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Vol. 4 No. 3 - Dormition 2009

Canada Just Right For Western Rite Monks:
An Interview with Hieromonk James Deschene

In the spring of 2008, the oldest Western Rite Orthodox monastery in the western hemisphere, Christminster of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, moved from Rhode Island to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Now located in the midst of an older, working-class industrial neighbourhood, this unique Canadian monastic community quietly lives out the fullness of the rule of prayer as it was served in the Orthodox West before the Schism of 1054. In this exclusive interview with the abbot, Hieromonk James (Deschene), Orthodox Canada takes a look at this faithful brotherhood, dedicated to praying for the needs of the Church in Canada, and for the salvation of the world.

Orthodox Canada (OC): Father James, thank you for meeting with us. Perhaps you can begin by sharing with us what were the key things that brought you from Roman Catholicism to the Orthodox Church?

Father James Deschene (FJD): The process of conversion was in two stages. Subsequent to Vatican Two, I began to discover that Roman Catholicism was not all it had claimed to be.

Growing up in the forties and fifties, in the church under Pius XII, one was given to believe that the church was a solid, rocklike fortress of immutable and perennial truth. But there were cracks in that rock, chinks in that fortress, as a study of history will show. The watering-down and cheapening of the liturgy too brought home to me that something was not right in Rome. Wanting the truth sent me searching. I did not at first go far afield and began to examine the Anglo-Catholic world, where there was at least a deference to and preservation of traditional liturgy.

But Anglicanism, having descended from Roman Catholicism, suffered from the same weakness - a departure from original Christian and apostolic truth. But for a long while Orthodoxy was not even a blip on my radar, and what little knowledge I had of it was that it was an ethnic and alien form of Catholicism not generally available to me. But then I began to read Orthodox authors and books - Schmemann, Meyendorff, Ware, Berdyaev, Lossky, Clement. These authors were like a fresh wind blowing from the pages of the Gospels. Whatever truths RCism had preserved were there, but much more beside, and none of the errors introduced over the centuries by Roman Catholicism.

But I had still no experience of eastern liturgy - Orthodoxy came to me through books. Nor did what little I had seen of Orthodoxy liturgy attract me. It was certainly splendid and beautiful, especially in its Russian forms. But I had been deeply rooted and grounded in the solid and traditional liturgy of the Roman church from my earliest years. As a Roman Catholic seminarian in the years before Vatican II, I had discovered and fell in love with the services of the liturgical year and its cycles.

Thus, when I eventually discovered Western rite Orthodoxy, it seemed a gift from heaven: to have to true Church of Christ, with its full apostolic truth and tradition, and a familiar liturgy that for a thousand years before the Great Schism had been unquestionably Orthodox in its provenance and expression. It was like finally coming home. Oh, there were shocks and jolts along the way. The Orthodox situation in North America is a canonical chaos, and Orthodox people regrettably do not always recognize the treasure they possess or desire to share it outside their ethnic and cultural milieu. But I accepted Orthodoxy, warts and all and have not regretted it. My great hope is to share this gift with the spiritually hungry and lost, and even to awaken a hunger for Orthodoxy in those who have yet to discover their spiritual malnutrition.

OC: Some people might not understand the common monastic life shared by the Orthodox West of 1000 years ago, and the Orthodox East.

FJD: I think the problem is not that people do not understand how eastern and western monasticism might differ - they simply don't understand monasticism at all. And yet monasticism is at the very heart of Orthodoxy, whether western or eastern. Christian monasticism received its definitive expression in the first millennium of Christianity, before the Church was divided into east and west. One of its formative fathers was Saint Benedict whose Rule not only governs monasteries but has had a profound influence, through monasteries, on the history and culture of Europe. It is not an exaggeration to say that European and Western civilization have been shaped and enriched by the Orthodox mind of Saint Benedict. Whether Western civilization remains faithful to that mind and vision is of course rather questionable. But that's all the more reason why the West needs monasteries.

OC: It is central to Orthodoxy.

