Caterpillars with Free Will

Caterpillars with Free Will

When was the last time you saw a caterpillar in all of its colorful and bizarre glory? The first image in my head comes from the beloved children’s classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle. As the young reader is introduced to the finer points on counting food, a very important message also comes across: caterpillars are amazing, single-minded creatures. Their goal is one day to become butterflies.

The main difference between caterpillars and us, of course (beyond the obvious ones like molting), is freewill. Freewill. That means caterpillars will always progress towards their goal, and barring an external struggle like being eaten, they will succeed. They will become butterflies.

Now, imagine if caterpillars had free will. Imagine if they could just choose to stay caterpillars. What would the goal of their life be? Maybe it would just be about who eats the best leaves and who has the most effective looks for that goal. (Google them, some of their camouflage is amazing.)

Or worse yet, imagine if they didn’t even know they could become butterflies. What if their butterfly-ness was broken for millennia and finally a caterpillar savior came to restore them and show them the new way? How crazy would those few caterpillars look in their cocoon or their chrysalis? Can you imagine the trolling? “Look at that crazy one hanging upside down!” “Are you judging me for staying a caterpillar?” “Why are they limiting themselves when they should just be enjoying life?”

Sisters and brothers, you and I are caterpillars with free will! Christ is Risen from the grave, and humanity is healed. We know our path. Yet we are living in a fallen world which says that your only vocation is “you do you.” Eat the most leaves, have the best zip code, and pursue comfort while you can.

Thankfully, our Church surrounds us with the truth about butterflies.

Every icon shows us who we are called to be like. Christ shows us that we are His beloved children, called to pick up our cross and follow Him, called to lose our life and thus find it for Christ’s sake (maybe we do have molting in common), called to be holy as our Father in heaven is holy (Matt. 17:24,25; 1 Pet. 1:15). Our overarching vocation is to become saints through the sacrificial love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and our neighbor as ourselves.

When we emerge from the chrysalis of COVID-19, will we be further along in our transformation to holiness? Will our lives proclaim Christ’s transformative love to the world much as a chrysalis clears and shows a hint of the wings to come? We are caterpillars with free will. Let’s show by our good works that we are children of God, amazingly and single-mindedly working towards the transformation of all of creation, being transformed into His likeness. Be a caterpillar that chooses to become what we are meant to be. Become a butterfly.

Dr. Presvytera Athanasia Mellos Kostakis (DMin, LMSW, MDiv) is an enthusiastic OCF alumna who loves to encourage people in their relationship with God, their neighbor, themselves, and creation. When not talking with someone or devouring books like a biblical locust, you can find her and her two boys loving their neighbor through unsolicited baking. She, Fr. Peter, and their family are blessed to live and serve in Dallas.
Faith and Trust

Faith and Trust

Part of the “How Shall I Live?” Series…

Growing up, I loved loved loved math and science! Calculus was one of my favorite classes in high school… please don’t judge me. Anywho, I eventually attended Butler University and graduated from their School of Pharmacy. As I think about my youth, much of it was geared towards learning as much as I could about a particular subject and applying that knowledge.

I, probably like you, want to KNOW. Ambiguity is not my friend, and I appreciate certainty. I love black or white, and struggle with grey. 

And then there’s God. Does He exist? How do I know for sure?

Truth is, we can’t really know. For those of us who tend towards facts, knowledge, scientific proof, reasonable conclusiveness, and the like, this understanding can pose a challenging hurdle. 

When I say that I have faith or believe in God, what I’m really saying is that I trust in God, or I trust that God really exists. It cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that God actually exists. Re-read that last sentence. There’s no black or white, just grey. Yet, even without 100% certainty, I can trust that God exists and live my life in such a way that reflects this trust.

If I believe/trust in God, then what? Is it just a mental exercise or a thought that I have? Certainly, there must be more, something next that would follow. Trusting in something or someone implies that we do or act in a manner that reflects this trust. Simply put, our choices and actions- that which we do- must be in alignment with our trust.

If I say that I believe, then I’ve got to step up to the plate. I can’t say and not do. I can’t tell myself or others, “I trust in God”, and not act accordingly. And it’s how we act, it’s what we do, that will be our subject matter moving forward. So, til next time… how will you live?

