It’s been almost a month since the Summer Leadership Institute. That’s pretty nuts.
SLI was an opportunity for the entire Student Leadership Board to come together for a few days in fellowship, education, worship, and service. Our Media Student Leader, Dan Bein, actually just posted this video of your SLB members sharing what they’ve learned, and for what they’re excited. Check it out:
Now, a month removed from the retreat, embroiled in my new position in OCF, I wanted to ask myself the very same questions: what have I learned so far? And for what am I excited?
SLI was really one of my first ever OCF experiences. I don’t have an active chapter at my university (if you’re in Chicago, hit me up!), and I wasn’t able to attend my regional retreat last year. I attended College Conference East solely off of the insistence of my sister, and it was awesome, but that was really it for me and big OCF events. Coming in, I didn’t know what to expect.
I learned that taking that leap of faith, going and spending time with a bunch of collegiate Orthodox Christians, is worth the risk. And don’t get it twisted, it is a risk. Attending that first OCF meeting is a risk, going to that district/regional retreat is a risk, because there are a lot of unknowns. There are a lot of variables out of your control, and I’m not going to lie to you, it could get uncomfortable, and it could be kinda…meh.
But it’s worth the risk.
The potential value you can receive–in support from your peers, in education from their vast bases of experience and knowledge, in bonds of fellowship and worship–is invaluable. Every time you meet an Orthodox Christian college student, it gives you permission to be one as well. Every time you meet someone struggling in the same struggles you experience at college, it assures you that you’re not alone, and validates your struggle as one being undertaken by many. Every time you meet someone who has overcome the struggle with which you currently struggle, it proves to you that it’s possible.
One Christian is no Christian; there is no such thing as a Christian alone. The OCF is a fellowship, it is an Orthodox Christian fellowship, and strengthening that fellowship, adding another bond to the unbelievably expansive and interwoven web of Orthodox Christians across the globe, will always be worth the effort, the energy, and the risk.
One Christian is no Christian; there is no such thing as a Christian alone.
And I’m really excited to take that risk. I am totally stoked to spend the rest of the year putting myself out on a line for my brothers and sisters in Christ. Great things never came from comfort zones; nothing happens to the man who stays in place. I am so excited to get uncomfortable for every member of the OCF, friend or stranger, knowingly or unknowingly.
How much does a polar bear weigh? Enough to break the ice, and I’m gonna break as much ice as I possibly can, that everyone can experience the power of the Orthodox Christian relationships I grew over the span of two, three days.
SLI 2016 was electrifying. I can feel the energy buzzing in my veins every time I write a post, and I can still feel it after while I’m typing another stinkin’ e-mail. I can hear that same lightning crackling in my comrades from SLI, when I interact with them, when I ask them about their programs/regions–their zeal, their fervor, their love dances across their countenance and illumines the work they painstakingly do. SLI 2016 was electrifying, but don’t miss it: it wasn’t so galvanizing for our sakes. It was galvanizing for yours.
So take the risk, take the plunge. Take yourself out of your comfort zone for the young man on your left, the young woman on your right, and the Christ in all three of you. Go that extra mile, take that extra step–the value is there, I promise you, it’s there waiting for you. You just have to go out and get it.
CCWest15 Participants with the beloved Abbot Tryphon
Orthodox Christian Fellowship is thrilled to announce the installment of their new College Conference Midwest, taking place from December 27-30th at the beautiful St. Iakovos Retreat Center in Kansasville, Wisconsin. CC Midwest joins her sister conferences held on the East Coast at Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania and the West Coast at St. Nicholas Ranch in California.
The College Conference programs are four-day conferences where hundreds of Orthodox college students gather in fellowship and prayer to hear Workshops and Keynote Addresses related to topics on the Orthodox Faith. A unique testament to the beauty of Orthodox unity, College Conference prides itself on being one of the only places where students across jurisdictions gather with the common bond of Christ and His Church.
Though all three conferences will run simultaneously, OCF is especially excited to watch College Conference Midwest in her introductory year. The hope is that, with the addition of this new Conference, OCF will be able to offer quality Orthodox programming to a pool of college students who have not had the opportunity to experience this one-of-a-kind gathering of young adults.
The theme for this year’s conferences is “Come and See” (John 1:39). With Rev. Fr. Panagiotis Boznos serving as the Keynote Speaker for CC Midwest, the intent of this theme is to help college students better understand the Orthodox Church and its practices, and learn how to best share the faith with others.
Registration for all 3 College Conferences opens on September 15th at 12:00 P.M. EST on
Don’t miss the chance to be a part of something special and to begin the new year discovering more about the beauty of our Orthodox faith and making lasting friendships.