FJD: Monasticism is so central to Orthodoxy, because it understands and insists that all Christians, monastic or lay folk, are called to the same destiny - holiness - and by the same means - asceticism, prayer and the sacraments. Regrettably, both in the east and in the west, a kind of dichotomy has developed between the monastic life and the life of the ordinary Christian. Each of us is called to a monasticism of the heart - to become an inner monk - and monasteries and their monks express visibly, in tangible form, what each of us is called to be.

OC: Can you tell us about finding your way to Canada? What differences have you found between Canada and the United States, as far as being Orthodox, or as far as monasticism is concerned?

FJD: Well, I came to Canada in April 2008, not as a result of planning, but because we were unexpectedly invited to come in order to staff a church and monastery provided to us here in Hamilton. The nest was made ready and we flew to it.

However, for about nine months I was the only monk in residence. Fr. Joseph remained behind undergoing long-term medical treatment, and was only able to join me in December 2008.

I think I can say we enjoy being in Canada. The weather, which I was dreading, is remarkably similar to that back home in Rhode Island, and in fact was much more severe this past winter in Rhode Island than here in Hamilton. The summers seem equally warm and humid. Culturally, there are few shocks or surprises for an American moving to Canada, or at least to Ontario. The only qualm I have had is the horror stories I hear about some Canadian Human Rights Tribunals and their apparent infringement of free speech and the open discussion of ideas - to a US citizen, these make one uneasy. And to a Christian, with their suggestion of oppression and censorship, they make one wonder about the future of freedom in Canada, not just for Christians but for religion itself. As a guest and visitor in this country, I am in a poor position to speak out on such matters, but they do leave me unsettled and troubled.

As far as Orthodoxy here I have to say it seems a lively and warm phenomenon. I have been edified by the enthusiasm, cooperation and fellowship of the Orthodox clergy and churches here and I hope we may contribute to that in whatever way we can. We are, so far as I know, the only Orthodox monastery (eastern or western) in the immediate area. So I can't say anything about Canadian Orthodox monasticism. But certainly we have had much friendliness from Father Nicolas of the Romanian monastery in Toronto and Father Philip of the OCA monastery in Edmonton. And I might add - not to make you blush - your own warm welcome and ongoing friendliness to us has been a precious gift.

OC: Many thanks, Father. We appreciate your friendship here, and the brotherhood we're blessed to share with you, here in Hamilton. Your monastery is in the city - an industrial city at that - a life that is part of city life, but removed from it as well. How does that work?

FJD: Our essential need as monks is for the freedom and opportunity to devote ourselves to prayer. Where we do this is to some degree irrelevant, so long as there is a measure of quietness, recollection, and a regularity of life. A rural setting is nice, allowing one to be in touch with nature and creation in ways not possible where we live in Hamilton. But we have everything we need for our life of prayer here - except, probably, space for more monks! Or for more guests who come to share for a short time the gift of monastic peace and prayer. We welcome all who come and wish we had room for more.

It is important for a monastery to be in a city such as Hamilton, I think. Partly because Hamilton needs prayer. And also partly because our presence here, in this teeming, industrial city, symbolizes the role of monasticism as the little bit of yeast in the dough - the hidden instrument for transfiguration that works quietly and behind the scenes, but performs unseen an essential function.

If I may quote myself here from an article I wrote some time ago: "Monks (it has been observed) are like the great and silent forests of the earth. In silence and stillness the trees grow, unremarkable and unobserved in their forest wilderness, silently but effectively purifying the air of the whole world, removing, in their unmoving, unimpressive activity, the poisons and carbons that would otherwise destroy the world of cities and nations. It is for others to be the primary movers and dramatic doers. Monks, like trees, will do the world far less good by removing themselves from the purifying task of prayer and monastic observance. The world in its folly sees no usefulness in its rain forests - or in its monastics. But destroy either of these - and the world is ever ready to destroy both - and the world will strangle itself and die, poisoned by its own toxins."

Saint Silouan said something similar -- that when there are no more monks in the world praying, the world will come to an end.

