A few weeks ago, I went with my friend Gloria to a monastery deep in the desert south of Phoenix. The monks who live there have transformed the harsh desert into a lush place of flowers, fountains and faith. There are charming wood cottages and gracious stone churches. It’s like traveling to Greece, except no passport needed. We strolled around the grounds and I felt as if we had landed on another planet, one of silence and grace.
St. Anthony’s is a Greek Orthodox Monastery and the monks, about 40 men, live a life that most of us would find challenging and not just because of the heavy black clothing they are required to wear even while tending to the olive and orange trees, baking bread or digging flower beds in the desert. No cell phones are allowed at the monastery and no watching Netflixs during free time. Actually there isn’t much free time. Up before midnight the monks pray for hours and then they eat a light meal and then work. Work and pray. No time for Facebook. Oh and before I forget…they don’t have girlfriends. Women can visit the monastery, but they must dress like this.
Here is Gloria and me in clothes given to us as we walked into the monastery gates. Sexy, eh? Good thing they gave us the clothes because we were plum out of black scarves and long dresses that the women who come there for retreats have to wear. And the retreats aren’t about yoga, or emotional growth or how to write a novel in 30 days. Praying. Also, the monks aren’t allowed to speak to visitors, men or women.I felt as if I aged twenty years in those clothes. I looked it too. But how one looks isn’t suppose to matter at a monastery.
The woman who worked in the monastery gift shop, clad in long skirt and scarf, not a bit of skin showing and make up free, said the services are held at dark, with only candlelight, so one can’t compare themselves with others. If someone is wearing a new coat or shoes that might inspire envy, it’s too dark to see. I started thinking, as I usually do, about writing. Don’t compare what I write to anyone else. When I do, I often come up lacking as if I was in church and wishing I had that new red coat I see walking in the door. Maybe see my writing in candlelight, the shadows of other people’s writing inspiring me, not intimidating me or making me jealous of their talent.
The same woman working at the gift shop (which sold olive oil, bread, jams, all made by the monks) said the monks remove themselves from the world to be closer to God. I figured that, but then she said something that surprised me. She said the monks are “fighting the devil” all the time with its worldly temptations. Even so far removed from the world? Then I remembered the sculpture I took a photo of us last month at an art studio in Portland. It was titled The Beast. Shivers.
I see the beast for writers, or any artist, as being all the things that steal time and silence from us. It’s not easy for any of us to be creative with so many temptations. Phone calls, E-bay shopping, the new shows on Amazon, friends calling to gossip. The beast is always there luring me away from my time writing. I’m not willing to give up pedicures and cell phones, but I need to create my own monastery in my own house. Writers spend a lot of money on expensive retreats to find time to write, but I think we can do it right at home. We just have deal with that time eating beast and find the silence. Monks do it by leaving the world. To create we need to leave the world now and then, but still return and go to dinner and eat Thai food and tap dance.
Outside the lushness of the monastery, the desert is open and minus any bubbling fountains, fruit trees or pretty buildings full of gold icons as at the monastery. The monks have chosen a life devotion and discipline, striving to get closer to God. I need to do the same to strive to finish a novel. Some may want to finish knitting a scarf or building a gingerbread house or paint a portrait, but it’s good soul work to find some way to commune with the creative spirit.
Gloria asked a man to take our photo, a day visitor like us. He took this photo of a monk which was forbidden, but he did it anyway. I’m glad he broke the rules. There is comfort to see this old monk with his walker on the tree-lined path. He reminds me to get on my path and do my work.
Gloria and I shed our long skirts, socks, scarfs, and returned to the world of temptations and also red wine and swimming at the lovely hotel pool. After we left the monastery and drove through the desert toward Tucson, I felt peace knowing there is a place in the world so removed. With all the angry political rhetoric and discord happening lately, I know the monks are still praying and working the land and will keep doing so no matter what. And, I will keep fighting to keep my own time-eating, silence consuming, envious beast at bay, and in doing so find my slice of heaven right here at home writing.