The Birth Giver of God: My Superhero

The Birth Giver of God: My Superhero

By Fr. Gregory Jensen

Every day, or at least most days, I read the life of one of the saints being commemorated. As we hear in the Divine Liturgy, this includes “forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous spirit made perfect in faith, especially for our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary.”

Though I’ve taught about many saints and have a devotion to many more, it is probably the Mother of God who is most important to me. 

My relationship with the Mother of God began in college which was a hard time for me.

Like many undergraduates, it was the first time I was away from home. While new people and my classes were interesting, they were also challenging. To be honest, especially in my freshman year I wasn’t up to the challenge.

My grades were bad. I didn’t know how to study. And while I did very well in high school college meant sitting in classes with people who had done at least as well, and often better than I did. I simply didn’t understand that last year’s high school “A” was this year’s college “C.” 

Because of this, I felt bad about myself. Added to this, I was shy and pretty insecure in my new environment. As a result, I was terribly lonely and probably more than a little depressed.

One consolation I had was that the campus chapel was always open. I would frequently spend time there praying and thinking about my life.

On the left side of the chapel, there was a statue of the Virgin Mary (I attended a Catholic university, so our chapel had statues). I would often sit in front of the Mother of God and simply talk to her. And I would talk for hours.

As our conversation unfolded, as I read the Scriptures, studied more theology, and began to understand more about life, I came to appreciate the strength and faith it took for Mary to say yes to God.

Here was a girl who when she was younger than me agreed to carry the Son of God. Me? I was having trouble remembering to say grace before I ate or to get up in time for church on Sunday morning.

But Mary? Mary said yes to God and, in doing so, played a role in the salvation of the world!

But like me though, Mary sometimes struggled with following Jesus. St Luke tells us she was troubled by the angel’s greeting. She was often unsure about what her Son was doing. And, of course, she stood at the foot of His Cross and watched Him die for the life of the world.

She was able to do all this because “she pondering in her heart” the things she heard and saw. Mary was a woman of deep prayer.

Now as a priest, I will often tell people to look at the Mother of God as an example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Not only is she the first disciple of Jesus, but she is also the first evangelist.

I work to draw close to Him but He came to live in her.

I tell people about Jesus; Mary gave birth to Jesus. 

Like her Son, Mary did all this for our sake. And so, I tell people, go to the Mother of God not simply as an example of how to live the Christian life but for help in being a Christian.

Let me tell you a story about this last point. 

Years ago, a woman came to me about becoming Orthodox. Her husband REALLY, REALLY wanted to become Orthodox but she wasn’t sure. She was raised in a black Pentecostal church and so she had a lot of theological questions. She also had some concerns about joining a largely white community. She wondered, reasonably enough, if she and her biracial children would be accepted.

After we talked for a while, I pointed to the icon of the Mother of God on the iconostasis. I told the woman the story I just told you and suggested she talk to the Virgin Mary about her fears. “Talk to Mary like she was your mother.”

She hesitantly agreed and I went back to my office.

About 30 minutes or an hour later, she came into my office. I looked up and asked her what was on her mind. 

Looking straight at me and she said, “Mom says I should become Orthodox, it will be ok. Oh, and my new name is Monica, St Augustine’s mom.” Augustine is another of my favorite saints, but that’s a story for another day!

Feasts of the Mother of God are always a joy for me. When I serve them, I remember what it was to be a scared, 18 year old freshman far from home and at the start of a new life.

Throughout that life, which for all its bumps, bruises and set back has, thanks be to God turned out pretty good, the Mother of God has been there with me. Yes, sometimes I forgot she was there or didn’t appreciate her as I should have. But the Theotokos never forgot me.

May Christ our true God, through the prayers of His most holy Mother, bless, protect and keep us all as we follow Jesus as His disciples and witnesses on our college campus!

