By: Gideon Lazar, Columnist

This past winter break, I spent a week at St. Anthony Greek Orthodox Monastery. I decided to visit after a monk, whom I am friends with, encouraged me to go. It was a very mystical experience I will never forget.

St. Anthony was founded by Elder Ephraim from Mount Athos, a peninsula in Greece with 20 monasteries. According to tradition, St. John the Evangelist brought the Blessed Virgin to the mountain and amazed by the beauty of it, she said: “Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved.” There has been a monastic presence on the island for at least 1,200 years, and likely much longer.

In 1995, Elder Ephraim, after receiving a vision from God,  established 17 monasteries throughout the US and Canada, bringing a piece of Athos to North America. Today, he himself, a living saint, resides at St. Anthony. When he came to found St. Anthony, it was just an empty desert that no one wanted. He prayed for water and life, and it became what it is today:  a lush oasis with large groves of olives, oranges, and many other fruits and vegetables. Sadly Elder Ephraim rarely meets with pilgrims anymore because of his worsening health conditions.

Each day at the monastery starts dark and early at one o’clock in the morning. Some of the monks come into the guest house and wake everyone up to get ready to move to the Church for Matins and Divine Liturgy (the Byzantine name for Mass). All the services were in Greek with beautiful Byzantine chanting and would end between 4 and 4:30, at which point we would eat a small meal (although there would be a more formal breakfast on Sundays). We then went back to sleep for a few more hours. Upon waking, we would join the monks in their various obediences around the monastery. I was working out in the olive groves clearing branches for some trees they were cutting down. During morning work, a monk would drive Elder Ephraim around the monastery to give blessings. He would usually give an apple when he gave a blessing, although one time he gave me a prayer rope. We all gathered again for lunch at 11:30.

During lunch, there was no talking. Everyone ate silently as one of the monks read about the lives of the saints. The food was wonderful; there were these green grapefruits that were the sweetest grapefruits I have ever eaten in my life. No meat was served since it was a monastery, and fish was only served on certain days since it was fasting season. After lunch, we went back to work. People could also go to visit Elder Paisios (the spiritual son of Elder Ephraim who runs most of the day to day of the monastery) and Fr. Philaret for confession.

At 3:30 we would gather again for Vespers. After Vespers we ate dinner then we gathered again in the church for Compline. Compline ended around 5:30. After this, we would have some free time before going to bed around 7 since we had to get up early every day for Matins and Divine Liturgy.

The experience was wonderful. Everywhere you go there is a strong atmosphere of prayer. Monks pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” over and over again as they go about their daily obediences. My time there helped me establish a better routine of prayer, even if I don’t have any intention of becoming a monk. There is an idea that goes around that you should only visit a monastery if you are discerning your vocation, but this is not true. The grace that flows from monasteries is for the whole Church: laity, clergy, and monastics alike.

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