Our Youth and Their Vocation: Holy Decisions at the CrossRoad of Life
Dr. Ann Bezzerides, Dn. Nicholas Belcher, and Mary Long
CrossRoad Directors 2004-2009
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In the Office of Vocation & Ministry at Hellenic College we have the exceptional privilege of exploring the topic of vocation with high school juniors and seniors, and college youth (ages 16 to 22). While this age can be trying for parents, it invigorates us, and we regard it as the prime time for professional and spiritual formation. In their classrooms, locker rooms, and dorm rooms, at their parties, at home, and in church, young people are developing their own intellectual and moral commitments and making important decisions, ranging from the choice of a career to the acceptance of a guiding faith.
And Their Vocation
We define vocation as "a unique and ongoing response to Christ's call to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the neighbor as oneself." This uniquely Orthodox Christian definition underscores the primary importance of a guiding faith and secondarily reflects upon a career path.
Such a definition allows youth to integrate the big, mysterious question that often stumps them, "What will you be when you grow up?" into the more core vocational question, "Who are you?"-and more incisively, "Who are you now?"
As youth workers and educators, we FIRST ask young people to reflect upon their unique and ongoing response to Jesus Christ's call to the two greatest commandments (Matt 22:38-39), and SECOND to consider what their future jobs might be.
Are we out of touch with our young people to wrestle with vocation in this manner? We don't think so. But we do realize that we've got a lot of work to do in order to make this definition mean something to them. They must believe that Christ is the Son of the living God, and that He calls them, personally, from sin to love of God and the neighbor. For Orthodox youth (and for all of us), responding to Christ's call involves all aspects of life. Our vocation is not our occupation, but rather who we are right now at every moment and in every place.
The decisions our youth make now-what to believe, how to spend time, how to behave-form them in their vocation. Yet for young people, decision-making is challenging for a number reasons. Developmentally, their social and emotional growth advances more rapidly than their cognitive abilities; this means that teenage minds are not able to reason through decisions as adult minds do. Today's complex world exacerbates this developmental gap: adolescents must juggle an overwhelming number of options when making even simple decisions (what to eat, which shampoo to use, what shirt to wear). Simultaneously, they must navigate constant input from TV, Internet, phone, texting, etc. This bombardment makes integrated decisions more difficult. The difficulty is further compounded by the often highly pressurized social situations in which adolescents make decisions. (For further reading see Resources 1, 2, and 3)
So when we talk about holy decisions, we have to ask, what makes a decision "holy"? Isn't holiness reserved for saints? Holiness certainly seems far removed from the college dorm room. But it doesn't have to be. As our definition of vocation suggests, holy decisions are those made out of love for God and neighbor. Love, therefore, is the criterion for whether or not decisions can be called "holy." As St. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 13, without love, "I am nothing" and "I gain nothing" - even if I speak in tongues, have faith to move a mountain, or am martyred.
American Culture and Decision-Making
Our American culture is an extremely challenging environment in which to make holy decisions. Today's youth are inundated with counter-Christian criteria for decision-making. Love for Christ and the neighbor is not among these criteria. Our research of contemporary youth culture highlights two in particular:
Culture of competition - the need for good-test scores, resume building, the stress of getting into a good college, finding the right major, etc. (See Resources 1 and 2)
Culture of self-focus - educational and parenting models have moved from balanced discipline to ultra positivity. A goal is to "catch them doing well." This has in turn created "praise addiction." Today's commandments are "Live your dreams," "Do what you love," etc. (See Resources 1 and 3)
The world of our youth gives them these criteria for decision-making: pursue those things that are (a) going to make them successful, and (b) going to make them happy in the eyes of the world. But this is remarkably egocentric: "I need to become the best I can be at the most prestigious job that I happen to really love in order to buy all the stuff that I think will make me the most happy."
Unfortunately, some churches have taken our culture's obsession with materialism, lifestyle, and selfishness and turned it into a gospel of prosperity - where God exists to "make you a better you" or "get your best life now." As products of the same culture, we Orthodox fall into the same trap: "Kids, you can live like everybody else during the week; just make sure you go to church on Sunday and kiss the icons and make your cross."
