What Kids Can Do
We can debate the legal obstacles and possibilities as well as the practical advantages and disadvantage of gun control. None of these are under the control of high schools. Nor do they fall within the expertise of teenagers or indeed most of us.
High school students are certainly free to call for stricter gun laws even as they are free to defend the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Neither of these, however, are really within the sphere of influence of teenagers.
What teens and younger student can do is treat each other with courtesy and respect. Most school shooters are fatherless boys who have been ostracized by their peers. While students can’t prevent divorce, they can reach out to their peers. This can be as simple as sitting with someone at lunch or including them in one’s own group. Basically, children befriending other children.
Unfortunately, being a decent human being doesn’t garner media attention. Ironically, what does get this attention is the same kind of narcissism and inflated sense of self-importance that leads to children being ostracized and humiliated by their peers.
And helping and encouraging you people learn to include others to “disagree agreeably” is certainly something that parents, teachers, religious and community leaders can do. We have in the last several years seen a dramatic decrease in racial and sexual taunting and slurs. Yes, we have further to go but in a fallen world we always will.
I wonder though if we have the moral fortitude to not simply ban hurtful words but foster in young people the willingness to assume good faith on the part of those with whom they disagree.
It doesn’t bother me, for example, when I am called “homophobic” for not supporting the expansion of marriage laws to include same-sex couples. But like the Obama administration’s claim that those who disagreed with them on legally mandated employer-funded contraception are engaged in a “war on women,” words like homophobic or Islamaphobic or for that matter Christianphobic or libtard or any of a number of slurs from both those on the right or left, all assume malicious intent. These all threaten to bring the possibility of a reasonable discussion to an end.
Whether we are children in school or adults in the public square, we can’t befriend each other unless we first grant each other at least the possibility of goodwill.
So what can kids do? Stop imitating those adults who assume the worst in those who disagree with them.
How can kids lead? By giving each other the benefit of the doubt.
Mawage, that bwessed awangment…
Not sure how many of you have seen The Princess Bride but it’s the story of the search for true love. As a movie, TPB is delightful from beginning to end. As theology, however, it sometimes falls a little short. This is especially so in the film’s depiction of marriage.
For example (spoiler alert!), in the wedding scene, we hear marriage described as “a dream within a dream” (see the scene here). Likewise, the pursuit of “true love” becomes a justification for the hero being mistreated by the object of his affection.
To be fair, The Prince Bride is just a movie and a romantic comedy at that. Like other romcoms, it really holds itself out as offering nothing but escapist entertainment.
The challenge we face ministering to young people doesn’t come from movies, music or popular culture. Or at least, these don’t represent unique challenges. All cultures are fallen and so all culture send us (at best) mixed messages about the relationship between men and women and about marriage and family life.
Whatever the culture says—for good or ill—our task remains the same. We are asked by Christ to help young people understand the vocation of marriage and family life. A central part of this is helping them understand the Tradition of the Church so that, should the time come, they can rightly discern whether they have been called to marriage.
By its nature, Christian marriage isn’t simply a personal vocation (and all vocations are personal). It is also a call to marry a particular person. This makes it a shared vocation. No one has a vocation to be married in general. Christ calls a person to marry this person, at this time in their lives.
And they are called with the hope (as we hear in the Church’s prayer for the couple) that they will one day become parents:
Remember, O Lord our God, Your servant (Name) and Your servant (Name), and bless them. Give to them fruit of the womb, fair children, concord of soul and body. Exalt them as the cedars of Lebanon, and as well‑cultured vine; bestow on them a rich store of sustenance, so that having a sufficiency of all things for themselves, they may abound in every good work that is good and acceptable before You. Let them behold their children’s children as newly planted olive trees round about their table; and, being accepted before You, let them shine as stars in the Heavens, in You, our Lord, to Whom are due all Glory, honor, and worship as to Your eternal Father, and Your All‑Holy, Good, and Life‑creating Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages.
While the love and affection that we see in popular culture is important, the vocation to Christian marriage is much more than simply two people falling in love and wanting to spend the rest of their lives together.
