Prisoner #18376: God Will Not Abandon His People

Prisoner #18376: God Will Not Abandon His People

Hi everyone! Quick disclaimer, this blog post is a bit longer than normal, but there was so much that I wanted to put in that I couldn’t tell myself to stop. Below you will read an inspiring story of one of my favorite church heroes. So, sit back, relax, and I hope you enjoy this blog post!

 

By Evyenia Pyle

When I think of superheroes, I tend to think of super strength. While thinking about superheroes of the church I thought of what it meant to have super strength in the church. Sure, we could look at Sampson in the Old Testament and read about his hair, but that was a long time ago. What if I told you that a church superhero lived in the 20th century with super strength? To open things up I have a question: How much does it take to survive the harshest conditions? I can tell you plainly that in my walks to class last winter, although they were at most 15 minutes, felt like if I didn’t get inside right then and there, I would surely die. On average it was probably 20 degrees Fahrenheit. While I admit I am a bit of a wimp, it was brutal. Today I am going to tell you the story of a man who survived unimaginable conditions in -27 degree Fahrenheit weather, a man who must have had the kind of strength only God can give you, a man who is a superhero of the church, and someone who I keep very close to my heart. This man is Father Arseny.

To give some background information before I go into the story, I should probably tell you about the prison camps. These camps were spread across Russia in its period of communism under Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. They were labor camps where “enemies of the government” were sent to die/be worked to death. You aren’t supposed to survive these camps. The conditions were terrible. Hygiene was nonexistent, no heat, barely any food, and one pair of clothes. This is where most of our story will be taking place, as Fr. Arseny was in one of these prison camps.

In the book Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, it opens the scene portraying a dark morning, with gusty winds, around -27 degrees Fahrenheit. We see the people in the prison camps get out of bed for role call. Those who didn’t make it out were either dead (due to the cold, sickness, and exhaustion) or on the verge of being dead. Fr. Arseny wasn’t old, but he certainly wasn’t young, but he was always on duty. He was sent to the camps with many other priests and religious figures at the time. Most priests had to be priests in secret because of the fact that they would most likely be arrested. A middle-aged man was out in negative 27-degree weather chopping wood. Now, axes weren’t allowed on the grounds of the camp, so Fr. Arseny split the half frozen and damp wood with a wooden wedge, and another log to function as a hammer. If he failed to do this, they would have no firewood and would surely die, but Fr. Arseny was vigilant. He said the Jesus prayer has he worked, he knew that if the wood wasn’t done on time he would be punished and beaten by not only the guards, but the prisoners too. So, this was Father Arseny’s daily life, I could write so many pages on how the conditions should have killed him, but I will spare you for now. Now that you have a feel for the daily routine, I’m going to tell you about Father Arseny made it out of the place he was brought to die.

So, for starters I talked about super strength. In the book it reads, “‘Have mercy on me a sinner. Help me. I place my trust in Thee, O Lord, and in you, O Mother of God. Do not abandon me, give me strength,’ prayed Father Arseny, almost falling from exhaustion as he carried bundle after bundle of logs to the stoves.” Imagine being so close to falling down but knowing that God has a hold of you. Father Arseny trusted God to keep him upright, but the story doesn’t end there. How could he get damp frozen wood to light, he did not want to be beaten, so he prayed the Jesus prayer and at the end he added, “Thy will be done!” hoping to find dry wood. He searched and searched but found nothing. An infamous criminal saw him and asked what he was doing. This criminal reportedly committed so many crimes he could not remember them all. He evoked fear from all of the other prisoners. Fr. Arseny was afraid but told him he needed some dry wood. The criminal told Father to go with him, Fr. Arseny thought it was a trick, but went to see what would happen. The criminal had a large pile of dry wood he kept for himself, but he offered it to Father Arseny, who was a bit reluctant thinking that he might have been set up for stealing. Father finally accepted and started taking some. The criminal told him to take more and more, and then he himself picked up the dry logs and they carried it back to the stoves together. A criminal, who brought fear and despair among people and prisoners, gave Fr. Arseny what he needed so he would not be beaten. This is one beautiful example of how God never left Fr. Arseny’s side in the camp.

Another thing Fr. Arseny was known for was giving parts of his daily bread ration to the sick. Imagine working in such cruel conditions, but with only a small amount of food to help other people. I am not sure I would have the strength to do that.

Every night, even when Father Arseny didn’t get any food, he would pray the Akathist to the Theotokos, St. Nicholas, and St. Arsenios and pray for his spiritual children. When he awoke the next morning he would feel rested and full of new strength almost as if he had eaten the night before.

Some nights Fr. Arseny would stay up late and take care of the sick. He would feed them and make them hot water. This meant he would usually not get any sleep. One of the sick patients Fr. Arseny knew well. In fact it was the exact man that sentenced him to the death camp (when the government was tired of an official they too went to the death camps). Not only did Fr. Arseny forgive him, but he thanked him for sentencing him to the camp instead of sentencing him to be shot. The man was amazed by how genuine Father Arseny was and became a friend to Father Arseny. How much strength would it take to forgive someone who sentenced you to a long terrible death? Super strength.

One day Fr. Arseny was watching the prisoners fight and kill one another, he went and pleaded with a criminal who respected him, to ask him to stop the fighting, to prevent more from dying. All the criminals would listen to this man because he was one of the worst, but the criminal laughed and told Fr. Arseny that “his God” would do it if he really cared about his people. Fr. Arseny frustrated with these words cried aloud in prayer, “In the name of God, I order you. Stop this!” and immediately Fr. Arseny retreated inside himself so deeply into to prayer that he did not see the fight stop, and the living fighters caring for one another’s wounds. The criminal told Father Arseny that he doubted his God, but he wouldn’t any longer, for he had witnessed a miracle. How amazingly strong Father Arseny had to be in Christ to stop people from killing each other with words! This is yet another example of the super strength he received from God.

Now, let’s talk about how Father Arseny got the flu, with a 104-degree fever, and was expected to die in two days. Everyone was sad and tried to help, until the dreadful day came. According to the witnesses Father Arseny was physically dead. Father Arseny later reported that it was God showing him that the people in the camp were twice the ascetic he was and that he had more work to do within himself. Then the mother of God spoke to him and sent him back, and Fr. Arseny woke up and arose as if nothing had happened.

Another account of Father Arseny’s super strength is from a prisoner who was certain he would die. He couldn’t keep his boots dry for fear of them being stolen or worse, being beaten for warming his boots with the criminals. He eventually got frostbite in his feet and could not get out of bed and work. One night, Father Arseny took the man’s boots, and the prisoner assumed they were being stolen, but he had no strength to fight back. When he awoke the next morning, he was greeted by Fr. Arseny with dry boots. Every night Father Arseny would take the boots and put them by the stove and stayed and kept watch over them so that they would not be stolen. Imagine the super strength it must have taken for him to barely sleep and still be able to function enough the next morning to do the hardest work anyone has ever had to do! That is super strength.

I could go on about Father Arseny all day, I love him, but I need to make sure this blog is readable. So, again, I want to highlight the amount of strength Father Arseny had to survive the prison camp. Not only did he survive the most brutal conditions that almost no one else survived, but he lived many years after being released. Through his prayers to God, his faith, and his unwavering trust Fr. Arseny was able to bear the intolerable. It is superheroes of our church like this that cause me to yearn for this spiritual strength that is indescribable by those who witness it. I pray that one day I will have the super strength Father Arseny had in the camp, and I pray that all of you will find Fr. Arseny’s story an inspiration, a remembrance that God will always help us.

Evyenia Pyle

Evyenia Pyle

Publications Student Leader

Hi, I am Evyenia Pyle, and I am the publications student this year! I am in my second year of college studying speech and hearing sciences! I play 12 instruments as of right now, and in my free time I play with my dog. I am really excited about this upportunity. Never hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or if you are interested in writing a blog! publicationsstudent@ocf.net 

The Birth Giver of God: My Superhero

The Birth Giver of God: My Superhero

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!

