“Thank God, that I am not like this tax collector.”
Man, that Pharisee sounds kinda dumb, doesn’t he?
That’s always–God forgive me–one of my first thoughts when I hear the Gospel reading of this Sunday. “You knucklehead! How is it a good idea to thank God for not making you like another one of God’s creations? Dude!”
This really is one of the most extraordinary weeks that the Church gives us. A fast-free week–not following any feast day–but rather that we may “fast from our fasting,” if you will. That we may step away from the works and practices that we so often and so easily substitute for “faith,” and investigate rather our faith in God.
That’s what the publican had that the Pharisee lacked–or rather, that with which the Pharisee struggled. Faith in God.
The Pharisee still believed in God, I believe–but as the Gospel says, the Pharisee stood at the altar and prayed “with himself.” He didn’t pray with Christ, or with the saints, with the Theotokos, as we as Christians are called to do.
The Pharisee prayed with himself because he had faith in himself–not in God. He had faith in his tithes, so he prayed to his tithes; he had faith in his fasting, so he prayed to his fasting. He gave his tithes and fasting and church attendance–his works–praise. He sanctified his works in the temple with his words; he exalted them, because he believed through them he had been saved.
The publican, as we know, had faith in God. He didn’t turn to the liturgical services, the hymnography and the psalms, the works of fasting and tithing as the source of mercy. He spoke from his heart, plainly to God, beseeching that God save him. The publican was only interested in that which mattered: being with God by being saved through Him. He didn’t have works; he had faith.
The parable of the publican and the Pharisee is so powerful, and thank God we use it to begin our fasting period. But when we hear it, we must be wary, less fall into the Pharisee’s very trap:
“Thank God, that I am not like the Pharisee.”
“Thank God, that I am not like the Pharisee. I really have a relationship with God, I speak to God directly–like the publican–and I don’t get caught up in making sure I pray every day, making sure I fast when I should, making sure I attend church. I feel spiritual–I feel a connection with something divine–and I don’t get all caught up in the trappings of the Church.”
We forget, sometimes, that the Pharisees are/were the “good” guys. At least, they weren’t actively bad–they were men of faith in God, but often too entrenched in the faith they knew to recognize the New Testament and the coming of the Messiah. The Pharisees modeled good behavior to the faithful: things like church attendance, fasting, and tithing fall squarely under that category.
The traditions of the Church and practices taught by the fathers aren’t bad–they’re good! They’re powerful and necessary and rejuvenating, but only when they serve their purpose: bringing us closer to God, that we may be saved by Him. When they are done for their own sakes–or worse, for the sake of our self-assuredness and pride–they become noxious distractions.
Avoid this week and this Lent the Pharisee’s trap–do not find yourself judging or boasting in either direction. The publican is our example: in humility and without fear, doing whatever he could to draw closer to God.
It was supposed to be my third College Conference in a row.
And, I mean, it was. I was technically at the Antiochian Village, with other college students, during the conference. However, I spent most of it holed up in my dark room, feeling like garbage.
Pro tip: if you want to enjoy an OCF event, do not get sick.
Let’s take something solid out of a situation that involved some major headaches, at least five boxes of tissues, and a metric ton of green tea: I can now write a reflection for you about what it’s like to not go to College Conference.
I’m sure you know what it’s like to have all of your friends hanging out without you, because you’re super cool. But I had buddies back at the conference I hadn’t seen in upwards of two years, and all of the shenanigans into which we would usually get, they enjoyed without me. That, obviously, was not very fun.
One of the greatest aspects of College Conference is meal time, in my opinion, because you sit in little eight-seat nuclei scattered across the room and just chill. Some meals you’re sitting with all the people you know and the people they know, reminiscing and inside-joking and the like; other meals you’re with seven folks you’ve never met before, and you’re bonding and laughing and it’s all goodness.
It’s very common, in my opinion, for someone to hear about College Conference for the first time–small groups, keynote speaker, workshops speakers, church and more church–and miss that. They miss not only the big chunks of social time built into the schedule, but also that marginal social time that’s just as enjoyable. I also missed the time, mostly because I was gross and food tasted gross, but the point still stands: I missed that wonderful, carefree, responsibility-less time with friends. If you didn’t make it to college conference, you missed it as well.
Missing the speakers wasn’t something I anticipated hitting me as hard as it did, but here we are. I’ve always loved the speakers, but it felt like my takeaways were only a few quick quotes and maybe some general themes. I wish I’d take away more, but often that’s all I get.
At least, I felt as if that was all I got.
Having missed a solid amount of the talks, I’ve discovered that the talks do a lot more for the listener than providing information. In fact, I’d argue that the content of the talks isn’t so much meant to be remembered–rather, it’s the engagement with the material that’s truly valuable. It’s not about knowing what was said, but rather hearing what’s said and interacting with it; listening attentively; bringing the focus of our mind to a higher plane that it would otherwise be.
I think about what we hear before the Gospel during liturgy: “Let us attend!” But after the Gospel, we don’t hear “Make sure you remember what just happened!” Then we get the sermon, which doesn’t reiterate the Gospel to ensure we remember it, but helps us engage with the readings through interpretations, stories of the church fathers, and the like.
I missed the mental work of being in the talks; of being forced to think of bigger and better things.
3) Not Words
Admittedly, I could have done a far better job with this in my little room at the conference center–sitting in silence and being still. However, I was sick and grumpy, so I watched a lot of Netflix and found other ways to busy myself instead.
College Conference is smarter than to try and force silence and stillness on you–that’s not how silence and stillness works. It’s extremely voluntary–you cannot quiet all of the worries, stresses, and thoughts bouncing between your ears if you want to be embroiled in those thoughts. Trust me–I fall victim to that issue all of the time.
But College Conference does create that contemplative space for those who want it–in the chapels, the museum area, wherever. Often, the greatest obstacle standing between us and stillness is creating a space for that stillness in our busy lives–but College Conference offers that space, which encourages us to capitalize on it, as it is rare and valuable.
With my cold, I was far too self-pitying to find meditative silence; at home, not attending the conference, I’m sure the madness of life would have stifled me just as effectively.
If you went to College Conference, awesome. I hope you didn’t take for granted all the stuff I was sorely missing this year. It’s a holy time, that blesses us with many gifts–some we recognize; some we don’t.
If you didn’t go to College Conference this year–like me–you missed out. But I won’t be making the same mistake next winter break; and I hope you don’t, either.
One of my favorite things about December is the feasts of the saints. In my OCA church populated by Russians, Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th is a cups hand to microphonebig deal. One week later, on December 13th, we have the feast of Saint Herman–and we’re blessed to have his relics in my parish.
It’s such a great blessing to have these feast days in the month of December–not only because they give me a few extra liturgies in my familiar home parish, but because they help us prepare us for the Nativity of our Lord.
But standing in church, specifically today, on the feast of Saint Herman, reminds me how important it is to cultivate a relationship with the saints…
By Ted (St. Herman of Alaska) via Wikimedia Commons
…aaand how much I struggle with that.
Developing that conversation with the saints has always been such a great struggle of mine–if you haven’t experienced that, that’s a blessing in and of itself. I think it requires good humility to develop that relationship with the saints, and humility is something with which I certainly struggle.
A relationship with the saints immediately implies a need for help–a need that I undeniably have, but continuously endeavor to deny. Often, my approach to the saints reminds me of my father trying to fix the plumbing when I was kid: he didn’t really have any idea what he was doing, but he was going to figure it out on his own. Forget actually calling a plumber–even YouTube was too great of a crutch. He was smarter than the pipes.
Saints have figured it out. Saints know what’s up. Saints have the blueprint.
