Why Pennsylvania's Monastery of Saint Tikhon's is Better Than Zen or Yoga

I headed to the mountains of western Pennsylvania for a spiritual retreat via a Martz bus crammed with students returning to school after Easter weekend. It was not a pleasant ride. The bus driver, annoyed that he had to load passengers' luggage into luggage compartment alone, was in a foul mood. We arrived in Scranton more than a half hour late, though I suppose it could have been worse.

Brother Daniel met me at the station. In his black hat (skufia), sunglasses, long flowing beard and full black cassock, he looked like a monk from central casting. I first met Brother Daniel a year and a half ago when he came to the monastery as a postulant from Colorado. He stayed in the guest room across the hall from mine. He had short hair then but now his long hair was tied in a pony tail, and then of course there was his beard.

"How do you like my beard?" he asked me, as I hoisted my luggage into the back seat of the monastery car. "Fluffy and long," I answered, "Perfect!"

Saint Tikhon's in South Canaan, Pennsylvania and is so isolated that when people come to visit a monk has to pick them up at the station. It's a 40 minute or so ride from the bus station so that's plenty of time to chat and get to know the monk who's driving.

I could see that monastic life was agreeing with Brother Daniel. He seemed happy, looked healthy, and he had certainly retained his sense of humor. If you think talking to a monk is like walking on eggshells where you have to watch your P's and Q's and talk only of "holy things," think again. We laughed and talked so much I was almost a little sorry that the drive came to an end as Brother Daniel brought me to the front door of the guest house.

In the guest home, I met 24 year old Jarad who had struck a deal to live there until he got his life together. Jarad, in fact, was applying for medical school and was able to arrange to stay in guest house for a while thanks to his mother's connections at the monastery. Jarad had no interest in becoming a monk but he was a convert to Orthodox Christianity from evangelical Protestantism.

Visiting an Orthodox monastery during Great Lent (Orthodox Easter is May 1) is not for the weak of heart. The diet is strictly vegetarian, though shell fish can be eaten on certain days. No dairy, no butter. There's only one big meal a day--a lush vegetarian feast-- although in the morning after services you can help yourself to a variety of cereals, fruits, bagels, dried fruits and so on, so it's impossible to go hungry.

I encountered my old friend Brother Stephen, who had arranged this and all my prior visits to the monastery. During this visit Brother Stephen told me about his trip with the Abbot, Father Sergius, author of the book, Acquiring the Mind of Christ, to Essex, England, Italy, and Istanbul. Often when the Abbot travels he asks one of the monks to accompany him.

Istanbul, of course, is in Muslim dominated Turkey, and for Christians this can be problematic. Brother Stephen told me how it was recommended to Father Sergius when they went there last year that he not wear his cross in public. Father Sergius was advised to leave the cross behind because of "uncertain radical elements that could be in hiding." Both Fr. Sergius and Brother Stephen still wore their cassocks and monastic black hats while in Turkey although, as Brother Stephen explained, nearly everybody on the street is in some form of robed dress. "We didn't stand out at all," he said, whereas, of course, on the streets of New York or Philadelphia the opposite would be true. Unlike western monks, eastern monks rarely if ever don secular clothing when they leave the monastery, meaning that the cassock and black skufia (and beard) becomes their only form of dress.

In Turkey there is a law that states that Turkish citizens who are members of the Christian clergy are not permitted to wear religious habits or crosses in public. Only the Ecumenical Patriarch is permitted to wear religious attire. Turkish priests and other bishops, including metropolitans must wear secular garb. Christian churches, even cathedrals in Istanbul and in the whole of Turkey, must downplay exterior religious iconography; hence you have cathedrals that look like office buildings or banks because they are not decorated with religious symbols like a cross.

"It's nothing but discrimination," Brother Stephen said, after telling me how he and Father Sergius went into the offices of the Ecumenical Patriarch near Saint George's cathedral and noticed a man in a fashionably cut suit with raven black hair slicked back in the style of a fashion model. While the Patriarch was dressed according to the traditions of his office (robe, icon necklace and a klobuk or veil), Brother Stephen said he had no idea who the fashionably dressed attendant was. He assumed it was security but was shocked to learn later that it was the metropolitan (archbishop) a, Turkish citizen.

One doesn't see too many monks or nuns in full habit walking the streets of the city these days. Many Catholic nuns have ditched their veils although the opposite is true for the Orthodox. Today when you see women in black on city streets they are almost always Muslim. The full robed Catholic nuns of fifty years ago have mostly disappeared. Even Catholic monks, when they go out on the town, often slip into jeans and a sweater, making them indistinguishable from everybody else.

When Brother Stephen leaves the confines of the monastery, he wears his robe and skufia, which sometimes has funny consequences.

"Are you ISIS!?" a woman once asked him, breathless at the prospect of finally meeting one of the legendary badmen. No doubt she expected Brother Stephen to nod in agreement and then give her some kind of power salute, perhaps even handing her his terrorist business card...

ISIS Member Stephen on Patrol
(cell) 267-000-0000

Since ISIS members are far from predictable, what would this poor woman have done if "ISIS Stephen" had not succumbed to her flattery but instead had gripped her neck tightly and said, "Yes, I'm ISIS, and now I'm going to put you in an orange jump suit!"

These episodes of mistaken identity happen a lot to Brother Stephen, and for good reason. People in this country have not seen Christian clergy in religious garb for so long that any man or woman who appears in a black robe is now automatically assumed to be Muslim. But as I listened to Brother Stephen relate his experiences I had to admit that he did look...Islamic. Only people familiar with eastern Christianity would be able to catch the difference in the garb.

Wearing a cross would change all that, of course. A cross would end the ambiguity. It would end those train terminal encounters that Brother Stephen sometimes has when he's in New York City and bearded, robbed men approach him and say, "Hello brother. Are you Muslim?"

When some people say that Orthodox Christianity is not for "sissies," they are referring to the length of services, the fasting and the number of prostrations preformed in church before and during the Divine Liturgy.

A prostration is lowering yourself to the ground on your knees, with your head touching the floor, then getting up quickly as the next prayer is recited, then crossing yourself and going down again. Prostrations can happen in multiples of ten or twelve, the rapid repetition of stretching the limbs making for one the best aerobatic exercises in the world. Some prostrations go into freeze frame mode when a bit of "yoga" is added to the mix as you stay put with your head touching the floor for the duration of a chant or a prayer. This frozen "Zen" position to the untrained western eye can seem highly Islamic. In fact, Islam adopted full floor prostrations from eastern Christianity although all prostrations today are thought of as Islamic.

At the monastery I stood behind twenty robust seminaries in black cassocks going full blast in prostration calisthenics the effect of which was a little bit like standing behind a manly chorus of The Rockettes. All joking aside, the level of spirituality and intensity here is profound. When your body is used in worship, when you are able to extend and test your limbs and muscles, everything seems to become more meaningful.

This concludes my fourth visit to this wonderful monastery in the mountains of western Pennsylvania.