My upcoming journey to Santiago de Compostela is not the first time I have undertaken religious travel. My priest never tires of telling me how fortunate I have been to have had all these opportunities, and this is a sentiment which several of my friends have also expressed. It's a trade-off, I suppose. Typically the people who tell me this are the ones who are married, have careers, and are raising families.
My first visit to an Orthodox monastery was at the invitation of my priest, who was going to visit his spiritual father. A friend and I accompanied him, but even before we got to the monastery we had met the elderly Egyptian priest who had baptised him. And then we arrived at our destination. My first meeting with Fr. Roman Braga is one which I shall remember for the rest of my life.
In 1999 I attended the SYNDESMOS XVI General Assembly held at Valamo Luostari in Finland. Following the assembly, I was one of sixteen people who took an optional journey through the western region of Karelia, ending in St. Petersburg. One of the highlights of that trip was our visit to Valaam Monastery situated on an archipelago in Lake Ladoga. The exact date of its founding is unknown - it may be that the first monastic was on the site as early as the 10th century, although the earliest written record of a community there dates to the 14th century. It has seen some very hard times throughout the years, but following the end of communist rule the monastery was re-established in 1989. When I visited ten years after this, there were over 100 monks and the community was growing. (See photos from this trip here.)
On a trip to England to visit a friend, we spent a weekend at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights and then drove to Holywell in Wales to visit St. Winefride's Well
A friend and I did a road trip from Toronto to Los Angeles in 2001 to attend the National Convention of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. It was a fantastic experience and along the way we managed to attend Liturgy at two different monasteries. Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction MI is a short six hours away and is a wonderful refuge. We also stopped in at St. Anthony's Monastery in Florence AZ. One of these days I hope to find my way back there and spend more time. (The Grand Canyon was also pretty cool, as was the Painted Desert.)
September 2002 marked the beginning of my seminary career. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery was established in Pennsylvania in 1905 with the assistance of two men who were later recognized as saints: St. Tikhon of Moscow and St. Raphael of Brooklyn. The seminary was founded 34 years later to provide training for clergy. By the end of my first year, I had begun to feel quite at home there. The funny thing about feeling "at home" is that one is often blinded to the remarkable aspects of the familiar place. Although I was aware of some of the history, I was taken aback by the Memorial Day Pilgrimage. My blasé attitude towards the monastery and school was confronted with the piety of the thousands of people who came to St. Tikhon's that weekend.
At the end of my first year at St. Tikhon's, I was one of six seminarians who travelled to Greece in order to spend time on Mount Athos. Several of the hundreds of photos I took can be viewed here. It was here that I realized walking to a monastery was a much better option than taking a bus crammed with sweaty pilgrims. I also spent a day walking half the length of the peninsula. Writing any more about this would be counter-productive. If you already know about Άγιον Όρος I don't need to say any more, while if you have no clue then my paltry words won't help much.
The autumn after my graduation, I moved to Lebanon -- specifically to the St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology at the University of Balamand. The following nine months was an incredible time. Visiting monasteries and parish churches in Lebanon was only the beginning. While I was in the eastern Mediterranean region, I visited St. Katherine's Monastery in Sinai. I walked the entire length of the "street called Straight" in Damascus and visited the city of Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Qala'at Semaan is now in ruins, but I went anyway. Before posing for a photo with what is left of St. Symeon's pillar, I spent a few moments in prayer. And then there was the ten days I spent in Istanbul. Hagia Sophia is a museum now, but it still moved me to tears. (Photos from all these travels and much more are on Flickr.)
Now the longest, most arduous journey to date lays before me. I leave in four more days.