The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON YOUTH IN

 THE ORTHODOX CHURCH

6th November 2008

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Today our subject will be on the Orthodox youth: on how they have changed from the youth of our times and even from our parent’s times. How do they fit in to today’s world: are they misunderstood by society, by parents and by the Church? And how do we protect them from influences we consider are harmful for them?
Much of today’s youth problems stem from where we live. Growing up in New York or London is not the same as growing up in Limassol. Cyprus is a small country where everyone is like one large family. If we are not connected by blood we are connected to each other because everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone etc. Even most of us here who were born and raised in other countries; we came to the country of our roots not only for economical reasons or to feel safe, but also because we have a feeling of belonging to this large family: we feel at home. But probably our strongest feeling of belonging to this large family is our attachment to the Church, which still plays an influential role on the majority of Cypriots and always has a voice on important issues that affect our lives. Our society, our religion, our culture and deep rooted traditions play an important role in moulding us into who we are. In multi racial and multi religious societies, like London, people are exposed to all kinds of dangers from drug abuse, rape, stabbings, muggings, burglaries, mad shooters and many other things that either force us to become tough, cold hearted and insensitive or just live in fear. There is no community life: most people don’t even know their neighbours, they go home and bolt the doors, shutting out the dangers of their evil world.

Thankfully in Cyprus, even though we are becoming a multi racial and multi religious country, we don’t have all the problems other countries have. Yes, we do have some drug abuse, the occasional rape and burglaries, but on such a small scale that we still feel safe to walk down the street without the fear that we might be mugged or even stabbed: we feel safe to leave our doors open and except for the fear of drugs, we feel safe to let our children go out at night with their friends. Thus to give a general talk on today’s youth that would cover youths worldwide would be impossible. Each society must see the problems facing youths within its own boundaries. The Church on the other hand has no boundaries, she is universal and her teachings apply to everyone whether in a small village in Cyprus or in one of the world’s big cities. In theory, Society and Church are one and the same, when both are striving for the same things, but in reality the goals of both are completely different. Society’s goal is to mould children into responsible law abiding adults capable of offering their services to better the world we live, to make as it were, this world a better paradise and to protect it at all costs with the emphasis on survival. The Church’s teaching is similar, but with the emphasis on salvation and the heavenly paradise.

Thus the Church’s teaching not only doesn’t have country boundaries, but it doesn’t have time barriers either. Her teaching is the same now as it was 300 years ago or a thousand years ago. This doesn’t mean that the Church has stood still in time. She grows and adapts to new things as they come into being. Her teaching remains the same, but her approach to worldly problems change. She allows herself what we call “Economy” or “Dispensation”. We saw use of this economy in our talk on confession a couple of weeks ago where we saw that the penances of old are rarely put into practice today. When it comes to teenagers or young adults her teaching was and always will be to warn that sex outside of Marriage is a sin. We mentioned in last week’s talk that there are only two ways of life that lead to salvation: Marriage and Celibacy. Marriage was instituted by God in the Garden of Eden where we are told: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24) Thus the sexual act where two people become one is sanctified only in the Sacrament of Marriage and any sexual activity outside of this is considered fornication.

True the world has changed over the past 50 years and the Church has not remained blind to these changes, but she cannot change teachings found in the Bible that would in effect spiritually harm her flock. But she does understand these changes and tries to adapt a more modern approach to the problems facing youths of today. But before we see the major problems of today, let’s see how people were introduced for marriage in a past Cypriot society.
It was not so long ago that the responsibility of finding a suitable spouse for one’s children fell entirely with the parents. In Cyprus people didn’t have the opportunity to meet someone other than at weddings or other social gatherings. Some girls and boys who had an attraction for each other did occasionally meet in secret, but this was not the normal and such girls, when caught, were often branded as easy or whores. On the whole, if a boy was interested in a girl, it was not for a quick roll in the hay, but with the sole intention of marriage. He would tell his parents who would then send a “Προξενητή” or literarily an ambassador or go-between who would tell the girls parents that the boy would like to marry their daughter. If the girl’s parents approved of the boy they would tell their daughter and if she agreed a meeting of both families took place. Sometimes the parents decided without asking the daughter; a little like the Indian arranged marriages where the parents marry their children against their will. This happened occasionally, but in general the daughter was asked for her opinion and if she felt she could not enter a marriage with someone then no more was said.

