The season of Pascha has come to a close. The Holy Spirit has descended on the faithful gathered in the upper room. The fruit of His gifts and power are evidenced by the Sunday of All Saints, which we celebrated less that a month ago. Today marks the last day of the Apostle’s fast, and tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.
As we live our lives according to the rhythm of the calendar of the Church, we experience a wide range of emotions within the liturgical atmosphere. During Paschaltide we rejoice in the most wonderful reality of Christ’s resurrection. During the four major fasts of the year, we humble ourselves, look inward, and repent of our sins and passions. How do we reconcile this contrast? It is, in fact, the Church herself that commands us to rejoice for the forty days of Pascha, while, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, exhorts us to “afflict ourselves” with fasting for nearly half the year. These directives we receive from Church tradition may seem contradictory, yet, upon closer examination, they reveal something about our own human nature and illustrate how the Church wisely condescends to our weakness and effects our salvation thereby.
Change means that, with God’s help, we can actually repent and become who we really are, in Christ.
Our own earthly existence is marked by transience and change. We marvel at how quickly an infant grows into a child, then matures to adulthood, marries, and begets children of his or her own. Even in adulthood, we are ever changing. I learned from biology class that each cell in our body wears out and is replaced by fresh cells—so much so that every seven years, on the cellular level, we have a completely new body! As we reflect on our lives, we can probably remember times of great happiness and elation as well as very dark times and sadness. These oscillations are part and parcel of this life, and they characterize our earthly, transient condition. Scripture teaches us that the life to come will not be subject to such change. How we live our lives in the present will certainly correlate with our permanent state of eternal life with God or eternal damnation—a self-imposed separation from God. We can actually be thankful that this earthly life is one of change. This should give us hope, because change means that, with God’s help, we can actually repent and become who we really are, in Christ.
So, we rejoice in the great Feasts of our Orthodox Church, and we weep for our sins during the fasts. Thus, we are invited to reconcile ourselves with being human. Perhaps an argument could be made that since this life is given to us for repentance, we should fast year-round. After all, our life is short—should we not, thus, redouble our efforts? The Church, in her understanding of human nature has not given such a severe regime to her children. Our Typicon gives us a moderation neither too strict nor lax that can be followed over the long haul. For us on the Julian calendar, the Apostle’s Fast always gets an extra 13 days. The steady diet of beans and rice with the occasional fish can get monotonous. I know those scrambled eggs with cheese will taste really good for tomorrow’s breakfast. Such a thought, of course, would be named by my fellow-monastics as a “temptation from the left.” So, I repel such a tempting thought with our Savior’s words, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21).
On June 1st we had our annual Open House. It was great to meet old friends and make new ones. There were about fifty people who came for the event.
In the days preceding the event, the brothers busied themselves with preparations. Flyers were printed and posted at the local post office and grocery stores of the area. Our giant “Event Tent” had to be assembled and staked in place. We made lots of food: forty pounds of potato salad, fifteen pounds of coleslaw, two big trays of three-bean salad, dozens of salmon burgers and all the fixings.
After the midday meal, we gave a tour of our chapel and monastery grounds. The choir offered a mini-concert of selected sacred music, and Father Innocent gave our visitors a talk on the Orthodox faith. The tour of the candle shop was especially popular with our children visitors. The beehive demonstration thrilled everyone. It was a chance for everyone to safely look into the inner workings of a beehive from the safety of the other side of a screened door. We even found the queen!
It takes work to organize an open house, but the rewards of meeting new people in our neighborhood really makes up for the effort expended.
It was last fall that Fr. Innocent asked me to begin helping him with the bees. The proposition intrigued me, of course, but I had my doubts about it, wondering how often I would get stung. And in fact, even with all the protective gear—the “space suit,” as we call it—I got stung quite a few times at first. The bees would find their way inside, one would get me as I took the outfit off, or one would sting me on the foot or ankle, through my socks. Sometimes, in those first attempts to work with the bees, I would use only part of the protective gear, which consists of a jump suit, headgear with a screen on front, and long gloves.
Here we are in the summer months, though, not in the fall and winter as when I first made my acquaintance with the bees. A couple of things have changed since then. First, of course, is that I now have more experience in the tasks we have to perform when we visit the hives. The other thing, though, is that the weather is hotter. So the time comes for a decision—do I want to spend several hours drenched in sweat because of that heavy outfit, or would I prefer to trust my relationship with the bees, and what I have learned about how to behave while I am with them, trusting also that they, in turn, will conduct themselves appropriately with me?
