Monday, October 18, 2010

A Monastery Pilgrimage

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Turning into the narrow monastery driveway at around 10:00 p.m. this past Thursday evening, presvytera and I were certain that it was "lights out" at the monastery and that the rest of sleep had descended on everyone. After all, the mothers and sisters begin Matins at 5:00 a.m. and their rule of prayer in their respective cells begins well before that. Yet, as our headlights cut a path of light in the darkness, there was the illumined figure of Mother Gabriella standing at the end of the driveway, accompanied by the monastery dog. She was patiently awaiting our arrival. Here, already, was a taste of the monastic hospitality that one always experiences at the Monastery of the Holy Dormition in Rives Junction, MI. Mother Gabriela's beaming smile warmed us in the cool night air, and after exchanging greetings, we were directed to the St. Nicholas house, which would be our quarters for our short stay at the monastery. We didn't quite have it in us to return the favor, because we did not make the beginning of Matins at 5:00 a.m., as Mother Gabriella did as the abbess of the community. It was a long drive after a fairly long day ...

Southern Michigan in the Fall can be quite beautiful, and the monastery's rural setting only enhances that beauty since the flaming colors of the trees that surround the monastery were seemingly at their brightest and most diversely-splendid in mid-October. Leaves of golden yellow, bright orange and deep red lent a kind of "burning bush" atmosphere to the blessed grounds of the monastery. A clear, calm and lucidly bright blue sky served to further accentuate that atmosphere. A simple walk through the monastery grounds - a forested path, a small pond with a bridge spanning its two sides, or a rolling field - will calm the rushing of thoughts and endless preoccupations that drain our energies or divert our minds and hearts from the wider perspective of the joy of existence and the goodness of God's creation. One will also encounter the charming "children's garden" and the beautiful new wooden chapel that stands as a sign in the cemetery that those buried there are asleep in the Lord as they await the general resurrection. Hotels with swimming pools, room service and workout rooms may prove to be recreational; but even the briefest of visits to a monastery can help to recreate our fallen spirits and tired bodies in a way that all the conveniences and amenities of life cannot possibly do. The reason is simple: the monastery community exists to the glory of God, and since our souls 'long for God," any serious pilgrim can "feel" how constant prayer to God saturates the very atmosphere of the community. To breath that particular air is spiritually refreshing.

The Monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos is at least twenty years old - perhaps twenty-five - if I am not mistaken. The community was formed as an extension of the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA. I recall that a group from our parish went to participate in the installation of Mother Gabriella as the new abbess in the early 90's. Although the growth of the monastic vocation is not all that promising in today's world, the monastery has remained stable with a small group of tonsured nuns. I believe that there are seven at the moment with what seemed to be another couple of novices. The building projects of the monastery have steadily come to fruition over the years. In addition to being surprised by Mother Gabriella when we arrived, we were further surprised as the walls of a large new church at the center of the monastery loomed up in the darkness. Morning revealed a very impressive structure that will rightfully dominate the space at the heart of the monastery. Groundbreaking occurred this last April, and though there is a long way to go, work on the church is moving along steadily. The goal is for the roof to be completed by the winter. I will look forward to the church's consecration. Over the years, the various monastic quarters, refectory, gift shop and guest houses have been either newly-built or restored. All are done in that monastic style that combines simplicity and aesthetic charm. In addition to having strengthened the spiritual lives of the other nuns as their abbess and spiritual mother; Mother Gabriela will leave a great legacy as a monastery builder. This takes an enormous amount of organizational and fund-raising skills.

The monastery now has a permanent priest in Fr. John who, with his wife, lives down the road in a house owned by the monastery. He is responsible for the full monastic cycle of services that of course is daily in nature and structure. The current chapel has a warm and pious atmosphere enhanced by the chanting and singing of the nuns. While there, I served the Sacrament of Anointing on Friday evening together with Fr. John. Fr. Gregory, a retired priest living near the monastery, and a deacon from Flint, MI also served. With the Seven Epistles and Gospels, together with the accompanying Prayers, this gave the service an even greater sense of fullness. There was an iconography workshop being hosted by the monastery at the time of our visit, so all together, with other visitors who came for the service, there may have been around forty persons who were anointed. A splendid Liturgy on Saturday morning, at which I was invited to serve, brought to a perfect fulfillment our participation in the community's rich liturgical life. All was fulfilled in the Eucharist that we shared together.

The meals in the trapeza (refectory) are always excellent and served with love by the various Mothers as an obedience. In these communal meals, monastic and Romanian-style hospitality combine for an enjoyable experience. The walls of the refectory are surrounded by wonderful iconographic frescoes, and this further combination of simplicity and iconographic beauty makes the trapeza a warm and inviting space. As we eat in silence, one of the nuns reads from the Lives of the Saints or another book of edifying spiritual reflection. The monastic insight here is that the soul and body are nourished together this way.

Presvytera Deborah had the opportunity to speak with Mother Gabriella alone for awhile, and she found that deeply rewarding. I, in turn, was truly blessed by seeing and speaking with Fr. Roman Braga on a couple of occasions. Fr. Roman, a genuine "elder," is now around ninety years of age, still "on his feet," and in possession of his mental faculties. With no prompting from me, he asked after my children by name. He is a confessor who suffered in a prison under the communists in his native Romania. He does have his medical problems and no longer serves as far as I could tell. However, he is at every service, prayerfully taking his place in the sanctuary. He made many humorous and warm allusions to his impending death, telling me, for instance, how the nuns continuously peer into his living quarters to make sure that he "is still here." He is fully prepared for the end of his earthly life, having spent many years in the spiritual practice of the "remembrance of death." He is the living embodiment of the Orthodox teaching on deification - a person who is luminous with the love and presence of Christ, and who imparts that presence in a tangible manner whenever he speaks with you. Christ is as real to Fr. Roman as the very air he breathes. On the one hand, this is "awe-inspiring;" but on the other hand it practically fills you with shame over your own petty flaws. I would add that he also embodies the teaching of the Apostle Paul: "Though our outer man is wasting away, our inner man is being renewed every day." (II COR. 4:16) He seems as liberated as humanly possible from the need to pretend that he will not die, or the need to cover it up artificially as we find in our death-denying culture. Less is more, but we are slow in learning that lesson about life. Or, as someone wisely said: "Enough is a feast."

I would whole-heartedly recommend, and I know that presvytera Deborah agrees with me, that a short pilgrimage to a monastery such as the Dormition of the Theotokos in Rives Junction, MI, is time wisely spent and not wasted. Breaking through our usual routines can be enlightening. Tasting of an Orthodox rhythm of life that embraces the totality of life, can then inspire us to remain faithful to that same worldview, though lived out under different circumstances.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Note: For a beautiful slide show of the Monastery's feastday celebrations, with Metropolitan Jonah, Archbishop Nathaniel, Bishop Mark (Antiochian Archdiocese) and Archimandrite Joseph Morris (Superior, St Gregory Palamas Monastery), go here:
See also:
Holy Dormition Monastery Website
OCA Page for Holy Dormition Monastery

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