During the meeting of the two families the couple would see each other and maybe get the chance to have a chaperoned talk, but the main discussion would be between the parents who would promise what dowry they would give their children. If all was agreed, the Priest was called for who would write down the dowry in detail and witness the agreement. This dowry document was considered official and if any party backed down from any promise, it could be used in a court of law and was also a valid reason for divorce. I found a couple of the dowry books kept by the Church in my village parish. They contain all the engagements that took place in the village between the 1940s and 1960s. It makes interesting reading with detailed accounts of promised houses, money, fields and trees with details of all the adjoining neighbours. The official dowry documents have now been abolished and the Church has disconnected herself from such practices, but dowries are still promised to future couples even if this is only by word. With the dowry document completed the couple were as we say in Greek “Λογιασμένοι” in other words promised to each other by word. The next step was to become officially engaged to each other. The Priest again was called who during a simple ceremony placed the rings on the fingers. This was not the official church service for betrothal, but rather just a blessing to show that the couple were officially promised to each other. In the Orthodox Church the rings common in western weddings as uniting the couple in matrimony are placed on the fingers during this blessing and again during the official betrothal which takes place on the wedding day. The Wedding service we have is made up of two services: the Betrothal or the Service of the Rings and the Crowning which is the actual wedding service.

With the blessing of the Church, the couple were officially promised and a certificate of Betrothal was issued. To break the engagement meant that the couple had to apply to the Church to be officially dissolved from the engagement similar to a divorce. During the period of engagement the couple did not live together and were not expected to sleep together. It was a time to get to know each other, but nothing more. On one’s wedding day one was expected to be a virgin thus the joy of a honeymoon was to get to know each other intimately. Surprisingly there are still a great many weddings that take place today where the couple are introduced to each other with the intention of them leading to marriage. Such marriages are often very strong because they don’t begin with a false feeling of love, which in most cases is not love but lust or sexual attraction. Love comes later when the couple learn to live with each other and have the same goal in raising a family. But the majority of today’s youth want to experiment, to try different partners to see if they are sexually compatible, whatever that might mean.

In just a short period of time we have seen such a drastic change in people’s attitudes to various moral issues that we often hear ourselves saying “What is the world coming to”. But whatever the world has become we cannot blame our children, they have inherited a behaviour that is a result of our own doing. How? We grew up in the swinging 60s and 70s. These two decades were responsible for people turning away from the Church and God. This was an age of science where everything was questioned even the existence of God. With the introduction of the Pill we saw a sexual liberation especially in women who, up until then, felt imprisoned by their fear of pregnancy. New technology made our lives easier and comfortable. And when we saw man go to the moon and back there was nothing we felt we couldn’t do. Who needed God? We put him aside and even changed his name. How many of us during those years used to say, like everyone of that time, that we didn’t believe in God, but we were sure that there was a superior power that arranged the order of things in the universe. I remember myself at the age of twelve after a religious education lesson at school, it was the last lesson of the day, and outside the school gates some classmates and I had asked each other if we believed in God. I did believe but was too embarrassed to confess it openly. In those days only cissies believed in God. Thus I covered up my faith and said that I believe in some supernatural power, whether it is called God or not I couldn’t say. I felt such guilt that for the 20 minutes it took me to walk home I cried continuously arguing with God saying “ What was I suppose to say, would you rather that they made fun at me, did you want them to humiliate me, and other such things. I was only twelve, but to this day I consider it as my greatest sin, because I denied God before my fellow men. Whenever I read the passage where Christ said “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33) I remember my hour of weakness and place my hope in the fact that I have confessed it before God and my Spiritual Father.
The 60s was an age where man broke free from the strict moral rules of the Church and people searched to find answers for the meaning of life beyond the teaching of the Bible often attaching themselves to other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. Narcotics like marijuana and LSD, opium and heroin became popular among the young, helping them to let go of their inhibitions and to escape into a new world of hallucinations. This was the age that we grew up in: an age much more promiscuous and rebellious compared to today’s standards. If we feel today that the world has reached immoral levels then we should blame ourselves and not our children who have only inherited a mixed up world we prepared for them. Any nonconforming and rebellious behaviour is a cry for understanding. If our parents understood this back in the 60s and 70s then maybe some of the moral issues we have today would have been cured, but teenage psychology was still young at the time: people only saw the outward behaviour without searching for the reasons. Teenagers looked to their elders for answers only to be offered double standards. They were told that drug abuse is a terrible sin, yet their parents indulged in alcoholism every night and approved it as an acceptable vice. They would tell their children not to smoke because it is bad for your health, yet they would smoke two to three packets a day.
Probably one of the main reasons for this new rebellious behaviour was education. More and more people were becoming highly educated than in previous generations. Education broadened the mind and with it brought forth questions concerning the whole meaning of life. What was missing was spiritual education which would have put balance into people’s lives, but sadly this was and is missing from western churches and at the time the Orthodox Church was not in a position to offer her spirituality beyond the boundaries of her own people. Thus people searched elsewhere to fill this void which desperately needed to be filled and many found it in religions like Buddhism and Hinduism and the Hari Krishna movement. Others who didn’t recognise that spiritually was the answer find it in the escapist world of drugs. This spiritual need was recognized by certain groups like the Pentecostal movement and other “Charismatic” churches and also the Jehovah’s Witnesses who increased their activities in the major cities of the world. They succeeded in recruiting many into their folds because the time was ripe for the picking.

