"She's religious. . . . She's not like us. . . . She's so strange." These are words that every young person dreads to hear. Rejection always makes it difficult, especially at our age, to behave as we should. However, if only we realize the truth of these words and strive to become better spiritually equipped, we will stand firm when hardship and demonic persecution strike us. The Orthodox Church, the sacred Body of Christ, is a people set apart for our Lord Jesus Christ and His work in this age. By God's grace, when we realize who we are, being called religious, different, or even strange will be complimentary to us, showing us that we are doing our job in the world as we should be.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (St. Matthew 5:10-12). Christ commands us to be different in a powerful way. To the world the words "religious teenager" are an oxymoron, but to the people of God they must be a reality. The love of God and His truth must be faithfully passed down and experienced from generation to generation.
To be different involves living differently. We are called to obey Christ and His Bride, the Church, within our lives, allowing them to heal our wretched souls and bodies to make us holy and acceptable to God. The first and most important thing is that we love Him. If the Gospel could be shortened to two words, they would be "Love God!" because He first loved us. We show our devotion to God through the love we have to our neighbor (1 John 4:7-11). This deep, impenetrable love must fill our hearts, minds and souls, taking a part in every aspect of our lives. Having created us, God sustains us and died for us, wants us to devote ourselves fully to him to voluntarily sacrifice our wills and whole selves unto Him. It is impossible to express how difficult it is to do this. We must struggle to bring our souls and our bodies into conformity with God's Law, and out of conformity with the world.
Our entire life is a fast in preparation for the Heavenly Feast at which we will dine in the life to come. Unsurprisingly, half of the year is made up of fasting days differing in strictness with feasts interspersed between. We live our lives in imitation of Christ's life and we fast because Christ fasted and instructed His Disciples to do so. By fasting we give up the physical world for the spiritual world of increased prayer and spiritual-mindedness. Fasting from food is symbolic of our struggle to fast from sin. Without fasting, there is no way to perfection. Yet, in fasting from the flesh, along with prayer and wearing our cross against our skin and on our hearts, we come closer to God in lawful obedience to Him.
The radio comes on in the morning and gives us the latest music; the television shows us the newest ways to talk, dress and act; the computer opens up whole new worlds of information and interaction for us. These forces make it increasingly difficult to act righteously without conformity with the world. They scream at us to give up our different ways, but we must not give in. And, though it is difficult, the Fathers tell us that if there were no struggles there would be no saints.
How do we succeed in being all that we can be as servants of God and righteous Orthodox Christians? Christ in our daily lives must be the eternal aim of all of our fasting, prayer and good deeds. We need examples in our lives in our age more than any other and spiritual fathers that we can go to. It is essential that every Christian be familiar with his priest and go to confession frequently for the health of his soul. Even coming to church early and lighting a candle before the Icon of the Theotokos to say a prayer of intercession to her can save our souls from troubles.
Some time ago in one of my classes I heard an Iranian Jew describe the difficulties she had in being different in her country and how she looked at it. She said that, to her, merely the thought of "eating pork is to become a Muslim" and reject everything she was made to live by and stand for. So should it be for us! She knew who she was and knew her spiritual obligations. We, as Orthodox, should be of the same mind, knowing that when we behave in an un-Christian manner by avoiding daily prayer, wearing our crosses or fasting, we are acting in conformity with the world and are no different than the heterodox who do not know God. Instead, we must strive like the saints and monks did in times past to be different and to struggle for holiness, for God has a special blessing on His people set apart for Him and His purposes.
"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."
David Guess is a parishioner of Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles (ROCOR), a history major at UCLA, and a political activist.