Making a Monastery Pilgrimage

Most of us in the United States live within a day’s drive of an Orthodox Christian Monastery. See List. Making a pilgrimage with an overnight stay to a monastery has several benefits for your family:

  • Introduces family members to the monastic life and particular monastics
  • Increases awareness of the Daily and Weekly cycles of prayer in the Orthodox church
  • Allows the family a time of retreat from busy schedules and worldly preoccupations of life
  • Familiarizes family members with languages and traditions that are not part of their regular church experience
  • May include a time of counsel with a monk or nun – a seasoned warrior in spiritual battles
  • Requires extra effort on the part of all family members, which hones spiritual muscle and reaps the fruit of greater closeness to God
  • May offer the added blessing of prayer before a miracle-working icon or relic of saint, and special attention to some spiritual need
  • Removes us from the noise of everyday life so that we can quiet our souls before God
  • Gives us an opportunity to demonstrate respect for the standards and practices of those who have dedicated their whole lives to Christ

Be sure to take with you:

  • Bible and Daily Calendar of Readings so you can follow along with the services and discuss them with your children
  • Modest clothing in accordance with the guidelines of the monastery you will visit – this usually means longer skirts for girls/women, long pants for boys/men and sleeved shirts and tops. Headscarves for girls/ women may be encouraged or even required
  • Modest “Church clothes” & shoes for Sunday services
  • Directions to & address of the monastery you plan to visit, and contact info for the abbot/abbess
  • Uplifting books to read for all family members during quiet times
  • Quiet games suitable for children – board and card games, puzzles, stuffed animals, crayons and paper
  • Appropriate clothing if you will be in a remote setting, will be hiking on the grounds or outdoors in the elements
  • Snacks (if appropriate) for children

Plan Ahead:

  • Visit the monastery’s website if one is available for instructions and to acquaint yourself with the monastery’s practices
  • If possible, coordinate your first visit with that of others who are already acquainted with the particular monastery
  • It is best if at least some of the services are in a language your children can understand
  • Contact the Abbot/Abbess and obtain their blessing to come and to receive Holy Communion if appropriate
  • Ask for the blessing of your parish priest to attend, and prayers for safe travel from him and your church community
  • Obtain instructions from the monastery guest master/mistress  concerning your arrival plans, appropriate clothing, activities, service times, accommodations, meals
  • Have appropriate clothing on before you arrive at the monastery grounds
  • Read books together that discuss the monastic life, e.g., The Abbot and I, How the Monastery Came to be on the Top of the  Mountain, Song of the Talanton, Katie Visits a Monastery, The Monk Who Grew Prayer, and A Miracle in the Desert
  • Talk with others who have made such a pilgrimage so that you have a better idea what to expect
  • Consider leaving all electronic devices at home or in your car. If necessary, bring in one cell phone for emergencies, turn off the ringer, and limit yourself to checking it once daily. Avoid bringing ipads/tablets/portable video games as they can distract from the atmosphere of prayer and quiet
  • Plan to make a donation (cash or check) to the monastery both to offset the cost of your room and board, as well as to support the community itself
  • Encourage other Orthodox families and friends to come at the same time – it is especially helpful for younger children to have others their age to pray alongside them and to play with between services
  • Bring or plan to purchase prayer ropes for your family members.
  • The monastery may have a bookstore, so bring a means of payment with you and plan to shop while you are there
  • If a feast day or special saint’s day will be celebrated while you are there, bring some information about the feast so that you can explain it to the family

Things you should know:

  • All professed monks are called “Father” whether or not they are priests. Similarly, all professed nuns are called “Mother.” It is often difficult to tell who is the Abbot/Abbess so ask to be introduced. Others who are not yet professed are called “Sister” or “Brother” and can be very new to the monastic life, or several years along
  • Monastics usually have “work” habits/cassocks and “church” clothes just as we do – when you see them at work they may look different than when you see them at prayer in church
  • Monks and nuns have “cells” – this is not like a jail cell with bars and locks, it is just a simple, quiet, private place for their personal prayers and sleeping
  • The places where monks and nuns sleep and work are generally not open to the public. When in doubt, ask before you enter
  • The monastics may have times of prayer together which are not open to visitors
  • Monastics have “obediences” – we might say “assignments” from the abbot/abbess which may vary from day to day depending on the guests, or feast days. Novices or those exploring the monastic life usually rotate between different jobs.
    Often senior monastics develop particular skills or areas of service – cooking, hospitality, iconography, candle-making, chanting, vestment-making, gardening, writing, raising animals, artwork, speaking at churches and retreats, etc., although often all will pitch in when certain jobs need to be done. Some sort of manual labor is almost always one component of their work
  • In women’s monasteries, certain nuns are blessed to serve as acolytes and assist the priest in the altar, rather than altar boys
  • If there is no priest present at a service, the monks and nuns will have a “reader” service which omits the priest’s parts, and the abbot/abbess begin and end the services
  • The abbot/abbess are selected from among the senior monastics and are appointed to this role for their life, or until they resign for some reason
  • There are multiple ‘levels’ in the monastic life and you will likely see several represented; some laypeople may be considering the monastic life with an extended stay, other sisters or brothers may be taking the first steps in their monastic commitment (which may last several years) and others will be “fully professed” meaning they have completely committed their lives to Christ in the monastic life. There may even be senior monks or nuns who have little contact with visitors, as their primary work is in constant prayer and spiritual struggle

