Reaching a little deeper
Orthodox monk: Followers of faith trace roots to apostles
It’s 9 o’clock on a Friday night, and nearly every table is filled at the Classic Bean coffeehouse, 2727 S.W. Wanamaker.
Many of the those sipping on various blends of percolated beverages are young: Teen-age girls engage in animated conversations as they huddle around circular tables, while their male counterparts seem a little more mellow and reserved on this night.
There are others in the house, including a number of fortysomething moms and dads with their charges, and a few gray-haired individuals, as well.
What brought them here tonight wasn’t a folk trio or a well-known local poet, but rather the chance to hear a monk speak for an hour on saints of the Christian church.
As the final notes are played on an acoustic set by a trio of singers and musicians, the Rev. Damascene Christensen, an Eastern Orthodox monk from the St. Herman of Alaska order near Redding, Calif., makes his way to the front of the coffee shop.
Christensen was brought to Topeka for a series of lectures by Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Church, 2516 S.W. Huntoon.
Dressed in a long black cassock and wearing a hat called a skufya, Christensen was a most intriguing figure, made more so by his long, bushy beard and pony tail.
As he prepared to speak, Christensen surveyed his audience of about 75 people, then said he was tailoring his talk on “Heroes of the Faith” to young people, noting “We have at least 95 percent teenagers here tonight.”
To which a middle-aged woman in the audience opined, “Thank you, father.”
He was having a little trouble with his clip-on microphone, and quipped that he might attach it to his ample beard. When the clip-on mike proved too difficult to get on, he opted for a floor mike.
For the next hour, Christensen shared accounts of saints of the Christian church, some dating back to the first centuries after Jesus, others in more contemporary times, such as St. John Maximovich, an Orthodox bishop of Shanghai, China, and then San Francisco, who died in 1963. His body hasn’t decomposed, which the Orthodox Church understands as a confirmation of his holiness.
At times during his talk, Christensen had to raise his voice above the loud whirring of an espresso machine at the back of the store.
A common denominator, he said, was the saints’ unwillingness to compromise their faith, and to live their Christianity with a passion, since they were in constant danger of being martyred for their beliefs: “They couldn’t be lukewarm,” he said.
When the Roman Empire embraced Christianity in the 4th Century, Christensen explained, monasticism flourished as a way of maintaining the radical, other-worldly nature of the Christian life.
Afterward, the 40-year-old Christensen talked about his conversion to Christianity from Zen Buddhism some 20 years ago.
At that time, he said, he was a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz and was in search of a deeper, more mystical experience than he got from the form of Christianity he had been exposed to as a youngster.
“I was empty,” he said, quickly realizing with a laugh that he’d just used a term associated with Buddhism.
“Zen didn’t have a personal God,” he continued. “I felt unfulfilled. I was looking into Christianity, looking to find some connection with Christ.”
He was invited to a service at a local Orthodox Christian church in the Santa Cruz area. The Orthodox church traces its history to the time of Christ. The service he attended, during Great Lent, was devoted to repentance.
“That deeply moved me,” he said.
From that point, Christensen pursued the Orthodox tradition. Within a year, he was baptized, and soon thereafter was making a commitment to live as a monk in northern California.
It was the church’s emphasis on the “interior life,” and on prayer, that appealed most to him.
That same order, tradition and discipline is attracting a new generation to Orthodox Christianity today.
Even in Topeka, some youths are finding the Orthodox tradition filling a deep spiritual need in their own lives.
There isn’t a lot of glitz and glamour, and hymns are sung a cappella, something that should come as no surprise considering the services are conducted in the same style they were some 2,000 years ago.
One of the youths who turned out at the Classic Bean to hear Christensen was Karen Hilberg, 16, a member of the Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Church in Topeka.
Hilberg didn’t seem to mind sitting in on a lecture on saints on a Friday night.
“I had already known the stories of lots of saints,” she said after the program, “but I like hearing more about them, especially St. Moses — I’ve heard a little about him, but not a lot.
“It’s good to learn about saints, because it encourages you a little bit. It inspires you.”
Karen said being Orthodox has a deep meaning for those who follow that path, even for someone as young as she is.
“When you’re Orthodox, it’s not just a Sunday-only religion,” she said. “It affects your whole life. You can’t just be Orthodox on Sunday. You’ve got to be Orthodox your whole life.”