But a prideful mind insists that taking someone else’s blueprint is cheating; is a falsehood. It pokes holes in each saint story: take Saint Herman, who was a young, promising monk whose ideal life ended up leading him to a remote island in Alaska–that doesn’t feel very analogous to my life at all. Or Saint Nicholas, who was out punching heretics and sneaking bags of gold into people’s boots. Don’t get me wrong, I’m down to punch a heretic, I just think I might get arrested afterward, and my mom would be so mad…
But this is where we get fooled by the blueprint metaphor. The saints’ lives aren’t put before us so that we can do what they did, like robots learning a code; mimicking their every action like a step-by-step instruction set for Heaven entry and eternal rejoicing. The saints’ lives don’t show us the “what”–they don’t even show us the “how,” really. They show us what happens when you firmly, unflinchingly, devotedly believe in the “why.”
Again, action without intention is animatronic. There is no value in doing exactly what the saints did because you want the results they achieved. That’s not to say we can’t employ the strategies of the saints, learn lessons from their examples–but to assume the saints drew a map to the Kingdom is a mistake.
The saints lived lives fueled by their love for Christ. And because each saint followed different paths (St. Herman from the monastery, St. Elizabeth from royalty, St. Moses the Black from crime, St. Mary of Egypt from prostitution), we know it isn’t about the exact minutiae of their lives. It’s about that one thing that was common between them all: the love for Christ.
As such, if we struggle to relate with one unique saint, maybe that’s okay. But if we struggle relating to at least one of the vast numbers of saints–a demographic defined by their common love for Christ–then it is certainly time to look inward.
Thank God for the lives of the saints, given to us by the Church as examples of faith in all of its forms. Thank God that we have the opportunity to investigate, participate in that depth of faith. No matter how we may struggle to form that relationship with the saints, we must recognize that they are the men and women who loved Christ harder than anyone else. If that is truly our goal, then these are our allies, our mentors, and our guides. We do not wish to become them; we wish to become like them.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the end of the road. The boss level. The final countdown.
Before you spiral into a pit of self-loathing, as you lament the classes you skipped and readings you skimmed in weeks long passed, we’re here to help.
Finals are an unbelievably stressful time, and it’s quite easy–almost encouraged, even–to throw everything out of wack. Schedules, sleep patterns, priorities, diet–in the mad dash that is studying for finals, the college culture often demands from us more than we can reasonably give. That disparity upsets our natural balance and our perspective.
As such, let’s take a deep breath and break down the best ways to stay sane in finals season.
As is rightfully so, prayer is a good first step in everything. Of course, prayer in situations like these can be quite difficult. We don’t want to step in front of our icons (a location that we, perhaps, have attended only infrequently in recent months) and suddenly approach God, the wish-granter and gift-giver, and submit our requests in a moment of need. Prayer is a relationship and a conversation, not an order given to a waiter.
For what, then do we pray?
Well, we still should not be afraid of asking for what we need–but we must recognize that we do not need to pass these exams. No matter how crucial they may be to our degree/occupation.
What we needis help–and that’s in everything, not just finals. In our fallen world with our fallen nature and our fallen habits, we need God’s help if we are ever to grow closer to Him, to live a life full of faith and worship.
As such, we have to be sure that we’re taking our finals, and hoping to do very well in our finals, in an effort to live a Christian life. If we wish for success on our finals for the sake of our pride–to get better grades than our neighbor–or for our greed–to get a high-paying job and make tons of money to hoard and treasure–then really it would be quite better for us to pray to God that He help us struggle and fail our finals, that we may fall away from this sin, this temptation.
That brings us nicely to our second point.
A final exam is, plainly, words on a piece of paper. So is a final paper.
This piece of paper will have more significant ramifications than most pieces of paper, assuredly. It will help define your grade, which will help define your GPA, which will help define your prospects to future employers/grad schools/internships/etc.
I do not say this to frighten you. Rather the opposite.
You will take one set of final exams per semester/quarter. That’s four or five exams across an 11-15 week stretch. This will happen perhaps 8 to 12 times in your life, on average.
Every Sunday, once a week, for the history of your life time and the millennia that preceded it, the Body and Blood of Christ is sacrificed for the sins of the world and all mankind. Your participation in this sacrament will help define you. It will help define your salvation.
Taking these final exams is, simply, not the most important thing you will do this month–it’s not the most important thing you will do this week. And when you consider your prayer life, your opportunities to love your neighbor, well…it’s likely not the most important thing you’ll do on the very day.
Now of course, this does not mean we dedicate no time to the exam–we still can and rightfully should. Unless your vocation is a monastic one, then significant chunks of your day will be devoted to staying afloat in this secular world. That’s okay.
But we cannot let the relatively sporadic nature of final exams fool us into believing they are more important than the more consistent occurrence of our sacramental life. The two events are simply on different planes.
“It’s not the end of the world” feels like a cliche. It really is one. But, in this case, it bears a significant weight: when the end of the world does indeed come (ah!), how you did on your final exams won’t matter much at all.
Knowing that we have asked God for help, and knowing that our undertaking, while rightful, is not the end-all, be-all of our well-being, let’s make a decision.
Remember, we were given free will by the Lord. He wants us to choose what we do, as conscious beings and not robots.
It is easy to forget we have free will. Often we feel like we don’t have free will because the pressures of our environment constrain us and form us. This is not the case.
While we do respond to our environment (e.g., when a class has an exam, we prepare and show up for it), we may make our own choices. Every action bears consequences, and we must fearlessly say that we accept those consequences from every choice we make. Pretending that we lost our free will is often an effort to absolve ourselves from those consequences: “I missed church on Sunday, but I had to study for an exam…”
The encouragement is this: study for your exams and work very hard on them, but do so with intention, not out of default. Don’t do it because other students are doing it, because you’ve been told it’s what you’re supposed to do. Do it because these exams are important to your ideal life; a life that is aimed not on worldly success, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19). Do it because these exams, in some way, contribute to your path to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Glory be to God, we are blessed. Even when there are ups and downs in life, God is always there guiding us. How awesome is He? Our Almighty and Loving God never leaves our side no matter how sinful we are.
We have so many blessings to offer up to God and thank Him: being able to get up in the morning, go to class, go to College Conference or Real Break. The list goes on and on.
For me, OCF is one of the greatest blessings I am grateful for. I recently transferred schools and realized what a blessing my home chapter was for me. I definitely took many things for granted, and I did not realize the impact OCF, locally and in our North American programs, had and continues to have, on me.
I challenge each of you to take a moment and be still. Ponder all the blessings in your life and give glory to God! God willing, OCF is one of them. If you have an OCF chapter, don’t take it for granted. Give each person a hug and tell them why you are grateful for them. Thank your priest(s). Our spiritual advisors take precious time to spend with us and are vital to the OCF ministry. So really, take the time to thank your priest and your chapter. Life changes in a blink of an eye, and the present is the perfect time to have an attitude of gratitude.
In honor of giving thanks, as OCF we have launched a #GivingTuesday campaign, starting on November 28th and ending on December 15th.
This campaign issuperrrrr important because it’s not us asking our parishes or women’s groups to help the ministry of OCF. This time, it’s us students who have the opportunity to make the biggest difference.
This campaign is built for us students to show our love for our ministry of OCF and support all the wonderful programs that are put on for us (retreats & such)! I’m sure you’re grumbling to yourself, “ugh, they want money.”
Hear me out. We know the reality of being a college student. Little drops fill a bucket, right? You can make a donation of $10, which for me is eating in instead of going out in NYC. Instead of buying a large pizza for $20 invite your friends over and make your own pizza, and donate to OCF.
You want to know something pretty amazing? A generous donor has offered to match every dollar raised before the concluding date! AND if you share this campaign and have people donate in your honor the two students with the most “nominations” will be awarded a $1,000 scholarship each. Yes folks, a scholarship!
With 7 days left (campaign ends December 15th), we are currently at $15,781: only $4,219 short of our $20,000 goal!
I know money is a touchy subject. Truthfully, I usually cringe when the Parish Council President asks for money at church. But, as Orthodox Christians true stewardship is giving our time, talents, and treasure.
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. –2 Corinthians 9:6-7
So let’s begin now and give a little of our treasure to a ministry that works so hard for each of us. OCF is a ministry that has changed all of our lives in some way and will continue to do so as we graduate college and stay a part of Christ’s Living Body.