In Christ,

Fr Gregory Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jensen

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

Serve With Your Light

Serve With Your Light

In the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare there is a quote that says, “How far that candle shines his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” Today’s post isn’t going to be, dare I say, typical. I want to talk about the opportunities we have to serve in OCF. Our theme this month, as has been reiterated over and over again, is John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Shakespeare got one thing right here, and maybe he wasn’t trying to use an Orthodox perspective, but we too believe that the world today has darkness, but the best way to keep the light shining, is to shine our own light. Now you may be thinking, “Um, I am in college, I don’t have the money/resources to do good deeds. Guess what!? OCF can give you everything you need in an easy two step process. 

First Step: Find an OCF YES Day or Retreat near you by clicking this link https://www.ocf.net/events/

Second Step: Register! (Don’t forget to show up! I guess there are three steps…)

What does a YES Day or Retreat have to do with service and good deeds?

YES (Youth Equipped to Serve) Days are an amazing one-day program endorsed by OCF and the offered by FOCUS North America (https://focusnorthamerica.org/) where students gather at a church and complete a service project of some kind. For example, last year I attended the Chicago YES Day. We went to a fast food restaurant and bought a ton of food and handed it out to people on the street and talked with them. It was really cool to hear people’s stories, even if they were just wanting a snack waiting for the bus. To see people be affected by what we did, was an incredible experience. I know I tend to forget how fortunate I am. I have my own car, and a roof over my head, and some people didn’t even have a jacket on a cold October day. People asked us where we were from, and we were given the opportunity to share our faith. Some people had heard of Orthodoxy, and some said they would even try to go to the local church that was hosting us! This truly lifted our spirits, and warmed my heart in places I didn’t know were getting cold. 

 

YES Day Chicago 2018

Last November at the Midwest Fall Retreat we made blankets. What does that have to do with good deeds? Well, we made tie blankets, with cute patterns, and sent them to a pregnancy resource center for babies. Blankets are important because babies being swaddled and wrapped in something gives them a sense of security. Pregnancy resource centers are organizations that help mothers who have difficult decisions to make when they become pregnant. Some mothers lose support from people they relied on and need help. They can go to the pregnancy resource center and receive assistance, baby food, diapers, and blankets. The blankets are important because for a mother that feels like they are losing control, the blanket isn’t just a sense of security for the baby anymore, but for the mom as well, who sees that her baby is being taken care of, and is comfortable.

Midwest Fall Retreat 2018

Last March at the Central Illinois District Retreat, the service event involved going to a place called Salt ‘n Light Ministry. This organization allows people to work and gain store credit to buy groceries, clothing, furniture, basically anything someone might need. We had students stocking fruits and vegetables, printing price tags, sorting clothes, and lots of other chores to help out. This ministry provides people with the dignity in knowing that they aren’t receiving handouts, but are reaping the fruits of their labor.

Central Illinois District Retreat 2019

So, with all those examples of things I did last year, I now am urging you to get involved, and to allow our light to shine as a “good deed shines in a weary world.” You never know when you could be the person to help someone learn to shine their own light. Sign up for an OCF event today! I promise you won’t regret it!

Evyenia Pyle

Evyenia Pyle

Publications Student

Hi, I am Evyenia Pyle, and I am the publications student this year! I am in my second year of college studying speech and hearing sciences! I play 12 instruments as of right now, and in my free time I play with my dog. I am really excited about this upportunity. Never hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or if you are interested in writing a blog! publicationsstudent@ocf.net 

Find Yourself This Holy Week

Holy week is finally here amigos. This Holy Week, I want to urge you to take the time that you need to fully immerse yourself and partake even a little bit into the splendor of Christ’s Resurrection. There’s always time to start getting ready and to engage! The spiritual father of the Champaign OCF, Fr. Michael Condos, challenged us to “find ourselves in Holy Week,” and this challenge is a wonderful way to be in the mindset to grow in Christ. What do I mean by find yourself? Holy Week has so many Gospel readings and services that talk about so many people from whom we can learn. When I say find yourself, I mean that you need to find who you identify with this Holy Week–where you are spiritually, the story sticks that sticks out to you.
Maybe you’re Lazarus and you’re feeling spiritually dead or exhausted, and you need Christ to call for you and raise you up. Maybe you’re running out of steam from Lent, and you’re so excited that Christ is coming like the people of Palm Sunday. Maybe you feel like Christ has been absent in your heart. Now He’s here coming on a donkey to come receive you. Maybe you have been slacking spiritually, and you’re not ready for Holy Week. Maybe you’re scared that you don’t have oil in your lamp. Maybe you feel like you are being hypocritical like the Pharisees, maybe you’re holding others to standards you don’t even uphold yourself. Maybe something is plaguing you spiritually like Simon the Leper. Maybe you are thirsty for the mercy of God like Kassiani. Maybe you feel like Judas at the table of Christ. This is why we fast on Wednesdays. If you don’t think you could ever be like Judas, ask a priest and reevaluate. Maybe you feel like are trying to carry your cross, and you can empathize with St. Simeon. Maybe you feel like the Romans at Christ’s cross, skeptical about who Jesus is. Maybe you feel like either of the thieves who were crucified next to Christ. Maybe you feel like your faith is wavering like the disciples who hid after Christ’s crucifixion. Maybe you feel like St. Peter and have denied Christ. This Pascha, try and find yourself, and see yourself in true humility. In anything, know now that Christ underwent His passion for our sake. You may feel like any of the people described during Holy Week, but most importantly be like the apostles who saw Christ and proclaimed He is Risen. BE LIKE THE DEAD WHO HAVE RISEN WITH CHRIST. Get PUMPED!! Here is a part from St. John Crysostom’s paschal homily that reiterates the point I’m trying to make.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness. For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first.

I hope you all have a blessed Resurrection!

Forgiveness

We recently began lent with one of the most moving services of the year, Forgiveness Vespers. In the epistle we hear:
“As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for God is able to make him stand (Romans 14:1-4 NKJV).”

Fr. Arseny (I definitely recommend the book about him calledFr. Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spritual Father), grew up in Russia and went to University as an art critic and when he felt God calling him to an ascetic life, he became a hieromonk. In the year 1927, Fr. Arseny was arrested and taken to a prison camp in Siberia. People were not expected to live very long as they were worked to death in horrific conditions. Fr. Arseny was arrested due to anticommunist persecution, and was received by the Lord in 1973. One of my favorite Fr. Arseny stories is when he and another prisoner were sent to a steel shack in below zero weather for 48 hours. No one had ever survived that punishment before, but Fr. Arseny and the man prayed and made it out alive. So basically, Fr. Arseny is awesome. Going back to forgiveness though, Fr. Arseny forgave the men that put him in the prison camp. In fact, he prayed to God for them and for their forgiveness. If I were in those shoes, freezing to death and barely having enough to eat, I am not sure I would be as forgiving, but this was a man of God. With help from God, Fr. Arseny was not only forgiving, but he rejoiced in his tribulations. God had held him up.
Another great example of forgiveness is with Auschwitz twin experiment survivor Eva Mozes Kor. Many years after her release from the concentration camp, Eva Mozes Kor gave a public statement forgiving the doctors who performed some of the worst procedures possible, and the Nazi soldiers who treated her and her twin sister Miriam very poorly. I see things like Fr. Arseny and Eva Mozes Kor and it really makes me think. How is it that I have trouble forgiving someone when they cut me off on the high way, but these people forgave the people who created a life of misery for them. They rejoiced in their sufferings. I think a lot of times I group lent into a category of something I have to do. I make it a chore. Lent is not that at all. Lent is the spiritual gym. We are trying to train spiritual muscles, with the ultimate goal being reuniting ourselves with God. Lent is hard, being a Christian in today’s world is hard, yet we must live our faith. As Fr. Barnabas Powell always says, “Be Orthodox on purpose!” Fr. Arseny and Eva Mozes Kor are amazing resources of people to look up to when you struggle with forgiveness. So, let us not pass judgement, let us rejoice in our sufferings to produce hope, and character, and perseverance. Stay strong during lent, attend the services. I like to think of communion as Orthodox gasoline, and we are the car that needs it to run. Normally we only need to partake once a week, but with the spiritual warfare picking up we add a midweek service to refuel. So, attend the services, lean on each other for support. Forgive, even if it is the last thing you want to do. Because if we do these things, if we work on our relationship with Christ this lent, we should not fear falling. For God will make us stand!
I am Evyenia Pyle. I am freshman at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I am majoring in Speech and Hearing Sciences with double concentrations in neuroscience of communication and speech-language pathology. This year I am the Central Illinois District Student Leader! I love to sing, especially byzantine chant. I play a lot of instruments including guitar, bass, piano, and more. I have two amazing dogs, they are my pride and joy. I am so excited to be contributing to the OCF blogs this year!
Time to Hit the Gym

Time to Hit the Gym

Fr. Jonathan Bannon–a priest, an OCF advocate (he was the spiritual father at the last College Conference Midwest!), and a talented graphic designer–drew up a Lenten infographic that’s perfect for college students.