The most recent time I went with Fr. Innocent and one of the other members of the brotherhood, it was a scorching day with the sun beating down on us. I decided to trust my little friends. I did, in fact, get stung twice that day, but I have only myself to blame because both times I set my hand down right on top of a bee who was minding his own business. One had landed on my hat, and I put my right hand there, not realizing anyone was there, and I ended up with a stinger at the base of my thumb. The second time, I touched my left hand to my chest, once again not knowing that I was invading someone else’s personal space, and I obtained the same result. I don’t find fault with the bees in either case. If I were a bee and I saw an enormous hand coming down on top of me, apparently about to crush me, I would do the same thing.
Love is sweeter than life.Sweeter still, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb is the awareness of God whence love is born.
—St. Isaac of Syria
We refer to bees as “social insects”, and naturally the term has a technical meaning. Bees, like wasps, termites, ants, live together in organized colonies. And yet in another sense we can say that bees are also sociable in relation to people, because we have a long-standing relationship with them. In a way, we have domesticated bees as we have domesticated chickens, goats, sheep, cows, dogs, cats, and many other kinds of animals. I have come to understand that long-standing relationship better as I have joined Fr. Innocent in his work with the bees. Last fall, when I began my apprenticeship, I never thought I would sit on top of a hive to rest with hundreds if not thousands of bees flying about me, while I had no protective gear on at all, and not be afraid of them. But I can do it now.
Long ago, at creation, God made one kind of living creature after another, and each time He saw that it was good. We, however, in our fallenness, regard the fallenness of the world as something normal, and as a result we tend to fear our fellow creatures. In some cases we have good reason, of course. I think I will still keep my distance from scorpions, for example. But in some cases we can learn to trust some of our fellow-creatures, knowing that we can indeed trust them when we behave toward them in a way that allows them to trust us.
Northeastern California, where the Monastery of St. John is located, is geographically unique. The hills and nearby mountains, the rocks, and the soil all bear marks of recent volcanic activity. Bowl-like calderas are visible on the tops of some nearby buttes. The rocks scattered across the landscape are often full of holes, like Swiss cheese. Manton, the little hamlet we call home, has a thriving wine industry, and its success is largely due to the well-drained volcanic soil we are endowed with. Yet, to me, the most interesting and dramatic marks of this volcanic legacy are the caves the lava flows left behind.
Less than twenty thousand years ago, lava flowed over portions of northeast California. As it cooled, the surface hardened and crusted over when the still-hot lava continued to flow beneath. When the hot magma evacuated, smooth-walled lava tubes were left behind. If such a cave is configured just right, convection forces allow cold winter air to enter but prohibit the passage of warm, summer air. The cave will only exchange air when the surface air is cooler than the cave air. The result is a year-round, natural refrigerator. When the weather turns hot, as it always does here in the summer, an ice cave makes an inviting destination.
On a Sunday afternoon, five of the brothers made the hour-and-fifteen-minute drive to Ice Cave Mountain in the nearby Lassen National Forest. Passing through Child’s Meadow, we drove down an unpaved forest service road arriving at Wilson Lake. We walked along the beautiful lakeshore through large groups of tiny half-frog/half-tadpoles jumping excitedly in the marsh grass. Arriving at the northeast bank, we followed an unmarked trail to a hillside covered with boulders of black, volcanic rock. “I know it’s around here, somewhere,” Father Innocent assured his doubting fellow-explorers, “we found it four years ago when we first came here.” A faint trail wound its way up the hillside through the sharp rocks. A stout cedar tree spray-painted in light blue with the words ”ICE” indicated we had found our destination. As we peered down into the dark cave entrance we became aware of swarms of gnats that hovered above the ever-present mud lining the first few feet of the entrance. Descending, each of us was immediately enveloped in the cold, damp air—a pleasant contrast to the hot afternoon conditions just above the surface. Steadying ourselves with a climbing rope, moving in single file, we made our descent.
Turning on our headlamps, we observed the smooth walls—typical of lava tubes—and the floor littered with rocks and boulders. Further down, after a tight squeeze of a narrow passageway among the boulders, the cave ceiling vaulted high above us, cathedral-like. We had to be extremely careful. In addition to the navigational hazard of sharp rocks and boulders, the cave floor was slippery with ice. Upon closer examination, the walls, too, had patches of wavy, dirty ice. As I stood in this underground oratorium, I had a sense of its being very old. I felt a sense of awe.
