A place for reflection

FLORENCE, Ariz. The main entrance is marked by a high arch. It separates the desert from a world shaded by date palms and olive trees. It’s a world of quiet reflection and ornately decorated churches and chapels.

It’s also a world of deep piety for the 48 monks who make St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery their home. They spend their days and nights in prayer, church and work.

They also welcome visitors.

St. Anthony’s is about 12 miles southeast of Florence, off Arizona 79. The first hint you’re near it is a large white church on a hill. It’s part of the monastery but closed to visitors.

Proper dress required

The main entrance is a gate beneath the arch. Inside is a plaza with a shaded ramada. There is no charge to visit the monastery, but there are rules. Long-sleeve shirts and blouses are required for men and women. Women have to wear headscarves, too.

If you don’t have a headscarf or long-sleeve shirt, you can borrow one. Boxes of them are set out on a bench.

Monks dressed in black cassocks greet visitors with water and a sweet snack.

Father Seraphim greeted me at the bookstore. He has been living at the monastery for 11 years. Before that, he was a student. He hesitated to say much more about himself but gave me the rundown on a day in the life of a monk.

Schedule to follow

“We get up at 10 o’clock every evening,” Seraphim said.

The monks then devote the next three hours to personal prayer in their rooms. From 1 to 4 a.m., they attend church. That’s followed by a light breakfast and three hours of rest.

“Then we start our workday with different jobs,” Seraphim said. Lunch is at 1:30 followed by a bit more work, followed by three hours of vespers, or evening prayer. Then dinner. Around 6, it’s bedtime getting up at 10 again for personal prayer.

Being a monk is no free lunch.

Visiting hours are tied to the monks’ daily schedule. The gates open at 10:30 a.m, and no one is admitted after 2:30 p.m.

As I spoke to Seraphim, a visitor approached him and asked if the monks sang.

“We sing to the Lord a lot,” she volunteered, adding she was a Protestant.

Seraphim said the monks do chant.

After a few more visitors arrived, Seraphim gave a short presentation. It’s a self-guided tour, and he largely went over the ground rules. Namely, don’t enter doors marked “don’t enter.” Certain areas inside the churches are off limits as well, including altars hidden behind curtains.

It’s OK to take pictures of churches and the grounds, but not the monks.

Established in 1995

I don’t recall if Seraphim mentioned how the monastery got started. It’s on the monastery’s website, though. St. Anthony’s was established by the Elder Ephraim and six monks in 1995. They modeled it after monasteries on Mount Athos, a sacred mountain for the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Arizona monastery is dedicated to St. Anthony the Great, the third century father of monasticism. The main church at St. Anthony’s is dedicated to him as well, along with St. Nectarios.

With a map in hand, I headed for the church. Strolling the grounds is relaxing and peaceful. The paths are lined with trees, palms and shrubs. It’s almost like a walk in the woods mostly quiet, except for bird song.

Along the way, monks silently went about their work sweeping and caring for the grounds.

Father Euphrosynos was among them. He cares for the date palms, among other things. His given name was Bill, but as a monk he acquired the name of a ninth century saint. All the monks take on saintly names.

Euphrosynos, 61, entered the monastery in 1997. Before that, as Bill, he drove taxis and limousines. He hitchhiked around Alaska.

The monastic life isn’t to be taken lightly.

“It comes from God,” Euphrosynos said. “You’re looking for a higher level of spirituality.”

And while he works, he prays. All the monks pray throughout the day, even in work, he said.

So he went back to work and prayer.

St. Anthony’s Church is a large stone structure, painted a rich earth-red. The entrance leads to the narthex, a smaller room off the main sanctuary. Non-orthodox worshippers, if they attend a service, are asked to stand in the narthex. Afternoon services are at 3:30 daily.

Stand to worship

The central worship area has a large open space and a high ceiling, punctuated by a dome with an ornate chandelier. Large icons of the saints are in panels trimmed in gold paint. There are no pews. Worshippers stand. High-backed wooden chairs line the walls, however. They offer tired worshippers a place to sit. Visitors are cautioned against sitting in the most ornate chair. It’s reserved for the visiting bishop.

Most of the icons and furnishings at St. Anthony’s were brought over from Greece, according to a handout. One icon was painted just for the monastery, though Panagia Arizonitissa, or Virgin of Arizona.

Following the map, I found my way to St. Nicholas’ Chapel. It’s a building of arches and stonework that, in the words of the handout, is an “exquisite example of Byzantine architecture that will ‘transport’ you instantly to an ‘out of this world’ realm.”

I was impressed, if not transported.

The walk from St. Nicholas to the next chapel, St. George, skirts groves of citrus and olive trees.

The monks press and bottle their own olive oil, available in the bookstore. So is baklava and other Greek pastries, made by the monks themselves.

At St. George, I didn’t see a lot of doors marked “don’t enter.” I wasn’t sure how to get in. I asked a passerby, who pointed me to the right door.

He was an overnight guest, a pilgrim. Pilgrims are confirmed members or people looking into con- firmation. Pilgrims are expected to attend all services, even early morning worship.

St. George’s Chapel has an intricately hand-carved partition known as an iconostasis, decorated with icons. St. Demetrios Chapel is a brick building with a Russian touch. It has an onion dome and a pitched high ceiling of wood.

Nearby is the Fountain of the Cross.

The cross is larger than life and made of stone. It’s a traditional Greek Orthodox cross with three crossbars, a design explained in the handout. The bottom bar was for Christ’s feet. But it’s slanted upward for the thief crucified on Christ’s right. He went to heaven. And slanted down for the other thief, the bad thief. It’s no mystery which way he went.

St. Seraphim’s is the last chapel on the walk. It’s a small and simple open-air place of prayer.

Bookstore, cemetery

The bookstore is good for a last visit on the way out. It’s filled with icons, religious books and, of course, treats. Outside the gateway, beyond the parking lot, is a cemetery. I took a brief stroll through it. The names on the large white crosses are lettered in Greek.

The graves are set apart in sections.

There was a section for monks and a section for nuns. Orthodox lay members had their own sections one for men and one for women.

It’s a separation observed in church services as well, a monk told me.

I went back to my car and was soon rolling through the Sonoran desert. I had to admit, after two hours in a monastic garden, I had a greater appreciation of the natural world.