Last summer looked abnormal for me, as it did for everyone I knew. In the span of a week, I had been sent home from my freshman year of college on an “extended spring break,” was told I would not be able to study abroad in Italy, summer church camp & the Parish Life Conference were cancelled, and I couldn’t physically be with my friends and family. Even though I was FaceTiming my friends multiple times a day and had more family time than ever before, I felt alone.
Why is this happening?
That was a thought that ran through my head every day I was home. I tried to remind myself that my situation was better than most: I was healthy with a roof over my head, family in the next room, and toilet paper to last me a lifetime. But it was hard. I struggled to find gratitude in the things I was able to experience that summer. As restrictions started to lighten up in Southern California, my friends and I had more freedom to be out and about. I was so happy to be able to leave the house that I didn’t really stop to give the last few months a second thought.
In December, we started planning what OCF at the University of Oklahoma was going to discuss for the spring semester. Katy Powers recommended Robin Phillipps’, Gratitude in Life’s Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything is Going Wrong, a very fitting book for our current situation. As we dove into the book, I started to realize how gratitude and perseverance go hand-in-hand. Robin focuses on the darker side of finding happiness.
People tell you that when you’re sad, you shouldn’t listen to sad music because it makes you more sad (spoiler alert: they’re right). You can follow this same principle when you’re going through life. If you dwell too much on anything going wrong in your life, you will never be able to find gratitude.
The only way to find that light of the end of the tunnel is to trek through the path before you and persevere.
As we went deeper into the book, all of the good that came out of the last year became clear to me. My dad and I spent a lot of time building a patio in the backyard, we tried tons of new delicious recipes, and my family and I got to hang out and play games almost every night. The more we talked about the book, the more I realized how much stronger I am because of the hardships we faced during this time.
It wasn’t until I sat down to write this blog post that realized how this last year has prepared me for the rest of my life. I still don’t know why God presented us with this challenge. What I do know is that our perseverance as Orthodox Christians has not only helped us grow as individuals, but has shown other people the light of Christ during trying times.
The University of Oklahoma OCF Chapter President
Hi everyone! I’m Sammy, a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma studying Health and Exercise Science and Sports Management. I was raised in Southern California at St. Nicholas until we started the St. Simeon mission in Santa Clarita. I’m the president of the OU OCF chapter and love going to Camp St. Nicholas in the summer as a camper/counselor. I love to watch sports with my friends, try out new recipes, and travel!
After serving in Romania on Real Break 2020, I applied to be Real Break Student Leader for Orthodox Christian Fellowship. I wanted to help create other service opportunities for students. What a whirlwind of a year! Back in early Fall 2020, we did not know how long the pandemic would last, and we kept running into barriers in planning. We did our best trying to navigate traveling precautions and eventually saw most schools cancelling their spring breaks. As the year progressed, it became obvious that a traditional Real Break would not happen. To be completely honest, this was frustrating and disappointing. I found myself nervous I would not be able to do the work of my position on the Student Leadership Board. This time was trying, but it was still fruitful!
With a desire to empower students to serve their communities, especially with increased need due to COVID-19, a new program was created! A dedicated team of OCF staff and friends listened to me as I brainstormed ideas, and thus, a flexible 16-week course with nine incredible instructors called Real Break Now: How To Be The Church in The World was formed. Students living in 22 different states and 5 different countries have come together to prepare for the opportunity to apply for two $1000 grants towards a project serving their community this summer.
I am incredibly grateful for each person who helped to make this happen. The students have put so much thought into the material. Here is just a glimpse of the topics we have discussed during the first three modules:
Module 1: How Orthodoxy is a Way of Life, Not Just a Religion, led by Fr. Nicholas Belcher
We discussed questions on how to avoid “Phariseeism,” stories of people who have impacted us spiritually, the interaction between church rituals and service, and actions we can take to make our faith more of a way of life. Here is what a few of our wonderful students have to say:
”I really like how Fr. Nick addressed the alleged dichotomy between church rituals and good deeds/service. Growing up Orthodox, I have always believed the Sacraments are important. In society, I feel like some say that the church is useless without service and living out the Gospel and act as if the two are mutually exclusive. I like how Fr. Nick simply points out that if you think about it, there is no reason for them to be mutually exclusive and that, in fact, they support one another and are both essential to follow The Way.” -Chase
”I’ve always admired the way that Orthodoxy encompasses all five senses – from the iconography (seeing), to incense (smelling), to Holy Communion (tasting), to the choir and chanters (hearing), to crossing and performing prostrations (feeling). Growing up in a protestant church, I always felt God was at arm’s length, that reverence was an old-fashioned notion. Once I stumbled across the Orthodox faith, (admittedly at first I was skeptical of my first Liturgy due to it being such a different service than I was used to), I could sense that Liturgy was/is so much more than a penciled-in Sunday appointment. Orthodoxy is a faith that brings together – even, as Fr. Belcher described – the seemingly opposing “works” and “spirituality” – We need both! And his talk was a needful, convicting reminder of this.” -Anna-Sophia
”I definitely struggle with living in the Way without making a checklist (lol), but I find I get closer to my spiritual best when I decelerate. Most of the best moments in my spiritual life happen when I slow down, reflect, and truly focus on God and the moment. My faith becomes a checklist when life speeds up, I let myself get too busy, and I start to rush through prayer, my interactions with others, etc. I try to avoid falling into “Phariseeism” by countering moments of pride with thoughts of thankfulness and humility. Galatians 2:20 has really helped me center myself in my spiritual journey; it is the only Bible verse I’ve ever memorized: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” -Peggy
“When he was talking about orthodoxy being a way of life, I got reminded of struggles that I used to have and that I may slightly struggle with to this day – putting God into every aspect of your life. Throughout high school and especially my first two years of college, I was very focused on my academics and career but I never put God into it. I never asked God to lead me, instead, I took things into my own hands. I felt like I was a part-time Christian because I was only asking Him for guidance concerning certain matters. But the thing is God should be put everywhere. He should be the light to your career, your friendships and bonds. Instead of telling God, “Please help me to get into this company I really want to intern with them,” maybe we ought to say, “Lord if it is Your will for me to work with this company then so be it, and if not, then may I be deterred from it.” When I started saying this prayer, I saw that was paving the way for me and it was very much clear.” -Kermena
Module 2: How to Have A Hospitable Heart, led by Georgia Mamalakis
We discussed how we have been affected by being given hospitality, the importance of being present, how to cultivate a welcoming spirit, and shared practical suggestions with each other.
“I think too often I don’t approach people or am not hospitable because of my own pride- I think do I want to add one more person who could potentially judge me to this moment, or would I rather stay in a safe shell? As soon as we are hospitable to someone and invite them in, we have the potential to get hurt by them, too. And I think that’s where the second point is so important- being hospitable to Christ and having Him dwell in you and giving you that God-esteem, which helps us to be hospitable to ourselves by knowing Christ is in us. Allowing ourselves to give and serve out of pure philanthropia and philoxenia means overflowing with love that we just give in abundance to everyone we meet, not thinking about how they might perceive/judge us in return. Unconditional love is giving without expecting any love back, but it’s also giving without worrying about/expecting certain reactions or approval for self-assurance.” -Nicole
“One of the things Mrs. Mamalakis mentioned that stuck with me was that we should “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” I think that’s something I struggle with. I might do something nice for someone, but there are times when I’m thinking about how I don’t want to be doing it or what better things I have to do. This is something I need to work on, so that’s what I’m going to try in order to better cultivate hospitality.” -Jane
I had a realization the other day that absolutely blew my mind- maybe y’all have already mentioned or thought about this. The whole topic of hospitality has had such an impact on me in that I think it’s really the basis of the faith- you can’t trust, grow, or cultivate love without being hospitable to at least someone- Christ, your neighbor, or yourself. And I realized the absolute epitome of this is the Theotokos!!! She LITERALLY allowed the Holy Spirit inside of her and allowed Christ to dwell and be born in her, and then continued to give Him a place to lay his head, like Mrs. Mamalakis talked about. We are all called to be “God-bearers”, and since the Theotokos literally bore God, she is the perfect example of hospitality. -Nicole
Module 3: Cultivating A Spirit of Service, led by Katrina Bitar
We discussed barriers to serving, how service is about people instead of projects, and decompartmentalizing service. One of the questions covered was, “What are your thoughts on this quote from John Chrysostom: ‘Need alone is a poor man’s worthiness’?”
“This quote boils down all of the societal dynamics around service and giving to its key component: meet a need. No other factor should matter. We should not appoint ourselves judge over a poor man to try and determine whether or not his needs meet our standards. There is only one judge, God, and He is the only one who should judge. If a beggar is lying or deceitful about his need, then God will judge him, but if we don’t show him love and service, God will judge us. We must multiply the mercy God gives us constantly.” -Chase
“This quote perfectly anticipates the response of a hardened heart. Living in a big city, it is easy to become numb or even blind to the poverty and suffering around you. I could easily pass the same homeless man under the same bridge every day and think nothing of it. I love how, in the video and this quote, there is a focus on the softening of the heart and coming to realize our mutual humanity and share in the responsibility of clothing and feeding the poor. I also struggle with making excuses like “there are shelters for that” or “maybe it’s not safe.” But this is indicative of a hardened heart-this shrugs responsibility and places blame on others, caring only for oneself. This quote is humbling in just the right way.” – Cassidy
“Need alone is a poor man’s worthiness” A-MEN. It has taken me a while to truly understand this concept. The houseless in Louisville are often viewed with scorn and are often passed by. It is if not living up to the American Dream of Prosperity, with a house and happy family and a steady job, is a secular sin.” -Elijah
Thank you to everyone who has helped to create this beautiful community! Our course still has a few more weeks, and I look forward to learning more in our discussions and zoom calls.
