Monday, January 17, 2011

St. Michael's Monastery Work Trip

Thanks to everyone who donated toward the insulation project at St. Michael's Monastery Fr. Silouan now has a warm cell with the bonus of a level floor.

My son took a week of vacation from his job and we left last Sunday morning at 4:00AM so we would arrive at the Monastery before dark in case we needed chains to navigate the mile of snow covered dirt road to get back in to the Monastery.

On the way we crossed the Chama River, made famous by Georgia O' Keeffe. It is understandably one of the most frequently painted and photographed sites in New Mexico. It's times like these I wish I had a real camera again instead of a "point and shoot". Oh well, but even with a cheap camera, you get the idea.

The river winds its way down the mountain from Lake Abiquiu which is a couple miles up the road from the Monastery located in Canones, an ancient Pueblo inhabited by families of intermarried Native Americans and Spanish settlers for centuries now.

We started work on Monday morning about 9 AM. The monks by that time had finished Matins, morning prayers and breakfast. Before then the sun was not quite over the top of the mountains of the canyon, and the cold was bitter (at least for me... Yeah, I admit I'm a wimp when it drops below "Arizona freezing": 70 degrees). We had a light snow the first night and the next three days it was below zero when we set up and started working.  There is a footpath from the guest house to the monastery... Hi ho brrrr, hi ho brrrr, it's off to work we go.
I tried to drive my truck with all my tools up to the monks' area.  As I slid down the icy hill from the guest house into the creek, I thought this idea didn't bode well already.  I found out I couldn't get up the other side of the hill out of the creek up to the monastery.  I also found out that I couldn't reverse and back up the hill that I had slid down in order to get back to the guest house parking lot. So rather than wait for the snow to melt off, Fr. Silouan and I put the chains on.  Fortunately I had watched a Youtube video about how to install chains before I left Arizona so I didn't look like a total dope in front of the Abbot. At least not in this matter. We made it up the hill, unloaded the tools, got back down the hill and to the road, took the chains off and went to Lowe's an hour away in Espanola to get the materials for the job.  Thank God to whoever invented snow chains. If I had to carry all the lumber, 12 foot sheetrock and plywood down from the guesthouse and up the hill to the cell, they would have had to bury me there.  Or at least cover me with snow, let me freeze and bury me in the spring.

Hmmmm. Oh, dang.... I missed my opportunity.

Once I got up the hill, I left my truck there for the duration of the job.
While Fr. Silouan and I went to Lowe's, Fr. Ephrosynos and my son removed the sheetrock from the walls so we could insulate them. They discovered there was no framing in the walls, just random boards thrown in to hold the old sheetrock in place. So we bought more 2 by 4's and framed new walls for the insulation. 
In the process of framing and installing sheetrock we found out the room was about 4 inches out of square, 3 inches out of level in various directions and the walls were about two inches out of plumb.
Every stud had to be cut individually to length and every piece of sheetrock was a trapezoid. If you look carefully at the bottom of the door you can see a dark angled piece of wood to cover the gap at the bottom of the door.  This was added to the bottom of the door to keep SOME of the air out because that was how far out of square the floor and door jamb were.  You can also see the top of the door wasn't much better.
We decided it would be cheaper and faster to add framing and insulation to the bottom of the ceiling rather than adding a new roof on the top of the building (which we will revisit as a later project to frame it for solar panels.)  The ceiling presented its own challenges because it too was out of level and square and had a 3 inch dip in the center.  Fortunately half inch sheetrock is pretty flexible and bent around the rollercoaster framing without breaking.
I framed a new header between the two rooms of his cell.  This is the only level thing in the building now. Yes, the ceiling bowed that much... in THAT direction.  It went plenty of other directions too.  The curtain kept the dust from this side out of the other. Once we finished this side we moved everything from the other room into here and did the same thing on the other room.

Fr. Silouan stopped in once in a while to check the progress.  Once we had the walls done the floor issues became VERY apparent. While Jesse cut the tape for the drywall joints, Fr. Silouan looked at where the floor dropped into the corner about 3 inches.  I told him I was very concerned that if he did a prostration he would roll into the corner, bump his head and be in a vegetative coma for the rest of his life.  Or either that there would be dents in the wall and goofy converts would want to come and venerate his dented wall or the bumps on his head and ask him to be their spiritual father. He decided we should try to level the floor the best we could.
Leveling the floor was about as challenging as hanging the sheetrock on St. John's Monastery Church.  The floor dipped and rolled in 3 different directions, so I had to cut wedged shims of varying lengths and heights to create a new subfloor for the new plywood. After cutting lumber kneeling in the snow for 5 days I discovered a set of sawhorses on the other side of the building.
The shims were installed on 16 inch centers and glued and nailed to the existing floor.  I cut off the bottom of the door level to clear the new height of the new floor.
Reader Christopher came up for a short pilgrimage visit from Santa Fe. He helped install the new plywood for a couple hours.  He disappeared the next day for some reason.  (Actually I told him don't feel guilted into helping with the construction... I do have SOME compassion for people who don't lift heavy objects for a living.)
The room was painted, the new floor put in and we stored our "these shouldn't-freeze" tools and materials in the new insulated room instead of the candlemaking factory room overnight.  It is a good thing when the bubbles in your levels actually move, your hoses unravel without breaking and your paint and drywall joint compound aren't blocks of ice.
While I framed the ceiling for insulation in other side of the cell (the other room through the curtain) my son Jesse built some walkways and steps to a couple of the buildings where water run off and erosion had created some steep, slippery little gullies and inclines at the entrance of the buildings.
And, of course while one visits a Monastery there are services to attend.  I managed to get to Vespers a few times.  Matins at 4AM... well, not after working in freezing weather all day and expecting to get anything done the next day.

