Pilgrimage to a Monastery

A few weeks ago, I traveled with seven women from my church to Safford, Arizona, 165 miles southeast of Phoenix. There we visited St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery (a women’s monastery).

I had never been to a monastery, and was so nervous about going. I had no idea what to expect or what would be expected of me. But, as soon as I arrived and was greeted by two of the nuns, I fell in love with it. I love it so much that I’d like to go back once a year if possible.

My husband, Michael, interviewed me about the experience in his Sunday school class. I thought I would share this interview with you. Just click on the play button. (It’s 29 minutes long):

Here are a few snapshots of my visit. These, plus the interview, should give you a sense of how special my visit was.

We arrived at the monastery in the pitch-black of night. We entered through this gate, though it was too dark that night to see it.

We were taken to our guest house, a “hogan” built after a Navajo traditional home. It was one very large room, lined with nine beds all around the perimeter,  a fireplace in the middle of the room, and a small kitchen and bathroom off the back.

“… She also rises while it is yet night…” Prov. 31:15

Every morning we walked in the pitch-black quietness of the morning to the church. We gathered silently for prayer and for worship. It was a tiny taste of heaven. Most church services I’ve been to are noisy, full of chatter and hustle-bustle. The services at St. Paisius were quiet. Serene. Focused on the One true God. Not on us, but on Him. It was the perfect environment to remember that He is God and we are not. I need that.

When it was time to call everyone to the church, one of the nuns would walk around the church, rhythmically striking the wooden Semantron. (The Semantron predates the bell. Some say it was introduced by Noah. It’s used to call people to prayer or to a procession.)

The interior of the church is simple and beautiful. The church is less than a year old, so there is still more to add, but the hand carved woodwork from Romania was stunning. The acoustics inside this stone church were amazing. I would love to come back someday and record the nuns singing. Their soft, angelic voices reverberated throughout the church and drew our hearts and minds to worship.

These are the benches I spoke about in the interview. The people stand for the majority of the services. Some of the services can be quite long, so it’s perfectly acceptable to sit or lean when one gets tired. (Standing is done out of respect for the King and in honor of the Resurrection.)

This building was directly across from the church and is where we had our meals. This is also where the nuns live. Notice the gorgeous mountains in the background. The monastery sits in a “bowl” surrounded by mountains on three sides. The desert has it’s own unique beauty and majesty.

Two of the afternoons we had the privilege of being instructed by Fr. Dorotheos. He is a monk and the spiritual father to the St. Paisius community. One of his joys is to meet the guests and make himself available for questions, instruction and even personal counseling. He wanted to make sure that when we left the monastery, we not only took with us our wonderful experiences, but also left with “tools” to help us fight the “unseen warfare” we encounter every day. His instructions were very practical and came from his heart and life experience.

Monasteries in the desert have a long and rich tradition in Christianity, dating back to the 3rd century. It’s quite sobering to think that we were participating in a tradition of worship and monasticism that is over eighteen centuries old! What a gift.

I hope you enjoy the interview. To God be the glory.

Question: Have you ever wanted to visit a monastery or a convent?

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42 Responses to “Pilgrimage to a Monastery”

  1. I have been there several times over the last few years and have gone to St Anthony’s Monastery in Florence Arizona. Some of the nuns do/have taken a vow of silence. During the first 2 years as a novice, they are required to be silent. Loved the article, photos and interview.


  2. Hello Gail,

    A friend of mine directed me to your post and interview about St. Paisius. I wanted to take a moment to comment because we are intimately acquainted with St. Paisius since our daughter Grace attends the girls’ school there. If you saw a group of 3 girls standing at the front just behind the nuns on the left side during services, you saw my daughter! She is now in her second and most likely last year as a student, and her time there has truly been a gift from God. We have been Orthodox for 5 years, and monasticism is still fairly new to me, as I was raised Presbyterian. We live outside of Philadelphia, so we only get to see Grace at Christmas (and of course, the summer). Most girls who attend stay for 2 years (The Mother Abbess compares the experience there to learning a foreign language). Grace’s time there has brought so much joy to all of our lives, even though it has been very difficult to let her go – she was almost 11 in the fall of 2010 when she began, and now she is 12.

    For anyone considering a monastery visit, St. Paisius is a wonderful introduction. The nuns are all so generous, patient, and kind. I was initially surprised by their senses of humor as well 😉

    As for your photographs, they are beautiful.

    In Christ,

  3. So beautiful! I love the icons in Orthodox churches. It feels like a prayer just to look at them!

  4. I have been visiting St. Paisius Monastery since 2004. It is a wonderful experience and I highly recommend it. Someone was afraid above said they would be tired. There is more than enough time for napping in between and I was easily in bed and asleep by 8pm every night even though I’m normally a night owl. Don’t let your fears keep you away!

