As an Orthodox Christian I have learned many difficult lessons in my life, the first and foremost being that, in the words of John Green, “The Universe” or God “is not a wish granting factory”. I have struggled my entire life with severe mental illnesses namely: depression, anxiety, and anorexia nervosa. I have spent my fair share of nights praying with honest tears streaming down my cheeks to be healed but have never woken up to be so. I have had uncomfortable occasions where various Christians have insisted upon laying hands on me and trying to heal me with the power of Christ. As you may have guessed, this is not a story about how I prayed and God took away my mental illness. This is a story of how I am living, as a person of faith, with mental illness.
Last spring, I was in a rough spot. I became antisocial and depressed, I never wanted to get out of my bed, and the eating disorder I had developed in high school reared its ugly head. During this period I decided to start saying the Paraklesis every night before bed. I was inspired by the miracle-working icon I had seen at College Conference that year and I wanted more than anything to have this burden of depression taken away. I planned on doing the prayer service for forty days straight, and I expected to watch my life slowly improve until everything became “normal”. Instead, I watched everything fall apart. Plans fell through, fellow classmates in college died, and I was drowning in an ocean of sadness that I no longer wanted to swim in. It was dark, and by God’s grace I am still here.
If you had asked me then why I was bothering to pray the Paraklesis when clearly the Theotokos wasn’t helping me out, I couldn’t have given you an answer. Now, after months of looking back at this period with anger in my heart towards God and the Theotokos I realized how much the Paraklesis saved me. Every night I prayed. Despite what had happened during the day and despite how much I wanted to disappear, I still prayed. I wanted the Theotokos to save me from the things going wrong in my life, ignoring that she was already saving me from myself. I didn’t see that the church was helping me, and in the following months I distanced myself from God and stopped praying all together. Unsurprisingly, these past few months of my life have been marked by some of the worst depressive episodes I have ever had. Things were dark, but what made this period far worse than last spring was my separation from the church and community.
I can’t tell you I’m a perfect person now, nor can I tell you that my struggles with mental illness have turned me into a pious individual. But I can tell you that my darkest days were spent away from the church. The easiest way to hurt yourself is to separate yourself from God. If you are not running towards God, then you are running towards death. Please, run with me into the light. Do not let the Devil convince you that solitude will bring you anything but misery. Let us learn to praise God in the darkness as we wait for the sunrise.
From the morning watch until night, from the morning watch, let Israel hope in the Lord
Surprise of the day: university is a challenging experience. For some people, these years are the most trying of their life so far. We all know that balancing countless assignments, family responsibilities, a social life, extra-curricular activities, a part-time job, figuring out future plans, etc… can bring us to a breaking point.
So, when Sunday morning comes along, I know many of us are tempted with the possibility of sleeping in, or taking a few hours for a much-needed break. I know! I have to force myself out of bed on a Sunday morning, exhausted from a week’s worth of schoolwork and thinking about how unprepared I am to sing in the choir and teach my Grade 1 and 2 Sunday School class.
But, through it all, those two hours on a Sunday morning give me hope. Those two hours on a Sunday morning, if I allow them, shift my focus and bring it back to where it needs to be. Those two hours are worth far more than any earthly obligation.
The joy that we receive each Sunday when we meet Christ at the chalice cannot compare to any earthly responsibility, accomplishment, or treasure. Liturgy is the closest we will ever get on this earth to heaven. You and I both understand how important this is.
Why then, do we arrive to Liturgy late and leave early? Why do we shove it somewhere on our weekly to-do lists? Why do we go to church and think about other things the whole service, barely noticing that the great Mystery that is unfolding before us? I, for one, am so guilty of everything on that list. Life is difficult, and no one is perfect.
I pray that even, during all the busyness of this world, we will never forget that the Liturgy is a great gift that God has given us. The priest, during the anaphora, says these words that always catch my attention: “We also thank You for this liturgy which You are pleased to accept from our hands, even though You are surrounded by thousands of Archangels and tens of thousands of Angels, by the Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring with their wings.” May we never forget to thank God for the church services He has given us.
I think that the first step to thanking Him is being there, not only being physically present but also present with our whole being. Next time you attend Divine Liturgy, I encourage you to consider the words of the Cherubic Hymn, a hymn that many of us have heard our whole lives. It begins with the following words: “We who mystically represent the Cherubim.” I have also heard: “We who mystically image the Cherubim.” Regardless, when you pray this hymn you understand that what happens during the Divine Liturgy is absolutely awe-inspiring, and beyond comprehension.
There is nothing on earth higher, greater, or more holy than the Divine Liturgy; nothing more solemn, nothing more life-giving.” – St. John of Kronstadt
I don’t want to pretend that I am perfect, or have my life completely figured out, because really I don’t. For now, the best advice I could honestly give you, from one typical student to another, from one Orthodox Christian to another, is this: church should not be one part of our life, it should be our life. Maybe it seems like a very basic reminder, but sometimes we all forget that church needs to be our number one priority, because someday that party isn’t going to matter, the grade you got on that midterm isn’t going to matter, but your faith will.
Finally, for those of you right now who are struggling with studying for midterms (I know I am) or facing any other trials, I would like to leave with you one of my favorite Bible verses:
Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. – John 14:27
Anastasia Lysack in her third year of her Music degree at the University of Ottawa. She attends Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in Ottawa, where she teaches Sunday School and sings in the choir. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, volunteering, and visiting just about any coffee shop in the city of Ottawa.