As we’ve mentioned before, the first forty days of your freshmen year of college are going to be foundational for the rest of your college experience. We’ve spent a lot of time encouraging your parents, your priest, your catechetical school teachers, and your camp counselors to help us connect you to an OCF chapter in the first forty days of school this fall. But what will you be doing in those first forty days to stay connected to Christ and His Church? After all, you are the one who will decide if all the efforts of those who love you will come to fruition. You will choose your friends, and you will choose how to spend your time. You alone will decide where your path will take you. Will you listen to Christ calling you to repentance and transformation? Will you continue to dedicate your life to Christ as your parents and godparents have done for you?
A lot will be decided–whether you are conscious of it or not–in the first forty days of classes this fall. The habits you build then will likely stick with you throughout your college career. So here’s my advice for those first forty days:
- Go to Liturgy. Sounds simple enough, right? But after an intense first week of getting oriented to your classes coupled with no sleep as you make new friends, when Sunday rolls around, it will be so easy to tell yourself, “I’ll go next week.” But next week often rolls around and hears the same song. And trust me, the longer you are away, the harder it will be to take the leap to go back for the first time. Being in Liturgy, in the presence of God and surrounded by the Christian community, and receiving Christ’s very Body and Blood are absolutely essential to the life of a Christian. You can’t go long without them without starting to lose a sense of who you are. Don’t know where the nearest church is? Here ya go.
- Go to Class. There’s a reason that freshmen year courses are often considered “weed out” classes: they can be really overwhelming. Actually making sure you make it to that 8 AM bio class will be worth it in the long run. So will doing your homework. You do, after all, want to get that degree at the end of this whole thing.
- Pray on Your Own. Take five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night to be silent, be thankful, and offer up a prayer to God. Like going to Liturgy, having a prayer life will keep you centered on who you really are and will give you a chance to reflect on the challenges and choices that you are facing as a young person.
- Read Scripture. If reading Scripture isn’t already a part of your daily routine, now is the time to add it in. The words of Scripture stabilize, sustain, and strengthen us. As you meet challenges to your faith and your morals, having the words of Scripture to turn to, especially the words of our Lord in the Gospels, will help you make sense of the world around you and will help you navigate difficult times. Not sure where to start? Download the OCF Connect App to get the daily readings right on your phone (along with lots of other pretty cool stuff).
Just remember, a little bit goes a long way. Forty days is not a long period of time, but it’s long enough to build a strong foundation for what you lies ahead. Do what you can without making excuses, and keep the work of salvation at the forefront of your mind.
I recently attended an amazing choral concert at a local Presbyterian church. The church was massive–vaulted ceilings, cross-shaped layout, glittering chandeliers, and a golden cross suspended from the ceiling that was probably twice my size–but most striking to me as an Orthodox visitor were the white, white, white walls on all sides. I just kept thinking, “Where is the cloud of witnesses? Where are my friends?” In a room packed to the brim with people, the church still felt empty without the saints.
There are some excellent explanations on the intercession of the saints out there (two from Abbot Tryphon here and here and another more in-depth one from Fr. Stephen Freeman here), so here’s the gist of it:
The saints are people. Real people who lived real lives with real temptations. They came from all different backgrounds and had different talents and callings in life. Some of them had a soft spots for children, others for the poor, others for the unchurched. Some of them were academics who wrote and taught beautifully, some of them opened hospitals and shelters, some were simple cooks, soldiers, and even reformed profligates. Some were royalty, others were peasants. Some were clergy, some were monastics, some were married, some had children. Many were martyred for their faith, some were exiled, and many lived to a peaceful old age. Some were raised in pious Christian families, others became Christians on their own. Some were even a little bit crazy by the world’s standards.
In short, the saints are those who, like us, worked out their salvation with fear and trembling. Like us, they struggled with the passions, but perhaps unlike us (yet), they were able to allow God’s grace to transform them completely, banishing their passions through repentance, opening their hearts through prayer, and striving to love all of creation as God loves it. By doing so, they were granted the ability–often in their own lifetimes–to manifest their synergy with God’s grace through miracles, prophecy, and healing. In coming to love God truly, they were able to have a share in God’s power and compassion, and in imitation of and cooperation with the Divine, they continue to share that power and compassion with us who are still in the midst of our own spiritual battles. The saints love us like God loves us, and they do it without losing their own particular personalities and stories.
