Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus was the guest speaker at the Fall 2015 Mid-Atlantic Retreat. Fr. Andrew spoke on the life of St. Ignatius of Antioch and how his life is applicable to our own. Fr. Andrew is the pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, PA.
For students who’ve never been, what is College Conference? What can be expected?
Anna: College Conference is an event that happens every year over Christmas break for young adults between the ages of 18-25. Every year, students from all different jurisdictions, come together to celebrate their love for the faith and aid each other to grow on their spiritual journeys. You can expect a lot of hugs, love, and warmth from everyone!
Nora: Various aspects include prayer in the mornings and evenings, incredibly hilarious and fun social events, loving fellowship with other Orthodox Christian college students, a keynote speaker who covers the theme of the given year, and different workshop speakers who address various sub-topics under the main theme. People can undoubtedly expect to witness the presence of the Holy Spirit and to be welcomed with love, as well as to be uplifted in all different manners, to be enlightened tremendously in a short amount of time, and to make friends/build on already existing relationships in a way that may have been unexpected!
Q: Our theme for this year is Modern Martyrs: Witnesses to the Word. What does the theme mean to you? Why is it important?
Nora: The theme is what I am most looking forward to this year. This means the world, quite literally, to me, because as is said by (I believe) St. John Chrysostom, “One soul is worth more than the entire world.” This theme was, no doubt, inspired and decided by the Grace of the Holy Spirit because it could not be more accurate and applicable to us as Orthodox Christians in college for what is happening today in a societal and global level. In Syria and other parts of the world, people are being slaughtered for their faith, and multitudes each day are gaining their crowns of martyrdom; whereas here, in America, we become martyrs in the sense that we must face and deny secular social pressures, temptation from all angles, maintaining pureness of heart amidst evil from social media and other forms of communication – all of which is worsening day by day now, it seems. This topic will give us further tools in order to protect ourselves and fight against the traps of the demons that cause us to become martyrs every day.
Q: Why would you encourage students to attend?
Anna: A college lifestyle usually revolves around burying our heads in our work, drinking copious amounts of coffee, and constantly being on the run. College Conference is a chance for students to take a break from their hectic schedules and learn about the faith. A chance for students to grow in their faith and return or start to improve their praying habits. A chance to learn from other Orthodox students who are struggling with similar obstacles. College Conference gives us a chance to re-center our lives on Christ and meet other students who want to help us succeed!
Q: What have been some of your favorite memories from College Conference?
Anna: Every year, my favorite part is the late night chanting in the SS. Peter and Paul Chapel. Each night, students come together and join each other in prayer and song. There is something about it that I truly can’t explain. My first College Conference, I stayed in the chapel the final night until 3am listening and signing along with the hymns I knew. Name another time that you can find a large group of college students gathered together singing and praying to God. You can’t! Come to College Conference and experience my favorite memory for yourself!
Nora: At CC last year, the girls and guys split up and did their own “group chats.” Us girls as an entire group talked, opened up to one another, expressed and loved each other fully, and it was an uplifting, amazing, and life-changing experience. However, the general stereotype for women versus men is that women speak more. Right? Wrong. The most heart-warming thing was that, not only did us ladies finish our talk before the men BUT their talk went on for over an hour longer. This bond is so powerful that “man chat” has continued on into even today – these guys are still amazingly frequently in contact. The most unforgettable memory for me at College Conference 2014, we concluded the last evening with a talent show. When the dance off started to seem to die down, one boy began playing an Arabic beat, so another girl and I started dancing to the Arabic music. Then, more people started coming up and we started a dabke (Arabic line dance). Subsequently, most everyone was up in spontaneous dancing together – the joy was unfathomable! Greeks, Indians, all of the Middle East, Caucasians, Russians, Romanians, Latin Americans, Egyptians…. no differences between any of us existed. We were and are one Orthodoxy, one mankind. Words could not describe this moment, and it is an evening that I will never, ever forget.
Black-and-white OCF logos are flooding my Facebook newsfeed. It’s official – Orthodox Awareness Month 2015 is in full swing.
Surely we’ve all made the effort to share an enlightening quote from our favorite saint, to post a photo from our past Real Break trip, or to invite our Facebook friends to listen to an Ancient Faith Radio podcast they would rather listen to than study. There is no doubt in my mind that this will be one of the biggest, furthest-reaching Orthodox Awareness Months ever, and I congratulate you all for taking the time to plant these seeds for others to see.
But now that we have all changed our profile pictures I’m left questioning,
What is Orthodox Awareness Month?
It seems like a silly question, right? But what are we called to do in order to fully embrace OAM as college students? As student leaders? As witnesses of Christ in the modern world?
I also find myself asking, have I done anything this month to embrace OAM in my prayer life? In service to others?
Or, generally, have I done anything more than change my profile picture?
As we are reaching the half-way point of OAM, these are important questions to ask. But even more important is how we choose to answer them on our college campuses.
It is only appropriate that the theme for OCF this year is Modern Martyrs: Witnesses of the Word. The phrase Modern Martyr isn’t one we hear often, but when we break it down it offers us a unique viewpoint from which we can approach living our lives for Christ.
When we think of the first martyrs, we think of the Roman Empire before the legalization of Christianity, and call to mind those blessed saints who refused to deny Christ by worshiping pagan idols. These martyrs bore witness to Christ in a society that would not accept Him.
Following the legalization of Christianity, martyrdom transformed. Monasticism became a new type of martyrdom, and the great Desert Fathers became a model for ending a worldly life for a life of prayer and fasting. These martyrs bore witness to Christ by fleeing the world.
Thus martyrdom, or the way we bear witness to Christ, has changed and evolved to fit its landscape over the centuries. Societies, peoples, ideologies, and governments have all changed, and so too have Christ’s saints changed with it. Christians became martyrs during WWII, under communism, during the Crusades, and more.
In so many ways, these martyrs “changed their profile pictures” – or more accurately, through their actions they changed the image of how the world saw them. They weren’t seen in pride, in vanity, or as slaves to their passions, but rather the profile picture they showed to the world was the image of Christ.
Which brings us to ask, what does martyrdom look like today?
Are we comfortable crossing ourselves before we eat in the dining hall? Are we prepared to be labeled as haters and bigots when we stand behind the Orthodox Church’s teachings on marriage and abortion? Would we be ready, as were the students whose lives were taken in Oregon, to declare Christ’s name in the face of a gun?
All of these situations, and more, are actual scenarios in which we may find the opportunity to change our profile picture for Christ. Thus, embracing Orthodox Awareness Month becomes more than just changing our profile pictures on social media; it challenges us to prepare ourselves to become perfect images of Christ.
By keeping this in mind and following the model of the martyrs and the saints before us, we will surely humble ourselves to others and bear witness to Christ in our modern world.
About the Author
Andrew Abboud graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in Biological Sciences and Religious Studies. He is continuing his education as a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh. Andrew was the Chairman of the 2014-2015 OCF Student Leadership Board, and he loves taking any chance he gets to stay involved with the ministry which afforded him so much.
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.