Friday, July 17, 2009

Reflections on a stay at a monastery--Part 1

July 13, 2009

Today, I got up much later than I wanted to. But after spending several days with the Warwicks and their kids, I felt that I needed the extra time to sleep so that I had as much energy as I could before I began my stay at the monastery of St. Gregory Palamas in Perrysville, OH.

I got underway, finally, by about 8:15. I didn’t need to stop for gas as I had filled up the night before. It was a fairly uninteresting 4.5 hour drive from Louisville. I did get to drive through the city centers of both Cincinnati and Columbus. At least, now, I can say that I have been to them. All along the way I was trying to picture what it would be like here. I’ve seen pictures, but that doesn’t even begin to capture the heart of the monastery. I arrived a little after 1:00. I had initially missed the monastery on the left hand side of the road (it’s not very big). At the same time, this place is not exactly isolated—there are homes right next door to this place and it’s not uncommon to hear cars passing by.

I wasn’t sure as to w here I should go. There is a house at the top of the hill so I got out and went to the house and rang the door bell. The door was answered by a young monk, whom I assume is a novice since he said nothing. Novices are not silent to be rude but so that they may direct their energies to the contemplative life. I was introduced to Fr. Michael who was very courteous and gracious to me. He put me in a waiting area and Fr. Joseph then came to greet me.

Fr. Joseph and I had about a twenty minute talk about this desire I have to perhaps becoming a monk. I know that this is not something to just jump into and over and over, I felt the need to clarify or to justify that I am still searching for what my life’s purpose is. He was quite patient with me and then took me around the grounds.

He first showed me the temple which is, of course, dedicated to St. Gregory Palamas, the 14th century bishop and saint who correctly affirmed the teachings of the Church that we, as created beings, cannot partake of the essence of God, but commune with Him through His energies, such as grace, compassion, mercy, love, etc. He also reaffirmed that it was through active contemplation and prayer that true communion can be reached. This was in direct contradiction to the monk Barlaam of the Roman Catholic Church, who was far more scholarly and more intellectual in his approach to God, that prayer almost became an afterthought. In my conversation with Fr. Joseph, I frequently referred to my desire for true, deep contemplative prayer which the western traditions had failed to offer me and which I cannot do by simply praying by myself, though I have tried. I think he understood.

Back to the temple, he also told me that this temple had originally been built by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, an Old Calendar Greek Archbishop (Old calendar churches are those that are 13 days behind the western calendar; though the Church of Greece in 1923 decided to go with the new calendar, or the one that the west uses, many felt betrayed by this such as Archbishop CHRYSOSTOMOS and others). Anyway, the Old Calendar Greeks didn’t have the financial means so this was acquired later on by Metropolitan MAXIMOS of the Metropolitanate of Pittsburgh in 1983.

The temple is not very large. It has a dome, but there is no Pantocrator icon there. Fr. Joseph explained that the old calendar Greeks didn’t insulate the temple too well so that icons or frescoes would be more susceptible to the elements. They are trying to fix that now. Fr. Joseph also pointed out to me a copy of an icon painted by St. Luke, called the Pontian Theotokos. It is a wonderworking icon. Apparently, what had happened is that when the Greek population of Turkey was forced out in 1923 by the Kemal Ataturk government, they left and forgot the icon only to come back later and reclaim it. Copies of this icon were distributed and this monastery has one. The icons all around the church are copies. There are stalls for the monks and two apses for the chanters. As this temple is dedicated to St. Gregory Palamas, it has as a secondary feast, that of the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mt. Tabor (Aug. 6) since that feast day recalls that we must make a distinction between the energies and essence of God.

Fr. Joseph then took me around to show me where two monks are buried and also this huge hole in the ground which is the beginning for preparing larger guest facilities for pilgrims and visitors. As their secondary feast is that of Holy Transfiguration, every year there is a pilgrimage here where Orthodox from areas such as Canton, Columbus and Cleveland and even Bishop MAXIMOS himself will come. This usually happens around August 8. So they want to build bigger guest facilities to house them.

