Ebb and Flow: On Mental Health and Coping With Ambiguity

Ebb and Flow: On Mental Health and Coping With Ambiguity

I’ll begin by spilling my heart.  I have the deepest respect for you all who are OCF students and I would do all I could for you.

So, what is mental health and what is ambiguity?  Basically, mental health is an ability to cope with stress, connect with others, and have a positive outlook on life. As Orthodox Christians we would say “having peace and joy in Christ.”

Mental health is, of course, variable and it ebbs & flows with different circumstances.  

Ambiguity is simply an awareness of “I know that I don’t know.”  For college students, ambiguity can be a regular state of mind.  For instance, “I don’t know where I will be in five years,” or “I don’t know how many of my friends will remain friends once we graduate,” or “What does life (Christ) want me to do as my vocation.”

Mmmmm.  With each class and each relationship our mind can take on new colors, not unlike the veritable kaleidoscope.  For lack of better language, I’ll call that “normal” for a college student.  The question is, “So what,” or “What can I do about it.”

I would say that, fundamentally, we try to absorb and accept an attitude of surrender to Jesus Christ.  Doesn’t that sound impossible?  Not really.  An attitude of surrender is a gift from Christ that grows slowly, up and down as we age.  The strategy is this:

  • A. I don’t know.
  • B. Christ knows.
  • C. I try to trust Him.

We certainly don’t know the future.  We never say to someone, “Things will get better.”  The person we are talking with might die later that day.  We are not God.  We can’t predict the future and we don’t have access to the details of exactly what is coming.  That is a great gift from God, to help us cope in the present moment with less concern.

But, there is a ‘control freak’ in each of us.  We are tempted to over-control our circumstances and the circumstances of others.  Our control-freak tendencies can lessen as we learn to trust in the guidance of Christ.  I would add that control-freak tendencies come from fear and our fears can lessen as we learn to live more with Christ.  It is much easier to detect control-freak tendencies in others than in ourselves.  Lord, have mercy.  And, He does.

Truthfully, we don’t even have full access to the details of the present moment.  We are limited in our ability to be aware of our pre-conscious and surely, our unconscious.  That’s what human existence is like for all of us.  All humans are children of Eve and Adam.  And, we don’t have much knowledge of the motivations and deliberations of others, even those close to us.  I know an old couple, married happily for 65 years, who walk hand in hand. The wife said, “I know my husband like the back of my hand but I will never fully understand him.” That is real life with mega ambiguity. We don’t know much about the full back-story of anyone so we try to cut them slack in our minds.  My own personal attitude is to try to say, “Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have… even Biden and Trump.”  Of course, I have no idea if they are for not, but I am more stabilized and joy-filled if I can maintain such an outlook.

I’ll conclude by saying that I have much ambiguity in my life and so do you.  We walk together and we do the best we can with what we have.  Father Hopko often said, “Stay close to Jesus.”  Together, let’s try to do just that.

Dr. Albert Rossi

Dr. Albert Rossi

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Albert Rossi is a licensed clinical psychologist and Christian educator who has written numerous articles on psychology and religion. He has published two books through Ancient Faith Publications entitled, Becoming a Healing Presence and All is Well. Dr. Rossi was a member of the SCOBA Commission on Contemporary Social and Moral Issues for six years. He hosts the podcast Becoming a Healing Presence on Ancient Faith Radio.

I Need a Vocation, Not a Vacation

I Need a Vocation, Not a Vacation

Every kid has a dream job. Whether they want to grow up to be a doctor, veterinarian, ballerina, athlete, astronaut, scientist, a mom, a dad, or even the president, it is up to them to choose a path to follow. We, as college students, are in the ‘refinement’ section of choosing what we want to do, where we want to work and for whom we want to work. But, our human hearts crave more for our careers, we don’t just want a job, we want meaning in our work and in our lives.

Vocation is a word commonly discussed among Orthodox college students often in the context of where they want to work in the future. Let’s take a second to learn what it really means. Vocation comes from the Latin word, vocare or “to call,” therefore, vocation itself doesn’t refer to your future job, but to your actual God-given calling: to love.  God calls us all to: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Vocation runs so much deeper than the job you hold or will hold.

God calls for us to become like Him, to “take up our crosses and follow Him” (Matthew 16:24). But what does that mean for us college students? It means we have to live our whole lives in God, and no matter where the journey of college takes us, following Him will always be the goal. Look at the saints! They were able to do follow Christ, all while being themselves, each on their own path. The saints led their lives celebrating their individual talents and skills as doctors, army officials, chefs, monks, bishops, emperors, mothers, fathers, and Christ, too, was a carpenter!

Luckily, our God knows us all so intimately, and He has bestowed on all of us that same calling. Your life is not going to be a straight line, there are going to be hundreds of twists and turns and sometimes you might really have no clue where to go. If you accept your vocation (to love the Lord and your neighbor) everything else in your life will fall into place, not your way, but His way. His way may not be the way you always saw yourself going–its pretty much never going to happen that way.

For me, when I decided I wanted to become a doctor, I could retrace my steps to the conversations and experiences that pushed me to be where I am today. But along the way, I had no clue how to distinguish any sign from the background noise, everything was just happening all at the same time and I was just trying my best the whole time. Today, I still don’t know where my choice will take me, but I am excited for every step of my journey, and I have faith that the Lord’s will be done. Ask me again in five years if I knew where I would be standing at that point, here’s a hint: I HAVE NO CLUE. If life was that predictable, it’d be boring.

And while modern times have made us value money and status above all else, a word of caution from the wise–do not let your job be the foundation of your identity. If you let your job become your source of self-worth and you begin to see people in terms of their salaries, you may be allowing your career to become your idol. Instead, ground yourself in Christ Jesus, and perform your job, no matter what it may be, with love and for His Glory.

Pick up the phone when God is calling!

 

 

 


If you feel like you may need some help, pray to St. Xenia of St. Petersburg. Check out more information in the link!

From the Beyond: Life Post-OCF

From the Beyond: Life Post-OCF

Hello from the beyond! The scary unknown that is post grad, the uncharted territory of working adulthood.

An update: Upon graduating from Pitt and passing on the OCF baton, I embarked on a new great adventure. I am spending the next two years as a teaching fellow with the Alliance for Catholic Education (which you should all check out: ace.nd.edu) and am spending the next two years teaching middle school language arts in Mobile, AL while pursuing my Masters of Education from Notre Dame.

Though I’m still a novice at this working thing, I’d like to reflect and share with you some humble thoughts.

1. You’re probably going to spiritually struggle more.

College is hard, no doubt. I don’t need to tell you that. Being on your own and navigating your relationship with God, establishing a personal faith life, etc. all the things OCF warns you about and supports you through are valid struggles. But that’s the thing — OCF is there for you. You have a support team, a lifeboat of other Orthodox college students captained by a spiritual or lay advisor who help you navigate the turbulent waters of college.

When you leave OCF, you leave the lifeboat. You’re now aboard your own little dinghy, all alone, still not really sure how to sail the waters. If you’re like me, you’ve moved WAY far from home or anyone you know. This is another huge change in your life, but without the structure, comfort, and help of OCF.

2. That being said, OCF will still help.

OCF has gifted you with an arsenal of friends, mentors, and resources. Use them! Reach out to your friends when you struggle, those who have gone before you and have this whole working thing under their belt, those who are also experiencing it for the first time, and those still in the safety of senior year. Reach out to your chapter spiritual advisor, a speaker you particularly enjoyed. Admit you are struggling and embrace it! The soil is fertile for growth, all you need to do is nurture it. You’re going to be changing and growing in so many ways — don’t neglect your spiritual struggles and changes but give them the tools they need to flourish.

3. Love God, and love your neighbor.

Maybe this is more Emma – specific advice, as I spend my days with a hormonal group of 60 middleschoolers. Sometimes, it’s really hard to love them. Like, really hard, especially when they ask you to go to the bathroom for the fifteenth time that day after you already said no the first fourteen times.. No matter what field you go into, you’re probably going to have to work with people you’ll struggle to love. In college, you often have more choice about the groups with which you surround yourself — your roommates, study buddies, club members. In work, not so much. You might not like your boss or your co-workers. But, you have to love them. And don’t just love them because you have to, because it’s a a commandment. Really try. Get to know them. Find Christ within them. In doing so, you will find Christ within yourself. And your work life will be a whole lot easier.

And of course, never forget God. Pray. Love. Give glory and thanks. In a way, we always talk about the things that change in our life — college, working, where we live, who are friends are — but it’s so much simpler than that. The one thing in our life that never changes is Christ and His love for us. So, while you’re in the midst of these crazy changes, remember the constants. And you will be just fine.


