It has been almost two months since my second visit as a journalist to St. Seraphim Camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. For two weeks, I have been staring at a blank computer screen, unable to come up with the words to describe whatever it was that I experienced at the camp this year. My first visit to St. Seraphim Camp in 2017 was absolutely incredible. I spent three days photographing and documenting life in the largest camp of our Diocese. So, when it came time for this year’s visit, I have to admit that I was a bit more relaxed and nonchalant in my journalistic approach. I thought to myself, "Since I covered the camp so extensively last year, there really should not be much for me to see this year." Needless to say, I was wrong.
I felt something this year – something that I did not feel last year. The camp seemed very different, but I was not sure exactly why. As I started going through and editing the hundreds of photographs that I had taken, a beautiful picture started to unfold before my eyes. Instantly, I felt as if I were back in those majestic forests filled with ancient hemlock trees, whose branches soar mightily towards the heavens. I heard the roaring sounds of the Tobyhanna and Lehigh Rivers as they collided with one another – both practically overflowing from the heavy rains that poured down on the camp throughout the previous week. More than anything else – I wanted to go back. But why?! I have seen many beautiful landscapes, swum in rivers from Maine to Florida, hiked hundreds of miles through the Appalachian Mountains – in short, I was no stranger to the outdoors. Yet, this place was different.
Within an hour of my arrival at the camp, I immediately headed for the river to perform a sort of "traditional ritual" that we have in the diocesan Media Office. Whenever we have to travel somewhere with easy access to the great outdoors, especially where there is a river nearby, we try our best to take a quick swim and really soak in the scenery. This is, of course, done under the disguise of "official media business," but rest assured that even during such relaxing moments, we are always working to bring you the best pictures that we possibly can.
So there I was, armed with a brown bag lunch (which was graciously provided to me by the camp kitchen staff), bathing suit, towel, and camera, ready to march off into the woods to what I thought was my secret spot. It was a beautiful patch of grass directly between the two rivers, where I could get the landscape photos that I needed and still manage to take a quick dip – perhaps even take a short nap under the warm rays of the afternoon sun. "Life is good," I thought to myself.
I snapped a few photos, and thinking that I was completely alone, I started to change into my bathing suit. That was when I heard voices in the distance. "Are you kidding me?" I thought to myself. "Can’t I just get a few minutes of peace and quiet to myself to enjoy this beautiful place?" That was when I remembered how often in the past the best photo opportunities came at the most unexpected times. So I packed up my gear, armed myself with a camera, and hid in the bushes to see what would happen next. As I watched from my crouched position behind the fauna, I saw three girls coming down the trail, but I was not sure if they were part of the camp. That was, until I saw that one of them was carrying a prayer book.
I decided to emerge from my hiding place, because I figured that the last thing these poor girls needed was to run into a strange man with a camera taking pictures of them from behind the bushes. We greeted each other with equal curiosity, wondering what the other was doing in this isolated place. I explained that I was one of the diocesan photographers, and asked if I could take some pictures of them for a story that I was writing about the camp. I asked them to go about their business and pretend as if I were not even there. They happily agreed and continued walking toward the river. What happened next was something that I did not expect at all.
My first thought was that these girls came down to the river just to hang out and take in the scenery one final time before having to return home the following day. I mean, what else would a bunch of teenagers be doing at a summer camp on a beautiful Saturday afternoon? As I searched for the perfect spot to get the best photograph, I noticed that they had no intention of spending their time on idle talk and relaxation. They were here to pray. They stood before God’s creation as if they were standing before an icon, as they read their pre-Communion prayers, stopping every so often to pass the prayer book to each other so that they all had a chance to read.
Having taking a few photos, I stood there in silence for a little while, and all I could think about was a short passage that I recently read in a book written by my grandfather, the ever-memorable Protopresbyter Valery Lukianov. His words had been on my mind for several weeks, but finding myself in this awe-inspiring wilderness, I repeated them to myself as if narrating the picture that I saw before my eyes.
"Nature, as part of God’s whole world, is an open book that displays the innumerable miracles of creation. It is a book that fills one with inspiration and veneration before these miracles, offering the most profound revelations in the light of the perpetual process of restoration and regeneration, being indeed the book of God’s Wisdom, which ‘hath made all things’ (Ps. 103:24). Nature is the book of life, in which every blade of grass, every creature with its breath ‘praiseth the Lord.’
And if nature, as part of the Divine creation, indeed reveals the wondrous and miraculous aspects of this Wisdom, then every sensitive person, appointed by Divine Providence to rule over the created world, should be called by nature’s beauty to a special reverence and desire for prayerful communion with one’s own Creator and Master. The closer the soul is to the inspiring and pacifying effects of God’s nature, the farther it is removed from the soul-emptying worldliness and vanity of human pursuits! (Blessed Pastorship, p. 20)."
This is precisely what St. Seraphim Camp offers our children – an opportunity to get away from the "soul-emptying worldliness and vanity of human pursuits." It gives our clergy and children a chance to spend time together in a spirit of brotherly love, surrounded by the full magnitude and beauty of God’s creation. Seeing these three girls connect with God through nature and prayer convinced me that St. Seraphim Camp is not only growing physically, but spiritually.
All-Night Vigil was served inside the main dining hall instead of the open-air chapel, because the torrents of rain that had fallen all week had left large, muddy puddles, and made the chapel less than ideal for use.
