The trip began with making confessions with Fr. James. This is a preliminary step before visiting a monastery. The crew was Chris & Rhonda, Gary, an Episcopalian priest Fr. Andrew, Fr. James and his daughter Lilly. Fr. Andrew has been teaching and inviting Orthodox speakers into his congregation, much like I intended to do at Trinity had I stayed. Chris and Rhonda have been very active at St. Basil since their conversion last December and Chris and Fr. Andrew are taking the St. Stephen’s course in Applied Orthodox Theology. Gary was catechized with me and sings in the choir. Fr. James has been to Holy Cross before and is friends with Hieromonk Hillarion. Like the rest of us, it was Lilly’s first trip there. I think we all came on the journey searching for something to help us in some facet of our faith. For me, I wanted motivation to deepen my prayer life and see first hand how monasticism plays a role in the life of the Church.
We didn’t make it in time for the evening Vespers due to a couple of stops and not leaving Hampton until about 10. So, we got to the guest house and Fr. James led us in the Akathist to the Sweet Lord Jesus from the Russian (Jordanville) prayer book. The guest house has four fully loaded bookshelves. Because Orthodox converts tend to be bookworms, we all found something too our likings.
Me, I picked up “On Wealth and Poverty” by John Chrysostom. I have heard that the saint was no fan of luxurious lifestyles and opulence. But, in the first of his seven sermons from the story of the rich man and Lazarus he honors the fact that Lazarus never complained about his lot in life nor did he curse the rich man for not coming to his aid. Of course, there is no excuse for the “haves” of this world not to share their wealth with the “have-nots.” But, for the poor to curse the wealthy is also wrong. Martin Luther King Jr. was always cautious to teach protesters not to hate the people who sought to maintain segregation. Unfortunately, due to our “winner take all” culture, I am afraid we are losing the message of Chrysostom and King. It is too easy to vilify the rich and oppressive and not see them as human beings just as it is too easy for them to look at those who protest as being losers and moochers. I doubt St. John sought the Roman government to bring economic equity to all. And although King supported the idea of a living wage, I highly doubt that he encouraged people to throw away their work ethic. In a monastery, everyone shares in labor, food, and prayer. While the bishop or abbot may have a larger hermitage, all share in equal resources.
The next morning, we began the day with a 5 am Orthros (Morning Prayer). Even though Hieromonk Hillarion permitted me to take photos, I felt it best not to. For one thing, my camera could not drop to a 3200 or 6400 ISO. Even if my camera had that ability, I thought it best to focus on the service and not getting shots. It seemed as if the Christ Pantocrator icon in front of me was encouraging me to get my nightly prayer discipline together. The presence of the monks was also impressive to me as these men had forsaken even godly lives in the world to detach themselves from the world.
I think this is one of the greatest errors of Protestantism, they have no monastic communities and life-long celibacy is not encouraged. The presence of communities of men and women who leave the “normal” world and it’s pursuits behind to pursue a life of prayer serves as a role model for the rest of us. Monks and nuns are the front line in the spiritual life of the Church as they are the examples for the rest of us to follow as closely as possible as we all follow Christ. Not everyone is going to stand at 3 hour prayer vigils and pray the Jesus Prayer under our breath at every waking moment. But, each of us can maintain regular times of prayer and take breaks for prayer during the day. There is neither television nor popular music to distract one from a life of prayer. Neither is there the pursuit of politics or sports to keep the monks seeing others and each other as the icons of God – made in His image. This is not to say that they are perfect people, for no man is perfect. But, a monastery is a place where perfection can be achieved. To the degree that is possible, all should strive to have their homes a bit of a monastery.
Without looking to monastic communities as the role model of focus on prayer and repentance, Christianity pays less attention to God and more attention to divisive and narrow ideologies. It is only natural for some people to lean a little more to conservatism and others to liberalism. When people of divergent opinions come together constantly with Christ and the kingdom of God as the center, we rise above these two imposters and find a harmonious balance. However, where there is no such center, we see each other as enemies and dehumanize those whom we disagree with. There is no doubt in my mind that we need fewer politicians and politically driven media outlets. We need more monasteries, monks, and nuns.