Hermitage of the Holy Cross, Wayne, West, Virginia. (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia)
By Alexei Krindatch
When John Denver wrote the lyric “Almost heaven, West Virginia . . .” in his iconic song “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” he hardly thought about this beautiful albeit rustic state as a particularly “sacred” place. Yet, there is at least one spot in West Virginia’s westernmost Wayne County that could be qualified as a “gate to heaven”: welcome to the Hermitage of the Holy Cross Orthodox Monastery! It is situated on 180 acres of forested land in secluded valleys that until recently were home only to deer, bobcats, squirrels, foxes, owls, and hawks. But not anymore: walk through the thick hardwood forest and you are likely to find an icon placed on a rock or a tree. These are the places where the monks and pilgrims come to pray and seek peace for their souls in the bosom of nature and solitude. The Hermitage of the
Settling in West Virginia
Holy Cross monastic community was originally founded in 1986 in Home Springs, Missouri. However, the brotherhood grew quickly to the point where it needed larger facilities and more land. In 2000 this parcel in West Virginia was donated by good friends of the monastery, Nadezhda and Maurice Sill.
When the Orthodox monks moved to their new home, they were met with certain reservations by those who lived here for many generations: rugged mountain people, country Baptist and Pentecostal preachers, snake handlers, and many other “colorful” types. But after a short “trial period,” the brothers were fully accepted and welcomed into the local community. Fr. Alexander, the monastery’s dean, remembers a day when the head of one local influential family showed up unexpectedly at the monastery and asked one question: “So, folks, do you believe in Jesus Christ?” The simple question was responded with simple answer: “Yes.” In turn, the man simply pointed to his truck that was full of fruits and vegetables: a welcome gift. The monastery was truly built from scratch and some monks lived initially in the storage sheds, without electricity or running water. And, again, the locals lent a hand to the brothers by teaching them basic farming and other survival skills. Today, fifteen years later, the firmly established monastic community tries to pay back and help those who are in need whenever possible. It is not uncommon for the brotherhood to take care of someone’s overdue electric bills, hire locals for various jobs on the monastery’s grounds, and even cover the costs of funerals for some poor families.
Band of Brothers
The quintessential aspect of the Holy Cross monastic community is the atmosphere of unity, unconditional mutual love, and full acceptance of each other the way each person is: with all human weaknesses and shortcomings. “We are a band of brothers,” the monks like to say. And this is probably the best explanation for why the brotherhood doubled in size within less than ten years, growing from twelve monks and novices in 2007 to twenty-five in 2015, and thus becoming one of the largest Orthodox monastic communities in the United States.
Rooted in Russian Tradition
Many of the brothers are fairly young (the average age of the community members is forty-one), and most of them have college degrees. And yet, in many ways they came from quite different walks of life, thus bringing diverse life experiences and skills into their community. Former registered nurses, a Roman Catholic priest and Roman Catholic monks, a geologist, musicians, army veterans, factory workers, a principal of a private Christian school, a video producer, and managers and businessmen all live, work, and worship together at the Hermitage of the Holy Cross. Nearly all the monks and novices here are American-born converts to the Orthodox faith. Accordingly, English is the language of both worship and everyday communication. However, although they are demographically an “all-American” community, in liturgical terms the brothers think of themselves as being deeply rooted in the Russian Orthodox monastic tradition. (1)
The way Liturgy is served, how people give and receive blessings, what type of prayers or readings are used at mealtimes, the ringing of church bells, the particular images on the monastery’s many icons, the look of priestly vestments— everything makes one feel as though he or she is in a traditional Orthodox pustyn (2) somewhere in a rural Russian province. And even “worship sounds”—despite the monastery’s usage of English—have a Russian feel because of the musicology and hymns used.
Russian Orthodox monasteries, the leadership of the Hermitage of the Holy Cross tries to arrange regular trips to Russia and visits with Russian Church, this word is also used instead of “hermitage” to describe a Christmas carols, such as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Good King Wenceslaus,” and “Silent Night.” In tribute to the Appalachian setting of the monastery, the brothers also sing American spirituals with great gusto.
On August 9 the Hermitage of the Holy Cross celebrates the feast of its patron saint, St. Panteleimon. A fourth-century Christian doctor, St. Panteleimon was martyred for his faith. He is commemorated for his intercession before God on behalf of all the sick and suffering. A special shrine to this saint stands in the monastery’s church. Every morning there is a worship service asking St. Panteleimon’s aid for all those in need of healing. People can visit or simply call the monastery and ask the monks to mention the names of their relatives and friends who need St. Panteleimon’s help in the service. The monastery’s abbot, Archimandrite Seraphim, says often that St. Panteleimon is the brotherhood’s “primary care physician.” He should know: being himself a former registered nurse, he was healed of cancer after appealing to St. Panteleimon for help.
Feast of the Holy Cross
The exquisite fall foliage of West Virginia, with its myriad hues of color, is at its peak at the end of September. And this is the time of the monastery’s major feast, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on September 27. On this day dozens of Orthodox clergy and hundreds of lay pilgrims gather on the monastery’s grounds. Liturgy is served in the outdoor gazebo-style chapel. It is followed by a procession with icons and the sprinkling of holy water, and then there is a picnic lunch and later a vigil under the stars.
