College Conference East: What Didn’t Happen

College Conference East: What Didn’t Happen

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Fr. Tim leads a workshop on Orthodox apologetics

Okay, so if you didn’t come to College Conference East, that’s really a shame. There were daily services with full choirs and beautiful chanting—all the way into the night. There were scheduled icebreakers with both your region and random groups where you could meet new friends, and free periods, where you could greet old ones. There was the lively steadfastness of Fr. Tim Hojnicki as he taught us the best answers to common questions about the faith; the carefully considered and fluidly presented recommendations of Steven Christoforou (the Be the Bee guy!) in regards to being Orthodox on and through social media; and there was the solemn sincerity and almost-accidental wit of Sister Vassa, the keynote speaker, as she meekly gave us great insight on what it means to be a martyr, and other various speakers.

I could probably spend the rest of this space talking about everything that went down at College Conference East—the big, life-changing ‘Aha!’ moments of divine inspiration, and the little, fleeting moments of friendship or joy that you couldn’t forget if you tried. I could write and write and write about all the things that happened at College Conference—instead, I want to write about the things that didn’t.

I want to write about the things that didn’t happen at College Conference, because the words ‘safe space’ get thrown around the college environment a lot, and that can get tricky. A safe space is often a place wherein you can be honest without embarrassment, and that’s pretty cool, because it can be really tough to be Christian—especially, I would guess, Orthodox Christian—in college. Sometimes, it’s dragging your butt to an unfamiliar parish that’s forty minutes away when you didn’t do evening prayers last night cause you knocked out at 3 AM; sometimes, it’s the one person in your hall/floor/house/dorm that looks you straight in the eye and says, “So you think all gay people are evil.”

A safe place is also a place wherein an opinion is protected—often an opinion that is new, unusual, and championed by a minority. This is where safe spaces get tricky. You and I both know that being a Christian isn’t exactly all the rage in college. Sometimes, safe spaces can become a megaphone for things with which the Church fundamentally disagrees. Sometimes, safe spaces become an opportunity for those who, having felt oppressed and discriminated against and silenced, would like to lash out.

The first thing we should do, I think, is probably have mercy and forgive and love those people, because that sounds like, super Orthodox-y, so I’m just gonna roll with it. The second thing we should do, though, is recognize that a ‘safe space’ isn’t always a ‘safe space’ for everyone. We Orthodox aren’t hip and happening—we’ve been around a long time, and we haven’t changed too much. That’s not to say we can’t be hip and happening: if we were to demonstrate, wholly, the love and forgiveness and mercy and compassion that we’re taught to live through Christ, then I think Orthodoxy would fly off the charts.

That’s why I want to talk about what wasn’t at College Conference East. When you sat down for a meal, the two gentlemen sitting at the table next to you weren’t discussing their weekend’s ‘ravages and spoils’—words I just heard, as I type this in the dining hall. When you crossed yourself and took a second to thank God before your meal, the young lady sitting across from you didn’t scoff—an encounter I had two days ago at dinner. At College Conference East, when you did evening prayers, it wasn’t to the sound of your next-door neighbor and his girlfriend…recreating, it was to the sound of ten, twenty, thirty voices chanting in the chapel for hours—literally, hours—on end.

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His Grace joins the biology students during “sit with your major” lunch.

Being Orthodox requires some bravery. The theme for College Conference East this year was ‘Modern Martyrs: Witnesses to the Word’. Martyrdom? That took a degree of courage only achieved through a deep-seated love of Christ. We won’t need the courage to die for our Lord (hopefully), but being a witness to the Word in college is, in its own way, a martyrdom—it’s a martyrdom, and we’re gonna need some gumption, a little bit of grit, a merciful, unassuming courage to pull that off. And courage doesn’t last forever, so that’s why we have prayer and fasting and church and OCF and College Conference. To be weak and human before God, and ask Him to help us out, to give us the courage to keep going.

College Conference was my safe space—I was an Orthodox Christian without fear or embarrassment. But now, I’m back in the dining hall, about to head to calculus. I missed prayers this morning, I was late to Liturgy on Sunday, and I’m afraid now. Being an Orthodox Christian is harder here. I’m afraid, but I have what College Conference gave me—notes, recordings, thoughts, prayers, friends. I’m afraid, but I’m also stronger. That’s why you’ll see me at College Conference next year.


