Father Damian Hart and the pull of the Orthodox Church
One morning in the summer of 1996, Damian Hart was standing naked on a pier in the Aegean Sea. The sun was bearing down on Mount Athos, one of several craggy peninsulas that extend like claws off the coast of northeastern Greece. Hart, an American priest, was a guest at Agiou Pavlou, or St. Paul, one of twenty-odd Greek Orthodox monasteries that occupy the land. For Greek Christians, the peninsula is a holy site, perhaps the holiest in the world. The Virgin Mary is said to have landed there once with Jesus’s disciple John, on a ship that was blown off course, and been so transfixed by its beauty—the ring of evergreens around its coast, the forest of oaks and black pines within, the variegated flowers and fruit trees—that she prayed to her son to make it her garden. Since the tenth century, it’s been continuously occupied by monks who sing the Virgin’s praises morning and night and say she occasionally appears in visions. The monks adhere to incredible standards of asceticism: some sleep in their own future coffins, following instructions from the Middle Ages (“Let your reclining in bed be for you an image of your declining into your grave—and you will sleep less”), and celebrate the most sacred holiday of the year, Easter, by indulging in some olive oil with their vegetables. Women are forbidden.
The monasteries still run on tenth-century time, starting their first service before sunrise, so Hart had been up since two A.M., praying. Standing on the pier now, in his bare feet, he was over six feet tall. Turquoise seawater lapped before him; behind him was a coterie of Greek monks wearing black robes—cassocks—and hats with long veils and chanting kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy”). Though Hart, then sixty-six, had been an Orthodox priest and monk for twenty years, he had come here, to the heart of Orthodox spirituality, thousands of miles from his home in rural Georgia, to be baptized. He wanted to experience the ritual in the maximally traditional manner. He was going the whole hog, as he might have put it.
A priest clad in white stood beside him. He made the sign of the cross in the water, then put one hand on Hart’s sternum and another on his back. “The servant of God, Damian, is blessed,” he said in Greek, “in the name of the Father . . .” He lowered Hart into the water. When Hart stood up again, he heard a whistle from a passing boat and thought of the Anthony Quinn movie Zorba the Greek. “And of the Son,” the priest said, repeating the motions. “And of the Holy Spirit.”
After the third immersion, Hart stood straight again, blinking, with saltwater running down his beard. The priest gave him a white cloak to don and a candle. A lifetime of religious labors had culminated in this moment. Now Hart’s soul, he felt, would be better prepared for judgment day, which he knew wasn’t far off. More immediately, he would now get full recognition from these fellow monks, these Athonites, spiritual athletes of global repute. And he couldn’t wait to tell the other priests back home in America.
My first experience with the Orthodox faith was at a little country church in southern Michigan, called Holy Ascension. It’s in Albion, a small Rust Belt town near the college I was attending. Slavic factory workers founded the church a century ago, and against the odds, it’s still intact, for which I feel lucky—or rather, blessed. At the time, I’d only been exposed to Orthodoxy via pop culture—the endless Russian Orthodox wedding scene in The Deer Hunter; the Seinfeld episode where George tries to become Latvian Orthodox to appease a girlfriend’s parents—and in the novels of Dostoevsky, where the faith came across as a crazy man’s Catholicism. If I had ever thought about it, I would have assumed these ethnic Orthodoxies were more like cultural clubs than constituent parts of a common, ancient religion.
But I was curious. I’m a religious person by instinct, and after a couple of semesters of liberal arts studies, the kind of Christianity I was raised with, in a suburban megachurch, no longer felt viable to me. The houses of worship in our rural locale were mostly limited to mainline Protestant churches, which didn’t interest me either, so I soon stopped going anywhere. However, I had a friend named Naomi—two class years above me, headstrong, with a biting wit—who was in the midst of becoming Orthodox. I decided to tag along with her one Sunday morning in 2006, and followed her carpool across thirty miles of dirt roads.
The rectangular white building resembled any of the other churches we’d passed but for the aqua-colored onion dome on top. The choir was already singing when we walked in. Other than the pews around the periphery, there was no seating, just a wide-open space where a couple dozen people stood facing the altar. Byzantine icons, with those angular portraits of saints, in brilliant tones of red, blue, gold, and green, adorned the walls on every side.
What struck me most about this service, compared to those in other churches, was the sense of fluidity. Instead of a halting call-and-response between the priest and the congregation, the entire service was like one continuous song with a meandering melody. There was constant motion: bearded men in robes stepping through the doors to the altar, people walking up to reverently kiss the icons and then retreating, little kids wandering about. It felt cyclical, and so did the music. Almost every time the priest spoke, the choir answered with the same refrain: “Lord, have mercy.” The service somehow seemed to be occurring outside of time, metaphysically suspended, a perception aided by the plumes of incense that hung in the air.
It was so seductive, I didn’t go back for a couple of years. I wasn’t ready. Before I approached it seriously, I wanted to read some books and process the intellectual questions, like the audacious claim I’d heard somewhere that Orthodoxy constituted the “true historical church.” Then one day in my senior year, I was in the office of my medieval-literature professor, a man in his mid-thirties named Justin Jackson. He was the main envoy of Orthodoxy on our campus, a role buttressed by his resemblance to Rasputin. I happened to mention my curiosity about the Orthodox faith and my plan to give it a rigorous consideration.
“Hold on, let me stop you right there,” Jackson said. “You can’t approach the Orthodox faith through a rationalist lens. No one should ever convert because they think its theology is the most logical, or because of its claims about its historical status.” It’s a mystical tradition, he said, far removed from the Enlightenment. From an Orthodox standpoint—as from, say, a Buddhist or Taoist one—it’s naïve to think reason and the five senses are the only reliable avenues of knowledge.
Whatever plans I had that afternoon, I dropped them as Jackson started walking me through the rudiments of Orthodox theology, lifting books of fourth-century poetry from his shelves to underscore a point here or there. As a literature major, I’d been primed by reading medieval mystics in my courses, but even so, the description he gave sounded so radical, I barely recognized it as Christianity. It did away with the most grotesque parts, like the notion that God would require a blood sacrifice—the death of his son—before he would forgive anyone’s transgressions. Instead, Jackson said, Orthodox tradition speaks of restoring humanity to communion with the divine. When God became human, in the form of Jesus Christ, he walked on our dirt, drank our water, and breathed our air, thereby imbuing them with divinity. Then, by dying and rising again, he filled even the grave itself with divine life (“O Death, where is thy sting?”). It was the most beautiful paradigm for understanding anthropology and human history I’d ever encountered.
