This past weekend I spent time at the St. Mary and St. Demiana Convent outside Atlanta, GA with a group of the most beautiful, most intelligent, most Christ-centered women. I wanted to give you today a taste of the Her First Love Retreat which took place this last weekend.
Where Do I Begin?
Should I start with the lake, the trees, the birds calling one to the other as we walk to prayers at 4 a.m.? Should I mention the bookstore filled to the brim with the best books on Orthodoxy and incredible gifts both pocket-size and larger than life? Should I tell you of the overwhelming emotional power of 100 holy women lifting their voices and hearts in praise those early hours before dawn?
We were blessed with an amazing speaker. I really can’t praise her enough. Presbytera and Ph.D., Dr. Jeannie Constantinou affected me on so many levels. An academic, a priest’s wife, a mother, a woman. She is so brilliant, so quick on her feet, so calm and composed even when challenged — not to mention hilarious!
I feel like I saw a vision for my future potential. I will never hold a theology doctorate, but perhaps one day I can be a real testament to my faith–with cooperation with the grace of God (synergy!).
She is unapologetically Orthodox in a way that I haven’t seen in a long time. We spend so much time being nice to other faiths, being gentle… it was wonderful to remember the firmness of the Church in her example.
And when she said, concerning the schism of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, “It never should have happened,” I would be lying if I denied blinking back tears. Christ, unite all Christians in You.
A New Way to Consider Saint Mary
Our topic was on the Theotokos, and I truly learned so much that I’m overwhelmed trying to find a way to summarize it here on the page.
In each of her three talks, Dr. Constantinou informed us in four steps: (1) This is what we believe. (2) This is why believe it. (3) This is the evidence for our faith. (4) This is how it affects our daily lives.
Sometimes we forget step two. We forget to explain why we believe something.
And often it seems that no one knows step three. Someone does know. Take heart. Someone does know. The evidence is there.
For example, we talked about whether St. Joseph the Carpenter was celibate or a widower with children from a prior marriage. Dr. Constantinou knew which documents/writers support which supposition, when they were written, and why we hold one to be more likely than the other. I mean… this is the kind of thing that I wish we all knew.
Or, for example, she talked about why The Da Vinci Code is complete bunk. And she didn’t do it by making stuff up or getting defensive. She spoke with accuracy and precision about history. I wish I were like that!! It is something to aspire to. The truth is available to those who seek it.
“We’re convinced that all truths are related and every truth, if we pay attention rightly, directs our gaze toward God.” Eighth Day Books
Living in the World
The most significant thing I learned this weekend–the most startling revelation for me–was that St. Mary wasn’t a nun. We picture her that way, don’t we? As though she was hiding out in a closed cell praying all day?
A nun is a member of a cloistered, religious community of women, living under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. St. Mary took a personal vow of chastity, yes; she is the Ever-Virgin. She was poor. We know she was renowned for her obedience. But St. Mary wasn’t a nun. She did not leave the world to go sit in a convent surrounded by other holy women.
St. Mary lived very much in the world–cooking, cleaning, getting water from the well. St. Mary FOLDED LAUNDRY. Wrap your head around that for a minute. She had St. Joseph to care for and the Divine Incarnate to raise. We know she nursed Christ. We know she had family and friends and neighbors to care for.
Yet even living in the world, even with all of her responsibilities, even with her ministries, she prioritized her relationship with God.
So many of us use life in the world as an excuse for a lukewarm spirituality, but St. Mary never did. She did her chores AND she kept up with her prayers. That’s something we all must aspire for daily.
I am so grateful to Abouna and my church family–and the servants at St. Stephen Retreat Center–for caring for the kids so I could have this time to reconnect with Christ, rekindle old friendships, and form important new ones (Mora, I’m looking at you).
I am also grateful to the HFL committee who put together the weekend–planning the schedule, booking the speaker, taking care of airport shuttles. While I was technically on the committee, I am definitely more of a junior member!!
The sisters and mothers were so welcoming, and Tasoni A gave us a true sense of life as a novice. I highly recommend that if you can get away for a weekend, you make a trip to the convent or to the abbey in Texas.
And to everyone who gave me encouragement this weekend–by words, by actions, by your presence–thank you.
I feel like we need a set calendar of high quality English-language conventions and retreats in the Coptic church so that everyone can make an effort to attend at least once a year. Our souls need regular refreshment!
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