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.
In addition to topical discussions and Bible study, we think reading a book (or excerpts from a book) as part of your OCF meetings is a great way to grow spiritually and start a great discussion! Here are a few of our favorite books that we think you could read as a chapter. They’re great for reading as part of your own prayer rule or during a lenten period, too. Click on the images to purchase the books on Amazon!
The Way of the Pilgrim
Length: 264 pages
What you can expect: An unnamed Russian pilgrim hears in church one day that he should, “pray without ceasing,” so he travels around on foot seeking wisdom on how to pray, specifically the Jesus Prayer
Why you should read it: The Way of the Pilgrim is a great introduction to the Jesus Prayer. It teaches you how to begin to pray not only in a monastic setting, but in many manners of living. Plus, it’s all told in an easy-to-read narrative style that feels like you’re reading a novel.
The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It
Author: St. Theophan the Recluse
Length: 320 pages
What you can expect: Short letters from St. Theophan to a young woman about how to cultivate her inner life and live virtuously amidst the worldliness and debauchery of the society around her
Why you should read it: St. Theophan is basically writing to a college student, and his advice is practical while challenging you to really take stock of who you are and why you do the things you do. It’s also great because the letters are super short–you could read one or two during a meeting, and even if you didn’t make it through the whole book, it would be worth it!
Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives
Author: Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica
Length: 212 pages
What you can expect: The biography and teachings of Elder Thaddeus, a 20th century elder from Serbia who emphasizes how important our thoughts are to our entire spiritual life and outlook on others
Why you should read it: Elder Thaddeus has a great way of focusing our attention on how the demons misdirect us by influencing our thoughts and how we can reorient ourselves toward Christ through prayer. It’s great for a chapter book study because his teachings are organized by topic, so you could choose a particular one to focus on for a few weeks like “On Thoughts” or “On Love.”
Wounded by Love
Author: St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalivia
Length: 253 pages
What you can expect: The biography and teachings of one of the most recently canonized saints with tons of practical advice on prayer and dealing with difficult situations as well as lots of amazing miracle stories
Why you should read it: St. Porphyrios died in 1991, so the people he counsels throughout the book are not too different from you and me! His message of gentleness encompasses both our treatment of others and also our own spiritual lives. Like Elder Thaddeus, he covers a variety of topics in short sections so you can pick and choose what to read if you can’t cover the whole book in a semester.
Fr. Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father
Author: Alexander (last name not given)
Length: 277 pages
What you can expect: An incredible biography of a priest living in a Soviet prison camp
Why you should read it: Few other books can describe the life of a saint perfected through suffering like this one. This book is packed with the miraculous and transformative work of an incredible spiritual father. His love and devotion to God and to others, no matter their station, personality, or sins all in the midst of his own great suffering will inspire you to follow in his footsteps.