Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Kwih-chee-yuh ook-teep ts̓uh-wey-yoos (Land of Rainbows)

By Brother Stavros

My brother used to kid me: “Why would a monk cooped up in a monastery all year want to go to an even more remote place for ‘retreat?’” “I don’t know—you’d just have to live here,” I would answer. Truth is, in the heart of every monk or nun lives some fascination for the wilds. I’ve indulged this attraction, usually including water, at places like a small island in Lake George, a big island in Narragansett Bay, and Cape Lookout in Oregon. Most of the time my trip has been supported by benefactor friends, and the time is determined by our two yearly breaks. This February I reached the apex of remoteness: Cape Flattery and the Makah Indian Reservation at the northwestern-most tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. You can go no farther west on this continent without going to Alaska.

My northern odyssey was based at a monkish 1950’s motel cabin in Port Angeles with a view of the Olympic Mountains to the south and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north.  My quest for solitude, silence and scenic beauty was abundantly met.

On my first excursion, I envisioned a major Zen walk along the Dungeness Spit. Named by the British explorer George Vancouver in 1792, it is the longest sand spit in North America: some 5.5 miles long. When I reached the little park and nature preserve at its base, the sun came out, triggering several rainbows. It became quickly obvious that I wasn’t going to make it to the lighthouse at the tip. The tide was coming in, reducing the spit’s width to under 300 feet, and the rigor of going over or around huge beached logs of Sitka spruce and Douglas fir while dodging the waves was too tiring. The logs did provide a gallery of sculptures of vastly different textures and colors. By the time I headed back, maybe two miles out, a big weather change produced strong northwest winds, creating an angry sea on my right while the bay remained calm just yards to my left. For good reason the Park advises low tides in the summer as more hiker-friendly.

I headed to a ranger station, got a map, and considered a ranger’s suggestion of a hike to a waterfall but decided to drive the five miles up Hurricane Ridge, which is open in winter. It was amazing: mountains above, lots of snow (but no more than we see at home) and spread out below the blue-grey Strait as the sun was about to set, lighting up the peaks from underneath..

Next day, a Saturday, I started at dawn for Neah Bay and Cape Flattery. Route 112 had little traffic and only a few patches of fog, which burned off quickly. It is the ultimate scenic route. The road is seriously serpentine, but with lots of pull-off spaces. At the Neah village store, a mile past the “Welcome to the Makah Nation” sign, I paid for my pass to take the Cape trail. The rain forest was dazzling in the morning light. Lots of boardwalks and stairs, and eventually I could hear the surf crashing into all the clefts and firths fringing the Cape rock. Because of a newly fallen tree I got briefly off the track, prudently pondering some vertiginous vistas below. There are several viewing platforms. It was a sunny Saturday, and lots of hikers were out, complete with children and dogs. The westward view is thrilling where the ocean forges into the Strait. A small island, Tatoosh, punctuates the Cape, the way the dot above an “i” hosts a lighthouse like a pearl in a rock bezel. I enjoyed some quiet reflection, then started back.

I drove into the tribal council headquarters: simple, almost military-looking buildings with not a soul about. Then on a hunch I found the road to Shi-Shi beach on Clallam Bay, on the Pacific side south of the cape. It is a splendid sand beach with no development, just some eco-friendly cedar cabins. Finally I returned to town and stopped at the Cultural Museum. It is well laid out with whaling canoes, cedar longhouse, and many wonderful crafts and artwork. The baskets and masks in the gift shop were very expensive but worth every florin. I got a few things for church, including a dramatic native design in a black and red 3 x 3 foot cloth, to cover the table where we keep the saints' relics.

In town I enjoyed lunch in the only restaurant, by the marina looking out over the fishing boats. The cook and waitstaff were alI Makah; the patrons were Anglos. I asked the waitress if she spoke Makah, but she only remembers bits and snatches. She suggested I talk to a certain Mary, who has the B&B on the edge of town. I was very interested, but Mary was not home.

I took a slightly different route back to Port Angeles, which to my delight took me around Crescent Lake closer to the interior of the Olympics. And what an astounding sight. Since it is in the National Park, it is pristine. It was late afternoon, so the light and shadow, the rose and purple clouds were reflected in the water, the golden cream of the snow peaks, almost like a dream world. It was a spectacular end to a wonderful day.

Close to nature, close to God, as the saying has it. I can attest to the truth of it with two memorable days. True closeness to God will uproot our ego-centeredness. The Makah people refer to their homeland as “the beginning of the world,” and all that time I thought of it as the western end of the world. How helpful to see another’s point of view.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Pilgrimage to Canada

 By Brother Christopher

“Father, may they be one, just as you are in me and I am in you...”     John 17:21

            During the week of the Octave of Christian Unity (January 18-25), Brother Stavros and I had the opportunity to visit two Roman Catholic monastic communities in Quebec, Canada: the Jerusalem Community of Montreal, and Val Notre-Dame, a Cistercian (Trappist) monastery in St-Jean-de-Matta, about an hour northwest of Montreal. How the trip transpired goes back to a brief encounter I had with Dom Andre Barbeau, the Abbot of Val Notre-Dame, over a year ago. In the course of our conversation, he mentioned that his community had long wished to make a connection with an Orthodox monastery, so he asked if some sort of visit might be possible during the celebration of the following year’s Octave? I replied that since we’re a small community, it would all depend on scheduling, but that in principle we would be open to such a visit.

            As the months passed and we became involved in numerous projects here at New Skete, I forgot about my meeting with Dom Andre. However, in the middle of November I received an email from him in which he reminded me of his invitation and his sincere hope that we would be able to come. Looking at the calendar, I was happy to see that things were quiet enough during that week to enable a couple of us to make the trip. So we accepted his gracious offer.

