Look to the Bright Light

by Father Peter Paproski

One of my earliest recollections in life is being taught to pray by my elderly Baba (grandmother) who lived in our home the last few years of her life. Every morning she would get up early and call my brother and myself to her side in our living room, where we would kneel and pray together. Telling us “this is how we pray in Church,” she patiently taught us the Lord’s Prayer and the prayer “Rejoice O Theotokos” in Church Slavonic. Every morning, for the good part of a year, we repeated this ritual until one day we no longer needed Baba’s help, and were able to recite these prayers from memory. Not long after that, Baba fell-asleep-in-the-Lord.

Baba's Prayers

Baba’s Prayers

At that time, I did not really comprehend the significance of what my grandmother had done. I appreciated that she had taught me some prayers, even though I didn’t really understand the words. It was not until much later in my spiritual journey that I truly grasped the full significance of what had taken place as I knelt, each day at the side of my grandmother.

After my grandmother passed away, we attended Church infrequently, in a large part because we were attending a parish where little English was used in the services. I remember at the time being terrified of the priest when he would preach very vociferously in an unfamiliar language. By the providence of God, someone suggested to my mother (who was a convert to the Orthodox faith) that we visit another Orthodox Church that was closer to our home, where the services were predominantly in English. When we entered that tiny church for the first time and felt truly welcome, we knew we had come home. My mother, who had embraced the faith about ten years previously, was like a sponge, soaking up all the knowledge of the faith that she could. Many times, she had me ask my Church School teachers questions that she was too embarrassed to ask herself.

As the years went on, we eventually returned to our home parish, where slowly things began to change. More English began to be used in Divine Services, and our awareness of the faith continued to grow under the leadership of an exemplary priest, Fr Basil Butchko, who taught us what joy in Christ is all about. He loved to pray the services. He was a patient and gentle spiritual father, and we learned much about the Orthodox Faith. He loved to have fun with his parishioners, always having an amusing story to tell. He taught us to embrace and enjoy life.  He was present at nearly all of our birthday parties, school concerts and plays, as well as our bedside when we were sick. In Father Basil we saw a living icon of Christ, and were inspired to love the Church, even when things were tough.

The era of the 1970’s and early 1980’s were transitional years in the Orthodox Church in North America. As more and more liturgical services and theological writings became available in the English language, there was a greater desire amongst young adults to pierce beyond the ethnic cloaks that overshadowed the faith. The tension between the old and new generations over language of services and the need to reach out to those outside of the household of faith, greatly discouraged the youth of my parish. This, coupled with a frequent change in pastoral leadership, led me to consider leaving the faith when I left home for my freshman year at the University of Connecticut.

The University of Connecticut

The University of Connecticut

Because I was so accustomed to attending Church every Sunday, I decided I would make one attempt to find an Orthodox Church to attend while at College. If it didn’t work out, I told myself, I would be off the hook. I made a call and found a very interested and supportive priest who made the necessary arrangements to get me to Church. While this Church was even smaller than my home parish, I felt immediately at home and humbled because an elderly couple went out of their way, literally 12 miles round trip, to pick me up and take me to Church. Another couple took me out to eat after Church, brought me back to school and gave me spending money to buy myself supper. At this little Church, where no one knew me, I had the chance for a fresh start. It was a real joy to take part for the very first time, in the Divine Liturgy served completely in English.

During my college years, I had the great blessing to meet two young Bishops, of blessed memory, who helped foster my vocation to the Holy Priesthood: Archbishop (then Bishop) Job (Osacky) and Metropolitan (then bishop) Nicholas (Smisko) who later ordained me to the Holy Priesthood These bishops, by their keen interest in the youth of the church and their hopeful and joy-filled vision of the Orthodox Faith, opened my eyes even further to the beauty and truth of the Orthodox Faith. They instilled a hunger within me to learn all I could about the Church. I went to college seeking to become an attorney and left seeking a seminary education.

The Late Archbishop Job teaching the people

The Late Archbishop Job teaching the people

Also during my college years, I struggled to learn what my vocation was. I was blessed to have the Lord send several young committed priests into my life who would be my spiritual fathers during these formative years. Looking back, I credit their guidance in keeping me in the faith. While so many my own age turned away from God, by the Grace of God, I drew closer. In those days, my greatest frustration was finding so few like minded Orthodox Christian contemporaries with which to find strength in my journey to Christ. Fired up about the Orthodox Faith, with the local Orthodox priest’s help, we held Vespers on campus and tried unsuccessfully to start an Orthodox Christian Fellowship. I have come to learn over the years that if we are patient and trust in God, many times the desires of our hearts are fulfilled. I am happy to say that today, more than twenty-five years after graduating from college, I have been able to see my dream fulfilled. There is now a beautiful Orthodox Chapel at my alma mater, and a very dynamic and spiritually mature Orthodox Christian Fellowship.

Looking back on my life, I realize that the reason I am still in the Church today is because of the strong, faith-filled people the Lord has placed in my life. Most especially, I look back and see how the strong faith of my pious grandmother left an indelible mark in heart and soul, and how she planted within me a desire to seek always the fruits of prayer, union with God. My mother, whose zeal for Orthodoxy and persistence in seeing to it that we attended Church every Sunday without fail, instilled within me zeal and spiritual discipline which are the keys to pushing through the roadblocks Satan places in our paths. My spiritual fathers and Bishops played a pivotal role in my spiritual formation. They served as living icons of the love and compassion of Jesus Christ, which assured me that all of my struggles and sacrifices in remaining faithful to the Church were never in vain. Finally, my friendships with committed Orthodox Christians my own age, helped me to stay the course.

