People who attend Camp Nazareth, Antiochian Village, or College Conference tend to say the same thing: the most recent year they attended was the best year yet. Meeting new people, forming stronger bonds and living life in Christ are all reasons the campers love each year more and more. That was the case this year for the OCF College Conference East retreat held at Antiochian Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania.
Somehow (but I don’t know how) I feel this year’s College Conference by comparison to last year’s helped me grow more spiritually and gave me a greater sense of fellowship in Christ. Last year, wasn't the best experience for some of us “Carpies” (the nickname given to the Carpatho Rusyn students who attended). We were the minority of college students who attended, and we had the mindset coming into it that “Oh these kids have been camping together for many years, they already have their groups of friends, they won’t want to bother with a few random kids from a denomination they have never heard of before.” We could not have been more wrong! I found out this year the students I did not know, and that I thought would not be interested in the way we practice and live our faith, were actually very interested in the ways (some similar, some different) we live our one Orthodox Faith.
The biggest difference they were VERY interested in was the way we sing our services, that is our melodies and chants. This really expresses part of the richness of our Orthodox Faith. We sing many of the same hymns. It is the same theology expressed in the hymns. And yet we have this incredible variety of melodies and chants among the many students at the Conference. The Greek and Antiochian students had byzantine chants (but not the same melodies), while our students have what we explained was Plain Chant. Normally, after evening matins, after all others have left the chapel, the students willingly stay to sing to Our Lord and His Most Holy Mother. If you have never gotten chills from listening to church singing before, you have not experienced something as beautiful as what we experience at College Conference. Listening to 300 college students singing, with their whole heart, “Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride” and then singing together with them was truly amazing. The gentlemen hitting the lower ison, while some more experienced singers harmonizing with everyone made this part of the days bone chilling in the best sense of that expression.
Eventually, after 2 or 3 hours, most of the students would leave to wind down for the day by just sitting together and talking, but there would always be a few that would keep singing, some of which were “the Plain Chanters”. When others would stop, we would step in and sing our beautiful plain chant hymns. As last year, we were a minority, but we found out that our voices could fill that chapel as well, though there were fewer of us. From the moment we began “Do Not Forsake us” to the moment we finished, EVERYONES eyes were glued on us, almost like we put them in a trance. I think the most beautiful part of all the singing we did is this: For all of us (Greek, Antiochian, Carpatho Rusyn, Ukranian, etc.) it is the same Mary, the Most Holy Mother of God, and we ALL honor her by singing to her and of her…and yet…there is this incredible and beautiful variety in the melodies and chants we use to glorify her. We offered them to her, but I think as college students we also offered that variety to one another as an expression of our one common and beloved Orthodox Faith.
When we “Plain Chanters” stopped singing we actually had people compliment us saying “that was the most beautiful thing they had ever heard.” One student even asked if we were a performing a Capella group.
The next night the weeping icons of the Mother of God from our parish in Taylor, Pennsylvania were brought to the College Conference. I can honestly say that the atmosphere in the chapel was INTENSE. 300 College Students so quiet you could hear a pin drop. All waiting for and watching St. Mary. The best part about it: you could FEEL the love flowing out of the Kardiotissa. Maybe Mary has a special place in her heart for College Students and for the struggle they have to maintain their faith. And then it hit me, “I love my Faith.” And that means I love our Most Holy Mother. Now don't get me wrong, I have been Orthodox my whole life, have attended church weekly, and my grandfather is even a priest. For some reason however, I've always felt like I've been “going through the motions” instead of fully living the faith. In that chapel, at that moment, I broke down in tears of joy realizing fully in that moment my love for Christ. All of this made me think of how blessed I am to have been born into such a beautiful family, to be blessed with good health and talent, and to have been given so many opportunities in life.
( Editor's Note: This is where Philip ended his article. His writing brought me to tears because he wrote powerfully, with feeling, expressing not just what happened at the College Conference, but what impact it had on him that he could perceive. I would simply offer that in the article you can see what I will call an “awakening”. An awakening to a deeper sense of God in his life, to a deeper sense of belief, to a deeper understanding (not academic) of his faith. The Conference experience led Philip to gratitude, to be grateful to God for his life. That’s seemingly very simple, but that gratitude to God of eludes us. When the heart is ready, our Lord will fill it with inexpressible joy. To his credit, I think Philip expressed that joy powerfully. Like other college students, while the world is opening up to him in all areas of academics, in expanding circles of friends, in areas of rapidly changing technology, it is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL that he be given the opportunity to deepen his spiritual life and world, to feel powerfully the hand of God on his heart and to know the deep love Christ and His Mother Mary have for him. And by extension (and we can see this clearly in his article), he will know his love for Christ, Mary, our Orthodox Faith, and for the family through whom this has come to him. In my heart, I know this to be the gift of God through College Conference because it is the same gift given by God at Camp. This is an essential part of our ministry to our children and we are grateful for the generous gift given by an anonymous donor whose generosity allowed our students to attend the Conference this year.)
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