Fr. Joseph then took me to an earlier attempt at a guest house which is built on stilts. It is now used as temporary storage. There are two upstairs rooms, very small and you have to take a very narrow staircase to get up there. I’ll guess they will get around to them.

We then visited the garden. Fr. Joseph tends to this. They have a whole array of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, herbs, fruits, etc. planted here. This is used for the sustenance of the monastery. Fr. Joseph said that this garden has more than halved their grocery bill. He was going to show me the beehive but I was hesitant as I do not much care for bees. Fr. Joseph understood.

He then showed me my room in the guest house. There are two rooms each with two beds. I am the only guest here for the next few days. It’s nothing fancy but it doesn’t need to be. I put my things in and I then helped Fr. Joseph peel beats while we were talking. I also met Fr. Gregory, a monk who is here from Cyprus. Maybe I can practice my Greek with him!

Fr. Joseph didn’t have anything else for me to do so I went to my room to unpack a few things. I still was a little tired from my trip today so I laid down though I was reading this pamphlet on the life of Bishop Varnava of Serbia. Actually, he was born here in the United States but had a calling to go to Serbia at the time of World War II where he was not only tonsured a monk but also made a bishop. He resisted the Ustashe and was later tried and put into prison and hard labor by the communists. He died as a faithful servant.

I waited until it was time for 9th hour and Vespers which is 5:00. I decided to go a little early and to read some of the psalter. About 20 minutes prior to Vespers, a monk came in and started lighting the candles and then went outside to play the semitron, which is a wooden plank that is hit with certain rhythms announcing to the monks that it is time to cease your work and come to pray. As there are only six monks, this temple is not crowded. I took a place in a stall on the left side of the temple in the back so as not to disturb any of the monks. 9th hour was entirely read by a monk and a priest standing in the back of the church. I must confess that one of the monks spoke so lightly and seemed to slur his words. I couldn’t understand but as these guys pray 9th hour every day, I’m sure that they knew what was going on. At. St. Mary’s we pray 9th hour on Saturdays, but I’m still not that familiar with it.

Vespers began in the traditional way. The chanting was minimal as this was a daily Vespers and not a Great Vespers. Thus, the entrance hymn "O Gladsome Light" was said not chanted. "O Lord I Have Cried" was done antiphonally in tone 4 with the stichera provided from the Little Octoechos and the Saint of the Day, St. Aquila. The "Lord Have Mercy" was done very quick and without flourish. There was also very little ison in any of the hymns. Though I am a chanter, I was not about to start stepping in and providing one. The Greek tradition of chanting varies from the Arabic in some key ways and now was not the time to get into a jurisdictional stylistics argument. We read the sixth Kathisma of the Psalter in its entirety. This is a monastic tradition—to read selected portions of the Psalter at both Orthros (Matins) and at Vespers. Very few parish churches do this and if they do, they do it in abbreviated form as the Russian Churches do it.

The whole atmosphere was prayerful and that is precisely what I wanted. At the end of Vespers, the monks all venerate the icons and ask forgiveness of each other. I then proceeded to go back to the house where dinner was to be served. I waited in the same room when I had first arrived. When the bell rang, that announced it was time to eat. The food was blessed and we began eating. One of the monks read from the writings of the Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos. I did my best to be both attentive and to eat without looking foolish. The writings dealt with modern day heresies and particularly to 666. At the end, we rose for a blessing and said Little Compline in the hall. We then venerated the icons and asked for Fr. Joseph’s blessing. I asked if there was anything else I could do to help and he said no so now I’m in my room typing this.

Activities are to be reduced at night. Signs throughout the guest quarters ask visitors to observe the Great Silence from 8 pm to 9 am the next day. As most of these monks are sure to be in bed probably by 8, after a long day’s work, I’m sure that the last thing they want to hear is guests talking loudly in their rooms or playing music or doing anything of that sort. As I am alone, I will not be talking to anyone. I have even shut my phone off for the duration of my stay here.

