Deputy Abbot Fr. Alexander (Frizzell) answers questions about why (should people come), what (happens at a Pilgrimage), how (preparations are made) and more a few days before the annual Pilgrimage Weekend.
1. Why should an Orthodox Christian in modern America take time to go to a monastery Pilgrimage like the one taking place this weekend at Holy Cross?
For two reasons: Firstly, the purpose of our life on this earth is to sanctify our life, to bring the grace of God into our life. There are many ways through which we can do this. One of the ways is through pilgrimage. When we set aside our pressing worldly concerns, arrange our schedule, set aside some resources and time, and in many cases pack up our family and drive several hours to make a pilgrimage, we are asking for God’s blessing on our life, on our personal life, our family life, and even on our “practical matters.” If we stand for the hierarchal services (let us remember the words of St. Ignatius, “where the bishop is, there is the Church”), make confession and prepare for and receive Holy Communion, it makes all the sacrifice completely worthwhile.
Secondly, we Orthodox Christians are a minority in the United States. Orthodox Christians in this country are often isolated and find themselves in the midst of people who don’t understand their worldview or the decisions they take for the sake of Christ and His Church. Our Pilgrimage Weekend has always been a place where Orthodox Christians from all over the Eastern United States and beyond come together, make connections, get to know each other and encourage each other. They keep in touch after the weekend and strengthen each other. This is one aspect of the spiritual blessing which people receive when they make the sacrifice to come to the monastery on this particular weekend.
2. Aside from work done by outside contractors (i.e. setting up tents, etc.) what are some of the major tasks the monastery Brotherhood has to undertake to get ready?
Because our monastery is lacking in infrastructure and proper ecclesiastical and other buildings, inasmuch as we are still developing this property we moved to 15 years ago, the work and expense needed to pull off the Pilgrimage Weekend is quite extensive. Our monks set up many tents themselves, prepare the gift shop, outdoor chapel and parking and organize all the foodservice with the help of faithful volunteers and friends, and transform the humble monastery grounds into a pilgrimage center for the sake of this annual Pilgrimage Weekend. We change our schedule in the weeks before and after the pilgrimage because we have to move all the sacred vessels and other various items to the outdoor chapel and spend a lot of time in preparation. Often the gravel road needs work and extra stone, and in general the expenses run into the thousands. Various signs have to be printed and posted, the banquet hall at Holy Spirit Orthodox Church has to be set up for our event, there are special guests who have to be picked up at the airport and housed – the work is exhaustive and I should note that we would not be able to do all of it without the spiritual support of our Abbot and Spiritual Father Archimandrite Seraphim and all the faithful friends and volunteers who work hard to put it all together. But we believe in the importance of the Pilgrimage Weekend and are determined to give this annual gift to the Orthodox Christians who look to the monastery for spiritual guidance and inspiration.
3. Is there time for individual spiritual guidance during non-service times for Pilgrims? It is a busy time and often I regret that I do not get to spend much one-on-one time with the pilgrims over the course of the weekend. I am sure Fr. Seraphim and the other clergy feel the same way. But I do believe that each person, thanks to God and our patron St. Panteleimon, gets what he needs in his or her own way. Several priests hear confessions throughout the long Vigil, and on Sunday I notice that many faces are radiant and full of joy, even if the weather is sometimes dark and stormy. We Orthodox Christians believe in community, in the strength of communal prayer. All the prayers of the people, from the Metropolitan and the clergy down to the little children, come together and rise up to the Throne of our Heavenly Father. He gives each person what they need to go home and continue their personal struggle. We have to remember that the Cross for us is the sign of victory, by which we conquer. It is the Precious Cross which stands before us throughout the weekend and before which we pray. We take strength from this communion with Christ and return to our individual lives with courage and new spiritual strength.
4. What is there for adults to do between services?
From what I have noticed, they spend time together, make new friends, enjoy true spiritual fellowship and recognize their common goal, salvation in Christ. I think it is really a time when one does not feel a compulsion toward gossip or idle talk, but the air is filled with expectation, the expectation that together, beginning Saturday evening, we will pray together and prepare to receive our Lord through Holy Communion. Those who stay to the end get a special consolation. If the weather is poor, you might catch a cold but that is only temporary! The grace has an everlasting effect. Most people visit the gift shop. Coffee and tea are available throughout the afternoon Saturday. We serve a buffet meal after the Moleben and Procession.
5. What is there for children to do between services? There are so many children around that they inevitably find some companions to play with. They usually take an interest in the monastery’s goats, dogs, and cats, the interesting rocks and plants around the monastery grounds, and the sights, smells and sounds of the wonderful natural setting of the monastery. Sometimes they are quite active even during the services. I remember an occasion when one child was so excited by the lineup of priests and bishops at the Litia that he ran full-speed toward the center of the assembled clergy. With a little redirection from me he went behind the clergy to one side. But it is quite natural – let them be at home in the House of the Lord, venerate the Cross and icons with awe, and take it all in. The more children I see here on Pilgrimage Weekend the happier I am.
6. Is the Pilgrimage typically a pan-Orthodox event with priests and Pilgrims from a variety of jurisdictions?
Yes, absolutely, the clergy and people come from all the canonical jurisdictions. Let me remind our readers that our monks actually come from several different jurisdictions and three different countries. We are absolutely committed to welcoming all Orthodox Christians here and making them feel at home. The volunteers themselves come from different parishes in the area and work together to support the cause. We are especially grateful to our friends at Christ the Savior Orthodox Church (ROCOR) in Wayne who prepare the food for Saturday’s meal, and the Holy Spirit Antiochian Orthodox Church in Huntington which offers us the use of their beautiful banquet hall each year for this event.
7. The Hermitage has seen rapid and steady growth in the last years. Do you see that continuing at the same pace in the near future and what needs will the monastery face to make that growth a reality?
I really thank God that He has sent us so many good men who truly love God and treasure the monastic life “as the apple of their eye.” To be honest, I am quite embarrassed to be numbered among them and consider them all to be spiritual heroes. Thanks to the blessing of our Metropolitan Hilarion and the guidance of our Abbot, Archimandrite Seraphim, we live in peace as brothers and support each other. Besides a trio of cells which are being refurbished or finished, all of our living spaces are filled even after the construction of our new St. Panteleimon’s monastic dormitory. We took on the Skete of St. John (Hiram, Ohio) sometime ago and keep three monks there. We have greatly expanded our agricultural operations which means we are eating a lot of healthy food from our own farms. What we do not have is complete infrastructure (gas, electric, water etc.) and a large temple and trapeza (cooking and dining facilities). Personally I do not see the way in which we will overcome these obstacles, but if God is willing I do not doubt that they will be overcome. How and when? I am not sure. We are taking it one step at a time and over the course of this winter I and others will be working on plans for the concrete steps forward – plans which will then wait for the resources necessary for realization, when God sends them.
8. One more question…how many people attended last year’s Pilgrimage?
I believe that around 220 different people attended the various events at last year’s Pilgrimage. In the coming years the Pilgrimage will start to come earlier and move back toward September, closer to the Feast of the Cross itself. 2016 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of our monastery. Our first goal for the 30th anniversary celebrations is the transfer of the remains of our founder, Hieromonk Kallistos, from House Springs, Missouri to the Hermitage’s monastic cemetery. With the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion and His Grace Bishop Peter of Cleveland, we plan to rebury Fr. Kallistos here in November of 2015 and, with the help of benefactors, install a beautiful stone monument in early 2016. Let everything begin with that holy work, and we will see what else God provides!