In the following months, I immersed myself, reading books on iconography and Church history. (In brief: During the eleventh century, the Christian world cleaved between the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire, partly over disagreements about the pope’s authority; a millennium later, those eastern churches still form a global faith community, with many different cultural iterations. It’s now the second-largest Christian denomination in the world.) From an intellectual standpoint, Orthodoxy resolved problems I’d been tangling with, from science to philosophy to the historicity and relevance of the Bible. I began listening to Greek chant and Russian choral music in the car, saying Orthodox prayers every morning and evening, and adjusting to the fasting regimen, which meant eating vegan for a third of the calendar year. The more services I attended, the more deeply I fell in love. The hymns were so rich with poetry, I often welled up while I stood there in church. Eventually I converted at Holy Ascension, the parish near campus.
We did the ceremony on the Saturday before Easter. There were several others converting the same day, all of us students or recent graduates of nearby universities. With my head bowed, the priest stood before me and read a series of prayers. “Blessed art thou, O Lord God almighty, source of all good things, sun of righteousness, who sheddest forth upon them that were in darkness the light of salvation,” he intoned. “Do thou, the same master of all men, compassionate king of kings, grant also unto thy servant Nicholas the seal of the gift of thy holy, almighty and adorable Spirit.”
“Lord, have mercy,” the choir sang behind me.
The priest put a new cross around my neck, and he dabbed my face, hands, and bare feet with a brush soaked in oil—the Orthodox rite of chrismation. “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” he said with each application. “Amen,” the congregation repeated. When we resumed the regular service, the other converts and I took the Eucharist for the first time.
The fall after graduation, I landed my first job, reporting for a newspaper in western Kentucky, where I knew no one. My first weekend there, I found an Orthodox group that was renting space in a Lutheran chapel forty minutes away, and I started going every Sunday. I was grateful to have a community, including a priest who liked talking about music and literature, and was grateful too for a place to worship—though from the beginning, it was an uncomfortable fit. We had to set up our altar for every service then clear the space when we were finished. Some days only a few of us came. I began singing in the choir, alternating between bass and tenor, but I didn’t know the parts yet, and no one else knew them much better. Sometimes a song fell apart in the middle and we had to start over.
Meanwhile, among the parishioners were some unreconstructed Baptists who argued constantly with the priest. They seemed unsure about whether they wanted to be there at all. After a few months, the priest clashed with the church’s largest donor, who left, and afterward there wasn’t enough money to cover his salary. The first week after his departure, I heard one woman criticize him for spending money on “pictures and knickknacks”—by which she evidently meant icons and candles, the most basic accoutrements of Orthodox worship. I didn’t go back.
Instead, I began commuting to a Greek Orthodox parish in Nashville. It was twice the drive, but I was glad for the chance to spend time in a bigger city, and early on at the new parish I met some people my age. The men, in particular, were more charged up about Orthodoxy than anyone I had met before, to the point of subtly competing with one another. Most of them had saints’ names from birth, like John and Mark, but upon converting they had taken Greek names instead—Theodosius, Cyprian, Ignatius. Almost immediately, they asked if I’d like to join them on a weekend retreat at a monastery. I had minimal experience with monasteries—I’d once attended a service at a women’s monastery in Michigan, that was all—but I gathered it would be a good chance to pray and meditate, maybe get some spiritual counsel.
The place my new friends had in mind was one they visited often: the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension, in rural Northwest Georgia, not far from Chattanooga. It had been around since 1980, founded by converted Episcopalians. Most of that group were dead (or reposed, as we say in the Orthodox Church, waiting for the universal resurrection) and buried in a cemetery on the premises. This included the monastery’s longtime abbot, Father Damian Hart.
I remember leaving on a Friday evening, reaching the hills of East Tennessee as the sun went down, passing billboards for FIREWORKS and PEACHES at the state line. The monastery was several miles off the highway, beside a Confederate cemetery, up a steep driveway that led to a clearing in the woods. We slept in the guesthouses, which were stationary trailers. When we woke on Saturday morning, I followed the others into a little chapel, in the house atop the hill, where oil lamps hung from the ceiling and icons adorned the walls. The cerulean stained-glass windows had life-sized images of two saints I recognized: Herman and Innocent, Russians who sailed to Alaska in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to evangelize the Inuit. Soon three monks emerged, robed in black. One who looked to be in his twenties went to the side and began reading Psalms in a soft Southern twang. It was a solemn, plodding service, lasting some three hours. Afterward we went to a dining room down the hall, full of sunshine, and broke our fast with scrambled eggs, bread, and avocados.
We spent part of the afternoon strolling the monastery grounds, which were lush and hilly, populated by gnarly oak trees and pines. Within the dozens of acres there were several little ponds. Later we sat around the sparse bookstore with the young monk, Brother Seraphim, who kept track of the inventory and the bookkeeping. It was just as peaceful as I’d hoped, though I was coming to realize I was mismatched with my companions. They were the opposite of those stubborn former Baptists at my old parish. They hardly discussed anything besides Orthodoxy; it was as though their lives had started over when they converted.
That night, after dinner and an evening prayer service, we watched a documentary about the Valaam Monastery, which is on a remote island in western Russia, near the Finnish border. Then the conversation turned uncomfortable. Two members of our group were preparing to convert, and the others said it was crucial that they be newly baptized in the Orthodox Church, even though they’d been practicing Protestants all their lives. The consensus was that other baptisms didn’t count— or, at least, that it was best not to take the risk.
I stayed quiet, not mentioning my chrismation in Michigan. My companions were suggesting, without meaning to, that I’d made an enormous mistake, and that, since I had not been re-baptized at my conversion, my status was in question. It was unclear what they thought the consequences might be, and personally, I wasn’t interested in rethinking my position; but it was momentarily unsettling.
I would soon learn that the debate over whether to require a “corrective baptism” during conversion is freighted with a long history in the Orthodox Church. This is especially true in America, thanks largely to Damian Hart, the mercurial priest who founded the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension. His actions in the late nineties, in particular his preaching about corrective baptism upon his return from Mount Athos, led to a rift in the branch he belonged to, the Orthodox Church in America—one that some Southern priests still refer to as “the schism.”
In the seven years since that weekend stay at the monastery, as I’ve moved around the country for my career, the Orthodox faith has remained at the center of my life. I’ve visited other monasteries, made Orthodox friends of many ethnicities, and spent untold hours in services. I now belong to the OCA cathedral in Manhattan’s East Village, a place with an illustrious century-plus history and the most diverse Orthodox congregation I’ve ever found. It’s more a home to me than my own apartment is; the community there is my surrogate family.
During the course of my religious journey, Hart’s story has intrigued me more and more. I saw parallels in both of those groups of converts I met in the South: in the stubbornness of the former Baptists, and in the people from Nashville who were set on attaining some standard of perfect traditionalism. And I’ve seen it dozens of other times since, in restless parishioners whose conversions seem, more than anything, to be expressions of identity crises.