Share the word and let’s fill this OCF bucket each with our little drop!
Glory to Thee, making us dissatisfied with earthly things.
I’m a biology major, currently in my junior year, which means I get to mess around with all sorts of weird stuff. Currently, I’m wrapping up a semester-long experiment, the purpose of which was to isolate a virus, grow it on bacteria, and learn all about it (which is exactly as interesting and smelly as it sounds).
One of the high points was extracting the DNA, what really makes the little guy tick. My lab partner and I had spent two months growing our virus and worked for three straight hours to get that DNA out as meticulously as possible. Three hours of pipetting later, we got what we were looking for: a couple of drops of liquid in a vial. Two weeks later, it was in the trash, tossed out with everything else when the experiment ended.
It was one of the weirdest mixes of pride and sadness I’ve felt. So much work for so little, and even that little would end up in a dump just a short time later. It was, in a word, dissatisfying. It was amazing work, and we had done it well, and I was proud of the things I had done, but…in just a little while it had passed away.
Reading this verse and thinking about it, I’m realizing that life is full of buts (haha…buts). There’s nothing in our life that doesn’t come with its own sad little caveat. There are little ones: you can clean your room, but it’s just going to get dirty again (in spite of that, my mom still made me clean up my Legos). There are medium ones: you can put all your effort and money into school, but there’s no guarantee it’ll pay off; you can invest in relationships, but they’re almost certainly going to hurt you. And then, there’s the big one: you can live your life well, do good, love people, have it all…but you’re going to die, those you love are going to die, and everything you’ve stored up will, eventually, be dust.
Sometimes, all those buts (okay it was funny the first time but let’s move on) can be depressing and a real source of despair. As St. John of Damascus says, “What earthly joy remains unmixed with grief?” The non-rhetorical answer to that rhetorical question is nothing.
That sort of despair is something I struggle with. Sometimes the world seems bleak and very cold, with nothing good in it. Sometimes the buts get so big (now it’s just gratuitous) that it can be hard to see the good that’s there too.
But that’s not true. The world, and everything in it, is “very good” (God’s words, not mine). God created earthly things, and we can enjoy them and know Him through them. They’re a source of joy and comfort and laughter for us, and that’s not a bad thing. The problem comes when we stop there, when we take the happiness the world can give us and don’t try and go beyond.
The things we experience are ultimately unsatisfying: as Jesus says, everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again and again and again until we stop being able to thirst. But he’s not telling us not to drink water! He’s not telling us to not enjoy it. It’s good to drink water and enjoy it, as long as we’re seeking the living water too. It’s good to enjoy earthly things, as long as they don’t stay merely earthly, as long as we’re seeking the heavenly too.
Earthly things don’t satisfy us because we weren’t made for earthly things. The world doesn’t make us perfectly happy because it’s far from perfect. A traveler doesn’t feel at home in a hotel because he’s not at home. We don’t feel at home here because we’re not at home. We are, like Abraham, strangers and sojourners. Our home is heaven, and we “desire a better country” (Hebrews 11:16).
When we feel most comfortable with just our earthly lives, we’re in danger. When we forget the things of the earth are mortal, we make them immortal; when we make them immortal, we make them gods, and we forget the Immortal God who is our true home, our true Life. It is when we are most conscious that “heaven and earth will pass away” that we are able to be closest to Christ.
It is this sort of dissatisfaction, a true, godly satisfaction which stems from the knowledge that no matter how good it is (and it is very good), it will be taken away and replaced with (or rather, transformed into) something much better, that is a gift from God.
Earthly things are wonderful, but it is God who gives them meaning and worth, and He graces us with this feeling to help us remember that. Today, I thank God for giving us this dissatisfaction in order to remind us that we are not children of the world, but sons and daughters of the Most High.
Nicholas Zolnerowich is a junior biology student at UMBC, where he is also the president of his OCF. He enjoys the outdoors, superheroes, and talking about himself in the third person.
“Glory to Thee for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.”
(Ikos 4, the Akathist of Thanksgiving)
As I sat down to work on this post, I realized that my laptop cord is juuuuuuust barely too short for me to sit in my favorite spot in the corner of the couch while it’s plugged in. So, as I type, I’m perched a smidgen in from the corner, right at the point where two cushions meet. (I realize that most of you are thinking, “Kiara, on what planet does this relate to that quote you put up there?” Hang on—we’ll get there.)
I’m caught somewhere between cozy-comfy and actually kind of uncomfortable. This is where my stubbornness gets the best of me because I refuse to scoot off of the cushion meeting point, just on principle. It’s dumb, I know, and I’m reminded of how frequently we feel this way. Not necessarily this specific situation (because honestly most people aren’t as absurd as I am), but how many times have you found yourself feeling two wildly different, even opposing, things at the same time? It’s more common than we’d like to admit, frankly.
And this is where Orthodoxy comes in. Our faith not only acknowledges but embraces the fact that we are all a bit (or a lot) of a living, walking paradox. Take our funerals: even as we mourn, we gleefully anticipate the departed’s eventual resurrection in Christ. There is room both for overwhelming sorrow and pain alongside breathlessly anticipatory hope. Take confession: it’s expressly designed to both acknowledge our pain and our wrong, as well as affirm our beauty and goodness as a child of Light. There is room for us to be both hurt and healed.
Even our God embodies two complete and contradictory truths because He is both fully God and fully man! If anyone understands being a paradox, it’s DEFINITELY Him.
Meet yourself where you are: it’s okay to feel annoyed by fasting, even as you’re excited for what the fast brings! In a perfect world, would we all love fasting and serve God flawlessly, without reservation and with our whole selves? You bet your bottom lip we would! Do we live in that world? Not even close.
Now, none of this is to say that we can slack off, or write off mediocre effort as, “Oh it’s okay, I’m just meeting myself where I am; Kiara said it’s fine.” Nice try my dudes, but that’s not how this works either. The point of this is not to give you justification to not give your all; it’s to remind you that perpetually beating yourself up and making yourself feel guilty because you haven’t had a perfect fast or didn’t go to church this week or whatever won’t solve anything. Repent, go to confession if at all possible, pick yourself up, and try again. Acknowledge the paradox: you have failed, but you are undefeated.
Now, to return to that quote, “Glory to Thee for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.” When I read that (as I sat on my simultaneously comfy and uncomfy perch), all of this came flooding into my brain. I realize that’s a pretty big leap. Just roll with it.
Think of the times that we tremble. We tremble when we’re afraid, when we’re cold. We tremble when we’re so moved and joyful that it seems our body can’t contain it and we’re just going to vibrate away like a hummingbird flitting to nectar. We tremble when we’re nervous, and we tremble when we’re about to receive something we’ve anticipated for what feels like an eternity.
Within that one word, there are paradoxical multitudes. As there are paradoxical multitudes within us, and as there are paradoxical multitudes—both literal and figurative—within Orthodoxy. We are not alone in our contradictory truths. Look at the season we’re in; we’re fasting and preparing for the birth of Christ even as we feast and celebrate the innumerable joys in our lives.
By the time this post goes up, Thanksgiving will have just happened. And so, remember the delights for which you are thankful. And remember the delights for which you sorrow. Bring these seemingly competing truths and emotions together into one, and I have a feeling you’ll find a truth deeper than either side alone. Let yourself tremble in the face of your joy, let yourself tremble in the face of your struggle.
Glory to God for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.
Kiara (her Arabic-speaking friends like to call her cucumber, because apparently a khiara is a cucumber in Arabic—who knew?) Stewart is a first-year grad student at George Washington University. When she’s not reading endless art therapy texts or busy making art, Kiara likes to spend her free time reading, hiking, and hanging out with the Amish.
I know…a bunch of you are ready to fight me for such a bold and biased title. I would say they paid me to write this, but being part of the SLB is entirely voluntary. Just hear me out, and afterward you are welcome to write Ben a counter-argument.
1) You finally get to spend a week focused on your spiritual growth.