Emma is the former chairman of the OCF SLB. After graduating from Pitt, Emma joined the Alliance for Catholic Education as a Teaching Fellow. She currently lives in Mobile, AL where she teaches middle school language arts and is pursing her Masters of Education from Notre Dame.

To All High School Seniors…And, You Know, Everyone Else | How To Transition

To All High School Seniors…And, You Know, Everyone Else | How To Transition

There are a few major transitions in life that you know will change your life forever. Going to college is one of them. For anyone who commutes to college, perhaps the transition is not as stark (I wouldn’t know because I’ve only lived at school), but if you’re going from living at home your whole life to suddenly living in a dorm room with one or more strangers and taking care of yourself, there is absolutely no way to be fully prepared for it.

How could you be? You’ve never experienced anything like this before. You can’t go into it expecting to know every detail of how it will be.

Despite all this, I think I handled my transition pretty well. I figured out some of the things I did that worked, and others that didn’t. And here’s the thing: now that I’m a senior in college, I will be undergoing another one of these major changes, so I’m really writing this article to myself. All that being said, here’s Paul’s Guide to Major Life Transitions (Editor’s note: trademark pending), written specifically for transitioning into college.

1) Find a church

If you haven’t done so yet, do it right now.

Look up the school you’re going to (or the ones that you might go to if you haven’t committed yet), the city you’ll live it, etc., and find a church there. Doing that is way more important than anything I have to say in the coming paragraphs, so just stop reading this and go do that, it’s a better use of your time.

Then figure out how you’ll get there. Is the church close enough to walk to? You may want to give that a go. Will you have a car? If not, get in touch with your campus’ OCF advisor, president (talk to your regional leader if you can’t figure out who that is), or the parish priest of the church to see if someone could get you to church.

I am blessed with a parish here filled with people who were constantly offering to drive me to church, which was only a mile from my school. I got rides to every service I wanted to go to for three years until I finally got a car here.

I stress to you: do this now. Before you get to school. Once you get there you will be so overwhelmed with everything else going on that church can slip away way too easily. Do your research beforehand so that you can get in the habit of going to church early.

2) Be prepared, yet adaptable

This one is more my personal philosophy that may not work for you, but I’m thinking it might. You need just the right level of mental and physical preparation transitioning to college or elsewhere. Saying, “I’ll figure it out when I get there,” is probably not the best preparation method, yet if your planning is too detailed, you will be completely thrown off the first time something contradicts your plans.

You will want some ideas of how you will approach your classes, your social life, your church life, etc., but don’t write anything in stone in your head. There are so many factors that you can’t control, so write all of your plans in pencil with a great big eraser waiting to rewrite things as necessary.

(Side note: I strongly recommend taking this same approach with your major. Go into college knowing what you like and what you might want to do if you can, but keep an open mind and be willing to make adjustments to your plan.)

3) Do stuff

College is amazing. You get to be in an environment where your job in life is just to learn as much as you can, taking it all in from the experts, so that you can go out into the world and be the best you can be at whatever you do. So go take advantage of it. For example, my school brings in a guest speaker every week and gives pizza to anyone who goes and listens to the talk. I go as often as I can regardless of the topic because that’s what college is about.

Outside of academics, keep doing what you love. In my case, I had the opportunity to keep playing trombone after I got into college, so I joined the band and the orchestra. But even more importantly, try new stuff. One of the best decisions I made in college was joining the ultimate frisbee team. I knew nothing about the sport besides the rules when I went to my first practice, and I instantly fell in love with it.

(Editor’s note: We will neither confirm nor deny if this is Paul.

It is.)

College is about learning as much as you can and developing as a person, but that can happen outside of the classroom, lab, or lecture hall. My opinion is that if you live at school and the only commitments you have are class-related, you’re not doing college right.

4) Every once in awhile, remember you enjoy what you do.

Most college students would tell you college is overwhelming, and in my experience, they’re right. If you’ve been adding up all the things that I tell you I do, you may conclude that I’m a busy person, and sometimes I get stressed and collapse into a state of wanting to ignore my responsibilities.

But I found a trick to avoid reaching that state: it’s to remember that I actually do enjoy what I’m doing. My classes this semester are in psychology (my major), Spanish (my minor), and philosophy (I’m a nerd, so that’s my ‘fun class’).

(Editor’s note: this is also Paul.)

I chose to study that stuff because I enjoy it. I do music stuff and ultimate frisbee stuff because I enjoy those things, and the truth is that when I’m home too long for a break, I’m begging in my head for the opportunity to do all of them again. So basically what I’m saying is, have fun every step of the way.

5) Talk to adults

I didn’t do this intentionally, but a few times it came up. I’m guessing that many of the adults in your life have been to college: ask them about it. What did they enjoy? What weren’t they prepared for? What do they regret? What advice do they have? You’re allowed to learn from other people’s experiences, not just your own.

As with all my lists, these are the things that help me that I think would help you. What would you add? What would your friends in college/older siblings/parents add? I pray that your transition goes well, and that those of us currently in college can still take what we can from these lessons and apply it.


Paul Murray is a senior psychology major and Spanish minor at Franklin & Marshall College, and he attends Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Lancaster, PA. His home parish is St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in New Kensington, PA, and he has spent the past three summers serving as a counselor at the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh Summer Camp and the Antiochian Village. In his free time, Paul ties prayer ropes and writes descriptions of himself in the third person for blog articles.

The Old Testament Canon

The Old Testament Canon

Today we continue to answer the question:

Why are some books in the Bible while others were excluded and how was that decided?

The canon of the Old Testament is a much more complicated collection than the New Testament. Unlike the New Testament that was written, collected, and pretty much standardized in the course of 300 years, the writing, editing, and collecting of the Old Testament spans at least eight centuries before Christ, and the decision about which texts should be considered canonical varies across Jewish and Christian traditions.

As a much older collection and one that is shared by Jews and Christians alike, explaining the full history of the Old Testament requires much more than a blog post! But probably the most common question you’ll face about the Old Testament is something like,

Why do you have ‘extra’ books in your Bible?

If you’ve never noticed, the Old Testament in your Orthodox Study Bible doesn’t quite match up with other English translations like the NKJV or NIV–it’s longer and the books are in a different order. Here’s why.

In the three centuries preceding Christ, Judea came under the rule of the Greeks and then the Romans. Because of this, many Jews were living outside of Judea and in other parts of the empire and many of them spoke Greek as their primary language. Thus, it became necessary for the Scripture (which, of course, at this time only included the Old Testament and did not yet have a set canon) to be translated from its original Hebrew into Greek.

A page from a 13th Century copy of the LXX. Image from Wikimedia

A page from a 13th Century copy of the LXX. Image from Wikimedia

According to early Jewish and Christian tradition, King Ptolomy II Philadelphus summoned 72 Hebrew scholars and asked them to translate the teachings of Moses into Greek to include in the famous library of Alexandria. The number of translators is what later gave this Greek translation its name–Septuagint being derived from the Latin for “the translation of the seventy”–and is why this version is often abbreviated as LXX.

Of course, modern scholars have all sorts of theories about if this ever happened or which books were translated when, but it is certain that by the time of Christ, the entire Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek and additional texts had been penned in Greek and were circulating alongside the translations.

Most often, when Christ quotes Scripture in the gospels, He uses the Septuagint translations, as do the authors of the epistles. It seems, then, that the LXX was certainly an accepted if not the primary text of the Jews at the time of Jesus.

Thus, the early Christians naturally adopted the Greek LXX, including the later books such as Maccabees and Sirach.

Later, in the 7th to 10th centuries CE, the Jews compiled an authoritative Hebrew and Aramaic text of their scriptures based on Hebrew-only manuscripts and adjusting for the need to include vowels in the written text. This version of the Old Testament became known as the Masoretic text and did not use the LXX as a basis for its creation. Therefore, it does not include the books originally written in Greek or the portions of certain Old Testament books that were included in the LXX. It also uses a different numbering system for chapters and verses and sometimes orders things differently in certain books.

It is the Masoretic text that Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers preferred for a variety of reasons, and thus, it has become the standard among Protestants for translations into vernacular languages such as English.

So there you have it–while the Protestants only accept as authoritative the Masoretic text of the Middle Ages, the Orthodox (and to some extent, the Catholics) continue to view the older LXX as authoritative while certainly understanding that some books hold more significance than others (for example, we read Isaiah and use it in our hymnology way more than we use Judith). If you never knew this or have only ever read from a Protestant translation into English of the Old Testament, now is a great time to get an Orthodox Study Bible and start reading from the LXX of the ancient Church!