            Since it would be a fairly long trip to Val Notre-Dame, Brother Stavros suggested that we divide the trip in half and spend an overnight in Montreal with the Jerusalem Community, whom he had visited several times in the past, and who had visited us once at New Skete. The Jerusalem Community is distinctive in that they are a monastic community who live their monastic vocation in small groups of monastic communities “at the heart of the city,” in urban settings primarily in France and elsewhere in Europe. They also founded a house in Montreal in 2004. Each community is composed of monks and nuns who live separately; they support themselves by working a half day in the local community, but the core of their life is their prayer and common worship, in which they gather together three times daily.

            When we contacted frere Pierre-Benoit, the guest master, he said we would be most welcome. We learned that they, too, would be having an ecumenical service the night of our arrival, to which we were also invited. After arriving in the afternoon and having dinner with the brothers, we took a brief walk around Montreal and arrived back in time for the evening service. The singing of the monks and nuns is quite beautiful, and about 120 lay people were present in church, quite remarkable for a Friday evening. The guest preacher was Pastor Richard Bonetto, from the Presbyterian Church of St Luke in Montreal, who offered a sermon on 1 Samuel 16:6,7 in which the main theme was how God sees the heart and is not impressed by externals. One interesting anecdote that Pastor Bonetto brought up was how John Calvin loved the Fathers of the Church, how he read them and was deeply influenced by them. Then, winking at Brother Stavros and myself, he said that it could even be said that Calvin was a “Presbyterian hesychast.”

            After the service we attended a fellowship hour and had the opportunity to meet several of the nuns and lay people who were present. There was a very convivial atmosphere to the gathering, a nice expression of the spirit of the week of unity.  After a good night’s sleep and Lauds the following morning, we said goodbye to the community and began the next leg of our trip north to the Abbey of Val Notre-Dame.

            Val Notre-Dame is outside the small village of St Jean-de-Matta, about an hour or so northwest of Montreal. It is in a very beautiful rural locale on 500 acres of woodland. When we arrived we were greeted warmly by Dom Andre, who got us settled in our rooms and then gave us a tour of the monastery. The monastery is quite modern, but strikingly beautiful, with lines of windows throughout that let in an abundance of natural light. It was built in 2006 when the community decided to relocate from their previous location in Oka, outside Montreal, in order to have greater solitude. As we toured the monastery with Dom Andre, I thought to myself that it was without doubt the cleanest monastery I had ever seen. It had received several architectural awards, and it was clear that the monks had spent a lot of time thinking about how to make it functional while at the same time stunningly beautiful. As an example, the Abbey Church is a graceful combination of natural wood, slate, large windows, and very tasteful statuary. Behind the altar is a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on the wooded property and nearby mountain. The acoustics in church are beautiful. There is plenty of room for visitors, and an overlook in the upper rear of the church provides a place where infirmed brothers can look down from the infirmary while a service is going on. It is a very thoughtful way to keep the infirmed monks connected with the community’s prayer. The community numbers 19 monks, and while it is an aging community, we had the distinct sense that it remains quite vigorous. The services are done with deep reverence, and the singing is very good. The fact that we were allowed to stay in the cloister and that we were placed in choir for the services was a real privilege. Brother Stavros and I felt very much at home and were warmly welcomed throughout our visit. These were indeed brother monks, who share the same passion for the monastic vocation as we do.

            During our visit we were able to offer two presentations to the community on Orthodox monastic life, which proved to be a helpful entry into mutual dialogue and sharing, the limitations of our French notwithstanding. We also were asked to participate in a Sunday “Ecumenical” Vespers by singing several Orthodox hymns at several points in the service. We sang a Radiant Light (Phos Hilaron) at the beginning of Vespers and the Byzantine “Christ is Risen” at the end. After that Vespers we joined the community for a gathering with Pastor Laurent, a local Protestant minister and friend of the monastery, who, along with two of his associates, spoke to the community about their work locally in youth and prison ministries.

            Because our stay was to last four days, we had a chance the next day to see the monastery chocolate factory (they make delectable chocolates and fruitcakes), and then in the afternoon we were able to snowshoe on groomed trails that cut through the front half of the property. One of the ways the community supports itself is by renting out about half their land to a local ski club, who use it for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. So we took the monks up on their suggestion for some fresh air. Because of the beauty of the property and the crisp, crystal clear day, our snow trek was truly memorable. At one point we were treated to an overlook with a commanding view of the monastery below. Glorious!

            Originally we had intended to stay for four days, but it turned into five when a massive snow and ice storm on Tuesday delayed our departure one day. Neither of us uttered a word of complaint. Indeed, the visit had been a mini-retreat and a graced opportunity to make new friends. When we finally were able to depart the following day, we did so with gifts of books, chocolates, caramels, and fruitcakes for our community that the monks were sending us home with—a sign of love of generosity that deeply touched us. On our way home we stopped back in Montreal to visit with our friend Dr John Hadjinicolaou and his gracious wife, Lila, and to pick up the copies of our latest book, Fossil or Leaven: Essays Collected in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of New Skete,[1] which we published in collaboration with Alexander Press, John’s publishing company. It was a delightful visit, and they could not have been more hospitable. By the time we left for the border, our car was crammed with “booty from the north,” and thankfully we had no problems at the border with customs. 

            This was the first time we had ever participated in an Octave of Christian Unity, but the experience was fruitful and deeply meaningful. While respecting the different traditions represented by all who were there, we were able to pray together for an as yet unrealized unity, and to witness to the common monastic values we all share. It made me conscious of the positive role the monastic life can play in furthering mutual understanding among the Christian churches, as well as the importance of having an Orthodox presence in ecumenical work.        

[1] The book will be available on line ( and in our gift shop very shortly.