NOTE: The following article is taken from the Local section of the Tucson Citizen, Jan 15, 2007.
FLORENCE – Just before the monk climbed the stairs to ring the 4 p.m. bells, Anastasia Lagos waited below the tower.
In the presence of men who have committed their lives to Greek Orthodox monasticism, Lagos tied a babushka under her chin and wore a long skirt. There must not be any distractions.
The 27-year-old was on a pilgrimage.
She had traveled from her homeland, Greece, to reflect and pray at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery. Its domed chapels and bell towers rise above the saguaro-studded desert in Florence, a town perhaps best known for its prison complex.
The middle of the desert may seem an unlikely place for a monastery famous among the international Orthodox Christian community. But to the hundreds of pilgrims like Lagos who journey here, even through the torrid heat of summer, the serenity and spirituality here are reminiscent of ancient monasteries.
“In the middle of the desert it’s so quiet. Here you feel like you’re living centuries ago,” Lagos said.
It has been about 10 years since the monastery began to take root here. But the Byzantine-style chapels and churches that rise from the lush landscape of palm trees, saguaros, cholla, greasewood and creosote, look as if the monastery has stood here for hundreds of years.
With the exception of an occasional Federal Express or UPS delivery truck, the monastery fits in with centuries long ago.
Because of its setting in the Arizona desert, the monastery is unique among the 17 Greek Orthodox monasteries in North America.
It is St. Anthony’s spiritual leader, Father Ephraim, who chose the desert outside Florence to build his monastery.
He loved the tranquillity and climate.
Then, the story goes, driving in the desert, looking for land for his monastery, the elder heard bells, recalled Father Markellos, one of St. Anthony’s monks.
And just where the bells came from, no one knows.
“That’s a mystery,” Markellos said.
Father Ephraim seemed to be called by the bells to spread out over the swath of more than 100 acres where the monastery stands today.
Ephraim brought six monks from Athos to the Sonoran Desert to build his monastery.
Side by side, the monks and construction workers first erected the traditional Byzantine style, domed basilica church.
Inside, the Panagia Arizonitissa or the Mother of God of Arizona, the icon special to the monastery, was painted in Greece.
Crosses, rings, necklaces – offerings to the Virgin Mary – hang from the gilded icon.
Outside, pathways meander through lush gardens connecting four more chapels.
Originally, there were six monks. Now there are nearly 40.
Their day begins at midnight with personal prayers, followed by morning prayers.
After a light breakfast and rest, they begin their work.
Father Markellos is tall and youngish-looking but doesn’t reveal his age.
He’s usually the monk near the front gate who checks that the visitors – both men and women – are appropriately covered.
He stresses that the photogenic black-robed monks are off limits photographically.
Some of the monks are in their 80s, including Father Ephraim. They reflect an ageless, youthful quality.
The soft utterances of their prayers can be heard throughout the vegetable gardens, olive grove, citrus orchard, and even in the bookstore where they sell their organic applesauce and red wine vinegar.
What they’ve created, say the monks, is an oasis.
It is not only the quiet that draws Orthodox Christian pilgrims to St. Anthony’s from around the world. Father Ephraim comes from the sacred heritage of Mount Athos, the “Holy Mountain,” a remote monastery in Greece reachable only by boat that has not changed much in the last 10 centuries.
“In the Orthodox world, it’s probably the most well-known monastery in America,” said John Alan Jones, a pilgrim from Kodiak, Alaska. “Greece has Mount Athos. America has St. Anthony’s in Florence. This is a bit of Mount Athos in America.”
The monastery has a global reputation among pilgrims, but St. Anthony’s is also a sanctuary for local Greek Orthodox worshippers.
“Stepping onto monastic grounds such as Florence is stepping out of ordinary time, out of the ordinary world,” said Victoria Keegan, a member of Scottsdale’s Assumption Greek Orthodox Church.
Keegan’s first journey to the monastery was momentous.
“The very first time I went to the monastery, I had a feeling of angst because I was struggling with something,” she said. “When I stepped through the archway, I burst into tears. I felt like I had found a haven.”