Also, apply for the Student Leadership Board!! Engaging in fulfilling work and gaining friends who have become family has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. You could be a part of this community, too! Learn more about how to apply HERE.
is a senior at Kansas State University studying Nutrition & Health. She loves getting to know people, reading, traveling, eating good food, and anything outdoors (if it is not cold). She is Real Break Student Leader this year and is so grateful for the course she has been able to create and the people she has met through OCF programming!
“Peace begins with a smile.” I still remember hearing that quote by Mother Teresa from a friend one summer at church camp. Honestly, I didn’t think it was true. It sounded too simple. This may have been because growing up I heard phrases like “world peace” or the Bible verse “a peace that surpasses all understanding.” Peace seemed so big, like an immense undertaking or something to accomplish.
However, I was wrong. Peace is right in front of us. It’s inside of us and it’s a gift from God. One way to seek peace, then, is to turn inward. Ask yourself: what brings me peace?
For me, stillness is often the answer. Psalm 46:10 tells us “Be still and know that I am God.” There is so much external noise and there always will be. Stillness provides a refuge from the noise and the distraction. Because we are all created uniquely, stillness can look different for each one of us. A priest once told me, “Do what brings you closer to God.” He didn’t give me a recipe with all the ingredients and measurements. Instead, he encouraged me to listen to my heart and to trust myself. I mentioned to him that I love journaling at the beach to which he replied, “Great! Do THAT!” Naturally, I listed off a whole bunch of other activities in which I feel close to God: surfing, baking, reading books, talking with friends. He smiled at me and nodded his head. As I was listing these things it occurred to me that I was drawing near to God during these activities because I felt at peace doing them. They are stress relievers and they calm my heart and my mind, allowing me to be still (even if I am not physically “still”), be at peace, and be with God.
Something I have to remind myself of, something I think is important to remember, is that we have an external environment–what others say and do, what’s going on in the world–that we cannot control. However, we have an internal environment–our soul, our relationship with Christ–that we can control.
When the internal environment is at peace, things happening in the external environment are easier to handle. Internal peace provides stability, a foundation for us to act from. That foundation is Christ, who is goodness and life. St. Philaret of Moscow prays, “Teach me to treat all that come to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with the firm conviction that Thy will governs all.” This prayer reflects the difficulty we can undergo in dealing with our external environment and encourages us to take care of our internal environment through Christ.
Another aspect of peace I like to remember is that peace is powerful. St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire a spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” Peace is contagious! Just looking at someone in church who is deep in prayer, or gazing at the icons, or smiling as they cross themselves I feel at peace. They aren’t doing anything crazy like finding a cure to world hunger. They’re doing simple acts that stem from a spirit of peace. Seeing them helps me refocus inwardly, to block out the noise and return to myself and Christ in me. And it gives me peace.
The Prodigal Son struggled with noise and the temptations of his external environment. In Luke 15:17 it reads that he eventually turns inward, “But when he came to himself…” realizing his need for his father, to be in relationship with him and to be in his house. Always return to yourself, to Christ. Surround yourself with people who refocus you when the noise grows louder and becomes distracting.
This week we enter into the Lenten season. I don’t know about you, but being a vegan for forty days doesn’t bring me immediate peace. In fact, it stresses me out. Yet, in the Prayer Before The Icon of Christ (found in our little red prayer book) it says, “We cry aloud unto thee: thou hast filled all things with joy, O our Savior, for thou didst come to save the world.” There is profound peace knowing Christ has filled all things with joy, even suffering. We can think about the martyrs who had peace and joy in their suffering, in their death. I know that if the martyrs experienced peace and joy in death, I can experience Christ’s peace and joy in ‘little deaths’ to meat and cheese. We are being called to partake in Christ’s suffering for these next 40 days, but we are also being called to partake in His peace and His joy. In dying to ourselves we will experience life, just as the martyrs’ death brought them to be in paradise with their holy King, and be in a place where there is only “a peace that surpasses all understanding.” Doesn’t sound as daunting anymore, does it?
Peace be with you, brothers and sisters in Christ.
Hello everyone! I’m Tati. I was raised in the Orthodox Church with both my grandfathers being parish priests here at St. Athanasius in Santa Barbara, CA. I have been a camp counselor at Camp St. Nicholas and have served as a leader for Youth Equipped to Serve.
Some things I love to do in my free time are trying a new recipe, going to the beach (I just learned how to surf! I’m terrible, but I enjoy it), and spending time with my nieces and nephew.
In December I graduated from nursing school and I just got hired by the local hospital to work in the oncology unit. I recently learned the term “oncology” comes from the Greek word Onkos which means burden; the illness was imagined to be a burden carried by the body.
Our faith teaches us to carry our cross, our burdens, something we know we can’t do without our Savior and without each other. I feel blessed to serve those struggling with the weight of cancer.
If my life came with a pack of thank you cards, I would have sent them all by now. One for my father and his steady reassurance in every circumstance. One for my aunt, with her welcoming kitchen and mugs of tea. Two for my best friend and the way she makes me laugh, and the list goes on. If I had thank you cards for my gratitude I would have stuffed so many envelopes by now that USPS would dread stopping at my mailbox.
And yet, as easy as it is for me to show my thanks to the people I love, I often find myself caught on the idea of writing a thank you note to God. How do I pour nineteen years worth of gratitude for all the joys and sorrows of my life into a 4×6 card? And even if I could, how do I get past the fact that my prayer is too insignificant – that my miniscule act of praise is not enough, that even though my cup runneth over, it is too messy to put a stamp on and mail to God?
When I am overwhelmed with thoughts like these, I think of the second verse of Psalm 140.
“Let my prayer arise before thy sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 140:2 OSB)
While prayer and sacrifice may seem entirely unrelated to gratitude, they hold more in common than you might think. As Orthodox Christians, we know that thankfulness is ultimately demonstrated in sacrificial love. We see this in the Gospel reading from this past Sunday (Luke 12:16-21).
In Sunday’s reading, we hear Christ tell his disciples a parable of the man who, after seeing how plentiful the yield of his crops is, decides to tear down his barns and build even larger ones so that he can store up all his grain. In other words, the farmer chooses to celebrate the plentitude of the crops all by himself. He fails to recognize that his grain is a gift from God and that the purpose of a gift is to share it. Instead of showing gratitude for his gift by distributing it to others and sacrificing the wealth that he has accumulated, the farmer holds on to his goods tighter than ever.
Like the farmer, I often find myself failing to show proper gratitude for the gifts I have been given. More often than not, I am unwilling to share my gifts with others. I would rather keep to myself, orbiting around what I’ve been given by God.
Yet as St. Basil tells us in his homily on the parable of the farmer and his barns, “You have been made a minister of God’s goodness, a steward of your fellow servants. Do not suppose that all this was furnished for your own gullet! Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others.” Though it is easy to be selfish, to put on a pair of blinders and view achievements as solely our own or focus on the benefits that we alone can reap from what God has given us, we are called to give thanks for what we have been given by sacrificing it for others — by opening our barns and celebrating the good things God has given us.
I may not know how to write a thank you card to God, but reading the earlier verse from Psalm 140 through the lens of this week’s Gospel lesson makes the answer crystal clear. The way to thank God for the gifts he has given me is by lifting up my hands in sacrifice — lifting my hands and reaching out to give what I have been given back to God. Christ shines through each and every one of us. Every sacrifice we make to the world whether it be time, money, or the smallest kindness swirls before God’s eyes like rose-scented smoke on Sunday morning.
So when I begin to close in on how I compare to the people around me — when I want to close the doors and count my gifts, grain by grain, I am reminded that this is no evening sacrifice. When I forget the incense of my actions, when I hang my head instead of lifting up my hands, then I am reminded of the celebration that comes with giving thanks. It is then that I push open my heart and treat people with kindness, as living icons of Christ. Only then can I watch my actions turn into incense, and lift my life up as an evening sacrifice.
Student at Seattle Pacific University
I am a second-year student at Seattle Pacific University with a major in sociology. When I’m not sending letters to my friends, you can find me serving as a student leader in my dorm, re-reading my favorite books, or wading through the Seattle rain. It’s an honor to be an OCF student!
If you looked at my 2020 planner in January, you would see back-to-back classes, club meetings, assignments, and exams, as well as vacations, road trips, summer camp, and OCF events lined up for the year.
That planner was basically useless a few months later. By March, as we all know, plans were postponed, with some eventually leading to cancellation. As someone who loves being on-the-go with an endless to-do list, it was difficult to feel thankful when I realized I wasn’t going to be living the 2020 I envisioned and planned for at the beginning of the year.
