"The holy island of Valaam is a mountain of stone standing in the lake, which ends to the north by a rock with peak. It is surrounded by a set of small islands that revolve around it like satellites around a planet..."
Located on an archipelago encircled by a huge lake, the Monastery of Valaam is only accessible for part of the year. Founded almost a thousand years ago - some sources speak of the beginning of the eleventh century - this fortress of monasticism has no equal in the Orthodox world, apart from the famous Mount Athos in northern Greece. Perched on a granite massif, posed as a huge vessel in the middle of the archipelago of Valaam, this monastic complex has no less than seven churches, including a cathedral, and many sketes (small isolated hermitages) scattered in the surrounding nature.
The immense monastery of Valaam, covered with snow
More than 200,000 pilgrims come to the Valaam archipelago during the summer, and the micro-society of about 300 monks is literally invaded by this influx of visitors from all over the earth. Then when the cold weather of late November cuts them off from the rest of the world, the Monastery of Valaam spends a few months in isolation, allowing the monastic community to rejuvenate. This annual tradition testifies to the strength of Valaam, a true spiritual source which is not likely to dry up.
A monastic tradition that persists
According to the few surviving records, the monastery of Valaam was founded in the eleventh century by two Greek monks who pushed their desire for evangelization to the borders of North-West Russia, close to Finland. Moreover, the root of the term "valam" is of Finnish origin and means "high land of the mountains", an appellation that befits this steep site that seems to have sprung up from the depths of Lake Ladoga.
Morning mists on an isolated skete on the archipelago of Valaam
Literally immarcescible, despite the test of time that temporarily forced monastic communities to desert the place several times, this utopian city embodies the noble desire for evangelization carried by Saint Germain and Saint Serge, the first pioneers who came from distant Greece. Recall that the north of Greece overlooks the Balkans, which themselves seem to extend the Carpathians, the imposing mountain range of central Europe at the gateway to Holy Russia. It should not be forgotten that Ukraine, adjoining the Carpathians, is a modern state that took shape throughout a Renaissance that is characterized by long wars of religion and the reconfiguration of several states formed by the sedimentation of a Middle Ages that extended over a period of nearly a millennium.
In the eleventh century, at the time of the founding of the Monastery of Valaam, Kievan Rus' represented the largest European state, and Cyril — a Greek missionary — took the lead in a series of expeditions that would spread Orthodoxy from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Moreover, during this time they completed the construction of the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev, a venerable architectural complex that was named in honor of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople, in the heart of a Byzantine Empire that had not yet been a victim of the Crusades. Orthodox Christians, therefore, were probably the first missionaries to spread from Greece to the far reaches of these northern lands, which had been populated by Vikings and other ethnic groups that are now lost in the mists of time.
An exceptional site
The archipelago of Valaam, located between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea, is a true sanctuary, sheltering natural habitats that host a great biodiversity. Already, in the middle of the 19th century, Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov, a pioneer of monastic orthodox revival, exasperated himself in the face of this rough and generous nature:
"In 1846, in the first days of September, I borrowed a boat to go at the Konevsky monastery in Valaam... A chilly wind was blowing. White clouds ran under the sky in separate groups, like flights of migratory birds. Offshore, the storm was great. Near the shore, there was no shortage of beauty either: the angry, irritable, threatening waves, in constant disagreement with the winds, disputed and threw themselves furiously on the shore..."
A solitary monk, sailing on a river
True portions of the Finnish land, frayed and lost in the waters of the largest lake in Europe, Valaam is a little Jerusalem of the northern hemisphere. A place too improbable to shelter what would become the most important monastic city in northern Europe, to the point where some did not hesitate to call it "Mount Athos of Russia". Saint Ignatius Briantchaninov is a precious witness who described with great eloquence the visual impact that strikes the visitor:
"The holy island of Valaam is a mountain of stone standing in the lake, which ends to the north by a rock with peak. It is surrounded by a set of small islands that revolve around it like satellites around a planet."
Like other utopian cities — we think of the city of Paolo Soleri, erected in the desert of Arizona — Valaam takes root on a land remote from the centers of activity populated by the multitudes. And, by a salutary effect of pendulum, monasteries and other cities sheltering communities living on the margins of society represent oases in the heart of the immense desert of a humanity cut off from its spiritual roots.
The loneliness of the monk is a rock
The Archipelago of Valaam was part of Karelia — a country that had been famous fighting the invasions of the Vikings and the first Crusaders and who had associated with the powerful city of Novgorod — and from the 10th century some brave monks were going to build some sketes there, before founding this famous Nordic monastery which was qualified of "Republic monacal" by the scholars of the Christian world of the time. A veritable outpost of the Orthodox world, the Valaam Monastery became a gathering and spiritual training center for missionaries who founded new monasteries, including one on the Solovetski Islands in the heart of the White Sea. Beyond the Barents Sea, the pioneers of this northern monasticism even converted natives living in Alaska and elsewhere around the North Pole. An extraordinary paradox is that this Nordic Odyssey was undertaken by monks who said they were inspired by the life and works of the "fathers of the desert", the first representatives of Christian monasticism in Egypt!
