The Monastery Retreat

If I went in for long titles, I would probably add something about ‘the weekend I didn’t know I needed’ as I truly didn’t realize how much I needed, and on how many different levels, to do this. My only regret is that it wasn’t longer. Well, that and I wish I had gotten to play fetch with some new friends one more time.

The men’s group at the Church I’ve been attending did a retreat/visit to a Greek Orthodox monastery up in Michigan (no, we are not Greek Orthodox) I understand that it is a yearly tradition for the group, and that sometimes there are other visits for families and such. Thinking if I get the chance, I would like to go back again.

After a long drive (it’s several hours from Indy), we arrived in the afternoon and got settled in the bunk room available to five of us. Well, we got settled and I had my first meeting with two of the residents: a pair of border collies. Who were quite willing to play fetch until we or they dropped, and if it had been allowed to go on that long my money was on us dropping before them.

Not too long after we attended our first service, which was entirely in Greek. If you have never attended an Orthodox service, you are supposed to stand for the entire service. This not always being possible, especially for those of us not in prime physical shape, there were some standing seats available. These are rectangular wooden cubes where you can stand, half-sit onto a seat, or fold it down to have a regular seat. They are up against the walls, as the sanctuary is somewhat small.

I really liked them, and using the top part was able to remain standing for entire services. Anytime my balance got iffy, I could use my arms to steady myself. I did use the half-seat a couple of times, particularly during one three hour service (Vespers, Matins, and something else combined). We caught on quickly to some cues that helped us know when to do things, and I even recognized a couple of words. It doesn’t hurt that the Orthodox liturgy is essentially the same across all Orthodox churches, just in different languages.

After morning and evening services, we were fed and boy were we fed. For all that fasts were happening, the food was tasty and plentiful. I’m trying right now to start recreating a curried chick pea (garbanzo bean) dish we had the first night, that was served over rice. Any hopes I had to losing weight during the visit were dashed early. As it was, none of the meals were huge and the portions were reasonable. And delicious. We were also served lunch on Saturday, which I was not expecting.

We had some time to read, and I made use of it to read Psalms in the new study Bible and the book for the course I am taking at Church. Something to be said for doing such sitting and looking out the window seen above as you read. Nice also to have others doing the same, and to be able to discuss some of it.

The monastery is a working farm. They have chickens for the eggs (which they use and sell); sheep and goats for milk (used for yogurt, soap, and more); herd protection dogs as there are coyotes and more about; and the two border collies to herd the goats when they take them into the woods to forage a bit. Heard about the coyote who was seen sitting at the fence one day, looking in at the sheep and goats — and the livestock guardian dog sitting facing him and asking him to come on in so Wylie could be dealt with properly and permanently.

Several of the livestock guardian dogs are Great Pyrs, but they have at least two that are part of a new breed (Colorado something something) being bred with an eye towards smaller farms/areas. One of the Pyrs is still a puppy, for all that he is almost full grown and I’d estimate to already be at least 100 lbs soaking wet (which he was), and he was not shy about asking for skritches. Nor were the LaMancha goats (they have those and Nubians, moving towards all LaMancha) shy about asking for skritches and such. Turns out they love being scratched and skritched around their horn bumps and were delighted to have people who were willing to do so for extended periods of time. The goats were kidding, so there were several kids racing around and doing what goat kids do.

They also grow produce on-site, and in addition to the “garden” area are building what I would term a greenhouse complex to be able to grow produce year round. The small number of monks there stay busy! Their day starts at midnight and their first service is about 0300 I think. They rest a bit around dawn, then do morning service and go work the farm until time for evening services. They try to be in bed by 2000 hours. For them to also take in visitors like us is something else.

The Sunday service is very well attended, and is putting a bit of strain on the small sanctuary there. They now have Greek Orthodox attending not just from Michigan, but Canada and I think elsewhere. One person indicated they had driven an hour (two?) to be able to attend the service. Had to put out chairs to accommodate everyone.

Forgot to mention, they have a bakery (in the process of expansion) and a small coffee house they open on Sundays after the service. It’s become the social center for the Greek Orthodox community and when the weather is nice (it was a bit cold while we were there), the people spill outside to sit at tables or just enjoy the immediate area. They do really good Greek coffee (delightfully chewy) and the Abbot was kind enough to offer me a small bit of a more spirited libation (essentially Greek moonshine was how he described it) to go with it.

I did make it out into the woods/larger grounds for a short time on Saturday, exploring out onto the peninsula that juts out into the lake. The area has lots of bogs, and I heard that the entire area (not just their lands) are considered wetlands. The ground was almost too wet for good tracks, but was not surprised to learn there were deer and more in the area. Know that next time I go back I will be taking a pair of Wellys with me.

Their bookstore was a temptation, but I was good (mostly) and only came back with some of their kosher dill pickles and a jar of the maple syrup they tap and make on-site. Oh yeah, forgot to mention they do that, make beeswax candles, and have a small bee operation as well. For the candles, they buy the wax elsewhere as what they produce there would not be enough to really even get the machine going I think. I wasn’t joking when I said they stay busy. One monk said they don’t fish the lake because they don’t have time to fish. I heard that if you come during the week, you may have the chance to help work the farm. Think I would like that if I can do it.

It was a far cry from my first visit to an Orthodox church many years ago. That one was just outside the Kremlin, and a young woman insisted we go to Church on Sunday. So, we did and I didn’t have a clue of what was going on or why there were no chairs, pews, etc. She lit a few candles, told me the service was over, and that we needed to depart. I was pretty sure things were still underway, but got told no, time to go. Found out recently that her behavior may have been a holdover from Soviet days, where if you just went in for a few minutes and not the entire service, you were not harassed by the authorities. Since the Soviet Union had just fallen a few years before, it makes sense.

While pretty much everyone stayed put during the service at the monastery, if you attend an Orthodox service and haven’t been before, it may be a touch confusing. In most Western churches, you arrive, sit down, and stay in place (allowing for standing, kneeling, etc.) for the entire service. In most Orthodox churches, there can be a lot of movement as people go to light candles, offer prayers and such even during the service. About the only time it stops is when Scripture is being read and during the homily. I will also share the words of an Orthodox writer I read a while back, who noted ‘there is often a simple and concise way to say something: that is NOT the Orthodox way.’ That one still makes me laugh.

In short, the visit was good for my soul on several levels. It also let me see how I could do on a trip and in handling a pack (I used an assault ruck for the visit). I came back refreshed in more than one way, even though I admit to being a little tired today (mostly the travel I think). It was different, and good. Thought I would share just a bit of it. And leave you with a thought inspired by the startled look a sculpture in our bunk room.

Getting hit by lightning is not fun! If you would like to help me in my recovery efforts, which include moving once we have medical issues cleared up, feel free to hit the fundraiser at A New Life on GiveSendGo, use the options in the Tip Jar in the upper right, or drop me a line to discuss other methods. It is thanks to your gifts and prayers that I am still going. Thank you.

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