When the initial shutdown occurred, I moved back in with my parents. Emotions were heightened: I was frustrated with the transition to remote learning, stressed because I simultaneously became IT, secretary, barber, chef (not a brilliant one, might I add), and chauffeur as soon as I parked in the garage at my parents’ home. I was disappointed that I couldn’t physically attend church, saddened by having to postpone or cancel plans, and distraught at the sight of the world amid the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic. As I created a new routine and schedule, I gave myself two options: sulk around in my sorrows or search for joy. It took me some time, but I chose to search for joy, and that’s when my attitude suddenly snapped together.
Being back at home with my family allowed me to do things I regretted not doing prior to moving out in 2018, or doing things I missed doing with them while at UCSB.
My mom attempted to teach me how to cook her Arab recipes.
My dad and I visited our family vineyards more frequently, allowing us to breathe fresh air that felt stripped away when wearing a mask.
My older sister and I bonded and spent more quality time together than we probably ever have in our lives.
My education was (and still is) quite literally at my fingertips in a virtual world through my laptop.
Most importantly, my God is always surrounding me.
As challenging as it felt in the beginning, I found that it was the simplest, littlest things that I should have been more grateful for all along: my family, friends and community, my home, food, education, and faith.
In a chaotic world that has felt like it’s crumbling this year, we should remember to be grateful to God and what He blesses us with, to be grateful for the plan He writes out for us, rather than trying to write it for ourselves. In the words of St. Basil the Great,
“When you sit down to eat, pray. When you eat bread, do so thanking Him for being so generous to you. If you drink wine, be mindful of Him who has given it to you for your pleasure and as a relief in sickness. When you dress, thank Him for His kindness in providing you with clothes. When you look at the sky and the beauty of the stars, throw yourself at God’s feet and adore Him who in His wisdom has arranged things in this way. Similarly, when the sun goes down and when it rises, when you are asleep or awake, give thanks to God, who created and arranged all things for your benefit, to have you know, love, and praise their Creator.”
Southwest Regional Student Leader
I am a 3rd year biopsychology major at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I enjoy cooking, baking, reading, journaling, and tatreezing (traditional Palestinian embroidery). I’m serving on the Student Leadership Board as the Southwest Regional Student Leader for my second year and love OCF with all of my heart!
Leaving Greece to come to America for college, I had no idea how I would maintain my faith without having the ‘church’ around me – I was scared of my exposure to different religions and denominations because I had never experienced that before. In Greece, I found it uncommon to have religion-related differences. While I grew up in a God-centered family, I never questioned why I was Orthodox. Upon living in America, I found myself beginning to challenge many concepts and ideas I perhaps took for granted. Becoming a part of OCF, I was able to find a community with the resources to help me with these new questions.
It wasn’t until an entire year of college had passed that I randomly found out about OCF from a friend at church who invited me to a regional retreat. Let me tell you, I was a bit skeptical in the beginning knowing nothing about the organization. At that same point in time, I had been talking with my Russian friend about starting a club to unite all the Orthodox students on our campus, since we did not have anything like that yet. After researching the work of OCF on their website, I was genuinely fascinated. My first thought was, “we don’t have that in Greece.” Fast forward a day later and both my Russian friend and I registered for the retreat, which was coming up the following week. Immediately after our experience at the retreat, we started our club on campus as an OCF Chapter!
Everything happened so fast. I was so happy and excited to be part of a community where I could be 100% myself and not feel judged about my beliefs. I would have never imagined the blessings that OCF has brought to my life. I have gotten to meet people I can have fun with and connect with on a spiritual level. There is so much meaning in friendship and an even deeper connection when you share the same values and beliefs with someone. I didn’t even have that in Greece!
OCF opened the door for me to be with people who can understand and help me when I need advice or guidance. Through OCF, I’ve been able to participate in a Real Break Trip to Texas, a YES day, and other retreats . Ever since I learned about OCF, I went to all events I could! Real Break in Texas this past March was a life-changing experience. I got to serve with like-minded people knowing that we all chose to be there and serve. We worked to provide a home for someone who lost it due to hurricane Harvey. It was a very humbling experience I will never forget, alongside the program’s amazing leaders that brought all the fun! It is safe to say that OCF has been the best part of college.
Berea OCF Chapter Leader
Eirini Symeonidou is an international student from Thessaloniki, Greece and goes to Berea College in Kentucky. She is a junior majoring in Agriculture and minoring in Sustainability and Environmental Studies. She is also a farmer at the college’s organic farm and loves spending time outdoors and going to the beach (when in Greece)! Eirini is a founding member of her college’s OCF chapter and loves to organize events and activities.
No matter who you are, you have experienced some sort of struggle in your life. You may have asked yourself: why is God allowing this to happen to me? Fr. Calinic Berger gave a beautiful homily (1:39:15) on this topic focusing on the verse: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” [Matthew 16:24]. He explained how a cross is an unavoidable challenge God allows for those He loves. We can allow ourselves to become resentful or choose for it to bring us closer to Him.
While in Romania last spring for Real Break (where we almost got locked out of the US… but that’s a story for another time), I learned about Fr. George Calciu (1925-2006). Fr. George was a Romanian priest living under Communist rule who boldly dared to preach The Gospel and bring hope to the Romanian people. Because of this, he was imprisoned and suffered through horrendous torture, some of which was “1984-style mind control experiments,” for twenty-one years. Fr. George eventually escaped to the United States where one of our trip leaders, Fr. Robert Miclean, was blessed to know him. Fr. Robert told us how Fr. George not only forgave his tormentors and prayed for them, but also he thanked them for bringing him closer to Christ. Fr. George was given a cross that he bore with such grace and humility. (For those who would like to read more of his story: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/46636.html).
Here in America, we thankfully do not have to fear torture for our faith, but we still all have crosses to bear. This is not to make us angry and frustrated, but for the reason Fr. George saw: to bring us closer to God. Hearing this story in Romania was deeply humbling and solidified my belief that God uses everything for good.
One experience that comes to mind is when my baby sister was diagnosed with a tumor. I am the oldest of six kids and had prayed and prayed for a sister. After four amazing brothers, God blessed me with a sister a month before I turned 13. However, before she turned 6 months old, the doctors found a rare tumor near her eye. Only around 300 people ever had suffered this type of tumor, and we were scared we would lose her or that she would have brain damage or be blinded. Her tumor miraculously went away, but for 6 years, it was a fearful and uncertain time of traveling 9 hours to MD Anderson in Houston. Our church family completely enveloped us with love, offering their homes to my parents while they stayed in Texas and taking care of their other five kids back in Kansas. A fruit of this cross regarding my sister’s health is now considering people family who I otherwise might not have known. We have even been gifted the opportunity to open our arms and share love with others going through health crises.
These two stories are crosses that are outwardly visible, but crosses can also be more internal. A friend of mine felt disconnected, lonely, and deeply insecure during middle school and parts of high school. This was a time guided by low self-worth, but she realized that this experience formed her into a more inclusive, empathetic individual. Because of it, she has grown into the person she needed during that time and is able to connect on a deeper level with other young people currently going through similar struggles.
We must remember not to compare our struggles to others’ and to rely on God’s grace to bring us towards the ultimate goal: salvation. Whatever your personal cross may be, know that you are not alone in your journey. We are together in the Body of Christ. May we all learn from examples like Fr. George as we strive to stay on the path towards Christ.
is a senior at Kansas State University studying Nutrition & Health. She loves getting to know people, reading, traveling, eating good food, and anything outdoors (if it is not cold). She is Real Break Student Leader this year and would love it if you came to Real Break office hours (Time TBD) later this semester!
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”
St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (5:14-16)
In Greek myths, the personification of sleep was the god Hypnos who lived in Hades near the river of Lethe (forgetfulness) with his brother Thanatos (death). In many stories he is kind, gentle, and calm, however he possesses those human lives whom he lulls to sleep. From this god’s name we get the word hypnosis, for myths involving him reveal that it is the hypnotist that gains possession and control over the one he puts to sleep. From the time of Christ until now, the world has been attempting to lull the souls of Christians to sleep with its hypnotic way of life. We experience it today with an onslaught of flatteries, ideologies, comfortabilities, etc. These attacks on the soul are made in order that the Christian would fall into a deep spiritual sleep, for to fall asleep under the world’s hypnosis is to be possessed by it and to dwell in forgetfulness and death. This is what sin does to our souls. In commenting on this verse in Ephesians, St John Chrysostom writes, “By the sleeper and the dead, he means the man that is in sin; for he both exhales noisome odors like the dead, and is inactive like one that is asleep, and like him he sees nothing, but is dreaming, and forming fancies and illusions.”
We all experience the intoxicating slumber of this world and have some area of our spiritual life that is not awake. However, we are not created to be sleepers, but to abandon sin and be a people who rouse the soul. St Paul calls us to an exalted life, commanding us to awake and receive the light of Christ. Therefore, we must ask the question: How do we awaken our souls to receive this light?
According to the Fathers and Mothers of the church, in order to raise the soul out of the slumber of sin there are three practical habits that we can form.
