Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Special Report: St. Herman's Youth Conference 2010

Last weekend, 150 young people of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad descended on Holy Trinity Monastery for the annual St. Herman's Youth Conference (or, as we just call it, Syezd). I was on official assignment at the conference as one of the English correspondents; our collaborative efforts resulted in this (partially complete) news update. Since all the main details (and lots of pictures) from the conference are on the Seminary website, I'll give my inside perspective on what went down at the conference.

I went to last year's conference in Methuen, but I had a rough night staying at the hotel and was surrounded by unfamiliar faces; I ended up leaving early. So, I was pretty stoked for this year's conference, especially since I didn't have to go anywhere.

There wasn't much social interaction on Friday, which was dominated mainly by eating supper and going to Matins for St. Herman. At dinner, we had the usual trapeza fare, which was (no offense to the cook) a little disappointing, somewhat like having turkey sandwiches on Thanksgiving. However, later on I tagged along with Ephraim and went to the hotel, where they had very, very delicious cookies baked by Natalia.

The morning liturgy was very nice, and it was a pleasure hearing so many young voices fill our church. After the liturgy, Vladika Gabriel gave a short welcome address to all of us, including the immortal lines: “There are 150 of you, and I hope to see 75 marriages.”

Lunch was provided by the conference, and it was pretty good and Chinese-y. Then we met in the seminary hall, where Fr. Seraphim Gan gave a great lecture on the symbolism of the wedding ceremony, using two volunteers (who happened to be related). In the course of the presentation, he suddenly whirled around and pointed to the first seminarian he could see: me.

Fr. Seraphim: “What does a ring symbolize?”
Me: (deer-in-headlights look) “Uhhhhhhhhhh ETERNITY!!!!”
Fr. Seraphim: “Yes!!!”

Dodged a bullet there.

Later on, when it was time for discussions, I had to sneak out with Anthony to write up the latest update for the website. Coming back, I kind of floated around the discussion groups, stopping at one when I randomly heard the words: “This guy had his thumb bit off in a fight…”

On Sunday, we used the Liturgy of St. James*, which was very different from the liturgies we use today. The first thing I noticed was the deacons facing the people while doing the litanies, perhaps a leftover from the congregational singing of ancient times. Vladika was dressed in a phelonion and omophorion, making him look like an ancient bishop. Apparently, the altar was pretty chaotic, but I'm sure that hardly anyone really noticed.

After the lectures, we had free time. I was being pulled in multiple directions, because I had to both man the book kiosk and write updates. But, I managed to make it to the Face in the Snow competition being held outside.

The rules of the competition are simple. No hats or gloves. Pious girls can wear a headscarf. Put your face and hands in the snow. Last one to get up wins. I felt that I had to represent Hawaii, and was one of the first to raise my hand to volunteer. I lasted for about a minute, the others, for nearly six. It took a while for the feeling to return to my fingers.

Later, we hopped in cars and went to Cooperstown for some Christmas caroling (half-price because it was the day after Western Christmas). Gathering in a warm coffee shop, I made some new friends, and sipped hot cider.

That night, we hung out at the hotel, where we played a great many party games, my favorite being Silent Ninja. The Russians taught us some Greek dancing, and we also did some other activities designed to tire us out.

We had the usual sandwich of lecture-discussion-lecture, but before that we had a tour of the monastery, meeting in the seminary hall. On the way, I took some people down through the not-so-creepy basement. It was only later on that I found out that girls weren't allowed down there. Oops! After the tour, we met again in the hall, where Fr. Roman gave a really interesting talk about how his spiritual father, Archimandrite Cyprian the iconographer, would chew him out over his choice of music, among other things.

I was rushing around before the banquet in a mad dash to wrap some presents for friends. I went, presents and all, to the Radisson. After having the usual hotel fare, we were treated to three hours of talent show. Some acts were good, some were really, really good, and some left me scratching my head. One of my favorite acts was the rendition of “Traveling Soldier” by Jojo and Daria, as well as Misha's creative recital of “Jabberwocky.” I was also drafted at the last minute to do “Wagon Wheel” with Anthony and Sergei.

The last act was a send-up of “Amen,” which appeared in the film “Lilies of the Field,” entitled “Amin.” Three seminarians (and one graduate) came up and sang some great verses, including:

Eating more potatoes (Amin)
Gotta find a bigger belt (Amin!)
Gonna be a deacon! (Amin! Amin! Amen!)

The next day, as I was walking to the Computer Lab to complete one of my papers, I noticed a little reminder of the good times we had, and composed this post-Syezd haiku:

An empty courtyard.
Traces remain in the snow
Of faces and hands.

All in all, this year's Syezd was really memorable, and it felt like a pilgrimage as well, owing to its location. I am very glad to have made new friends, and am looking forward to next year in Ottawa (God willing) so I can see you all!

*Usually done only on the feast of St. James (October 23). Because of all the preparation needed to do this liturgy, it was postponed until the Syezd.

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