Marriage is also an ascetical struggle. Just as with monastic life, marriage and family life an arena for spiritual combat. Husband and wife, together, are called to struggle against sin so that “they may be worthy to attain unto a ripe old age” as the fruit of “keeping Your commandments in a pure heart.”
Christian marriage embrace not only the natural affections of the couple. Marriage in Christ must also be open to new life (children) as part of the couple’s shared commitment to work for each other’s salvation.
Finally, marriage in the Orthodox understanding is not simply for this life.
Another especially glorious aspect of Christ-centered marriage is that it is meant to last forever – indeed, for all those who enter into the Heavenly Kingdom, every relationship formed in this life will continue in the next life, in a deeply healed and purified way. Just as Christ will be married to His Church eternally in unbroken continuity, with each believer experiencing the unity of his or her marriage with Christ more and more in the timeless eternity of the life in Heaven, so too a Christian marriage is meant to last forever (David C. Ford, “The Glory and Honor of Marriage,” in Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage (SVS Press, 2016), pp. 38-39).
Love, children, ascetical struggle, these are all essential aspects marriage in Christ. And these elements are all at the service of helping the couple become a living sacrament of Christ love for the Church. Or in the words of the Apostle Paul, “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32, NKJV).
Our tasking in explaining marriage to young people, then, isn’t simply a matter of discussing sexual morality or healthy communication skills. These have their place but they aren’t the point of As youth ministers and catechists Christ asking us to do something greater.
Christ is asking you to help Him set the foundation that will help the young person in your class to be ready, willing and able, to enter into life as a living expression of Christ’s love for the Church.
Who’s up for the challenge?
Learning to Be Made New
As the Church grew and went from being an outlawed sect to a religion favored by the Empire, a problem arose. What was the Church going to do with those Christians who apostatized during the recently ended persecutions?
Added to this was the challenge that emerged as the Church began to baptized more and more people. While many of the newly baptized were sincere in their faith it also became clear that more than a few became Christian to gain a social advantage. As result, there were Christian who after baptism committed very serious sins such as fornication, adultery, and even murder.
So like with those who apostatized the question arose: What is the Church to do with those Christians who fell into very serious sins?
One approach was simply to say that those who fell from grace were condemned and could not be reconciled. This was based on a text in St John’s First Epistle:
If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that (1 John 5:16).
Since reconciliation wasn’t possible if they committed serious sin, many catechumens (maybe most famously, St Augustine) would wait until late in life before being baptized. The thinking was as the person got older he or she was less likely to fall into serious sin. Or more cynical view was that we ought to have our fun when we were young and repent when it was time to settle down.
There is a parallel here with how we see young adults falling away from the Church is clear. “Don’t worry, they’ll come back when they want to get married and start a family.”
But delaying baptism so that people would sin in their youth with the expectation that when they were older they could repent and go to heaven isn’t the Gospel. As you can imagine, this resulted in the faithful becoming laxer as a group. So rather than solving the problem, not reconciling those who fell into serious sin actually made the problem worse!
Again, we see this with our tolerance of young adults dropping out of the church of a season. It signals that the Gospel is optional. But if the Gospel is optional, it isn’t true so, why bother coming back? Not surprisingly, more and more young adults are NOT coming back as the ranks of those with no religious affiliation (the “Nones”) continues to grow.
Reflecting on the power the apostles received on Pascha to forgive sins (see John 20:19-25), the Church slowly came to the awareness that even serious committed after baptism sins could be forgiven. It was from this awareness that the sacrament of confession (or penance) develops.
Most of us, thank God, don’t commit “sins unto death.” This, however, doesn’t mean we don’t commit other less serious sins. And all of us have bad habits and tendencies that if left unchecked will lead us to fall away from Christ and the Church.
Like a failed marriage, our relationship with Christ doesn’t just end out the blue. Our friendship with Christ fades away from neglect. Very few of the “Nones” are hostile to Christianity. They are simply indifferent.
This is where confession becomes important.
Confession is the sacrament that strengthen us. Like all the sacraments of the Church, it is a work of the Holy Spirit. And, like all the other works of the Holy Spirit, confession transform us, helps us become more fully the person God has created us to be.
But our transformation doesn’t happen overnight but slowly over time.
