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The unpleasant nature of spiritual growth
Reflection following my pilgrimage to Saint Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery
The first thing I noticed upon arrival in Arizona this past Tuesday after boarding the van that would take my fellow pilgrims and I to Saint Anthony’s monastery were the cacti. It had been many years (decades?) since I had seen a cactus in-person, and while I had experienced similar temperatures during my time in Hawai’i last year to the mid-nineties that greeted us at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, the difference between the tropical and desert ecosystems was extensive. I had been to a few benedictine monasteries as a tourist in the past, such as Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, Montecassino Abbey in Italy and Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland. More recently, I had made pilgrimages to Orthodox monasteries in England and Washington state. The difference has been as stark as that of the ecosystems in Hawai’i and Arizona.
As a tourist at the Benedictine monasteries, I had the chance to see the structures and learn about their histories on tours, perhaps even sitting in on a brief service. Usually not staying more than an hour or two in total, always with a stop at the gift shop. As a pilgrim to Orthodox monasteries, there was a more spiritual nature to my journey - usually seeking spiritual growth rather than cultural enrichment. This is not to say that one type of monastery offers spiritual growth and the other doesn’t, just that my motivation for making these journeys shifted when I began traveling to Orthodox monasteries.
I was rather dismayed that my first three Orthodox pilgrimages this year did not offer the blissful and holy experience that I thought would accompany spiritual growth. Instead, they were rather painful and very difficult. Thinking I had matured in my faith and could do better, I approached my journey to Saint Anthony’s with ambition and drive to ‘do it right’ and make up for my previous failings.
In January, after visiting friends in Scotland and abandoning plans to live in France, I made a pilgrimage to Saint John the Baptist Orthodox Monastery in Essex, England with hope that at best I would become a monk and at worst I would get some spiritual guidance and direction for my life. I approached this journey as an Orthodox Christian only because I had been baptized into the church as a child. It had been many years since I had seriously invested myself in either the cultural or religious aspects of Greek Orthodoxy for any length of time. Yet, I had the ego and ambition to go on a pilgrimage many pious Christians might hesitate to take.
At the time, I was more familiar with approaching religious travel as a tourist, having gone on a few uplifting multi-day retreats at St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in Wales, in addition to my brief tourist visits to Benedictine monasteries, I was expecting something similar. The problem was, I didn’t know what a light weight was, having never picked up a heavier one. While I was warmly welcomed to Saint John the Baptist Monastery in Essex after making my journey by train from Scotland, it quickly became clear to me that I had found the opposite of Findhorn’s ‘spiritual Disneyland.’ Nothing had been crafted to meet the expectations of eager spiritual seekers, including my own. This was a monastic community that welcomed pilgrims but did not design their activities or structures around them.
Despite staying at the monastery and participating in their services, I felt like an outsider. Worse, I was in tremendous spiritual pain rather than the bliss I thought would magically overcome me upon entering such holy grounds. I didn’t last even a full 24 hours before departing in despair. Nevermind becoming a monk or gaining more direction in life, instead what I got was a spiritual floodlight revealing me and my many flaws to myself. What I got was a big dose of reality that I couldn’t stomach. In retrospect, I wish I had stayed - but like a selfish child I couldn’t stand not getting what I wanted.
Little did I know, that was the easiest of all my following pilgrimages. I woke up at 2AM a few months later to join others in celebrating the feast day at Saint John the Forerunner monastery in Goldendale, Washington. Waking up so early, going on such a long car ride and then standing for the three hour service, followed by a hasty meal before getting back on the road, was much more rigorous than anything I faced in Essex. The liturgy itself, much like the liturgy in Essex, was an experience beyond words. Watching the many candles of the chandelier be lit and the inner and outer portions spin in different directions made material the movements that the prayers brought to my heart. Was this what a spiritual experience was? I was not filled with joy, but rather overwhelmed by power. Questions I thought significant, like ‘Where should I work?’ were crushed, rather than answered.
A week or so later, I went to visit Abbot Tryphon at All-Merciful Savior Monastery on Vashon Island. I was warmly greeted but quickly forgotten, to my discontentment after traveling by bus, ferry and foot over the course of several hours and believing I deserved better. The Abbot told me he had one thing to do and then would meet with me. I was only there for the day, with the primary goal of meeting with him to gain an Orthodox perspective on the Jesuits. I was disappointed that after several hours of waiting it was possible I would need to leave and not have the chance to speak with him. I finally asked one of the monks to check with the Abbot for me and he arrived a few minutes later apologizing for having forgotten about me. I suspected he was testing me, but more likely it was God testing me. That experience of waiting in the courtyard for hours was unpleasant to say the least, but it was my spiritual experience and opportunity for growth that day.
Having had three experiences, none of which met my expectations for what a spiritual experience ought to be, I was convinced that I was now prepared to do things right in Arizona. When we arrived, after a warm greeting from the monks and a filling meal, we were told that rather than stay in the guesthouse we would be staying in a more luxurious accommodation at the monastery. I thought that this comfortable start was a positive sign that I would get the pleasing lightweight experience I had always sought and never found at Orthodox monasteries thus far. How wrong I was!
