This year, I attended my first OCF retreat at St. Methodios Faith & Heritage Center in New Hampshire. I went along with 25 other college students from the Northeast region of the United States.
The retreat was held on a day that was brisk but not to the point where we were freezing. We lit fires every night, went hiking through the beautiful trails behind the camp, and participated in the intimacy of divine services, including Paraklesis, Vespers, and Liturgy.
The theme of the retreat was “Smell the Flowers: The Easy Path to the Kingdom”, and our service work was the perfectly unplanned task of landscaping; we planted flowers in front of the camp’s main dining hall.
The premise of the retreat was based off of a story from the book Wounded by Love, written by St. Porphyrios of Mount Athos. Briefly, St. Porphyrios was visiting the island of Patmos at the cave where St. John received the Revelation. He was overcome with grace and happiness from the Holy Spirit and wanted to escape in solitude to fully enjoy it, yet he couldn’t because of the amount of tourists surrounding him.
St. Porphyrios stepped away from the cave, in hopes to come back at a later time and experience the Holy Spirit once more. After returning to the cave, St. Porphyrios’ prayer felt dry and empty, and he did not feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. After stepping outside of the cave of Revelation, he decided to stop and smell the flowers.
He was overcome with awe and understanding when he contemplated the beauty and miracle of creation, which he experienced when he decided to take a moment to observe the flowers. St. Porphyrios came to an understanding at that time that God does not work on our time – He works in His time.
Initially, I was nervous to go on the OCF retreat, as I am currently a catechumen for the Orthodox Church and always felt as though I knew less than those around me – those already established in their faith and knowledge of the Church. To my surprise, there were other catechumens and many other converts.
The first night those who were raised within the Orthodox Church, those who have converted to the Orthodox Church, and those going through catechumenate stayed up until hours of the morning talking about our individual journeys in Orthodoxy.
This was the first time since deciding to be a part of the Church that I was surrounded by peers who were as passionate, enthusiastic, and so inspirational with their faith in Orthodoxy as I was. Conversations of faith were like wildfire that just kept burning. In the beginning, I thought to myself, “How could I be involved in these conversations of faith when there is SO much I still don’t know?”
I was comforted by the story of St. Porphyrios. Before coming a saint, before becoming a shepherd of God, he had a second-grade education. One thing I learned on this retreat is that it’s okay to not know everything and, in a sense, we will never know everything. We are all on a continuous journey, and we all have much to learn.
This post was written by Samantha Fricke, a student at the University of Binghamton. She is a senior studying psychology.
Have you ever met someone and just felt at home? Yes? Well, have you ever met a group of people and felt the same way within 48 hours? Most people don’t. And yet, at all the OCF retreats that I’ve been to, I have found this to be a common theme.
These retreats are great because you get to learn more about your faith and, at the same time, connect with people who have the same core values as you. At the past Northeast Regional Retreat, which I attended from March 3rd-5th, I learned more about “Breathing Underwater: Yearning for Stillness and Communion.” Living as a college student on a college campus, it can definitely feel as if you are underwater. Many of the things that surround you do not revolve around Christ, or the Church, and much even defies the Church’s teachings. It can be hard to practice your faith while constantly being in this environment. Furthermore, it can be difficult to find other Orthodox students on campus who share your beliefs.
By being in an Orthodox setting, surrounded by Orthodox students my age for about three days straight, I was truly able to get to the surface. As I listened to Deacon Tishel’s talks and had amazing fellowship with the other students, I was finally able to gulp in the fresh air after having to hold my breath for so long. I cherish these retreats very much, as they are a way to re-energize my soul before having to re-enter the cold water.
When I go back to campus after the retreats and feel my head becoming enclosed by water again, I know that I will have the strength to breath underwater. I know that I can rely on my faith and the Church to help guide me through the currents, and the people that I’ve met at the retreats to lend me some oxygen when I think I am starting to run out.
I am very thankful for Orthodox Christian Fellowship and the retreats that they offer. A big thank you to Spyridoula Fotinis and Elias Pappas for organizing this last retreat. You guys did an amazing job! I can’t wait for the next one!
