The holy, monastic communities of Mt. Athos in Greece may form the spiritual center of the Orthodox world through their vigilant prayer and teaching, but every monastery can enrich the spiritual life of its "local" community of Orthodox faithful, whether that community is right down the street, a day's drive away, or across the world on the Internet.
In western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio, we are blessed to be in close proximity to three Orthodox monasteries, each with a unique spiritual environment. We are able to interact often with their monks and nuns at pan-Orthodox seminars and services held throughout the year, at our own parishes' services and ethnic festivals to which they are often invited, and at the monasteries themselves.
The Monastery of St. John the Theologian (Hiram, Ohio), regularly opens its doors to our parish's youth group for weekend camp-out retreats. The monks spend several hours leading nature walks and talking with the teens in the guest house living room or around an outdoor bonfire after services. It is an enriching, enjoyable experience for monastics, teens, and chaperones alike! The other monasteries do the same type of thing for their diocesan parishes' youth groups, women's groups, and adult study groups.
Whether you live near a monastery or not, setting aside a portion of your family's vacation time each year to visit a monastery is an excellent way to help children establish positive role models and spark in them an interest in monasticism. When children see monks and nuns showing obedience and humility, cheerfully serving others, and spending long, joyous hours in prayer, they better understand how our Faith can be lived every day.
Here are some basic rules of etiquette for visiting a monastic community with your family or parish group, based on our experience:
|Call ahead to introduce yourself and ask the permission of the Abbott or Abbess for your visit, and tell him or her who is coming with you, when you plan to arrive, how long you wish to stay, and why you wish to come. You may find that the monastery is closed for the day (i.e., for the first week of Great Lent, so that the monastics may pray without interruptions), that several members of the community are traveling, or that alternate directions are needed because of road construction.|
|If you will be at the monastery for more than a single service and/or a meal, ask in advance if there is anything you may do to help while you are there, so you can bring appropriate clothes and supplies, if needed. You may be able to help with gardening, baking or canning, decorating the Church, cleaning, painting fences or shrines, etc. Most monasteries have so much spiritual, Church-related work to do that help with chores is welcome. (Last week, our almost-four-year-old Katie helped a monk at St. Gregory Palamas Monastery (Hayesville, Ohio) plant onion sets in the newly-tilled garden. Both enjoyed the work and the fellowship, and the rows are almost straight!)|
|Do not arrive empty-handed! It is appropriate to bring a small present for the monastery with you, regardless of the length of your stay. (Nasa Phyllis often takes freshly-baked pita bread from a local bakery whenever she visits the monastery, but other good gifts include olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, a home-baked bread or cake, a new cassette tape of liturgical music, etc.)|
|When you arrive, greet the Abbot or Abbess of the monastery as you would greet a priest: approach them and bow, touching the floor with your right hand, then cross your hands right over left with palms upward and say, "Bless, Father" or "Bless, Mother". The Abbot or Abbess will bless you with the sign of the Cross, say "Let us bless the Lord.", and place his or her hand over yours, so that you may kiss it in respect. (All Orthodox monks are addressed as "Father", whether they are ordained as priests or not. Likewise, nuns are addressed as "Mother". Only male and female novices or rasophores are called "Brother" and "Sister", respectively.)|
|Larger monasteries usually have a designated monk or nun whose task it is to guide and look after visitors. Direct all of your questions to this person or to the Abbott or Abbess, unless you are given permission to speak with others when you arrive. To cultivate an attitude of prayer and obedience, most monks and nuns work in silence. You may greet them politely and respectfully, but do not expect them to speak at length. The conversation lasts only as long as the monk or nun allows! (Novices will not speak at all without permission from the Abbot or Abbess, so do not speak to them. A smile will do!)|
|Encourage children to use their "Church behavior" on the entire grounds of the monastery, both inside and out, so they do not disrupt the quiet, prayerful environment. Depending on the day's activities more or less "kid stuff" may be permitted outside and in the common areas; if your children are too loud or too rambunctious, one of the monks or nuns will tell you!|
|If there is a service in progress during your visit, be in attendance. When you arrive, ask the Abbott or Abbess if there are any services that visitors are not permitted to attend, and if there are, what to do while they are being held.|
|The Church may have reserved areas for the monastics to stand, make prostrations, chant, etc. Respect these boundaries, and do not enter those areas unless invited. If you normally sing in the choir or read the epistle in your home parish, let the Abbot or Abbess know. You may be invited to sing or read, but do not be offended if you are not!|
|In the monastery proper, never enter the private quarters areas.|
|If you are invited to share a meal with the monks or nuns in the monastery dining room, follow the lead of the Abbott or Abbess for the opening prayer, when to start eating and drinking, the quantity you eat, and the level and subject of conversation (e.g., if the monastery eats in silence, be silent). When the meal is over, the Abbott or Abbess will rise to begin the closing prayers. Do not eat after those prayers unless given permission to do so. Offer to clean up following any shared meals.|
|If you wish to leave the monastery grounds at any time during your visit - to take a walk on the woods, stop at a store, mail a letter, etc. - ask the blessing of the Abbot or Abbess. If he or she is not available, tell someone where you are going and when you will return.|
|When staying overnight in the monastery's guest house, you may be able (or asked) to cook your own meals in its kitchen. Remember that monastic communities fast from meat every day, so do not bring meat with you. Follow the prescribed fasting periods for abstaining from fish, dairy products, wine, and olive oil.|
|If you are a guest for an extended time during a non-fasting period, you may ask permission to play music on a portable cassette or CD player in the guest house or while you work outside the Church. Keep the volume low, and choose appropriately. Liturgical, ethnic (e.g., balalaika orchestra), and non-New Age instrumental selections may be enjoyed even by the monks or nuns, but the music should never disrupt or interfere with the prayer life of the community.|
|Obviously, the guest house is to be left clean and tidy when you depart from a longer visit - monasteries aren't hotels, and don't have maid service! Monasteries do not ask for anything in return for the hospitality they provide, but consider leaving a donation with the Abbott or Abbess if you use the guest house to cover the cost of heating, utilities, etc. (A good rule of thumb is one-half to two-thirds of what you would have spent staying at the local hotel, depending on whether or not you brought your own food.)|
|When you leave, be sure to say goodbye to all those you spoke with at length if they are available, and ask for the blessing of the Abbot or Abbess.|
Finally, remember to say a prayer of thanks to God for the monastery and the salvation and health of the monks and nuns with whom you prayed, and to include the monasteries you visit in your family's almsgiving during the fasting seasons and throughout the year.
To get started, ask your parish priest for the names, addresses, contact persons and phone numbers of monasteries in your vicinity, or near where you will be vacationing. A full directory of Orthodox monasteries in North America is also maintained on the World Wide Web at www.nettinker.com/monasteries/. This site includes up-to-date listings for eight jurisdictions, and links to monasteries’ web pages whenever possible.
When you find a monastic retreat which aids your spiritual growth, visit often!
by Nichola Toda Krause
© 1998 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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