Most campers don’t know how to take ownership of their spiritual journey…they’re still trying to figure out if their skirts are long enough or if the counselors think they’re “cool”. Then, the counselors themselves are more focused on their campers’ experience at camp, or at least they should be.
Real Break is a chance to turn the focus back on you and your faith. While you are on your trip, whether it is a service project or a pilgrimage, you will have a moment, or ten, when this sense of peace fills you and you are simply reminded that “this came about from the Lord, and it is wonderful in our eyes.” Psalm 117(118):23
2) It’s like camp, but in March, with better food, and for adults-in-training
Confession time: I still miss camp, even after four years of adulting. Post Camp Depression (PCD) never truly goes away. But, to spend a week, away from the pressures of work and school and social media, surrounded by your brothers and sisters in Christ…I don’t know about you, but that was my favorite part about camp and is my favorite part about Real Break. You’re with 10 to 20 other college kids…adults…adults-in-training, and nobody knows anybody, yet within the first day, you will find that you have become a family.
Note: If you’re that person that decided to spend your Real Break maintaining your snap streaks…don’t. I promise you’ll get more out of it if you go off the grid. I recommend journaling (with pen and paper) instead.
3) Real Break is a once-in-a-lifetime experience
The trips and retreats organized by OCF are truly unique. First, they are pan-Orthodox. Unlike most church camps, your Real Break trip will have students from a variety of jurisdictions and from all over North America. The group itself is about as diverse as it gets.
Second, the trip’s mission presents a unique opportunity. The places you go and the things you’ll do will allow you to grow as an Orthodox Christian and simultaneously interact with a community that is not your own, yet welcomes you with open arms. Each Real Break trip has a different mission, but all have the same objective: to provide college students with a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I genuinely believe we accomplish that year after year.
Hi y’all! My name is Anna Sobchak, and I am so excited to be the Real Break Student Leader for this coming year. My OCF story has been filled with amazing brothers and sisters in Christ, some that I see at church every Sunday, and others that I’ve met through our National Programs, such as Real Break. Whether it’s dancing through the streets of Thessaloniki, praying on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, or hiking up to the monasteries of Meteora, these are the moments that have defined my college experience, and I can’t wait to share that with all of you.
This month, our Blog Contributors were asked to submit reflections on the Akathist of Thanksgiving, from which comes OCF’s 2018 theme, #GloryToGod. To kick off our series, here’s Mark Ghannam.
Winter is coming. As the winter days approach those of us who live in places where the weather takes a cold turn, perhaps the award for the timeliest spiritual metaphor should be given to “the whirlwind, the terror and howling of the storm…” which is taken from the Akathist service of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Let us use this metaphor to reflect on what the storm clouds are in our spiritual lives.
Through every season of our lives, the storm clouds of doubt, fear, jealousy, pride, and so on will always be around us. These storm clouds inhibit our ability to perceive, and delight in, the eternal light and hope of the Son.
Some of us may think we are impervious to the storms of life, or we mistakenly think that if we manipulate our external circumstances enough, we can completely defend ourselves against them. If I only had this material good, I would be happy. If I can just pull my grades up. If I can just land that internship.
This is simply not how it works.
“For He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Scripture tells us explicitly that the storms of life, spoken of in the Akathist, are an inevitable part of human existence.
What are we to do?
Unfortunately, umbrellas, Hunter rain boots, and Canada Goose jackets are not enough for these kinds of storms. We cannot hide, or pretend they do not exist, as many of us try to do. The Akathist has a much better answer.
“The storm clouds of life bringeth no terror to those in whose hearts Thy fire is burning brightly. Outside is the darkness of the whirlwind, the terror and howling of the storm; but in the heart, in the presence of Christ, there is light, peace, and silence”
– Akathist of Thanksgiving, Kontakion 5
So many people will tell you that being a Christian is about being a good person, and that the Church exists so that it might spread good values. This is an understatement that is more egregious than saying “in college, you might have to do some work outside of class once in a while.”
Of course we are to be good people, and of course, as the Church, we must spread good values. However, there is a much higher calling to which we are called. The good news of Jesus Christ is about more than morality. It is about a total transformation, a radical repentance, that allows us to warm our hands by the fire of truth and beauty that lives inside of us.
We must dig deep within us to access, and live in, that place where our hearts our aflame with the love of Jesus Christ. The storm clouds can cover that place up, and make us believe it is not there. Fear and desire stand guard to keep us from paradise. If we can learn to set aside fear and desire through our spiritual practice, the gates of paradise will appear as they truly are: open.
In the external world, there is chaos. Deep within us is a place of silence and peace; a calm that is unmarred by the storms of life. We must go there. There is no other way.
St. Isaac the Syrian tells us that “the highest form of prayer, is to stand silently in awe before God.” If we want to learn to brave the storms that will inevitably come, we must learn, and practice, finding the peace that resides deep inside of us.
Where to start?
Take a deep breath. Sit for a moment.
School keeps us busy. Emails, texts, social media, etc, are brilliant distractions that tear our minds away from our peace.
Start with five minutes. Take five minutes out of your day to set your phone aside (screen facing down), and sit silently. Make the sign of the cross, and just sit in silence and stillness. It is no mistake that the spiritual life is often called “practice”. Acquiring the spirit of peace, takes practice. We must practice being still, being silent, and waking up to the reality of the presence of God in our lives.
In this space, I speak a lot about the limits and constraints that college life puts on our participation of the faith.
I’ve written about prayer, confession, service, almsgiving–all through the lens of our limits as poor, busy, terrified-for-our-future college students.
The intention there is clear–and, I believe, justified. As a ministry oriented towards college students and the Orthodox faith, it is appropriate that we would create resources to help college students address the obstacles between them and the ideal practice of their faith. It is also appropriate that we would share stories of success, of the aspects of our collegiate life that help us grow in our faith (see: reflections on OCF retreats/programs).
Of all of the sacraments and practices of the Church, however, I don’t think any one is as clearly helped by our college life than fasting.
Those are my two cents–they’re worth exactly two pennies. If your experience is different, which is entirely possible, then you may disagree. Furthermore, I am in no way saying that fasting is easy. It is not. I will struggle with it, whine (waaay too much) about it, and fail at it inevitable this season.
But my experience of fasting at college has always boiled down to pure, undiluted, individual choice.
Of course, most everything boils down to choice. Pray before you go to sleep? That’s a choice. Get up for church on Sunday mornings? That’s a choice. But in so many of these life choices, we can feel constrained and steered by many other external factors. We feel that these motivations and limitations rob us of our choice.
But fasting–the exclusion of meat and/or dairy from the diet–more easily distances itself from these limiting factors. Why? Because, at college, you have significant control over what you eat.
Let’s say you’re on a meal plan. Well, you typically walk into a large cafeteria that has many food options–and there’s going to inevitably be at least a vegetarian option, if not two or three. In that moment in which you hold the empty tray in your hands, there is nothing impeding your path to the pepperoni pizza, and there is nothing impeding your path to the salads. The call is yours.
Let’s say you aren’t on a meal plan–then you buy your own food. Yeah, if you have roommates who cook for the whole apartment, now you’re in a bit of a bind. You have to strike a balance between asking them to keep your dietary restrictions in mind for 40 days (less, because you won’t even be at college for some of them) and cooking your own food. But I believe that’s possible.
Especially because OCF has a fasting cookbook for you!
As I said at the beginning of this post, OCF helps address the obstacles between the college student and the full realization of their faith. Despite the extent to which I personally find fasting to boil down to a choice, you may not. That’s where the cookbook comes in. It’s full of recipes to help you make it through the fast, recipes that are so simple you can make many of them with nothing but a plate and a microwave.
Often, we leapfrog choice with willful ignorance. Because choice is hard–it forces us to evaluate what we truly value–and often leads to less instantly gratifying decisions, we attempt to circumvent it by denying its existence. We ignore the information that gives us the power to choose. We don’t learn the strategies, listen to the sermons, read the books, so we can pretend we did the best we could–because that was all we knew.