Here are 7 tips for getting into the spiritual gym and getting yourself ready for Pascha!

  1. Confess

The best way to start Lent is on a clean slate. Confession is a good way to grow closer to the Lord and learn from your spiritual father. Your OCF chapter chaplain is very qualified to hear your confession. Confession helps you understand your flaws even deeper and is a good place to know where to start. With confession, you can take all your sorrows to the Lord and start anew. A good resource for guiding yourself in Holy Confession can be found here. Ask yourself the questions and humble yourself so you can be resurrected in Christ!

  1. Commune

Communion is the pathway to Life. John 6:53-54:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.

Lent is impossible without the help of our Lord. Learn to depend more and more on our Lord so you can become closer to Him. Many parishes also hold Presanctified Liturgies where you can get some extra strength from our Lord throughout the week. 

  1. Become Charitable

Be a little more generous and more lenient with people. Hold your tongue. Monetary donations are not necessary (but if you are moved to give, OCF is a wonderful place to donate that money). You could also donate your time to perform any of the charitable acts described in the beatitudes. 

  1. Pray the St. Ephraim Prayer Daily

O Lord and Master of my life!

Take from me the spirit of sloth,
faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity,
humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors
and not to judge my brother,
for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

The prayer of St. Ephraim just puts you into the Lenten mood. Each of the sentences is usually followed by a prostration. HERE is some of the spiritual gymnastics that Lent can call for. Get your blood flowing in the morning and night in devotion. Many prayer books have the St. Ephraim prayer built into them, so you may just need to look for it. 

  1. Be in Church (and OCF) More

Being in the home of Christ will help you stay in the Lenten mood. Your spiritual battery might need some more juice during these stricter times. Another great reason to be in church more is that there is camaraderie with the people who are undergoing the same struggle. Share your triumphs, ask for advice, and swap recipes–you’re not alone in this struggle. Your OCF is another great resource for finding this camaraderie. 

  1. Hide Your Fasting

Fasting is an important part of Lent because it helps us focus on what really matters–relying on God in all things. However, it is important that you try to let your fasting be between you and God (and your spiritual father). Fasting is a tool for self-control, not an ends in and of itself. Fasting is a way for you to train your spiritual muscles, so get to the gym! Please also do not try to make others feel bad about their commitment to fasting, although do not be afraid to encourage others! Sometimes people just need a little push, but do not let prideful thoughts take over because that defeats the whole purpose of fasting. Here is a great guide for some Lenten recipes curated by your OCF board!

  1. When You Fall, Get Back Up!

This is the most important part of Lent. If you break the fast, it’s not the end of the world. We are human, we will fall. The important thing is not to let yourself keep falling, but instead stand up and keep trying. No one can run a marathon without training; use Lent as a training period to come closer to the Lord! 

The Essence of Love

The Essence of Love

One of the hardest parts about true love is what lies at its core: freedom. Freedom is at the core of all healthy relationships because from it we can derive trust, understanding, and harmony. When freedom is taken out of love, it can actually become evil. Love needs to be free to be true. 

Let’s look at an example from pop culture: You, a Netflix series based on an obsessive man who lusts after a girl and tries to entrap here. [SPOILER ALERT PEOPLE] The boyfriend and main character in the story becomes so obsessed with his girlfriend, Guinevere Beck, that he seeks to “fix” every problem in her life. He kills her ex and her best friend and eventually traps her into his basement in a cage originally used to store old and rare books (he owns a bookstore). This story is a perversion on true love, masked by a false romantic theme and emotional sentimentality which covers an obsession to control this girl for the satisfaction of his sick desires. This is where love can lead when freedom is taken out of the equation.

Why is freedom necessary for true love? It is because in our choice to consistently choose another person, where we can grow a foundation of trust and build our self-emptying nature. When the self-emptying nature is reciprocated and shared between two people, we can be lead towards salvation and understand a sliver of Christ’s love for us. This comes back to the idiomatic saying, “If you love something, set it free.” If someone tries to control you “out of love,” they are actually satisfying themselves to your detriment.

As Orthodox Christians, we know that all things true and good must come from God. Therefore, pure, good, and true love is exemplified in our Lord’s love for us: His creation. This Valentine’s-Day-appropriate verse from St. Paul’s explanation of heavenly love is the basis on which we should try and base our love for our neighbor in our everyday lives:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The love described in the epistle is incredibly pure and self-emptying. This is the agape written about in the scriptures, and this is the type of love we are called to have for each and every one of our brothers and sisters–enemies included. I firmly believe that Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Not atomic force, electromagnetic force, not gravity, but love is the strongest. Love is the Person that brought the Universe into existence and continues to uphold it every moment. 

The Lord gave us free will so that we can come to know Him of our own volition. If someone was forcing us to love them, we only push them away further because resentment and asphyxiation grow where freedom ends. Only in the freedom to love one another can we actively make the choice to love and sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the other.

This type of love can hurt in its acquisition but afterwards it can be the most freeing thing you ever experience. It hurts because there is the possibility that someone may not love us back, that the people we love may get hurt, that they don’t appreciate our love, but that shouldn’t deter you. God loves His people, and there are many people out there that actively hate Him. Yet He chooses to love us in freedom, always allowing us to turn back to Him and meet Him. For every step we take towards Him, He takes ten more to come closer to us. God came from heaven to earth out of love. He chooses to love us as we are and sees us for what we can become. Choose to love the people around you.

Many of you are probably wondering, yes that love sounds beautiful and all, but is it realistic? The truth is you have to learn and discern about the state of your relationships. This applies for all the relationships you have in your life from your friends to your enemies. Your love for others deepens as your love for God and your experience of His love for you deepens. This comes with time, maturity, and prayer, so have patience, faith in God, and may the Love that brought you into being illumine your path towards the kingdom.

To the Perfectionist

To the Perfectionist

The classic response for the interview question “What is a weakness of yours?” is to reply with “I’m a perfectionist.” Oh, clever you! That answer tries to mask a weakness with a quality that is seemingly good in the eyes of an employer. Ha. Perfectionism has an ugly side that can affect you spiritually, emotionally, and even physically.

Gen Z (which is our generation, for those of us born after 1995) has been cursed with the sickness of perfectionism and been plagued by feelings of anxiety and depression. The New York times reported: “In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they ‘felt overwhelmed by all I had to do’ during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.” This feeling has been permeating our generation in a way that it has never before.

Behind perfectionism is the incessant, pestering voice saying that we haven’t done enough, we are in control, there is more to do, failure is the worst possible thing that could happen to us, everyone is watching us, people are out to get us, everyone is my competitor, and I have to make it to the top first or I won’t make it at all.

Trust me guys, I’m talking from experience. I am pre-med, and this pressure is a wonderful motivator, but when left unchecked it can be detrimental. The difference between Gen Z and previous generations is that this pressure has become internalized, so it never leaves, its always around telling us to keep pushing.

What’s causing this intense rise in perfectionism in our lives? A huge part of the blame is on cell phones. We acquire this false sense of control and expectation in the unknown. If you don’t think you have this, ask yourself the question if you’ve ever looked at someone’s Insta and thought, “How is their life so put together, so exciting, so…perfect?” This perfectionism is causing us to lie awake at night wondering whether we’ve done enough or if we’re enough. This constant battle is causing a lot of spiritual damage if left unchecked and unregulated.

Perfectionism can be dangerous because we put off important things until we think we are deemed good enough to do them. For example, “I am going to pursue a relationship with someone when I have all my stuff together.” or “Oh my gosh, I missed a question on that exam, I’m going to fail.” Let’s be honest, you’re never going to get your stuff together to the degree that you will feel satisfied, and you are chasing a finish line that’s moving faster than you are. 