How to Use the OCF Blog for Your Chapter Meetings

How to Use the OCF Blog for Your Chapter Meetings

In case you didn’t know, OCF has a TON of great resources on the website you can use for your chapter. Here’s how to use the OCF blog.

Read an article and have a discussion.

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 8.27.40 PM

 Create discussion questions.

You don’t need us to do all the work! After you read the article come up with some questions you can talk about during your meeting.

  • Pick a specific moment or statement that spoke to you and ask your group what it means to them.
  • Select a section you were confused by and ask your group what they think it’s trying to say.
  • Highlight a part that made you think of a personal experience and ask your group if they can think of a moment in their life where they saw a similar thing happening.
  • If you struggle with anything said in the article, ask your group for advice.
  • Ask your group if they see any practical applications.

Using this blog on the What-If Demon as an example, here are some sample discussion questions:

  • “It seems he especially likes to pester young Orthodox Christians with all sorts of what-if’s about dating, relationships, marriage, and monasticism.” What sort of what-if questions are you faced with? How do you handle them?
  • “The present moment is the place where time and eternity meet and where God enters into our lives.” Where have you seen God entered into your life?
  • “But the nasty What-If demon twists this necessary and spiritual undertaking into an anxiety-ridden, paralyzing question filling us with guilt, worry, and fear.” Sometimes I worry about what is going to happen for me after graduation. What if I don’t get a job or into law school? It fills me with fear for the future. Does that happen to anyone else? What do you do?
  • “We can’t confuse his what-if’s with repentance for the past or discernment about the future. Don’t let him convince you that his imaginary situations where he replays your past with anguishing regret are the same as contrition or the images he throws before you with terrorizing anxiety of futures that haven’t happened need to be addressed to find God’s will.” What do you think this section is trying to say?

Sometimes, the article even has questions built in for you!

  •  “Do you say “yes” to Christ in this moment with this breath? Are you listening for His call in your heart right now? Can you see Him in the person or situation that’s right in front of you?” These are perfectly easy questions to discuss with your chapter!

Have a Bible Study. 

How to Read the Bible and Where to Start

Never read the whole Bible? Confused by how it’s organized? Clueless as to where to begin? Never fear, OCF is here!

Resources for Bible Study

Help get your Bible Study going with the right texts and explanations from experts!

Here’s a great article from the OCF blog about the New Testament Canon to get you started!

Get advice on leading your chapter.

There’s also a whole section of posts on topics like getting more people to come to your meetings, managing chapter funds, working with other religious organizations, and more! Learn from others’ experience what works! Click on the tag Chapter Guide to access these articles!

Chapter Guides

 

Don’t see something you want or need?? Email us at blog@ocf.net with your questions and comments, and we’ll do our best to help you out!

How to Read the Bible & Where to Start

How to Read the Bible & Where to Start

Just picking up a Bible and committing to read the whole thing can seem an impossible task. Where should you start? How should you make sense of the whole book? Here’s a little bit of advice for getting started:

  1. Everything must be read through the lens of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation of the Son of God is in a sense the beginning and the end of the story of salvation. As Christians, we understand all of the Scripture through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is a good argument for not reading the Bible cover to cover the first time you are getting really acquainted with the Scriptures–the gospels are the primary key to the rest of the Bible (for more on this, see my reading recommendations below).
  2. Everything is not equal. The Bible is not a monolithic document–it contains history, poetry, letters, prophecy, ritual practices, and more. The gospels, for example, are their own genre of literature: neither history nor mythology nor theological teaching, but “the good news.” This means we have to treat different parts of the Bible differently. Now, this isn’t a judgment of validity, but a ranking of importance. The Gospel of John is just always going to be more important to the life of the Church than the Apocalypse of John (Revelation). Psalms will always be read more often than Numbers. The Church uses all of Scripture, but uses the different parts differently, in a manner appropriate to their genre, content, and context.
  3. Everything need not be read literally. Flowing naturally from #1 and #2, allegorical and typological readings of the Old Testament especially are completely the norm in the Church. St. Paul does it in his letters (for example, in Galatians and 1 Corinthians), and the Church Fathers continue this tradition, seeing Christ and salvation through Him as the most important point of interpretation. This has a lot of implications for our understanding of Scripture. For example, we don’t deny any of the “ugly” history of the Old Testament, but we also understand it in a spiritual context and in relationship to the coming of Christ.
  4. There are supposed to be bumpy spots. The Bible is a collection of thousands of years worth of a variety of texts meant to apply to every era, culture, and individual person to encounter it until the Second Coming of Christ. Obviously, then, it’s not exactly the easiest book you’ll ever read. Sometimes, we open it up, and the reading for the day is perfect for what is going on in our lives and draws us closer to God in an obvious way. But sometimes, we can get disheartened when a passage seems difficult to understand or jars us in a negative way. We shouldn’t give up, but should continue to ask God to reveal to us what we need and use the bumpy spots as opportunities to ask questions and learn how to interpret these difficult passages. Which brings me to my last principle…
  5. Interpretation is done through and in the Church. The Bible is the text of the Christian Church, and it is only in the context of the worshiping, Eucharistic, Body of Christ that it can be interpreted. This means we should read the Scripture in the context of a full life in the Church and should go to the Church Fathers and the whole communion of saints to help us understand what we read and how it should be applied to our lives. It also means we shouldn’t be surprised when those who are outside of the Church don’t understand the Scripture or misinterpret it or even try to use it against us. St. Irenaeus in his book Against Heresies warns us that some who are outside of the Church will even try to use Scripture to their own ends and lead people astray with our sacred Scriptures. We shouldn’t be intimidated by anyone using our Scriptures inappropriately, and we should always go to the Church with our questions as we read the Bible ourselves.

So now that we have an idea about how to read Scripture, here are a few suggestions for where to start (these are my personal recommendations):

  1. The Daily Readings: If you aren’t in the habit of reading Scripture at all, a great way to start is by downloading the Daily Readings App and just starting with the daily readings. This will help you not only get used to reading the Bible, but will make sure you are automatically following #1, #2, and #5 above.
  2. The Gospels: If you’re wanting to read the whole Bible, you have to start with the gospels. Start with Mark (it’s the shortest) then Matthew and Luke (which are similar to Mark) then end with John (the theological gospel). Once you have read all four gospels, you’ll have a better foundation for whatever you read next.
  3. The Epistles: After the gospels, I recommend reading through some of the epistles. My college student recommendations are 1 & 2 Timothy (how to be a young Christian leader) and James (faith and works, wealth and poverty, and controlling your tongue).
  4. The Wisdom Literature: If you are looking for a good place to start in the Old Testament, I recommend starting with the wisdom literature. For college students, I always recommend the Wisdom of Sirach (practical advice for young people), Job (how to deal with suffering), and the Psalms (the favorite book of the Church, the Psalms have a prayer for everything).

We also have this list of great resources for starting a Bible Study (on your own or in a group). May your reading of Scripture illumine your heart with the Light of Divine Wisdom.

The New Testament Canon

The New Testament Canon

Why are some books in the Bible while others were excluded and how was that decided?

This is a great question! Today I’m going to address the New Testament canon. Let’s start off with a little bit of context.

By the end of the first century or early in the second century, all of the texts that now make up the New Testament had been written. As early as AD 95 or 96, Clement of Rome alludes to multiple passages in the New Testament, though he does not name them as scripture yet (that is a title still reserved for the Old Testament at this point). In the mid-second century, St. Justin Martyr refers to the gospels as the “memoirs of the apostles” in his First Apology, and in the famous text Against Heresies of St. Irenaeus (c. 180), the saint firmly proclaims the authority of the four gospels.

At the same time, a number of other texts were circulated amongst the nascent Christian community. There are really two categories of texts outside of the canon of Scripture. First, texts whose teachings were accepted in whole or in part as edifying for the Christian community but ultimately deemed outside of the core texts which became the New Testament, and second, texts that were considered heretical.

Concerning the first category of texts, in the first and second centuries, many these early Christian writings were considered interchangeable with the four Gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the catholic epistles. For example, St. Clement of Alexandria considered books such as the Didache and I Clement as part of the canonical list of texts while later in the early fourth century, Eusebius the historian points out that James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Revelation were sometimes disputed as parts of the New Testament.

