THE BLOG
09/15/2014 05:12 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

From Homeless Man to Orthodox Monk?

RJ, the homeless guy who opens doors for people at the local WAWA, looks like an Orthodox monk. I've never told him this, but this realization dawned on me a few weeks ago as I made my way along Aramingo Avenue, suitcase in hand, on my way to the bus station in Center City.

Monks were on my mind because I was on my way to my favorite monastery mountain retreat, Saint Tikhon's, for my annual three-day retreat. Saint Tikhon's is located three-plus hours outside Philadelphia, near the Scranton area. I say "near the Scranton area" because the monastery is so isolated that it takes another 40 minutes by car to get to it. When you travel there by bus, a monk usually meets you at the Scranton station and then drives you to the monastery, some 24 miles away.

But back to RJ: RJ has been holding doors at WAWA for customers for quite some time. Sometimes the police chase him away, but often they leave him alone, and why not? He's polite, intelligent, even somewhat educated (he has a military background), and he never begs for money. Because he's homeless, he sleeps near the columns of I-95 along Richmond Street, on slats of cardboard.

RJ is a survivor among the homeless who call the I-95 area home. He's slept there in the dead of winter and on scorching-hot summer nights full of insects, rats and vermin. I've seen him nearly frostbitten, sunburned, sweaty and in need of a bath. Sometimes he'll disappear for a couple of months -- for the reason, you'll have to ask him -- but he always returns. RJ is the man with nine lives, or maybe even 20.

There are times that RJ seems optimistic about getting his life together. (Without giving away the man's secrets, he knows what he has to do in order to accomplish that!) In fact, the next time you see him, you may want to ask him about that. It's not a crime to talk to a homeless person. You won't catch cooties, crabs, Ebola, a fainting episode or even HIV. In fact, you might even learn something.

When I saw RJ while on my way to the bus station, I was half-tempted to say, "RJ, I think I have the life for you. You need to leave the city for at least a year. You need to live far away from the city and all its temptations until you are really on your feet. And a monastery is the perfect place for that."

Of course, with his black beard, RJ would fit right into Saint Tikhon's. He could still hold doors, but he could switch from holding WAWA doors to holding the Royal Doors in the church during Divine Liturgy.

Although RJ may look like a monk, living the life of a monk is hard stuff. Monks don't sneak away to private beer bashes on the weekends; there are no intoxicated late nights at Johnny Brenda's, no waiting for a neon taxi cab under the El at 2 in the morning, and there are certainly no girlfriends or boyfriends to cuddle up to.

For RJ to become a monk, he would have to become another person. It would take a huge act of will. It would mean giving up all personal desires and putting his life choices and direction under the care of a father superior, in this case the abbot. For someone over 30 this can be a very difficult thing to do. "Older" men who enter the monastery often have a rough time of things, because it's difficult taking directions and "orders" from a much younger man who ends up being your superior. As one monk told me, "It's better to enter a monastery when you are really young. That way you come into formation gradually. Older men have a very tough time adjusting."

But if RJ were to have a vision like Saul of Tarsus and decide to change his life and become a monk, he'd have to spend at least six hours a day at prayer. That's a lot of church time. Most people are not that concentrated on God. Besides prayer, monks have their work assignments. Each monk has a specific job to do. Brother Basil, for instance, is Saint Tikhon's handyman and carpenter. He can build and fix anything, from bathroom sinks to roof leaks to warped wood paneling. He's also a former evangelical Protestant who found his way to Saint Tikhon's several years ago. I first met Brother Basil when he was fixing a leak in the Guest House kitchen. He was stretched out on the floor in his black robe, a massive tool belt draped over him like a prayer rope.

Then there's Father Silouan, another convert from Protestantism, who looks to be about 28. Father Silouan is not a priest, but after a while the monks at Saint Tikhon's are all called "Father." Father Silouan is an iconographer. He's a soft-spoken guy but a pretty mean driver when he gets behind the wheel of a car. It was Father Silouan who picked me up at the bus station in Scranton and then drove me the additional 24 miles to the monastery. We talked about icons during the car trip. I told him about an old Russian icon of the Last Supper I'd found in an antique shop in Center City and how I'd bargained for a fair price. Icons, even cheap icons, can be ruinously expensive, but I was able to purchase this large, late-19th-century icon for $125.

As a postulant, RJ wouldn't wear a religious habit, but he would live the life of a monk, getting up at 5 a.m. and so forth, and then in between his duties he'd find that he'd have a lot of time to think about the life he was leaving behind. I imagine that this feeling of thinking about the life you have left behind must be a lot like the feeling you get when you are 30,000 feet above the Earth in a jetliner: It's at those times that you tend to think about your life "back there" (on the ground), possibly even seeing it more objectively.

The monks at Saint Tikhon's wear their habits all the time, even when they go home to visit their families. This means they wear their black cassocks and hats when they board airlines, walk through cities, take taxis, go food shopping or visit Home Depot. There's no embarrassment about being a monk, so you won't find these guys donning blue jeans, Bermuda shorts, or a pair of Dockers. Unlike many monks in the West (those swinging Franciscans and Benedictines), Orthodox monks don't go the down-low route and dress in colorful neckties and slacks when on the road. Orthodox monks are men in black 24/7.

At Saint Tikhon's, RJ would discover that one of the challenges in a monastery is making good use of alone time, especially when there are no city temptations around to escape to -- no WAWA doors to open, and no dancing in the bright lights of Aramingo Avenue. At Saint Tikhon's, each monk has at least four or five hours of free time after the early-evening meal. Your activity choices at that time include visiting other monks, special projects, reading (the library is large), meditation or prayer, and walking through the woods, where you risk the likelihood of running into deer (safe) or a bear (not safe).

This is not the high life of the passions by any means, but for many it is a good one.

As for monastery food, RJ would discover that it is mostly delicious and vegetarian. He would also discover that there are a lot of fasts when you are an Orthodox monk. Despite the fasts, he would learn that the monastery refrigerator and kitchen are filled to capacity with a zillion yummy things, from yogurt and cakes to ice cream, but that the monk's job is to self-regulate when it comes to food consumption. As one monk confided to me, "The refrigerator here is a powerhouse of goodies, but the basic idea is self-control. This is especially true when it comes to controlling the passions."

Ah, yes, the passions! I wanted to know about this when I asked a new monk, who hails from Naples, Florida, why I saw young and healthy monks serving themselves tiny amounts of food at supper and dinner. Are they sick? Fasting? Doing penance? But the monk from Naples told me that taking little food is a way to beat the temptations of the flesh. This piece of monastic wisdom, apparently, goes back centuries.

Now, while I realize that RJ may never become one of the men in black -- few men can hope to attain this -- I do hope that he graduates soon from the WAWA School of Holding Doors.