  5. Gail,

    I loved reading your post. My husband is now a protestant pastor, but grew up Catholic and attended a Catholic University which is also a Monestary.

    We spent part of a week in their guest house last summer and went to noon and evening prayers each day. I have had a deep longing to return. I believe we will go back this summer.

    I’m sure some of my love for this is because it’s the antithesis of my noisy Baptist pastor daughter upbringing. I can no longer live without solituded and silence as part of my life.

    Are you Orthodox? How did you come to go with a group of friends to this monestary? Curious about other evangelicals who are so interested, as I am, in this experience. What is it that draws us?

    Thank you for the interview (haven’t listened yet….but I’m definitely going to) and for the pictures too. Beautiful!

  6. I join the chorus of women who would like to make a similar trip. I listened to the podcast and was hanging on your every word. My chief concern was that I would be so very tired each and every day. Thank you for sharing your trip and encouraging us through it.
    Dallas/Fort Worth

  7. Wow – what a great experience! I love the photos.

  8. Let me know when you post about your book. I’d love to read it. Thanks so much for stopping by. Blessings.

  9. I very much enjoyed looking at the pictures and listening to the interview about your experiences. This sounds like an amazing experience. It goes right along with a book I’m reading right now for a Prayer class in seminary by Roberta Bondi – To Pray & To Love. I plan on sharing this post with my fellow students in seminary as well.

    As a mother of 10, the concept of quiet sounds delightful!! It is something I seek out, but rarely achieve. 🙂

  10. Thanks, Mary.

  11. This was so nice. We have been to the monastery numerous times and found your description to be spot on. The services are truly heavenly and the sisters are so welcoming.

    AFAIK though the sisters spiritual Father is not Fr. Dorotheos. If you visited Mother Abbess in her office she has pictures of their Geronda.

  12. I would love nothing more than to go on a pilgrimage with you!!

  13. Yep, that’s true. That’s one of the lessons I learned while there (I spoke about it in the interview.)

    I do hope you can go sometime. It’s other-worldly.

  14. Wow. Fascinating. Only 15 minutes away. That would be neat.

    Let me know what you think after you listen to the interview.

  15. This was beautiful, thank you for sharing! I have always wanted to visit a monestary…being a writer, I love the peace and quiet and after my husband gets home in the afternoon it is rarely available! Though you can be with God any time of the day or night, it sure makes a difference when you can “feel” silence.


  16. You have made me very hungry for this place, dear friend. I am definitely going next time. And the time after that….

    You have to tell Charles about the hogan, by the way. He will Love that. 🙂

  17. SO glad you liked it. I think it’s something everyone should do at least once … when you’re ready. It took me a long time, but now I’m hooked.

  18. I absolutely LOVED sharing this experience with you!! I can’t wait until the next time.

  19. Technical answer: I’m on WordPress.com, not WordPress.org, but it’s built in to both; click on the icon bar that says “add audio.” You can either host it on the WordPress sight (you’d have an mp3 file to upload) or reference another url (if the file is on anther site).

  20. Technical answer: I’m on WordPress.com, not WordPress.org, but it’s built in to both; click on the icon bar that says “add audio.” You can either host it on the WordPress sight (you’d have an mp3 file to upload) or reference another url (if the file is on anther site).

    You definitely should take another trip. I’m going to try for once a year.

  21. I just listened to the interview. I’m ready to go now!

    Thanks again, Gail.

  22. Joan Kirkpatrick March 17, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    Well done, fellow pilgrim!

  23. gail, as a former Carmelite nun i totally relate to your experience. our noviceate was in upstate new york. we could only talk at meals 2 nights a week and that was because we went to bed early those nights !! many times i have wanted to go back just to experience that life style again( mother of 2 and grandmother to2 now !!)

  24. Gail, thanks so much for sharing this!

    I’m curious about the technical aspects as well, because I need to embed an interview myself rather soon. Looks like a Flash-based WordPress plugin (which means it’s not something I’d be able to use, yet).

    But I’ll wait for an answer, or I’ll Google around a bit.

    I haven’t been to a monastery overnight since 2002. I must repeat the experience! Your post reinforces that urge. “Tranquility” was the primary word that struck me at the time. There’s something about eliminating the “busy-ness” of life that affords one an amazing opportunity to be receptive to God.

  25. Hi Martha.

    I’ll pass on your technical question to Michael. (He did it and I have no idea how—no big surprise—haha.)

    We were at the monastery for 4 nights and almost 4 days. (Mon evening, all day Tues, all day Wed, all day Thurs and part of Fri.)

    I may have a link to send you regarding your third question. I’ll have to find it first.