If you think that the Scripture which were written almost 2,000 years ago is  irrelevant to today, you are wrong. The Bible is the perfect antidote to combating the negative aspects of perfectionism, and letting it guide us, we can transform it to become perfect like God. In the First Book of John, we read:

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.    – 1 John 3:1-2

We are loved by God now, in our triumphs and our mistakes. He loves us, He created us, and whether you like it or not He has a plan for us. Take a deep breath, we are all human beings. Your mistakes do not make you inadequate, the saints describe their whole lives as being a continuous rising and falling in God. You don’t have to mask your flaws, God already knows them more than you do, be open with Him in your prayer. Open up and let out the anxiety that can be plaguing you. Mistakes are OK to make, because God gives us the opportunity to stand up and try again. If God who is perfect and sinless can forgive you, you can work to see your mistakes and grow in them rather than let them letting them weigh you down.

Perfectionism can be scary, but we can work to overcome it and lead healthier lives mentally, physically, and spiritually. Here are five tips to help overcome perfectionism and limit it from having a negative impact on your life:

  1. Put down your phone. Stop comparing yourself to other people, and don’t allow the social media that is making you feel inadequate to have that kind of power over you. Compete with yourself and strive for improvement and not perfection.
  2. Build real relationships with people. Help yourself see your flaws and imperfections, and share them with your close friends. Share your struggles, and have others share theirs with you. The impact a conversation can have on your mental health can be amazing.
  3. Talk to God. Open up to Him and let Him know what’s going on with you in your life and ask for His help. Let your talks be between you and Him alone, build that relationship so you can grow in Christ.
  4. Forgive others, and forgive yourself. Forgive others because that will help free you, and forgive yourself because when you ask for mercy, God will grant it.
  5. Work to acquire humility. True humility is not knowing that you are nothing, true humility is knowing who you truly are. Work to get comfortable with your true self as a child of God.

Remember perfectionism could at its best be our subconscious desire to restore our fallen selves. It can be a wonderful tool for keeping the commandments and growing in Christ, but unchecked it can cause anxiety and cause us to push ourselves to our limits without God. Let perfectionism be transformed in Christ so that we become perfect, not on our own terms, but as God intends us to be.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  – Matthew 5:48

On Paraklesis

On Paraklesis

One of the most beautiful prayers passed on through holy tradition is the service of Paraklesis. Any time you have a need, you can bring it in humility to the feet of the Theotokos or the saint you are asking for intercession. The nine canons are like roses of prayer that are offered to our intercessors. This service became really dear to my heart after praying it at OCF retreats and with my OCF chapter. It made me feel closer to them and closer to the Theotokos.

Just like we can ask our friends and family to pray for us, we can ask the saints and the Theotokos to pray for us in our daily struggle towards the kingdom. Throughout this post, I will include some lines from the poetry of the service that help illustrate the love of the Theotokos, and encourage you to respond in love to her.

Paraklesis translated from Greek literally mean “a pleading.” Bring all you worries and fears, and place them in the hands of God, and know that He will take care of them in the way that is best for you:

I entreat you, O Virgin, disperse the storm of my grief,
and the soul’s most inward confusion, scatter it far from me; you are the Bride of God, for you have brought forth the Christ, the Prince of Peace; O all-blameless one.

The Paraklesis is a service where you can bring down the walls you put around you, bring all your stresses, wishes, hopes, failures and anguishes for you and for whomever you want to pray and offer a supplication to God through an intercession. No person is closer to Him than His mother, the Virgin Theotokos. She looks after us as our spiritual mother.

Deliver us,
all of your servants, from danger, O Theotokos;
after God, we all flee to you, for shelter and covering, as an unshakable wall and our protection.

Throughout the service, descriptions of the holy life of the Theotokos and the help she has given to the people who have loved her throughout the ages. She will protect you, no matter where you are in life she is there, praying and talking to Christ on our behalf.

No one is turned away from you, ashamed and empty, who flee to you, O pure Virgin Theotokos;
but one asks for the favor,
and the gift is received from you,
to the advantage of their own request.

The Theotokos loves us and prays for us as if she were our own mother. She knows what its like to be a human being, and she endured one of the most painful experiences known to humanity–witnessing the death of her Son. She gets it. To me, the Paraklesis service is special because I feel like I am not alone in my worries and stresses and I can share them with the Mother of God. I also really love that when I know someone is going through hardship I can actually do something to help them. Not only can I offer my struggles, but I can offer the struggles of others through my prayer.

Oppressed I am, O Virgin;
in a place of sickness,
I have been humbled; I ask you: bring remedy,
transform my illness, my sickness, into a wholesomeness.

The walk towards the kingdom is not a lonely one. We walk together as Christ’s Church. We can come together to pray, to support, and to love one another and help make this life more like the kingdom through our conscious effort. We can come together to pray for each other and strengthen each other. We are a community of Orthodox Christians, and we stand together in fighting each of our good fights. Don’t be ashamed to be a “mama’s boy” or a “mama’s girl” because we can all use the help and shelter that she provides.

My numerous hopes are placed
before you, most-holy one;
Mother of our God,
guard me with care, within your sheltered arms.

Just like a child clings to its mother, crying for the even the smallest boo-boo, we have our Holy Mother that will comfort us in our times of need. Each time you pray a Paraklesis service, let God and the Theotokos speak to you through the service, and become closer to them.

The Silent Treatment as Medicine

The Silent Treatment as Medicine

“Noise is one of the most common pollutants. It is often ignored because it is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. And yet it can have negative effects on human well-being” (ASHA.org). Did you know that a hair blow dryer can cause hearing damage because of the amount of noise it produces? We live in a world today that is surrounded by noise. It is extremely difficult to find silence.

I was at a winter retreat a few years ago, and Fr. Silviu Bunta challenged us to sit in silence for five minutes every day. At the time, I thought he was crazy. There was no way I was going to sit in silence for five minutes every day. I love to talk, and anyone who knows me can attest to this. I asked Fr. Silviu if I could listen to music and reflect that way.

He looked at all of us and said, “No.” Just no.

Fr. Silviu continued to tell us that when people were tortured for information, the torturers would play loud and fast music. When this happens, our minds become overstimulated, and we can’t take much more, and our bodies start to shut down. Someone then asked if loud and fast music and noises are okay in moderation, and Fr. Silviu said, “If you fill yourself with noise, how can you expect to hear God”.

That made me think of the Bible, where God speaks to Elijah.

“Then He said, ‘Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;  and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.  So it was, when Elijah heard it…”
1 Kings 19:11-13

Elijah did not hear the Lord during the noise but in a “still small voice”. Some translations write that it was a stillness, others a whisper. Throughout my life, I wished that God’s voice would come in a booming thunder, that it would shake the heavens and declare its victory through the world. God could totally do that, but instead he speaks to us through silence. We must quiet our hearts, thoughts, desires, and earthly cares in order to hear God.

Saint Isaac the Syrian once said, “Silence is the sacrament of the world to come.” St. Iassac has a point. As much as I hate to admit it, we can see in the story of Elijah, we will not be able to speak with God with so much background noise. Imagine you’re at a party or a large social gathering. Your friend is speaking in a normal voice but ends up shouting, so you can hear them. So, imagine trying to whisper in a crowded room and expecting your friend to hear you. It’s probably not going to happen.

If we fill our lives with noise how will we hear God? When I think of sacraments, I think of baptism, chrismation, and communion, three important things that help us towards our salvation. For St. Isaac to call silence a new sacrament, it must be essential to guiding us towards salvation.

If we want to look at the scientific side of things, there are proven things that can happen to our bodies with excess noise exposure. Excess noise exposure can cause: a change in blood pressure, change in heart rate, change the way the heart beats (possible abnormal palpitations), disturb digestion and harm your organs, contribute to premature birth, and disrupt sleep. But don’t forget that on top of all of that, we can start to lose our hearing. I am not saying we should live the rest of our lives in complete silence shutting ourselves out from the world. That would also be detrimental to our health because we need human interaction to survive. So, what are we supposed to do if we should live in silence, but not shut ourselves up in our rooms?

Fr. John Breck writes, “Silence is not just the absence of ambient noise. Nor does it mean the lack of laughter or music or shared reflection. Silence is a state of mind and heart, a condition of the soul. It is inner stillness. Silence in heaven reigns amidst joyous song and ceaseless celebration. It is awe in the presence of the Divine.”

One of my favorite parts of that quote is that silence “is awe in the presence of the Divine.” The presence of God is everywhere and fills all things. He is in me and you and your next-door neighbor. He is everywhere, so when we are in the presence of the Divine, we must be in awe. By quieting our souls through prayer, fasting, and vigilance we can hear God.

My mom used to always tell me, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Fr. John helps us see that listening to music isn’t evil and speaking with friends isn’t detrimental, but we have to remember that it canbe. If we listen to music that is harmful to our souls and bodies, our souls are no longer quieted, but aroused with the passions. If we speak wrongfully and with hatred, we add fuel to the fire of the burning passions.

I want to hear God. That is a goal, but I haven’t because of the noise in my life. It’s time to drown out the noise, to listen for the still small voice. I have been trying to practice silence. It’s hard, but the more I do it, the more possible it becomes. Not only has this been quieting my soul, but it has helped me to keep my thoughts and words in check.

I pray that you will find the silence needed to hear God and listen. I pray that like the other sacraments we can join together to find the silence we need. I pray that we can find our state of awe and together stand in the presence of our Holy Father. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 11:15)


I am Evyenia Pyle. I am freshman at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I am majoring in Speech and Hearing Sciences with double concentrations in neuroscience of communication and speech-language pathology. This year I am the Central Illinois District Student Leader! I love to sing, especially byzantine chant. I play a lot of instruments including guitar, bass, piano, and more. I have two amazing dogs, they are my pride and joy. I am so excited to be contributing to the OCF blogs this year!

How Liturgical Prayer Saved My Life

How Liturgical Prayer Saved My Life

My alarm goes off at 6:30 AM this morning. I hop in the shower, get dressed, say my morning prayers, and head off to church for the Royal Hours for Nativity. Since I am a tonsured reader, I help read some of the psalms, Old Testament, and Epistle readings for the service and also intone some of the hymns and prayers here and there. The Royal Hours is, objectively speaking, an astonishingly beautiful service, speaking of the immense power and humility of God to become incarnate as a baby boy in order to redeem humanity. And I felt none of that beauty.

You see, I have a disease called major depressive disorder. The main symptom of this disease is the inability to feel pleasure and meaning in things that used to feel pleasurable and meaningful. And so even though I am active in the Church and OCF, try to say my prayers every day, and try to pay attention during the services, I hardly ever feel anything positive during them. On the contrary, I spend a lot of my time in prayer internally wondering whether God is listening or not, questioning why He would give me such a screwed-up brain if He supposedly loves me so much.

And yet, the Church proclaims that God is good. The Church tells me that Christ came to earth and suffered in the flesh, being crucified and resurrected in order to destroy death and raise the dead from the tombs. And I really do believe these things with all my heart, even when my brain is telling me otherwise.

I pray because I believe Christ rose from the dead. “I believed, therefore I have spoken” proclaimed King David in the psalms, and so I, too, speak in prayer because I believe (Psalm 115:10). This is why the services of the Church are so important to me: they call me to pray even when I don’t feel like it, even when my brain is giving me every reason not to. I need the constant call of the Church to “again and again in peace pray to the Lord.” I need the reminders that God loves me, even when my brain is incapable of seeing it.

God loves you, too. He loves each one of us more than we know how to love. And it is this love, given to me through the Church’s discipline of liturgical prayer, that encourages me to pray, even when I can’t feel that love around me.

This discipline, I believe, has saved my life on more than one occasion from the dark and self-destructive thoughts that often haunt those of us with depression. I hope that the same love of God also encourages you to pray, regardless of whether you feel that love or not.


This post was written by an anonymous OCF student. If you would like to contribute to the OCF blog, email: publicationsstudent@ocf.net

10 Ways to Grow in Your Faith in 2019

10 Ways to Grow in Your Faith in 2019

1. Read the Whole Orthodox Study Bible

I know this sounds like a daunting task to complete in one year, but this PDF gives you a guide to reading the entire Orthodox Study Bible in one year. The PDF starts on September 1st (for the Ecclesiastical New Year), but you can still start the guide and finish reading the whole bible in one year. By reading less than five chapters a day, you can feel extremely accomplished and become more knowledgeable at the end of one year.

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 

2. Join or Support a Mission Team

Being apart of missions has been some of the best experiences of my life. There are many Orthodox organizations that make it possible for you to participate in short- or long-term mission trip. You can check out the awesome mission and service trips that are set for 2019 through the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, the International Orthodox Christian Charities, and Project Mexico. You can also check out some awesome OCF Real Break options through each one of those great organizations!

3. Sit in Silence for at Least 10 Minutes a Day

In our very busy lives, we usually forget to just take a few minutes to reflect on our day. Learning how to sit in silence for a few minutes a day will help you to wind down and be peaceful. And when I say sitting in silence, I don’t mean sitting on your phone in silence. Remove all distractions and take a few minutes each day to reflect and give praise to God for the blessed day.

 
 

 

 
 

4. Choose a Book to Read and Finish It

One of the things I love about Orthodoxy is how the faith can reach everyone, no matter what their interests are. Whatever you love in this life, you will be able to find an Orthodox book that peaks your interest. Want to learn how Orthodoxy differs from other religions? Check out Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Finding a Way to Christ in a Complicated Religious Landscape. Are you an aspiring actor or artist? Check out The Mystery of Art: Becoming an Artist in the Image of God. A fiction fan? Check out Letters to St. Lydia or Icon. If you find it hard to pick up a book and read, check out some audiobooks that you can listen to. You can find all these books and more at Ancient Faith online bookstore.

 
 
 
 
 
 

5. Go to Confession at Least Three Times a Year

A good rule of thumb when deciding when to go to confession is to try and go during the major fasting periods of the church. The three main fasting periods are Advent (Christmas Fast), Great and Holy Lent (Pascha Fast), and the Fast for the Dormition of the Theotokos (First 15 days in August). By going to confession during these time periods, you would be going to confession every four months. This gives you time to reflect and take a lot of the burdens from your soul away throughout the year.

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 

6. Listen to a Podcast that Interests and Inspires You

Ancient Faith Radio has so many cool podcasts you can choose from. You can download the Ancient Faith Radio app on your phone and have hundreds of podcasts at the tip of your finger! Some of them are even led by college students! Check out this blog post from November to learn about some of the great podcasts you can find on their app.

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 

7. Learn More about a Saint that Interests You

There’s a Saint for That is a great way to learn about saints that can help you in your everyday life. There are saints who intercede for traveling, for education, for health, for finding things that have been lost, and for many other reasons. You can also check out stories of the saints of the day on the OCA Website. OCA’s website gives you the story of multiple saints daily so you can learn about a new one everyday!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 

8. Connect with an Orthodox Community

One of the best ways to grow in your faith is to surround yourself with others who are immersed in the same faith as you. You can meet some of your life-long friends at your campus OCF meetings, OCF regional retreats, and at College Conference. Check out the current listing of OCF events to register! Also look into your parish to see opportunities for you to meet and hang out with young adults in your area.

9. Talk to a Priest about Questions You Have

 
 

Make a list of a few questions to ask your spiritual father or parish priest. Talking through your questions with them will strengthen your knowledge about the faith and also your relationship with your spiritual father.

 
 
 
 
 

10. Go to a Service or an Orthodox Church that You Have Never Attended Before

Step out of your comfort zone and check out other parishes in your area. Visit Greek Churches, Russian Churches, Romanian Churches, etc. Go and experience Orthodoxy in every language you can. Also try and attend services you don’t attend regularly. There are services offered weekly like Saturday Vespers or services offered only a few times a year like the Salutations, Paraklesis, and Presanctified Divine Liturgy.

 
 

 
 
 


Hi everyone! My name is Joanna Psyhogios. I am from Wilmette, Illinois, and I am a member at St. John the Baptist Church in Des Plaines, Illinois. My first experience with OCF was during College Conference East, and I have been active in participating in College Conference and OCF retreats ever since. In my free time, I love to play and watch every sport, coach basketball to youth teams, watch movies and TV Shows, and play Jungle Speed (shoutout to CC Midwest!). I am really excited to share what I have learned about the Orthodox faith through the OCF blogs!

