“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”
St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (5:14-16)
In Greek myths, the personification of sleep was the god Hypnos who lived in Hades near the river of Lethe (forgetfulness) with his brother Thanatos (death). In many stories he is kind, gentle, and calm, however he possesses those human lives whom he lulls to sleep. From this god’s name we get the word hypnosis, for myths involving him reveal that it is the hypnotist that gains possession and control over the one he puts to sleep. From the time of Christ until now, the world has been attempting to lull the souls of Christians to sleep with its hypnotic way of life. We experience it today with an onslaught of flatteries, ideologies, comfortabilities, etc. These attacks on the soul are made in order that the Christian would fall into a deep spiritual sleep, for to fall asleep under the world’s hypnosis is to be possessed by it and to dwell in forgetfulness and death. This is what sin does to our souls. In commenting on this verse in Ephesians, St John Chrysostom writes, “By the sleeper and the dead, he means the man that is in sin; for he both exhales noisome odors like the dead, and is inactive like one that is asleep, and like him he sees nothing, but is dreaming, and forming fancies and illusions.”
We all experience the intoxicating slumber of this world and have some area of our spiritual life that is not awake. However, we are not created to be sleepers, but to abandon sin and be a people who rouse the soul. St Paul calls us to an exalted life, commanding us to awake and receive the light of Christ. Therefore, we must ask the question: How do we awaken our souls to receive this light?
According to the Fathers and Mothers of the church, in order to raise the soul out of the slumber of sin there are three practical habits that we can form.
The first of these habits is the mystical practice. This means to participate in the divine services and sacraments of the Church. Our life needs to revolve around these things as absolute essentials for keeping our souls alive and awake. The divine services of the Church bring is into direct contact with the Living God and they impart transformation to the soul. The sacraments are great medicines that allow us to partake of divine grace and give us strength to battle our own sins.
The second of these habits that we can form is the ascetical practice. This means to start and end our day at our icon corners or home altars, to read Scripture and the lives of the Saints daily, to keep the fasts prescribed by the Church, and to do as much as we can to fill our lives with the grace of God. Many times this second habit is hard because it requires us to set time aside, to give up some things we like, and to force ourselves even when we don’t feel like it. That’s ok! Nobody becomes a professional athlete or gets an advanced degree without first forcing oneself to set aside time to push forward for achievement. In fact, the very definition of asceticism is to deny oneself, as our Lord commanded us to do (Matt 16:24).
The third habit to awaken the soul is the practice of alms-giving. This means to give ourselves for others. This can be in the form of treasures like money or possessions, but this can also be in our time and talents. If we find it hard to give up things for others, especially earthly things, then we know that our soul is asleep and we need to awaken to a deeper spiritual life. How we raise up our soul is to sacrifice for others.
Awakening the soul can require a lot of effort, but our reward is beyond compare and the comfort that comes after is worth more than any struggle. St Paul says that if we rise and awaken our sleeping or dead soul, Christ’s light will be given to us. We are given an opportunity in this life not to just experience Christ’s paschal light, but to be given it—to live it. This is why our saints are painted with halos, because this great light shines from their awakened and alive sanctified souls. Let us Christians strive to be like them and embark on a path toward forming habits today that will keep our souls risen for eternity.
Fr. John Valadez
is the pastor of St. Timothy Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lompoc, California and is the Spiritual Advisor of SOYO in DLAW. He is a convert to Orthodoxy and was ordained to the holy priesthood in 2017. Fr. John is married to Khouria Krystina and they have five children.
Our theme for OCF this year is “Who do you say that I am” (Matthew 16:15). My favorite part of this verse is how Simon Peter responds. Simon says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). When Jesus heard this, He calls Simon Peter his rock, and declares that on that rock He will build His church.
How cool would it be to have the Lord tell you that we were the rock He wants to build His church on, and yet we are all called to be that rock. So, thinking of Simon, I would like to share who Christ is to me.
I was once told that our hearts were a puzzle with a missing piece, and the only way that piece could be filled was with Christ. He is our missing puzzle piece. In my day to day life I tend to forget this. I try to find different things that fill the space a little bit but are inevitably the wrong puzzle pieces.
I have had a few roadblocks in my life, as I’m sure we all have. People would always tell me to use coping skills. We tried so many things like writing, playing music, writing music, running, and taking my dogs on walks (my personal favorite). These “coping skills” would work for a period of time, and to an extent, but they never made me feel truly better.
