A little over a year ago, I spent my spring break in New Orleans helping to rebuild in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. This was through the OCF (Orthodox Christian Fellowship) program "Real Break". My time spent in New Orleans was very inspiring. A year had passed and I was blessed to be able to go on another Real Break trip--this one to Greece. If I could sum up the trip in two words, they would be "life-changing"!
This trip to Greece was life changing in ways that were both similar and different to my New Orleans experience. In New Orleans, I saw destruction caused by a natural disaster being rebuilt through aid and hard work. In Greece, I saw Churches once covered with icons on every square inch of the walls, covered in black soot. Many of the Icons had been desecrated and were now being repaired. It was life changing in more ways than I can explain. From seeing beautifully painted icons that have withstood wars and time itself to numerous miraculous icons and relics of Saints, to monasteries built upon 373 meter high rock formations, to seeing columns holding up a Church built in 400 A.D.
Alongside of me were 22 other Orthodox students from all over the United States working together for the glory of God. I've never developed such a close bond with people I've never known in such a short period of time. In addition to the student workers, were nuns, monks, a priest and a local construction company that donated its time and workers to help.
The main objective of the trip was to assist a number of monasteries, most of which were hundreds of years old. We worked on many different jobs at each. Arriving first at the Sacred Monastery of the Exaltation of the Cross, I was handed both a miner's pick and an ax to help tear down a mobile home structure to scrap the metal. The sisters once lived there while their main housing structure was being built. After two days of tearing the structure down and scraping the insulation off, as well as laying cement and doing other small jobs, we moved onto the beautiful monastery of St. George. This is one of the most beautiful monasteries in the country. Here, a miraculous spring gushed forth from the ground where beforehand there was no water, and a beautiful forest grows where a monk long ago planted trees from another part of the world. Now, this monastery is the only place in the world these trees exist! The sisters explained to us that students with a certain degree in science travel to the monastery just to see them. Here, I helped with moving and organizing areas and rooms that they couldn't have done without the extra help.
Half of the team stayed at St. George's while the other half worked at the Sacred Monastery of the Twelve Apostles locally known as Red Church. The name came from the remembrance of the precious blood shed by the numerous martyrs from the Turkish invasions. Here, the team helped paint the walls of the monastery.
Real Break 2008 was one of the most fulfilling trips I've ever been on. My expectations were met and far surpassed. I left for my trip only with images I've seen in books and on the internet of what a monastery would look like overseas. While much of the team's time was spent in the women's monasteries where we stayed, we also visited the men's monastery Moni Petras. This monastery houses a miraculous icon of the Theotokos and a historic icon associated with St. Luke. We were able to venerate the relics of 5 Saints and numerous miraculous icons. We saw ancient vestments and chalices, as well as hand carved wooden icon screens and altars. Even with all of this, the most memorable aspect of the trip was the love shown to me from the monastics and priests, as well as my teammates. It was truly the highlight of the trip.
In traveling to Greece on my spring break, I was able to see love in action on a very deep and selfless level. We complimented the sisters and offered our thanks to them but they always responded with "thank God" rather than "no problem" or "anytime." They would ask us all the time if we needed anything and would bring us water or soda or Greek coffee while we were working. It was very humbling.
Real Break was life changing, mentally and spiritually. I couldn't help finding myself thinking of how comparable it was to my time spent at Camp Nazareth. From being surrounded by trees and fields (in among the mountains), to working together with other Orthodox Christians with the goal of glorifying God, to truly experiencing a love, joy and connection amongst ourselves like no other. Like Camp director Fr. Michael Ellis says, "at Camp Nazareth, time slows down." A week spent working and living in these monasteries felt like a month. Each day I was surprised with how much we had accomplished and the sense of peace I felt within me. One day, I realized and exclaimed, "we've been drinking holy water this whole week!" One of the nuns overheard and responded, "that's how we roll!" It was fantastic! God willing, I plan to attend another Real Break trip next year.
Reader Jonathan Bannon