A few years ago, I had the life changing experience of seeing a weeping icon. When I got home I couldn’t stop talking about it. I told all my friends, even those who were not Orthodox. Predictably, a few of my friends didn’t understand. Some told me I was being deceived, others thought I was going crazy. One friend went to the lengths of sending me an article about a Catholic Church that had a statue of Jesus with water coming out, and it was later discovered it was a plumbing problem. I said, “But this is myrrh! If myrrh was running through pipes to an icon not connected to any pipes or the wall we have a problem.”
My friend said, “Okay prove it, did you take a video?” I told her I had not but then followed up with a personal story:
The experience was that one of the girls with me had also doubted. I remember her saying, “There is no way this is real.” I did everything in my power to convince her otherwise, but to no avail. We agreed to disagree, and went to bed, as we were at camp. The next morning, we woke up and our cabin smelled very strongly of myrrh. We were all so confused, the smell couldn’t have been from the night before, there was no way.
The icon was titled the Kardiotissa, or the tender heart, and we had all received paper copies. One of the girls reached into her cubby and felt a drip, “Uh, I thing the ceiling is leaking.” I told her that was impossible because it hadn’t rained in three days.
For some reason my doubtful friend who was unusually quiet, whispered, “It’s not leaking. But this is.” She held up her paper icon, and myrrh started running off the paper. All of us gathered around. Her paper icon was weeping. Needless to say, she believed after that, but my school friend was still skeptical.
She asked, “Okay, then tell me why the mother of God was weeping, she’s in heaven right? Shouldn’t she be happy?”
At the time I hadn’t necessarily thought about it that much. The answer I gave went something along the lines of, “to show God’s presence in our lives.” But that question had always bothered me.
Fast forward to a few months ago, when I got a call that one of my good friends from camp had passed away. I was heartbroken. In every church service I cried. When we got to the cherubic hymn I would become infuriated because we sang “let us lay aside all earthly cares”. Well, I didn’t want to lay aside my earthly care. I wanted to be with my friend, in fact in church I knew he was there in the kingdom of heaven with me, but it frustrated me that I couldn’t reach out and hug him. He could see me, but I couldn’t see him. My mom was a real champ during that period of time, she just let me cry and gave me many hugs during church. I was even frustrated with St. Raphael, of whom I pray to every single day to watch over my friends. I didn’t know how this could have happened (St. Raphael and I have since made amends). The only thing I found comfort in was holding my paper icon of the Kardiotissa, because my friend was with me when we got them, and he too had one. That was when I felt closest to him.
One day, I looked at the beautiful icon, and I remembered the name–the Tender Heart, in this the virgin Mary is holding Jesus giving him a kiss. The Theotokos was a mother, a mother who watched her Son die. She lived an amazing life. But she was a mother. She is our mother. The Theotokos sees us weeping, and when a mother sees that her child is in pain she seeks to help them. The Theotokos, the mother of God, the Tender Heart, she was with my friend in the kingdom of heaven. I remembered in the Bible when Jesus went to see Lazarus when he had died, and He was moved by all of the friends of Lazarus crying, and He wept.
I remember texting that friend after I had come to this realization. I said, “I know why!” She of course assumed I was psychotic, and said, “You know why?” I said, “Do you remember a few years ago when you asked me why the mother of God was weeping, well I know. She is moved by our sadness, she is a mother in pain watching her children hurt. She weeps because we weep. The presence of this weeping reminds us that she hasn’t left our side, she is weeping with us.” There finally became a day where I didn’t break down crying because I saw his favorite color, or because I heard the cherubic hymn. Now I smile, knowing he is in the Lord’s hands.
Through our weeping, and through our mourning we connect to the mother of God, and she helps us because we are her children. When we feel most alone, the Theotokos is weeping with us. Through weeping and mourning we can begin to heal, what we feel has been broken.
Everything must be broken, to be put together and beautifully reinvented by God. When we are broken, bruised, shattered, hurting, and weeping, the Theotokos is watching. Through her intercessions to the Lord, we start to heal. She prays for us because we are her children. She laughs with us, sings with us, hurts with us, and weeps with us. The miracle of weeping is that we are never doing it alone. When we get lost, we are taught to find the motherly figure to go to. She is our mother, and when we are lost and in a state of mourning, she will help redirect us, and guide us.
We must find her and weep with her. For our heavenly mother and Father will never leave us to mourn alone. They are always by our sides. I pray that her tender heart will continue to help me in time of need, and weep with me. She is our mother, and she loves us as her own. “As ordered, therefore, this do I shout to you: Rejoice, O Maiden who are full of grace” (“Theotokion,” Akathist to the Mother of God)!”
