Monasticism and the Church

This landmark address by the Abbot of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery is one of the primary motivators behind the effort to launch The Northern Thebaid Pilgrimage Project as quickly as possible. The Project can help foster a “culture of monasticism” in the Church, one which continually turns our hearts and minds towards prayer, pilgrimage, and the one thing needful.

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“The health of the Church in a particular area can be measured by the health of monasticism in that area, and thus the relation of monastic life to the greater Orthodox Church in America is one that concerns all the faithful.”

Address of Abbot Schema-Archimandrite Sergius of St. Tikhon’s Monastery to the 18th OCA All-American Council

St Tikhon’s Monastery, July 26, 2015

FrSergiusBowyer-AACDuring the 6th Plenary Session of the 18th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America, Archimandrite Sergius, the abbot of St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Waymart, PA addressed the delegates concerning monasticism and its role in the contemporary American Church.

His address is of interest to all the faithful for as he noted both monastics and married laity are “called to live 100% for our Lord 100% of the time,” and the monastic life has traditionally been accepted as the inspiration for the laity. As St. John of Climacus wrote: “Angels are a light to monks, and the monastic life is a light to men.” The health of the Church in a particular area can be measured by the health of monasticism in that area, and thus the relation of monastic life to the greater Orthodox Church in America is one that concerns all the faithful.  

In his practical talk Fr. Sergius gives three points for encouraging the growth of Orthodox monasticism in America which, like the Orthodox Church in general, is small in comparison to other ‘churches.’

The first and most important point is to “Never disdain or discourage any vocation” to monasticism, the priesthood or any clerical office. To do so will hinder the call of God in that person’s life.

Archimandrite Sergius secondly encourages pilgrimages to monasteries to benefit from the spiritual atmosphere there and, finally, to be inspired by the example of prayer that monasteries set for the Church.

Monasticism effects the entire Church:

We, as members of Christ’s body, can and must support the building and growth of monasteries and monastic vocations. By so doing, we invest in the well-being and preservation of the Church as well as in the “churching” of America. Through the monasteries, organic Orthodox life will grow and flourish, and acting like a catalyst, it will empower and inspire local parishioners to give more of their own hearts and lives to God and to prayer. The power that emanates from a monastery is not only real and tangible, it is intensely powerful, life-creating and life-changing.

PDF Version • Audio Version (MP3)

The full text of Fr. Sergius’ address is below:
Continue reading “Monasticism and the Church”

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What is Photography?

A Theology of Photography

AnselAdamsadobechurch
Church, Taos Pueblo Nat’l Historic Landmark, New Mexico, 1942; Ansel Adams.

When it comes to landscape photography, there is perhaps no one better known to the general public than Ansel Adams, and I gladly list him as a primary inspiration of mine. But in addition to Adams, I would like to mention two other photographers who have greatly impacted my work and approach to the craft: John Sexton, and Minor White.  In presenting my inner approach to photography, a brief discussion of these three figures has direct bearing on the merits of The North American Thebaid Photographic Pilgrimage Project.

Ansel Adams was a towering figure in photography, a technical master of composition, exposure, developing and printing, with a highly refined sense of light. However, Minor White, while less well known to the general population, had (I believe) a deeper, more philosophical and even spiritual approach to photography than Adams, as this quote of his reveals:

While we cannot describe its appearance (the equivalent), we can define its function. When a photograph functions as an Equivalent we can say that at that moment, and for that person the photograph acts as a symbol or plays the role of a metaphor for something that is beyond the subject photographed… One does not photograph something simply for “what it is”, but “for what else it is”. (Source, emphasis in original.)

white-two-barns
Two Barns, Minor White.

One biographer of White notes that “White was a deeply religious man whose whole life was a spiritual journey. His photography arose out of this and was an inherent part of this pilgrimage. It isn’t an approach that has been fashionable in academic circles in recent years.” (Emphasis added.) Continue reading “What is Photography?”

What is a Holy Pilgrimage?

This article, originally a talk given by the author at the Skete of St. Seraphim of Sarov in Moss Beach, California some twenty years ago, breathes the fragrance of the Thebaid, and movingly conveys the Orthodox ‘phronema’, the Mind of the Church, which reminds us that,

“The whole aim of our life is to become holy, that is to become saints, to achieve union with God…”

Somehow, the process of pilgrimage is key to the success of that effort.

