This post focuses on the GOYA Lenten Retreat that we attended on April 9 &10, 2011. We had other events for the different age groups, but I really felt the need to share this ministry. It was such an amazing experience that the entire post is devoted to this retreat.
Bishop Claggett Retreat Center
What can I say about this weekend’s retreat? Amazing, inspiring, edifying, humbling, and joyful. We had such an amazing time at the retreat center in Buckeystown, MD.
The setting of the retreat rested in the rolling farms of Maryland, with endless fields of green. Small farms and silos dotted the horizon and horses roamed the fields. The air smelled of lilacs, fresh cut grass, and camp fires. The retreat center that we resided was an old school house type building. Built of red brick, it was almost four stories tall with the creakiest wooden floors and stairs you can imagine. It actually reminded me of my old elementary school, Jefferson Elementary in Sheboygan, WI. Next to the living quarters was a small chapel, named after Saint Andrew, as well as an old indoor basketball court. Outside the buildings were huge grassy fields with a basketball court, swing set, and horse shoe pits. When you close your eyes, you could hear the birds chirping, frogs croaking, and horses neighing. Just beautiful.
Discussion on Prayer and Fasting
We started the morning at 9:00 AM and welcomed all the GOYANS from Saints Constantine and Helen and Saint Sophia. While all the kids trickled in, we played frisbee, basketball, and horse shoes in the field. The leaders of the retreat were Yianni the Seminarian from Boston, Andrew from Richmond, VA and Deacon Evagoras from New York. The three of us set up the chapel with all our Orthodox items and prepared for the day’s events.
At 10 am we began with a welcome session from Father Nick Manousakis and the Deacon. For the next hour we had an intense discussion about Lent. The Deacon and I led the discussion and we talked about fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and preparation for Pascha. The talk really focused on the point of fasting, and each of the kids talked about the things from which they fasted. Many of the answers centered on, meat, soda, bad language, and Facebook. By the end of the discussion we discussed the impact of technology on our brains and society. They all agreed that technology is something that must be treated with respect and that it can be really hazardous to our Christian faith. We talked about how lent strips us of all the excessive stuff that weighs us down. The kids said they were amazed at how much will power they discovered through fasting! We all left the discussion having learned something useful for the Lenten preparation period.
Next we took everybody downstairs to the craft tables for a fun activity. Everybody received a few pieces of cardstock paper, which they folded, punched holes, and bound with twine. On the cover we read the prayer of Saint Ephraim and everybody wrote it in the booklet. It’s the prayer that we read during lent that speaks about God giving us the strength to stop from judging our neighbor and leading a holy life. Next everybody took bibles and searched through scripture for inspiring quotes to fill their booklets. I overheard some of the girls talking about how they never read the bible, and how awesome some of the stories sounded. A few of the more creative teenagers also decorated with prayer books with paper icons, drawings, and decoration. Everybody really put a lot of effort into the project and they were encouraged to keep them in their lockers, next to their bed, or close at hand for any difficult times that they needed some encouragement.
Journey Through Pascha
After lunch and a little free time the large group of almost forty kids split into two by age and went on to our next discussion. Andrew led the discussion on Holy Week and I sat in with the older group. We started the discussion by asking the kids if they could go back in time, where would they go and why. There were some great answers like, to the time of Jesus, the time of dinosaurs, the liberation of Greece, and the creation of the World! Andrew made the connection that Holy Week is like going back in time and experiencing the whole life and death of Jesus. We went day by day through Holy Week and talked about the significance about each of the services. There’s so much rich theology and meaning behind each of the services that we talked for almost an hour and a half! The older teenagers agreed that they wanted to try to go to one service that they had never been to before. The great celebration of Pascha means so much more when you’ve participated in the whole week of events leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection.
In between sessions we played this cool game called Underground Ecclesia. Andrew and Yianni brought the game from their Ionian Village experience. Basically there are two teams, Romans and Christians. The majority of the group is Christians, with a handful of Roman guards. The Romans are trying to put the Christians in jail, while the Christians are trying to get to the secret location of an underground church. The game ends when either all the Christians are captured or they have made it safely to the church. Romans capture the Christians by tagging them and escorting them to a designated jail, not a real jail by the way; we used the basketball court. The catch is that two of the Roman guards are actually Christians in disguise and they are the only ones who know where the church is located. Christians have to whisper a secret password to the guard that catches them, and if he’s the secret Christian then he tells you how to find the church. Even if you find the church though, you still have to try and free your fellow Christians that are in jail. It’s a ton of fun, and you get great exercise while playing. I played the first game as a Christian, and I was exhausted after just one game. This was a great combination of history lesson with interactive components.
