Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Youth Retreat: St. Michael's Conference for Youth Reunion

I spent the past weekend at a Reunion for the St. Michael's Midwest Conference for Youth.  It was the second such event at which I have helped out and stayed overnight.  This time, I stayed over both Friday night and Saturday night.

I experienced an interesting change in attitude over the weekend.  On the way to the Reunion, which was held at St. Bartholomew's Anglican Church, I was thinking to myself, "What did I do to deserve this?"  On the way home, I was also thinking, "What did I do to deserve that?"   But I meant the opposite thing by it.  On the way, I had in mind the things I would be giving up by going.  Chiefly I was giving up an evening and a full day of working on my oil paintings.  But by the end of the retreat, my attitude had completely reversed.  Now what I meant by the question was:  "Because of what meritorious act on my part did God count me worthy to have spent my weekend in that way?"

If you have never been involved with the St. Michael's Conference(s), it is hard to explain this radical reversal.  But let me attempt it.  The group of kids was very diverse.  There were over 20 teens, geographically and racially diverse.  We had folks from as far north as Ontario, Canada, and as far south as southern Kentucky.  The differences in the accents of their speech did not go unnoticed among the youth at the retreat.  But all the teasing about this was in a very good-natured way.

The "reunion" aspect of this weekend retreat must not be underestimated.  For most if not all of these kids, the week of the St. Michael's Conference in July is the highlight of the entire year, eclipsing even such noteworthy contenders as Christmas and Spring Break.  There is a rich and shared history among these teens from having spent (in most cases) multiple weeks together at the actual Conferences.  And it colors everything they do in a positive way.  Joking comments among the Michaelites seem never to be a cause for offense, because they rest on the presupposition of a mutual and unconditional love, as well as an earnest sense of common purpose.

There was, as with any group this size, a large diversity in physical appearance among the kids, and probably an even larger diversity of personality types.  But they got along better than most similarly sized groups of adults would.  What can explain this?  Is it that they are having so much fun that they don't bother with arguing and wrangling and petty jealousies?  Well, maybe, but not such "fun" as you may have come to expect from a church youth event.  The "fun" involved six hour-long educational sessions, all around a common theme, and multiple worship services throughout the weekend.  Perhaps more than anything else I witnessed throughout the weekend, the single glaring, shining, written-in-large-and-startling-figures lesson for me was:  The church does not have to dumb down worship nor replace it with entertainment to engage today's young people!  (Seeker sensitive churches, take note!)  Beautiful worship (and here I will show my prejudice by saying "beautiful Anglican worship") is more than enough to engage the minds and hearts of these kids in a full and holistic way.

I noted something else about the Michaelites, and that was how quickly they volunteered to do non-fun jobs such as mopping floors, emptying garbage, etc.  It is simply the accepted norm, and I failed to notice any one of them veering from it.  Frankly, it was like two days of heaven, or two days of the world turned upside down:  teenagers acting in a completely civilized manner, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.  There are so many examples.  After Compline each evening, the Great Silence begins, which means that there is to be no talking among those at the retreat.  This was kept without the slightest breach in the boys' "dormitory" where I slept.  Not a single whisper, giggle, word, joke, or sound effect among two rooms full of teenage boys, all night long.  How many of you have ever witnessed such a thing?

It was my privilege to teach (or rather, "moderate") a few of the class sessions.  My favorite part of these sessions was the questions and comments from the Michaelites, which indicated that they had been listening throughout the hour, and were now struggling with how to integrate the imparted knowledge into their daily lives.

I guess the last thing I will mention is that I benefited by (essentially) becoming a Michaelite and folllowing their schedule for the weekend.  It forced me, much against my natural inclination, to be silent, be still, and turn my thoughts to God.  There was nothing "to do" ... so a lot of important work got done in my soul.

I left the retreat full of more hope for the world our children will shape than I have had in a very long time.

Some of the Michaelites