This past spring, I began reporting out Hart’s biography and the history of his monastery. Several people I encountered gave vague notes of caution. “I will say it is not a very happy nor edifying story,” said an elderly priest in Mississippi who once knew Hart well. Another referred to Hart’s legacy as a “shipwreck of souls.” Throughout his priesthood, Hart, who died of cancer in 2009, had grappled outwardly—and stubbornly—with his spirituality, and his story seemed to bear sobering implications about the outlook for Orthodoxy in the United States. My own priest in New York knew him, too—the OCA is a close-knit institution. He told me, “If you go very far down that road, Nick, you might not like what you find.”
In March, I took the Long Island Railroad from my neighborhood in Brooklyn to visit Father Maximos Weimar. He oversees a Russian Orthodox monastic community of ten men. They had recently been forced to leave their borrowed property on Long Island’s North Shore and had acquired a two-story Victorian house in the wealthy hamlet of St. James. I had met Weimar once before and liked him immediately. He struck me as by turns obstinate and gentle, a self-taught scholar, devout but candid, sometimes to the point of irreverence. In his stories about his pre-monastic life, when he ran a movie theater in South Carolina, he had sounded like the narrator in a Tom Waits song. Lately we’d been corresponding by email. Weimar knew Hart as well as anyone did; he had entered the Georgia monastery in 1995, in his late twenties, and for some years Hart was his mentor.
When I reached the porch, at the end of the long driveway, a monk with glasses and a graying goatee opened the door. “Hi! I’m Father Parthenios,” he announced, his voice making it clear he was a Southerner, too. (Parthenios Miller, I’d come to learn, was from Atlanta.) He greeted me, monastic-style, with a kiss on each cheek, and led me to the dining room. Around us, boxes of books and liturgical supplies were stacked waist-high, awaiting unpacking. “Father Maximos said he’d be right down. Can I get you a cup of coffee?” I said I’d be obliged, and Miller went into the kitchen. Weimar appeared a moment later. He wore a navy cassock, with a large, ornate cross hanging from his neck and a pen and iPhone protruding from his chest pocket. He gave me a blessing—I kissed his hand—and we sat down. Miller returned with the coffee. After Weimar described his own background, I inquired about Hart’s personality.
Weimar laughed. “Father Damian was, like, all the contradictions of a human being you can imagine,” he said. He leaned over the table, the folds of his cassock swinging as he gestured with his arms. “At times, he was charming; he was sweet; he was kind. He had a temper that would just—you felt like he was going to throw you into the ocean.”
“And maybe hold you under,” Miller added.
“Most of us are like that,” Weimar said. “But our cycle is like the course of a month or two months. That was sort of Father Damian’s daily cycle. You’d experience the full range of human emotions every twenty-four hours.”
Hart was six foot one and imposing; I’ve heard from others that wherever he went, he was the center of gravity, the locus of every conversation. “He sounded, and his physical manners, were very, very similar—and I don’t mean this in an offensive way—they were very similar to Foghorn Leghorn,” Weimar said. “The similarity was obvious to everyone, particularly when a non-Southerner would come in—‘Is he for real?’” His accent was so thick, Weimar recalled, that once when they were in London, Weimar had to translate everything Hart said for the cab driver. Hart also spoke, by reflex, in what sounded like rural nineteenth-century idioms: “I’ll bet you a horse and buggy,” or “He could talk the horns off a brass billy goat!” Weimar said, “He’d say things where we’re like, ‘We don’t know what that means.’ His term for someone having an extreme expression was, ‘Well, she had a baby with a straw hat on!’ He was sort of courtly on one level, but he was a working-class boy.”
The details of Hart’s life before monasticism have turned out to be elusive; nearly everyone who knew him then has died. He was born in rural North Carolina, into a Southern Baptist family, in 1931 and christened William King Hart. His father, Floris, was a traveling salesman from Indiana. He had one sister, Mary, named after their mother. In his early twenties, Hart was an Army medic in Austria, and later he studied organ performance at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. Basking in all that sacred music, he was drawn to Anglo-Catholicism, a highly traditional strain of the Episcopal Church.
At Westminster he became fast friends with Michael Adams, an Army veteran and fellow undergrad, who was also converting. They both moved to New York in 1956 to study at the Episcopal seminary in Chelsea. Weimar and Miller remember stories Hart told later about his Manhattan days. “He was a very accomplished organist,” Weimar said. “Every time we’d go into the city, he’d say, ‘I played in this church, I played in this church.’”
“He was connected,” Miller said, noting that Hart had known Madeleine L’Engle and Andrés Segovia.
“And he was an up-and-comer in the Episcopal Church,” Weimar said. “If he’d stayed, they probably would have made him a bishop.”
After seminary, Hart moved to Southern California and served as a parochial school headmaster, first in Chula Vista and then in San Diego, where Adams joined him as a teacher. There they started a monastic order in 1966, dubbing it the Congregation of St. Augustine; they took vows of poverty and chastity and began praying the daily office. Hart was zealous to the point of annoying some parishioners, and he apparently gave less than total devotion to the job. The school had been struggling financially for a decade, and within four years of Hart’s arrival, enrollment and funding had fallen perilously low. In 1970, the church decided to replace him.
Hart and Adams next found jobs running an Episcopal school for delinquent teenage boys in Picayune, Mississippi, near the Gulf Coast. David Colburn, who taught reading and social studies there, recounted his first visit to the school in 1975, when he was just twenty. Between Hart’s commanding presence and the high-church ceremoniousness, Colburn was enchanted, and he remains reverent of Hart. “I just absolutely fell in love with the work they were doing there, and with the services,” he recalled. “I was in hog heaven.”
He had only a year to enjoy it. In September 1976, the leaders of the Episcopal Church voted to start ordaining women, and Hart and Adams were devastated. To them, it signaled an embrace of an entire liberal theological agenda; it was on a continuum with bishops questioning whether the Virgin Mary was really a virgin. Colburn remembers Adams crying when he delivered the news.
Many Episcopal clergy in the Deep South shared their dread. Paul Yerger, who’s now the priest of an Orthodox church near Jackson, was friends with Hart and Adams. They all fell in with a group of distressed Episcopalians who were holding meetings to discuss their options. The turning point was when an Orthodox priest from New York came to give a lecture. “In about forty-five minutes, he kind of gave the entire history of the church,” Yerger recalled. “I was just blown away with it. I’d never heard anybody talk like that.” From that point on, their way forward was clear. Yerger remembers a subsequent meeting where someone stood at a lectern, trying to rally support to start a schismatic Episcopal group. Hart, sitting near the front, scratched his back with a book called The Orthodox Church, making sure everyone could see the cover.
