Australian and New Zealand 7th Annual Russian Orthodox Teen Retreat

Forty five teenagers aged 13-17 travelled from all over Australia to attend the 7th Annual Russian Orthodox Teen Retreat held this year from December 17-22 at Stanwell Tops Conference Centre.

Hosted this year by the Sydney Parishes, the retreat was also attended by local and visiting clergy, guest speakers and supervisors.

“This is the best time!” commented one teen. “It’s wonderful to get together like this and share our Orthodoxy in an enjoyable setting!” This sentiment was echoed many times during the week as the teens enjoyed relevant spiritual talks, swimming, sports activities, guest talks, workshops and informal talks. Rousing games of bubble soccer were memorable, as was the table tennis tournament!

The week began on Sunday afternoon as attendees began arriving and settling into their accommodation surrounded by lush Australian bushland, wildlife and beautiful views. After a welcoming Moleben and dinner in the evening the teens engaged in lively ice-breakers and quickly generated a warm and inclusive atmosphere which was much appreciated by all and especially newcomers to the annual retreats. The weather held well except for one dramatic storm and showers which was enjoyable when viewed from a mountain top!

Father Andrew Smith from Brisbane began the talks on Monday with an in-depth look as the first part of the Creed where he clarified the meaning of the words we speak at every service. He pointed out that the many analogies surrounding the Holy Trinity must be taken as approximations only as it is entirely reasonable that we cannot fully understand the nature of God. He described the historical controversies surrounding the understanding of the Holy Trinity, giving the young audience much information that would help them strengthen and defend their faith. Father Vladimir Boikov from Auckland, NZ, followed up with a talk on the second part of the Creed adding further clarity and also stressing the need for all to know the Creed by heart in both Russian and English. He spoke about his parish in Auckland where the majority of parishioners had recently arrived from Russia so for them, English was a second language and they had to come to terms with living in an English-speaking country. Lunch was followed by recreational activities which included making the most of the on-site swimming pool.

Workshops were held later in the afternoon, including a workshop on the sacrament of confession given by Father George Lapardin, a bible study workshop by Father Andrew, an appreciation of the process of Holy Communion by protodeacon Alexander Abramoff and a self-knowledge workshop by Nadia Crittenden. The teenagers attended the workshops in four groups rotating from one to the next. The prayers for Holy Communion were spaced out through the day in preparation for Liturgy on Tuesday. Dinner was followed by Matins and quiet, informal get-togethers.

The spiritual highlight of the retreat was the Tuesday morning Liturgy held in honour of the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker. Before the liturgy attendees were invited to witness the preparation of proskomedia by the Priest. This is usually hidden in Church so it was a privilege for the young (and other) attendees, especially girls who cannot enter the Altar, to see how the bread and wine are prepared for Holy Communion and to know how the Priest prays for everyone at every service. During the service clergy had much joy in witnessing the number of young people who took Holy Communion.

Lunch was followed by a short ride down to Stanwell Park beach, a lovely inlet along the south coast, where teens enjoyed an afternoon of sun and surf, slathering on abundant block-out to prevent sunburn in the very hot weather! After dinner the first of the informal evening Q&A session were held with many challenging questions raised in connection with defending our faith and other Christian matters. These sessions, held over two evenings, were lively and enthusiastic, reflecting the interest and engagement of the young people throughout the retreat.

Wednesday brought another guest speaker, Mother Christina, a monastic from the Holy Presentation Convent at Bungarby. Mother Christina spoke engagingly about the four categories of women Saints – the Faithful, the Sinners, the Mothers and the Martyrs, giving powerful examples from each category. She said we were all called to be Saints and becoming a Saint today needed action and commitment.

“Read the Gospels, know what you believe and why, know the Commandments, look at the choices you are making and be aware of the later forced choices that may be caused by poor choices now,“ Mother Christina advised.

A productive question time followed reflecting the interest that many young people showed in knowing more about the monastic life. The second talk on Wednesday was given by Nadia Crittenden, an Orthodox psychologist who talked about the nature of resilience and the place of resilience in the Orthodox life. She said that three qualities of resilient people were the capacity to face and accept the present reality, the capacity to improvise and find solutions to problems and the capacity to look for and find meaning in life events, both positive and negative.  The Orthodox life helped to build resilience because it was based on truth (reality), problem-solving (praying for help and working on your weaknesses) and finding meaning (seeking understanding and wisdom through the Gospels, the writings of the Holy Fathers and seeking the vital relationship with Christ).

She said there were many example of resilience found in the Gospels and in the lives of the Saints.

Father Dionysios Halim from Sydney and Indonesia gave a culturally informative talk on Thursday morning describing the challenges facing Orthodox Christian in Indonesia. He said in a country where 90 per cent of the population were not Orthodox, the challenges were many and complex both spiritually and politically. He said Orthodox people in Indonesia always looked for the opportunity to speak about their faith and correct many misunderstandings related to the Veneration of Icons and the Mother of God. They face with courage the many obstacles often encountered.

The second and final talk on Thursday by Vladimir Yastreboff gave much needed information on the uses and pitfalls of modern technology. An expert in technological security, Vladimir pointed out that all material that goes up on the net is essentially there forever so people should be aware of this before putting up personal information. Using interactive exercises, he spoke about identity theft and how to safeguard against it and about the exploitation of young people’s need for gratification as the addictive nature of many computer games was based on this need. He recommended regulation of time spent on computer activities and an intelligent approach to dealing with the fact that technology was now a part of our lives and we needed to be able to deal with it and use it positively. On that positive side, he said technology had a lot to offer Orthodox Christians as there were excellent Orthodox websites with a wealth of spiritual knowledge and recordings of talks and music.

The highlight of the leisure activities (second only to bubble soccer) was the impromptu talent quest held on Thursday night, the last night of the retreat. Many categories of entertainment were presented by all comers – singing, comedy, drama all added their colour to proceedings! Much hilarity and enjoyment marked the evening which culminated in a series of iMovie trailers designed by the teens on their tech devices and shown on the big screen to advertise next year’s retreat – look out for the final version(s) online soon!!

The final tick of approval given by the young attendees on Friday morning as they were preparing to leave was a resounding

“We wish it was longer!!”

Nadia Crittenden