A few years ago, I learned how to make prayer ropes. It is still to this day one of my favorite things to do. One thing I found, was that my knots wouldn’t turn out unless I was praying while making them. So, I started praying, honestly just talking to God. I didn’t know what to say all the time, so a lot of it was the Jesus prayer. I got into the habit of praying when I did things that, when times of struggle came I would immediately pray. When I prayed, it wasn’t necessarily like all my problems were solved, but there was a sense of relief. I knew that the Lord heard me, being able to tell Him my thoughts and feelings was so comforting. Praying became my coping skill. I came to realize that the Lord is my best friend. Being able to talk to Him and knowing how much He cares for me is such a comforting thing. He will never turn His back on us because He loves us.
The coolest thing about Christ is that He always knows what we are going through.
“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). During Holy Week it is hard not to be moved by how much abuse Christ endured. To be spat on, lashed, to wear a crown of thorns, to have people telling you to save yourself, and to be betrayed by the one you love is not what I call the best day ever. Christ is also in each and every one of us. When we hurt, He hurts. When we suffer, He suffers. Our loving God will never turn His back on us.
I love the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy is talking to Mr. Tumnus about Aslan. Lucy is in awe of him and exclaims that she can’t believe he is a tame lion. The line that always gets me is Mr. Tumnus’s response. He tells Lucy that Aslan is not tame, but he is good. This was an eye opener for me. He is God, and “his mercy endures forever” (Psalm 135), and He is the One “who struck Egypt with their first born…who divided the Red Sea in two parts…who struck down great kings…it is He that remembered us in our low estate” (Psalm 135). Psalm 135 has to be one of the coolest passages, going back and forth as to how the Lord has shown mercy but isn’t “tame”. He walked on water! Parted the Red Sea! He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
I challenge you all to think of who Christ is to you. Always remember our heavenly Father is ever present with us. When school gets hard or we hit a road block. The Lord was there, is there, and always will be there.
I am Evyenia Pyle. I am freshman at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I am majoring in Speech and Hearing Sciences with double concentrations in neuroscience of communication and speech-language pathology. This year I am the Central Illinois District Student Leader! I love to sing, especially byzantine chant. I play a lot of instruments including guitar, bass, piano, and more. I have two amazing dogs, they are my pride and joy. I am so excited to be contributing to the OCF blogs this year!
Glory to Thee, making us dissatisfied with earthly things.
I’m a biology major, currently in my junior year, which means I get to mess around with all sorts of weird stuff. Currently, I’m wrapping up a semester-long experiment, the purpose of which was to isolate a virus, grow it on bacteria, and learn all about it (which is exactly as interesting and smelly as it sounds).
One of the high points was extracting the DNA, what really makes the little guy tick. My lab partner and I had spent two months growing our virus and worked for three straight hours to get that DNA out as meticulously as possible. Three hours of pipetting later, we got what we were looking for: a couple of drops of liquid in a vial. Two weeks later, it was in the trash, tossed out with everything else when the experiment ended.
It was one of the weirdest mixes of pride and sadness I’ve felt. So much work for so little, and even that little would end up in a dump just a short time later. It was, in a word, dissatisfying. It was amazing work, and we had done it well, and I was proud of the things I had done, but…in just a little while it had passed away.
Reading this verse and thinking about it, I’m realizing that life is full of buts (haha…buts). There’s nothing in our life that doesn’t come with its own sad little caveat. There are little ones: you can clean your room, but it’s just going to get dirty again (in spite of that, my mom still made me clean up my Legos). There are medium ones: you can put all your effort and money into school, but there’s no guarantee it’ll pay off; you can invest in relationships, but they’re almost certainly going to hurt you. And then, there’s the big one: you can live your life well, do good, love people, have it all…but you’re going to die, those you love are going to die, and everything you’ve stored up will, eventually, be dust.
Sometimes, all those buts (okay it was funny the first time but let’s move on) can be depressing and a real source of despair. As St. John of Damascus says, “What earthly joy remains unmixed with grief?” The non-rhetorical answer to that rhetorical question is nothing.
That sort of despair is something I struggle with. Sometimes the world seems bleak and very cold, with nothing good in it. Sometimes the buts get so big (now it’s just gratuitous) that it can be hard to see the good that’s there too.
But that’s not true. The world, and everything in it, is “very good” (God’s words, not mine). God created earthly things, and we can enjoy them and know Him through them. They’re a source of joy and comfort and laughter for us, and that’s not a bad thing. The problem comes when we stop there, when we take the happiness the world can give us and don’t try and go beyond.
The things we experience are ultimately unsatisfying: as Jesus says, everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again and again and again until we stop being able to thirst. But he’s not telling us not to drink water! He’s not telling us to not enjoy it. It’s good to drink water and enjoy it, as long as we’re seeking the living water too. It’s good to enjoy earthly things, as long as they don’t stay merely earthly, as long as we’re seeking the heavenly too.
Earthly things don’t satisfy us because we weren’t made for earthly things. The world doesn’t make us perfectly happy because it’s far from perfect. A traveler doesn’t feel at home in a hotel because he’s not at home. We don’t feel at home here because we’re not at home. We are, like Abraham, strangers and sojourners. Our home is heaven, and we “desire a better country” (Hebrews 11:16).
When we feel most comfortable with just our earthly lives, we’re in danger. When we forget the things of the earth are mortal, we make them immortal; when we make them immortal, we make them gods, and we forget the Immortal God who is our true home, our true Life. It is when we are most conscious that “heaven and earth will pass away” that we are able to be closest to Christ.
It is this sort of dissatisfaction, a true, godly satisfaction which stems from the knowledge that no matter how good it is (and it is very good), it will be taken away and replaced with (or rather, transformed into) something much better, that is a gift from God.
Earthly things are wonderful, but it is God who gives them meaning and worth, and He graces us with this feeling to help us remember that. Today, I thank God for giving us this dissatisfaction in order to remind us that we are not children of the world, but sons and daughters of the Most High.
Nicholas Zolnerowich is a junior biology student at UMBC, where he is also the president of his OCF. He enjoys the outdoors, superheroes, and talking about himself in the third person.
“Glory to Thee for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.”
(Ikos 4, the Akathist of Thanksgiving)
As I sat down to work on this post, I realized that my laptop cord is juuuuuuust barely too short for me to sit in my favorite spot in the corner of the couch while it’s plugged in. So, as I type, I’m perched a smidgen in from the corner, right at the point where two cushions meet. (I realize that most of you are thinking, “Kiara, on what planet does this relate to that quote you put up there?” Hang on—we’ll get there.)
I’m caught somewhere between cozy-comfy and actually kind of uncomfortable. This is where my stubbornness gets the best of me because I refuse to scoot off of the cushion meeting point, just on principle. It’s dumb, I know, and I’m reminded of how frequently we feel this way. Not necessarily this specific situation (because honestly most people aren’t as absurd as I am), but how many times have you found yourself feeling two wildly different, even opposing, things at the same time? It’s more common than we’d like to admit, frankly.
And this is where Orthodoxy comes in. Our faith not only acknowledges but embraces the fact that we are all a bit (or a lot) of a living, walking paradox. Take our funerals: even as we mourn, we gleefully anticipate the departed’s eventual resurrection in Christ. There is room both for overwhelming sorrow and pain alongside breathlessly anticipatory hope. Take confession: it’s expressly designed to both acknowledge our pain and our wrong, as well as affirm our beauty and goodness as a child of Light. There is room for us to be both hurt and healed.
Even our God embodies two complete and contradictory truths because He is both fully God and fully man! If anyone understands being a paradox, it’s DEFINITELY Him.
Meet yourself where you are: it’s okay to feel annoyed by fasting, even as you’re excited for what the fast brings! In a perfect world, would we all love fasting and serve God flawlessly, without reservation and with our whole selves? You bet your bottom lip we would! Do we live in that world? Not even close.
Now, none of this is to say that we can slack off, or write off mediocre effort as, “Oh it’s okay, I’m just meeting myself where I am; Kiara said it’s fine.” Nice try my dudes, but that’s not how this works either. The point of this is not to give you justification to not give your all; it’s to remind you that perpetually beating yourself up and making yourself feel guilty because you haven’t had a perfect fast or didn’t go to church this week or whatever won’t solve anything. Repent, go to confession if at all possible, pick yourself up, and try again. Acknowledge the paradox: you have failed, but you are undefeated.
Now, to return to that quote, “Glory to Thee for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.” When I read that (as I sat on my simultaneously comfy and uncomfy perch), all of this came flooding into my brain. I realize that’s a pretty big leap. Just roll with it.
Think of the times that we tremble. We tremble when we’re afraid, when we’re cold. We tremble when we’re so moved and joyful that it seems our body can’t contain it and we’re just going to vibrate away like a hummingbird flitting to nectar. We tremble when we’re nervous, and we tremble when we’re about to receive something we’ve anticipated for what feels like an eternity.
