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

On Paraklesis

On Paraklesis

One of the most beautiful prayers passed on through holy tradition is the service of Paraklesis. Any time you have a need, you can bring it in humility to the feet of the Theotokos or the saint you are asking for intercession. The nine canons are like roses of prayer that are offered to our intercessors. This service became really dear to my heart after praying it at OCF retreats and with my OCF chapter. It made me feel closer to them and closer to the Theotokos.

Just like we can ask our friends and family to pray for us, we can ask the saints and the Theotokos to pray for us in our daily struggle towards the kingdom. Throughout this post, I will include some lines from the poetry of the service that help illustrate the love of the Theotokos, and encourage you to respond in love to her.

Paraklesis translated from Greek literally mean “a pleading.” Bring all you worries and fears, and place them in the hands of God, and know that He will take care of them in the way that is best for you:

I entreat you, O Virgin, disperse the storm of my grief,
and the soul’s most inward confusion, scatter it far from me; you are the Bride of God, for you have brought forth the Christ, the Prince of Peace; O all-blameless one.

The Paraklesis is a service where you can bring down the walls you put around you, bring all your stresses, wishes, hopes, failures and anguishes for you and for whomever you want to pray and offer a supplication to God through an intercession. No person is closer to Him than His mother, the Virgin Theotokos. She looks after us as our spiritual mother.

Deliver us,
all of your servants, from danger, O Theotokos;
after God, we all flee to you, for shelter and covering, as an unshakable wall and our protection.

Throughout the service, descriptions of the holy life of the Theotokos and the help she has given to the people who have loved her throughout the ages. She will protect you, no matter where you are in life she is there, praying and talking to Christ on our behalf.

No one is turned away from you, ashamed and empty, who flee to you, O pure Virgin Theotokos;
but one asks for the favor,
and the gift is received from you,
to the advantage of their own request.

The Theotokos loves us and prays for us as if she were our own mother. She knows what its like to be a human being, and she endured one of the most painful experiences known to humanity–witnessing the death of her Son. She gets it. To me, the Paraklesis service is special because I feel like I am not alone in my worries and stresses and I can share them with the Mother of God. I also really love that when I know someone is going through hardship I can actually do something to help them. Not only can I offer my struggles, but I can offer the struggles of others through my prayer.

Oppressed I am, O Virgin;
in a place of sickness,
I have been humbled; I ask you: bring remedy,
transform my illness, my sickness, into a wholesomeness.

The walk towards the kingdom is not a lonely one. We walk together as Christ’s Church. We can come together to pray, to support, and to love one another and help make this life more like the kingdom through our conscious effort. We can come together to pray for each other and strengthen each other. We are a community of Orthodox Christians, and we stand together in fighting each of our good fights. Don’t be ashamed to be a “mama’s boy” or a “mama’s girl” because we can all use the help and shelter that she provides.

My numerous hopes are placed
before you, most-holy one;
Mother of our God,
guard me with care, within your sheltered arms.

Just like a child clings to its mother, crying for the even the smallest boo-boo, we have our Holy Mother that will comfort us in our times of need. Each time you pray a Paraklesis service, let God and the Theotokos speak to you through the service, and become closer to them.

Sometimes the Best Words You Can Say Are Tears

Sometimes the Best Words You Can Say Are Tears

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!

The Church Is Not a Wish Granting Factory

The Church Is Not a Wish Granting Factory

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


An anonymous guest post for the OCF blog.

Chapter Feature: Fordham University

Chapter Feature: Fordham University

Andrew Abboud

Students at Mid-Atlantic Retreat

The OCF Mid-Atlantic Region retreat was awesome. At the retreat there were over a hundred young adults all with a spiritually-focused mindset. It had a tremendously uplifting vibe and a great environment. We got to meet and bond with students all the way from Maryland, to Boston, and from Jersey to Ohio. It was a fantastic group of people. We arrived at Saint George Orthodox Church Friday evening. This is where the myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos has been crying for two-and-a-half years. We first listened to miracle stories of the icon followed by Paraklesis, hymns, and venerating the miraculous icon. Late into Friday night, we stayed up bonding and eating s’mores around a bonfire, playing soccer (Greeks vs. Slavs and Arabs), and chanting and praying to the All-Holy Theotokos. Then on Saturday, we enjoyed breakfast and a morning prayer service together. Afterwards, we headed out to The Holy Protection Monastery which was not far. We received a tour from one of the nuns and spent time in the gift shop and just hanging out. We also ate a delicious meal the nuns cooked and celebrated a Vespers before departing. It was a truly transformative experience. As if the beautiful miraculous Kardiotissa icon streaming myrrh for years was not enough of a miracle for us to behold, the Panagia worked wonders again with the success of this retreat. It will leave a lasting impact in each and every attendee’s heart.

Fordham University has now had an OCF for about 12 years. It has been continuously growing under the chaplaincy of Father Elias Villis and the hospitality of the school. The school has an Orthodox Christian Studies Center which is really the only of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. We have the ability to minor in Orthodox Christian Studies and we have annual lectures from Orthodox scholars which have included notables such as Archbishop Demetrios, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, and Patriarch Bartholomew himself. Our very own Professors Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou have brought a prominence to the center and bring a wealth of Orthodox knowledge to our institution. Our student group is very vibrant and strong. At least once a month Father Elias comes for a worship service. Often they are a Paraklesis but we have had Liturgies, Agiosmos, and Great Complines as well.

In addition to the worship services, we do our own community service by volunteering at a food pantry in Harlem called the Emmaus House once a month. We also visit Saint Basil’s Academy in Garrison, NY once a year. As well as our service, we have bi-weekly and now weekly fellowship meetings which we affectionately refer to as Logos meetings. Sometime it takes the form of a Bible study, a religious discussion, or even just food and hangout. Together these keep our group members active and involved.

 

About The Author


Michael Palamara is a student at Fordham University.