The first of these habits is the mystical practice. This means to participate in the divine services and sacraments of the Church. Our life needs to revolve around these things as absolute essentials for keeping our souls alive and awake. The divine services of the Church bring is into direct contact with the Living God and they impart transformation to the soul. The sacraments are great medicines that allow us to partake of divine grace and give us strength to battle our own sins.
The second of these habits that we can form is the ascetical practice. This means to start and end our day at our icon corners or home altars, to read Scripture and the lives of the Saints daily, to keep the fasts prescribed by the Church, and to do as much as we can to fill our lives with the grace of God. Many times this second habit is hard because it requires us to set time aside, to give up some things we like, and to force ourselves even when we don’t feel like it. That’s ok! Nobody becomes a professional athlete or gets an advanced degree without first forcing oneself to set aside time to push forward for achievement. In fact, the very definition of asceticism is to deny oneself, as our Lord commanded us to do (Matt 16:24).
The third habit to awaken the soul is the practice of alms-giving. This means to give ourselves for others. This can be in the form of treasures like money or possessions, but this can also be in our time and talents. If we find it hard to give up things for others, especially earthly things, then we know that our soul is asleep and we need to awaken to a deeper spiritual life. How we raise up our soul is to sacrifice for others.
Awakening the soul can require a lot of effort, but our reward is beyond compare and the comfort that comes after is worth more than any struggle. St Paul says that if we rise and awaken our sleeping or dead soul, Christ’s light will be given to us. We are given an opportunity in this life not to just experience Christ’s paschal light, but to be given it—to live it. This is why our saints are painted with halos, because this great light shines from their awakened and alive sanctified souls. Let us Christians strive to be like them and embark on a path toward forming habits today that will keep our souls risen for eternity.
Fr. John Valadez
is the pastor of St. Timothy Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lompoc, California and is the Spiritual Advisor of SOYO in DLAW. He is a convert to Orthodoxy and was ordained to the holy priesthood in 2017. Fr. John is married to Khouria Krystina and they have five children.
By His Grace Bishop JOHN, Diocese of Worcester and New England
Feeling a little anxious or blue these days with all the changes in our lives? Good grief! That is good grief. What if I told you that is the healthiest response I can think of? The term “good grief” always makes me first think of Charlie Brown and brings a smile to my face. But that’s not how I’m using the term “good grief” today. Today I mean that any change in routine is experienced as a loss. If nothing more than a loss of the routine to even our old sense of normalcy. Social distancing, completing coursework over social media, working from home, not going to the gym, locked out of restaurants and stores are all new experiences for us. I’m amazed at how well we have adapted. It is a sign of our resiliency, nevertheless some of us despite well crafted coping behaviors are climbing the walls and want to break the law and play frisbee or something. Good grief or grieving for me is the healthy response that is a part of a process that leads us to problem solve, accept that which we can’t change, adapt to new situations and survive. More than survive, perhaps we can reframe what is happening as an opportunity to grow spiritually, psychologically, emotionally and perhaps even physiologically. I’m not saying God has sent this to us, but we can choose to use the time well. Grieving is the normal response to loss, and every change in our lives necessarily involves a loss. Grief here is normal and healthy, but we don’t want to get stuck in it.
This is where I want to talk about the opportunities that we are presented. Locked in the house or isolated at work offers us a chance to quiet down. Once we allow ourselves some silence, we can embrace our situation and discover God who has been waiting for us inside all along. We can let Him in, talk to Him, pray, read scriptures and really take some time to listen. We can discover and understand the mystical worlds of me, of God, of God and me! Worlds that are as complex as the galaxies, and no farther away than where we are right now.
Like Deacon Marek and OCF, many of our clergy and parish leadership are taking advantage of your time at home to reach out and connect. They are using the often-disparaged social media outlets to do holy work, live stream worship and make individual contacts. There are support groups, chat rooms, bible studies, community virtual worship, web sites, spiritual resources and many other efforts going on keeping the web very busy. It may be a good use of time to pay attention to some of these messages, listen to God inside, and be a better Orthodox Christian for it. To recap, I’m suggesting that we unplug, visit God, and then plug in and visit God with all our Orthodox comrades who are fighting the good fight together. This is a real fight and we are all in it together.
Bishop JOHN (Abdalah) holds a Doctor of Ministry degree in Pastoral Care from Pittsburgh Theological
School, a Master of Divinity from St. Vladimir’s Seminary, a Master’s equivalency certificate in Pastoral
Counseling from Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute, and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from
Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts. Bishop JOHN resides over the diocese of Worcester and New England for the Antiochian Archdiocese.
In season 2 of NBC’s The Good Place, the character Michael (who is an immortal being) learns about the human concept of death. His sudden grasp of the concept throws him into an existential crisis, until the protagonist of the show, Eleanor Shellstrop, intervenes. “I don’t know if what I’m going to say is going to hurt or help, but screw it,” she says to him. “Do you know what’s really happening right now? You’re learning what it’s like to be human. All humans are aware of death. So, we’re all a little bit sad, all the time. That’s just the deal.”
“Sounds like a crappy deal,” Michael responds.
“Well yeah, it is. But we don’t get offered any other ones,” Eleanor continues. “And if you try to ignore your sadness, it just ends up leaking out of you anyway. I’ve been there. Everybody’s been there. So, don’t fight it.”
I’m an avid binger of The Good Place, and this particular moment in the show is most definitely the one that’s had the most impact on me. Just the simple concept of “we’re all a little bit sad, all the time” is such an accurate description of human nature. It’s true that our lives are filled with that perpetual sense of sadness and anxiety that stems from the notion of death, whether that be the fear of death, the presence of death, or the death of something we hold dear to our hearts. Life is filled with death: the death of loved ones, the death of specific times and eras, the death of childhood, of innocence, of love, and of relationships. Death can be seen in many different forms, and all of the various manifestations of death are difficult in their own unique way.
Currently, I’m dealing with the death of a specific time and era. I recently moved from Illinois to Colorado for college, which meant I had to leave behind my family, my friends, and my boyfriend. My boyfriend and I are now in a long-distance relationship, and one thing I’ve noticed throughout the week we’ve been apart is that his absence has settled into me in the form of a perpetual ache. I’m enjoying my new classes and my new environment, but that constant little ache is something that most likely won’t leave. This means that I need to learn how to integrate that ache into my life.
That idea of accepting sadness as embedded into daily human life isn’t just something talked about on The Good Place. It’s also an idea that’s very well-articulated in Orthodox Christianity, specifically, when it comes to depression. When I was depressed during my junior year, I wasn’t very open to Orthodox Christianity. I was more or less agnostic: constantly wrestling with religion and unable to produce or find answers to satisfy myself. Because of this, I was trying my hardest to find comfort and solace in what the secular world was providing for me. I followed advice pages on Instagram, I looked through self-help books and blogs, and I watched a myriad of YouTube videos. They were often very helpful, and provided me with a few techniques for combating negative thoughts and feelings that I still use today. However, there was one common theme among them all. They all seemed to point me towards superficial solutions, such as talking to friends or practicing self-care. An idea that was fairly common in the secular ideology was that sadness was bad and that we shouldn’t feel sad because we have the right to be happy. I was bombarded with the impression that I should constantly be doing things that would take away the sadness; I should be filling my life with things that made me feel warm, fuzzy, and happy. This brought me into a very toxic mindset where I would indignantly ask myself why on earth I couldn’t be happy if I, in fact, deserved happiness and where my sadness seemed isolating and ostracizing because I thought that I was “supposed to be happy.” I felt like the world was against me; It seemed like everything was unfair because I didn’t feel the way I wanted to feel.
Secular western culture is very focused on individualism. We see this in our career paths: children are more likely to leave their parents and family in order to follow their own personal vocation than they would be in other cultures or in past eras. We see this in our concepts of entertainment: we are more likely to focus on what we prefer to do in our free time rather than what our families want to do. This idea of individualism is also very evident through the secular view on depression. Basically, we are told that if we do not feel happy and fulfilled in our individual lives, there is something wrong. We are bogged down with the concept of personal fulfillment, and we are constantly trying to obtain it in any way we can. We spend time in toxic habits, such as chronic partying, drinking, or drug use because it makes us feel good which we believe is how we’re supposed to feel.
You may wonder where I’m going with this. When I was in my state of depression, I went to a Greek Orthodox monastery with my sister to see if it would make me feel better. During this time, I was having difficulty sitting in church because church services were something that made me anxious and upset, particularly because of the never-ending pressure I received from my church community to combat my depression with prayer along with the ongoing criticism I faced because of my perpetual religious doubt. So, while my sister attended Vespers, I wandered around the empty monastery until I found an interesting book in the bookstore. I don’t remember what it was called, but I know that the book was about the Orthodox perspective on depression. Though the Orthodox Church was, at the time, something I was really struggling with, I was searching for answers in any place I could get them. So, I began to read.
