I am huffing and puffing because I just hauled a toilet upstairs at the “Christ at the Sea” retreat center where I am staying. Somehow, when I first thought about a short stay at a monastic-style mission, I had in mind liturgical chants, incense, and the mysteries of God rather than the nuts and bolts of bathroom plumbing.
When I mention this obliquely, Father Cassian tells me that according to church tradition, work around the monastery is considered the equal to prayer, in part because it builds humility, which admittedly is not my strong suit. OK, but right now, with sweat dripping off my forehead as I tighten down the tank bolts, it just feels like plain old grunt work rather than any communion with the Holy Trinity.
I have to say, though, that my 75 year-old spiritual guide is down on his knees with me applying grout to the bowl line. It takes the best part of 5 hours and 2 trips to the Home Depot, but when we finally finish, I experience not only the ordinary sense of accomplishment from a job well done but also a positive feeling that I have helped the Church as well. Bonus points, if you will, even if I did get a little testy in the process. Maybe Father was right after all. But then maybe I lost any humility I might have gained by posting my little project in this blog. Nobody said being a Christian was easy. 🙂
Father Cassian is an Orthodox Christian priest and also a credentialed psychologist with 2 PhD’s who took his undergraduate courses at Princeton. Though he admits that at his advanced age he’s beginning to lose a step or two, he still has an encyclopedic knowledge of church history, neuroscience, and human nature. He is the author of several popular psychology books designed for the parents of troubled teens and is an expert in the field of adolescent addiction and substance abuse. These days, he spends his time providing spiritual guidance and couples counseling to people who want to know how the wisdom of the church fathers can help them on their path to salvation or perhaps giving advice on worldly affairs. He has a wry sense of humor, a quick smile, and keeps up a continuous verbal barrage on everything from local politics to the neurological development in teens as it relates to current educational tools.
Christ at the Sea
The retreat that Father Cassian has built isn’t really a monastery at all. There are no cassocked monks scurrying around the courtyard fountain and it isn’t in some inaccessible aerie high up on a Greek mountain. You don’t hear Gregorian chants echoing down mysterious dark passages (even though we do sing chants during services).
Here, you spend much of your time in prayer, fasting, confession ,and Communion, in much the same way that real monks do, but without the lifetime obligation of tonsured service. Most people also spend a big part of their time at Christ at the Sea reading about the lives of the saints or in direct consultation with Father Cassian. You are free to come and go, but you are expected to be present at all of the services, be a cheerful helper, and to observe the rules of the fast.
It’s actually located in Madeira beach, which is easy to get to and also easy on the eyes. It’s on a beautiful stretch of Florida’s Gulf Coast that lies north of St. Petersburg and south of Clearwater. While staying at the center, you are directly across the street from a public park on the Intracoastal Waterway and only a short walk to the beach and the extremely tacky and touristy John’s Pass. In short, you’re in the middle of a kind of earthly paradise to begin with.
The retreat center buildings are arranged around a central courtyard formed by four buildings. There are a series of cells (rooms) on one wing for temporary guests, while the refectory (dining hall), kitchen, and a single bedroom is in a perpendicular wing. A two-story apartment block is on the opposite side of the courtyard from the refectory wing for more permanent residents. The centerpiece of the structures is the chapel, which anchors the last part of the quadrangle, and the entire facility can be closed off with gates at the corners.
The street appearance is much like a big house with an apartment building attached. I don’t think you’d notice it much except for the discreet signs on the exterior. But once inside the gates, it’s a very different world. The sound of water trickling over a tiered fountain greets your ears. Flowering plants wind over the tops of the arbors and trellis work. Fruit trees provide a home for the birds. Wide covered breezeways between the structures establish a welcome respite from the blazing Florida heat.
Enter the small chapel and you’re immediately struck by the serenity. It is intimate, cool, and dark, save for the soft glow of candles. Like most Orthodox churches, beautiful icons adorn nearly every square inch of the walls and the smell of incense still lingers in the air. And it is quiet. So much so that you can hear yourself think. Or better yet, you can still yourself enough to listen. The outside world is right across the front yard, but it’s an eternity away from this holy place.
What’s it really like?
A typical day begins with breakfast (provided) and then morning prayer (Matins/Orthros) at 8:30-9, followed by counseling with Father Cassian (if you want or need it). Usually he’ll recommend you do some reading from books written by the saints or from secular experts on any subject of particular interest to the individual.
This is also the time when we talk about any needed chores. Usually guests aren’t assigned much if any work, except for minor food preparation and clean up duties. I helped with the toilet only because I’m special. And handy. But mostly, because “me big and strong like bull.” 🙂
In the afternoon, there is a Sixth Hour service (30 minutes or so) at 12:15 followed by lunch out. Then it’s time for more counseling and the rest of the day is free until 5:30, which is Vespers. This is the longest service of any weekday, lasting about 30-40 minutes. After that a group dinner is held in the refectory. Food is a copious amount of good basic fare.
