Summer Study Days are at the heart of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies activities. The Institute, which also offers university degree programs in Eastern Christian Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, cherishes its summer program tradition which began in the Holy Transfiguration (Mount Tabor) Monastery in Redwood Valley, California in 1986. The idea behind the Study Days program is to help form members of the church and members of the society through the Eastern Christian tradition.
The theme of this year’s Study Days, held on June 23-25 in Toronto, was The Art(s) of Prayer. As Assistant Professor Rev. Dr. Andrew Summerson told NP-UN: “The idea was to expose people to the Beauty that is at the centre of the Eastern Christian experience, and to awaken their eyes to the Beautiful One which is how we come to know God in a more intimate way”. The theme of this year’s Study Days came from the survey that the Institute had among its followers, explained Fr. Summerson.
The Study Days made different options available to talk about prayer, in particular, prayer with the help of music, the role of the liturgy, the role of private prayer and the Jesus Prayer, the role of icons and iconography in the prayer.
One of the keynote presenters at this year’s Study Days, Fr. David Anderson of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Chicago and the Wyoming Catholic College, spoke about the transforming power of a liturgically centered life. His keynote address was about the centrality of worship that, as Fr. Anderson explained, is at the centre of the Eastern Christian spirituality, and is not one of many activities, but actually is the Church, being herself: “In worship, the Church is expressing who or what the Church is in relationship to God and why we are created by God,” he said.
Fr. Anderson also deliberated on what he called ‘the prison of time’. He explained: “We think that time is something that is ours to use the way we want, as a fuel to be burnt up to exercise our control over our lives. The journey to union with God is to be set free from that as the actual experience of life, to learn how to be again.”
The other keynote speaker, Fr. Michael Bombak, a graduate of the Shepytysky Institute and the pastor of St. Stephen Protomartyr Ukrainian Catholic parish in Calgary, Alberta, had the presentation The Name above all names: Living the Jesus Prayer in the Modern World.
The presentation focused on praying the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) in the modern world. His presentation meant to inform people of what the Jesus Prayer is, and then encourage them to pray the Jesus Prayer, at home or in church. Fr. Bombak explained some of the difficulties people might experience with praying the Jesus Prayer and how to overcome those.
He also spoke about the origins of the Jesus Prayer that is an ancient Christian prayer that came out of the monastic tradition in the desert. The prayer has gradually developed over time in an organic fashion. It is what is called an arrow prayer, a short prayer that we say over and over again, and the central part of which is the name of Jesus.
The presentation Listening to Music as Prayer by Nathan Williams and Nicole Richard Williams signified the comprehensive approach to prayer offered during the Study Days. “Just as icons give us a visual aid to lead us to prayer, music can give us an auditory aid to guide us to prayer,” explained Nicole who is a music therapist by profession and the Sheptytsky Institute graduate. “We can choose which types of music can help us with our own personal prayer outside of the liturgy, it could be any music that draws our heart towards awareness of our own selves, of our neighbors that can enter into prayer, and also awareness of God. Music helps to overcome anxiety and refocus on the prayer,” she said.