Unless they’re traveling by car, many visitors to the Monastery of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk—located about 140 miles from Philadelphia, in South Canaan, Pennsylvania—take a bus to Scranton. There they meet up with a monk, who drives them through fields and over hills the rest of the way to the monastery. Old country houses along the route still display large, sturdy Trump–Pence signs in their front lawns.
I first visited St. Tikhon’s in 2014, soon after becoming an Orthodox Christian. As a former Roman Catholic, I had visited Benedictine monasteries in upstate New York and in Florida, so I knew something about monastic life before going there. Generally, I try to visit St. Tikhon’s about once a year, though the monastery was closed to visitors throughout most of 2020 due to the pandemic.
Committing to even a few days’ stay at the monastery, however, has never been an easy decision for me. That’s because detaching oneself from city life to a life of prayer, even temporarily, is not easily accomplished. At the monastery, there’s no television, no quick trips into town for Chinese food, and no revelry with friends after dinner. The monastic focus is on salvation and the eternal life of the soul. Arriving at St. Tikhon’s after a long sojourn in the city is as much of a shock to the system as returning to “the world” after spending several days there.
The first thing one notices about St. Tikhon’s is its stillness. The monastery seems out of range even of air traffic, and if you listen long enough you might catch the shrill chwirk of a hawk or the piping notes of an eagle flying overhead. Covering almost 400 acres of woods and fields, the monastery includes two lakes, one hand-dug by the monks and stocked with fish that frequently end up as a meal on the dinner table.
The monastery was founded in 1905 by Patriarch Saint Tikhon under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church and later became part of the Orthodox Church of America. It currently houses 14 monks hailing from around the country. Opening in 1937, Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary prepares married and unmarried men for priesthood. Some seminarians work and live at the monastery for a time.
Schema Archimandrite Father Sergius Bowyer, the monastery’s abbot, is a former Roman Catholic who converted to Orthodoxy and became a priest. He converted, he says, because he felt that Orthodoxy offered him a life “more fully in Christ.”
“My family is still very much Catholic,” Father Sergius told me. “Ultimately, the important thing is to keep Christ as the center of our lives.”
St. Tikhon’s is home to two icons presumed to be miraculous: “She Who is Quick to Hear,” a copy of an icon at the Dochiariou Monastery on Mt. Athos, and a likeness of St. Anna, painted in the Holy Land and which reportedly began streaming myrrh in 2004. The monastery sells a variety of items, including books, liturgical CDs, homemade candles, bee products, and its signature brand of “Burning Bush” coffee.
Receiving guests has traditionally been the hallmark of a monastery’s hospitality. Visitors are encouraged to follow the monks’ routine, which includes attending 6 a.m. Divine Liturgy and evening vespers and matins services daily. Men contemplating monasticism stay at St. Tikhon’s for an extended period and are assigned work to support the monastery’s operation.
Meals at St. Tikhon’s are mostly silent affairs. Monks and visitors listen as accounts of saints’ lives and the writings of Church Fathers are read aloud until the abbot rings a hand bell, prompting them all to rise for a short prayer. With the abbot’s permission, they then commence conversation and resume eating.
The monks at St. Tikhon’s sport long ponytails and patriarchal beards, and many wear dramatic kamilavka hats covered with black veils during church services. While Catholic monks’ habits vary depending on their order, Orthodox monks wear a standard outfit: a black cassock and belt and a raised black cap called a skufia. They do not shave or cut their hair, often bunching it into a ponytail or bun. Again unlike Catholic monks, who often don secular clothing for trips outside the monastery, Orthodox monks wear their habits constantly. Some monks at St. Tikhon’s told me they’ve been mistaken for Muslims while conducting business in Scranton. “Are you ISIS?” they have been asked.
Many monks at St. Tikhon’s converted to Orthodox Christianity from evangelical Protestantism. During my most recent visit, I met one who had worked as a top linguist in the military and left a lucrative career in linguistics to enter St. Tikhon’s seminary. Nathan expects to be ordained a priest next year and hopes to be assigned to a parish in Alaska, where he grew up.
“I spent a lot of years searching,” another monk told me. “I was an atheist, I shopped around. I’d go to Catholic and Anglican churches. Once I went into this really fancy high Anglican church, prayed, but when communion time came around, they started passing out little cups of grape juice. No way can I do this, I thought. Orthodoxy gives me the spiritual fullness that I had been searching for.”
Another monk said he spent considerable time traveling the world and managing restaurants out West before entering a monastery in his mid-forties.
“It’s far better to become a monastic when you are in your twenties,” he said. “The problem of obedience is especially hard when you are considerably older than the Abbott. Becoming a monk in your mid-twenties is better, when you’ve had some life experiences but are still malleable,” he said.
In its 107-year history, St. Tikhon’s has courted its fair share of intrigue. Decades ago, a famous Serbian Metropolitan was poisoned to death during an overnight visit. A man seen entering and leaving the cleric’s room is the suspected murderer, and the Metropolitan’s vestments can be seen in St. Tikhon’s museum. In the 1960s, a monk suffered a heart attack while fishing in the hand-dug lake and drowned.
St. Tikhon’s musical and choral programs, directed by Benedict Sheehan, attract international attention. Sheehan once studied at St. Tikhon’s seminary but decided he was not suited to the priesthood and has since established a successful musical career. His work as chorus master on the 2020 Naxos release of Kastalsky’s Requiem for Fallen Brothers earned him a 2021 Grammy nomination. St. Tikhon’s has flourished as a musical training ground for many Orthodox parishes on the east coast, and part of the monastery’s museum, which contains priceless icons once owned by Czar Nicholas II, is used as a performance space.
Nestled in the Pocono Mountains, St. Tikhon’s influence is vaster than it appears.