School’s in! Well, I know that in Canada everyone’s been back a couple of weeks, but in America some people are just starting and others have yet to begin! So for those who think this is late, and for those who think it’s early, I apologise. I know that I lived away from home for almost all of my post-secondary education, and there were things I did well and things that I did not do so well. So here are some tips that were given to me, and some tips that I have for you. They are in no particular order. I know that it’s not normal or necessarily “right” for a person to talk about him/herself, but here I’m articulating things that I did, not to present myself as a positive example at all. I’m simply saying the things that I did from experience that worked or did not work, so that you know that what I say, I say from experience, not only theory.
How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to thy word.
With my whole heart I seek thee;
let me not wander from thy commandments!
I have laid up thy word in my heart,
that I might not sin against thee.
– Psalm 119:9-11
You need one. If you do not have one, get one. Academic success is partially intellect, but it’s more discipline. The same is true of your spirituality. If you do not have a sense of commitment to something, it means that you do not value it. That’s one thing. The other thing is, not having discipline to do something, makes you weak in it. If you do not regularly attend to your physical health and have some kind of discipline to it, you get ill, you get weak, or you get problems that lead to greater complications. The spirit is a real thing in you that needs attention. I’m talking about your spirit, not the Holy Spirit.
Your prayer rule needs to be balanced according to your schedule, your lifestyle, and your gifts. Your rule will likely contain psalms (Agpeya), Bible readings, spiritual readings, fasts, prostrations, psalmody and charity. Your spiritual father should, through dialogue, determine with you which of these and how much to apply, based on who you are as a person. One person may flourish with one discipline more than another, and the spiritual doctor should prescribe you the most appropriate drug and dosage.
Your rule needs to be realistic and it should be set with your spiritual father. If you just “wing it”, you’re more than likely not going to do much of anything. You’ll have ‘hot seasons’ here and there, where you do some stuff, but you’ll probably have more ‘cold seasons’. You need to have some kind of maintenance spiritual health routine. Do not go to sleep unless you have done it and do not ever compromise it.
Speaking of prayer…When I first began post-secondary, one of the elders at my beloved monastery taught me the importance of the ‘prayer corner’. This father taught me to cut off a piece of my room and to consecrate it only to God. This meant that I was not to eat there, play there, text there, Pokemon go there…nothing! Nothing other than spiritual work. I could pray there, read the Bible there, do my prostrations there, meditate there – any kind of spiritual work – but only spiritual work. Another elder taught me that every time in the Thanksgiving Prayer that I say, “And from this holy place that is Yours”, that I sign the place, and that in doing so, I am making a church for Him in that place. You will soon experience the sanctity of that place yourself.
In my prayer corner, I had icons of my beloved and favourite saints. Under each saint’s icon, I printed a large sheet with a favourite quote of that saint. For Saint Antony, I devoted a whole wall. I used a music stand and then a bookshelf to have a makeshift pulpit in my room from which I could read the daily readings, pray agpeya or the Psalmody. One of my warmest moments each school year was setting up that area, and one of my saddest was taking down the corner. Luckily, I had a similar setup in my actual room.
This setup does multiple things – one of which is that it makes you have a sense of intimacy with God in your prayer. You have set up a private place in which you and Him can dialogue undisturbed. You showed that you value Him and that you are giving Him a place in your life, not just spiritually, but physically.
Do not stop attending this. Don’t make Liturgy optional, it means that you devalue unity with God and your neighbours. Do not say, “I have finals, I can’t go this weekend.” My siblings, myself, my close friends (you know who you are), all of us never compromised on this and none of us ever regretted it. We find many ways to waste time throughout the week, let’s not pretend that Liturgy is our hindrance to getting that 4.0. If you have moved away from home, if your schedule is rough, then go to the local Church. I always liked to go back to my home parish, but inevitably, sometimes, I went to the local Church.
For those of you who are living at home – try and offer rides to those who are not living at home and could use the ride.
Prayer Buddy or Buddies: Spiritual Friendship
I had a friend of mine who lived at home throughout our degree, but on a set day each semester, we prayed one hour of the Agpeya together in my room (incidentally, this person was not of the opposite sex, so don’t apply this advice wrongly!). That person may or may not know how invaluable that was to me. This spiritual companionship made me actually look forward to prayer. It made me feel less isolated in my spiritual life, that I was not the only person who cared about and wanted to pursue spiritual excellence. The unity of praying together uplifted my spirits in too many ways, I could not possibly write them all. His entering my university “cell”, so to speak, made me feel accountable and focused. Find someone to do this with. If there’s a large group, then I know at some campuses they would rent out rooms and pray an hour of the Agpeya altogether. Some people would even do this in deserted hallways.
To those of you who are living in dorms with other Copts or renting apartments… Pray together. Make it not weird to pray. Why is it strange to pray when we supposedly do it all the time? At youth meetings at Church and in Liturgy we hold the Agpeya and pray together, why should it be strange or weird for you to do it together in your homes and dorms? Nobody is asking you to pray your personal and intimate prayers aloud (though, that is not intrinsically wrong either), but just to join together and be united by God, rather than to be divided by negative things – weed, hookah, and other behaviours that will go unnamed. Sorry, I know, shots fired. Be united by what we believe in and what is good for us, not by what harms us.
With your prayer buddy or buddies, take walks. Talk about important and valuable things. I will never ever be able to forget the long walks I took with my friends in those days. Two in particular immediately come to mind, they were and are friends that have formed and shaped me, and to whom I feel accountable even when out of contact and even when separated by huge distances. Those walks and talks molded me, they helped me, and they were some of the strongest sources of comfort and joy in my life. I was the best man to one of these friends at his wedding, even though we had been divorced by distance for at least two years at that point. That’s how strong those ties are. Spiritual friendships might become its own blog, but I’ll say this for now: it’s invaluable to those who have truly experienced it. Find a Christian friend and stick with him/her.
