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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Three Day Visit/Retreat to St. Tikhon's Orthodox Monastery near Scranton, PA

Went up on a Greyhound bus, was met by Brother Ken
We drove into the wilderness, by fields, hills and trees
Until I spotted icon grottos and three bar crosses.
Settled in my comfortable room in the Men's Quarters
Then off to Dinner (lunch) with the monks, over half
converts from evangelical Protestantism, guys from
Kansas, Ohio, Los Angeles. The Abott himself is a
former Roman Catholic. In his office before the end
of my stay he said that as a boy he was an altar
server at the Novus Ordo Mass. (Story in the works, stay

By Comparison: From my Florence, Italy Journal, March 2007

The Novus Ordo Catholic Mass in Italy: Majestic church,
nearly medieval, museum-like sanctuary, icons, hanging
votive lamps, candles, gold and gold and gold.

Holy Mass is about to begin. A laywoman approaches the
lectern; a priest in a simple alb and hood approaches
the other lectern. Suddenly everything turns
Presbyterian. I walk out.

A Trip To America’s Mount Athos
St. Tikhon’s. The dining room with monks. Photo: Thom Nickels
Weekly Press• Wed, Nov 23, 2011

By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer

It’s a little bit after one in the afternoon and Father Sergius (Bowyer), the Abbott of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, is chatting with a handful of monks. The small group is standing in the garden-grotto area just outside the monastery dining room. The mood is upbeat because in a couple days a miraculous icon from the 13th century, The Wonderworking Kursk Root Icon of Our Lady of the Sign, will be visiting St. Tikhon’s.

On this afternoon, which happens to be the last of my three day visit to St. Tikhon’s, I mention to the monks that since I haven’t read a newspaper in three days, for all I know New York City could have disappeared in a cloud of Armageddon smoke.

"If that were to happen," Fr. Sergius says with a smile, "they’d all be coming up here for refuge."

"They’d be coming here by the hundreds for food and shelter and the safety of the mountains," another monk offers. "But we would require them to go to Divine Liturgy first."

"No we wouldn’t," Fr. Sergius says. "You do not force people to attend Divine Liturgy. We would take them in, regardless."

"Taking people in" has traditionally been the mark of a monastery’s commitment to hospitality. Generally, visitors to monasteries, both Orthodox and Catholic, are advised to stay not more than 3 days and to donate whatever they can at the end of their stay. Visitors are also encouraged to follow as much of the routine of the monks as possible, and this includes attendance at the daily Divine Liturgy.

The Divine Liturgy is the Orthodox "version" of the Catholic Mass, albeit with none of the changes, novelties or controversies surrounding the Western liturgy since the time of the Second Vatican Council. At St. Tikhon’s and elsewhere in the Orthodox world, there are no updated liturgies that attempt to be "modern." You won’t, for instance, see lay ministers in high heels distributing communion, or little children walking up to the altar area with "the gifts." You won’t hear guitars or hymns like On Eagles’ Wings, and you will never come across an Orthodox parish that has weekly Young Adult Community Divine Liturgies.

At St. Tikhon’s, prayer and Liturgy begins at 6 a.m. Congregants mostly stand throughout the 3-hour service. Chairs are arranged alongside the church for the old and infirm, but anyone can take a seat if standing becomes unbearable. Prior to my visit I feared that the constant standing would be less than tolerable; however, I soon found that the rhythm of the chanting and prayers produced a transcendent state that erased discomfort. After a while, I almost forgot that I had legs. The sensation was a little bit like floating.

St. Tikhon’s is located high in the Pocono Mountains on 300 acres of land some 30 minutes (by car) outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. The monastery was founded in 1905 by Patriarch (Saint) Tikhon under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church. Years later the word Russian was dropped for the more inclusive Orthodox Church of America, or OCA. The monastery houses 14 monks from various parts of the country. Fr. Sergius, a former Roman Catholic who once served at the altar at his boyhood Novus Ordo parish, converted to Orthodoxy and soon after became an Orthodox priest. His conversion happened, he says, because he felt that Orthodoxy offered him a life "more fully in Christ."

"My family is still very much Catholic," Fr. Sergius told me in his office in the monastery bookstore. "Ultimately the important thing is to keep Christ as the center of our lives."