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!
My OCF story begins in my first semester of college, Fall 2013, as I began classes and started joining OCF for our then twice-a-month meetings. It was what was expected of me as a PK, and I dutifully did it with complete and total apathy towards the organization.
Fast forward to December 30th, 2013, the last full day of College Conference East where I was having a fairly enjoyable experience. It was late afternoon, and our final keynote session in the auditorium with His Grace Bishop Gregory had been moved to St. Ignatius, the church a bit up the road. The sudden change in venue wasn’t explained, and I distinctly remember grumbling as I walked over. I assumed His Grace was simply going to give another part of his talk and I wondered why I was being made to walk in sub‐freezing temperatures and snow.
We crammed into the church and His Grace introduced a priest, Fr. Mark Leasure. Fr. Mark began to talk, and as he talked he opened the case of an icon at the front of the church. There had been an unexplained scent there before, but as the case opened, the smell began to roll through the church like a tidal wave. As Father continued to talk about the icon and the various miracles attributed to it, aside from feeling wholly awful about being grumpy over a walk in a half‐centimeter of snow, I felt something else begin to move in me. Then, as many of you have seen him do, to demonstrate the icon’s myrrh‐streaming, Father tilted the icon over the hands of students. And as I sat there seeing an icon inexplicably drip myrrh into the hands of my friends, I felt something within my heart break.
Matthew with his OCF chapter
Within modern parlance, we tend to throw the idea of “heartbreak” around with fairly reckless abandon, claiming to be heartbroken over just about everything from breaking up with a significant other to our favorite show being taken off Netflix. But in that moment I realized that most people abuse that term and don’t understand what it means to have your heart truly break. Abba Poemen the Great says that the word of God is, “soft, and our heart is very hard.” What happened in that moment was the feeling that my heart had been shattered and the soft word of God was entering in. This wasn’t a feeling unique to me, and the proof was evident in the tears streaking down the faces of everyone around me. Christ, the Physician of Bodies and Souls, through His mother, was taking a room of shattered Humpty Dumpties and putting them back together again.
As I looked through those tears, past Fr. Mark, to the icons of Christ and the Theotokos on the iconostasis, I felt the Theotokos and Christ calling me. Calling me to what? I wasn’t quite sure, but I suddenly realized that for the first time in my life if someone asked me that question that had dogged my life for nearly two decades, “Do you want to be a priest like your dad?” I wouldn’t give a quick and irritable response of, “Never!” As I sat there among hundreds of fellow young Orthodox Christians weeping, I also began to realize that I had run away, for no good reason, from not only a distant possibility of the priesthood but of meaningful, dedicated, wholehearted service to the Church. I understood that my once proudly apathetic approach to life and OCF needed to end, and addressing this became the topic at dinner that night as we pondered, “What do we do next?”
What was I supposed to do next? I have come to think that experience with the Kardiotissa was not a clear clarion call to a particular route in life, be it monasticism, missionary work, or the priesthood. It was a gentle beckoning from the Theotokos, ever pointing to her Son, “Come back to Him and do His will.” Regardless of the future, I wanted to give back to the organization the gave so much to me and help to give other students as special of an experience as I had.
Ironically, in the continuing tale of confusion in my life’s path, I applied to be College Conference East Student Leader, thinking that would be the best way to give back. I got the call later that summer offering me the Media Student Leader position instead. I remember an initial feeling of slight disappointment because here I was finally trying to figure out a place in Christ’s service, and I was being offered a role I hadn’t even been interested in. But as we know, God is wiser than us, and I quickly came to love my role on the SLB.
Looking back at two years of service, it’s hard to nail down a favorite, singular moment on the SLB. Every day was filled such joy, interacting with college students around the country and with newfound friends on the SLB. Two particular memories do come to mind though, one from each term. My favorite moment from the first year was having the opportunity to unveil the OCF Connect App at College Conference. It was amazing to see all of our hard work finally unveiled and shared with all of our friends and peers and to see it responded to so positively. That was the high point of the year, knowing that we had made something of real value, something that we could leave behind to college students that came after us. The other moment that comes to mind happened recently at College Conference back in December. It was late one night, after 2AM and the SLB members were just sitting in our office talking. In the midsts of the chaos of running a conference, there was such peace and joy in simply being together with SLB friends.
