Inside the St. John of San Francisco Orthodox Monastery
Upon entering the grounds of St. John Monastery (it is situated on forty-two acres of land in a dense pine forest) a feeling of great stillness and deep peace transcends everything else. Tourists often overlook this northeast corner of California near Lassen National Park, but for those who set upon “the road not taken,” the quiet loneliness of the Cascade foothills brings great refreshment and renewal of spirit. The landscapes here bear the marks of recent volcanic activity. Bowl-like calderas are visible on the tops of the nearby buttes. The scattered rocks are often full of holes—like Swiss cheese. Manton, the small town near the monastery, has a thriving wine industry, and its success is largely due to the well-drained volcanic soils and nighttime mountain breeze (which slows the maturation process of grapes).
The Monastery of St. John of San Francisco was originally established in 1996 near the coastal town of Point Reyes in Marin County, California, about thirty-five miles northwest of San Francisco. However, the facilities there were limited, and the property too small to accommodate a growing brotherhood. In 2006 the current location was found and purchased.
When the monks moved here, they were first met with a certain degree of suspicion by their non-Orthodox neighbors. The pastor of a community church in Manton personally rode his motorbike to the monastery to make sure that the Orthodox monks are “okay people.” But it did not take very long time for the brothers to become fully integrated into their new home area. In fact, thanks to the monastery, a number of new local traditions have been established. The town of Manton is home to seven commercial wineries, and each year on August 19 (the Feast of the Transfiguration, according to the Julian Church calendar), the monks perform the ceremony of blessing of the grapes and vineyards with holy water. Each Christmas the brothers are invited to partake in the Christmas tree lighting, and they sing Christmas carols for the locals. The most important annual fair in Manton is its “apple festival,” celebrated on the first Saturday in October, and the brotherhood is always there with a stand from which they sell the monastery’s handmade beeswax candles and honey. On its part, on the first Sunday in June, the monastery holds an open house, when it welcomes all local residents and organizes for them a “small party” (typically, salmon burgers are served).
The teachers of a nearby private Anglican school, St. Andrew Academy in Chester, regularly bring their students to the monastery. But St. John also receives visitors who travel significant distances to come here. For instance, each year during their spring break, a group of students from Eckerd College in Florida come to the monastery to help with gardening, candle making, and other chores.
Diversity Among the Brotherhood
The brotherhood of St. John of San Francisco consists of nine monks and there is a great deal of diversity among them. The youngest is thirty-four, and the oldest seventy-six years old. Some of the brothers were born into the Orthodox Church, while some discovered and joined the Orthodox faith in the later stages of their lives. Some of them have been monks (or parish priests) for the most of their lives, while some became monastics after being professionals in the secular world. Fr. Innocent, the monastery’s superior, has a degree in agricultural studies from the University of California in Riverside. He grew up in Alaska in a very religious evangelical Christian family. His parents, teachers in a private Christian school, have always emphasized an importance of spreading the Gospel. In the early 1990s his family went on a mission trip to Russian Siberia and lived for almost two years in the harsh region of Yakutia. The time spent in post-Communist country and entirely different culture was a turning point for Fr. Innocent: it made him reevaluate the previous life experiences and question many of his beliefs. And this was the beginning of the journey that eventually brought him into the Orthodox Church.
Translations and Beekeeping
In the American Orthodox community, the St. John monastic brotherhood is well known for translating into English and publishing literature on the Orthodox faith and spirituality (the monastery maintains its own publishing company, Divine Ascent Press). The monks also support themselves by beekeeping. In fact, the monastery’s honey is quite special: it is the so-called “Honeydew” honey (also known as “Forest” honey). Honeydew honey is made not from blossom nectar but from the honeydew excreted by plant-sucking insects (such as aphids), and it is typically produced from trees. This type of honey is highly appreciated by connoisseurs for its strong savory flavor and mineral-rich content. Honeydew flow is strong in late dry summers. Therefore, in August and September the monks take their hives to the national forest covering the slopes of Mount Lassen. The result is the dark, sticky, and strong-tasting cedar honey from the sap of the incense cedar trees that grow in abundance there.
Rooted in Russian and Greek Traditions
Culturally, the monks at St. John of San Francisco view themselves as being rooted in the monastic tradition of the famous Valaam Monastery in northern Russia. Yet, the brothers also admit that they have borrowed a number of elements and aspects of the monastery’s liturgical life from Greek Orthodox monasteries.
Two spiritual practices are very central for the life of the monastery’s brotherhood. The first is a strong emphasis on mutual spiritual nourishment and encouragement. Sharing thoughts, doubts, questions, joys, and anxieties are encouraged here. The monks gather regularly for “synaxis,” the communal reading of Scripture and spiritual books with follow-up reflection on feelings and thoughts caused by the reading. This practice of “sharing in everything” includes also how decisions are typically made at the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco. Fr. Innocent, the monastery’s superior, says, “Many monasteries have ‘monarchs,’ but we do not. Rather, we rely on open discussion and the spirit of consensus.” The second important spiritual practice here is the tradition of the silent Jesus Prayer (“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”) that precedes all liturgical services at the monastery. The monks believe that these twenty minutes of silent worship help them to enter into the state of full stillness, thus quieting all thoughts and allowing the mind to enter the heart.
Monastery Offers Retreats and Programs
The Monastery of St. John runs a very interesting program: regularly held, three-day-long guided spiritual retreats that are led either by invited guest speakers or by one of the brothers. The subjects of these retreats always focus on the issues that connect everyday life with the Orthodox faith and spirituality. Among the most popular is the so-called “Gardening Retreat” that is offered in the spring by Fr. Innocent, the monastery’s superior. During this retreat, the participants discuss and examine the various meanings of “planting” and “growing.”
Another—rather unique—monastery project is the “Summer Novice Program.” It allows Orthodox men to experience the life at the monastery firsthand and to be a full-fledged part of the brotherhood for a period of time ranging between two and six weeks.
While some American Orthodox monasteries tend to be enclosed (sometimes even “insular”), silent, and contemplative communities, the brothers at St. John feel that their calling is to be open to the world and to bear witness to the Gospel. Accordingly, the monastery is a popular destination for pilgrimage and visitation, where hospitality is offered to all: both Orthodox and non-Orthodox persons.
For overnight visitors, the monastery offers a guesthouse for families and individuals (both male and female). It has four bedrooms with fourteen beds, a fully equipped kitchen, and a nicely appointed living room with library and fireplace.
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