In Christ,

Fr Gregory Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jensen

Guest Author and Priest in Madison, WI

Fr. Gregory Jensen, Ph.D. (Duquesne University) is a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-USA and a professor at St Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary where he teaches social ethics and young adult faith development. Currently, he is the priest of Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church. The parish is located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also the Spiritual Advisor for the OCF at the University of Wisconin-Madison

My OCF Story: Maria Pappas

My OCF Story: Maria Pappas

Despite my upbringing as an Orthodox Christian, I lost touch with my faith around the time I went to high school. I still considered myself Orthodox and I was definitely proud of my heritage and the traditions of my family, but I didn’t feel a need to engage with Christ in any way, and I certainly didn’t feel a need to go to church. By the time I entered college, I was absolutely checked out, and I had no intention of changing.

My mind changed completely when I started at Fordham University. Until that point in my life, I had never really been able to focus on what I wanted to do, but I had suddenly found myself in a whirlwind of interesting classes, clubs, and various activities that were about nothing but personal growth. It was so odd to me, having come from an environment where my academic success was valued and fostered above everything else.

It was when I took a theology class and we learned about a variety of other religions that I realized how little I knew about my own and how upset that made me. How was I supposed to grow as a person in all of the ways that Fordham allowed to me grow, if I did not have a grasp on the basic facets of my being?

Enter: OCF.

Maria at a Fordham OCF Vigil

Maria at a Fordham OCF Vigil

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I joined Fordham’s chapter, but I know that it was at a good friend’s insistence that I joined him at a meeting one day. At first, I definitely felt uncomfortable, but the older members of the club were nurturing and constantly made sure to reach out. Eventually, I began to look forward to going to meetings, where I don’t think many people knew that I was learning everything for the first time. By sophomore year, I was hooked, and by junior year, I was on the executive board.

My fellow OCF members taught me how to pray, how to volunteer my time, how to be compassionate and kindhearted and faithful, and they helped me experience Christ’s presence. They pushed me to go to summer camp, paraklesis and compline services, and Sunday liturgies. For one of the first times in my life, attending services didn’t feel forced because I actually wanted to worship God. I got to make my own decisions, and it made me want to choose wisely. For me, it was revolutionary.

It was my experience at Orthodox Christian Fellowship, and specifically OCF at Fordham, that drew me back to my faith. In a predominantly Catholic school, I wanted to learn more about Orthodoxy so that I could join conversations, so that I could serve the church in a way that I saw my Catholic friends doing. Somewhere along the way, I picked up Orthodox friends who wanted to grow and learn with me. They wanted to go to church, they wanted to talk about God, they wanted to pray together. The most important thing about my OCF experience was the renewal of my relationship with God, which continues to grow today.

Maria and the Y2AM team

Maria and the Y2AM team

Every now and then it hits me that I would never be in the place I am now if it had not been for my experiences with Orthodoxy in college. These experiences influenced everything that I did and everything that I have done since then. When I think about all of the experiences that I never would have had without Orthodoxy, I am filled with gratitude.

My peers at OCF led me to get excited about my relationship with Christ, gave me people with whom to relish in the highs and people whose shoulder to cry on during the lows. I cannot thank OCF and its members enough for changing my life, for allowing me to learn about my faith at my own pace, and for lighting a fire in me that I know will never be extinguished.

11889456_10153191132268867_2062343364686132588_nMaria Pappas is the Administrative Coordinator for the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. She is a recent graduate of Fordham University (Go Rams!), and she is still learning to love New York City even though she has spent her whole life there. She is a parishioner of Holy Cross in Whitestone and loves summer camp and chocolate.

My OCF Story: Lindsey Birdsall

My OCF Story: Lindsey Birdsall

In this series, “My OCF Story,” alumni share their experiences from their time in OCF and its impact on their transition and life in the post-grad real world.

My name is Lindsey Maria Birdsall and I am a proud OCF alum. I studied English and Political Theory at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and graduated in 2008. I currently teach music, drama, and literature to grades K through 6 at Park Street School in Boston.


Lindsey (Maria) on Real Break

I was chrismated as an Orthodox Christian in college, largely due to the witness of OCF. We had a very small, yet very close knit, group that sometimes met for morning prayers and dinner after Saturday night Vespers. While the official programming at my college was not extensive, it’s through the friendships that I made in OCF that I came to know about the Orthodox faith. Going on a Real Break trip to Guatemala was also a pivotal moment for me. Before this trip, I questioned whether the Orthodox Church was indeed still living and fulfilling the “great commission,” to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:6-20). After seeing the nuns of the Hogar Rafael Ayau living out their faith, my question was answered.  The Orthodox Church is indeed Christ’s living body on earth. Hearing about the nuns’ conversion and all the hardships they have endured with such joy made me eager to receive “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.”