After dropping off our bags at the house, the Priest traveling with us gave us a tour of the many churches and chapels at the monastery. Venerating the above ground marble sarcophagus containing the body of Elder Ephraim (the monastery’s founder) filled me with tears and again the raw power I had felt at other monasteries overwhelmed me. This was not a pleasant experience and it was finally beginning to emerge to me that perhaps spiritual experiences are not meant to be pleasant.
When we arrived early to the main church for liturgy, the skull of Saint Joseph the Hesychast (Elder Ephraim’s spiritual father) was set out for veneration. I had never seen relics like this before, let alone had the opportunity to venerate them. Still an infant in my return to the Orthodox Church, I felt more like a fraud than anything else and yet here I was. The experience was similar but all the more powerful to the one I had with Elder Ephraim’s sarcophagus. Laser beams to the heart, no elation or happiness.
Staying in relative luxury and having such powerful experiences was more than I could ask for, but the physical and spiritual toll was more than I could imagine. Having just arrived, I was already shattered in a similar way to how I felt at the Essex monastery. What was wrong with me? I was meant to be there for five days and committed myself to powering through.
It was early to bed that night so I could wake up at 1AM for 1:30 liturgy. The service was in Greek and about three hours long. A beautiful service, but I became even weaker than I already was by the minute. My left ankle and foot began to hurt. Following liturgy, I went back to bed. Those two and a half hours of extra sleep were probably the best sleep I’ve ever had in my life. Next it was up and soon to work helping remove palms being cut down and loading them into a truck for composting. While I occasionally volunteer doing ecological restoration work, manual labor is not a frequent part of my life and my work generally consists of sitting and reading or writing (as I am now). It did not take long for my tired and spiritually exhausted self to become physically beaten as well. I was struggling and trying to pretend that nothing got to me, I was physically, spiritually and mentally drained but working hard to appear that it was no big deal. The others I was with had been faithful Orthodox for many years, they appeared to be withstanding this pilgrimage much better than I was. I felt out of place and my foot was in a growing amount of pain.
After about two and a half hours of work, we had lunch and then there was a chance to do as we pleased for a few hours. I was keen to speak with Elder Paisios, but the waiting room to see him was completely full and I didn’t think I had a chance. The best I could do was ask for his blessing following dinner that evening, which he graciously granted me. That two second experience reminded me of my encounter with Elder Zacharia at the Essex monastery, where I was following him at a distance after leaving dinner, not expecting anything from him, knowing he was very busy, but he suddenly turned around and faced me to offer his blessing without my asking. That was the highlight of my brief time there.
The next night in Arizona followed the same schedule as the previous one, the power and beauty only intensified the degree to which I felt mentally, physically and spiritually broken. When I awoke at 7:30AM on the third day of our pilgrimage I couldn’t bear it anymore and felt the same urge to depart as I had felt in Essex on the second day of my time there. I was filled with shame, a fraud of an Orthodox, unworthy and incapable, entirely out of place.
It was only after making my mind up to leave that some light was cast on my darkness. A priest pointed out that many of the monks don’t go to liturgy every night, some rest the night. Just as not every monk is out doing manual labor every day. There was a wide variety and here I was holding myself to a higher standard than even the monks. My perfectionism (and ego) ran wild. I departed the monastery earlier than planned, but now saw that spiritual crushing was what I needed to achieve spiritual growth, even though it wasn’t what I craved. I needed my ego and pride to be destroyed and the means by which God did that was to make my weaknesses incredibly apparent to me.
Once I left the monastery, I had a strange sense of suddenly feeling much better. The extreme weariness I had felt went away sooner than such a pain ought to. Had I done everything I did while at St Anthony’s but in a different place, say at a secular university with no priests or monks present, I don’t think I ever would have been in nearly as much pain as I had experienced at the monastery. Yes, getting up for liturgy in the middle of the night and doing farm work for a few hours is beyond a typical day for most city folk like myself, but there was a greatly magnified intensity that I can only attribute to the spiritual power of the place. As soon as I departed the spiritual floodlights, it was easier for me not to see my weaknesses, to re-inflate my ego and carry on.
Psalm 51’s concluding lines sum it up best:
“For You have no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, You would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
I wish I had stayed, both in Essex and in Arizona, but only now do I see that when I am confronted with my weakness and brokenness, it is not something to run away from or try to cover up. It is with me no matter where I am, but made much more apparent to me at monasteries. This is the next step on my spiritual journey. I realize now that spiritual growth does not necessarily feel good, in fact it is the opposite pursuit that tends to lead to more pleasant sensations. I’m both looking forward to and frightened to think of my next monastic pilgrimage and what it might bring, but I’m hopeful that I will have the chance to step into the spiritual floodlights once again and be more accepting of my weaknesses being brought to light.
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