Orthodox America

  Addressed to Youth

 Priest Peter Perekrestov

     Are you an Orthodox young person who, like many of your peers, is questioning the relevancy of the Church in your life? Perhaps it is unconscious on your part: you were baptized as/in infant or as a young child at the decision of your parents, you attended services with them, kept the fasts and celebrated the feasts; it was a part of life you took for granted. But now, you are becoming more independent, you are spreading your wings in preparation to leave the family nest and establish your own place in the world, your own identity. Even if this point of departure lies some years ahead, you may still find yourself getting ready for church with the question to your parents--spoken or unspoken: "Do I have to go?" or "What for?"

    Youth is a time filled with questions--some trifling but others very serious, involving a search for answers which may set the direction for the rest of your life. None is more important than your relationship to God and His Church, for it will affect you for all eternity.

     Some young people slide away from the Church without any particular reason, without bothering to pursue the question "Why?" Too few young people consciously examine the causes behind their gradual estrangement from the Church. And yet, a question of such magnitude deserves the most profound and conscious consideration. Don't waste your time in church shifting from one foot to the other waiting for the service to end so you can join your friends. Ask yourself: Why am I here? What does the Church mean to me? What part does it have in my life?

    The Orthodox Christian way of life has never been easy, and it offers a particular challenge to today's youth.

     As young children we receive from our family and parishes a religious upbringing. We are taught to pray, at least externally-to cross ourselves, to venerate icons, to memorize and recite prayers; we learn how to stand in church properly.., We do not fully understand what is going on, but we feel something special, holy and beautiful. And we accept it all as very natural. Then we begin school where we discover children from all different backgrounds. Most, if not all of our new friends there are not Orthodox, and they may find what we do at home or in church rather strange. We may be shy in answering why we refused the offer of an ice cream bar on Friday, or why we were absent from school on a feast day, We hesitate to cross ourselves and pray in the cafeteria when we see that no one else does. And so it is that we find ourselves on the spiritual battlefield. Still, despite certain moments of confusion, family life usually remains the dominant influence throughout the early years, molding the young child's behavior and thought.

      In secondary school and college, however, the battle intensifies. Parental authority is challenged, youth want more control. Peer pressure is more keenly felt. Temptations take on a different character: Saturday night parties, immodest dress, encounters with drugs and sex, the desire to be part of the "in" crowd. The teen years are particularly vulnerable to the influence of "modern times," often manifest in various external expressions--a radical hairstyle, extreme fashions, a passion for the latest musical craze. For the college student living away from home for the first time the crisis may be especially acute. Here temptations strike more frequently on a philosophical level. Courses in science, anthropology, comparative religions, history--all present a worldview essentially different from Orthodoxy: everything is relative, the truth lies within you, belief in Christianity is a product of cultural conditioning... Academia today is permeated with this liberal outlook.


Life at the Crossroads

     In approaching adulthood we are faced with a myriad of difficult choices, difficult decisions. We feel pulled in many directions. Which way should we go? Unfortunately, when we find ourselves in such a fog of perplexity we seldom think to turn; to the Church for help; And yet it is precisely here, and only here that we can find the answers to our most serious questions. Here our life is given real meaning and purpose--not only until death but for all eternity. The Church defines the goal of our lives and guides us along the path to reach it. A bold claim, you may reply. Certainly, but take a long, hard, objective look at the world around you and you will discover for yourself that the claim is justified.

    In answer to life's perplexities the world offers solutions very different from those found in the Church. Advertising, for example, is full of ridiculous claims: How to get more out of life? Smoke X-brand cigarettes; Now to increase your popularity? Drink X-cola for a great looking body. How to enhance your self-confidence? Drive a new... Whatever the product, whatever the advice, the projected image is a life of pleasure and prestige that only money can buy. And it is very difficult not to succumb to its persuasion. But ask yourself: Is this what life is all about, keeping up with the Joneses? Does wealth generate true happiness? Are these the values you want to build into your life?