From the very inception of the Hermitage of the Holy Cross, the idea of being fully self-sustainable was at the very heart of the brotherhood. Growing their own vegetables in the monastery’s gardens and greenhouses, maintaining an apiary and collecting honey, (4) having chickens for eggs, and milking a herd of Nubian goats provide a good share of the food that is served in the trapeza (dining hall). Yet, not everything can be produced on the premises, and there are also many other bills to pay. Two major pillars support the economy of the Hermitage of the Holy Cross. One is the production of incense, while the other is the making of various natural soaps and related cosmetic products.
The traditional Athonite-style incense produced at the monastery comes in as many as twenty-six fragrances: “Honeysuckle,” “Lavender Wood,” “Amber,” “Flowers of Cyprus,” “Orange Blossom,” “Burning Bush,” and “Damask Rose,” to name a few. The method of incense preparation is faithful to that used for centuries on Mount Athos. The pure frankincense tree resin is ground into a fine powder, which is then saturated with various rich fragrant oils (each gives a particular fragrance). Then, kneading brings this mixture to a dough-like consistency. The “dough” is rolled into thin sheets and cut into small grains. The grains are covered with a clay powder to mitigate stickiness and are cured for at least one month. The most important “ingredient,” however, is the constant prayer that accompanies the whole physical act of preparing the incense. Because prayer is central to the process, the incense is considered to be something holy even before being used in church services.
Natural Goat’s Milk Soaps
The natural soap products are another mainstay at the Hermitage. This venture began from the donation of a herd of Nubian goats that was given to brotherhood in order to help to start the monastery’s farm. The “problem” was that the goats produced too much milk for the brotherhood. Not helping things was the fact that the monks abstain entirely from dairy products during many fasting periods, as required by the church calendar. The question of how to use the oversupply was resolved by production of handcrafted goat milk soaps. Unlike most commercial products, the handmade natural soaps retain all glycerin, which is a byproduct of the soap-making process and which attracts and holds moisture in the skin, making it feel soft, healthy, and rejuvenated. After some experimentation but with quick success, the new monastic industry, a whole line of various soap-related products, was born. Not only US residents but also people living in South America, Europe, Australia, and Japan seek out the monastery’s bar and liquid soaps (offered in more than a dozen fragrances), hand and body lotions, skin moisturizers, and lip balms. Incense and soap-products can be ordered online and shipped domestically and internationally.
Offering hospitality has always been a priority for the brothers at the Hermitage of the Holy Cross. Abbot Seraphim often quotes St. Benedict, who said, “Let every guest be received as Christ.” He adds, “We try to be welcoming to everyone and give, at least, a quick tour to all guests. Many of our visitors have very little knowledge about monastic life, and we are happy to talk with them about what does it mean to be a monk and live at a monastery.” On Sundays (or whenever they have some spare time), the brothers often lead visitors on hikes to the caves, ridge tops, and rocky outcrops in the hills surrounding the monastery. These moments spent together in spiritual talks and prayer are beneficial for both pilgrims and monks. The peace and solitude of the forest creates a good atmosphere for self-reflection and mutual support in loving fellowship.
Fr. David, the monastery’s guest master, believes that “people who live in cities are very disconnected from nature. In fact, many of our guests simply do not realize how much noise and clutter can invade one’s soul in day-to-day contemporary life until they find themselves in the silence of the forest or praying in a cliff-side cave with one of the brothers.” Predictably, many pilgrims to the Hermitage of the Holy Cross prefer to stay for a few days rather than come for a short day visit. The monastery offers overnight accommodations in a large and very comfortable log cabin. It is located about quarter of a mile from the monastery’s main complex. The guesthouse has three bedrooms, with eight beds total; two full bathrooms; a large living area; a fully equipped kitchen; and nice porches on which to sit, watch sunsets, and listen to the sounds of birds.
- In order to provide all brothers with “firsthand” experiences of life in monks for all members of the monastic community.
- “Pustyn” in Russian literally means “desert.” In the Russian Orthodox secluded monastic community located in some remote place.
- The Hermitage of the Holy Cross has a herd of Nubian goats.
- This part of West Virginia is generally well known for its honey production.
PHOTO SOURCE: www.holycross-hermitage.com
The above was taken from the book Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Monasteries, by Alexei Krindatch.
Click here for more information on monasteries in America.
ABOUT THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN NETWORK
The Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) is an official agency of the Assembly of Canonical Bishops of the United States of America, originally commissioned by SCOBA to create a national, sustainable, and effective media witness for Orthodox Christianity and seekers around the world through media ministry. CLICK HERE to download our brochure.
This 501(c)3 is recognized as a leader in the Orthodox Media field and has sustained consistent growth over twenty years. OCN shares the timeless faith of Orthodoxy with the contemporary world through modern media. We are on a mission to inspire Orthodox Christians Worldwide. We have reached 5.7 Million People in One Week. Much like public radio, the Orthodox Christian Network relies on the support of our listeners, readers, and fans. If you are interested in supporting our work, you can send your gift by direct mail, over the phone, or on our website. Your gift will ensure that OCN may continue to offer free, high-quality, Orthodox media.
Do you find it hard to keep focused on Christ when you’re on the go? OCN makes it easy! Give today to help you and your Orthodox community stay connected no matter the location.
Click here to download the Spark OCN and Orthodox Prayer Book.
Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. OCN is on Social Media! Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube,