Real Break Now: How it came to be. How it’s going. How to be the church in the world.

Real Break Now: How it came to be. How it’s going. How to be the church in the world.

After serving in Romania on Real Break 2020, I applied to be Real Break Student Leader for Orthodox Christian Fellowship. I wanted to help create other service opportunities for students. What a whirlwind of a year! Back in early Fall 2020, we did not know how long the pandemic would last, and we kept running into barriers in planning. We did our best trying to navigate traveling precautions and eventually saw most schools cancelling their spring breaks. As the year progressed, it became obvious that a traditional Real Break would not happen. To be completely honest, this was frustrating and disappointing. I found myself nervous I would not be able to do the work of my position on the Student Leadership Board. This time was trying, but it was still fruitful!

With a desire to empower students to serve their communities, especially with increased need due to COVID-19, a new program was created! A dedicated team of OCF staff and friends listened to me as I brainstormed ideas, and thus, a flexible 16-week course with nine incredible instructors called Real Break Now: How To Be The Church in The World was formed. Students living in 22 different states and 5 different countries have come together to prepare for the opportunity to apply for two $1000 grants towards a project serving their community this summer.

I am incredibly grateful for each person who helped to make this happen. The students have put so much thought into the material. Here is just a glimpse of the topics we have discussed during the first three modules:

 

Module 1: How Orthodoxy is a Way of Life, Not Just a Religion, led by Fr. Nicholas Belcher

We discussed questions on how to avoid “Phariseeism,” stories of people who have impacted us spiritually, the interaction between church rituals and service, and actions we can take to make our faith more of a way of life. Here is what a few of our wonderful students have to say:

 

”I really like how Fr. Nick addressed the alleged dichotomy between church rituals and good deeds/service. Growing up Orthodox, I have always believed the Sacraments are important. In society, I feel like some say that the church is useless without service and living out the Gospel and act as if the two are mutually exclusive. I like how Fr. Nick simply points out that if you think about it, there is no reason for them to be mutually exclusive and that, in fact, they support one another and are both essential to follow The Way.” -Chase

”I’ve always admired the way that Orthodoxy encompasses all five senses – from the iconography (seeing), to incense (smelling), to Holy Communion (tasting), to the choir and chanters (hearing), to crossing and performing prostrations (feeling). Growing up in a protestant church, I always felt God was at arm’s length, that reverence was an old-fashioned notion. Once I stumbled across the Orthodox faith, (admittedly at first I was skeptical of my first Liturgy due to it being such a different service than I was used to), I could sense that Liturgy was/is so much more than a penciled-in Sunday appointment. Orthodoxy is a faith that brings together – even, as Fr. Belcher described – the seemingly opposing “works” and “spirituality” – We need both! And his talk was a needful, convicting reminder of this.” -Anna-Sophia

”I definitely struggle with living in the Way without making a checklist (lol), but I find I get closer to my spiritual best when I decelerate. Most of the best moments in my spiritual life happen when I slow down, reflect, and truly focus on God and the moment. My faith becomes a checklist when life speeds up, I let myself get too busy, and I start to rush through prayer, my interactions with others, etc. I try to avoid falling into “Phariseeism” by countering moments of pride with thoughts of thankfulness and humility. Galatians 2:20 has really helped me center myself in my spiritual journey; it is the only Bible verse I’ve ever memorized: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” -Peggy

“When he was talking about orthodoxy being a way of life, I got reminded of struggles that I used to have and that I may slightly struggle with to this day – putting God into every aspect of your life. Throughout high school and especially my first two years of college, I was very focused on my academics and career but I never put God into it. I never asked God to lead me, instead, I took things into my own hands. I felt like I was a part-time Christian because I was only asking Him for guidance concerning certain matters. But the thing is God should be put everywhere. He should be the light to your career, your friendships and bonds. Instead of telling God, “Please help me to get into this company I really want to intern with them,” maybe we ought to say, “Lord if it is Your will for me to work with this company then so be it, and if not, then may I be deterred from it.” When I started saying this prayer, I saw that was paving the way for me and it was very much clear.” -Kermena

  

Module 2: How to Have A Hospitable Heart, led by Georgia Mamalakis

We discussed how we have been affected by being given hospitality, the importance of being present, how to cultivate a welcoming spirit, and shared practical suggestions with each other.

