ‘Modern Martyrs: Witnesses to the Word’. Martyrdom? That took a degree of courage only achieved through a deep-seated love of Christ. We won’t need the courage to die for our Lord (hopefully), but being a witness to the Word in college is, in its own way, a martyrdom—it’s a martyrdom, and we’re gonna need some gumption, a little bit of grit, a merciful, unassuming courage to pull that off. And courage doesn’t last forever, so that’s why we have prayer and fasting and church and OCF and College Conference. To be weak and human before God, and ask Him to help us out, to give us the courage to keep going.
College Conference was my safe space—I was an Orthodox Christian without fear or embarrassment. But now, I’m back in the dining hall, about to head to calculus. I missed prayers this morning, I was late to Liturgy on Sunday, and I’m afraid now. Being an Orthodox Christian is harder here. I’m afraid, but I have what College Conference gave me—notes, recordings, thoughts, prayers, friends. I’m afraid, but I’m also stronger. That’s why you’ll see me at College Conference next year.
Benjamin Solak is a undeclared first-year at the University of Chicago. He’s a fan of football, priests who dish out communion really fast, and brightly-colored pants. He invites you to check out his personal blog on Christian living and personal development at benjaminsolak.wordpress.com
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.
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.
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)