Summer certainly is a-coming in. Here at the Monastery of St. John we aren’t singing cuckoo, but we are seeing many new faces in church, the kitchen, the candle factory, the soap factory, the garden, and the living quarters. Springs the wood anew at this time of year, and springs the brotherhood anew as well, at least for the months of summer.
Groweth seed, yes, and eager hands set to work in the garden, with tiller, hoe, shovel, and pruning shears. Those hands cultivate and harvest the produce of the land, which they then bring to the table. Bloweth mead, and our summer crew head to the mead where the flowers blow—or to the meadow where flowers bloom, to put it in more modern terms—to tend our little winged brothers the bees, who provide honey for our food and wax for making candles. Oh, yes, and speaking of candles, our summer novices take up their shifts in the candle factory, too, and they help in manufacturing soap. You see, we enjoy a special influx of eager young men every year during these months who arrive for what we call the “summer novice program.”
The program does them good, it does us good, and it does good to the Orthodox Church at large.
In this way our monastery offers the participants an opportunity to try out our way of life without first renouncing everything. Don’t let the program title mislead you. The young men who come for part of the summer do not become novices in the ordinary sense. Instead, the program offers them a taste of the monastic life without quite the commitment of a regular novice. In that consists its attraction, because it’s not all or nothing. These men, typically on vacation from high school or college, stay for various periods of time, from a few weeks to a few months.
A summer novice participates in the life of the brotherhood, but without being incorporated as fully into it as a regular novice. For example, we don’t clothe him in a cassock with sandals, belt, and skoufia, although he does live among the monks rather than in the guest house. In venerating the icons, he comes just after the regular monks and novices and before the guests. He also attends many of the gatherings the brotherhood has apart from the guests. Naturally we assign him obediences just like members of the brotherhood. He gets housekeeping duties on the one hand such as setting and clearing the tables, assisting the cooks, washing dishes, and sweeping and mopping floors. On the other hand he takes up tasks such as maintaining the garden and riding into town along with one of the monks for grocery shopping. In short, he joins in as much of our life as possible.
He has an opportunity to attend small sessions conducted by our abbot on spirituality and the monastic tradition. Many men sign up for the program primarily for these sessions.
His apprenticeship, though, includes more than spiritual formation and information on the history of monasticism. As the need arises, various members of the brotherhood instruct him in esoteric arts and sciences—for example, the fork belongs on the left of the plate when setting the table, with the knife and the spoon to the right, and cold water works better than hot in scrubbing cheese and eggs off plates, and too much soap in the mop water makes the floor sticky. You might not associate any of this esoteric knowledge with monastic spirituality—and yet all of these things belong to the life in Christ lived in community because they pertain to good stewardship and to an awareness, even in small things, of the good of the community. If a young man leaves at the end of his summer novice experience with a greater appreciation of the day-to-day and practical details of our life, he has truly tasted its reality.
So much for them. What about us? How do we benefit from their participation in our life? Well, first of all we have a larger temporary work force. Our brotherhood, after all, contains a disproportionate number of us old guys, and so we welcome the younger men who can tackle the physical labor that we can’t—digging trenches for new water lines, installing appliances, putting up barns, and that sort of thing. In the months leading up to summer, we plan projects to give our new arrivals and we look forward to the day they show up.
While we invite summer novices here for their benefit, we also have to ensure that we fit them into our life smoothly. After a few years of learning by trial and error, we have settled on an arrangement that works pretty well. Most of them stay for about a month, though the length of their stay varies. We coordinate their visits so that we have no more than four at a time. This way we can spread the arrivals and departures over several months. After all, we want to host our summer novices while continuing to receive pilgrims, who tend to visit us in greater numbers during the summer months. Besides, with a smaller number of the young men here at any given time, none of them gets lost in the crowd. Each of them can enjoy a degree of individual attention.
But we gain something more. In the larger picture, the summer novice program serves for recruitment. A fair number of men who have joined the brotherhood for the long term participated first in the summer program. They got a taste of monasticism and decided to come back for more. In this way brotherhood gets to know them first, and they get to know us.
A program such as this has much to offer the Orthodox Church in this country. Orthodox monasticism is still fairly new in the United States, and people often see it as such a severe thing that it can scare them away. This renders it difficult for a young man to get his first taste of monasticism because it can seem overwhelming. We don’t do things that way. We place no pressure on anyone, and we do not blame anyone if he takes part in our summer program and returns to the life he knew before. He still has his experience with us to take with him, and we hope that it will enrich not only him but those he tells about it.