    Thanks so much for your kind words.

    Hope to see you soon,

  26. Gail *& Michael*, thank you for sharing your experience so intimately. The pictures were a treat but the interview really gave an intimate depth into your visit. Like others have shared- I fell that I’ve now also had a taste of what a retreat of this sort might be like.

    I have a couple of questions the first being technical: How did you embed the audio clip into your blog?

    And the second is (hope I didn’t miss this in the interview segment), How long were you at the monastery?

    Someday I’d love to hear more about your decision to become Orthodox rather than evangelical.

    Again thank- you for including your readers in your spiritual pilgrimage and including such intimate details.

  27. Thanks, Lindsey. It was really wonderful.

  28. Sounds amazing…what a cool experience!

  29. Let’s go together, sometime. 🙂

  30. A friend of mine visited an Orthodox women’s monastery somewhere in France and had an incredible visit. It is definitely a place I’d love to go. I can’t think of a more beautiful place to have one.

  31. Israel. Sounds fascinating! I’d love to visit one in Russia.

  32. I’m a mother of five, so I completely understand your longing. My oldest is 30 and my youngest is 20. It took me a LONG time before I was able to go.

    If I were you, I’d see if you can’t set a goal to do something like I did even while you’re in the midst of craziness. Even if it takes you five years, it’d be worth the investment. Figure out about how much it would cost, start saving your pennies in a jar, get childcare all set up and go. You’ll be a better mom with a much better perspective on what God’s calling you to do now.

    Let me know if you do it.

    God’s blessing!

  33. I’m just learning where they are, myself. Women’s Orthodox monasteries are relatively new in the US. There’s one in Michigan, a couple in California that I’d like to visit. The one in AZ may be well worth a trip, though. It’s fun to go with someone, too, so you can process things together.

  34. Thank you Barbara. It was pretty special.

  35. Beautiful setting and church…my hubby is attending a Catholic Seminary and retreats at the Monastery. St. Meinrad….thanks for sharing

  36. You really convey the atmosphere, Gail. Your description along with the photos take us into this beautiful place. I live part-time in a village in SW France that has a Carmelite nunnery at its heart. It’s a closed order but anyone in the surrounding community is free to attend the daily worship offices. I love to slip into vespers and soak up the serene atmosphere you describe.

  37. Thanks for the post and interview Gail.
    Love visiting and spending time at monasteries. Whether it’s a day or extended period of time, always gives me new perspective and focus.
    Recently spent a day at one in Israel and had an amazing teaching about icons.

  38. I just listened to the interview earlier on Ancient Faith Radio! :). Your experience sounds awesome! I had to laugh when you spoke of thinking that the nuns’ life is so peaceful and the abbess correcting that assumption. I, too, have that idea of their life (it’s especially strong in the midst of a 3-kid meltdown…a monastery seems VERY attractive then!!!)

    Growing up Catholic, I absolutely did feel called to religious life/a vocation to be a nun. I’ll never forget my mom’s response…”guess I’ll never have grandchildren.”

    It surprised and disappointed me – it seemed she had introduced me to a God worth serving for all of my life; yet her first words about a religious vocation seemed chosen to squash the possibility.

    As a mom myself now, I am trying to forgive…I know it wasn’t her intent to wound, and I have learned enough about her experience of the RC church to grieve for her – I don’t know if she has ever knowingly experienced God’s love…I can see from that perspective how disconcerting it might have been to hear my desire to explore consecrated life.

    Still… The chance to at least spend time in a retreat at a monastery is intriguing. I am somewhere on a faith journey leading, I suspect, to Orthodoxy. I am both amused and frustrated that I want so badly to have quiet time to read and research to figure out intellectually if this is the right path, yet God in his wisdom ( or humor) led me to Orthodoxy precisely when I don’t have the time to rely on intellect but must choose to believe. (Hm…blog post brewing there, methinks!).

    How I would love a few quiet days for prayer in a monastery to attune myself to His voice!

  39. I enjoyed hearing about your stay, Gail. Two summers ago I woke up one morning with the strongest urge to go spend a little time at a monastery. I researched it some but could not find something like you visited near me – I’m on the Carolina coast. I’m still holding out hope for a visit to one some day. 🙂

  40. Gail, thank you for this lovely post. I received a bit of vicarious ‘retreat’ just from reading it. (I will have to come back to listen to the audio.)

  41. You’re so welcome. If you have a chance listen to the interview. You might be surprised by what I share.

  42. I live in northern Az. Ever since I became Orthodox I’ve REALLY wanted to travel to Safford and visit these sisters. I hear it’s an amazing experience. Thank you SO much for sharing the pictures. They made me feel like I was there (almost).

    God bless you!

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