The 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.
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.
The inspiration for this project springs primarily from the example of seminarian Gleb Podmoshensky, whose 1961 pilgrimage to monastic sketes and settlements across the United States, Canada and Alaska, and his photographic slide show from these visits, had an inspiring and pivotal impact on a certain young man: Eugene Rose.
Gleb titled his presentation, “Holy Places in America,” and described his encounter with Eugene as follows:
Before Eugene’s amazed expression, Gleb recalls, “a new world of Apostolic Orthodoxy revealed itself. Color icons and portraits of saints and righteous ones of America; scenes of Blessed Fr. Herman’s Spruce Island in Alaska; renewed miracle-working icons that had been brought to America from Shanghai; abbesses and schemamonks in America; Canadian sketes; Holy Trinity Monastery and New Diveyevo Convent in New York, which brought the tradition of the Optina Elders to America, and so on. I gave a brief explanation of the slides, and of the phenomenon of the martyrdom of Holy Russia. Finally I told of the martyric fate of my father and its consequences, which had brought about my conversion to Christ and had eventually brought me here…
“The lecture was finished. My host, Eugene Rose, the future Fr. Seraphim, drawing in his breath, said, ‘What a revelation!’”
(Excerpt From: Hieromonk Damascene, Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, Chapter 22, St. Herman of Alaska Press, Platina CA, 2012-01-01, iBooks edition.)
As is well known, Eugene and Gleb co-founded, with the blessing of St. John Maximovitch, Archbishop of San Francisco, a missionary brotherhood, bookstore and printing press, which eventually led to the founding of St Herman of Alaska Monastery in the rugged wilderness of Northern California, with Eugene and Gleb tonsured as monks Seraphim and Herman.
Not all Orthodox Christians are so immediately inspired by their first exposure to monasticism. Everyone has his or her own path in life, known to God alone; so it is with monastics and how they are drawn to their calling.
I think of my dear friend Vicki Bellas, now Mother Paula at the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, in the beautiful hills of Western Pennsylvania, who came to embrace the monastic life only after a fruitful career as a school teacher, and later as a missionary to orphans in Guatemala at the Hogar Rafael Ayau.
I call to mind also Monk Seraphim (whom I have yet to meet, but know of through Fr Alexander Fecanin of St Symeon’s Orthodox Church, Birmingham, Alabama), who traveled to Russia and elsewhere tasting of the Orthodox monastic life at some of the great centers like Optina and Valaam, before finding that place within which his heart resonated, at St Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona.
I think of the quiet and deeply inspiring example of Monk Silouan, Superior of Archangel Michael Monastery in Canones, New Mexico, whose life was transformed after his battle with cancer. The nearness of death which he experienced in his struggle, and his healing, infuses his monastic life with the life of Christ, as anyone who has met him can attest. (See also this account of the monastery.)
There is also the new Monastery of St Silouan the Athonite in Sonora, California, founded this summer by the Western American Diocese (ROCOR), “well seasoned by the struggles of its holy predecessors.”
And I think of the new St. Peter’s Monastery being formed in Montana, the fruits of the faithful perseverance of Fr. Innocent and the Brotherhood at the Monastery of St John of San Francisco in Manton, CA. I was deeply inspired to read about St Peter’s in the recent St John e-Newsletter, and thank God for the amazing timing of these ventures. As the renowned eldress Mother Gavrilia (c.f. The Ascetic of Love) would say, “Some people speak of ‘coincidences’, but I speak of ‘encounters’.”
Who will inspire the next generation of American Orthodox monastics? Who will expend their life “in the breach” (cf. Ps 106:23 NKJV), pointing the way for others, sparking and kindling the flame of divine zeal for ascetic labors undertaken out of love for Christ, His Most Pure Mother, the Church and the saints?
In Harmony with the Mission of the Orthodox Church in America
Such is the impetus behind this book project, which seems to dovetail in a most providential way with the words and mission of His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA, and of Archimandrite Sergius, abbot of St Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery in Waymart PA, not to mention with the faithful labours of two of Fr Seraphim Rose’s spiritual sons: Archimandrite Gerasim (Eliel), who, by God’s providence, is likely soon to be consecrated bishop of the OCA Diocese of the South, and Hieromonk Damascene, who in 2013 was raised to the rank of Abbot of St Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina.
From Metropolitan Tikhon’s address to the OCA 18th AAC in Atlanta, July 2015:
The way of the Church is the way of sacrifice and martyrdom… We are here, in North America, called to be apostles and martyrs for Christ…
The Monastic Life can help us because we all have idealized visions of what our monasteries should be, what our parishes should be, what our own spiritual life should be. But true monastics remind us that, while we do need to strive for perfection, yet we are really only wretched creatures in need of God’s love and healing. So we need to strengthen our monastic life in North America…
In addition to supporting our monasteries as institutions, it is important for all of our clergy and faithful to recognize the great contribution that the monastics make to the Apostolic Work of the Church. It has historically been the monasteries that were on the forefront of the missionary endeavors of the Church, beginning with the example of the early Church. But the life of prayer and repentance is required of all of us. We are grateful for the example and the life of the monastics, and we need to encourage our children to consider this sacred life. (Emphasis added.)
Goal and Purpose
Recognizing this Apostolic Work of the Church and the great contribution which monasteries have traditionally made to that holy labor, this photographic pilgrimage must not be misunderstood as merely an opportunity for a fine art depiction of the lives and settings of monks and nuns in North America.
The goal is not a handsome photo book. Rather, the book is but a tool in service of the real goal. The point is not to “abstract” or objectify the monastic way, and inadvertently further distance it from the minds and hearts of Orthodox faithful.
Rather, the purpose is to help make the monastic life vividly and beautifully present and real, and in the best sense of the word, to challenge our Orthodox brothers and sisters, especially young people and children, with the radical, martyric — but also joyful — call to follow Christ, which Metropolitan Tikhon spoke of in his AAC address, and which our monastic brothers and sisters faithfully strive to follow every day.
Nor will this project somehow inadvertently convey a false dichotomy between the monastic and married life, between following Christ through the tonsure and following Him in the world. Here we can apply the counsel of Archimandrite Sergius, Abbot of St Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery, who notes that 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.
The synopsis of Fr. Sergius’ AAC address on the St. Tikhon’s Monastery website continues:
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…
Monasticism affects 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.” (Emphasis added.)
That the concept for The North American Thebaid — conceived during the Winter of 2014-2015, when I was testing the monastic calling myself for three months at St Gregory Palamas Monastery in Hayesville, Ohio — should be so in sync with these recent addresses by Metropolitan Tikhon and Abbot Sergius, is a great encouragement, and leads me to dare hope that I may have found a unique path by which to help “Expand the Mission” and contribute to the “churching of America.”
Funding and Support
Funding for The North American Thebaid is to be sought through crowd-sourcing, donations, and grant applications to the OCA, The Virginia H. Farah Foundation and the Gannister Foundation. (The latter two will next be considering grant applications beginning in July 2016, with award announcements expected in Autumn 2016.)
In addition, the Project Launch Plan details what I call creative “tent-making” (looking to the example of St Paul in Acts 18:1-3), specific, ongoing methods to raise funds to support the endeavor, including sale of fine-art prints and other memorabilia linked to the Project, as well as offering customized photographic services to parishes in appreciation for donations.
From the beginning of the Project, parish visits will be scheduled in-between monastery stays, to present digital slide-shows of these monastic pilgrimages, perhaps receiving collections along the way, and always hoping to inspire followers and supporters of the project. It is my prayer and hope that some potential monastics may also be harvested in this apostolic-like endeavor. As God wills.
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