10 Signs You Celebrate Christmas the Orthodox Way

10 Signs You Celebrate Christmas the Orthodox Way

Christmas, for most Orthodox Christians, is a time of fasting, prayer, worship, sacraments, spiritual renewal, and philanthropy. It is a more religious celebration that is not as commercial as in some cultures. It is a time where we also have many traditions that help make it the beautiful holiday it is.

#1 Fasting before Christmas is harder than fasting for Lent

All those Christmas cookies really do you in on the days leading up to Christmas, also why does everything Christmas have to be made with MILK? Also fair warning—whilst eating Greek kourambiedes do not inhale because you WILL choke on the powdered sugar, nothing like a little danger in a cookie I suppose.

#2 If your name is Chris/Christina you feel a little petty for having your namesday be on Christmas day 

Yes, you get to celebrate being named after Christ but unfortunately the presents are usually grouped together, nothing like a 2 for 1 deal, am I right?

 

 

 

#3 You get to watch your friends exchange gifts on December 25th but you have to wait until January 7th.

Some jurisdictions are still on the Old ‘Julian’ Calendar and have to wait an extra 13 days for Christmas to happen… patience is a virtue!

 

 

 

#4 Part of decorating the Christmas tree (Badnjak) includes burning it in on Christmas Eve and then baking it into bread.

Look up this cool Serbian Tradition! Just don’t stand too close to the fire because you might lose an eyebrow or two. 

 

 

 

 

#5 You kind of know where the 12 days of Christmas really comes from.

It’s the amount of days between His birth and Epiphany! A lot of people even keep their decorations up until then. Why do you need 11 pipers piping for that?

 

 

 

 

#6 You’re really confused about who Santa really is.

Is he St. Nicholas of Myra? Is he St. Basil? And when are you going to exchange gifts? Greek Orthodox Christians in Greece traditionally exchange presents on New Year’s Day, the feast day of St. Basil the Great

 

 

 

 

 

#7 Christmas Eve ham? Try a 12-part vegetarian extravaganza including perogies, cabbage rolls, beets, borscht, and potatoes that symbolize the 12 Apostles. 

This particular tradition is called Sochevnik in Russian. Good thing we’ve been fasting for so long because that dinner sounds delicious.

 

 

 

 

 

#8 Your family is a Christmas Eve church family or a Christmas Day one, either way you celebrate the Nativity in a prayerful way and with communion of course!

A picture from the church of the nativity. According to Holy Tradition, that spot is where the star indicated the place of Christ’s birth!

 

 

 

 

#9 Your Christmas music has been playing on repeat since November.

“The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear” –Elf

The hymns of the church for the Nativity are filled with so much beauty and joy! My church has had the tradition where our youth group would go and sing carols to sick and elderly parishioners, and the joy they experienced when we would come sing makes your entire week .

#10 You’re genuinely excited for the coming of the Christ. You have been praying, and you keep the true meaning of Christmas, the Nativity of our Savior, close to your heart. 

He came to save us! Let us rejoice!

“‘She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” -Matthew 1:21-23

 

_____

Ultimately Christmas is a time for families and friends to get together. There is so much beauty that we all share in our ‘traditions’ that everyone celebrates Christmas in their own special way. Orthodoxy, being a part of history for centuries, has molded some beautiful festivities that bring us together because of our mutual love for Christ. 

Merry Christmas!

For His Mercy Endures Forever!

For His Mercy Endures Forever!

We are now in the wake of Thanksgiving, #GivingTuesday, and coursing through the Advent season. Gratitude is a theme that presents itself during this season and its an important quality to have to grow in humility. We Christians are not only ‘thankful’ in an ethereal sense but we are thankful to God. We owe Him everything from the beat in our hearts to the earth we live on.

Where do I start with being thankful to God? The first thing that popped into my head, and now is completely stuck in my head, is Psalm 135 (136), otherwise known as the Polyeleos. It is a beautiful hymn that describes how we can be thankful to God and glorify creation.

You can listen to it here:

If you listen to the lyrics, you can hear King David writing about the thankfulness and gratitude seen in the beauty of God’s creation. But the repeating reason for gratitude? “His mercy endures forever.” What does this mean? It means we can be happy and excited that God gives us an opportunity each and every day to get up, repent, and resist sin. It means that every day we get to wake up with the choice to grow closer to God. It means that we live in a reality where our God loves us with His entire being and the extent of His mercy cannot be known. It means that God has sent His ACTUAL SON to die for us on the cross and in His mercy, redeem us and return us to our fully human state in His presence. His mercy endures forever and ever and unto the ages of ages, so let that sink in, and in turn show your gratitude to God and His creation by giving thanks in the blessings and tribulations you receive each and every day.

This week, I asked the other members of the Student Leadership board to tell me what they are thankful to God for in their lives, these are the replies they sent me:

 

I’m thankful for the regional and district events that have made my university’s OCF so incredibly close this year in comparison to last year. Without them, members in my OCF would never have been able to see what OCF is, means, and stands for. It inspired our chapter to embody the things we experienced and has given me some of my closest friends at school.

Kristina Anastasiadis, Northeast Student Leader

I’m thankful for my family and friends who challenge me everyday to grow in my faith.

Caroline Retzios, Great Lakes Student Leader

I am thankful for my OCF Real Break trip to Thessaloniki, Greece. My experiences on the trip helped deepen my faith and my relationship with the Lord. Additionally, it provided me the opportunity to meet many extraordinary Christ like individuals who truly changed my life!

Elizabeth Buck, South Student Leader

I’m thankful for Orthodoxy in college. It’s kept me grounded and made me realize what’s most important at all times, and I’m thankful for cows.

Amelia Barron, Midwest Student Leader

I’m thankful for the continual challenges God blesses me with every day, as they have helped me grow in so many ways.

Alex Lountzis, Southeast Student Leader

I’m thankful for the peace felt after receiving confession and the reconciliation I always feel with Christ afterwards. 🙂
+ Alex(^) and the entire SLB

Eva Tempenis, Media Student Leader

I am thankful for everyone around me encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone and leading me to new experiences and adventures in life.

Quinn Marquardt, Mountain Student Leader

I am thankful to God for showing my the path to Orthodoxy in college!

Zoe Kanakis, Southwest Student Leader

The SLB has numerous things to be grateful to God. Reflect on what you are grateful for, and say THANK YOU. God and His people need to be thanked for all that they do.

Why We Have to Thank God, Even for 8-AMs

Why We Have to Thank God, Even for 8-AMs

 

As college students, we have a lot to be thankful for. We are thankful for our family, our friends, our home. A lot of times, we are thankful for simple things like the free food on campus or the email from our professor canceling our 8 a.m. class. I don’t know about everyone else, but every time one of those small things occur to me, I think to myself, “Thank God” and then continue on eating my free pizza or roll back into bed.

But let me tell you something I never do.

I don’t wake up for my 8 a.m. classes and say, “Thank God.” I also don’t utter those words when I use the money that I have to pay for my meal. I usually don’t remember to thank Him at all. Why is that?

Well, as a society, we have a small problem. We love to express our thankfulness to God when things are going well in our lives. But, when everything is just average or going poorly, we forget about God and even question his intentions. Instead of thanking God constantly for what He has given us, we question why He has given us struggles in our lives.

As the Thanksgiving season has come and gone, we have to ask ourselves, how can we work towards being thankful to God every day, no matter what is occurring in our lives? Even if we do not realize it, we do give thanks to God in many ways throughout our daily and spiritual lives.

Did you know that we can give thanks to God by receiving Holy Communion? The word “thanksgiving” translates to Eucharistia in Greek. In turn, the word Eucharist is used in the Orthodox Church to describe the act of the Orthodox faithful receiving the consecrated body and blood of Christ, otherwise known as the sacrament of Holy Communion.

St. John Chrysostom teaches us that one way to be thankful to God is to participate in the Eucharist consistently. He states that “the dread Mysteries, full of such great salvation, which are celebrated at every Liturgy, are also called a Thanksgiving [Eucharistia] because they are the remembrance of many benefits…and in every way cause us to be thankful to Him.” By receiving Holy Communion, we are not only bringing Christ into our lives, we are thanking Christ for giving us life and the hope for the resurrection by remembering what He sacrificed for us all.