Faithful to the teachings of the fathers of the desert, the Orthodox monks put their common life at the service of the unchangeable teachings of Christ, the great master of the renunciation of material illusions and faithful lover of the souls who solicit his grace. Too often we tend to forget that there is a Christian asceticism, comparable to the ways of an Eastern wisdom, that also commands detachment from the goods of this world in order to be able to transcend suffering and death. Christ's sacrifice means that there is life after death, for whoever is able to dissolve the passions of his ego on the altar of genuine charity.
Faithful to this teaching, the orthodox monks have realized that the forces of the will alone are not enough to break the wall of illusions, to free the soul, and to accelerate its healing. They therefore rely on the powerful breath of the Holy Spirit who guides prayer, the supreme activity of monastic practice and the anchor point of the disciple who wishes to approach divine fullness. Prayer is guided by the prayer rope that accompanies the monk in all his daily wanderings; it is a question of praying without respite, from morning to night, so that the ascetic may finally let go of the troubles and other distractions provoked by a mind that needs to be appeased. It is through a prayer purified of all artifice that the initiate reaches the supreme renunciation which favors the state of grace and spiritual fullness.
Monk immersed in contemplation
Cenobitic teaching (monastic life in community) is not only a set of prescriptions designed to perfect asceticism so that the disciple can rise in the purity of renunciation. There is more, since the spiritual masters believe that the radiance of divine love is such that the authentic disciple no longer has to worry about detachment from the material things and the slavery of the passions that hindered his desire of spiritual freedom. It is out of love that one can free oneself from deadly passions, without even having to give up anything. It is, in fact, a renunciation which is a positive act, that is, it does not consist in violating the conscience and the affects of the practitioner.
Although Christ has affirmed that it is necessary "to be violent", the great initiates know that mortifications or other ascetic techniques represent only subterfuges intended to thwart the hold of the passions which divert the soul from its divine destiny. The disciple does not try to escape the pleasures of the world, he rather tries to be attentive to this divine love which often shines unexpectedly, according to the events and meetings that furnish the most ordinary everyday life. It is therefore not a question of freeing oneself from evil, but rather of welcoming the love of Christ, which is nothing but a spiritual energy, the source of all inner (and outer) metamorphoses.
The monks live in community, in order to help each other and encourage each other by means of singing and collective prayer. The fruit of their collective work and mutual aid help to facilitate the cardinal function of asceticism: to take advantage of solitude to internalize the power of a prayer that constitutes the royal road to liberation. In this context, the solitude and frugality of the monastic life are essential assets for anyone who really wants to get closer to the divine life.
Orthodox monasticism proclaims that "God has become man so that man becomes God in Him", to quote a famous formula of Saint Athanasius. Thus, humility — the cardinal virtue of monastic practice that leads to charity — is a spiritual gateway that allows the ascetic to rid himself of the mortifying illusions of sin and reach divine fulfillment. The ascetic is not prey to a Promethean delusion, but is quite the opposite. It is by his withdrawal from the material world that the monk manages to penetrate into the heart of the spiritual world, the home of love that never goes out.
Monastic life in everyday life
Singing is the most conducive activity for linking the energy of prayers so that the fullness of prayer is magnified. The monastery of Valaam has woven through time a unique tradition of sacred song, combining certain Byzantine techniques "a capella", that is to say a monodic chant, with Znamenny songs that simplify the ornamentation to get melodies that touch the soul and heart. The schola de Valaam has worked so hard on the material of the voice that disciples from all over Russia come to learn techniques and acquire inspiration. Orthodox singing produces harmonies that may seem exotic to our ears, since it is based on scales inherited from the musical theory of ancient Greece. The harmonies are produced by intervals that have nothing to do with our temperate scale, the one to which our ears have become accustomed for ages in the West. This rough and sweet song is perpetuated by an oral tradition that is fed by the singers.
The protopsalte, or principal chanter, leads the choir by means of his voice while the other choristers are invited to immerse themselves in this great mystical breath. This phenomenon of immersion touches the audience of the faithful to such a point that one could compare the spectacle of a Znamenny recital with the prowess of the whirling dervishes, these strange Turkish Sufi dancers. The monastery can count on five powerful voices that travel the world to give recitals, generating funds dedicated to the restoration of the buildings of the mystical city of Valaam.
