The Antiochian House of Studies (AHOS) is a correspondence certification and graduate degree institution that has a very demanding reading and writing program for its students. The professors are authorities in Byzantine liturgics, canon law, Eastern Church history, and other subjects. Although the school was established as a ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox under Metropolitan PHILIP to prepare men for the ordained clergy offices, the school is open to every Christian (and non-Christian, I suppose) who wants a working knowledge of our faith. One can earn a Certificate in Applied Orthodox Theology (the three-year St. Stephen’s Program), Master of Divinity through the St. John of Damascus Seminary of Balamand University in Lebanon, and qualified students can earn a D. Min in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh. For an institution of higher learning without an actual campus and doesn’t require a student to leave his or her home and life to study, AHOS has a good deal of academic clout and respect.
Even though we don’t have a traditional campus, each student must complete a week of residency for each year enrolled in the St. Stephen’s Program. The residency is held at the Antiochian Village Retreat Center near Ligoner PA (an hour or so outside of Pittsburgh). My friend and fellow church member at St. Basil, Chris, gave me a heads up of what to experience. There would be little time for “R&R.” Almost every moment will be spent in either classes or worship. The food will be plentiful and delicious. But, from 8 am to 10 pm, I would be constantly in class or worship.
For the most part, Chris was absolutely right. And I enjoyed meeting some of the teachers that I had known only through the red ink they put on my essays (Fr. Najim). Class was often lively with discussion and points that we normally wouldn’t consider. For example, I dreaded the very thought of Cannon Law (I am a former Baptist. Religious legalism smacked of either Judaizing or Catholicism). Fr. Viscuso did a great job in explaining how Canon Law is not a weapon we use to beat one another over the head with. It is a ministry used to direct the church to its best and most ideal expression. Even though we were all tired around 9 pm, all of us in the Byzantine Liturgical Practice class carefully listened to the 45 years of wisdom coming from Fr. Shalhoub. I had no problem making it to Orthros (morning prayers) at 8 since I start mine at home at 6. Vespers before dinner was a wonderful service to attend with a daily sermon as well. We only had Compline (bedtime prayers) one night, led by the Slavonic students. It was actually very beautiful and has encouraged me to try to keep some form of it (again) as a part of my personal prayer rule.
The one thing that I wasn’t told about was how unique of a fellowship the AHOS is and the spirit of brotherhood that exist among us students. I did meet some of my classmates through Facebook before I knew we would be in class together. But, we all did more than just get along. We all came together for the common purpose of study and the worship of God. The variety of backgrounds we all have is mind-boggling. Some of us are “cradles” who grew up in the Antiochian or some other jurisdiction of Orthodoxy. Some of us are of Oriental Orthodox Churches. Some of us are from the Middle East and other nations. Some of us aren’t even Orthodox, but Anglican and Evangelical. No matter where we came from, we came to see the beauty and truth of the Church of Antioch where the believers were first called ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26). From this city, Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were set aside by the Holy Spirit to spread the Gospel to various parts of the world (Acts 13:1-3). The Spirit still moves us to share the Good News and grow in the grace of God.
Spending a week at “The House” was a fantastic way to cap off a year of reading books and writing essays. It was great hearing my classmates chant in our worship services (I hear myself at church and that ain’t nothing to sing about), make like minded friends from all over the country and world, be in the presence of the saints and our church leaders. If my bank account could stand my not working, I’d want to spend another week. I have my reading list and will secure the rest of the books I need for the year. I probably won’t sit there and count down the days until August ‘whatever’ 2017. But knowing what sort of week awaits me at the end of Units 3 & 4 will inspire me to get my work done and done well.