Matthew encouraging people to donate blood at CCEast14
None of this by the way is intended to impart some notion that you must have had some spiritual revelation at an OCF event to apply. Maybe you haven’t had that kind of experience quite yet, and that’s ok. Because being on the SLB isn’t about you. You will undoubtedly have a transformative experience and make lifelong friends, but that’s not the point. Rather, it’s about realizing that you can make a difference for others now. That Christ’s call to serve is not something that begins within parish life at age 30 once you’re married and have a kid. That there is an active call even within collegiate life. That you can make a difference by following the words of the Apostle Peter when he says, “As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).
Looking back over those past two years, there are a lot of lessons to mull over. His Grace Bishop Gregory will often tell college students that we aren’t the future of the Church, we are the Church. Here and now. His Grace is right, and that is something we experience on the SLB every day. We don’t need to wait to make a difference, we can start now. Most gratifyingly, we can start making that difference in a way that positively affects the lives of other college students around the country. Being on the SLB means being given the opportunity to bring light to people’s lives in their chapter life, at Real Break, College Conference West and East, district and regional retreats, and in so many more places.
St. John of Kronstadt wrote that our faith obliges us to help one another and that “for all this you are promised a great reward from the Head of the Church – our Lord Jesus Christ.” Apply to help others grow in their faith. Apply to help others find Christ, the Prince of Peace. Apply to help Orthodoxy spread on college campuses around the continent.
Apply because it will be to the spiritual benefit of your friends, your peers, and yourself and most importantly, to the Glory of God.
“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory to the ages of ages. Amen.” 1 Timothy 1:17
Matthew Monos is a senior at the University of Missouri studying psychology. He currently serves as the 2015-16 Media Student Leader on the Student Leadership Board. Matthew loves baseball, traveling, spicy food, and Byzantine chant. He has no idea what’s next in life and remains assured that he’ll figure it all out in a burst of last minute panic someday.
Last year, I was the only OCF student from my university who attended College Conference. I realize there are some obstacles – with College Conference occurring between Christmas and New Years: you may miss some time devoted to family, friends at home, and wintery traditions. Today I am proposing a radical new winter tradition to those who have never had the chance to come to College Conference before. You, too, can experience these incredible days of unity with fellow college-age Orthodox Christians.
To those who couldn’t attend last year but now have the chance, here’s a glimpse into this tradition of mine. I hope it becomes a tradition of yours, too!
Dear friend, December 27, 2014
After a long drive and hours of registration, our keynote speaker introduced all of us to the theme for this year’s College Conference. We did not get tired as we sat through the lecture but rather became more energized! This energy carried through the midnight hour as we stayed in the chapel after Compline to chant. Of course we sang camp songs and our favorite hymns…it was absolutely thrilling! The beautiful chants resounded in the church and in our hearts like a stringed instrument, sounding its glorious vibrations.
My dear friend, I know you had other things going on this Christmas break but I wish I could text you now. Not to say “I told you so!”, but to encourage you for next year. You have to come to experience this joy!
Dear friend, December 28, 2014
What a blessed day! Thrice-blessed! 100 times blessed! Here at College Conference we chanted Liturgy and received Holy Communion among 300 brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of my favorite parts of the day were talking with my roommate and attending to wonderful sessions led by great priests who are helping me center back to the life I need to live in Christ.
By far the most beautiful surprise came to me first as the sweet-smelling aroma of roses. I smelled this sweetness in the hallway after dinner and it filled my heart to bursting. The scent was a physical sign of the indisputable information that the Panagia had stepped into our lives. How exceptionally blessed! Her crying icon, called “Panagia Kardiotissa”, traveled to be with us at Antiochian Village and we chanted the Paraklesis service wholeheartedly to her.
My dear friend, where else can you receive this kind of gift at Christmas-time?? Do you see why I want you to be here with me?
Dear friend, December 30, 2014
I’m writing to you at 5am…this day has been so long and so full of beauty! It all started this morning with a sunrise service to St. Raphael. Dear friend, did you know there is a REAL LIVE SAINT who resides here?? That sunrise – luminous in the stripes of clouds as we sang to the holy hierarch, “Rising from the East like a brilliant sun” – was absolutely amazing! Afterward, I made a new friend and we talked about Orthodoxy from a Catholic point of view (he’s currently Catholic, but his Orthodox girlfriend persuaded him to come to College Conference to learn about our Faith!). I met other people at lunch and found out that we share the same college major. At the sessions today I learned more about biblical priesthood from Khouriya (Priest’s Wife) Stephanie, chatted with other people about the benefits of Studying Abroad during college, then got ready for tonight’s banquet and dance. Of course the dance was awesome but the better part was afterward: lighting candles to Christ, and Panagia, and St. Ignatius, and catching up with friends from camp. There are so many good people here!