In the spring of 1977, Yerger and his family formally joined the Orthodox Church at a ceremony in their garage, with Hart, Adams, and Colburn present. A few months later, it was the monks’ turn. Bishop Dmitri Royster of the Orthodox Church in America, a charismatic figure with national prestige, came down from Hartford, and another priest chartered buses from Florida, picking up supporters along his drive up the coast. (A reporter covered it for the New York Times, under the headline EPISCOPAL DEFECTIONS ARE RISING BECAUSE OF ORDINATION OF WOMEN. At least a dozen parishes had already seceded, the article said, revealing “deep, unmeasurable levels of unrest” brought about by the council’s vote.) Everyone gathered in the red-brick chapel at the school to watch the chrismation ceremony. Royster anointed the monks with oil, repeating a mantra, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” as he dabbed their faces, hands, and feet with his brush.
At first the Episcopal school administrators had supported their conversion, Colburn recalled, because they too were upset about the ordination of women; but this only lasted until the school’s fundraising campaigns withered. The monks’ new beards didn’t go over well either. “We were hearing comments that we were looking awfully scruffy,” Colburn said. “We quickly realized they were growing unhappy with us.” Then after dinner one night in December 1979, a fire began on the kitchen stove, and the main building went up in flames so high they were visible for miles. No one was injured. In the summer, when the school year was over, the monks left.
The fire, Colburn told me, had destroyed a library of six thousand volumes, many of them rare and valuable. The insurance payout on the books gave them enough to make a down payment on a new property and establish a new Orthodox monastery in their own image. Hart and Royster had an easy rapport in those days. By then, the bishop was overseeing the newly created Diocese of the South, and he hoped the monks would move closer to his church in Dallas, but Hart wouldn’t consider it. (He always said, “I’d rather be in hell with a broken back than be in Texas,” Weimar recalled.) Through contacts in Atlanta, the monks found the perfect property in Georgia: the wooded estate of a carpet baron, which happened to be on the site of a minor Civil War battle. It was near the town of Dalton, not far from the Georgia–Tennessee border. They settled in, converting the living room to a chapel, the bedrooms to monastic cells, and the basement to a library. They christened it the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension.
At St. Seraphim, the OCA cathedral in Dallas, almost every inch of the walls is painted in frescoes, with images of archangels, the apostles, and other saints. Among them are a few icons bearing Dmitri Royster’s face. In the last decade of the archbishop’s life, and even more so after he died in 2009, many parishioners came to believe he was a saint. In 2016, the congregation finished adding a mausoleum onto the cathedral, where his body is now interred, and when they dug up his coffin to move him from the cemetery, they said his corpse hadn’t decomposed at all—a sign, according to Orthodox tradition, of sainthood.
I had arranged to meet Milos Konjevich, the parish treasurer, who was Royster’s close friend for many years. After a Sunday morning service, he walked me over to the administrative office. Incandescent lights flickered between blades of the ceiling fan, casting intermittent shadows against the beige walls and filing cabinets. “I came down here in ’85 to liquidate banks with the FDIC—during the banking crisis that we thought was going to be one for the ages,” Konjevich explained. His parents, who were Serbian immigrants, had raised him in the Orthodox Church in Illinois. He began attending the cathedral upon his arrival to Dallas.
During his first year, he read in a newsletter about a pilgrimage to the Georgia monastery. “I didn’t know anything about monasteries, I’d never been to a monastery, but I figured I was gonna go,” he said. “But I didn’t wanna tell anybody, ’cause I figured, people will think, You’re a holy Joe.” He had pictured a fortress, ringed by tall stone walls, and was surprised to see that it was just a house. He found the monks sitting around drinking coffee. “I introduced myself, then I heard this voice from a back room—‘Milos, is that you?’ It was Dmitri. I didn’t think he would know my voice.” Royster had picked him out from his home congregation; they started getting acquainted, and the next day, the bishop asked Konjevich for a ride to the airport. “And looking back, he had a plan,” Konjevich told me. “He knew who his people were.”
By that time, Royster was almost ten years deep into what would be his life’s work: developing a unified Orthodox presence throughout the South. Almost every weekend he was on the road, visiting the existing parishes, starting new ones wherever he found enough interest—a religious Johnny Appleseed. In 1979 alone, he launched seven new churches in Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia. By 1990, there were another eighteen. Konjevich started driving Royster on his pastoral visits. “I think he intuitively knew you just had to go out and throw seeds every place and see what stuck,” Konjevich said.
In a way, Royster was carrying on work that had begun in the Age of Exploration. The earliest Orthodox presence on this continent was in Florida, when a Greek carpenter landed in modern-day Pensacola in 1528 and abandoned his shipmates to live with the natives instead. (Evidence shows that he went through Alabama and ended up in the Great Plains.) By the time the first Russian missionaries, including Saint Herman, arrived in Alaska in 1794, an entire community of Greek laborers had briefly set up camp near Orlando, calling their settlement New Smyrna (it would be subsumed into the town of St. Augustine). Throughout the nineteenth century, Greek immigrants kept coming to the South, establishing Orthodox churches in port towns like New Orleans and Galveston.
Because of the helter-skelter way Orthodoxy arrived on American shores, the administrative situation has always bordered on anarchic. Rather than coalescing into a unified American church, most Orthodox bishops here report to hierarchs overseas—whether in Greece, Russia, Romania, or elsewhere. Any large American city might have five or six Orthodox parishes, each in communion with the others but under different leadership. Royster was part of an effort to change this; he was building up the Orthodox Church in America—formally recognized in 1970 and based in New York—a canopy under which he hoped all the immigrant groups would unite without losing their distinctness.
Royster was uncannily suited to evangelize the Bible Belt. (Most of what I know about his background comes from Peter Robichau, a priest in North Carolina who wrote his master’s thesis on the early days of the Diocese of the South and shared his research materials with me.) Growing up in Dallas in the 1920s and ’30s, Royster and his sister, who were raised Baptist, learned about Orthodoxy from a coffee-table book on world religions, and they both converted in their teens at the local Greek Orthodox parish. With his talent for picking up languages, Royster translated Japanese for the Allies in World War II and then taught Spanish at Southern Methodist University. (He later began translating Orthodox service books for Mexicans in his spare time.) He worked on a linguistics PhD before giving it up to join the priesthood. As an OCA priest, Royster’s reputation rose quickly. In 1964, Life published a full-page photo of him baptizing Lee Harvey Oswald’s daughter, as a favor to Oswald’s Russian widow. By the end of the sixties, he was transferred up north and consecrated a bishop, tasked with visiting churches throughout New York and New Jersey. The experience gave him a kind of culture shock. “You felt like they were sort of nationalistic clubs, and the Church was kind of the framework for it,” he later recalled. In 1971, he became Bishop of Hartford, and in addition to his daily responsibilities there, he took it upon himself to start building a new diocese in the South, comprising fourteen states from Oklahoma to Virginia. He wanted to see the OCA do more missionary work, and he reasoned that the South was the best place to start. By 1978, he had narrowly lost a bid to be the OCA’s highest-ranking bishop; in the aftermath, the Church let him move back to Dallas and run the new diocese full time. He would become an archbishop in the church in 1993.