BeFB_IMG_1452543490903njamin Solak is a undeclared first-year at the University of Chicago. He’s a fan of football, priests who dish out communion really fast, and brightly-colored pants. He invites you to check out his personal blog on Christian living and personal development at benjaminsolak.wordpress.com

Orthodox Music: A Reflection on Treasured Moments from CC East

Orthodox Music: A Reflection on Treasured Moments from CC East

My most joyful moments of College Conference East were spent in the Chapel after Compline. There was a little over a half hour of time following the service where no one would leave. The priest would give the final blessing, but everyone decided to stay and sing a while longer. During that time, there was this incredible tension. We all wanted to go and spend time with our friends, go for a Sheetz run, or grab some much needed sleep, but it suddenly became a struggle to leave Church. For a short period of time, our earthly cares had been silenced. Growing closer to Christ and spending time worshiping Him became more important than anything happening in the outside world. Those were the happiest moments for me. That small segment of the conference when all of us chose to devote our attention to Christ a little longer than was asked of us.

After about a half hour the crowd slowly started to disappear, but it often wasn’t until 4:00 a.m. that the last group left the chapel. Throughout the entire evening, we would take turns singing hymns in the languages of our ethnic backgrounds or would occasionally break out into Christmas carols so everyone could sing along. (I like to think the Christmas carols were our way of bridging the gap between New and Old Calendar.)

At times, the beauty of the sounds in that little Chapel were overwhelming. So much so, that I frequently stopped singing because I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Admittedly, there were probably a few occasions when we paid more attention to the blend of our harmonies than the words we were saying. However, I think it’s safe to say that the real reason we stayed and kept singing so late into the night was because we recognized the fact that we have a God who is worthy of continual praise.

The theme of this year’s conference focused on becoming witnesses to Christ. How lucky we were to spend four days in an environment that made our task as witnesses so effortless. I wasn’t ready to leave. I didn’t want to give up the life I experienced while I was surrounded by over 300 other Orthodox Christians. I wanted to continue singing hymns and Christmas carols until 4:00 a.m. every night for the rest of my life. It truly felt like a beautiful little taste of paradise.

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Late night chanting at College Conference East 2015

Although the ease of Christian living was wonderful while it lasted, the reality is we’ve all returned to places that don’t necessarily make three church services a day a priority. I pray that everyone who attended CCEast this year will remember those awesome moments when they encountered Christ and the Theotokos. We should tell other people with excitement about just how wonderful those four days were. Not to brag or make anyone jealous, but to potentially make someone think, “I want what they have.” Retelling the stories of our days at CCEast is a way we can all be witnesses to Christ in our everyday lives.

Once I’m back at school, I plan to tell my friends all about those treasured moments I experienced after Compline. May God give us all the courage to share those special moments with everyone we encounter. May our strength be renewed each time we remember those spiritually charged days, and may those who hear our accounts be drawn closer to the truth of our Lord and Savior.

Christ is among us!

He is and always shall be!


2015-03-28 12.48.30-1Irene Grysiak is a junior at Saint Francis University in Loretto, PA. She is in a five year program studying to be a Physician Assistant. She spent the past two summers working as a counselor at Camp Nazareth and loved every moment of watching the campers grow closer to Christ.

Let Us Be Children | CC West Reflection

When I was asked to write my reflections on College Conference West 2015 and I started to think about it, I suddenly understood that I did not have the words to express my feelings. Well, you could say, that is not a surprise, non-native speakers always have problems with vocabulary. However, the real problem was that I could not find the true words in my mother tongue of Russian.

To explain the variety of my feelings, I will try to write here everything in order, from the moment when I first time heard about the conference (and even a little bit before it), till the last farewell hugs with my new friends.

The story started in approximately October 2015. I was planning to visit my family in Russia for winter break, but, unfortunately, some problems occurred and I had to spend the whole break in the US. Unfortunately? Just three months later I thanked God for this problem. But let’s not break the order of the story.

In the beginning of December, I heard about the conference for the first time. I thought, “Well, I have nothing to do at this time. Maybe it will be interesting.” This is the way adventures begin. I registered, finished with my classes and started to wait. What did I expect? Kind of a standard conference. Lectures, posters, discussions–sometimes interesting, but mostly not. New friends, well, not close friends–how can you make a real friend during three days (Ha. Ha. Ha.)? Just acquaintances. Those were my expectations. And, as usual, the reality was much more interesting…

We reached St. Nicholas Ranch via carpooling (thanks, Andriana, who organized it, and Marina, who picked up all of us!). It was already quite an unusual start for a conference. Instead of a boring bus or even more boring airplane, we had a four hour ride across the beautiful California mountains with people, who quite soon would become my friends. Real friends.

