Monday, March 08, 2004
A couple of weeks ago my lovely wife Mrs. Athanasius and our daughter Macrina (not her real name) went to California, ostensibly for work, but primarily to visit a Ruthenian Catholic monastery in the desert. We drove out into the desert on Saturday, and after touring the Rancho Cucamonga winery (the port was delicious), we went north on I-15 towards Barstow, a town that only still exists because it is a gas stop on the way to Las Vegas. After checking into our hotel, we then journeyed east on I-40 to the monastery.
Newberry Springs is the name of the town where it is located, but try as we might, we could never find the actual town. We saw a post office and a high school and a few churches, but no actual town. It is in the Mojave Desert, and although the land is cheap and there is water under the ground, it gets to 120 degrees in the summer. The monks have picked a good spot for contemplation, I think.
After a wrong turn or two, we finally found the place, turning into a dusty driveway. There is an old house there that used to be a Franciscan friary. There were no other cars or visible signs of life. We walked through a pleasant if dilapidated courtyard into a small rec-room area that had been refinished as a church, with icons covering nearly every inch of the wood paneling and a makeshift iconostasis. Thus far it was not an impressive place to the eyes. But only to the eyes.
We arrived at 5:30 and sat in the church for half an hour waiting for Vespers to start. A black-robed monk came in, gave us a look, and then started puttering around with various liturgical books. A few other people showed up, including an older couple who had parked their trailer outside. They, we were to find out later, were former atheists who moved to the desert to be closer to Holy Resurrection. The monks came in and started Vespers, occasionally looking over at us and smiling as Macrina joined in the singing. A few of the monks came in late--I found out at dinner that they had been out to see The Passion.
Vespers was reverent and prayerful. I love Byzantine liturgies, as you know. I am impatient by nature and have a wandering mind. It suits my spiritual development very well for me to immerse myself in the constant chanting. There are no silences in Byzantine liturgies, which means that I have no time to let my mind wander away from the presence of God. It was very good to stand in the darkness singing ancient prayers, especially after all the hustle and bustle in getting out to California. I could relax and focus on the One Thing that is really important. (I'm very blessed to have a wife who agrees with me in things liturgical--there is no friction, and she gets up early on Sundays so we can attend Matins as well as the Divine Liturgy.)
After the liturgy was over, the monks came by and invited us to dinner; it was a simple affair, since it is Lent, and the monks are forbidden to eat meat, dairy, or oil. (In the East, fish counts as meat.) The conversation was lively, and Father Maximos (you might remember his article a while back in First Things) talked about The Passion: "I don't think the movie is going to save people as much as it is going to condemn them." What he meant is that if you watch the movie and don't change your life, you will be more guilty. He also pointed out that the movie, as great as it is, is not a sacrament--it doesn't give grace, but only tells the story. The monks joked with each other and with their guests, and appeared to have good community life.
I should mention that all Byzantine monks are called "Father," whether or not they are priests. It is a mark of the respect shown to monastics in the East.
We went back the next day for Liturgy, which was short (only two hours and fifteen minutes!) and much better attended. The crowd included some marines from the local base, a young couple, and numerous hispanics (Indians?) from the surrounding area, and lots of children. It was the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which is the day we commemorate the triumph over the heresy of Iconoclasm (a heresy that many in the West still suffer from--just look at how many churches seem allergic to icons of Christ, Mary, or the other saints), and we all took our favorite icons from the wall and paraded around the grounds, singing the troparion for the day. I meant to grab Saints Cyril and Methodius, but think I got some other pair of saints. I never did figure out who they were, but I hope they will pray for me anyway. ) At the end, we did the special office for the day, which included praying for every patriarch of every apostolic church, and also included the chanting of anathemas against various heresies, many of which are common today. The chanting of "Anathema, anathema, anathema!" was very satisfying.
After Liturgy, we were again invited to eat, and got to talk some more with the monks. I mentioned in passing to Father Basil what I'd recently read of Jordan of Saxony, the second master of the Dominican order: When he entered a new city, the first thing he would do is order new habits. He was so sure of the success of his vocation search that he knew he would need lots of habits. Well, after lunch (a pot luck that they have every Sunday with whomever attends), we went out to see the new monastic cells that they are building. Go see pictures here. They are very impressive, made of earth and concrete, and will allow the monks to live in the desert without air conditioning. The temperature in the summer won't get higher than 82 degrees in the cells. In addition, they are setting up solar cells to provide their electricity. They don't have much at Holy Resurrection, but they have lots and lots of sun! Father Basil is an older man with six daughters (I presume he is a widower) who entered the monastery late in life, after asking his pastor what he should do. The priest told him "I know some monks that need you." Father Basil, you see, ran his own construction company for years, and is the man behind the extremely clever design of the monastic cells. He showed us around and explained the construction technique, which involved digging up the sand of the desert, sifting it, putting it in plastic bags, stacking them, and spraying the whole thing with concrete. We met a man named Ignacio who was there with his son, volunteering to come help the building project. He hopes to go back to northern Mexico to teach the poor how to make houses the same way, since there is no material cost--one just digs up the dirt and makes a house out of it. Apparently what the monks are doing is revolutionary, and people regularly come out to see how they do it.
Eventually they will build a real Byzantine church, with a dome and cross visible from the highway, so that people going off to Las Vegas can see it.
As we were leaving, Fr. Basil told us that they plan to make twenty cells (there are currently five monks, with a sixth on the way). He mentioned, apropos of Jordan of Saxony, "Did you know Fr. Nicholas (the abbot) was a Dominican when he was younger?" They expect to grow, and I expect they are right.
Posted by Karl at 12:29 PM