    One of the most noticeable features of modern life is its transience. So many people are on the move, changing jobs, changing schools. Technical advances are outdating recent discoveries. Trends in music and art are passing fancies. Fashions-whichoccupy somuch of a young person's time, money and attention--change more often than the seasons. Looking back into history we see a slower rate of change--over decades, even centuries-in intellectual  and philosophical trends, but the changes are there nevertheless: changing values, changing claims of what is truth. Where, in the midst of all this flux, can one find any stability, any security, something on which to anchor one's life?

    Where? In the Church which is built upon an everlasting truth: "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever" (Heb. 13:8). The Church is a bastion of security and of timelessness; it extends beyond the limits of this temporal world. When, for example, we are p resent at the Divine Liturgy, we are not merely reenacting what took place almost two centuries ago, but we are present in actual fact, just as the Apostles were, at the Mystical Supper. Looking more closely at the Church, we cannot fail to be awed by Christ' s measureless love for us, by the wisdom of the Fathers, by the beauty and harmony of the divinely inspired order of its services. Deep within us we have a longing for the virtues it promotes: love, patience, meekness, kindness, mercy, long-suffering.,.; qualities all but absent from the value system of today's world. Indeed, life in the Church offers the most meaningful existence to which one can possibly aspire.

     As a young person you may agree with what has been said here. You know that Truth lies within the Church, together with the meaning of life. "But what's wrong, "you might ask, "with having 'fun' for a few years, following the ways of the world? I can turn to the Church later, when I get married and have children." Sadly, many young people do just that. They may attend services ,even regularly, but their minds and hearts are occupied by the world.

     Orthodox youth, listen to your conscience! Do not gamble with your soul's eternal destiny. Death may overtake you, or, in spite of your good intentions, you may become deaf to the voice of God and n ever return to the Church. And even if you do, you will find it more difficult to wash your soul clean of worldly influence. How many adults suffer regrets from having indulged in the follies of youth.

     The next question in your mind may be this: "How does 'life in the Church' relate to a young person?" First, one must understand that participation in the Church is not a duty for which we are to expect a reward. Being a member of Christ's Church is a privilege (which entails not rights, as so many demand today, but obligations). It is a privilege to be able to come together to pray as a community, to be present in the company of angels and saints. We are privileged, through our life in the Church, to become acquainted with a whole multitude of saints and righteous--men and women, young and old, rich and poor--spiritual heroes whose inspiring lives can be an example to us. In the Church everyone is equal in the spiritual sense, there is no generation gap, all participate, both young and old are granted the greatest of all privileges --to receive the Holy Gifts.


What Can I Do?

    But how, you might ask, can you take an active part in the life of the Church and in its services? What if you do not sing or serve in the altar? What can you do? Unlike many Christian groups which emphasize external activities, the essence of our Orthodox Faith lies in our spiritual relationship with God. There fore, the most important "activity" one can undertake is prayer, and while we are also to pray by ourselves, at home, it is when we come together in church as the Body of Christ that this activity is most perfectly fulfilled. This is not to say that external activities are unnecessary, but these should chiefly be a manifestation of the inner spirit. It is an honor to be able to serve in the altar, to sing in the choir or to read in church. But there are also many other ways in which you can apply your talents and energy: by bringing flowers, by cleaning or painting the church, organizing a parish library, visiting the sick and elderly, helping with the parish bulletin, teaching in the parish school, organizing youth meetings... Ask your priest. There are never enough volunteers.

     Young people! God is calling you. Ponder well the path of your feet (Prov. 4:26). Do not exhaust your youth, your vitality, talents and energy on the transitory things of this world. Turn instead to the Church where you have much to gain and much to give that is of eternal significance. Remember, God selected a young boy, David, to fight Goliath. He chose a rather young Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. We have numerous examples of saints who "from their youth loved Christ" and used their strength and zeal to serve Him. No worldly prestige can compare with the high calling of a Christian. LIVE IN THE CHURCH! Only here will you satisfy the deepest longings of your heart. Only here will you learn the meaning of true happiness, true freedom, and everlasting peace.

(Based on a talk delivered by Priest Peter Perekrestov at the Orthodox Conference in Erie, PA. 1986)