Early manuscript of 1 & 2 Peter. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Early manuscript of 1 & 2 Peter. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Eventually which books were accepted and which were considered outside of the canon but still useful to Christians sorted itself out. The first full list of the current 27 books of the New Testament that we have is in a Paschal letter of St. Athanasios in 367. However, the Church continued to quote and learn from the letters of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Barnabas as well as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. These works later became known as the works of the Apostolic Fathers, those who were typically one or two generations away from the apostles themselves and shared much of their worldview and theological emphasis.

The second group of texts that were being written and circulating at the same time as the New Testament and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers were typically texts associated with gnosticism. Gnosticism was not a single heresy but a group of heresies identified generally by the rejection of the material world as evil and created by a lesser, created god (called a demiurge) and salvation as “enlightenment” or freedom from this completely corrupted or even simulated realm. Practices and beliefs amongst gnostics varied widely.

A schema of the complex system of Aeons in one gnostic tradtion. One can see the use of Christian terminology while also noticing the obvious divergence in belief. Image from Wikimedia Commons

A schema of the complex system of Aeons in one gnostic tradtion. One can see the use of Christian terminology while also noticing the obvious divergence in belief. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Where things get tricky in the modern mind is that many of the texts associated with gnosticism were attributed to the apostles and used Christian terminology such as “gospel” to describe themselves, and even sometimes quoted Christian texts as justification for their clearly non-Christian beliefs. Unlike the canonical texts, however, most of the gnostic texts were written in the 2nd-4th century after the established circulation of the New Testament gospels. These include such titles as the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, the Acts of Peter, and many others. Unlike some of the Apostolic Fathers, the gnostic texts were rarely included in early lists of the New Testament and were most usually blatantly marked as heretical (for example, by Irenaeus and Eusebius).

Removed from the living Tradition of the Church, the modern era has resurfaced many of these gnostic texts and has presented them as if they are newly-discovered and were kept hidden by early Christian leaders for some nefarious reasons. From inside the ancient Church, we can easily see that line of reasoning for what it is: nonsense. The Church never accepted gnostic teaching or the texts associated with it, and the reason that these texts disappear or become rare and obsolete is because they were not important to the actual practicing Christian community. All one has to do is read a few passages from one of these books to see that the Church very easily discerned their heretical teaching and vastly different worldview.

Thus, those books which were apostolic in origin and central to to the message of salvation were selected to be the main texts of the Christian faith while others were identified as useful to Christians, but not central to life of the Church or as simply heretical. All this is to say that the texts of the New Testament were written, collected, and canonized over the course of the first four hundred years of Christianity, and that ultimately, it was the consensus of the whole Church, voiced through the Fathers and guided by the Holy Spirit, that ultimately determined the canon of the New Testament.

5 Ways to Make College Students Feel at Home

5 Ways to Make College Students Feel at Home

No matter our cultural or ethnic background, us Orthodox are huge family people. Our communities tend to be tight-knit and full of love. We raise our children up to love and respect everyone…and then we send them off to college to a different tight-knit parish where suddenly the same things that made a parish feel like home–everyone knowing each other, local traditions for certain feast days, certain people being involved in parish ministries–can make that new parish seem like a closed-off clique into which college students are simply unimportant, transient members in whom the parish need not invest much time.

Of course, most parishes don’t intend to come off this way, and we all want our college students to be accepted and cared for wherever they go. Here are five ways you can ensure that your parish is including its college students and creating a home-away-from home for them.

  1. Make sure they have a place at every event. Having an after church luncheon? Reserve a table for your OCFers. Big cultural festival coming up? Make sure they have tickets. If your parish and/or individual parishioners are able, making sure that the local college students are able to be a part of the parish’s activities is a great way to make them feel included. And to be honest, it takes more than just an invitation. Setting aside tickets or a table for them conveys the message that they are valued and wanted at your event as family, especially since many of them may not be able to afford attending otherwise.
  2. Support their participation in OCF programs and events. All year long, there are various OCF programs in which college students can participate, the biggest ones being College Conference and Real Break. In whatever way possible, make an effort as a community to support their participation in these and other OCF events. Whether that means offering travel scholarships or allowing them to fund raise at coffee hour, opening up space at the parish for an event or providing a meal when other chapters come to town for a regional retreat, you can support the good things that our OCF students are planning and participating in with your time, talent, and treasure.

    OCFers from the Lexington to Columbus District gather for a retreat and are fed by Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Dayton, OH

    OCFers from the Lexington to Columbus District gather for a retreat and are fed by Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Dayton, OH

  3. Feed them. This is a college student no-brainer. Anything you can do to get them good food that they didn’t have to pay for or prepare themselves is a huge blessing. There are so many ways you can do this! You could provide monthly care packages of “study snacks” to hand out at their meetings, sponsor a pizza night, or offer them a home-cooked meal (see #4). A big part of family and community is eating, and there’s no surer way to have someone feel cared for when they are away from home than to feed them.
  4. Invite them into your home. I once heard that most international students never see the inside of an American home. By extension, I wonder how often out-of-town students are ever invited into a family home in their college town. It’s a great way to make a young person who is out of their comfort zone feel loved and cared for by receiving them with hospitality into your own home. There are parishes that do monthly dinners with all the college students in a different parishioner’s home each time so that they really get a chance to get to know the people of the parish and feel at home.

    University of Georgia OCF helping out in the kitchen of St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church in Athens, GA

    University of Georgia OCF helping out in the kitchen of St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church in Athens, GA

  5. Allow them to be a part of your parish ministries. Whether it’s guest teaching a Sunday School class, coaching a youth basketball team, volunteering in your social outreach, serving in the altar, or singing in the choir make sure that you give college students opportunities to be involved. It’s likely that they were involved as teenagers at their home parishes and may even have some great experience to share with your parish, and they’ll certainly learn a lot about what it means to be a good steward of their gifts if they are mentored by those in your parish who are living lives of service to the Church. While a parish should probably not expect college student to take on any huge time commitments, they can invite these young people to be a part of the bigger picture of the parish.

These few things will not only ensure that college students from out of town feel welcomed during their time as temporary parishioners at your parish, it will continue to instill in them a sense that they are necessary and wanted members of the Body of Christ. It will remind them that they have a calling to love as they have been loved, and what more could we want for our young people than for them to strive to live lives of love?

5 Spiritual Books for Chapter Study

5 Spiritual Books for Chapter Study

The Way of the Pilgrim

Author: Anonymous

Length: 264 pages

What you can expect: An unnamed Russian pilgrim hears in church one day that he should, “pray without ceasing,” so he travels around on foot seeking wisdom on how to pray, specifically the Jesus Prayer

Why you should read it: The Way of the Pilgrim is a great introduction to the Jesus Prayer. It teaches you how to begin to pray not only in a monastic setting, but in many manners of living. Plus, it’s all told in an easy-to-read narrative style that feels like you’re reading a novel.

The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It

Author: St. Theophan the Recluse

Length: 320 pages

What you can expect: Short letters from St. Theophan to a young woman about how to cultivate her inner life and live virtuously amidst the worldliness and debauchery of the society around her

Why you should read it: St. Theophan is basically writing to a college student, and his advice is practical while challenging you to really take stock of who you are and why you do the things you do. It’s also great because the letters are super short–you could read one or two during a meeting, and even if you didn’t make it through the whole book, it would be worth it!

Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives

Author: Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

Length: 212 pages

What you can expect: The biography and teachings of Elder Thaddeus, a 20th century elder from Serbia who emphasizes how important our thoughts are to our entire spiritual life and outlook on others

Why you should read it: Elder Thaddeus has a great way of focusing our attention on how the demons misdirect us by influencing our thoughts and how we can reorient ourselves toward Christ through prayer. It’s great for a chapter book study because his teachings are organized by topic, so you could choose a particular one to focus on for a few weeks like “On Thoughts” or “On Love.”

Wounded by Love

Author: St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalivia

Length: 253 pages

What you can expect: The biography and teachings of one of the most recently canonized saints with tons of practical advice on prayer and dealing with difficult situations as well as lots of amazing miracle stories

Why you should read it: St. Porphyrios died in 1991, so the people he counsels throughout the book are not too different from you and me! His message of gentleness encompasses both our treatment of others and also our own spiritual lives. Like Elder Thaddeus, he covers a variety of topics in short sections so you can pick and choose what to read if you can’t cover the whole book in a semester.

Fr. Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father

Author: Alexander (last name not given)

Length: 277 pages

What you can expect: An incredible biography of a priest living in a Soviet prison camp

Why you should read it: Few other books can describe the life of a saint perfected through suffering like this one. This book is packed with the miraculous and transformative work of an incredible spiritual father. His love and devotion to God and to others, no matter their station, personality, or sins all in the midst of his own great suffering will inspire you to follow in his footsteps.

