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.
“Glory to Thee for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.”
(Ikos 4, the Akathist of Thanksgiving)
As I sat down to work on this post, I realized that my laptop cord is juuuuuuust barely too short for me to sit in my favorite spot in the corner of the couch while it’s plugged in. So, as I type, I’m perched a smidgen in from the corner, right at the point where two cushions meet. (I realize that most of you are thinking, “Kiara, on what planet does this relate to that quote you put up there?” Hang on—we’ll get there.)
I’m caught somewhere between cozy-comfy and actually kind of uncomfortable. This is where my stubbornness gets the best of me because I refuse to scoot off of the cushion meeting point, just on principle. It’s dumb, I know, and I’m reminded of how frequently we feel this way. Not necessarily this specific situation (because honestly most people aren’t as absurd as I am), but how many times have you found yourself feeling two wildly different, even opposing, things at the same time? It’s more common than we’d like to admit, frankly.
And this is where Orthodoxy comes in. Our faith not only acknowledges but embraces the fact that we are all a bit (or a lot) of a living, walking paradox. Take our funerals: even as we mourn, we gleefully anticipate the departed’s eventual resurrection in Christ. There is room both for overwhelming sorrow and pain alongside breathlessly anticipatory hope. Take confession: it’s expressly designed to both acknowledge our pain and our wrong, as well as affirm our beauty and goodness as a child of Light. There is room for us to be both hurt and healed.
Even our God embodies two complete and contradictory truths because He is both fully God and fully man! If anyone understands being a paradox, it’s DEFINITELY Him.
Meet yourself where you are: it’s okay to feel annoyed by fasting, even as you’re excited for what the fast brings! In a perfect world, would we all love fasting and serve God flawlessly, without reservation and with our whole selves? You bet your bottom lip we would! Do we live in that world? Not even close.
Now, none of this is to say that we can slack off, or write off mediocre effort as, “Oh it’s okay, I’m just meeting myself where I am; Kiara said it’s fine.” Nice try my dudes, but that’s not how this works either. The point of this is not to give you justification to not give your all; it’s to remind you that perpetually beating yourself up and making yourself feel guilty because you haven’t had a perfect fast or didn’t go to church this week or whatever won’t solve anything. Repent, go to confession if at all possible, pick yourself up, and try again. Acknowledge the paradox: you have failed, but you are undefeated.
Now, to return to that quote, “Glory to Thee for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.” When I read that (as I sat on my simultaneously comfy and uncomfy perch), all of this came flooding into my brain. I realize that’s a pretty big leap. Just roll with it.
Think of the times that we tremble. We tremble when we’re afraid, when we’re cold. We tremble when we’re so moved and joyful that it seems our body can’t contain it and we’re just going to vibrate away like a hummingbird flitting to nectar. We tremble when we’re nervous, and we tremble when we’re about to receive something we’ve anticipated for what feels like an eternity.
Within that one word, there are paradoxical multitudes. As there are paradoxical multitudes within us, and as there are paradoxical multitudes—both literal and figurative—within Orthodoxy. We are not alone in our contradictory truths. Look at the season we’re in; we’re fasting and preparing for the birth of Christ even as we feast and celebrate the innumerable joys in our lives.
By the time this post goes up, Thanksgiving will have just happened. And so, remember the delights for which you are thankful. And remember the delights for which you sorrow. Bring these seemingly competing truths and emotions together into one, and I have a feeling you’ll find a truth deeper than either side alone. Let yourself tremble in the face of your joy, let yourself tremble in the face of your struggle.
Glory to God for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.
Kiara (her Arabic-speaking friends like to call her cucumber, because apparently a khiara is a cucumber in Arabic—who knew?) Stewart is a first-year grad student at George Washington University. When she’s not reading endless art therapy texts or busy making art, Kiara likes to spend her free time reading, hiking, and hanging out with the Amish.
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.
I am back for another year of contributing to the OCF blog, and I am charged with the task of reintroducing myself, and I wonder what might be worth saying.
Rather than sharing the same tired anecdotes about my extracurricular activities and favorite Netflix shows, I have chosen the words of the great poet Kahlil Gibran to try to give you insight into the idea that has been dominating my thoughts. Maybe this will be a better way to get to know me.
