Christ of the Hills Monastery
POKROV NOTE: This article appeared in the Nov/Dec 1991 issue of “Orthodox Life.”
Christ of the Hills Monastery, New Sarov, located in Blanco, Texas, and the monasteries and parishes attached to it, all under the direction of Fr. Benedict were received by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad on February 23/March 8, 1991. In a saga familiar to many converts in the Western world their journey was a long and winding one to the true path of Holy Orthodoxy. Sustained by an early and constant petition to Christ through the Jesus Prayer, the members of these communities were not forsaken by Our Lord, Who knows the hearts of all men, in their sincere desire for truth.
Their story begins with Fr. Benedict, who entered a Benedictine monastery in Vermont at the age of seventeen. At a young age he began to practice the Jesus Prayer, even before entering monasticism. His early monastic formation was under Abbot Leo von Rudloff of Dormition Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Jerusalem. Abbot Leo was a scholar and a very traditional monk who trusted and believed in the holy fathers and taught his monks to do the same.
During the course of his monastic life, Fr. Benedict was in many different places. In 1967 he was assigned to San Antonio, Texas. He fell in love with the hill country there and in 1972 received a blessing to found a monastery in Texas. This monastery existed on various rented properties and then later property was in San Antonio.
The changes of Vatican II that rocked the Roman Catholic Church were felt at the monastery in Texas also. Seeking for something more monastic and simple the community fell under the influence of the Ecumenical Monastery of Taize in France. Eventually, the shallowness of this path became apparent, although at the time they were not able to express their feelings in those words. As Fr. Benedict says, “We were
starving to death spiritually, and we did not even know we were hungry.”
By this time the monks were supporting themselves by building hand-crafted furniture and selling it through a series of monastery-owned outlets. As the business grew it became necessary to hire lay people to assist in the work, leading to an unhealthy situation for the monastics. Fr. Benedict recalls, “It was truly a case of the tail wagging the dog. I could not simply be a spiritual father to the community, I also had to be its chief business man.” During this same period Fr. Benedict had acquainted himself with some Benedictine monks living a simple, prayer-filled desert monastic life in northern New Mexico. Their desire to live a life in emulation of the desert fathers struck a chord with him and he visited them often. While on his third visit there he went into one of the caves surrounding the monastery and spent time in solitude, fasting and prayer. He prayed fervently to God that He would remove all obstacles between Himself and his monastic community. It was a powerful prayer and over the next three years God literally stripped them of everything.
In October 1980 an explosion in the spray room caused a fire that consumed their entire factory. Because the explosion occurred in the spray room, which was a specific exception, the insurance would not cover the fire. The monastery was left in serious debt, and all the work of the previous ten years went up in smoke. The monks took this as a sign from God, and realizing the utter folly of their lives began to truly seek the one thing needful. They began to pray to God to help them find an Orthodox spiritual father, advanced in the Jesus Prayer, who could guide them. In an almost miraculous manner on Christmas Day, 1980, on the occasion of the visit of an Orthodox priest, it appeared that their prayers had been answered. This priest told them of Archbishop Theodore (Irtel), a monk of Valaam Monastery who at the time was living in Juarez, Mexico.
Through Archbishop Theodore the entire community was led in 1981 to embrace the fullness of the faith and were baptized and re-ordained Unfortunately, in seeking to lead an almost catacomb existence, Archbishop Theodore had placed himself under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Vasiloupolis under Metropolitan Pangratios, a body not considered canonical by the rest of the Orthodox Church. Not fully understanding the issue of canonicity, when some Orthodox began to be critical of the community they simply assumed this persecution was sent by God in order to purify them.
Some years later. Archbishop Theodore sought to retire and embrace solitude. He nominated Fr. Benedict to be his successor, and although he did not wish to be a bishop, he finally consented and was consecrated. The day after his consecration he met Bishop Hilarion of Manhattan, who was then Hieromonk Hilarion on a pilgrimage to Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York. Through this friendship
the community began to understand their canonical situation and waited on God to allow a solution to unfold.
Over the next several years they began to understand more clearly the nature of the Church and the issues involved in their canonical isolation. At the same time, as new converts thirsty for knowledge and spurred by their interest in Valaam and Sarov, (Archbishop Theodore entrusted to their care relics of St. Seraphim, and the brotherhood named the property New Sarov in honor of this great wonderworker) they were led to the published works of the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. This led to an active correspondence with Fr. Seraphim (Rose), and a friendship with Abbot Herman (Podmoshensky) who visited them frequently, conducting six sessions of the New Valaam Theological Academy between 1984 and 1987.
They attempted to lead a hesychastic spiritual life, steeped in the ideals of Holy Russia, and nourished by their contacts with Abbot Herman and Fr. Seraphim, trips to Mount Athos, and a number of pilgrimages to Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville by Bishop Benedict.