We are almost at the last day and it is all so surreal. When will I be in a situation like this again? With such amazing people who are serious about their faith, who are funny and interesting and intelligent, who love the music of the Church and who are seeking to live God’s will for them.
It’s almost 6am now so there’s no need to sleep…maybe I’ll just take a quick nap…and then get up again for breakfast and a chance to send off all of my brothers and sisters with a big hug and a prayer for their safety.
I pray that next year, many of us can gather here again. And most of all – I pray for you, my friend! Will you come with me next December? Come and see!
Evangelia Pagones is a senior at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign studying Music Education. She currently acts as OCF’s Chicago District Leader while she is completing her student teaching in middle school and high school orchestra. She is looking forward to serving on the Music Committee for this year’s College Conference East and encourages anyone interested to come help chant at the services this December! See you there!
Last month, students from the Mid-Atlantic Region gathered in Taylor, PA for an evening with at St. George with Fr. Mark Leasure and the myrrh-streaming Kardiotissa icon. They also enjoyed a talk on martyrdom by Fr. Andrew Damick and a visit to Agia Skepi monastery. Here are some thoughts from the students reflecting on the retreat:
“You are never alone when you have your faith.”
–Maria Kirifdes, sophomore, University of Delaware
“I love the retreats OCF hosts. Experiencing the beauty and peace of the nus and their home was quite moving. [I took away] a sense of renewal in a hectic semester and peace. Also, a stronger growing in my faith.”
–Ethan Comfort, junior, Kent State Univeristy
“I feel like I’m on a spiritual high.”
–Kyriakos Theophanous, senior, University of Pittsburgh
“I was in awe being the presence of the icon. I loved that we all chanted together with such love in our voices. Miracles exist all around us. We have to open our hearts and believe in the protection of the Panagia.”
–Jenna Ionnidis, junior, Millersville University
“Don’t follow your heart, lend your heart.”
–Christina Gregoraski, freshman, University of Delaware
As you might have noticed, your Regional Student Leaders are (rightfully) super excited for the regional retreats coming up. But so are the students! Hear from Rachel Howanetz, a sophomore at Millersville University, who attended the Mid-Atlantic Regional Retreat last year.
Q: Describe your experience at last year’s retreat. What stood out to you?
Attending the retreat last year was the first large OCF event I attended. I had no clue what to expect and did not really know anyone other than those who also attended from my OCF. From the moment I walked into St. George I felt an immediate connection to those around me, and a sense of community that I have only ever felt before with my teen SOYO and my Antiochian Village camp friends. I was amazed to see so many people reuniting with friends from other colleges and universities and only hoped that as just a meek freshman I would make similar friendships with other Orthodox college students.
Q: What was your favorite part of last year’s retreat?
By far, my favorite part of last year’s retreat was the Paraklesis service that we sang to the Panagia. It was absolutely BEAUTIFUL. The icon of the Kardiotissa was present, and along with the strong, and sweet aroma of the icon’s myrhh, the students’ love-filled voices filled the church and it was as if we had truly been transported from earth to heaven.
Q: Why did you decide to go to this year’s retreat again?
I made the decision to go again this year because I want to be able to feel that sense of love and community again. Often times, especially as a young college student, it can be hard to find that on your college campus. I want to be able to feel the sense of peace I had being in the presence of the Kardiotissa again, and I want to be able to take a step back from my busy college life and reflect on all of the blessings in my life.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about this year’s retreat?
I am most looking forward to seeing some of my friends from other colleges and universities and spending the two days in worship and service with them.
Q: Why is it important for students to go to their regional retreats? What words of encouragement do you have for them?
Take the leap of faith and go. You will not regret it. Especially if you are a freshman this year, you might be a little hesitant about going—I know I was last year, but just go. As important as it is to focus on your school work, focusing on your spiritual life, especially in college, is essential to maintaining a healthy mind, body, and soul. Attending the regional retreat will be like getting a breath of fresh air and you will feel renewed and ready to go back to accomplish great things on your college campus.
REGISTER for this year’s retreat today!
Rachel Howanetz is a sophomore at Millersville University, where she is majoring in Early Childhood Education. She enjoys dancing, singing, photography, crafting, and traveling. This past summer, Rachel served as a counselor at the Antiochian Village. During the school year, Rachel loves being involved in many education related organizations on her university’s campus, and at the same time, has a passion for growing in her faith and being involved in OCF.