The book mentioned something that I had never heard before: humans are supposed to be sad. We are supposed to be a little bit sad, all the time, just like Eleanor Shellstrop said. And just like the quote in The Good Place, masked sadness will always find a way to leak out. The book was a little more in depth than The Good Place, however. It talked about how humans are, because of the fall, separated from God. And with that separation comes death, and with the realization of death comes the reality that we are meant to be a little bit sad all of the time. During that night of reading, I learned that the first step to conquering depression is to realize that, as humans, we aren’t supposed to be happy all the time. But at the same time, we aren’t supposed to let the reality of death bog us down. Instead, we are called to find a way to mingle that very human sadness with the divine joy of eternal life. We are supposed to learn how to be hopeful and filled with joy while simultaneously recognizing the ever-present ache that settles inside us. The idea that sadness shouldn’t be constantly ignored or shut down is a concept that I still hold very near and dear to my heart.
So how does this relate to long-distance relationships? Well, I haven’t been in a long distance relationship for long, but it’s my experience that the pain of separation shows up as a constant ache. It’s sort of a dull roar, if you will, of sadness that is manageable but always present. But I know that that kind of ache isn’t something that’s bad or unnatural. It isn’t something I’m supposed to get rid of. Rather, it’s a good lesson on what being human is really like. It’s just a part of the ache we all feel in being separated from (or, if you’ll allow me the comparison, in a long-distance relationship with) God. We are all aware of death in its many different forms. Because of this awareness, we are all a little bit sad, all the time. And maybe that’s not wrong. Maybe that’s not something we should suppress or ignore. Our sadness, no matter the source, is just a manifestation of our humanity. Humanity is bittersweet and ambiguous, and pain and sadness are realities that are hard to accept. But we are called to unify our sadness and our joy, and ignoring the sadness is like ignoring an aspect of our humanity. As Eleanor Shellstrop says: “I’ve been there. Everybody’s been there. So, don’t fight it.”
Guest Blog Contributor
My name is Alison Standish. I grew up in Aurora Illinois, but I am currently in my freshman year at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado. I am pursuing a major in Mass Communications, and I hope to eventually have a career where I can tell stories for a living. Some of my favorite things include: writing, reading, listening to music, longboarding, and spending as much time as I possibly can exploring the outdoors.
Why Apply by Andrew Gluntz
It seems weird that only a year ago, I was staring at my computer screen trying to write my SLB application. I was nervous, sure. I didn’t know if I could manage the work. I didn’t really know what I had to offer to the board, and I certainly couldn’t tell you three reasons why I was fit to be an RSL (hint: this will be important when you’re writing your app). I didn’t even have a solid professional reference. But what I did have was two years of amazing experiences in OCF. I had an incredibly supportive chapter that I had helped lead my sophomore year. I had been to two College Conferences and a retreat. I had friends I had made through OCF, random small group leaders who became my people (spoiler alert: OCF gives you friends). And lucky for me, I had two role models showing me exactly what serving the church on the SLB looked like.
I’m sure anyone on the board could tell you all the great things about being a servant leader, the amazing community and support of other young, Orthodox leaders, and all the great times we have when we’re together. You’ve heard it. I’ve probably said it. You can most definitely hear it again if you ask (and you might not even have to). So today I’m going to tell you all the crummy things about being on the SLB.
- Coordinating meetings across four time zones is a NIGHTMARE. Working with people who are just waking up when you’re having lunch is the most frustrating thing ever. Your free time never lines up. EST is stuck in my head forever.
- Goodbyes suck. And when you’ve spent a week praying, working, and laughing alongside your best friends you met a week ago, they really suck.
- Thanks to Google Drive and Slack, I have ANOTHER thing to procrastinate with when I really should be doing homework. I know, OCF work is better than homework, but unfortunately, I can’t put midterms on pause just because it’s for church (maybe I can get an exception?)
- Let’s just say time zones exist for a reason. When you haven’t seen your friends in months and the closest you’ll ever be is a five-hour plane ride away, it’s heartbreaking when you realize SLI is eight months away.
If you’ve held on to this terrible monologue this long, I have a feeling you’ve got what it takes. Stamina is a given. Determination helps a lot too, especially when the odds of pulling off an event are seriously stacked against you. You must love OCF a lot if you were even mildly entertained by this, so that’s another step in the right direction. And if you’re reading this in the first place, you want to serve. You want to get involved, and you want to be a steward of your talents. You know that God is calling you to serve His Church, and you know OCF has impacted you in so many ways and you know you want to step up.
So, apply. Don’t apply because I told you to (but you should apply). Don’t apply because your friends are applying (but you should encourage your friends to apply). Don’t apply because you want to get cool t-shirts (but you should design some cool merch for us). Don’t even apply because it sounds like fun (but I can guarantee, it will be fun).
Don’t apply because you think you can afford to give yourself over to Christ’s calling in your life. Apply because you can’t afford not to.
You get the drift.
Apply for the board.
Great Lakes Regional Student Leader
Andrew is the current student leader residing over the Great Lakes region, and is next year’s SLB Chairman. Andrew goes to THE Ohio State University and is a Chemical Engineering major. In his free time, Andrew enjoys cooking, swimming, and playing music. He is also ambidextrous! His favorite saint is Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnika. If you have any questions for Andrew feel free to reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Elias Anderson
With the new Joker movie coming out and the countless other superhero movies that have been released over the past few years, it is clear that superheroes are a large part of our modern society. But who are the superheroes of Orthodoxy? The obvious response, and what you’re thinking right now, is of course the church fathers and other saints. And yes these holy people certainly are the foundation of the Church, and we would not know Christ the same way today without them. One thing all these people have in common, however, is that they’re mostly departed from this life. Though they certainly still live among us in the icons on our walls and in the relationships we can, and should, cultivate with them, they are not alive in the same way as those who still walk the Earth. This then raises the question, “who are the living superheroes of Orthodoxy?”
One obvious answer to this question is, the deacons, priests and bishops that serve us. They, after all, have the most education and active spiritual lives, leading our churches in worship every week. However, they are only a small part of what holds up our Church today. The fact is we all have the power to become superheroes, so how can we as college students do that?
Let’s start by looking at our clergy because their job is very much that of a superhero. Bishops, being the heads of the church and chief shepherds to all the churches and people under them, have a life full of travel. Never being in the same place for very long makes it challenging to develop good relationships with all their sheep. Hierarchs that don’t lose sight on what’s most important are the super bishops and are a prime example to us aspiring superheroes.
Furthermore, many deacons, in addition to helping lead the church in worship every week, may also have a full time job in the secular world. Whether that job be teaching at a university or performing surgery at a hospital, living an active life in both the workplace and church is what makes deacons, super deacons and an example to us on how we can live our lives. It is by no means necessary for everyone to spend all of their time at church or doing religious things. Instead, we should dedicate our time appropriately between study, fellowship and faith.
Next, priests also serve multiple roles. First of all, being the priest at a parish is like being the CEO of a small company. Priests, especially in smaller parishes, have to do much of the administrative work of the church such as keeping track of stewardship, running meetings, making calendars, paying bills, and countless other tasks that have little to nothing to do with the theology they learned in seminary. Furthermore, they still have to be a good priest which entails much more than leading Liturgy on Sunday morning. In one day alone they could go from doing work at the office to having lunch with a college student to performing a funeral to a parish council meeting all before coming home to put the kids to bed or spend time with their wife. The balance of being a good husband, father and shepherd to their flock is a feat only a superhero could handle. This kind of dedication and well roundedness shows us how we can serve the church in many unique ways.
What would Batman be without Robin, Knight rider without KITT, or a priest without his wife? Now of course not all priests have wives and certainly are no less of a superhero because of it, but priests’ wives themselves are another kind of living superhero. Many of them feel they live under a mask of “the priest’s wife” when they’re at church and feel they’re under a lense where everything they do will be looked at with scrutiny. Also, they are often used as the mediator between parishioner and priest when the concern has nothing to do with them. Dealing with all of this extra pressure while still supporting their husband and children in all that they do is what makes a presbytera, khouria, matushka or simply “first name”, a super priest wife. Their example of unwavering, self-sacrificing support is one we should all strive to emulate in our dealings with our local parishes and school communities.
Superpowers aren’t limited to members of the clergy and their wives however. Just look around your parish and you’ll see that being a superhero is much more common than it may seem. During the week someone runs the church office and helps the priest with the administrative things listed above. Also, the youth director is hard at work planning and running activities for the kids to stay active in their faith. Using individual talents to serve others is something everyone can do to become a superhero.
On any given Sunday the acts of many different people are seen to be super. Starting first with the chanters who join the priest the night before for vespers/vigil and the morning of for orthros/matins. Their amazing, talented voices along with their commitment to the church is what make chanters, super chanters. Walking into the church we see the people that gave the car-less college student a ride to church holding the door open for the daughter who’s pushing her aging mother in a wheelchair. Entering the Narthex, they are greeted by the friendly ushers who sacrifice standing in the sanctuary for making sure everything runs smoothly from candles to communion to collections. Communion itself involves much more than just the clergy serving it. From the people that baked the prosphora (Holy Bread) the night before to the person that hand washed the red communion cloths to the altar boy that holds the antidoron (Holy Bread), communion takes the powers of many to happen. After liturgy, the Sunday school teachers teach the kids the faith while the adults enjoy a meal and fellowship that someone generously hosted. All of these people are superheroes in their own special ways and are the living pillars of Orthodoxy.