Caves are an important setting for major feasts in our Church. It was in a cave that our Savior entered the world, incarnate as a human being. It was in a cave that Joseph of Aramethea laid the body of our Savior to rest after He was crucified for our salvation. As I stood alone in that dark, cold cave, I did not feel afraid or claustrophobic—even though several hundred tons of rock hung precariously above me. I felt a sense of the presence of the cave that had stood there for so many millennia. I felt a tangible, lively silence. Why did Christ choose to be born in a cave? Why was it that the rock wall of the cave of Christ’s tomb was the sole first witness of Christ triumphal resurrection from the dead? As I stood in silence beneath the vaulted dome of the deliciously cool ice cave on that hot Sunday afternoon, I began to understand.
A number of pilgrims and families gathered with us here at the monastery on July 2nd, along with our Archbishop Benjamin and several clergy, to help us celebrate our yearly feast day of Saint John of San Francisco. We assembled in the church Tuesday night, one of those warm dry nights that are typical of summer in Manton, to begin the vigil service. Fr. Innocent made a point of singing in the choir, since he would not be able to do so again for a while: tomorrow he would begin serving in the altar as a priest. As we stood through the service of chants and hymns honoring our patron saint, we asked St. John's prayers and archpastoral blessing for the rest of the coming year, as well as for our Superior as he assumes his new clerical responsibilities.
The next morning—bright, sunny, and promising to be hot—the crack of the talanton summoned us at 8 o'clock for the hierarchical Divine Liturgy. Since we don't have hierarchical services here all that often, there was a bit of scrambling the day or two previous to make sure we had everything in order, but happily all went smoothly. There were a few extra musical selections, an interruption half-way through the liturgy for some shouting of "Axios, axios, axios!", and finally a molieben to Saint John with a procession around the chapel. We then processed joyfully to the monastery refectory for some "great consolation", a fine post-liturgical breakfast.
Fr. Innocent's initiation into the service of the priesthood is involving a traditional practice of serving forty Divine Liturgies in a row, so for a short while we are celebrating the Eucharist daily, instead of our usual four times a week. In addition to the Liturgy, he is serving all the other services as well, Matins, Vespers and Compline. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. And as our Archbishop commented, learning to serve in the altar is rather like "pat your head and rub your tummy"; much to keep track of and remember. Nevertheless we are grateful to God for another priest to help with the Divine services, the framework around which our life here is built. His Eminence stayed with us for another day to give a bit of extra training, and then headed off to his next appointment. Some of the pilgrims remained for the rest of the week, helping us with various duties and joining in our prayers.
We thank God for this special time every year to honor our patron, to remember his love for his flock and the God-pleasing life he led, and to ask for his intercessions for us and our Church. Our holy father and hierarch John, pray to God for us!
Our lawns have been looking noticeably greener in the last month or so since we decided to put some work into the irrigation system and get it back up and running in good order. We had turned the system off several years ago due to leaks and broken parts, and no one had really been able to devote the time and energy to learning how it all worked, finding all the control boxes and valves, going to the store to get parts, and making the necessary replacements and adjustments. But times have changed.
Dead grass is not terribly attractive. Nor are weeds. Unfortunately, we have a great deal of both. Nevertheless, one of our members was assigned to attack the irrigation issue, and after a good bit of digging, research and exploration (and head-scratching), all the watering zones are now operable and in good running order. We had feared that during a previous project some wires running from the control box to one of the major sections had gotten cut; thankfully that turned out not to be the case. Mainly what the system needed was adjustments, accomplished with a simple screwdriver, and some new sprinkler heads.
Now that the water is restored to the lawns, the grass is greening up nicely—but so are the weeds! How to get rid of those will be the next part of the project, and we may have to re-plant grass in some sections. Usually when the grass is kept nice and thick it prevents weeds from taking over, but we have a bit of restoration work to do now. Additionally there are a number of flower beds and planters around the house that have needed attention. Some shrubs need replacing; others nearly died from a cold snap this past winter. We thought we might have to yank them out altogether but they seem to be growing back vigorously.
There is something about nice, lively lawns and cheery sprinklers that manages to give a boost to anyone's spirits during the hot, dry days of summer in Manton.