Throughout the weekend of February 5th to the 7th, I had the blessing of participating in the OCF South Region Retreat which took place at Sts. Constantine & Helen Church in Dallas, TX. This retreat was spiritually uplifting and reassuring. As college students, we get put in many situations that have tested our faith constantly, and to be surrounded by friends-old and new- sharing our experiences, I spent the weekend learning how to approach these situations through prayer, gospel reading, love and understanding toward others.
Our retreat began on Friday evening with ice breakers and getting to know each other, followed by our first discussion with our speaker, Christina Andresen, who opened up the talk with two thought provoking questions, “What is faith?” and “What are the biggest challenges to my faith?” One of the beautiful quotes from the topic was “Faith is remembering God is with you for all the times that He is not.” It is very easy as a college student to let fear of the struggle get to you–as a human beings in general–but one of the most important things from this weekend was learning that we don’t have to fear the challenges God presents us with. We should accept them and be thankful for them for they are like a fire that purifies us to help us grow more in Him. Throughout these challenges God is not testing our faith, He is calling us to Him.
We learned humility is the antidote to inner struggle as we accept where we are and who we are in that moment. We then tackled the topic of outer struggle where, just as said in 1 Peter, “No matter what happens, if you want to follow Christ there will be struggles from the outside.” The antidote for the outer struggle is to be steadfast in love and obedient. Don’t let the outer struggle take you off the path, you should always focus on the path and keep your eyes on Heaven. God calls us in moments of doubt and we should remember to always ask, “How are You drawing me closer to You?” through the times where He presents us with our challenges. The night then ended with evening prayers and enjoyment of being in each other’s company.
On Saturday morning, we had our second discussion with Christina which surrounded the topic of prayer. How do we pray? How do we learn to mean our prayers? Do we have to pray a certain way? As more and more stories were told, great advice was given on how to approach prayer. We learned how to grow in prayer, how your prayer life can also change when you form a relationship with your patron saint or a saint you relate with that has been through what you are personally going through and has already reached the finish line. Prayer exists in many little things, from our words to our actions, especially when they are done from the heart. Take small steps in growing in prayer, have sincerity and set aside quiet time; whether it be in the car, your bedroom, on a run, or wherever it is you can find peace to be with God. Small meaningful prayer can take you a long way.
After our discussion, we were blessed with having too many people so we split up for two separate service projects at Promise House, a home for kids who are struggling at home or don’t have a home, and Austin Street Shelter, which is a homeless shelter and a place that collects clothes for those in need. I had the opportunity to go to Promise House and hang out with some of the coolest kids I have ever met while playing board games and eating pizza. The children living at the home have been through a lot, some there because they had no other place to go, others because their families struggled with having them at home for the time being–and even then, these kids had some of the biggest and brightest smiles on their faces. The innocence of God working through His children was so prominent and was a reminder that whatever God decides to put you through, there is always something to smile about. These children had a beautiful hope in them and carried a strong love in their hearts, hanging out with them was so fun and such a blessing.
Saturday evening, we had Great Vespers, and as always, hearing the voices of all the OCFers singing and chanting along was so beautiful, my heart was so elated and the blessings just kept growing, God is SO GOOD. Later in the evening we had evening prayers which then were followed by chanting in the church with dim lighting until about 2:00 AM.
Our retreat came to a close after Liturgy on Sunday morning where we all finally came together and said our very temporary goodbyes. By the time I got back to my little apartment in College Station, Texas, preparing for the following school day, all I could think about was Glory be to God for all good things.
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” –Romans 5:3-5
Valerie Hanna is a sophomore at Blinn Junior College and will be transferring to Texas A&M University this fall as a Telecommunication Media Studies Major. She loves to read, write, sing, attend concerts, sketch, go on adventures, learn new things and be all around goofy. Her home parish is St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Houston, TX but she attends St. Silouan Orthodox Church in College Station, TX where she teaches Sunday School, sings with the choir and is an OCF officer for their TAMU/Blinn chapter.