Within that one word, there are paradoxical multitudes. As there are paradoxical multitudes within us, and as there are paradoxical multitudes—both literal and figurative—within Orthodoxy. We are not alone in our contradictory truths. Look at the season we’re in; we’re fasting and preparing for the birth of Christ even as we feast and celebrate the innumerable joys in our lives.
By the time this post goes up, Thanksgiving will have just happened. And so, remember the delights for which you are thankful. And remember the delights for which you sorrow. Bring these seemingly competing truths and emotions together into one, and I have a feeling you’ll find a truth deeper than either side alone. Let yourself tremble in the face of your joy, let yourself tremble in the face of your struggle.
Glory to God for the prayers offered by a trembling soul.
Kiara (her Arabic-speaking friends like to call her cucumber, because apparently a khiara is a cucumber in Arabic—who knew?) Stewart is a first-year grad student at George Washington University. When she’s not reading endless art therapy texts or busy making art, Kiara likes to spend her free time reading, hiking, and hanging out with the Amish.
Hello, friends! My name is Nicholas Zolnerowich, and I am also a person who now does these blog things. I’m currently chugging my way through my junior year at UMBC, where I am a bio/psych double-major pre-med student. When I’m not in class or doing homework, you can usually find me hiking in the woods, procrastinating, or engaging in baguette sword fights (one of those is incorrect).
This is the part where I’d love to give you a crazy inspiring story of why I joined OCF: I joined, not because of my devotion to Christ (it’s not that great), or my desire to bond with other Orthodox college students (I hate socializing), or my soaring spiritual life and how I exude incense while I pray (that one’s actually true). That would be pretty neat.
The truth is, I joined OCF because I was expected to. My parents, my parish priest, and my camp friends all acted like it was the norm. I didn’t want to be the one heathen that didn’t belong to an OCF, so I showed up to my first meeting entirely due to peer pressure.
There were five people there (I knew none of them) and it was one of the most awkward two hours of my life (for those of you who don’t know me, I would rather fight a horde of extremely crotchety beavers than experience a new social situation). I seriously considered never going back…but they knew my name now! My face was in their systems. If I stopped going, they would see me around campus, stare me down, and whisper about me to their taller, more attractive, bearded friends.
by Tom via flicker
And that peer pressure, the same peer pressure that convinced me to go in the first place, convinced me to come back. And come back again. And keep coming back every Monday for the last three years. And boy, am I glad I did.
Why? Well, I’m glad you asked, slightly skeptical reader. It really comes down to peer pressure. Everyone who’s anyone can tell you about peer pressure: you’re a sweet innocent kid who has stuck to decaf your whole life, but if you let yourself be surrounded by friends who think caffeine is hip, suddenly you’re knocking back espresso like it’s gosh-darn 1999.
Peer pressure is talked about to the point where it’s kind of goofy, but with some perspective, I think we can all acknowledge it’s a serious thing. It convinces us to drink dangerously or illegally, to not cross ourselves in public, to avoid talking openly about our Faith, or to not wear Crocs in public. Peer pressure can be insidious.
But we rarely hear about the flip side: peer pressure can push us in the right direction. The same influence that makes us not want to be the one guy not drinking at a party is the same influence that makes us not want to be the one guy that doesn’t show up at Saturday Vespers, the one guy that isn’t fasting, the one guy that slacks off with their faith, and it’s that peer pressure that saved me.
When the pressures and desires and passions that are part of the standard package at most colleges began to pull me away from the Church, when that pull became too strong for me, the knowledge that I would be missed if I stopped going to church kept me going. The desire to fit in the best possible way with the best possible people held me up when I wasn’t at my best; and hopefully by God’s grace I have provided that influence to somebody else as well.
That’s why I took this blog person position, and why I’m excited about it. The support I have been given has helped me get this far, and even though I’ve got a long way to go, I’ve “seen some stuff.” I’m grateful for the experiences and mistakes I’ve been able to learn from, and grateful for the chance to pass some of that on.
College is tough. We lose our support system. We lose the people who pushed us in the right direction and find ourselves often surrounded by people going the other way. That’s why OCF matters. That’s why it’s so important.
We hold each other up, improve each other, guide each other in the right direction. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Join OCF, join a parish, stay connected however possible. It is our responsibility and privilege, as children of God, to sharpen our brothers and sisters and to let ourselves be sharpened as well.
Nicholas Zolnerowich is a junior biology student at UMBC, where he is also the president of his OCF. He enjoys the outdoors, superheroes, and talking about himself in the third person.