Photos by Fr Michael Butler, Jul 20, 2011
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[20-24 July 2011] There is and there isn’t a lot I could write about the week I was at St John of Shanghai and San Francisco. Of all the time I’ve spent on my sabbatical, this week went by the fastest.
The brotherhood numbers some 22 monks, if I remember correctly, but not all of them are in residence at the monastery now. A few are manning the hermitage in New Mexico, a few are looking over a large plot of land north of Bozeman, MT, they expect to acquire, others are on assignment to various places and responsibilities.
There is a constantly changing assembly of visitors, which I sort of expected, but my impression was that this monastery is remote and I assumed not so many people would make the trek. I was wrong. There were priests who came with their families for a day or two, to confess to Fr Meletios, the Abbot. There were families from Washington and Oregon who stopped by en route to southern California for vacation, and southern Californians who stopped by heading north.
There was also a semi-stable population of young men, mostly 20-somethings, who were inquirers, catechumens and recently-minted Orthodox, who were staying at the monastery for a week, a couple of weeks, a month, or for the whole summer. These young men had obediences in the monastery and were basically living the life of the monks. I talked with them all, and everyone was enthusiastic about the change it had made in his life to spend time at the monastery, even if it was only for a few days.
I will say this: I hadn’t been here a whole day before I was wishing I had my boys with me. I think they would both have enjoyed it: the services (well, maybe not all the services), the work, the wooded environment, and especially the interaction with the monks and the other guests. And I will go further and say that if there is a man, young or old, who has the means to spend some time here, I would encourage him to do so. I think it is a healthy, wholesome, sober and inspiring place to be.
I had asked Fr Meletios if he could say why his monastery attracted young men the way it does and he flatly said no. But the brotherhood itself is a good mixture of men of all ages: some elderly retired or widowed clergy who have taken the veil, a few older monks, a few of middle age, and quite a number of younger men in their late 20’s and 30’s, many of them postulants just beginning their monastic life. The monastery also runs a “summer novice program,” which allows young men to stay the summer and live the monastic life and explore a monastic vocation or simply to deepen their faith in Christ.
The services here are a kind of combination of the usual Orthodox monastic office and the recitation of the Jesus Prayer that is practiced at the monastery in Essex. Most services begin with 20 minutes of silent prayer with the prayer rope, followed in the morning by Matins and in the evening by Vespers. Liturgy is served on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Monday is set aside as a “desert day,” on which no services are held, but the day is spent in private prayer and solitary reading and meditation in one’s cell. I was asked to serve Vigil on Saturday evening (which was the first time I’ve stood in front of an altar since 15 May), and to concelebrate Liturgy and to preach on Sunday morning.
The music which they sing in church is a modified Kievan and Znammeny chant, one line of melody and one line of harmony, which is hauntingly beautiful, especially when sung by a male chorus. One of the monks has exceptional musical skills and has been arranging and composing music for their use. Here is a link to the monastery’s music page: http://www.monasteryofstjohn.org/?p=music
Meals are both formal (with the whole brotherhood together, eaten in silence to spiritual reading) and informal (meaning food is set out for an hour, most of it leftovers, and you stop by to eat when you want). This being a California monastery, we, of course, had Asian stuff, but their pantry was well-stocked with all kinds of things and boasted a large number of cookbooks, and the cooks here do an excellent job with variety and skill. In short, the food is fantastic. On wine and oil days (the Orthodox know what I mean), they actually set out a bunch of bottles of wine and beer half an hour before dinner. I found this to be a very popular practice.
Both the guesthouse and the main monastery building had common rooms, the one in the monastery being called the “Holy Trinity Room,” because of the Icon of the Trinity in it. If you wanted to see people or had free time, or simply wanted to chat, you went there to the Holy Trinity room, which is also where guests are received. Good coffee, tea, and a few snacks were always available, and there was a good ambience to the place: it encouraged sitting and talking. I did a lot of sitting and talking in the Holy Trinity room: people like to talk to the visiting Priest. As we got to know each other over the course of the week, I had very good conversations with the priests and young men who were staying around for a while.
It was because my days were taken up with praying, eating, and talking about spiritual stuff that I fell behind in my blogging.
Apart from daily walks about in the woods on the monastery grounds, I went on three excursions during the week. I attempted to find my way to the “butte,” an elevated place with great views of Mounts Shasta and Lessen, but I got lost on the logging roads and drove my Jeep rental over “roads” that I’m sure were never envisioned by the contract. I went on the usual Sunday afternoon wine-tasting with Fr Nectarios the Guest-master and a couple of the other guests, which, I found out, is a regular (and popular) weekend excursion. Fr Nectarios got to drive after our first stop—and we made four… And the third excursion was to visit St Herman’s Monastery in Platina, which I will write about in another post.
All in all, it was a fine week, and a fine conclusion to the set of monastery visits that made up the bulk of my sabbatical. Very early on Monday morning the 25th, I crept out of the guest house and drove 4 ½ hours south to the airport in San Francisco to pick up my family for vacation.