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A Tragic Journey To a Monastery

I’ve just been made aware of a sad situation that has been poignantly tracked in an online diary. There’s no political point to be made here, only a striking human story about religious life to be observed.

Here’s where it begins. Read past the jump if you’re interestd.

On June 6, a young man considering becoming a monk arrived at the Orthodox Christian Monastery of St. John in Manton, California, and began to chronicle online his experiences as a “summer novice.” He wrote:

I’m really looking forward to learning the ways of Orthodox Christianity as a novice. This is certainly going to be one of the biggest experiences in my life; especially since I have been dreaming of doing something like this for over a year now. It was what first attracted me towards Orthodoxy.

He arrives and discovers that his room is more humble than he expected. This does not discourage him:

It’s definitely a modest room. It feels like a novice room as well. I thought I would probably be staying at the guest house when I got here. I’m glad I am staying in a place that’s a little more rugged, actually. It’s a better representation of what the Orthodox monastic lifestyle is like.

It also puts me in close proximity to other monks. I’ve already met quite a few already, but I can’t remember all of their names yet. Haha! I just know that the monk who is across the hall from me is Fr. John, and that I’m really looking forward to learning how to make candles with Fr. Martin.

Well, I must go now. Things are looking well, though. At the moment, this definitely appears to be a place where I can work out my salvation. I’ll try to write a little about every day as time allows.

The first day was wonderful:

I also enjoyed the fact that before communion, each person took turns going around the room asking for forgiveness. It was very beautiful and all the sudden the judgments I had made or felt that others had made towards me just faded away.

The homily was also enlightening. Fr. Meletios [the abbot] talked about the art of using the heart over the mind from time to time – this is called hesychasm. I’ve asked him to help teach me this art since it seems to be what I have the most trouble with at the moment.

After two days, he starts to wonder:

While monastic life may be a great life’s path for some, after hearing the stories of people going insane at monasteries, I question this life path even more than I did before. What happens if I end up going insane? What would that look like? Would I realize it before it was too late? It seems monastic life is only one hair away from insanity. Maybe that means something, or maybe it means nothing…

But as the young man got used to the routine, and began hiking in the surrounding woods, he became more comfortable there. Something went wrong towards the end. He removed from his blog the posts detailing that. There is a cached page from July 21 that sheds some light, though not much:

A heavy and uncomfortable silence filled with tears of bitterness, sadness, and desperation could pretty well describe today. As soon as Fr. Meletios and Fr. Nektarios returned from Greece, it became obvious that something was very wrong. It’s not something many guests live to experience while visiting the monastery. Today, four of the brethren made an exit in what appears to be a search for a different spiritual father.

There’s no real sense in going and naming off names and circumstances. At this point that would be the worst thing to do; especially if those who left decide to return and announce that all is well. However, after talking with them before their departure, I don’t think that there’s that much of a chance of this happening.

The instruction that I received abruptly before they left was that I should pray to St. John and the Theotokos and hopefully things would be okay. However, if God can’t interfere with free will, I doubt the saints or the Mother of God are any more capable.

Fr. Meletios was kind enough to take all of the summer novices into his cell to discuss what had just happened, apologize, and address any additional concerns we might have. As usual, for me, it takes an hour or two for the emotions to really set in. They started at Vespers, but I wasn’t the only one. A feeling of betrayal and hurt has overtaken this monastery. Fr. Meletios tried his best to sort of alleviate the situation, but having just found out so abruptly today, I think maybe he needed to talk about the whole matter with someone as well.

With Fr. Saphrony and Br. Jude on the road with the bookstore, and then this exodus, everything feels quite empty here… Perhaps, the best possible description might be “divorce.”

I suppose what I can learn from this is that if I choose the monastic life, I had better be more certain than anything, because after building and developing so many relationships, there will be a world of hurt and possibly quite a bit of confusion if I should decide to leave after taking my vows. And imagine, I’ve only been here for three weeks. I can only imagine what it must feel like for those who have been here for months or even years…

But then, according to his subsequent entries, things seemed to quiet down. On Day 28, he wrote:

From this point on, I won’t be posting anymore on this blog concerning the events occurring here at the monastery. I only hope and pray things settle correctly rather than quickly here. Although there is still some question as to whether things will be changing here at all like they should be… I should also emphasize how unordinary and atypical this trip has been has been for me. It’s completely lax here in so many ways. However, the experience (and many of you know what I am referring to) has certainly been a blessing because I know now what I didn’t know before. I’ve experienced many things that I would not have otherwise experienced and for that, I am grateful. I’ve made good friends that will most surely last a lifetime and I have a better understanding of what I am looking for in a monastery that I can call home.

I also would like to make a public apology for those that I have offended in past posts that have since been removed. We were only getting one side of the story here. Now I understand and everything has been confirmed in round about ways by multiple individuals whether they realized it or not. This includes Fr. Meletios. This monastery is spiritually toxic!!!

I leave tomorrow, but it isn’t soon enough.

The young man titles his final post, dated July 9, “Away and Safe.” In it, he writes:

I apologize for those of you that I have confused from contradicting various claims that I have made personally on the phone or in writing and now with what I have recently posted in my last post. Things will become clear as time and events progress.

Don’t worry about me for now, though. I left this morning and now I am safe from them. However, prayers for that monastery are needed now more than ever. They’ve lost their focus and need some drastic change among other things. I shan’t say more than that since it isn’t really my place to say anymore than that publicly. Just stay away from the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco until they make the proper changes that they need!

It turns out that at least six of the 15 monks at that monastery fled that weekend, and were received into another monastery. Father Martin Gardner, the longtime No. 2 at the monastery and one of those who fled, posted a comment on a web forum indicating that sexual irregularities (to speak broadly) had something to do with it. The abbot has not, to my knowledge, spoken about the events. Fr. Martin says, about that monastery, “My heart grieves for a dream that has died.”

Without more information, it is impossible to say for sure what happened in that monastery to cause such a large number of monks to run away. It must all be brought to light, not least because this is a prominent monastery; its previous abbot became Metropolitan Jonah, who was just overthrown by his Synod after three years in the post.

I especially pity this poor idealistic pilgrim, because I see a lot of my younger self in him. I used to think that monasteries — and the Church more broadly — were a haven from the world. It’s not necessarily so, and every serious Christian has to learn to live with this without either despair or denial. Personally, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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