Advice to Monastic Seekers

Insightful and practical guidance from Archbishop Mark (Arndt) of Berlin, Germany (ROCOR).

Advice to Potential Monastics, an interview with Archbishop Mark of Berlin;  Pravoslavie, August 5, 2013:

markofberlinWhy do people now go to monasteries not from an impoverished life but from a life of comfort, how can one find the right monastery, which of the holy fathers should be read, what is the proper relationship of a monastic to parents, should the internet be used, and why should young hieromonks should not be assigned to parishes? Archbishop Mark (Arndt) of Berlin, Germany and Great Britain, the head of the Monastery of St. Job of Pochaev, answers these questions.

—Are more or fewer people seeking the monastic life than before?

—It is difficult to say. I think that the contingent of our faithful is different than it was twenty or thirty years ago. We now have as a whole a greater number of believers, and corresponding to this growth is an increase in the number of monastics. I suppose that when people come from a live of poverty, they are not so inclined to monastic life than if they lived well. A person can more easily deny himself of what he has than of what he does not have.

—What do people expect from monasticism when they come to it today? What disappoints them?

—The most difficult thing—and not only in our time but always—is obedience and the denial of one’s own will. It is met with more resistance, more sharply today when a person lives in complete satisfaction, when the material world gives him all he wants. When there is no poverty, then one must reject all the external glitter, and as I said, this is not so hard. But what is hard is denying your own will. That is the problem.

—Can you learn monasticism from books?

—Books can help, they can give direction, but there is nothing like experience in order to really learn about it, just as any facet of life.

—What would you recommend new monastics to read today?

—First of all the Ancient Fathers: St Macarius of Egypt, St Anthony the Great. There are, of course, more contemporary guides, for example St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), who can help one find the right path. But this cannot replace personal guidance.

—How does one choose a monastery to go to?

—That depends on the country—in some there are many monasteries, in others not even one. In Germany we did not have a convent for many years. We would send our candidates to neighboring France, or to the Holy Land.

Then we were able to open our own convent, because a few women came together who could not leave Germany. These were the external conditions which led to the establishment of a convent.

The choice here is not as easy as, for example, in Russia, Serbia, or Greece.

That is why there is no set rule. Much depends on the spiritual father of the monastery. Let us say a person comes as a pilgrim to some monastery, and he likes it there. He has the opportunity to adjust to this monastery, but he can also visit other monasteries, examine their daily rule, their life, and select the one that suits him best.

I always advise people to visit several monasteries. One monastery may have a set of rules which isn’t for everyone, and thank God, there are many different ustavy [monastic charters. —trans.]. A person should choose the one that suits him best.

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First Monastery Photographs

My first two monastery visits went very well, with moments of quiet and wonder, and some good photographs to begin the North American Thebaid collection.

Apologies for the lapse in postings, but my internet access has been greatly limited while traveling, and I am only now set up wth my new home-base wifi solution in Cincinnati.

I’m including some select images with this post, but promise to have actual galleries up very soon as I finish some initial editing and uploading.

Heartfelt thanks for all the prayers and support. Watch for more updates tomorrow and forward…

St Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery, South Canaan PA

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Market Study confirms: The Thebaid Project is Unique (Updated)

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.

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‘Light in the Desert’, by Tony O’Brien, University of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe.

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.

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St Herman, Elder & Wonderworker of Alaska

First Saint of the North American Thebaid

Herman of Alaska wBells

Saint Herman of Alaska, America’s first canonized saint, was an Orthodox Christian monk of holy life who lived in Valaam Monastery in Russia.

In 1794, along with nine other monastics he was sent to Alaska to evangelize the natives there. In time St. Herman would become the sole survivor of the original missionaries.

Throughout his long life he cared for the natives of the Kodiak area, nursing them in their illnesses, educating them, and defending them from the abuse of the Russian fur-traders. By his meekness and firm faith he won the love and respect of all who came to know him, and inspired many to follow Christ. Eventually settling on nearby Spruce Island, he lived a mostly eremitic life, while also establishing an orphanage for the children of parents who had died during epidemics.

By the power of God, St. Herman was able to see into the hearts of others, as well as into the future. He worked miracles during his life, such as stopping a forest fire and a tsunami by his prayers. To this day he remains a wonderworker, healing the souls and bodies of those who ask for his intercessions before the throne of God.

The Importance of St Herman for Orthodox Christians in America Today

When we really stop to reflect upon what Blessed Father Herman accomplished in Alaskaand what his significance is for us todaywe should be stunned by his humility, his selflessness, and his simple and pure dedication and obedience to his original mission to bring the Orthodox Faith to his new land.

The greater part of his forty-plus years in Alaska he lived alone, tirelessly caring for the native Alaskan peoples who, seeing the Love of Christ embodied in their beloved “Apa” (grandfather) became themselves pious and faithful Orthodox Christians. We should be similarly moved  and converted in our hearts by Elder Herman’s witness. As one monastic writer in North America has put it:

The first saints God raises up in a country contain a special message about what Orthodoxy must be like for that nation.  Thus, Sts. Boris and Gleb for Russia—the passion bearers.  And it is not a coincidence that Holy Russia begins with passion bearers and ends with passion bearers (the royal martyrs) and a whole host of New Martyrs!

So what is the lesson the Lord wants American Orthodox like us to learn from St. Herman? He was a meek and humble monk, not even a priest, but a strong witness against injustice and a confessor of the true Faith.  These are the qualities, I believe, that Orthodoxy in America must emulate.  But so far, we aren’t.  We are obsessed with jurisdictional administrative issues, while the inner life of the Church—which leads to repentance and deification through humility—is largely neglected at the official, organizational, level…

We need a ‘revival’ inspired by St. Herman!

