The VII Annual Saint Herman's West Youth Conference was organized by the Western American Diocese Youth Department from December 22 to 26, 2013, under the direction of Archpriest Boris Henderson, Rector of All Saints of Russia Orthodox Church in Denver, CO. Father Boris has many years of experience working with youth and in organizing this event. He himself was a participant in the Saint Herman Youth Conferences as a young man and then as a priest for many years assisted in such conferences on the East Coast.
This year's youth conference was hosted by New Martyrs of Russia Church in Mulino, OR. The church and grounds are located in a wooded area not too far outside of Portland. The small, rustic but warm church is made out of logs and is located in a stand of trees. Praying inside one has the sense that one is far away from the bustle of city life. Also on the church grounds is a large hall and kitchen. This was where most of the activities of the conference and the meals provided by the parish Sisterhood took place.
The conference was conducted by the clergy of our diocese; staff from the laity, both local and from afar. Participating in the conference were 48 young people ages 15 to 25 years representing all three deaneries of our diocese. Members of the staff were involved with conducting lectures and workshops, fielding questions at the question and answer sessions, transporting and feeding participants. The youth were offered the well-prepared lectures and the opportunity to participate in workshops such as choir practice, acolyte serving, liturgical reading, iconography and candle making. The conference program devoted two sessions to "Questions and Answers" where youth had the opportunity to inquire about the Orthodox Faith and its application in daily life. The fathers on the panel did an expert job in addressing those questions.
Of the lectures, two were devoted to the two wings that liberate a Christian and help him soar towards the Heavenly Kingdom: prayer and fasting. Our Savior tells us "the Kingdom of Heaven is within you" (Luke 17:21). And we enter that Kingdom through prayer in our heart. Prayer is like many seeds planted in the soil. If the soil is well prepared there will be an abundant harvest. The seeds cannot sprout, however, if the ground is not tilled. Fasting tills up the "tares" and "rocks" in the heart and prepares it for the Grace of the Holy Spirit that our prayers then attract. Fasting without prayer, for example by merely observing a diet, is barren and soulless. And conversely prayer has no boldness in a heart not plowed open by fasting. This fundamental principle necessary for all Orthodox was expounded upon as a support to our young people, especially for those away from the family hearth studying at colleges and universities.
Priest Sergei Sveshnikov, Rector of New Martyrs of Russia Church (our host), read the lecture on fasting entitled "Fasting for Non-monastics". Background on the Church's stand and approach were offered, as well as some practical advice. Sub-topics included "The Concept of Fasting" and "Fasting and Physiology". Another very interesting point was the advice offered under categories of fasting like life's seasons, study, work and sports. This lecture can be obtained in its entirety through Father Sergei's blog.
Archimandrite Irenei of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Church in San Francisco, CA, gave the lecture on prayer entitled "Prayer in Our Daily Life". He started off with his favorite quote: "Life in Christ is a Mystery". Man is similar to much of creation in many ways, but he is distinct in that planted within him is a gift to raise up rational prayer to God. Therefore, prayer should be a joy, a wonder in our heart. So often prayer and a prayer-life are looked upon with frustration, for example when we can't "keep up" with our rule. The spirit of obligation or constraint in regard to prayer can lead us to feel "trapped" or to approach it in the spirit of necessity. This is not the way of the Fathers. Intimacy, gladness and comfort should accompany a life of prayer. People who pray have radiant and joyful hearts, a joy even when life is painful. After this introduction, Fr. Irenei offered three points on prayer for consideration:
- The prayer book is a witness to prayer not a mandate for it. This book reveals to the reader compilations engendering the proper spirit, mood and thought that open up the world of prayer and an intimacy with God. The prayer book should be a friend; not a lord and master.
- In one's prayer life, frequency throughout the day brings greater benefit than lengthy duration.
- Prayer should be accompanied by an intensity that consumes one's attention and touches the heart.
It should be underlined that the young members of the youth conference conveyed a real zeal for God and were happy to associate with peers of like mind. The workshops were full with active, enthusiastic participants. The photo galleries accompanying this article speak for themselves. Youth were involved in their own multi-media and communications. Timothy Henderson and Tamara Verblevskaya were seen operating cameras and recording equipment. James Volmensky, youth editor for the new diocesan journal "Spiritual Spring", introduced the journal to the youth, polled them for their interests and offered them a voice if they desired to submit an article. The work of these three young people has appeared already on the Internet and more will appear gradually as multimedia and in print.
Many thanks go to Archpriest Boris Henderson and all his helpers. Likewise, many thanks are due to Priest Sergei Sveshnikov and his parish, where so many people that sacrificed their time and energy for the spiritual formation of the up-coming generation of Orthodox youth within the Western American Diocese. We give many thanks to all of those who sponsored this conference by their financial contributions. One soul is more precious than the whole world (Matthew 16:26), therefore all of those who have contributed financially or by their time and labor have made an investment eternal significance.
A complete set of photos from the youth conference is available here.