Another of Royster’s close associates in these years was Father Peter Smith, a wisecracking Brooklyn native who now lives in suburban Atlanta. Smith has rusty red hair and wears a forest-green cassock, an apparent nod to his Irish-Catholic heritage. It seemed appropriate that we were speaking over breakfast at a Chick-fil-A, a chain that many of my friends up north, Orthodox included, disdain for its owners’ affiliation with the Christian Right. For better or worse, a large share of the new converts filling up Royster’s Southern parishes were former Protestants who’d been concerned about what they saw as liberal encroachments in their denominations, as Hart had been, and who saw Orthodoxy as a bastion of conservative values. Smith told stories about the makeshift spaces where Royster launched some of the early parishes. Often the communities started by meeting in houses, with their living rooms converted to chapels, then graduated to renting space in banks. One moved to a veterinarian’s office—“So every time we met, the dogs just went crazy,” Smith recalled. “Blessed is the kingdom”—he hummed the opening line of the service—“bow wow wow wow!”
Konjevich especially loved Royster’s Sunday-morning homilies. “He would relate to everybody. He had the knack of knowing who he was talking to. And his sermons were always spontaneous.” He always sat around after the Sunday services, talking with parishioners as long as they wanted, sometimes for hours. On the way back from parish visits, Konjevich said, “he was so pumped up, he would be running on adrenaline.” (Or it may have been caffeine, given how much coffee he drank. “Oh my god, I think that man’s blood system was brown,” Smith told me.)
For all his missionary zeal, Royster was a weak administrator, in part because he avoided giving orders or confronting his subordinates. To oversee the new parishes, the bishop often ordained brand-new converts to the priesthood, letting them skip seminary training. “He would never say no to anyone,” said one convert who knew him well. The same source, who asked not to be identified because of how much reverence Royster inspires in the South, noted that for at least two of these novice priests, the first time they witnessed an Orthodox Easter service, which lasts several hours and involves elaborate rituals, they were conducting it themselves. But the majority of these churches have found stability. After the service I attended in Dallas, the priest welcomed teenagers who had come from parishes all over the region for a retreat—from Houston, Austin, Denton, Fort Worth, Shreveport, and elsewhere.
From his early days as a priest, Royster had looked forward to the day when the South would have monasteries of its own. He knew how important they were in Orthodox culture overseas. In a diocese full of converts, he imagined that a monastery could set a critical example for laypeople. “I think that the monastic life can make the same contribution in America that it has always made in the Orthodox Church,” he once told an interviewer, “and that is, the monasteries and the convents are the places in which the Orthodox life is lived to its fullest. . . . They observe everything that is necessary to observe—all the offices, the rule of chastity, obedience, stability, their manual labor, fasts, everything.” They could provide, he said, a “tremendous spiritual influence.”
From this standpoint, the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension was a dream fulfilled. With all its beautiful acreage, and its central location, within a half-day’s drive for most parishes in the diocese, it was poised to be the retreat center and spiritual base Bishop Royster had pictured. And for a long time, it was. Hart proved to be adept at hearing confessions and dispensing spiritual guidance; and Adams, another priest told me, was “phenomenally gifted” at ministering to women who’d been in abusive relationships (an especially valuable service, I’m certain, in such a patriarchal religious culture). Throughout the eighties and nineties, scores of priests and laypeople flocked to the monastery for the pilgrimage every October. They would spend hours upon hours in services, with a long Q&A with Bishop Royster in the middle. “It was like a family reunion,” Konjevich said. “It would feel full and rich because you’d see so many people you knew.”
These were happy years, though trying ones, for Hart’s gang, too. To make money, Hart invested tens of thousands of dollars in computer equipment and a copying machine. The monks incorporated as a business, MGA Computer Services, and helped nonprofits with bookkeeping and mailing. During flush periods, when the contracts came in, they would stand around a table in the sultry basement, sweating, sealing envelopes and folding letters. I ran across an old Associated Press story about their business, which mentions their cheeky advertisements. “We beg the indulgence of a conversation with you,” the brochures said. “We pray we will hear from you.”
But by the early nineties, the daily life at the monastery, apart from Royster’s visits, had turned stormy. Aside from the most dramatic episodes, the details have become difficult to trace. David Colburn had already left by then, and Michael Adams, Hart’s cofounder, the former soldier, the disciplinarian, died of a heart attack in 1984. “I always thought he was maybe the wiser of the two,” said Paul Yerger, the Mississippi priest who converted alongside them. “I think Father Damian went more and more off the rocker after that.” In newspaper archives, I found the name of a priest in Brooklyn who claimed he had lived at the monastery from 1988 to 1998, but when I called his church, the receptionist said he’d passed away two years earlier. Otherwise, the only constant was Hart himself.
And he wasn’t very constant. Everyone agrees that he began spending more and more time away, leaving a leadership vacuum, and he grew lenient with the monastic rules. I’ve heard rumors that he allowed the monks days off, during which they weren’t required to attend services. Several people told me the atmosphere reminded them of a frat house. Hart also adopted a virtual open-door policy, letting strangers stay on the premises, many of them recovering addicts; sometimes there was theft.
Weimar told me a disturbing story from that time. One morning, he was attacked in his trailer by a Russian visitor named Vadim who had been staying at the monastery for several months. Vadim entered wielding a tiny knife— the one he used for carving icons—and lunged at Weimar. The monk grabbed the blade, and Vadim dug it deep into Weimar’s palm. “Then I threeew him,” Weimar told me at his dining-room table in Long Island. He motioned with his arms, twisting his upper body, as he narrated. “There was a bookshelf at the end of my bed. I threw him into the bookshelf, the bookshelf fell on him, and I ran.” He raced up the driveway toward Hart’s quarters, clutching his wounded hand. Hart applied a crude bandage and drove Weimar to the hospital. While they waited for the doctor, Hart got a call on his cell phone. The fire department was at the monastery—a trailer, the caller said, was on fire. “Everything I owned had just been burned,” Weimar recalled. When he and Hart returned home, Vadim was gone. Weimar later heard he had been arrested in Louisiana.
The monastery’s doors were so open in those days as to invite sex scandals, too. A former Episcopal priest who’d been convicted of child molestation came to live there after his probation ended, and after changing his name. A frequent visitor told me he severed ties when he found out his son had been sexually abused by a monk. In 1991, yet another monk was arrested at Kmart, on his day off, for trying to solicit sex from a stranger who turned out to be an off-duty cop. (Two people I interviewed believe Hart himself was gay. One claims he saw the abbot kissing another man in the bathroom at a wedding. The other source, who visited often in the eighties, added, “And whether he was celibate or not, I have no idea. The fact that he was gay really doesn’t enter into it.” Others who lived with Hart say they never saw signs that he was sexually active. At any rate, as far as I know, no one has ever accused him of sexual abuse.)