Students chant the night away in Sts. Peter and Paul Chapel at CCEast15
Please help us spread the word about CC Midwest, East, and West! If you have any specific questions, please reach out to your College Conference chairperson, or the OCF National Programs Manager, Donna Levas.
CC East: Mark Sultani at firstname.lastname@example.org
CC West: Nora Haddad at email@example.com
CC Midwest: Peter Savas at firstname.lastname@example.org
As the end of the semester approaches, college life gets busier and busier. Papers, exams, and presentations pile up along with the pressure of moving and preparing for a summer internship, job, or classes. This year, it just happens to align with me for the busiest time of the Liturgical year – Holy Week and Pascha. When I first looked at the two calendars and realized finals and Holy Week would share the same dates, I was filled with horror and despair.
I was standing in church this past Sunday thinking about the two papers I have due this week, the bibliography I had yet to write for a paper I didn’t even know the topic of, the choir music I had to memorize, and the various meetings I had planned for the week.
While my brain was creating a mental to do list, my lips were moving along to the Cherubic Hymn. As I sang the words and melody by heart, I was suddenly jarred from my school stress and brought forcibly into the now. The hymnography hit me hard. “Let us lay aside all earthly cares.” I realized I was standing in the presence of God and the miracle of Holy Eucharist, yet my mind was stuck in the blackhole of school stress.
The Church, in its never-ending brilliance, gives us everything we need. Our minds naturally wander, but the church is constantly pulling us back. That’s why the priest or deacon says “Let us attend!” so many times! The Cherubic Hymn warns us of what is to come – the Holy Mystery of Communion – and gives us explicit instructions on how to prepare.
During this busy time of the semester, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and often the last thing we want to do is get up on a Sunday morning to go to Liturgy. It’s so tempting and simple to get that extra hour of sleep or studying. We cannot forget the Church, even more so as we approach Holy Week and the Lord’s triumphant Resurrection. I know for myself, attending services in the middle of a crazy week help break up the monotonous studying and refreshes me. It reminds me of what is truly important and of the eternal love of Christ for his people.
At this point, it’s been two weeks since we came back from Jerusalem, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Everyone asks me what we saw and where we went. This is hard to answer, it’s a little like saying you went to Disney; while Disney is one place, it also has an incredible amount of rides and attractions, and each person has his favorites. Like Disney, Jerusalem is special because each person is seeking a different adventure, a different sight to behold. We saw awe-inspiring things–Jacob’s Well where the Lord met St. Photini, St. Peter’s house, the Sea of Galilee, St. Savas’s monastery, and even celebrated the Liturgy at the Tomb of Christ–but it was the people that we met that changed my life. They provided context.
Overlooking Jerusalem from Gethsemane. The domes of the Russian monastery of St. Mary Magdalene is seen in the bottom-right corner.
How to Pilgrim
When I went, I only knew a few things about the Holy Land, mostly that it was originally Canaanite, populated by the Israelites, the Lord lived there, the Jews were expelled, the state of Israel was founded in the 1960s, and that areas of the region are now divided between Palestinians and Israelis. When asked about my expectations for visiting the Holy Land, I responded that I was excited to visit the Holy Sepulchre and the Jordan. What those places really entailed was beyond me; I was just excited to go.
But when I got there, I realized that I didn’t really know what was going on. I mean, I knew the biblical stories, but it was a little hard to figure out what was going on. It’s a little like when you visit your friend’s parish, and it’s definitely the same liturgy, but it’s also clearly not yours. They might do the entrances a little differently, sing “Lord have mercy” in a different tone, or maybe they just venerate their icons differently. You definitely know how to cross yourself and how to say the creed, but you’re a little disoriented.
That’s kind of how it was for me. We would walk along the street, and were suddenly in a holy place. I’d cross myself, venerate the site, and kind of just look at it for a few minutes. When we went to the Holy Sepulchre, it was pretty impressive, because I knew I was supposed to be impressed. I mean, few things are more foundational and important than where Christ died and then rose. We went into the first chamber, venerated the stone which the angel rolled away, and then four college students crammed into the Tomb itself. Then, we slowly backed out of the Tomb, and moved on to other sites.
It wasn’t until we went back to the Holy Sepulchre, two nights later, to celebrate the Vigil that I got it. When we walked in, the stone which the angel rolled away was now an altar table, and the place where the Lord lay was the table of proskomide. It wasn’t just that the Lord sanctified this place, but we were now sanctifying it. There was a participation in these holy places. We offered up the gifts, and He gave them back to us. Just as Pascha is sometimes too sublime for words, holiness transformed the place.
Divine liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre
Meeting the Saints
In the Coptic Church, on Pascha before the Resurrection Reenactment, we sing a hymn called “Kata Ni Khoros,” and it begins with, “What is this I hear? It is a harmonious symphony, coming to my ear.”
