This past weekend found me in Ligonier, PA for the second annual Ancient Faith Writers and Podcasters Conference (AFCon), along with about 75 other writers and content producers. I had only a dim and foggy notion of what to expect, some vague idea of what might be transpiring — lectures, meals, conversation – for I really knew no one there except for Fr. Andrew Damick, who rode out with me (and who’s now been my priest for almost six years; two people there are Facebook friends whom I had yet to meet.) Also, the whole forum could be thought of as “new media”: bloggers, ebook writers, web content providers, podcasters. Sure, I’ve been to lots of conferences, and have made lots of contacts and gotten lots of publishing opportunities out of them, but this was a different animal entirely. At past conferences, almost all academic, I’ve heard some great papers and lots of worthless ones as well, and truthfully, I thought this might be the same. I was (the mercenary side of me) looking for people to aid me in a venture for the Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture, namely The Basilian Journal. In fact, I did find this, and so AFCon stood akin to other conferences I had attended as regards networking. But it differed markedly from all of them as well.
Meeting at the picturesque Antiochian Village, almost none of those gathered were academics, but they all had a thirst for knowledge and a desire to communicate it that I find only in the most ardent and dedicated of my colleagues. These were people who paid their own freight (and some brought their spouses and infants along with them), and who came not as some duty expected of them by the academy, but from sheer love of the art (the blog, the podcast). I met people who were publishing magazines, writing children’s books, penning fantasy novels (which I intend on buying), creating akathists and canons (in the future), and producing poetry and music. There were such there as (dare I say) that great Renaissance man, Fr. Barnabas Powell, who not only authored books and hosted podcasts, but consistently produced content for his blog, “Faith Encouraged.” He wasn’t the only one who was cranking out the content (he was recognized along with Fr. Damick and Elissa Bjeletich by Ancient Faith Ministries for all their contributions). All of them were eager and excited to tell me what they were doing, and were delighted to hear about the Orthodox Center. Some of them pulled me aside to find out about the Center, and some I fell into conversations with that lasted throughout the meals and over coffees (and sometimes multiple coffees even into the night).
The participants also differed in that they kept far worse hours than the other conferences I have attended. Sure, at the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference we can stay up way too late, but generally we have no obligations in the AM, or at the earliest not till 8:30 AM. But at AFCon, however late were the hours kept, almost everyone was in the chapel by 7 AM for Matins. Wonderfully sung by gifted chanters at the choir stand, perhaps more wonderful still, everyone else was singing the office as well. Afterward, while we went forward to venerate the icons, the choir would chant something, and many would sing along. Now, 16th Century Conference is not immune or even averse to piety, but at AFCon it was de rigueur, and this only made the rest of the conference that much more endearing. Needless to say, when I got home I was exhausted, and was still so even into Sunday night. It was glorious!
The sessions also differed in that they aimed at improving the auditors’ craft, molded around the art of writing. In many ways these were things I had known and thought about for a long time (I’ve published on writing and education, and the study of the Renaissance demands this of its suppliants). Bill Marianes’ points about Teaching, Preaching, and Reaching I immediately connected to grammar, logic, and rhetoric (and spun out in my mind all the possible translations of the same). And while I can say “nothing new” the sessions still made me reassess how I was approaching my craft, and what poor habits I needed to address, what obstacles I threw up in my own way (addressed in Nicole Roccas’s workshop), and how I could better employ my imagination (Bev. Cooke). This last workshop actually drew out of me a desire to return to my own efforts at fiction, along with a nascent and I hope not stillborn idea for a story. I had mentioned this to one of the participants who knew immediately which book I must obtain and read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest to help develop this foundering infant. Thus, the “nothing new” actually translated into “know thyself,” and of course, writing (and reflecting) is always rewriting.
The last way this conference differed, and already adumbrated in my previous paragraphs, concerned the people attending. Other conferences I had attended were certainly not innocent of warmth, charm, conviviality, and grace; and while participants at other conferences had real interests in my work, I found this conference overrun by such a surfeit of good will on the part of everyone, by such a desire to see others succeed at what they were doing, and by such comity and charity as regards our shared visions, our mutual endeavors for Christ and His kingdom, that I had no desire to end conversations for fear that some other great idea might fall like gold from heaven. I only went to bed on the final night because I knew I had five hours of driving ahead of me the next day.
And this point of shared visions and mutual endeavors actually permeates everything I have written about. Frequently at conferences you can find people who don’t like each other, who think others are hacks, or who curse them for not “doing real history.” (Happily, this has seldom been the case at conferences I have attended, but it certainly is true among the larger historical collegium.) At AFCon you could not escape the sense that all there believed that their success was in some way tied to everyone else’s. In fact, it gave a wonderful picture of what “catholicity” means, that my life in Christ is bound up with all other Christians, and that our efforts all arise from the same Spring, all flow to the same Ocean, and all irrigate the same Gardens. Consequently, I am already blocking out time for next year’s event, and hope that the organizers will take the near unanimous plea that they extend the conference by at least a day, for most did not want it to end.
* “(when speaking of the moment) Stay! Thou art so fair!” Goethe, Faust.