St. John Chrysostom also states:

Whenever we are either in poverty, or in sickness, or are being insulted, then let us intensify our thanksgiving; thanksgiving, I mean, not in words, nor with the tongue, but in deeds and works, in mind and in heart; let us give thanks to Him with all our souls.

Here, he gives us new meaning to how we as Orthodox Christians can practice thanksgiving in our lives. He encourages all of us to give thanks to God with our entire soul. According to him, to achieve this we must focus on not only offering our thanksgiving to God with our prayers, but with our acts towards others.

One of my favorite verses from the Bible comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I never really thought about how I could incorporate the message of this verse in my everyday life until about a year ago.

In the summer of 2017, I was given an opportunity to travel to Rosarito, Mexico and spend a week working on building a home for the Ramirez family with Project Mexico. While building the home for the Ramirez family, we all saw how much they rejoiced with us every minute of the day with their radiant smiles and loving hospitality towards us.

We saw their love for Christ when they welcomed us into their home and made a group of thirty missionaries homemade meals every day, even though they barely had money to make ends meet. They were thankful for everything that they had, even though they had very little.

My greatest takeaway from this trip was not that I built a home for a family in need, but that I was able to learn from the Ramirez family what it means to rejoice always and give thanks for everything every single day.

This is why, I believe, St. John Chrysostom states that by helping others, we can and will be able to open our hearts and be able to learn how to be thankful to God with all our souls. Christ gives us many opportunities to give thanks to Him daily in different forms, either through Holy Communion or through good acts towards others. We just have to work on acting on those opportunities given to us by Christ so we can remember to give thanks to him daily and not just one month of the year.  


Hi everyone! My name is Joanna Psyhogios. I am from Wilmette, Illinois and I am a member at St. John the Baptist Church in Des Plaines Illinois. My first experience with OCF was during College Conference East and I have been active in participating in College Conference and OCF Retreats ever since. In my free time, I love to play and watch every sport, coach basketball to youth teams, watch movies and TV Shows, and play Jungle Speed (Shoutout to CC Midwest!). I am really excited to share what I have learned about the Orthodox faith through the OCF blogs!

When Thankfulness Is Hard

When Thankfulness Is Hard

Most often, I am truly thankful when I am not trying to be. There’s a sensation of gratitude overflowing in the soul when an unexpected blessing comes my way or when I happen to avoid an accident by some providential circumstance.

But when set occasions for thankfulness come around, such as the Eucharist or this holiday we call Thanksgiving, I find it difficult to replicate sincere gratitude which comes unexpectedly. Sure, I can always afford a few moments to say the prayer before devouring an inordinate amount of food on Thanksgiving. But deep down, I am painfully aware that this is not the same thankfulness that brings tears to my eyes after moments of crisis. It feels artificial, wrong even. Aware as I am of the fact that I am privileged beyond belief, there is no pain in my heart for those who are not. Tragically, I simply accept it as the reality and carry on, offering my lip service as though it is the best I have.

But this is not enough.

This is merely Cain’s offering, and we should strive to be like Abel, offering the best of ourselves to God. We are human beings endowed with spiritual faculties, not just lips. We were made for thanksgiving, as we are instructed in the holy Scriptures to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).

As Christians, we ought to approach this American holiday not as an occasion to be proud of the relative prosperity we enjoy in this country but as a call to aspire to the state of humility, love, and thanksgiving which Christ intends for us to exist in perpetually.

So what do we do when we find ourselves stuck in this thanklessness? How can we get ourselves out? Perhaps what makes this state of thanklessness so frustrating is exactly the point: we cannot get ourselves out. There is no thanksgiving without love, and love is a gift. We do not “think” love into existence whenever we happen to have a need for it. In order to be thankful, we must accept the gift of love from Christ who is Love. If our hearts are closed to this gift, we will have nothing to offer God when we attempt to give thanks.

This realization highlights two important details about thanksgiving. The first is that thanksgiving is not merely gratitude for the opportunity to consume large quantities of material possessions. St. Basil the Great reminds us that our material excess does not belong to us at all:

The bread you are holding back belongs to the hungry; the coat you guard in your locked storage-boxes belongs to the naked; the shoes wasting away in your closet belong to those who have no shoes. The silver you hide in safekeeping belongs to the needy one.

Should we find ourselves in a state of material abundance, it is important that we understand God’s gift of love is revealed in part through His provision for our needs, and with excess comes the responsibility and the opportunity to participate fully in His gift of love through giving. Mercy is itself an active part of thanksgiving.

The second detail is that in contemplating Christ’s gift of love for us, we understand that like love, thanksgiving has both a subject and an object. Almost every religion values gratitude in some way. Even secular self-help literature tells us of the psychological benefits of practicing gratitude in meditation. This is not a bad thing per se, but I wonder: just who are we to be thankful to? We cannot be thankful for without someone to be thankful to. As Christians, we do not offer up our thanksgiving to some impersonal abstraction of causality, but to a person, Christ.

So let’s remember when we come to the table this Thanksgiving and bow our heads to pray: thanksgiving is not a mere obligation but a perpetual state of being to which we have been called, made possible by love of our Christ our God, who has brought us out of non-being into existence and provides for our needs so that we may continue to exist, always commending ourselves and our whole life to Him.


Hello! I’m Daniel Bishop, and I’m an Orthodox Christian and a contributing blogger for OCF. I study English at the University of Dallas, and I’m involved with youth and young adult ministries in my parish, my OCF chapter, and my local pan-Orthodox community. I enjoy studying classical languages and literature, playing music, traveling, rock climbing, and chanting. Feel free to contact me at dbishop@udallas.edu if you have any questions or comments.

Sending Thoughts and Prayers

Sending Thoughts and Prayers

Why does it seem like there’s so much hate and pain in the world? Shootings and many acts of violence plague our nation. Division in politics and the politicization of these traumatic events turn tragedy into arguments with seemingly no end in sight. The media paints a picture of our nation of intense pain and suffering of the people that desensitizes us to violence.

“Thoughts and prayers” are given freely on social media. Many people disregard their power either in their unfaithfulness or their desire to see political action. But are prayers that useless? No. We live in fallen world, so there is going to be pain, disease and suffering.

Prayers are a source of strength. They’re not supposed to be magic wishes to just make the problems go away. Tragedies happen, and that’s it, we can’t control it, but we can control our reaction to it. If we ask our Lord for strength, we can bear the tragedies ever more gracefully and with humility. We can really extend our hearts to those who need them through prayer. Sending prayers calls our Lord and His saints to grant forgiveness and bestow strength. Send prayers, partake in the healing that Christ grants.

In the Epistle reading from today, 1 Thessalonians 5:9-13 & 5:24-28, St. Paul gives us advice for how to conduct our lives within this fallen world:

Brethren, God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him. Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. He who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. Brethren, pray for us. Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss. I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.

The antidote for the suffering in the world is the peace of heaven which is experienced in our relationship with Christ Jesus. When we partake in the sacraments, pray to Him and do good things in His name, we can join in on the healing of the world and perform His will “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Our generation is feeling a lot of loneliness and isolation that can tragically manifest itself in violence. Social media can connect us but also make us feel disconnected. We have to learn and force ourselves to go out into our lives and our college campuses to love as He loves. The pain and suffering can feel like there’s darkness all around us. Luckily, we have light, we have The Light and The Way! Be the beacon of God’s love that our world so desperately needs. Love so that you may bring light into the darkness, emboldened by God’s presence in your life and the humanity we all share.

Reminiscent is the morning prayer of St. Philaret,

“Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray Yourself in me. Amen.”

Next time you see a tragedy on the news, write down the names of the victims, pray for their souls, and pray for the strength of their families. Forgive others, and come to know Christ. Pray He strengthens you to participate in the healing and love that our fallen world thirsts for.

 

God Lives on the First Floor

God Lives on the First Floor

When my friends in our chapter of OCF told me about the Great Lakes retreat, I was initially very hesitant go with fall semester crunch-time descending upon us. In the end, however, I decided to go with them because the retreat was not only the weekend of my name day (the feast of St. Demetrios), but also the weekend of the 40-day memorial of my godfather, named Demetrios, who shares my patron saint. It seemed like a good time to say, “Homework can wait. I need to focus on God right now.” I am so glad I did.