Adding to Hart’s woes was his fraught relationship with a former student from Mississippi, Andy Goodson, whom Hart had legally adopted during his last years as headmaster and brought to Georgia. Goodson had come from a troubled home, and by his own admission, in his twenties he became a raging alcoholic and drug addict. He now lives in Texas, where I interviewed him. He echoed the descriptions others had given me of Hart’s personality: that he was tempestuous and seemed unstable. “There would be something eating at him, and he would lash out at the other monks for a simple question or if they asked for an approval,” he recalled. “He’d lash out at them and then turn around and want to go to dinner with them that same day. It was tiring.” But he smiled when he recalled their nights at restaurants together, the way Hart would chain smoke and hold forth about politics. “He loved gin,” Goodson recalled. “He always had it after dinner, too. And would have enough of ’em to where he would just not shut up or let anybody win an argument. Well, he never let anybody do that anyway.”
By the time Weimar arrived at the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension in 1995, the relationship between Hart and Royster was obviously strained. “And I don’t know why,” he said. “I think it was just Father Damian’s general resistance to authority. It was deeply ingrained in him.” Weimar chalks it up partly to Hart’s Southern upbringing. He harbored a fondness for the Confederacy and kept a portrait of Robert E. Lee in his office. (I looked up from my notebook when Weimar mentioned this. He hastened to add that Hart wasn’t racist and had helped integrate a movie theater when he was young. I didn’t push the matter.) “Whoever the center was, he had sort of a distrust,” Weimar said. “And his power, or his influence, was based on speaking against the center.”
The tension between the abbot and bishop grew when Hart began traveling to Mount Athos. The subject of Hart’s corrective baptism is clearly sensitive for Weimar, likely because of how much pain it led to back in the nineties. “Don’t touch that too hard,” he urged me. “It’s a controversial position in the Church.” I responded that it was a defining moment in the monastery’s history, to which he agreed.
Baptism, to Christians of almost all persuasions, is a sacrament, a moment when the physical participates in something otherworldly. In highly sacramental traditions like Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the symbolism is imbued with an almost medieval realism. In the Mass, bread and wine mystically become the body and blood of Christ, and in baptism, the Christian is mystically buried with Christ and raised into new life. Some Orthodox who take a polemical stance toward Catholics and Protestants say that sacraments are impossible outside the Orthodox Church, and that baptism is no exception. But there have been clashing opinions on this for centuries.
In Greece, at least as far back as 1453, when the earliest records are dated, Roman Catholics were generally brought into the Church with a special ceremony that did not involve baptism, and this remained the Greek standard until the mid-eighteenth century. (The Church leaders who reversed it in 1755 said it had only been a matter of economia—an exception demanded by historical conditions.) The same rule remains in effect in Russia to the present day. The OCA has generally followed the same practice. It suited Royster’s focus on mission work, not to mention his conciliatory temperament. As Peter Smith put it, “If you want to be part of us, we’ll make it easy for you.”
It was sometime in the mid-nineties that Hart began having second thoughts. On a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the monks at the monastery of St. Paul told him he was free to take communion with them—but he couldn’t serve as a priest, because he hadn’t been newly baptized at his conversion from the Episcopal Church in 1977. St. Paul had recently published a book called I Confess One Baptism, written by a professor in Athens, which argued that recognizing non-Orthodox baptisms was unacceptable, except in emergency circumstances. (The title comes from the fourth-century Nicene Creed, which is recited constantly in Orthodox services and prayers: “I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church; I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins; I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”)
It’s easy to imagine Hart’s pride being wounded by what the monks told him. When he returned stateside, he spoke with Royster about being baptized the next time he went to Athos. Several priests I interviewed believe Royster forbade it. But Weimar, who was in the room when Hart brought it up, tells the story differently: “Dmitri was like, ‘Eh.’ He was noncommittal. He didn’t think it through.” I find Weimar’s version more plausible, knowing how reluctant Royster was to tell anyone what to do.
Whatever their exchange, Hart went through with his corrective baptism on his next visit to Mount Athos, in the summer of 1996. (“He never, ever told the story without mentioning the Aegean Sea,” Smith said, imitating Hart: “‘And do you know, Father, that I had people on the mountain that were looking down—and I was nekkid, Father!’”) I’ve often wondered what was going through Hart’s mind. Given how un-monastic some of his own habits were—his drinking and smoking, his constant traveling, his willingness to suspend services at the monastery and give the monks days off—it’s hard to take him seriously as a stickler. Perhaps he didn’t think he’d made a clean enough break from the Episcopal Church. (Someone who visited his monastery in the late eighties remembers him lamenting all weekend over new developments in the Episcopal Church.) His mother had also recently died, and he had undergone heart surgery, so he may have been concerned he would die without having been properly baptized. Surely part of it was his pride, the pride that comes from claiming secret or superior knowledge, the pride of never bowing to authority.
In Weimar’s opinion, the real trouble started after Hart returned home. “He couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He was calling and telling everybody—everybody who would listen.” He ordered dozens of copies of I Confess One Baptism and sold them in the monastery bookstore, and later brought the author in from Athens for a conference on the subject. By then, it seems, he’d already been in contact with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia about re-affiliating the monastery. (“He had been waiting,” Weimar remembers, “for Archbishop Dmitri to either die or retire.”) Like the OCA, ROCOR had been established by Russian expats during the Soviet period, but unlike the OCA, it had a global presence. In the nineties, they were rivals, and there had been skirmishes over American turf.
When the OCA administrators at the headquarters on Long Island heard what he was doing, they were livid. At their behest, in October of 1997, Royster suspended Hart. Weimar remembers pulling the fax out of the machine at the monastery. “I had to bring this up to Father Damian. He had heart issues, so I didn’t want to just throw it at him. So I went up and said, ‘Father Damian, I need to talk to you about something.’” Hart later told him, “Father, when you came up, you looked like you’d seen a ghost. I knew something was wrong.”
Three weeks later, Hart, Weimar, and the other monks were received into ROCOR during a conference near Atlanta.
The OCA didn’t fight him for the property, though it did initiate a painful lawsuit over a parish building in Atlanta, where the priest, another advocate of corrective baptism, defected for ROCOR at the same time. Other OCA clergy remember Royster being devastated. My priest in New York saw him at a conference shortly after the split. “I’m brokenhearted,” Royster told him. “I feel utterly betrayed.” Years later, he called the anxiety over baptism a “kind of disease.” “Some people would say, ‘Um, well, if I’m going to be Orthodox 100 percent, then I have to do everything absolutely right,’” he told an interviewer. “Well, then get somebody to define what’s right. You get into some awful messes.”
