Doing Pan-Orthodox

Doing Pan-Orthodox

I like to tout to the Orthodox World that OCF is the only fellowship organization (for now) which is an Assembly of Bishops agency. Who cares, you say? Well, we are the only organization (for now) that is charged by all the bishops to bring together all Orthodox Christians from all backgrounds and all jurisdictions and to do it well. This means we’ve been “doing pan-Orthodox” for a while now, and there are a few lessons we have learned that I’d like to share.

  1. Make no assumptions. Someone once challenged me to count how many churches in which I’ve actually worshiped in the U.S., and I think the number sits right around 55 parishes from seven different jurisdictions. You might say I’ve been around the block when it comes to Orthodox traditions. What I’ve taken away from all those experiences plus the 10 years I’ve been involved in OCF is that you really can’t assume anything. I’ve met Greeks in OCA parishes, Eritreans in Greek parishes, a ROCOR priest who didn’t know a word of Russian, a Bulgarian priest who grew up Jewish, and converts from every denomination of Christianity as well as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and paganism. Pan-Orthodoxy is most successful in an atmosphere of openness to any possibility and a willingness not to comment negatively right away on what we find (see #3). This seems like a no-brainer, but I think it needs to be said. Too often Orthodox people are surprised by Orthodoxy’s diversity.
  2. Know the narratives. Everybody–and every jurisdiction, for that matter–has a story. How we got to where we are today is a long and complicated story individually and collectively. I’ve noticed that while the assumptions we often make about each other often don’t hold a lot of weight, people from different backgrounds often do bear a particular narrative of Orthodoxy in America. For example, I was raised in a Greek church where the community was very ethnically diverse so I assumed until I went to college and found out otherwise that all Orthodox people went to Greek Orthodox churches. It was never my intention to marginalize, you know, the rest of Orthodoxy, I just didn’t have any other experience yet. A good pan-Orthodox leader/program/organization is aware of the common narratives that come into play from each jurisdiction. Creating opportunities to uncover, discuss, and break down these narratives in a loving, judgment-free manner is a huge step toward understanding.
  3. Respect not ridicule. Please, please, please–I’ve said it before–stop making fun of each other. Yes, we all have our weaknesses and sore spots as different Orthodox communities, but what heavenly purpose can possibly be brought about by deriding and ridiculing those weaknesses? We can all take a little joke now and again, but the whole “You-know-those-Russians…” and “What-can-you-expect?-They’re-Greek…” thing has got to stop. If you’re doing it, you’re breaking rule #1 and cutting off any opportunity for #2. Just. Stop. Please.
  4. Celebrate culture. It’s such a bummer when people equate pan-Orthodoxy with the suppression of our diverse cultural heritages. The Christian faith is universal:  it’s meant for everyone and every culture. You don’t have to stop being Greek to be Orthodox nor do you have to become Ukrainian to truly understand the message of salvation. How can we practically express this in pan-Orthodox efforts? Eat, drink, dance, sing! Whether its dancing the dabke or learning the Virginia reel, eating borscht or roasting a lamb, singing colind at Christmas-time or decorating pysanka at Pascha, share and experience the beauty of our many cultures! OCF has this one down pretty well. Instead of banning cultural expressions, we offer everyone a chance to celebrate on equal ground: from the Greeks v. Arabs soccer game at College Conference East to the beatbox jam sessions at College Conference West, from Real Break Alaska to Real Break Slovakia on to Guatemala, Constantinople, Romania, and Jerusalem, a foundation of our pan-Orthodox mission is to celebrate whatever is good and lovely in the lives of Orthodox everywhere.
  5. English is key, but not king. Language is a touchy subject for us, but here’s how I’ve seen things played out in OCF. English is, obviously, the language that you can pretty much guarantee that all American college students understand. I mean, I’m not writing this blog in Old Church Slavonic or New Testament Greek. On the other hand, it’s not safe to assume (see #1) that English is the only language in which a young person (or any person) can worship or even that it’s the most comfortable language for that person in church. Our unofficial baseline is that services are held in English for OCF events, but when our students can share their other languages or when we are visiting places where English is not the first language, we are blessed to be able to confirm the universality of our Christian faith through its varied linguistic expressions (see #4).
  6. Learn to sing. Or find someone who can. Right up there with celebrating culture and language–or perhaps more important–is a need for us to understand and celebrate each others’ liturgical expressions. A beautiful Byzantine Paraklesis and a wonderful Russian-style Akathist of Thanksgiving should be something we can all share. Often more than language, people are accustomed to a certain liturgical melody which their heart sings even if their lips do not. Successful pan-Orthodoxy should try to incorporate various melodic traditions whenever possible.
  7. Love one another. It bears repeating St. John’s advice in the context of pan-Orthodox efforts. It’s not an easy task, but it bears the sweetest fruit. When we are open to each other and in each other’s presence, we find that, on some level, we are united. Perhaps it is not the full unity we so desperately need, but our worship is united in spirit and in truth, and we are called to a unity of love. Doing pan-Orthodox right unsettles us from accepting the status quo of jurisdictional division. In all my experiences across those 55 churches and in all the College Conferences, Real Breaks, regional retreats, and OCF chapter meetings I’ve attended and led, one thing has become abundantly apparent to me: once we’ve been together, we don’t want to be apart!
Finding Home

Finding Home

Maya Angelou said,

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

One of the most daunting factors of going away to college is leaving home. It’s hard trading in your warm, cozy bed and Mom’s cooking for a hard, small dorm bed and lukewarm bowl of Easy Mac for dinner every night. Even harder is leaving behind the comforting arms of your family. I think every college student, young and old, near or far, gets homesick at some point.