What This Means for Parents
How do we help our children make holy decisions in a culture that challenges an Orthodox view of vocation? From their childhood, we strive to raise them to know that their ultimate purpose is found in Christ, and that they will be fulfilled only when "seeking first the Kingdom" (Matt 6:33). This message should be reinforced through small daily decisions (making it a habit to pray daily, read the Bible, and worship in church as a family), as well as through overarching parenting and family issues (preserving family time, deciding how money is spent, etc.). But even if we have made faith formation a priority when our children are young, challenges come in the teenage years, when they strive for independence and assert their own wills. The following points on parenting youth and young adults come largely from the wisdom of Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean and Professor Emeritus of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. (Resource 5)
Parenting for Vocation
1. Live our own Christian vocation, modeling holy decision-making. As parents (and youth workers!), we must have the courage to tell our youth that sacrificial, Christ-like love is the criterion for their decisions. Our words will be meaningful in the ears of our youth only if we ourselves are striving to make decisions that have Christ's sacrificial love as their criterion.
2. Expect that this will be a struggle, even/especially as we parent our children. The spiritual journey by its very nature includes struggles and challenges, and our own weaknesses as parents are often magnified as we try to parent our children well.
3. Recognize and come to terms with how our own parents shaped us-in both positive and negative ways. Understanding this can both bring healing to the family and help us avoid repeating dysfunctional patterns with our children.
4. Regarding the spiritual life of teenagers and young adults: when children reach this age, the parents' role is to be there to respond if they have questions, concerns, etc. Blessed are the parents whose teenagers and young adults come to them to talk about matters of faith! More often than not, our own children will not come to us; they will seek wisdom from others. So our role is to hope and pray and guide them to find other adults who can serve as spiritual mentors. For unless our teenagers come to us with questions of their own will, the best parents can do is # 1: Live our Christian vocation.
5. Know that our children's knowledge of their faith must grow if it is to meet their emotional, spiritual and psychological needs and hold weight as they make their life decisions. This means that at some point "Sunday school" answers will not have enough depth to satisfy the growing intellectual and spiritual capacities of adolescents. When they do ask us faith-related questions, we must acknowledge their good, tough questions and be willing to explore the rich resources of our Orthodox tradition for good answers. Have resources on hand (books, people, and practices) that will fill the spiritual needs of your growing child. Here we must be willing to learn along with our teenagers (take a class at church, sign up for Bible study, and/or read together good theological books). Visits to monasteries and service projects are also formational for expanding experiences, questions, and knowledge about the faith.
In conclusion, our work with young people suggests that they are thirsting for something deeper than what the world can offer, for a challenge that they will rise to meet, for a love that is Christ-like, pointing upward toward God and outward toward the neighbor. All these desires lead to our ultimate purpose-as parents and children-of being made by God for life in Him. Although there are many challenges to teaching and living this, both in our families and in our society, for the sake of our youth, we must persevere in living our vocation here and now, thus inviting our children to do the same.
Youth Culture Resources
1. Twenge, Jean. Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable than Ever Before. New York: Free Press, 2006.
2. Clark, Chap. Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.
3. Levine, Madeline. The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
4. Smith, Christian with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2005.
Orthodoxy and Vocation Resources
5. Hopko, Thomas, "The Vocation of Parenting." Vocation & Parenting Audio Resource and Companion Materials. Brookline, MA: Office of Vocation & Ministry, 2007.
6. Bezzerides, Ann, ed. Christ at Work: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Vocation. Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006.
7. Mills, William, C. "Our Common Calling to Holiness and Sanctity." Doing More with Life: Connecting Christian Higher Education to a Call to Service. Ed. Michael R. Miller. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007.
8. Schmemann, Alexander. Liturgy and Life: Lectures and Essays on Christian Development Through Liturgical Experience. New York: Department of Religious Education, Orthodox Church in America, 1993.
9. Bezzerides, Ann, "Eastern Orthodoxy and Christian Vocation." Gordon College Chapel convocation, November 7, 2007, http://www.hchc.edu/hellenic/campus_life/vocation/news/news/Gordon2007.html.
10. Hopko, Thomas. "Finding One's Calling in Life." St. Vladimir's Seminary, 1997. http://www.svots.edu/Events/Orthodox-Education-Day/Articles/1996-Fr-Thomas-Hopko.html
About the Authors
Dr. Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides, Director of the Office of Vocation & Ministry (OVM) at Hellenic College and first CrossRoad Director (04-05), is a graduate of Middlebury College (B.A.), St. Vladimir's Seminary (M.Div.), and Boston College (Ph.D.). Dn. Nicholas Belcher, Dean of Students at Hellenic College/Holy Cross, former Assistant Director of the OVM and CrossRoad Director (06-08) is a graduate of the Citadel (B.A.) and St. Vladimir's Seminary (M.Div.). Mary Long, Assistant Director of the OVM and current CrossRoad Director, is a graduate of the University of Texas-Austin (B.A.) and Holy Cross (M.Div.).