If you’ve arrived here–at the end of the post–then your choice in fasting has hopefully been exposed. If your mind, instinctively seeking an out, whispered an insistence that you didn’t have the means to cook fasting food for yourself, hopefully the cookbook proves a counter-punching resource for you.
It’s my favorite Bible quote–it seems to always apply–so let’s drop it right here to end this post. In the 13th chapter of John, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, reminded them that they view him as the Teacher, reminded them of all of the examples he has given them. He’s preparing to be Crucified. He then says:
If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. – John 13:17
Note: If you have any cool fasting recipes/easy fasting treats or anything in between, the 2018 Lenten Cookbook is currently being compiled. Go here for a recipe submission form!
I couldn’t be more blessed with my parish here in Chicago.
There are tons of Orthodox churches all across the city. I know that different students from different OCFs way across the city go to different churches, but I’ve been fortunate enough to find the one in which I feel both comfortable and pushed to be better; welcomed, and supported.
Parish life can be something over which we gloss in OCF. Many of our pillars–fellowship, education, service–replicate exactly those that are utilized by the many healthy parishes across the nation. OCF organizes service trips; so do many churches. OCF organizes Scripture study and book readings; so do many churches.
Now, OCF serves these similar functions as the parish for a distinct reason: As a college student, it can be quite tricky to become engaged in these aspects of parish life. Church youth groups are often geared toward younger students, and rightfully so: once those youth leave for college, they can no longer be members of the group.
Meanwhile, the adults of the parish–even those on the younger side–have likely been members of the parish for a few years. Their concerns are perhaps starting a family, settling in to their profession, creating a state of permanence that a nomadic college student simply cannot. They’re at a different stage in their life.
And accordingly, OCF creates a community of the like-minded, similar-staged college students, that we may be buttressed by these pillars of education and fellowship and service in the Church.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Bill Colclough.
That being said, we must recognize a crucial point: Both college life, and by extension, OCF life are not meant to replicate the aforementioned permanence of a fledgling adult who has landed in a home, has a home parish, and has some real consistency to their lives. College and OCF life are, by their nature, transient.
We forget this because we spend years–long, hard, awful years–in high school being told that the end is college; that we must appropriately cite our sources, because we will have to do that in college; that we must do extracurricular activities, because colleges will like that. Our paradigm for decision-making and effort is solely based on college as an end goal. But it is not an end. It is a means to an end.
The end of all things is Christ. The end of all things is the second coming and eternal salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven. As Orthodox Christians, standing in the face of this truth, everything we do must be geared toward arriving at this end as prepared and humble servants; as guests wearing the wedding garments; as virgins with oil in our lamps.
As such, my encouragement to you today is to examine: what are your ends? Do you do what you do to get good grades? To get a good job? To make money? To have a family? To live a happy life? Perhaps, even, do you do what you do because it feels good in the moment? I cannot tell you how you should divide your efforts on a daily basis, but I do know that the Lord said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” If there’s something in your life that isn’t leading you to the kingdom, you have to sit and think about that.
It is in this mindset and in this spirit that I return to my original point: I am so blessed with the parish that I have. It is youthful, thriving, and joyous. If I wanted to show anyone what Orthodoxy looks like–not in a monastery on a hill or a village in the home country–but in the center of a city in America, I would take them here.
But I don’t participate in that parish nearly as much as I should. Don’t get me wrong: I go to church every week that I’m in Chicago. (Okay, I was really sick like two weeks ago, but you get the point.) But my involvement with OCF–good, valuable, important to me–fools me into believing that I needn’t involve myself with my parish.
However, I know that, as the future rolls ever toward me, parish involvement is on my horizon. I know that, to make it to the kingdom, I need a home parish. I need that stability, that consistent involvement, those people who know me well through my faith. I know that my opportunities to serve, to learn, and to commune will no longer come from OCF in the nearing future. And I have to start preparing for that.
My prayer is that the Lord helps me do this. It is difficult, to pull oneself far back, to such a wide-reaching perspective–but, it allows the self to make more level-headed, forward-thinking decisions. It is only by looking at the long-term can we gain the insight needed to change the short-term.
On Saturday, October 21, college students of the NYC Area gathered for YES NYC’s College day. The day turned one participant’s perspective on its head.
As 16 of us arrived at the parish of St. Mary Magdalen in The Upper West Side, we quickly became a little community, only growing stronger during the twenty-minute walk to our service site. From what was then our college-specific community would soon transition into something, I at least, could have never imagined. The growth of our experiences gradually expanded from the community that we thought we knew, into one intertwined in service for and with those among us.
Upon reaching Harlem’s Emmaus House, their sole volunteer for that day unassumingly received us. There, she provided us with the opportunity to package food for those who would later come seeking it.
YES does an incredible job debunking common perceptions of helping versus serving. Riddling out that distinction brings about many difficult challenges. Walking into a quieter Emmaus House with no one “needy” in sight was discouraging. After all, I signed up for this in hopes of growing in a deeper understanding of service, with a sprinkle of enlightenment from the “other” before me. And that makes for a great reflection, right?
What I failed to realize, however, is that service knows no limits. My preconceived notions painted a false hierarchy–I was the helper, seeking to serve others in need–and as such, a surprise would come from someone I least expected. And there lies the problem: the fact that I first held of view of someone other than myself as “least.”
The true manifestation of service around us emulated from this volunteer’s language of love. She did not reserve it for any specific type of person. While not directly encountering those we assume live in need, we instead heard her incredible journey in Christ; which in turn, proved to meet a need of our own. Those of us who later voiced reflection were extremely struck by her humble presence and steadfast trust in Him. We found her to be of service to us more than anything we could offer her in return.
Therefore, she prompted our new reality of an encompassing community, as the later half of our day took to Marcus Garvey Park. We met various locals, most of whom welcomed us into the neighborhood and shared bits of their lives with us. Fulfilling what we had encountered during our time at the Emmaus House, we were blessed with the opportunity to live out what we had learned–to meet people for who they were and where they happened to be in life.
Come debriefing, one participant shared a quote (as paraphrased), “wherever you find yourself in life, is exactly where God wants you to be in that moment”; and boy did this make for the day’s message. Following a reading of Matthew 25:31-46, an unprecedented silence that truly captured what words cannot came across our group. It felt like the perfect note to end on. Just as Christ speaks of hunger, food and clothing, so too does he raise the necessity of a stranger being invited in.
Thank you to everyone at FOCUS North America for organizing Yes College Days, and everything Christ illumines through their service. Glory to God for all things!
Hello, friends! My name is Nicholas Zolnerowich, and I am also a person who now does these blog things. I’m currently chugging my way through my junior year at UMBC, where I am a bio/psych double-major pre-med student. When I’m not in class or doing homework, you can usually find me hiking in the woods, procrastinating, or engaging in baguette sword fights (one of those is incorrect).
This is the part where I’d love to give you a crazy inspiring story of why I joined OCF: I joined, not because of my devotion to Christ (it’s not that great), or my desire to bond with other Orthodox college students (I hate socializing), or my soaring spiritual life and how I exude incense while I pray (that one’s actually true). That would be pretty neat.
The truth is, I joined OCF because I was expected to. My parents, my parish priest, and my camp friends all acted like it was the norm. I didn’t want to be the one heathen that didn’t belong to an OCF, so I showed up to my first meeting entirely due to peer pressure.
There were five people there (I knew none of them) and it was one of the most awkward two hours of my life (for those of you who don’t know me, I would rather fight a horde of extremely crotchety beavers than experience a new social situation). I seriously considered never going back…but they knew my name now! My face was in their systems. If I stopped going, they would see me around campus, stare me down, and whisper about me to their taller, more attractive, bearded friends.
by Tom via flicker
And that peer pressure, the same peer pressure that convinced me to go in the first place, convinced me to come back. And come back again. And keep coming back every Monday for the last three years. And boy, am I glad I did.
