Pre-Lenten Retreat

by Andrea Elizabeth

(links corrected)

Saturday morning all eight of us got up early and took the van to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas to attend a Pre-Lenten Retreat which nourished us with breakfast and lunch, Orthodox Trinitarian Theology presented by Dr. Christopher Veniamin, Professor of Patristics at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and monastic wisdom from Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou, as John (who I had the joy of meeting in person!) from Notes From a Common-Place Book said, is the Spiritual Child of Elder Sophrony, the Spiritual Child of St. Silouan. I also got to touch base with our dear friend, Eric (Jacob), Priests and other friends from St. Seraphim Cathedral and different parishes in the North Texas area, as well as some from our own parish, St. Barbara’s, like David Bryan, Audra and their Katie, Charles, Brad, Rex, Marilyn and William.

I took detailed notes of the two lectures and question and answer sessions because my memory has gotten hazy. But now I forgot where I put them so I’ll have to hurry and write down what I do remember so’s not to loose the entire thing. Not that permanent seeds weren’t planted, or changes made even if I don’t recall them.

Professor Veniamin spoke on St. Gregory Palamas and his Sunday during Great Lent. He said St. Gregory had a vision of milk overflowing and turning into wine which had a beautiful fragrance. The angel said the he needed to share this wine and not keep it to himself, like the parable of the talents. I forget what exactly he said the milk and wine represented. I believe he also talked on hesychasm as the way to salvation.

Elder Zacharias said that the three things Orthodox Christians need to focus on more than any other in order to be strengthened and energized are:

1. The Liturgy,

2. The Name of Christ,

3. The Word of Christ

I really wish I had my notes! He explained them in opposite order, but the priorities are as listed. He said that when we read the Bible we need to let the words inform us of His commandments so that we can become one with them and in being conformed by them, we attain godliness and then God will be present with us. That each word is like a stone, building us in the image of God as well as enlarging our hearts.

The name of Christ is called upon in the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. He said Elder Sophrony used to say that the reason we repeat it so many times is because we don’t know it yet. In it we confess who God is and who we are. This also enlarges our heart so that the Holy Spirit can fill us with His energy. He used the word energy a lot, and he indeed sparkled with it.

Then he said that in the Liturgy we make the great exchange. When we make the bread we are to pray for everyone in our hearts, and it comes to represent all that we are and have. Our very best. During the Liturgy we lift it all up to be exchanged for all that Christ is, and slowly, little by little we attain His fullness. This is why it is important to maintain the Liturgy our whole lives. We benefit the world when we lift it up to be exchanged. This counterbalances the effect of the world on us. He said that each generation has gotten weaker in that our predecessors attained greater heights of spiritual feats like raising the dead, and that each successive generation is half as good as the one preceding it. I think this was a humble way of comparing himself to Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan. Anyway, in the last days the greatest spiritual feat will be to keep the faith in the Liturgy.

All three of the ways of increasing God’s presence in the world were very encouraging, motivating and inspirational to me to feel that our prayers, readings, and Liturgy are all effective ways of increasing mercy and grace in ourselves and the world. Sometimes I get discouraged by our small numbers. Our parish is right next door to a Pentacostal mega-church. I have been discouraged by the disparity of numbers before, but in actuality, this disparity has not defeated us. We still have cars in the parking lot every Sunday and that is a victory for the world.

I believe both speakers mentioned the presentation of the Theotokos to the temple and how she realized her connection with creation and God. They are united in her. Elder Zacharias said that one day she was reading Isaiah’s “behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son”, and began repeating it enthusiastically and prayed, ‘may I be her handmaiden’. It was then that the angel Gabriel came to her to give her the good news.

Thankfully they recorded the lectures, and I believe the DVD’s will be available in a few weeks. Check North Texas Orthodox Missions for more details.

If anyone can add to or correct what I’ve written above, please feel free.