Forty days prior to Holy Week constitute the season of Lent in the Orthodox Calendar. Every year, we Orthodox gear up for the big reveal on Pascha (Easter). If you participate in the whole deal: the fasting, the extra church services, the reading spiritual books, it can be rewarding and magical. If you skip the “hard” part and just show up for Easter, I think you’re missing the meat that is the reason for the season. As I’ve grown in the Orthodox faith, the anticipation and excitement I used to feel during the Christmas season has diminished. That same feeling I now feel during the Lenten season.
We live in a time when sacrifice is considered passe. Every ad on television is about indulgence. We are worth it, so go ahead and splurge. But if we are indulging all the time, there is nothing special about the times of celebration. Lent is a time to dial back. Instead of cheeseburgers, we pack away our carnivorous appetites and break out our lentils and other vegan recipes. Instead of watching television everyday, all night, we attend the extra services during the week. Instead of reading that next Mystery novel, we might choose instead to focus on the book of a Saint. And lastly, instead of flying down to Florida for Spring Break, we might go to a Monastery. Which is what we did a couple of weeks ago.
There are hundreds of Orthodox Monasteries in the United States. Most are very small with only a handful of nuns or monks. Most are open to visitors with arrangements made ahead of time. St. Anthony’s in Arizona allows for day visitors without prior arrangements. For a few days this month, we choose to visit the Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junctions, Michigan. Currently, six nuns live at the Monastery under the direction of the lovely Abbess. A priest also lives on the grounds and helps to serve during services and address any spiritual needs of the community. Holy Dormition is under the Romanian Diocese, so some of the nuns come from Romanian, yet others are from more local places, the U.S. or Canada.
Monasteries offer an opportunity to step away from the incessant demands of the material world. All it takes to get there is a flight to Detroit and a rental car drive into the countryside of Michigan (or many roadtrip there.) There isn’t much around the Monastery. That is, in fact, the point. Holy Dormition offers accommodations in their main guest house for families, couples, and single women. For the single man, he gets placed in another building. This is a Monastery for nuns and priority goes to women.
Beyond respite from society, my husband and I were looking forward to more time for services and a time to connect with the Abbess. We have been struggling with fertility and loss. Coming to the Abbess might help us with acceptance, faith, and moving forward. We attending the early morning services the next day. They started at 5 am. We arrived around 6:30. The early morning services were followed by the Hours, then the Pre-sanctified Liturgy. All the services concluded about 9:30 am. I am not a morning person. Add in the cold weather and the fact that they keep the church dark excepting a few candles, and the morning services can be rough. Sometimes it takes a day to get into the feel of the quietude. And it absolutely did for me. I was very agitated the first morning, as I was still shaking off issues at home, and cranky at having woking up so early. “This was my choice” I berated myself, “Why was I such an ungrateful grouch?” But slowly as the service went on, I woke up more, I could commune better. I though the second morning would be better. In enthusiasm, we woke up even earlier. No lazing around for us, we were here for spiritual enlightenment. But I did not find the improvement I was hoping for. Sleep pawed at my eyelids. I kept telling myself I would leave after this next part of the service. 15 minutes more and then I’m going back to sleep. Eventually, the services were over. I had survived. But I found that despite my weariness, despite almost falling asleep several times, despite my cursing myself for getting up so early, I benefitted from the service. I remembered passages, I thought about readings. This was a major discovery for me. I’m continually reprimanding myself for losing focus during church; I start thinking about dumb things like my outfit or yard work, or what I am doing with my life. But even then, even when I am going off kilter, some of the words in the service stick. You just have to show up.
The monastery was not busy, so the Abbess had time to sit with us. We were grateful for the time to share our history and the fear of the future, which I am sure is a repeated topic of discussion. One of the things my husband asked was after you pray, how do you know if you are getting the answer from God? Many ideas come into your head. How do you know which one is the right one? She answered, that Father Roman Braga, (May his Memory be Eternal), said that after you ask your question, grab the first thought comes into your mind. That is usually the right one. So the next morning, I tried it in church. My mind was wondering to the idea of this blog. What should I call it? My first thought, Traveling with Humility. I immediately tried to push that aside. Who was I to write about being humble? This would entail sharing my faith, not just some cheeky travel bits. I tried to come up with other, more flashy titles. But this one stuck, and this one it would be.
We returned with a little renewed strength to finish the last few weeks of Lent. Not everyone is ready to step out of the world. But even if you can do it for one day, it is worth it.
*The Lenten Spring– 40 Meditations on Great Lent