A Life Apart: Monastery near Goldendale attracts women who choose a prayerful existence

Author: Kelly Adams
Date Published: 05/01/2005

GOLDENDALE — As the world around them sleeps, the sisters of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Forerunner struggle to get out of bed.

Even after nine years, 2 a.m. comes early, said Sister Ephraimia. “Most of us have to force ourselves,” she said. They rise with the assistance of “alarms, alarms and sisters.”

Once awake, the sisters start their individual prayers in seclusion. They stand up then drop to the floor or bend at the waist in prostrations, clad head-to-toe in black. “While everyone is sleeping, we are praying for the world,” Sister Iosiphia said. Despite the tiredness, Sister Ephraimia said, “Many say it is their favorite part of the day. That’s where we receive our strength.”

The sisters are among 16 nuns and novices who have pledged to live their lives as part of a monastic community. Many came in their early 20s, an age when young people often struggle with their identity and purpose.

Novices spend as long as three years at St. John’s before being tonsured, the final step to becoming a nun.

Tucked in the trees just north of Goldendale, St. John’s is one of 18 Greek Orthodox monasteries in North America.

It’s just up the highway from the area where entrepreneur Sam Hill dreamed of creating a Quaker agricultural community. Although that dream didn’t come true, his legacy is evident in the Maryhill Museum and the Stonehenge replica dotting the bluffs along the sparkling water.

After more than two hours of solitary prayer, the sisters gather in the chapel. Golden icons look out from a series of panels while lights from oil lamps and thin, amber-colored beeswax tapers flicker in the pre-dawn dark. Located on the ground floor of their large house, the small but elaborately adorned room is the heart of the place where the women gather several times a day.

The sisters enter softly through a side door, long black scarves unfurling behind them. As they pray, their individual identities dissolve and merge into a choreographed, single entity. Their call and response of chanting and singing fills the sacred space.

The 4:30 a.m. common services are led by a priest who travels from Goldendale, 10 miles away, or Yakima, 60 miles away.

During services, worshippers, whether they are nuns or one of the local Orthodox Christians, cross themselves and kiss the surface of the paintings, called veneration. Iconic paintings depict the faces of Jesus, the saints and the Virgin Mary as they looked when they were alive, Sister Philothei explained.

“They help us to pray,” she said. “We don’t worship the wood or the paint.”

‘… fulfilling, sweet life’

Over and over, the women smile as they describe how they were drawn to the solitude, the structure and the spirit of a life spent dedicated to prayer and work. It is with joy that they have turned their backs on careers, marriage, children. “It’s a process of understanding nothing else works for you,” Sister Prodromia said. She does not spend much time thinking about life away from St. John’s. “I think we’re very much in the real world. We see it all the time. The goal is not to be a part of it,” she said.

What they are a part of is trying to make the planet better, “to help the world through our example, through our prayer.” The women embrace the monastery’s restrictions: chastity, hard work, and obedience to the abbess, their spiritual mother. Known as Gerontissa Efpraxia, the abbess of St. John’s has been a nun for 40 years. A kind smile spreads across her softly wrinkled face as she speaks in her native Greek, explaining her role as “mother, sister, friend” to the women in her care.

Sister Prodromia, 27, grew up in Yakima in a Greek Orthodox family. She was then known as Megan Hagler. She made her initial visit to St. John’s when she was 17. “It was the first time I realized monasteries weren’t castles in the clouds,” she said. Although she was drawn to the life, she left home to study theology and philosophy at a small Orthodox college in South Carolina. “I didn’t really have a plan. I think that’s why I was there,” she said. Her mother, Glenna Hagler, said that when her daughter returned to Yakima with the intention of enrolling in college there, she lacked direction.

“She just seemed so sad,” Glenna Hagler recalled. She remembers turning to her daughter and asking: “When was the last time you were happy?” The last time I was happy was when I thought I was going to be a nun,” Megan, then 20, replied. The young woman went to Goldendale for a visit, then accompanied the sisters back to Yakima to attend services at her family’s church, Holy Cross. Her mother was there and knew immediately something had changed. “I looked back at her with the sisters and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, she’s not coming home,’” Glenna Hagler said.

Sister Prodromia’s story is similar to many of the women who have embraced an existence of structured spiritual practice that dates back thousands of years. Just as Orthodox nuns centuries ago, they dress modestly in long skirts and long-sleeved shirts. Their heads are wrapped in identical black coverings with small red crosses stitched into the fabric at their foreheads.

Sister Ephraimia, 31, compared the feeling to the way people sometimes describe meeting their future spouse. The knowing goes beyond what can be rationally explained. That is the same way the sisters feel about the monasticism, she said. “Everything else seems so empty,” she said. “The monastic life is really such a beautiful, fulfilling, sweet life.”

Following the 4:30 a.m. service, the sisters spend time on their own resting, reading and praying before breakfast at 8:30 a.m.

Work and prayer

By the time they begin their work day at 9:30 a.m., they have spent many hours praying for both their salvation and peace for the planet. When it is time to work, they scatter to the shop where their wares are sold, the kitchen where the authentic Greek food is prepared, the studio where the icons are painted, the mobile home where the candles and soap are made.

