Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My stay at a monastery--Part I

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.

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