Orthodox College Prep: What’s This All About?

Orthodox College Prep: What’s This All About?

Nowadays, you hear a lot of talk that the value of a college degree is its earning value in the job marketplace. Take, for example, this inspiring message from The College Board (you know, the people who make the SAT and AP exams):

Thanks to all the knowledge, skills and experience you’ll gain in college, you’ll be able to adapt to a greater variety of jobs and careers. Statistics show that a college diploma can help you:

  • Get a job
  • Keep a job
  • Make more money

Photo from velcr0 on Flickr

Photo from velcr0 on Flickr

OK, it may be true that statistically speaking, you are more likely to get and keep a job as well as earn more over your lifetime if you have a college degree than if you don’t have one, but if this is the primary reason for getting an education, I find it rather depressing from a Christian standpoint. This point of view woefully diminishes the greater power and purpose of being an educated person–of the opportunity the college environment provides for self-discovery, the sharing of ideas, discourse and dialogue, deepening knowledge, and experience of the world. In short, the formation of the person.

I’m certain at this point you’re probably calling to mind all the negative things that people have warned you about college life, and yes, they are certainly there–we’ll address them later in this series–but if college were just about getting a degree so you can get a job while trying to survive an onslaught of negative social experiences, I don’t think we’d all be so eager to sign up. At minimum, the sheer amount of freedom that college allows you demands that you take seriously the important questions about who you are and who you will become.

Whether it’s in philosophy class considering the writings of Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Derrida or during rush with your sorority, whether it happens in Biology 101 or in the lounge of your dorm, whether it occurs when you change your major, you end a relationship, you finish an internship, or you fail a class, college will demand that you ask yourself,

Who am I at my core?

This is not a trivial question by any means, and it is certainly not a question only for liberal arts majors. This is the paramount question we will be asked not only by the world, but by Christ on the day of judgement. Who have we become? Are we icons of Christ in our love for God and neighbor, or have we become so distorted that Christ says to us, “I never knew you, depart from me, you evildoers.” (Mt 7:23) It’s a question we will answer not only with our intellect but with the fruits our lives have borne.

It’s kind of a big deal.

Preparing for college is more than just picking out a roommate, lining up your first semester of classes, and getting used to the bus routes on campus; it’s preparing yourself to be challenged, to question your intentions and assumptions, to seek a deeper understanding of life. I encourage you, start now. Ask yourself now, before you are asked by the world:  Who are you? Why are you an Orthodox Christian? Do you know Jesus Christ? Do you know yourself–your talents and your sins? Have you sought God’s love and mercy? Do you want to be His child? In the process of self-discovery, you will have to come to terms with your own life’s story–the good and the bad. You don’t have to make the journey alone, but you will have to decide for yourself what path your life will take.

College will be a time of formation, whether you actively engage in the process or not, the question is: will you be conformed to this world or transformed in Christ?

Romans122

Romans 12:2

Dating Advice, Orthodox Style

Dating Advice, Orthodox Style

Photo from Matt Westgate on Flickr

In the midst of everything that is going on in college, I know that many of you are probably also thinking about getting married or pursing romantic relationships. Dating can be a tough scene for us Orthodox Christians–let’s be honest: there are not that many of us, and there can be a lot of pressure from family to make something work or to choose a particular kind of person. Not to mention the crazy way the world often treats relationships as means simply to fulfill our own selfish desires. A little advice:

Take your time to find the right person. No matter how many times yiayia asks you when you’re getting married and making babies, hold out for the right person–the person who makes it easy to love, forgive, and live a life of faith.

Trust your parents, your priest, and your peers. Within reason. If there is a resounding “please-don’t-marry-this-person” coming from all directions, chances are, something’s not right.

Keep marriage in mind, but don’t overdo it. Yes, we date with the question, “Am I going to marry this person?” present in our minds and prayerfully in our hearts, but, especially when you are first getting to know someone, you don’t need to rush to that conclusion. Protecting yourself from giving away too much of who you are (and I’m not just talking sex) too quickly can help you strengthen a relationship over time if it is the right one.

Look for someone better than you. If you feel like you are dragging a person behind you in any way, but especially spiritually, this is not the person for you. Not only are you setting yourself up for a giant lack of humility, if that person really isn’t your equal, you could be setting yourself up for a difficult marriage. Your spouse should humble you with their faith and devotion, they should have spiritual gifts you admire, especially ones which you feel like you lack. Along the same lines, avoid dating someone you see as “a fixer-upper.” It’s not good if you think you need to save your significant other or be a missionary via dating.

Pray. Pray for guidance in finding the right person and help to navigate your relationships when you get into them. Pray for your future spouse, even if you haven’t met them yet. And with that, here are a few saints who can help you along the way:

Icon from Dn. Matthew Garrett  used with permission

Icon by the hand of Dn. Matthew Garrett, used with permission

St. Xenia (Ksenia) of St. Petersburg

St. Xenia (January 24) is known for helping people with the things she herself lost or gave up in her own lifetime: a spouse, a house, and a job. She was a young married woman, living somewhat carefree and never really thinking about her soul when her young husband died suddenly after he’d been out drinking with his friends. Shocked, Xenia ran from St. Petersburg, returning eight years later as a homeless wanderer. Many of the people derided her as an insane homeless person, but she bore their insults while praying unceasingly for the people of St. Petersburg. In her own life, she was granted the gifts of prophecy and great prayer. When it comes to looking for the right person, St. Xenia is known not only for bringing together godly people but also for saving young people from bad marriages. Pray to her as you are considering who to date and whether or not he or she is the right person for you. Know this, once St. Xenia has entered into your life, she’ll likely be around for the rest of it, and she is known for often answering prayers very quickly–be prepared (I know this not only from many stories I have heard from others, but from my own experience–my first daughter is named for this amazing saint because of her constant intercessions for us).

Icon by the hand of Dn. Matthew Garrett, used with permission

Icon by the hand of Dn. Matthew Garrett, used with permission

Sts. Joachim and Anna

I once heard of a young couple who had just started dating and were asking a married woman they considered a spiritual mentor, “To whom should we pray for our relationship?” They wanted to know who might help them discern whether this was the right relationship and who would help them remain pure in their intentions and their actions as they got to know each other. The woman brilliantly suggested Sts. Joachim and Anna (September 9). Sts. Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Mother of God, were both from important Jewish lineages, St. Joachim being the descendant of King David and St. Anna being of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of the priesthood. What’s most notable, of course, is that they put their trust in God in their relationship, having faith in Him that He would bless them with a child even in their old age. They prayed to God for each other and for a miracle to be worked in their lives. The icon of them embracing each other depicts a pure and devoted love that we can hope to imitate in our own (eventual) marriages.

Four Saints Who Struggled with Lust

Four Saints Who Struggled with Lust

From the years of my youth, many passions combat me, but you who are my Savior, assist me and save me. –from the First Antiphon of the Anavathmoi of the Fourth Mode

As the hymn declares, many temptations arise in the soul in one’s youth. There is a certain awakening of passion that was unknown in childhood that comes to life as we approach adulthood. In this vulnerable time, the demons seek to ensnare us by allowing the body to snatch control from the soul so that the natural order intended by God is turned topsy-turvy: instead of the body being led by the soul, the soul becomes a captive to the desires of the body. Another time I’ll write more about this. Today, in continuing with our patron saint theme, I’d like to introduce you to a few saints (among many) who in particular intercede on our behalf when we are attacked by an onslaught of lustful desires.

Before I get started, I’d like to make two little notes on this particular temptation: beware of its pervasiveness on the one hand–plenty of research has shown how pornography, for example, changes the chemical make up of your brain in a similar manner to a drug addiction; and do not despair if it is a difficult struggle for you: you are not alone–many fathers of the church (here’s just one example) attest to the difficulty of overcoming lust, its ability to creep up on you even when you think you have it under control, and the ease with which we are able to fall prey to this temptation even if we have acquired other virtues.

So here are some fellow warriors to help with the battle. All of these saints struggled with lust, especially in their youth, and all of them in turning to Christ, overcame that passion. I’ve included their own prayers for help that I hope you can integrate into your own prayer life as you prayerfully struggle with sexual desire and ask for the intercessions of these saints.

