Wednesday, August 19, 2009
My stay at a monastery--Part II
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!