But all this belonged to the 60s and 70s: things have mellowed since then, or seem to have, because we have accepted many of the changes as being natural to our present day. Those were the beginnings of a new world especially in the west, but how did Cyprus as a secluded Orthodox country cope with the world changes? In truth, Cyprus didn’t see the rebellious behaviour of the west. Certainly some of the changes affected her youth, but not to any alarming scale. Drugs at the time were not a problem, and family life and elders were still respected. Education was just as important to the Cypriot as to his western counterpart, but the difference was that the Cypriot still had, to a certain extent, a spiritual life. Certainly, like the rest of the world at the time, Cypriots also questioned the existence of God and many offered the same answer that they believe in some supernatural power that governs the universe, but deep down there was still a faith in the Church, which had been an influence on them all their lives. Thus the Church and the close knit family values protected the Cypriot youth from western influences.

But Cyprus didn’t escape totally unscathed. Promiscuity among the young was changing the way people found their partner. They didn’t want to wait until their parents found them a suitable husband or wife. They were just as capable as the westerner in finding a partner for themselves. And I stress the word partner because even up to the 80s and 90s, most Cypriot dated with the intention of finding a partner for marriage: casual sex was not on the agenda. One major change we saw in Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish invasion was in how engaged couples saw the period of engagement: whereas before it was only a time to get to know each other without sexual expectations, now it was considered a time to gain sexual experience. This was practiced in some areas of Cyprus even before the invasion, but in Limassol at least this was not normal practice. People did not live together until they were married. The people of Limassol believe that this influence was introduced into their lives by the northern refugees who made Limassol their home after the invasion. Today as soon as the couple become engaged it is expected that the young lad must move in with his in-laws and into his fiancé’s bedroom until such time they can make a home for themselves. I think of it as a Cypriot adaptation of the western idea of living together. To live together without any commitment would not be acceptable in Cypriot society. Parents of Cypriot girls know that they cannot chain their daughters to keep them pure and virginal until their wedding day so they have opted for what they consider the next best thing which is to make room in their house for the couple to fornicate with their blessing. The Church responded by reminding her flock that sex before marriage is fornication, but she was powerless to stop what has now become a custom. Some spiritual fathers responded by telling parents that if they allow such practices within their home then they are more to blame than their children and therefore were not entitled to have Holy Communion. But this was not just; parents were forced into accepting the changes in society so that their children would not practise casual sex without a future commitment.

This I think the Church has come to understand and although she still calls sin by its name, she also realises that, in most cases, the couple will one day be married so turns a blind eye. But this doesn’t mean that the Church gives her blessing for premarital sex. The Church, at least in Cyprus, no longer takes part in the engagement ceremony. When couples become officially engaged, the priest is no longer there to put the rings on their fingers and receive his blessing. The Church was forced into this action because people actually believed that the Church gave her blessing at the engagement for them to live as a married couple. She has now completely cut herself off from what was once a pastoral benefit for the people to protect herself and the teaching of the Bible.
But let’s bring ourselves up to the present day. In the last few years we see that teenagers are dating “without strings” from a much younger age than before. This is probably a result of modern parents not wanting to put restrictions on their children the same way they had. Parents nowadays believe that they are much more broadminded that their own parents were and reflect this by allowing a certain amount of freedom on their children. In this sense we have become westernized with girls openly bringing their boyfriends home and vice versa. The idea that by giving them the freedom to have open relationships shows that we trust them to behave accordingly doesn’t always work. There is no such thing as just holding hands or innocent kisses. Sooner or later they will move into new areas that they will not be able to control. As a spiritual father at a high school I see this fairly regularly with girls at fifteen and sixteen confessing that they secretly had an abortion.