Icons courtesy of www.eikonografos.com  used with permission

Icon courtesy of www.eikonografos.com used with permission

St. Mary of Egypt

St. Mary of Egypt (April 1) is perhaps one of the most revered and beloved models of repentance in the Orthodox Church. By the end of her life, she was perhaps the greatest spiritual pillar of her time. But her story begins with a young girl interested primarily in parties, socializing, and seducing–a young girl who lost her virginity at twelve and spent the next 17 years pursuing sexual partners to satisfy her lust. When she is eventually drawn to repentance by the Theotokos, she prayed,

O Lady Virgin, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word! I know that I am unworthy to look upon your icon. I rightly inspire hatred and disgust before your purity, but I know also that God became Man in order to call sinners to repentance. Help me, O All-Pure One. Let me enter the church. Allow me to behold the Wood upon which the Lord was crucified in the flesh, shedding His Blood for the redemption of sinners, and also for me. Be my witness before Your Son that I will never defile my body again with the impurity of fornication. As soon as I have seen the Cross of your Son, I will renounce the world, and go wherever you lead me.

Icon from oca.org

Icon from oca.org

St. Moses the Ethiopian

Many people know and love the story of the bandit who became an Abba of the desert. St. Moses (August 28) was the leader of a band of murderers and robbers who rampaged through Egypt in the early fifth century. When he was turned to repentance by St. Isidore, he struggled for many years with the lingering passions from his former life, especially lustful and violent thoughts. In his struggle, he became incredibly humble, never deigning to judge a brother for his struggle knowing the pervasiveness of his own sinful desires and the destructive consequences they had in his past. There is no particular prayer of St. Moses that I could find, but take courage in this story from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

On one occasion Abba Moses of Patara was engaged in a war against fornication, and he could not endure being in his cell, and he went and informed Abba Isidore of it; and the old man entreated him to return to his cell, but he would not agree. And having said, “Father I cannot bear it,” the old man took him up to the roof of his cell and said unto him, “Look to the west,” and when he looked he saw multitudes of devils with troubled and terrified aspects and they showed themselves in the forms of phantoms with fighting attitudes. Abba Isidore said to him, “Look to the east,” and when he looked he saw innumerable holy angels standing there, and they were in a state of great glory.

Then Abba Isidore said unto him, “Behold those who are in the west are those who are fighting with the holy ones; and those whom you have seen in the east are those who are sent by God to the help of the saints, for those who are with us are many.” And having seen these, Abba Moses took courage and returned to his cell without fear.

Icons courtesy of www.eikonografos.com  used with permission

Icon courtesy of www.eikonografos.com used with permission

St. Justina

St. Justina (October 2) was an amazing woman of fortitude. She was a convert to Christianity as a teenager and brought her parents to belief in Christ as well. She dedicated herself to Christ, refusing a marriage proposal from a suitor. When, through the power of the sorcerer Cyprian, Justina was tempted by multiple demons (during her prayers, nonetheless) to lustfully desire the suitor she had just rejected, she offered up this prayer,

O Lord Jesus Christ, my God, lo, mine enemies have risen up against me and have prepared a snare for my feet! My soul is brought low, but I have remembered Thy name in the night and am made glad. When they compassed me round about, I have fled unto Thee, hoping that mine adversary might not rejoice over me, for Thou knowest, O Lord my God, that I am Thy handmaiden. For Thee have I kept the purity of my body, and to Thee have I entrusted my soul; wherefore, preserve Thou Thy lamb, O good Shepherd. Do not permit the beast which seeketh to devour me to consume me, and grant me to prevail over the evil desires of my flesh.

 

Icon from  oca.org

Icon from oca.org

St. John the Long-Suffering

From the time of his youth, St. John (September 28) was tormented by sexual desires. No ascetical feat seemed to be a match for the passion that raged in him. Even when he became a recluse, still he struggled greatly with lust, and the devil did his best to shake St. John’s determination to overcome this passion–so much so that he sent a serpent to terrify him and frighten him into forsaking his seclusion. On Pascha night, in the midst of these torments and his own temptations, St. John cried out to Christ,

O Lord my God and my Savior! Why have You forsaken me? Have mercy upon me, only Lover of Mankind; deliver me from my foul iniquity, so that I am not trapped in the snares of the Evil one. Deliver me from the mouth of my enemy: send down a flash of lightning and drive it away.

Doing Pan-Orthodox

Doing Pan-Orthodox

I like to tout to the Orthodox World that OCF is the only fellowship organization (for now) which is an Assembly of Bishops agency. Who cares, you say? Well, we are the only organization (for now) that is charged by all the bishops to bring together all Orthodox Christians from all backgrounds and all jurisdictions and to do it well. This means we’ve been “doing pan-Orthodox” for a while now, and there are a few lessons we have learned that I’d like to share.

  1. Make no assumptions. Someone once challenged me to count how many churches in which I’ve actually worshiped in the U.S., and I think the number sits right around 55 parishes from seven different jurisdictions. You might say I’ve been around the block when it comes to Orthodox traditions. What I’ve taken away from all those experiences plus the 10 years I’ve been involved in OCF is that you really can’t assume anything. I’ve met Greeks in OCA parishes, Eritreans in Greek parishes, a ROCOR priest who didn’t know a word of Russian, a Bulgarian priest who grew up Jewish, and converts from every denomination of Christianity as well as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and paganism. Pan-Orthodoxy is most successful in an atmosphere of openness to any possibility and a willingness not to comment negatively right away on what we find (see #3). This seems like a no-brainer, but I think it needs to be said. Too often Orthodox people are surprised by Orthodoxy’s diversity.
  2. Know the narratives. Everybody–and every jurisdiction, for that matter–has a story. How we got to where we are today is a long and complicated story individually and collectively. I’ve noticed that while the assumptions we often make about each other often don’t hold a lot of weight, people from different backgrounds often do bear a particular narrative of Orthodoxy in America. For example, I was raised in a Greek church where the community was very ethnically diverse so I assumed until I went to college and found out otherwise that all Orthodox people went to Greek Orthodox churches. It was never my intention to marginalize, you know, the rest of Orthodoxy, I just didn’t have any other experience yet. A good pan-Orthodox leader/program/organization is aware of the common narratives that come into play from each jurisdiction. Creating opportunities to uncover, discuss, and break down these narratives in a loving, judgment-free manner is a huge step toward understanding.
  3. Respect not ridicule. Please, please, please–I’ve said it before–stop making fun of each other. Yes, we all have our weaknesses and sore spots as different Orthodox communities, but what heavenly purpose can possibly be brought about by deriding and ridiculing those weaknesses? We can all take a little joke now and again, but the whole “You-know-those-Russians…” and “What-can-you-expect?-They’re-Greek…” thing has got to stop. If you’re doing it, you’re breaking rule #1 and cutting off any opportunity for #2. Just. Stop. Please.
  4. Celebrate culture. It’s such a bummer when people equate pan-Orthodoxy with the suppression of our diverse cultural heritages. The Christian faith is universal:  it’s meant for everyone and every culture. You don’t have to stop being Greek to be Orthodox nor do you have to become Ukrainian to truly understand the message of salvation. How can we practically express this in pan-Orthodox efforts? Eat, drink, dance, sing! Whether its dancing the dabke or learning the Virginia reel, eating borscht or roasting a lamb, singing colind at Christmas-time or decorating pysanka at Pascha, share and experience the beauty of our many cultures! OCF has this one down pretty well. Instead of banning cultural expressions, we offer everyone a chance to celebrate on equal ground: from the Greeks v. Arabs soccer game at College Conference East to the beatbox jam sessions at College Conference West, from Real Break Alaska to Real Break Slovakia on to Guatemala, Constantinople, Romania, and Jerusalem, a foundation of our pan-Orthodox mission is to celebrate whatever is good and lovely in the lives of Orthodox everywhere.
  5. English is key, but not king. Language is a touchy subject for us, but here’s how I’ve seen things played out in OCF. English is, obviously, the language that you can pretty much guarantee that all American college students understand. I mean, I’m not writing this blog in Old Church Slavonic or New Testament Greek. On the other hand, it’s not safe to assume (see #1) that English is the only language in which a young person (or any person) can worship or even that it’s the most comfortable language for that person in church. Our unofficial baseline is that services are held in English for OCF events, but when our students can share their other languages or when we are visiting places where English is not the first language, we are blessed to be able to confirm the universality of our Christian faith through its varied linguistic expressions (see #4).
  6. Learn to sing. Or find someone who can. Right up there with celebrating culture and language–or perhaps more important–is a need for us to understand and celebrate each others’ liturgical expressions. A beautiful Byzantine Paraklesis and a wonderful Russian-style Akathist of Thanksgiving should be something we can all share. Often more than language, people are accustomed to a certain liturgical melody which their heart sings even if their lips do not. Successful pan-Orthodoxy should try to incorporate various melodic traditions whenever possible.
  7. Love one another. It bears repeating St. John’s advice in the context of pan-Orthodox efforts. It’s not an easy task, but it bears the sweetest fruit. When we are open to each other and in each other’s presence, we find that, on some level, we are united. Perhaps it is not the full unity we so desperately need, but our worship is united in spirit and in truth, and we are called to a unity of love. Doing pan-Orthodox right unsettles us from accepting the status quo of jurisdictional division. In all my experiences across those 55 churches and in all the College Conferences, Real Breaks, regional retreats, and OCF chapter meetings I’ve attended and led, one thing has become abundantly apparent to me: once we’ve been together, we don’t want to be apart!
Icons Are Not Idols

Icons Are Not Idols

This week’s campus question:

What’s up with all the pictures? Isn’t that like idol worship? Doesn’t the Bible forbid that?