Seeing the dilemma in the United States, they felt there was an urgent need for more monasteries to be established in order that monasticism could spread. They therefore founded St. Isaac of Syria Skete in Wisconsin and other small monastic sketes around the country. They felt that by doing so seeds would be planted and a monastic witness would become available to more and more Orthodox Christians, offering, as Bishop Benedict believed, a counterbalance to the excessive wealth and materialism of modern America, and creating a climate that would encourage the Church to be more concerned with the heavenly realm rather than with worldly things.
On May 7, 1985 an icon of the Mother of God began to weep at the Christ of the Hills Monastery. As word quietly spread about this event, the number of pilgrims increased gradually. On some days over a thousand pilgrims have visited, not only Orthodox faithful, but also many Roman Catholics and others of various religious backgrounds drawn to the Mother of God. The monks have sought to preach soberly, interpreting the call of the Mother of God to be one of repentance, fasting, ceaseless prayer, and the living out of the Christian life, in preparation for the Last Day. Through the grace of God, this work has led to many converts being baptized and many catechumens being instructed.
As a result of this increased contact the brotherhood was becoming more aware of its canonical problems. They first sought to rectify them through dealing with the synod that they were in. Metropolitan Pangratios assured them that he was seeking to enter into communion with or submit to the Romanian Patriarchate (later Bishop Benedict found out that this was not true). They began to realize that nothing was
being done to rectify their canonical situation, and indeed in 1988 things took a turn for the worse when their synod voted to receive the Holy Order of MANS (now known as the Brotherhood of Christ the Saviour). This is a new-age group which had embraced a variety of heresies: chiliasm, reincarnation, syncretism, gnosticism, etc., and yet approached Orthodoxy not so much as a conversion (i.e., realization of their error, repentance and humbly seeking entry into the True Church), but rather as a confirmation of what they had always believed! Their petition to be received said just that: “We were amazed to discover that virtually every aspect of the traditional Orthodox brotherhoods of the Ukraine and of Greece has been reduplicated in the course of the development of the Order (the Holy Order of MANS) over the past twenty years.” Bishop Benedict asked that the Holy Order of MANS renounce their heresies publicly and specifically, and that the membership thoroughly understand the errors of their past before being allowed to approach the waters of baptism. However, Metropolitan Pangratios and his synod, in a meeting which excluded Bishop Benedict, voted to accept the Order; Bishop Benedict was only notified of the decision after the vote.
Disturbed by this acceptance Bishop Benedict took counsel
with Bishop Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside
of Russia and Bishop Dmitri of the Orthodox Church in America and, submitting himself in obedience to their advice, he and his diocese (comprised by now of several monasteries and parishes) withdrew from the synod of Metropolitan Pangratios on February 15/28, 1988, the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
They continued to live the life of Orthodox Christians as best as they could, humbly trusting in God to lead them to a safe haven. The journey was not a simple one however, and after much prayer they sought counsel for a solution from Mount Athos, the archbishop of Mt. Sinai, and finally the patriarch of Jerusalem. Patriarch Diodoros encouraged the brotherhood on its journey to a canonical home and finally suggested that they approach a church that existed in the United States.
It finally became crystal clear that the only place where they fit in was the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Bishop Benedict asked Bishop Hilarion to present the matter to the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the Holy Synod appointed a commission consisting of Archbishop Laurus and Bishop Daniel, to study the matter and to visit them. Once Vladyka Laurus visited Christ the Hills Monastery in February of 1991, things moved rapidly, and in March of 1991 the Holy Synod voted to receive them. However, the Synod was unable to recognize the orders coming from the jurisdiction of Metropolitan Pangratios.
To regularize their status on March 9/22, 1991, the Feast of the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, Bishop Hilarion arrived at Christ of the Hills Monastery to receive the brotherhood and laity in Texas by Chrismation and begin the process of ordinations: Fr. Benedict and Fr. Vasili to the priesthood and Fr. Pangratios to the diaconate. The following weekend Hieromonk Benedict and Hierodeacon Pangratios met Bishop Hilarion in Milwaukee, received Fr. Gregory and then drove to St. Isaac of Syria Skete in Boscobel, Wisconsin to receive the Brotherhood and the parish of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. Fr. Simeon from Boscobel, Wisconsin and Fr. Gregory were ordained to the priesthood. Fr. James, a monk from Blanco, Texas studying and teaching in Rhode Island, was received by Chrismation at Our Lady of the Sign Cathedral in New York City. In early August, 1991 at Christ of the Hills Monastery he was ordained to the priesthood together with Fr. Patrick Hubbard of the Holy Trinity parish in Rochelle, Texas.
The brotherhood feels joyous that God has led them to the safest harbor possible. Ever since their conversion to the Holy Orthodox Church they felt that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia was their true home and “who we are” as Fr. Benedict phrases it. Their reception is the answer to many prayers.