The splendors of Orthodox liturgy
In addition to singing, the monks of Valaam have acquired an extraordinary mastery of the restoration of icons and other images of piety, which have suffered the ravages of time and multiple invasions that have disrupted the activities of the holy city. The two main churches of the Monastery, including the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Lord, contain icons that are treasures. A museum dedicated to sacred art has even been built inside the Cultural Center of Valaam.
Prior the partial destruction of this city a century ago when Bolshevik authorities were going to expel the holy monks from the island, the Konevsky monastery sheltered a forge, workshops of goldsmiths, icon-making workshops, and a whole range of spaces dedicated to making practically all the objects and vestments that enrich the church's daily life in its simplest form. As a city of God, but also as a center of incessant labor, Valaam has become — despite all the insults that have threatened its durability — a real school dedicated to teaching and safeguarding crafts of ancient Russia.
Cenobitic culture is close to nature
A very beautiful documentary, broadcast by the ARTE France channel in 2016, focuses on following the daily lives of the monks in order to restore some moments of truth. The images are striking and the editing seems to have been modeled on a quiet chant to allow us to penetrate the heart of the daily activities that punctuate life in Valaam. One of the monks interviewed testifies to the beauty of the "song that speaks of vast spaces, the whole extent of the steppe, a practice that helps us to overcome the burden of this sin that oppresses us by raising us to the vast spaces of the internal liberation."
And, obviously, the Znamenny singing has healing virtues, since all the inner tensions fade as soon as the monks begin to sing the chants of the Holy Liturgy. They say that "to sing in resonance, you have to live in resonance."
An Orthodox hieromonk
But monks do not just sing and pray. Early in the morning, at 4:45, they are awakened to the sound of a mallet that resonates on a small wooden board. Following the natural rhythm of the seasons, the monks begin their day at dawn and stay busy praying and working until sunset. The monks also rely on the offerings of visitors and other pilgrims, in order to acquire goods that come from outside, while also building a fund dedicated to the restoration of buildings and works of art that contribute to the beauty of the place.
The monk responsible for making the candles wanted to remind us that "in the early days of the church, people came to pray by bringing offerings of wine, bread and candles." Some of the faithful took the trouble to make the candles offered as an offering themselves. Obviously, even if it gives the impression of being cut off from the rest of the world, the monastic life maintains bridges with the laity and the whole of a civil society which asks only to be able to revitalize itself there. They have direct contact with nature, which has been scrupulously preserved, thus providing much of the tranquility and vitality that surrounds this haven of serenity.
Each year, more than a hundred thousand pilgrims brave the icy waters of Lake Ladoga, undertaking a crossing that can last up to four hours in the late fall. This tour allows pilgrims to admire the steep rocks and the wild nature that draw the features of Valaam's archipelago. It is possible to catch monks fishing, splitting wood, or driving herds of cows through the clearings of small forests that crimp the monastic complex. Adding the fruits of human labor to the gifts of nature, the monks have planted more than 500 apple trees that resist the polar climate and manage to yield juicy fruits!
Workers on Lake Ladoga
Russian Easter produces fruits for all humanity
After the rigors and isolation of the winter season, Russian Easter (Pascha) attracts the first cohorts of visitors who come to irrigate the "monastic Republic" with the testimony of turpitudes of the profane life. But, on the other hand, the faithful and the curious eager to participate in the Easter celebrations provide a surplus of energy by joining the liturgical assemblies and sharing the fruits of their prayers with the indigenous community.
The arrival of pilgrims is a highlight of the monastic life, since the faith of the holy ascetics is intended to irrigate and fortify that of the secular world, beyond the delights of contemplation and isolation in the wilderness. Is not the task of the monk to pray, day and night, for the misery of the world and to carry a share of human tragedy on his shoulders?
Simple pilgrims are welcome in these places of spiritual abundance, because the monastic city — in spite of its spartan pace of life and the frugality of its existence — conceals treasures of love that only want to be shared, by overabundance, with the common man. All are invited to take part in the rhythm of life of the monks, either for a simple visit or for a short retreat, in order to purify themselves and participate in this pooling of the telluric energies that found life in all its fullness. Like President Putin, who came to this monastery in past years, all are welcome in these places of spiritual abundance.
Visitors relaxing near the monastery
As the monks of Valaam like to say, "the resurrection of Christ means that the sacrifice is not in vain." This is why the cenobitic experience is probably the heart, the matrix of the entire orthodox faith, in a context where each of the faithful is invited to conform to the life and word of Christ. To prepare for the passage to death of all the illusions constituting the fabric of our visible world. Asceticism, which leads to self-giving, can be likened to a form of "soul yoga," a preparatory step for the believer to prune his mental perceptions and purify his soul. Monasteries, all religious confessions, have not really managed to purge all the misery of the world. But they are like rocks that allow spiritual biodiversity to take root and grow.
Aerial view of a wonderful little skete
Source: Carnets D'un Promeneur (French)