Dn. Marek Simon

Dn. Marek Simon

Dn. Marek is the Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship. He is passionate about serving and mentoring young people, helping them explore their faith, and growing the ministry of OCF so that all college students have the opportunity to participate. Dn. Marek lives in the Nashville area with his wife and two children.
Good Grief

Good Grief

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.

His Grace Bishop JOHN (Abdalah)

His Grace Bishop JOHN (Abdalah)

Guest Contributor/Bishop

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.
How Shall I Live?

How Shall I Live?

A priest posed this question during his sermon recently, “How shall I live?” I immediately thought to myself, “Wow, this is a really good question!”- and I decided to start a blog. How would I answer? Was I paying attention to how I was living, or simply going through the motions? Did I realize that my choices each day- how I spent my time, who I spent it with, what I ate, what I read or watched- might be indicative of what’s important to me?

I found myself thinking about what he asked for the rest of the day. What is my purpose? For whom or for what am I living my life? What do I value? His question really sparked a desire in me to consider how I was living each day.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of possible answers to the question, “How shall I live?” We all know some of the most common answers people might give- for God, for family, for sports, for friends, for entertainment, for power, for wealth, for material possessions, for others, for retirement, for pleasure, for __________.

My three-year old son loves trains. He builds a train track, reassembles it in different configurations, plays with the blue train then switches to the green one, makes train noises, and even just sits and stares at a small, wooden train as he slowly rolls it back and forth. He doesn’t stop to think about how he’s living his life. Not yet. He just likes trains. I have the capacity to think about how I spend my time though. You do too.

Consider it for a moment: How shall I live?

We all face moments in our lives when we wrestle with this question more earnestly, especially connected to faith, our belief in God, and our understanding of who Jesus Christ is and why it might matter. Frankly, it’s just a good question to think about.

In future blog posts, I’ll explore the question “How shall I live?” in a way that is relevant to our lives. I’ll address topics such as faith and God’s existence, the path that He lays out for us, forgiveness, repentance, our ego, feelings, thankfulness, and much  more. My hope is that you and I will both learn something along the way that might help us better answer the question, “How shall I live?”

Dn. Marek Simon

Dn. Marek Simon

Dn. Marek is the Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship. He is passionate about serving and mentoring young people, helping them explore their faith, and growing the ministry of OCF so that all college students have the opportunity to participate. Dn. Marek lives in the Nashville area with his wife and two children.

Help! I’m Stuck Inside!

Help! I’m Stuck Inside!

By Evyenia Pyle

I have officially been cooped up in my house for a week, but that’s not the worst part: this was supposed to be my spring break, so not only am I stuck at home but my mom is here, too. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mom; she’s really cool. However it’s been way too many days of just each other’s company. I have found myself hiding away in my room losing hope for the rest of the academic year while the rest of the world around me is in chaos. 

My mom has been reading a lot to pass the time and recently read a book called Time and Despondency. This title seems perfect for this occasion because not only do I have way too much time on my hands, but I am despondent. What is despondency? According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary, despondency is “being in extremely low spirits; loss of hope; depression.” Now, my despondency started with me being bored and sad because I am stuck inside and couldn’t go on vacation. But as I was listening to other people complain about how tired they were and how sad they were that things are getting cancelled and that they have to stay inside, it further saddened me that so many more people are also feeling a sense of despondency (even though it was also nice to know I wasn’t alone in my feelings). It wasn’t until recently when churches started closing their doors and services were getting cancelled that I realized the severity of this situation. The loss of church, especially during Lent, a time where I needed it most, was really hard for me. My sadness and tiredness have escalated. I am despondent. 

Then something happened; God knew what I needed to hear. I accidentally came across a quote from St. Barsanuphius of Optina, and it was exactly what I needed. “You need not be despondent. Let those be despondent who do not believe in God. For them sorrow is burdensome, of course, because besides earthly enjoyment they have nothing. But believers must not be despondent, for through sorrows they receive the right of sonship, without which is impossible to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” It made me realize: yes, our current situation isn’t fun, and yes, I am so bored being cooped up in my house, but we have so much to look forward to. Because we believe in God, we know that even in this time of social distancing and quarantine we are loved by Him who is Himself Love. We know that even in our sufferings Christ won’t abandon us. We know that even when we feel “extremely low” someone is going to be there to catch us.

