“We should follow the example of the birds. They’re always joyful whereas we are always bothered by something.” -Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica
Sometimes it can be easy to forget about the presence of God in our daily lives, especially when we experience pain, loneliness, fear, or spiritual drought. In moments such as these, we might believe that these feelings give us more cause to despair in our suffering, rather than push us to seek reasons to hope in spite of them. During this past year particularly, I have found myself paying more attention to the simple blessings in life that I would normally take for granted. These ordinary, little blessings often remind me of God’s presence in my daily life and fill me with hope for the new day. Blessings come in a myriad of forms. As a result, there are endless ways that one could feel hopeful. For the sake of brevity, I wish to relate one particular day that I experienced last semester in order to illustrate what I mean when I say the simplest blessings can give us hope.
“All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards thee, and to make it sing in ecstasy: Alleluia!” -Akathist of Thanksgiving
Back in early September, I was having a really rough time… a lot of things had piled up and I felt very low. In an attempt to calm down, I stepped outside in my yard to be by myself for a just few minutes. It was very chilly that evening, but I didn’t mind because it smelled so refreshing and I enjoyed the touch of the cold grass under my bare feet. While I was walking through my yard trying to focus on my breathing I began to cry, but I had been fighting tears throughout the evening, so it felt liberating to let it all out for just a few minutes. It was around 5:00 and the moon was slowly rising as the sun sank low into the west, casting a pink light onto the lavender clouds to my left. I became somewhat lost in the silence and birdsong of dusk, but after a few turns around my yard, I came back inside to a steeping cup of hot tea, and into the arms of my mother.
“Stand at the brink of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little, and have a cup of tea” – Elder Sophrony of Essex
As a result of the cold temperatures of the outdoors the heat of my home became more welcoming to me, the warm tea was made more desirable than it was before, and my solitude made the company of others more pleasurable. Within the simplicity of the evening, I found that my struggle did not seem quite so formidable as it did before I went outside. At the time I felt so horrible about myself and yet looking back on those few minutes, I now see that they were a gift from God… a sort of reset button. After returning indoors from the stillness of the evening, I felt like I had fresh eyes to see the little blessings that I was unaware of only minutes before; this realization gave me hope to push onward because I felt the love of God around me made manifest is the simple blessings before me.
“In your spiritual life engage in your daily contest simply, easily, and without force. What is simple is also what is the most precious.” -St. Porphyrios
That evening I was reminded that there will always be trials to face, but more importantly, I realized that oftentimes the most subtle blessings can be reason enough to provide us with hope for a better tomorrow. Sometimes we become so wrapped up in our own suffering that we forget to pay attention to these little, hidden blessings which can open both our eyes and heart to God’s presence and His everlasting love. Christ never ceases to bless us, even in the tiniest of ways and he gives us infinite reasons to hope each day just through our wondering at His greatness and love for us.
“We should be spectators every day of the wonders of God.” -Mother Gavrilia
Some of us may be familiar with the greeting “Christ is in our midst,” and even though that can be a difficult thing to remember… He is and ever shall be. Whether we are reminded of His presence in the deliciousness of a homecooked meal, the taste of a warm mug of tea (or coffee), in the time spent with others, music that we listen to, or in the laughter of a small child (I could go on and on… ad infinitum!), we should always remember that God is present there with us! Such seemingly commonplace things give me hope because they remind me of His everlasting love for mankind. Glory be to God for all things!
“Do not fight to expel the darkness from the chamber of your soul. Instead open a tiny aperture for light to enter and the darkness will disappear.” -St. Porphyrios
by Magdalena Hudson
Hello, my name is Magdalena and I am currently pursuing a degree in Nursing. I attended CrossRoad Summer Institute a couple of years ago, which ultimately led me to my first experience with OCF at SLI 2019, needless to say both of these events changed my life! In my free time I love to learn new things, read, listen to music, be outdoors, draw, spend quality time with loved ones, and the list just goes on! This past year I made many wonderful friends through online opportunities and I am looking forward to the experiences yet to come.
The OCF theme of the 2017-2018 school year is “Glory to God for All Things.” This phrase comes from the Akathist of Thanksgiving. Filled with many petitions covering the innumerable things for which we give thanks to God, we asked each SLB member to select their favorite we share the favorite line from the Akathist. Below are their answers.
“Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe.” – Val
“Blessed are they that will share in the King’s Banquet: but already on earth Thou givest me a foretaste of this blessedness. How many times with Thine own hand hast Thou held out to me Thy Body and Thy Blood, and I, though a miserable sinner, have received this Mystery, and have tasted Thy love, so ineffable, so heavenly.” – Tasya
“Glory to Thee, welcoming the impulse of our heart’s love.” – Caroline
“Glory to Thee for every happening. Every condition Thy providence has put me in.” – Quinn
“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 and peace, silence: Alleluia!” – Spyri
“Glory to Thee, for what Thou hast hidden from us in Thy Wisdom.” – Anna
“Glory to Thee, making us dissatisfied with earthly things.” – Michael
“Glory to Thee for the joy of living, moving and being able to return Thy love.” – David
“Glory to Thee for calling me into being.” – Amelia
“Glory to Thee, sending us failure and misfortune that we may understand the sorrows of others.” – Nora
“Glory to Thee for the unforgettable moments of life.” – Fev
“Glory to Thee at the hushed hour of nightfall” – Peter
“Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey.” – Rachel
“Glory to Thee for the love of parents, for the faithfulness of friends.” – Markayla
“Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen.” – Mark Saber
“Glory to Thee, making Thyself known where man shows mercy on his neighbour.” – Ben
“Glory to Thee, making wonderfully Sweet the keeping of Thy commandments.” – Mark Sultani
“Glory to thee for the depths of thy wisdom, the whole world a living sign of it.” – Nicole
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.
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.
“We’re talking about practice!”–Allen Iverson
Secondhand faith doesn’t get you anywhere. –Fr. Apostolos Hill, College Conference West 2015
If there was one thing Fr. Apostolos drove home in his keynote addresses at this year’s College Conference West, it was that to witness to Christ, we have to have experienced His presence through the Holy Spirit in our own lives. We can’t merely be witnesses to something we’ve heard about but, like Thomas, must see for ourselves and believe of our own accord. There are no substitutes for knowing Christ ourselves. We will remain mute or, worse, be false witnesses without first encountering the Word to Whom we witness.
CCWest15 participants with the beloved Abbot Tryphon
But this is what amazes me and inspires me about College Conference West every year. While yes, the students come to learn more about the Orthodox Church, to visit the monastery, and to make new friends while reconnecting with old friends, it seems to me the real reason young people come to College Conference West is to meet Christ. In spite of the challenges the world presents–the denunciations of Christ, the pressure to conform, the temptations of the flesh–every year, a beautiful group of young men and women leave behind this empty and dissatisfying existence to encounter firsthand the One Who Is, the one who is Life Himself.
You can see this in the way the student leaders plan and lead the conference and attend with love and care to the needs of each participant–they are seeking Christ who washes the feet of His disciples.
You can see it in the way students eagerly line up for confession and counsel–they are seeking Christ the Healer of our infirmities.
You can see it in the way they pour out their souls in song in the Nativity Hymn at every meal, the Akathist Glory to God for All Things, and Paraklesis–they are seeking Christ who alone is worthy of our praise.
CCWest15 Paraklesis Service in the new chapel at St. Nicholas Ranch
You can see it in the way they get to know each other, building friendships upon a common foundation, the Church–they are seeking Christ who calls us into His fellowship.
You can see it as they listen attentively to the speakers and ask brilliant questions–they are seeking Christ who is the Wisdom of God.
You can see it as they spontaneously decide to hold a service of forgiveness amongst the whole conference–they are seeking Christ who forgives us all our iniquities.
And most of all, you can see it in the way they strive to love one another even as we reveal our brokenness to one another–they are seeking Christ who is found in our neighbor, the wounded Samaritan.
And they may not know it, but as they seek to encounter Christ in all these beautiful ways, they witness to Him as well. The striving achieves the goal. I thank God every year, and this year perhaps more than others, that I am blessed to be a part of College Conference West. The witness to Christ’s love borne by the students there deeply inspires and humbles me, and for that, I proclaim,
Glory to Thee for the unforgettable moments of life…Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age. -Akathist “Glory to God for All Things”