Warming Up Without Heat

by Fr. Tateos Abdalian

I was the youth director at an Armenian Church in Massachusetts for about two and a half years before I became a priest. I served there as a deacon. On one occasion, we had a youth retreat for the New England area, somewhere near Hartford. Fr. Yeprem Kelegian was our retreat leader. We stayed at a YMCA camp, so the conditions were spartan at best. It was one long cabin-guys on one side and girls on the other side-separated by a kitchen facility. There was one shower for the guys and one shower for the girls. The weekend accommodations were just miserable. It was cold, drizzly, rainy. A weekend when you would want to stay home in front of a fire wrapped in a warm afghan with a good book, and maybe a glass of cognac next to you.

When we got there Friday night it was just pathetic. The rooms were cold because the heat wasn’t working too well. I don’t think we took off our jackets once. Saturday was pretty much the same. We went to a separate shack for our sessions and there wasn’t much heat there either. There was a fireplace and we lit the fire, and that was supposed to keep us warm, but it didn’t really do much. During the weekend, in spite of the conditions, we got closer together through the lectures and meditations and Bible Studies and so forth, as it usually happens when a sincere bunch of kids get together.

At this retreat place, we celebrated the Divine Liturgy. Fr. Yeprem was the celebrant and I was assisting him as a deacon. This was a very special Divine Liturgy, one that I will never forget. Fr. Yeprem used an old, mismatched set of vestments. We were in this room with a makeshift altar and about thirty high-school kids. During the Divine Liturgy something happened. When we gave the Kiss of Peace to each other, there came upon all of us this real sense of tranquility, a sense of peace, a sense that God was really with us. Physically I became warmer. I just felt warmer. There wasn’t any need for a coat. I didn’t feel that sense of dampness or coldness in the room. The Divine Liturgy became something very special. We all received communion.

At the end of the liturgy, one of the girls from my Parish came up to me and said, “Deacon Richard, I don’t know, but I felt something really special. I really felt as if God was with us in this Divine Liturgy.” Sure enough, one by one others began to say the same thing. I hadn’t noticed it, but apparently during the Divine Liturgy they began to take off their coats. They sensed the same physical warmth that I had felt. This first girl that came to me said, “Deacon Rich, look the fire in the fireplace is out.” There was no fire in the fireplace, yet there was this warmth in the room, which was very difficult to explain other than feeling the presence of love, caring and the Holy Spirit. The participants who were there that day were touched by God’s Spirit, truly. We didn’t need a one- thousand seat cathedral. We didn’t need fifteen deacons, the fifty-voice choir, the organist and all the trappings that we sometimes feel that we need for liturgical celebrations. God was there amongst us during the simple worship service that we offered to Him.

It was at this point and this occasion, that I felt strongly the power of God, the presence of God. Simplicity of faith and worship were more important than some of the things that we deem “necessary” to conduct services. No, what was required were faith, honesty, openness to God’s love and a desire to be one with him.

I thank God that I was able to participate. Each one of those kids who participated in the retreat went home with the same feeling. I think that feeling will remain with them for the rest of their lives. For that, I thank God.