Hart didn’t adapt well to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The move left him isolated from most of his longtime colleagues, and he was unprepared for the strictness. There’s a rumor that he paid a visit to the ROCOR bishop on one of his regular trips to New York, and the bishop reprimanded him: “What are you doing here? Who gave you permission to leave your monastery?” So six years after his split with the OCA, he left ROCOR, too, moving his monastery under the Jerusalem Patriarchate, a branch of the Greek Orthodox Church, which had almost no presence in the U.S. His new superior, Archbishop Damaskinos Gaganiaras, lived in Tel Aviv.
In the fall of 2003, Gaganiaras was in town for a weekend. It was clear to the younger monks that he and Hart weren’t getting along. The archbishop spoke in a heavy Greek accent, and they didn’t always seem to understand each other’s diction. Hart, as usual, bristled at the presence of authority.
On the archbishop’s first morning, as soon as the service was finished, Hart ducked out of the chapel and went to Atlanta, where he needed to run some errands. Meanwhile, in Hart’s office, Weimar sat waiting with Gaganiaras, who told him stories about his childhood, about his teen years in a monastery, and about how he ended up in Israel. They had expected Hart back by noon, but as the afternoon gave way to evening, he still wasn’t there. Gaganiaras, though, remained placid. “He was going to show me how it felt to wait,” Weimar recalls. (Weimar later found out Hart had gone drinking at Frankie’s, an Italian restaurant near Atlanta he liked.) When Hart finally returned around midnight, the archbishop instructed Weimar to send him in. Hart went into his office and closed the door. A moment passed. There was a muffled noise, and when Hart exited, his face was pale. He went silently to his cell.
Soon afterward, Gaganiaras transferred Weimar to Long Island, where he became the abbot of a separate monastery and was named the archbishop’s surrogate in North America—meaning Weimar suddenly outranked Hart. In 2005, he says, Hart intentionally disobeyed the archbishop by elevating someone to a special monastic rank without permission, and then, when he was called out, tried to transfer the monastery’s property to a trust fund, so he could keep it if he was expelled. (I haven’t found any other witnesses who can verify or deny Weimar’s account. The attorney who represented the monastery back then remembers nothing about trust funds or incorporation documents, and he referred all questions back to Weimar.)
When Weimar heard, he says, he went to Georgia to discuss it in person. He says he offered Hart another chance, but the meeting ended with him discharging Hart as the abbot. “It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do,” he said. “But listen, some people say we ran him out on the street. I gave him a car, I gave him a credit card, I gave him a cell phone. We told him he could stay there. I mean we let him keep his own cell.” Hart apparently couldn’t stand the thought of being a subordinate at his own monastery, so he left. He lived for several years with an Orthodox family in Atlanta, then established a new monastery with two other men in California, outside of San Jose, where he eventually contracted cancer.
He told Weimar over the phone that he wanted to be buried on his old property in Georgia. “Thank you for the assurance of your prayers, and please know that I pray for each of you daily,” Hart wrote in a follow-up email that Weimar shared with me. “I am doing my best to let go of what happened in 2005 and, according to my confessor, I still have a way to go. Your telephone call and E-mail have helped considerably.”
In March of 2009, after Hart died, his body was returned to Georgia, where Weimar presided over his burial. Parishioners came from all over to pay respects. “May his memory be eternal,” they sang over his casket.
I I I
On one level, Hart’s story points to idiosyncrasies that are specific to the Orthodox Church; and indeed, Orthodoxy has a long, largely hidden history in this country of attracting eccentrics, if only because it had so little structure or leadership here until the last few decades. Among Hart’s many forerunners, my favorite is Agapius “Agafy” Honcharenko, a migrant from modern-day Ukraine who arrived in New York in 1865. His background is murky, but he often claimed to have been Leo Tolstoy’s confessor, a friend to Secretary of State William Seward, and the person who discovered gold in Alaska. He was ejected from congregations in New Orleans and San Francisco when they realized his status with the Church was dubious. The California ranch where he died in 1916, however, is now designated a historical landmark. An anonymous report by one of Honcharenko’s Russian colleagues has since surfaced, laying out the charges against him. The colleague believed “the basic idea directing Agafy’s life was that all in the world is a convention and that everything can be understood whatever way one wants to,” and concluded that he “rejected all order and was repulsed by every constraint.”
At the same time, by the 1970s, a person like Hart likely wouldn’t have found refuge in the Orthodox Church up north. The monastery’s troubles are a reflection on Royster’s singular approach to mission work. They highlight the dangers of bringing new people into the Church in droves, appointing them to the priesthood with little preparation, setting up churches in storefronts and houses. Reporting this story, I’ve come to feel a personal connection to Royster because of the depth of his kindness and generosity. Even interview subjects who weren’t Orthodox told me they felt a spiritual warmth radiating from him. I think his admirers in Dallas may be right about his sainthood. Still, Royster probably should have taken more time with Hart’s conversion in 1977, should have tried to learn more about his motives and his inner life. At a minimum, he should have kept a closer eye on the monastery during the 1980s and ’90s. Whatever abuse happened there over the years, it happened under Royster’s watch.
Yet Hart’s experience also speaks to phenomena common to American religion more broadly. Ultimately his story is less specific to the Orthodox Church than it is specific to America.
In his excellent 2017 book The Chance of Salvation, historian Lincoln Mullen argues that Americans are distinct, if not totally unique, in thinking about religious identity as a choice—and an inescapable choice at that. In this country, he says, it’s often been impossible to inherit a religious (or nonreligious) identity. We’ve long had a culture of conversion here, so much so that even people who stick with the tradition they were raised in feel a need to justify that decision, sometimes by switching to a different subset, like moving from the mainstream Episcopal Church to Anglo-Catholicism. Mullen believes the trend began in the eighteenth century but became more pronounced in succeeding decades. “In the face of widespread conversions and opportunities to convert, one could not simply assume that one held a particular identity by default,” he writes. “The experience of religion moved on the spectrum from being inherited to being chosen. . . . The United States became a society where nearly everyone had to choose between religions.” This is true, Mullen argues, even with Americans who want to retain a cultural identity they’ve inherited. He cites the twenty-two percent of American Jews who see themselves as Jewish, but not by religion. “This means,” he says, “that religious denotes the part of their identity that can be chosen, while cultural denotes the part that is inherited.”
Statistics bear out this thesis. A Pew study in 2009 found that forty-four percent of Americans surveyed had left the affiliation of their childhood. Fifteen percent had switched from one Protestant denomination to another. Eleven percent had abandoned religion altogether, while four percent who were raised without a religion had gone on to join one. Meanwhile, Mullen cites another study showing that in most countries, the rate of conversion hovers around four or five percent. In Greece, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and Russia, the rate has traditionally been below one percent. Conversions, Mullen says, are “where different religious traditions recognize one another, speak to or past one another, and define the conditions of religious identity in terms of rituals, membership, practices, and beliefs.” Arguments over baptism are as American as snake-handling.
