Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Burrito Brothers

Res Publica

August 2005

by Heather Imboden

As surprisingly as it was to find a Greek Orthodox monastery in Bible Belt country, the monks and the monastery seemed quite at home and completely at peace with their surroundings. On a back road with ranches and family homes decorated in Christmas lights, the unusual structure of the monastery made its presence quite known. I turned into the driveway and, not seeing any specified entrance or parking lot, I began to get worried. After almost rolling backwards down the driveway, I found the gravel parking lot at the top of the hill and parked my car. By sheer luck, Father Michael was coming out of the house at that very moment to go to his car. I say luck because if I had not seen him, it is likely I would not have found the entrance to the chapel, and if I had, there is a distinct possibility I would have committed some kind of egregious error in conduct that I was not familiar with. As it was, Father Michael led me into the chapel, showed me where I could sit, and informed me that I should remain seated throughout the entire service except when one of the monks came out of the back area swinging incense.

Father Michael notified me that he would not be participating in the service because he had to run into town to pick up some Taco Bell. He invited me to stay for dinner, and even though I do not care for bean burritos, I could not say no to an invitation for a Taco Bell dinner with monks. He left to go into town, and I heard one of the monks outside banging a stick to indicate that Vespers would be starting soon. An older—looking monk entered the chapel and began to read aloud from a book. His reading went on for several minutes, so I took that time to examine my surroundings.

The worship area was quite dark, which, as Father Ambrose later explained to me, is customary for an Eastern religion. There were candles lit all over the sanctuary, which gave it a very surreal glow. As darkness fell outside, my eyes began to get accustomed to the darkness within the building. I was able to discern portraits of Biblical figures placed all around the room. There were four podiums draped in shawls placed in the middle area next to six pillars that held up a windowed dome. The whole atmosphere was very hushed, and the silence was only broken by the chanting of the monk reading from the book. The monks proceeded with the Vespers service, which involved various readings and melodic chants. I waited anxiously, afraid that I would miss my cue to stand when the older monk entered with incense, but I believe that I stood at the right moment. After about forty—five minutes, the service appeared to be drawing to a close, and the monks began to walk around the room, kissing the images. They periodically blew out the candles scattered around the room, and, as I waited, unsure of what to do, the monk who later introduced himself as Father Ambrose, came up to me and suggested that I might want to head for the exit before I was plunged into darkness.

Father Ambrose led me up the pathway to the house and told me that Father Michael had instructed him to keep me company until he returned with dinner. We sat in a comfortable parlor area, and Father Ambrose offered to answer any questions I might have. I took advantage of the opportunity and attempted to draw on all of the questions that had popped into my head while I sat watching Vespers. He answered all of my queries quite knowledgably, including my questions about the differences between the Greek Orthodox tradition and the Western Christianity to which I was accustomed. He recounted his personal experiences in becoming a monk and shared with me the daily routine that each monk performed. He also amused me by informing me that the monks kept up to date on world events by surfing the web. Eventually Father Michael returned, and we adjourned for dinner.

I entered the dining room and saw a place set for me at the opposite end of a long table from where the places were set for the monks. There were five of them in all, but only four of them ate while the fifth read aloud from a book detailing the life of a religious figure. I had to restrain myself from chuckling as I looked at the unusual spread set before me. There was a Taco Bell burrito with bread the monks made themselves, Meijer peanut butter, small pickles, carrot and celery sticks, a plate with salsa, and a pitcher of water. Father Michael also offered me a Greek cookie for dessert. Once the four monks had finished eating, they went their separate ways, and the fifth brother sat down to dine. Father Michael joined me as I finished my meal, and we chatted about various topics. He encouraged me to join the Peace Corps, which is something that I had vaguely considered before, but as I thought about it, it began to seem like a very real possibility of something for me to do after I complete my undergraduate degree.

I knew that the monks would soon have to complete their Compline service, so I thanked Father Michael and took my leave. The entire way home I reflected on my experience and how it felt quite odd to be listening to my rock music after such a somber and enlightening adventure. Father Ambrose remarked to me at one point how everything must have seemed so unusual and foreign. However, after an entire semester of studying very diverse religions and expecting to encounter something vastly different from my own background, I was not surprised at all. Many of their customs actually reminded me of the video we had watched on Orthodox Judaism. The way they kissed the portraits was very reminiscent of the Jewish way of showing love by kissing the Torah as it passed by them, and their chanting seemed only to be missing the traditional bowing that the Jews in the video performed. Father Ambrose commented on how the darkness of the chapel was in stark contrast to the well—lit sanctuaries I was probably used to; however, I found the arkness to be quite refreshing and mellowing.

Overall, the experience was very enlightening to me. I was inspired by the monks who had dedicated their lives and lived in such a simple manner without many of the comforts to which I was accustomed. I think the location really made the biggest impression on me though; these people were living in Mid—Western America, just like me, but unlike me, they were living a life of strict piety and abstention. In this way, my adventure humbled me. The incidental timing of this trip during finals week served to remind me of what the true focus of my mind should be. I feel that I have gained some perspective on my own life, and it could not have come at a better time during this season of frantic papers and holiday festivities.

Heather Imboden is a sophomore from Dublin, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.

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