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.

During the Soviet era, the islands were used at various times as a navy school, a home for disabled soldiers and the elderly, and as a dumping ground for people the government considered undesirable. Through it all, the monastery buildings were allowed to go to ruin by a government that banned religion.

In the 1960s, there were plans to turn the islands into a tourist resort, with rides and attractions and an airport to make them more accessible, plans that, according to the monastery Web site "would have killed Valaam." The plans, however, were never carried out.

The monks were only allowed to return to Valaam in 1989, and as they had many times before, they immediately began restoring the monastery.

After seven decades of Soviet rule in Russia, though, the monks had a more important goal.

"The monastic task is not the restoration of the cloister walls and not the gold of iconostasises, but rising a man in Christ's spirit, living in patience, humility, and obedience to God, keeping clear conscience," Archimandrite Pankraty, the abbot of the monastery, said after the buildings were returned to the church.

Nevertheless, the churches and other buildings of the monastery have been lovingly restored. Its current incarnation dates from the late 19th century, when a new cathedral was built, consisting of the smaller Church of St. Sergius and St. German and the majestic Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior.

Perched on the highlands at the northern end of the largest of the archipelago's islands, the cathedral's sky-blue and white belfry and five domes reach up to the sky, the gold details glistening in the sun.

There is very little on the islands besides the monastery and several sketes -- small communities of hermits. Most of the land is pristine pine forests, untouched by any development. In the harbor, there is a small café, but no other amenities for the tourist.

That, however, is what makes the place so special for the visitor. Unlike the palaces around St. Petersburg, which are certainly beautiful and lovingly restored to their imperial glory, Valaam is not a museum, not a historic site. It is alive.

Yet, it is a life that you will have difficulty finding in St. Petersburg or Moscow, which are both increasingly glittering, bustling cities, where it can seem that oil and natural gas money has bought out the famous Russian soul.

Valaam, however, feels completely out of time. There are trucks and machines -- the monks do not disdain modern technology, and even have a Web site, www.valaam.ru -- but those signs of the modern world seem oddly anachronistic.

On Valaam, the spiritual life of the monastery is stronger than the modern world.

"The benefit of a visit to Valaam is an exposure to an ancient way of life that has produced saints, a way of life that -- if followed -- will produce sane men and women," Oliver said. "Going to Valaam helped me fall in love with the sacred, and with what the sacred can do in human lives."

That may be a lot to expect out of a vacation, but if you are looking for a place where the beauty of nature and the beauty created by man are in harmony, Valaam is the perfect destination.

For information about the volunteer opportunity at the monastery, e-mail valaam2008@east.ru.