— Schema-Hieromonk Ambrose (Young)

Therefore, let us persevere in our faith and in doing good, being inspired in the depths of our hearts by our beloved Elder and Wonderworker, St Herman of Alaska, that we may embody his teaching:

From this day,  from this hour,  from this minute,  let us love God above all, and strive to fulfill His holy will!

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Doubt and the Monastic Journey

“To the reader, it will hardly sound surprising that the evil one is far from thrilled to hear that a man or woman wishes to profess monastic vows. If we imagine the whole body of the Church as an army of the faithful here on earth regarding the spiritual life, monks and nuns are like the elite special-ops teams. We stand on the front lines of the battle for the world, and the enemy sends the fiercest attacks against us.”

by Monk Kilian, Pravmir, July 7, 2010:

Within the Tradition of our Church, monastic tonsure is considered a sacrament, a holy mystery, and thus forms for the monk or nun a liminal event in life.

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(Photo of monastic tonsure included with the original article in Pravmir.)

Many sources consider tonsure to the schema a “second Baptism,” and having been recently tonsured myself as a stavrophore monk, I can vouch for the aptness of this description. Tonsure is the beginning of another life: all sins are washed away, the old man is laid aside, and a new person is born with a new name, given by the abbot or abbess and taken by the newly-enrolled soldier of Christ in love and obedience.

Like any mystery in the Church, tonsure itself and life as a fully professed monk is hard to put into words; I must admit I was a bit daunted by the task of speaking of doubt and tonsure simply because it defies expression on many levels. As with baptism or marriage, you cannot fully know what to expect on the other side of the font or the next day after the wedding. At these thresholds of our life in the Church, we have to leap out in faith, trusting that God is leading us along His path.

I had been a monastic for five years before my tonsure, and when I first entered the monastery, I was chomping at the bit to be tonsured into the schema. I had no clue about the hard work, both physical and spiritual, that monastic life would lay on me in order to peel away at least some of the passionate crust around my heart in order to begin to see who I really was, and who God wanted me to be.

Yet this process, as necessary as it may be, is also very frightening. Over the past few years, I’ve had to confront my own weaknesses in a very matter-of-fact way. I’ve had to humble myself (or be humbled, as it were) and deny myself: my way of thinking, my desires for my life, my understandings of where life was going.

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Inspirations

Bl Fr Seraphim - 015The inspiration for the North American Thebaid Photographic Pilgrimage 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:

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St Brendan’s Voyage – An Inspiration for the Thebaid Pilgrimage Project

ThroughAMonksEyesHere is a deeply inspiring contemplation (podcast) of the life of St Brendan the Voyager, the Irish monk who set out on his epic pilgrimage with no destination, yet who found his eternal, spiritual destination, and made an enduring impact on Christianity in the British Isles, Ireland and Scotland as a result. He has quickly become an inspiration to me for the North American Thebaid Photographic Pilgrimage Project, and perhaps will be for your Christian walk as well! I hope he inspires you to follow along with me as we prepare to launch the Thebaid Crowdfunding Campaign, which will enable travel and photography to begin later this Summer!

St Brendan: the Questioning Heart

Through a Monk’s Eyes Podcast, Ancient Faith Radio; Fr. Seraphim Aldea of the Mull Monastery of All Celtic Saints shares about the life of St. Brendan. Audio Podcast: Length: 23:57

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A Call for ‘Radical Monastic Renewal’ within the Orthodox Church

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Nothing less “than a radical renewal and growth of monasticism within Orthodoxy will meet the crisis of the coming deluge.”

From ‘A Festival of Celtic Orthodoxy’, by Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things Blog, May 12, 2016:

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Celtic Christianity was the role of monasticism. The missions to the Celts occurred mostly after the rise of desert monasticism, indeed, they were pretty much coincident. For whatever reason, monastic Christianity and all that accompanies it took deep root among the Celts and the English as well…

But the monastics in the British Isles, like the monastics across the Christian world of Late Antiquity, became a primary force within the whole of Church life. They were missionaries. They were librarians. They were copyists. They were authors. They were hymnographers. They were a hedge against the power of the state. They were protectors of Orthodox teaching.

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Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery begins 40th year

OCA, Holy Myrrhbearers, May 13, 2016:

Myrrhbearers-2016-0513-otegony1His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, will preside at the celebration of the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy marking the opening of the 40th anniversary year of Holy Myrrhbearers’ Monastery here on the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearing Women, May 15, 2016.

The Divine Liturgy, to which the faithful are warmly invited, will begin at 10:00 a.m. in the monastery chapel.  An informal “Agape” fellowship hour will follow.

“Throughout the week of May 15, we will have an informal Open House, ending with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, May 21,” said Mother Raphaela, Abbess.  “In addition, while we no longer schedule formal ‘pilgrimage’ days, the monastery chapel will be open daily for monastic services and quite prayer.  Everyone is always welcome!”
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New Feature: Videos on Orthodox Monasticism

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Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos Greece (photo by R. Sidway)

For some time I have been collecting videos on Orthodox Christian monasticism in North America and from around the world. I’ve created a couple of special YouTube playlists to share these glimpses into the monastic way, and have set them up on a special Video page.

Also included is the promo video for the North American Thebaid Photographic Pilgrimage Project, which will be widely distributed when we (soon!) launch the crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the initial travel and photography to begin.

Be sure to sign up for email updates, and watch for a special page on Podcasts and Audio features on monasticism coming soon, and a list of suggested books.