Growing up in a parish where my dad was the priest, my church was a place where I felt very much at home. I had my little old lady buddies, taught church school, and sang in the choir, plus the extra perks that come with the title PK. Starting school and having to go to a new church was very different for me, and I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive. I worried about attending a church where not only the priest, but everyone, was a stranger to me. My biggest concern was attending a church and experiencing something contrary to what I was used to.

My home parish

My home parish Holy Trinity

But, one Sunday morning, full of anticipation, I braved to step foot into my new church. As I inhaled deeply and my lungs filled with the familiar scents of beeswax and incense, I instantly felt at peace. Here I was, living on my own for the first time in a completely foreign place without a single familiar face, trying to figure out this whole college thing: nervous, lonely, and confused. All my anxiety and unease vanished. That unique church smell wrapped itself around me like a security blanket. The priest chanted the prayers I’ve heard my whole life and I timidly joined in with the hymns I knew by heart. In a sea of unfamiliarity, church was the raft I clung to. I started looking forward to my weekends, not for the same reason as my peers, but for that hour and a half I spent on Sunday mornings in church. It was my own personal island, where I could escape from the rest of the world. When I was at church, I felt at home.

Even now, in my second year of school, in which I am much more comfortable, I still look forward to Sunday mornings. Like my family, the church has always been there for me. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by school, clubs, and work, all I want is to go home and get a hug from my mom. But when I go to church, all that stress melts away. Stepping outside the college environment into one that is homey, comforting, and brimming with love is just as good as a hug from Mom. Even during the week, when there’s no actual service to go to, putting in my headphones and listening to the familiar Orthodox hymns while I study (you can find a surprising amount on Spotify), or going to OCF meetings and serving small Compline or Vespers surround by my friends, even just sitting silently in the church, has the same comforting effect.

To go back to what Maya Angelou said, there is a longing for home in everyone. Home is where nothing can hurt us, where we are loved. There’s a special feeling you get at home that can’t be replicated. The church gives us the same unconditional love and acceptance that we so crave when away from home. Whether we are lonely, drowning in schoolwork, or feeling a little lost, the Church is always there to hear our prayers and welcome us home.

About the Author

This is a guest post from Emma Solak. Emma is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh studying nonfiction writing. She’s originally from Stroudsburge, PA where her dad is the priest tat the OCA church, Holy Trinity.

Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. John Chrysostom

Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. John Chrysostom

Today, we’re spending time with the Fathers’ Father: St. John Chrysostom.

St. Paul whispering in the ear of St. John Chrysostom as the future fathers of the Church gather to drink from St. John's wisdom. CC image from Ted on Flickr.

St. Paul whispering in the ear of St. John Chrysostom as the future fathers of the Church gather to drink from St. John’s wisdom.
CC image from Ted on Flickr.

There is no way I can possibly do proper homage to this saint in one short blog post–the Church can’t even do it in one feast day! We celebrate St. John three times every year: November 13 for his own commemoration, January 27 for the translation of his relics, and January 30 along with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian on the the Synaxis of the Three Hierarchs. And that’s not counting the hundreds of times a year the Church commemorates him in the services as part of the dismissal prayers. I mean, he’s kind of a big deal.

St. John was raised by his Christian mother who was a widow and received a high-class “secular” education from the greatest scholars of his day (who were, by the way, pagans). Although it seemed that John would have a career in rhetoric ahead of him, he decided instead to dedicate himself to God as a monk. Extreme asceticism was not the path God had in store for him, however, and due to illnesses brought on by his ascetic lifestyle, he returned home to Antioch where he was ordained a deacon and later a presbyter in Antioch. It was as a priest in Antioch that he became chrysostom or “golden-mouthed,” known for his convicting sermons and thorough commentaries. Today we still have 1,447 of St. John’s sermons and 240 of his letters! I get a writer’s cramp just thinking about it.

Eventually, St. John was made the Patriarch of Constantinople, but it was not to be an easy road for him. Preaching against the moral laxity of the Empress Eudoxia, St. John got himself exiled twice, ultimately dying in exile. His famous last words were, “Glory to God for all things.”