Compline service is at 9:15 and lasts about 20-30 minutes. Afterward, Father Cassian has established a tradition wherein we all sit on the porch and reflect on our day. Nothing deep or spiritual is expected from anyone. Just sharing our thoughts before bed.
During services, some people who live in the local community near the church also attend, but a usual “crowd” is only 6 or 7 people, and even that only at night.
Obviously I’ve left a lot out of this. The ascetic tradition in Orthodoxy has very deep, 2,000 year old roots. I can’t cover it in a short memo. Suffice it to say that Father Cassian’s disciplined approach is very lightweight compared to an actual monastery, where there is more of everything: more services, more discipline, more quiet-and far more work. But he didn’t intend to create Mount Athos when he established his mission. He wanted to build a refuge where people can escape from the temporal world for a time, acquire some inner peace, and, through meditation, prayer, and fasting, draw closer to God. It is supposed to be a place where you can recharge your spiritual batteries, focus on “casting away all earthly cares”, and take a dip into the deep end of the pool of Wisdom. In that he has succeeded admirably.
On a personal note, this isn’t my first visit. I have come here before but more out of curiosity on my initial trip and personal counseling on my next two. Now I love this place, this…island of calm in a turbulent world-so much so that I have postponed my trip to Europe and have decided to live here for awhile. There have been a number of miracles witnessed at this center. I think I may have seen one myself, and what I find inside these walls is far more appealing to me right now than anything without.
There are some of you who have known me a long time, either personally, or through my writing, or both. You may think I am a hypocrite for feigning Christianity now at this late stage of my life. That’s fair to a point. I have been a nominal Christian, even an Orthodox Christian, for a long time now, and I haven’t exactly led a Godly life. But people can change, believe it or not. That is the real miracle- that ordinary people can change. I’m going to make that effort. It won’t be perfect or sure, but as Robert Frost once said, it’s the “Road Not Taken” we always wonder about. Or, as I like to imagine St. Peter yelling when he jumped off a boat one stormy night, “Whoa! That first step is a Doozy!”
If you are curious to learn more about this place, there’s an ancient Orthodox invitation that’s perfect for you: “Come, taste and see”. Here is the website:
Questions and Answers
Do I need to be Orthodox to come? No. You are welcome no matter what, if any, faith you have, but you are expected to attend all of the services. You may not take Communion without being Orthodox, however.
Fasting scares me…what are the rules? First, no one needs to fast if it is medically inadvisable to do so. That said, generally speaking Orthodox people fast from meat and wine on Wednesdays and Fridays, and you should consume no food or drink between Saturday night and Communion on Sunday morning. Everyone who comes to the retreat center should be prepared to follow these rules. There are also times during the year when we fast more often than just a couple of days a week, and during those times the food list is more restrictive. The reasons for fasting are too deep for this short article.
Work scares me…do I have to? Not really. You are required to make your own bed and gather up your towels and linens and place them in a pillowcase before you go. That’s it.
Most people help with the dishes or clean up after the group dinners. Only special people install toilets. 🙂
What is the charge? There is no fixed charge, but a donation is expected of at least $60 a night. I’m sure something could be worked out for those less fortunate.
Is there any free time? What else do you do besides pray and fast? There’s plenty to do around the retreat. First of all, the most beautiful beaches in the world are only a ten minute walk away. Directly across the street is a riverfront park and the area is made for strolling. John’s Pass has a very tacky touristy but fun feeling to it and you can walk there in a few minutes as well. There, you can enjoy dining, coffee, souvenir shops, a boardwalk, and a great view of the water, drawbridge, and pass to the ocean! Drive a little ways and you have more beaches, dining options, shopping, etc. In short, you’re in the middle of a very high end tourist destination. And you do have plenty of time during the day to enjoy it all.
What should I bring? Just what you would take on a short vacation if you were staying at a beach hotel. Towels and sheets are provided (however you make up your own bed).
Are the bathrooms ensuite (private)? The bathrooms are not ensuite unless you are a permanent resident, but in reality as a short term guest you in effect are the only one with access to the bath even though they are across the hall.
What about pets? This is a very pet friendly place in general. One of the permanent residents has several cats and Father Cassian and Ruth Anne (Father Cassian’s wife) have a dog (Zoey). I have seen them present even during services in the chapel! However, I would ask in advance if it is OK to bring your pet for a short stay. I would think it would be if the animal was not dangerous and the owner was responsible.
What about alcohol? It is prohibited because some of the guests may be in recovery.
What’s the dress code? Casual. It is permitted to wear shorts in the chapel and around the retreat. Modesty is expected, of course.