When people think of faith, they think of going to church every Sunday, saying the Our Father every day, and that’s about it. Before Syezd [St. Herman Youth Conference – ed.], that was the attitude I had toward my faith, too. I used to put it aside during the school year, only to really focus on it at Saturday night Vigil or Sunday Liturgy. I had spent so long trying to fit in and trying to be like everyone else, hiding this important part of my life, just for the sake of not being the outcast. As time went on, it became increasingly difficult to avoid talking about my religious experiences or growth in Orthodoxy, nor did they want to hear about it. So, I was in college getting sucked into so many bad things and felt like I was drowning in a sea of misery that contained so much sorrow. I was so worried and anxious about what the future holds that I was forgetting to focus on what I could do right now. When I went through a really hard time of my life in fall semester in college, I prayed every day for answers on why we face so many struggles and sorrows, and felt lost for a really long time because of it. After finals ended, I told my best friend that if I faced another semester similar to the one I just had, there is no way I could survive something like that again.
Then I went to Syezd, desperately hoping to meet new people who would help me grow, wanting a big life change, and new lessons to learn for a better future. I sought out advice from the clergy, getting all my worries and questions off my chest, and praying that the huge weight I felt on my shoulders after a really tumultuous start to junior year would go away. In return at Syezd, I felt like God was speaking directly to me through the priests’ words and advice. It grounded me by teaching me how to be a better Orthodox Christian. I was taught not to be like everyone else, to be the one who stands out, because people gravitate toward the flame inside our souls. If we fill our souls with kindness, compassion, and a need to keep God in our lives, we will never be left alone, and we can never forget that. The reality of Bishop Luke’s lecture hit me hard when he discussed all of these things. It was all a big wake-up call for me to strive to do better from that very second.
After coming home from Syezd, what comes to mind from the word "faith" is not only the daily prayers and going to church on weekends, but so much more. It became a group of friends from St. Herman’s Conference and camp who pick up their phones to call me repeatedly until I pick up to check in on me when something bad happens. It’s the deep talks of God, Heaven, and the saints on starry nights, the ability to talk about anything, no matter how hard the topic is, with the people who’ve given me the best times of my life and have never left me alone during difficult times.
When asked about St. Herman’s Conference, I’ll tell the stories of how nothing beats the feeling of walking into the hotel lobby to watch all my friends excitedly run up and tackle me with tight hugs in Boston, and feeling their love after a long time apart. On our 5½ hour drive home, my friend and I spent the entire time talking about how we learned a whole new meaning of prayer thanks to a workshop that was such a casual, yet insightful conversation of praying with a purpose, learning to lean on the friends surrounding us in church for help, and understanding the importance of our Orthodox community. I’ll talk about how these are the people who will pray and light a candle for me in church, or sit with me on the phone for three hours straight to give valuable advice on how to cope with the grief, sorrows, and troubles I face in life. It was at this Syezd that I looked at a room full of people and knew that they will be in my life forever, and God willing, in the Kingdom of Heaven, too.
Here is where I learned the meaning of faith, friendship, love, and dedication, when the guest speakers discussed the influential people like Fr. Seraphim Rose, who had comforted and guided them in good and bad times toward a future that holds an unwavering belief in Christ. This is the place full of my role models: Matushka Cecilia for her strength, Fr. Alexis for his unwavering dedication to the Orthodox youth, the youth reps who are my own childhood friends, and so many more.
It felt like God was standing behind my shoulders this entire time, giving me all of the answers I needed in life that I had been searching for during the longest time. As one priest told me, "We are commanded by God to be grateful for the bad things that happen to us, as sadness and sorrows are a part of life, too." I learned to forgive those who hurt me, what it meant to cherish something way more after a period of struggling. That is how I felt about this conference. I realized that our prayers never go unanswered, but rather are always answered in unexpected ways.
To be given the opportunity to explore a new city every year with a large group of friends and to learn something new, try new food, and be tourists in historic cities that contain important pieces of our country’s history is a blessing. My favorite nights of the year were spent by the Boston waterfront with new and old friends, laughing and taking pictures I would frame on my desk later, recapping our favorite workshops about the soul, the path to salvation, and holy places abroad with smiles and the kind of joy that made my heart soar. I could talk about the saints’ relics I’ve venerated in Russia, the monasteries I’ve visited, the feast days that had me in tears during Liturgy there, and I would get others’ stories of their trips to holy sites in Russia, so we would all be in tears because we understood each other in a way that most people around us don’t. Many have done these pilgrimages together and developed lifelong friendships through those times. That is the most powerful and important connection we can possibly have with others: our shared belief in God.
This is where I almost cried in church while singing in a beautiful choir from how moved I was during the Liturgy that gave me goosebumps. The most breathtaking services I’ve ever attended were there, where attendee choir and clergy sang praises to God in unison and made me feel the Holy Spirit in my soul. I’ve only ever had that kind of experience one other time in my life, and that was in Russia this summer, where I was even able to meet up with a friend I met from St. Herman’s, introduce her to my cousin and visit places like the monument to St. Vladimir in Moscow together. Friendships like that truly don’t have borders. It made our reunion in Boston even more special for the experiences we shared through the faith that brought us together. (Shoutout to Katia!) I’d searched for that feeling my whole life, and I had the feeling like that at Syezd.
I wish everyone could experience the week I’ve spent every winter at this conference to understand how much it has contributed to our growth as Orthodox Christians and made us better people, because of the depth and discipline we are taught. My eyes were opened to the beauties of life: faith in God and a community to grow with because of it. I spent a week surrounded by every single one of the friends I grew up with and people I became close to recently in an incredible, historic city. I loved the beautiful places we toured, the songs sung by street performers in the town square, running into other attendees and laughing at the fact that we all came up with the same place to eat without asking each other, and just cherishing every single moment with people who are just like me.
Syezd truly is one of the best things that has ever happened to me, and I am so lucky that I got to attend for the past five years. Saying goodbye to the most important people in my life only gets harder, but they make going to sleep at 2 AM after convincing the priests to let us stay out a little past curfew to sing just one more Christmas carol to close out the night, waking up at 5:45 AM to get to Liturgy on time, and losing my voice completely from several hours of singing a day so worth it. I don’t think I’ll ever find the proper words to describe the importance of my time at St. Herman’s Conference, but I hope this inspires others to go next year for the first time or return for another life-changing experience. It’s something you need to do and see for yourself to understand. Thank you to the donors, clergy, youth representatives, and volunteers who made it possible. I haven’t been this happy since I left camp in August and I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.
And if I had to sum up everything I want to express in one quote, I would say this: "Seek God and your soul shall live."
Next stop: New York City 2020!
From Boston with love,