The first evening of the retreat, we had a Paraklesis service at St. George Orthodox Church in Fishers, Indiana, opening our time together in prayer. Then we played icebreaker games before heading over to the house on the parish’s property, which they graciously provided for us to spend the night in. We stayed up late sharing our stories with each other, making up songs together, and confiding in one another about our struggles, questions, and concerns that are currently heavy on our hearts.

The second day, which we mostly spent at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Carmel, Indiana, largely focused on the discussion of our assigned topic, “Thou Art With Me: A Present God in a Broken World.” Mr. Niko Tzetzis gave us a fantastic presentation about Fr. Stephen Freeman’s book, Everywhere Present. In this book, Fr. Freeman explains the “two-story universe” theory. He states that the American culture in the 21stcentury conditions us to operate under the assumption that we live on the “first floor” of the universe, and that God lives on the “second floor” above us. Exiled to this distant second floor, God seems far from us and we rarely interact with Him except to ask Him for things. Our discussion led by Mr. Tzetzis was more impactful than just buying the book and reading it alone (though I highly recommend the book, I’m reading it now!) because we were able to speak to our specific, personal, and unique challenges in finding and acknowledging the constant presence of God. We worked together as individuals and as a group to find ways that we can increase our awareness of the fact that God does live on the “first floor” of the universe with us, and that He is present with us everywhere, always.

Along with the discussion of our topic, we had a service event! We cut up old plastic bags from grocery stores—which we had all saved for this event instead of throwing them away—and learned how to tie them together to make waterproof mats for people experiencing homelessness to sleep on. This event was a wonderful idea because it’s a practice that we can take back to our colleges, parishes, and OCF chapters. It is good for both the people receiving the mats and for the environment by reducing plastic waste!

There are many moments I will never forget, and I could write about this retreat for a very long time, but one moment stands out. On the second day, we put our phones away and had 10 minutes of quiet time in the nave at Holy Trinity. After this quiet time, Mr. Tzetzis gathered us all together and said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard…” My stomach immediately sank. He told us about the senseless violence that had occurred earlier that day at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Immediately, led by the priest at Holy Trinity, we prayed the Trisagion Service together for the victims. Mr. Tzetzis reminded us afterward that when we pray, we are praying simultaneously with the angels, the saints, the departed, and our Lord. They are all present with us everywhere and always in the reality of our one-story universe.

While I originally debated about attending the retreat, I’m overjoyed that I went. The power of the lifelong friendships you form and the spiritual refocusing you experience at OCF events is not to be underestimated. Yes, we have homework, jobs, hobbies, other student organizations, and every other worldly distraction you can think of. Despite these distractions, please always take the opportunity to attend OCF events, including but not limited to your regional and district retreats, College Conference, and Real Break. I promise you, whatever you give to OCF and to the Church, even if it is only your time, attention, and presence, you will receive back multiplied.


My name is Demetra Chiafos. I am currently a third year at The Ohio State University, where I am the secretary of our OCF chapter and am pursuing a dual degree in dance and the Japanese language. Two fun facts about me are that I play the piano and I love writing short stories and novels!

 

You Have to Ask Yourself the Hard Questions

You Have to Ask Yourself the Hard Questions

Last night I registered for my region’s regional retreat. It got me thinking about this year’s OCF theme: “Who do you say that I am?”

In context, the theme comes from Matthew 16:13-16. Take a moment to think about it.

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

St. Peter takes the ultimate leap of faith, declaring Jesus as the Messiah. Thousands of years of Jewish tradition were fulfilled by the Person he was looking in the face. Peter did not know about the Resurrection or how his life would go, but in that moment he knew Jesus Christ was and is God. “Who do you say that I am” is an expression and confession of faith; it’s an opportunity, it’s an invitation, it’s a way of life, and it’s an inspiration. 

Let’s turn the attention personally. Who do YOU say that Jesus is? Yes you can ‘say’ He is God, but do you really live in that way? Do you know who He is? Can you even say who you are?

Ask yourself this hard question. Who do you believe Jesus is? If you don’t know, great; that’s an opportunity to grow in your faith. If you do know, do you act like you know who He is?

Jaroslav Pelikan talks about the duality in the reality of Christ. He says, “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen-nothing else matters.” 

There are two possibilities that his argument creates. If Christ is risen, then we have nothing to fear. Then we can know our Creator. We know His life, His sacrifice, and His love. Are you leading and living your life in the reality that Christ is truly Risen? Orthodoxy in its beginning was not a religion; it was and is “the Way” that people follow to get to know God.

Let’s look at the alternative, very nihilistic in essence. If Christ is not risen, that means we are still bound by death. That sin and brokenness don’t matter. It means that people are fallen, and there is nothing we can do it about it. It means that we can’t be refashioned into the image and likeness of God.

Who do you say that He is? Think about this question, and develop an answer because you will be called to answer that question either in this life or the next. Confess and live your faith.

And honestly, if you feel like you are losing faith, transform that feeling into an opportunity to learn more and ask why. St. Peter here confesses that Jesus as the Messiah,  during Christ’s crucifixion he denies Christ three times. Yet St. Peter repented and became one of the greatest evangelists in history, the rock on which Christ built His church.  Doubt and fear are a part of our fallen nature, but they can be a chance to grow spiritually.

“Who do you say that I am?” Who do you say that you are?”

Ask. Grow. Repeat.

There’s No I in Prayer

There’s No I in Prayer

Growing up participating in extracurricular activities, you learn a lot of life lessons that stick with you forever. One of the biggest lessons everyone learns at a young age is about the importance of teamwork.

Everyone knows the go to phrase that every coach or teacher would say constantly: “There is no ‘I’ in ‘Team.’” Whether you played sports, an instrument, performed in plays, or anything else, you were taught early on that teamwork makes the dream work. You learned that teamwork was one of the biggest keys in being successful.

Just like being a team player is essential to being successful in activities or careers, being a team player is also essential to growing our relationship with Christ and the Church. So how can we become team players in the Orthodox Church? Go to Church on a regular basis.

Why does going to Church make you a team player?

You are present with people who share your faith and you are worshiping together, as a family, as a team, leading each other into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The word “Church” comes from the Greek word ekklesia which in ancient Athens signified the citizens assembly. The Church is not meant to just be a place for individuals, it was created and designed to be a place for a multitudes of people to assemble and be immersed in their common faith. Think about the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy is full of prayers that specifically focus on a group of people. After each petition, are the words “…let US pray to the Lord.” Not let ME pray to the Lord, but let US pray to the Lord. These prayers are meant for all of us, together as God’s faithful servants to come together and pray to the Lord.

In Matthew 18:20, Christ says “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” How cool is it to think about that? Christ said it to us Himself. He is in our midst when we all come together to pray in His name.

Coming together and praying as a team helps us to build a stronger connection not just to Christ, but to each other. When we worship Christ with others, we feel that we are part of the same team. We feel that we are struggling and getting through life together. The more people with whom we are praying, the stronger our prayers become, bringing us all closer to Christ and to each other.

So why can’t you pray on your own? You can, and you definitely should. Just like a professional athlete takes care of himself outside of practices and games, we should be taking care of our spiritual life when we are not present in the Church. But just like the professional athlete, it is required of us as Orthodox Christians to come together, as a team, and support each other in growing in our spiritual lives.

No one can struggle through life alone. We need our spiritual team to support us with our struggles in life. We need to be present at Church for our prayers to be united with the prayers of our teammates. We need to be present at Church and allow Christ to be in our midst.

So let’s work together to become closer to each other and Christ. Let’s gather in His Church and worship together as one team. Together we can pray with our team in order to live our dream in the Kingdom of God. 


Hi everyone! My name is Joanna Psyhogios. I am from Wilmette, Illinois and I am a member at St. John the Baptist Church in Des Plaines Illinois. My first experience with OCF was during College Conference East, and I have been active in participating in College Conference and OCF Retreats ever since. In my free time, I love to play and watch every sport, coach basketball to youth teams, watch movies and TV Shows, and play Jungle Speed (Shoutout to CC Midwest!). I am really excited to share what I have learned about the Orthodox faith through the OCF blogs!