All of these examples should give us an idea of how we college students can use our God given powers to become superheroes. What are those powers? All of us have the gift of the Holy Spirit inside of us but how it is manifested in our talents and abilities is unique to each person. So discover what you are good at and do what you can do to serve the others around you. Whether that be helping out more with OCF rather than just attending and letting the leader do most of the work or continuing to help others find a way to church, do what you can do to be the superhero that you are.
Hi I’m Elias Anderson. I’m from Libertyville Illinois and grew up at Saints Peter and Paul Greek Orthodox Church in Glenview, Illinois. I’m currently a freshman at Valparaiso University majoring in Mechanical Engineering and minoring in music. I attended the CrossRoad summer institute in 2018 and this past summer I was a CIT at the Antiochian Village and participant at Project Mexico. When I’m not in class or doing homework, you can find me playing my trumpet in the jazz or concert band or guitar in my dorm room. I love everything Pan-Orthodox and am always down to converse about anything religion.
By Fr. Gregory Jensen
Every day, or at least most days, I read the life of one of the saints being commemorated. As we hear in the Divine Liturgy, this includes “forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous spirit made perfect in faith, especially for our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary.”
Though I’ve taught about many saints and have a devotion to many more, it is probably the Mother of God who is most important to me.
My relationship with the Mother of God began in college which was a hard time for me.
Like many undergraduates, it was the first time I was away from home. While new people and my classes were interesting, they were also challenging. To be honest, especially in my freshman year I wasn’t up to the challenge.
My grades were bad. I didn’t know how to study. And while I did very well in high school college meant sitting in classes with people who had done at least as well, and often better than I did. I simply didn’t understand that last year’s high school “A” was this year’s college “C.”
Because of this, I felt bad about myself. Added to this, I was shy and pretty insecure in my new environment. As a result, I was terribly lonely and probably more than a little depressed.
One consolation I had was that the campus chapel was always open. I would frequently spend time there praying and thinking about my life.
On the left side of the chapel, there was a statue of the Virgin Mary (I attended a Catholic university, so our chapel had statues). I would often sit in front of the Mother of God and simply talk to her. And I would talk for hours.
As our conversation unfolded, as I read the Scriptures, studied more theology, and began to understand more about life, I came to appreciate the strength and faith it took for Mary to say yes to God.
Here was a girl who when she was younger than me agreed to carry the Son of God. Me? I was having trouble remembering to say grace before I ate or to get up in time for church on Sunday morning.
But Mary? Mary said yes to God and, in doing so, played a role in the salvation of the world!
But like me though, Mary sometimes struggled with following Jesus. St Luke tells us she was troubled by the angel’s greeting. She was often unsure about what her Son was doing. And, of course, she stood at the foot of His Cross and watched Him die for the life of the world.
She was able to do all this because “she pondering in her heart” the things she heard and saw. Mary was a woman of deep prayer.
Now as a priest, I will often tell people to look at the Mother of God as an example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Not only is she the first disciple of Jesus, but she is also the first evangelist.
I work to draw close to Him but He came to live in her.
I tell people about Jesus; Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Like her Son, Mary did all this for our sake. And so, I tell people, go to the Mother of God not simply as an example of how to live the Christian life but for help in being a Christian.
Let me tell you a story about this last point.
Years ago, a woman came to me about becoming Orthodox. Her husband REALLY, REALLY wanted to become Orthodox but she wasn’t sure. She was raised in a black Pentecostal church and so she had a lot of theological questions. She also had some concerns about joining a largely white community. She wondered, reasonably enough, if she and her biracial children would be accepted.
After we talked for a while, I pointed to the icon of the Mother of God on the iconostasis. I told the woman the story I just told you and suggested she talk to the Virgin Mary about her fears. “Talk to Mary like she was your mother.”
She hesitantly agreed and I went back to my office.
About 30 minutes or an hour later, she came into my office. I looked up and asked her what was on her mind.
Looking straight at me and she said, “Mom says I should become Orthodox, it will be ok. Oh, and my new name is Monica, St Augustine’s mom.” Augustine is another of my favorite saints, but that’s a story for another day!
Feasts of the Mother of God are always a joy for me. When I serve them, I remember what it was to be a scared, 18 year old freshman far from home and at the start of a new life.
Throughout that life, which for all its bumps, bruises and set back has, thanks be to God turned out pretty good, the Mother of God has been there with me. Yes, sometimes I forgot she was there or didn’t appreciate her as I should have. But the Theotokos never forgot me.
May Christ our true God, through the prayers of His most holy Mother, bless, protect and keep us all as we follow Jesus as His disciples and witnesses on our college campus!
Fr Gregory Jensen
Guest Author and Priest in Madison, WI
Fr. Gregory Jensen, Ph.D. (Duquesne University) is a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-USA and a professor at St Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary where he teaches social ethics and young adult faith development. Currently, he is the priest of Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church. The parish is located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also the Spiritual Advisor for the OCF at the University of Wisconin-Madison
by Elias Anderson
Happy New Year! September marks the start of both the Ecclesiastical new year of the church and the new school year for colleges and universities across the country. For students, going back to school can be full of many emotions: excitement to see friends, nervousness about new classes, or maybe even fear of falling ill to the darkness surrounding college life. If we are not afraid of this, we should be — if not for ourselves then for our friends and peers. The statistics are out: young people are leaving the church when they get to college. I won’t delve into the why, but I do want to focus on the how. How do we prevent our brothers and sisters from cutting themselves off from Christ and His Church? The answer can be found in this year’s OCF theme which is to, “be a light in the darkness.” From the Gospel of John we know that, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). In order to defeat the darkness that surrounds college life, we must become a light like Christ who is the Light.
I’ll continue with a little anecdote from my school’s activity fair. I was standing at our OCF booth and a kid stopped noticing our banner, and said, “Is that Orthodoxy? Like Orthodox Orthodoxy? I had no idea that existed in the Western Hemisphere!” This might make you chuckle a little, but it should also make us all realize how few people know about Orthodoxy in America. As a campus ministry, we should do our best to minister to the whole campus, not just the Orthodox kids, by inviting them to our events so that they too can learn about the Faith. By doing this, we are cultivating the light within us.
On a more individual note, it can oftentimes be harder to stand firm in the faith when we are the only Orthodox person in the room. These times, however, are the most important, as they happen constantly. What does this look like? When someone asks you about the icons on your wall or the prayer rope around your wrist or cross around your neck — give them the real answer. Tell them what it is and who you are. Not every instance needs to develop into a long, deep, conversation, but every instance does need to reveal some truth rather than result in a quick cop out. Furthermore, many times when someone asks about your prayer rope, maybe they are just breaking the ice to talk about the faith.
Just as bringing two wavering candles together creates a bigger flame, so too, when we gather with other Orthodox Christians, will our spiritual light be bolstered. We have an opportunity every Sunday to restore and strengthen our faith so that we can continue to strengthen others’. Getting yourself to Divine Liturgy every Sunday is great, but making it as easy as possible for others to join you is even greater. Whether that be organizing a carpool or reaching out to friends you haven’t seen at church in awhile, doing everything in your power to physically keep them attending church will, in the long run, keep them in the Church.
So as the year goes on I encourage us all to keep cultivating the light within ourselves, so that it may emanate onto others, making them lights, too.
Hi I’m Elias Anderson. I’m from Libertyville Illinois and grew up at Saints Peter and Paul Greek Orthodox Church in Glenview, Illinois. I’m currently a freshman at Valparaiso University majoring in Mechanical Engineering and minoring in music. I attended the CrossRoad summer institute in 2018 and this past summer I was a CIT at the Antiochian Village and participant at Project Mexico. When I’m not in class or doing homework you can find me playing my trumpet in the jazz or concert band or guitar in my dorm room. I love everything Pan-Orthodox and am always down to converse about anything religion.
Hello from the beyond! The scary unknown that is post grad, the uncharted territory of working adulthood.
An update: Upon graduating from Pitt and passing on the OCF baton, I embarked on a new great adventure. I am spending the next two years as a teaching fellow with the Alliance for Catholic Education (which you should all check out: ace.nd.edu) and am spending the next two years teaching middle school language arts in Mobile, AL while pursuing my Masters of Education from Notre Dame.
Though I’m still a novice at this working thing, I’d like to reflect and share with you some humble thoughts.
1. You’re probably going to spiritually struggle more.
College is hard, no doubt. I don’t need to tell you that. Being on your own and navigating your relationship with God, establishing a personal faith life, etc. all the things OCF warns you about and supports you through are valid struggles. But that’s the thing — OCF is there for you. You have a support team, a lifeboat of other Orthodox college students captained by a spiritual or lay advisor who help you navigate the turbulent waters of college.
When you leave OCF, you leave the lifeboat. You’re now aboard your own little dinghy, all alone, still not really sure how to sail the waters. If you’re like me, you’ve moved WAY far from home or anyone you know. This is another huge change in your life, but without the structure, comfort, and help of OCF.