Why? Well, I’m glad you asked, slightly skeptical reader. It really comes down to peer pressure. Everyone who’s anyone can tell you about peer pressure: you’re a sweet innocent kid who has stuck to decaf your whole life, but if you let yourself be surrounded by friends who think caffeine is hip, suddenly you’re knocking back espresso like it’s gosh-darn 1999.
Peer pressure is talked about to the point where it’s kind of goofy, but with some perspective, I think we can all acknowledge it’s a serious thing. It convinces us to drink dangerously or illegally, to not cross ourselves in public, to avoid talking openly about our Faith, or to not wear Crocs in public. Peer pressure can be insidious.
But we rarely hear about the flip side: peer pressure can push us in the right direction. The same influence that makes us not want to be the one guy not drinking at a party is the same influence that makes us not want to be the one guy that doesn’t show up at Saturday Vespers, the one guy that isn’t fasting, the one guy that slacks off with their faith, and it’s that peer pressure that saved me.
When the pressures and desires and passions that are part of the standard package at most colleges began to pull me away from the Church, when that pull became too strong for me, the knowledge that I would be missed if I stopped going to church kept me going. The desire to fit in the best possible way with the best possible people held me up when I wasn’t at my best; and hopefully by God’s grace I have provided that influence to somebody else as well.
That’s why I took this blog person position, and why I’m excited about it. The support I have been given has helped me get this far, and even though I’ve got a long way to go, I’ve “seen some stuff.” I’m grateful for the experiences and mistakes I’ve been able to learn from, and grateful for the chance to pass some of that on.
College is tough. We lose our support system. We lose the people who pushed us in the right direction and find ourselves often surrounded by people going the other way. That’s why OCF matters. That’s why it’s so important.
We hold each other up, improve each other, guide each other in the right direction. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Join OCF, join a parish, stay connected however possible. It is our responsibility and privilege, as children of God, to sharpen our brothers and sisters and to let ourselves be sharpened as well.
Nicholas Zolnerowich is a junior biology student at UMBC, where he is also the president of his OCF. He enjoys the outdoors, superheroes, and talking about himself in the third person.
I’m going to boast on someone else’s behalf, for a second.
Last spring, the then-Chairman of the Student Leadership Board, Emma Solak (some relation, maybe), spoke at the Orthodox Youth and Camp Workers Conference. She was brought in to discuss what it meant to “Keep the Faith” in college, and why there was less to fear than we sometimes fool ourselves into believing.
That’s not really the boast part, yet.
Fast-forward to September: A Serbian church in Merrillville, Indiana–St. Sava–was looking to better engage the youth of their parish. The core group, that had helped establish the church and brought it through its growing years, was beginning to pass away or grow too old to continue carrying the torch. In order for St. Sava to remain a healthy, proud parish, the next generation would have to step up into the shoes of the one before it.
In effort to engage their youth, the parish sought speakers for their 103rd anniversary banquet–speakers geared towards addressing the younger members of the church. And, on the magical website called YouTube, they found one: Emma.
I was able to accompany Emma on her trip to Indiana, where we were blessed with the hospitality and passion of the Historical Society and hosts at St. Sava. Driving back to Chicago, two things struck me:
Firstly: youth in the Church is not all doom and gloom. You could see that at St. Sava. Some of the young members of the church received awards for their service to their parish, their dedication in fulfilling their responsibilities. In the massive banquet hall, children ran around at every turn. There were three age levels of Serbian dance, and a choir of adorable little munchkins that sang traditional Serbian songs.
We talk about the difficulties of retaining youth in the church because, frankly, it is important to retain youth in the church, and it can be difficult. That being said, it is important that we enjoy and recognize those youth that still staunchly remain in our parishes across the nation.
Retaining youth isn’t a numbers game, nor is it some sort of forced captivity–keep them in parishes long enough until they grow old enough to know they need the Church. We should spend intentional time appreciating the presence of youth in our church, no matter how small, and seek to understand why they enjoy and thrive in the Church as they do.
Secondly, I was struck by that service that OCF could render: providing a speaker, fresh out of college, to a church seeking such an individual. We talk at lengths regarding the manner by which OCF serves us–what programs OCF offers, how it can help us. We also sometimes consider, “What we can do, through OCF, that serves others.” Real Break, YES College Days, these programs in which we tell OCF we want to give back, and OCF points us at people in need.
But we, as members of the Body of the Church not just OCFers in a program, regardless of age and occupation and schooling level–we have talents to give to the Church. Emma spoke to St. Sava’s church, in part because of her experience with OCF, but not as representative of OCF–she spoke as a young woman who was strong and active in the Church. We can all be that! We all should be that.
The further away OCF floats from that pure idea–forming persons who are strong and active in the Church–the more it becomes just another student organization. It loses its true purpose: equipping us, not for being OCF members, but for being real, live, actual Christians.
Hello friends! For those of you who followed the blog last semester, hi again! It’s good to see you, and I hope that midterms haven’t been too terrible. And to newcomers to the blog, I AM SO GLAD YOU’RE HERE.
Ben has been kind enough (or maybe I conned him into it . . . we may never know) to invite me back as a Blog Contributor for this semester! If you remember from spring (and absolutely no worries if you don’t), I was a senior, which means that I’ve now (gasp) graduated. But isn’t OCF just for college students? Au contraire, my friends. OCF is for students under the age of twenty-five, so I’m not-so-stealthily sneaking by.
This is a bowl Kiara made for me (it’s Ben). It is now my sugar bowl. I love it lots.
Anyway, having graduated in May, I’m now working on a master’s degree in art therapy at George Washington University (don’t be fooled, I’m not really that smart—God definitely had a hand in getting me accepted). Though I’m no longer an art major, you can still frequently find me covered in clay, and my love for wandering in the woods, writing poetry, and knitting hasn’t changed. Write me a poem about ceramics, and I just may love you forever.
[Ben Note: can confirm.]
If you recall from my posts last semester (or if you don’t), the university I attended was pretty intensely secular. No OCF, the nearest Orthodox church was an hour and a half away, and I was the only practicing Orthodox student on campus. Not exactly the thriving community you’d hope for. Things like this blog, College Conference, and OCF retreats were some of the only lifelines I had to our faith, and staying connected was more than a bit difficult. To be frank, it was lonely and hard and very definitely not fun. 10/10 would not recommend.
Fast forward to today, aaaaaaand the school I currently attend doesn’t have an OCF either. I know, I know, I can hear you guys are shaking your heads and asking why I don’t learn from my mistakes. But hear me out; it’s not as bleak as you think. I’m now sharing living space with another young Orthodox adult (shout out to Rose for being the best Dox roommate I could ask for), church is only thirty minutes away (!!!), and GMU (which is about fifteen minutes away from my house) has a budding OCF! Being in the D.C. area, there are a TON of college-age Dox people, and we’re carving out our own little community.
The moral of this story is, whether your school has a massive, flourishing OCF or you’re the only one on campus, there’s hope. And OCF is here to lend a hand and a hug if you’ll have us.
One of the things my professors stress (over and over and over) in class is that 90% of being an art therapist is listening. It’s not about giving advice, and it’s not about you being omniscient and solving people’s problems. Just listen. Reflect back what they’re saying, and be the sounding board that lets them find their own solutions.
I think there are any number of parallels here, both with OCF and with our relationship with God. (I know it’s a little ironic for me to be going on about listening when I’m doing all the talking, but bear with me.) First of all, how frequently are we called to be still, or to be silent, and to seek God that way?
At the risk of being cliché, think of Elijah; the voice of God wasn’t in wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the gentle whisper after. No matter the tempests of our life, help does come. And it comes when we take time to listen.
Relating that idea to OCF and to this blog, it’s our job to listen to and for you. I can blather on all I like about whatever pops into my cluttered mind, but it’s of no use to you if it isn’t something you need. So please, reach out to us—to Ben, to Mark, to Nick, to me, to anyone you’d like—and tell us what you need, what’ll be beneficial to you. At the risk of speaking for my fellow Contributors, I think it’s safe to say that none of us took this position because we think we have earth-shatteringly good ideas; we took it because we want to walk with you as we all try to walk in faith. So if you’ll have me, let’s walk a little farther together.