When you arrive:

  • Locate the church and, if possible, venerate the icons and say a prayer of thanks for your safe arrival. If a church service is underway, quietly join in
  • Locate the abbot/abbess/ or guest master/mistress, find your room(s), unpack and settle in
  • Confirm the schedule of services and meals
  • Obtain the blessing of the abbot/abbess for your arrival as soon as possible
  • Remember to always ask a blessing and instructions before entering a part of the monastery not obviously open to guests, and before taking photographs

During the Services:

  • Attend as many services as you are able – children do have shorter attention spans, but can often demonstrate more attentiveness at a monastery than at your home church. Encourage them to come to at least part of each service, with one parent taking them back to the guest area for quiet play, then returning
  • Encourage children to identify the icons they see, and if appropriate, allow them to quietly move between narthex and nave
  • When they cannot follow the service, due to language or complexity, encourage children to pray silently “Lord have mercy” or the Jesus prayer with their prayer rope, to pray for family and friends and to ask for the help of the saints in the icons in the church
  • Encourage the children to stay in the services, but be ready to take them out if they become restless. Monastic services can seem long and unfamiliar, so discuss the daily and weekly cycle of prayer with your family – explain the services of the Hours, Orthros/Matins, Vespers, Akathists and any other services that might occur during your visit.

Outside of the Services:

  • Listen for the ringing of bells or the hammering sound of the talanton/semantron which announce the beginning of services. Ask for a blessing to observe this with your children
  • If possible, ask the abbot/abbess to have a time of conversation with your family when children (and adults) can freely ask questions that occur to them (about monastic clothing, vows, work, receiving blessings, etc)
  • Take a walk together around the monastery grounds, visit the cemetery, take opportunities to talk with the monastics if this is appropriate (consult the abbess/abbot)
  • Ask if your family can help around the monastery – there is often yard work that needs doing or other simple tasks
  • Visit the bookstore. Encourage your children to bring spending money to purchase spiritually uplifting things, like crosses, icons, children’s books, and music for themselves and as gifts for others
  • Avoid leaving the monastery grounds unless absolutely necessary – this helps to reinforce the retreat aspect of your visit, and to help everyone to stay focused on the spiritual life – plan side-trips for before or after your visit

When you leave:

  • Ask for a blessing from the abbess/abbot for each family member before you leave the grounds. Say a friendly goodbye to any monastics you may encounter as you depart

Back at Home:

  • Have your children prepare a simple thank you note or card for the monastics
  • Consider adopting a practice from your monastery visit (in consultation with your spiritual father): use of a prayer rope, attending Vespers or Orthros/Matins services.
  • Consider regularly sending monetary gifts to help support the monastery
  • Tell others of your trip and encourage them to make their own pilgrimage or to join you
  • Plan your next Pilgrimage!
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Keeping the Faith

This blog is an effort to equip parents with tools to help you pass on your Orthodox Christian faith to your children.  To help you consciously create a God-loving, God-centered home. To grow closer to God as a family, to acquire virtues and habits that will last a lifetime. To prepare your children to create their own Orthodox Christian homes, and to raise their own children in the faith.

This book is not a collection of anecdotes or personal experiences – many of the action steps came from other sources and other families’ lives. It is also not theology or even deeply reflective.  It is meant to be hands-on, with tools you can use to develop and enhance your Orthodox Christian home.

We have an incredibly rich faith, spanning thousands of years of history, and most of what our children will learn about it will come through us.  Topics I hope to address:  almsgiving, service, blessings, building a family spiritual library, children in church, cycles of prayers, daily prayers at home, making a pilgrimage, the Orthodox “phronema,” patron saints and namedays, praying for your children, Scripture memory, teenagers, underlying values, and many more.

I will try to include in each post quotations from Holy Scripture and/or the writings of church fathers and mothers and other faithful people, a discussion of the topic, some action steps to implement, and books and articles to go deeper. Wherever possible I will link you to helpful resources.


Forty years in the church does not confer sainthood – as in all things, consult with your spiritual father/parish priest. Forgive me, a sinner.

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