Today’s guest blogger is John Parker.
High up in the tree-covered hills of Platina, California sits a string of buildings and huts strewn throughout the woods. From morning until sunset, men in black robes, young and old, can be seen walking or working on various tasks: adding new rows to the cobblestone path, tending to the gardens, or most commonly of all—prayer. Dogs wander aimlessly, happily, between the buildings, looking for pinecones to chew. And at the appointed times, a resonating hum of bells sounds across the hillside, beckoning listeners. This is the brotherhood of St. Herman of Alaska’s Monastery.
Orthodox Christian Monasteries have been in existence for well over a thousand years. The monastic life is a removal from the chaos of society, a sort of self-imposed exodus into the wilderness—a place where many throughout history have encountered the spiritual life in God. St. Herman’s began out of the desire to return to the spiritual heart of ancient Christian truth and praxis. Father Seraphim Rose, a prolific writer of Orthodox books, helped bring this vision to fruition at this monastery. Since then, this brotherhood has lived in simplicity and humility living out the Orthodox Christian Faith, occupying themselves with devoted prayer and worship, hard work, and hospitality toward the many frequent visitors (ourselves included) who come to see Father Seraphim’s grave. We were there to stay a day in the life of the monastics.
I came on this pilgrimage as the culmination of a year of “returning” to my inner self. I had been running for years from God and from anything resembling church, and had only recently been drawn back into that life. I felt as though God was slowly softening my heart and leading me back, so that by the time I visited St. Herman’s, the noise of the life I was coming out of had diminished enough for me to be able to listen and at least catch a small measure of the stillness of prayer.
After two full days of nearly non-stop driving from Colorado to the west coast, crammed in a van with four other young adults I’d only recently met, I wasn’t sure of what to expect when we arrived. I only knew that I felt something when we walked through the gates—stillness, a quietness returning to and settling on the earth.
Brother Cassian, a man in his early twenties and the most recent addition to the brotherhood, showed me and fellow traveler Jeremiah to our rooms—cells, as they’re called. Like most of the other monks, Brother Cassian was very quiet. Not standoffish or rude, just quietly engaged in a deliberate, contemplative silence. Beyond showing us our rooms and amenities and asking if we needed anything, there was very little conversation. This was the consistent theme throughout the stay: we were given a tour of the monastery, ate meals with the monks, attended services, and were treated with every kindness—nevertheless, a spirit of quietness infused all of these things.
One encounter my friend had with a monk is a fairly good representation of the whole trip’s experience. When we had free time to explore the grounds, this friend of mine was walking and singing to himself. Unknown to him, an elder monk named Brother Theophil was sitting nearby, praying in solitude. My friend thought he was alone, and was singing rather loudly, no doubt distracting Brother Theophil. As soon as my friend noticed the monk, he quickly stopped singing and began apologizing: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you from your prayer, I’ll leave now.”
Brother Theophil, a man who I would have otherwise thought seemed strict and austere, cracked a warm smile and turned to my friend saying, “It is alright. We must learn to pray, especially in the midst of distraction.”
Even though we only stayed a day at St. Herman’s, this truth has stayed with me. In the midst of a work filled with noise, chaos, pain, and suffering—there is a stillness that is waiting to be encountered. There is a life of prayer and inner quietness that I believe not only helps one endure the outside world, but actually helps sustain the world. These small, humble spaces where people strive to overcome the noise and seek a full life of faith help give breath and life to the surrounding world, even if it can’t perceive it.