Kiara (her Arabic-speaking friends like to call her cucumber, because apparently a khiara is a cucumber in Arabic—who knew?) Stewart is a first-year grad student at George Washington University. When she’s not reading endless art therapy texts or busy making art, Kiara likes to spend her free time reading, hiking, and hanging out with the Amish.
It’s really, really tough to be a college student in a time of crisis.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently–how could you not? In the football-related work that I do, I interact with a really large network of people around the country–which is awesome, but also quite eye-opening. As such, I worked directly with a few people who had to evacuate and experienced flooding during Hurricane Irma; because it’s football work, I was exposed a ton to Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt’s national campaign to raise money for Houston following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey; a lot of media folks live in California, where fires have been burning homes and polluting the air; and that doesn’t even touch those in Puerto Rico, many of whom are currently without clean water.
Things are not good on the natural disaster front.
As a college student, this can be incredibly frustrating. Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to have the funds with which you can make a monetary impact on these events as each arrives–if so, count your blessings. I would venture to say that many of us aren’t there.
The question becomes, of course, what can we do? I don’t have a comprehensive list, nor am I well-versed in all of the various opportunities/outlets that exist (please comment below and on social media with cool stuff you do), but I can tell you about what I think and what I’ve done.
I think it’s very easy to forget that our greatest agency, whether we can give $1 or $1,000, isn’t in the money we give, but rather our prayers. And we really have to be careful of muddling that priority list: reducing prayer to “well, at least I’m doing this” or “well, I can’t really give that much, so I’ll pray instead.” Because donations are more publicly visible, more empirically tangible, they feel more impactful.
When you give money online to relief funds, bright little graphics pop up, and you’re thanked by the program and so on. Why? To make you feel that initial jolt, that rush of altruism. When you pray for the suffering, when you pray for the first responders, when you pray for the safety of the world, you’re usually rewarded by the same stillness and silence of the room in which you are. Little emoji prayer hands don’t start popping up, as if you’re gaining experience points in some video game.
The hope is, of course, that your prayer is so fervent and heartfelt that you might truly experience, viscerally, that interaction you just had with God’s grace and mercy. The reality–at least for me–is that I’m not nearly a good enough supplicant to regularly have that experience. And, as such, it is easy to feel effete and irresponsible–like we are not doing enough. But there is nothing we can do–mankind, in all of our combined efforts–that holds a candle to what the Lord can do, through his long-suffering and compassion. It is important to remember this.
via Wikimedia Commons
It is also important, however, to do what we can in the world with our resources. Remember the tale of the man on the roof in the flood who denied the boat and the helicopter and the rescuers, because he was so faithful God would save him. When he died and saw God, he asked why God had not rewarded his faith: God said that He had…with a boat and a helicopter and rescuers.
So, what can we do, in the face of our limited resources? The first, easiest answer is to give what we can. Sure, one college student may not offer much–but there’s quite a good deal of us in OCF, you know. Through our community, our efforts are multiplied.
We can also recognize that immediate aid to places in dire need, while primary and necessary and invaluable, isn’t the only aid. On Real Break New Orleans this past March, a few of my fellow students and I toured through the Lower Ninth Ward, beholding destruction you wouldn’t believe happened twelve years ago. OCF offers many activities that are service-based–primarily a giving of time, rather than a giving of money–throughout the year, including YES College Days and Real Break trips.
Finally, I think it’s important to do little things–no matter how small. Not simply for the sake of it–just to say you did–but because, as an Orthodox Christian, giving to those in need should become a fixture of your life. Remember, the values and habits you construct now follow you into adulthood–without a dedication to helping those in need now, you’ll struggle to develop the habit when you have the resources. Using small, convenient outlets like freerice.com or Charity Miles help you have a consistent impact, without putting you in a financial bind.
Welcome to college: with an increase in choice comes an increase in responsibility. One of my favorite Bible quotes comes from Jesus (shocker), when He was hyping the disciples up in the upper room before His Crucifixion–I’ve probably told this to every camper I ever had:
If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
– John 13:17
You know things. But that isn’t enough. That just gets you to the battlefield–now, you’ve gotta do stuff, too. It’s time for action.
It’s a question that has bothered me, over my time as a young adult making the effort. You all know that kid in your one discussion class? The one who has an opinion about, um, everything? Always dropping unnecessarily big words that they don’t even properly understand? Convinced they have great insight worthy of sharing at the drop of a hat?
Sometimes, that’s how I felt about reading the Scriptures at a personal level. I don’t think I’m nearly as good at reading and understanding the Scriptures as, say, the priest I see every Sunday who went to seminary and learned how to interpret the Bible. I mean, if understanding Scripture were easy, there wouldn’t be a big talk right after the Gospel reading to unpack what was just said. I didn’t want to become the “that guy” who reads through something incredibly complex and fools himself into thinking he understands it.
And, funnily enough, that fear has shaped a lot of my experience reading through the Scriptures so far. If you flip through my copy of the Bible, you’ll find way more question marks in the margins than anything else. Focused on my lack of understanding, I’ve had the experience of learning some while reading the Bible, but asking and wondering even more.
But it’s not a bad wondering. I’m not at the place where I feel I don’t understand my faith or that the Bible is saying things that surprise me and shock me. It’s a good wondering–it proves that my faith is dynamic, layered, and alive. Sure, there are question marks in the chapters and verses not read in the Sunday cycle of Bible readings, but there are plenty of question marks in the familiar parables as well.
Also–and this may shock you–reading something daily is better than reading something weekly. Honestly, it surprised me–my experience reading the Scriptures consistently has helped color in the gaps between the Gospel narrative provided by only a weekly dip. I promise you, I had no idea how often Jesus “got on a boat and went to the other side” until I started reading Matthew every single day of the week.
But that’s just a casual example: reading the full narrative elucidates the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples, the people and Jesus Christ. You come better to understand how immediately Jesus starting challenging the law and foreshadowing the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
If you’re like me, you’re reading something for class every single day. If you’re reading something for Classic English Lit on the daily, and you’re not reading Scripture on the daily, which is important to you? Which will have a greater influence on your life? You’re getting to class every day (at least, you’re telling your mom you are)–but you can’t get to church every day, can you?
Me? I watch football literally every. single. day. If I’m not finding a way to actively, intentionally, hungrily engage with my faith on the daily, I’m losing spiritual ground to a game. That’s not good.
So I read the Scripture because I’m quite fearful of what might happen if I don’t. I’ll distance myself from my Lord, keeping Him at a distance and keeping my faith as a static, placid entity that I’ve fooled myself into believing I fully understand. That sounds lazy, irresponsible, and scary. And I want to avoid things like that.
I use MyBiblePlans.com to create my schedule (it’s fully customizable). It uploads directly to my Google Calendar, so I can get handy little notifications on my phone.
I am back for another year of contributing to the OCF blog, and I am charged with the task of reintroducing myself, and I wonder what might be worth saying.
Rather than sharing the same tired anecdotes about my extracurricular activities and favorite Netflix shows, I have chosen the words of the great poet Kahlil Gibran to try to give you insight into the idea that has been dominating my thoughts. Maybe this will be a better way to get to know me.
“We are all beggars at the gate of the temple, and each one of us receives his share of the bounty of the King when he enters the temple, and when he goes out. But we are all jealous of one another, which is another way of belittling the King.”
This poem from Gibran’s Sand and Foam captures a deep truth that most of us fail to recognize: we are all
in search of the same things. We all want to be valued, we all want to be filled with joy, we all want to be at peace, and most of all, we all want to be loved. “We are all beggars at the gate of the same temple.”
We are all promised these things from a myriad of different types of places and people. Every advertisement we see on television is subtly (or often times, not so subtly) telling us that another material product will be the answer to our search. Our social environments often try to convince us that certain worldly lifestyles will be what we are looking for. If we use enough of the right drugs or go to the right parties with the right people, we will find the peace and joy we so desperately seek. However, as Gibran reminds us, the true treasure comes from the King alone—the King of Kings, I might add.
