I've recently returned from a spontaneous, informal weekend retreat at Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery in Kendalia, TX. It's been about four years since I've been able to spend the night there with the fathers, and I went this time with three other men from my parish. Two of them had never been to an Orthodox monastery before; the other two of us were already familiar with how things went.
We went down around lunchtime on Friday and spent the night. On Saturday we woke up at six in the morning for the divine liturgy. Following this, we ate breakfast, then broke up for what, interestingly enough, the fathers called "quiet time" -- when they did some of their private, morning devotionals, cleaned up the kitchen. During this time I went to the grave of little Jamie, (not pictured to the right, as I neglected to bring my camera), where I prayed some prayers for the departed, and sang "With the saints" and "Memory Eternal." Sat afterwards and read the end of Fr. John Behr's The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death.
Following this time we (the four of us from St. Barbara's) accompanied some of the fathers and brothers (monks are called "fathers" regardless of whether they've been ordained priests or not, while novices who've yet to be fully tonsured are called "brothers") into the main church (pictured right) to help them dust, sweep, mop, and scrape beeswax from the floor. This is part of their daily devotional. Brother Jason then gave us a tour around the four-story complex that's being built alongside the church that will house more monastics (may God grant such) in the future. Lunch was served and, following this, a baptism of the newly born (and now newly-illumined) child of God, Eli. This service was the first I'd witnessed at Holy Archangels that was not entirely in Greek; well over 75% of it was in English, probably due to its not being a daily service and due to non-Greek speakers' attending on a special occasion. Following the baptism, we had a bit of time for reflection and prayer, and then had Vespers and Litya (which, like the baptism, was in the main church, as well). Supper was served after this. Suppers at Holy Archangels are eaten with women in one room, and male pilgrims and monastics in the other. A priestmonk will offer a blessing, and all will sit. A bell will ring, signalling the beginning of the meal. A monk will begin to read either a passage of Scripture or something from the Church Fathers (in this case, in Greek, of course), while all the "listeners" (such as we were) ate in silence). A minute or two later, a second bell rings, and drinks are poured. This discipline teaches us to wait, though we be hungry, before diving into food or drink in an uncontrolled fashion. Idle talk is not to be found at the table.
Following supper, the bell at the nearby, smaller chapel pictured to the right (which is also where we had had divine liturgy that morning) rang for Compline. We walked in the dark back to our rooms, a day full of prayer, work, and temperance in food and drink finished. The next day we would go back up to the main church for divine liturgy. Again, separate gender was the rule, with males on the right, and women on the left, heads covered. Following this, we all ate together in the refectory, and afterwards, with the blessing of the Γεροντα, or "elder," came back home.
Things I came away with:
The long monastic services in Greek, regardless of whether one knows enough of the language to follow along (I can get by in the more familiar services), are an excellent opportunity to practice the Jesus Prayer. Indeed, I find the literal hours spent focusing on the words -- and, then, the One behind the words -- of the prayer help me "rediscover" the beauty of the simplicity of that prayer. True, the monotony that can set in also allows for thoughts to wander, but controlling one's thoughts, taking every one of them captive and making it obedient to Christ and, thus, slowly and painfully correcting our minds' and hearts' misuse of our bodies, is what the Prayer is all about.
I really, really appreciate head coverings, modest dress (including long sleeves on men), and separated genders in Orthodox worship. Regarding the latter issue, I was surprised, honestly, at how much easier it is for me to focus on worship when only with members of my own gender. There is, of course, "the issue" that plagues young men, but this goes deeper than mere wandering eyes. Here is a faith (I saw it in action multiple times during the trip) where men teach boys, where women teach girls how to live and worship. The community at this monastery -- which is comprised of Orthodox from several large cities around central Texas -- made sure that boys coming only with mothers received ample instruction from older men as to when to bow, how to stand, where to read along in the service books...the village was alive here.
All in all, a wonderfully refreshing weekend spent with dear friends. Glory to God.