The North American Thebaid is truly unique in the Orthodox Christian world. Market research reveals very few projects similar to this in scope or purpose, and nothing like it in North America. Most photo books on Orthodox monasticism center on exotic and legendary locales such as Mount Athos in Greece, or St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, or on church art and architecture.
Much more than a documentary or photo essay, the images selected for the Thebaid book will resonate with Dostoevsky’s famous dictum, “Beauty will save the world.”
Both inspirational and informational, the Thebaid book will be something to linger over and return to again and again, conveying the unseen mystery and beauty of Orthodox monasticism through visual means, and drawing the viewer to “ask, seek and knock”, and to go deeper into the Orthodox Christian faith.
Because of this podvig of seeking to explore the apophatic, hidden life of the Monastic Way using visual means, I have sought to articulate a ‘Theology of Photography’ (see here and here). It is this emphasis which sets the North American Thebaid Project somewhat apart, and which requires some comparison with other photography books on monasticism.
I am deeply indebted to Archimandrite Gerasim (Eliel) of the OCA Diocese of the South who, in a conversation back in February 2016, urged me to conduct an actual “market study”, to survey and identify photographic books both similar to, as well as different from, my concept for the North American Thebaid. What I discovered is both illuminating, and inspiring.
SIMILAR Monastery-centric photo books
These photographic coffee table books strive to convey the monastic life in images and text. In both purpose and publication format, they are similar to the North American Thebaid:
- Miracle on the Monastery Mountain, photographs and text by Douglas A. Lytle: Chronicle of Professor Lytle’s twenty-two trips to Mount Athos between 1972 and 1998. Large format, 12×12, hardcover, color.
- Radical Love, by Toni Greaves: Color photo essay of the journey of a young woman becoming a Dominican nun. 8×10, hardcover, color images. The style leans more towards photojournalism, with pleasing aesthetics.
- Light In The Desert – Photographs from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, by Tony O’Brien: “Though never a monk himself, O’Brien was welcomed as a full member of the community and expected to partake in the demanding daily rites… Features selections from O’Brien’s 1995 monastery journal.” Large format, 10×13; 72 B&W duotone images. (This book seems to come closest to the aesthetic feel and purpose of the North American Thebaid Project.)
- Athos – Colors of Faith, by Stratos Kalafatis (published in Greece): Stunning images (see here; publisher’s description here). Kalafatis has a distinctive modern style, using creative flash photography blended with available light, varying between vivid colors and soft focus/impressionism. He “dedicated five years to exploration of the monasteries, caves and men of Mount Athos…” Large format, 142 color images, hardcover. (Completely different photographic style from mine, but an amazing publication with similar “pilgrimage approach.”)
DIFFERENT Monastery-centric photo books
These books either explore Orthodox church architecture, or are intended to be travel guides or atlases, and so are different from the Thebaid Project:
- Evlogeite: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Greece, by Nectaria McLees: “Takes you on a fascinating journey through two thousand years of Greek-Christian history, often unknown in the West. From majestic cathedrals to sun-washed hilltop monasteries and village shrines, this is the first comprehensive guide to the holy places where the Greeks themselves go… Accompanying the text are hundreds of photos of Orthodox churches, monasteries, icons, and contemporary Christian life.” Paperback, 8.4″x5.8″, color. (The author, Mother Nectaria McLees, is an Orthodox nun, and co-founder and publisher of Road To Emmaus Journal.)
- St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai – A Photographic Essay, text by Helen C. Evans, photographs by Bruce White: “The book offers powerful photographs, some from the Monastery’s archives, with the descriptive captions written by the monks of the Monastery.” Hardcover, 9×12.5, 96 pages, color. (While the photographs of St. Catherine’s themselves are quite well done, this book does not seek to explore the monastic life of the monks, but treats the monastery as something of a living museum.)
- Monasteries of Greece, by Chris Hellier and Francesco Venturi: A illustrated history of monasteries in Greece, published by St Martin’s Press. Starts with St Catherine’s on Mt Sinai; includes sections on Mount Athos and Meteora. 12.5 x 10, hardcover, color images. A finely done survey, but one emphasizing place and architecture, not the monastic life itself.
- Architecture at the End of the Earth – Photographing the Russian North, photographs and text by William Craft Brumfeld: A fine example of the many photographic studies of church and monastic architecture. 9×12, hardcover, 200 color images. See also Brumfeld’s earlier book, Lost Russia: Photographing the Ruins of Russian Architecture.