Cypriot teenagers are having sex at a much younger age, but at the same time, they still hold on to certain values that have been lost in other societies. We see that they are more interested in spiritual matters than were their parents. Many fast during the fasting periods and have even taught their parents to fast. When I was growing up boys did not go to church, it was embarrassing to be seen there and it was only for girls and cissies, if fact none of my friends attended church and I have no recollection of ever going to church except for a wedding or baptism until I went for the first time when I was 26 years old. In this respect, youngsters today no longer feel embarrassed to show their belief in God and we have seen an increase in their attendance of church services. A great many come to confession and seek spiritual assistance even when their own parents are not regular church goers. The church hasn’t been idle to their spiritual needs. She has opened youth centres where young people can get together under the churches supervision and free from drugs. She has renovated the camping retreats where many youngsters get a chance to have a holiday with their friends, but more importantly where they also get a taste for the spiritual life with daily services and young priests willing to talk with them and answer the many questions they might have on the faith or just talk about their problems. Under such conditions even the most rebellious boy mellows and fits in with the rest of the group.
I have painted a Cyprus that sounds almost holy compared to other societies, and while this is true, it does not mean that we don’t have our own share of problems. There are many youths that have drug problems, antisocial and other attitude problems. Although these problems are not wide scale they are still worrying because they are a product of our society. There is an increase of drug use among the young, but this is in most cases marijuana. The mass media has many times over exaggerated the problem by highlighting a small marijuana plant found in someone’s flat as a big stash of drugs intended to be sold to our youth. I do not want to play down the problem, but coming from a country where everyone smoked the odd joint now and then, I do not fear it as most Cypriot parents do. Most of my friends smoked hash, but grew out of it when they settled down. I think also with our Cypriot youth that they will try marijuana at least once out of curiosity and then let it go. It is part of growing up. It only becomes a problem when they need to have a daily dose.

Hard drugs like heroin are a different category and the majority of our youngsters stay clear of them altogether. There are many that are addicted to heroin, but these are usually people who had other problems in their lives which forced them into contact with the drug. Most young people who have drug problems or antisocial problems usually do not have a stable home life. Often the parents are divorced or the parents have so many problems of their own that they have no time for their child. Sometimes the parents are themselves drug users or alcoholics. At other times young people are victims of child bashing and sexual abuse. There are many reasons for a child’s behaviour which, as said in the beginning, much of today’s youth problems stem from where we live and how we live. If our country or town has problems then we will also have problems and if our home has problems these will reflect in our character. Thus we do not deny that there are problems, but if we were to see the ratio per one hundred people, then the percentage is so small that it cannot be used to represent the Cypriot youth on the whole.
In general I feel proud of our young generation because they still have an attitude of respect for their elders and their peers, for the Church and their Priests. They are sensitive to others less fortunate than themselves and show their sensitivity every year by helping to raise money during the annual Radiomarathon, by visiting the elderly and handicapped in homes and other such activities which they do by free choice. Let us not also forget that we parents place a lot of pressure on our children and expect them to fulfil all our dreams we have for them. We nag and nag about their education expecting them all to go to university and have high paying cushy jobs. Respectable skills like carpentry, plumbing and building are no longer good enough for our children. We expect such high standards that many times they cannot cope with the demands we place on them. Cyprus has become a nation of over educated people with not enough jobs to place them in. Let us not over pressure them into things beyond their capabilities. Not everyone can become a doctor, a lawyer or a politician. Let us see in our children their own special skills and help them to develop them. For some it is an intellectual skill, for others a manual skill. But whatever our child follows let us from early on counterbalance this with spiritual food that is just as important to mould stable and law abiding characters.

I do not say this just because I am a priest, there is proof that when spirituality is offered as a cure for problem children there is often a very high success rate. In Cyprus we had no proper drug rehabilitation centre: if someone wanted to dry out, they were and still are admitted into the General Hospital’s psychiatric ward. In most cases they return to their addiction because there is no way to control the drug pushers from reaching them before they can stay clean for a considerable time; they even find their way into the psychiatric wards. Our Bishop, when he was still the Abbot of Machera, saw that there was a great need for a proper drug rehabilitation centre where drug addicts not only had treatment, but also received spiritual assistance and long term support. He founded the “Agia Skepi Community” a rehabilitation centre which is unique in its kind. It has strict requirements for entry and has a programme of one year closed observation and 6 months of reintroduction to community life: visitors are not allowed in the early stages and all patients must live and work according to the rules of the community. The Centre doesn’t only give support to the drug addict, helping them return to normal social life, but also gives support to the family who in most cases fall victims to the consequences that follow drug addiction. The centre has now been running for more than ten years and boasts a 90% success rate.

This is more than enough proof that today’s problems stem from spiritual starvation and when spiritual food is introduced into the system, the problem is cured. Thus in everything we do spirituality must also be there to balance out the harmful effects of modern life. As parents who want the best for our children and constantly worry about their bodily health problems we should, if we love them as we say we do, worry equally about their spiritual state of health.