Every month, the OCF social media platforms will be featuring one of the nine regions of chapters. January is the month for the Northeast Region, which includes the wonderful states of Vermont, Massachusetts (congrats Pats fans), Rhode Island, Maine, the provinces of western Ontario and Quebec, and the brand spankin’ New Hampshire, York, and Jersey.
On the blog, I’ll be asking the Regional Student Leader–for Northeast, the indomitable Spyridoula Fotinis–for a few names of people in their region who are absolutely rockin’ it. It’s an opportunity for every region to showcase and share that which makes them unique and awesome, and hopefully all the regions can learn from and grow with each other.
So, without further ado, your Northeast All-Stars!
Stephanie Katartzis, Chapter President, University of Rhode Island
My name is Stephanie Katartzis. I grew up in Bethpage, New York and am currently a sophomore in a six-year pharmacy program at the University of Rhode Island. I am the president of the OCF for my chapter– one that was just freshly formed (yay!). However, this semester you can catch me studying abroad in Rhodes, Greece!
How did you get involved in OCF?
Entering college as a freshman, I was disappointed to find out that my school did not have an OCF chapter, nor an Orthodox Christian Church that was easily accessible without a car. I was determined to find other students on the same boat, and I also reached out to the parish members from the nearest Orthodox Church, St. Spyridon. Through God’s works, I found several other students motivated to start an organization on campus, and I was blessed to meet families that were more than willing to give me and the other students rides to church. Now, coming into my sophomore year, we have close to ten active members and a dedicated, amazing advisor, Fr. John.
What are some of your greatest memories/experiences from OCF?
College Conference East 2015 played a big part in inspiring me to start an OCF chapter on my campus. There is nothing more satisfying than being immersed in tons of fun events and enlightening workshops with close to 300 other students of the same faith. Chartering a chapter at my school was my way of bringing a piece of CCEast back with me.
Nick Cizin, Chapter Member/Treasurer, Seton Hall University
I’m a freshman accounting major at Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business. In my free time, I enjoy playing on Seton Hall’s Men’s Club Ice Hockey team, watching sports, and fishing. I intend on being the treasurer at Seton Hall’s OCF chapter.
Tell us about your OCF story.
I got involved in OCF after I joined a Coptic Orthodox group at Seton Hall, called Seton Hall Orthodox Fellowship, thinking it was OCF. I then proceeded to find the Seton Hall’s OCF chapter, only to find out the club’s creation had been halted last year. Because Seton Hall is a Catholic university, all religious clubs must be approved by campus ministry, and campus ministry did not see a need for two Orthodox clubs, as the Coptic Orthodox club had already been formed. I met with the students that tried to form the chapter last year, and still we had no solution to this problem. Fortunately, about halfway through the first semester luck turned our way as we discovered there was a new director of campus ministry. We are in the process meeting with the new director, and can only pray he is more open to the idea of having two Orthodox clubs on campus.
As of now, Seton Hall is without a chapter, but graciously enough, president of New Jersey’s County College of Morris chapter, Spyridoula Fotinis, has invited Seton Hall students to join in their chapter’s activities. I would like to thank her, on behalf of all Seton Hall OCF students, for this.
Since our OCF chapter is in the process of forming, I would actually appreciate any tips from treasurers in other OCF chapter treasurers. You can contact me at email@example.com.
What positive experience have you had with OCF?
My favorite OCF experience thus far was College Conference, hands down. I enjoyed College Conference so much because of the people I was able to meet. I met Orthodox students from all different ethnic backgrounds, and got a taste of their cultures, like I never had before. I also surprisingly met students from Seton Hall that I had never met before. Finally, I met lots of wonderful people that were willing to lend advice and support in regard to the issues we are having with campus ministry. Other students, whose OCF chapters share their school with similar Coptic Orthodox clubs, offered advice on keeping a positive relationship with them. I even got a chance to speak to His Grace, Bishop Gregory, who was more than happy to assist in our OCF chapter’s creation, should we encounter problems with the new director of campus ministry.
Eleni Florakis, OCF President, Binghamton University
Hi! I’m Eleni Florakis and I’m a pre-med senior, majoring in Integrative Neuroscience and minoring in Global Studies. I’m originally from New Rochelle, NY but currently attend Binghamton University, where I am President of the OCF there. In my free time I enjoy playing piano and flute (which I also play in the Binghamton University Orchestra), running, hiking, playing intramural volleyball, reading, and travelling.