This is why I stress with penitents that we need to think about confession as a skill. It’s something we need to learn how to do and this takes time and practice.
Not only does the penitent need to learn how to examine his or her conscience and make a good confession, the priest needs to get to know us, know our strengths and weakness, or natural talent and spiritual gifts, the ways in which we typically stumble and how we respond to failure as well as success.
In other words, I say to people, you need to learn how to go to confession and I need to learn how to hear your confession. And we can only do this together.
This means that in confession priest and penitent need to get to know and, more importantly, to trust each other. Above all, they need to learn how to stand together before Christ and ask for His wisdom and mercy.
This means, and this has been my experience as a priest, confession doesn’t just change the penitent, it changes the priest.
This is what makes confession a great adventure! Just as the priest has an important role to play in helping us follow Christ as His disciple and witness, we have a role to play in helping the priest become a more faithful disciple and witness.
Confession, in other words, is never simply about my sin. It is rather part of our shared journey as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, we each have our own role. But priest and penitent need each other and neither can be who they are called to be in Christ without the other.
Am I Ready to Be Made New?
What are we to make of the Eucharist?
The great theological debates in the West are certainly interesting. And contrary to what we sometimes might think, they aren’t wholly without value for us as Orthodox Christians. It can be helpful for us to remember, that at least through Reformation, Christians East and West, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant (Lutherans and Calvinists) all agreed that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. Yes, we debated among ourselves how bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Christ but we all agreed that there was a change.
These theological debates, however, rarely matter all that much to most people. What does matter is what it means to receive Holy Communion?
In many parishes, it isn’t uncommon for very few—if any—people to receive Holy Communion. In other parishes though, it seems as if it is expected that everyone receives. Neither of these extremes is helpful. We don’t want to make receiving Holy Communion a rare occurrence. But neither do we want to take receive the Body and Blood of our Lord something we take for granted.
So, what can we do to help especially children and young adults understand the Eucharist?
I find the best thing to do is to have children look at the text of the Divine Liturgy. Ask them what they think it means, for example, when the priest says “Take, eat this is My Body broken for you for the forgiveness of sins”?
Or later when he says “Send your Holy Spirit down up us and upon these gifts…”
We hear several things here simultaneously.
Yes, we are sinners but Jesus comes and dies for us sinners.
And yes, the bread and wine are transformed in the Divine Liturgy but so are we.
It is the rare child who doesn’t grasp that he or she is a sinner. Even if they are too young to understand theologically, even young children know that they can hurt others or that they can disappoint their parents or fight with their siblings.
We need not only help children understand how they fail but also about what it might mean to be transformed. Ask them what they think it means to be not just a sinner but forgiven? And not just forgiven but transformed?
The heart of the matter is, is that in the Eucharist Jesus doesn’t just forgive us but transforms us, makes us new. This is something we often overlook. One of the reasons Liturgy can seem boring and repetitive is because we don’t think about it as God coming to transform us.
With older children, say middle school and up, I will ask them to think about what it means when the priest tells us to “Lift up your hearts.” He doesn’t tell us to praise God or thank God. Much less does he say we need to be happy or sad. He simply says that we are to lift up our hearts. We are to offer our to God whatever is in our heart at that moment.
For older children especially, the idea that in the Eucharist we offer ourselves to God and that we do this together with Jesus can be a powerful insight. Just as God accepts Jesus, He accepts us, He accepts me.
And God’s acceptance and love is dependent on what might be going on in my life at any moment. God wants my bored, irritated heart as much as He wants my joyful, thankful heart.
And not only does God accept each of us as we are, in Holy Communion He gives us back to ourselves but when He does, we are changed. Remember, it isn’t just bread and wine that are transformed, we are too.
When we receive the Eucharist, together with Christ we receive our own lives as well but as they have been made new by grace. This is what we are preparing to do when we celebrate the Eucharist and this is what we do when we receive Holy Communion.
So, the question becomes (for all of us) how do we prepare ourselves to be made new in Christ? That’s the question that we are asked every time we participate in the Divine Liturgy and every time—“with the fear of God and with faith”—we come forward to receive Holy Communion.
