Over the weekend of December 27th-30th, I was given the privilege to attend College Conference East at Antiochian Village with 300 other college age Orthodox Christians. I was extremely excited to see my friends from Camp Nazareth who I knew were going to be there and to spend time with them in a different environment with other people. However, I was informed that we were going to be in the extreme minority as our Diocesan “representatives”, being outnumbered by the Greek and Antiochian students nearly 30:1. Not great odds I thought if I want to make new friends and the other attendees already know each other and might have literally grown up together. I thought they would want to keep to themselves and “hang” with their group of friends. I could not have been more wrong. The entire extended weekend was a blessing and was filled with wonder for me.
Even though we Carpatho-Rusyns were a major minority, we were not treated as such and we made friends quickly. So many people introduced themselves to us, conversed with us, and showed enthusiasm about our Plain Chant, our Diocese and our heritage among other things. In my opinion, the biggest exchange and really witness to Orthodox unity among all the students, whether you were Greek, Arabic, Russian, or a “Carpy” involved liturgical singing and chanting. Every night after evening service, a majority of the students stayed in the chapel simply to chant hymns. This time was not led by a priest or a program leader of any kind but by students who had a desire to sing praises to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Every night we sang for about two hours and it may have been the most beautiful part of the weekend.
Imagine three hundred college students in a tiny chapel singing beautifully at the top of their lungs. There were church hymns being shared among the different students. One hymn would be in Byzantine Chant and the next would be in Plain Chant. Each of us learned how to sing one another’s hymns and we began to appreciate more and more the diversity of melodies expressing the same beliefs, the same teachings of our Orthodox Faith. A particular event one night in the chapel illustrates this.
On this particular evening, one of the students who led the Byzantine Chant (her name was Lia) asked our Diocesan students to keep singing more and more of our Plain Chant hymns. Nobody really knew any of our hymns so for the most part there were five or six of us singing and we were all basses and tenors. Of course we continued to sing but the interesting part was the look on everyone’s faces. Lia, at one point, kneeled down in front of the weeping icon of the Mother of God and closed her eyes and just listened. As the aroma of roses from the Myrrh-Streaming Icon of the Mother of God filled the chapel and as we sang to Mary and her Son, the look of peace on Lia’s face and on the faces of the other students caught our attention. That look of peace was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Even though there were only five or so of us singing, our voices radiated in the chapel. The hymns and words of praise offered to Our Lord and to His Mother from our lips brought that peace and even caused someone to kneel. We were stunned. It was then that I realized how our Lord can move our hearts if we are willing and how miracles are constantly happening around us.
Fr. Mark Leasure, our Diocesan priest in Taylor, PA who had brought the Myrrh-Streaming Icon to the College Conference always talks about the impact of Mary on our hearts, that it is very much a miracle and nothing can explain it. In today’s society, people are always asking “where are the miracles?” In my opinion, that chapel full of college students and what was accomplished by our Lord through His Most Holy Mother was a prime example of a miracle. College students may have a lot on their minds and hearts, but leaving academics, families and work behind, and attending the Conference we were blessed by a miracle that evening. In part it came through the willingness of one female student to appreciate a type of church singing different from her own, but which expresses the same beliefs held by all of us. We might have left our academic lessons behind during Winter Break, but we learned something about true Orthodox unity that night and the miracles that can come from it.
Something else that left a deep impression on me came during one of the workshop talks I attended. The priest who was offering the workshop started his talk by asking us if we were as excited as he was to be at that workshop. There were only nine of us and some people were not nearly as enthused as he was. What he said next completely baffled me. He asked us: “How can you not be excited? Think about this: everything up to this point has led us to this very room for this very minute with these very people and it is never going to happen again. We may never have the chance to meet again, know each other, talk and deepen our faith together. How about now? Are you excited to be here when you think that this is the last time that we could ever talk? Take advantage of your time.”
After he said that everyone became extremely interested in being there, together, and he was absolutely right. Why should we not be excited in every situation of every day? More to the point, each moment is a gift from God given specifically and uniquely to us and for our salvation. I started to think about this after his talk and I wondered what everyone’s life, including mine, would be like if we lived grateful for every moment, knowing each was a blessing, each as unique as the one before it. I wondered how I would change if I understood that God might call me tomorrow, call me now, to Himself. I wondered how I would change if every person I talked to or saw, I treated with love and kindness because they might not live to see or talk to another person again. Imagine how different the world would be, how different I would be, if I carried this kind of gratitude in my heart for each moment and carried the understanding that life can end now if God chooses to call me. This is what we are supposed to know and understand as Orthodox Christians. Be grateful for each moment. Know that each moment may be your last before judgment. Treat your neighbor with love and kindness. Who is my neighbor? My neighbor could be anyone who God puts in front of me.
This entire Conference gave me so many great opportunities to become personal with more of my neighbors and I cannot thank anyone enough for the opportunity I was given to attend it. I hope that everyone else was able to take from the experience as much as I was able to, and if I am blessed enough to go again next year, if they allow graduate students, then I would be honored to attend it again.
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