This past weekend, from Friday January 9th to Sunday January 11th, youth from across the Diocese of California convened upon Mount Hermon near Santa Cruz, California, for the Diocese’s 2015 Winter Youth Retreat. With the blessing and guidance of His Grace Mar Awa Royel, this year’s retreat, was themed “Built by Him and for Him,” and was dedicated to meditating upon the life and teachings of Mar Aphrahat the Persian Sage (born c. 270 AD) who was a member of the bney qyama (or Sons of the Covenant) and also an important teacher and defender of the true faith in the early Eastern Church.
The focus of the retreat was centered around three Bible Study sessions, based upon the Demonstrations of Mar Aphrahat himself; on faith, deeds, and communion with God. The sessions were taught by various deacons of the Diocese and invited the youth to imagine themselves as each being a dwelling for God, with their foundation in Our Lord Jesus Christ, and their walls built sturdily from righteous internal (such as prayer and fasting) and external (such as charity toward the needy) deeds. With a strong foundation and edifice, according to Mar Aphrahat, and through continual effort and dedication we can begin our journey in communion with God, and indeed, be ourselves inhabited by the Most High as lowly dwellings for His glory upon the earth.
These three Bible Study sessions based upon the teachings of Mar Aphrahat were then facilitated by an activity which asked youth to separate into groups and find building materials by way of a scavenger hunt with clues from the Bible and our Blessed Church’s faith more specifically. Once materials were acquired, the teams were asked to then build something which would summarize the retreat’s theme and all three Bible Study sessions.
As always, another key part to the retreat was practicing our faith through communal daily prayers, both in the morning and evening. Prayers were based upon the liturgical daily offices of our Blessed Church, with translated psalm selections for the youth to participate in, in our characteristic call and response (or maqyapta) tradition.
To further facilitate the learning and spiritual growth of the youth throughout the retreat, each individual was equipped with a workbook at the outset of the retreat. The booklet contained important tools like summary Biblical verses and review questions for each Bible Study session, but also daily journal entries based on proverbs from Mar Aphrahat’s teachings and pre-retreat and post-retreat personal assessments to encourage the youth to reflect upon and analyze their own faith and spiritual strength at a deeper level.
The weekend’s program was concluded and brought to a fitting completion with the celebration of the Holy Liturgy of the Mysteries (TTakhsa d’Razeh Qaddisheh), celebrated by Qasha Genard Lazar on Sunday, which was preceded by the Matins (SSlotha d’SSapra).
We pray that this year’s retreat will be of great benefit to both the organizers and the attending youth of our diocese alike. We lift up continual praise and thanksgiving to our Lord, who has protected and preserved our amazing Church and all Her perfect teachings, originating from our eternal and immovable foundation, Jesus Christ, and all our holy and upright teachers, saints, and clergy who continue to labor in reinforcing the dwellings which are our very selves in a world filled with heavy winds and storms.