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Retreat Reflections
By Else Tennessen

"Take time for fellowship. It adds meaning to life," said Mother Gabriella of Dormition Monastery. The 6th Annual Women’s Retreat on March 10 added meaning to my life, as I’m sure it did to the 60+ women attending that day. Fellowship and teaching were the highlights of this meaningful time.

Mother Gabriella was an inspiration with her gentle ways, true words and delightful sense of humor. Her sense of inner peace flowed over all of us and was a welcome respite for me after a week of busy-ness at work and winter illness in my home. Her two talks "The Cross" and "Women at the Foot of the Cross" were full of truths and meaning that I needed to hear and which taught me much about our Orthodox faith. Her teaching was fresh water after a week in the world.

Speaking on "The Cross," Mother had many insights to share. I liked her image of the cross being our "identity card" and her explanations of why we Orthodox cross ourselves--for protection, for reminder, to impart holiness to everyday objects and tasks. And we can’t avoid the cross--when we tie two strings together, we form a cross. With arms outstretched, our bodies form cross shapes. The wood of the tree of life in Eden was an early sign ("prefiguration") of the cross. Moses’ staff was a symbol of the cross. It goes on and on. Our God has planted reminders everywhere of what Mother called Jesus’ "victory by defeat," and "glory through humiliation." When we see the cross, we are to rejoice. What was once an ugly symbol of punishment is now a beautiful reminder of our salvation. What a great lesson for Lent!

Especially meaningful and touching was her teaching on the meaning of fasting during Lent. These 40 days can represent the 40 years of Israel wandering in the wilderness. The goal of both this wandering and our fasting is to learn to follow God and to become "God’s new people." Israel had to stay in the wilderness until they forgot Egypt (their past material comforts) and in fasting, "we deny ourselves so we can become new creatures." And fasting can be a great expression of love--for when we fast and buy less food, we have more to give to others (almsgiving). Often, fasting can seem like just another thing we do. But it is full of meaning and new life for those who do it!

Mother spoke briefly on "making the sign of the cross" and its importance. She encouraged us to make the sign of the cross over everything--over our cooking, over our pillows at night, over our children--in order to sanctify, bless and protect. She exhorted us to teach signing to our children. Practically speaking, when children are afraid and away from their parents, they can make the sign of the cross for protection. Also, I never thought of making the sign of the cross as a blessing; but indeed, that is what it is. It imparts holiness to us by reminding us of our Precious Lord and His sacrifice and victory, which we now share with Him.

Between talks, we enjoyed Lenten treats and had a chance to visit with each other. There were women attending from many Orthodox churches in the area. It was heartwarming to see the basement filled up with these precious women of all ages. The feeling of unity was a blessing, especially as we opened the day with worship, prayer and singing. This sanctified the whole retreat.

I sensed that Mother Gabriella really warmed up to the topic of her second talk, "The Women at the Foot of the Cross." She had obviously thought much about it! In her opening, she stated that the Ancient Fathers say that women can surpass men in spirituality. Just look at the lives of women saints! This brought smiles all around. This whole talk was aimed at affirming the precious value of women, how our Lord Jesus related to them, and how God loves us. This is wonderful news in a world where women are devalued, victimized and downtrodden. This is a wonderful fact that we can share with our women friends who may not be Christians. God affirms women over and over again.

The women at the cross, the Myrrhbearers, were the first to see Christ after His resurrection. They were the first to announce the resurrection. They were the first to hear the angel’s message of "Rejoice! He is risen!" What a privilege God has allowed us women, as shown in this example. I found it encouraging to know how much God loves women.

Again and again, Jesus valued and exalted "women’s virtues" such as gentleness, humility, emotions, healing and forgiveness. Jesus spoke with women in many Bible stories, treated them like persons, and had spiritual discussions with them. Women showed up in His parables. Many of Jesus’ friends and disciples were women. Jesus affirms what He intended from the beginning--women were created equal to men, and God loves them equally.

Speaking on the role of women in life, she shared from Proverbs 31 and explained how that old saying "behind every great man is a great woman" is really Scriptural. Laughing and nods of yes, indeed, could be seen throughout the audience. And what is women’s work? To be "co-workers with God," nurturing the souls of those in their households, taking charge of children and their spiritual education, taking care of the house and the physical needs of everyone in the home. Mother was emphatic: This is not inferior work! Women keep the home intact and holy. This is a great thing and a reassurance for those who are stay-at-home moms or who might feel devalued in our roles as women. I was a bit in awe to realize the great responsibility we have in God’s work. God is counting on us.

Mother concluded her talk by sharing that at the end, our focus should be on our souls, on our relationships with each other, on our relationship with God, on our journey to Paradise. We are journeying together. We do not exist by ourselves. We need others to affirm our existence and to share our lives. This was a great wrap up of what the Women’s Retreat was all about--sharing the faith, sharing our fellowship, being women of the Orthodox faith together. God bless you, Mother, for this inspiration!

(Author’s note: I am new to St. Luke’s and just learning about Orthodoxy. I hope to become a catechumen soon. It was a blessing to be able to attend the retreat and to learn more about the Faith, and to fellowship with all the lovely women of our parish.)

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