immobility in the Poconos | City newspaper
Unless they’re traveling by car, many visitors to Saint Tikhon’s Zadonsk Monastery, located about 140 miles outside of Philadelphia, in southern Canaan, Pa., Take a bus to Scranton. There, they meet a monk, who leads them through fields and hills to the monastery. The old country houses along the road still display large, sturdy Trump-Pence signs on their lawns.
I first visited St. Tikhon in 2014, shortly after becoming an Orthodox Christian. As a former Roman Catholic, I had visited Benedictine monasteries in upstate New York and Florida, so I knew a bit about monastic life before going there. Typically, I try to visit St. Tikhon about once a year, although the monastery has been closed to visitors for most of 2020 due to the pandemic.
However, committing to staying only a few days at the monastery was never an easy decision for me. It is because detaching yourself from city life for a life of prayer, even temporarily, is not easily accomplished. At the monastery, there is no television, no quick trips to town to eat Chinese, and no festivities with friends after dinner. The monastic emphasis is on salvation and the eternal life of the soul. Coming to St. Tikhon’s after a long stay in the city is as much of a shock to the system as it is to return to “the world” after spending several days there.
The first thing that one notices about St. Tikhon is its stillness. The monastery seems out of reach even from air traffic, and if you listen long enough you might catch the shrill chwirk of a hawk or the hissing notes of an eagle flying above. Covering nearly 400 acres of woods and fields, the monastery includes two lakes, one hand-dug by monks and filled with fish that often end up as a meal on the dinner table.
The monastery was founded in 1905 by Patriarch Saint Tikhon under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church and later became part of the American Orthodox Church. It is currently home to 14 monks from all over the country. Opened in 1937, the Saint Tikhon Orthodox Theological Seminary prepares married and unmarried men for the priesthood. Some seminarians work and live in the monastery for a while.
Schema Archimandrite Father Sergius Bowyer, abbot of the monastery, is a former Roman Catholic who converted to Orthodoxy and became a priest. He was converted, he says, because he felt that orthodoxy offered him a life “more fully in Christ.”
“My family is still very Catholic,” Father Serge told me. “At the end of the day, the important thing is to keep Christ at the center of our lives.”
Saint Tikhon is home to two supposedly miraculous icons: “She who hears quickly”, a copy of an icon from the Dochiariou monastery on Mount Athos, and an image of Saint Anne, painted in the Holy Land and which is said to have started to diffuse myrrh in 2004. The monastery sells a variety of items including books, liturgical CDs, homemade candles, bee products and its “Burning Bush” coffee brand.
Receiving guests has always been a hallmark of monastery hospitality. Visitors are encouraged to follow the monk’s routine, which includes daily participation in the Divine Liturgy at 6 a.m. and in Vespers and Evening Matins services. Men who contemplate monasticism stay in St. Tikhon for an extended period of time and are given a job to support the functioning of the monastery.
Meals at St. Tikhon are mostly silent business. Monks and visitors listen to the accounts of the lives of the saints, and the writings of the Fathers of the Church are read aloud until the abbot rings a bell, prompting them all to stand up for a short prayer. With the abbot’s permission, they then strike up a conversation and resume their meal.
The monks of St. Tikhon wear long ponytails and patriarchal beards, and many wear dramatic kamilavka hats covered with black veils during church services. While the habits of Catholic monks vary according to their order, Orthodox monks wear standard attire: a black cassock and belt, and a raised black beanie called a skufia. They don’t shave or cut their hair, often in a ponytail or bun. Again, unlike Catholic monks, who often wear secular clothing for travel outside the monastery, Orthodox monks constantly wear their clothing. Some monks in St. Tikhon have told me that they were mistaken for Muslims while doing business in Scranton. “Are you ISIS? We asked them.
Many monks in St. Tikhon converted to Orthodox Christianity from Evangelical Protestantism. On my last visit, I met someone who had worked as a high-level linguist in the military and had left a lucrative career in linguistics to enter St. Tikhon Seminary. Nathan hopes to be ordained a priest next year and hopes to be posted to a parish in Alaska, where he grew up.
“I spent many years searching,” another monk told me. “I was an atheist, I shopped. I went to Catholic and Anglican churches. I walked into that real fancy high Anglican church one time, prayed, but when the time for fellowship came, they started giving out little cups of grape juice. I can’t do this, I thought. Orthodoxy gives me the spiritual fullness that I was looking for.
Another monk said he spent a considerable amount of time traveling the world and running restaurants in the West before entering a monastery in his mid-forties.
“It’s much better to become a monastic when you’re in your twenties,” he says. “The problem of obedience is especially difficult when you are considerably older than the Abbott. Becoming a monk in your mid-twenties is better, when you’ve had a few life experiences but are still malleable, ”he said.
In its 107-year history, St. Tikhon’s has courted its fair share of intrigue. Decades ago, a famous Serbian metropolitan was poisoned to death during an overnight visit. A man seen entering and exiting the Cleric’s Room is the alleged murderer, and the Metropolitan’s clothing can be seen in the St. Tikhon Museum. In the 1960s, a monk suffered a heart attack while fishing in the hand-dug lake and drowned.
St. Tikhon’s musical and choral programs, conducted by Benedict Sheehan, are attracting international attention. Sheehan previously studied at St. Tikhon Seminary, but decided he was not fit for the priesthood and has since established a successful musical career. His work as a conductor on Kastalsky’s Naxos 2020 release Requiem for the fallen brothers earned it a 2021 Grammy nomination. St. Tikhon’s flourished as a musical training ground for many Orthodox parishes on the east coast, and part of the Monastery Museum, which contains priceless icons that once belonged to the Tsar Nicholas II, is used as a performance space.
Nestled in the Pocono Mountains, St. Tikhon’s influence is wider than it appears.