NOTE: The following article is taken from The Salt Lake Tribune, April 23, 2010:
Sixteen high school seniors from Utah returned Sunday from a weekend-long graduation celebration.
There was no partying or dancing. There was wine, just not for their imbibing.
Still, the teens did experience extreme behavior — religious, that is.
The pilgrims from Salt Lake City’s Greek Orthodox parish traveled to St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, Ariz., an hour from Phoenix, to immerse themselves in monastic life.
Sequestered from the stresses of modern living, the 10 boys and six girls rose each day at 2 a.m. for a three-hour worship service, worked in the kitchen and vineyards in 90-degree weather and met for small group discussions and quiet meditation. They wandered around the monastery’s 300-plus acres, dazzled by the stark beauty of the chapels, gardens, gazebos and Spanish fountains nestled among the palm trees and sagebrush.
“There was beauty, beauty everywhere, truly an oasis in the desert,” says 18-year-old Pilar Pappas, a senior at Murray High. “The best part was walking around the grounds. Everything was so well taken care of. The monks have devoted themselves not only to God but to taking care of the Earth.”
The experience, she says, tapped “all five senses.”
Dress at the monastery is conservative, with visitors required to show as little skin as possible. Boys and men wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts at all times. Women don long skirts, long-sleeved blouses and head scarves.
The boys helped the monks with heavy lifting and cleaning. But the girls were not allowed to work with or talk to the monks, who have taken vows of celibacy.
Pappas says this was the strictest monastery she has visited, but she didn’t experience any real deprivation.
“You can’t talk all the time,” Pappas says. “Sometimes you need the silence to be there.”
For the University of Utah-bound senior, the visit also was a chance to bond with other Orthodox kids, especially the girls. It was the highlight of her church year.
That’s exactly what the church’s leaders in Utah were hoping.
For decades, the Salt Lake City Greek Orthodox parish honored its graduating seniors with a dinner. About five years ago, the Rev. Matthew Gilbert and others decided something more meaningful was needed to mark the students’ graduation from Sunday School. The monastery seemed an ideal alternative.
To Gilbert, who acted as a chaperone with his wife, Denise, the weekend more than met expectations.
The young people saw firsthand the “dedication to God in the monastic tradition, which is very important in the Orthodox faith,” he says . ” For many, it was a life-changing experience.”
It also may have connected the youths to their faith more strongly, he says,”helping them to become better Orthodox Christians.”