Mullen considers the case of a nineteenth-century Episcopalian, Clarence Walworth, who attended the same seminary in New York that Hart later graduated from. In 1843, when he was twenty-three, Walworth decided his previous baptism as a Presbyterian hadn’t been valid, and he recruited a minister to baptize him in the Hudson River, using a rite he designed himself. It borrowed elements from numerous Christian traditions, including the triple immersion used in Orthodox baptisms, because Walworth thought this way he’d be recognized by everyone.
Given the cultural chameleonism of the Orthodox faith, perhaps, in the long run, the baptism controversy Hart inspired will look like a valuable, even necessary stage in the process of ironing out American Orthodox customs. In fact, Peter Smith in Atlanta, who was firmly on Royster’s side throughout the drama, told me he’s changed his mind about conversion rites. He wouldn’t advise anyone to get a “corrective baptism” after they’d already joined the Orthodox Church, but he always baptizes brand-new converts. “It took me a while, but I became a definite proponent of that,” he told me. “I’m gonna let God make a decision as to whether or not you were baptized, but I’m going to baptize you from the standpoint of the Church. It makes it much more solidifying for them.” However, one implication of Mullen’s research is that there may never be a universal standard here. In this most traditional of religions, which puts such a premium on inheritances from the past, Hart’s example, in which every member sets their own terms, is more likely to be the American norm.
I visited the monastery of the Glorious Ascension again shortly after Easter. Weimar oversees it now from Long Island, and it’s occupied by a single nun, Sister Christonymphi Theodore. (Both communities, Weimar’s and this one, now belong to ROCOR again; the Jerusalem Patriarchate withdrew its presence from the U.S. several years ago.) I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, savoring the drive up to the chapel, the road hedged by those walls of green.
“Christ is risen!” Sister Christonymphi said when she opened the door. She was short, with a black scarf around her head and a loose-fitting black cassock. She poured coffee for us both, then caught me up on the recent history. After my last visit in 2011, the monks had parted ways: two were transferred to other monasteries, and the third lived in the town nearby. Sister Christonymphi had been living in Atlanta and driving up every week to keep an eye on the property. Eventually she and Weimar’s crew agreed she should become a nun and live there full time. “They said, ‘We thought you’d never ask.’”
I followed her in my rental car down to the trailer where I’d be staying. The smell of soap wafted out when she opened the door. Against one wall, there were soap bars stacked shoulder-high, freshly cut and waiting to be packaged. She handed me a red one, leftover from her Christmas batch. The label said SISTER’S SOAP. She said she sells them at craft shows and festivals.
Later I went up to the bookstore, where the inventory had dwindled. I was looking at a paperback when a Hispanic guy about my age came in behind me. “Christ is risen!” he said with a grin. “Indeed he is risen,” I said, and we gave each other the kiss-on-each-cheek greeting.
“I’m Pablo. My wife and I just moved in here.” He came to the U.S. from Argentina, he told me, in order to study at a Russian Orthodox seminary in upstate New York—with the promise of returning home and starting a church there. A couple of years into his studies, his home bishop called and said the plan wouldn’t work. Pablo no longer had a job awaiting him.
“We make plans,” Pablo said as we walked back to the main building, “but God has other plans.” Recently Weimar had recruited him to come minister to the Latino immigrants living in North Georgia and East Tennessee. He planned to start holding weekly services in Spanish and hoped to attract Roman Catholics of a highly traditional bent.
A few other visitors trickled in before dinnertime. Sister Christonymphi served artichoke soup and bread. While we ate, Pablo began talking about liturgical practices. “I’ve noticed with Russians, when you deviate from Russian liturgical style—it’s almost like you are becoming diluted, a heretic.”
Someone else suggested it might result from Soviet times, when priests had to memorize services precisely because they didn’t have access to service books.
“When you are in cathedrals, in big Russian churches, you have everything,” Pablo went on. “But when you are in missions and small parishes, you have to make a lot of economias”—exceptions to the rules. “Any place you have difficult people. Without difficult people it’s impossible for us to be purified.”
When I mentioned Royster, Pablo glowed. “With this man alive, this mission would be completely different! He would be starting so many Spanish-speaking parishes.” The local Roman Catholic parishes, he said, were already having Mass in Spanish several times a day. “We are so far behind.” (Pablo, I later learned, left within two months after my visit; he and Weimar couldn’t reach an agreement about the logistics.)
After dinner, we went into the chapel for the evening service, where Sister Chrystonymphi sang the Easter hymns, the most joyful ones in the whole liturgical year. I’m at a loss to convey what it’s like to stand there in church and hear them; I never feel a stronger sense of belonging, or of gratitude, or vigor. “Christ is risen!” the priest said at the end, and we chorused back, “Indeed he is risen!,” then repeated the response in Greek (“Christos Anesti!” “Alithos Anesti!”), Russian (“Christos voskrese!” “Voistinu voskrese!”), Romanian, and Spanish.
I slept soundly that night in the guesthouse, and we convened for another service in the morning. The priest commemorated Hart and Adams, the monastery’s founders, amid the litanies. There was a larger crowd this time around. At lunch, I sat again with Pablo, and with a guy named Sean who said he lived in Atlanta. He and his family would soon be chrismated, after which he planned to start a ROCOR parish for fellow African Americans. This was refreshing to hear, given that the overwhelming majority of American converts are white (although there is a famous black priest in St. Louis—Father Moses Berry—who runs a ministry meant to introduce African Americans to the ancient African dimensions of the Orthodox Church). Pablo and I hadn’t discussed conversion rites at all, so I almost laughed out loud when I heard his question to Sean:
“Why not to be baptized?”
Sean said his bishop had thought it unnecessary, because he’d been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church when he was young.
“We were baptized!” Pablo said, gesturing toward his wife.
“Glory to God!”
Most of the people present had heard of Hart but didn’t know many specifics. They were all so earnest and kind, there was no trace of the one-upmanship that has sometimes prevailed there. I thought of something Weimar had told me in Long Island: that the trajectory of Orthodox monasticism in America was akin to the Wild West. Many abbots from Hart’s generation got into serious trouble, for charges either as dire as sexual abuse or as innocuous as mismanagement.
“The first generation is like the first generation of a town,” Weimar said. “They’re shooting snakes and fighting outlaws. In fact the difference between outlaws and them is kind of blurry. The second generation, they paint the town, they build the bank, but they’re still a little rough hewn. That’s me.” It was true not only of monasticism but of parish life, too, I thought, particularly in the South. “The third generation is going to be people who were born up in the town and grew up there,” Weimar concluded. “They’re going to be more civilized.”
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