Lindsey (Maria) with her husband and son at Holy Resurrection

After graduation, I leaned on my OCF connections more than ever. Sometimes I jokingly call my first year out of college my “freshman year of life.” I moved from my suburban hometown in Texas to New York City to teach at a high school in the South Bronx, and I had a lot to learn. It was tempting to get swept away in the stress of all these changes, but my friends from OCF were a grounding influence on me. That first year, while traveling to meet up with some OCF friends in Boston, I met my husband. With a few more visits I slowly became a part of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Boston, a parish that is now like an extended family to me. Since then, I have moved to Boston, gotten married, had our first child, and taught at a couple of excellent Christian schools.

I am truly grateful to God for all the blessings that OCF has brought to my life. Whether it was having company at church services and deep discussions over meals in the cafe, traveling to College Conferences, serving on the Student Advisory Board, participating in the national Day of Prayer, and traveling on two Real Break trips to Guatemala and Greece, the experiences all truly changed my life. In OCF, I was so inspired to see the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Church on local, national, and global levels. In Guatemala, I saw that work of the Holy Spirit was greater than I could fathom, and yet from my OCF chapter, I learned that it was also as simple as befriending my neighbor in the dorm.  OCF has given me peace, perspective, and some friendships that have now lasted for a decade.

St. Augustine – A Model of Repentance

In the late fourth century in North Africa, a boy who would one day become a saint was born. The path of sanctity, however, was not paved with simplicity or virtue for St. Augustine in the beginning.

Born in a Roman family of moderate standing, St. Augustine’s parents highly valued education for their son. They did everything within their means to make sure that he went to the best schools and was able to receive the training he needed to be a highly successful rhetorician when he graduated. Though St. Augustine wasn’t terribly interested in his education, he did what his parents required of him.

Image from Orthodoxwiki

Image from Orthodoxwiki

What Augustine was interested in doing during his “college years” was getting by and having a good time with his friends. In his Confessions, Augustine admits that he felt that his parents were willing to turn a blind eye to his social and moral decisions so long as he completed his education. So while he was completing his studies, Augustine was also spending his time partying with his friends, satisfying his lusts, and pulling mindless pranks. When his mother finally realized a little of what was going on and warned him against certain behaviors, especially with women, Augustine scoffed at her reprimands and continued on his destructive path.

As a student and citizen of Rome, Augustine was also exposed to a variety of philosophies and religions. It was around the time of his late-teens and early-twenties when Augustine joined the ranks of the Gnostic sect, the Manicheans, turning away from the little bit of Christian upbringing that he had been given. He also dabbled in astrology for many years and later when he had abandoned Manicheaism, was interested in the philosophy of Neoplatonism.

In the meantime, his mother Monica had been drawn more strongly to the Christian faith and began to encourage her son to abandon his profligacy and worldliness to become a follower of Christ. Under the influence of St. Ambrose of Milan, Augustine began to learn about the teachings of Christ and the Christian way of life. For many years, Augustine struggled in his heart with Christianity, knowing especially that a true conversion would mean a huge change in lifestyle for him (by this time, he had been living with the same woman out of wedlock for 13 years and had fathered a son by her).

Eventually, Augustine was convicted by the life of St. Anthony the Great, and made his full confession of Christ, repenting of his past sins and committing himself to a life of purity, charity, and repentance. It was then, at the age of 32, that St. Augustine began to move away from destruction and towards Life. Today, the Church commemorates him as a blessed bishop who fought against heresy, wrote beautiful spiritual books such as his Confessions, and lived a life pleasing to God rather than one pleasing only to himself.