In this life-long effort,

“a holy pilgrimage is something which is ‘set apart’ and different from our normal day-to-day activities; it is supposed to be something ‘other-worldly’…”

“Therefore”, Fr. Ambrose urges us, we must have an understanding of the ‘inner’ pilgrimage, the pilgrimage within our hearts,” the pilgrimage which leads to repentance and conversion.

The Church provides us with the “map” for this journey, this life-long, life-changing pilgrimage, which can lead us, as he says, “from this life to the next, from earthly life to eternal life.”

Venturing on holy pilgrimages to the sacred monasteries across North America can help transfigure and change our hearts, so that we, in truth, may begin to live our entire life as pilgrims sojourning towards our heavenly homeland.

Fr. Ambrose, Pascha 2013; Skete of the Entrance of the Theotokos, Hayesville OH.

by Schemahieromonk Ambrose (Young), of the Entrance of the Theotokos Skete, Hayesville OH.

In October of 1888 the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, not yet an Orthodox Christian but still a Lutheran, went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with her Russian Orthodox husband, the Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovitch. From Jerusalem she wrote the following to her grandmother, Queen Victoria of Britain:

“My very dear Grandmama,

“All our journey we have had very little time for writing letters, but having a quiet morning I use the opportunity of sending you a few lines from this Holy Town. It is such an intense joy being here and nay thoughts constantly fly to you all, praying God to bless you with every possible blessing…. It is such a dream to see all these places where Our Lord suffered for us and such an intense comfort to have been able to come to Jerusalem …. one can quietly pray and recall all that, as a little child, one already heard with such religious awe.” (Quoted in Lubov Millar, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia: New Martyr of the Communist Yoke)

In today’s world, especially in Europe and America where there is a certain amount of affluence, individuals and families do not go “on pilgrimage”; they “take vacations.” They go skiing, or they go to Disneyland, or they travel as tourists to see some interesting — but usually non-Orthodox, non-religious — places and sites.

Our forefathers in the old countries, however, knew nothing about such things as vacations; they only knew about pilgrimages. They lived longing for the day when they could go on a pilgrimage to the shrine of some wonderworking icon or a saint. This was their concept of a vacation — something that would nourish the soul rather than give rest to the body, for the body, they knew, would soon disappear into the grave, when the soul would go on into eternity and there find its reward or punishment, according to the way of life it had led with the body on this earth.

The title of this article is “What is a Holy Pilgrimage?” Such a title suggests that there is such a thing as a “holy” pilgrimage as opposed to an “unholy,” profane, or secular journey.

The English word “holy” comes from the Middle English, halig, which is derived from the Old English, hal (hail), which means “whole” or complete, not divided or broken up. This seems to reflect the Savior’s own command to us, that we be perfect, even as your Father Who is in Heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48). He could as well have said, “Be ye holy, even as your Father Who is in Heaven is holy.” Or “Be ye whole…” (Our English word “heal”–as when the Lord healed the paralytic–comes from exactly the same Old English term for “whole” and “holy.”) So, by “holy” we commonly mean something or someone that is exalted or worthy because it is perfectly good and righteous or filled with virtue. We also use the word “holy” interchangeably with “divine” or “heavenly”; thus, we say “Holy God,” or “the Most Holy Mother of God.” A less common but very useful word is “hallow,” which also comes from the same root as holy and whole, but means something that has been made holy or is set apart for holy use. Thus, we sometimes speak of a shrine as a “hallowed place.”

All of these words –whole, heal, hallow–are therefore closely related in English to our word “holy.”

Continue reading “What is a Holy Pilgrimage?”

The Project

Concept

St Gregory Palamas - 75The North American Thebaid  is conceived to be both pilgrimage and publication, resulting in a large-format coffee table book of fine art photographic images, with select, inspiring texts, covering as many of the monastic settlements in North America as God allows.

My plan is to travel over approximately a two-year period, staying for a few to several days at a time at various monasteries and sketes, living, praying and working with the monastics, while creating numinous, compelling images of the sacred space, the grounds, the life and the worship of these communities. In between my stays at monasteries, I will be presenting the “work in progress” at parishes, planting seeds, making connections, and thereby helping “expand the mission” of the Orthodox Church in America.

Sample images and prototype book available. PDF of the prototype book is available by request at no charge.

Inspiration

The “Thebaid” was the Egyptian desert where 4th century Christians went to flee the world and devote themselves to seeking God in prayer and solitude – the first monasteries were born there. A thousand years later there developed a “Northern Thebaid” in the north of Orthodox Christian Russia. Then in the late 18th century, Russian monks brought the Orthodox Christian faith to Alaska and North America.  Now there are dozens of monasteries here.

Continue reading “The Project”