My dearest friends, now is not the time to be despondent. It is time to do things that benefit your soul and your health. Go on a walk, clean your room, call a friend, and pray. There are so many things we can do to be active during this time. Remember, there are people out there who have no hope. We must be the examples to show that Christ is our hope. We need to remind the people that God is our refuge, and He will keep us safe according to His will. As St. Barsanuphius said, through sorrows we can be in closer communion with Christ. 

I am challenging myself to be respondent and not despondent; hopeful and not hopeless. I hope you will join me in this challenge of responding to those around us and praying for the peace of the world. People are scared, but we know that Christ has so much joy to offer in the salvation we yearn for. So, let us respond in love and let us support one another, we will get through this together and with Christ. 

As always feel free to reach out to me anytime at publicationsstudent@ocf.net, especially now in this time of quarantine: I am quite bored and would love to chat. 

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 .

Coronavirus: A Faith Perspective

Coronavirus: A Faith Perspective

Wash your hands! Buy Clorox wipes! Disinfect! Stay at home! Don’t touch! No hugs! Be safe! Virtual courses and classrooms! Fear, fear, fear! Overwhelmed by the onslaught of information? Not sure what to believe? Not sure what to do? This is serious stuff, all kidding aside…

How does all of this relate to our faith? It most certainly does, by the way.

As Christians, the central message of the gospel is to love our neighbor. No matter what the headline of the day is- Coronavirus, Spring Break, March Madness, St. Patrick’s Day, and the list goes on- nothing takes precedence over our effort, attitudes, care for, and love towards our neighbor.

Wait, you mean I shouldn’t worry about this virus? Let’s be clear, that is not the message being conveyed. We should all be mindful of the latest news about the virus and recommendations from trusted sources, and seek to follow their guidance. Yet, the reality of the matter for Christians is that no virus, nor anything else, should prevent us from actively loving our neighbor. What might this look like practically? 

For all of us, a first step in loving our neighbor includes taking the necessary precautionary measures to ensure that we are not exposed to or continuing the spread of the virus.

Perhaps it means that your classes are cancelled and you have free time. What are you going to do with that free time, or better stated, how will you serve your neighbor(s) with that extra free time? 

Do you know someone who is sick, or immunocompromised, or considered to be more “at-risk”? They likely wouldn’t mind a volunteer going to the grocery for them, running errands, even spending time with them since they likely are greatly reducing time spent in public spaces.

There are many who struggle with loneliness, and no one wants to feel alone. Chances are, with the fear and lifestyle modifications due to this virus, many of us are more likely to feel alone today and in the upcoming weeks, thus what can I do to share time and love with someone who might be struggling?

Prayer, like the one below, is important as well- for those who are sick, for sound discernment, for those who are traveling, and more. Let’s not skip the above though and just pray. Our faith is one of action, and no doubt that God is calling each of us every day to do something which is in service to someone else.

“O God, our help in time of need, look down and have mercy upon us and deliver from the troubles we face. Grant your divine helping grace, and endow us with patience and strength to endure this hardship with faith. I flee for relief and comfort, trusting in your infinite love and compassion, that in due time you will deliver us from this trouble, and turn our distress into comfort. Amen.”

Dn. Marek Simon

Dn. Marek Simon

Executive Director

Dn. Marek is the Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship. He is passionate about serving and mentoring young people, helping them explore their faith, and growing the ministry of OCF so that all college students have the opportunity to participate. Dn. Marek lives in the Nashville area with his wife and two children.

The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter

I recently saw the following headline and article tagged in a social media post: “Cincinnati church wipes out $46.5 million in medical debt for 45,000 families.” Perhaps more interesting to me was the accompanying post, which was simply “We could do this. But would we?”

Think about it. What should we be doing? And why aren’t we doing it?

This has implications in our personal lives and for the Church as a whole. Sure, it would be easy to simply ask the question, “Why doesn’t my church do something like this?” or “Why are we spending large amounts of money on impressive churches or impressive icons or impressive liturgical items?” And those are questions that our leaders must be willing to ask and answer. But for us, something else is at the heart of the matter.