I am really hopeful and prayerful that I will have a blessed time here. I want to embrace this time totally as one for spiritual retreat and renewal. I don’t know if I’ll be able to articulate what I see and observe. I don’t even know if what I see should be even recorded in this little journal. I don’t know if what will happen here will even prove to be that significant. Maybe it’s not supposed to. I am looking forward to spending the next two days here. I’m going to turn in early, well, early for me. It’s now 7:54 pm EDT. I will be up at 3:15 for the Midnight Office, Orthros and 1st Hour which start at 4:00. Now that’s early.

And it was evening and it was morning on the fourth day. And we’re still here.

Glory to God for all things.

July 14, 2009

I cannot recall the last time I woke up at 3:15 am. Actually, I had problems sleeping. I was so concerned that I would sleep through the alarm and miss the midnight office, Orthros and first hour, that I seemed to wake up every hour just to see if I was possibly late. At 3:15, I jumped out of bed, took a shower, got dressed. At about 3:40, I heard the first beats of the semintron so I walked into the church. It was so dark; only one candle was lit and this was by the Pontian Icon of the Theotokos painted by St. Luke. Even though the moon shone brightly, inside the church was complete darkness. I don’t think St. Mary’s on Pascha morning was ever this dark.

The darkness compounded the experience for the light of Christ illumines all whether we see it or not. I later told Fr. Joseph about this and he responded that his spiritual father remarked that it is good to have services in the dark because many people commit sins in the dark because they think God cannot see their evil deeds so we pray in the evening to remind those individuals that if God hears our prayers then, he can surely see iniquity. I like that.

One monk, a novice, is responsible for the lighting of all the candles which he does in a certain order. Even when the icon screen candles are lit, the candelabra lamps are lit, several other lamps in front of icons of certain saints, the church is still shrouded in darkness. Our prayers will make the up the rest of the light. We began with the prayers upon awakening which I had already said, but no big deal and then moved to the Midnight Office. I have prayed the midnight office several times before and, on weekdays, Psalm 118 is prescribed in its entirety and it is a long psalm and is divided into three stases. The nice thing about Psalm 118 is that a lot of the vocabulary is repeated. Now I know the basics of this Psalm and I know the first 12 verses by heart, but whoever was reading this was reading it so softly and with such a slurred voice I couldn’t understand where he was. Again, I realize that these monks have said this psalter hundreds of times in their lives and know it by heart, but still… Anyway, we began Orthros. This was no major feast (Aquila) so there was not a lot of festal hymns. The chants were again minimalistic but very nice though, again, not much ison. Both of the appointed kathismata of the Psalter were also read (something that we have never done at St. Marys). The one thing that struck me about this Orthros was that for the first time I heard an entire canon. The first and ninth odes were chanted; the rest simply read. However, the reader was not easily understood; I did my best to understand and follow, but no luck.

As we began the Ainoi (Praises), which were read, not chanted nor with any stichera, I noticed that the sun was coming up and starting to fill the church through its dome. I thought that was particularly appropriate since one of the verses of the Praises is "Praise Him, O Sun and Moon!"

Following morning prayers, I went back to my room to lie down for maybe a few minutes. I didn’t have my watch on since I wanted to experience this without having to worry about time like I do at St. Mary’s. Nearly 3 hours had elapsed! That’s usually the time just for Orthros and Liturgy on a Sunday morning! I didn’t get a chance to lie down since one of the novices fetched me for breakfast. After breakfast, Fr. Joseph said that I could visit where they made candles. The novice, whose name was Christopher, explained to me the procedures for making the candle. It is not a difficult process and I suppose that is intentional as it allows the candle maker to not only perform his job but also to be in prayer and contemplation at the same time. We started talking plainly about other things though I tried to be careful about what questions I would ask him. As he is a novice and still young (he has been a novice for three years), I did not want to create any disturbances that could be perilous to his journey. However, we just started talking about what was going on in the Orthodox world. He asked me about my background and I found out a little about his. He was dipping the candles in the wax without missing a beat. I even got to try. It’s an art, not a science. It’s also very messy work! So now I understand how all those tapers are made.

