Orthodox monks find prayerful life in state
Monday March 3, 2008
Orthodox monks find prayerful life in state
by Monica Orosz
Daily Mail Features Editor
WAYNE - A remote parcel of sloping land accessible by a narrow gravel
road is home to a community of men whose lives are both worlds away
and yet connected to modern life.
Click here for a slideshow of photos from the monastery
Most of the time, the monks who live at the Hermitage of the Holy
Cross spend their days within the grounds of the monastery, making
and selling incense, candles, soaps and artwork to support
themselves, and praying - for the people of Wayne County, for those
who have requested their prayers and for the world.
When they do head to town to attend to business, such as grocery
shopping, the monks garner attention in their black robes, black hats
and beards and long hair. Yet after nearly eight years in Wayne
County, the attention is more likely to come in the form of prayer
requests rather than stares.
The people of Wayne County have come to accept this religious
community that practices a Christian faith whose ancient rituals are
foreign to them, with chanting and incense and veneration of icons,
or images, of saints.
Father Seraphim, at 64 the eldest and superior of the monastery,
tells the story of their arrival.
"When we first came here, we might as well have been from Mars."
Time and again, the monks had encounters with Wayne residents that
went something like this:
"Excuse me, but are you folks Christian? Do you believe in Jesus?"
"Yes, we do."
"Do you believe in the Bible?"
"Yes, we do."
"What version of the Bible do you use?"
"Well, we read the King James version."
"Welcome to Wayne County."
* * *
How this religious community came to Wayne County is a story of one
family's benevolence and, the monks believe, of God providing for their needs.
The monastery was founded in St. Louis, Mo., in 1986, but by 1999,
the monks had outgrown their living space there. An orthodox couple
living in a modest house on the Wayne County property intended to
retire to the Northeast to be with their children and offered to
donate the land to the church.
Father Seraphim was sent by his bishop to see the property.
As he headed outside Wayne, out roads that wound around Beech Fork
State Park and up the narrow gravel road, "I said, 'This is too far
out,' " he recalled. "But then we got up here and the dogwoods were
in bloom and it was beautiful.
"We believe God wanted us here. When you need something, He provides."
The community moved in May 2000 and set about making the place
suitable for its needs.
It took three tries to find well water that was drinkable. The well
was at the bottom of the hill, requiring a pump and long water lines.
They enclosed a storage area, moved a double-wide trailer into place
to serve as a dining hall and built a series of cottages - or cells -
for the monks and a church. They accomplished much of the building
themselves, including the church.
"That's why it has so many things wrong with it," Father Seraphim
noted with a smile. "We were turning the pages of the book as we went."
Today, 13 men ranging in age from 24 to 64 call the monastery home.
Several are laymen who are staying there for a short time. Each has
his own cell, some located so far up the hillside that they have
neither electricity nor water and are powered and heated by kerosene.
* * *
Life at Holy Cross is marked by contrasts.
The monks tend bees and use the beeswax for candles and lip balm.
They raise goats for the milk, using it for cheese and in soaps and
lotions. They make their own whole wheat bread.
Yet they buy groceries at the local Wal-Mart, stocking such items as
Kraft Ranch Dressing for their salads.
They make incense employing methods first used by Athonite monks in
the 900s and soap they hand cut and dry.
Yet the products are marketed and sold through a sophisticated Web
site and a colorful catalog. The monastery has its own gift shop.
"We have had to learn to do this to survive," Father Seraphim notes.
The monks eschew television except to watch educational DVDs and the
occasional approved movie, such as "Ben Hur." They subscribe only to
the local Wayne newspaper.
Yet they carry two-way radios to communicate with each other during
the day. Several new Apple computers can be found on the site, and
one of the novices, Brother John, has been charged with creating an
educational video about monastic life - an infomercial, if you will,
that will be used to educate Orthodox youth.
In taking their vows as monks, the men agree to give up worldly
pursuits and devote their lives to spiritual work, to live separately
Yet they couldn't be more gracious and welcoming to guests who seek
the peace of this prayerful place.
A doctor from Charleston regularly visits as part of his own
spiritual journey - and offers medical care if needed. An Orthodox
man with businesses in Charleston and Huntington brought his ill
daughter for healing prayers recently. Groups from Orthodox and other
faiths regularly schedule retreats at the monastery's guesthouse, a
log cabin donated by a benefactor.
* * *
Daily life at the monastery is rooted in routine.
The day begins at 5 a.m. with the Midnight Office service, a
veneration of the saints and liturgy. Breakfast is at 7, eaten as all
meals are, in silence while one monk reads from the lives of the
saints or other spiritual material. ("It helps with the digestion,"
Father Seraphim said.)
