It is just before 5 a.m., and the steep road down to the church is lit only by the half-full moon. The morning air is cool, refreshing after the day’s heat. The silence is deep. Only a few birds sing. A slight breeze whispers in the manzanita and madrone trees, the pines. For six days, this is how my day begins.
Inside the wooden church, a typical Ukrainian wooden church on a mountain in California, the only light is from the sanctuary lamp and perhaps a light coming from the altar area behind the iconostasis.
The monks begin Matins in the darkness of morning, just as they close the day with communal prayer and the darkness of evening coming on.
Sitting in the dark and the silence, praying the Jesus Prayer or meditating before Divine Liturgy, I feel as if I am keeping a vigil at the tomb of Christ. I do not simply sit in the dark and the silence. I enter it; or, perhaps, it enters me. Through the silence and the darkness, I also enter into the rhythm of the monastery.
It is still the time of the Great Silence for the monks. They entered the Great Silence after Compline, and they will not completely break it until the evening meal.
Through the darkness and the silence, I experience great interior peace, a peace that remains with me when I leave.
The ringing of the bells calling you to prayer does not seem so much to break the silence as to deepen it, because ringing the bells is part of the bell ringer’s daily prayer.
I have come to Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Redwood Valley, California, about 140 miles north of San Francisco, precisely for this deep silence. I have come to experience Ukrainian Catholic Divine Liturgy daily and to serve as a deacon, because our mission does not have a priest to celebrate liturgy during the week.
And I have come to fill my eyes with the images of the icons that cover the iconostasis and the walls of this church, and with the reverence of these men who have given their entire life to follow Christ in a way that few have.
Entering into the rhythm of the monastery means I keep the communal prayer and meal schedule of the monks, and I remain silent as much as I can throughout the day.
Every day the monks gather to pray Matins and to celebrate Divine Liturgy. They gather to pray the Noon Office and to pray Vespers and Compline.
Altogether the monks gather for more than four hours of prayer on a typical day, more on feasts. This is in addition to their private prayer and their practice of unceasing prayer.
Unless it is necessary for them to break the silence, the monks talk for only about an hour a day, except on Sunday, a talking day. Still, they are gracious and hospitable, welcoming to visitors.
Matins begins at 5:30 a.m. and Compline ends about 7:30 p.m. so it is a full day. As a visitor, I feel the rigor of this schedule within a couple of days. And unlike the monks, I do not work.
I feel the rigor as well with the meals. Breakfast and supper are light. The noon meal is the main meal of the day. There is plenty of good food at each, but far less than what I eat at home, even though I do not eat that much.
At the morning and midday meals, a monk reads. All listen. The spiritual reading sustains. As they eat, the monks seem engaged in prayer, even at the evening meal when they are allowed to talk.
In The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim narrator recounts a passage from St. Peter of Damascus in the Philokalia. In the passage, the saint says:
“Let every action be an occasion for you always to remember and praise God. And before you know it, you are praying unceasingly.”
This is the life of the monk.
When I leave, I am gradually thrust back into the rhythm of the world. Speeding drivers, scantily dressed women and men, people talking loudly on cell phones, music playing everywhere, television and ads seemingly everywhere, a lack of concern for others dominant.
The rhythm of the world can be overwhelming. Yet, the rhythm of the monastery stays with me, grounds me.
I notice the disorder of daily life, but I do not dwell on it. Instead, I pray the Jesus Prayer, over and over, and think of the plank in my own eye. My short time at the monastery has changed me. I feel it deep within.
I am not called to lead a monastic life, but I will visit Holy Transfiguration again – for the silence, the darkness, the prayer, and the fellowship and the witness of the monks.