A monk finds mercy, one step at a time
The last thing Father Andrew remembers from the afternoon of July 31, 1998 was asking his brother monk if he was too tired to continue driving back to New Mexico.
It had already been a tough day. They had taken the pre-dawn vigil hours as Orthodox Christians in eastern Colorado prayed the Psalms for 24 hours before the funeral of a friend killed in a car crash.
The young novice said he was tired, but OK. Father Andrew went to sleep, after reclining his seat all the way. That was probably what saved his life when the car tumbled off Interstate 25 near Pueblo, Colo. The 60-year-old monk was unconscious when rescuers pulled him from the wreck. Days later, he awoke and learned that Brother Mark — the one novice at the fledgling St. Michael’s Skete in Canones, N.M. — had died.
Doctors warned him that massive head wounds cause pits of depression. Then there are the unique forms of doubt that stalk shepherds who feel lost in the wilderness.
”I have worked with many people who have struggled with depression. Looking back, I had no idea what they were dealing with,” said Father Andrew, who asked that his secular name not be used since monks strive to leave their pasts behind. ”It’s not that you feel sorry for yourself. You just don’t feel — anything. I kept praying: ‘God, have mercy on me.’ ”
A ”skete” is a small community that is not yet a monastery. St. Michael’s is a 15-acre enclave on a gravel road 90 minutes northwest of Santa Fe, where the high desert hits the mountains. For a decade, Father Andrew and a few supporters have worked in an old adobe house, a chapel shed and a cellar in which they make 10,000 beeswax candles a month, to sell to churches. Working foot by foot, they also are turning pumice, concrete and Ponderosa pine into a small sanctuary blending Spanish architecture
and Russian Orthodox tradition. Brother Mark’s arrival had been a sign of hope.
”You can’t help but ask questions,” said Father John Bethancourt of Santa Fe’s Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission, who has spent many hours working at the skete. ”But I believe God is building something here. I believe God will send other monks. … We need more monks and more monasteries, not less. I don’t think we can afford to lose one.”
Father Andrew had faced tough times before during his own battle with alcoholism and then in years of work as a rehabilitation counselor. He also had been an Episcopal pastor, before he became an Orthodox monk. He already knew the answers to many tough questions.
”What was really tough was that before, when bad things happened in my life, I knew it was my fault,” he said. ”When I was drinking and stuff, I could see why I kept getting in trouble. But why this? Why now?”
During walks with his Australian shepherd, which also survived the crash, the monk gazed at the splendor in his valley. Yet he heard ”dark voices” in his head muttering that death was the only reality and everything else was illusion. He heard echoes of his agnostic next-door neighbor during his Texas boyhood and his physics professor at the University of the South whose skepticism verged on nihilism.
There was no moment of epiphany. Father Andrew kept saying his prayers, doing his work and accepting invitations to fellowship and worship with others – even when he felt dead. He began reading works by believers active in science, medicine and public life. He didn’t run from his questions.
Just before Christmas, a horrible cold put the weakened monk flat on his back. He said he turned on the radio and was assaulted by ”every lousy Christmas record I had ever heard in my life.” He fled to church and his cloud of depression lifted during the Christmas rites.
A year after the crash, Father Andrew said he continues to pray for God’s mercy, while seeking answers to his questions. It’s that simple, but not easy.
”I am supposed to continue a monastic life. I know that much,” he said. ”I still want to know what God wants to have happen here at the skete. I don’t have a broad vision about the future. That’s in God’s hands, not mine. I have to take one step at a time.”
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.