Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Special Guest Meditation: Reflections of a First-Time Pilgrim to a Monastery


Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Our parishioner, Jenny Harkins, spent a weekend in pilgrimage at the Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, MI, over November 12-14. I asked Jenny to please "write up" her experience, and she graciously agreed to do so. It is very lively and filled with many insights into the purpose and practice of the monastic life. Please spend the time to read it as we journey together towards the Lord's Nativity in the flesh.

 - Fr. Steven




A Reflection on my First Pilgrimage to the Holy Dormition Orthodox Monastery


“Sow in me a knowledge of humility and an unrestrainable impetus for the steep journey towards You.”   

~ St. Isaac of Syria 

    Sweet Moses, I think I’m going to be sick! I realized as I stood, sweating profusely, in the dim, candlelit church Friday evening. I was two hours deep into a four hour vigil in honor of St. John Chrysostom, and was bitterly regretting my insulated long johns, wool socks and tight boots; the required head covering, face mask, skirt and sleeves were warm enough! Feeling nauseous, I slipped out of the service and ran to the Guest House to shed extra layers and drink some water, praying I would snap out of it and feel better! I felt a little disoriented and disappointed at my inability to connect to the flow of worship so far, though I had only arrived earlier that day. As I quickly tied the hiking boots I had brought for exploring the grounds, I received a most timely text announcing my soon-to-be goddaughter had just been born! The exclamation “Glory to God for all things!” below her beautiful picture! Praise the Lord, what a miracle! Energized by joy, I darted back to the church, marveling at how the Lord brought St. John Chrysostom’s famous words to life in such a personal and timely way! Something in my perspective shifted and I was able to gradually connect and pray more wholeheartedly  throughout the rest of the evening’s vigil. Hauntingly hesychastic, the ebb and flow of worship finally wooed my thoughts upward, releasing self-conscious distraction like sand bags from a hot air balloon.

    Of the two days I was able to spend at the Monastery, about fourteen hours were spent with the sisters and fellow pilgrims in church for various Akathists, Matins, 1st, 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours, Vespers, two Divine Liturgies and a Memorial service for the departed.  Every hour that passed in prayer, singing or silence, on my feet or face down in prostrations, I felt the tension of growth as I ignored my flesh and fought to focus and connect, to worship in spirit and truth.  In my pockets of  “down time” between services, I reflected on the intensity of presence practiced here by the sisters, not just physically, but their uncompromising spiritual commitment to cry out day and night in praise and petition on behalf of the world. I expected humility, wisdom, and grace, but was surprised and deeply inspired by their steadfast strength. They didn’t just sing beautifully unto the Lord, but with purpose and conviction. I enjoyed the thought of these gentle, lovely women as mighty beasts in the spiritual realm, relentlessly waging war against the powers of darkness and subduing the demonic powers by their prayer.  Psalm 149:6 came to mind, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands.”

    The Monastery grounds were beautiful, even in the November grey, blustery and brooding with an early snow.  I explored the surrounding forest, invigorated by the wild dance of gusting leaves, like red and orange garments freely tossed from Eden trees, naked and unashamed. The scent of Kingdom coming, filling my lungs and lifting my heart.  I tucked in by the pond and offered the 9th Hour in solitude, wholeheartedly receiving and returning in praise. I also experienced a lot of peace sitting silently in the small, wooden St. Lazarus chapel near the cemetery. I found an Akathist for the Departed in the chapel and sang it over a dear friend’s brother buried there, moved by the compassion and humility of the prayers. I thought about Fr. Steven and Presvytera Deborah owning two plots there for the “some day,” and I felt the weight of the “already and not yet.”  The atmosphere is peaceful and there is a Pascha sense of hope and anticipation.

    As I packed my bag that snowy Sunday afternoon, my heart was full of gratitude for such a rich experience. I felt like I had inadvertently signed up for the “Deluxe Sampler” weekend, with extra Feast day services, a graveside Memorial Service, even meeting my first archbishop (Nathaniel)!  My fellow pilgrims who shared the Guest House accommodations felt like family even though we hailed from all over the US. Anastasia’s beautiful singing of hymns floated through the wall between us and blessed my pre-communion prayers before Liturgy. Our meals together were seasoned with testimonies of God’s movement in each of our stories.

            My one regret was not having connected with Mother Gabriella, the Abbess, before I left. I kept an eye out for her but we always seemed to be just missing each other. I asked the Lord to help connect us somehow if it was part of his will.  I was packing my last items when I heard the main door open and a cheery, Romanian voice call out, “Jenny, Jenny are you still here?” I bet the Lord laughed out loud at my face in that moment!  I was shocked! I couldn’t believe she had come looking for me! I jumped up and skidded out into the foyer with a big stupid grin on my face, assuring her I was here, chittering like a red-cheeked baboon in the presence of a lion! I forced myself to be cool and not blow this special moment, trying to talk less and listen more. She was kind and disarming, sharing stories and wisdom, discussing the questions I had hoped to ask her.  Her presence was so warm and refreshing and wishing to honor her time and let her go felt like leaving a bonfire on a cold winter’s night. I asked her for her blessing, which she graciously gave, and we parted ways, my heart brimming with joy.     

I’m still digesting the whole rich experience, a feast in many ways before this Nativity Fast. Having acclimated over the last several months to the more rigorous pace of Orthodox worship at church and at home, I approached the weekend in naive excitement, expecting an easy, restful, filling encounter with grand hopes of returning down the mountain, face shining like Moses, emanating the fragrance of Christ. It took less than one Festal Vigil for me to realize that the monastery was less of a garden of spiritual fruit for the picking, and more of a fiery furnace of prayer, kindled by the continual liturgia of the sisters. Strong, seasoned endurance athletes in the spiritual arena, gladiators with their eyes ever on the prize, ushering in the Kingdom in dogged devotion to their Master, their Beloved. Spiritual fruit abounded to be sure, in the beauty, humility, and hospitality of this place, and the glory glow of His presence was unmistakable in each of their faces, but it shone as the inevitable patina of lives weathered in the service of Love. I contemplated the ancient roots of these fiery prayer furnaces, stoked over the centuries by the blood, sweat and tears of vigilant prayer warriors. I was humbled and full of gratitude for my whole extended spiritual family across the ages who have given the gift of their lives, prayers and stories for the sake of Christ and his Bride.

    Driving home from the monastery, I felt energized and inspired, as if I had been a meteor pulled into their gravitational orbit and swung out, ignited in spirit by the atmosphere! Having gained momentum in joy and focus with each invitation to worship, my engine was revved and ready. I began thinking of ways I could be more prayerful and intentional at home, my own sphere of stewardship, where there’s plenty of opportunity to labor in love. I was encouraged by the sisters’ dedication to “lay aside all earthly cares,” and thought of a few ways I could simplify and re-focus my attention on “the one thing necessary.” The torch of my affections ablaze, I asked the Lord to show me more ways I could build a holy love for Him in my children, and the will to share this affection wholeheartedly with Rhett. Having life completely revolve around worshipping together built up my appetite and heart for more of that with our spiritual family at church.  I have so much to learn about praying without ceasing and practicing my spiritual priesthood in the sense of offering back each moment of life to the Lord in thanksgiving. My short time at the Monastery blessed me with a little more insight and the precious gift of experiencing it in fellowship with the sisters and fellow pilgrims there. I’m facing the trail ahead with muscles a little stronger, soul a little wiser and an expanded vision of what love can accomplish in Christ.     

“Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,  
Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.”

~ Psalm 84:5