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About the author: Dimitrije Stefanović is a musicologist and senior research fellow at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts since 1976.
In this article D. Stefanović shares his reflections on a recent trip to the Saint Paisius Velichkovsky Serbian Orthodox Monastery in the Arizona, Sanoma Desert, not far from the St. Anthony Greek Orthodox Monastery, and the central place which psalmody and chant holds in the sisters’ lives. The article has been translated into English by Jasminka Gabrie.
Keywords: Byzantine chant, chant in America, Monasticism, Spirituality, Travel, Pilgrimage, Serbian.
When we speak of the State of Arizona, in the United States, we often use the word “desert.” It is not, however, a typical desert full of sand. Underneath and between the great mountains lie the sparsely inhabited valleys that encompass vast areas. Who would imagine that in this place one could find an image as familiar as that of Christian life dating back to the 4th century—the image of monastics who flee to the desert in order to find peace in their calling; a prayer life for salvation in the eternal life? This spiritual life in the desert began in 1995 when six monks came to southern Arizona. The Greek elder Ephraim, student of the elder Joseph the hesycast, having revived four monasteries on the Holy Mountain and later establishing numerous men’s and women’s monastic communities throughout Greece and then in the northern United States, laid the foundation for spiritual life in Arizona. With the help of Orthodox Greeks from the Phoenix area (the capitol city of Arizona), he first began building modest buildings and gardens later erecting the Catholicon or cathedral and subsequently five larger and smaller churches each one dedicated to a different saint. Forty Orthodox monks, first generation of Greek heritage, spend a minimum of seven hours in prayer services including the daily celebration of the Divine Liturgy. After their resting time, each one joyfully performs his assigned obedience(s). We met a Heiromonk of Indian descent, who is currently studying Byzantine music and transcribing texts from folk notation to contemporary note written in English text. The spiritual and physical experience form this part of our visit to St. Anthony’s monastery reminded me very much of visits to Mount Athos. It’s difficult to imagine that from St. Anthony’s, just three hours away by car in the midst of the barren land, one can find an elongated, single story building inhabited by Orthodox nuns—Americans. Having moved from the Northern California mountains, where the water and air had endangered their health, they were received into the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church by the then Bishop of Western America, now Bishop of Sumadija, JOVAN. While waiting for the only existing facility on the new property to be renovated in order to appropriately suit the needs of monastic life, the sisters lived in large moving containers. Aside from the customary monastic liturgical typikon, the sisterhood of Monastery St. Paisius (Velichkovsky) adheres to a regular rule of prayer life headed by the seasoned Abbess Mihaila. Each of the twenty sisters and novices take turns reading the Psalter in one-hour shifts during the entire 24-hour period. The small ancient looking church, dedicated to the Venerable Mother Anastasija of Serbia, mother of St. Sava, reminds one of Russian village churches. When we arrived, upon entering the church, we beheld a collection of Russian icons. The sisters greeted us by singing the Troparian to St. Mother Anastasija in the Serbian fourth tone in Church Slavonic. Our tears were unquenchable until the singing stopped.
The early morning services in English (the hours, matins and divine liturgy) are observed in keeping with a strict monastic typicon. Harmoniously and prayerfully, the sisters sing mostly in English with the exception of the Troparias which are sung in Church Slavonic, in Russian as well as in melodies from Valaam and Serbia. Yet another surprise in Arizona! Along with the serving monk priest, in preparing the proskomidija (the gifts), two sisters read a lengthy list of names for commemoration. After Divine Liturgy, we were escorted into the trapeza for lunch all the while listening to a reading from The Prologue of Ohrid as well as other current lessons from the elders of the Holy Mountain. Upon completing lunch, we were taken on a tour of the property where we witnessed their progress—an impressive garden and greenhouse, irrigation system, windmill, workshops, sewing room, laundry room, pantry, and offices that included the latest computer technology. While rehearsing the cleros singers, we discovered a great discipline among the sisters in addition to their enthusiasm for learning. They willingly accepted professional instruction with gratitude.
When it became evident that it was time to part, we were overcome with great sadness. Naturally, a photo session was mandatory. The sisters lovingly packed and prepared food for our three-hour journey by van to the Phoenix airport. At the gate of the monastery our souls were stirred. We said our good-byes along with deep and heartfelt expressions of gratitude to each and every sister individually. It was difficult to hold back our tears. In this moment of gratitude for our unforgettable stay and for their hospitality, the eldest sister whispered, “You will never know how much your love enables us to endure in our efforts.”
On our way to the airport, sister Ambrosia watchfully drove while telling us the story of the life of St. Ambrosias of Milan (4th century) whose name she carries. Then, the novice Sarah, whose daughter is a tonsured nun in the monastery, capably quoted Bible verses pertaining to the life of Sarah from the Old Testament.
How magnificent is our Lord and how great are His works!
Footnote: While in the airplane, the stewardesses asked where we were from and what our impression was of Arizona. We replied that we were Orthodox. “Jewish Orthodox?” they asked. They had never heard of Slavic Orthodox. When we shared with them stories from the Orthodox monasteries we had visited and told them of the prayer life which never ceases, they were quite surprised. They were even more surprised when we told them that the sisters were praying for our safe flight! We gifted them with small plastic icons of remembrance for which they were very grateful, seemingly as if they had never seen an icon before.
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