The morning work period starts at 8, and monks are assigned their
tasks, or daily obediences. While the monastery has its specialists -
Father Andrew is the iconographer, assigned to painting icons ordered
by people around the country; Father Alban tends the goats and the
grounds; Father Joseph is the beekeeper; Brother Martin the cook;
Brother John is the librarian and film editor; Father Anthony is the
soap maker and resident photographer; Father Alexander produces the
monastery newsletter; Father Sergius bakes bread - monks also are
assigned in teams to make incense and perform other chores as needed.
Somehow, they possess or learn all the skills they need to support
themselves, whether it is milking a goat or fixing a car.
Father Alban said he learned how to tend the monastery's six goats by
reading and studying. Father Andrew visits Russia about once a year
for continued training in the fine art of painting icons.
If a new task is needed, someone steps up. When Wayne County
officials appealed to the monks to learn to fight their own fires -
there had been a couple of scares already and the fire department had
a hard time making it there quickly - Father Anthony was dispatched
for training and is a certified firefighter. A 400-gallon water tank,
hoses and a pump stand at the ready in case of emergency.
Lunch is served at noon and work resumes at 1:30. The 9th Hour
service and Vespers is promptly at 4 p.m., followed by supper and
then Matins at 5:30. At 7 p.m. there is silence.
* * *
The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad is based in New York and was
formed by Russian communities outside communist Russia who believed
the communists were infiltrating the religion there after the
Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. A reunification occurred just this past
May, though the healing continues.
The church is considered "in communion" with a number of other
Orthodox churches such as the Greek, Serbian and Antiochan. Orthodox
Christians trace their church to Jesus and his Apostles.
The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has more than 400 parishes
worldwide and an estimated 400,000 members. There are just 20
monasteries and nunneries worldwide. Holy Cross is among the largest
The faith is marked by ritual, the liturgical calendar and
The Wayne monastery is a dependency of the Holy Trinity Monastery in
Jordanville, N.Y., a large facility that includes a seminary.
"We belong to them," Father Seraphim explained, adding he has daily
telephone conversations with his spiritual leader there.
* * *
A man called to serve God in the Orthodox Church may become a priest
who serves a parish. He can marry and have a family.
Monks are different, taking their call from a passage in the Gospel
of Matthew (19:21): "Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go
and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have
treasure in heaven: come follow me."
A man becomes a monk only after a careful process of consideration
and discernment, because once he is in, he is in for life. The first
step in the process is serving as a novice, or "brother" for three
years, a time during which he is assigned readings and regularly
consults his superior for spiritual guidance.
A monk's final vows include promises of chastity, poverty and
obedience and a commitment to be monastic the rest of his life.
Monks give up secular clothes. They neither cut their hair nor shave
their beards. They cover their heads. They are assigned new names, of
saints, and discard their last names.
"We love our families. We visit them. But we give up their name,"
Father Seraphim explained. "A monk is supposed to be otherworldly. We
witness to something else.
"The hallmark of a monk is a life of humility and obedience," he
added. "The job of a monk is to have union with Christ, and that
union is reflected in his prayers."
And in that union monks believe they have a role in saving souls.
Father Seraphim likes to quote monks and saints that have gone before him.
His own patron saint, Seraphim, said: "Acquire the peace of God in
your heart and a thousand souls will be saved."
And Saint Theodore the Studite: "A monk is he who directs his gaze
towards God alone and who, being at peace with God, becomes a source
of peace for others."
Father Seraphim added, "Monks are sort of the heart of the church.
God has given us more, but He expects more of us. The monk is judged
Threads of prayer knit together the entire day for a monk.
As they go about their daily work, preparing meals, cleaning up,
grinding and rolling incense and milking goats, monks work mostly in
silence, except to chant The Jesus Prayer:
"O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner."
* * *
Monks do not generally discuss their lives before they arrived at the
But Father Seraphim said he was a Roman Catholic monk who became
disillusioned with the church and converted to the Orthodox faith.
Brother John mentions he was a Protestant and a film editor (he is
making the monastery's documentary) in his former life.
Some men arrive there for spiritual healing and will leave after a
week or several months.
"If the church is the spiritual hospital, the monastery is the
intensive care unit," Father Seraphim explains.
He fully expects to live out his earthly life here and be buried at
the tiny cemetery atop the hill. If he were to become incapacitated,
the other monks would care for him.
"It would be terrible to die in a hospital or nursing home. Can you
imagine how awful that would be for a monk, to be away from his life
and his church?"
Contact writer Monica Orosz at mon...@... or 348-4830.