Two Days on a Holy Mountain

Original Article

A few months ago, my wife noticed that (to borrow from Wordsworth) the world was too much with me. We talked a bit about my malaise, and she said: “You need to go to a monastery.”

I’m a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church remains committed (as do Catholics) to the great Christian monastic tradition that began in the fourth century with the “Desert Fathers.” In fact, little noticed by most people, there are Orthodox monasteries all over the country.

Debra was right: I needed spiritual medicine. I immediately contacted St. Herman of Alaska Monastery and received a blessing to visit. I made my pilgrimage last week.

A quick word about this particular monastery: The St. Herman Brotherhood was co-founded by Eugene—later Fr. Seraphim—Rose. Fr. Seraphim, a convert, left the world for the monastic life in 1969, building much of what became the St. Herman Monastery with his own hands. He soon became an important figure in American Orthodoxy, and his charismatic personality and religious rigor attracted a growing following.

The Brotherhood’s call was (and is) to bring the depth and beauty of Orthodoxy to English-speaking America. Indeed, since its founding, the monastery’s primary endeavor has been publishing: translating major Orthodox works into English, printing original books, and publishing a quarterly journal, The Orthodox Word, which focuses on the lives of notable Orthodox elders or saints.

By 1982, when Fr. Seraphim died suddenly at age forty-eight (he is buried on the spot in the monastery where he gave his last public talk), St. Herman had become a thriving monastery in the Russian tradition. Isolated on a beautiful forested mountain near Platina, California, accessible only by a narrow dirt road, St. Herman is unusually austere. Unlike most contemporary monasteries, it has no indoor plumbing or electricity (except for solar-generated power for church and refectory lighting). It is twenty-five miles from the nearest cell-phone signal, and no Internet is available. And, of course, there is no television or radio. (The monastery does have a website and email account, which they access at an offsite location.)

The monks spend about six hours a day in services—common practice in Orthodox monasteries—and sometimes longer, as during an all-night vigil. A normal day begins at 5:30 a.m. with the chanting of The Hours, followed immediately by Matins and, some days, Liturgy. Then, breakfast, eaten in silence as one of the monks reads aloud from the lives of the saints. After that, the abbot assigns each monk his “obedience” for the day—maintenance chores or monastery tasks to be accomplished before the evening services.

The monastic day concludes with Vespers, dinner (again eaten in silence), and Compline, ending about 8 p.m., after which each monk retires to his cell in silence. The monks also practice a “prayer rule” given them by the abbot, consisting of devotions, spiritual reading, and prostrations. (It’s hard work being a monastic.)

From the earliest days, welcoming and providing for pilgrims has been a core aspect of monasticism. One might call hospitality a permanent obedience.

But a pilgrimage isn’t a vacation. The point isn’t to relax. People journey to monasteries for various reasons: to attain a spiritual booster shot, to receive counseling from the abbot or a resident spiritual father (or mother), to take temporary refuge from the world, or to explore monasticism.

Most fundamentally, pilgrims—like monks and nuns—seek salvation. (Unlike some Protestant traditions, Orthodox theology doesn’t perceive salvation as a discreet “born again” event but, rather, as a life-long process of spiritual struggle: I was saved, I am being saved, I will be saved.)

Toward that end, pilgrims are required to attend all the scheduled services and to dine with the monks. They are also urged to read a book on Orthodox spirituality and are forbidden worldly activities such as listening to music, following the news, or playing video games. The sexes are strictly segregated, including married couples. Those staying longer than a day or two are also expected to work alongside the monks.

I spent two days at St. Herman. Yes, the many hours of church services are exhausting. But the impact of immersing oneself—even briefly—in the monastic life is incredibly powerful in ways that I can’t quite explain. The best description I can think of is that it was a “contact high”—only rather than sharing another’s intoxication, one participates by proxy in the monks’ holiness.

And it wasn’t “peaceful,” as some might expect. Rather, being on the Holy Mountain stung like a mustard plaster, acting as a healing poultice drawing out toxins. When it was time to leave, I felt as though I had been through an existential wringer. I needed a decompression chamber! And what a culture shock when I returned to what we call civilization.

Psalm 50 (51, in some traditions) has great importance in Orthodox liturgical practice. Its powerful words, chanted by the monks during every service, stayed with me during the four-hour drive home:

You will sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be cleansed. You will wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow. You will make me hear of joy and gladness; the bones which have been humbled will rejoice. Turn away your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me. Do not cast me out from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.

I am certainly not whiter than snow, but I was sprinkled with hyssop at St. Herman. Humbled, I did indeed hear of joy and gladness. With a renewed spirit, I am back in the world—where I belong—strengthened for the continuing struggle.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.