Following this, I desired to back to my room and read, but Fr. Joseph soon came in and asked if I would help with a mailing that they are doing. I said that I was at a good stopping place so I went in and started folding sheets in half. I must have been doing this for a good 2.5 hours or so. I must have done 1000 or something. All the while, I was not concentrating on the work itself, but on praying the Jesus Prayer which is, for those of you who don’t know it "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner." I felt myself getting into a rhythm. Every time I would take up a sheet and fold it, I would say the prayer twice. I have tried saying the Jesus Prayer before with the aid of a prayer rope, but I think this is the first time that I have said it this consistently and this long! Now that is not to say that I can now see the uncreated light of God! I still have very far to go with that.

While I was doing this, other visitors had shown up. A Greek priest, Fr. Yanney and one of his parishioners, Adam had stopped by. I continued doing what I was doing until I had finished up everything. Afterwards, I went into the atrium where Adam was sitting and reading and I joined in until noon when Akathist was said and lunch served. Lunch was very good. Good salad, potatoes, broccoli, a kind of cheese pastry, bread, etc. While we ate, we listened to one of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies read by Fr. Maximos. After lunch, Adam and I went back to the atrium and talked there. He had just converted and was learning to chant and to learn Greek. I found out that he had studied Akkadian, cuneiform and Sumerian at Oxford University. And I thought that I studied dead languages! Fr. Michael soon joined us, saying that if he denied us his hospitality, he’d also be denying our guardian angels, whom we bring with us, hospitality as well. So we started talking about monasticism in the contemporary world and I found the whole talk very enlightening and entertaining. I also found out a few things about Bishop BASIL which I am not allowed to repeat! *

Fr. Yanni and Adam then departed; I’m surprised they stayed as long as they did since they had to get to a baptism in another town and then drive 5 hours back to Pennsylvania where they are from. As soon as they left, I resumed my work that I had started earlier. Fr. Joseph and Fr. Michael were busy entertaining Bishop MARK of the Antiochian Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest. I had met Bishop MARK once before about two years ago. I was hoping to talk with him, but his visit was a very short one and all he did was walk along the grounds and then just leave.

Fr. Gregory sat down with me for a while and we were talking about Cyprus, which is his native land. We were also talking about the Cypriot dialect of Greek, which, according to him, has more in common with the Greek of Homer than the mainland dialect today, even in its pronunciation. However, I still didn’t get a lot of what he was saying. It just confirmed that I still don’t know a lot about Greek! I then proceeded on to work some more and about 4:10, I retired to my room to take a break. I needed it as my back was really starting to hurt so I lay down. I dozed off and thank goodness the semitron rang, otherwise I would have been late or would have missed Vespers!

Vespers was very short since we were not commemorating a major saint tomorrow (St. Julitta and her son Cyriacus) and I went back to the atrium to read before dinner started. Fr. Joseph came in and he asked if I had any questions. I asked a few, but I was really unsure of what to ask since I am still taking a lot of this in. But I did tell him that I would probably come back some time and maybe spend a few more days.

Dinner was quite good and we listened to the same letter of the Elder Paisios of Athos that we listened to yesterday. After dinner, we said compline. Fr. Gregory then showed me the woodworking studio where they made the stalls for the church as well as mounts for icon prints. I then decided to stretch my legs and walk down the road a little bit. I returned and now I am writing this.

Same schedule as tomorrow so I’m off to bed though I really don’t feel tired. I’m sure that once I hit the pillow, I’ll be out!

Glory to God for all things!

July 15, 2009

As I write this, I am sitting in a car repair place in Wentzville, MO (a suburb of St. Louis) waiting for my car to have its front driver’s side tire replaced. After traveling more than 8 hours from Findlay, OH where I stopped off to see my grandmother, whom I have not seen since the funeral of my grandfather six months ago, I thought that it would be smooth sailing the rest of the way to my parents’ house in Kansas City. Alas, such was not to be the case. I have such bad luck with cars. Even when I just talked to my mom a few moments ago, that was the first thing she remarked as well. Fortunately, my guardian angel was watching over me and hopefully, this will just prove to be a minor inconvenience. Before I left the monastery, Fr. Joseph gave me an icon of the Syanxis of the Bodiless Powers and I know that they were watching over me to ensure that I was protected from bodily harm.

