This week was a trip back in time for me. Since graduating college in 1998, it's been 17 years since I’ve lived as a student – going to classes, sleeping in a dorm, and best of all, eating cafeteria food for an entire week!
But that’s what this week was for me. I spent the week at the Antiochian Village in rural western Pennsylvania as part of a seminary program through the Antiochian House of Studies. The program is mainly a distance study, but does involve one week of residency every year.
So for the past five days, it was like 1998 once again.
- Classes all day – from 9:30 am – 10:00 pm, with no more than an hour break at any point in time.
- Sharing a dorm room with two other guys – but thankfully we at least had the luxury of having them give us fresh towels and clean the bathroom daily. If not, I don’t think we would have survived.
- And best/worst of all… my true weakness in life… CAFETERIA FOOD! As much as I love such fine delicacies as bacon cheeseburgers and “seafood mac and cheese” (don’t knock it till you try it), I think I’m ready to go back to a slightly healthier way of eating.
But beyond the return to student life, there were some really positive takeaways from this week for me. I didn’t know what it would be like to be at an Orthodox seminary. Would everything be scholarly and academic? Or would the theory be coupled with application? Would I even understand what these renowned theologians and instructors were teaching? Or would I appear more like Homer Simpson when he tried to go back to school?
I didn’t know what to expect. But as I prepare for my final day of classes, I wanted to share some of the takeaways from this week and what I am walking away.
1) The UNITY of Orthodox Christians in America
Even though we aren’t officially there yet (the Coptic church is still not in full communion with the Eastern Orthodox churches), there was a tremendous sense of love and unity that we felt.
We were a group of 7 Coptic students among roughly 200 Eastern Orthodox students and faculty (Antiochian, Greek, Russian, OCA, etc.). Yet we never felt out of place. We never felt unwelcome. We never felt like outsiders. In fact, it was quite the opposite. We were all really touched by the overwhelming sese of love and acceptance we felt.
During the final night, there was a gala dinner attended by all the students, all the faculty and even by His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph, the head of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America (aka, he's a big deal!).
They asked us to perform some Coptic hymns as part of the program. We gladly obliged and it was a tremendous honor for us to be able to share our Coptic heritage not only with the students and faculty, but also with the honorable Metropolitan Joseph.
So we thank God for the love we felt and the sense of unity we experienced.
2) The SPIRITUALITY of Orthodox Christians in America
I’ll be honest, I had my doubts coming into this program. I was worried there would be lots of theory and no application… lots of book knowledge, but no pastoral concern. I was afraid that we’d learn information devoid of spirituality.
But I'm happy to report that that was not the case at all!
Of course, there was a lot of emphasis on knowledge; it’s a seminary, so that’s obviously an essential part of why we’re all here. But knowledge is not a bad thing (see Hosea 4:6 if you don’t believe me). Knowledge isn’t bad; it’s knowledge without application that is dangerous.
But thankfully, that wasn’t the case here. We were reminded several times that this is not a theology program, but an “APPLIED THEOLOGY” program. We were given classes on Church History and Canon Law, but we had just as many classes on Pastoral Care and Evangelism. In fact, the one phrase that we heard repeated over and over came from His Grace Bishop Thomas who told us that “Church is a hospital for the sick and the sinners.”
3) The FUTURE of Orthodox Christians in America
If you ask me, the future is bright for Orthodox Christianity in America. Our faith is so deep and so rich and the more I learn about it, the more excited I get to share it with everyone I know. It is EXACTLY what we all need.
Fr. Michael Keiser, said it best (this is my paraphrase):
“Being an Orthodox Christian is all about taking the living experience that Apostles had with Jesus – that has been passed down from generation to generation – and then experiencing it again in my own time and culture.”
That is exactly what the world needs – to experience Jesus in our own time and culture – and that is exactly what we got! THAT'S WHY I'M PUMPED!