The lasting impact St. John has had on our faith and our Church can hardly be measured. In addition to his homilies and letters, we have from this giant of a man a number of treatises on everything from heresy to monasticism to the priesthood. Oh, and then there’s that little service we do just about every day somewhere in the Orthodox world–the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

Countless later Church Fathers, bishops, priests, preachers, and scholars have looked to St. John for advice on Scripture, ethics, marriage, ordination, raising children, guiding parishes, writing sermons…the list just keeps going. If you ever have a question about our Faith or are confused when reading the Bible, there’s a pretty good chance St. John can help you out, too.

Check out his complete works, or, if that’s just a little too much all at once, you can try these volumes which are collections by topic:

On Living Simply

On Wealth and Poverty

On the Priesthood

On Marriage and Family Life

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.  -St. John’s Paschal Homily, read at every Paschal service



Your Liturgy is Weird

Your Liturgy is Weird

Imagine this: you walk into a new parish for the first time in college. You’ve been a faithful member of your home parish all your life, and you know it’s important that you make an effort to be at Liturgy. Maybe it’s taken you a few weeks of getting settled in to your new life and figuring out how to get to the church for you to make it, and you’re feeling a little nervous about coming through those doors. But right away when you walk in, you feel a sense of home: the smell of incense, the light of the candles, the icons surrounding you in worship. You find your way into the nave just in time for the beginning of Liturgy (whew!) and open up the Liturgy book you got at camp last summer.

And then it happens.The first “To Thee, O Lord” has passed and the choir starts singing–but nothing matches the words in your book. In fact, you’re pretty sure they’re singing the WRONG THING! At the Small Entrance, they sing a whole song you’ve never heard before (maybe it’s from the Bible?) in four-part harmony. When the deacon comes out to read the readings, he uses a language which is incomprehensible to you. After the sermon, the choir starts the cherubic hymn and you suddenly feel like you don’t know the words at all, even though you’ve been listening to it your whole life because the melody here is different. Then, when the clergy come out for the Great Entrance, the people are reaching out to touch the vestments of the clergy, and the priest reads a long list of names as he processes. At this point, you’re feeling more than a little confused, but you decide to stick it out. When it’s time for communion, you go up and prayerfully bend your knee and open your mouth, but the priest looks a little baffled and politely asks you to close your lips on the spoon. Feeling embarrassed, you do what he asks and then decide to sneak out before the closing prayers to avoid any more awkwardness at coffee hour.

You leave wondering: “Was that really an Orthodox Liturgy? That wasn’t anything like what I’m used to at home.”

Perhaps the well-travelled reader who has experienced the variety of liturgical expressions that exist in our incredibly diverse Church may laugh a little at this example, but the experience happens perhaps more often than we might think: a young student who has only ever been a member of one Orthodox parish with its own jurisdictional and local traditions finds himself not only confused but scandalized by another parish’s traditions.

As a parish family, we may be so used to our own parish’s way of doing things–from the translation of the Creed we use to who reads the Epistle each week–that we may even forget that our way isn’t the only way things are done. Part of becoming a college-friendly parish is recognizing that not only are we typically strangers to new college students, but that often, our worship is strange as well. Orthodox young people have been told their whole lives that Orthodoxy is the unchanging faith–which, of course, it is–but often no one has bothered to also mention that the unchanging faith has multiple expressions which are blessed and beautiful. It’s also not hard to imagine that in the midst of so many new things, a new college student simply expects that church will be a familiar place with familiar experiences to give them a sense of security and comfort and coming to a parish that feels only half-right to them might be a shock or even turn them off from returning.

What, then, can we do to help new students integrate into our parishes in this regard? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Be on the lookout. As with any visitors, new college students will be waiting for you to approach them and welcome them. And though it might seem like September will be the time when you see the most new faces, sometimes it takes a new freshman more than a few weeks to settle into campus life, find the motivation to wake up on Sunday, and get up the courage to go to a parish where they are a stranger. Keep your eyes open constantly for young, new faces.
  2. Emphasize similarity. Ask students what things were like at their home parish and share things about your parish’s life that will feel familiar to them.
  3. Refrain from disparaging other traditions. This is a tough one for us all. It can be so tempting in our age of your-opinion-can-and-should-be-voiced-at-any-time (thanks, internet) to point out all the things we know  X jurisdiction is doing wrong or how much we dislike Y’s cultural peculiarities. College students are constantly being encouraged to see the world as one community so you can imagine how frustrating it can be for our Orthodox youth to hear their elders mocking each other’s traditions.
  4. Be prepared to explain and teach. Many of our students are under-catechized when they leave home for college–that’s just a fact. Add to that the variations they encounter when the parish near school isn’t just like the one at home, and you can have some very confused people. Local clergy and OCF lay leaders should prepare themselves to explain the Liturgy to college students and separate out what are the essential elements of the Liturgy and what are the variations in custom.

If you’ve known many involved OCF graduates, you know that once they’ve been embraced by a loving community that shares with them their own traditions with love and respect for other traditions, OCFers tend to fall in love with the diversity of our Church and experience the deeper unity that goes beyond languages and lectionaries and music–the unity that is truly rooted in Christ.