When we doubt the King, or when we doubt that amidst all the worldly promises, Christ is the only one who can deliver on his divine promises, we belittle him. Hopefully, through this blog, we might try to take a look at some of those promises and how God—the King—delivers on them.
For those of you who were truly interested, my favorite show on Netflix is The West Wing, I am a senior at the University of Michigan studying economics, I enjoy reading, and I am the Vice-President of my OCF chapter.
I hope all of you are enjoying your first weeks back at school, and for those just entering college, I hope the adjustment has gone well. May we keep a clear enough vision to see who is promising us what, and may God grant us the strength to put our hope in Him who is the answer to all of our searching.
Mark Ghannam is a senior studying economics at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. His hobbies include beard growing, obsessing over Ancient Faith Radio podcasts, and Michigan football. Catch him rock climbing, reading, or browsing Reddit.
Hey gang! It is my sincere pleasure on this hump day to introduce y’all to our Blog Contributor program for 2017.
If you were with us last year, you’ll remember the onset of the Blog Contributor program. Blog Contributors are once-a-month authors, who often have one topic on which they write and provide different perspectives thereof. These students are from OCFs all across the nation, at varying stages of their college life, and the pieces they write help reach the nooks and crannies of OCF that one person could not hope to on his own.
Tasya, as a Blog Contributor *wipes tear*
We return two contributors from last year, in Mark Ghannam and Kiara Stewart, and welcome a new face in Nicholas Zolnerowich. One of our contributors from last year, the lovely and exceptional and can-you-tell-I-miss-her-work, Anastasia Lysack, moved on to become our Podcast Student Leader on the Student Leadership Board.
But I also want to take this moment to tell you more about the expansion of the Blog Contributor program. After it received good feedback and success in the early half of 2016, we grew the program, to accommodate twice as many contributors (from three to six). The first group posted on Fridays; the second group, on Saturdays. This accordingly increased the frequency of posts on the OCF blog as a whole, from three times a week (Mon-Wed-Fri) to four times a week.
This year, we’re looking to start off with six contributors from the jump, to continue giving OCF students across the nation an opportunity to regularly share their experience of Orthodoxy in college and look to help others through a similar process. So, if you’re a regular reader of the OCF blog and would like to become a Blog Contributor, you have an opportunity to do so!
Previous blogging experience is not required, but highly recommended for the Blog Contributor positions. Regular attendance to an OCF chapter (if available in your area) and participation in OCF events throughout the year is, however, expected.
There are very limited spots, of course, and it is impossible to accommodate everyone. If you’re interested in becoming a Blog Contributor, you should email Ben (that’s me!) at email@example.com. Applications for the positions will close on Saturday, October 21st. If you have previous blogging experience (such as writing a reflection for the OCF blog!), please link that work in your email.
Some of the Blog Contributors’ previous work will be linked below, so you can read the awesome work they’ve done over the past year. You can always search “Blog Contributor” to find all of their archived work.
If you apply for the position but aren’t selected, don’t worry! Guest Authors are welcomed and loved here on the OCF blog–any time you attend a retreat, YES College Day, Praxis Program, Real Break trip, College Conference, we’d love to hear about it and post your reflection here on the OCF Blog.
If you have any questions, please email Ben (still me!) so he can answer them and also tell you a joke. This is a limited-time offer of emails with really bad Dad jokes inside of them. You don’t want to miss out, folks.
That’s a sad reality, a tough reality, but let’s call it what it is: a lot of the experiences offered and knowledge presented to us create some degree of friction with the practices and teachings of the Church. Not all of it, of course!–but a good deal.
And this isn’t exclusive to college–that’s important to note. A lot of the experiences and knowledge of the world itself, fallen and broken, create some degree of friction with the Church. College is just our current context for that friction. It is the environment in which we are.
I want to tell you a story. It’s an amazing story, but in order for it to be amazing, we’ve gotta start with a bad story.
In my first year at the University of Chicago, I was put in a temporary dorm–Broadview Hall, almost a mile away from campus. It was a retired hotel in which us lucky first-years were holed up as Campus North Residential Commons (audience: oooh!) were constructed. Some griped, but I loved it. I had a single dorm with my own bathroom, there was always breakfast in the fridge downstairs and a rickety elevator that broke every other day.
I was in Room 527. Across the hall, in Room 524, was a young woman who we will call…Hannah. Hannah and I were both first years, so we went through the glorious rigmarole of orientation week together. Obviously, there were a ton of first-years with us, but Hannah was aggressively outgoing and friendly. For those of you who know me, I’m also socially…exuberant. So we chilled and had a good time.
via Wikimedia Commons
Hannah was obsessed with trains. Every time we rode Chicago’s L into the city, she was over the moon. Her room, across the hall from mine, faced east–you could only see buildings. My room faced the Metra line.
When Hannah discovered this, she immediately asked if she could come study in my room so she could also watch the trains. I mean, I was down. Hannah was super entertaining and was struggling to make any solid friendships early on, so I figured it was a good thing to do.
And then one day, Hannah asked me about the ‘pictures’ on top of my fridge. They were my icons.
I don’t know if I thought we could have avoided the topic entirely, somehow–or maybe, naive as a first-year, I imagined the conversation going far easier in my head. You see, Hannah had made it very clear from the first day of orientation that she had strong views on a ton of tough contemporary issues–and I knew those views would put her at odds with a lot of the Church’s teachings.
So she asked me about the pictures; I told her they were icons and that I was an Orthodox Christian. So, she asked me what that meant, what I believed, and so on. As best as I could at the time, I tried to communicate the Orthodox views in a sympathetic and non-confrontational manner, also asserting that I wasn’t nearly the ideal source for some of these difficult questions.
Hannah left my dorm room and never spoke to me again. She would up and leave tables if I sat down at them for a while, though she stopped with that eventually. Still, she hasn’t said a word.
Now, obviously, Hannah is an extreme case. As I said, she was a little socially awkward, so I don’t think she was adequately equipped to handle such a situation. But that experience soured me–hard–on how college and the Church interfaced. Reading through Genesis and St. Augustine and Dante across my first year of school, and hearing all of the…different interpretations thereof, didn’t help either.
But fast-forward to the amazing part of the story: right now, in my third-year at college. I’m taking a Russian Civics class, and the second week has been all about the varying religious and cultural beliefs of the Slavic regions, and the eventual onset of Christianity and precipitation into one giant big ole Russia.
via Wikimedia Commons
I mentioned during a comment in class that I’m Russian Orthodox. Since then, my professor–who won’t stop calling me Sam incidentally–has turned to me multiple times for my input on comments he makes or to help answer questions from students. I passed my cross around class so folks could look at it–I modeled what the three-bar cross looks like, because it was on the frocket of my AV Male Staff 2017 shirt (shoutout AV Male Staff 2017).
I had this awesome experience of Christianity in college. Just rad and a half. I got to stand there and explain what I believe, field questions, and make clarifications to a group of people that–for the most part–seemed interested in and respectful of what I was saying. And it was so dope.
Maybe to them I was just a peculiar echo of a long-passed novelty; someone clinging to silly beliefs. If that’s their judgment, that’s okay. College has always been a place for me where my faith isn’t treated with respect or as legitimate. But last week, that changed a little bit–I got a taste of the greener grass on the other side.
We always hear about the persecuted fathers of the Church–of St. Paul getting scorned and stoned and chased out of town for trying to live, unashamedly, a good and holy and just life.
And we remember St. Paul and the church fathers, not only because they went through this, but because they weren’t embittered, jaded, worn down, or defeated. They remained thankful (#GloryToGod), resilient, faithful, and humble.
I had written off college, I think. I’d encourage you to avoid a similar trap. The world has beauty if we don’t dull our eyes and relinquish our efforts in finding it, and every once in awhile, someone out there has ears to hear.