We came to the Ranch, registered, I took my bags from the trunk and went to the room which was assigned to me. And there, finally, I understood how wrong my expectations were. I needed to change my paradigm.

Everything around me was not like a boring “adult” conference, but a childrens’ camp, where I had not been for ten years ago. Well, great! Let us be children at least for three days. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

Of course, in a good sense. We didn’t become irresponsible as children, but we became ready for friendship, new knowledge and new experience, unlike usual adults. Now let me talk a little about each of these gifts.

Because the event was called a conference, let me start with knowledge. We had four brilliant workshop speakers and one keynote speaker. Father Apostolos Hill, Abbot Tryphon (aka Lord Abbot of Salish Sea), Father Michael Gillis, Mother Melania, and Daniel and Christina Andresen–thank you all! I cannot say that someone was better, it is as if to ask, “What is better? Salt or sugar? Water or fire?” Everyone was an excellent fit for his topic, and all topics were really relevant for our life as Orthodox students. And Abbot Tryphon was not only a workshop speaker, but he also organized the “Salish Brotherhood of St. John the Wonderworker” to help us to be connected by the bounds of friendship. The other name of the Brotherhood is “The Knights of Salish Sea” so I am a knight now. Please call me “Sir Valentin”.

The new members of the Salish Brotherhood of St. John the Wonderworker with Abbot Tryphon

The new members of the Salish Brotherhood of St. John the Wonderworker with Abbot Tryphon

Talking about the friendship at this conference, it is impossible not to mention the second night. I would even call it, “The Second Night.” I think it is the most important night at this conference. The night when people who were nobody to each other become close friends for the rest of their lives. The night when, through the pain and tears, friendship is born. The night when you understand something very important about yourself. I will not tell you what happened during this night so as not to be a spoiler. Just believe me, you will never forget this experience. After this night I really was sure that it was the climax of the conference.

And I made a mistake, the next morning was…here my words are finished. I can just say that it was one of the most beautiful moments in whole my life. So beautiful that sometimes I was close to crying. It was one of those moments, when you feeling the reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world. It is better to see one time than listen to the description one hundred times, as a Russian proverb states.

Alas, the time of the conference was coming to the end. The last evening was like an ultimate gift. The Open Mic Talent Night. “Every neighbor is a friend” and wanted to do his best at the end. People played different instruments, sang songs, and read poems. There were excellent piano players and singers, and there were just beginners, who wanted to give their two mites for their new friends before parting. There was a girl who had played the piano for the first time the night before, and she played “Happy Birthday” for one of the participants (thank you, Mary!). And then we danced, and walked, and gazed at stars, and did not want to part.

The last morning. The day of parting. Final hugs. Everyone feels a little bit lost. We are sitting to the car and driving back to LA. Finally, I am at home, feeling mixture of sadness, joy, and gratitude.

Glory to Thee for the encounters Thou dost arrange for me. Glory to Thee for the unforgettable moments of life. Glory to God for all things.


unseriousValentin Slepukhin was born in Ekaterinburg, Russia, a city in Ural mountains between Europe and Asia. When he was 16 years old, he moved to Moscow for his undergraduate, and then Master studies in Physics. In 2015, he moved to UCLA for a PhD program. He is studying theoretical physics, which is mainly about understanding the basic laws of the universe and applying these laws to predict or explain some observable effects. In his free time, he usually reads books.

 

Words to Describe It: Reflections on College Conference West

Words to Describe It: Reflections on College Conference West

We are often poor salesmen. Language offers us thousands of ways to relate or promote an item with intimate detail, and yet our go-to phrases are “You gotta try this food, it’s amazing!” or “Check out this band, they’re awesome!” Perhaps such clichéd one-word descriptors are convincing enough for our close friends and family, but the words amazing and awesome are vague and subjective at best when coming from strangers. I am reminded of a billboard I see whenever I’m driving through the desert on Interstate 10 towards Phoenix that literally advertises, “REALLY GOOD JERKY, take exit 5.” I think to myself sarcastically, “They ain’t foolin’ around—they even used an adverb!” Effective advertisement moves past the obvious and reveals qualities you can relate to while also putting on display features that peak your interest; I must successfully make my idea become your idea of awesome and amazing.

