What do you get when 10 young adults representing six different OCFs in five states and 11 nuns hailing from Kansas to Berlin spend the weekend together in close quarters? In preparation for Great Lent, the Cornell OCF and friends from Upstate NY, Manhattan, New Jersey, Virginia, and West Virginia, journeyed to the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA for a long-anticipated weekend retreat for a chance to rejuvenate, a chance to re-establish a lost connection with Christ, and a chance to go back to taking on the world.
Everyone arrived at sunset on Friday evening and celebrated Vespers before partaking of a wonderful fish dinner, complements of the local firemen and the nuns. This was a rare treat for the monastery, permitted by a timely fast-free week going from the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee to that of the Prodigal Son. After a delicious meal, it was time for introductions. The Very Reverend Mother Christophora, the abbess of the monastery and the spiritual leader of the community, threw a curve ball and had each nun introduce the sister to their left. Despite being put on the spot, the nuns did an outstanding job and said only the nice things (by request). This was a delight to witness and set the tone for the entire weekend: one of openness, laughter, and just simply being.
Later that evening, Mother Paula gave us a tour of the grounds and taught us about the monastery’s founder, Mother Alexandra, also known as Princess Ileana of Romania. The men even had the privilege of staying in her former house! Saturday was our only full day at the monastery. It began with Commemorations to St. Raphael of Brooklyn throughout Divine Liturgy, followed by brunch where Mother Christophora read us a reflection on the psalm “By the Waters of Babylon” which is sung at Matins in the weeks preceding Great Lent to remind us that our true home is in the heavenly Jerusalem, and not the Babylon of this world. Great Lent is a return home. One of the highlights was singing this hauntingly beautiful hymn together with the nuns at Saturday evening Vigil. In between the morning and evening services, we spent our free time exploring the trails around the monastery, including the cemetery where Mother Alexandra, Fr. Thomas Hopko, and several other faithful are laid to rest.
We were very blessed to have many wonderful conversations with the nuns throughout the weekend. Casey Garland (Cornell OCF) reflected, “The nuns were very open with us, answering our many questions about their lives (how they became nuns and what life in the monastery was like), providing us with guidance and practical tips for growing closer to God.” Each conversation yielded spiritual gems. An older priestmonk who frequents the monastery said that we must always say to the Lord, “Take my life in your hands.” And, “If we ask sincerely, God will always help us.” Mother Karitina challenged us to never shy away from our faith, saying that “we must always fight for our freedom.”
On Sunday morning, after celebrating the Akathist “Glory to God for All Things” and then the Divine Liturgy where we commemorated the return of the Prodigal Son and received the Eucharist, we had the pleasure of one last meal together. Mother Magdalena brought us to tears with her own story of returning home after losing everything, including her faith, during her turbulent college and young adult years. She reminded us that the Orthodox Christian Faith is not about an idea, but about a person: the person of Jesus Christ. And prayer is the means by which we develop our relationship with Him. Mother Magdalena warned us against approaching prayer as we would a skill to be mastered. Prayer is not like riding a bike or building a bridge. You don’t simply learn how to do it and then you’ve mastered it. Nobody can teach us to pray except for the Holy Spirit. In order to keep our prayer and our hearts pure, we must follow the Holy Fathers and “deflect unwanted thoughts with the flick of the will before they bite the heart.” As Saint Paisios says, “If you pay attention to them [thoughts], you create an airport inside your head and permit them to land.” Satisfied by this enriching discussion and Sister Helene’s scrumptious cookies (which also kept us awake on the long ride home), we set out into the glorious 60 degree sunshine to pack and to say our goodbyes. In addition to the cookies, each of us received an embroidered pouch of soil from St. Herman’s grave courtesy of Mother Galina, as well as some other generous gifts from the monastery.
Mother Christophora and the sisters of the Monastery of the Transfiguration are masters of hospitality whose love for each other, for their guests, and for Christ is evident in everything that they do. Spyridoula reflected on her experience, “What surprised me the most was how welcoming, hospitable, and downright funny all the mothers and sisters were and how much they are like you and me. Sometimes, it is easy to think that the people in cassocks are worlds apart from our lives. But they are not. They help us through prayer, through their advice, and through their smiles and humor.” It is difficult to taste of this “fountain of refreshment” and not be transfigured. We are thankful beyond words for our time spent there. It appears that the retreat is already bearing fruit, as two freshman undergraduates who attended are in the process of starting new OCF chapters at Morris County Community College and Coldwell University respectively. One has reached small group status while the other is struggling to get off the ground. Providentially, their OCF district student leader, Janine Alpaugh, was also in attendance and was able to provide them with connections, resources, and suggestions from other chapters. God always provides!
While the time we spent in Ellwood City was brief, it was full of rest, laughter, and direction. “There are some moments that should never pass away. What is glimpsed in them should never end. That it does end, and, even more, that it is only experienced momentarily anyway, this is the real sadness of human existence.” These words, taken from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Eschatology: Death and Life Eternal were used by Daniel Stauffer (Cornell OCF) to summarize our weekend at the monastery. “What was glimpsed there should have never ended,” Daniel concluded. Simeon (Morris CC OCF) reflected on the weekend by sharing “This weekend I can truly say that I grew closer to God. The services allowed singing, ultimately resulting in a truly personal connection with Christ which engulfed me in prayer.” As we enter joyfully into the Great Fast and head towards the glorious Light of Pascha, perhaps it is only beginning.
This article was co-authored by the OCFers in attendance, Gregory Fedorchak, Janine Alpaugh, Casey Garland, Daniel Stauffer, Spyridoula Fotinis, and Simeon Brasowski. Simeon Brasowksi took all the pictures.