2. That being said, OCF will still help.
OCF has gifted you with an arsenal of friends, mentors, and resources. Use them! Reach out to your friends when you struggle, those who have gone before you and have this whole working thing under their belt, those who are also experiencing it for the first time, and those still in the safety of senior year. Reach out to your chapter spiritual advisor, a speaker you particularly enjoyed. Admit you are struggling and embrace it! The soil is fertile for growth, all you need to do is nurture it. You’re going to be changing and growing in so many ways — don’t neglect your spiritual struggles and changes but give them the tools they need to flourish.
3. Love God, and love your neighbor.
Maybe this is more Emma – specific advice, as I spend my days with a hormonal group of 60 middleschoolers. Sometimes, it’s really hard to love them. Like, really hard, especially when they ask you to go to the bathroom for the fifteenth time that day after you already said no the first fourteen times.. No matter what field you go into, you’re probably going to have to work with people you’ll struggle to love. In college, you often have more choice about the groups with which you surround yourself — your roommates, study buddies, club members. In work, not so much. You might not like your boss or your co-workers. But, you have to love them. And don’t just love them because you have to, because it’s a a commandment. Really try. Get to know them. Find Christ within them. In doing so, you will find Christ within yourself. And your work life will be a whole lot easier.
And of course, never forget God. Pray. Love. Give glory and thanks. In a way, we always talk about the things that change in our life — college, working, where we live, who are friends are — but it’s so much simpler than that. The one thing in our life that never changes is Christ and His love for us. So, while you’re in the midst of these crazy changes, remember the constants. And you will be just fine.
Emma is the former chairman of the OCF SLB. After graduating from Pitt, Emma joined the Alliance for Catholic Education as a Teaching Fellow. She currently lives in Mobile, AL where she teaches middle school language arts and is pursing her Masters of Education from Notre Dame.
In this series, “My OCF Story,” alumni share their experiences from their time in OCF and its impact on their transition and life in the post-grad real world.
Hello OCF community! My name is Vanessa Constantinidis and I am a former OCF Student Leadership Board member. I received both my undergraduate degree, in English & Italian, and my graduate degree, in Writing Studies, from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. I currently work as the Associate Director of Admissions at Hellenic College Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, MA.
Perhaps my most memorable OCF experience was Real Break. My Real Break trip was not only a remarkable memory from OCF, but in life in general! In March 2014, I embarked on my Real Break journey to Romania where I had the opportunity to form relationships with other Real Break students, as well as, orphans, disabled children, elderly, and abused mothers of the Pro-Vita community. I recognized that this trip would impact me, however, I did not realize how my life would forever be changed due to the experiences I was given and the people I had the opportunity to meet.
Throughout our time with the Pro-Vita community, our group grew very close to one of the mothers. She had told us that she had not received communion in years because she was very scared of going to confession. The next day, after many of the Real Break students partook in the sacrament of confession—I saw her walk up to do the same. She later told us that we gave her the strength to go to confession and receive communion, and it was such a remarkable moment that I’ll never forget.
There are two places in the world where I’ve seen my Orthodox faith come to life in the purest form: my metropolis summer camp and in a remote little town in Romania called Valea Screzii. What do they have in common? In both environments, life is simple and Christ is in the center. Valea Screzii is a little piece of Heaven on Earth and all the love and faith in the community can truly move mountains.
I knew participating in OCF would enhance my spiritual life in college and give me the opportunity to connect with other Orthodox Christians—but I didn’t expect it to have as much of an impact as it has on my post-grad life. My involvement in Real Break and the Student Leadership Board, in particular, opened my eyes, not only to the spiritual and social benefits of OCF—but also the professional gains.
Fundraising for my Real Break trip just seemed like a means to an end at the time, but it equipped me with invaluable skills for my career in the non-profit world and in graduate school. Raising funds for my trip involved many speaking engagements, writing personalized letters to communities and donors, and building long-lasting relationships with people who believed in the mission of what I was doing. These skills allowed me to excel in grant writing courses in graduate school, and continue to assist within my role in admissions where I am regularly public speaking and building relationships with students. Additionally, serving as a member of the Student Leadership Board instilled team-building and leadership skills in me, and showed me that a group of young college students can come together and change the world.
It’s so important to join OCF in college because you never know where it may lead you! It’s crazy looking back at my first OCF meeting, where I joined simply because I wanted to have in-depth conversations with other Orthodox Christian students. Jumping forward to now—where my involvement with OCF has led me to working for the Church. I know that wherever my career leads me, I will always have OCF to thank for showing me how to live a balanced life with Christ in the center.
Get involved with OCF in any way you can and whatever way you feel comfortable (I would obviously suggest a Real Break trip or applying to be on the SLB). OCF has the power to shape your spiritual, personal, and professional growth—if you let it. Also, never stop praying.
Vanessa Constantinidis, a Philadelphia native, holds an undergraduate degree in English and Italian and a graduate degree in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. After several years of working in international education, and in admissions for her alma mater—her love for counseling students and her Greek Orthodox faith led her to Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, MA, where she currently serves as the Associate Director of Admissions. When she has free time, she loves reading, writing, exploring different cities in the U.S., or planning her next international trip.
Among my group of girlfriends, the subject of spiritual fathers has come up a lot lately–how to build a relationship with a priest enough to be able to confide in them, confession with priests, reaching out, etc. It’s been a topic of conversation and anxiety for a while, especially as we get increasingly busier with our lives and search for spiritual guidance.
Flashback about three weeks ago. I was talking to a close friend of mine among the said group. I called her to catch up but I admittedly had an ulterior motive. I was having a life-transition crisis and I needed to vent it out. I knew she would offer the perfect guidance as a friend, fellow Christian, and a critic to tell me I needed to chill out–which I very much needed. My rant to her was a flurry of stress and worry over every little decision I had made in the past month. Whether I made the right school choice, career aspirations, why the heck I left Texas (best country out there), etc. etc. (there were a lot of et ceteras). It was a life update turned into a storm of stress and worry and anxiety over every little thing. As I was venting through all this, I did begrudgingly acknowledge that I was worrying about it way more than I was praying about it. I had been so caught up in analyzing of all of it that I just could not get out of my head enough to take a step back and turn to God. Come to think of it, as worried as I was, I did have to admit that I had gotten some cool opportunities since starting school and even got a job opportunity that I would have never gotten if I hadn’t moved. In fact, there were a lot of moments over the past month that were little blessings to keep me going, even though I hadn’t thought to focus on them.
As I was talking this out (I’m very much a talk-it-out person, down to calling my sister at the grocery store about whether to get Ben & Jerry’s or Talenti), my friend laughed.
“You know I had a wise friend once tell me that when things get overwhelming, you just need to step back and P.R.A.Y. And you literally just did that, but backwards.”
The P.R.A.Y. acronym stands for Praise, Repent, Ask for others, and then for Yourself. What’s ironic is that I was the one who had told her about that method (can’t take all the credit; shout out to Gigi Shadid, 2012 CSR Winter Camp speaker). And she was right–I basically used the P.R.A.Y. method but backwards, choosing to count my blessings last instead of first. It was a funny full-circle moment as I sheepishly consented to my backwardness of thought.
Fast forward to a week or two later during our girls’ night discussion. Our topic was spiritual fathers since it had been on all of our minds (this is what we read if you want to know). Throughout the course of our conversation, we came to the realization that, in a way, we were all each other’s spiritual advisors. Don’t get me wrong–friends do not by any means replace a clergy advisor. But we realized that there are a lot more people surrounding us who are leading us on the Path than we really saw because we were so focused on the idea of a “spiritual father” alone, not realizing the countless ways we were advising and guiding each other spiritually.
So here’s my take-away for you. Lean on each other for spiritual guidance and companionship, friends. The people you surround yourself with, whether through OCF or other means, will have more of an impact on you than you realize, and taking this life journey with them makes it so much more comforting and doable. After all, it is said that you come to emulate the five people you spend the most time with. Think of who those five people are and whether you would be proud to reflect them. For me the answer is thankfully a resounding yes.
Hibbah Kaileh is a graduate student at George Washington University studying global security policy. She served as the South Student Leader on the 2015-2016 Student Leadership Board. Among her many talents is the ability to voraciously devour a novel (usually Harry Potter) or a Netflix series (usually The Office) in the span of a few days.
As I was driving up to Oklahoma City last Saturday night for the Oklahoma/Arkansas OCF retreat, I remember thinking only of all of the work that I had to do. Physics labs, Physiology Exams, and the constant panic attack that is Anatomy at OU were swirling around in my brain as I tried to justify attending this event to myself. I certainly felt an obligation as the secretary of my chapter, and I also felt a certain pull, a pull similar to the one that gets me into church even on my most overwhelmed Sundays.
At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that such an event was bound to be rather a waste of time, with little to nothing accomplished (it should be noted here that I am a VERY goal-oriented person. It’s scary, really). At the same time, I could acknowledge to myself that I had never felt this way back in high school when GOYA events rolled around. I had always looked forward to those evenings with anticipation, knowing that I would spend a pleasant evening, laughing and talking with friends that had become very important to me.