St. Augustine’s moment of conversion in his own words:

I flung myself down under a fig tree—how I know not—and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

This image is from the Wikimedia Commons

This image is from the Wikimedia Commons

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which—coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.>

Closing the book, then, and putting my finger or something else for a mark I began—now with a tranquil countenance—to tell it all to Alypius. And he in turn disclosed to me what had been going on in himself, of which I knew nothing. He asked to see what I had read. I showed him, and he looked on even further than I had read. I had not known what followed. But indeed it was this, “Him that is weak in the faith, receive.”

Source: St. Augustine’s Confessions

Being Orthodox in a Non-Orthodox Family

Being Orthodox in a Non-Orthodox Family

“So… how did you become Orthodox?”

Eddie's Chrismation

Eddie’s Chrismation

For a lot of Orthodox college students, this may seem like a silly question; they have always been Orthodox. Their family is Orthodox, they grew up in an Orthodox church, and so it felt only natural to identify themselves as an Orthodox Christian during college. However, there are also a growing number of converts, people who did not grow up in the Faith. Their responses can vary widely, with people coming from a myriad of different religious backgrounds (or lack thereof).

I converted to Orthodox Christianity at the end of my senior year from Congregationalism, making myself the only Orthodox Christian in my immediate family. Even in my extended family, the only Orthodox portion was my aunt (and subsequently her two children), who married in to the family. Everyone else was either Catholic or Protestant. I was very fortunate in that my family was very supportive of my conversion. My parents (and my extended family for that matter) were always just focused on me having a spiritual life, and the exact manner in which I expressed that was secondary. This didn’t stop a couple of sarcastic jabs here and there, particularly regarding the “replacing” of my godmother, as they chose to put it, but this was more in an attempt to give people a hard time, rather than being closed-minded.

Though my conversion was generally well-received, it did make for a bit of an awkward transition when it came to certain parts of the liturgical year. Two particular components spring to mind: fasting and Pascha. Fasting, as we view it in the Orthodox Church, is often absent or scaled down in other forms of Christianity. Over time, people develop strategies for following fasting rules, coming up with new or modified recipes, and creating a general plan for how they will eat. Without this background, the whole fasting process was initially overwhelming for me; I had no idea where to start. As for Pascha, it was very strange for the rest of my family to celebrate Easter, while I was still in the middle of Great Lent. It seemed that we were rather abruptly separated on to two conflicting paths.

To put it bluntly, these issues made me feel uncomfortable. I began to question what I had gotten myself into by converting. I couldn’t really ask my family about it, since they had no frame of reference by which to help. So, I had to look elsewhere. Here’s a quick breakdown of what I learned from all of this:

  1. Find a spiritual advisor. Seriously, do it, if you haven’t already. One of the more foolhardy things you can do is to try and interpret Orthodoxy and its doctrine by yourself. Whether you are a cradle Orthodox Christian or a fresh convert, being able to discuss spiritual issues with someone who is experienced in spiritual matters can help keep you on a path that will be both rewarding and doable.
  2. Take things one step at a time. Trying to process everything that is Orthodox Christianity at once is impossible. With the help of your spiritual advisor, try and work through things in smaller chunks: day by day, season by season. You have a lifetime of learning and growth to get through, don’t try and race to the finish; you’ll miss all the important stuff.
  3. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Yes, things are different, and depending on your previous religious background, things can be very different. However, these changes are not some kind of punishment and should not alienate us from our loved ones. Don’t let differences in practice change how you interact with your friends and family.

Following an Orthodox Christian lifestyle is hard–worth it, but hard. Much is asked of us, and there are times where we will struggle. Especially for converts, we may not necessarily have some of the same “conditioning” as some of our peers who have grown up in the Orthodox faith; we are simply newer to the system. This can certainly be frustrating, but it should not deter us from meeting these challenges with confidence and a desire for spiritual growth. By using the resources we are given–through OCF, our parishes, or simply those we meet along our way–we can not only spiritually improve ourselves, but help to strengthen the faith of others.

OCF at University of Connecticut

OCF at University of Connecticut

About the Author

This is a guest post from Eddie Ryan. Eddie is a second-year Master’s student at the University of Connecticut studying Biomedical Engineering. He serves as the Social Media Student Leader on the 2013-2014 Student Advisory Board and as the Event Coordinator for UCONN’s OCF chapter.