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.
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.
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.
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)