I’m not exactly trying to advertise here, but I do want to reflect on OCF’s College Conference West, the annual four-day gathering of college students from all across the western half of the North America. As a four-time veteran I can tell you “CC West is awesome! Amazing! So much fun! The best thing ever!” etc., but if you’re reading this blog and have never gone to CC West, you’re probably not entirely convinced and are wondering who is this Pat guy anyway. For all you know, three-hour lectures debating the finer points of 13th century ecclesiological development in the Byzantine Empire might be Pat’s idea of a good time (how did you know!?).

Don’t worry, CC West is not a de facto Ortho-nerd convention where the hyperdox faithful gather. Indeed, all types of college students from various backgrounds with different personalities and different ideas of what’s “fun” and “awesome” come to CC West; yet somehow the overwhelming impression from attendees is one of fulfillment and heartfelt joy. Something deeper happens at CC West, something more than fun or awesome, and that is what I will try to relate, if there are words to describe it.

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I think we can all recollect a few very fond memories from our lives. Memories where even the thought of it moves your heart with longing to go back and experience it again. Perhaps a special family reunion with your favorite cousins, this last summer serving as a camp counselor, your first semester in the dorms—anything, really. My guess is that the common link making these experiences such fond memories is not the specifics of what you were doing: it’s who you were with and the time you shared together.

As human beings, communal interaction and relationships are what we desire and find fulfillment in. The activities that we do together merely serve as the vehicle for this communal interaction and relating to one another. That’s not to say that what we do together doesn’t matter; superficial activities like ice-breakers serve the purpose of getting strangers comfortable with each other, while serious heartfelt discussions on important topics have more potency to draw those same people closer together in a meaningful way.

I believe this is where CC West has such an impact on its attendees, myself fully included. It’s more than getting away from the hustle bustle of our overly busy lives. It’s more than staying at a beautiful ranch and monastery for four days. It’s more than learning about our Orthodox faith and working through difficult topics impacting our lives. And yes, it’s more than enjoying the company of fellow college-age students. College Conference West is amazing because it uses all of these elements to bring all sorts of different young men and women into an authentic community with oneness in purpose: glorifying God together, and thus becoming more human together. For some attendees, it’s the workshops or keynote addresses. For others, it’s the free-time in the dining hall or singing the Akathist of Thanksgiving at sunrise. At CC West we eat together, sing together, laugh together, cry together, and worship together. Whatever meaningful activity it is, everyone at CC West feels that they are experiencing communion with each other too deep for words, and that God is within all of it somehow. In the same way that Saint Paul encouraged the Colossians, we are being “knit together in love” at CC West.

My feeble attempt to relate the College Conference West experience does not do it justice. But perhaps that is where I can make the connection; we’ve all had an experience too deep for words. College Conference West is that kind of experience, no matter who you are. So if you’ve been sitting on the fence unsure about the whole thing, be brave and sign up! If you haven’t attended CC West, I encourage you to do so this season. It will be the highlight of your year.

It’s really good. That’s a promise.


Pat LynchPatrick Lynch is an OCF alumnus and former member of the Student Leadership Board. He works as a prototype machinist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Patrick attends Saint Anthony Greek Orthodox Church in Pasadena and is an active member of the Orthodox young adult community in Southern California.

God is Prayer: Keeping a Rule of Prayer

God is Prayer: Keeping a Rule of Prayer

Getting Started

Starting a rule of prayer can be quite intimidating–and keeping one quite discouraging. It helps when we understand that a rule of prayer (in Greek, κανόνας προσευχής) does not mean ‘do this or else’ or ‘follow this rule so you don’t get punished’. Κανόνας here means a measurement, more like a ruler than a rule. So a rule of prayer is a goal that we strive for each day which we believe, with the guidance of our spiritual father, is actually do-able. We are creatures of habit. Whether we are conscious of it or not we are continually developing either good or bad habits. Developing a habit of daily personal prayer is the best way to counteract the three giants (forgetfulness, laziness, and ignorance) which continuously seek to overcome us. Conversely, we can think of our prayer rule as our ‘tithe’ each day which we offer to the Lord so that He will bless the remainder of it. If even Jesus needed to go off alone and pray to His Father at set intervals, how much more do we need to do this as well?

 When should we pray?