The historic debate having to do with which Church is the true Church of the apostles has been raging since the official split of East and West in 1054 AD. Some Orthodox clergy believe that the split was a mutual parting of the ways, like a divorce, but this does not stop "experts" on both sides from accusations of schism or heresy.

. Fr. Sergius explained that the Orthodox Church hasn’t changed at all in 2,000 years. Besides safeguarding its Liturgy intact, Orthodoxy did not add the Filoque clause to the Nicene Creed as did the Latin Church after it got its arm twisted to do so by Charlemagne in the year 809.

"From that moment on," he pointed out, "the Latin Church continued to make more and more changes, right up to and including the Second Vatican Council."

At first glance, a stranger wouldn’t necessarily pinpoint the young Hieromonk Sergius as St. Tikhon’s Abbott. Older monks with long ponytails and patriarchal beards, such as white haired Fr. Alexander, a retired priest who could easily play Moses in an Old Testament play, looks more like the Abbott type. Fr. Alexander, also a former Catholic, joins Fr. Sergius in wearing the dramatic kamilavka hat covered with a black veil during church services, which helps give St. Tikhon’s a "Mount Athos" look.

Most visitors to St. Tikhon’s, unless traveling by car, must take a bus to Scranton (where there is no Amtrak service) and then arrange to be met by a monk who will drive them the rest of the way to the monastery. My driver, Brother Ken, met me at the station in his black cassock, beard and black hat. In the car he told me that before he became a monk he spent considerable time traveling the world and that for a time he managed restaurants in Phoenix, Arizona. Having worked in restaurants myself, we told stories about customers who make unreasonable and outrageous complaints in the hopes of getting free meals.

Brother Ken, who was born Orthodox, and who is in his late thirties or early forties, talked about entering a monastery late in life. "It’s far better to become a monastic when you are in your twenties. The problem of obedience is especially hard when you are considerably older than the Abbott. Becoming a monk in your mid-twenties is better, when you’ve had some life experiences but are still malleable or "in formation."

After the lift from the bus station, he escorted me to the newly refurbished men’s guest house. In this "off season," I was the only guest in the large B&B-style space sans television, radio or telephones. A small library in the guest house foyer included books by Fr. Seraphim Rose, Orthodoxy’s answer to Catholicism’s Thomas Merton, as Rose (or Eugene Rose) was a former San Francisco-based atheist and Marxist who hung out with the Beats and studied under Alan Watts (and even had a male lover) before converting to Orthodoxy, becoming a monk and then a candidate for sainthood.

(In his most famous book, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, Rose describes Merton as "a sincere convert to Roman Catholicism and Catholic monasticism who ended his days proclaiming the equality of Christian religious experiences and the experiences of Zen Buddhism and other pagan religions.")

Meals at St. Tikhon’s (except for breakfast) are mostly silent affairs as monks and visitors listen to readings from the lives of the saints or the writings of the Church Fathers. The silent portion of the meal concludes when the Abbott rings a hand bell. Afterwards everyone rises for a short prayer and then, if the Abbott allows it (and he almost always does) everyone resumes eating with some conversation.

While there are many orders of Catholic monks who dress in a variety of habits, in the Orthodox world all monks dress alike: black cassock and belt with a small raised black hat. Orthodox monks do not shave or cut their hair, so depending on the monk, long hair can be bunched up ponytail-style or arranged in a "bun" of some sort to get it off the neck. The visual effects of this for the first-time visitor can be startling.

One gray haired monk’s rustic demeanor and long ponytail kept reminding me of the Hell’s Angels, whereas a young novice’s appearance—with his long hair arranged in a fan-like web at the nape of his neck—seemed to be "modeled" after an angelic figure in a Byzantine icon.

Brother Ken told me that he sometimes gets mistaken for Islamic when he goes into Scranton on monastery business. Unlike Catholic monks, who often don secular clothing for trips outside the monastery, Orthodox monks wear the habit 24/7. For Brother Ken, the hostile stares he received when being mistaken as a Muslim at first caught him off guard, although he says he soon learned not to pay any attention to them. "Most of the townspeople know us and enjoy seeing us," he said.