- Revelations of Byzantium – The Monasteries and Painted Churches of Northern Moldavia, by Alan Ogden: Another photographic study of Orthodox church and monastic architecture. 12×10, hardcover, color.
- Monastery Guest Houses of North America – A Visitor’s Guide (5th Ed.), by Robert J. Regalbuto: Photographic and travel guide to Roman Catholic monastery guest houses; appeals to travelers looking for a unique retreat or travel experience. 5×8, paperback, color images.
- Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Monasteries, by Alexei Krindatch: Newly published, drawing on extensive research, as well as fascinating stories and ‘insider’ anecdotes, the Atlas offers to readers:
- An introduction into traditions of Eastern Christian monasticism and a history of Orthodox monasteries in America,
- A comprehensive directory of American Orthodox Christian monasteries,
- An enticing travel guide for those seeking to visit American monasteries and to “sample” monastic life.
- In addition, twenty-three selected monasteries share their “personal stories” and offer a glimpse in the surprising spiritual appeal of monastic life in 21st century America.
Regarding the ‘Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Monasteries’
In fact, I believe the exact opposite is true.
Besides the fact that the Atlas is of a very different type and format, the Atlas proves there is growing interest in Orthodox Monasticism in North America, and seeds the target audience with an excellent resource which can only serve to increase that interest and benefit Orthodox Christianity in North America and Orthodox monasticism in general, and the Thebaid Project as well.
I purchased the Atlas when it first came out, and endorsed it on my Thebaid blog, and am already using it for my own travels and research.
Pilgrimage & Publication
Lastly, the North American Thebaid Project is deliberately conceived to be both pilgrimage as well as publication. In a very practical manner, it is not just another book which to the public seems to suddenly appear from nowhere, but an endeavor which invites — and depends upon! — fellow ‘Thebaid Pilgrims’ to join in the journey of its creation, and by doing so hearkens back to inspirations from earlier epochs of Orthodox Christianity.
Just as Seminarian Gleb Podmoshensky set out in the early 1960s to make his way across the northern USA, Canada and Alaska, photographing the ‘Holy Places of America’ (the title of his slide show of his pilgrimage), and relying on contributions from parishes along the way, so I am setting out in faith and hope to photograph the North American spiritual landscape over fifty years later.
And, just as Gleb’s photographic presentation had a dramatic impact on a young man in San Francisco, a certain Eugene Rose (the future Fr. Seraphim Rose, who at that time had not yet even been received into the Orthodox Church), so I hope the North American Thebaid will have a similar impact on new generations of God-seekers today, spurring them on to encounter Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church and perhaps even in the Orthodox monastic tradition.
It is written of the first monastics that they made “The Desert a City”, there were so many who fled the world into the Egyptian Thebaid and the Palestinian desert of the 4th and 5th centuries.
A thousand years later there grew a Northern Thebaid, which spread Holy Orthodoxy across the vast Russian forests and wilderness all the way to the Pacific Ocean in the Far East. It was monks from that Russian Northern Thebaid who brought the Orthodox Christian Faith to North America in 1794, planting deep and resilient roots which are bringing forth much fruit today, yet which face grave challenges.
Together, today, we can help populate the North American Thebaid with zealous citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom. And just as the Egyptian Thebaid Desert became a City, filled with monks and nuns, so might America be baptized and churched by this expanding Orthodox missionary movement, becoming not a mere “city upon a hill”, but perhaps, by the grace of God, a foreshadowing of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, our eternal and true homeland, to which the Lord Jesus Christ shall take us to be with Him, when He comes again in glory at the close of the Age.
Whatever challenges we face — whatever successes, whatever failures — in spreading the Orthodox Christian Gospel across this vast North American Thebaid, we must be mindful of the wisdom from our monastic instructors, such as the afore-mentioned Fr. Seraphim Rose, who encourages us today:
“Our times, above all, call for humble and quiet labors, with love and sympathy for other strugglers on the path of the Orthodox spiritual life and a deep resolve that does not become discouraged because the atmosphere is unfavorable.
“We Christians of the latter times are still called to work persistently on ourselves, to be obedient to spiritual fathers and authorities, to lead an orderly life with at least a minimum of spiritual discipline and with regular reading of the Orthodox spiritual literature …”
— Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky, by Schema-monk Metrophanes; From the Introduction by Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, CA, 1976.
So, I invite you, if you have read this far, if you see any glimmer of value in this fool’s errand, to bless it with your financial contribution and your prayers, and join me on this holy pilgrimage.
with humble thanks…