This is something particular to each person and their daily schedule, however, the beginning and end of each day seem to work best. The Jews would bring ‘the first fruits’ of the harvest as an offering to the temple so that the Lord would then bless the remainder of their harvest. Similarly, we have the example of those in monastic life who arise at the very early hours of the new day to be alone with God, even before gathering together for common prayer. By praying when we first wake up (and by making ourselves go to bed at a reasonable hour so that we will get enough rest!) we prioritize our relationship with God over any other relationship or activity. Before the cares of each day rush in we turn to the Lord and surrender it into His capable hands. At the close of each day we can thank Him for all that has come about by His Divine Providence that day; ask His forgiveness for the specific ways in which we strayed from His Holy Will for us, and raise up before Him our concerns and wishes for  the morrow.

A spiritual father on the Holy Mountain once told a pilgrim, “If you pray ( specifically the Jesus Prayer) for one hour a day, in six months your life will be completely transformed.” Can we each find an hour a day to give the Lord? “I don’t have another hour in my day,” you respond. Let’s look at it this way. The saintly bishop Gerasimos from Holy Cross in Brookline once stated simply, “We can’t give to others what we haven’t first received from God.” In other words, we really can’t afford not to pray either if we want the Lord to bless our interactions throughout each day with others. St. John of Kronstadt even wrote in My Life In Christ that a half an hour of sincere prayer at night is worth three hours of sleep! Still not convinced? Try this. Keep a detailed log of what you do each day for one week.  Isn’t quality face-time with God more essential than all those hours of social mediating?

 

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons

 

Okay, how does  this work?

The Lord taught us, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” The Fathers of the Church tell us that what is most essential is that our prayer is sincere and from the heart. This doesn’t mean that we do not use prayers that others have written. It simply means that we need to focus our efforts on being real with God. Prayer starts with the lips, moves to the mind, and then moves on to the heart. When our minds wander (which they do continuously) we gently but firmly bring our attention back to the actual words we are praying. St. John of Kronstadt said for beginners that we should listen for a corresponding “echo” of understanding with each line of a prayer. At some point, when God wills, the prayer of the mind descends into the heart and we are more consciously aware of God’s presence and that He is communicating to us through each word. Then prayers become prayer.

What prayers should we be using?

Most good prayer rules have a combination of five sources: the prayers of the Church, the Psalter, Holy Scripture, noetic (single thought) prayer, and intercessory prayer. We use the prayers of the Church (which are mostly taken from the Divine services) since we are never praying in isolation from the Church even when we are all alone. These prayers, written by saints of the Church whose experience of God is more intimate than our own, act as signposts to safely guide us to approach the fearful throne of God with the right attitude. The psalms are the prayer book of the early Church and express every disposition of man in relation to God. By reading Holy Scripture, we open up our minds and hearts so the Lord can speak directly to us through the sacred texts. We also read the writings of the Holy Fathers which are all simply insightful and pastoral commentary on Holy Scripture. Noetic or contemplative prayer is the most powerful moment in our rule fulfilling the command to, “Be still and know that I am God.” Having acquired a boldness before God we end our pray rule by raising others up in prayer as their intercessors while asking the intercessions of the saints on our behalf.

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons

What is our goal?

Our goal is to be vanquished by God’s love in prayer. Our goal is to remember to not just say our prayers to get them out of the way but to allow ourselves through prayer to be reacquainted with our Maker and Savior each day and His immeasurable love for each of us. It is to receive our spiritual hug for the day in the Holy Spirit. We know our prayer rule is working when we don’t want to stop praying; when we feel the peace that comes from having handed our list of things that need to be accomplished that day over to Him. Our goal is to come to the transformative realization that even the thought to pray each day is already the awakening of our soul to the mystical presence of the Lord for He is the one who initiates prayer with us by giving us each day the thought to say our prayers. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “God is prayer,” because through prayer He takes up His abode in our hearts and rules as our King and our Lord. Come Lord Jesus!


DSC_0003A parish priest for twenty-two years, Fr. Theodore Petrides has served Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Stroudsburg, PA. for the past nineteen. He and Pres. Cristen have six children and two grandchildren (so far). He regularly travels in America as well as Greece (especially the Holy Mountain), Cyprus, and the Holy Land as a pilgrim, guide, and speaker. He has also taken six work groups to Project Mexico since 1999. He is very enthused about the staff and leadership board of OCF!