I wondered if there were any Christian monasteries in the Toronto area, so I googled to quench my curiosity. Surprised to find one in Toronto, I went on the website for the Holy Cross Priory. I had no idea what happened in monasteries, so I clicked on the prayer tab and was really intrigued by the 6 prayers scheduled from morning till night. I instantly thought of the 5 daily prayers I must perform as a Muslim. Another interesting thing about the 6 prayers is that their names are difficult to remember since they are in Latin. I got a taste of what a non-Muslim goes through when a Muslim tells them that they have to pray “fajr, duhr, asr, meghrib, isha.” Similarly, a Christian monk, or an ordinary Christian who joins the monks for prayers can tell everyone that they must pray “matins, eucharist, diurnum, vespers, eucharist, compline.” But being Muslim, I can also relate to the fact that life is being put on hold a few times a day to hold communion with God.
I got even more excited about visiting the monastery once I saw the words “visitors are welcome!” on the prayer section. Not sure if the monastery was always in service, I decided to call and find out about the Diurnum prayers, which were scheduled for 11:30 am. Also, I had no idea how long the prayer service was. Father Richard picked up the phone and was very friendly. I told him about myself and my blog. He was very kind and welcoming and invited me to the Vespers prayer service at 5pm when a lot more people joined in the prayers and I could share a meal with everyone. I would never say no to a free meal, but unfortunately, my “mom schedule” only allowed me to join in the prayers at 11:30 am when all the kids were at school. He told me to knock on the door five minutes before the service, and someone would let me in.
When I got there, I was surprised to find that the monastery was in a residential area, and looked just like most of the other homes on the street. The only way I could tell it was the monastery was by the small sign lodged in the front yard. Thankful for the free street parking, I locked my car and walked up to the front door. Someone saw me approaching, and opened the door before I knocked.
It was one of the monks dressed in civilian clothes. He welcomed me, as I stepped into an old, but clean, and well furnished cozy building. I firstly felt overwhelmed at being addressed directly and welcomed to the monastery by a handful of monks, all dressed in civilian clothes. I was a bit puzzled at the smallness of the monastery. I kept imagining myself going into a huge building where I could blend in as an anonymous visitor, and nobody would know who I am. But this was the exact opposite of what I expected. It was as if I walked into someone’s home and the family members all noticed my arrival and came up to shake my hand, giving me a warm welcome.
The first room I noticed, was what looked like a living room. In the far corner of the living room was a built-in bench with red cushions lining the seats, a cross on the wall, and a portrait of the Virgin Mary (peace be upon her) holding the baby version of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) . I removed my jacket and stood in the hallway not sure where we would be praying. I assumed we would be going to a large prayer hall of some sorts. But again I was mistaken. Father Richard welcomed me to step into what appeared to be the living room and make myself comfortable while a few more monks came in to join us for prayers.
When it was time, we went over to the benched area, and everyone was given a prayer-book. Although, I can’t recall whether it was a prayer-book or the Bible itself. Father Richard began the prayer ceremony and everyone read from the assigned pages, sometimes all together, and sometimes the monks on one side of the bench would read aloud while the rest listened and this process went on for about ten to fifteen minutes. I joined in during the passages that resonated with me, which usually pertained to praising God and asking Him for help in doing good and overcoming evil.
There were only five of us on that bench for that prayer, and at times everything felt so surreal. I wondered in between what I was doing there. I told myself that I didn’t belong there. But then I thought that this was someone else’s reality, that for all these men (and many others), this was their normal. For the monks who shared that home and met together to pray six times a day, this was it. I reminded myself to stay focused on my goal for my blog, which was to familiarize myself with other forms of spirituality and understand how others connected to God.
Once the prayers were done, Father Richard and I sat down across from each other on comfortable chairs and chatted. He inquired about my blog and I told him a bit more about why I came out to see them. I told him how I felt like it was important to focus on what we all hold common and try to build trust through our similarities instead of getting bogged down in our differences.
He appreciated my efforts and shared with me his experiences from his youth when he travelled quite a bit. He told me how the first time he ever came into contact with Muslims was during his travels in the sixties to Egypt and Syria. He recalled going into the grand mosque in Damascus and being profoundly moved by a man sitting and reciting the Quran. He was honest as he told me that growing up Christian, he was taught that Muslims were infidels, but actually seeing them in person he knew that was not the case at all. He old me about a popular priest from Egypt who held Muslims and Islam in high regard, and wrote a book about Islam and Muslims, which helped Father Richard understand Islam from a more objective perspective.
One of the Islamic concepts he really connected with, was the term “Allahu Akbar.” He explained how that term doesn’t really mean God is Great, but that the more accurate translation would be that “God is Greater!” He explained that anything great out there, God was always greater than that. And this, he explained, was what they were trying to abide by in the monastery: no matter what great things they did, God would always be greater than that. I felt deeply moved by his words, and could see he clearly was someone learned and someone deeply respectful of God.
We talked about his experiences living near Bethlehem in the Holy Land, about my experiences visiting other places of worship, about the vow of chastity, service, and obedience to the superiors the monks made in order to be initiated into the monastic life, and soon it was time for me to leave. But before I left, I requested a photo with Father Richard, something for me to remember my visit to this special place.
As I drove home, I realized something I hadn’t paid attention to before deciding to visit the monastery. The monastery I visited only had male monks! And yet, the website allowed visitors to join in without saying only men. Father Richard knew I was a woman, and yet did not even for a second found that problematic. Considering these men had taken vows of chastity and lived amongst men only, it was astounding to realize that they were able to see prayer as something universal, and allowed women visitors to join in the prayers. I was also the sole non-Christian in that prayer room, but nobody told me to sit separately or away from them. I was told to join in with the other faithfuls, and perhaps that was part of the reason why it was so overwhelming for me to go through that experience. I expected to be just a spectator, someone observing from the outside. But instead, I was pulled into their world, and for a few moments, we were all calling out to God at the same time in the same manner, with all boundaries and lines erased.
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