The Church is simple and beautiful. It has a couple of simple graves in front of it.  The cross on the ground and the cross on the dome is a sober reminder of the connection between His death, the life in Christ in the Church, and the whole meaning of why all of us are called to a renunciation of the things that anchor our souls to this world.
The services are chanted beautifully and peacefully by the three monks.  There are no "kliros ego theatrics", no dramatic readings or operatic renditions. The only light is the glow of the wood stove and the candles. My son said the hardest work of the day was sitting quietly for 30 minutes during the Jesus Prayer before Vespers began. 

We finished the cell Saturday morning.  I did a couple other small "handyman" projects and looked at some major projects to put on the wish list.  By Sunday morning the snow had begun melting off.  We packed the tools into the truck and headed back into the world. 
...But not really back into the world.  While there was no cell phone service in the canyon, they did have internet access, but I chose to stay out of the office and off the 'net while I was there. That was my ascetical feat of the year, like 40 days of Lent packed into 8 days. So as isolated as it was, we were still in the world and it is still accessible at the Monastery because the world is everywhere, even at a Monastery and even among monks and in monks' hearts. They are just as much in the world as we are, in some ways perhaps more so, and they battle with it just as we do, sometimes more earnestly and sometimes not, just as we do.

While I was working on his cell, Fr. Silouan was in the office dealing with car insurance, electric bills, car problems, grocery money, bank accounts and hosts of other administrative things.  For someone who had finally gotten a blessing to live as a hermit at St. John's before he was called out of the woods to become the Abbot of St. Michael's, this is his personal "ironic wilderness". God works in mysterious ways for our salvation, and almost never how we imagine or think He should.

So, I left their wilderness to return to my own. My own, at least, is warmer.  I thank God for that.

God willing I'll return there to build a shower for the monks in their living area and do some remodeling on their kitchen later in the year.  After spring.


Matushka Anna said...

Thank God it all went well and no one was hurt. Keep us up to date on the progress and we'll do what we can to help.

Anonymous said...

I've spent some time camping in that general area, in winter no less (the kind of weather where the beer *outside* the cooler freezes), so I can imagine how grateful the monks are for your help. Good on ya.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, Steve. Just wonderful.

Babushka Jo

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Goodness, Steve, that was practically a re-building job.......

Anonymous said...

After cutting lumber kneeling in the snow for 5 days I discovered a set of sawhorses on the other side of the building.

Of course you did.

I don't envy you working up that out-of-whack building. Takes four times as long as it should and taxes your "creativity". And you're never completely satisfied with the way it turns out. But I'll bet Fr. Silouan is a warm, happy camper (literally) now.

That's such a beautiful area. I hiked the Philmont Scout ranch in nearby Cimarron as a kid. I'd love to get back out there. Looks great, Steve!

el cuerpo negro said...

I'm visiting a Benedictine monastery for a retreat the first week of March and am soooo excited to go! I wish there were an Orthodox monastery closer to Illinois, but it looks like the closest one is in Pennsylvania. Maybe after you've got the monastery in New Mexico all fixed up, you can get a blessing to come start work on one in southern Illinois :)

VSO said...


Keith said...

@ el cuerpo

There are at least 3 orthodox monasteries in Illinois.

Holy Transfiguration (Greek) in Harvard, St. Sava (Serbian) in Libertyville, and Holy Mother of God (Serbian) in Grayslake.

123 said...

el cuerpo negro,

There is also a Greek convent in Kenosha, WI just north of Chicago, a Serbian convent in New Carlisle, IN just east of Chicago, and the Romanian Convent of the Dormition in Rives Junction, MI where many Chicagoans seem go. There is also the St Gregory Palamas Monastery in Perrysville, OH, the Romanian Ascension of Our Lord Monastery and the St. Sabbas the Sanctified Monastery in Detroit, and the Skete of the Resurrection of Christ (ROCOR) in Minneapolis.

See, type in your ZIP and choose only "monasteries" from the selection on the right of the page. Some of the monasteries listed are not as active as others, so call first.

Going to a good old fashioned Russian All-Night Vigil 'feels' like a monastic retreat... and it's only about 3 hours. :)

(FYI, St Isaac of Syria Skete in Boscobel, WI is now uncanonical. The abbot was disciplined and chose to leave the Church rather than submit.)