Everyone needs community. Do not think that you can do it alone successfully. If you do, then it means you either do not value others, or you hate yourself. There may be something in-between, but still, we’re supposed to live in community. I am not saying be dependent on others or to be attached by an umbilical cord, but I am saying find a place where you are linked to others, and make sure that it is positive others. On the same line as above, they will help you immensely.
Do not be afraid to need things from the community. None of us are intrinsically complete, and we are completed in and through one another in Christ. So ask this community for help, express when you are sad or down, or request a walk when you know that you are lonely, frustrated or scared. There are days where you will be in a panic and think you’re going to fail, there are days where you think all the goals you had in mind are gone, there are days when you wonder why you ever took the route that you took. All of those things are normal, having good company in those times is going to help you. Just make sure it’s a community who cares as much as you do about what is Right: Christ.
Also, do not be afraid to say things to this group when necessary. If the group starts taking a wrong turn, speak up and remind them that this is not what you have in common as Christians. This does not need to be done “judgmentally” or superficially. If you want advice on that, I wrote another blog on it, or ask your servants, your spiritual guides and fathers of confession.
Anyone who knows me from that period of life will probably associate me strongly among other things, with my father of confession. That age was a period where there were so many changes physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As our minds were developing, so were my questions, my thoughts and my insights. As temptations increased, so did my need to both confess and get guidance. There was a period where I sat with my spiritual father weekly, often for an hour or two at a time. I was “that guy” in the confession line that everyone dreaded. This was a period where I could be in love with God one day, and have super doubts about Him the next. It was a period of the most amazing spiritual intensity, but also was a time where I did some of the worst things of my life.
For all of those reasons, you need to keep your spiritual trainer close. Talk to your guide, debate and dialogue with your guide – don’t hold back. Be honest and be transparent. You will benefit immensely. Do not hide your thoughts because if you do, they will come back to haunt you. My relationship with my spiritual father back home has forever impacted my life. He taught me how to serve, he taught me how to deal with doubt, he taught me to love God in all that I do, and how to do it with honesty, integrity and practically.
During this time in particular – be obedient to your spiritual father. Theoretically you chose your trainer because you trust him. So trust him. During these years we often are more confident about ourselves than we ought to be. Your spiritual guide may see something that you do not, and even when explaining it to you, you are likely to argue during this age because you really feel like you have things figured out. This is normal, but you have to realise that you do not have everything figured out. Your guide needs to expose you to yourself, so do not be upset if you are prevented from doing something. Just make sure at the same time that you are honest and open and are able to express yourself in an articulate way, so that you do not have a fear that Abouna does not “get you” or “didn’t know what you meant” when seeking guidance.
Read a lot. This is the age where stuff goes into that head. This is the age where you will be challenged by other faiths (and non-faiths). You need to know yourself. So read.
Personally, I did not go to sleep without reading a Saint Story. I am not talking just about the Synaxarium, but real full lives of the saints. I devoured books – history, theology, patristics, spirituality and monastic books – you name it, during this period. You may not have the opportunity to do this later, so take advantage of it.
If you are super keen, and I hope you are, keep a journal. Write reflections on your day, your Bible readings and your spiritual readings. I still draw from these until this day.
Avoid intimate relationships until you can do something about it.
Yes, I’m talking about dating. If you pursue this at the wrong time, it will make you focus on the wrong thing. It will be like putting on a pair of glasses that are tainted with another colour and prevent you from seeing the world properly and as it really should look. When you cannot actually do something with your relationship, one of two things will happen: you will be very frustrated and discontent, or you will sin. Do not pretend that you are not human. You are a human. You have hormones. You have a sex drive. Be real. Do not open the door to sin willingly and intentionally like that, it means that you do not value holiness.
I do not worry about this only for sin, I worry about it because if your world is seen through the lens of the relationship, everything in your life will revolve around that: your emotions, your moods, your time, your decisions, your concentration, everything. At the right time of your life, this will not be such a bad thing. At the wrong time, this will be disastrous. I may blog about this one later, but please, seek serious guidance about going into a relationship at this age.
Anything that takes you away from your proper, positive goals, avoid. Even if it is not a wrong thing, avoid it. I was wasting so much time online one year, that I made a personal vow (with my Father of Confession’s blessings) to get rid of internet in my room for that whole academic year. I paid a classmate in my dorm some money to cover the cost of her ink and had her print my notes for me. My grades sky-rocketed and I had more free time than I knew what to do with that year. If you make the right (but hard) decisions, you find that there’s great reward in them. Find out what you do – even if it’s not a ‘bad’ thing, and knock it out. You’ll soar.
There are way more things I could say or elaborate on, but really, first and last is one thing: know who you are and who you want to be. Do you want to be in the image and likeness of Christ, or do you want to conform to every new idea around you? Do you want to be a Christian, or are you looking to just experiment with freedom and try new things? The latter can only work if it’s underneath the lens of being a Christian, it will not work if you do not have a desire to be a Christian and to put on Christ. Decide who you are, decide what are things that you are not going to do no matter what, decide the things that you will do no matter what, and pursue them without wavering and without compromise. Put the Lord before you and He will be with you in all that you do. Take Joseph as your guide, who in hardship, in pain and also in success, put the Lord before Him, and because God was with Him, Joseph was a successful man (Genesis 39:2).
May the Lord direct always your paths, and may always your heart be in tune to His direction.