Take a moment and think about the past day, week, even year. How much time, energy, and talent was spent with an inward focus looking for or achieving an inward result? Would I summarize my actions, what I actually do, as primarily self-fulfilling or self-emptying? And, if I call myself a Christian, are my actions aligned with what Christ taught and did?

I don’t know the specifics about this Cincinnati church and what they were able to do. It’s not for me to analyze or judge. I do know that there are people in need. Financial need, emotional need, medical need, hunger, alone, unloved, uncared for, and the list goes on. What strikes me is that I spend most of my time and days ensuring that the needs above are taken care of for myself. How much time will I spend ensuring that they’re taken care of for others?

How shall I live?

Dn. Marek Simon

Dn. Marek Simon

Executive Director

Dn. Marek is the Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship. He is passionate about serving and mentoring young people, helping them explore their faith, and growing the ministry of OCF so that all college students have the opportunity to participate. Dn. Marek lives in the Nashville area with his wife and two children.
The Lesson of Sadness

The Lesson of Sadness

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.”

Alison Standish

Alison Standish

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. 

The Joy of Discomfort and Pain

The Joy of Discomfort and Pain

by Evyenia Pyle

Yesterday was a typical day for me. I got up, went to class, and then went to the gym. The workout I did yesterday was a bit more intense than my normal workouts. I lifted/squatted more than normal and did more miles on the elliptical than I normally do. When I woke up this morning, I was in a lot of pain. When I went to the gym today, I had to take it a bit easier not only to recover but so that I didn’t put myself through more pain. I was texting my group of friends and told them that my body was sore, and while most of them also work out, one asked why I would put myself through that. Why didn’t I stop before I hit my limits? Why did I push through them? I tried to explain to my friend that if I push myself, what is hard now becomes easier, and I improve my fitness. 

She still didn’t understand. 

I used my experience doing cross country in high school to try and explain. Our races were three miles, and we ran at least six miles on our distance days once a week, because it is easier to quickly run three miles when you can moderately run six or more. We did speed workouts where we did mile repeats—a set of miles where you have to run the mile as fast as possible and you get around a 2-4 minute break in between each one (yes it is torture, no I do not recommend it), we did hill workouts, and we even lifted. This was so that we would become the best runners we could be. One could say that it worked: our team won state twice and were runner up the year we didn’t win. So why endure the pain of running and workouts? Not only did it make me a better runner, but it taught me endurance. Now I know working out isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It definitely wasn’t mine, but we are approaching something similar to a difficult workout. 

Lent is coming.

Lent? Already? It’s only February?! Start eating the meat and cheese out of your refrigerator because it will be here before we know it. As a kid, I always dreaded Lent. I didn’t understand why my friends at school could still eat meat but I couldn’t. My mom used to tell my brother and me that fasting built our spiritual muscles. That was not what we wanted to hear. Fasting was hard, and we didn’t want to do it. So why do we do it? Why do we experience the suffering and pain that comes with Lent?

Pain is something that is hard to understand. In the book A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, he compares pain to visiting the dentist. Going to the dentist isn’t fun, and sometimes it’s painful, but we do it so that we stay healthy. Imagine you’re in surgery to fix something. The doctor starts cutting, but it hurts. You tell him to stop. But what happens if the doctor stops? Not only are you open on a table exposed to germs that could cause infection and the intent of the surgery might not be carried out, but if you are left open on the table, you could bleed and die. If the doctor stops cutting and doesn’t complete the surgery, the procedure that was supposed to save your life will do the opposite. So, is that pain worth it?

Is it worth it to go to the dentist and experience discomfort to keep your health in check? Is it worth it to push yourself when exercising to become stronger and more fit? Is it worth it to go through surgery even though there is pain during and after if the surgery will save your life? I think so. What I am trying to portray is the idea that suffering isn’t fun. Pain isn’t something we want to go through. As we approach Great Lent, we are going to experience discomfort and suffering of some kind. Instead of thinking of it as the worst thing ever, like I did as a child, think of it as a way to grow. This is our chance to become spiritually healthy. To experience a small amount of discomfort to strengthen our relationship with God and our life in the Church.