Asking for the intercessions of the saints, then, is in a sense like calling on a pro football quarterback to coach you on passing or an Olympic gymnast to help you land a back handspring. The saints are the “pros” of prayer, repentance, charity, virtue, and love–not of their own accord, but by the grace they have been granted in their relationships with Christ. And it is often the case that particular saints become known for helping us in their particular “areas of expertise,” one could say. So St. Christopher who was a ferryman is the patron saint of travelers, St. Paraskevi who worked a miracle on the eyes of her persecutor is the patron saint of eyes, and St. Arsenios of Cappadocia who helped Christian and Muslim women alike conceive is often asked for help by childless families.
It’s going to be quite the family reunion. Image from Wikimedia
For us, living a life in the Church is like growing up in a family with someone who is a pro on, well, just about everything. In any time of need, we have a spiritual relative–in the saints–to call upon to set an example for us, give us advice, and most of all pray for us to the Christ, the Lover of Mankind.
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to help you to get to know some of the saints who I think may have a soft spot for you and your struggles as college students. Stay tuned for introductions.
I hope you’ll all forgive me, but today I’m going to share a bit of personal experience in response to a student question.
How do we balance academic studies with prayer time?
As I thought about this question and how to answer it, I couldn’t help thinking about my own college experience and my life now as a wife and mother. Let me tell you a story.
A few years ago on Pascha–my first one as a mom–I spent most of the night struggling with an almost one-year-old who didn’t want to sleep and didn’t want to be awake. She cried and fussed. She was hungry and cranky. She didn’t want me to put her down, and she didn’t want me to hold her. It was trying, to say the least, and I kept feeling like I was spending more time attending to my daughter’s (perfectly age-appropriate) needs and struggles than I did experiencing Pascha.
I remember thinking then,
Oh, this is why people become monastics. This is what they mean by married people being tied to worldly cares.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining about being a mother and wife. There are amazing joys and huge spiritual blessings in being married and having children–from the everyday joys of hugs and kisses to the bigger joys of seeing my kids grow in faith and learn to love. There is something especially blessed about teaching children to pray, even if it means you have to stop every thirty seconds to remind a three-year-old what word comes next or, more likely, that it’s “time for praying, not for playing.” Marriage and child-rearing offer constant opportunities to put our faith into action–there is always someone hungry to feed, naked to clothe, sick to care for, and lonely to comfort–and there is lots and lots of room for lots and lots of repentance. Constantly. But it is also true that the married life carries with it many unavoidable worldly cares that the monastic life does not bear–bills and budgets, kids’ schooling and activities, jobs, family obligations, keeping house, the many-headed hydra that is laundry in a house with children, noise–lots of noise. In my own limited experience, at least with small children, this doesn’t always leave lots of still, quiet time for still, quiet prayer.
The point of this blog is not to tell you how to find peace and prayer in the married life, but to help you know how to make time for prayer while you’re a student. So why am I telling you all this about kids and marriage? Well, for everything there is a season, and many people have reminded me that our lives have many seasons, some full of peace, others of turmoil, some full of joy, some of sorrow, some full of rest, others of activity. Each of these seasons, if we are open to God’s grace working in them, can bless us, challenge us, teach us, and perfect us.
So I’m telling you a little about the season of new marriage and new family life, assuming that many of you may soon join the ranks of nine-to-five work, diaper changing, and mortgages, to challenge you to see the season of your life you are in now, your college life, as a season of peace and preparation. Believe it or not, now is probably the closest you’ll get to monastic peace and silence while you are young short of joining a monastery for good.
Yes, you are busy, but you set your schedule. Make time for prayer and silence. You are being blessed in this season of your life with a kind of autonomy that you didn’t have as a child in your parents’ house and that you will not have again, at least not in the next season of your life. Do something with it. I look back upon my college years now with gratitude, thanking God that I had a spiritual father who expected me to do something spiritually productive with my time and friends who were struggling on that same path. Go to as many services as you can. Memorize your morning and evening prayers. Read Scripture and spiritual books voraciously. Talk about spiritual things with your OCF friends. Say the Jesus Prayer. Ask the important questions. Learn the hymns of the Church. Make space in your life for God while you are in this season of your life, a season in which, glory be to God, your most pressing worldly cares are your final exams.
I encourage you, especially during Lent, to see college life as a time of freedom and as an opportunity to till the ground of your heart so that prayer can blossom forth in preparation for whatever the next season of your life may hold. Every season will have its “something” that Satan will try to use against us to keep us from seeking after our Lord and falling in love with Him–right now, it’s probably homework. If you feel weighed down by the burden of your academic load and its demands, remember the words of Mother Gavrilia of blessed memory,
One thing is education: that we learn how to love God.