Am I ready to be made new?
It’s a new semester and I’m again teaching in St Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theology Seminary’s distance education program for youth ministers. This time around, I’m teaching Christian doctrine for youth minister. As I did last semester, I’ll post my class notes here. You are welcome to use them if you’d like. You’re also welcome to ask questions or offer your own thoughts on the material.
So, here’s the first class!
Reading: Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, vol I: Doctrine and Scripture, “Sources of Christian Doctrine.”
We need to keep two things in mind when we teach doctrine.
First, Jesus Christ is the foundation, center and goal of our teachings. A class in Christian doctrine isn’t the religious equivalent of a philosophy class where we might learn about different schools of thought. Rather, teaching the faith is first and foremost about introducing people–whatever their age or background–to Jesus Christ. As catechist (religious education teachers) we’re really matchmakers. We want to help people not just know about Jesus but to help them fall in love with Him.
All the various sources of Christian doctrine–Tradition, Scripture (Bible), Liturgy, the teachings of the various Councils and the Fathers, the lives of the saints, the Church’s legal tradition (the canons), our music, iconography and architecture (Church Art)–have Jesus Christ as their source and goal. If I lose sight of Jesus, or if I don’t introduce Jesus to my students, then I’ve failed as a catechist.
The different sources of Christian doctrine all have their secular equivalent. For example, often we confuse ethnic customs with being Orthodox. It’s important to keep in mind this isn’t simply a matter of confusing being Ukrainian or Serbian or Greek or Russian with being Orthodox. Sometimes we confuse being Orthodox with being American (“What do you mean the Church isn’t a democracy!”).
Likewise, the culture has its own “sacred” texts, non-negotiable teachings, revered teachers and heroes that are admired and imitated. Not all of what the culture offers is bad. In fact, some of it is really quite good (e.g., the dignity of the human person), But we need to be very discerning in what we accept and reject from the culture.
The standard for evaluating culture is the same for our classes: Does it help or hinder a person’s relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church?
To answer this question for our students, we need ourselves to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. To have a relationship with Him, I need pray and read Scripture daily, attend Liturgy on Sunday and feast days, receive Holy Communion on a regular basis and go to Confession.
Being a catechist builds on my own Christian faith. As a catechist, I also need to study. A catechist who doesn’t study the sources of Christian doctrine is like a physician who doesn’t know anatomy and physiology. Bad as it is for a doctor not to know about the human body, it’s worse for a catechist not to know and love Jesus Christ or to be indifferent to the Church’s doctrine.
So, let’s study what the Church believes!
Finding Christ in the Ordinary
I have noticed (and discussed) with Orthodox college students what seems to me to be their inability to flirt. Indeed at times, they seem positively ignorance of flirting. God love them, they know how to be brothers and sisters (a good thing) but they can’t flirt.
Many young men and women are in a similar situation, They know how to have sex but know nothing of romance. They don’t know how to express that they find the other person attractive and desirable without then moving to establish a sexual encounter. The consequence of this is that their relationships with each other are predatory with each young person play simultaneously the role of victim and predator.
In a recent post on Catholic scholar Anthony Esolen (Marriage Doesn’t Just Happen), offers a diagnosis and prescription for Catholic youth that is equally applicable to the Orthodox Church as well.
Where can our young people go to have innocent fun, not just alongside the other sex, but specifically for mingling with them, meeting them, flirting with them, searching for one of them to love? Where are we nudging them gently along toward marriage and the sweetness of that life?
He goes on to observe that again and again we ask
“What can we do to keep our youth in the Church?” And their attempts haven’t worked, because they have viewed young people as consumers of a churchly product, rather than as boys and girls, young men and young women, with obvious natures and needs.
God love us and God forgive us!
