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I remember my first day of college like it was yesterday. I told myself that I'd be okay, even though inside I was having a never-ending series of panic attacks due to my own insecurities. Everyone said college was the time to discover who I was. It was a time where I could try new things and if I messed up, it'd be okay because I could just start over again with something new. I liked the thought of trying new things without having to worry whether it was right or wrong. I liked the thought of being able to experiment with things that appealed to me, but quite frankly, I didn't know where to start. Was I supposed to crack open some books? Maybe I was supposed to experience the college life and hit up a party at the local fraternity house. Better yet, maybe I was supposed to go to the recreation center so I wouldn't gain the freshman fifteen. While I wish I would've chosen the latter, at the time I really had no interest in any of that.
Even now, two years later, I'm still not sure where to start. In need of an answer, I began pursuing the definition of college in the most reliable source I know: the internet. I found that different sources offered different definitions. For example, www.merriam-webster.com defined college as "An institution offering instruction usually in a professional, vocational or technical field," while www.urbandictionary.com defined college as "A magical place where it is rumored that learning takes place, although to those who enter, it is often described differently afterward, as a beautiful land in which beer flows in amber currents next to a golden pasture, where virgins lie naked with gentle smiles upon their calm, inviting faces; but more precisely, a Shangri-La rite of passage into adulthood which involves rampant consumption of alcoholic beverages, flagrant and promiscuous sexual behavior, and a general and fundamental disregard for any form of responsibility by its habitants". After reading both definitions, it became very clear to me why college students get so lost and confused.
The world defines college in two ways – as a scholastic tool and as a distraction, but what about faith? This is just one example of the constant struggle between the views of the world and of the Church for young adults.In all honesty, I must admit that there have been many times when I have allowed college to be a distraction. I'm not talking about going out drinking or being promiscuous. I'm talking about the times when I have allowed college to become a spiritual distraction. There have been times when I have been so wrapped up in my class work and hanging out with friends, that before I've known it, I have been completely engulfed in a "Godless" world. Prayer had become nearly obsolete, reading my Bible had become boring, and going to church...well, I had simply become too lazy to go. I have had struggles with other desires as well, but I thank God He gave me the strength to overcome temptation. I say this openly and with faith because I know there are many people who undergo the same struggles.
When I became aware of my spiritual weakness, I began brainstorming for a way that I could become proactive and change my life. This is where I came up with the idea of having a college retreat at Camp Nazareth in Mercer, PA. The retreat would be open to anyone of college age and be a chance to escape to camp and rejuvenate whatever it was they had lost. Finding a verse that could serve as the theme for the retreat was more difficult that I had imagined.
Luckily, one day while logged into Facebook (who would've guessed), I saw what would soon become the 2011 college retreat theme: John 16:33. This verse states, "In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world". In one perfectly simple verse, I had found the theme for a college age retreat.
The weekend long college retreat was nothing like I had anticipated – It was far better. I had high expectations, but God certainly blessed the weekend to bear more fruit than I could have ever imagined. The weekend was jam-packed with incredible speakers, brilliant discussion groups, and amazing people. The retreat ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. We began with introductions and a few quirky icebreakers, which invoked constant laughter, joking and encouragement right from the start. Next, there was an open discussion where each camper filled out a questionnaire in order to give the speakers an insight as to the ideology of the group present. The answers were reviewed and used to help each speaker present their material in the best and most beneficial way for the group. I believe that these questionnaires were part of what made the retreat so personal and valuable.
The keynote speaker of the event, Father Jonathan Cholcher, spoke primarily about the overall theme/topic of the weekend, "Overcome the World". A few interesting things he discussed were:
1). The world has made God appear absent.
2). The world is not evil, but has fallen into darkness. It is redeemed/restored in Jesus Christ.
3). The soul dwells in the body but is not of the body, as we dwell in the world
but are not of the world. (Basically how we as Christians live in the world but
should not be of the world).
Our second speaker was Father Nicholas and Presvytera Anne Karissa Halkias who spoke about marriage and family life. Their presentation was extremely creative, serious, humorous, and most importantly, real. The couple compared marriage to making a movie. In a movie there are actors and directors. In avmarriage the husband and wife are the actor and actress and God had to be the director. They were extremely creative and innovative in how they described the marriage and family life. I feel as though they gave the group a lot to think about and consider about marriage and what it entails.
Our third speaker was Father Joel Gillam who spoke about inter-personal relationships. This topic was very interesting for it discussed our love for each other and how different types of love (Eros-a romance type love; Philos-love based on friendship; Agape-unconditional love) affect interaction toward each other.
Each day consisted of morning and evening prayers, as well as a Compline service on Friday night and vespers on Saturday. The most unique aspect of the retreat was the ethnic diversity amongst the attendees. The Greek, Antiochian, Russian, Romanian, Carpatho-Russian and OCA Orthodox jurisdictions were all well represented. Each service was done in a different style of singing, from plain-chant to byzantine style singing. This allowed everyone to share his or her traditional way of worship/singing with everyone else.
The weekend was the exact spiritual rejuvenation I needed. Confessions were available all weekend and the clergy were constantly available for talks and discussions outside of their presentation times. The church was always open so we could go in and pray or sing whenever we wanted. One of my fondest memories of the weekend is when two of the other attendees asked if I wanted to stay in the church and sing some hymns. I was rather caught off guard, but nonetheless, excited. I ran out of the church and yelled for my brother to come back and sing with us. We sat in the church for quite a while just singing different hymns. I've never done that before and I have to admit that it was an amazing experience. It's going to be something I do more often. There were other times for song as well. During the campfire, one of the attendees, Jonny, played his guitar and we sat around the fire jamming to some classic tunes and rocking out like nobody's business. We sang, we danced, and we enjoyed some perfectly cooked, delicious marshmallows.
The college retreat was emotionally and spiritually moving in so many ways. The best aspect of the retreat is that each person seemed to be on a different level of Orthodox Christian spirituality. The retreat curriculum was purposefully planned to reach out to an extremely diverse group of individuals and I think that's why it worked so well. In addition, everybody who attended had something unique to bring to the table, whether it was a sense of humor, intellect, musical talent, singing, cooking, adventure, questioning...etc.
It has only been a few weeks since the retreat and I'm already getting impatient waiting for next year. I simply cannot explain how motivating and appropriate the retreat was for me personally. Learning how to "Overcome the World" is much easier said than done. However, the weekend gave me something that I seemed to have given up on: Hope. Hope in being able to overcome the temptations of the world and not being materialistic or worried about social status. Hope in a better tomorrow and hope that we can be icons of Christ in the world.
We need to stop letting the world convince us that times have changed, and take a stand as Orthodox Christians. We need to stop letting our faith be reduced to nothing more than a label, and begin making it a way of life. The Christian life is by no means a walk in the park. I, like many other people, struggle with it every day of my life, but making even the smallest changes like wearing our crosses proudly or saying "Christ is Born" instead of "Happy Holidays"can make a difference. The bigger things take time and effort, and we'll never attain the complete righteousness. But you know what? This is where we start. This is the beginning of how we as Orthodox Christians can overcome the World – through Christ.