OCF story! Go!
I first heard of OCF from my older brother and was super excited to join in my freshman year. However, when I got to Binghamton University, I was disappointed to find out that OCF did not exist on Binghamton’s campus. That is when it became my mission to start a chapter. Starting out was definitely rough, and it was hard to find the time to devote to this worthy cause. Because of this, it took a couple of tries, but the persistence was definitely worth it. I am very excited to say that Binghamton University’s OCF is now in the process of getting officially chartered by the school!
Anything cool going on in Binghamton you’d like to share?
Something cool that goes on throughout the semester that our OCF helps out with is a Community Meal Service at St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Downtown Binghamton. This occurs every Monday of the week, where over 100 community members come to enjoy a hot, three-course meal. Our OCF students help with setting up, serving food, cleaning up, and conversing with the community members. It’s a very humbling experience and a great way to serve our community!
Would you like to share any advice with someone else striving to start an OCF chapter?
My advice is to never give up! I know it can be disheartening at first to try and find enough members to become an active club, but don’t worry. With some prayer and determination, it will all eventually work out and more members will join!
Justine Younes, Chapter President, Queen’s University
Hi, my name is Justine Younes and I am a fourth year Engineering Chemistry student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario Canada. I am also the Chapter President/Co-Founder of Queen’s OCF, which we started just two-and-a-half years ago, and our chapter has already grown to twelve regular members. Glory be to God! Something cool about our chapter is that we only became an official school club THIS year (WOO!), so you can say we’ve been like the “underground Queen’s OCF” for two years, and had to get our OCF faculty member, a professor at our school, to book our rooms for us! Shoutout to Dr. Ana Siljak <3
Yes! Canada! We love Canada! Tell us about your OCF story.
After my first year in University, I remember feeling like something was missing from my life. Growing up I was always involved in Teen SOYO and loved being super involved in the church, but once I moved away for school, I never thought I would miss it that much. Well, one “hitchhike to church because I didn’t think 5km was a long walk and I didn’t want to miss Liturgy” later, I quickly realized how much I needed the church in my life. I had heard of OCF from my church community, so I knew that’s what was I wanted at Queen’s, I just didn’t know how to do it. So when the first Sunday of my second year rolled around, and I noticed a kid my age in the small St. Gregory of Nyssa mission church, I knew exactly that it was meant to be. He (Victor) was a first year at Queen’s University, and when I mentioned OCF to him, he immediately expressed his interest and enthusiasm to the idea! How God works! There was also a new priest, Fr. Mathew, who came that year to do his PhD at Queen’s, and he was very willing to be the spiritual adviser of our group! How God works again! And then our lovely faculty member (Ana, who was mentioned earlier) booked a room for us every week! So, by the will of God and through His many blessings, our underground OCF chapter began.
Awesome. Anything cool you’d like to share?
Every year, the OCF chapters in our area take a trip to a monastery in Montreal for a chance to visit and meet other students in OCF at other schools. It is something our chapter always looks forward to, and it is so special and important for people our age to visit monasteries and to explore the other path that God has laid down for us. It is also just the most beautiful place to find peace and refuge from the world, which is ideal for retreat settings and meeting and connecting to other students that are struggling in the faith and in the same situation as yourself.
What a time to be alive! College Conference registration is OPEN! Real Break registration is OPEN! And finally, Regional Retreat registration is–you guessed it–OPEN!
The comprehensive list of Regional Retreats currently scheduled and open for registration (did you hear? Registration is OPEN!) can be found on the OCF Events page right here.
To tell you a little more about what Regional Retreats are and why you should go, I’d like to introduce to you your very own Regional Student Leader! If you’re unsure in which region you live, check out this handy-dandy map right here!
Red – Northwest
Dark Blue – Southwest
Yellow – Mountain
Light Blue – Midwest
Dark Green – South
Pink – Great Lakes
Orange – Southeast
Light Green – Mid-Atlantic
Purple – Northeast
Please get in contact with your RSL–they’re here for you and built to make your life awesome.
If you’ve attended a Regional Retreat and have a story you’d like to share, I’d LOVE to feature it on the blog. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll set you up.
Without further ado–here are your RSLs, and their thoughts on Regional Retreats!