“We are all beggars at the gate of the temple, and each one of us receives his share of the bounty of the King when he enters the temple, and when he goes out. But we are all jealous of one another, which is another way of belittling the King.”
This poem from Gibran’s Sand and Foam captures a deep truth that most of us fail to recognize: we are all
in search of the same things. We all want to be valued, we all want to be filled with joy, we all want to be at peace, and most of all, we all want to be loved. “We are all beggars at the gate of the same temple.”
We are all promised these things from a myriad of different types of places and people. Every advertisement we see on television is subtly (or often times, not so subtly) telling us that another material product will be the answer to our search. Our social environments often try to convince us that certain worldly lifestyles will be what we are looking for. If we use enough of the right drugs or go to the right parties with the right people, we will find the peace and joy we so desperately seek. However, as Gibran reminds us, the true treasure comes from the King alone—the King of Kings, I might add.
When we doubt the King, or when we doubt that amidst all the worldly promises, Christ is the only one who can deliver on his divine promises, we belittle him. Hopefully, through this blog, we might try to take a look at some of those promises and how God—the King—delivers on them.
For those of you who were truly interested, my favorite show on Netflix is The West Wing, I am a senior at the University of Michigan studying economics, I enjoy reading, and I am the Vice-President of my OCF chapter.
I hope all of you are enjoying your first weeks back at school, and for those just entering college, I hope the adjustment has gone well. May we keep a clear enough vision to see who is promising us what, and may God grant us the strength to put our hope in Him who is the answer to all of our searching.
Mark Ghannam is a senior studying economics at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. His hobbies include beard growing, obsessing over Ancient Faith Radio podcasts, and Michigan football. Catch him rock climbing, reading, or browsing Reddit.
This month, Ben asked us to write about why you (as a future first year college student or maybe a transfer to a new school) should make the presence of an on-campus OCF a priority as you choose the place you’ll spend the next four or so years. Now, I can already hear you thinking (because it’s what I thought when I was in your shoes), “Why the sam hill should that matter? I don’t need an OCF; sure it’d be nice, but I’m not going to let it influence my school choice that much.”
Au contraire, my friend.
Maybe Orthodoxy has just been something you take part in because your parents want you to, or “it’s just what we do on Sundays”, or maybe it was something you did as a kid and kinda grew away from as you got older and started to make more decisions on your own. Maybe you’re already incredibly invested in Orthodoxy, already know you’re picking a school with an OCF, and this post is redundant for you. No matter what boat you’re in, if you take nothing else from this post, take the idea of giving OCF a chance, cause it might just surprise you.
At least for me, one of the most simultaneously thrilling and terrifying things about moving to college was the fact that I knew absolutely no one. Conveniently, OCF is a marvelous place to meet people and make new friends! Whoo friendship!
From time to just hang out and enjoy your newfound freedom, to late-night talks that shape the way you see the world and open your eyes to truths you never imagined, the friends you make in OCF bring with them lifelong connections and endless possibilities.
Now, if you fall into the category of people who aren’t really that invested in Orthodoxy or haven’t really gone to church in a while, fear not. At least to my mind, OCF is a lot less intimidating than going to a service. No tetas or yiayiás or babushkas eyeing you down, no priest or khouria asking where you’re from and if you’ll be coming regularly. It’s just a bunch of other college students looking to learn and find fellowship.
Plus, if you really start looking into the theology and academic side of Orthodoxy, mother of pearl, there an insane amount of information to sink your teeth into! When I wasn’t so sure about Orthodoxy and really questioning whether or not I could in good faith (all puns intended) commit myself, I found that delving into the foundations and core tenets of the faith helped me find resolution and direction.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that OCF has a pretty wide range of facets. Whether you’re looking for people to hang with, information about Orthodoxy, a place to come home to, or down time from the insanity of classes, OCF has it. Give it a chance, and it might just surprise you. OCF is to college as cayenne is to Mexican hot chocolate. The final product might be A-OK, but without it, you can just tell something is missing.
Kiara (like the Lion King II) Stewart is a senior art major at Alfred University, is a member/organizer of the Rochester OCF and is trying to start a new chapter in Alfred!! When she’s not covered in clay in the studio, Kiara likes to spend her free time reading, hiking, and hanging out with the Amish.