OC: Father, what does your rule of prayer look like?

FJD: Our rule of prayer - or what Saint Benedict calls the "work of God" - is taken directly from his own Orthodox Rule written over 1500 years ago and given to the undivided Church. It is the primary work and occupation of our monastery and consumes a good part of our waking hours, starting at 5:00am with Matins. Lauds follows at 6:15am and Mass at 7:00am, followed by Prime (First Hour) at 8:45am, Terce (Third Hour) at 9:30am, Sext (Sixth Hour) at 11:45am, None (Ninth Hour) at 5:00pm, Vespers at 6:30pm and Compline at 7:45pm. Several additional hours are devoted to private prayer and spiritual reading - or lectio divina, which is a kind of prayerful reading described in St. Benedict's Rule.

In the middle of the day, after lunch, we also have a brief service of intercessions, in which we pray especially for the Church, for the Queen and Canada, for our city and neighbourhood, for our own community, for benefactors, relatives and friends, and for the departed. At this time we also say the Lord's Prayer "on behalf of those who have said no prayer this day." All our prayer is done on behalf of all and for all. We also pray for particular people and their intentions.

Our prayer life should present a challenge to a world unsure of God. If God is not true and alive, then our entire lives, spent largely in prayer, are simply being wasted, thrown away senselessly, and we are the most pitiable of men. But God is real and prayer is the most valuable activity of man on earth. People will either see that or they won't. But as long as we're alive and praying they will be challenged with the issue.

OC: What do you say to people seeking advice about living an authentic Orthodox spiritual life?

FJD: To live an authentic Orthodox spiritual life, one must be faithful to the basics: daily prayer, the sacraments, the ascetical disciplines of fasting, abstinence and almsgiving, and feeding the mind and heart with holy reading. All of this must be done within the context of a lively and faithful church life and under the guidance of one's spiritual father or confessor. The essence of becoming holy is learning to become totally open to and submissive to God, utterly malleable to his will and his wise and gentle moulding of us into the saints he has created us to be. There are no gimmicks or shortcuts to this end - only the patient struggle each day to lay aside sin and all that keeps us from God, who is the true and only source of our joy and who seeks nothing more than to give us the fullness of his joy. But regrettably, we have so many ways of blocking and refusing his gift. We need his help even to stop resisting his help - that's how messed-up we are.

But God is good and full of mercy and loves us unfailingly. It is such foolishness to resist such goodness, but there you are - we're fools!

OC: The ROCOR has just consecrated and appointed a new bishop to care for the Western Rite Orthodox parishes (Bishop Jerome of Manhatten, the former Father John Shaw). People speak very highly of him. What can you tell us about him?

FJD: The newly consecrated Bishop Jerome is a man of singular and impressive gifts. We have known each other, but entirely through letters and emails, for more than thirty years now - we've still never met! But I have turned to him many times for advice and counsel and for the answer to many a question. He has invariably been wise, patient and instructive over these many years, and I look forward to his continuing support in this new role.

OC: And your primate, Metropolitan Hilarion, has been very supportive of monastic life, and the authentic Western Rite Orthodox life...

FJD: Our monastery and church have recently been given stavropegial status - i.e., we have been placed directly under the Metropolitan rather than under the local Bishop. This is always an honour for a monastery, but it is especially wonderful for us since our Metropolitan Hilarion is the one who originally blessed our community and who ordained me to the priesthood and tonsured me a monastic. We own him a great deal and he is much loved by all who know him. He is such a gentle and loving man. We hope and pray that his well-known support both for western-rite missions and for missions in general will be a great blessing to the church and a gift to Orthodoxy around the world.

OC: There seems to be a distinct divide between the historic, ancient Orthodox Western Rite which you follow, and the cobbled-together Western Rite supported by some converts to Orthodoxy...