And again, driving along the empty, pitch-black Oklahoma highway, I felt the familiar sinking in my stomach when I thought of home and my wonderful church friends there. We spend our childhoods growing close to a small group of people that attend the same church. We develop our “Orthodox legs” with them, we go to Sunday school, corn mazes, and movies with them, hang out at each others’ houses, and maybe even date some of them throughout our high school years. They become a network that makes itself an additional emotional tie to our home parish.
When we go to college, though, if we go away like I did, that network ceases for nine long months every year. I, at least, have not developed the same emotional ties to the people in my OU OCF that I have to people back home. On a certain level, I don’t want to. I live for the summer Greek festival, Vacation Church School, times when everything goes back to the way it was before college.
Driving home from this retreat, however, I gradually became aware that I was happy to have made the long drive. I felt much the same as I used to driving home from GOYA on Saturday nights in high school: serene, peaceful, warm with the love of good friends. Even though we spent most of the evening playing Uno, the best part of which was definitely torturing the poor guy on my right with repeated skip cards and draw-twos, the entire night was infused with a sense of spirituality and closeness that is hard to capture during our busy, hectic weeks on campus.
The entire night was infused with a sense of spirituality and closeness
– Tweet this!
More than that, though, this retreat had the camaraderie that is achieved when Orthodox people get together anywhere. Our Orthodoxy is a bond that we can feel even when we don’t know each other very well. I felt as though I was better acquainted with some of the people there after three hours than I am with some of my friends at school whom I have sat next to all semester. There is an ease that is hard to achieve with any other group of people. I was pleased that we were able to do a service project as well, making hygiene kits for IOCC.
Basically, I guess that what I am trying to get at here is that many of us miss our home parishes and our friends there terribly. While I don’t think that can be replicated in the same way, I do think that retreats like this allow us to recreate, at least ephemerally, those emotional, people-oriented ties that help to link us to the church.
I remember a friend of mine (from church, of course) back in St. Louis telling me how much easier it was for him to come to church on Sundays when all of the out-of-city college students came back than during the school year. Of course, we should be going to church for its own sake, and you will certainly never hear me say otherwise. However, we are made to be social and to love each other, and this love certainly does help to bring us to church. After all, we are weak and human.
And so, I am grateful for the opportunity to have attended this retreat. For me, it temporarily brought back my sense of those emotional ties, and refreshed my soul and sense of belonging to the church. Which, of course, is the entire point.
Clare Vogt is a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma, majoring in Nursing/Pre-med. She is from St. Louis, which she will tell absolutely anyone with great enthusiasm. She is the secretary of the OU OCF chapter, and can usually be found enjoying long walks or reading 19th century British literature in her spare time.
As an Orthodox Christian I have learned many difficult lessons in my life, the first and foremost being that, in the words of John Green, “The Universe” or God “is not a wish granting factory”. I have struggled my entire life with severe mental illnesses namely: depression, anxiety, and anorexia nervosa. I have spent my fair share of nights praying with honest tears streaming down my cheeks to be healed but have never woken up to be so. I have had uncomfortable occasions where various Christians have insisted upon laying hands on me and trying to heal me with the power of Christ. As you may have guessed, this is not a story about how I prayed and God took away my mental illness. This is a story of how I am living, as a person of faith, with mental illness.
Last spring, I was in a rough spot. I became antisocial and depressed, I never wanted to get out of my bed, and the eating disorder I had developed in high school reared its ugly head. During this period I decided to start saying the Paraklesis every night before bed. I was inspired by the miracle-working icon I had seen at College Conference that year and I wanted more than anything to have this burden of depression taken away. I planned on doing the prayer service for forty days straight, and I expected to watch my life slowly improve until everything became “normal”. Instead, I watched everything fall apart. Plans fell through, fellow classmates in college died, and I was drowning in an ocean of sadness that I no longer wanted to swim in. It was dark, and by God’s grace I am still here.
If you had asked me then why I was bothering to pray the Paraklesis when clearly the Theotokos wasn’t helping me out, I couldn’t have given you an answer. Now, after months of looking back at this period with anger in my heart towards God and the Theotokos I realized how much the Paraklesis saved me. Every night I prayed. Despite what had happened during the day and despite how much I wanted to disappear, I still prayed. I wanted the Theotokos to save me from the things going wrong in my life, ignoring that she was already saving me from myself. I didn’t see that the church was helping me, and in the following months I distanced myself from God and stopped praying all together. Unsurprisingly, these past few months of my life have been marked by some of the worst depressive episodes I have ever had. Things were dark, but what made this period far worse than last spring was my separation from the church and community.
I can’t tell you I’m a perfect person now, nor can I tell you that my struggles with mental illness have turned me into a pious individual. But I can tell you that my darkest days were spent away from the church. The easiest way to hurt yourself is to separate yourself from God. If you are not running towards God, then you are running towards death. Please, run with me into the light. Do not let the Devil convince you that solitude will bring you anything but misery. Let us learn to praise God in the darkness as we wait for the sunrise.
From the morning watch until night, from the morning watch, let Israel hope in the Lord
An anonymous guest post for the OCF blog.
Stop. Reflect how OCF has impacted you. This was what I was asked to do. So many joys have come to the forefront of my mind while contemplating this. Here are some notes regarding my experiences with OCF:
It’s safe to invite my friends.
One of my favorite moments from a retreat was when a girl I had just met, who wasn’t Orthodox, told me how loved and accepted she felt by everyone. “No one makes me feel weird for not being Orthodox. Everyone is so loving and accepting here.” Where else can you go where you can experience such a saturation of Christ’s love? Church, definitely, but OCF is always an incredible encouragement and consistent reminder that Christ is among His people. He is so living, relevant, and more than able to heal our deepest wounds.
All the brothers and sisters here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. –1 Cor 16:20
It has reminded me of how I can serve.
Having grown up attending small OCA churches, sometimes I felt like I had no voice as a youth. This often frustrated me because it made me feel underestimated. I knew I had abilities, and I wanted to serve God and have my ideas heard. Maybe that was just the inward teenager saying, “I MATTER TOO! Don’t I?” Yet, to this day I have never attended a church meeting. (I’m working on it.) I’m sure I’m not alone.
OCF really does provide youth with an opportunity to turn ideas into action, by providing leadership opportunities and putting together some incredible service projects at College Conference East and on the more local level, like the Southeast Regional Retreat WorkDaze. Through these opportunities, I have been re-enlightened with the vision of what the Church should be and, in return, can bring it back to my parish. (The youth from my parish are now making prayer ropes and cookies to help with an upcoming outreach in my hometown! Even some OCFers offered to help!)
Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. –1 Tim 4:12
It has sustained my confidence in the spiritual health of the Church.
Being exposed to so few Orthodox youth my age, I was convinced that the Church was going to die out, and I was pretty depressed about it, rightfully so. Seeing so many youth my age for the first time at the Southeast WorkDaze Retreat made my heart swell up with so much joy! I can’t even put it into words. I remember some of the first encounters I had and, looking back, I realize they are now some of my absolute closest friends. God will never let His Church be shaken!
Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken. –Psalm 62:2
It has made me bolder about sharing my faith.
I know I was one of two Orthodox on my college campus. Dang. Talk about rough. However, OCF gave me a huge platform to talk about my faith, invite friends, and share what I had been learning with those I knew at school. So, even though my campus never had an official OCF, the ministry was still impacting my campus! I am so thankful for all of the encouragement my OCF friends have given me. It helps not feeling like an island when you are surrounded by thousands of people. I could always point to OCF and say, “Look! I’m not crazy! Other people believe this too! They even know how to Greek and Arabic dance!”
Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. –2 Cor 3:12
It makes the Church accessible and assists in the great commission.
OCF enables us as college students to make an incredible impact for the Gospel of Christ on our campuses and in the world! (Yes, the world. Think about it. Most campuses have international students. Don’t they?) Think… College students are often solidifying their beliefs during this time of their life. We may be the only Bible they ever read! Thus, I urge you, live a life worthy of the calling of Christ and invite others to partake in the beauty of the Kingdom! It doesn’t matter if your classmate looks at you funny for inviting them to a small get-together, a meeting, or a retreat. Many are walking around waiting for someone to invite them in and accept them. Be of good courage! Christ is faithful.
God is faithful, by whom you were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. –1 Cor. 1:9
It has shown me how to live in one accord.
I LOVE praying with everyone. Besides praying in community, we live life together. We celebrate weddings and namesdays, weep with those who weep, and overall lift one another up with prayer and encouragement. I love getting to do phone call Bible studies or hearing a simple, “Hey, can you help me stay awake while driving?” phone call. We sometimes even do mini road trips to volunteer at festivals or attend in-state or out-of-state retreats and families open their homes graciously.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. –Phil 2:1-2
Final question: Is it worth taking time to cram in the projects to go on the next OCF retreat?
But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. –Jude 1:20-21
Glory to God!
Nicole Homyk (Jackie), 22, is a recent Winthrop University graduate as of May 2016 with degrees in Special Education and Elementary Education. She is currently living in a retirement community by the South Carolina coast and will gladly host visitors! In her spare time, you may find her paddle boarding, speaking with international strangers, applying to graduate schools/missions opportunities, or babysitting for families that might have too many children.