There are times when it seems we’ve given over the life of the Church to scholars (real though mostly wannabe) who want to have learned discussions about “Holy Tradition.” While theology, Church history, liturgy and the rest of what is taught in seminary is important, it is all secondary. It is at the service of helping future clergy and lay leaders in their vocation to help others live life in Christ.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that the Christian life isn’t an escape from life into the rarefied realm of academic theology but, as the fathers remind us, about being “fully alive.” This is why Esolen calls
…upon every parish in the United States to do the sweet and simple and ordinary things. Not everybody can speak learnedly about church architecture. Not everybody wants to hear about that. Not everybody can speak learnedly about grace and free will. Not everybody wants to hear about that. But everybody can learn to sing, everybody can learn to dance, everybody can watch a good movie, everybody likes a picnic, or a hike, or a trip to the beach, or a goofy time at the bowling alley, or a softball game, or an ice cream social, or coffee and tea and doughnuts. It is not good for the man to be alone—or the woman!
From my own experience working with parishes in transition and clergy in crisis, I’ve come to appreciate how important it is to focus on “the sweet and simple and ordinary things.” I’ve also come to understand how hard that can be to do this when clergy don’t have the proper formation–spiritual and human.
We need to help young (and not just young) people learn to navigate the ordinary aspects of life not the demands of a doctoral seminar. To do this, however, means we need to embrace ordinary life and see in it the epiphany of God’s saving and deifying grace.
As Esolen “Sometimes our duties are difficult or dangerous. Not this time! So then, what is our excuse?” Given the facts on the ground, given the damage that has been done to generations of men and women, I suspect what Esolen is calling for is harder than he imagines.
But it is no less important because it is hard. In fact, it is important because it is hard.
“Male and Female He Made Them”: Really!
“Male & Female He Made Them”: Really!
Over the last half-century or so, there has been a progressive erosion of what was once a universally understood norm, that human beings are male and female. While many factors have brought about this change, there are several that represent a significant departure from the moral tradition common to both Eastern and Western Christianity. Chief among these are:
- The development and widespread availability of artificial contraception.
- The rise of “no fault” divorce.
- The cultural acceptance of (or at least indifference to) fornication and adultery.
- The ready availability of pornography.
- The granting to same-sex couplings the same civil and legal status as marriage.
These developments are all interrelated. The inherent link between conjugal intimacy and procreation was undone by contraception; the permanence of marriage by no-fault divorce; marriage as the exclusive context for sexual intimacy by the acceptance (even among Christians!) of pre- and extramarital sexual behavior and pornography. And with the growing cultural acceptance of same-sex couples as “marriage”, we are now at a place where even the basic, created, distinction between man and woman is seen as irrelevant.
These events are all cultural battles in the Sexual Revolution that has been fought since the 1960’s. And, more and more, parents are contacting me about the emotional and moral harm they see being done either to their children or their children’s friends by the acceptance and promulgation of the moral norms of the Sexual Revolution. Though our situation is serious, we need to be careful that we don’t succumb to the understandable temptation to look at all these developments as merely an attack on sacred cultural norms.
As Christians and people of goodwill we need, to be honest.
Some of the cultural norms, like the role of women in society and the workplace or the tendency to blame the victim of sexual assault or to overlook physical abuse in marriage, needed to be reformed. But often with needed reform came a growing indifference–again, among Christians–to the Christian moral tradition and what God has revealed to us about who we are as men and women.
As youth ministers, we often find ourselves serving young people who have been negatively influenced by our culture’s understanding of sexuality. For example, a growing number of young people are quite open and fluid about their sexuality. As they move through high school and into their early 20’s a young person might think of himself or herself at different times as gay, bisexual, or straight.
Complicated as questions about sexual orientation are, there are also a growing number of young men and women who are confused about their sexual identity (transgenderism). A young person who is biologically male will think of himself as female (trans-woman) while a biologically female young person might insist that she is actually male (trans-male). As one friend of mine said, “It is a very difficult subject to navigate right now.”
In addition to the harm this does psychologically, confusion over sexual orientation or identity often results in the young person (and often family and friends) falling away from Christ and the Church. Important as the cultural questions are, it is the relationship of the young person to Christ and the Church which is our primary concern as youth ministers.
So what are we to do?
First, we need to accept the facts on the ground. Even if the young people in our youth groups aren’t themselves personally struggling with pornography, same-sex attraction, gender dysphoria (the clinical name for transgenderism) or in a family broken by divorce, it is almost certain that they have friends or classmates who are.