I managed to pull into a Quicktrip off of the freeway and, for the first time in my life, I changed the tire and put on the spare. I suppose that the old Greek saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention" is correct. I never had to change a tire before but now that I have done so, necessity proved to be the catalyst for me to do what had to be done. I’m kind of proud of myself for that! *

Well, back to my journal. Yesterday (July 15), I woke up a little later, about 3:35 and then headed down to the church. The church was lit up with vigil lamps. Apparently, Fr. Gregory got there early to illumine the church. It was still very dark. Even outside, the brightness of the half moon was obstructed by the cloud cover. Midnight office began and again we trekked through Psalm 118. I wish the readers would speak up a little more and speak with greater pronunciation. I know that they know the psalms, but I don’t and even though I had my psalter with me, I could not read it because of the darkness of where I was. It was a Doxology commemoration so they chanted the stichera of the praises as well as chanted the Great Doxology. Before the chanting, Fr. Gregory went to the chandelier and lit the candles on the first row. It illumined the church even more as the sun’s rays were starting to break through the windows of the dome.

It was more difficult for me to get through the prayers this morning; I was just very tired and my back was hurting. After the first hour, we then chanted the Paraclesis to the Mother of God which we don’t chant at St. Mary’s until the Dormition Fast which will be here in 2 weeks time! Still, praying for nearly four hours straight was something that I have only experienced during Holy Week. But doing that on a weekday in the "vanilla" cycle of services with no extra special hymns was miraculous. It reminds us that God’s mercy is not just expressed in one or two holy seasons such as Nativity, Theophany or Pascha, but also every day of the year!

Following prayers, I went to my room to lie down for a second and stretch out my back. After that I found Fr. Joseph and he put me to work. I was slicing vegetables which they can. I sliced zucchini, onions, peppers. It was grueling to my back and I needed to stretch out every now and then. Like the previous day, I tried to pray the Jesus Prayer in the midst of this work, but as this was a chore that I was not especially skilled, I felt myself concentrating more on the job than on actual prayer. If this became something I were to do over and over, I suppose that I could pray and work. We then prayed Akathist and had another great lunch. I don’t think I have eaten this well in a long time. Afterwards, I packed up my car to set out for Findlay, OH to see my grandmother. I returned to ask for a blessing from Fr. Joseph which he gave. I say goodbye to the other monks, including Fr. Michael. Fr. Michael is an interesting man. He looks like he could be a serial killer and he has a very strange sense of humor. After prayers that morning, he asked me if I would be interested in taking a crash course in plumbing, electrical work, etc. and get licensed by next Tuesday! Yeah, right. Me, Mr. Nonhandyman! I suppose maybe I dispelled that myth a little bit today when I actually managed to change a tire all by myself, but that’s not going to happen. I think I have a better chance of seeing the uncreated light of Christ before that happens!

After spending 2 ½ days there, let me close with these final thoughts. I think if you were to ask a regular Orthodox Christian about taking a retreat to a monastery, many of them would not be willing to do so. Those who are would probably only want to go to Athos as that as the jewel of Orthodox monasticism. But, as Fr. Joseph told me my first day there, if we desire true retreat from the cares of this world and from the concerns of everyday life, then we should go to a monastery which is not famous, whether for spiritual fathers or architecture or quality of chanting, which is not flooded by people more interested in being tourists than pilgrims. I enjoyed my time. Does this mean that I am closer to becoming a monk? No. I still have much soul searching to do. There is much to desire in a life of constant prayer to our Lord and God and Saviour, but it is a lot of hard work. It is a martyrdom, just as marriage is a martyrdom for both the bride and groom. That is why both the tonsuring of monks and marriage are sacraments in the Holy Orthodox Church. I’m not sure where I will end up. I believe there is a third way, where one can still be unmarried and yet not be in a monastery. I must admit that I would have to give up a lot of things I enjoy. For now, a monastery will be a great place for me to take retreats, but not a place to live the rest of my life.

Glory to God for all things!


Katie said...

I'm glad you had a good time.

Chris said...

Thanks! I did have a good time. It was also very spiritually beneficial.