When it comes to international travel, Fr. Sergius allows Brother Ken to wear a silver cross so as to minimize any "identity" confusion. But this does not prevent TSA officials from making life difficult for Brother Ken when they insist that he remove his habit before boarding a plane.

The majority of the monks at St. Tikhon’s are converts from evangelical Protestantism. Fr. Sergius says there’s also a significant waiting list and that plans are underway to expand the monastery.

Many of the converts are in their twenties, typical "white bread" boys from Kansas, Ohio or Los Angeles, where they found their way—"through the grace of God," as Fr. Sergius likes to say—to this esoteric mountain top.

Brother Basil, who hails from Los Angeles, is the monastery maintenance man. He happened upon St. Tikhon’s while on a job search, having worked maintenance jobs at Protestant mega churches. Exposure to the monks and liturgy of the monastery led to his conversion. As a former evangelical who was taught that drinking alcohol is always a sin, a memorable part of his conversion process was learning that Jesus didn’t really drink grape juice at the Last Supper, but real wine, as the monks are allowed to do on Sundays, Easter and certain feast days.

Brother Basil, who conversed with me while sitting on the floor of the kitchen in the men’s guest house, Hilti tools in hand, spoke of a big family evangelical family wedding he had to attend in the fall. He talked about the coming wedding as a dreaded "drunken secular affair" and said that he would probably sit the whole thing out in a corner, as well-meaning old friends came up to him and slurred, "Hey, what’s happening brother!?"

The monks sometimes watch documentaries about Catholic monastic communities like the Carthusians, Trappists and Benedictines.

Brother Basil said that he was recently fascinated by a film detailing the life of a Catholic contemplative nun. When he explained some of what he saw in these films, I asked him whether in Orthodox monasticism there was anything equivalent to the Benedictine prohibition against "particular friendships."

The term "particular friendships" puzzled him, so I explained the Benedictine view that too close a friendship between monks could at some point lead to dangerous intimacies bordering on impurity.

"There is no such thing as that in Orthodoxy," he said, meaning that there is no official restriction or prohibition if two monks want to hang out as a special "team."

Although talking with the monks didn’t come easily for me, the process was helped considerably when Fr. Sergius announced to the group at dinner that I was visiting the monastery "to do a story for a newspaper." Before the announcement, I felt as if I was breaking some rule whenever I’d ask a brother a question or request a photograph. While a few of the younger monks tended to shyly defer to "the Abbott," the older monks were eager to talk.

"I spent a lot of years searching," Brother Michael, the main cook, told me. "I was an atheist, I shopped around. I’d go to Catholic and Anglican churches. Once I went into this really fancy high Anglican Church, prayed, but when communion time came around they started passing out little cups of grape juice. No way can I do this," I thought. Brother Michael says that Orthodoxy gave him the spiritual fullness that he had been searching for.

On the monastery grounds is St. Tikhon’s seminary, opened in 1937, which trains hundreds of married and unmarried men for the priesthood. Students from the seminary sometimes work and live at the monastery for a time. Not far off is one of St. Tikhon’s two lakes, hand dug by the monks and stocked with fish that invariably wind up in the monastery dining room. In its 107-year history, St. Tikhon’s has courted its fair share of dramatic intrigue. Decades ago a famous Serbian Metropolitan was poisoned to death during an overnight visit. A man who was seen entering and leaving the Metropolitan’s room is suspected of poisoning the cleric. (The Metropolitan’s vestments can be seen in St. Tikhon’s museum. To illustrate the murder, an Agatha Christie-inspired tilted teacup sits on the cleric’s portable nightstand).

Brother Jesse, a St. Tikhon’s seminarian from Pennsylvania and a convert from evangelical Protestantism, sat near me during many noonday meals. Since Orthodox priests (but not monks) can marry, Brother Jesse often made references to "finding a wife" when the time was right.

References to seminarians dating women will always get this western Catholic’s attention. During my tour of the museum, for instance, I was joined by an Orthodox woman who kept referring to the time she dated a certain St. Tikhon’s seminarian. Had she mentioned this fact once I would have forgotten it, but when she kept bringing up the reference I had to wonder what exactly had happened to break things off between the two of them.

How does one dump a man of God, or tell him to take a flying leap?

No doubt Father Sergius, who appears to have a sense of humor, could offer some insight here.