Explaining iconography to someone who doesn’t pray with icons can be a little daunting. For us Orthodox, it’s as natural and normal as reading the Gospel, and we all sort of instinctively know that we’re not worshiping the icons. So what does the Bible say about images, and why do we have icons?

First off, typically when people try to say that the Bible forbids icons or images they are referring to the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Some Christians throughout history have interpreted this passage to mean that no religious images or visual art are allowed by God. In fact, the Church struggled with this issue throughout the eighth and ninth centuries finally defeating iconoclasm and upholding the use of icons in worship, a day we celebrate every year on the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church made clear the position of images in the worship of the Church and their relationship to the second commandment:

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. We even have an icon about icons. Image from Wikimedia

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. We even have an icon about icons. Image from Wikimedia

  1. The Incarnation is a game-changer. Christ made visible the invisible God, and thus it is allowed that images of Him be depicted.
  2. Icons depict real people. The second commandment protects us from creating fantastical creatures that replace the true God. Icons depict real people and events that draw us to the true God.
  3. Worship and veneration are not the same. Worshiping an idol is the equivalent of replacing God with a created thing (or ideology or passion). Venerating an icon is an act of respect and love that glorifies the Creator (sort of like saluting to a soldier is an act of respect and honor that shows your loyalty to your country).
  4. God instructed Moses to create images. Just in case anyone thought God’s commandment to Moses excluded all visual images of anything as idols, check out Exodus 36:35-37:9 where, per the instructions of God, Moses has images of cherubim embroidered into the curtains of the tabernacle and statues of the same cast for the Ark of the Covenant.

Obviously, then, it is not images that are an issue, but our relationship to images. So what do icons do for us and why do we love them?

  1. Icons teach us our history. In the early Church, never mind the fact that there was no official New Testament canon for almost 400 years, there were very few copies of the Scriptures (no printing press), and not all Christians were literate. Even today, we have a huge contingency of Christians who do not read–you know, everyone under the age of five. Icons teach us the stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints–the whole story of salvation–and invite us to be a part of that history.
  2. Icons teach us our theology. Icons are no ordinary paintings. They are full of symbolic meaning to convey the theological truths of the True Faith. From the colors to the stances of the people, to the scenery and lighting, icons teach us who God is, and who we are in relation to Him. For example, in most of the festal icons of Christ (Nativity, Theophany, Crucifixion, Resurrection), you’ll notice that Christ is the Light emerging from the darkness (of the cave, the water, Golgotha, Hades). Or you’ll typically see Christ wearing a red tunic with a blue cloak, showing us that he was divine (red) but took on humanity (blue), and his mother is typically dressed opposite as she–and we–are human (blue) who take on Christ’s divinity (red).
  3. Icons draw us near to the saints. We believe in a Church that is united across both space and time. In other words, the saints that have preceded us are just as much a part of the Living Body of Christ as our own friends and family. Just as we might cherish an image of a loved one who is no longer physically with us (and we might carry that image with us or even kiss it when we miss them), we cherish the images of Christ, His mother, and the saints as images of those we love and who guide us in our own lives.
  4. Icons call us to be still and worship. Unlike other forms of visual art, Orthodox iconography is specifically created with worship in mind. There is a stillness and a peace about the figures, even when they are shown “in action.” What seems to be a reverse in perspective is a message to us that it is we who vanish in the distance when we move away from God. Icons help us focus our prayers to God and help us dispel the distracting images that flit through our minds at the prompting of the demons.
  5. Icons call us to the heavenly realm. Everything about icons that we’ve already mentioned–their themes, their symbols, their characters, their artistic style–seek to draw us toward Christ and His holy ones. This is another reason that icons are not painted realistically; they are meant to draw us not to themselves, but beyond the images to the heavenly reality they depict. Unlike other art and certainly unlike idols, icons do not allow us to get stuck in the beauty of this world but call us to be a part of a world transfigured by God’s grace and love.

Image from Wikimedia

Having icons is not about having beautiful churches, though icons are certainly beautiful. They are not about worshiping wood and paint, though they are integral to how we worship. Icons are meant to give us glimpses of the world to come and who we can become in Christ. I am reminded that Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Archdiocese once said to us at a College Conference

The walls of this church are lined with icons. The empty spaces are yours.

Five Minute Church History Lesson

Five Minute Church History Lesson

We’re talking outreach again this week. Now that we have the principles down, what can we say when we get questioned about our faith? Let’s start with the hardest question you’ll probably get.

Orthodox? What’s that?

In the back of my head, I’m always thinking…”Hmm…where to start?” It will take us all a lifetime of liturgy, prayer, learning, compassion, humility, and repentance to really answer that question, but as some of you have probably found, a little history lesson is a good place to start for the casual inquirer. And we’re not talking detailed or complex history for you history buffs out there. Just the plain and simple–something that can get the conversation started in a non-confrontational way.

So here goes. My Five-Minute-or-Less Church History Lesson:

The Orthodox Church is the ancient Christian Church, starting at the time of the Apostles and continuing down to us today with an unbroken line. In the early Christian Church, there were five main centers of Christianity: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and each of those centers had a patriarch or pope (same word)–basically, an important bishop. For about a thousand years, there was only one Christian Church, but when the East and the West split, Rome became the Roman Catholic Church while the other four centers remained in communion with each other and became known as the Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church. Today, while the majority of Orthodox Christians are in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, there are Orthodox Christians all around the world, including here in the United States/Canada.

Whew. I think I even did that in less than 150 words.

There are two ways the conversation typically goes after this.

Option One:

Hmm…I never heard of that. That’s interesting.

And now’s your chance for some hospitality so you say,

Yeah, it’s really beautiful. Do you mind me asking you what your faith background is?

And now you listen.

Option two:

So…is it sort of like Catholic?

That one deserves its own post, So until next week, keep sharing Christ’s Church with love and grace! Oh, and let us know what questions you’ve come across on campus!

College Student Sunday: What Your Parish Can Do

College Student Sunday: What Your Parish Can Do

I am thankful every time we get a call or an email from a parent, priest, Philoptochos chapter, or parish council asking what they can do to help our young people get connected to an OCF chapter, reach out to their local campus, or assist in the growth of the National, pan-Orthodox ministry of OCF. It reassures me that we as a Church are committed to seeing our students succeed and grow as Orthodox Christians.

Well, everyone, here’s your chance.

Students offer prayers for passersby on campus as part of Day of Light.

Students offer prayers for passersby on campus as part of Day of Light.

College Student Sunday is the day designated by the Assembly of Bishops for every parish to recognize their college students, raise awareness about Orthodox campus ministry, and contribute to Orthodox Christian Fellowship. The date now falls during OCF’s Orthodox Awareness Month. So while our students are loving striving to spread the word about Orthodoxy on their campuses and in their lives, the rest of us have the opportunity to loving spread the word about and support their good work and the ministry of OCF.

So what can your parish do this year to make College Student Sunday a success?

  1. Give a presentation. Invite your local OCF chapter or a student from your parish to give a short testimonial to the impact OCF has had on their lives.
  2. Do something to recognize your college students. Host a lunch, make care packages, or even just mention OCF and Orthodox Awareness Month from the pulpit.
  3. Designate a Parish Liaison. This year, we would like parishes to designate one person–a Sunday School teacher, a secretary, a parish council member, any willing volunteer–to be the OCF parish liaison. Through the Parish Liaison Program, we will be able to keep your community informed about all that we do and collaborate with you on initiatives such as the First Forty Days. If you are interested in learning more, click here.
  4. Make a donation. We ask that you pass a tray on behalf of OCF this year and send your collection to the National Office. You can also direct your parishioners to ocf.net/donate to set up both one-time and recurring donations.
  5. Become a Parish Partner. For those parishes that would like to make the strongest commitment to Orthodox campus ministry and our Church’s young people, we encourage you to become a Parish Partner. In addition to designating a Parish Liaison to keep your community informed and prepared as advocates for Orthodox campus ministry, your parish would make an annual financial commitment to OCF to ensure its continued success and growth for generations of Orthodox college students to come. You can email us at info@ocf.net for more details about Parish Partnerships.

