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Friday, March 11, 2011

Monastic Retreat

I am embarking on a new chapter in life.  For me, the best place to start this chapter, to think and reflect, was in a distant desert at the St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery in Safford, Arizona. It is a place of stark beauty and deep quiet.  A place to let go of the irrelevant, a place to pray and to meditate.
St. Paisius is a women's monastic community some two and a half hours east of Tucson or about three and a half hours southeast of Phoenix.  It is located off of a dirt road south of the town of Safford.  In other words, it is not easy to reach. I cannot visit frequently -- the last time I came was two years ago with my mother, then a few years before then with Mr. Wonderful. I never quite know what I will find as a result of a visit. But I do know that the journey, the visit, and the imprint it leaves are all worth any effort.
Looking into the church from a side chapel
Beeswax tapers made by the nuns
I arrived at St. Paisius Monastery on Forgiveness Sunday, the day before the start of Great Lent. The sisters held a Vespers service in mid afternoon followed by dinner and then Compline. 
The new Iconostasis
Afterwards, there was time to visit with the other pilgrims and to walk around the property and see the fruits of the nuns' labors.  Since my last visit, they have planted an olive orchard and also have fig and apple trees and pomegranates.
Apple blossoms
Monday, the first day of Great Lent was very quiet. There was a morning church service at 4:30 a.m., but I did not attend. Perhaps my excuse, that I slept badly, is weak, but in the deep silence of the desert, I kept waking up that way I do not in a more noisy urban area.  In the night I heard some dogs barking and then wondered why the chirping birds kept me awake.  Mid-morning I had a brief talk with the Igumanija [the Abbess], then walked around the property snapping photos. Later, while I was in my room reading, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives by the Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, a strong and noisy wind storm passed through, blowing tumbleweed, sand, and dust. It made the feeling of isolation even stronger. I just kept reading and a few hours later, the wind died down and it was time to leave.

Even though my visit was brief, just over 24 hours, it seemed long.  More accurately, it seemed that time was not relevant.  I did not miss any of my electronic gadgets like my mobile phone [forgotten at home] or my laptop [kept turned off], which occupy many daytime moments.  Without the usual trappings of quotidian life, it seemed there was more than enough time for everything.

A few more photos ...

The design of the floor medallions in the church comes from the star motifs often included in the veil of the Theotokos [i.e., Virgin Mary] in icons portraying Her.

Allée of dormant pomegranates
A four legged friend and his house ...

Chirping birds
The work never ends ...
Peaceful sunset 
Desert beauty
P.S.  There is a dress code to visiting a monastery.  I mentioned it in my post about Aegina.  Modesty is the rule:  long sleeves, head scarf, longish skirt [no trousers for women or shorts for men].  Also, since St. Paisius is in a desert, shoes need to be comfortable and covered to keep the sand out.

P.P.S.  There is silence during communal mealtimes.  While the nuns and guests are eating, one of the sisters reads aloud.  At an certain point, the Abbess rings a bell indicating that the reading should come to an end, at which point she may comment about the reading or other significant matters.

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