Hymns of Holy week and the Bridegroom Services
Our seminarian Yianni led the second session on Byzantine Hymnography. Yianni is a classically trained chanter and connected really well with the kids. We started off talking about Byzantine music and all the different modes, scales, and notes. Then he handed out lyrics to certain hymns and prayers of Holy Week. We focused primarily on the Bridegroom services and the theology behind the services. The parable of the ten virgins is a major theme of the service and we discussed the significance of preparedness and vigilance. Yianni made the connection to a Beetles Concert. It’s like we’re going to see the Beetles during Beetle mania and you bring your camera to record the show. During the show half the group runs out of batteries, while the other half brought extra batteries. So while you’re running out to buy more batteries, the group that brought extra batteries gets to go backstage for autographs, memorabilia, and signed guitars. You missed out, because you didn’t come prepared. One could raise more theological issues, but I thought it was an interesting way of connecting with the kids.
We concluded the service with learning two hymns. “Behold the bridegroom comes,” and “Praise the Lord.” We learned the first in English, which translates into, “Idou O Nymphios,” and the second we learned in both English and Greek. I heard kids humming the tunes all weekend after that session. I guarantee a handful of those kids will be asking their parents to take them to a Bridegroom service to see everything put together.
Bonfire and Awesomely Fun Skits
After dinner we all made our way down to a large bonfire pit with wooden benches for sitting. While I started the fire with another advisor, Andrew and Yianni led the kids in some Greek and English bonfire songs; the Greek ones were hilarious. After a little while of singing all the kids received S’more ingredients and we all roasted marshmallows and ate S’more by the fire. Then the Deacon divided the kids into four teams with the directions to create a short skit based on a saint or Bible passage. I had group number four and we picked the story from the Old Testament about the three youths saved from King Nebuchadnezzar. The kids came up with a hilarious modern rendition, complete with iPods, iPads, billboards, statues, fire, angels, and Jesus. After an hour of preparation the four teams came together to perform the skits for all parents, advisors, and GOYANS. The first group picked the Wedding of Cana, the second picked a story about Saint Dionysios, the third performed a story about Saint Christophoros, and we performed the last skit. Each skit was funnier than the next and all were laughing as well as learning about our Theology. We have some extremely talented teenagers in our community.
Devotionals and Great Vespers
The last phase of the night included devotionals which is a wrap up of the day and final thoughts before bed. In our group discussion the kids brought up really important things in their lives and some of the stuff with which they struggle. By this point everybody is super relaxed and comfortable with each other. These late night discussions can be really productive in talking about difficult issues and how the church helps us deal with them.
At 10:00 PM we finished the night with an abbreviated Great Service in the small chapel. The deacon and I led the service with the kids doing all the reading and chanting. Worship is such a huge role in our Orthodox faith, and the kids really came together as one body to offer prayers to God. Deacon Evagoras offered a few words after the service and we all went to bed with God on our minds and in our hearts.
Proskomide Demonstration and Divine Liturgy
The Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning was the climax and fulfillment of the entire weekend. We started Orthros at 7:30 AM and I can proudly say that one of our Saint Sophians came from the very beginning, good job Costa! We did a full Orthros and the kids read the psalms and even chanted some of the hymns with Yianni and Drew. After Orthros, before the Doxology we gathered all the kids around a central table in front of the Altar. I took a freshly baked prosphoro and showed the kids how we prepare the Holy Gifts every Sunday in the Altar. The Proskomide is a service that involves reading prayers and quotations from scripture while cutting specific portions out of the prosphoro. We read the prayers and discussed what each of them meant while I cut the pieces. At one point in the Proskomide, the priest commemorates all the deceased and living people in his life. For each person you put a crumb of bread on the paten.
I opened it up to the kids and advisors at that point and they all started saying out loud all the people that they love. They were bashful at first, but shortly the whole church was full of everybody that we love. There’s a good chance that you were included in our liturgy that Sunday morning. It was a moving moment to hear all the names of so many people that they hold dear. I watched their body language during the demonstration and everybody looked enthralled! Many of them had never witnessed this preparation that takes place every Sunday.
The Liturgy soon followed and I feel that it was one of the most peaceful and moving experiences of my life, not to mention my first solo Liturgy! The deacon and I worked together very well, and my few months as a deacon helped me better understand how to serve as a priest assisted by a deacon, though I still made a few mistakes. The kids were so attentive during the whole service, nearly three hours! I really believe that they were praying with an extra portion of love and enthusiasm; you could feel it in the air! Every single person in the chapel received Holy Communion and we all shared in the Body and Blood of Christ.