1. So, what exactly is a Regional Retreat? Like, what happens?
A Regional Retreat is an event that brings Orthodox college students (and those inquiring about the Faith) together for a wholesome weekend of discussion, fellowship, service, and worship. Students of all jurisdictions come from around the entire region to meet friends, offer work for the Glory of God through a service project, and most importantly worship together as the body of Christ.
– Niko Wilk, Southeast Regional Student Leader
2. So why should I go?
You should go because it is such a NEEDED break from your school work. Also, it is a good way to be spiritually renewed and regain your energy for the rest of the semester. Another bonus is that you get to meet some incredible people who are going through similar life experiences as you, and I mean, who doesn’t like more Orthodox Christian friends?
– Rachel Howanetz, Mid-Atlantic Regional Student Leader
3. What makes regional retreats special, unique? Why are they different from my regular OCF chapter meeting?
So you can find an Orthodox spouse!!!!!! HAHA jk Ben don’t put that in the blog.
(Yeah, okay Nicole.)
If there’s one piece of advice I have to offer, it is not to let your college OCF chapter become your only experience with Orthodoxy in college. Retreats such as this one can introduce you to the wide world of OCF that exists outside of your comfort zone at school. Boris Pasternak once wrote that unshared happiness is not happiness – and I think to a certain extent the same can be said for one’s faith life. Come to the Midwest regional retreat to take a breather from school, meet new friends, and rejuvenate your faith life.
– Nicole Petrow, Midwest Regional Student Leader
4. What was the best regional retreat you’ve ever attended? What made it so good?
The best retreat I ever attended was in Syracuse, NY. The speakers were really great, but what made it meaningful for me was the priest’s advice of how to deal with a very difficult professor who tested my own faith. I came back equipped with the right tools of patience and prayer, plus all the ethnic dances were quite a workout and a lot of fun!
– Sypridoula Fotinis, Northeast Regional Student Leader
5. Okay, in 1-6 words, why will your regional retreat be the best in the country?
Incredible retreat center and awesome speakers! LITURGICAL. ARTS. Need I say more? We have a nature walk! Because Christ is at the center! It’s in the mountains of Colorado. Faith, Friends, and Fun! Abbot Tryphon will be speaking! It brings us love at home. TEXAS.
6. How has a regional retreat changed your life?
Even as a Regional Student Leader, I haven’t been to one yet. This will be the first retreat in the Northwest Region. Planning it has been a blessing to realize that I can do things that scare me when I’m with Christ.
– David Munkres, Northwest Regional Student Leader
7. Funniest story ever from a regional retreat–go!
[This one time at the OCF retreat, (please omit this section) NOPE!] Our group sat around a table and a waitress asks us if we would like desert. Then the priest says, “Orange whip? Orange whip?” quoting the Blues Brothers. I immediately began cracking up, then we look around and realize that no one understood the reference but us.
– Spiro Morris, Great Lakes Regional Student Leader
8. Why did you want to become a Regional Student Leader and start organizing these retreats?
I wanted to become a Regional Student Leader because when I started college, I didn’t have any Orthodox friends on campus, there was no OCF chapter on campus, and the closest church was 45 minutes away and a lot of the time, the road was closed so I couldn’t make it over in the winter. I decided to start a chapter at my university and it is finally almost in place!
I didn’t know about the Mountain Regional Retreat until two months after it had taken place. I knew that I really could have benefited from attending this retreat and that is a very large reason why I because a regional leader…to help get the word out about the regional retreat and let other OCF students know the benefits from attending.
– Quinn Marquadt, Mountain Regional Student Leader
9. Okay, what if I can’t make it on the weekend it’s scheduled? Are there other things for me to do?
On this particular weekend the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco is also having their annual fall young adult retreat. That will be held at the Monastery in Dunlap, CA. Otherwise, definitely contact me to see how you can get involved, whether it be at a local chapter, or remotely! There are always opportunities for you to grow in Christ– and I encourage you to take these opportunities. You will be so happy you did.
– Markayla Stroubakis, Southwest Regional Student Leader
10. Any other advice/info?
GET INVOLVED! YOU’RE NEVER TOO COOL FOR JESUS AND FREE PIZZA.
– Kathrine Sackllah, South Regional Student Leader
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.