 

“I think too often I don’t approach people or am not hospitable because of my own pride- I think do I want to add one more person who could potentially judge me to this moment, or would I rather stay in a safe shell? As soon as we are hospitable to someone and invite them in, we have the potential to get hurt by them, too. And I think that’s where the second point is so important- being hospitable to Christ and having Him dwell in you and giving you that God-esteem, which helps us to be hospitable to ourselves by knowing Christ is in us. Allowing ourselves to give and serve out of pure philanthropia and philoxenia means overflowing with love that we just give in abundance to everyone we meet, not thinking about how they might perceive/judge us in return. Unconditional love is giving without expecting any love back, but it’s also giving without worrying about/expecting certain reactions or approval for self-assurance.” -Nicole 

“One of the things Mrs. Mamalakis mentioned that stuck with me was that we should “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” I think that’s something I struggle with. I might do something nice for someone, but there are times when I’m thinking about how I don’t want to be doing it or what better things I have to do. This is something I need to work on, so that’s what I’m going to try in order to better cultivate hospitality.” -Jane

I had a realization the other day that absolutely blew my mind- maybe y’all have already mentioned or thought about this. The whole topic of hospitality has had such an impact on me in that I think it’s really the basis of the faith- you can’t trust, grow, or cultivate love without being hospitable to at least someone- Christ, your neighbor, or yourself. And I realized the absolute epitome of this is the Theotokos!!! She LITERALLY allowed the Holy Spirit inside of her and allowed Christ to dwell and be born in her, and then continued to give Him a place to lay his head, like Mrs. Mamalakis talked about. We are all called to be “God-bearers”, and since the Theotokos literally bore God, she is the perfect example of hospitality. -Nicole

 

Module 3: Cultivating A Spirit of Service, led by Katrina Bitar

We discussed barriers to serving, how service is about people instead of projects, and decompartmentalizing service. One of the questions covered was, “What are your thoughts on this quote from John Chrysostom: ‘Need alone is a poor man’s worthiness’?”

“This quote boils down all of the societal dynamics around service and giving to its key component: meet a need. No other factor should matter. We should not appoint ourselves judge over a poor man to try and determine whether or not his needs meet our standards. There is only one judge, God, and He is the only one who should judge. If a beggar is lying or deceitful about his need, then God will judge him, but if we don’t show him love and service, God will judge us. We must multiply the mercy God gives us constantly.” -Chase

“This quote perfectly anticipates the response of a hardened heart. Living in a big city, it is easy to become numb or even blind to the poverty and suffering around you. I could easily pass the same homeless man under the same bridge every day and think nothing of it. I love how, in the video and this quote, there is a focus on the softening of the heart and coming to realize our mutual humanity and share in the responsibility of clothing and feeding the poor. I also struggle with making excuses like “there are shelters for that” or “maybe it’s not safe.” But this is indicative of a hardened heart-this shrugs responsibility and places blame on others, caring only for oneself. This quote is humbling in just the right way.” – Cassidy

“Need alone is a poor man’s worthiness” A-MEN. It has taken me a while to truly understand this concept. The houseless in Louisville are often viewed with scorn and are often passed by. It is if not living up to the American Dream of Prosperity, with a house and happy family and a steady job, is a secular sin.” -Elijah

 

Thank you to everyone who has helped to create this beautiful community! Our course still has a few more weeks, and I look forward to learning more in our discussions and zoom calls.

Also, apply for the Student Leadership Board!! Engaging in fulfilling work and gaining friends who have become family has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. You could be a part of this community, too! Learn more about how to apply HERE.

Anna Spencer

is a senior at Kansas State University studying Nutrition & Health. She loves getting to know people, reading, traveling, eating good food, and anything outdoors (if it is not cold). She is Real Break Student Leader this year and is so grateful for the course she has been able to create and the people she has met through OCF programming!

Awake, O Sleeper

Awake, O Sleeper

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (5:14-16)

Awake Sleeper

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

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.
Simon Says

Simon Says

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 God For All Things | Dissatisfaction

Glory To God For All Things | Dissatisfaction

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 God For All Things | You Have Failed, But You Are Undefeated

Glory To God For All Things | You Have Failed, But You Are Undefeated

“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.