So the second thing we must do is pray. We need to pray not just for the young people in our parish but for their friends. Part of praying for young people is also praying for their parents. You might consider asking your priest to say occasionally the “Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children” to ask the Mother of God to intercede for all children and their parents.
We also need to pray for ourselves, other youth ministers and for the deacons, priests, and bishops as together we minister to young people. We need to have not only wisdom and compassion for those who struggle but also the courage not to compromise on the Gospel. As I told a young friend recently, wisdom is useless without the courage to act. Such compromise often happens out of a misplaced sense of concern for those who are struggling.
While we don’t want to drive people away, we also can’t deny the Gospel. Unfortunately, and again even among Orthodox Christians, there are those who have accepted the moral standards of the world. In doing so, they take from young people to opportunity not just for repentance but restoration, reconciliation, and wholeness in Christ. As a minister of the Gospel, accepting the world’s standards means I become an obstacle to someone else’s salvation.
Third, to prayer, we need to add good information about all of these issues.
We need to educate ourselves on the Church’s moral tradition as well as the scientific data on all the issues introduced here. The Ruth Institute is a good place to begin. Here you can find resources that address the moral consequences and the scientific implications of the Sexual Revolution.
Finally, it can’t be said enough. We need to pray for the young people we serve. I pray daily for the members of the OCF here in Madison. I also commemorate all the members by name when I prepare the gifts for the Divine Liturgy. While solid moral teaching and good scientific data (see here) are essential, without prayer they won’t bear fruit that will last.
Confession & Teaching Kids to Talk about their Spiritual Lives
For many Orthodox Christians, the only time they talk about their spiritual life is in confession. While confession is a good thing, an essential thing really, only discussing our spiritual life in confession can give us an unhealthy view of what it means to follow Christ. These misunderstandings of the spiritual life will often be passed on to the young people around us.
So there are two things we need to do in our work with young people.
First, we need to help them have a good and wholesome view of confession. In many parishes, confession is done quickly and immediately before Liturgy. There’s nothing wrong with this but it doesn’t really give the penitent and the priest much time to discuss anything but the most obvious of sins. It also works against the priest and penitent getting to know and trust each other.
Typically in some convert parishes, confession is understood as the Orthodox version of accountability. If the quick confession before Liturgy minimizing the personal quality of confession, confusing confession with accountability turns it into a stick and the priest into a judge or gatekeeper. And like with the brief confession before Liturgy, this too works against our getting to know and trust our priest.
In my own spiritual life and now as a priest, learning to do a basic examination of conscience has been helpful. You can an examination of conscience in many Orthodox prayer books. While these are good tools for adults, they can sometimes be a bit much for young people. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has a good resource for helping prepare for confession (here). The article includes two examinations of conscience. The first is based on the Ten Commandments, the second on the Beatitudes. With young people, I recommend that you use the one based on the Beatitudes.
One way to use an examination of conscience is to use the questions as the basis for group discussions. Doing this will not only help young people understand what is and isn’t a sin but also help them have richer, deeper spiritual lives. How? By teaching them to think and talk about what it means to follow Jesus Christ as Orthodox Christians.
Especially with younger children a discussion about sin might not seem practical (or even do-able). I understand why you might think this.But kids can fool us, especially when we underestimate them.
No, we can’t discuss the kinds of things with children that we would with adults. But children have a sense of moral right and wrong. Inviting them and helping them talk is a good way to form their conscience.
Having this conversation with peers also teaches them how to talk about their own spiritual lives. In addition, it also creates an atmosphere in the parish that says that it’s ok to talk about our spiritual lives with each other. We can even talk about our struggles.
Talking about our struggles doesn’t have to be something we do in any great depth or detail. But we do need to help young people begin to understand that not only do we all struggle, we struggle in surprisingly similar ways. Like Steve says in Be the Bee #36 “we all make mistakes.”
So, what can you do in your parish to help young people not only have a healthy view of confession but also to start talking to each other about what it means to follow Christ as an Orthodox Christian?
Almsgiving & Manual Labor
When we discuss the ascetical life, we’re generally pretty comfortable with prayer and fasting. In fact, not all that uncommon for Orthodox Christians to brag about the length of our services and the strictness of our fasting–even if we, personally, don’t attend the lenten service or keep the fast all that closely!
