Tired of the Rat Race? Try Living Like a Monk
Tired of the Rat Race? Try Living Like a Monk
Valaam Monastery Is Looking for Volunteers, Offering Room, Board
By DEAN SCHABNER
July 2, 2008—
Looking to cleanse your soul as well as your body on your next
vacation? The monks of Russia's Valaam Monastery might have just the
The monastery, which is located on an archipelago in Lake Ladoga,
northeast of St. Petersburg, is looking for volunteers to work there,
in exchange offering room and board for two weeks, as well as
transportation by boat to the islands.
This would not be your typical getaway. It's a world away from Club
Med or Sandals.
At the monastery, one of the holiest sites in the Russian Orthodox
faith, volunteers work 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday -- with
a break for lunch -- and from 9 until 1 p.m. on Saturdays.
Men and women -- including married couples who might want to
volunteer together -- are housed separately, in rooms for between
four and 10 people.
You don't have to be Orthodox, a Christian or even a believer at all
to volunteer, but the work is an opportunity to learn about a faith
that is little known in the United States.
"Orthodox spirituality is always powerful," said Father John Oliver
of St. Elizabeth's Orthodox Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., who
volunteered at the monastery before he joined the clergy. "The idea
of remembering God in every aspect of life. It's the sense that I
have to work the field, so I'm going to use it to get close to God.
"Physical work humbles the body," he said. "It familiarizes a person
with the basic cycles of nature, and with how life works."
The work is mostly agricultural -- plowing, sowing, harvesting,
weeding and other tasks. The monastery is self-sufficient, but a lot
must be done in the short summer to ensure that there is enough food
The monastery also maintains its own fleet, a garage, farm, stables,
forge and workshops, as well as orchards with about 60 varieties of
apple trees. There are also a bakery and a dairy.
All of this is necessary, because with Lake Ladoga, the largest lake
in Europe -- at least partially icebound from November until March or
April -- the monastery is virtually cut off from the outside world
for nearly half the year.
That isolation, though, is part of what makes Valaam such a deeply
affecting place to visit, even if you're not quite ready to commit
two weeks to living like a monk.
"It felt fundamentally sane -- the pace of life felt organic," Oliver
said of his time there. "There's never a wasted moment, but it felt
The effects of that pace of life are visible on the faces of the men
and women who live at the monastery. They glow with a calm and
seemingly generous energy, a warmth that even casual visitors to the
islands quickly come to feel within themselves, as though it was in
the air itself.
If the spirit of the people who live in a place, can come to inhabit
the landscape and change the very atmosphere, then maybe that is why
Valaam feels the way it does. The islands have been home to a
monastery for more than 1,000 years. According to church chronicles,
it was founded in the first half of the 10th century by a Greek monk,
St. Sergius, and his Karelian companion, St. German, when
Christianity was just starting to spread throughout what is now
Despite its isolation on the rocky islands in the center of an icy
lake 60 miles wide and nearly twice as long, the monastery was
ravaged several times in wars between Sweden and Russia, but each
time, the monks returned to rebuild the site.
During the Soviet era, the islands were used at various times as a
navy school, a home for disabled soldiers and the elderly, and as a
dumping ground for people the government considered undesirable.
Through it all, the monastery buildings were allowed to go to ruin by
a government that banned religion.
In the 1960s, there were plans to turn the islands into a tourist
resort, with rides and attractions and an airport to make them more
accessible, plans that, according to the monastery Web site "would
have killed Valaam." The plans, however, were never carried out.
The monks were only allowed to return to Valaam in the late 1989, and
as they had many times before, they immediately began restoring the
After seven decades of Soviet rule in Russia, though, the monks had a
more important goal.
"The monastic task is not the restoration of the cloister walls and
not the gold of iconostasises, but rising a man in Christ's spirit,
living in patience, humility, and obedience to God, keeping clear
conscience," Archimandrite Pankraty, the abbot of the monastery, said
after the buildings were returned to the church.
Nevertheless, the churches and other buildings of the monastery have
been lovingly restored. Its current incarnation dates from the late
19th century, when a new cathedral was built, consisting of the
smaller Church of St. Sergius and St. German and the majestic Church
of the Transfiguration of the Savior.
Perched on the highlands at the northern end of the largest of the
archipelago's islands, the cathedral's sky-blue and white belfry and
five domes reach up to the sky, the gold details glistening in the
There is very little on the islands besides the monastery and several
sketes -- small communities of hermits. Most of the land is pristine
pine forests, untouched by any development. In the harbor, there is a
small café, but no other amenities for the tourist.
That, however, is what makes the place so special for the visitor.
Unlike the palaces around St. Petersburg, which are certainly
beautiful and lovingly restored to their imperial glory, Valaam is
not a museum, not a historic site. It is alive.
Yet, it is a life that you will have difficulty finding in St.
Petersburg or Moscow, which are both increasingly glittering,
bustling cities, where it can seem that oil and natural gas money has
bought out the famous Russian soul.
Valaam, however, feels completely out of time. There are trucks and
machines -- the monks do not disdain modern technology, and even have
a Web site, www.valaam.ru -- but those signs of the modern world seem
On Valaam, the spiritual life of the monastery is stronger than the
"The benefit of a visit to Valaam is an exposure to an ancient way of
life that has produced saints, a way of life that -- if followed --
will produce sane men and women," Oliver said. "Going to Valaam
helped me fall in love with the sacred, and with what the sacred can
do in human lives."
That may be a lot to expect out of a vacation, but if you are looking
for a place where the beauty of nature and the beauty created by man
are in harmony, Valaam is the perfect destination.
For information about the volunteer opportunity at the monastery, e-
mail valaam2008@ east.ru.
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