“Do you mind if we talk inside?” says the young monk in black robes spattered with white paint. “I’m making candles, and I have to trim them before they cool.”
My husband and I follow him into the big, dilapidated white barn that is part of Holy Ascension Monastery on Cold Brook Road at the outer end of Bearsville. In the long field beyond the barn, construction is about to begin on a church that will be a replica of the famed Hagia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul — but one-fifth the size of the massive original. The Town of Woodstock granted the Greek Orthodox monastery a building permit on November 30.
Father Philaret — the name means “love of virtue” in Greek — kneels beside a frame of candles, pulling strips of beeswax off the outside of the frame. “This is how we support ourselves,” he says. They sell the candles to cathedrals in New York City and Chicago, rather than in local stores because they don’t want to compete with the candle shop in Woodstock.
“I learned to make candles here,” says Father Philaret, a 25-year-old from Binghamton. “Every chore at the monastery is known as an ‘obedience,’ a cutting off of our own will as part of our purification.” The obediences are required, but he happens to enjoy this particular task.
He came to live at the monastery three years ago, after visiting several times. His father is Russian Orthodox, and his mother is Polish Catholic. In his teens, Father Philaret rebelled, not only against religion but “against everything,” he says. “Things happened to me that shouldn’t happen to anyone, and they were my own fault. My whole life I hated God. I knew he existed, but I didn’t want him to.” At the monastery, he discovered that the only way to fill up the hole inside him was through God.
A novice, Brother Daniel, comes into the barn. He is from Vermont, he says, “half Jewish and half Mayflower — my ancestors came over on the Mayflower.” He has been here for one year.
A young tortoiseshell cat wanders in and bats at the hem of Brother Daniel’s robe.
We ask about the church. They say it will replace the large wooden cross now standing in the center of the field.
“We’ve had the blessing of the foundation,” says Father Philaret. Five bishops and four priests presided over the blessing ceremony. “Our Father Superior, Father Maximus, is in Constantinople, visiting Hagia Sophia. When he returns, we will dig the footers. We’re building it as the money comes in from donations.”
They’ve already had one miracle. They selected a contractor at random from the phone book, and he came to give an estimate for digging and pouring the footers. He turned out to be a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, a branch of the Greek Orthodox. “He gave us kind of a high estimate,” recalls Father Philaret. “Then that night he called back and said he’d just charge us for materials and would do the work for free.”
But why does the monastery, which was founded in 1999, need a church when it already has an elaborate chapel in the farmhouse where the monks and novices live?
“The monastery’s founder, Metropolitan Pavlos, had a dream since the age of six to build a replica of Hagia Sophia,” explains Father Philaret. Pavlos, the Bishop of North and South America, lives in Astoria, Queens, where the Cathedral of St. Markella is located amidst a large Greek community. The cathedral sends a busload of congregants to Holy Ascension two or three times a year to celebrate major feast days. Possibly more of the faithful will be drawn to the monastery once the church is completed.
Solomon built the world’s most beautiful temple in Jerusalem, says Father Philaret. When the Emperor Justinian completed the Hagia Sophia, he announced, “Solomon, I have outdone thee.”
The new church will be made from autoclaved aerated concrete blocks, which are light, insulating, and soundproof. The exterior will be faced with local bluestone, and the interior will feature marble columns and complex mosaics, patterned after those of Hagia Sophia. Monastery residents — currently numbering three — are participating in the design and construction, to reduce the cost of the structure, estimated at $700,000. Mailings will go out to members of the Orthodox community to solicit donations.
Holy Ascension is Old Calendar, part of the Orthodox church that resisted the New Calendar reforms of 1924, designed to align the faith with Western churches. Old Calendar practitioners feel the revisions ruin the rhythm of observances such as feast days and fasts. Adherents in Europe were persecuted for refusing to follow the reforms. New Calendar monasteries tend to be larger and wealthier, Brother Daniel says, “but it’s hard to build an inner spiritual life with so much distraction. Traditional monks in the desert had a simple life. We have a lot of time to pray.”
“We try to keep our minds on Christ,” adds Father Philaret. “He is the way and the door. We wear black robes as a symbol of death, because we have died to the ways of the world — to having attachments to pleasures that do not last.” The men are wearing their work robes, and the white splashes are from painting the barn.
Some minor pleasures are permitted. We are invited to the main house to taste their homemade mead, a mildly fermented drink made of honey, water, and yeast. The house is old and splendid, with pegged hardwood floors. The mead is sublime. The chapel is liberally decorated with icons, at least one of them painted by Father Maximus.
The residents rise at four every morning to chant the Midnight Office in the chapel. There are other observances throughout the day. People from the surrounding community come to Sunday services, which last from 8 a.m. to noon. “But most of them come around 10,” says Brother Daniel. One local woman, who was baptized in the monastery pond, comes every Sunday and also helps with gardening.
As we prepare to leave, Father Philaret says, “You can’t go to a Greek Orthodox church and not hear chanting.” In the chapel, the two men open a book and chant the Cherubic Hymn, part of the liturgy, in ancient Greek. Against the backdrop of Father Philaret’s steady drone, Brother Daniel sings a slow, ethereal melody in a minor key, with Middle Eastern overtones. We are deeply glad we stayed to hear it.++