I have to admit that, at first, this seemed a bit odd to me. The walls of the dining hall were covered with a variety of scout memorabilia, paintings of Native Americans, flags, and even two moose heads. The high place in the makeshift altar was a rock-climbing wall. But even in the midst of this cornucopia of trinkets, I still felt like I was in an Orthodox church. The dining hall that just moments ago was full of hustle and bustle was now full of beautiful singing, the smell of incense, icons, and many clergy in shining gold vestments.
The children, counselors, parents, and clergy were led in prayer by Eastern American Diocesan vicar Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan, who came not only to offer his prayers, but also his support for this holy and God-pleasing camp. His Grace’s prayerful and calm demeanor set the tone for the solemn Vigil, which was served in honor of Venerable Seraphim of Sarov (a tradition in the camp for many years). Throughout the service, confessions were heard by several priests, and I was amazed to see the reverence with which some of these young children approached this Sacrament.
Divine Liturgy was served in the outdoor chapel under a crystal clear sky. Bishop Nicholas was co-served by Archpriests Alexis Duncan, David Straut, Andrei Sommer, and Brendan Crowley, Priests John Johnson, Gennady Titov, Gabriel Weller, and Damian Dantinne, Protodeacon Michael Soloviev, and Deacons Michael Pavuk and Stephanos Bibas. The choir of young campers was led by the choir conductor at St. Xenia’s Church in Methuen, MA Larissa Doohovskoy. Throughout the service I could not help but take special delight and pleasure in the sounds of all the birds, who seemed like they were singing along with the choir. Truly – marvelous are thy works, O Lord!
At the end of Divine Liturgy, Bishop Nicholas spoke to the children about their patron saint, and also about the significance of this year as the centennial of the martyrdom of the Royal Family.
"We heard today the answer in the Gospel of how to be Orthodox, how to be saved, how to be healed from all sicknesses and diseases. What did Christ tell us today? He said, the faithful, these people here, can be healed through fasting and prayer. And this the Lord tells us for our edification, for our benefaction, for our salvation. And our patron saint, Venerable Seraphim of Sarov, clearly heard these words. The Royal Family heard these words and lived by them. The Martyrs of Alapaevsk also heard these words. Fasting, praying, they lived by these words, and they are all examples for us, young and old: to not despair, but to put our entire lives in God’s hands. In so doing, we will truly find and feel salvation."
"Venerable Seraphim loved his neighbor. He received many guests. At one point, he was robbed and beaten, and he forgave those who attacked him. He always had time for everyone. The Grand Duchess Elizabeth, to the last minute of her own suffering, comforted those around her. We know that when their holy relics were discovered in the mineshaft, they found the others around her with makeshift bandages around their heads and on their arms. She ripped up her monastic garb to heal and help those who were suffering right next to her. She sang the Cherubic hymn while herself being wounded and scarred, in order to bring comfort to those who were in pain at her side. And here again, we see this example of love for one’s neighbor: from St. Seraphim and from, of course, the Holy Grand Duchess Elizabeth. And we have to ask ourselves: How do I act toward my neighbor? How do I act toward my family members? To my friends? How do I act to those that maybe are not fully Orthodox, but want to come to the Faith? Do I comfort them? Do I make them feel welcome? Do I feel sorry for them? Most importantly, do I pray for them? And these are things we all have to ask ourselves as this day passes, as this year continues. We have to give many thanks to God that we have our camp, that we have our patron saint, who gives us these examples of love, fasting, and prayer. We have to give thanks to Almighty God that we had a celebration this year commemorating the Royal Family and the Alapaevsk Martyrs, and remember that they had compassion for everyone: they fasted and they prayed, and God rewarded them for their efforts. This is something we all need to think about, brothers and sisters and children."
"And I pray that we continue to be strong, not despair, and look to all of our patron saints that I have mentioned today to give us strength, to not only by name, but by our lives truly be Orthodox Christians."
The countless clergy and volunteers who sacrificed so much for this camp throughout its 20-year existence, can rest assured that it really was worth it. The fruits of their labors can be seen everywhere, but especially in the picture of three girls quietly praying by the river.
Only now did it finally hit me – Saint Seraphim Camp is a monastery for children. That is the only way that I can describe what I felt there. Everywhere I looked, I would see pious smiling faces – not silly smiles, but pious smiles. It almost sounds ridiculous – a "pious smile." But, when people gather together in a spirit of brotherly love and in the name of Christ, they experience a true sense of joy in the Lord. When people are joyful in the Lord, everything around them seems brighter and more beautiful.
I have felt this many times while visiting our diocesan monasteries, especially Holy Cross Monastery in Wayne, WV, but this was the first time that I felt this way outside of a monastery, and it was in a summer camp. At the camp, just like in a monastery, there is a rigorous schedule that includes time for prayer, spiritual reading and discussion, Law of God classes, church services, morning and evening prayer rules, etc. If you substitute some of the social activities with obediences, you get a very monastic type of schedule. Saint Seraphim Camp gives our children the opportunity to experience what life would be like in a community where everyone around you is Orthodox and constantly rejoices in the Lord – just like in a monastery.
God willing, these experiences will remain with them long after camp ends, becoming a model for them as they fashion their lives as adults, granting a monastic atmosphere to their home parishes, and eventually raising their own young families in this Orthodox spirit.
Subdeacon Peter Lukianov
Media Office of the Eastern American Diocese