Opportunities to practice your faith and grow spiritually are richly abundant on the Notre Dame campus, from dorm Masses to various prayer services offered at the Grotto. On any random day, a student can attend Mass, participate in a religious-based organization, and/or take a theology course.
For students studying abroad, however, these opportunities are not as easily found as they are on campus. Students in one of the smaller study abroad programs, College Year in Athens, are informed during orientation of the number of religious services celebrated throughout the city. Athens, a culturally rich city that prides itself on its ancient civilization and language, is also a major center of Orthodox Christianity.
After orientation and a couple of weeks into the program, I began to understand a little more about a faith tradition whose history and doctrine in many ways mirrors Roman Catholicism. The number of Orthodox Churches throughout the city date back to even before the Great Schism, which separated the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054. Religious expression permeates the landscape and resounds among the people. The calendar and food venues account for religious festivals and holidays.
Nevertheless, a majority of Greek Orthodox, particularly young people, are nominal members. Baptized and confirmed in the faith, they rarely attend service or outwardly practice their faith. However, like in other major Christian countries, older members predominantly attend Divine Liturgy (similar to Mass) and practice their faith.
My program, largely secular, is in many ways devoid of any trace of Orthodoxy. Like most public universities in the United States, College Year in Athens does not endorse or prohibit religious expression and/or identity. However, even despite this official declaration, the school’s calendar is organized around the major Greek Orthodox religious seasons and solemnities, like Lent and Easter. The school also offers a theology course titled, “The Greek Orthodox Church: Its History, Faith, Liturgy, and Spirituality”.
Many of the students in the program come from other faith traditions, which has allowed me to participate in ecumenical dialogue. Even if some of the students do not identify or affiliate with a faith tradition, their interest in learning about Roman Catholicism has been quite humbling. The first step in any conversation is a sincere interest in the particular topic. Likewise, the first step in the Christian life is a denial of self. It is when we realize that we do not know everything that we then begin to actually know something. This is accomplished through humility.
When I first arrived a couple months ago, I thought that I would be able to easily practice my faith like I have at Notre Dame. It was not long before I realized that other than Sunday Mass at the Cathedral, the opportunity to frequent different churches or even receive Holy Communion apart from Sunday was harder than ever. In addition, my usual friends from school were not there to accompany me each day of the week. Thus, faith had to be lived privately and in my daily conversations with other students.
However, I began to find God in a secular environment. Some staff members from the program shared their experiences as Orthodox Christians and comforted me as I tried to incorporate aspects of my faith in everyday life. For instance, most Orthodox Christians have religious icons in their home and/or office, which they revere much like Catholics do with, for example, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Usually depicting a holy figure, a moment in the life of Christ, or a saint, icons have special significance for an Orthodox Christian. Kissing and/or lighting a candle in front of an icon in church are typical actions of the lay faithful.
One particular challenge for the rest of the program is to continue to maintain that ecumenical dialogue and sharing of experiences in order to fully discover God in the midst of an environment that at first looked devoid of any religiosity or spirituality. God is found in places that we least expect, in the here and now.
Pope Francis was quoted a few years ago in America Magazine about seeking and finding God in all things: “The ‘concrete’ God, so to speak, is today. … Finding God in all things is not an ‘empirical eureka.’ A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God—this is the sign that you are on this right path.”
It is my prayer that I may take on a more contemplative attitude in my daily approach to people and situations in order to find God and consequently benefit spiritually from such an encounter.
Alex Slavsky is a junior majoring in theology and philosophy. He has visited a few major religious and historical sites in Greece, including Corinth and Thessalonica, and will be journeying as a pilgrim next month to the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.