I once heard someone say that “A saint is someone who keeps trying.” It’s a comforting thought, and a powerful reminder that the saints are just like us (James 5:17). And yet, I also met saints, who were not just like me.
We met people who, like St. Paul, knowingly walk into danger, for the sake of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:22-29). We met all sorts of saints–priests, monks, nuns, a principal, and even just gatekeepers. Every single one of them was impacted in some way by the holiness of the places surrounding them. Where the Lord met St. Photini, there was a man who told me the things I did; at Bethany, I met a woman who was filled with the Lord’s activity; at the Russian monastery of St. Mary Magdalene, I met a woman who left all to follow Him; and at the Monastery where the Lord fasted and prayed, I met a man who spent his life in unceasing prayer for the world. They greeted us with smiles, told us of the miracles surrounding their environment, and grace just flowed from them.
What surprised me most though, was the diversity of people that we met. The priests, monks, nuns, a principal, and gatekeepers weren’t competing with each other to be the holiest in the Holy Land. They were simply themselves. One monk we met built an entire church and wrote all the icons, and another nun just prayed in her monastery. One nun went on field trips with her students and taught at her orphanage, and one priest just stayed at Bethlehem, in order to anoint pilgrims and hand out icon cards. Instead of clashing, each person did their own job, with humility. They were a harmonious symphony, who offered their service to God, who then gave me the blessings of their labor.
A nun praying at St. Alexander Nevsky in Jerusalem
The trip was surreal. I saw amazing sites and met incredible people, including the other students and trip leaders who accompanied me. As a brief aside, there is an amazing depth to those surrounding us, and one benefit of the trip was how humbling it was.
We adjusted to the time difference very quickly, and we liked to joke that we were so exhausted that any time difference was just negligible. Nevertheless, halfway through the trip, we all realized that the trip would end. This was the scariest moment of the trip. Once we arrived back in the states, we would no longer be in the process of being a pilgrim. And that’s exactly what happened. When we got home, immediately people began asking me what I saw, what I learned, and where I went. And I could see that my answers weren’t always sufficient. St. Paul tells St. Timothy that now that he is a bishop, to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). I’m not a bishop, but now I have to put into words what I saw. It is now time to begin processing this life-changing exercise.
At first, I was a little scared. Would church still feel powerful? What would it be like without having caves or holy sites or the bodies of incorrupt monastics everywhere I go? But then I got my answer pretty quickly. When we returned, I visited my friend’s home parish before we returned to Pitt. I have celebrated the liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre, seen the light atop Mt. Tabor, been immersed in the Jordan River, and drank from spring where the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Theotokos the incarnation of the Savior of all creation. And yet, when I went to Holy Trinity in Stroudsburg, I stepped into a river of fire and was lifted up to the heavens. It was one of the most sublime liturgies I have ever attended. The people there, none of whom had ever been to the Holy Land, beheld the Lord with their own eyes upon the altar table, and reverently bent to meet Him who lifts us all up.
The beginning of the liturgy is not “Blessed is the Kingdom,” but is the line that precedes it: “Now it is time for the Lord to act.” As St. Photini says, “[the Messiah] will tell us all things” (John 4:25). In the meantime, I can only speak of what I saw, and be assured that not only is holiness still alive, but that now it is time for the Lord to act.
The monastery of St. George the Hozovite is built into the mountainside. In the center, a monk can be seen traveling from one facility to the monastery.
A junior at the University of Pittsburgh, Daniel is studying psychology, history, religious studies, and Arabic, and serves as the Secretary for the Pitt/CMU OCF chapter. In addition to taking way too many classes, he loves church humor, and has the beautiful talent of being able to fall asleep anywhere, anytime.
What do you get when 10 young adults representing six different OCFs in five states and 11 nuns hailing from Kansas to Berlin spend the weekend together in close quarters? In preparation for Great Lent, the Cornell OCF and friends from Upstate NY, Manhattan, New Jersey, Virginia, and West Virginia, journeyed to the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA for a long-anticipated weekend retreat for a chance to rejuvenate, a chance to re-establish a lost connection with Christ, and a chance to go back to taking on the world.
Everyone arrived at sunset on Friday evening and celebrated Vespers before partaking of a wonderful fish dinner, complements of the local firemen and the nuns. This was a rare treat for the monastery, permitted by a timely fast-free week going from the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee to that of the Prodigal Son. After a delicious meal, it was time for introductions. The Very Reverend Mother Christophora, the abbess of the monastery and the spiritual leader of the community, threw a curve ball and had each nun introduce the sister to their left. Despite being put on the spot, the nuns did an outstanding job and said only the nice things (by request). This was a delight to witness and set the tone for the entire weekend: one of openness, laughter, and just simply being.
