Tired of the Rat Race? Try Living Like a Monk

Looking to cleanse your soul as well as your body on your next vacation? The monks of Russia's Valaam Monastery might have just the ticket.

The monastery, which is located on an archipelago in Lake Ladoga, northeast of St. Petersburg, is looking for volunteers to work there, in exchange offering room and board for two weeks, as well as transportation by boat to the islands.

This would not be your typical getaway. It's a world away from Club Med or Sandals.

At the monastery, one of the holiest sites in the Russian Orthodox faith, volunteers work 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday -- with a break for lunch -- and from 9 until 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

Men and women -- including married couples who might want to volunteer together -- are housed separately, in rooms for between four and 10 people.

You don't have to be Orthodox, a Christian or even a believer at all to volunteer, but the work is an opportunity to learn about a faith that is little known in the United States.

"Orthodox spirituality is always powerful," said Father John Oliver of St. Elizabeth's Orthodox Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., who volunteered at the monastery before he joined the clergy. "The idea of remembering God in every aspect of life. It's the sense that I have to work the field, so I'm going to use it to get close to God.

"Physical work humbles the body," he said. "It familiarizes a person with the basic cycles of nature, and with how life works."

The work is mostly agricultural -- plowing, sowing, harvesting, weeding and other tasks. The monastery is self-sufficient, but a lot must be done in the short summer to ensure that there is enough food for winter.

The monastery also maintains its own fleet, a garage, farm, stables, forge and workshops, as well as orchards with about 60 varieties of apple trees. There are also a bakery and a dairy.

All of this is necessary, because Lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe, is at least partially icebound from November until March or April, leaving the monastery virtually cut off from the outside world for nearly half the year.

That isolation, though, is part of what makes Valaam such a deeply affecting place to visit, even if you're not quite ready to commit two weeks to living like a monk.

"It felt fundamentally sane -- the pace of life felt organic," Oliver said of his time there. "There's never a wasted moment, but it felt fundamentally sane."

The effects of that pace of life are visible on the faces of the men and women who live at the monastery. They glow with a calm and seemingly generous energy, a warmth that even casual visitors to the islands quickly come to feel within themselves, as though it was in the air itself.

If the spirit of the people who live in a place, can come to inhabit the landscape and change the very atmosphere, then maybe that is why Valaam feels the way it does. The islands have been home to a monastery for more than 1,000 years. According to church chronicles, it was founded in the first half of the 10th century by a Greek monk, St. Sergius, and his Karelian companion, St. German, when Christianity was just starting to spread throughout what is now Russia.

Despite its isolation on the rocky islands in the center of an icy lake 60 miles wide and nearly twice as long, the monastery was ravaged several times in wars between Sweden and Russia, but each time, the monks returned to rebuild the site.

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