No, this is not a report about Italian ice cream! “Sua Sponte” means “on its own initiative” or “started by itself”. That is the title for this brief report because it is aptly descriptive of a spontaneous event that grew to become something of greater significance and spiritual developmental impact in the lives of a small group of Orthodox youth and several “older” youth.
One Sunday, almost two years ago, after the Divine Liturgy on a Sunday when no luncheon had been prepared consistent with the usual practice. A group of eight young adults sat at a table in our Serbian Cultural Center talking about various subjects. All topics were related to Church matters. The tenor of the discussion was not deep theology or idle gossip but areas of spiritual inquiry and discussion. Protinica knew most of these people and sat in to listen and participate. After two hours of discussion, the group reluctantly broke up and went their separate ways. As they were departing there appeared to be a general consensus that the experience had been positive and a “wish” was expressed that this type of gathering could be repeated more frequently.
Protinica related the episode to Father and an idea blossomed that an informal dinner gathering be held weekly with the same group and others who might share their interests. The first dinner was in our home because of the informal and comfortable atmosphere. Dinner was prepared and the “group” began arriving around six P.M. They stayed and talked long. At the end they spontaneously decided to read the prayers of the evening on their own in our small “prayer” room which is arrayed with icons.
This gathering has now continued on a weekly basis for nearly two years and has come to be called the “20-40 Synaxis” (Gathering). We have been blessed to have His Grace Bishop Maxim visit with the group three times and he has also introduced other guests such as Abbot Metodije from Chilandar Monastery. Other visitors have included Abbot Damascene from St. Herman’s Monastery, Fr. Seraphim Aldea from a small Monastery in the Hebrides and, most recently, Sister Vassa. Our 20-40 Synaxis participants remember each of our honored guests with humility and joy. Their willingness to learn and their attitude is positively infectious. On a few occasions at the request of the group a priest was invited to lead a discussion or answer questions regarding special areas of interest. The first occasion was at the beginning of Great Lent when the group wanted to talk about confession. Three different Priests came at different times, spoke and answered questions. For the most part the group is mature enough and spiritually guided that Priestly presence and participation is sporadic.
The observations we have seen is that the mailing list of potential attendees has grown to over 100 but only about eight to fourteen attend weekly and more on special occasions. A report is sent to all “members” who have expressed a desire to be informed of what was discussed or occurred each week. Within the group there has grown an inter-personal spiritual connection and relationship that is quite positive and enduring. This group is the future of our Church and their personal bonds are an important asset. The group is not just limited to the Serbian Orthodox but includes persons from neighboring Orthodox Parishes as well and has resulted in an interconnectivity that is more than casual. For example, two of our group helped the OCA Church in a recent evening fund raiser. A member of the OCA Church and the ROCOR Church came to our Church to help clean and prepare for our Slava celebration last August. As an added note, during our Slava two-day celebration more than 20 of our group attended one or more of the services.
As the sponsors of this activity we also observe that a similar result could occur in a Church social hall as well as a Priest’s or Parish member’s home. It is important that the group be allowed to proceed with minimum guidance or direction, especially if they are intrinsically motivated to discuss matters that surpass simple social parlance. Naturally, there is always some of that to start but the evening progresses to matters of spiritual nature and concern. We have seen people change in a positive way to the reaction of peers.
The biggest surprise was when the group chose to accept Vladika Maxim’s suggestion to read the book produced from the Symposium on Maximus the Confessor. They decided to read a chapter each week and then use it as the focus of their evening discussion. Twenty three copies of the book were distributed to and read by interested members. Even though not everyone participated in a complete reading of the book, everyone freely participated in sharing ideas and struggling with concepts and understanding. This was a positive result based on a suggestion of our Bishop. The group has read and discussed “The Thunderbolt of Ever-Living Fire” by Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron, “Wounded by Love” by St. Porphya and this Lenten season they will be reading “Our Thoughts determine Our Lives” by Elder Thaddeus.
We have found that the group members bring topics of discussion to the evening meals; they send articles and information of a spiritual nature to each other by e-mail and they gather briefly after OCF on campus or vespers to go for coffee and just to talk.
We have been privileged to watch their discussion, disagreement and interaction as they grow in their faith and develop enduring Christian relationships. As they grow and continue to evolve it is a pleasure and a privilege to observe and participate in the future growth of our Orthodox faith. The weekly challenge of preparing an interesting meal and creating a friendly environment is worth the effort. We continue to thank God for presenting us with this “sua sponte” opportunity.
For any readers of this article who have an interest in learning more or perhaps starting your own group, please ask our Vladika Maxim to guide you to the information.