To those who today are struggling with similar thoughts and temptations, I offer this very simple advice: look to those bright lights of the Church that are always around you for inspiration and guidance. Know that the Church, which is a spiritual hospital for sinners, loves and needs you and is always there to help. Make no mistake, there will always be difficulties. There will be people and priests and others who will disappoint you, but our Lord never will. Look beyond people and their human frailties, keep your eyes focused on our Lord and His beauty and holiness, and you will see the radiance of the Kingdom, which shines like a beacon of the True Faith. Then, it will not be a question of why you are still in the Church, but rather, thank God, I am a member of the Body of Christ, in which we “ live move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

4 Responses to Look to the Bright Light

  1. s.m. smoley says:

    the leaven (sp?) of the old. .. .my earliest memory of prayer is that of kneeling with my Baba at her bedside for the Lord’s prayer in slavonic. She was illiterate in her native Russian, and knew little English, and I thank God she lived with us during the first 10 years of my life.

  2. Valaam says:

    I knew Fr. Basil Butchko after he came to Detroit, and he was very loving. He was a man well versed in ethnic practices and Slavonic, but a man who served all people with love and kindness, as a true priest does.

    You spoke disparagingly at times about ethnic practices in your article. Perhaps you would be surprised if I told you that my Russian Orthodox heritage has kept me in the faith, and better emphasized it in my life, in addition to guiding me toward Holy Tradition instead of modern “innovations.” There is also a misconception that the young are leaving because of parish ethnicity. I happen to know from my personal experiences that the young are also leaving the English only, non-ethnic parishes. You would be surprised at how many have apostatized, who are from such parishes. If anything, an ethnic tie to Orthodoxy (if not the living out of Orthodox culture, as in my case) serves only to connect one with the faith. The problem we face deals with the education of children. Regardless of language, few know what’s actually going on during Liturgy.

    It is my sincere hope as a younger person who recently bore witness to the problems amongst Orthodox youth, that the young people be educated. They need to understand why we do what we do. If a parish serves in Slavonic or Greek, the young should be taught enough of the language to make those particular prayers intelligible. And regardless of whether it’s in English or any other language, the young people must be taught what the prayers actually mean, and what is being accomplished. But they must also be taught that Orthodoxy is not some scholastic exercise, or something we get from mere study, but is a spiritual way of life, which involves constant prayer and the celebration of the Sacraments.

    As for Fr. Basil: Vechnaya Pamyat!

    • Fr. Peter Paproski says:

      In response to the comment posted by Valaam, I would like to thank him or her for a thoughtful response.

      I agree in hindsight that one’s ethnic expression of Orthodoxy indeed can keep us grounded in the faith. My grandmother’s faith and her Ukrainian culture were authentically linked and expressed. To this day when I pray the Lord’s Prayer in Slavonici feel a close spiritual kinship to her.

      I wrote about my personal situation. As a young person I sat through services I did not understand, and was surrounded by many who treated their ethnicity as more important than the faith. I felt excluded. In reality what troubled me was not the ethnicity per say, but a lack of love and concerned interest in the youth. I felt invisible.

      There was no one more Ukrainian than my Grandfather, and yet he would tell others at Church meetings that while he preferred the services in his own native language, if it would keep our young people in Church he would be okay with using English in Church. Unfortunately few others shared his vision.

      Over the years I have experienced, paradoxically the same sense of being an outsider in all English parishes where there was little concern shown to others.

      What kept me in the Church was the bright light of Love, of those who cared enough to share their faith with me and to show me Christ- like love.

      • Valaam says:

        Thank you for your response, Fr. Peter.

        I’m sorry if I was a bit brash in my commentary, it’s a bad tendency I have and my sin to repent of. There are many who can relate to your experiences. It is important for us to share our experiences as you have, and indeed you have shed light on serious issues that have faced The Church in this land.

        I agree we should never put ethnicity above The Church, or above Christ. Instead, we should seek to let Him fill all things. This is the approach I have taken to ethnic connections in relation to my life.

        The task for Orthodoxy in America is to welcome all, and respect all. There are ethnic parishes (none that I know of in my experience) that have shunned outsiders or have alienated their youth. There are also English-only, non-ethnic parishes that contain reactionaries against ethnic Orthodox traditions in addition to converts who even scoff at local ethnic parishes. The key for us in America is to recognize that we are all Orthodox, we are all of the same Church, and that our young people matter now as Archbishop Job+, of blessed memory, taught.

        Those of us who have been blessed to be born into Orthodox families with an Orthodox culture, should consider this a treasure and a blessing that should ONLY serve the ends of Christ’s Church. We hold in our hands a thread of inheritance that few others are blessed with in this land. Are we going to use it for the Lord’s purposes or not? Are we going to give it up and try to “be more American?” Are we going to form ethnic ghettos?

        These are the choices, and I choose the first one. God bless you Father, and thank you again for your insights here on this blog.

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