By Natalie Scholl
When trying to determine what to write about I wondered how on earth was I to narrow down our first 24 hours to just a few paragraphs? That is of course an absurd task to set oneself, so I must be content with sharing just a snippet. In reflection of my own response to the monastery, this snippet will revolve around senses and the soul.
We arrived at the monastery in the early evening, right at the time when the sun has started to sink beneath the hills and the first tinges of red appear against the landscape. Walking cautiously down the stone steps, we were immediately greeted with wonderful warmth by a couple of the nuns as we passed through the gates into the courtyard. For most of us it was our first experience, and Dawn and Jamie expressed a little envy at our virgin eyes devouring our first sight of the monastery.
The first moments through those gates were lovely. The scent of numerous flowers- roses, gardenias, geraniums, honeysuckle and many more- softly filled the air and mouth, and the sound of Vespers over the speakers combined with the rushing water from the stone fountains and an orchestra of summer insects. My first impression of the interior of the monastery was a compilation of smiling nuns, blossoming plants, frescoes, stone, and over all these the beautiful green slopes in the sunset.
During the first few hours in the monastery Psalm 23 kept coming to my mind:
The Lord is my Shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
For His name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.
You prepare a table before me,
In the presence of mine enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The bit of this that really was vivid to me was the line, "He restores my soul." I realized that while entering the monastery is an incredible sensory experience, it is more than that. It is, for me at least, the rejuvenation of the soul. Passing through the gates is a passing into a peaceful oasis, and any worries or troubles cannot fit into these walls. At least, that is how I felt, and feel even now as I write this. The sense of stability contributes to such an atmosphere of tranquility. The jagged hole left by the fire, instead of drawing my attention towards fragility and the possibility of destruction, has done the exact opposite. It reminds me of tenacity, and strengthens the permanence of this place. To me, a visitor, there is a continuous calm. Even the structure of the compound, built on a rocky incline, necessitates a certain deliberation. The rest of the world feels as if it is rushing about in a mad frenzy in comparison. And of course the old question emerges of where exactly is it rushing?
Similar questions arose in my mind throughout the next day, and I contemplated these as I walked into the celebration of the Saints Peter and Paul that evening. While the service was very structured, I did not feel at all constrained, as people slowly filtered in throughout the night and everyone was free to move around- though of course the non-Orthodox among us could not enter the naos or receive communion. The singing, prayers, rotations of the chandelier with its candlelight glinting off the gold of the implements and icons, fragrance of the incense, and unhurried movements of the nuns and the priest all combined to create a rhythm. As the service progressed I could feel my entire body slow to match the gentle beat. There was no need to hasten.
Taking a rest, slowing the heartbeat of the Princeton lifestyle can be quite difficult, I've found. While so often I find myself and others at Princeton focusing on the challenges of multi-tasking and ultimate efficiency, it is in many ways more challenging to decrease our speed and do a task thoroughly and continuously but unhurriedly. It reminds me of Pascal and his perspective on how humanity's problems stem from man's inability to be alone with his thoughts, and so he seeks to be constantly occupied. The monastery setting is ideal for meditation and reflection, and it is very curious to see what exactly my mind produces when all the dust settles.
I am very grateful for the opportunity this seminar presents, not only on an academic or interpersonal level, but also internally; the opportunity to close the windows to the outside world and simply settle our minds and spirits and examine what we find there.
And now for a Greek coffee and one of the nun's homemade loukoumaki!