But in the tradition of the Church, asceticism isn’t simply prayer and fasting. Almsgiving and manual labor are (or should be) essential ascetical disciplines.
Building on the sacraments, the goal of the ascetical life is to restore us to the beauty we had in the Garden before the Fall of our first Parents. To borrow from the Canon of St Andrew that’ll we’ll hear soon, asceticism is meant to lift from my heart the “heavy burden” of sin and reveal “the beauty of my original image” created to reflect God’s glory.
Asceticism liberates us and makes us beautiful!
Like I said, we usually limit our conversation about asceticism to prayer and fasting and neglect almsgiving and manual labor. But we should introduce young people all four ascetical disciplines. Why do I say this?
Through prayer and fasting, I reshape my heart and make it more sensitive and responsive to God’s grace. The ascetical disciplines of manual labor and almsgiving allow me to shape the world around me and my relationship with others— including the poor— in a manner that reflects Christ. Just as prayer and fasting sanctify soul and body, almsgiving and manual labor are the means by which I sanctify the material world and therefore human society as well.
Look at the desert fathers. What did those great ascetics do?
They would often live in places where they had access to palm leaves. The monks would weave these leaves into mats and baskets while they prayed, then sell their handiwork to support themselves. Whatever was not needed to meet their own, minimal expenses would be given to the poor. So for these first monks, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor, all work together.
Introducing young people to almsgiving and manual labor helps them understand that they can, personally, make a contribution that helps others.
Asking young people to work is very different than asking young people to raise money through raffles or selling candy. Asking them to work to raise money to help those in need communicates to them there is something noble to work.
It also can help young people understand that beyond meeting our own needs, work is something we do for others. I don’t just work to make my life better; I work to make your life better as well.
The Jesus Prayer
When I talk with people about their spiritual lives I often come away with the impression that they don’t think praying counts unless it hurts. So many of us think we need to stand at attention to pray; so many of us undermine our own spiritual lives because we act like a soldier on guard duty rather than like a small child on our Father’s lap.
This anxiety about prayer isn’t helpful. “Prayer,” says St Isaac the Syrian, “is a joy that gives way to thanksgivings.” As we cultivate inner stillness, we become aware of the presence of God in our lives and the myriad small blessings He has bestowed on us. So how can we begin to pray?
I like to teach young people to say the Jesus Prayer.
St Porphyrios says that “There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer.” He goes on to say that the Jesus Prayer “doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God.” What make the Jesus Prayer especially valuable for young people is that, as the saint says, it is a prayer you can say “Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.”
Prayer requires silence and silence requires privacy. So we first need to help young people a cultivate a healthy sense of privacy, of being alone. In time, and by God’s grace, privacy grows into solitude—of being alone with God.
And with solitude comes a sense of atonement of being of “at one”-ment, of being reconciled with God in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.
But being alone, and especially being alone without distractions can be hard for all of us but especially for young people.
When I’m alone my thoughts tend to intrude. At first, my thoughts are pleasant, or at least not unwelcome. But very quickly they turn morbid. I recall past sins—mine or my neighbors—and I’m tempted to forget that God is man befriending and easy to be entreated.
The more we focus on human sinfulness, the more we forget that God loves us. This is why in the Jesus Prayer I ask Christ for mercy BEFORE I confess my sinfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
It is in that last phrase, “a sinner” that my solitude opens up to embrace all humanity. I’m not “the” sinner, much less the only sinner. I am “a” sinner surrounded by sinners and all forgiven by the mercy of God.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t have our struggles. It doesn’t mean that we don’t fail or aren’t at times treated unjustly. What it does mean, is that we need to help young people experience God’s love for them. This is a great blessing of the Jesus Prayer.
In teaching, young people the Jesus Prayer (or really any form of prayer) need to remember what we heard from St Porphyrios
There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer. It doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God. Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.
So, I’ve included for your consideration, a short video about the Jesus Prayer that might make a good introduction for young people. How might we go about helping young people learn to cultivate silence and begin to including the Jesus Prayer in their own spiritual lives?