Monastic Spirit

This coming Maymester I’m once again planning to offer a short (three-week) course, 13-31 May 2013. “Monastic Spirit: A Journey to the Heart of Ancient Christianity” expands on my previous USC Maymester explorations of the “Mysteries of the Christian East”. This time I’ll be taking students to three monasteries. Here’s a brief description from the syllabus:

Starting in the late third and early fourth centuries A.D., spiritually adventurous Christian men and women began moving away from the major urban centers of the Roman Empire to the Thebaid and other desert locations in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.

Their aim? To enter upon a path of rigorous ascetical and contemplative discipline, whether as hermits or in small communities of like-minded spiritual athletes—a path of “white martyrdom”, as it has sometimes been called, the kind of martyrdom still possible after the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 312 and the end of persecution of the Church.

The “monastic spirit” that motivated these early men and women is still very much alive and well in both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Our goal in this course is to get a taste of what drew, and still draws, such Christian seekers to distance themselves from the world around them and to undertake so demanding and, for most of our contemporaries, so strange a vocation.

To do this, we shall journey to the desert ourselves—the desert of the American Southwest—and spend time living and learning in three monastic communities:

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a Roman Catholic Benedictine men’s community, located in the Chama Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico
The Holy Monastery of Saint Paisius, an Eastern Orthodox women’s community in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, near the small village of Safford
Saint Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, a men’s community, also located in the Sonoran Desert region of southern Arizona

Students will learn about the differing monastic and liturgical practices of the Roman Catholic West and the Orthodox East; they will have the opportunity to attend worship services in Latin, Greek, and English, and to hear some of the most ancient (and hauntingly beautiful) music of the Christian tradition; they will be introduced to the mystical and iconographical symbolism underlying monologic prayer, meditation, and other contemplative practices; and they will be able to speak with monks and nuns about their otherworldly vocations.

Each monastery provides ample—and, perhaps paradoxically, quite comfortable!—accommodations for its guests. That said, students will be encouraged to participate as fully as they are willing and able in the challenging rhythm of these “ancient” communities, getting up well before dawn, eating a vegan/vegetarian diet, helping with gardening and other chores, etc. We shall meet as a class once a day for discussion of the assigned readings, but the emphasis throughout will be on experiential engagement and learning. Time will be available, too, for hiking and enjoying the rugged beauty of the natural environment.

Readings include the following: John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers; The Rule of Saint Benedict; and Kyriacos Markides, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality.

Further insights, information, and background can be found via the following links:

A YouTube video featuring Christ in the Desert Monastery, including a taste of Gregorian chant and an interview with the abbot and prior.

A short sample of the ancient Byzantine liturgical music students will hear during services at Saint Paisius Monastery, as sung (in English) by the nuns of that community.

A YouTube video about Saint Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, including some Byzantine chant as well as photos of the monastery and of the founder, Elder Ephraim of Philotheou on Mount Athos.

An earlier post from this weblog concerning one of my previous Maymester trips to Saint Anthony’s Monastery, with additional links, including a PowerPoint photo presentation at the bottom of the page.

A 60 Minutes special which provides an excellent introduction to the monastic life in general, as well as to the specific Athonite forms of spirituality to be found at Saint Anthony’s.

The deadline for sign-ups and travel deposits is in early February, and space is limited. USC students who are interested in taking the course should contact Jim Clark (, the Director of Off-Campus Education in the USC Honors College.

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