I recently took a 3 week long spiritual retreat/pilgrimage to St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Monastery in the mountains of Northern California (in the small town of Platina). My family’s link to the monastery goes back even further than our being Orthodox Christians – some of the books they publish were instrumental in several of our friends finding the Church – a journey they later shared with us. So my trip was much anticipated on several levels, one of them being the opportunity to visit this place on the other side of the country that had such a role in our conversion.

A spiritual retreat is an opportunity for growth and reflection, repentance and re-orienting one’s life to Christ. I learned a great deal on this particular retreat, and at the urging of a dear personal friend and brother priest, I’ll be writing several essays over the coming weeks reflecting on various aspects of my 3 weeks at St. Herman Monastery.


We are often exposed to two general ideas regarding pilgrimage: 1) they can be of great spiritual benefit; 2) our life in Christ is not dependant on location. I would posit, for what it’s worth, that both of these notions are equally true. Our life in Christ is what we are called to live each and every moment of every day in every place. We can’t use a pilgrimage to escape the realities of our day to day life – in fact, we’ll see later on that the pilgrimage typically does exactly the opposite. Change of place does not change inner realities. However, a change of place for a time, especially a retreat to a spiritually nourishing place [like a monastery, where the monastics are living lives of radical dedication to Christ] can help us gain perspective on our lives.

My pilgrimage was organized wonderfully. My daily schedule was something like this: morning services, breakfast, free time to walk in the mountains and read and think and write and pray, lunch, more free time to walk in the mountains and read and think and write and pray, evening services and dinner. As you can see, the majority of my time was spent in activities that were at least potentially spiritually nourishing – and most of my time was spent in silence. What one ‘gets out of’ a pilgrimage, however, depends as much on inner disposition as on exteriors. We can always find a way to distract ourselves, or we can allow ourselves to be in silence, alone with God. The Fathers tell us that this silence is a very important part of our spiritual lives, our lives in Christ.

The quiet of a pilgrimage allows one not to escape, but to honestly face one’s true self. In the silence, away from external distractions, we can’t help but deal with ourselves – our innermost thoughts, dreams, struggles, and sins. We learn to still the inner distractions as well, and focus our being on the Lord. We can find this quiet at home as well, by spending some time each day undistracted – no phone, no TV, no radio, no computer. In the times of quiet we share only with God, our inner life (which the average person typically pays little attention to) rises to the surface. The advantage of a trip to the monastery is the removal of so many of the worldly distractions that eat up our time. We are free to focus on ourselves and on Christ.

Hopefully, in subsequent reflections, we’ll explore together some of the things that may arise when we have time to spend alone with Christ, and how we begin to draw closer to our Saviour.

Next reflection: “Exploring Silence”