You know how some churches have a sign out front that says, “Come as you are”? I think it’s usually sort of code for, “Don’t worry, you don’t need to dress up.” But really, “come as you are” should mean just this. Come as you are–not only in your external appearance but in the core of your being. How beautiful it is that the Church truly means this when she says it! The Divine Liturgy does not require you to be in a good mood or to be happy with God or for you to completely understand every teaching of the Church or for you to be a “good” person.
But I know how it works. We listen to all sorts of excuses that pass through our minds of why we can’t or won’t or shouldn’t go. Well, to counter those temptations, I’d like to give you some reasons to come, of why the liturgy is for you.
Did something wonderful just happen in your life? Come, rejoice! The liturgy is for you.
Are you having a horrible week? Come, and like the psalmist, ask God, “How long will you forget me, Lord?” The liturgy is for you.
Are you struggling to concentrate during prayer? Come, breath in the incense even if the words rush pass you. The liturgy is for you.
Have you overcome temptation even once this week? Come, give thanks to God for giving you strength. The liturgy is for you.
Are you bearing a heavy cross or a deep fissure in your heart? Come, let your weight be lightened by Christ’s love. The liturgy is for you.
Have you been at church every week? Come, let your heart beat in sync with the rhythm of prayer. The liturgy is for you.
Has it been a long time since you’ve come to worship? Come, let your heart be reformed by the patterns of praise. The liturgy is for you.
Do you feel like you can never be or do enough? Come, to Christ you are precious and beloved, and He desires to make you whole. The liturgy is for you.
Is your life hectic and busy? Come, set aside all earthly cares and just for a moment, enter into the eternity of the Kingdom. The liturgy is for you.
Have you experienced loss and are grieving? Come, Christ joins you in your sorrow and weeps with you at the tomb. The liturgy is for you.
Are you lonely? Come, surround yourself with the great cloud of witnesses, both those who stand before the throne and those who stand beside you. The liturgy is for you.
Are you sick? Come, our Lord comforts and heals the weak in body and spirit. The liturgy is for you.
Don’t really understand what’s going on during the service? Come, for Christ desires all of you, not just your understanding, and in time, He will reveal to you His fullness. The liturgy is for you.
Have you sinned? Come, be reoriented towards the Orient from on High. The liturgy is for you.
I feel as though I could go on forever–there is not one emotional state or level of holiness or amount of intellectual understanding that is required for you to enter into the liturgy. The only requirement is that you are willing to actually face yourself, to let your heart be vulnerable and let Christ’s light reveal the dark corners–that you are willing to walk the journey of repentance and are open to being joined to Christ in love. So come as you are. The liturgy is for you.
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.
Among my group of girlfriends, the subject of spiritual fathers has come up a lot lately–how to build a relationship with a priest enough to be able to confide in them, confession with priests, reaching out, etc. It’s been a topic of conversation and anxiety for a while, especially as we get increasingly busier with our lives and search for spiritual guidance.
Flashback about three weeks ago. I was talking to a close friend of mine among the said group. I called her to catch up but I admittedly had an ulterior motive. I was having a life-transition crisis and I needed to vent it out. I knew she would offer the perfect guidance as a friend, fellow Christian, and a critic to tell me I needed to chill out–which I very much needed. My rant to her was a flurry of stress and worry over every little decision I had made in the past month. Whether I made the right school choice, career aspirations, why the heck I left Texas (best country out there), etc. etc. (there were a lot of et ceteras). It was a life update turned into a storm of stress and worry and anxiety over every little thing. As I was venting through all this, I did begrudgingly acknowledge that I was worrying about it way more than I was praying about it. I had been so caught up in analyzing of all of it that I just could not get out of my head enough to take a step back and turn to God. Come to think of it, as worried as I was, I did have to admit that I had gotten some cool opportunities since starting school and even got a job opportunity that I would have never gotten if I hadn’t moved. In fact, there were a lot of moments over the past month that were little blessings to keep me going, even though I hadn’t thought to focus on them.
As I was talking this out (I’m very much a talk-it-out person, down to calling my sister at the grocery store about whether to get Ben & Jerry’s or Talenti), my friend laughed.
“You know I had a wise friend once tell me that when things get overwhelming, you just need to step back and P.R.A.Y. And you literally just did that, but backwards.”
The P.R.A.Y. acronym stands for Praise, Repent, Ask for others, and then for Yourself. What’s ironic is that I was the one who had told her about that method (can’t take all the credit; shout out to Gigi Shadid, 2012 CSR Winter Camp speaker). And she was right–I basically used the P.R.A.Y. method but backwards, choosing to count my blessings last instead of first. It was a funny full-circle moment as I sheepishly consented to my backwardness of thought.
Fast forward to a week or two later during our girls’ night discussion. Our topic was spiritual fathers since it had been on all of our minds (this is what we read if you want to know). Throughout the course of our conversation, we came to the realization that, in a way, we were all each other’s spiritual advisors. Don’t get me wrong–friends do not by any means replace a clergy advisor. But we realized that there are a lot more people surrounding us who are leading us on the Path than we really saw because we were so focused on the idea of a “spiritual father” alone, not realizing the countless ways we were advising and guiding each other spiritually.
So here’s my take-away for you. Lean on each other for spiritual guidance and companionship, friends. The people you surround yourself with, whether through OCF or other means, will have more of an impact on you than you realize, and taking this life journey with them makes it so much more comforting and doable. After all, it is said that you come to emulate the five people you spend the most time with. Think of who those five people are and whether you would be proud to reflect them. For me the answer is thankfully a resounding yes.
Hibbah Kaileh is a graduate student at George Washington University studying global security policy. She served as the South Student Leader on the 2015-2016 Student Leadership Board. Among her many talents is the ability to voraciously devour a novel (usually Harry Potter) or a Netflix series (usually The Office) in the span of a few days.