In the winter of 2014, I spent three transformative months at the Monastery of the Holy Archangel Michael in the high desert of New Mexico. Last month, exactly five years since my first visit, and in the wake of a major car accident, I returned to pray and confess.
The last time Father Silouan and I walked together on the dirt roads between the canyons was five years ago. The ground then was sandy dust, but this time it was cakey mud. In the land of Georgia O’Keeffe’s landscape paintings, drought years were being forgotten in snow. These walks serve as an ambulatory confession, as well as an opportunity to air my questions about Orthodox spirituality to a man who has committed his life to embodying the topic.
Five years ago I was not an Orthodox Christian. I was a curious seeker, investigating ancient spirituality lived out by simple monks in the desert. I thought I would write some essays on the subject, maybe even a book someday, but only managed a couple short stories published in obscure hipster journals and through my own newsletter. After three months of living alongside the brothers and fathers at the monastery, I felt I had only scratched the surface of what it means to fully, ontologically, embrace the reality of Christ’s conquering death, and grasping the life hidden in that death.
Before leaving the monastery, in spite of my persisting doubts, I did take a step toward the faith and became a catechumen – one preparing for chrismation into the Church – taking on the name Porphyrios, an Athonite monk of the 20th century whose playful abandon to God made Christian faith simple to me again, without dumbing it down by attempts to make matters of faith black and white, or right and wrong. Perhaps my favorite quote of his is: “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” It speaks to my love of writing, but also to the kind of heart and mind I long to filter the world through; a poet’s mind holds and celebrates ambiguity. I have never been interested in straight answers – an answer often stops the conversation. I’ve wanted communion with God, ongoing dialogue and debate.
Now I was updating Father Silouan on the events that have shaped the five years since I’d walked with him last. The dogs loped ahead of us as we stepped slowly through the sloppy puddles and spoke. I couldn’t help but feel slightly ashamed of myself as I shared about the places I’d been and things I’d done. Telling a monk about world travels and career accomplishments is a bit like bragging to a baby about how much money’s in your bank account. They could really care less, and are much more concerned with who you are and the presence you bring. As I began to consider my last five years through the eyes of Father Silouan, I realized how chaotic and meandering it has all been. It’s no wonder that an unshakeable weariness has followed me.
He listened as I told him about my recent car accident, which was a jarring wake-up call that inspired this return to the monastery. His response: a breath-like prayer, “Lord, have mercy,” uttered from the depths of his heart. And then he walked ahead and picked up a stick to draw channels in the puddles on the road, leading the waters to drain off into the meadows. I followed his lead and we silently released trapped water.
Even though it has only been a few months since I plowed my car into the side of an earthen berm, I’m convinced that I will forever view my life through the separation of before and after the accident. It was an abrupt and painful pause to a course that was taking me away from my Truth and my God. The accident has enabled me to humbly return to the path I was heading down five years ago. Almost dying – more specifically, almost being the conductor toward my own demise – reawakened life. Life was hidden in that near-death.
Like my stay before, I was tempted to remain in the monastery this time as well. The way life is simplified, the beauty of the surrounding mesas, the austerity of the desert life, and the structured devotion is rhythmic and entrancing, especially for a life that has been as meandering as mine has been. But, like before, I did not stay. I’m back in this noisy world, trying to keep my mind in my heart. I know that I am not alone, though. The prayers of the saints and the monks are with me. And, I’ve also got a new spiritual brother to walk with through this life.
Jacob is an incredibly intelligent and curious fellow I met while living in San Francisco. We both attended a peer counseling training program and, as a result, got to know each other on a level that is uncommon among new acquaintances. As a new Christian dropped into the secularism of the Bay Area it was often not easy to talk about my choice to explore spirituality within an organized faith tradition. But Jacob was intrigued, and his inquisitiveness led to many fruitful conversations. Over the past few years, we’d catch up infrequently, but remain on each other’s minds. I was on Jacob’s mind, in fact, when he invited me to join him on this most recent visit to the monastery.
On the last morning of our stay, in the small icon-filled chapel, Jacob was welcomed into the church as a catechumen. He spit on the devil in the very same spot where I had five years before. I fought to hold back tears of joy and amazement that in spite of my own rambling testimony, God invited Jacob into a new reality. And, as has occurred more than once lately, I bore witness to new life emerging.
If you’re curious to read more about my journey into Orthodox Christianity and/or about the monastery, I encourage you to check out this short series of questions I posed to Father Silouan:
If you’d like a quick visual overview of the monastery, check this out. Finally, if you’re interested in hearing one of my favorite songs sung while I was observing Great Lent, listen to this recording my sister and I did; it’s accompanied by visuals shot at the monastery by my good friend Jonathan Joiner.