FJD: Well, if you follow some discussions on the internet - and I don't recommend this! - the issue of which western rite is best is a controversial one. I have always argued in principle for a variety of authentic rites, both eastern and western, as this was the pattern of Orthodoxy for the first millennium - you had multiple rites in the east and west and all were recognized as valid and authentically Orthodox. It is only in recent centuries, pretty much after the Great Schism, that liturgical uniformity (eastern and western) has come to the fore. Regrettably this has led to "liturgy wars" that are most unedifying. I don't wish to contribute to them here.

Our own rite - often called, erroneously, Tridentine - is largely the Roman rite as it might have been celebrated in European monasteries in the eighth to tenth centuries. The primary alternative to this used in other western-rite parishes is some variant of this but often influenced by the usage of Sarum or Book of Common Prayer rites. As these have received the authorization of Orthodox hierarchs, it is not for me to judge them. But we certainly prefer our traditional usage with its unquestionably Orthodox provenance.

Saint John Maximovitch once said to Abbot Augustine of Mount Royal (from which our monastery is descended): "Never, never, never let anyone tell you that, in order you to Orthodox, you must also be eastern. The West was fully Orthodox for a thousand years, and her venerable liturgy is far older than any of her heresies."

OC: The Mother of God plays a particularly important role in your monastic life. Your monastery is named for her, and for Glastonbury.

FJD: The Mother of God does play a significant role in our monastic life. Our monastery - Christminster, for short - is actually named after Christ the Saviour, a title given by (then) Bishop Hilarion when blessing us to form a monastic community. Our Lady of Glastonbury is the title of our monastic church here in Canada. But we have always been devoted to the Mother of God, and there is no service celebrated at Christminster that does not end with or include some prayer or hymn to her, usually one of the four great seasonal hymns: Ave Maris Stella, Ave Regina Caelorum, Regina Caeli, and Salve Regina, as well as the Ave Maria. The last hymn we sing every evening is the solemn chant of the Salve Regina. We sing these in Latin, partly because that's how they were written and there are no adequate translations; and partly to keep alive the use of Latin as the traditional liturgical language of the West. Of course, most of our liturgical services are not in Latin, but traditional English - what Anglicans would call "prayer book" English.

The Mother of God is also important for us as a sign and guide to what we are called to do: to become wholly obedient and submissive to the will of God.

The title Glastonbury relates to the site in England where the oldest church dedicated to the Mother of God was found. It is traditionally associated with St. Joseph of Arimathea who, as a tin merchant, visited the tin mines of Somerset and is said to have brought our Saviour with him as a young man. The wonderful poem "Jerusalem" by William Blake summarizes the story:

And did those Feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?

This yoking of our Saviour's life with the spiritual history of the English land and people is, even if legendary, especially inspiring and endearing. I think of it often when I see the "dark satanic mills" of Hamilton and realize that we are called to build Jerusalem even here - or especially here.

OC: I know that your monastery is blessed with many holy relics. These are often so unfamiliar to people today, even to faithful Orthodox people. What blessings have they provided to you and to your monastery?

FJD: We are singularly blessed with many holy relics, including a relic passed on to us from Dom Augustine and Mount Royal - a relic inscribed Ex capillis Beatae Mariae Virginis: "From the hair of the Blessed Virgin Mary." We also have a small piece of her Veil, and relics of the Holy Cross, the Crown of Thorns, and of many New Testament and early saints.

Relics are among those things - like the sacraments -- that materially connect us to holy things and people. In Orthodoxy, matter matters - the material is God's instrument and vehicle of the spiritual. Otherwise we'd all be gnostics. So the presence of holy relics helps to anchor us in the historical reality of the church and of the saints, and to keep our vision and religion from wandering off into abstract realms where heresy often breeds.

This past Saturday we celebrated the annual feast of the Holy Relics, celebrated in some places in November, but with us always in Eastertide. We always keep on the altar the relics of the Veil of the Mother of God and of Saint Benedict. The others are brought out on their appropriate feasts. On Good Friday we venerate the relics of the Cross and the Crown of Thorns. The thorn relic is extremely tiny - about the size of a baby's eyelash.

There's an article on our website about the relics at Christminster and giving a complete list of them. (westernorthodox.ca and Christminster.org)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2009.