This past weekend, I had the very great blessing to visit Holy Protection Greek Orthodox Monastery, located in White Haven, Pennsylvania, in the Poconos Mountains. The beauty of the physical place is indisputable. There were deep pink flowers everywhere and lush forest surrounding the buildings topped with red rooftop tiles in the Mediterranean style. The main long building houses the nuns' quarters, in addition to the main kitchen, a Chapel to Saint Nektarios, the main Church of the Apostles, a bookstore, as well as a hospitality area to welcome guests. The rooms in which we stayed were in a separate guest house (ξενόνα) which literally was a welcoming and comforting home (the kitchen was my favorite room).
The first gift we received was that of beautiful weather on Saturday, and even the rain on Sunday had its charm. I was joined by four of my friends from New Jersey and Virginia. As always on such trips, the concept of being connected with others from around the world through the Body of Christ truly was apparent in meeting new people who happened to be friends or godparents to someone we know...
Someone may ask, "why did you visit a monastery? do y'all want to become nuns or something?" My answer would be, "no, it's because we want to be better Christians." In a community such as Holy Protection, there are 18 nuns working out their salvation as a group, as a spiritual family. They operate on a schedule which includes common and individual prayer, plenty of work, and the offering of hospitality to guests. The life of these women centers around love, humility and obedience to Christ and His Church, virtues for which all Christians strive to attain. These are the means by which one empties oneself to allow room for Christ to fill him or her.
We had the blessing to hear Father Mark Andrews, the priest who serves there, speak in his homily on Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 14:22-34) about Christ walking on water. He said that the miracle was not that He or even Peter walked on water, but the fact that He did not yet calm the storm. When Peter walked out onto the water from the boat, he was distracted by the wind of the continuing storm and began to sink. Father said that we should not focus or analyze the stormy situations of our lives, because it can lead us to a debate with the evil one. However, what we should do is to focus on the face of Christ alone. To not be 'of little faith' but to trust that He will eventually calm these tempests, these times of trial. This homily helped me personally because in just this past year, I've experienced some pretty severe thunderstorms in my introduction to the so-called 'real world'---being further away from my family, painfully losing a relationship, a job ending prematurely, and engaging in the tiring battle with the temptation to despair. Thanks be to God, although quite imperfectly on my part, and mostly due to His part, I've somehow managed to see His face, to feel His hand, and to sense His presence during this year of storms. The calm is gradually coming closer.
We also were blessed with some girl-hang-out-time with the wonderful Abbess Olympiada. I think that God knew that we all needed her in our own ways at that particular time. She gave us encouragement and emphasized that the tools of obedience, humility, simplicity, and discernment (which is the crown of virtues) are what we need to focus on the face of Christ. Of course, we did not just hear the words that weekend, but we got a small chance to catch a glimpse of how the nuns there live and breathe these things daily in their lives in the most concrete ways.
Although the monastery visits are necessary to help us in our spiritual life, we also see people in the world, especially in my own parish, who strive to live like these nuns, to focus on Christ. God allowed me in the midst of my own difficulties this year to get to know families who practice obedience to God and to each other with love and warmth, and who also teach their children to discern what is for the benefit of their souls. Again, all this being done in the midst of trials and tribulations, but with hope and focus on Christ that He will calm the storm eventually.
I am quite thankful to not only learn the theory of focusing on Christ, but also to actively place my sins and challenges at His feet, to surrender to Him to take care of it. Visiting the monastery gave me the opportunity to see concrete and real examples of people who struggle daily to do so. Let us "take heart and have no fear" for He is here with us and will calm the storm.