Whatever you do for College Student Sunday this year, we ask that you keep our students–your students–in your prayers as they hold fast to the Tradition of our Orthodox Faith in the face of the many challenges which campus life presents. Your love and support make possible so many beautiful opportunities for these students to encounter Christ and deepen their faith.

A recent testimonial from a student on their OCF experience.

A recent testimonial from a student on their OCF experience.

Click here for College Student Sunday materials!
Resources for Bible Study

Resources for Bible Study

Wanting to upgrade your chapter Bible study? Here are some resources we suggest for helping you prayerfully study the Scriptures.

 

  1. The Orthodox Study Bible: If you’re not already using it, the OSB has some helpful, basic articles and footnotes throughout the text.
  2. An Interlinear or Side-by-Side Bible or New Testament: Using both the Greek and/or Hebrew text alongside the English text can really help when you get stumped on a passage or everyone has really different translations. Plus, it brings up other interesting questions as you go along. There are a few online sources like BibleHub or BibleStudyTools or you can find them on Amazon (here’s one suggestion). For this and other books, I suggest purchasing one or two OCF copies that can be passed down rather than having everyone in the chapter get one.
  3. A Concordance: This nifty little book is basically a fancy index for the Bible, letting you find passages by topic. Again, there are some online tools on BibleStudyTools or you can go for Strong’s Concordance in print.
  4. A Bible Dictionary: Ever come across a word and wonder the history of that word, idea, or object? A Bible Dictionary is a step up from Wikipedia. Try Vine’s.
  5. Commentaries: There are about a million of these you could try, but the best, of course, are the Orthodox patristic commentaries, but certainly modern Orthodox (and non-Orthodox) authors have some things to add, too. Probably your local parish has a few of these you can borrow or might be willing to purchase them for the parish. Here are just a few:
    • Ancient Christian Commentary Series: This gives you just little snippits from a number of Fathers, East and West, on each passage. This is great for hearing from the cloud of witnesses and getting to know which Fathers you connect with the best.
    • The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox: Similar to Ancient Christian Commentaries in that it gives brief patristic passages, but compiled by an Orthodox author to be used with an Orthodox daily lectionary.
    • St. Theophylact: St. Theophylact’s commentaries on Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Ephesians, Galatians are available on Amazon.
    • St. John Chrysostom: Of course, St. John’s homilies are incredibly useful! You can find many of them for free in somewhat archaic English from Christian Classics Ethereal Library or you can order a volume such as this one. St. John has homilies on Genesis, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians,  I Thessalonians, II Thessalonians, I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews. Whew. I think that’s it.
    • The Orthodox Bible Study Companion Series: Written by Fr. Lawrence Farley, these offer some simple and helpful reflections on the entire New Testament and are meant to be especially helpful if you are reading in the OSB.
    • Fr. Paul Tarazi: A biblical scholar from St. Vlad’s, Fr. Paul has written on Genesis, Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (including his letters), Paul’s letters (with full volumes on Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Romans, I Thessalonians, and Galatians.
  6. ExeGenius: Have you seen this really cool tool put out by the GOA’s Y2AM team? Go through the Sunday Gospel readings word by word with this interactive commentary which pulls together interesting portions of Bible dictionaries, concordances, and commentaries as well as adds a few thoughts geared specifically toward youth and young adults.
  7. OrthodoxYouth: These resources from the Antiochian Archdiocese include study guides, quizzes, and mp3s on the books of the New Testament for youth and young adults.
  8. Orthodox Scripture Study: Thanks to the ACROD seminary Christ the Saviour, you can tune in to live lectures on the Gospel of John or the Gospel of Matthew. They also archive video and audio versions of the lectures.
  9. Your Spiritual Advisor: You can never go wrong with having a priest helping you walk through the words of the Bible.

Illumine our hearts, O Master Who lovest mankind, with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Thy gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto Thee. For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, Who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Your Liturgy is Weird

Your Liturgy is Weird

Imagine this: you walk into a new parish for the first time in college. You’ve been a faithful member of your home parish all your life, and you know it’s important that you make an effort to be at Liturgy. Maybe it’s taken you a few weeks of getting settled in to your new life and figuring out how to get to the church for you to make it, and you’re feeling a little nervous about coming through those doors. But right away when you walk in, you feel a sense of home: the smell of incense, the light of the candles, the icons surrounding you in worship. You find your way into the nave just in time for the beginning of Liturgy (whew!) and open up the Liturgy book you got at camp last summer.

And then it happens.The first “To Thee, O Lord” has passed and the choir starts singing–but nothing matches the words in your book. In fact, you’re pretty sure they’re singing the WRONG THING! At the Small Entrance, they sing a whole song you’ve never heard before (maybe it’s from the Bible?) in four-part harmony. When the deacon comes out to read the readings, he uses a language which is incomprehensible to you. After the sermon, the choir starts the cherubic hymn and you suddenly feel like you don’t know the words at all, even though you’ve been listening to it your whole life because the melody here is different. Then, when the clergy come out for the Great Entrance, the people are reaching out to touch the vestments of the clergy, and the priest reads a long list of names as he processes. At this point, you’re feeling more than a little confused, but you decide to stick it out. When it’s time for communion, you go up and prayerfully bend your knee and open your mouth, but the priest looks a little baffled and politely asks you to close your lips on the spoon. Feeling embarrassed, you do what he asks and then decide to sneak out before the closing prayers to avoid any more awkwardness at coffee hour.

You leave wondering: “Was that really an Orthodox Liturgy? That wasn’t anything like what I’m used to at home.”

Perhaps the well-travelled reader who has experienced the variety of liturgical expressions that exist in our incredibly diverse Church may laugh a little at this example, but the experience happens perhaps more often than we might think: a young student who has only ever been a member of one Orthodox parish with its own jurisdictional and local traditions finds himself not only confused but scandalized by another parish’s traditions.

As a parish family, we may be so used to our own parish’s way of doing things–from the translation of the Creed we use to who reads the Epistle each week–that we may even forget that our way isn’t the only way things are done. Part of becoming a college-friendly parish is recognizing that not only are we typically strangers to new college students, but that often, our worship is strange as well. Orthodox young people have been told their whole lives that Orthodoxy is the unchanging faith–which, of course, it is–but often no one has bothered to also mention that the unchanging faith has multiple expressions which are blessed and beautiful. It’s also not hard to imagine that in the midst of so many new things, a new college student simply expects that church will be a familiar place with familiar experiences to give them a sense of security and comfort and coming to a parish that feels only half-right to them might be a shock or even turn them off from returning.

What, then, can we do to help new students integrate into our parishes in this regard? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Be on the lookout. As with any visitors, new college students will be waiting for you to approach them and welcome them. And though it might seem like September will be the time when you see the most new faces, sometimes it takes a new freshman more than a few weeks to settle into campus life, find the motivation to wake up on Sunday, and get up the courage to go to a parish where they are a stranger. Keep your eyes open constantly for young, new faces.
  2. Emphasize similarity. Ask students what things were like at their home parish and share things about your parish’s life that will feel familiar to them.
  3. Refrain from disparaging other traditions. This is a tough one for us all. It can be so tempting in our age of your-opinion-can-and-should-be-voiced-at-any-time (thanks, internet) to point out all the things we know  X jurisdiction is doing wrong or how much we dislike Y’s cultural peculiarities. College students are constantly being encouraged to see the world as one community so you can imagine how frustrating it can be for our Orthodox youth to hear their elders mocking each other’s traditions.
  4. Be prepared to explain and teach. Many of our students are under-catechized when they leave home for college–that’s just a fact. Add to that the variations they encounter when the parish near school isn’t just like the one at home, and you can have some very confused people. Local clergy and OCF lay leaders should prepare themselves to explain the Liturgy to college students and separate out what are the essential elements of the Liturgy and what are the variations in custom.

If you’ve known many involved OCF graduates, you know that once they’ve been embraced by a loving community that shares with them their own traditions with love and respect for other traditions, OCFers tend to fall in love with the diversity of our Church and experience the deeper unity that goes beyond languages and lectionaries and music–the unity that is truly rooted in Christ.