As the sisters go about their day, the swish of dark skirts is accompanied by the whistling whisper of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ Have Mercy on Us” uttered over and over again in Greek. The softly uttered words form the background to Sister Iosiphia’s work as she dips a large ladle into a huge vat of syrup on the stove, fishing out lemon and orange slices. She pauses in her prayer to explain her choice.

Sister Iosiphia, 29, grew up the oldest of four in a Greek Orthodox family near Phoenix. She loved school, sports and fashion. Sister Iosiphia was studying to be a teacher when she was drawn to the life she experienced during monastery visits. It felt like home.

“It’s a calling,” said Sister Iosiphia. “It’s like a flame inside you.” She has the soul of a scholar, effortlessly quoting Scripture and the teachings of the church leaders. One of Sister Iosiphia’s main duties is to maintain the chapel: filling the oil lamps, straightening the books, looking after the visiting priests who conduct services. She pitches in wherever she is asked by the Gerontissa. Some days that means stuffing vine leaves with meat, vegetables and spices, called dolmadakia. Other days that means preparing syrup to use with the homemade baklava, a popular item in the store.

At first sight, the shop just off the highway could be any roadside stop frequented by the campers and hunters who pass through. “ESPRESSO” spelled out in bright neon lures drivers off the rural highway. Once inside, the difference from a typical convenience store becomes apparent: there’s no gleaming silver cases of beer lining the coolers, no bait or tackle for sale. Not a pack of cigarettes or can of chewing tobacco is in sight. A sweet smell from the handmade lotions and soaps mingles with the spices from freshly baked pastries with long, vowel-laden names. The espresso machine in the corner occasionally sputters to life, filling the room with the strong aroma of fresh coffee. The low, melodic rumble of Byzantine chants draws attention to a display filled with pastel-colored bits of incense and black prayer ropes.

Purity of work, purity of life

On most days, Sister Philothei’s work takes her to a tiny, sun-dappled room above the kitchen and bakery. Leaning on large easels are shiny golden-toned icons in progress.

Iconography is the art form of the saints, Jesus and the Virgin Mary painted in a style that dates back to the Byzantine era, about 300 years after the death of Christ. Sister Philothei has a warm smile for everyone she encounters. Her eyes light up as she talks about the life she has chosen. She pages through a large book filled with photographs of murals painted on the walls of a monastery in Greece. The icons depict Jesus’ life from his birth in a manger to his rising from the dead. “We can live the liturgy. We don’t need to see a movie,” Sister Philothei said. “This is the story of the Gospel.”

She’ll talk passionately about iconography and discuss the meaning behind the paintings. But Sister Philothei, 25, is less comfortable talking about the young woman she was before she became a nun. Her father, Luke Dingman, is an Orthodox priest and artist who lives southwest of San Jose, Calif. His portraits of St. John’s adorn the bottles of lotions and soap as well as the notecards sold by the sisters. His daughter grew up as Sarah Dingman and worked in his art studio before becoming a nun. From a very young age, she showed artistic promise. “She just drew everything,” Luke Dingman said.

Now her art is limited to iconography; she leaves the sketching of the wilderness around her to her father when he visits. She also sees herself not as an individual with unique talents but a member of a community to which she offers her contributions. “This is our life now,” she said. “You don’t want anything else.” Although he misses her, Luke Dingman is proud of his daughter. “I think she’s gone beyond me in the purity of her work and the purity of her life,” Luke Dingman said.

The sisters stop their work for lunch at 1 p.m. After lunch, they have quiet free time that they spend in personal prayer, reading, resting or walking. They return to their work at 4 p.m. until they are called to evening services.

The freedom to make individual decisions has been replaced by a life led in obedience to the Gerontissa. Rather than feeling controlled, Sister Philothei said the structure is a comfort. “Obedience is quite an amazing mystery,” she said. “It’s true freedom; it’s freedom from cares.” The Gerontissa said she doesn’t see obedience as a bad word but a way of expressing how their lives are structured. “It kind of keeps a nice order,” she said in Greek, interpreted by Sister Iosiphia. “It’s an understanding, not like servants or a slave. I’m not going to get them to do something that’s against the will of God.”

All of the sisters came to the monastery with the belief that God’s will for them is to live out their days there. “You come here with the goal to die here,” Sister Iosiphia said.

‘Surrounded by angels’

At 6 p.m., as the sun starts to set, Sister Iosiphia summons the sisters to vespers by whacking a long plank of wood with a stick, meant to symbolize Noah calling all the animals into the ark.

The service offers thanks for the day coming to an end and a welcome for the next day to dawn. It is filled with low soothing tones of the sisters reciting prayers. Local Orthodox families join the sisters. The sisters greet the children by name, often wrapping an affectionate arm around them. One mother, Theophano Reese, loves having her four children spend time at the monastery. “It’s like they are surrounded by angels,” she said.

Following vespers, the sisters have dinner, then return to the chapel for small compline, their evening prayers. Sister Iosiphia explained that they are closing their day by asking for forgiveness. You kind of make everything good with everyone,” she said.

“That’s the end of our day,” Sister Ephraimia whispers before quietly disappearing into the residence. “Have a good rest.”

Kelly Adams covers social issues and religion for The Columbian. Contact her at 360-759-8016 or kelly.adams@columbian.com.