I wish you all well during Lent. Remember that the pain is temporary. “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:3-5

As always please feel free to reach out at any time, I pray that our lent this year will bring joy and anticipation to the resurrection of Christ. 

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 .
Elevator Pitch

Elevator Pitch

by Evyenia Pyle

A couple years ago in Sunday school, my mom, who was our teacher, challenged the class to give an elevator pitch about Orthodoxy. We were asked to come up with a 30-second pitch that might spark someone’s interest in the church.. I never thought too far into it. I think I used Psalm 135 in high school to say that if His mercy endures forever, that is a comfort and reassurance. It wasn’t until a recent OCF meeting at my school that I was asked a new question. “Why are you Orthodox?” My answer was that back in November of 2000 my parents allowed me to get dunked under water and that was that. The discussion leader didn’t think it was as funny as I did but nudged me further and said, “Okay, but why are you Orthodox today?” Why am I Orthodox today? I could give my elevator pitch, but at the time my elevator pitch didn’t make sense. I didn’t know what to say. 

I was sitting there thinking, there are few times I can be rendered speechless and this was one of them. Then I realized why I was Orthodox. “I hit rock bottom” I said. Everyone looked at me. “I had to hit rock bottom, to realize that I needed to choose Orthodoxy.” Now at the time I didn’t have the time to share what that meant. I have had a few days to reflect and I wanted to tell other OCF people about my experience. Rock bottom does not mean I was sitting in a corner crying rocking back and forth not knowing what to do, I mean I did that, but way before rock bottom. Rock bottom was when I realized there was nothing else that could fill my heart like God. I was trying to find anything to self-medicate and fill this hole in my heart. I was searching for a love that I couldn’t find surrounding myself with friends, strangers, family, and the only thing that could fill the hole was not on my mind. It was God. Everyone has their struggles in life, and while my specific struggles are beyond the scope of this post, I’d like to share my thought process with you.

I needed to start to pray, but I didn’t know where to start, but if I could just say the Jesus prayer, maybe that would help. So over and over again I said the Jesus prayer until the words started to sink in, and then it hit me. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner”. Have mercy on me the sinner. I went from that to the pre-communion prayer, “I believe O Lord and I confess that you are truly the Christ who did come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.” It was then that I thought about St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4, that we are the garbage of the world, but we are everything in the eyes of God. I looked in the mirror at that moment and said, “I am the garbage of the world, but I am everything in the eyes of God”. In that moment I felt myself begin to cry. As the sudden realization that as the first among sinners, the garbage of the world, and the sinner God still loved me to an extent I could never imagine. God still loved me, a broken and hurt soul, because in His eyes I am everything. I thought about John 3:17 where it says, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” Not only did that help me remember that God loves me, but that He doesn’t want to punish us, He wants to save and love us. Then I looked up at my icon wall and I saw my icon of the Good Shepherd. I have two versions of this icon, of course I have the one with Jesus holding the sheep, but then I have another one where Jesus is carrying a man. At that moment I knew that Christ would carry me while I was broken. 

  

The overwhelming emotion that I experienced of being loved by the One who is love is something indescribable. The distractions of social media and earthly cares that I used to hide my own brokenness never lasted. It was like putting a band-aid on during open heart surgery to stop the bleeding. It didn’t hold and it would never hold. The only thing that filled my heart and healed it was Christ. The only person who would always truly love me even at my worst was Christ. So, there I was, at rock bottom, in my room, waiting for an answer, to discover that I had it all along. If you asked me today what my elevator pitch is for Orthodoxy, I would tell you that it is the most healing medicine there is. The Church is the greatest hospital in which to realize that in my brokenness, Christ will still love me. Even if I was the garbage of the world, even though I was the sinner, and the first among sinners, God sees me as His perfect creation. How could I have forgotten something so fundamental to our faith. Why do I choose Orthodoxy? I choose Orthodoxy because it is through my faith in Christ that I can deal with whatever life throws at me. It is through the most healing hospital of Christ that I can be beautifully broken and put together by God. I choose Orthodoxy because I can be broken, and I can be the garbage of the world, but no matter what, I am everything in the eyes of God.
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

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!