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Above: The Eastern Orthodox onion domes of New Skete shine in the sun. Right: An icon of Christ in the Sanctuary Garden of Emmaus House. (Mark E. Rondeau)


From The Bennington Banner, July 21, 2007. Part 1 of 3.

By Mark E. Rondeau

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. - From a distance, monasticism can seem mysterious and vaguely unsettling. A vowed life of poverty, chastity and obedience apart from the world seems austere and joyless to many. Perhaps it's even an attempt to hide from a threatening world.

One place to get a firsthand view of monasticism is at New Skete , three spiritually united but physically separate Eastern Orthodox communities not far from the Vermont border.

The late Rev. Laurence Mancuso, who led New Skete from its founding until his retirement in 2000, sought to develop here what he called "monasticism with a human face."

This face was on display during an open house at the monks' monastery - set in a forest on a mountainside - during the annual Cambridge Balloon Fest in June.

Brother Christopher, the community's head trainer, gave a brisk and humor-filled demonstration of dog training with a German shepherd named Pica. About 100 visitors, including many children, lined the walkway in front the monks' training center and gift shop to watch.

"Mistakes are opportunities for the dog to learn, as well as yourself. They're not to be feared, and you don't come down hard on them. You just simply use them as part of the learning process," he told the crowd. "Dogs essentially learn by trial and error. They're very bright and very intelligent, and they can certainly catch on when you're working and practicing with them every day."

Earlier, the human face of monasticism could be seen a few miles to the west at Our Lady of the Sign Monastery. Sister Patricia was taking groups of visitors around the immaculate kitchen where the nuns of New Skete make their celebrated cheesecake.

She noted how they can bake 230 cakes at a time. "We write down what shelf it's on and what time, so you know what time to (take it) out, because you can forget what you're doing," she said with a laugh. "And when you leave the cakes in there too long, it's not good."

Later in the tour, she quipped: "We have our liquor license. ... For baking purposes only."

Self-governing communities

In addition to the monks and nuns, New Skete has a community for married couples called companions. Though linked in many ways, the communities are each self-governing.

A fourth group, the chapel community, are laypeople from throughout the area who attend services at the monastery and in turn help New Skete in various ways.

The monks, who formed in 1966, got into dog training as much by chance as by design. The same is true of how the nuns, who joined New Skete in 1969, began making and selling cheesecake. The companions, who formed in 1983, offer retreats, mainly to married couples.

These monastics are also liturgists, scholars, artists, musicians, authors, and one is even a self-taught architect.

All of these roles are, however, secondary to their monastic vocation of serving God through work and prayer in community. Sister Melanie, one of the companions, said all things are held in common and everything is done with the community in mind.

"We really are picking up from the earliest apostolic times, from the early Christians, when they sold all their goods ... and they joined together," she said. "They didn't call them monastic communities, but they lived a life dedicated to the church."

Monastic life is "taking all your attention and focusing it," Sister Melanie said. "It's a focusing of your life and a dedication."

Diverse viewpoints

In doing this, the monastics of New Skete seek to remain faithful to their religious tradition while remaining open to diverse people and viewpoints.

"They don't judge people, and people of all different faiths are welcome to come and listen and experience (their liturgy)," said Robin Hetko, a member of the chapel community who works full time in various capacities for the monks and nuns. "They want to be a part of this world, and they feel that everything in this world is blessed by God and worthy of community."

Those who visit New Skete include Catholics, Jews and clergy from various faiths.

"People are getting something out of them that touches them across religions," Hetko said. "Even people who don't practice any kind of religion get something from them."

Said Brother Peter, one of the founding monks and a deacon, "We're traditional in one way, we're progressive in another. I heard someone say that we have to be both liberal and conservative. We have to conserve what's valuable from the past and feel free to apply it in a free way with new ideas."

Great care

In this spirit, the monks have developed the public face of worship at New Skete with great care.

From the beginning, the monks were very intent on studying and translating and refining Orthodox liturgy for an American setting:

"They... had a passion for liturgy, seeking to infuse new life in Eastern Catholic worship," according to their book, "In the Spirit of Happiness."

To this end, New Skete has published numerous liturgical books and recordings.

At a recent Sunday Divine Liturgy, in honor of the feast of All Saints, the result of this passion unfolded in ritual and song. In black robes, called riasa, monks, nuns, and companions lined up outside the doors of the Temple of Holy Wisdom and after the loud and rhythmic ringing of a variety of bells in a nearby bell tower processed inside. They lined up in facing rows and sang the entire service in choir.

"All our services in the church are sung. That's an ancient tradition that we still follow," said Brother Marc, one of the founding monks and a priest. "We do everything in English, but it's still sung according to some of the ancient chants and some newer chant."

Incense censer

Brother Christopher, also an Orthodox priest, presided at the service, at times swinging an incense censer around the worship area, filling the temple with a sweet, smoky smell. Later he reverently distributed the Eucharist to fellow New Skete monastics and members of the chapel community.

Orthodox worship is ornate, highly ritualized, and intense. After the Divine Liturgy, Brother Stavros, a wiry and friendly man, explained that, "The more senses you can get involved, the more of the message gets in," he said. "So there's heavy things for you to see; sound, there's always singing, every service is sung; taste, there's the Eucharist; touch, we bow and make the sign of the cross.

"And then, smell. Smell is an underappreciated sense. It could be very evocative. When you've been a church and you smell it, that stays from your childhood," he said. "We've had people come say when they came back to the church, the first thing that triggered the memory was the smell."

The Divine Liturgy was interspersed with periods of reverent silence, and chirping birds in the nearby woods could be heard through open windows.

In his homily, Brother Luke, the prior of the monks' community, told the story of St. Maria Skobtosva. Born in Riga, Latvia to an aristocratic family, she was a poet who had two unsuccessful marriages, bore two children, was politically active, and eventually fled to Paris after the Russian revolution.

She underwent a religious conversion after the death of her second child from meningitis. When her second marriage ended, she took monastic vows but did not live a typical monastic life. Rather, she leased a house in Paris that had room for a chapel, a soup kitchen and shelter for the destitute.

When the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, Maria helped Jews escape persecution. She and her helpers were arrested. She was killed at the Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1945.

"For Mother Maria life without the passion, the hunger and thirst for uprightness, was not possible. She was never content to just take it easy," said Brother Luke. "What are we most passionate about in life? Is it to hunger and thirst for uprightness?"

Procession of saints

Mother Maria is one of a procession of saints and holy people painted along the upper walls of Holy Wisdom Temple, leading to an icon of Christ in glory over the altar. Such icons, which can be found throughout New Skete , feature strongly in Orthodox worship.

These portraits of religious events, feasts or people are "a means of communication," said Brother Stavros. "So when we reverence an icon, it's a way to be in touch with them, the same as you would a picture of your loved one."

Unusual icons

An unusual feature about the procession of saints in Holy Wisdom Temple is that it includes not only Biblical figures and saints recognized in Orthodoxy, it also includes icons of Roman Catholic saints and holy people and even an Anglican archbishop. Among Catholics in the procession are Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope Paul VI and Dorothy Day.

Br Stavros said that no church has a corner on sanctity.

"Our notion of sanctity is people who live out the Gospel, and anybody can do that. We try to magnify that by the people in that procession of saints leading to Christ," he said. "They're moving in their pilgrimage to Christ, as are we all."