Later that evening, Mother Paula gave us a tour of the grounds and taught us about the monastery’s founder, Mother Alexandra, also known as Princess Ileana of Romania. The men even had the privilege of staying in her former house! Saturday was our only full day at the monastery. It began with Commemorations to St. Raphael of Brooklyn throughout Divine Liturgy, followed by brunch where Mother Christophora read us a reflection on the psalm “By the Waters of Babylon” which is sung at Matins in the weeks preceding Great Lent to remind us that our true home is in the heavenly Jerusalem, and not the Babylon of this world. Great Lent is a return home. One of the highlights was singing this hauntingly beautiful hymn together with the nuns at Saturday evening Vigil. In between the morning and evening services, we spent our free time exploring the trails around the monastery, including the cemetery where Mother Alexandra, Fr. Thomas Hopko, and several other faithful are laid to rest.
We were very blessed to have many wonderful conversations with the nuns throughout the weekend. Casey Garland (Cornell OCF) reflected, “The nuns were very open with us, answering our many questions about their lives (how they became nuns and what life in the monastery was like), providing us with guidance and practical tips for growing closer to God.” Each conversation yielded spiritual gems. An older priestmonk who frequents the monastery said that we must always say to the Lord, “Take my life in your hands.” And, “If we ask sincerely, God will always help us.” Mother Karitina challenged us to never shy away from our faith, saying that “we must always fight for our freedom.”
On Sunday morning, after celebrating the Akathist “Glory to God for All Things” and then the Divine Liturgy where we commemorated the return of the Prodigal Son and received the Eucharist, we had the pleasure of one last meal together. Mother Magdalena brought us to tears with her own story of returning home after losing everything, including her faith, during her turbulent college and young adult years. She reminded us that the Orthodox Christian Faith is not about an idea, but about a person: the person of Jesus Christ. And prayer is the means by which we develop our relationship with Him. Mother Magdalena warned us against approaching prayer as we would a skill to be mastered. Prayer is not like riding a bike or building a bridge. You don’t simply learn how to do it and then you’ve mastered it. Nobody can teach us to pray except for the Holy Spirit. In order to keep our prayer and our hearts pure, we must follow the Holy Fathers and “deflect unwanted thoughts with the flick of the will before they bite the heart.” As Saint Paisios says, “If you pay attention to them [thoughts], you create an airport inside your head and permit them to land.” Satisfied by this enriching discussion and Sister Helene’s scrumptious cookies (which also kept us awake on the long ride home), we set out into the glorious 60 degree sunshine to pack and to say our goodbyes. In addition to the cookies, each of us received an embroidered pouch of soil from St. Herman’s grave courtesy of Mother Galina, as well as some other generous gifts from the monastery.
Mother Christophora and the sisters of the Monastery of the Transfiguration are masters of hospitality whose love for each other, for their guests, and for Christ is evident in everything that they do. Spyridoula reflected on her experience, “What surprised me the most was how welcoming, hospitable, and downright funny all the mothers and sisters were and how much they are like you and me. Sometimes, it is easy to think that the people in cassocks are worlds apart from our lives. But they are not. They help us through prayer, through their advice, and through their smiles and humor.” It is difficult to taste of this “fountain of refreshment” and not be transfigured. We are thankful beyond words for our time spent there. It appears that the retreat is already bearing fruit, as two freshman undergraduates who attended are in the process of starting new OCF chapters at Morris County Community College and Coldwell University respectively. One has reached small group status while the other is struggling to get off the ground. Providentially, their OCF district student leader, Janine Alpaugh, was also in attendance and was able to provide them with connections, resources, and suggestions from other chapters. God always provides!
While the time we spent in Ellwood City was brief, it was full of rest, laughter, and direction. “There are some moments that should never pass away. What is glimpsed in them should never end. That it does end, and, even more, that it is only experienced momentarily anyway, this is the real sadness of human existence.” These words, taken from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Eschatology: Death and Life Eternal were used by Daniel Stauffer (Cornell OCF) to summarize our weekend at the monastery. “What was glimpsed there should have never ended,” Daniel concluded. Simeon (Morris CC OCF) reflected on the weekend by sharing “This weekend I can truly say that I grew closer to God. The services allowed singing, ultimately resulting in a truly personal connection with Christ which engulfed me in prayer.” As we enter joyfully into the Great Fast and head towards the glorious Light of Pascha, perhaps it is only beginning.
This article was co-authored by the OCFers in attendance, Gregory Fedorchak, Janine Alpaugh, Casey Garland, Daniel Stauffer, Spyridoula Fotinis, and Simeon Brasowski. Simeon Brasowksi took all the pictures.