by Dr. Demetra Perlegas
My first days of graduate school at the University of Virginia included a visit to the activities fair in the Amphitheater. After some wandering amidst the crowd on this hot and humid late summer day, I encountered a table with an icon of the Theotokos, and was elated to see Orthodoxy’s presence on a modern-day, secular college campus. Sitting there at the Orthodox Christian Fellowship table was a charming and sincere undergraduate named Scott. He warmly welcomed me to my new University community and to the OCF. I would never have imagined that my new friend, the token Roman Catholic student who loved the OCF, would engage in a battle with leukemia five years later. Scott Matthew reposed in the Lord at the age of 23 as a victorious and courageous Orthodox Christian—with the Jesus prayer on his lips during his final hours. From that time, I have learned that every person who enters my life is truly placed there by God. My friendships in Christ that began in the OCF still continue to strengthen my Faith to this day.
I spent several years in a PhD program at UVA. During that long and arduous academic experience, I never thought I would see the light of graduation at the end of the tunnel. Looking back on that journey, it was absolutely vital for me to participate in the worship, educational, and social activities of the OCF and to regularly engage in the sacramental life of the Church. These consistent activities helped to deepen my friendships, cultivate my prayer life, and most importantly to preserve my Faith. As a group, the OCF endured many times of suffering together, such as deaths of friends and family members, the fatal shootings at our neighboring Virginia Tech, disappointments in relationships, and other daily challenges faced in university life. These difficult times eventually blossomed into blessings. From my experience in campus ministry I learned that living the true Christian life toward salvation happens only through relationships.
Christ gave us two essential commandments: “…thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength…and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.” (from the Gospel of Saint Mark 12:30-31) Through actively participating in the sacramental life of the Church, we enter into a relationship with God in tangible ways—we speak to Him through prayer, we make room for him in our hearts through fasting and confession, we serve Him by giving alms to those in physical and spiritual need, and we literally bring Him into our lives by receiving His precious Body and Blood. If we simply make the choice to enter into a relationship with Him in these ways, the grace of the Holy Spirit then helps us to truly love God with our entire being.
The concept of making a “choice” particularly resonates with college students because this is the time when they have the opportunity to make their own life decisions. To love Christ is to bring Him into your daily life. The way by which this happens is not by a superficial fulfillment of Church obligations, but through a continual labor of love. Christ says to us in the Gospel of Saint John 14:15, “If ye love Me, keep My commandments.” Following Christ’s commandments is an act of love for Him. At Scott Matthew’s funeral, this Gospel verse was read from Saint John 5:25, “…the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who have heeded it shall live.” This gives us great hope in the Resurrection, which is directly connected to living a life in Christ—if one heeds His voice by doing His commandments out of love, then that one will not die, but live eternally with Christ. Scott Matthew listened to the word of God and enacted it in his daily life out of love for Him. On that day, he did not die, but we trust that he passed on into the next life to peacefully expect the Resurrection of the dead and the life to come.
Christ also encourages us to love others. This implies the development of relationships. Because relationships require love, a decision to love a person must occur, not motivated by sentimental feelings on their own. These two commandments to love God and man are not mutually exclusive, but they are strongly intertwined with one another. When Christ speaks of love, He refers to “αγάπη” (agape), which means sacrificial love. It is the love that Christ the Bridegroom has voluntarily shown for His bride, humanity, by His labors of suffering, death, and rising from the dead. He loves us unconditionally, and so we are to strive to love Him and our neighbors in the same sacrificial way. Achieving perfect agape may not be humanly possible, but we can start by choosing to just DO it. The rest will come from God’s grace. Real examples of labors of love are found in the lives of the Saints. They purified themselves from sins, and we are able to do the same, through regular participation in Holy Confession and Holy Communion. They constantly glorified God by their lives, loved their neighbors and enemies by praying for them, giving them alms, and even laying down their lives for them and for God. Their labors of love helped them achieve their perfection in Christ. Although we may not be called to the types of martyrdom of the Saints, we are still presented with opportunities to die to ourselves, and to be transformed for our salvation by loving sacrificially within relationships.
Take the opportunity if you are in college or graduate school to cultivate your personal relationship with Christ by encountering Him in the sacramental life of the Church and in campus ministry efforts. Even if you are beyond your university days, strive to deepen your personal relationships and be willing to stand by your friends, family, and future spouse during times of both joy and suffering, and be confident that these labors of love and God’s grace will lead us all on the path of salvation.